Black History Month: Are these the 10 most influential black musicians of all time?

1 October 2020, 13:17 | Updated: 1 October 2020, 15:19

Bob Marley, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix
Bob Marley, Prince, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix were all iconic artists. Picture: 1. Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty 2.The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty 3. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty 4. Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

As Black History Month begins, Radio X takes a look at some of the most iconic black artists of all time and their influence on rock music. Does your favourite make the cut?

Today marks the beginning of Black History Month in the UK.

The annual event, which spans from 1-31 October each year, encourages us to recognise some of the outstanding contributions people of African and Caribbean descent have made to our lives.

Naturally, one of those contributions is music. Whether you look to the likes of Muddy Waters, Nina Simone or Jimi Hendrix, there are so many examples of trailblazers who continue to inspire and influence artists through the generations.

So who are some of the most influential and iconic black musicians of all time? Read our list and find out if your favourite artist makes the cut.

Remember: This list isn't exhaustive nor is it in order of preference, it's just an acknowledgement of some of the artists who changed the course of music history and who we have to thank for some of the biggest artists today.

Happy Black History Month!

READ MORE: The greatest grunge bands of all time

  1. Muddy Waters

    McKinley Morganfield - known professionally as Muddy Waters - was a crucial figure in the post-war blues scene. The American blues singer-songwriter, who grew up on Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale Mississippi, began playing the guitar and Harmonica by the age of 17 and he was first recorded in the Library of Congress in 1941. After moving to Chicago to become a full-time musician, he recorded his first records for Columbia and Aristocrat Records in 1946.

    Often cited as the godfather of modern Chicago blues, Muddy Waters and his band are known for their renditions of Hootchie Coochie Man, Baby Please Don't Go (which was covered by The Rolling Stones) I Just Want to Make Love to You and Got My Mojo Working.

    Travelling to England in 1958, he laid the foundations for the resurgence of blues in the country and was a crucial influence on many of the legendary British bands we know and love today. The Rolling Stones named themselves after his 1950 song Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love is based on the Muddy Waters hit You Need Love, Hoochie Coochie Man has had too many covers to mention and everyone from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix cite him as influences.

  2. Chuck Berry

    St Louis-born Berry took rhythm and blues and made it palatable for white teenagers. Starting with Maybellene in 1955, Berry unleashed a string of hits that defined rock 'n' roll. Elvis covered his hit Johnny B. Goode, The Beatles covered Rock And Roll Music, The Rolling Stones' debut single was a cover of Berry's Come On.

    Without Chuck Berry's ground breaking work, rock 'n' roll would't have been so big. And, let's not forget, one of the big moments in Pulp Fiction is John Travolta and Uma Thurmann dancing to Berry's You Never Can Tell.

  3. Bob Marley

    Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley to me and you) considered to be one of the pioneers of reggae music. The Jamaican star - who fused elements of the genre with ska and rocksteady - stood out because of his blend of the musical styles and distinctive vocals and lyrics, which brought Jamaican music and culture to the masses.

    Starting his professional career in 1963 after forming Bob Marley and The Wailers, they went on to release their debut album The Wailing Wailers in 1965, which featured the single One Love/People Get Ready. Other than being responsible of the enduring hits No Woman No Cry, Is This Love, Buffalo Soldier, Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, Marley is also considered as a Rastafari icon and was known for his unapologetic support for the legalisation of marijuana.

    In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with cancer and sadly died as a result of it in 1981, aged just 36. However, he left a huge legacy behind - influencing a host of artists from across the musical spectrum and becoming one of the most instantly recognisable faces of all time.

  4. James Brown

    The Godfather Of Soul. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. Mr Dynamite. Whatever you call James Brown, you cannot deny his influence on 20th Century music. He was a huge R&B star in the 60s with songs like Papa's Got A Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good), but could still belt out a soulful ballad like It's A Man's Man's Man's World.

    When civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, riots erupted in many US cities - and it was James Brown who publicly appealed for calm. He produced one of the key civilc rights songs of the era: Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.

    JB's commitment to the groove intensified as the 1970s arrived - Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine forged a new music in funk, where the riffs were relentless. Brown was surprised when some of his grooves began to be sampled by hip hop stars and beyond in the 80s.

    The break from 1970's Funky Drummer was one of the most sampled recordings of all time, with Brown associate Bobby Byrd's cover of Hot Pants forming the backbone of The Stone Roses' Fools Gold.

  5. Marvin Gaye

    Marvin Gaye - born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. - helped shape the Motown sound of the 1960s, earning him the monikers, the Prince of Motown and the Prince of Soul. Known most for the likes of Let's Get It On, Heard It Through The Grapevine, and Sexual Healing, Gaye's songs continually get the cover treatment and his iconic 1971 What's Going On single - which was originally inspired by police brutality - has long been considered one of the most important songs of all time.

    Shot dead by his own father on April 1 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye's life was senselessly cut short, but his impact on music and culture still remain today. In fact, Marvin Gaye is more relevant than ever, recently topping of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with his What's Going On album, which knocked off The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to boot.

