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Black history Month- Memphis Musicians

African- American Music Appreciation Month occurs in June, but we cannot celebrate Black History Month without discussing black musicians, especially ones who originated 80 miles from our site- in Memphis! The beginning of the blues originated in the Mississippi Delta, and after World War II as musicians started expanding out of the Delta, Memphis was one of the many cities along the Mississippi River in which musicians settled down and cultivated newer sounds.  Here are several Memphis musicians who left an impact across America.

Wendy Moten

Best known for her hit “Come in Out of the Rain”, Wendy Moten is surprisingly not a common household name. Born November 22, 1965, Wendy grew up in Memphis singing in both church and school choirs but did not enter the official music scene until after singing with Michael Bolton at a benefit concert. After signing with EMI Records, Moten began touring with and opening for Michael Bolton in addition to release her first album which was self-titled. Throughout the years Moten has kept a relatively low profile, but has continued to provide backup vocals for musicians including but not limited to Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Bonnie Tyler.  

Isaac Hayes

A well-known musician for funk and soul, Isaac Hayes had his first introductions with music in Covington, TN, where he began singing in church choirs and taught himself piano, organ, saxophone, and flute. Hayes spent many years working for his maternal grandparents who raised him after his mother passed and his father left, working in fields sharecropping during the day and playing at juke joints at night. Turning down numerous music scholarships to colleges after receiving his GED, Hayes continued to work for his grandparents until he signed with Stax Records, becoming a session player for numerous acts who came through the studio. As time passed, Hayes dabbled in numerous areas of fame, beginning to writing his own music, rebrand the funk and jazz style of the 60s/70s, bankrupt and have a hiatus, only to return to stardom in the 90s through shows such as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and South Park. Isaac Hayes died in 2008 after having had several strokes.

Lil Hardin Armstrong

A decorated singer, band leader, and jazz pianist, Lil Hardin Armstrong grew up with her grandmother, who taught her spirituals and hymns that she learned while in slavery near Oxford, MS. In addition to learning how to play the piano from her third grade teacher. Armstrong particularly took a liking to blues and popular music of the time.  She studied piano at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, and later moved to Chicago with her mother and stepfather. It is in Chicago where Armstrong began working as a sheet music demonstrator and playing for bands, later marrying twice,, her second marriage being to Louis Armstrong (who she initially was not impressed with think he was too country for the music scene of Chicago). She was the one who encouraged Louis Armstrong to venture out on his own and start his solo career, but eventually separated from Louis Armstrong in the early 30s. Though never officially divorcing Louis, she began branding herself as “Mrs. Louis Armstrong” and prompted her work as a swing vocalists and piano accompanist until she died from a heart attack, collapsing over a piano. Her legacy lives on through a community park in Chicago that was named after her and samples of her music used by several electro- musicians.

Valerie June

Born in Jackson, TN, Valerie grew up in Humboldt and was exposed to gospel, R&B, and soul music while working for both her dad’s construction company and part-time as a promoter for K-Ci and JoJo, Prince, and Bobby Womack. Valerie moved to Memphis to begin recording and performing as a part of the due Bella Sun, eventually moving into a combined gospel, blues, and folk sound as a solo artist. Her breakout into fame occurred when she was featured in the MTV online-only series $5 Cover, in which Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor saw her and recruited her to co-produce June’s EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express. June continues to showcase her country-bluegrass voice in tours across the U.S. and television appearances.

Did you know about all of these musicians or just hear about some for this first time? Comment and share some of these tidbits of new information or some of your favorite local Black Musicians. Happy Black History Month!

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