Music Biographies: Famous African American Musicians

African-Americans have contributed to music significantly over the last several decades, just like other demographics. Their contributions to music have been over a span of different genres from jazz, Caribbean music, soul, pop, gospel and R&B. Music of these styles in the black community has also become part of their cultural identity. It is also significant to note that some famous African-American musicians succeeded at a time when blacks were still the recipients of discrimination in the United States.

Louis Armstrong

Nicknamed Pops or Satchmo, Louis Armstrong was born in 1901, and he’s best remembered today as a jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans. He came to prominence in the 1920s as a trumpet player and a cornet player, whose influence in jazz was that the genre changed from collective improvisation to a more solo focus. During his career, Armstrong was known for not only his jazz-trumpeting, but also for his presence on stage and his voice, which featured his mastery of scat singing. His popularity allowed him to be accepted into the so-called upper echelons of American society at the time, when that was not a possibility at all for most black people.

Cultural Legacy of Louis Armstrong: Explores the cultural legacy of this jazz trumpeter.

Mapping the African American Past: Louis Armstrong: Short exploration of Armstrong’s background.

Biography of Louis Armstrong: A biography of this jazz trumpet legend.

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte, born in New York City in March 1927, is a singer and also a social activist and actor. He’s an American descended from Martinican and Jamaican ethnicity, who has made good use of his roots to popularize the Caribbean musical style with audiences around the world. He first broke through to prominence in 1956 with the release of his record “Calypso,” which was the first LP in history to surpass the million-sold mark. He is best known, almost pigeonholed, for his biggest smash hit called “Banana Boat.”

Harry Belafonte Profile: Short profile of Harry Belafonte.

Biography of Harry Belafonte: A biography on the singer.

Profile of Belafonte’s Ambassador Work: UNICEF website that highlights his humanitarian attempts.

James Brown

Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown was born in 1933 and is one of the more prominent black singers and songwriters. He first came into prominence with American audiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to his energetic, live performances and his series of smash hits like “Try Me” and a cover of “Night Train.” Brown was a force in soul music, but even when his career prospects took a hit due to the rise of hip hop in the 1980s, he still became one of the most sampled artists ever thanks to digital sampling. He finally died on Christmas Day in 2006 from congestive heart failure.

Brief Bio of James Brown: A short biography of James Brown.

Write-up on Brown’s Legacy: Informational article on Brown’s highlights.

James Brown and Civil Rights: Article about Brown’s contributions to the civil rights movement.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles was a musician who was a trailblazer in soul music by mixing gospel, rhythm and blues, and normal blues genres into his recordings. Due to his musicianship, Charles was also noted for helping to racially integrate both pop and country music in the 1960s, thanks to his crossover success with ABC Records. He was also known for his distinguishable and raspy voice that was a baritone, and Rolling Stone Magazine named him the second-best singer of all time in 2008. He died in 2004 from liver cancer.

Mentors of Ray Charles: Exploration of who Charles’ mentors were.

Museum Showcase of Ray Charles Items: Information on what Charles-related items to show.

Short Profile of Ray Charles: A quick write-up on Charles’ career achievements.

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole was an American musician who owed much of his early prominence to his jazz-pianist skills. While he was a skillful pianist, he is famous more for his soft, baritone voice; he used his voice significantly to perform in both jazz as well as big band genres. Another accomplishment of his was that he was one of the first black Americans to host a variety show on television. Even after his death, he has been a popular musician worldwide. Cole died from lung cancer in 1965 because he was a heavy smoker for much of his life.

The Early Years of Nat King Cole: Information on the early career life of Nat King Cole.

Biographies on Nat King Cole: Discussion of which books about Cole are best.

PBS Biography of Nat King Cole: A look at the man and his career.

Sam Cooke

An American entrepreneur, songwriter, and pop, gospel, R & B, and soul singer, Sam Cooke is still thought of as one of the founders of the genre called soul music. His title of King of Soul still reflects that esteem in regards to his pioneer work in the soul genre. He came into prominence with hits like “You Send Me” and “Wonderful World,” and he was also an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. Cooke died, however, in ignominious circumstances when he was shot to death in what was ruled a justifiable homicide.

