In honor of Black History Month, Pollstar is spotlighting seminal live performances by Black artists every weekday throughout February. With a deep, rich tradition of transcendent and powerful performers across genres and the ages, we are well aware that we can only scratch the surface of so many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of brilliant Black performances. In fact, any one genre by itself, be it jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop, blues, rock, classical, house, techno, country, house, reggae and more, could easily fill this one list. Therefore, in this series, we aim to hit on a variety of music from different periods and sounds to help put into perspective the depth and range of so many incredible Black music performances that have infinitely enriched our culture and lives.
Jay-Z Headlines Glastonbury Festival, Pilton, England, June 28, 2008
It’s surely progress that, today, the idea of a major hip-hop star topping one of the major multi-genre music festivals is a no-brainer. But it wasn’t that long ago that that very idea was considered controversial, at best pandering to a fad that would surely go away, and perhaps even put an event’s reputation at stake.
Such was the case in 2008 when Glastonbury, maybe the most famous and longest-running contemporary music festival in the world, made the announcement that Jay-Z would top the event’s Saturday night lineup on its Pyramid main stage.
The always-opinionated Noel Gallagher of Oasis, one of the most popular Brit-rock bands since the ‘60s, remarked to the BBC at the time, “I’m sorry but Jay-Z? No Chance. Glastonbury has a history of guitar music.” His take echoed the sentiment of many, mostly white, critics who failed to recognize the sea change. According to The Guardian, Jay-Z was likewise unfamiliar with the idea of Glastonbury altogether until being approached to perform there, demonstrating the gulf between the rock and hip-hop worlds at the time.
Of course, he killed it during his set, brandishing a Stratocaster onstage and even rapping to Oasis’ ubiquitous “Wonderwall” to open his set, the crowd clearly in his corner from the get-go. Looking back, it was a clear changing of the guard in the next generations of major music festival headliners.
“We’re just so relieved,” Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis, daughter of festival founder Michael Eavis, told The Guardian at the time. ‘We’re over the moon. He was just amazing, phenomenal. After two seconds he had the whole thing in the palm of his hand. I have never seen that field so packed. It was the most brilliant pop cultural crossover moment. So inspiring.”
Hova himself told The Guardian. “It was fantastic. It was better than expected. What it represented was a beautiful thing. Because the people in attendance, the way they embraced the music, that was them saying, ‘We’re not like that. We’re open to new things.’” — Ryan Borba
Billie Holiday Debuts ‘Strange Fruit’ At Cafe Society In March 1939
Billie Holiday stepped on the stage of the integrated nightclub Cafe Society in New York’s Greenwich Village in March 1939 and, as the lights dimmed, wait service stopped, and a lone spotlight hit her face, closed her set with “Strange Fruit,” a song so shocking at the time that her record label refused to release it.
It wasn’t the first time the song was performed in public, but Holiday made it her truth and her own, and it came to define her as well as to be recognized as one of the top protest songs of all time.
Written by a Jewish school teacher named Abel Meeropol, a trade unionist described as a Communist, “Strange Fruit” had been performed in union halls and at Madison Square Garden prior to her performance at Cafe Society, but her debut of it sent shock waves through the NYC intelligentsia and beyond.
Her delivery of the song grabs the listener by throat, opening with “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” and it doesn’t let go.
When Columbia Records declined to release “Strange Fruit,” the label gave Holiday a one-time waiver that allowed her, with the Cafe Society band, to record and release the song through Commodore Records. What she didn’t know at the time was that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics already had Holiday singularly in its sights.
As the most popular female vocalist in jazz – a genre Bureau chief Harry Anslinger considered subhuman, with its African and Caribbean roots – she was already being targeted for rumors of heroin use.
Immediately after “Strange Fruit” was released, the Bureau unleashed the power of the federal government against Holiday. She was arrested on drug charges three times, and three times she was believed to have been set up. The second case, which Holiday referred to as “The United States versus Billie Holiday,” landed her in a West Virginia prison for a year.
After her release, and as a result of the drug conviction, she was denied the cabaret license she needed in order to make a living. She traveled to San Francisco where she was able to perform, and was busted again — this time by a sadistic agent whom it was believed planted heroin in her apartment at the Mark Twain Hotel.
