Top 10 African American Musicians in the 1950s
Written by: Claudette Freeman
August 6, 2010
Filed Under Music
From Powerful ballads, gutting wrenching blues to high-energy music that forced hips and bodies to gyrate as fast as possible and as long as possible – Black musicians were key forces on the American music scene during the 1950’s.
Now, just who were the top 10 African American musicians in the 1950’s depends on who you talk to. Still there are 10 names that stick out when you look at various music sources from that historic musical times period.
10. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole was not only an advanced and tremendous jazz pianist in the 1940s; but dominated the music scene in the 1950s and 60s. His remake of “The Christmas Song” (originally recorded by Mel Torme) is now a classic as are the hits “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa” and numerous others from the Nat King Cole songbook. The latter, by the way, won an Academy Award in 1950 as the movie theme song from Captain Carey, USA.
9. Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte reportedly started his career as a New York club singer with the sole purpose of paying for acting classes. His first public appearance was a vocalist backed by the Charlie Parker band. This band not only included Parker, but the incomparable Max Roach and the genius Miles Davis. The song he is probably best known for “Matilda” was recorded with RCA Victor in 1952, about four years before his first album, “Calypso”. The album featured the “Banana Boat Song” from whence the party cry day-yo, day-yo was born. It became the first album, LP in those days, to sell over one million copies.
8. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry built his musical style on the influences of people like Nat King Cole and Muddy Watters. In 1953 Berry became part of Sir John’s Trio, the group later became known as the Chuck Berry Combo- building their reputation as a band of choice at the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. With the growing popularity of country-western music at the time, Berry borrowed from the riffs of hillbilly music and built his own country music sound. While Black audiences thought he was crazy, White audiences began to flock to his shows. Berry’s on stage antics were wildly applauded for their extreme high energy and pulse.
7. Fats Domino
Fats Domino was also called the Fat Man. His smooth and easy-rolling boogie-woogie piano, danced wonderfully with his rhythm & blues vocals. Domino sold more records (some reports says 60 to 65 million) than any Fifties-era rocker with the exception of Elvis Presley. In a period of time from 1950 to 1963, Domino graced the Billboard Pop Top Forty thirty-seven times and the R&B singles chart a whopping fifty-nine times. His biggest songs are “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “Walking to New Orleans.”
6. Little Richard
Little Richard! What do you call Little Richard and how do you describe his position as one of the top 10 African American musicians in the 1950’s? Well he has been defined and described as this in his bio – “the originator, the emancipator, the architect of rock and roll. Exploding into the American consciousness in the mid-50′s’…”awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom”…he singlehandedly laid the foundation and established the rules for a new musical form: rock and roll.” Born in Macon, Georgia, aside from his flamboyant make up and extreme coiffed hair, Little Richard has a discography that includes: “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin’”, “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Ooh! My Soul.”
5. Ray Charles
Ray Charles, combined gospel and blues into his own brand of soul music. As part of the Atlantic Records label during the fifties, Charles known for his innovative singing as well as his ability as a pianist and bandleader broke down barriers separating gospel and secular music. Charles would study the blues, boogie-woogie and big-band swing records on a jukebox in a store that would become a juke joint at night. After touring around Florida and other southeastern states, Charles signed with Atlantic Records and the rest is history. From “Georgia on my Mind” to “Hit the Road Jack” and a list of hits to expansive to detail here, Charles even inspires the hip hop style of music in contemporary times.
4. Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington – one does not think of jazz or Big Bands without thinking of Duke Ellington. Not only does he make the top 10 list of 1950’s African American musicians but he is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s best known African American celebrities. As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington received numerous prestigious awards including: 13 Grammy Awards, the French Legion of Honor in 1973 and a United States Commemorative stamp. In his fifty year career, Ellington played over 20,000 performances across the globe. His best known titles include; It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo and Satin Doll.
3. Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama hooked up with gospel pioneer Sallie Martin in 1940, hitting the road for a time as her accompanist. Yet the pull of blues and rhythm and blues music kept tugging her, even as a young singer winning first prize at the Regal Theatre amateur contest. By 1945, after performing with one band leader but not gaining large recognition, Washington would record three Los Angeles sessions for the Apollo label under her own name but would eventually sign with Mercury. She cut her first LP with for Mercury in January 1946, and by the summer of 1948 and into the 50s, Dinah Washington was a force to be reckoned with. In 1959, Dinah Washington made the full-fledged leap to pop stardom with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”.
2. Sarah Vaughn
Sarah Vaughn developed an early love affair with music with a thriving music scene in Newark, New Jersey as her backdrop. In her mid teenaged years, Vaughn would sneak into Newark’s night clubs, performing as both a pianist and vocalist. Her favorite spots were the Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO. After dropping out of high school, she won an Amateur Night performance at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Many music historians believe that performance is what thrust her into stardom. That performance led to Vaughn opening for none other than Ella Fitzgerald. Vaughn’s career would span for two decades with performances with bands headed by Earl Hines and performances with Billy Eckstine and others.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
“The First Lady of Song” Ella Fitzgerald could do things with her voice that were unexplainable and amazing. Over 40 million albums sold and 13Grammy awards are just some of the highlights of her career. Her vocal style and range has been called: flexible, shockingly accurate, mind-boggling, ageless and wide ranging. From sultry ballads, jazz dipped in honey with defying scats – Ella Fitzgerald is still studied for explanation. Fitzgerald worked with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie just to name a few. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice crossed demographic lines when it came to music lovers. It seems Lady Ella had a voice that all loved.