13 Of The Greatest and Most Famous Musicians From North Carolina

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

American music was born in the South: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana bore jazz, the blues, R&B, and rock and roll — among many others. These Southern states get their credit, but what about North Carolina? There are more famous names from the Tar Heel State than you might realize.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of 13 of the greatest and most famous musicians from North Carolina, so you can listen with pride if you share the same state!

1. Nina Simone

Legendary jazz singer Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone, was born in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. She was a gifted professional pianist from a young age, as well as an accomplished singer, songwriter, and arranger.

She began piano at around age three and received an interview with the Curtis Institute of Music in 1950. After being rejected, Simone was offered work at the Midtown Bar and Grill. It was here she began to sing and changed her name.

Simone went on to record over 40 albums and some huge hits such as “Feeling Good,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Put a Spell on You.” She earned the moniker “High Priestess Of Soul” for her powerful and soulful vocal style.

After a long career, Simone passed away from breast cancer in 2003. 

2. Ronnie Milsap

Born in Robbinsville, North Carolina, in 1943, Ronnie Milsap made his career in country music as a pianist and singer.

Blind from birth, Milsap learned classical music at the age of seven. He was then formally educated in classical music and learned the piano and other instruments. Later in life, he started to become interested in a variety of music genres, particularly rock and roll, jazz, and R&B.

His music career had humble beginnings. A local DJ, Pat Hughes, was among his first supporters who helped Milsap record his first song, “Total Disaster/It Went to Your Head.” It wasn’t until he relocated to Nashville in 1972 that he met country singer Charley Pride, and things went up from there.

His first hit, “I Hate You,” was released in 1973 and ranked in the top 10 of country music charts. His career shot up in the mid-1970s, scoring a string of #1 hits. Then in 1981, he produced his top hit, “There’s No Gettin’ Over Me.”

3. Jermaine Dupri

Next up, we have Jermaine Dupri who is a famous music industry executive known for producing, writing, rapping, and DJing. He was born in 1972, in Asheville, North Carolina, and by the age of nine, Dupri entered the music industry as a hip-hop background dancer. 

In 1989, Dupri produced an entire album, finding his talent as a producer and songwriter. As a testament to his passion and sheer talent in music, he started his own label in 1993, So So Def Records.

He produced some of the most influential voices of the ’90s, including Mariah Carey, Kris Kross, Lil’ Kim, Usher, Destiny’s Child, and The Braxtons. As a solo artist, he has released chart-topping hits alongside notable artists: “Money Ain’t A Thang” with Jay-Z, “Sweetheart” with Mariah Carey, and “Welcome To Atlanta” with Ludacris.

In 2018, Dupri was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also part of the esteemed Ocean’s 7, a music collective of American singer-songwriters.

4. George Clinton

Known for The Parliament-Funkadelic Collective, George Clinton is a notable musician hailing from Kannapolis, North Carolina. Born in 1941, Clinton is credited with developing a new form of funk music and has worked as a singer, songwriter, and producer. 

Clinton got his start at a barbershop where he worked and part-owned. It was here that he formed a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. The barbershop became a hangout for soul, rock, proto-funk, and doo-wop local musicians in the 1950s through the 1960s.

Around the early ’60s, Clinton developed his talents as a songwriter and worked for Motown Records. As the seventies began, Clinton rebranded, yet again. This time he created a collective of musicians. It was called The Parliament-Funkadelic Collective, a nod to his earlier group.

The Collective (regarded separately as the Parliament and Funkadelic) released several successful albums in the 1980s through the early 2000s. In 1997, Clinton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award two years later. 

5. Loudon Wainwright III

Next, we have singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Loudon Snowden Wainwright III who was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1946.

As a master musician, Wainwright has a talent for vocals, guitar, piano, banjo, percussion, and even the ukulele. He is also known for his work in the folk, rock and roll, and blues genres. 

He wrote his first song, “Edgar,” in 1968 when he was still in his early 20s. He later signed with Atlantic Records, and he released his eponymous debut album in 1970. Two years later, Wainwright achieved his greatest work, “Dead Skunk,” which became a novelty song in the ’70s.

Aside from his musical work, Wainwright starred in several films, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Elizabethtown, and Big Fish. He also had a brief stint in the 1970s hit TV series M*A*S*H.

6. Ben Folds

Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1966, Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter, best known as the frontman for the alternative rock band Ben Folds Five.

Folds’ interest in music began at age nine. He learned entirely by ear and continued to pursue music in college at the Frost School of Music (University of Miami), and then at the University of North Carolina.

In his youth, he formed a band with his two other friends, creating Ben Folds Five (despite being a trio). Their 1997 song “Brick” released two years after their debut, became their greatest hit.

Folds discovered solo success in 2001 and went on to release four studio albums, which achieved crossover success. He has also explored a career in music production.

