This page will take you through a brief history of African American influence on popular music. When most people think of African American popular music, genres such as blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop come to mind; it is this page’s intention to bring to attention the influence that African Americans had on almost every genre of popular music today. It is important to quickly make the distinction between popular music and “pop” music. Pop music is considered to be a genre within popular music that came about in the 1950s, with the rise of rock and roll. To understand the influence African Americans had on popular music it is important to first know when popular music started.
In the beginning there was no jazz, blues, country, or rock. These musical forms were created as the result of an amazing cross-cultural mix found only in the United States. It is widely known that the slave trade brought West African rhythms, chants and song structures to America, which lead to the advent of blues, jazz and negro spirituals.
The birth of African American’s influence on popular music has roots in minstrelsy or the minstrel shows between 1820 and 1840, where white performers would wear “black face” and depict a racist view of African culture. The minstrel show typically consisted of three acts. Blackface minstrelsy was the first theatrical form that was distinctly American and although these minstrel shows were wildly racist and controversial, they later featured African American performers as well. It is believed that the minstrel show was the template for later variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Saturday Night Live, but more importantly were the early influences of Ragtime music and Vaudeville.
Ragtime and Vaudeville
By the end of the 19th century minstrelsy was depleting in popularity and a new form of American popular music came on the scene called ragtime. This modification of the march, with additional poly rhythms coming from African music, was made popular by two African American composers, Scott Joplin and James Scott in 1896. Joplin, responsible for such hits as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” has been called the “King of Rag.”
At the same time ragtime was gaining popularity another form of theatrical music came around called vaudeville. African Americans were not allowed to perform in white vaudeville productions, but there were some African American pioneers such as Pat Chappelle. Chappelle was an African American entrepreneur and theatre owner that established The Rabbit’s Foot Company, a leading traveling vaudeville show in the first part of the twentieth century.
Popular Music in the 20th Century
The 20th century is one of the most explosive periods for american popular music and the influence African Americans had in this time period was tremendous. With vaudeville giving way to broadway a new style of music came into popularity with all the soul and pain its name deserved, blues.
Blues got its humble beginnings in the southern United States and several key musicians have been credited for bringing it to the people. But among most musicians, young, old, white, or black no single musician has been more influence than Robert Johnson. Johnson’s life and death created a sort of legend that adds to his story. While he died at the age of 27, he recorded his entire body of work in just two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937. It is rumored that in order to get that good that fast he had to have sold his soul to the devil. Artist such as The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jack White give Johnson credit for being one of their early influences. Blues did not stop at rock and roll, blues has been credited for the formation of country and bluegrass as well.
Straight from the roots of blues comes another soulful African American form of popular music, Jazz. Just like Robert Johnson there is a jazz artist that set the tone for the Jazz scene in the United States, Louis Armstrong. His career spanned five decades and nineteen top ten records, all from an African American jazz trumpeter from the 1920s to the 1960s, before civil rights. Armstrong was not just a jazz trumpeter, he was also a composer, singer and appeared in over a dozen hollywood films. His album “Hello Dolly” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking The Beetles out of the spot at the age of 63.
Rhythm and Blues (R&B)
While blues and jazz dominated most of American popular music in the early 20th century, by the 1940s a new form of African American music emerged, rhythm and blues (R&B). This new urban music that combined blues, jazz, and gospel sounds introduced us to countless African American musicians still listened to today. In its beginnings R&B was the result of Jazz artists sound evolving into something truly remarkable, but the 1950s brought us an artist that was “pure genius,” Ray Charles. Born Ray Charles Robinson, he began to lose his sight at five and was blind by the age of seven. He attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine Florida where he learned classical piano, but his true passion was jazz, blues, and country. With this pedigree it allowed him to have a successful career as not only an R&B artist but also in country. When he left Atlantic records to go to ABC records he became one of the first African American artist to be given artistic control over his recordings. Ray Charles over his career earned the nickname “The Genius,” and has influenced other artists in his path such as Billy Joel, Van Morrison, and Stevie Wonder to name a few.
Rock and Roll
Rock and Roll is another form of music that got it roots from jazz, blues, gospel, and country. It has been disputed about where and when exactly it began, but the general consensus about when people started calling it rock and roll was in 1954. While many people consider Elvis Presley to be “The King of Rock,” there is another artist that was just as influential, Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry hits such as “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Johnny Be Goode,” not only spoke African Americans, they also resonated with the white you of america as well. A true crossover artist that got his start on Chess records, a blues label that featured artists like Etta James and Muddy Waters. In addition to rock and roll Berry also played blues and country, he has been covered by dozens of artists including, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and The Beetles.
There would be no pop music without any of these other forms of music that came before it. But one of the most influential pop musicians of all time has a fitting nickname “The King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. He music began his career at the age of six performing with his brothers in the group the Jackson 5. But his smash solo album Thriller earned him seven grammy’s and will go down in history as one of the bestselling pop albums of all-time. Jackson has had 13 number one singles in the United States and to this day is one of the best selling artists of all time.