Among the 10 Of The Most Significant Musical Artists From North Carolina, odds are fans may think of jazz and R&B specialists such as John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, Ben E. King, and Nina Simone. Country music fans and rockers may think of Charlie Daniels. Another big name from the Tar Heel state is the iconic George Clinton and Thelonius Monk. Also on the list are two groups with what some fans may consider sporting unusual band names. Ben Folds Five and Squirrel Nut Zippers each have their own story where their names came from and what influenced them to introduce their brand of music as recording stars.
10 Of The Most Significant Musical Artists From North Carolina
#10 – Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Squirrel Nut Zippers started in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a jazz band founded by James “Jimbo” Mathus. He was joined by Tom Maxell, Katharine Whalen, Chris Phillips, Don Raleigh, and Ken Mosher. The term, “nut zippers” was used to describe a variety of old bootleg moonshine. The inspiration behind the band’s name came from a newspaper headline, “Squirrel Nut Zipper.” Its story was about an intoxicated man who climbed a tree and refused to come down. The group’s specialty was fusing Delta blues with gypsy jazz, and 1930s swing.
It also toyed with other musical styles and the Squirrel Nut Zippers reached the peak of its popularity in 1996 with “Hell.” This was a song written by Maxwell and was featured on the album, Hot. Prior to this, the group made its recording debut with 1995’s The Inevitable. This group was credited as one of the key contributors to the swing revival that won over music fans in the 1990s. Thanks to the success of “Hell,” Hot became certified platinum by the RIAA after selling over one million copies. When the time came to support the album on the road, Squirrel Nut Zippers toured with the legendary Neil Young.
Perennial Favorites was a 1998 release that became the third studio album for Squirrel Nut Zippers. This was then followed by 1998’s Christmas Caravan and 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom. While riding high as a popular group recognized by music fans across Canada and the US, Squirrel Nut Zippers performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as an impressive list of other high-profile concerts such as Bill Clinton’s second inauguration celebration. After Bedlam Ballroom, Squirrel Nut Zippers experienced its first split as a group. At the start, James Mathus and Katharine Whalen were a married couple. That ended in divorce and the bandmates also went their separate ways.
It wouldn’t be until 2016 that there would be a reunion tour to support the twentieth-anniversary release of Hot. The current lineup of Squirrel Nut Zippers has Mathus as the only founder left as the group continues to record and perform. After the release of 2020’s Lost Songs Of Doc Souchon, the Squirrel Nut Zippers have seven studio albums to its credit, as well as two EPs, a compilation album, and a live album. Much of the the band’s music has also been featured in several movies and television episodes such as 1996’s Flirting with Disaster and 2013’s Epic. 2010’s musical film, Burlesque, featured six songs from Squirrel Nut Zippers. The group’s brand of music was a favorite choice for Hollywood filmmakers. They’re still a favorite today.
#9 – Ben Folds Five
From 1993 to 2000, the classic lineup of Ben Folds Five featured Ben Folds as lead vocalist and pianist, Rober Sledge on bass guitar, and Darren Jessee as drummer. The name of the band tapped into the trio’s sense of humor as they commented it sounded better than “Ben Folds Three.” The band started up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as an alternative rock band that would release three studio albums before taking a break from performing for eight years.
Those albums started with its self-titled debut in 1995, then 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, and 1999’s jazzy The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The final album the trio cut before taking a break featured “Leather Jacket” as part of a tracklist that served as the band’s tribute to the Reinhold Messner sessions. Also in 1999, this song was also used for the benefit album, No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees.
As a recording artist, it was the group’s second album that served as the big breakthrough with “Brick.” This was a hit single that reached the mainstream audience and it became a number nineteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as a number twelve hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart. On the US Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart, it peaked as high as number six. This was also popular in Australia at number thirteen and in the UK at number twenty-six. When asked to describe the group’s brand of music, Folds answered “punk rock for sissies.”
Up until 2000, Ben Folds Five was at the peak of its popularity as a band. However, this was a year the men decided to go their separate ways after finishing their worldwide tour supporting their third studio album. During this time, the trio recorded and released a cover version of Steely Dan’s “Barrytown.” It was for the 2000 movie Me, Myself & Irene and its soundtrack. It was one of many Ben Fold Five performed as a contributing recording artist to movie productions and television. Altogether, there were fourteen movies that featured the trio’s musical material and it played an important role that spiked the band’s popularity worldwide.
