13 Of The Greatest and Most Famous Musicians From North Carolina

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American music was born in the south. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana bore jazz, the blues, R&B, and rock and roll. These 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 being an accomplished singer, songwriter, and arranger.

She began piano at age 5 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.” 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.

Milsap became increasingly interested in – but encouraged not to participate in – the new race music;  jazz and rock & roll. 

His first hit, “I Hate You” went to number 10 on the charts. Then in 1981, he produced his top hit, “There’s No Gettin’ Over Me.”

Over his career, he has released 25 studio albums, received several awards and nominations including five Grammy awards. 

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 10, 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 and in 1992 he started his own label So So Def Records.

He produced some of the most influential voices of the nineties, including Kriss Kross and Mariah Carey and in 2018 was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

4. George Clinton

Known for The Parliament-Funkadelic Collective, George Clinton is 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.

During the fifties and sixties, Clinton developed his talents as a songwriter and producer and in the late sixties, the group was renamed Funkadelic.

As the seventies began, Clinton rebranded, yet again. This time he created a collective of musicians. It was called The Parliament-Funkadelic Collective. 

In the late seventies, the Collective had several hit songs and in 1997, Clinton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

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 and is known for his work in the folk, rock and roll, and blues genres. 

His first single, “Edgar” was released in 1968. He later signed with Atlantic Records and produced 25 albums.

In 1972, Wainwright achieved his greatest work, “Dead Skunk.” He has received at least three Grammy nominations and has won one, along with many other prestigious awards over the years.

6. Ben Folds

Born in 1966, Ben Folds was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Today, Folds is known as a singer, writer, composer, and producer for his music in the alternative rock and classical genres. 

Folds’ interest in music began at age nine. He learned entirely by ear and continued to pursue music in college.

His band Ben Folds Five was formed in 1995 and in 1996, they received their first charted song. Their greatest hit was “Brick,” released in 1997. 

Folds discovered solo success in 2001 and went on to release three studio albums and achieved crossover success. Recently, he produced a compilation combining pop and classical music.

7. Maceo Parker

Born in 1943, renowned saxophonist, Maceo Parker hails from Kinston, North Carolina. He grew up playing in the church, but he is recognized for his work in jazz, soul, and funk. 

Parker mastered the alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone early on in life. By the mid-sixties, he started playing with the legendary funk singer James Brown.

In the seventies, Parker established his own band and went on to release 11 albums. He’s also worked as a sideman for a number of artists including Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince.

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 age 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. He indulged her, and the rest is history.

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 but was eventually cut. 

After American Idol, Pickler signed to her first record label and debuted her first studio album, Small Town Girl in 2006. Since 2006, Pickler has released three other albums and won several CMT Music awards. 

10. Thelonious Monk

Next up we have Thelonious Monk who was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. If you haven’t heard of him before, Monk is celebrated as one of the greatest jazz pianists and composers of all time.

He 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 at 17. 

In 1941, he joined Minton’s Playhouse and the bebop revolution as a musician. Monk was involved in many works spanning several artists for a decade.

In 1952, Monk signed with Prestige Records and a year later he released his first solo album titled Vogue. He composed a number of pieces that have become standards in the jazz repertoire including, “Blue Monk,” “Straight No Chaser,” “‘Round Midnight” and many more.

As the years continued, Monk would go on to be a controversial yet influential artist. He contributed over five decades of musical contributions, albums, and compositions until he died of a stroke in 1982. 

11. Max Roach

Max Roach was a 20th-century jazz drummer who was born in 1924, in Newland, North Carolina. His work can be heard in the music of many household names in jazz including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. 

Roach picked up his first instrument at just four years old and 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 the fifties, he founded Debut Records. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, Roach taught and performed percussion and stressed the importance of classical music. 

Before his death in 2007, Roach was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. He left behind numerous works and collaborations and is still an inspiration to budding percussionists today. 

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 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.

13. Tori Amos

And finally, singer-songwriter Tori Amos who was born in 1963 in Newton, North Carolina, is known for her unique voice and range.

Amos is a singer, musician, and composer who has greatly influenced modern alternative rock, especially throughout the 90s. 

At age five, Amos was accepted into the Peabody Conservatory of Music. In 1986, Amos started her band Y Kant Tori Read who gained limited success. 

But she is most known for solo work and she went on to complete sixteen solo albums. Her trademark is blending 90s rock, musical stylings of the 70’s, 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 looking at these North Carolinian musicians, we hope you found it useful and learned about some new ones.

Each artist ranges in their ability, genres, and instruments. They show why modern music was born in the south, and that there’s more fame and talent in North Carolina than it’s often given credit for. 

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Written by Dan Farrant
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. Since then, he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.