Back In Black: 50 of Music’s Most Influential Black Rockers, Part 2
In observance of Black History Month, I've compiled a list of some of music’s true pioneers: the black men and women who helped create, shape and innovate rock music’s ever-changing landscape.
Although I've chosen 50 artists in all, I started off with the first 25 last week (numbers 50 to 26) -- and the remaining 25 are presented in the photo gallery below.
So, here they are, 50 of music’s most influential black rockers -- numbers 25 through 1. Here's the link to part one in case you missed it.
Music writer Ebony March contributes often to GuitarWorld.com.
18. Rocky George. As the lead guitarist of Suicidal Tendencies, Rocky George was a force to be reckoned with. He attacked each chord he played with a level of aggression that very few people had heard before. Now, as a member of Fishbone, George continues his reign as one of rock’s best.
17. Bad Brains. Hardcore punk has never been known for having an influx of black players. That changed when Bad Brains hit the scene. The Washington D.C. group has toured and collaborated with everyone from Henry Rollins to 311. Ask any kid into punk music today to name you a list of their idols and Bad Brains is almost always somewhere near the top. That’s high praise for the band who was first thought of as a novelty when it debuted in the late 1970s.
16. Phil Lynott. He’s the quintessential “black Irish”. Thin Lizzy’s front man and guitarist, Phil Lynott still brings chills to listeners’ ears with his devilish turn on songs like “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Lynott was the son of a black serviceman and an Irish mother. Although his road was not always an easy one, he channeled his hardship into a music career that places him in the same rarefied air as Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.
15. Meshell Ndegeocello. Prolific. That’s the only easy way to describe the talent of Meshell Ndegeocello. The bassist/singer has survived 20 years in the music industry without compromising. This has allowed her the opportunity to collaborate with the likes of John Mellencamp as well as jazz pianist Jason Moran. But it’s her nine studio releases--including the latest, a sultry LP entitled, Weather--that have earned her the respect of millions.
14. Lajon Witherspoon. As Sevendust’s singer, Lajon Witherspoon has been called one of the best vocalists in rock history. His band is also said to have inspired fellow rockers like Staind and Seether. But to TRULY appreciate Witherspoon’s raw power and spirit, he should be seen in concert.
13. Fishbone. Rock music’s first big all-black band at one time experienced success which rivaled that of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt. These elder statesmen are still kicking ass and taking names later. In 2011, they were featured in a documentary, Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, which chronicled the group’s elaborate history.
12. Prince. With his in-your-face sexuality and ravenous attack of his guitar, Prince has earned a following of the music industry’s elite. His creative (and reportedly romantic) partnerships with the likes of Carmen Elektra and Madonna have made him infamous. Prince has won numerous awards and even received his big screen moment in "Purple Rain" and "Under the Cherry Moon." He continues to tour, and has been covered by Sinead O’Connor, Luna Is Honey and Chaka Khan, to name a few.
11. Bo Diddley. Some call him the bridge that helped R&B transition over to rock. His guitar playing displayed a more aggressive edge, relying less on the traditions of southern players and more on his personal innovations. So beloved was his work that he toured with the Clash and the Rolling Stones. Diddley was also a successful songwriter for other artists. He co-wrote “Love is Strange” which was performed by Mickey & Sylvia and appeared in "Dirty Dancing."
10. George Clinton. His personal style is unmatched. George Clinton’s daring esthetic carries over into other areas of his life, most notably, his music. Through Parliament Funkadelic and P-Funk All-Stars, Clinton wiped the floor with disco softies and easy-listening mainstays. His bold and saucy odes to sex, dancing and good times are still played on the radio and in night clubs today and sound just as modern as the jams being put out by contemporary chart-toppers.
09. Howlin’ Wolf. This guy was his own power animal. Howlin’ Wolf was an imposing force on rock music, boasting strong ideals, an ironclad work ethic and hands seemingly delivered to his body by the Devil himself. Wolf’s rivalry with fellow guitarist/bluesman, Muddy Waters was a well-known one, but never dimmed his star quality.
08. Slash. One of the happiest days of my adolescence? Finding out that Slash was half black. Seems like a small thing, but until you’re a black kid growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, with hillbillies and thugs ragging on you because you prefer guitars over hip-hop beats, you shouldn’t judge. Slash, born Saul Hudson, has graced stages with Michael Jackson, Velvet Revolver and Lenny Kravitz. But it was his stint as the guitarist for GNR that has instilled pride in his diverse fan base.
07. Chuck Berry. He may have been the Charlie Sheen of his day (you know, tragically addicted to fast white chicks), but Chuck Berry was nothing short of amazing. His songs are ripe with attitude. His guitar playing and strutting across the stage is still emulated today. Berry’s lore has also made its way onto the silver screen: Aspects of his life (fictitious and factual) have been portrayed in films like Cadillac Records in the hilarious 1980s adventure-comedy, Back to the Future.
06. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He once bragged in his most famous song that “I put a spell on you.” Perhaps he did. His legacy validates it. Screamin’ Jay is known as one of music’s first “shock rockers.” His horror show antics onstage predate Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson. However, the universal appeal of his work allowed him to have an influence on fans ranging from modern rockers to R&B lovers to classic rock musicians alike.
05. John Lee Hooker. His songs have been heard in countless TV commercials. He’s been covered to the hilt by the Yardbirds and Bruce Springsteen. He tops the shortlist of “most inspirational musician” for a number of recording artists including frequent Guitar World contributor Garrett Dutton (aka G Love). But in his own rite, Hooker is simply unmatched. He and his fellow bluesmen bear the distinction of being the godfathers of rock.
04. Elizabeth Cotten. If the Southern blues men of the 20th century were the godfathers of rock, then meet its fairy godmother. Elizabeth Cotten is the old-school guitar goddess whose emulated playing style was named after her: Cotten-picking. Everyone from Washington, D.C.’s, the Beatin’s to Devendra Banhart have been deeply influenced by the left-handed guitarist.
03. Little Richard. It’s hard to imagine being the artist who inspired the Beatles, but that’s the rare distinction held by Little Richard. The eccentric crooner fired up white youth by delivering to them a sassy sound with which they could defy authority. His records would ultimately make their way across the pond to a little town called Liverpool, and well, the rest is history. He is the originator. He is the innovator -- in his words and in real life.
02. Muddy Waters. McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) has his fingers in rock music, figuratively and literally. His famous hands have wowed and stunned listeners for decades on tracks showcasing his Chicago blues guitar-playing style. Waters was also a very influential force on the Rolling Stones. The British band derives its name from one of his songs and often covered his music early in its career.
01. Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix got his start in the industry as a guitarist in Little Richard’s backing band. But playing second-fiddle wasn't in the cards for guitar’s favorite son. By the end of the '60s, Hendrix had recorded famous works like “Third Stone From the Sun” and “Foxy Lady,” as well as appearing at Woodstock. He also is listed as an influence by nearly every contemporary artist who has ever picked up a guitar. Although he met with an untimely demise in 1970, Hendrix remains a legend.
19. Fats Domino. Not only has Fats Domino been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his New Orleans swagger provided a soundtrack for the rebellious teens of the 1950s. Born Antoine Dominique Domino, “Fats” quickly became one of rock music’s true pioneers with his song, “The Fat Man” in 1949. He would later incorporate his signature rolling piano playing-style into classics like “Maybelline” and “Blueberry Hill."
20. Ben Harper. Rocker Ben Harper has a true hybrid style: Part blues, part soul, partly spiritual, Harper has thumbed his nose at convention with successful tracks like “Whipping Boy,” “Steal My Kisses" and “Lay There and Hate Me.” As well, he has built a steady fan base with years spent on the road. It all pays off each time his voice and melodies smolder through the speakers.
21. B.B. King. He’s about as recognizable in America as McDonald’s golden arches or the Coca-Cola emblem. That’s high praise for a blues man. BB King is one of the last of the true Mississippi Delta impresarios. His fluid style of playing has captured the hearts of the press, fellow musicians like U2 and Eric Clapton as well as up-and-comers such as Mike Officer. King is perhaps most known for his Grammy Award-winning song, “The Thrill Is Gone.”
22. Justin Warfield. There’s a strong sense of rebellion that looms overhead at most She Wants Revenge shows. This feeling is probably the closest thing modern music fans will ever get to the sex-charged passion felt by teenagers during the 1950s when rock music made its initial crossover into white America. Warfield, as a front man, is a naughty, terribly cool svengali who could make any good girl drop her panties with just one note.
23. Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith of TV On the Radio. NYC’s TV On the Radio serve up a tasty fusion of punk, prog, soul and funk. But it's the delivery of what they’ve been cooking that has left so many fans hungry for more. You’ll know their sound because it's set apart from everything else in music today. Here’s hoping Smith’s death in 2011 doesn’t result in the group’s demise.
25. Tricky. He’s been called “the father of trip-hop.” Tricky’s gravely voice and ear for the unusual have earned him throngs of devotees. The British singer-producer blends rock and electronica in a way that showcases both genres in equally impressive measure. Check out his skill on tracks like “Brand New You’re Retro.”
24. Lenny Kravitz. The 1990s wouldn’t be as memorable were it not for the throwback genius of Lenny Kravitz. Sporting a guitar and his retro rock style, Kravitz was instrumental in bridging the gap between what black kids listened to and what white kids listened to. Songs like, “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” and “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” fused the best of soul, funk and rock with perfect ease.