Aside from a reunion performance in 2008, it wouldn’t be until 2011 that the men returned to the recording studio to release its fourth album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, before disbanding a second time in 2013. Before the split, Ben Fold Five released its live album, simply titled Live. Folds, Sledge, and Jessee each enjoyed solo careers whenever they weren’t performing as a trio act. Many of the songs the group recorded were performed as solo artists throughout the span of their respective careers. In 2023, the group performed a reunion concert in Chapel Hill after its producer, Caleb Southern, passed away on July 6. He was responsible for the production of the group’s first three studio albums and was regarded as a fourth member that made the lineup feel more complete.
#8 – The Connells
From Raleigh, North Carolina, The Connells started off in 1984 with Mike Connell as the founder, along with his brother, David. There was also Doug MacMillan as their lead vocalist and John Schultz as the drummer. This four-man band would become five when George Huntley signed up. As for Schultz, his role as the band’s drummer was short-lived as he moved on and was replaced by Peele Wimberley. Between The Connells, MacMillan, and Huntley, this was the classic lineup that put The Connells on the map with its guitar-heavy jangly pop rock music.
The same year the group formed as a band, it made its recording debut with an earlier version of “Darker Days” that appeared on the compilation album, More Mondo. This was an independent release in North Carolina. When TThe Connells made its debut album, a re-recorded version of “Darker Days” was on it and was released in 1985 with two different labels. In the UK, it was Elvis Costello’s Demon Records. In the US, it was the band’s own studio, Black Park Records. Another popular single credited to The Connells during this time was “Hats Off,” a political protest song aimed at the president at the time, Ronald Reagan.
In 1986, The Connells returned to the recording studio and produced Boylan Heights as its second album. This time, the men worked with a producer named Mitch Easter. From this point forward, Mike Connell served as the primary songwriter. This album featured “Scotty’s Lament,” and its heavy Celtic influence. Released in 1987, this became a popular hit among college radio stations.
By the time 1989′s Fun and Games was recorded and released, the Connells and Huntley shifted away from their twelve-string guitars in favor of six-string Fender and Guitars. This was also the album that featured Huntley’s contribution as a songwriter increase, which are noted in “Hey Wow,” “Sal,” “Something to Say,” and “Upside Down.” Following this album was the 1990 release of One Simple Word. This one was recorded while the band was in Wales and was working with Hugh Jones. As high-quality as this album was, it wasn’t as commercially successful as hoped. However, “Stone Cold Yesterday” did become a number three hit on the US Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
After 1990’s One Simple Word, The Connells took a break from recording for three years. At the time, the group was in a legal battle against one of its labels, TVT Records. In 1993, the group released Ring as its next album and released its lead single, “Slackjaw.” It joined the ranks of many college radio hits in the United States. After this, “74-75” was released as a Celtic-style ballad that won over European music fans. In the UK, it was number fourteen on its Official Singles Chart. Across the rest of the European nation, it was at least a top-ten hit. In Norway and Sweden, the single climbed straight to the top of their music charts. The Connells capitalized on the album’s success and embarked on a tour overseas as the opening act for Def Leppard. “74-75” earned a series of European music awards and the popularity of The Connells reached an all-time high.
When 1996’s Weird Food and Devastation was released, The Connells explored new musical sounds but it failed to achieve the same success level as Ring. However, the popularity of The Connells was still high, especially in Europe, and it met with a successful tour that featured “Maybe” as an anthemic pop favorite. However, the tour was cut short in 1997 when MacMillan fell ill and required emergency medical attention. It was discovered he had diverticulitis, which is a gastrointestinal disease characterized by inflammation of pouches that can form in the wall of the large intestine. This explained why the lead vocalist had been experiencing stomach trouble for about a year.
After MacMillan recovered, it was the recording and release of 1998’s Still Live. This would be the final album The Connells recorded for TVT and it was a softer album compared to the harsher-sounding Weird Food and Devastation. This was the first album that featured each band member serving as a songwriter. It was also the last as Wimberley decided it was time to move on. He would be replaced by Steve Ritter. It would be with this lineup that 2001’s Old School Dropouts was released.
Right after it was released, George Huntley was next to opt out as he wanted to spend more time with his family. Mike Ayers took his place as lead guitarist. Although The Connells continue to record and perform in concert, the current roster has since branched out into other pursuits. David Connell took up landscape painting while Mike Connell has since become a lawyer practicing in Raleigh. Huntley became a real estate agent. As for the group’s original drummer, Schultz, he went on to become a filmmaker.
Altogether, The Connells have recorded and released nine studio albums and two EPs. It also released ten singles with “74-75” becoming the group’s biggest hit, even though it wasn’t officially released in the US. However, from 1989 until 1993, The Connells scored for hit singles on the US Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart. The first was 1989’s “Something to Say” as it peaked as high as number seven. Next was the 1990’s “Stone Cold Yesterday” and it was a number three hit. “Get a Gun” was a 1991 release that became a number twenty-four hit and “Slackjawed” peaked as high as number nine in 1993.
