Black History Month: Music Milestones – 1940 to 1959

Today we’re continuing our Black History Month: Music Milestones series with 9 more important events that took place in the 1940s and 50s. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the previous article covering events from 1890 to 1939!


1945 – Sister Rosetta Tharpe releases “Strange Things Happening Every Day”

In 1945, guitarist and vocalist Sister Rosetta Tharpe released “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” The record, Tharpe’s most popular, is either one of the earliest rock and roll records or an important precursor to rock, depending on who you ask. At the time of its release, it was considered gospel, and was the first gospel record to chart on the Billboard “race” chart (which later became the R&B chart). Artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Tina Turner all site Tharpe as an influence.

Read more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

1948 – Billie Holiday sells out Carnegie Hall

On March 27, 1948, Holiday played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd. As a review of the show in the New York Amsterdam News put it, “Not only were the 2700 seats in the hall sold a week before the Saturday deadline, but hundreds milled about on the streets outside Carnegie, vainly attempting to buy tickets.” The paper also describes “Both she and her listeners settled in for a big evening, with an occasional Holiday fan getting so carried away that it was necessary for those in his vicinity to quiet him down.”

Holiday’s sold out performance is one of over 20 performances she gave at Carnegie Hall. The second to last of her performances at the Hall, Billie Holiday: Lady Sings the Blues was released as the live album The Essential Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live.

Read more about Billie Holliday and learn about the upcoming Hulu original ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ starring Andra Day as Billie Holiday.


1950 – Juanita Hall wins a Tony Award

In 1949, Rodger and Hammerstein’s newest musical, South Pacific, made its Broadway debut. The production was a smashing success and won 9 Tony Awards! In fact, South Pacific is the only production to ever sweep the acting awards in a single year. Among the actors celebrated that night is Juanita Hall, who won the award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Bloody Mary. She was the first African-American to win a Tony Award.

South Pacific ran for 5 years on Broadway, and Hall reprised her role in the 1958 film adaption. Unfortunately, her songs in the film were dubbed by ghost vocalist Muriel Smith, who played Bloody Mary in a British production of the play. In addition to her acting career, Hall performed often at nightclubs and made appearances on many TV shows, such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Today Show.

Read more about Juanita Hill.

1951 – Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats release “Rocket 88”

Rocket “88” is another release often cited as “the first rock and roll record.” As the story goes, the guitar amp used for the track accidentally fell off the truck on the way to the studio, creating a buzz. As such, this is one of the earliest examples of a song with distortion on the guitars.

The release, which hit #1 on the R&B charts, was recorded in the same studio session as some of Ike Turner’s early works. In fact, Ike played piano on the track, and “the Delta Cats” were also Ike’s “Kings of Rhythm.”

Brenston’s Rocket “88” was a hit, but his solo career was unfortunately quite short. He released a few other songs throughout his career, but he is often remembered more for playing saxophone for Ike than in his own right.

Read more about Jackie Brenston.

1953 – Big Mama Thornton releases “Hound Dog”

Though the most well known version of “Hound Dog” is Elvis Presley’s, his version (released in 1956) was certainly not the first. In 1952, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the song specifically for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. In a Rolling Stone interview, Leiber describes that Johnny Otis invited them up to meet Thornton, and write a song to fit her. “I had to write a song for her that basically said, “Go fuck yourself.” But how to do it without actually saying it? And how to do it telling a story? I couldn’t just have a song full of expletives.”

The track was massive success upon its release in Spring 1953. “Hound Dog” spent 7 weeks at the top of the R&B charts and sold an estimated 500,000 to 2 million copies. Unfortunately, neither Thornton nor Leiber and Stoller were properly compensated for the hit. Leiber and Stoller sued the label and received a $1200 check, which bounced. Thornton received a one-time check for $500.

Thornton also wrote and record the song “Ball and Chain,” which later became a hit for Janis Joplin. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” is a part of the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Both “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” are included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

Read more about Big Mama Thornton

1955 – Chuck Berry releases his first single

In 1955, Chuck Berry released his first single “Maybellene” on Chess Records. The song, though clearly a rock song (It’s got girls, cars, and electric guitars), reached number one on the R&B charts and number 5 on the Billboard pop charts. By year end, the record sold over 1 million copies. Not bad for a debut!

Three of Berry’s songs (“Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Johnny B. Goode”) are included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” “Maybellene” is No. 18 on Rolling Stone’s ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Read more about Chuck Berry in Rolling Stone.

1956 – The Nat King Cole show debuts

From 1956 to 1957, Nat King Cole hosted The Nat King Cole Show. As a musician, Cole had previously appeared on programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show. Though Cole wasn’t the first Black television host, he was one of the most prominently featured. His show ran on NBC, in the 7 o’clock hour, right before the news. The show featured many special guests for music and some light comedy.

After the show ended, Cole wrote in Ebony Magazine that “For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television. I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Negro on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people. After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn’t want to play ball.”

Read more about The Nat King Cole show

1958 – Tommy Edwards hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100

The Billboard Hot 100 debuted in August of 1958. On September 29, Tommy Edwards became the first African American to hit #1 with his song “It’s All in the Game.” He played the Ed Sullivan Show on September 14, 1958, and the song took off.

Interestingly, Edwards’ #1 hit was a reworked version of the same song he had recorded in 1951, which also charted. The newer, and more popular, version was a different arrangement, reworked to better suite the rock and roll influences of the era.

Read more about Tommy Edwards

1959 – Berry Gordy launches Tamla Records

In 1959, Berry Gordy launched Tamla Records, the first of the Motown labels. It’s hard to sum up the importance of Motown Records in just a few paragraphs (I mean, there’s an entire museum dedicated to Motown’s legacy), but I’ll give it a go. For years, Motown Records was the highest earning Black-owned business in the country. Gordy worked with many talented artists at Motown, including the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and many others.

Read more about Berry Gordy and Motown Records.

Join us next Tuesday as we continue our Black History Month: Music Milestones series into the 60s and beyond.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read our other Black History Month content, including our Event GuidePunk Rock Bookshelf BHM Edition, and our essential resource list.

What have you learned or shared this Black History Month? Let us know in the comments!

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