African-American Singer-Songwriters Who Greatly Impacted Music and History

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Music wouldn’t have the same impact without lyrics. It's the words that we find in each composition that have inspired people to take action against injustice and make their way to find peace through music.

Join us as we close out Black History Month by celebrating some of the best African-American songwriters of all time.

Chuck Berry

NBC Television, Public domain

Known as the founding father of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry was one of the most influential musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1985.

His most popular songs: ”You Never Can Tell” (1964), “Run Rudolph Run” (1958), “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), “Nadine” (1964), “Rock and Roll Music”(1957).

Aretha Franklin

Atlantic Records (Life time: Published before 1978 without a copyright notice), Public domain

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She was one of the best-selling artists of all time, received many music awards and was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights Movement, using her voice to advocate for racial equality.

Her most popular written songs: “Respect” (1967), “Think” (1968), “Dr. Feelgood” (1967), “Rock Steady” (1971), “Daydreaming” (1971).

Stevie Wonder

Motown Records, Public domain

Stevland Hardaway Morris (Stevie Wonder) is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He is counted among the best-selling artists of all time, with numerous Grammy awards, Lifetime Achievement awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Academy Award.

Some of his most popular songs: “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (1984), “Superstition”(1972), “Part-time Lover” (1985), “Isn’t She Lovely” (1976), “Higher Ground” (1973), “Faith” (2016), “Signed, Seal, Delivered, I’m Yours” (1970).

Bob Marley

Eddie Mallin, CC BY 2.0 Eddie Mallin, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As one of the most important figures in reggae music, Bob Marley has written numerous songs about peace, love, and social justice along with the band Bob Marley & The Wailers. (read our blog post honoring Bob Marley’s 77th birthday.)

His most popular songs: “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973), “Redemption Song” (1980), “Trench Town Rock” (1973), “Concrete Jungle” (1971), “Soul Rebel” (1970), “Natural Mystic” (1977), “Roots, Rock, Reggae” (1976).

Ella Fitzgerald

William P. Gottlieb, Public domain

Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer across the USA for more than half a century. Thanks to her flexible, wide vocal range, mastery of rhythm, harmony and diction, and her impressive interpretative skills, she was able to sing different styles of jazz and imitate a whole orchestra.

Her most popular performances and songs: “Summertime” (1959), “A Beautiful Friendship” (1956), “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” (1944), “When I Get Low I Get High” (1937).

Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland

Symphony under construction: Holland Dozier Holland in the studio with the Supremes. Photograph: Michael Ochs

In 1959, Berry Gordy launched Motown where he would play early versions of songs for Dozier. Soon after, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team became the legendary songwriting trio that wrote some of the most iconic R&B and soul songs of the 1950s and 1960s.

Their most popular songs written: “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” by Marvin Gaye (1964), “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by The Supremes (1966), “Bernadette” by The Four Tops (1967).

Robert Johnson

Born and raised in Mississippi, Robert Johnson is known as the King of Delta Blues. His influential blues style reached contemporary artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and many more rock musicians.

His most popular songs: “Cross Road Blues” (1936), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” (1936), “Walking Blues” (1937), “Sweet Home Chicago” (1937).

Bessie (Mamie) Smith

The “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, is a pioneer of female musicians in the blues age. She was not only an impressive vocalist and performer, but also wrote her most popular songs, becoming one of the most successful female musicians of the 1920s and 1930s.

Her most popular written songs: “Back-Water Blues” (1927), “You've Been a Good Ole Wagon” (1925), “Young Woman’s Blues” (1926).

James Brown

The Godfather of Soul, James Brown is a major icon in funk and soul music, who also influenced numerous music genres like R&B, hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame and is largely considered to be one of the greatest showmen of all time.

His most popular songs: “It’s A Man’s World” (1985), “The Payback” (1973), “Living In America” (1985), “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” (1973).

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson began performing along with his four brothers in the pop group The Jackson 5, he later started a career as a solo artist and gained the title “King of Pop” for his numerous hits throughout the 80s and 90s. Michael was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame both as a member of The Jackson 5 and as a solo artist and had the highest-selling album of all-time with Thriller.

His most popular songs: “Billie Jean” (1982), “Beat It” (1982), “Remember The Time” (1991), “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987), “Thriller” (1982).

Billie Holiday

William P. Gottlieb, Public domain

Billie Holiday, known as “Lady Day,” went from extreme poverty and a difficult life to becoming a cultural jazz icon. Getting her musical start singing in the popular Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin, she became known in the Harlem jazz club scene. In the 1930s, she recorded and released “Strange Fruit,” which became a controversial, yet instrumental song of the Civil Rights era. Billie received five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Nesuhi Ertugan Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Her most popular songs: “Strange Fruit” (1939) “God Bless the Child” (1941), “Don’t Explain” (1945), “Fine and Mellow” (1939), “Left Alone” (1959).