#7 – Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack was born in 1947 in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Her father was a draftsman for the Veterans Administration and her mother was an organist for a church. When she was three years old, the family moved to Arlington, Virginia. This is where she grew up. The Flacks were a large, musical family that grew up with strong church influences. While growing up, Roberta Flack learned how to play classical music well enough to be awarded a full scholarship.
She was fifteen years old when she enrolled in Howard University and was one of the youngest students to have enrolled there. While at the university, she swapped her major from piano to voice. She also became an assistant conductor for her school’s choir. The role of director she had for its theatrical production of Aida earned Roberta Flack a standing ovation from the university’s faculty. After graduating at nineteen years old from Howard University, Flack was rocked by the news of her father’s sudden death. This caused her to take up a teaching job in Farmville, North Carolina.
The road Roberta Flack took to become a singer-songwriter started in Washington D.C. as she began to sing in nightclubs during the evenings and weekends. Her day job at the time was teaching private piano lessons out of her home. While singing at a jazz club, she was discovered by another well-noted jazz musician and pianist, Les McCann. This led Roberta Flack to a recording contract with Atlantic Records and the 1969 release of First Take. In 1971, Flack participated in the Soul to Soul concert film that was produced by Denis Sanders. The headliners were Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, Santana, The Staple Singers, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, and The Voices of East Harlem. The a cappella performance she delivered for the spiritual classic “Oh Freedom” was listed as “Freedom Song” on the original Soul to Soul soundtrack.
While with Atlantic Records, Roberta Flack wasn’t selling well as a recording artist. This changed after Clint Eastwood chose “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for the soundtrack of 1971’s Play Misty for Me. This came from Flack’s debut album and it became the biggest hit on the billboards for 1972. It spent six solid weeks at the number one spot of the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as on the official music charts belonging to Australia and Canada.
On the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart, it peaked as high as number four. The single became certified gold while the album went on to sell enough copies to become certified platinum with the RIAA and gold with Music Canada. This hit single also earned a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1973. Clint Eastwood personally became a huge fan of Roberta Flack and her music. In 1983, it was her music that played at the end of another Eastwood film, Sudden Impact.
In 1972, Flack scored another Grammy Award for her performance of “Where Is the Love.” Performed with Donny Hathaway as a duet, it was recognized by the music industry as Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. The song was one of many duets Flack and Hathaway performed together. The 1972 collaboration album they released was titled Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. In 1978, the two had another big hit with another duet, “The Closer I Get to You.”
After this, Flack lost her dear friend when he reportedly lept to his death from his New York apartment in 1979. Between 1972 and 1978, Roberta Flack scored another big hit, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” This 1973 classic became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as in Australia and Canada. It was a number two hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart. The single also earned Flack a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Killing Me Softly became Flack’s best-selling album as it became double platinum by the RIAA and gold with Music Canada. This was followed by “Feel Like Makin’ Love” in 1974. This became Flack’s final number-one hit on the pop charts.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” were two signature singles fans of Roberta Flack fans loved most. In 2009, she was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. In 2020, she earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The legacy of Roberta Flack and her music continues to run strong as her incredible singing voice has influenced several recording artists, especially women, to follow in her footsteps.
#6 – Nina Simone
She was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. She was one of eight children who grew up in Tryon, North Carolina as the daughter of a barber and a preacher. As a toddler, she began to play the piano and it was clear she had a talent for it. After serving as the local church’s pianist, she made her concert debut when she was twelve years old. The story had it that during the young lady’s performance, her parents were forced to the back of the hall to make room for a white couple. When she refused to play until they were moved back to the front, this marked the beginning of a woman’s involvement with the civil rights movement. Because the child prodigy grew up with a family that was having difficulties making ends meet, her music teacher and the local community banded together to help fund her location so she could attend the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina.
After she graduated, the pianist the fans would know as Nina Simone spent the summer of 1950 as a student of Carl Friedberg at Julliard School so she could audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, her application was denied, which came as a blow to her as she and her family moved to the city in Pennsylvania with the assumption she would be accepted. Only three students were accepted to the institute out of more than seventy applicants who tried.
Although she wasn’t accepted as a student and wasn’t able to re-apply, she took private piano lessons from one of its professors, Vladimir Sokoloff. The funding for these lessons came from the young woman’s performances she had in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was in 1954 that she took the stage name Nina Simone. Nina was a nickname she received from a boyfriend while the last name she chose for herself came from the French actress, Simone Signoret. The reason why Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone as a performer was because she knew her mother wouldn’t the style of music she was playing. Nina Simone played a mix of blues, classical, and jazz at a bar before an audience that became loyal fans.
