15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Musicians From New York

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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New York City is famous for its nightlife and music scene. It is an epicenter of music and one of the most culturally diverse and influential cities in the United States and in fact the world.. 

As a result, it has produced some of the most iconic musicians in history. From reggae to punk rock, it has been at the forefront of musical innovation, and its artists have left a lasting mark on popular culture.

Below you’ll find our list of 15 of the greatest and most famous musicians from New York. Let’s get started!

Related: Our list of the most famous American musicians.

1. Huey Lewis (Huey Lewis And The News)

Born in New York City in 1950, singer and harmonica player Huey Lewis went on to superstardom with his band, Huey Lewis And The News, in the 1980s.

Although born in NY, he spent his early years in California until his parents split and he moved back to the east coast in New Jersey. He then went on to study and graduate from Cornell University where he played in several bands.

But it wasn’t until 1980 that he formed Huey Lewis and the News and began to get some hits. Their first commercial success was with their third album, Sports which was a best seller and with four hit singles. 

Their next hits went even bigger with the song “Power Of Love” getting to #1 and even being featured in the classic film Back to the Future.

Since then, Huey Lewis and the News have been busy recording and touring live. More recently, however, they have had to cancel due to Lewis’s hearing loss caused by Ménière’s disease.

2. Tupac Shakur

A West Coast rap icon, Tupac Shakur was born and raised in New York City in 1971. Later on, they moved to California in his late teens with his mother.

His first release came when he joined the group of artists Digital Underground in 1991 under the name 2Pac. That same year, Tupac released his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now.

He would go on to release three more albums and help create the West Coast Hip Hop sound of the ’90s. Some of his most notable songs are “Keep Ya Head Up,” “To Live & Die in LA,” and “How Do U Want It.”

Always a controversial figure, Tupac died due to gunshot wounds from a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. Despite dying so young, he had a massive impact on modern hip hop and pop music in his short career.

3. Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine)

Born in Harlem, New York, Tom Morello is best known for being the guitarist for the bands Rage Against The Machine (RATM) and later Audioslave.

In 1992, Rage Against The Machine released their debut album, which mixed heavy nu-metal with some rapping in the vocals. This unique blend of metal, hip hop, and activism were well-received, and they went on to sell over 16 million records worldwide.

RATM, however, disbanded after four studio albums and Morello went on to play with several others, including Audioslave, Prophets of Rage, and The Nightwatchman. He even did some work with Bruce Springsteen!

Morello continues to write, record, and perform music, and recently, RATM also announced a reunion tour in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

4. Alicia Keys

A talented pianist and vocalist, Alicia Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook in Manhattan, New York. She had an early start in music, being part of her school’s musical productions and, later on, studying the piano when she was still 6 years old.

Her keen interest in music paid off because, by 15, she had signed to Columbia Records and released her first album, Songs In A Minor. It sold over twelve million copies and even won five Grammy Awards.

Since then, Keys has been instrumental in shaping the future of modern pop and R&B music, and throughout her career so far, she has sold over 90 million records worldwide.

Some of her greatest hits include “If I Ain’t Got You,” “No One,” and “Superwoman.”

5. Rivers Cuomo (Weezer)

Born in Manhattan, New York, singer-songwriter, pianist, and guitarist Rivers Cuomo was raised in Rochester, NY. From there, he moved a few times around the States until the founding of the legendary rock band Weezer in 1992.

Weezer released their first album commonly called the Blue Album in 1994 and garnered massive success. Since then, Weezer has been a fan favorite and has released 16 studio albums and sold over 35 million records worldwide.

Cuomo also gained popularity as a solo musician, recording over 13 compilation albums of his music demos. He is also known to have collaborated with other big names in the industry, including Scott Murphy and B.o.B.

6. Lou Reed

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Lou Reed was instrumental to the music scene in NY in the 1960s and 1970s. It was here that he formed the rock band The Velvet Underground. 

