Being in the middle of the country, Kansas is not the first state you may think of when the words “famous musician” come to mind. But with a rich history of its own, Kansas has not only produced some of the most famous musicians in America but played a part in the development of the most popular genres as well, such as jazz.
In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at some names you might recognize to learn a bit more about them and maybe discover some famous musicians from Kansas along the way.
Related: Read about the most influential musicians from the US here.
1. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker is arguably the most famous jazz alto saxophone player in the world.
But before he was the legend known as “Bird,” he was a kid in the Kansas City music scene cutting his chops.
With bebop jazz standards such as “Ornithology” and “Scrapple from the Apple” under his belt, Parker’s original sound changed jazz for generations to come.
Parker’s career was touted with drug abuse and mental health issues. He died at the age of 34, but his impact on music will never be forgotten.
2. Joe Walsh (The Eagles)
Originally from Wichita, Joe Walsh played oboe at a young age before finding bass and guitar in college to form The James Gang.
But it was his solo debut titled The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, that led him to mainstream success with hits like “Rocky Mountain Way,” before joining the group the Eagles on Hotel California.
Since then, he has continued his solo career and reunited with the Eagles occasionally.
3. Stan Kenton
Another Wichita native, jazz pianist, band leader, and composer Stan Kenton dared to have a sound all his own in jazz.
Before he carved a name for himself with hits like “Artistry in Rhythm,” he played with names such as Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim.
But it was when he started his orchestra (during a time when big band was not as popular) that he found his greatest success with tunes such as “Elegy for Alto.”
Before he died in 1979, Kenton had formed several experimental bands and mentored many young players.
4. Janelle Monáe
Fusing funk, soul, R&B, and hip hop, Janelle Monáe has become one of the most unique artists of our time.
Growing up in Kansas City, Monáe relocated to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy before dashing to Atlanta.
There, she connected with experimental artists and refined her sound on songs such as “Tightrope.”
Monáe also acts and has been in successful films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures. She continues to record and act simultaneously.
5. Martina McBride
The 1990s had no shortage of legendary country musicians to pick from, and of that elite included Martina McBride from Sharon, Kansas.
Growing up singing in a family band before she was 10, McBride was exposed to country music at a young age.
With the success of her third album, Wild Angels, McBride launched to stardom, following it with hits such as “I Love You” and “Love’s the Only House.”
Since then, McBride has stayed in the country spotlight by continuously making records, hosting a successful cooking show on television, and hosting a podcast.
6. Melissa Etheridge
From learning guitar from a young age in Leavenworth, Kansas to attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Melissa Etheridge was a fundamentalist of rock music from an early age.
She released several albums that garnered the attention of rock legends such as Rod Stewart but found mainstream success with hits such as “Bring Me Some Water,” “Similar Features,” and “No Souvenirs.”
Since taking off, Etheridge has won an Oscar, and 2 Grammys, written an autobiography, beat breast cancer, sold over 25 million records, and she continues making and releasing records.
Related: For more on Melissa, read our famous lesbian singers list here.
7. Kendall Schmidt (Big Time Rush)
Singer and songwriter Kendall Schmidt discovered music at an early age in Wichita, as well as acting.
He would put the two arts together when he joined Big Time Rush, a Television series and real-life band.
The group went on to release several hits such as “Boyfriend,” and “Til I Forget About You.” They also put out a major motion picture called Big Time Movie.
Since his success in the band, Schmidt has released music with side projects and continues to sing, act, and produce music.
8. Andy McKee
Andy McKee began playing guitar at the young age of 13 in Topeka before going on to innovate the instrument with his fingerstyle guitar playing.
Virtually self-taught, McKee achieved success through online videos, with songs like “Drifting,” from his solo debut, Nocturne. He placed in many national guitar competitions along the way as well.
Since then, he has released music on major labels and collaborated with Josh Groban. He continues to make music.
9. Hattie McDaniel
Growing up in her parent’s Baptist tent show in Wichita, Hattie McDaniel began singing at an early age. She went on to join “Professor” George Morrison’s traveling show, Melody Hounds.
She toured with them and worked odd jobs until packing up for LA, where she was cast in a radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts.
From there, McDaniel was cast in nearly 70 films, such as Gone With the Wind. She transitioned to television acting and died of cancer shortly thereafter in 1952.
10. Joyce DiDonato
Originally from Prairie Village, female opera singer Joyce DiDonato studied classical music at Kansas State with intentions of teaching but fell into the world of opera quickly.
She performed at San Francisco, Houston, and Santa Fe operas before recording albums of Handel’s music.
She debuted at the Met in New York, singing Mozart to critical acclaim.
Since finding success in the arts, she has used her voice for activism, won many awards, and continues to sing and record today.
11. Diane Bish
Before her work as an organist, composer, and conductor, Diane Bish hailed from Wichita where she played piano at 6 years old.
She studied organ at Ashbury College before playing many church jobs and teaching.
She was featured on many television programs from early on, starting with the Coral Ridge Hour, and began recording her music around that time.
Since finding success, she began hosting The Joy of Music show, performed all over the world, authored books, and composed her works.
12. Chris Mann
Hailing from Wichita, Chris Mann studied classical music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music before moving to Europe to pursue a professional singing career in Italian opera.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Mann worked as a session musician for soundtracks but found a wider audience in 2012 when he released his debut effort, Roads.
Since then, he has hosted Christmas specials on PBS, a followup to Roads, and returned to the stage with The Phantom of the Opera.
13. Logan Mize
From an early age in Wichita, Logan Mize found music when he learned piano and began singing in high school.
He had come from a musical family, and by the time he quit college to move to Nashville, he had put together his first band.
His second album, Nobody in Nashville, helped him score big. He followed his success with hits like “Can’t Get Away from a Good Time” and “Better Off Gone.”
Mize has also acted in television, appearing in Hart of Dixie as himself, and collaborated with country legends. Mize still records and releases music today.
14. Danny Carey (Tool)
Danny Carey began drumming at 10 in Lawrence, Kansas and soon after joined his high school jazz band.
He studied percussion at the University of Missouri, where he developed interests in geometric patterns and the occult.
He relocated to LA, where he session drummed for Carole King and recorded solo music. He eventually met his Tool bandmates.
They released their debut, titled Undertow, in 1993 and became rock legends shortly thereafter.
Carey still drums with Tool today, as well as continuing work as a drummer in his many side projects.
15. Kerry Livgren (Kansas)
Before founding the supergroup Kansas, Kerry Livgren lived in Topeka and was a fan of romantic classical music, which leaned to his future recording style.
When Kansas released their debut album, titled Leftoverture, they found great success with hits such as “Carry on Wayward Son.” He followed it up with “Dust in the Wind,” making Kansas one of the biggest bands of the 70s.
Livgren recorded solo as well as forming AD (a new group with several Kansas members).
Since then, Livgren has done farming full-time yet still records and performs as Kansas from time to time.
16. Katrina Leskanich (Katrina and the Waves)
Katrina Leskanich was born into a military family in Topeka, Kansas. In high school, she took to music and started Katrina and The Waves.
They debuted in 1982 with “Nightmare” from the album The Bible of Bop, but it wasn’t until their next effort, Walking on Sunshine, did they hit it big internationally.
The band faded in popularity but reemerged in 1997 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest.
Though the band has disassembled, Walking on Sunshine continues to stay in pop culture to this day. She continues writing, singing, and recording solo work to this day.
Summing up Our List Of Great Musicians From Kansas
As you can see, the state of Kansas has produced some of the highest talents in the last 100 years.
With a rich history in music, it’s exciting to see what is next to come out of the great state.