Shortly after she married in 1958, she recorded George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” the classic Porgy and Bess. She learned it from a Billie Holiday album as the song was requested by a friend. Simone’s version was released as a single and it became a top twenty hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also part of her album debut, Little Girl Blue, which was released by Bethlehem Records in 1959. Since Simone sold her rights to the label, the royalties she could have earned from it wouldn’t be accessible.
However, the success of Little Girl Blue led Simone to sign a contract with Colpix Records. While with this label, she had creative control to determine what kind of music she wanted to play from the collection of studio and live albums she recorded. In order to finance her continued studies in classical music, she performed and recorded pop music. She was more focused on becoming the best musician possible and wasn’t nearly as interested in becoming a big star in the music industry.
In 1961, Nina Simone married for a second time to a New York police detective named Andrew Stroud. Three years later, Simone switched labels from Colpix to Philips Records. Doing so meant a change of musical content in her recordings as Colpix primarily catered to an American audience while Philips had a more global focus. Regardless, Simone’s freedom as a recording artist enabled her to include songs that connected with her African-American heritage. Songs such as Oscar Brown’s “Brown Baby” and Michael Olatunji’s “Zungo” were included in her 1962 album, Nina at the Village Gate. When she debuted for Philips in 1964, Nina Simone in Concert featured a performance where she expressed her concerns about racism with the song, “Mississippi Goddam.”
This was in response to the crimes committed in 1963 between the murder of Medgar Evers in June and the September 15th bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This was one of many protest songs written and performed by Simone as she took her stand against racial prejudice. “Mississippi Goddam” was either banned or boycotted among some of the Southern American states. Also on the record, Simone produced “Old Jim Crow” as a song that addressed the laws that were issued by the man that were racist. “Mississippi Goddam” became a concert staple for Simone and her role in political and social activism continued to rise. As a result, the rate of her music released in the United States slowed down.
In 1967, Simone switched labels from Philips to RCA Victor. It was her she sang a song her friend, Langston Hughes, wrote. “Backlash Blues” came from her 1967 album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues. Another 1967 album, Silk & Soul, featured a cover of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and “Turning Point.” 1968’s ‘Nuff Said! came from a live recording from the Westbury Music Fare that took place three days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” was dedicated to the peaceful civil rights activist. It was written by her bass player, Gene Taylor.
Going from the 1960s into the 1970s, Simone continued to release albums and songs as she became more dedicated to bringing awareness that all people are equal, regardless of skin color. Since “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone felt she was being punished by the music industry and at one point left the United States for Barbados. She left behind her wedding ring, giving her husband, Andrew Stroud, a reason to believe she wanted out of the marriage. When she returned to American soil, she learned there was a warrant for her arrest for unpaid taxes. In order to avoid jail time, she fled back to Barbados and stayed there for a long time before it was suggested she relocate to Liberia.
The final album Nina Simone recorded for RCA was 1974’s It Is Finished. It wouldn’t be until 1978, now with CTI Records, that she would record and release Baltimore. It was favored by the critics but failed to become a commercial success. this was followed four years later with Fodder on My Wings, this time with the French label, Studio Davout. Throughout the 1980s, she ventured between Barbados, Liberia, and Switzerland before eventually settling in Paris, France. It would be in 1987 Nina Simone produced a big European hit with “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” It was recorded by her for the first time in 1958 and was now used for a Chanel No. 5 commercial in Europe.
This prompted a re-release of the song that became a number-four hit on the Official Singles Chart belonging to the United Kingdom. It was a hit that briefly surged Simone’s popularity in the UK and the rest of Europe. After this, she moved to the Netherlands in 1988. Now in quieter surroundings where she was less recognized, it was a happier time for the woman. For the rest of her days, Simone remained in Europe where Southern France eventually became her home. As for what was deemed erratic behavior by the woman, it was discovered in 1987 that she had bipolar disorder. Later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and on April 21, 2003, Nina Simone lost her battle with this disease. This came two days after she was to be awarded an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, the very same school that refused her application at the start of her career.
The legacy Simone left behind includes a 2000 Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her version of “I Loves You, Porgy.” In 2018, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year later, “Mississippi Goddam” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its significance by the Library of Congress. In 2021, Nina Simone was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
#5 – Thelonious Monk
The legacy of Thelonious Monk begins on October 10, 1917, as a young man who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, before he and his family moved to Manhattan, New York five years later. Shortly after moving there, Monk took piano lessons from a neighbor, Alberta Simmons. She taught him how to play in a style similar to Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. At the same time, Monk learned how to play and sing hymns from his mother.
