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Tune into Black History with 80 Years of Musical Monarchs

Tune into Black History with 80 Years of Musical Monarchs

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Updated on Jan 5, 2010

All too often, history is a study of names and dates. But African-Americans have made such a rich and colorful mark on all facets of life that to merely read about their accomplishments in a textbook wouldn’t do them justice. This Black History Month, take the time with your child to listen your way through 80 years of African-American musical royalty. By no means exhaustive, this list of African-American musicians runs the gamut from the King of Ragtime to the King of Pop and includes musical “royalty” that spans generations and genres.

Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime

Though his career may have been brief, his influence wasn’t—the syncopated rhythms of the King of Ragtime permeated jazz music for decades to come. Joplin rose from the obscurity of seedy cafes to become prominent as a musician with his first hit, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899. Though he died penniless and nearly forgotten, he was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize for his talents.

Don’t miss: “The Entertainer” (1902)

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues

A big influence on the jazz movement of the early 20th century, Bessie Smith proved to be one of the most popular vocalists of her time. In the 1920s she was the top-paid African-American performer in America, and although the popularity of her bluesy style waned in the 1930s and the Great Depression made sales difficult, Smith continued to perform until her death in 1937.

Don’t miss: “Downhearted Blues” (1923)

“Duke” Ellington

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, “Duke” became an important figurehead in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and by the latter part of that decade was headlining as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club. His band released its most famous tunes during the 1930s and 1940s, but Ellington continued to record into the 1960s. When he died in 1974, his last words were allegedly, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”

Don’t miss: “Mood Indigo” (1930)

Nat King Cole, King of the Crooners

Nathaniel Adams Coles began performing in the 1930s, when he picked up the moniker “King”—by 1937, he had formed the Nat King Cole Trio, a jazz group unique in that it lacked percussion. In the 1950s Cole made the transition from jazz to the R&B sound he is perhaps best known for. In 1951 he recorded “Unforgettable”; in 1991, his daughter Natalie Cole recorded an overdub duet with her father of the same song that charted nearly as high as the original.

Don’t miss: “Mona Lisa” (1950)

Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul

The first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the undeniable Queen of Soul has been racking up accolades since she began singing gospel in the 1950s. Her music, characterized by the passion and soul she is famous for, sold well through the 1960s, and though she experienced a lull in the 1970s with the rise of disco, she came back in a big way in the 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, she was the featured vocal performer at the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama.

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