Music pioneers who just missed out on the big time

The history of popular music is littered with examples of trailblazers who, for whatever reason – poor luck, bad deals, being ahead of their time – didn’t get the props they deserved. Sometimes, time catches up with them and at the heart of Arena’s excellent new documentary series American Epic are scores of songwriters whose influence on the course of music in the US and beyond is finally coming into focus.

This list looks at three featured in the series, alongside four others, and we’re just scratching the surface. Who do you think has been overlooked by music history? We’d love to hear your views on Twitter.

Will Shade

Part 1 of American Epic tells the story of how record companies travelled the American south in the 1920s recording the music of ordinary working people. “It was the first time America heard itself,” narrator Robert Redford says, before giving over the second half of the episode to Will Shade, driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.

Groups like the Memphis Jug Band were too poor to afford instruments, so they made do with what they could get their hands on, including jugs, washboards and kazoos. Shade’s group got a reputation performing on Beale Street in Memphis in the 20s and 30s, and became famous locally, playing to both black and white people. Their raw sound is credited as being proto-rhythm and blues, yet when that style of music, along with swing, took over in the 40s and 50s, the Memphis Jug Band faded from view.

In the above clip Nas makes a direct link between the group and rap music today, saying: “The Memphis Jug Band, it sounds like something today. These guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honour, chasing after someone who’s done them dirty… This is not high-society black folks they’re singing about; this is the down-under, street, wild black folks. And it’s the same as rap music today.”

Shade counted electric blues musician Charlie Musselwhite among his friends and admirers. In the episode, Musselwhite recalls that Shade would sing the song I’ll Get a Break Before Long later in life. He died in 1966 without anyone really knowing his music, but now, as Musselwhite says: “All these years later, right down on Beale Street by Handy Park there’s a brass note with Will’s name right on it.”

Grandmaster Caz

The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight is an iconic song in the history of American music – hip hop’s first hit. It begins with Wonder Mike’s legendary lyrics, “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / To the hip hip hop and you don’t stop / The rock it to the bang bang boogie,” before the second MC on the track, Big Bank Hank, comes in with his verse: “Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y / You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I’ll tell you why.”

And if you’ve always wondered why someone called Big Bank Hank introduced himself as Casanova Fly, it’s because he reportedly nicked his rhymes from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, previously known as Casanova Fly.

In 2014, Caz told the BBC World Service what happened (above, from four minutes): “Hank and I were friends and Hank got a job in a pizza shop in New Jersey, called Crispy Crust Pizza. One day, Sylvia Robinson [Sugar Hill Records co-founder and producer of Rapper’s Delight] walks in and hears him lip-synching to one of my tapes. She asked him, ‘Why don’t you come outside and do that for my songs – we’re auditioning people to become part of this group I’m putting together.”

Hank, who was also Caz’s manager, got the job and became a star. Caz never sued and never got a credit, unlike Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who threatened legal action over the use of their song Good Times in Rapper’s Delight.

“Chic’s Nile Rodgers wasn’t happy, but he now says Rapper’s Delight is one of his favourite tracks,” The Sugarhill Gang’s Master Gee recently told the Guardian. “It is one of his most lucrative – we gave him a credit. Then it turned out that Hank’s rhymes had been written by another MC, Grandmaster Caz. We’ve given him credit in public and done shows with him, and he’s cool about it. But I’m sure it bothers him every time he hears it.”

Laura Nyro

In a 2010 Guardian article, music journalist and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley credits Laura Nyro with being “the first non-folk female singer-songwriter”, adding: “She defied all categories in the late-60s, and Laura Nyro’s music makes more sense now, after four decades of her influence trickling down.”

Her style was to combine elements of doo-wop and soul into Brill Building-like songwriting – best exemplified on the albums Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) – and she might have become very famous indeed if she hadn’t asked filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker to not include her performance in his film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, convinced that she’d been booed while playing. However, a new profile of Nyro in Uncut magazine reveals that when Pennebaker reviewed his footage in 1997, he discovered that the audience were crying out, “Beautiful!” Nyro died from ovarian cancer, aged just 49, before she could take up Pennebaker’s offer to watch the footage again.

Nyro also turned down the chance to play Woodstock, but she was well-known and highly respected by other musicians at the time. Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand and The 5th Dimension all had hits with her songs in the late-60s and early-70s, and she would go on to influence countless other songwriters, including Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Tori Amos and Bette Midler, who presented a Radio 2 documentary about Nyro in 2005.

Nyro became a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2012, 15 years after her death.