African American Musicians from North Carolina Made Groundbreaking Contributions to American Music

Raleigh, N.C. (February 1, 2019) – The Come Hear NC campaign salutes the many African American musicians from North Carolina that made groundbreaking contributions to America’s most important musical genres as we celebrate Black History Month.

Internationally renowned jazz pianists and composers Thelonious Monk and Billy Taylor were from Rocky Mount and Greenville, respectively. There’s also John Coltrane from Hamlet, Nina Simone from Tryon, and Max Roach from Newland.

Other famous music greats include Piedmont blues musicians Elizabeth Cotten, Blind Boy Fuller, and Etta Baker; gospel titans Reverend Faircloth Barnes and Shirley Caesar; funk architects Maceo and Melvin Parker, Nat Jones, and George Clinton; pop artist Roberta Flack and American idol alum Fantasia Barrino, just to name a few. All have made outstanding contributions to our state and the nation’s musical legacy.

Here are some fun facts to help us celebrate music and Black History Month:

  • Kinston is often referred to as the birthplace of funk as five members of the legendary James Brown Band were from there including brothers Maceo and Melvin Parker. Saxophone legend Maceo Parker, Dick Knight, Nat Jones and Levi Raspberry are credited with putting the funk in James Brown’s bands. Little Eva, who performed the number one hit song “Loco-Motion,” is also from Kinston.
  • Nina Simone, “High Priestess of Soul,” learned to play piano in her birthplace of Tryon. Her childhood home was recently designated a National Treasure.
  • Eleven-time Grammy Award-winner Shirley Caesar, the “First Lady of Gospel Music,” was born in Durham.
  • Elizabeth Cotton wrote the famous American folk song Freight Train in Carrboro and helped spark the national folk revival movement. Her finger style guitar playing remains a staple of guitar players today. 
  • The Menhaden Chanteymen, a group of retired African American commercial fishermen, gained acclaim for the maritime work songs they performed while hauling nets, leading them to New York’s Carnegie Hall.
  • Fayetteville’s J. Cole was the first hip-hop artist in 25 years to go double platinum without any guest features with his Grammy-nominated album “2014 Forest Hills Drive.”
  • Black Mountain native soul-star Roberta Flack began her career teaching music in Wilson and singing with the jazz band The Monitors, an Eastern N.C. band that has performed for more than 50 years.
  • Reverend F.C. Barnes was inspired to compose the hit gospel song “Rough Side of the Mountain” while driving on eastern North Carolina roads.
  • Max Roach, one of the most important drummers in jazz history, is from Newland. He helped define the bebop era.
  • Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album “Damn” features the song “Duckworth,” produced by Winston-Salem hip-hop native, 9th Wonder.
  • William Thomas (“Billy”) Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator, was among the most influential figures in American jazz. A versatile composer, arranger, and pianist, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra at age 22 in 1939 and worked with the bandleader the rest of his life. He spent summers in Hillsborough with his grandparents.
  • John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, was a jazz saxophonist legend. He released 25 albums as a band leader during his lifetime, some attaining five-star, classic status: “Blue Train,” “Giant Steps,” “My Favorite Things,” and “A Love Supreme,” which was Grammy-nominated.  
  • Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount but left when he was five years old to start a new life as part of the Great Migration of African Americans who left the south. He is one of jazz’s most important pianists and composers.   
  • Durham’s Betty Davis and Kannapolis’ George Clinton of Parliament are two of the most important funk musicians in American history.
  • The N.C. Arts Council produced the guidebook, “African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina” in 2013 to celebrate the legacy of African American musicians in eight eastern counties of N.C.