Behind The Music: The Groundbreaking Black Artists of the MTI Catalog

Behind The Music: The Groundbreaking Black Artists of the MTI Catalog

If you have ever wondered where some of the most hummable tunes in the MTI catalog come from, look no further than artists like The Shirelles, Fats Waller, Duke Ellingtion, and Ida Cox. Throughout Black History Month on our social media channels, we put the spotlight on Black artists whose music and groundbreaking artistic contributions are featured in our shows. While their music celebrates universal emotions and human experiences, these artists' journeys each tell a singular story of innovation, some received with wide acclaim while some took longer to gain broader recognition. Let's take a look at the artists we highlighted and some of the history behind their music...

The Shirelles

Vinyl record displaying photo of Shirelles

You might recognize the Shirelles (Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris, Beverly Lee) from their hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. With this single, the Shirelles made history as the first Black girl group to reach #1 on the Billboard charts. Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was selected by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Featured in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the Shirelles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Eubie Blake

Vinyl record displaying photo of Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake began his lifelong relationship with music at age 5 when he ran across an organ and performed in a store while shopping with his mother. The store clerk declared him a prodigy and insisted that they buy the organ. The rest is history.⁠

Blake is known for the trailblazing masterpiece Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical written, directed by, and starring Black artists. The show broke new ground for representation of Black voices in theatre and is widely credited as the first jazz musical on Broadway.⁠

MTI is honored to license Eubie!, a musical tribute to Eubie Blake’s work, which opened on Broadway in 1978. Blake received a Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score with Noble Sissle, Andy Razafe, F.E. Miller, Johnny Brandon, and Jim Europe. Eubie! features “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, "In Honeysuckle Time", "Charleston Rag", and more from Blake's outstanding repertoire.⁠

The Drifters

Vinyl record displaying photo of The Drifters

The Drifters were formed in 1953 and were able to make an impact on the music industry with some of their iconic hits. Among them, they cracked the top 10 of the pop singles chart with “There Goes My Baby” in 1959 and “Save the Last Dance for Me” in 1960.⁠

In 1963, the Drifters made the top 10 yet again with “On Broadway”, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical feature this hit single, as well as "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up on the Roof" - and the Drifters themselves!⁠

In 1988, The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their undeniable impact on the music industry. ⁠

Shown in the image above are members Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Tommy Evans, and Rudy Lewis. Yet over the years as members changed, the Drifters featured the talents of the following:⁠

Clyde McPhatter⁠, Gerhart Thrasher⁠, Andrew Thrasher⁠, Charlie White⁠, Bill Pinkney⁠, Willie Ferbee⁠, Walter Adams⁠, Ben E. King⁠, Charlie Thomas⁠, Dock Green⁠, Derek Ventura⁠, Bernard Jones⁠, Lloyd Butch Phillips⁠, Elsbeary Hobbs⁠, Rudy Lewis⁠, Tommy Evans⁠, Johnny Lee Williams⁠, Eugene Pearson⁠, Johnny Terry⁠ ,Harrell Dixon⁠, J.T. Carter⁠, Johnny Stewart⁠, Terry King⁠, Johnny Moore⁠, Bobby Hendricks⁠, Butch Leake⁠, Rudy Ivan⁠, Jimmy Lewis⁠, Ray Lewis⁠, Rick Sheppard⁠, Bill Fredericks⁠, Louis Price⁠, Maurice Cannon⁠, Glenn Dodd⁠, Michael Williams⁠, Jason Leigh⁠, Phil Watson⁠, Michael Raysor⁠, Dave Revels⁠, Darryl Johnson.

