During Black History Month we’re taking a look at some of the iconic black artists who have changed the face of music. This week we’re taking it back to the 1940s to examine some of the most influential black artists of the era, including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.

Fats Waller

A hugely talented pianist, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was renowned for his influence over stride piano, Dixieland jazz, swing, and ragtime.

He started playing the piano aged six and was a professional organist by the time he was fifteen, beginning a performing career that saw Fats tour internationally before he made his first recording in 1922 before a consistent period of recording in the 1930s.

Fats Waller’s distinctive performance style earned him a reputation of a clown and entertainer as much as a very gifted musician. His shows were full of theatrics and gimmicks but always underscored by a very definite talent that saw him reach the levels of acclaim peers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong enjoyed.

Rockschool graded music exams

Fats was a prolific composer and his compositions have been covered by a huge number of artists, and include classics such as ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ which were both inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984 and 1999 respectively.

Perhaps more impressively, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ also features on our Acoustic syllabus. It’s a swingin’ classic with a chromatically ascending chord pattern that is as satisfying to play as it is to hear performed. If you’re not familiar with the Fats Waller piano rendition, then you may have heard Louis Armstrong’s endearing cover of it that is arguably more well-known.

Taking pride of place on our grade 6 syllabus, check out the virtuosic Giorgio Serci sprinkling his magic over his fantastic arrangement below!

Ella Fitzgerald

One of the most talented singers in music history, Ella Fitzgerald shaped the path of jazz and influenced the legions of singers who followed her.

She breathed new life into classic standards, all the while penning a few herself, and her ability to scat is among the very best.

Our favourite Ella tune is her sparkling rendition of ‘Night in Tunisia’, a piece that demands acrobatic vocal flair and phenomenal control and so rightly earns itself a place in our Grade 8 Vocals syllabus.

If that’s a little out of your comfort zone for now, then we also have the beautiful piece ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ on our Grade 5 Vocals syllabus so you really are spoilt for choice when it comes to classic Ella tunes.

Ella’s career spanned well over 60 years and saw her win 14 Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Is she the most influential singer of the twentieth century? Quite possibly...

Billie Holiday

Fans of one singer in particular might take issue with that statement though! The final black artist we’re looking at today is another hugely influential singer: Eleanora Fagan or, as you probably know her, Billie Holiday!

A must-know jazz standard, Billie’s version of ‘All of Me’ is a great chance for singers who are starting out to get into something a bit meatier at Grade 3 on our Vocals syllabus. The song is a toe-tapping swing arrangement that requires great control from the vocalist while allowing them to explore intricate jazz harmonies.

The great thing about our new Vocals syllabus is that our repertoire is no longer split by gender: students can perform tunes regardless of their original range or the artist who typically performs the track. You can transpose the song to suit your voice and away you go!


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, why not check out our Artists in Focus series where we take a look at other influential musicians who have shaped the art form over the years.