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Incredible portraits of 12 unsung black music pioneers

By
Andrea Warner

Published

February 7, 2018

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This piece originally appeared on CBC Music in 2013.

Words by Judith Lynch and Andrea Warner
Illustrations by Heather Collett

Before there were famous black marquee musicians like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie and Nina Simone, there were a number of incredible but relatively unknown black artists who played a distinct role in laying the foundation for future generations’ successes. In honour of Black History Month, CBC Music presents 12 amazing, unsung music pioneers you need to know.

Enjoy these portraits of the artists, and keep scrolling to hear their music and find out a bit more about them.

From Portia White and Geeshie Wiley to Gertrue "Ma" Rainey and the Mills Brothers, 12 black music pioneers we need to know illustrated by Heather Collett.

1. Portia White, 1911–1968

Who was she? Hailing from Truro, N.S., White was an African-Canadian contralto classical and gospel singer who made her national debut in Toronto in 1941 and went on to international acclaim despite difficulties obtaining bookings because of racism.

2. R. Nathaniel Dett, 1882–1943

Who was he? One of the first African-Canadian composers to join the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Dett’s musical signature was his marrying of European romantic music with the American spirituals of his youth.

Key song: “Listen to the Lambs”

3. DeFord Bailey, 1899–1982

Who was he? One of the first African-American country music stars, Bailey began playing harmonica at just three years old and was the first person ever to be introduced as playing on the Grand Ole Opry.

Key song: “Ice Water Blues”

4. Gladys Bentley, 1907–1960

Who was she? According to the Queer Cultural Centre, Bentley moved to New York when she was 16 and became a key part of the 1920s Harlem renaissance, finding a fellow community of gay black artists. Bentley was pretty open about being a lesbian and often both dressed and performed in a tux and other “male” garments, which didn’t diminish her escalating fame as she made a name for herself on the nightclub circuit. Later in life, under threat from the McCarthy-era witch hunt, she claimed to have been “cured” of her homosexuality and married numerous men, but historians believe this was to avoid persecution.

Key song: “Wild Geese Blues”

5. Mamie Smith, 1883–1946

Who was she? Smith was the ultimate blues trailblazer: in 1920 she became the first African-American to make a vocal blues recording, which, according to Gunther Schuller’s 1986 book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, went on to sell a million copies within the year and clued music industry execs into the power of the black community.

Key song: “Crazy Blues”

6. Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, 1886–1939

Who was she? Revered as the Mother of the Blues, Rainey was among the earliest African-American women to record music in the '20s, and distinguished herself thanks to her “moaning,” soulful singing. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, from 1923–28, Rainey made more than 100 recordings of her own compositions.

Key song: “Deep Moaning Blues”

7. The Mills Brothers, 1928–1982

Who were they? An American pop vocal quartet that originated in the ’30s and sold more than 50 million copies of its nearly 2,000 recordings. John Jr., Herbert, Harry and Donald Mills skillfully navigated their sound through pop, doo-wop and the advent of rock 'n' roll over more than 50 years in the recording industry until the death of Donald Mills — the last surviving original member — in November 1999.

Key song: “Paper Doll”

8. Lucille Bogan, 1897–1948

Who was she? A Birmingham-based blues singer-songwriter whose bio, both personal and professional, reads like a total badass decades ahead of her time. Bogan wrote and recorded more than 100 albums with her collaborator, pianist Walter Roland, between 1923 and 1935. She began writing slyly funny songs about drinking, sex and prostitution in the '30s, including the one below that, even eight decades later, is one of the dirtiest tunes I’ve ever heard.

Key song: “Shave 'Em Dry”

Editor's note: strong language warning.

9. Geeshie Wiley (recorded in the 1930s)

Who was she? A black blues singer and guitarist about whom Don Kent wrote in the liner notes to Mississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35, “her scope and creativity dwarfs most blues artists." But little is known about the remarkable woman who made just three records in the early 1930s. There are no photos of her and nobody knows her legal name or what happened to her after she stopped recording music.

Key song: "Last Kind Words"

10. William Grant Still, 1895–1978

Who was he? Still was a man of many firsts. He was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony, the first African-American to have one of his symphonies (his first) performed by a leading orchestra and the first to have an opera performed on national television.

Key song: Afro-American Symphony - I. Moderato Assai

11. Marian Anderson, 1897–1993

Who was she? An American contralto and diplomat who, in 1955, became the first black singer to perform as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Prior to breaking the Met’s colour barrier, Anderson performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928. In 1939, she was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday after trying to book a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., and being turned down because she was African-American.

Key song: “My Country Tis Of Thee”

12. Juanita Hall, 1901–1968

Who was she? Hall was a Juilliard-trained vocalist who, according to Black Past, spent the better part of her earliest career involved in choral direction and singing. She made her Broadway debut in 1943 and went on to become the first African-American to win a Tony Award for her work in South Pacific. In the 1950s she turned her attention to blues and jazz, taking up residency in a series of Greenwich Village nightclubs, and released Juanita Hall Sings the Blues in 1957.

Key song: “I Don’t Want It Second Hand”

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