7. Maceo Parker

Born in 1943, renowned saxophonist, Maceo Parker hails from Kinston, North Carolina. Parker mastered the alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone early on in life. He grew up playing in the church, coming from a musical family.

By the mid-1960s, Parker and his drummer brother, Melvin, started playing with the legendary funk singer James Brown. In the mid-1970s, Parker left Brown’s band and joined George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic Collective.

After rejoining Brown’s band in the 1980s, Parker forayed into a solo career. His debut album, Roots Revisited, was a commercial success, topping the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts for 10 weeks.

In subsequent years, Parker worked as a sideman for a number of well-known artists and bands, including Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Color Me Badd, Bootsy Collins, and Fred Wesley.

8. Etta Baker

Born in 1913 in Caldwell County, North Carolina, Etta Baker is a famous and great blues guitarist. Baker began guitar lessons at the tender age of three and was taught by her father. However, she didn’t become a professional musician until well into her forties.

In 1956, Baker attended a folk festival where she encountered Paul Clayton. On a whim, Baker shared her musical capabilities with Clayton. Impressed, Clayton recorded a few songs with Baker, which would become part of the Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians album, released that same year.

After losing both her husband and son during the Vietnam War, Baker took a hiatus from music. She recorded new songs years later in 1991, then consistently became more active in the recording scene during the late 1990s until the 2000s.

She passed away in 2006, at the ripe age of 93.

9. Kellie Pickler

In 1986, famous female country singer and songwriter Kellie Pickler was born in Albemarle, North Carolina.

At age 19, Picker made the life-altering decision to make singing her career. She auditioned for and received a golden ticket from American Idol and made it to the semi-finals. However, she was eventually cut. 

After American Idol, Pickler signed to her first record label and released her debut studio album, Small Town Girl, in 2006. The album ranked #9 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Country Albums chart upon its release.

Since then, Pickler has released three other albums and won several CMT Music awards. She has also toured with some of the most famous names in the music industry, including Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley, and Taylor Swift.

10. Thelonious Monk

Born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious Monk is celebrated as one of the greatest jazz pianists and composers of all time.

Monk began learning the piano at six, developing his skills, practicing, and performing around the city. He took on a paying gig as an organist for an evangelical church when he was only 17. 

In 1941, he joined Minton’s Playhouse, a popular nightclub in Manhattan. His performances were essential in the early days of the bebop movement, where he collaborated with other jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Over the years, Monk composed a number of pieces that have become standards in the jazz repertoire including, “Blue Monk,” “Straight No Chaser,” and “‘Round Midnight.”

11. Max Roach

North Carolinian Max Roach was a 20th-century jazz drummer who was born in Newland in 1924. His work can be heard in the music of many household names in jazz, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and Thelonious Monk.

Roach picked up his first instrument at just four years old, growing up in a musical family. By the age of 18, he began drumming professionally. This was right around the time of the bebop revolution.

Roach went on to study percussion classically and received his bachelor’s degree in music. In the early 1950s, he founded Debut Records alongside jazz bassist Charles Mingus. Roach released a number of records from the 1950s to the early 1990s, collaborating with several prominent jazz artists.

Before his death in 2007, Roach was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.

12. John Coltrane

Born in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, John Coltrane is known for his influence on the bebop movement as a saxophonist and composer. 

After a stint in World War II and receiving a formal education in music, Coltrane moved to New York. By the 1940s, he was playing with many different bands as a jazz saxophonist. In 1955, this came to a halt, and he began to play for Miles Davis – causing his career to skyrocket.

Coltrane released his first solo album in 1957, entitled Coltrane. He would go on to create 25 albums throughout his career, becoming one of the most well-known saxophone players of all time.

He was inducted into Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His Philadelphia home is considered a National Historical Landmark, owing to his significant contributions to the world of jazz.

13. Tori Amos

Finally, we have singer-songwriter Tori Amos who was born in 1963 in Newton, North Carolina. Known for her unique voice and range, Amos has greatly influenced modern alternative rock, especially throughout the 1990s. 

At age five, Amos was accepted into the Peabody Conservatory of Music, being the youngest enrollee to do so. However, she lost her scholarship due to her unwillingness to learn how to read sheet music. This inspired her future band’s name, Y Kant Tori Read, which was formed in 1986 and gained limited success. 

After leaving the band, Amos started a solo career and went on to complete 16 studio albums. Her trademark is blending ’90s rock, musical stylings of the ’70s, and classical music into one sound.

Over her career, she has won several awards and has been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Musicians From North Carolina

That wraps up our article on North Carolinian musicians! We hope this list has inspired you to delve deeper into the musical traditions and talents that have emerged from the Tar Heel State.

From jazz to hip-hop, from country to rock, North Carolina has produced a diverse array of musical talent that continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

While this list featured some prominent figures, it’s important to remember that North Carolina’s music scene is constantly evolving. If we’ve missed a favorite of yours, or if we didn’t include an emerging North Carolinian artist, let us know and we’ll add them in!

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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.