Rock music is a genre deeply rooted in blues, jazz and soul—and it’s a music genre that was birthed in black culture. The list of rock pioneers that were black is immense, but let’s focus on paying homage to twelve of the best black rock stars that deserve our respect.
Top Black Rock Stars of All Time
1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Despite still being largely unknown even today, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was perhaps the very first rock star– she invented being a rock star. Tharpe began as a gospel musician, but with her fondness for the electric guitar which she helped to popularize, she crossed over into something unprecedented.
Rock was popular as soon as it began: Tharpe was packing stadiums in 1951with her unprecedented sound. She offered something that was hard to find, and still is today, as not many have done rock’n’roll gospel quite like she did.
My Favorite Sister Rosetta Tharpe Song: “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” This song is just the best, arguably one of the greatest examples of Tharpe’s rock sound. The jaunty hymn is ahead of its time, and her vocal performance on this track is especially catchy, and Sammy Price’s piano jives exceptionally well with her riffing.
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2. Phil Lynott
Dearly beloved all over the world but especially in Dublin, Irish musician Phil Lynott is best known as the lead singer, songwriter and bassist of the iconic hard rock band Thin Lizzy. One of the most influential yet underrated rock bands of the 70’s, Thin Lizzy made music for the working class, the outsider and the underdog.
Lynott was one of the only black musicians in hard rock at the time, and the feeling of alienation that brought was clear in his music. He was a gifted writer and had a soulful voice that really brought his words to life. While Lynott sadly passed away at the young age of 36, he left an incredible impact on thousands and his music will surely continue to touch people’s lives for years to come.
My Favorite Phil Lynott Song: “Cowboy Song.” This somewhat softer track off Thin Lizzy’s album Jailbreak has such a perfectly classic sound, with impeccable riffs and an easy cadence like a Bon Jovi song. Lynott’s telltale voice is so perfect for a song like this though, and it brings a special energy that other similar songs just don’t have.
3. Big Mama Thornton
Legendary blues singer and songwriter Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is a famously underrated figure in Rock & Roll history. Listeners of any age will likely recognize her biggest hit: Lieber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog.” Fewer have heard Thornton’s name however, as “Hound Dog” is often attributed to Elvis Presley, who was showered with acclaim for his 1956 recording.
Thornton was given little to no credit for breathing life into the song, which is just one example of how often the accomplishments and influence of black musicians have been historically ignored and smothered by the music industry.
Thornton’s incredible talent could not be covered up however, and through the efforts of many to give her the credit she is due, more and more light is being shown on the incredible contributions she made to Rock & Roll. Most recently, “Hound Dog” was put on the Billboard charts by a black woman for the first time since 1952 when Doja Cat sampled Shonka Dukureh’s recording of it in her song “Vegas.”
My Favorite Big Mama Thornton Song: “Rock Me Baby.” This song is a blues standard that has been recorded by dozens of artists and is still referenced often, especially in country music. Thornton’s version features some of her remarkable harmonica playing, which is part of what makes this one of my favorite versions of the song.
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4. Vernon Reid
Vernon Reid, the founder and songwriter for multi-award winning band Living Colour, is one of the greatest guitar players of all time. His style is abstractly genius and his speed is incredible. Reid seems to go at music very mathematically, saying that he sees chords and melodies as patterns and shapes.
Living Colour has been categorized into what seems like countless genres, everything from funk to punk to avant-garde jazz and this is largely thanks to the way Reid himself is impossible to put in a box. It is said that Living Colour was instrumental in making rock music the widely diverse genre that it is today.
My Favorite Vernon Reid Song: “Glamour Boys.” One of Living Colour’s most popular songs, this track off their album Vivid sounds like it should be the theme to a Saturday morning cartoon. It is fun and funky, with a wild blend of power chords and beachy riffing that takes you back and forth from some straight up head-banging to a definite surf rock vibe.
5. Militia Vox
Militia Vox is often introduced as the lead singer of Judas Priestess for good reason; the killer all-female tribute band has made legends of themselves in the heavy metal scene. This is only one aspect of Vox’s incredible career however: from her stunning original solo music to the work she has done with artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Nancy Sinatra, Vox is breaking ground everywhere she goes.
A classically trained pianist and master of numerous instruments, her innovative music is impossible to put in a box. With her unique blend of romantically gothic heavy metal and industrial rock, Vox has definitely carved out her own spot in music. She is unapologetic in all she does; truly the epitome of a rockstar.
6. Michael Tait
Contemporary Christian music artist Michael Tait is a big name in his genre, having fronted two of the most popular contemporary Christian bands ever. Tait began his musical career in the late 80’s as co-founder of the grammy award winning band DC Talk.
DC Talk’s masterful blend of hip-hop, rock and pop-rock was one of a kind, and their 1995 album Jesus Freak changed history as the first time grunge and rapcore (a subgenre of rap rock) had been heard in contemporary Christian music.
Currently, Tait has been the lead singer of the critically acclaimed band the Newsboys since 2009. The Newsboys were already very popular when Tait joined, and fans mourned the departure of original lead Peter Furler– but Tait won their hearts and thousands more, and with his soulful voice at the helm the Newsboys went on to become one of the biggest worship bands of all time.
My Favorite Michael Tait Song: “Luv is a Verb.” This track off DC Talk’s 1992 album Free at Last is from the band’s funkiest era. The song is classic 90’s hip-hop, and DC Talk’s liberal use of horn in their music adds a definite ska vibe. For those who grew up listening to the band, “Luv is a Verb” stands the test of time and is still a bonafide jam over three decades later.