The setup was so egregious that the jury acquitted her. But the damage was done. Her career was fading and other artists feared retribution for performing “Strange Fruit.” At 44, she collapsed and was hospitalized; police were summoned and they claimed to have found a tiny amount of heroin in the room. She was indicted by a grand jury and handcuffed to her bed at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, where she died after being denied methadone treatment.
But her legacy – and that of “Strange Fruit” – lives on. When it was written, the New York Post wrote that “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’,” the French national anthem considered a song of revolution. It has been covered by Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and Siouxie and the Banshees, among others, all to some acclaim. But “Strange Fruit” will forever be linked with Billie Holiday, who never stopped performing the song despite the government’s persecution of her because of it.
A film about Holiday and her legacy, “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day as Lady Day, is to be released on Hulu Feb. 26. Day is nominated for Golden Globe awards for best actress in a drama, and “Tigress and Tweed” for best original song, as performed by Day and Raphael Saadiq. — Deborah Speer
Marvin Gaye, ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ NBA All-Star Game, The Forum, Los Angeles, Feb. 13, 1983
“The Star Spangled Banner,” for far too many singers, is a difficult proposition at best. Its marching band tempo, difficult phrasing (“O’er the ramparts…”) and multi-octave range has felled many a mighty singer of great skill and talent. So for someone to actually sing it during a nationally-televised event and give it a little groove and swerve while eliciting screams from adoring fans clapping along is unheard of.
Not, however, if you’re Marvin Gaye, one of the greatest of all soul singers to ever grace a stage and who, if he wanted to, could sing the cover off the phone book and make it silky smooth. His performance of the “National Anthem’ during the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at the Forum on Feb. 13 literally had women shrieking in the stands and everyone else agog. Backed by drum machine beats (similar to the ones found on his last-ever album 1982’s Midnight Love which significantly included his classic song “Sexual Healing”) and an airy arrangement allowed The Prince of Soul to put a a bit of sensual spin only someone of Gaye’s abilities could pull-off.
“It was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done,’” Isaiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons 12-time All-Star point guard, told The Undefeated. “Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.”
— Andy Gensler
Aretha Franklin Rules The Fillmore West in San Francisco With A Guest Appearance From Ray Charles; March 5-7, 1971
A celebration of live performances wouldn’t be complete without the Aretha Franklin, arguably the best singer ever. As Mary J. Blige wrote in her tribute to the Queen of Soul in Rolling Stone’s 2008 list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” – in which Franklin topped the rankings – “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Picking just one of Franklin’s performances to highlight is nearly impossible. With her magnificent voice and incredible stage presence, just about anytime Franklin took the stage she created a moment, from filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards with her rendition of “Nessun Dorma” to singing the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., at the Civil Rights leader’s funeral in 1968 to wowing the crowd with her take on “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Franklin’s incomparable voice would often bring audiences to tears, as seen in the 2018 concert film “Amazing Grace,” which documents her recording her 1972 live album of the same name at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
One of the stand-out live performances of Franklin’s impressive career was a three-night stand at the Fillmore West in San Francisco March 5-7, 1971.
After previously playing “Vegas-type shows,” Aretha noted in her 1999 autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” that she was nervous about the Fillmore run, writing that “I wasn’t sure how the hippies reacted to me.” Of course, she won over the rock ’n’ roll fans.
“With saxman King Curtis leading a band that included Billy Preston on organ, Franklin remade pop and rock classics in her own image — turning Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ into call-and-response gospel and reworking ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as a funky stomp,” Rolling Stone declared in its write-up honoring the Fillmore gigs as one of “The 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years.”
Franklin opened each show with her signature single “Respect” and the last night she brought the legendary Ray Charles on stage to take part in a monumental 9-minute version of “Spirit in the Dark.”
“She turned the thing into church,” Charles later said of the performance, according to Rolling Stone. “I mean, she’s on fire.”
Selections from the three-night concert were released as Franklin’s third live album, 1971’s Aretha Live at Fillmore West. King Curtis also released Live at Fillmore West in 1971 and in 2005 the complete concert was released in a four-CD box set on Rhino titled Don’t Fight the Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West.
“It was a huge deal for Aretha to record at the Fillmore West. It was a coming together of youth culture and black culture,” Former SF Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin said, according to CBS affiliate KPIX. “It was a high moment for everybody – for the Fillmore, for Aretha, for the musicians involved, for the audience.” — Sarah Pittman
Run-DMC performs at Live Aid at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, July 13, 1985
The Live Aid global benefit concerts in 1985 are often looked to as one of the biggest moments in concert history. But the concerts – which were simulcast from Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine disaster – also provided hip-hop with its largest platform up to that point, as they featured then rising stars Run-DMC.
