The 50s was a decade that saw much change in the musical world. The musical genre of rock and roll was born and dominated the world in this era.
However, while some fantastic music was created during this period, it would be remiss to ignore the musical contributions specifically coming from the black community.
Here’s some of the top black male singers of the 50s that left a mark in people’s hearts:
- Ray Charles
- Little Richard
- Fats Domino
- Chuck Berry
- Nat King Cole
- B.B. King
- James Brown
- Miles Davis
- Sonny Rollins
Born Ray Charles Robinson Sr. in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, Ray was a singer, pianist, and songwriter. He was a multi-talented artist, working with different genres, including country, rock and roll, RnB, soul, jazz, and gospel.
At the age of seven, he lost his sight to glaucoma, but his mother would later enroll him in the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. It was here that Ray started his musical journey.
After school, Ray moved to Seattle, where he worked with several people, playing the piano. For a long time, he emulated the styles of his two influences, Nat King Cole and Charles Brown.
Towards the end of the 40s, Ray was ready to start his solo path. His first single hit together with his band, ‘Confession Blues,’ came in 1949. This song did well in the RnB Billboard charts, reaching position 2.
This success was just the beginning of a lot more that would follow in the 50s. He signed with swing time records in 1950 and recorded two other hit RnB singles.
‘Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand’ in 1951 was No.5 in the charts, and ‘Kissa Me Baby,’ released a year later, reached position 8.
He then signed a recording deal with the Atlantic in 1952, where his first single was ‘Mess Around.’ The biggest hit with the Atlantic records came in 1954, ‘I Got A Woman,’ reaching No.1 in the charts.
This hit was a perfect mix of blues and gospel sounds that gave birth to a new genre, soul. He would later combine different genres to release other hits in the 50s, earning him The Genius title.
Just before the end of this decade, Ray released another hit single, ‘What’d I Say,’ reaching No.1 on the RnB chart and 6 on the pop chart.
At his prime, Ray Charles dominated the world of music, making him one of the best black male singers of the 50s.
Originally, Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932. Until his death, he was a flamboyant Rock N Roll musician who also mastered the art of playing the piano.
Though he started singing in Pentecostal churches at an early age, Richard’s fame kicked off in the mid-50s.
He moved out of his family home to Atlanta as a teenager and started performing in nightclubs. In 1950, Richard joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra musical band, where he got his stage name, Little Richard.
After an excellent performance in an Atlanta radio station, he got his first one-year recording contract with RCA Victor in 1951. Within this year, Richard recorded eight singles.
Among them, ‘Every Hour,’ his first single, did a lot better. It was a hit in Georgia, but unfortunately, none of his songs for the RCA Victor Records got to the billboard charts.
Still in the hunt for success, Richard hooked up with Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, in September 1955. It was finally his time to shine.
In the same year, he released his first successful hit, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ a standard rock beat that hit the billboard immediately, reaching No.17.
He continued to release more rock single hits in this decade, which all sold well, earning him more fame and success.
Rip it up, Good Golly Miss Molly, Send Me Some Lovin, and Long Tall Sally were all recorded with Specialty Records in the mid-50s.
Fats Domino was born Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. in New Orleans in 1928. He was a successful pianist, singer, and songwriter.
Domino started singing at an early age, learning to play the piano from his brother-in-law, Harrison Verret, in 1938. At only 14 years old, he dropped out of school and started performing in the local bars at night.
Fast forward to the 50s, Domino got signed to Imperial Records, and with the help of Dave Bartholomew, he wrote and recorded his first single hit, ‘The Fat Man.’
This hit song marked the beginning of his success and fame in the 50s, selling over one million copies.
Although he released other singles before the mid-50s, his breakthrough came in 1955 with the release of another hit single. ‘Ain’t That a Shame,’ his first pop song, became No.14 in the billboard pop singles.
He went ahead to release seven other hit singles between 1956 and 1959, with six at the top 10 pop singles chart and one reaching No.14.
Several good albums also came out during this period, with most of them self-titled. Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino, his debut album, came in 1955, reaching position 17 on the pop albums chart.
Later before the 60s, Domino released five other albums from 1956. These are Fats Domino Rock and Rollin, This Is Fats Domino, This is Fats!, Here Stands Fats Domino, Fabulous Mister D, Fats Domino Swings, and Let’s Play Fats Domino.
Fats Domino had sold over 65 million records until his death, making him the most influential rock and roll singer of the 50s.
Chuck Berry, was to many, the father of rock and roll music, a nickname he got in the mid-50s for his exemplary performances.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1926, he developed a liking for music when still young. While in high school, he was arrested for robbery, although he was later released in 1947 for good conduct.
He would go back to music in 1951 after joining an old friend’s band to play guitar. Berry stayed with the band for one year, performing in the local nightclubs.
The following year, he joined yet another band and continued to play and perform in nightclubs. Berry, who was still not famous, decided to tour Chicago in search of recording deals.
In 1955, he met Muddy Waters, a blues musician who introduced him to Chess Records. He would then record his first song with Chess, ‘Maybellene,’ a rock and roll hit song that hit the top positions on the billboards within a month.
On the pop charts, ‘Maybellene’ was position 5 and position 1 on RnB charts. Other hits in the rock and roll genre followed soon after, all of them hitting the billboard charts.
