Sixty years ago, Berry Gordy Jr. took an $800 loan from his family and founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Mich. The label—which was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation in 1960 and went on to sign such iconic acts as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and The Temptations—touched off an era representing a some of the greatest musical gifts of the 20th century. Motown's influence widely resonates today, in genres as far-flung as rock 'n' roll, R&B, and hip-hop.
Motown's cultural contributions run even deeper than the music. When Gordy launched the label, he opened up new avenues to success for black musicians, singers, writers, and producers who had previously been underrepresented, underemployed, and underpaid for their talents. Motown Records was the first black-owned label to reach national recognition and success—as well as the most successful independent label of all time and the most lucrative African-American-owned business in America of its era, to boot.
The perseverance of Gordy—and all the talented people he represented—demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit, as well. The life of a musician isn't always easy. Gigs are hard to get. Fans can be finicky. Life on the road can be lonely. It's even more difficult for those who've faced racism, sexism, or other barriers into the industry. Some artists overcome disabilities in pursuit of their dreams. Ludwig van Beethoven, one of history's most famous musicians, started losing his hearing in his 20s. That didn't keep him away from the piano; he continued composing and playing even as he went deaf. Despite going blind from glaucoma when he was 6, Ray Charles mastered the piano and the saxophone to become a soul legend.
When the popularity of rock n' roll surged in the ‘50s, black musicians still faced discrimination in the Jim Crow South. For starters, segregated restaurants and hotels turned non-white musicians away. The Flamingos, an all-black group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, weren't allowed to look at white fans in the audience—and were monitored by cops to ensure the rules were followed.
Women also fought against racism and sexism. Before Beyonce opened the doors for other black artists, Odetta James sang civil rights anthems and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Shattering gender stereotypes, rocker Joan Jett showed that female musicians didn't have to be so polite. Others faced issues around their sexual identity. Performers like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and Elton John helped pave the way for LGBTQ men onstage. In the early ‘90s, singers Melissa Etheridge and K.D. Lang represented gay women in modern music.
Using information from “Rad American Women A-Z” by Kate Schatz, news reports, and biographies, Stacker created a list of 25 musicians who succeed despite challenges. Click through to learn more about the artists who broke barriers and carried on the precedent Motown set.
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Blinded by being given too much oxygen just after birth, Stevie Wonder — born Steveland Hardaway Judkins — learned to play the harmonica, drums, and piano before he was 10. Wonder signed with Motown Records in 1961 and promoted social justice and racial tolerance throughout his career, including singing the duet “Ebony and Ivory” in the ‘80s with Paul McCartney. During his career, he won 25 Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, started the rock band Queen in the early ‘70s. Mercury, who said he was bisexual, challenged the heteronormative stereotypes around what a man should be like on stage. Although he was known for his skin-tight costumes and charismatic stage presence, some say Mercury was actually shy when he wasn't performing.
Jazz musician Nina Simone, who was classically-trained but also loved folk, started playing the piano when she was 3. Simone used her music to speak out about racism and social justice during the Civil Rights Movement of the early ‘60s. Her music inspired modern black artists like Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and John Legend.
Joan Jett started performing with the all-girl rock band the Runaways in 1975. Along with fellow members Cherie Currie, Micki Steele, and Sandy West, Jett changed what it meant to be a woman in rock. "The Runaways were groundbreakers," says Holly George-Warren, a music historian and author of "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock." "The lyrics were provocative and they didn't have this prettiness that was expected of female musicians."
Prince signed a contract with Warner Bros. when he was 17, launching a successful career that spanned 40 years. His first album came out in 1978, and “Little Red Corvette” was one of the first videos by a black artist to appear on MTV. After his death in 2016, one of Prince's bandmates said he was a once-in-a-lifetime artist. “Prince broke so many barriers. He broke walls down. There were other people who did it, going back to Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, but not like Prince,” says Mark “Brownmark” Brown.
In 2009, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert opened up about being “bi-curious” and gay. While Lambert isn't a music icon yet—though he does collaborate with Queen—he helped usher in a new era of gay acceptance simply because he was on a mainstream television show. At the time, only 37% of Americans supported same-sex marriage.
Years before Nicki Minaj exploded on the rap scene, there was MC Lyte. Lana Michelle Moorer was the first female rapper to release a solo album and the first to be nominated for a Grammy. In 1993, her single “Ruffneck” was nominated for Best Rap Single. In 2006, she founded the Hip Hop Sisters Network, a non-profit organization that provides mentorship for young people and “promotes positive images of women of ethnic diversity.”