In 1985, when there were still structures creating divides between mainstream music and so-called “race” music, Run-DMC was given a prime slot at the stadium gig before an estimated audience of 100,000 at John F. Kennedy Stadium, the first time hip-hop was invited onto such a large, global stage.
The group’s DMC told Rolling Stone that Bill Graham specifically requested Run-DMC perform at the event and made his involvement conditional on their participation.
DMC later told SiriusXM: “It was the scariest thing ever. We didn’t want to do it.
“We thought: ‘Ya’ll playing a trick on us, they don’t want us there.’ … So we got there that morning and we saw how huge it was … Truth be told we were nervous. When they said, ‘It’s time to go on,’ your instinct just kicks in and you just start doing what you know how to do. … But it was scary, we were scared to death.”
The group’s set included the song “King Of Rock,” ironic considering they were one of the few non-rock acts on the bill, which also featured the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger with Tina Turner, and an iconic performance by Queen. At the time Run-DMC had only formed two years old and had just released their second album, King Of Rock, after putting out their eponymous debut just one year prior. But they were hot, pushing boundaries of rap-rock fusion, and were transitioning into mainstream success in a way that no hip-hop act had ever seen.
The group’s 1986 album, Raising Hell, would become one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time, and it contains their famous cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” as well as their most popular single, “It’s Tricky.”
The group would go on to win a Grammy lifetime achievement award and to be the second hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. — Francisco Rendon
Janelle Monáe, ‘Hell You Talmbout’ at the Women’s March, Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 2017
There may be no more poignant, painful and powerful moment in live music than when Janelle Monáe took the stage at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. with the mothers of slain African Americans whose lives were unjustly taken by police to perform her soul-crushing anthem “Hell You Talmbout.”
With a booming, all-female drum and percussionist group and backup singers that included Jedenna, Monae explained the call-and-response rhythm of “Hell You Talmbout” by first repeating the name Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on July, 13 2015, after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation. She then commanded the crowd and backup singers to respond with “Say my name!”
Then came an incredibly somber and devastating moment when the mother of Jordan Davis, who was murdered in November 2012 at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., following an argument over loud music said her deceased child’s name. Eric Garner’s mother was next. Her son was killed by police in Staten Island in July 2014 on the suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Then came Trayvon Martin’s mother, whose son was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Fla.. They were followed by the mothers of Mohamed Bah, whose son was killed by New York City police in September 2012, and Dontre Hamilton, shot in April 2014 by Milwaukee police officers.Monae then handed the mic to #BlackTransLivesMatter co-founder Cherno Biko, who called out the names of Mya Hall and Deonna Mason, two trans women killed by police.
Monae righteously summed up this powerful moment best: an injustice done to anybody is an injustice to everyone. –Andy Gensler
Charlie Parker Returns to New York’s 52nd St. With Miles Davis, Max Roach, Tommy Potter & Duke Jordan, 1947
Two years after Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz with his first recording, “Ko-Ko,” in 1945, he assembled his “classic quartet” of drummer Max Roach, bassist Tommy Potter, Duke Jordan on piano and a young Miles Davis on trumpet for a run of dates in New York clubs.
He was fresh from a stay at the Camarillo state hospital in California where he attempted to rid himself of a drug habit, returning as a hero to the beboppers who saw him as a spiritual leader of the genre. His profound approach to improvisation and composition was not only intact in 1947, but reports from those dates suggest it was seemingly more deeply ingrained and he was more at ease with his talents. Evidence could be heard in his anthem “Yardbird Suite,” which had been written and recorded just a year earlier.
Just a few years earlier, Parker and Dizzy Gillespie revolutionized the artform by making jazz for listening rather than dancing. Their music was fast and intricate, but more than any other musician Parker blended nuance, humor and romance with his virtuosity. And he held his ground, sticking with bebop as others retreated to big bands and bebop’s predecessor, swing.