Their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, received limited commercial success on release but is now heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time.

The band went on to record four studio albums and is generally thought of as one of the most influential rock bands of all time.

But, as well as his success with The Velvet Underground, Reed also saw success as a solo artist after leaving the band in 1970. He was a prolific songwriter and released twenty solo studio albums.

Over his 50-year career, he was hugely influential on the music scene and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, two years after he died of liver disease.

7. Billy Joel

William Martin Joel, better known as Billy Joel, was born in the Bronx and grew up in Long Island, New York. It was here that he learned how to play the piano and started his long musical career.

Nicknamed “The Piano Man,” Joel saw success in the 1970s with a number of albums. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that he finally had a #1 album with 52nd Street.

Since then, he has had 33 top 40 hits and won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

Outside his music career, he has a passion for boating and motorcycling. He has a boating business, as well as a custom motorcycle accessories shop, in his native Long Island.

8. Carole King

Legendary songwriter Carole King was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942. It was here that she had her first musical exposure from her mother who taught her the piano.

After playing in bands at school and even making demos with Paul Simon, it was in the ’60s that King saw her first success with a number of hit songs.

She had her first hit, It Might as Well Rain Until September, in 1962 which she recorded herself. However, King is very well-known for the songs that other people sang.

Some of her biggest hits were “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” sung by Aretha Franklin; “The Loco-Motion,” sung by Kylie Minogue, and “You Got A Friend,” made famous by James Taylor.

Over her long career, she became one of the most influential songwriters of her time, and it’s thought that she’s sold over 75 million copies worldwide.

9. Art Garfunkel

Singer Art Garfunkel was born in Queens, New York, and began his musical career early when he found his love for singing at the young age of 5.

In sixth grade, he met his partner Paul Simon and the two started a band. They continued to sing and play together throughout their university days. In 1964, they recorded their first studio album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

The album was not a success, but their song “The Sound Of Silence” was re-released and ranked #1 on the pop charts. 

The duo had massive success in the 1960s until their disbandment in 1970 after recording the album Bridge Over Troubled Water.

After the disbandment, Garfunkel continued with a solo career, going on to record 10 albums. Some of his notable solo songs are “All I Know,” “Looking For The Right One,” and “Watermark.”

10. Joey and Johnny Ramone (The Ramones)

Born and raised in Queens, Joey and Johnny Ramone are members of the punk band The Ramones who were instrumental in the punk scene in New York during the 70s and 80s.

The Ramones had limited commercial success but had a monumental impact on music. Rolling Stone credits them as one of the greatest bands of all time, and Spin Magazine voted them the second greatest rock band ever. 

As a solo musician, Joey was known as the frontman of The Ramones and he went on to release three solo albums posthumously. His first album, Don’t Worry About Me, was released in 2002, less than a year after his death.

Johnny was the guitarist of The Ramones and was also a fairly good actor. Alongside his music career, he has appeared in the musical comedy film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and lent his voice to animated shows The Simpsons and Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

11. Sonny Rollins

Born in New York City in 1930, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins grew up in Harlem. It was there that he started playing the alto saxophone when he was around seven to eight years old.

In his teenage years, Rollins was part of a band alongside other members who later on became legends in the jazz genre: Art Taylor, Jackie McLean, and Kenny Drew. Rollins himself became one of the most influential jazz musicians of the century years later.

He started off his professional music career right after graduating high school. His early years were spent recording as a sideman for Babs Gonzales, a popular bebop singer. He was also part of the Miles Davis Quintet for a brief time, as well as other music groups.

It was in 1985 that he went into the limelight as a solo jazz saxophonist, releasing his live album aptly named The Solo Album. Over the course of his long career, Rollins recorded over 60 albums.

For over seventy years, he has continued playing and transforming the jazz genre with his distinct style of playing the saxophone. Even in his 90s, Rollins is still performing live worldwide. 

