Black Music Month 2024: The Black Pioneers of Rock

These artists set the blueprint for an American phenomenon.

Black musicians have significantly contributed to the development of early rock music through their innovations in blues, a genre characterized by unique musical elements such as specific chord progressions, a walking bass, call and response, dissonant harmonies, syncopation, melisma, and flattened ‘blue’ notes. 

Many music historians have cited “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, though it was later revealed that the band was Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, as the first rock ‘n’ roll recording. Identifiable features like distortion and the relative prominence of the guitar have laid the foundation for what many understand about the genre today. 

However, various Black artists were evolving the sound before the term was coined. Despite the genre evolving as Black artists were being pushed out commercially, we're looking deeply into the true pioneers of rock for our first Black Music Month editorial. 

  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe

    Born March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe revolutionized gospel music by incorporating contemporary jazz tempos played on her electric guitar. Bringing gospel music to nightclubs and secular concert venues, her work inspired early rock legends, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Known as the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, " Tharpe’s biggest hit, "Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel song to reach the top 10 in Billboard’s Race Records chart. Performing globally until her death, she would be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. 

  • Betty Davis

    Betty Davis was born Betty Gray Mabry on July 26, 1944, in Durham, North Carolina, and profoundly impacted modern rock music. Her raw and unhinged vocal talents earned her great notice around 1964 through the release of “Get Ready for Betty.” Meanwhile, Davis’ songwriting talent was evident when she wrote "Uptown (to Harlem)" for The Chambers Brothers in 1967. Marrying jazz legend Miles Davis in 1968, Betty introduced him to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, influencing his shift towards jazz fusion. Davis' influence extended beyond her music and standard-setting fashion. She inspired artists like Prince, Rick James, Janelle Monáe, and Erykah Badu, and her raw expression of sexuality paved the way for future female artists such as Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim, and Madonna.

  • Little Richard

    Known as the "architect of rock 'n' roll," Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, played a pivotal role in shaping the genre during the mid-1950s. His breakthrough came in 1955 with the release of "Tutti Frutti," a song that showcased his powerful voice and energetic style. This was followed by a string of hits, including "Rip It Up," "Long Tall Sally," "Ready Teddy," and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." His music transcended racial barriers, appealing to both black and white audiences. Little Richard's flamboyant persona, marked by his six-inch pompadour and dramatic makeup, along with his appearances in early rock 'n' roll movies, further cemented his influence on the music industry.

  • Jimi Hendrix

    Before his untimely death on September 18, 1970, James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix had cemented his legacy as a rock god. Despite a career as a featured artist lasting only four years, Hendrix's innovative approach to the electric guitar and his fusion of blues, jazz, rock, and soul redefined the genre. His unorthodox style, high-volume performances, and charismatic stage presence set him apart as a revolutionary musician. Songs like "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze," and "The Wind Cries Mary" became iconic, showcasing his ability to compose both powerful rock anthems and intricate ballads. His albums Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland left a lasting legacy, influencing countless musicians and shaping the future of rock music.

  • Tina Turner

    Born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26, 1939, in Brownsville, Tennessee, Tina Turner was a trailblazing American icon who will forever be known as the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Though she had already been known as half of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue through hits like “A Fool in Love” and “Proud Mary,” her solo career saw Tina’s true impact on rock music. Starting with her groundbreaking Private Dancer album in 1984, the classic “What’s Love Got to Do with It” single showcased her ability to blend rock with pop and soul, bringing a raw, emotional power to her music. The success of Private Dancer, selling over 20 million copies and winning multiple Grammy Awards, demonstrated her significant influence on the rock genre, bringing a new level of emotional depth and vocal prowess.

  • Lenny Kravitz

    Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

    Though the late 80s and 90s saw only a handful of Black Gen-X artists permeating mainstream rock with limited success, none influenced Lenny Kravitz. Born on May 26, 1964, to actress Roxie Roker and television news producer Sy Kravitz, Lenny significantly impacted rock music with his eclectic blend of rock, psychedelia, soul, funk, and hip-hop. His debut album, Let Love Rule (1989), marked the beginning of his successful career, followed by notable albums such as Mama Said (1991), Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993), and Circus (1995). His fifth studio album, 5 (1998), featured hits like "Fly Away" and his cover of "American Woman," both earning Grammy Awards.  From 1999 to 2002, Kravitz achieved an unprecedented four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, cementing his place in rock history.

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