  6. Frankie Knuckles

    Francis Nicholls Jr - or Frankie Knuckles to his fans - may not have been a household name like some of the other musicians on this list, but his importance in the history of house music can't be ignored. A New Yorker by birth, he spent much of the 70s in the city, DJing at clubs with his friend Larry Levan. Together, they moved the genre on from disco to something more adventurous. When Knuckles moved to Chicago in 1977, he launched a club called The Warehouse, that began to play electronica and synth-pop. Aiming to boost some of his own remixes, Knuckles bought his own drum machine and the sound of The Warehouse became known as "House music" for short.

    By '86, Knuckles was one of the most influential musicians on the planet, releasing the classic Your Love with Jamie Principle, later sampled by The Source featuring Candi Staton for You've Got The Love. His pioneering of house music led British bands like New Order and Pet Shop Boys to adopt the style, leading US DJs to take inspiration from them in turn. Frankie Knuckles died in 2014 aged 59, but his legacy lives on.

  7. Nina Simone

    Nina Simone - born Eunice Kathleen Waymon - might be one of the hardest artists to pin down with her musical styles ranging from classical to folk, jazz, pop, gospel, jazz and blues. Born to a poor family in North Carolina and trained for a summer at Julliard, she might not seem like a rock star to you now, but the she lived every inch of her life like one. After adopting the name Nina Simone to in 1954 to stop her family discovering she was playing the "devil's music" she never looked back. Her enduring tracks include the likes of Ain't Got No, I Got Life, I Put a Spell on You, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) and Feeling Good, which gave Muse an unlikely hit in 2001.

    However, to call Simone a singer-songwriter is only half her story. She was a hugely prominent figure during the civil rights era, where she spoke as well as performed. Simone's talent was as big as her troubled personal life, but her impact on music and culture has remained.

    Artists to cite Nina Simone as an important musical influence include the likes of Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Elton John, Bono, Lana Del Rey, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, Jeff Buckley, Lauryn Hill, Matt Bellamy, Peter Gabriel and Adele. The list goes on and on...

  8. Jimi Hendrix

    James Marshall Hendrix was playing guitar from the age of 15 and after a brief spell in the US Army, wound up playing in backing bands for Little Richard and The Isley Brothers.

    Moving to the UK in the mid-60s, he launched his power trio The Jimi Hendrix Experience and his unique technique of blues guitar and wild soloing quickly made him a superstar. With tracks like Purple Haze, Foxy Lady and Voodoo Chile, Hendrix took the electric guitar to whole new, often psychedelic levels.

    He died in 1970, aged just 27, but every rock guitarist who ever threw a shape - from Prince to Matt Bellamy - is trying to capture some of that Hendrix magic.

  9. Aretha Franklin

    Aretha Franklin's impact on the musical cannon cannot be understated. The Tennesee-born and Detroit-raised star, who started off as a church singer, brought her unique brand of soul to the masses. By the late 60s, songs such as Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Chain of Fools, Think and I Say a Little Prayer secured her status as one of the most prominent singers in US history and earned her the title of the Queen of Soul. But she didn't stop there.

    Aretha used her voice and status for activism and she continued to record and release critically acclaimed albums such as Young Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972) - while being known globally for her breathtaking performances and collaborations. Her rendition of Nessun dorma at the 1998 GRAMMY Awards (where she stood in for Pavarotti) remains one of the most iconic moments music award ceremony history. Aretha's impact on soul and R&B singers cannot be understated and everyone from Amy Winehouse to Adele (whose Rolling In The Deep song she herself covered) was heavily influenced by the icon.

    If it wasn't enough to have left such indelible mark on our culture, Aretha lived through some of the most memorable moments in US history and performed at both the inaugurations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. Her death on 16 August 2018 prompted a tidal wave of tributes from all over the world and culminated in one of the most elaborate, star-studded funerals in music history.

  10. Prince

    When Prince Rogers Nelson signed his first record contract aged just 19, it was clear from the outset that he was a genius: the Minneapolis musician played every instrument on his debut album For You. Prince's music mixed 70s funk and the post-punk sounds of the New Wave, but his love for music was too great to be constrained by genres. If his musical talent wasn't enough to stop you in your tracks, then his image would. Prince didn't just defy genre, he also defend genders. Picking up from where Little Richard left off, Prince wasn't afraid to sport anything from fishnet stockings to suspenders and heels.

    1999 was his big cross-over hit album - mixing in rock, pop, R&B and blues. MTV, who claimed they were a "rock" station and therefore couldn't play black artists, had to concede when Prince made Purple Rain - the album, the movie and the song that was the perhaps the biggest power ballad of the decade. From that point on, Prince released music in a dazzling array of styles, the highpoint of which was the ambitious double album Sign 'O' The Times in 1987. He died in 2016 aged just 57, but has left a huge vault unreleased recordings that proved the man genuinely loved making music.

READ MORE: The greatest Manchester bands of all time