The transiency of populations that marks D.C.’s metropolitan area also means that many of us have little appreciation of what has unfolded here in the last seventy years of popular music. If you want to talk about D.C.’s contributions to the music world-at-large, you might begin with Duke Ellington. Born and raised in D.C., Ellington is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and leader for 50 years of a band that became the greatest of all jazz orchestras. Ellington’s output was extraordinary, ranging from short pieces to suites, film scores, and sacred concerts. His all-time classics include “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Satin Doll.”


Born into a religious family – his father was a minister in Washington – he sang his first solos in church at three. In the late 50s, he joined a vocal group known as the moonglows, headed by Harvey Fugua. One evening in the early 60s he sang informally at a party at which Berry Gordy was also a guest. The result was a contract that led to his first chart hit, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” The “Prince of Motown” was the first of Berry Gordy’s acts to fight for and win his creative independence. After scoring over a dozen major hits with various Motown producers during the 60s, he emerged in 1971 with a lushly packaged, socially conscious album, “What’s Going On,” which firmly entrenched him as a superstar.


In 1957she won an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout TV Contest, singing “Walking After Midnight.” The single became a hit and was followed by her smash “I Fall To Pieces.” Before she died in an airplane crash in 1963, Patsy Cline had the best of both worlds, country, and pop. By avoiding the country/western mold and appealing to fans more accustomed to middle-of-the-road, she changed the course of country music and ushered in a new era for country female singers. Cline’s quality voice was perfect for torch songs – emotional yet distant and cool at the same time. She was successfully marketed to pop audiences with follow-up hits, “Crazy,” “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” and “Sweet Dreams (of you).” Ironically, she entered the country-pop market against her wishes. She liked to yodel, she wore cowgirl outfits and detested some of her biggest songs.


The contemporary queen of the rodeo, with the help of Gram Parsons, has been as responsible as anyone for making country music acceptable to a wider audience. In the late 60s and early 70s, she performed regularly in clubs in the D.C. area. In 1975, she recorded “Pieces Of The Sky” for Reprise Records. From that album came the number one hit, “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” Her voice has a pure, innocent classic quality and it lacks the nasal sound which so many non-country fans find hard to take. Her albums have always been a balanced mix of country, ballads, and rock.

Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.

Featured image photo credit: Courtesy of UMe