By the time he was twelve years old, Monk learned how to play classical piano music originally composed by the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. At one point, he was among the gifted students who attended Stuyvesant High School but he did not graduate from there. It was clear at this time Monk had a preference for jazz music so the lessons in classical music were discontinued. As a jazz pianist, Monk exercised an improvisational style with jazz standards that gave a unique twist to classics such as “Blue Monk,” “In Walked Bud,” “Round Midnight,” and “Ruby, My Dear.” Monk’s career run as a jazz composer had him placed second as the most recorded, right behind first-place Duke Ellington.
In addition to Monk’s iconic music style, he also sported a signature look that featured hats, suits, and sunglasses. He was also quite the showman as he’d stop playing during mid-performance and dance around before going back to the piano. How Monk worked the keys on the instrument differed from the usual technique performed by other musicians. For the most part, the keys are pressed with curved fingers whereas Monk’s remained flat. This unorthodox approach worked well with music fans who appreciated his brand of jazz but not always so well with some of the critics. These were techniques he exercised when he started playing a few gigs when he was sixteen years old. When he turned seventeen, he toured with an evangelist before diving full-time into jazz.
What helped Monk stand out as a star jazz pianist was his art of invention when it came to composing musical numbers that steered away from the music industry’s idea of the norm. This would be adopted by various record labels and their artists once it was observed how easy it was for Monk to win over a captivated audience. In 1944, Monk made his first commercial recording with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet as he was brought on board to further establish his career as a jazz musician. In 1957, Monk invited Hawkins to join him when he had a recording session with another jazz legend, John Coltrane.
By this time, Monk’s musical influence was further enhanced after meeting and learning from Lorraine Gordon and her first husband, Alfred Lion. It was while with Blue Note Records that Monk began to issue recordings as its leading talent, a role he kept until 1952. Unfortunately, not everybody who was running the wheels of the music industry at the time was able to see the musical genius behind Monk’s performances so record sales for him and Blue Note were slow. It also didn’t help when the New York City police discovered narcotics in a parked car that was occupied by Monk and his friend, Bud Powell. This 1951 incident led to Monk’s refusal to testify against Powell and it resulted in a ban against Monk to play in any of the venues in New York where liquor was sold. This played a hindrance to the man’s career in the Manhattan area but it didn’t stop him from playing in Brooklyn and it didn’t stop him from recording music.
Monk also had a recording contract with Prestige Records for two years after his recording sessions with Blue Note were done. He cut several songs and albums during this time. In 1954, Monk visited Paris for the first time and it was there he performed in concert and played for French radio. It was there he met Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, a member of the highly influential Rothschild family. The two became close friends and it was her role as a patroness that helped Monk with his career. She was just as dedicated to him as his wife, Nellie, was.
It was she who took Monk and his family into her home and helped them with whatever they needed. As for Monk’s career, it continued to struggle through the first half of the 1950s. While peers and some critics loved his music, the records simply weren’t selling. It wouldn’t be until 1956 that he would realize his first taste of commercial success. Brilliant Corners was an album that had Monk perform most of his own music. After this, Monk was able to play in New York again. When he returned in 1957, he spent six months at the Five Spot Cafe in New York’s East Village.
His bandmates at the time were saxophonist John Coltrane, bass player Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. This quartet performed a 1957 Monk’s Music recording session with Riverside Records that led to the 1957 jazz concert At Carnegie Hall. In 2005, it was the live recording of this event that was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. “Crepuscule with Nellie” was a love song Monk dedicated to his wife that was first featured in 1957’s Monk’s Music.
Going into the 1960s, Monk signed up with Columbia Records. This came about after Monk’s business relations with Riverside took a turn for the worse over contract disputes and royalty payments. At the time, Columbia was one of the label giants and it was because of its clout Monk was able to earn the recognition he deserved as a recording artist. The 1963 release of Monk’s Dream became the best-selling record of his career. In 1964, he was on the cover of Time as it covered an article titled “The Loneliest Monk.”
It was while he was with Columbia that Monk flourished as a globally recognized performer, even though his creative output was limited at the time. After the success of Monk’s Dream, it was followed by another 1963 album release, Criss Cross. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that Underground would produce a significant number of new songs, including “Ugly Beauty.” While with this label, just like Riverside, Monk had several live recordings released. This continued until 1982, even though Monk disappeared from the spotlight by the time the mid-1970s hit.