In 1956, he released ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ after an extensive tour in the US. ‘School Day’ and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ followed a year after, and in 1958, he released two other hits, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode.’
His 1958 hit songs reached the top ten positions in the billboard pop charts.
All of Berry’s songs received equal love and popularity among youths of all races. That’s the reason Berry deserves to be among the top black male singers of the 50s.
Nat King Cole
He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919. Initially a jazz pianist, Cole would later involve himself with singing and writing songs.
Over 100 of Cole’s songs became pop charts’ hits, telling you just how much he was an excellent singer. He also became the first black male singer to host many television series.
His musical career started at 15, after dropping out of school to concentrate on being a jazz pianist. First-forward to the 50s, Cole recorded several hit songs, equally received worldwide.
He sold millions of copies from hits like Nature Boy, Mona Lisa, Unforgettable, and Too Young. His fame continued to rise in the country, especially in 1956 after hosting a variety of Tv series in The Nat King Cole Show.
This show went off the air only after a year, but Cole was already famous. He recorded other hit songs in the 50s including, Smile, If I May, A Blossom Fell, and Pretend.
Cole also recorded two albums in this era, ‘Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love’ in 1953 and ‘Cole Español’ in 1958. Two of the songs from the first album reached the top ten in the billboard charts.
King was born Riley B. King in Berclair, Mississippi, in 1925. He was a blues singer and songwriter who thrived in the 50s.
His love for music and playing guitar started in church as a young Christian singing in the choir. King would later join a local radio station in Mississippi, which marked the beginning of his professional music career.
King’s 50s began in Beale street, where he joined other artists like Johnny Ace and Bobby Bland to perform. Together they were called the Beale Streeters.
He became an RnB star in this period, releasing hit after hit, including ‘Woke Up This Morning,’ ‘You Know I Love You,’ and ‘You Upset Me Baby.’ His breakthrough, however, was in 1952 with the release of ‘Three O’Clock Blues.’
This hit song reached No.1 in the Billboard RnB chart in the same year, and to date, the ‘Three O’clock Blues’ remain his biggest hit.
His two other hits that topped the RnB charts are ‘You Upset Me Baby,’ released in 1954, and ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’ in 1955.
In 1956, King formed his record label, The Blues Boys Kingdom. In the same year, he had booked over three hundred concerts.
James Brown, nicknamed the Godfather of soul, was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933. He was a singer, dancer, and songwriter, who started singing at a tender age, receiving lessons from neighbors on playing guitar, piano, and drums.
His prowess in gospel music came from churches and tent revivals. Brown’s passionate voice came from singing in the choir.
He joined the Gospel Starlighters group in 1955, and within no time, he was leading them. They changed the group’s name to Famous Flames before moving to Macon to perform in nightclubs.
This group recorded their first song in 1956, ‘Please, Please, Please,’ a demo song they played to the talent scout for King Records, Ralph Bass.
‘Please, Please, Please’ was a hit, selling over three million copies, and in a matter of months, it reached No.6 on the Billboard RnB charts. That’s how James Brown’s fame and popularity started.
In 1958, he released a hit single, ‘Try Me,’ reaching No.1 on the RnB charts. This fame and success continued to the 60s.
Davis was born Miles Dewey Davis III in Alton, Illinois, in 1926. He showed interest in music at a young age, and by the time he was 12 years old, all he wanted to do was music.
At 13, Davis owned his first trumpet, a birthday gift from his father. He used to play his trumpet in local bands, earning money and learning more about music.
In 1948, Davis formed a group with eight other musicians. This group, however, didn’t last long as it dissolved in the following year. He combined all the songs recorded in this group to form the album Birth Of The Cool in 1957.
In the early 50s, he was struggling with drug addiction due to many challenges. However, this didn’t stop him from recording his best albums, including Miles Davis Quartet and Miles Davis Volume 2.
He also played locally with several influential jazz singers like Milt Jackson and Sonny Rollins.
After overcoming his addiction in1954, Davis recorded other hit albums, including ‘Workin,’ ‘Round About Midnight,’ ‘Streamin’,’ and ‘Milestones,’ among several others.
His successful album came in 1959, ‘Kind Of Blue,’ which has reached platinum five times by the end of 2019.
Sonny was born Walter Theodore Rollins in New York City in 1930. He was a jazz singer and composer, playing tenor saxophone the whole of his musical career.
He began as a pianist, opted for alto saxophone, and finally settled for tenor in 1946.
Immediately after high school, Sonny began his professional music career and released his first recording in 1949. Unfortunately, he got arrested in 1950 during his peak stages.
He got released ten months later, and between 1951 and 1953, Sonny recorded many songs with various artists, including Miles Davis. However, none of the pieces gave him fame.
His breakthrough would come in 1954 with the release of ‘Doxy, Oleo, and Airegin,’ still working with the Miles Davis quintet. These were Sonny’s most celebrated hits in the 50s.
Sonny had a heroin addiction, which forced him to stop music, concentrating on his healing. He would later reappear in 1955, then recorded his best album to date, Saxophone Colossus, in 1956.
Top Black Male Singers of the 50s, Final Thoughts
In an era where a new music genre was born, you’d think that these singers would struggle. Much to everyone’s surprise, they performed well, releasing hit after hit.
What more can music purists do other than remember and celebrate the above nine black male singers of the 50s? They sure deserve it, for their hard work and success.