Musicians – Take a moment and think about your favorite modern musician or band. Do you have one in mind? Now think about what you like about their music. Is that a guitar tone? Are these the lyrics the singer delivers? Or is it an interesting combination of genres that makes this artist stand out? Now take a moment to think about which artists may have “set the stage,” so to speak, for you and the artists who influence you.
As musicians, it’s great to live “in the now,” but it’s also important to understand and appreciate the music that came before us. These pioneers are those who fought passionately to pave their way in the music world – some of the original movers and shakers who helped shape and mold the industry into what it is today.
Jazz artist Louis Armstrong, also known as “Satchmo,” was a jazz trumpeter whose tone could only be matched by his singing voice. He kind of used his voice like a trumpet, with his wide vibrato and great shooting skill. Armstrong’s unique singing style influenced other incredibly talented artists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
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Although the composer of the original song is unknown, Armstrong and his orchestra’s 1938 rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” is known as one of the most famous renditions of the song. While the song had previously only been performed as a traditional gospel song, Armstrong was the first to release a recording of the song as a jazz standard. Many fans credit Armstrong with putting the song, and the jazz genre itself, “on the map.”
Sam Cooke, sometimes referred to as the “father of soul music”, was a singer and songwriter in the soul, R&B and gospel genres. Having sung since childhood, Cook became the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers – a band he idolized growing up. In his late twenties, Cooke began releasing solo music. When Cooke developed his signature sound, he created a cross between gospel and pop music. During his relatively short professional career of only eight years, Cooke released 29 songs that reached the Top 40 Billboard pop singles.
The 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” spent 7 weeks on the charts and peaked at #31 in 1965. Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” in response to Bob Dylan’s “Blovin’ in the Wind” . However, the inspiration for the song’s message came from an incident that occurred when Cook and some friends were turned away at a “whites only” hotel. This song is one of Cooke’s most political and has essentially become a civil rights anthem. The song was performed by Betty Lovett and Jon Bon Jovi at former President Barack Obama’s inaugural concert.
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Funk and soul singer-songwriter James Brown was one of the most recognizable artists in his genre, helping him earn the nickname “The Godfather of Soul.” Brown had a tumultuous childhood, reportedly being kicked out of school at the age of 12 for “inappropriate clothing”. Around this time, Brown began to channel his energy into music and began singing in a church choir. Brown joined his first group, The Gospel Starlighters, when a friend named Bobby Bird invited him to join. The group was later renamed the Famous Flames and had several Billboard Top 40 singles. Brown inspired many new artists – especially a young Michael Jackson. After Brown’s death in 2006, Jackson stated that Brown was one of his biggest inspirations, stating that he had “never seen an artist like James Brown and that’s when [he] knew that’s what [he] wanted to do for the rest of [his] life”.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Brown continued to release many well-received songs as a solo artist. One of his most famous songs is “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, which Brown wrote, sang and produced. Of all Brown’s chart-toppers in his long career, from 1944 to 2006 (the year he died), “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was undoubtedly his most successful song. On the Billboard HOT 100, his song charted for a total of 12 weeks, with 7 of those weeks in the top 10, peaking at #3.
Etta James was a six-time Grammy Award-winning singer whose genres included gospel, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, R&B and soul. A child prodigy, James began vocal training at the age of 5 and was known to have a very powerful voice for such a young child. She mostly sang in church and also on the radio. At age 16, James began recording a song called “The Wallflower,” which led to her extensive catalog of hit songs. James was known for her ability to style the songs she sang. She was quoted as saying, “My mom always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still get something out of it. I’d like to think I did.”
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Throughout her professional career, James has had several chart-topping hits. Her 1962 single “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” topped the Billboard 100 for 12 consecutive weeks, peaking at #37. More impressively, the single also charted on the Billboard Hot R&B Sides chart, peaking at #4. The song was so appreciated that it inspired several other famous artists to record and perform covers of it. Some artists who have covered the song include Ike & Tina Turner in 1964, The Kingsmen in 1965 and most recently pop diva Christina Aguilera in 2010.
Psychedelic rock and blues artist Jimi Hendrix was a singer, songwriter and perhaps most importantly a guitarist. Hendrix experimented with unconventional ways of playing the guitar, such as being left-handed, but chose to only play right-handed upside down. However, when he began experimenting with his guitar tone and effects, Hendrix developed his signature sound. Following his experimental curiosity, he essentially developed a new style of guitar.
Hendrix’s group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, went on to create many world-famous songs. One such song by the psychedelic rock group is the 1967 single “Purple Haze,” which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. In the song, Hendrix plays the guitar with heavy, deliberate distortion.
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Soul and R&B artist Aretha Franklin, also known as the “Queen of Soul”, was a singer, songwriter and pianist. Franklin began singing gospel in her church choir and began touring churches around the country at age 12, under the direction of her father. During one of the tours, she met artist Sam Cooke, who inspired her to pursue a career in pop music. At just 18, she signed her first (major) contract with Columbia Records and is now known as one of the best-selling music artists in the world.
Her catalog of popular songs is quite extensive, with huge hits like “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) Natural Woman”. One of her most successful songs ever was the 1967 release “Respect,” a cover of a song written, performed and released by soul singer Otis Redding just two years earlier. Franklin’s cover of the song was significantly more popular than the original. Her refreshing new arrangement, along with a more dramatic delivery of the lyrics, helped make the song known as a “feminist anthem” to this day.
Stevie Wonder is a prolific singer, songwriter, keyboardist, harmonica player and record producer whose sound represents the pinnacle of genres spanning soul, R&B, funk, gospel, progressive and jazz. Wonder lost his sight shortly after birth and was considered legally blind from that point on. In a 2010 interview with CNN, Wonder explained that he and his doctors attributed his blindness to being born six weeks premature and being placed in a high-temperature oxygen incubator, which was later found to cause health problems in children. Wonder, whose birth name was Steveland Judkins, earned the professional nickname “Little Stevie Wonder” when the 12-year-old prodigy signed to Motown Records. He released his first album “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder” in 1962. Since then he has released 22 more albums. Wonder was one of the first artists to help popularize the Moog synthesizer at a time when synthesizers were not considered “real instruments.” Today, the synthesizer is used very well in almost all genres of music.
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Wonder was the youngest solo artist to ever top the Billboard 100 when he was just 13 years old and his career was just taking off. During his career, he had 10 No. 1 singles on the Pop charts and 20 No. 1 singles on the R&B charts. One of his most famous songs is the 1972 single “Superstition”, which went to #1.
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