The health of Thelonious Monk was deteriorating which kept him from keeping up with the steady pace of performing music. On February 17, 1982, he suffered from a heart stroke that claimed his life. The legacy he leaves behind includes a 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a 2006 special Pulitzer Prize as he was recognized for his contribution to jazz music. Monk’s family also established the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in 1986 as a school dedicated to offering jazz education programs at a global level. In 2009, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
#4 – George Clinton
Before becoming famous as the founder of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, George Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, before the family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey. As soon as he became a teenager, George Clinton formed a doo-wop group called the Parliaments. The musical style was fashioned after Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers as Clinton was working at a barbershop in Plainfield. Known as “Silk Palace,” the roster of Parliament-Funkadelic worked here as it became a popular hangout for local singers and musicians. The energy of doo-wop, funk, rock, and soul music was beating alive and well in the town’s west end that would soon become a nationwide sensation as one of the premier musical acts of the 1970s.
For a time, Clinton wrote as a songwriter for Motown. This experience led to one hit single, “(I Wanna) Testify,” which was recorded and released in 1967 by The Parliaments as its first and only big hit single with the label. It peaked as high as number three on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart and at number twenty on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also a number twenty-three hit in Canada. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s the names of Parliament and Funkadelic reached the peak of their popularity.
As Parliament-Funkadelic, Clinton’s musical genius dominated the R&B music charts in the 1970s with a series of top forty hits and three studio albums that each became certified platinum with the RIAA. Two of these albums would be 1975’s Mothership Connection and 1977’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome as The Parliaments. The third was 1978’s One Nation Under a Groove as a release by Funkadelic. It was this album’s title track that was Funkadelic’s biggest hit as it topped the R&B charts and peaked as high as number twenty-eight on the US Billboard Hot 100.
As a solo artist, George Clinton recorded and released Computer Games in 1982. This featured “Atomic Dog” as his signature hit and one of the key influencers that witnessed the surge of hip-hop and G-funk music in the 1990s. On the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart, it was a number-one hit. He, along with other legends such as James Brown and Sly Stone, is regarded as one of the key innovators of funk music.
In 1997, George Clinton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with fifteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic. He and his group were also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. Clinton’s influence inspired scores of hip-hop and rap artists to follow in his footsteps with a brand of music that continues to keep the music industry groovin’ to a mix of funkadelic and psychedelic hits.
As a solo artist, George Clinton has recorded and released ten studio albums, six live albums, two EPs, and six family series albums. From 1992 until 1995, the Family Series featured a collection of previously unreleased music performed by various bands that were part of the Parliament-Funkadelic stable. That stable included Jerome “Bigfoot” Bailey, William “Bootsy” Collins, Ray “Stingray” Davis, Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, Glenn Goins, Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Eddie Hazel, Walter “Junie” Morrison, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, “Billy Brass” Nelson, Garry Shider, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, and Bernie Worrell. All of these names were part of the classic Parliament-Psychedelic lineup that won over the music industry and the millions of fans worldwide.
#3 – Ben E. King
Ben E. King was born on September 28, 1938, in Henderson, North Carolina. When he was nine years old, he and his family moved to Harlem, New York. While growing up, he sang in church choirs that would mark the start of the singer-songwriter’s career. He formed the Four B’s as a doo-wop group while he was in high school. After this, he joined another group known as the Five Crowns in 1958. It was this particular year the manager of the Drifters, George Treadwell, fired its original roster. He replaced them with the Five Crowns and it would be this team that would bring forth a series of R&B hits while signed to Atlantic Records.
King co-wrote and performed the group’s first hit, There Goes My Baby.” This 1959 classic would be followed with a few other classics, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “I Count the Tears.” Performing with him at this time were Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. All three of these were released in 1960 and it cemented all three men as musical icons who led the Drifters to become one of the most popular R&B groups in music history. However, there were contract disputes that later placed King as a studio performer only while televised appearances had the Drifters appear as if Charlie Thomas was singing when he was actually lip-synching King’s recorded material.
This prompted Ben E. King to go solo but was still with Atlantic Records at the time. However, it was on its Atco imprint. In 1961, his ballad, “Spanish Harlem,” became his first hit before it was followed by what became his signature song, “Stand by Me.” This number-one hit later became one of the Songs of the Century by the RIAA. It also joined the ranks of “There Goes My Baby,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, as well as Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
As a recording artist, Ben E. King was a powerful force to reckon with. Even as the infamous mid-1960s musical British invasion swept across America and Canada, King was still going strong in the R&B genre. In 1975, he made a comeback with “Supernatural Thing,” a disco hit that once again gave King a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart. It was also a number-five hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
After Stand By Me was released as a movie in 1986, Ben E. King’s signature hit once again hit the music charts. Doing so put Ben E. King in the history books as the first recording artist to score a top ten hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This adds to the man’s legacy as one of the greatest singers in the history of the music industry. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Drifters in 1988.