Sam Cooke Artists Page: NPR web page dedicated to informing visitors about Sam Cooke.

Biography of Sam Cooke: A biography on Sam Cooke.

Information about Sam Cooke: Delves into the life of Sam Cooke.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington, born Edward Kennedy Ellington, was a big band leader, pianist and also a composer. He is remembered mostly for his compositions, having written more than 1000 of them during his lifetime. He is regarded as a major figure in jazz’s history, but his contributions span other genres like classical, popular, film scoring, gospel and also the blues. He finally succumbed to both pneumonia and lung cancer on May 24, 1974.

Duke Ellington Appreciation Page: Web page dedicated to all things Duke Ellington.

Biography of Duke Ellington: A detailed biography of this composer and big band leader.

Long Profile of Duke Ellington: A long profile on Duke Ellington and what he achieved.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was an American song and jazz vocalist who was nicknamed the “First Lady of Song.” Her fame rested on her vocal talents, which included being able to project a tonally pure voice. She broke into prominence with her Songbook series of albums, which are considered by some as the greatest contribution to the cultural canon referred to as the Great American Songbook. After a lengthy career, Fitzgerald finally died in 1996 at the age of 79.

Biography of Ella Fitzgerald: A biography on this “First Lady of Song.”

Short Profile of Ella Fitzgerald: A short profile on Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella Fitzgerald Achievements: Article that details the accomplishments of Fitzgerald.

Aretha Franklin

An American songwriter, singer and pianist, Aretha Franklin is regarded at least by Rolling Stone magazine to be the greatest singer who ever lived. Though her nickname of the Queen of Soul and her many soul recordings identify her primarily with that genre of music, Franklin is also known for contributions to the gospel, R & B, blue, and jazz genres. She became famous in the late 1960s with the hit song “Respect,” for which she has become known for most prominently. Franklin has racked up many awards, with the 18 Grammys she has won being one of the highest number for any artist ever.

Succinct Profile of Aretha Franklin: A brief introduction to this singer and songwriter.

Review of Franklin’s Records: A review of some of Aretha Franklin’s records.

Biography on Aretha Franklin: Biographical information on Aretha Franklin.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was an American songwriter and jazz singer. Her contribution to music is that her style of singing, pop and jazz singing that themselves were influenced by jazz instrumentalists, inspired a new method of manipulating both tempo and phrasing. She rose to fame with a few hits like “Easy Living” and “Strange Fruits,” the latter of which was a protest song. Despite her fame and success, Holiday’s end was ignominious as she died with only 70 cents to her name; before she died, her hospital room was raided by police for drug possession.

Billie Holiday Biography: Billie Holiday biography covers all of her most important experiences.

History of Billie Holiday: Exploration of Billie Holiday’s background and history.

Profile of Billie Holiday: Short profile of Holiday that includes information about tribute paid to her.

B. B. King

B. B. King, born Riley B. King, is a songwriter, singer and blues guitarist who is celebrated for his guitar playing and emotive singing. His fame is based on his guitar playing, which some describe as based on both a shimmering vibrato along with fluid string-bending. King broke out in the 1950s as a hit maker, when he consolidated a string of R & B hits. Currently still active and touring despite being 85 years old, King has no plans of slowing down and has amassed more than 15,000 performances over his career.

Biography of B. B. King: A biography of B. B. King includes highlights of his life.

Interview with B. B. King: Interview with the bluesman about his career in blues music.

Article on B. B. King: Article on the bluesman and how he’s still performing in his old age.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is mostly remembered today as a popular blues singer who shot to prominence in the 1920s and the 1930s. Sometimes called the Empress of the Sun, Smith has been held in the same light as Louis Armstrong, regarded as one of the best blues singers of her time, and credited with influencing subsequent jazz vocalists. Smith became prominent in the 1920s after she was signed to Columbia records and began putting out records for a predominantly black audience, under Columbia’s “race records” series. Her death was due to a car accident in 1937.

Brief Biography on Bessie Smith: A brief biography on Bessie Smith details her highs and lows.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Biography: Biography on Smith from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Story of Bessie Smith: The story of Smith from the NNDB website.