Prominent Black Musicians From Hampton Roads

Rane Fox | Contributing Writer

Photo Courtesy of Nation Public Radio | Washington D.C

When names like Pharrell, Missy Elliot, Clarence Clemons, and Ella Fitzgerald are brought up most people think of them not only as influential musicians, but influential black musicians. What most people not from the area would be surprised to discover is that these black musicians and more are from Hampton Roads. Residents that are not from the area would be surprised to find out the mark we’ve left in musical history. Aside from various famous musicians, the building of the Attucks Theatre in 1919 led to not only a rise in local talent, but other big acts that came to perform in this historic black theatre.

Of all the musicians that have inspired artists of all ages, there is none more legendary than Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was born in 1917 on the other side of the water in Newport News, Virginia. Not only was she known for her strong singing voice, but she also could flawlessly scat throughout songs. Her live version of “Air Mail Special” at the ’57 Newport Jazz festival shows her mastering of this. Throughout the entire song she goes back and forth improvising notes and singing lyrics without getting tongue tied or fumbling her words. Another legend that was born a stone throw away from Old Dominion was Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who rose to fame playing sax with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. Clemons wove his blues and soulful sound in with Springsteen’s working-class Americana sound for over 40 years. His true mastery of the saxophone can be heard in his solo in the classic “Jungleland” on the album Born to Run. This iconic solo sends chills down listeners' spines as they are almost transported to some hot summer night where they find love or uncover meaning about life for the first time.

Outside of the jazz and blues that poured out of the city, there were also musicians that made an impact in the world of R&Bs in the early 50s. One of these musicians was Gary “U.S.” Bonds. While he may have been born in Florida, he came to Norfolk at an early age and made a name for himself. Mixing blues, rock, and a beach vibe, his sound not only made him stand out, but influenced musicians nationwide. Even white musicians were guilty of trying to copy Bonds style which included Springsteen and can be heard in his very early work and live shows.

While we may not be LA or NYC, Hampton Roads is no small name in the world of entertainment. Just take a stroll down Granby from TCC to the Norva and look at the names on the bronze plaques that stretch the walkway. You’ll be surprised to find names you might have never expected to see. And better yet, you might discover a new musician to add to your musical library.