18 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Musicians From New Jersey

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

New Jersey is famous for its beaches, food casinos, and nature. You can also enjoy some Taylor ham, hoagie, and saltwater taffy. And don’t forget to check out the wineries and taste some sparkling wine while you’re at it.

New Jersey, otherwise known as the Garden State,” is a busy state, acting as a vein into New York City. There is so much bustling opportunity here that it should be no surprise how many musicians rose to fame.

While it’s a small state, it has created some of the world’s biggest talent. Listed below are 18 of the most famous musicians from New Jersey. Read on!

1. Count Basie

The American jazz pianist and composer Count Basie was born William James Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey. He came from a musical family, with his mother and father both playing instruments and teaching him how to play. Specifically, his mother taught him the basics of piano playing.

Basie became inspired by music and worked at the Palace Theater in Red Bank to earn admission to the performances there.

He was more interested in playing drums during this age. But when he turned 15, he focused on playing the piano and played the instrument for local shows. His career took off when he moved to Harlem, New York at just 16 years old.

2. Wesley Schultz

Born and raised in Ramsey, New Jersey, Wesley Schultz founded the folk band The Lumineers with his high school friend Jeremiah Fraites.

The two came together after the death of Fraites’ brother, Josh. To cope with the loss, they began to write music together.

Schultz and Fraites began to perform around New Jersey and New York. Since the cost of living in the area was so high, they decided to move their band to Denver, Colorado.

The Lumineers released their first album of the same name in 2012. Schultz and Fraites co-wrote three of the songs here and became successful. These were “Ho Hey, “Stubborn Love,” and “Submarines.”

3. Paul Simon

The American singer, songwriter, and actor Paul Simon was born in Newark, New Jersey. People know him better as one half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel.

Simon’s father played the double bass and led a dance band, introducing him to music. His time in New Jersey was short, with his family moving to Queens, New York when he was only 4 years old. This move led him to meet Art Garfunkel at age 11. The two began singing together when he was just 13 years old.

At this age, Simon wrote his very first song, “The Girl for Me.” Between the ages of 16 and 23, he wrote and recorded more than 30 songs. Although his team-up with Garfunkel was successful, they split and enjoyed solo careers. Simon won 12 Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

4. Gloria Gaynor

Like Paul Simon, Gloria Gaynor was born in Newark, where her childhood home was bursting with music. Her father sang and played the ukulele and guitar.

Gaynor’s brothers and a friend formed a singing group, but she was not allowed to join. It wasn’t until after high school that Gaynor began singing at nightclubs around New Jersey. She expanded her tour up and down the east coast. Capitol Records eventually discovered her and signed her under their label.

What catapulted her to fame was the 1978 song “I Will Survive,” which would become an anthem for female emancipation.

5. Whitney Houston

Another Newark native is the legendary singer and actress Whitney Houston. Her mother was a gospel singer, and her brothers were singer-songwriters. Her cousins were singers Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. Houston even met Aretha Franklin at just 8 years old.

Houston was taught to sing primarily by her mother. At only 11 years old, she began singing solo performances in church. Houston and her mother began performing together in nightclubs. Though her mother supported her singing career, she wouldn’t allow her to sign a record deal until she graduated high school.

But from then on, Houston’s rise to fame was unstoppable. She eventually won two Emmy Awards, six Grammys, and 28 Guinness World Records. She was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

6. Bruce Springsteen

Next on our list is Bruce Springsteen, born in Long Branch, New Jersey. He cites his Irish-Catholic upbringing there as a heavy influence on his music. Many of his songs echo the Irish-Catholic hymns that Springsteen grew up listening to.

Listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio and seeing Elvis Presley and The Beatles on TV inspired Springsteen to become a performer. His mother rented him a guitar which began his introduction to playing music.

After high school, Springsteen began playing in New Jersey nightclubs. His performances and unique songs got him noticed and signed by Columbia Records. His breakthrough album was Born to Run, containing one of his greatest songs, “Thunder Road.”

7. Bill Evans

American composer and musician Bill Evans hailed from North Plainfield. At around 5 years old, he would listen to his brother’s piano lessons and later repeat what he had heard. This pushed his mother to sign him up for lessons, even though he was so young.

A musical prodigy, Evans could sight-read music. At only 7 years old, he began to play the violin, flute, and piccolo. Evans played for weddings and other events around New Jersey. True musical success came after moving to New York City for graduate school.

Evans had his first compositions titled “Very Early” and “Peace Piece” while in college. His best-known tune was “Waltz for Debby,” which he composed at a particularly low point in his life.

8. Dionne Warwick

Up next is Dionne Warwick, born in Orange, New Jersey. Her family was very musical. Many of them were members of the Drinkard Singers group, which sang gospel hymns. Her sister was Dee Dee Warwick and her cousin was Whitney Houston.

Warwick was able to further her singing abilities at Hartt College of Music in Connecticut. There, she joined a singing group that saw moderate success. Recording vocal sessions with this group got Warwick discovered, leading to a record deal.

She eventually sold over 100 million records throughout her career. One of her most famous songs, “Walk on By,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

9. Sarah Vaughan

Also hailing from Newark is the American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. Her father played guitar and piano while her mother sang. This sparked Vaughan’s interest in music and she began piano lessons at only 7 years old.

As a teenager, Vaughan snuck into nightclubs in New Jersey to sing and play the piano. She dropped out of high school to put more focus on this pursuit.