Bessie Smith

Vinyl record displaying photo of Bessie Smith

Given the title of the "Empress of the Blues", Bessie Smith is quintessential to the history of R&B and music as a whole. Born in 1894, she rose from poverty to become one of the highest-paid Black performers of her time. From performing with the great Ma Rainey at the beginning of her career to her hits during the Harlem Renaissance like “St. Louis Blues”, Bessie Smith made a profound impact on blues and jazz.⁠

Blues in the Night, a revue devoted to the power of blues, features five songs by Smith. ⁠

The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted three recordings by Bessie Smith: "Downhearted Blues", "St. Louis Blues", "Empty Bed Blues". In 1989, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Fats Waller

Vinyl record displaying photo of Fats Waller

Fats Waller was a legendary pianist and composer. You might recognize his songs from Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Tony-winning celebration of his work.⁠

Born in New York City in 1904, Waller played the organ at his father's church as a child. He studied composition at Juilliard before releasing his first records "Birmingham Blues" and "Muscle Shoals Blues" in 1922. From this starting point, he would go on to tour the world in addition to composing hundreds of songs, including “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, both of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame decades after his passing. Fats Waller is widely regarded as among the most significant trailblazers of jazz piano.⁠

Although he passed away in 1943 when he was only 39, Fats Waller has received accolades for his vital contributions to jazz over the decades since. In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame. Ain't Misbehavin' opened on Broadway in 1978 and would go on to the West End before enjoying successful revivals on both sides of the pond. In 1993, Fats Waller was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ida Cox

Vinyl record displaying photo of Ida Cox

Nicknamed the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”, Ida Cox started her music recording career in 1923. She was discovered by talent scouts and secured a contract with Paramount Records, the same record company as Ma Rainey, “The Mother of Blues”. From 1923-1929, Ida Cox recorded more than 70 songs for Paramount, and also recorded songs for other labels under various pseudonyms. ⁠

Some of her greatest hits can be found in Blues in the Night, including "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues".⁠

Duke Ellington

Vinyl record displaying photo of Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington composed over a thousand pieces of music in a career that spanned over five decades, combining the sounds of jazz, blues, and classical music. Ellington was a fixture at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. With his iconic orchestra, the “Duke Ellington Orchestra,” Ellington was a tour de force in jazz orchestra - also called "big band" jazz. ⁠

Duke Ellington won a total 14 Grammy Awards both during his career and after his passing in 1974. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. In 1999, he posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize ⁠Special Award.⁠

"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)", one of Duke Ellington's most renowned hits, is featured in The All Night Strut! This charming revue is a musical celebration of the 1930s and '40s, filled with jazz, blues, bebop and American songbook standards.⁠

The Temptations

Vinyl record displaying photo of The Temptations

Finally, let's look at one of the most successful male vocalist groups of all time, The Temptations. ⁠Founded in 1960 and discovered by Motown Records in 1961, they would go on to release four Billboard Hot 100 number one singles and 14 R&B number one singles. The Temptations won their first Grammy Award in 1969 for "Cloud Nine" - making them the first Motown artists to do so. They won a second Grammy in 1973 for "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", a third in 2001 for the album "Ear-Resistible", and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. In 1989, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ⁠

As of 2023, The Temptations continue to perform with founder Otis Williams in the lineup.⁠

Pictured above are the "Classic 5": Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. The other members are as follows:⁠

Ron Tyson⁠, Terry Weeks⁠, Tony Grant⁠, Jawan M. Jackson⁠, Elbridge "Al" Bryant⁠, Dennis Edwards⁠, Ricky Owens⁠, Richard Street⁠, Damon Harris⁠, Glenn Leonard⁠, Louis Price⁠, Ali-Ollie Woodson⁠, Theo Peoples⁠, Ray Davis⁠, Harry McGilberry⁠, Barrington "Bo" Henderson⁠, G. C. Cameron⁠, Joe Herndon⁠, Bruce Williamson⁠, Larry Braggs⁠, Willie Greene⁠, Mario Corbino⁠.

Newly acquired by MTI, Ain't Too Proud tells their history-making story, set to the beat of the group’s treasured hits, including “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” “Papa Was a Rollin' Stone” and so many more.

MTI is honored to feature the work of these brilliant artists, who paved the way for the musicians of today. Without them, musical theatre, and music as a whole, would not be what it is now.

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