To help introduce kids raised on rock and rap to the rich legacy of music created by African-Americans, we asked noted music author Leonard Feather for a mini-primer on key figures in black-music history.
THE FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: Folk music and the work song merged with gospel in the repertoire of nine singers from the black Fisk University. Singing songs like ”Roll, Jordan, Roll,” they gave their first concert in 1867; they were so well received on an 1871 fund-raising tour that they were invited to tour England, where, in 1873, they sang for Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the original Fisk Jubilee Singers were never recorded, but the ensemble endures to this day.
BESSIE SMITH: They called her the Empress of the Blues, and her life, hectic and heavy with booze and brawls, took her to the top of the blues world with her 1923 recording of ”Down Hearted Blues.” Smith’s throaty moans struck a chord with both black audiences and nonblacks at shows ”for whites only.” A composer as well, she wrote ”Back Water Blues” and ”Hard Time Blues.” But by 1931 the blues fad had waned. Six years later, she died in a car wreck in Clarksdale, Miss. Ironically, the idiom Smith nurtured made a belated comeback; rock & roll now carries on the tradition she founded. Recommended listening: The Complete Recordings, Vols. 1, 2, and 3.
MARIAN ANDERSON: In 1939 this operatic contralto was due to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow a ”colored” artist to sing in their hall — so Eleanor Roosevelt helped organize an Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial for an audience of 75,000. The singer became, in 1955, the first black artist to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. As conductor Arturo Toscanini said, ”A voice like hers occurs once in a hundred years.” Recommended listening: Marian Anderson: Bach, Brahms, Schubert.
THOMAS ”FATS” WALLER: His foot-stomping ”stride piano” was an outgrowth of ragtime, pioneered by Scott Joplin. In this style, Waller composed and recorded songs like ”Honeysuckle Rose,” ”Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and dozens more. His contagious, swingin’ piano and strictly-for-laughs vocals led him to Hollywood and several movie roles; but his fast, fun-filled life caught up with him. Today, his records, constantly reissued on CD, remind us of a brief, stunningly brilliant career. Recommended listening: The Fats Waller Piano Solos: Turn on the Heat.
EDWARD KENNEDY ”DUKE” ELLINGTON: First famous as the bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Ellington composed or cocomposed everything from short popular songs (”Solitude,” ”Sophisticated Lady”) to long, complex orchestral works (”Black, Brown & Beige”). A gifted pianist, he always said, ”The instrument I play best is my orchestra.” Recommended listening: Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band.