A timeline of history-making Black music


Moments in Black Music History
A selection of artists and landmarks illustrating highlights in Black music history (Getty Images)

Every February, The Current honors Black History Month. We'll be celebrating by spotlighting black musical artists whose voices and songs changed the world, throughout the decades and across genres. We're also posting a series of essays delving into a deep, enduring and ever-evolving body of work. In this entry, we trace a timeline of historic black musical events, with extended riffs on selected items.


Trumpeter W.C. Handy — who earned the sobriquet "Father of the Blues" — publishes the sheet music for "Memphis Blues, " which he called a "southern rag"; two years later he penned the classic "Saint Louis Blues." In 1969, Handy was the first black performer to be honored on a United States postage stamp. Subsequent honorees include Duke Ellington (1986), Otis Redding (1993), Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf (1994), Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk (1995), Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Josh White, Mahalia Jackson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1998), "Hip-hop culture" (2000), Ella Fitzgerald (2007), Miles Davis (2012), Ray Charles (2013), and Sarah Vaughan (2016).


Louis Armstrong records the first of a series of singles for Okeh Records with his Hot Five and Hot Seven combos. The trumpeter's take on the songs, including "Saint James Infirmary," "Basin Street Blues," and "Muskrat Ramble," "helped to change the course of American music," as writer Charles Hiroshi Garrett noted in a review of a 2000 collection of the complete recordings. "This music has been described as the birthplace of jazz, the musical shot heard 'round the world, the Alps of jazz — indeed, both the music's Holy Grail and its Rosetta Stone."


The Apollo Theater opens and becomes a cultural and musical mecca in the heart of the Harlem neighborhood in NYC.


Pianist Teddy Wilson is part of the "first known interracial jazz group" — the Benny Goodman Trio, with the namesake clarinetist and drummer Gene Krupa.


On November 23 in a room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Robert Johnson starts a three-day recording session that produces batch of songs, including "Come On In My Kitchen," "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and "Cross Road Blues," which epitomize the Delta blues style. They were reissued in 1961 on the King of the Delta Blues Singers compilation, which influenced new generations of blues acolytes, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix.


"From Spirituals to Swing," a showcase of black performers curated by producer/talent scout John Hammond, is presented at Carnegie Hall on December 23. The bill featured the Count Basie Orchestra, Albert Ammons, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Big Bill Broonzy (a second show was staged in 1939 on Christmas Eve). The liner notes in the 1999 boxed set of the shows noted that "the musical significance of the two 'From Spirituals To Swing' concerts is difficult to deny. Equally important, however, were the social and political implications. The racial impact cannot be overlooked as African-American artists were being presented to an integrated audience at Carnegie Hall at a time when such an occurrence was, if not unheard of, extremely rare."


Sister Rosetta Tharpe releases "Down by the Riverside" which highlights her pioneering electric guitar playing, which is widely-cited as an influence for countless Rock & Roll musicians. The Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry in 2004, saying the song "captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers." Her originality played a pivotal role in the conception of Rock & Roll as a genre of music and earned her the honorific "the Godmother of rock and roll."


The Kings of Rhythm, Ike Turner's Mississippi-based R&B group, record "Rocket 88" at Sam Phillips' Sun Records. The 78-rpm single, credited to Jackie Brenston (the group's saxophonist and vocalist) and His Delta Cats, was released on Chess Records and is often cited (and debated) as the first rock 'n' roll record. Writer Nick Tosches said it "was possessed of a sound and a fury the sheer, utter newness of which set it apart from what had come before."


Marian Anderson is the first black singer to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.


Chess Records releases Chuck Berry's debut 45, "Maybellene." It's No. 18 on Rolling Stone's ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Rock & roll guitar starts here," the magazine said. "The pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues and hot jazz in Chuck Berry's electric twang is the primal language of pop-music guitar, and it's all perfected on his first single." And Chuck was just getting started!


Nat King Cole is the first black star of a national TV show [NBC's The Nat King Cole Show].


Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is released on August 17. In a 2010 list of the "100 greatest and most influential musical compilations since 1954," Time magazine enthused: "In 1959, Miles Davis had already remade jazz in his own image several times over...But when he assembled an unprecedented all-star team (featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on tenor and alto saxophones, and the masterful pianist Bill Evans) for the two-day sessions that became the Kind of Blue album, Miles left his most lasting mark. The open-ended songs, barely sketched out around 'modes,' or scales, rather than chord changes, were given just one or two takes — and the glorious results, the best-selling jazz disc of all time, are simultaneously delicate and powerful, and teeming with life."