The crowd that made its way to see Bird at the Three Deuces was not just hipsters; jazz legends and up-and-comers flocked to see him in droves, hoping to absorb knowledge and inspiration. No longer playing with peers as he had in bands with Gillespie, Parker was now bringing along a new generation, a model that musicians such as Davis would follow for decades. Two years after his Three Deuces stand, he was honored when the doors were opened to a new club, Birdland. It’s still in operation today. — Phil Gallo
Whitney Houston, Super Bowl XXV, Tampa Stadium, Tampa, Fla., Jan. 27, 1991
In what some consider to be the greatest version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever recorded, Whitney Houston captivated the entire country on the largest stage television had to offer.
The U.S. had just entered the Persian Gulf war and the performance was laden with military motifs, from constant images of soldiers saluting to a dramatic conclusion featuring F-16s flying overhead.
Singing the notoriously difficult anthem effortlessly, Houston blended her iconic voice with a full backing orchestra while the stadium full of flags waved nonstop.
NPR’s Sam Sanders said the performance shone not only because of Whitney’s vocal talents, but because there was also a clear level of restraint and intentionality in the performance that was perfect for the moment.
“I really feel like the reason it worked the most is because where most people are nervous, Whitney is the most calm,” Danyel Smith, author and host of the podcast “Black Girl Songbook” told NPR. “The spaces in the song where the notes are most difficult to get to or hold, Whitney is actually most at ease.”
The performance not only demonstrated Whitney’s outstanding artistry, Smith said, but represented a true crossover moment, as she was riding the success of seven consecutive No. 1 hits, but she and Michael Jackson were still fighting to get the amount of industry support her white contemporaries got.
The song drew such a strong response from the public that Arista Records decided to release the performance as a single and donate the proceeds to the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund. The song was re-released in September 2011 after the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, raising funds for the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police.
There was a bit of outrage at the height of the song’s popularity when the public discovered that most Super Bowl performances are pre-recorded, but the legend of the song continued to grow when it was revealed that Houston’s pre-taping was done in a single take.
This year, Jazmine Sullivan, who sang the anthem at this year’s big game, paid tribute to Houston by wearing a white track suit to her pre-game rehearsals of the song with Eric Church, once again evoking the imagery of “America’s soccer mom” setting the country at ease. — Francisco Rendon
Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey, Calif., June 18, 1967
Monterey Pop in Jun 0f 1967 was Jimi Hendrix’s fiery introduction to an American audience during the height of the Summer Of Love. The historic event, which took place shortly after the debut of The Experience’s first U.S. single “Hey Joe,” also featured appearances by largely unseen stars in the making such as The Who, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. But Hendrix’s performance stood apart, as the guitar god unleashed a torrent of style, technical skill, raw energy and actual fire on an unsuspecting American audience that had largely only heard whispers of the young Seattle musician’s wild stage show and out-of-this-world sonic mayhem.
Hendrix’s use of intense volume, guitar feedback, dive-bombing vibrato and half-step Eb tuning created a unique rhythm and tone that put his instrument at the forefront of the already-powerful Jimi Hendrix Experience rhythm section led by drummer Mitch Mitchell. Striking in appearance with full gypsy (or perhaps Voodoo Child) getup, and notably Black during what was otherwise a very white psychedelic music space, Hendrix’s stage presence and ability to manipulate his upside-down, reverse-strung Fender Stratocaster put the instantly-legendary musician in a class of his own, with his mark on rock and roll and the electric guitar rivaled by fewer than can be counted on one hand. And that was before he took the lighter fluid to the guitar in Monterey during his “Wild Thing” finale, showing up The Who’s already-notorious and perhaps raucous, juvenile instrument smashing with a mystical, otherworldly flair – just like his music. — Ryan Borba
Larry Levan, Paradise Garage Opening, New York City, Jan. 28, 1978
The Paradise Garage, 43-years since its official opening, is the stuff of clubland legend. The high church of New York house music was led by Brooklyn DJ Larry Levan (born Lawrence Philpot), the club’s resident DJ who ministered from a turntable pulpit from before its official opening on Jan. 28, 1978, until its Sept. 26, 1987, closing leaving a profound legacy that would become a foundational part of a global house music movement.
Located at 84 King Street, on the industrial western edge of New York’s SoHo
neighborhood (now known as Larry Levan Way), The Paradise Garage’s was a beacon of
inclusivity community, tolerance and, of course, dancing backed by an ecstatic mix of soul, funk disco, gospel, rock, new wave, electronic, dub, jazz—basically no genre was off-limits. The Garage stood in stark contrast to midtown’s swankier, glitzier and exclusive Studio 54 and its international fame as Levan and the Garage’s ethos stood on the shoulders of a more inclusive local dance music that included NYC dance spots like David Mancuso’s Loft and Nicky Siano’s Gallery. The Garage was owned by Michael Brody with the financial backing of
Mel Cheren of West-End Records and featured state of the art sound designed by Levan and Richard Long & Associates in what became a sonic model for other clubs.
