The 5 Black Legends on Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ You Might Not Have Heard Of

Beyoncé came into Spring 2024 swinging—or, maybe more appropriately, saddling—with her star-studded eighth studio album ‘Cowboy Carter.’ From Miley Cyrus to Dolly Parton to Jon Batiste, the record is as impressive in credit as its composition. 

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While Queen Bey included many contemporary collabs, she also paid homage to five legendary Black artists who came before her. At a time when the country was either still segregated or reeling from a contentious civil rights movement, these artists were laying the groundwork for Black representation in music decades before Beyoncé was born.

Linda Martell

South Carolina-born Linda Martell made history as the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and the first commercially successful Black female artist in music history. However, this title didn’t come without a price. Racial tensions and a toxic working relationship with her manager strained her blossoming career. By 1974, she retired from the music industry, four years after releasing her debut and final record, ‘Color Me Country.’

Beyoncé mentions Martell by name in track No. 19 of ‘Cowboy Carter,’ titled “The Linda Martell Show.” Martell also appears on “Spaghetti” and “Ya Ya.”

Son House

Edward James “Son” House Jr. was a former preacher who applied the same passion and timbre to his blues playing as he did behind the pulpit. He rose to prominence in the Mississippi Delta region in the 1930s and was a critical influence on fellow blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. House gave up music in the early 1940s until 1964 when Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson connected with the blues musician and encouraged him to return to performing and recording.

Beyoncé’s track “Smoke Hour ★ Willie Nelson” opens with a crackling radio switching dials through several pre-1960s recordings of Black artists. (A flicking lighter signals the entrance of the album’s 4/20-friendly radio host, Willie Nelson.) House’s song “Grinnin’ In Your Face” is the first musical snippet with words on the track.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s distinctive electric guitar playing and gospel lyrics garnered her the nickname “the Godmother of rock and roll.” She was a pioneer for Black female musicians and, in a broader sense, the entire R&B and rock genres. Indeed, her work with distortion paved the way for electric blues and rock artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Tharpe continued to write and record up to her death in 1973.

After House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” the radio dial on “Smoke Hour ★ Willie Nelson” switches to Tharpe’s 1948 track “Down By the Riverside.” The Library of Congress inducted the song into its National Recording Registry in 2004.

Chuck Berry

Known as the “Father of Rock and Roll,” Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry’s career defined rock and roll music for decades to come. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included Berry in their initial group of inductees when they opened in 1986. Berry’s hits have become American musical standards, such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Johnny B. Goode.”

Beyoncé features Berry’s “Maybellene” on “Smoke Hour ★ Willie Nelson.” This was the first track Berry recorded with Chess Records in 1955. It was an instant hit, selling over a million copies and reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart.

Roy Hamilton

Roy Hamilton had a meteoric rise to fame after radio DJ Bill Cook presented Columbia Records with a demo of Hamilton’s singing. Hamilton’s distinct blend of standard pop and Black gospel styles immediately impressed the label, which signed him to its R&B and, later, pop subsidiary labels. Harrison’s 1954 cover of Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” topped the Billboard R&B chart. One year later, he made the top 10 on the Billboard Pop chart with his rendition of “Unchained Melody.” 

Finally, “Smoke Hour ★ Willie Nelson” features a clip of Hamilton’s 1957 track “Don’t Let Go,” which landed Hamilton a top-15 placement on the Billboard Pop chart. The song also made history as the first stereo track to reach the Billboard Top 40.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

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