Berry Gordy Jr. launches Tamla Records in Detroit with $800 loaned by family members; the label evolves into the Motown Record Corporation in 1960. In the ensuing decade, Motown's studio, dubbed Hitsville U.S.A., produces hundreds of hit songs — which the label proudly proclaims "The Sound of Young America" — by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, and many other acts.


James Brown's Live At the Apollo (recorded at the Harlem landmark on October 24, 1962) is released in May and is a crossover smash, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard album chart (and lodging on said chart for 66 weeks). In The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, RJ Smith noted that the record was "so staggeringly new it scarcely bore any connection to the music called rhythm and blues. Here was the new soul music." After the success of the album, Brown said, "I started seeing different things and my brain started to intercept new ideas. I became a big city thinker."


The Jimi Hendrix Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced, is released in the UK in May and the US in August. The genre-blurring visionary was a flamboyant showman (and underrated songwriter) who is oft-cited as the greatest guitarist of all time. Hendrix's astonishingly creative (and tragically short) run at the zenith of the rock world blazed through 1970, when he died at age 27.


Charley Pride is the first (and so far last) black artist to win the Country Music Association's most prestigious award, Entertainer of the Year; in 2000, he was the first black inductee at the Country Music Hall of Fame (harmonica player DeFord Bailey is the only other honoree).


Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" wins the Academy Award for Best Original Song (the soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score); Hayes is the first black artist to win an Oscar in a non-acting category and the first winner who wrote and recorded the award-winning song.


Reggae begins to insinuate its alluring riddims in the US, with the release of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Catch a Fire and the soundtrack for the film The Harder They Come, featuring Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, and the Melodians. "That was an incredible one-two punch that knocked out America for Jamaican music," historian Roger Steffens said.


DJ Kool Herc, who would earn the honorific "The Father of Hip-Hop," creates the template for the groundbreaking genre at clubs and block parties in the South Bronx. Adapting the style of the Jamaican sound system DJs that Herc (nee Clive Campbell) heard during his youth, he masterfully builds breakbeats, cutting snippets of James Brown and Booker T. & the M.G.s' discs on a pair of turntables — a technique that he termed "the Merry-Go-Round." Herc also rocked the mic, hyping the crowd and his dancing b-boys and b-girls. His innovations inspired Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and everyone else who worked with two turntables and a microphone.


Stevie Wonder is the first black artist to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for Innervisions; he also garners the top honor in 1975 (Fulfillingness' First Finale) and 1977 (Songs In the Key of Life).


"Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang is released in October. The ebullient track, featuring Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee slinging rhymes over the music from Chic's "Good Times" (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards sued and eventually received co-writing credit), was the first crossover rap smash, reaching No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 (moving two million copies) and spreading the fresh sound to the 'burbs.


Michael Jackson's Thriller is released. It sold 66 million copies worldwide. It topped the Billboard album chart for 37 weeks and spawned seven top 10 singles (three reached No. 1). It won eight Grammys, including Album and Record of the Year. And a few of its audacious videos became staples on MTV and helped break the channel's perceived color barrier.


Prince's Purple Rain is released. It sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. It topped the Billboard album chart for 24 consecutive weeks and spawned five singles (two reached No. 1). It won two Grammys (and was nominated for Album of the Year) and grabbed the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. And a few of its audacious videos became staples on MTV.


Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Little Richard are five of the 10 honorees at the first annual induction ceremony at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated as a national holiday for the first time on January 20. Legislation for a holiday was first submitted four days after his assassination in 1968; a few states enacted observances in the '70s, and a 1979 House bill fell five votes short of approval in 1979. Support for the holiday was bolstered when Stevie Wonder recorded "Happy Birthday" (the closing track on Hotter Than July) in honor of MLK in 1980, with the lines, "I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition Why has there never been a holiday / Where peace is celebrated / All throughout the world?" Wonder and King's widow, Coretta Scott King, lobbied Congress and helped generate a petition with six million signatures supporting their cause; in 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the bill which created the holiday. (Hear the full story on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day episode of the Music News podcast.)


The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album, featuring six songs by the film's co-star, Whitney Houston, and six tracks by other artists (plus the movie's theme), is a worldwide sensation — it has sold 45 million copies. Houston's bravura cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks; the collection won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and is the all-time best-selling soundtrack.


The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the first hip-hop disc to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year (the lone subsequent winner: OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004). Hill's reaction at the podium: "This is crazy 'cuz this is hop-hop music!"


