The Largely Forgotten Black Musicians Whose Innovations Shaped Nearly Everything

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"There would be no American history without Black people in it. The fabric of what American society is socially, economically, industrially—it wouldn't be what it is without Black people. And you can see that especially when it comes to music."

That's how music journalist and NPR podcast Louder Than a Riot co-host Sidney Madden described the impact of the Black community on the entirety of American music to NBC News in February. 

As she explained, "Every genre that is born from America has Black roots associated with it, from rock and roll to blues to disco. The fingerprints of Black creators are all over what makes American music so unique."

It's an undeniable facet of the history of music in this country, and yet one that largely goes unspoken among even the most diehard music fans. Nearly everything you love about popular music today takes its cues from something a Black innovator breathed into life decades ago. 

photosThe Black Women Who Ruled Music in 2001

With that in mind, join us as we kick off Black Music Appreciation Month with an introduction to the Black musicians who history has largely forgotten, but without whom American music would sound very different. Our hope is that this list, though hardly comprehensive, will serve as merely a jumping-off point for music lovers' continued exploration of the industry's aural ancestors. It's time to give credit where credit's due.

Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt/E! IllustrationTrending Stories1The Precious Time Wasted When Madeleine McCann Went Missing: Part 12Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker Show PDA in Their Latest Outing3Al Roker's Daughter Courtney Gets Married in Fairytale CeremonyDonaldson Collection/Getty ImagesMamie Smith

Born in 1891, Smith was a vaudeville singer known for performing jazz and the blues. In 1920, she made history by becoming the first Black artist to record the blues. And despite threats against the record company for working with a Black artist, the record went on to become a commercial success, opening the door for more Black musicians to record. Billed as "The Queen of the Blues," Smith's success was instrumental in the genesis of the classic female blues era, known for featuring a female singer accompanied by pianists or small jazz ensembles. The sound popularized the 12-bar blues, a now prominent chord progression in popular music, in the United States. Smith and her contemporaries, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, introduced increased improvisation on melodic lines, unusual phrasing that altered the emphasis and impact of the lyrics and dramatic vocals that included wails, groans, shouts and moans—all styles of singing still utilized by countless artists recording today.

David Redfern/RedfernsMuddy Waters

Often cited as the "father of modern Chicago blues," the singer and guitarist born McKinley Morganfield influenced a generation of rock musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and more. Led Zepplin's hit song "Whole Lotta Love" is based on the Waters' song "You Need Love," while AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" takes its title from his song "You Shook Me." In fact, the Rolling Stones took their name from a 1950 release of Waters titled "Rollin' Stone."

Gilles Petard/RedfernsElla Fitzgerald

It's hard to point to a female vocalist who the First Lady of Jazz didn't influence. From her 1934 debut at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater through to her final public performance in 1993, Fitzgerald was celebrated for her purity of tone, pristine diction, intonation and an uncanny "horn-like" improvisational style of scat singing. She's been cited by superstars like Adele, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey as the artist who turned them on to singing.

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