Levan also produced extended remixes for artists such as Taana Gardner, Inner Life, Dee Dee Bridgewater Man Friday,
the N.Y.C. Peech
Boys and many others as extended remixes became the coin of the club realm. The sonic aesthetic Levan and the Garage pioneered as well as the inclusive communal ethos and all-night dancing and positive vibrations is often referred to in spiritual terms like “salvation,” “redemption” and “sanctuary” with good reason: The Paradise Garage enhanced people’s lives and souls.
“The Paradise Garage
was like church,” Bernard Fowler of the Peach Boys
told Time Out New York in 2018. “People who came from all over the
Tri-state area and beyond to spend the weekend at the Garage. That was
the congregation, and Larry was the minister. He was preaching through
his records….He was the Pied Piper. Nobody did it better.” — Andy Gensler
Beyoncé, Coachella Valley Music + Arts Festival, Indio, CA, April 14 & 21, 2018
Beyoncé’s performance as the first black female headliner at Coachella Valley Music + Arts Festival was initially delayed a year because of her pregnancy but it proved to be well worth the wait.
Full of brilliant choreography, outfit changes and pyrotechnics, the show paid heavy tribute to historically black colleges and sparked a new interest in marching band culture. She sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often referred to as the “Black National Anthem” multiple times throughout the show. She incorporated vocal snippets of Malcolm X, Nina Simone and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The performance – which inspired many to dub that year’s edition of Coachella as “Beychella” – ran through her catalogue and featured guest appearances from her Destiny’s Child collaborators Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, her sister Solange, her collaborator on the smash hit “Mi Gente” J Balvin, and her husband Jay-Z.
Writer Shanon Lee of Refinery29 wrote after Beyoncé’s epic performance: “Whether or not you are in the Beyhive, the knowledge dropped during the superstar’s Coachella concert and her spirited celebration of Black women and Black culture was a masterclass that everyone needs to see.”
The sets were recorded by a professional film crew and released as a concert film, “Homecoming” on Netflix the following year, prompting a second wave of appreciation for Queen Bey’s mastery. The performances were also captured in the live album HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM. She followed the festival performance with the “OTR II” tour with Jay-Z through Live Nation.
Beyoncé’s showstopping turn was not only the first time a black woman headlined Coachella, but was she also only the third woman in the festival’s history to receive top billing, after Björk in 2002 and Lady Gaga in 2017. — Francisco Rendon
‘Wild Style’ Finale, East River Bandshell, New York City, Oct.
10, 1981/May 1982
1982’s “Wild Style” is a beautiful poem to, and documentary of, New York City’s early-80s hip-hop culture that is not-so-hidden within a flimsy narrative and badly acted film that’s become one of the all-time great cult classics. What director Charlie Ahern along with visual artist/hip-hop pioneer Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, graffiti artist/protagonist George “Lee” Quinones and others brilliantly accomplish is a resplendent slice of the four pillars of hip-hop culture – graffiti, MCs, DJing and breakdancing – with the real deal hip-hop progenitors dripping with talent and energy. The scenes up in the club, the subway depots, the streets and playground (the throwdown between Fantastic Five and Cold Crush and the cheerleaders, below, is one of the greatest scenes ever put to celluloid) with contrasting images of the blighted Boogie Down Bronx and Money Makin’ Manhattan 40-years later is a priceless historical document.
But it’s the film’s climactic ending, a “Rap Convention” at The East River Bandshell, combining those four hip-hop pillars that make for some of the most iconic early live hip-hop performances of all time. It starts with clips of Grand Master Flash cutting it up with the Fab 5 and then the Fantastic Five and Busy Bee rocks the mic before Double Trouble, complete in classic gangster get-ups and fake machine gun, take the party to the next level. Rammellzee and Shock Dell with GrandMixer DXT keep the party going with clips of breakdancing legends from the Rock Steady Crew.
