Black History Month: Music Milestones – 1960-1989

Today we’re continuing our Black History Month: Music Milestones series with 8 more important events that took place in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the previous articles covering events from 1890 to 1939 and from 1940 to 1959!

1960s

1963 – Stevie Wonder becomes the youngest solo artist to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100

At the age of 13 (13!), Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for three weeks. This was Wonder’s first of 10 #1s, and he is currently tied with Janet Jackson as having the 10th most #1 hits! Amongst male solo artists, Wonder is third for most #1s, beat only by Elvis Presley (18) and Michael Jackson (13).

Wonder’s career started when he signed to Motown’s Tamla Records (the original Motown label) at 11. His producer, Clarence Paul, nicknamed him “Little Stevie Wonder” and the name stuck (his ‘real’ name is Stevland Hardaway Morris).

In 1974, Wonder took home 5 Grammy Awards and became the first Black artist to win the Album of the Year Grammy Award for Innervisions. To this day, he is one of only 10 artists to win the award, and is one of only 3 artists to ever win the award 3 times (the other two being Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon).

I didn’t know this before, but Stevie Wonder is also part of the reason that Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday. Journalist Marcus Baram does a wonderful job of describing Stevie Wonder’s role in the 15 year push for MLK Day to become an official holiday.

Read more about Stevie Wonder

1967 – The Jimi Hendrix Experience releases their debut album “Are You Experienced” and performs at Monterey Pop Festival

Before he was Jimi Hendrix of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, James Marshall Hendrix played guitar for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. In 1966, Jimmy moved to London and changed his name to the more remarkable “Jimi.” Later that year, the band played their first shows to rave reviews, and released their first single “Hey Joe” in late December.

The band’s first three singles all charted in the UK, and in May 1967, the band released their first album “Are You Experienced” in the UK. The album spent 33 weeks on the charts, peaking at #2 (Sgt. Pepper held #1). In June, the band played Monterey Pop Festival in California. At the end of their performance, Jimi set his guitar on fire. The Monterey Pop performance gave us this iconic photo, and launched the band’s fame in the US.

By 1969, Hendrix had become the highest paid rock performer. Though The Experience disbanded in mid-1969, Jimi continued to perform. In August, he closed the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. During his set, he played a now-iconic distorted version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The awards and recognition Hendrix has earned are too numerous to list. They include rankings by Rolling Stone and Guitar World in “Greatest of All Time Lists” and Best of the Year awards, inductions into various Halls of Fame, and honors such as a commemorative USPS postage stamp, an English Heritage blue plaque, a star on the Walk of Fame, and numerous honors in his birthplace, Seattle, Washington.

Read more about Jimi Hendrix and the Jimi Hendrix Experience

1969 – W.C. Handy is honored on a US Postage Stamp

In 1969, trumpeter and composer W.C. Handy became the first Black musician to be honored on a US Postage Stamp. Handy is known at the “Father of the Blues” for his compositions in the blues genre and for being the first composer to publish music in the blues style. Handy’s work paved the way for the blues to become popular in America, and helped bridge the transition from ragtime to blues in popular culture. W.C. Handy is most known for the composition “St. Louis Blues.”

Read more about W.C. Handy.

1970s

1971 – Charley Pride wins the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award

In 1971, Charley Pride became the first (and so far, only) Black performer to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award. In 2000, he was also the first Black performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over his long career, he earned over 50 top-10 Country Hits and 13 Grammy nominations (3 wins). In 2017, The Recording Academy awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2020, The Country Music Association did the same.

Before becoming a country music sensation, Charley was a professional baseball player. He played with many teams over his career, but spent most of his time with the Memphis Red Sox as a pitcher and outfielder.

This list focuses mostly on rock and rock-adjacent moments, but USA Today has a wonderful history of Black artists’ involvement in country music over the last century that I highly recommend!

Charley unfortunately passed away late last year at age 86 due to complications from Covid-19. Read more about Charley Pride

1979 – Founding of Sugar Hill Records

In 1979, Sylvia and Joe Robinson founded Sugar Hill Records, the first hip-hop label, named after the Sugar Hill area of Harlem. The label’s first release, Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang, became the first commercially successful rap record. The label was shortlived, but was incredibly important in bringing hip hop to the mainstream.

In addition to The Sugarhill Gang, the label also worked with artists such Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Funky 4 + 1, and The Treacherous Three.

Before Sylvia became “the Mother of Hip Hop” with Sugar Hill Records, she was a successful musician. She released numerous hits as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, as well as on her own.

Read more about Sylvia Johnson and Sugar Hill Records

1980s

1980 – Gloria Gaynor wins Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording

On February 27, 1980, Gloria Gaynor became the first, and only, artist to win a Grammy for Best Disco Recording. The award was for her song “I Will Survive.” Interestingly, Polydor Records originally released the track as a B-side to Gaynor’s version of “Substitute.” However, listeners loved “I Will Survive” so much that later copies of the record were flipped to have the more popular track as the A-side. The song is ranked number 492 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is a part of the Library of Congress.

The Grammy for Best Disco Recording was only presented in 1980, and thus Gloria Gaynor was the only artist to ever win. It took awhile for the Academy to create the disco category, and by the time they did, the tides of public opinion had swayed.

Read more about Gloria Gaynor

1985 – Prince wins an Oscar for Best Original Song Score

In 1985, Prince became the first African American composer to win the Academy Award for Original Song Score, for his 1984 film Purple Rain. The album Purple Rain is the soundtrack to the film. The film stars Prince as The Kid, and is his acting debut. Since The Kid in the film is also a musician, there’s plenty of opportunity for Prince to show off both his musical and acting chops. In 2019, the Library of Congress added the film to the National Film Registry.

Read more about Prince

1987 – Aretha Franklin is the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The first class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986 was all men. To this day, less than 8% of Rock Hall inductees are women. In the Rock Hall’s second year, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted. Franklin is also #1 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and #9 on “100 Greatest Artists.” Her accomplishments include receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, winning 18 Grammy Awards, and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize special citation.

Read more about Aretha Franklin


Join us on Friday as we complete our Black History Month: Music Milestones series with events from the 1990s to now.

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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