For a small state, Little Rhody has certainly made its mark on the national music scene. Much of the state’s musical legacy is enshrined at the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHF) and can be viewed in the grand hallway of Hope Artiste Village. Established in 2012, the mission of the RIMHF is to “celebrate, honor, and preserve the legacy of Rhode Island musicians, educators, and industry professionals who have made significant contributions to the national and Rhode Island music scene.” In celebration of Black History Month, here are three names any music-lover should know.
Pawtucket native Paul Gonsalves was a groundbreaking saxophonist in the Duke Ellington Band, credited with bringing a more modern sound to the band when he joined in 1950. He toured with Ellington for many years but is best known for a single performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, when his 27-chorus improvisation on Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” drove the crowd into a frenzy sparking fears among organizers of a potential riot. Gonsalves also released several critically praised small group albums of his own in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sissieretta Jones may not be the most widely known RI native, but she sure made a mark on the music scene in her day. An opera sensation, Jones was born in Virginia and moved to Providence at a young age. She learned her craft at Baptist churches in the city and soon began singing professionally. Jones became known as “the Black Patti,” with critics comparing her voice to that of the famous Italian opera star of the day, Adelina Patti. In the 1890s she toured Europe, playing for royalty, and performed at the White House before an audience that included President Benjamin Harrison. She is said to be the first African-American singer who performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, a major accomplishment at the time.
Claudia Lennear is one of the most well-known backup singers of all time. She grew up in Providence, where she attended Hope High School and excelled in music. In 1967, she moved to Los Angeles where she promptly joined Ike and Tina Turner’s backing chorus, The Ikettes. Lennear toured with the band in concert, sang on eight albums, and appeared on numerous TV broadcasts in the late 1960s.
Lennear soon became a “go-to” backup singer, touring and recording with many stars, including The Rolling Stones, Leon Russell, and Stephen Stills. She sang backup at George Harrison’s legendary “Concert for Bangladesh,” cementing her place in rock and roll history. In 2013, she received overdue recognition along with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and others in the Academy Award-winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” Lennear appeared at the Hall for her induction ceremony in 2019 accompanied by Grammy winning blues musician Taj Mahal.
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