With the Ocean State poised to make R&B the official state music, now is great time to remember a few of Rhode Island’s top musicians of African American descent. From Opera to Doo-Wop to Jazz, Black artists have contributed greatly to the state’s musical heritage. For Black History Month, we’re introducing you to a few Rhode Islanders who paved the way. For more, check out the videos and visit the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame web site here.
Widely considered the great singer of her generation, Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), was a late 19th century concert singer. She began her career in Providence, after her family moved here in 1876. With a gifted voice, she became known as “the Black Patti,” after the Italian diva Adelina Patti. Jones performed in Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and before royalty in Europe.
A daughter of slaves, Jones once earned as much as $2000 a week, and owned several homes around the country at the height of her career. She performed at the White House four times and was the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. Learn more about Jones in the video below.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Claudia Lennear was the leading background singer for many legendary classic rock acts. After attending Hope High School, she began her career in 1967 singing and dancing as one of the Ikettes, alongside Ike and Tina Turner. She later sang live and on numerous recordings with the likes of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal and Stephen Stills.
Lennear appeared in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh and was recently featured in the 2013 Academy Award winning film, 20 Feet From Stardom. The 2019 inductee in the RI Music Hall of Fame released her own album, Phew, in 1973 – it’s an underappreciated gem of a release! Look it up!
In true doo wop style, the brothers Tavares began their rise to fame singing on street corners. They were once even arrested while singing in front of their house in South Providence for “disturbing the peace.” Most of the time, however, the band spread peace and good vibes to Rhode Islanders and fans worldwide.
They recorded numerous R&B/Soul and later disco hits, and were at the top of the charts in the mid-70’s. The won a Grammy Award in 1979 for their hit, “More Than a Woman,” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, one of the top selling albums of the 1970’s.
Born in Providence, Jeffrey Osborne is a Grammy–nominated singer, songwriter and musician who hails from a legendary RI musical family. Osborne began his career in 1970 as lead vocalist for L.T.D., a popular R&B band founded in the early 1970’s. He later began a solo career, where he was nominated for several Grammy Awards. Osborne flew to the top of the charts with hits including “On the Wings of Love” and “Love Power.” The Osborne family is legendary in RI- his father Clarence “Legs” Osborne, was a popular jazz trumpeter who played with Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. His brother Billy, a multi-talented artist and inductee in the RI Music Hall of Fame, was also a founding member of L.T.D.
Born in Providence in 1933, Freddy Scott had a number of songs on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in the 1960’s. His hits continue to inspire – “Hey Girl” and “You Got What I Need” (sampled in 1989 by Biz Markie) are staples on oldies radio. Scott had diverse influences and performed songs by Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Van Morrison and Van McCoy. He recorded songs in various soul music sub-genres, “moving effortlessly from doo-wop through uptown soul, to the more grittier mid-60s soul and onto more contemporary material.”