7. Tina Bell
Aptly dubbed the Queen, godmother, and goddess of grunge, Tina Bell fronted the hugely underrated band Bam Bam– but her musical influence goes far beyond those titles.
Formed in Seattle in 1983, Bam Bam was one of the first grunge bands ever. Their sound was very punk rock with a definite twist of soul, which likely came from Bell’s background as a church singer. She had a striking look that almost didn’t match her voice– though when she really got going, you could hear her spirit just as well as you could see it.
Unfortunately, despite Bam Bam’s revolutionary sound and popularity in their time, black female singers were just not given coverage, especially in the 80’s punk scene. Bell sadly passed away in 2012 before she could see Bam Bam begin to get the recognition they deserve, as historians and activists have finally put her on the map in recent years. Thankfully Bell’s legacy will live on in the new generation of young women of color who are now being inspired by Bell’s story and voice.
My Favorite Tina Bell Song: “Free Fall From Space.” You can really hear the soul in this track, which incredibly sounds a bit like if Aretha Franklin sang a Dead Kennedys song. Bell alternates between fast-paced verses and dreamy, wordless crooning, and the lyrics are as the kids say, “a huge mood.”
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8. Ben Harper
Grammy Nominated musician and activist Ben Harper has achieved more fame internationally than in America, despite being born and raised in California. Harper has said that his music is heavily inspired by his upbringing– in fact, one of the most appealing things about his music is that it really feels like home, tending to carry an evocative air of nostalgia.
Harper has a wonderful soulful voice that lends itself well to his mellow sound. He riffs vocally as well as on the variety of instruments he plays, and brings what can only be described as good vibes to every track and every performance.
My Favorite Ben Harper Song: “She’s Only Happy In The Sun.” This simple acoustic track is more sweet than it is bitter despite its melancholy subject. It is hard not to sing along when this song plays, even if you can’t croon it quite as masterfully as Harper does.
9. Brittany Howard
Blues rocker Brittany Howard is best known for fronting the band Alabama Shakes, with whom she has won 4 Grammy awards. Howard has formed three different bands however, and even put out a masterful solo album titled Jaime.
In 2021 she released a remaster of Jaime, which featured a lineup of remixes featuring guests such as Childish Gambino and Bon Iver. Jaime (Remastered) was largely a hip-hop and R&B record, which was a delightful new sound for Howard whose previous work had been largely bluesy southern rock. There are still clear signs of her roots though, especially when the guitar gets bluesy.
My Favorite Brittany Howard Song: “Georgia.” This song off Jaime is a lovely sapphic art song. Howard’s vocals on this track have a very specific 90’s R&B sound but the instrumentals are near impossible to categorize, with breathtaking electric guitar and what sounds like a church organ. The resulting combination is honestly a religious experience.
10. William Duvall
William DuVall is the current co-lead vocalist and guitarist for the wildly successful alternative metal band Alice in Chains. DuVall was a late addition to the group, stepping up into the spot vacated by the late Layne Staley. Staley was wildly talented and much beloved, but DuVall did an incredible job filling such big shoes. DuVall has incredible chemistry with his bandmates, especially his fellow lead vocalist Jerry Cantrell.
While Cantrell has a dark, haunting tone, DuVall has a higher clear sound and a range like nobody’s business; the two compliment each other extremely well. Without DuVall, who knows if Alice in Chains would have gone on to do so much after their loss– perhaps he was destined to be part of their team.
My Favorite William Duvall Song: “Last of My Kind.” This was the first recorded Alice in Chains song that DuVall sang lead vocals on. Between his haunting tone and the evocative echoing guitar, the atmosphere of this song is unreal.
11. Lajon Witherspoon
Lead vocalist for the prolific heavy metal band Sevendust, Lajon Witherspoon fell in love with metal at a young age. He started his music career in a funk rock band however, and has a history in gospel and rock– which is just a small part of his wide musical expertise. His love for music is clear, both in his performances and how he talks about his art. He has been in the business for nearly three decades after all, and has put out a whopping 13 albums– that isn’t an easy task if you don’t love what you do.
Witherspoon speaks often in interviews about his feelings on being a role model. Over the span of his career he has struggled significantly with drugs, alcoholism and mental illness. He has made efforts to put that life behind him though; he has a wife and young children now, and does his best to uphold his belief that the metal community should be diverse and accepting.
My Favorite Lajon Witherspoon Song: “Licking Cream.” This song off Sevendust’s second album features vocals from Skunk Anansie’s singer Skin. She and Witherspoon have great energy on this song and when you listen to them together it really feels like you are jamming with them.
12. Betty Davis
Many have heard of jazz legend Miles Davis, but far fewer know of his enormously talented wife, fashion icon and revolutionary of funk: Betty Davis. In the 70’s, Davis’ music was controversial and didn’t do very well in the charts. Her work was very sexually charged, both in her lyrics and in her gritty, honey-thick sound. Her aesthetic was also incredibly bold; she was wearing avant-garde lingerie and baring her thighs on her album covers decades before Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Davis released three albums before disappearing from the public eye so thoroughly that people thought she had died– which is sort of iconic in itself. In actuality she passed away just last year in 2022 at the age of 77. It is wonderful to think that she was able to see the growing acceptance of female sexuality in music– hopefully she was also able to see her work appreciated more significantly, as it always deserved.
My Favorite Betty Davis Song: “Anti Music Song.” This song off Davis’ self titled album combines iconic jazzy vocals with a very funk backtrack. It is almost baffling to hear the guitar on this track and think that funk as a genre didn’t really exist yet.
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