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Top 10 African American Musicians in the 1950s: Black History Musicians

By Editorial Staff

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 – Top African American musicians or Black musicians were key forces on the American music scene during the 1950’s. This blog features and comprehensively discusses the ten of the most popular African-American singers.

Black 1950s Music Artists of All-Time

For the record, 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
Nat King Cole was considered to be part of the African American musicians that changed history. He advanced on stage and well renowned for as a tremendous jazz pianist in the 1940s; Besides this, he dominated the music scene in the 1950s and 60s. His remake of “The Christmas Song” (originally recorded by Mel Torme) is now a classic. Also, the hits “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa” and numerous others from the Nat King Cole songbook made their mark too. After that, he won an Academy Award in 1950 as the movie theme song from Captain Carey, USA.

9. Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte
What bands were popular in the 1950’s where underrated black musicians were made popular? Well, Harry Belafonte is part of the famous black musicians 1940s which reportedly started his career as a New York club singer with the sole purpose of paying for acting classes. The band named Charlie Parker band backed him up in his first public appearance as vocalist. This band featured not only Parker, but also Max Roach and the genius Miles Davis. He is best known for “Matilda” which was recorded with RCA Victor in 1952, four years before his first album, “Calypso”. In the album released, the “Banana Boat Song” from whence the party cry day-yo, day-yo was born, became a hit. Accordingly, it became the first album, LP in those days, to sell over one million copies.

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8. Chuck Berry

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. As a result, Berry’s were wildly applauded for their extreme high energy and pulse.

7. Fats Domino

Fats Domino
Fats Domino also known as Fat Man has smooth and easy-rolling boogie-woogie piano. The 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. Specifically, his biggest songs are “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “Walking to New Orleans.”

6. Little Richard

Little Richard
Little Richard, is one of the well-renowned black soul singers in America! How do you describe his position as one of the top 10 African American musicians in the 1950’s?  He was the originator, the emancipator and the architect of rock and roll.

Once again, 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.” He was born in Macon, Georgia. Aside from his flamboyant make up and extreme coiffed hair, Little Richard has a discography. To name, “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin’”, “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and  “Ooh! My Soul.”

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5. Ray Charles

Ray Charles
Ray Charles, combined gospel and blues into his own brand of soul music. As part of the Atlantic Records label, Charles known for his innovative singing and ability as a pianist and bandleader broke down barriers separating gospel and secular music. Charles worked hard to earn reputation for instance, he 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
Duke Ellington – one does not think of jazz or Big Bands without thinking of Duke Ellington. He made it to the top 10 list of 1950’s African American musicians in history. In addition to this, he was the twentieth century’s best known African American celebrities.

As part of the first black musicians, Ellington received numerous prestigious awards. To name some, are the 13 Grammy Awards, the French Legion of Honor in 1973. He also received the United States Commemorative stamp. In his fifty year career, Ellington played over 20,000 performances across the globe. Above all his songs, 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
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 Dinah Washington became a force to be reckoned with by the summer of 1948 and into the 50s. Most importantly, 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
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. She has her favorite spots, namely, Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO. Sarah dropped out of high school. After that, she won an Amateur Night performance at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Certainly, many music historians believe that performance is what thrust her into stardom. Furthermore, 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. She is one of the legendary female black singers from the ’50s.

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1. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald
Finally, is the African singer Ella Fitzgerald. She basically could do things with her voice which were were unexplainable and amazing most especially in her song “The First Lady of Song”. Over 40 million albums sold and 13 Grammy awards are just some of the highlights of her career. Actually, 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.

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