The story behind the story is that the original finale was filmed on Oct. 10, 1981, but due to poor sound quality had to be re-shot in May 1982, which meant original performers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and rapper Cowboy didn’t make the second filming as they were busy blowing up. Kool Moe Dee makes a cameo at the end as Chic’s “Good Times,” a classic track often sampled in hip-hop plays and sums up what everyone’s thinking – even 40 years later.
— Andy Gensler
Sissieretta Jones, Carnegie Hall, Feb. 13, 1893
Opera singer Sissieretta Jones’ many accomplishments during her trailblazing career include becoming the first Black woman to headline the main stage at Carnegie Hall (when it was originally known as Music Hall). After the soprano performed at the venue’s 1200-seat recital hall on the lower level (today known as Zankel Hall) in June 1892 – making history as the first African American artist to take the stage at the Hall – she returned on Feb. 13, 1893 to take part in a benefit for the World’s Fair Colored Opera Company. A post on Carnegie Hall’s website points out that while the lineup also included the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Will Marion Cook on violin and several other soloists “Jones was the star attraction” of the event.
Unfortunately, no known recordings of Jones exist. A review by The New York Times described Jones as having “a voice of surpassing sweetness, a distinct enunciation, and a wide range” and added that she “easily held her vast audience spellbound from beginning to end.”
Jones performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 and reportedly also performed for Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. She also toured Europe, performing for emperors, kings and princes, according to the American Masters film “Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America.”
“I’m completely convinced that without Madame Sissieretta Jones, there would be no Marian Anderson. There would be no Leontyne Price. There would be no Jessye Norman. There would be no me. She not only changed the opera world, but she changed history. What a queen!” J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano opera singer said in the film.
The pioneering artist spent 19 years on the road as the star of the Black Patti Troubadours, featuring 50 African American performers including acrobats, comedians, dancers and trained singers. American Masters reports she was on the road 42-45 weeks a week, playing five or six cities in a week.
Jones was nicknamed “Black Patti” in reference to the Italian opera singer Adelina Patti. American Masters notes that Jones didn’t like the epithet and said in an interview it “rather annoys me… I am afraid people will think I consider myself the equal to Patti herself. I assure you I don’t think so, but I have a voice and I am striving to win the favor of the public by honest merit and hard work.”
— Sarah Pittman
James Brown, Michael Jackson & Prince, The Beverly Theater, L.A., Aug. 20, 1983 ,
On an already incredible night of music that saw James Brown performing with the blues legend B.B. King at L.A.’s Beverly Theater, The Godfather of Soul brought out two unexpected surprise superstar guests to make the night legendary. It came towards the end of the night during an extended jam of “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” when Brown, much to the audience’s shock and awe, called Michael Jackson up to the stage from the audience.
Michael Jackson, in his Thriller prime, took the stage, sang a couple of pitch perfect “I love yous” and then pow! The JB’s amped up the tempo and lit into “Hustle!!! (Dead On It).” as The King of Pop exploded into several of his classic dance moves: the quadruple spin, the Thriller knee bend and gravity-defying moon walk. On his way off stage Jackson whispered something into Brown’s ear.
“He just insisted that I introduce Prince!” Brown says calling Prince Rogers Nelson to the stage. Of course, if you’re Prince, you make your stage entrance riding piggyback on a large bearded man while pulling off your spangled gloves with your teeth. Prince then straps on a guitar, tosses off a couple of mostly rhythmic licks before squatting down, placing the guitar between his legs and thrusting. Seemingly caught up in the moment, Prince removes his guitar, then his shirt and does a couple of mic stand kicks before leaving exiting and knocking over a prop lamp. It’s a shame the two guests didn’t perform longer, with each other and/or with Brown., but perhaps no stage could handle that much star power at once. — Andy Gensler
Aug. 20, 1972, Wattstax, L.A. Memorial Coliseum
The Wattstax Summer Festival was organized by Memphis’ Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in the predominantly Black community of Watts, Los Angeles. The lineup included luminaries such as The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, The Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas and the Soul Children, Albert King, William Bell, Luther Ingram, Kim Weston (who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a.k.a. “The Black National Anthem”) and Johnnie Taylor and drew some 112,000 attendees, which was said to be the largest, non-political gathering of Black people up until that point. The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a powerful opening speech and introduced the artists. Stax subsequently released a double live album, Wattstax: The Living Word, and a seminal 1973 documentary “Wattstax,” of the event which was nominated for a Golden Globe. — Andy Gensler