In 2000, he was inducted with the Drifters into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. This was followed by the 2009 induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2012, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Three years later, Ben E. King passed away on April 30th at seventy-six years of age. However, the legacy of the man and his music continues to live on. Recording artists from various genres continue to cover his music, usually as a tribute to a man who had such a strong influence on so many fans and peers throughout the span of his career.
#2 – Charlie Daniels
Coming out of Wilmington, North Carolina is Charles Edward Daniels. He was born on October 28, 1936, to parents who were still teenagers. On his birth certificate, his last name was spelled Daniels instead of Daniel. As a kid, the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia before moving back to Wilmington. Also as a kid, he came down with measles that would result in the need to wear eyeglasses for the rest of his life. He was often bullied in school but his source of refuge came from the mix of bluegrass, gospel, and R&B music.
He was also a fan of Western films. Together, this was an influential combination that piqued Charlie Daniels’ interest in writing and performing songs. By the time he took the music on as an official career choice, Daniels already knew how to play the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. His career started off with the bluegrass group, Misty Mountain Boys going into the 1950s. Going into the 1960s, the influence of rock and roll further engineered Charlie Daniels as a musician.
At first, Charlie Daniels was a founding member of the Rockets before it changed its name to the Jaguars, naming it after its popular instrumental single, “Jaguar.” After this, the group tapped into jazz music before going back to the mix of country and rock music. In 1963, soul singer Jerry Jackson recorded a song Charlie Daniels wrote, “It Hurts Me.” In 1964, Elvis Presley recorded and released his more popular version of this Daniels classic.
After this, Charlie Daniels was encouraged to move to Nashville, Tennessee, so he could score a job as a session player. This brought Daniels to record with Bob Dylan in 1969 for the album, Nashville Skyline, as well as with the Youngbloods for its album, Elephant Mountain. In 1970, it was with Ringo Starr for Beaucoups of Blues. After this, it was 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate with Leonard Cohen. For Daniels, working with Dylan was a positive experience for him, as was the case visa versa.
While Daniels was busy working with other recording artists on their material, he did his own with his self-titled debut album in 1970. This was an album that was cited as one of the foundations behind the discovery and development of Southern rock as a genre. In 1972, he began the Charlie Daniels Band and it would be as a group the biggest set of his hit music would flood the music charts. It started with “Uneasy Rider” as a talky bluegrass song in 1973.
Its album, Fire on the Mountain, became certified gold by the RIAA, as did the next album, Nightrider. 1976’s Saddle Tramp also became gold and it was the first time the Charlie Daniels Band had an album that peaked high on the US Billboard Country charts. Million Mile Reflections would be next as its 1977 release produced the classic hit single, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” This fiddlin’ number topped the US Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart and it peaked as high as number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 and won Daniels a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance.
The popularity of the band won the attention of then-president Jimmy Carter. He used “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” as part of his campaign theme. After he won the election, the Charlie Daniels Band performed at his 1977 inauguration. In addition to becoming a musical fan favorite, Charlie Daniels performed as himself in the 1989 John Travolta Movie, Urban Cowboy. This appearance triggered a revival of country music after the movie became a success at the box office.
While this took place, Daniels shifted his musical focus in order to keep up with the trend of country music gaining in popularity while Southern rock became less popular. 1980s’ Full Moon earned Daniels yet another platinum-certified disc as it rode the success of Million Mile Reflections. In 1982, Windows became certified gold. After this, Daniels experienced a hit drought until the 1989 release of Simple Man. This earned Daniels another gold disc, despite the fact the title track was criticized by some as an invitation to exercise vigilantism. It was a song about dishing out an unconventional brand of justice. Because of all the media attention the song received, Daniels was back in the spotlight.
Going into the 1990s, Daniels wasn’t as successful with his newer album releases but was still a major fan favorite as a concert performer for many years to come. In 1999, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Two years later, he was once again back in the spotlight with “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag.” It was his response to the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. In 2005, Daniels produced Songs from the Longleaf Pines, his first album featuring bluegrass and gospel music. That same year also had him honored as a BMI Icon with the BMI Country Awards. Three years later, Charlie Daniels became an inducted member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016, the same year he released Night Hawks, an album dedicated to Western swing music.
What Charlie Daniels delivered as a performer was a country meets the rest of the musical world approach. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” put some disco into country with a rocker’s edge that was regarded as the sound that shaped country rock as its own genre. It became his signature song and an all-time classic that still receives requests on radio stations belonging to both the country and rock genres. On July 6, 2020, Charlie Daniels passed away after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke at the Summit Medical Center in Hermitage, Tennessee. He was eight-three years old. The legacy he left behind features thirty studio albums to his credit, as well as eight live albums and four compilation albums. His music lives on as it continues to carry out his legacy for fans and music peers to enjoy.