Al Green

Mike Douglas Show, Public domain.

Al Green is known for his career as a gospel and pop singer from the 1970s to the 1990s. He is considered, by many music composers, as the last successor of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, following their legacy in gospel and soul music. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

His most popular songs: “Let’s Stay Together” (1971), “Love and Happiness” (1972), “Tired of Being Alone” (1971), “Simply Beautiful” (1972).

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Norman Whitfield was an American songwriter and producer. He wrote and produced many popular songs for numerous artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Temptations.

Barrett Strong, a musician and composer from Mississippi, was the first musician to ever record with Motown Records. His first song, “Money (That’s What I Want),” generated enough capital for Barry Gordy to officially start the Motown label and go on to create more big hits and collaborate with other artists.

Their most popular songs: “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959), “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with Norman Whirfield (1972), “Man Up In The Sky” (1976), “Ain’t too proud to beg” (1966), “Wherever I Lay My Hat” (1983).

Mahalia Jackson

Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. She grew up singing gospel in her father’s church. Mahalia was influenced by blues singers Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and later moved to Chicago, as a teen, to join the Johnson Singers, one of the earliest gospel groups. In 1947, she saw tremendous success with her release of “Move On Up a Little Higher,” which sold over 2 million copies and became the highest-selling gospel single in history. She was an impactful voice during the Civil Rights Movement and sang at the March on Washington at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahalia Jackson is hailed as one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century.

Her most popular performances and songs: “Move On Up a Little Higher” (1947), “Precious Lord” (1956), “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” (1966), “Down By The Riverside” (1956).


penner, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Prince Rogers Nelson was an astounding multi-instrumentalist who rose to stardom in the 80s and became one of the most impactful artists of all time. He was a singer-songwriter, composer, and performer with an extravagant style and personality on stage, who phenomenally played 27 instruments. His originality and versatility made him an innovator in numerous musical genres like jazz, pop, funk, and blues, heavily influencing and introducing new artists & producers such as Sheila E., Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Morris Day & The Time.

His most popular songs: “Purple Rain” (1984), “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1984), “When Doves Cry” (1984), “Kiss” (1986), “Raspberry Beret” (1985), “1999” (1982).

Willie Dixon

Brianmcmillen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Willie Dixon was a producer, songwriter, bass player and musician part of the Chicago Blues movement of the 50s and 60s. He was known for transforming his written poems from his youth into classy blues songs. Dixon was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

His most popular songs: “Built For Comfort” (1960), “Wang Dang Doodle” (1995), “29 Ways” (1956), “Hidden Charms” (1958).

Tupac Shakur

Tupac Shakur is considered one of the most influential and prolific hip hop artists and one of the best-selling artists of all time, selling over 75 million albums worldwide. He was also a distinguished actor, gifted poet and advocate for the rights of marginalized people in America. Tupac’s music was culturally impactful and was added to the National Recording Registry by The Library of Congress and featured on the Vatican’s official playlist. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

His most popular songs: “Dear Mama” (1995), “California Love” (1995), “Changes” (1998), “Do For Love” (1997), “How Do U Want It” (1996).

George Clinton

Raj Gupta, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The father of funk, George Clinton, had a huge impact on modern music. His bands Parliament and Funkadelic had numerous hit songs throughout the 70s and 80s and revolutionized music by influencing new genres of funk, rock, soul, hip hop and R&B. Clinton’s Parliament/ Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

His most popular band songs: “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” (1975), “Atomic Dog” (1982), “Flash Light” (1977).

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are known for their contributions to numerous pop and R&B hits and are considered innovators of the Philadelphia soul sound in the 70s. They are credited with songwriting and production for artists such as The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Jerry Ross, Linda Creed, Archie Bell and Diana Ross.

Their most popular written songs: “Me and Mrs. Jones” (1972), “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967), “I Can’t Stop Dancing” (1968), “When Will I See You Again” (1973).

Jay Z

Jay-Z_@_Shawn_'Jay-Z'_Carter_Foundation_Carnival_02.jpg: Joella Marano from Manhattan, NYJay-Z_2011.jpg: Joella Maranoderivative work: Jorgebarrios, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Considered one of the best rappers and composers in hip hop, Shawn Corey Carter, aka Jay Z, has worked with numerous contemporary artists such as Linkin Park, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, among many others. He is now a record executive, entrepreneur and media proprietor with company ownership and investments worth over a billion dollars.

His most popular songs: “Crazy In Love” (2003), “Empire State of Mind” (2009), “Hard Knock Life” (1998), “Izzo” 2001, “No Church In The Wild” (2011), “The Story Of O.J.” (2017).

Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew

Antoine “Fats” Domino was a pianist and singer-songwriter, who is considered one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s. Dave Bartholomew was known in the music industry for discovering new rising musicians. Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew worked together on the composition of Fats Domino’s, “The Fat Man,” which is considered one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first records and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and worked together to write his first album Carry on Rockin’.

Their most popular songs: “Ain’t It a Shame” (1955), “I’m Walkin’” (1957), “Walking to New Orleans” (1960).

Isaac Hayes and David Porter

Isaac Hayes was a producer, actor, musician and entertainer who wrote numerous albums and soundtracks for tv shows and movies. He became one of the most important figures of soul music for his unique style in live performances.

David Porter is a soul musician and songwriter who was a member of the Memphis group, Circle O’Fire. Isaac and David partnered to form Stax Records during the 1960s, where he later started recording as a musician himself.

Their most popular original songs: “Theme from Shaft” (1971), “Do Your Thing” (1971), “Hung Up On Me Baby” (1974). “Hold On! I'm a Comin'” (1966).

Allen Toussaint

ataelw, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The legendary artist, singer, producer, pianist, and songwriter, Allen Toussaint, wrote many popular songs that were later covered by artists like Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, and many others. He was considered to be the architect of the New Orleans R&B sound and was inducted to both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

His most popular written songs: “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” (1965), “Working In The Coal Mine” (1966), “Life” (1973).

Curtis Mayfield

AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

Curtis Mayfield, a singer, songwriter, and producer, was known for introducing social and political consciousness into African-American music. His lyrics inspired students across the country during the Civil Rights Movement. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame both as a solo artist and with the group the Impressions.

His most popular songs: “Move on Up” (1970), “Pusherman” (1972), “Superfly” (1972), “People Get Ready” (1965).

Marvin Gaye

English: Photograph by Jim Britt

One of the major influences in 20th-century music, Marvin Gaye was a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, who influenced popular culture with his spiritually-themed music and the diversity of his lyrics. He was considered a renaissance man who helped shape the Motown sound in the 60s and 70s.

His most popular songs: “What’s Going On” (1970), “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968), “Mercy Mercy Me” (1971), “Inner City Blues” (1971).

What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye) Feat. Sara Bareilles | Playing For Change | Song Around The World

Sam Cooke

Macfadden Publications page 1, Public domain

The “King of Soul,” Sam Cooke, was a singer, songwriter and musician whose gospel background influenced many contemporary artists, who have covered many of his songs, keeping his legacy alive until this day. Considered to be one of the pioneers of soul music, he is credited with contributing to the success of artists such as Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Stevie Wonder.

His most popular songs: “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964), “Cupid” (1961), “Another Saturday Night” (1963), “You Send Me” (1975), “Wonderful World” (1959).

A Change Is Gonna Come | Playing For Change Band | Live in Los Angeles

Otis Blackwell

One of the songwriters who redefined America’s popular music in the the 1950s, Otis Blackwell is well known for his work along with Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, The Who, Billy Joel and more. Considered to be one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

His most popular songs: “All Shook Up” (1956), “Fever” (1956), “Don’t Be Cruel” (1956), “Great Balls of Fire” (1957).

Little Richard

Anna Bleker, Public domain

Richard Wayne Penniman, aka Little Richard, is considered a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll, who impacted music with his unique flamboyant style, showmanship, lyrics and music. His style, career and characterization inspired several artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Prince. Little Richard was part of the first group of musicians to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and is honored in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

His most popular songs: “Good Golly Miss Molly” (1958) “Long Tall Sally” (1956), “Lucille” (1956), “Tutti-Frutti” (1955).

Smokey Robinson

Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Singer, songwriter and producer, Smokey Robinson, known as the “King of Motown,” is credited with writing over 4000 songs and 37 of the Top 40 hits for Motown Records for artists such as The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. He saw tremendous success both as a member of The Miracles and as a solo artist. He is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors for his musical and cultural contributions and is a two-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for his solo success and his work with The Miracles.

His most popular written songs: “Being With You” (1981), “Tears of a Clown” (1967), “Get Ready” (1966), “My Girl” (1964), “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965).

Ray Charles

Victor Diaz Lamich, CC BY 3.0

Ray Charles was a legendary soul music pioneer in the 1950s. Often referred to as the “Father of Soul” and “The Genius,” his songs combined blues, gospel, country, R&B, rock and jazz, winning him multiple awards and creating a mark on contemporary music. The multi-instrumentalist, was one of the first people inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient and was one of the first Black musicians to be granted artistic control by a major record company.

His most popular songs: “I Got A Woman” (1957), “What’d I Say” (1959), “Georgia on My Mind” (1960), “Hit The Road Jack” (1962), “Mess Around” (1953).

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