Vaughan would travel to New York City to perform. There, she won a contest at the Apollo Theater singing “Body and Soul.” A few months later, she returned to Apollo Theater to open a concert for Ella Fitzgerald, catapulting her into the eyes of record labels.

10. Frankie Valli

Born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, Frankie Valli‘s birthplace was Newark. After seeing Frank Sinatra perform live, Valli became infatuated with music and performance.

He worked during the day as a barber and spent his free time singing in a trio group. Eventually, the group separated. But two of the members, including Valli, were signed as the house band for a club in New Brunswick.

This allowed Valli to focus on music full-time, rising in popularity until gaining interest from RCA Victor, a record label. One of his hit songs was “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

11. Ricky Nelson

Our next musician, Ricky Nelson, was born to a family of musical performers in Teaneck, New Jersey. His father, Ozzie, was in a band called the Nelson Orchestra. His mother, Harriet, often performed vocals for the group.

At only 2 years old, Nelson’s family moved to California to pursue their own musical and TV careers. There, Nelson and his brother were part of their family’s radio and TV sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Nelson continued to personally pursue music. With his family’s already-established success, it was easy for Nelson to garner attention for his singing abilities. One of his most successful songs was “Poor Little Fool,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

12. Donald Fagen

The lead singer and co-founder of the rock band Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, was born in Passaic. His mother was a swing singer throughout her young life, bringing music and performance into the home.

Fagen disliked his life in New Jersey but found solace in listening to the radio. He developed an interest in R&B, jazz, and rock that went unpursued until he attended Bard College in New York. When he met Walter Becker, the pair formed Steely Dan.

After the band’s breakup, Fagen went on a solo career. His debut solo album The Nightfly had seven Grammy Awards nominations. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Steely Dan.

13. Frank Sinatra

Music legend Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken. His family owned a tavern where Sinatra would occasionally sing on top of the piano for guests. His love for music continued and he gained a particular fondness for jazz. After being given a ukulele, Sinatra began to perform for his family often.

Sinatra began to perform at local clubs and radio stations in Hoboken after failing high school. They weren’t good jobs, often done for free, for a few cigarettes, or for a meal. But they allowed him to practice, eventually leading to further opportunities for him.

Sinatra would become of the biggest names in music history. He had many successful albums and collaborations with other musicians and toured and performed until his death. One of the songs he popularized is the 1969 single “My Way.”

14. Queen Latifah

Rapper, actress, singer, that’s Queen Latifah for you. She was born Dana Elaine Owens in Newark, where she had a traditional upbringing. Her mother worked as a school teacher, and her father as a police officer.

In school, Latifah joined some musicals, but her interest in music did not truly take root until she graduated. At 18, she began beatboxing with the group Flavor Unit around New York City and Northern New Jersey. The group gained attention quickly, with their music being shown on MTV.

This led to Latifah being signed as a solo artist under Tommy Boy Music in the same year. Her debut album, All Hail the Queen, was released when she was just 19.

Related: Learn about other popular lesbian singers like Queen Latifah here.

15. Wayne Shorter

Our next musician was a jazz saxophonist and composer from Newark. Wayne Shorter was encouraged from an early age to take up a musical instrument. He played the clarinet and saxophone while his brother played the saxophone and trumpet.

Shorter graduated with a degree in Music Education. After a short tenure in the army, he joined Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers. This introduced him to musical greats such as Miles Davis.

This opened the door for him to continue to play the saxophone professionally and even write as a composer for other artists.

16. Max Weinberg

Newark, New Jersey native Max Weinberg made a name for himself as the drummer of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Just like other musicians on our list, he was exposed to music and performance at a very young age. He was brought to Broadway performances weekly starting at 2 years old.

Seeing D.J. Fontana’s performance on The Milton Berle Show brought Weinberg to focus on drums. Although he never lost his love for the drums, they remained a casual part of Weinberg’s life. He would perform at weddings and bar mitzvahs, but he sought out law school for a more practical job.

Weinberg’s son, Jay, followed in his footsteps and became the drummer of the heavy metal band Slipknot.

17. Lauryn Hill

Another big name in the music industry is Lauryn Hill, born in Newark. Her family home had music playing constantly, with her mother and father singing and playing the piano.

In high school, Hill formed many different rap groups, modeling herself after her idols such as Ice Cube. She also took acting lessons, bringing the two talents together in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. In the film, her character sings and raps. This brought her attention but did not launch her career.

After high school, her group the Fugees signed with Columbia Records. Fugees released some successful albums, such as The Score. It contained Hill’s version of the single “Killing Me Softly,” which became their breakout hit.

18. Jon Bon Jovi

Last but not the least, we have Jon Bon Jovi, who was born in Perth Amboy. His family was not heavily musical, but he began playing instruments to join a band at the age of 13. For the band, he learned guitar and piano.

Jovi continued to form different bands in his teen years, developing an intense passion for music. He formed ties with professionals in the business and recorded jingles for a radio station.

The band Bon Jovi was formed when he was just 21, and their success began with their first album. Jon Bon Jovi would eventually launch a solo career, his debut solo album being the soundtrack for the film Young Guns II. It included “Blaze of Glory,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Musicians From New Jersey

New Jersey is a small state and is overshadowed by others when it comes to land area. But it has given birth to several huge names in the music industry. We’re pretty sure some of you were surprised to find out that some really great musicians were born in New Jersey.

Allow us to be so bold as to say that these people helped put New Jersey on the map where music is concerned.

While it may not be as busy as New York, the Garden State had its fair share of the spotlight. With New Jersey musicians continuing to make their way to the top, this list will only keep growing.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.