15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1950s

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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The 1950s were a time of ups and downs in the world. Globally, the Second World War had ended, and in the United States, many people associate this decade with both the start of the Cold War and the unifying of the Civil Rights movement. 

Black Americans were tired of US policies that systematically discriminated against them, and it was in the 1950s that the movement calling for change made progress.

But, while these were turbulent times for Black communities, they also inspired great music. In this post, we’re going to take a look at 15 of the greatest and most famous black singers of the 50s. Let’s get started.

Related: For more, read our list of the best black singers here.

1. Chuck Berry

Guitarist, vocalist, and entertainer Chuck Berry earned the name the “Father of Rock and Roll” through his musical innovations.

The St Louis-born musician was initially drawn in by blues musicians before eventually elaborating on their techniques to create what we currently think of as rock and roll. 

Berry was one of the first musicians ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is fitting after his ample contributions to the genre.

As well as musical contributions, Berry also popularized dancing and showmanship that hadn’t been seen on stages before. 

Berry continued to perform regularly up until his death in 2017, including his old hits like “Johnnie B. Goode” and “Rock and Roll Music.”

2. Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole had a storied career performing more than 100 hits in the pop world. He also performed with a highly influential jazz trio at the same time.

Countless jazz musicians cite Cole as an influence, and many pop stars would go on to cover songs that he made famous. 

Cole developed a long relationship with Capitol Records and with arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle was known for his string arrangements under Frank Sinatra, who also recorded at Capitol. 

When younger artists began taking over the rock and pop scenes, Cole leaned harder toward his jazz roots rather than falling out of the spotlight.

He released hit albums until his untimely death from lung cancer, ensuring his legacy would live on forever. 

 3. Little Richard

Richard Wayne Penniman, who adopted the stage name, Little Richard, was an early pioneer of the style that would become rock and roll. Richard designed a unique signature that included elements of modern R&B, rock, and funk styles.

Little Richard grew up in Macon Georga, and his father was a church deacon who sold illegal moonshine on the side. Dichotomies like this were a theme throughout Richard’s life. His early musical inclinations included popular music as well as religious music.

Richard changed the styles that would fuse to make modern rock and roll, and his well-rounded nature made him appealing to Black and white audiences alike throughout the 1950s. 

Richard had a long career, with a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

4. Fats Domino

New Orleans legend Fats Domino was known for his energetic and exciting singing and piano playing. Domino was shy and modest.

He insisted that he only ever played the kind of traditional rhythm and blues music he grew up with in Louisiana. 

Countless others begged to differ about the “simplicity” of Domino’s music, with acts as diverse as Elvis Presley and the Beatles citing him as an influence. Domino is largely regarded as having shaped modern rock music. 

He had great success in the 50s, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He lived his entire life in New Orleans but toured worldwide countless times. 

5. Ray Charles

Your odds are slim of meeting a music fan anywhere in the world who hasn’t heard the name Ray Charles.

The pianist and singer became known for his melting pot style, that incorporated rhythm and blues, jazz, rock, and even elements from genres like country music. 

Charles released hits throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but his work in the 1950s with Atlantic Records was thought to be the inception of modern soul music. Hits like “Georgia on My Mind” are still world-famous to this day.

Charles was blind and wore dark sunglasses in public. His famous smile, and his iconic look, are identifiable to this day. 

6. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald is a name that is synonymous with vocal jazz. Fitzgerald achieved fame at an early age. She continued to sing during her decades-long career. 

Fitzgerald, who became known as the “First Lady of Song,” was popular as the centerpiece of her own concerts. As an accomplished and technical musician in her own right, she often appeared amongst jazz instrumentalists of her time, like Buddy Rich. 

Highlights of Fitzgerald’s career include collaborations with Louis Armstrong, world tours, and lifelong recognition of her unique style. In 1979, she received the Kennedy Center Honor

7. Sarah Vaughan

There aren’t many musical artists who manage to innovate and embrace the traditions of their art form. Sarah Vaughan is a vocalist who managed to achieve this over her 45-year career. 

The best jazz vocalists are generally those who can be featured center stage but can also shape melodies in ways that a jazz instrumentalist might. Vaughan fits this description perfectly. She is well known for maintaining lyrical integrity while making melodies her own. 