12. The Notorious B.I.G.

Christopher George Latore Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., was born and raised in Brooklyn.

His roots in the gangsta rap traditions in New York helped shape his unique rapping style and flow, which greatly contributed to making him one of the best rappers of this era.

B.I.G. had his start in music in his teenage years, rapping in the streets to entertain passersby and performing in local rap groups under the stage name MC CWest. He had a troubled adolescence and became involved in crime, leading to him spending some years in jail.

In the 1990s, however, he turned his life around. Using the stage name Biggie Smalls, he sent demo tapes to several record labels and eventually landed a contract with Bad Boy Records in 1993.

A year later, he released his debut album Ready to Die, to critical and commercial success. Combined with clever sampling on his tracks, B.I.G. rose to the top of the rap game since then. Over the course of his career, he has sold over 13.4 million albums in the US alone.

Unfortunately, his career abruptly ended in 1997 when he died after a drive-by shooting.

13. Jay-Z

Shawn Corey Carter, popularly known by his stage name Jay-Z, grew from rapper to media mogul throughout his career.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Jay-Z’s interest in music began after receiving a boombox for a present, and since then, he began freestyle rapping in his neighborhood. He became known as “Jazzy” in his earlier years, which would, later on, be used as his stage name.

Struggling to get his demo music signed by a record label, Jay-Z who has always had an entrepreneurial streak co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995. From here, Jay-Z released his first studio album, Reasonable Doubt.

It was an immediate success that sparked one of the most successful music careers in history. Jay-Z has since released at least 20 albums and 115 singles, and he has sold over 125 million albums and has won 23 Grammy Awards throughout his career.

Alongside his music career, Jay-Z has made quite a name for himself as a businessman. He has established a business empire, spanning from beverages, clothing lines, sports teams, and down to record labels.

14. Lady Gaga

Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in Manhattan, Lady Gaga took piano lessons as a toddler at the insistence of her mother to groom her into a “cultured” woman. However, growing up, she has been labeled as being too eccentric and “provocative,” which would, later on, be the kind of image she is renowned for.

Lady Gaga started her career singing open mic nights throughout NYC during her teenage years. She went on to major in music during her college years in 2003. However, she dropped out two years later to focus on her music career.

After a series of setbacks, including being sexually assaulted at the start of her career, she signed a joint contract with KonLive Distribution and Interscope. Here, she released her debut EP, The Fame, which included several major pop singles: “Paparazzi,” “Poker Face,” and “Just Dance,” to name a few.

Gaga has since released five studio albums and all reached #1 on the Billboard 200. She’s also sold over 124 million albums and won 12 Grammy Awards during her career. Today she is one of the most influential pop stars of the 2000s.

She also branched out into a successful acting career, starring in several TV shows and films such as A Star Is Born and House Of Gucci. 

15. Sammy Davis Jr.

Samuel George Davis Jr., more known by his nickname Sammy, was born in Harlem and began his entertainment career at the age of three. During this time, his parents divorced, and his father who has a professional tap dancer took him on tour so as not to lose custody.

This led to Sammy becoming very much exposed to the world of entertainment, and he learned to dance at an early age. Together with his father and grandfather, they formed the dance and singing group the Will Mastin Trio and performed throughout the US.

Sammy became immensely popular throughout the 50s because of his performances with the group, and he sought to break the racial barriers of the time.

By the end of the 1950s, Sammy left the trio and joined the Rat Pack, alongside other famous singers such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and many others. The group would go on to make movies and records together through the 1960s and 1970s. 

Wrapping Up Our List Of Famous Musicians From NYC

New York is one of the most influential cities on the planet. New musical genres and hit record labels thrive in the city’s music scene. 

Not only is New York City a popular destination for budding musicians from across the country, but the state has given us plenty of influential musicians as well. 

Did we miss your favorite musician from New York? Let us know in the comments below!

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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.