Though he was born with a stutter, Bill Withers went on to win three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Withers, who shot to fame with “Ain't No Sunshine” in 1971, challenged racial stereotypes. “Not a lot of people got me,” says Withers. “Here I was, this black guy playing an acoustic guitar, and I wasn't playing the gut-bucket blues. People had a certain slot that they expected you to fit in to.”
Patti Smith, another female musician who defied the gender stereotypes of her era, moved to New York in the late ‘60s. She started her artistic career as a poet and later joined the New York punk scene in the ‘70s. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Born during the Great Depression, Odetta Holmes faced poverty and racism before launching her folk career, a genre dominated by white singers at the time. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College, but started singing in New York nightclubs in the ‘50s. In 1960s, her music became political and she marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
Canada-based rock and R&B singer Lucas Silveira started their career in the 2000s. Silveira decided to transition to a man because he “needed to be happy.” Silveira slowly took testosterone because he was afraid to permanently lose his voice by “shocking” his vocal cords. "It was a big, big worry," says Silveira. "When I first came out as a trans guy, I was told pretty much right away that if I was to consider being a singer for the rest of my life, it's just not something that I could do.”
In 2012, the lead singer of the punk rock band Against Me! became Laura Jane Grace and transitioned to female. The group later released “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “Shape Shift With Me,” albums exploring issues of gender identity.
Ella Fitzgerald, the “queen of jazz,” won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater when she was only a teenager. In 1957, Fitzgerald became the first black person to perform at Mocambo, a nightclub in Los Angeles. Though she won 13 Grammys and was the first woman to receive the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, she never made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1951, Little Richard won a talent contest in Atlanta, eventually signing a record contract with RCA. Richard helped jumpstart rock n' roll, and artists like Elvis Presley and the Beatles covered his songs. He later toured with the Rolling Stones. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Richard was known for his flashy style when it came to clothes and piano playing, but he struggled to combine his religious beliefs with his sexual identity as a gay man.
Before same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states, Beth Ditto, formerly of the band Gossip, was singing about LGBTQ rights. In 2015, she married her partner Kristin Ogata in Oregon. Ditto is also a plus-sized model and designer. When asked about the scene she represents, Ditto said, "The homos and the weirdos know that our band is always going to be their friend. And at home, most of my friends play music and most of them are gay, and that's the truth.”
Singer and dancer Rita Moreno came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. Moreno was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar. In 1962, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "West Side Story." She later won two Emmys, a Grammy, and a Tony.
Considered the “godmother of rock n' roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black woman, rose to fame in the 1940s. She learned to play the guitar when she was 4, and her love of music led her to New York during the late ‘30s. Even though she was famous, segregation during the ‘40s kept her from eating in some restaurants or sleeping in whites-only hotels—she spent many nights sleeping on buses.
Soul singer and civil rights champion Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She eventually won 18 Grammys and became one of the most famous and respected singers in history. “I think women have to be strong,” said Franklin, otherwise, “some people will run right over you.”
At age 6, glaucoma robbed Ray Charles of his eyesight. Despite going blind, Charles learned to play the piano and saxophone, later becoming one of the most influential musicians of the ‘50s—a time of racial discrimination and intolerance. When asked to describe his soulful music, Charles said: “It's a force that can light a room. The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you've been and what it means. Soul is a way of life—but it's always the hard way."
In 1999, Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin brought Latin pop music to the mainstream. "Livin' La Vida Loca" was Martin's inaugural solo album and his first No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While rumors about his sexuality spread early in his career, the now-married pop star publicly came out as gay in 2010. The decision was “incredibly painful” and many told him it would end his career. Martin is now an advocate for the LGBTQ community.
In 2003, Big Freedia released her first album “Queen Diva,” but her career didn't really take off until 2010. Since then, the New Orleans “queen of bounce”—a gay man who doesn't have a preference for gender pronouns—has increased awareness for the LGBTQ community. In 2013, she launched a reality show, “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce,” and won a GLAAD Media Award. In 2016, Big Freedia ran into legal trouble. She received probation and had to pay a $35,000 fine for taking housing-assistance vouchers in New Orleans when her income was actually too high to receive the funds.