#1 – John Coltrane
John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina, and grew up in High Point. While in high school, he started out playing the alto horn and the clarinet as his instruments while performing in the community band before switching to the saxophone. What inspired John Coltrane to make the change was the music he heard from Johnny Hodges and Lester Young.
These were highlights in John Coltrane’s life as his father, aunt, and grandparents all passed away within months of each other starting in December 1938. This left his mother and close cousin to raise him. After graduating from high school in 1943, they moved to Philadelphia where he got a job at a sugar refinery. Later that year, his mother gave him an alto saxophone for his seventeenth birthday. Starting in 1944, he took music lessons at the Ornstein School of Music with Mike Guerra. In 1945, he began performing in cocktail lounges. This also marked the year he was noticed by another saxophonist, Charlie Parker.
Before John Coltrane’s musical career fully took off, the United States military began drafting young and able-bodied men to train and fight in the Second World War. John Coltrane purposely enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, which was the same day the atomic bomb struck Japan. He was trained at Sampson Naval Training System in upstate New York to be an apprentice seaman before he was sent to Pearl Harbor.
By the time he reached Hawaii, the Navy was downsizing and he became one of the few to serve as a musician without having an official rating when he joined the swing band known as Melody Masters. This was an awkward setup as the band’s roster was all white and Coltrane was treated as a guest musician in order to avoid potential conflict with superior officers at the time. By the time his run with the Navy was done, he was the band’s leader. His first recordings took place in 1946 as he and fellow Navy musicians performed a collection of bebop songs and jazz standards. On August 8, 1946, John Coltrane was officially discharged and he was awarded the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Metal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Coltrane headed for Philadelphia shortly after and soon found himself at the center of the city’s jazz music scene. Between musical studies and playing, Coltrane’s performance level as a saxophone player continued to improve. By the time 1947 hit, he began to play tenor saxophone with Eddie Vinson. Additional influences that shaped Coltrane’s career include Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Odeon Pope, Tab Smith, and Ben Webster.
The man was so dedicated to mastering what he was learning that it was not uncommon for him to fall asleep while playing his favorite instrument. As he learned and played, his closest colleague and friend was Charlie Parker. Both of these men were movers and shakers when it came to free jazz. He led great talents such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to also become legends in the music industry.
As Coltrane’s career continued to flourish, his demeanor and musical direction became more spiritual. This was especially noted in 1957 when he played in the quartet led by Thelonious Monk. Coltrane and Monk had several recording sessions at this time and a live performance that led to Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. This was a recording that wouldn’t be released until 2005. In 1958, Blue Train was an album that had him lead trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Paul Chambers, and trombonist Curtis Fuller. This was considered the best album John Coltrane ever produced from this time period. “Moment’s Notice” and “Lazy Bird” became two classics that are now considered jazz standards. 1957 also marked another pivotal moment in Coltrane’s life as he put an end to his heroin addiction after experiencing what he referenced as a profound spiritual experience.
As a new man, John Coltrane began a recording career with Atlantic Records with 1960’s Giant Steps. This was considered to have the most difficult chord progressions than any other jazz compositions that were playing at that time. This would be later referenced as “Coltrane Changes.” This was his trademark as a performer and a conductor as he continued to dictate the course of the music industry with his brand of jazz music. He was also heavily influenced by other greats that would lead to 1965’s A Love Supreme. This became his most critically acclaimed album as a recording artist. By this time, he honed in on his interest in Avant-garde jazz which led to a classic lineup that released some of the best musical compositions recorded in the music industry.
However, while Colton was enjoying the peak of his career, his body was deteriorating. On July 17, 1967, John Coltrane lost his battle with liver cancer at forty years old. This came as a shock to fans and peers of the music community as they didn’t realize John Coltrane was dying from the disease. Even after his death, John Coltrane’s influence in the music industry continued. Prior to his death, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Posthumously, A Love Supreme became certified gold, first in Japan, then in the United States after selling over a million copies in each nation.
In 1982, he earned a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Solo Performance for Bye Bye Blackbird. It was an album he recorded in 1962 that wouldn’t be released until 1981. In 2007, John Coltrane received a special Pulitzer Prize for his masterful improvision, supreme musicianship, and iconic centrality to the history of jazz. Two years later, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Adding to the legacy of John Coltrane are two of his former homes he lived in. Philadelphia’s John Coltrane House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999 while the one he had in the Dix Hills District of Huntington, New York, was listed in 2007 in the National Register of Historic Places.
Top 10 Bands And Artists From North Carolina article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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