The October 18 issue of Billboard hailed "Black Music's Historic Week": "R&B/hip-hop's mainstream popularity was further validated last week [Oct. 11]. That was when the top 10 songs on The Billboard Hot 100 were all by black artists for the first time in the chart's history." (The artists from 1-10: Beyoncé featuring Sean Paul; Nelly, P. Diddy & Murphy Lee; Lil John & the East Side Boyz featuring Ying Yang Twins; Chingy; Pharrell featuring Jay-Z; YoungBloodZ featuring Lil Jon; 50 Cent; Fabolous featuring Tamia Or Ashanti; Ludacris featuring Swawnna; Black Eyed Peas.) Ron Fair, president of A&M Records, observed, "It means pop music has no color. We've obliterated the color line. An awful lot of folks of all colors worked on these Hot 100 records, black and white artists, producers, label execs. Call it 'hip-hop' or 'R&B,' but it's the universal language of today's music and it's pop."


Beyoncé is hailed as the best-selling artist of the 2000s, with 64 gold and platinum certifications for her albums, digital songs, ringtones, and videos.


Nielsen reports that hip-hop/R&B surpasses rock as the most-consumed music (sales, streaming, etc.) in the US.


Nicki Minaj dethrones Aretha Franklin as the female singer with the most appearances on Billboard's Hot 100 (76, eclipsing The Queen of Soul's 73).


Kendrick Lamar is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2017 album Damn, becoming the first non-classical/jazz artist to be honored in that category. The Pulitzer committee hailed its "affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life."


"This Is America," by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), is the first rap song to win Grammy Awards for Song and Record of the Year (it also grabbed the trophy for Best Music Video and Rap/Sung Performance).

Related Stories

  • Soul and inspiration: Black artists salute their musical heroes 12 artists talk about the musicians who inspired them and helped shape their sound and vision.
  • Say it Loud: Anthems of Black Pride and Empowerment We're celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting black musical artists whose voices and songs changed the world, throughout the decades and across genres. We'll also post four essays delving into a deep, enduring and ever-evolving body of work. This first entry collects tales from 13 artists about the creation of their inspirational social and political anthems of black pride and empowerment.
  • Celebrate Black History Month with music The Current is honoring the music and contributions of Black musicians in February, and we're starting off by dedicating Friday, Feb. 1, exclusively to music made by Black musicians.
  • The story of Stevie Wonder's 'Happy Birthday' MLK tribute Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! In honor of the civil rights icon, we're sharing the story of 'Happy Birthday,' the Stevie Wonder song indelibly associated with the push to designate a national holiday in MLK's honor.

14 Photos

  • Charley Pride
    2nd June 1972: American singer and entertainer, Charley Pride, who began his career as a baseball player, with his wife. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images) (Evening Standard/Getty Images)
  • Marian Anderson
    16th November 1936: American opera singer Marian Anderson (1897 - 1993), the first black singer to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, on her arrival in London for a concert at the Queen's Hall. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images) (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
  • Portrait Of Louis Armstrong
    Portrait of jazz musician and actor Louis Armstrong (1900 - 1971) posing with his trumpet, late 1920s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • Stevie Wonder
    Musician Stevie Wonder arriving in London to appear at the Rainbow Theatre, at Heathrow Airport, January 25th 1974. (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images) (Dennis Oulds/Getty Images)
  • 2009 American Music Awards - Show
    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Singer Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 22, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
  • 33rd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
    CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 14: Recording artist Lauryn Hill pays tribute to Nina Simone during the 33rd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Public Auditorium on April 14, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) (Theo Wargo/Getty Images For The Rock and Ro)
  • 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2
    INDIO, CA - APRIL 14: Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2018 in Indio, California. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella ) (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella)
  • Chuck Berry
    6th May 1977: Hugely influential singer, songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry, (Charles Edward Anderson), performing on stage with his guitar at the Birmingham Odeon in England. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) (Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Miles Davis In Recording Studio
    American jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis (1926 - 1991), sits with his instrument during a studio recording session, October 1959. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • James Brown
    James Brown, American funk soul singer, songwriter and producer, performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • Portrait of Isaac Hayes wearing turban, 1970s.
    Portrait of American funk and soul singer Isaac Hayes wearing a turban and futuristic outfit, 1970s (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival -  Night 1 - Show
    LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 21: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY; NO COMMERCIAL USE) (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Childish Gambino performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on September 21, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia) (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
  • New York Fashion Week: Nicki Minaj
    NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Rapper Nicki Minaj attends the Oscar De La Renta front Row during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Spring Studios Terrace on September 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows) (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows)
    George Grice stops by the Motown Museum in Detroit, Michigan August 17, 2018 that is paying tribute to the Aretha Franklin this weekend after her passing. The Queen of Soul has died at her home in Detroit. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images) (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)