Five African Americans Who Made Musical Magic—and History!

Five African Americans Who Made Musical Magic—and History!

Rhythm-Ride (1)There is incredible power in music. We dare you to listen to Pharrell’s “Happy” without cracking a smile, or Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” without feeling melancholy. Berry Gordy saw the power in music and when he launched the record company Motown, he knew he could use music to take kids off the streets and bridge the racial divide in America. His story is captured in Rhythm Ride by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Here, Pinkney shares five of her favorite books about African American musicians who changed history and music as we know it.

Duke Ellington

Known as “the Piano Prince,” Ellington taught himself to play piano by hanging out in nightclubs and plunking out ragtime tunes on the piano keys. He went on to become one of the premier jazz musicians of all time. To learn more, read the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor winning picture book Duke Ellington by yours truly, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.


She was called “the Queen of Folk” for her gutsy vocals. Odetta was inspired by gospel music, work songs, and the spirituals that were sung by African Americans who spent back-breaking hours as sharecroppers and as laborers in the American South. She had a guitar named Baby, and she popularized the afro hairstyle for women, who called it “the Odetta.” I’m one of the short-haired lucky ones who enjoys “rocking my Odetta.” This lady’s story is told as a tribute poem in the book Odetta: The Queen of Folk with paintings by Stephen Alcorn and narrative by Stephen Alcorn and Samantha Thornhill.

Marian Anderson

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made it possible for Marian to perform on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. She sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people in an open-air concert, while a radio audience of millions listened in. Anderson broke racial barriers for black artists all over the world. Author Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrator Brian Selznick created a book entitled When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson.


Berry Gordy

With an $800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy launched Motown, a musical empire that began by taking kids off the street and turning them into stars. Motown’s music turned into a cultural revolution and a hallmark of the civil rights movement. Berry’s story inspired me to write Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip to the Motown Sound.


Ella Fitzgerald

When Ella was a teenager, she entered a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She went into the competition expecting to show off her dance moves, but was so nervous, her knees locked. Instead, she belted a song, and won the contest! Ella later became one of the most popular vocalists of all time. You can learn more about Ella and one of her greatest hit songs by reading A Tisket-a-Tasket by Ora Eitan.

Andrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, many of them illustrated by her husband Brian Pinkney. She was named one of the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal, and is among “The 25 Most Influential People in Our Children’s Lives” cited by Children’s Health Magazine. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.


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