Vaughan has a storied reputation amongst contemporaries in the instrumental jazz world, alongside ample press recognition in publications like Metronome Magazine and Downbeat

Related: Next, read our post on 1950s female singers.

8. James Brown 

Everyone knows James Brown. His nickname, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” is enough to invoke images and sounds of the iconic soul singer. 

Brown developed the style that would become his own throughout the 1950s and penned numerous Billboard hits during this time. Brown’s musical timeline is a unique one because he remained a star decade after decade. 

“The Godfather of Soul,” another nickname of Brown’s, remained popular until his death in the early 2000s and is still looked back upon as one of the most famous musicians ever to live. 

9. B.B. King

B.B. King was known for his innovative and influential blues guitar playing, but like many blues artists, he was also an excellent singer. King’s musical career took him from his Mississippi home to Chicago and Memphis before his eventual death in Las Vegas at 89 years old. 

King innovated several guitar techniques that are now synonymous with contemporary blues, including vibrato and string bending. 

Many of these techniques echoed his voice and allowed him to manipulate the fixed pitches of the guitar more expressively. This type of playing is common in modern blues but did not exist in such a codified manner before King. 

10. Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is yet another vocalist with whom no study of jazz history would be complete. She was influenced by instrumentalist contemporaries like Lester Young and brought this type of melodic phrasing to the jazz vocal world. 

She was also an adamant supporter of civil rights. One of her more famous songs, “Strange Fruit,” was a rallying cry because of its dark imagery about the lynchings of Black Americans in the South.

Holiday left a remarkable legacy, but her career was punctuated by bouts of drug use and problems with addiction

11. Aretha Franklin

A true vocal legend, Aretha Franklin is known across the R&B, jazz, and gospel worlds. She fused these styles to create the genre we now think of as soul music, along with her contemporaries Ray Charles and James Brown.

Franklin’s hits “Chain of Fools” and “Respect” are still popular long after her death. Franklin was able to maintain a busy career into her elderly years, unlike other musicians who suffered from mental and physical struggles on the road.

Related: Next, read our list of best soul singers here.

12. Muddy Waters

Here we have another legendary blues musician, Muddy Waters, who was equally at home singing or playing guitar.  

Waters influenced countless contemporary rock and blues musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. 

Waters’ style gained him numerous accolades as an artist, but his songs were also commercial enough to be featured in a handful of movies and TV shows. 

In 1987, Waters was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

13. Harry Belafonte

Many of the influential Black singers on this list were born and raised in the southern United States, but Jamaican-American Harry Belafonte was born and raised in New York City. 

Belafonte spent ample time in Jamaica with relatives throughout his childhood. He returned to New York to complete high school. Belafonte fell in love with musical theater and stage performance, which fed his passion for vocal music. 

Belafonte remains among the most well-known Jamaican-American pop stars to this day, popularizing Caribbean music internationally during the 1950s. His first successful album, “Calypso,” became the first recording by a single artist to sell over 1 million copies.

14. Sam Cooke

Many musical artists from this era had lives cut short by the difficulties of life of the road, substance abuse, and medical issues. Sam Cooke is remembered not only for his unique singing voice but for the mysterious and tragic circumstances of his death.

The singer was 33 years old when he was shot at a Los Angeles hotel. There has been much speculation about what occurred that night. Cooke was a vocal Civil Rights activist and extremely successful financially. Foul play was never ruled out. 

Performances of songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Wonderful World” earned Cooke recognition, and no matter how he met his untimely end, he lives on through his music. 

15. Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway was a jazz musician, singer, and band leader, in a time when this was akin to being a modern rockstar. His bands featured the best instrumental jazz players, and Calloway impressed his bandmates with scat singing and solos that rivaled the instrumentalists in his groups. 

Calloway and his band mixed an element of vaudeville into their performances, making their performances visually appealing as well as containing great music. Calloway had a longtime association with the Cotton Club in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Black 1950s Singers

Given all of the great vocal music that infused this decade, it was not an easy feat to compile this list.

These performers are the most influential Black singers to have graced the stage during the 1950s.

Have a listen to each of them, and enjoy! 

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.