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A deep dive into the musical legacy of Virginia's Hampton Roads

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News in 1917.  Photo by Philippe Gras/Alamy Stock Photo Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News in 1917. Photo by Philippe Gras/Alamy Stock Photo

A year’s worth of canceled concerts and furloughed fests may have left music fans across the country stuck at home and streaming. But for those who hail from coastal Virginia, the pandemic offers an opportunity to better appreciate their local musical heritage.

Though it rarely gets the same attention as recording industry epicenters like Detroit or Nashville, Hampton Roads has produced some of the biggest trailblazers in modern music. Portsmouth alone gave us Ruth Brown, America’s first R&B superstar, and—a generation later—hip-hop legend Missy Elliott, who was the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. (And while we’re talking Portsmouth women, Sissieretta Jones, who became the first Black opera singer to headline Carnegie Hall in 1893, was born there, too!)

The region is responsible for rock’s leather-jacketed rebel swagger and has influenced Vegas’ swinging lounge style (Wayne Newton was born in Norfolk). Its mega producers have shaped the sounds of pop icons from Justin Timberlake to Snoop Dogg.

In short, Hampton Roads is a big deal. And the president of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, Mae Breckingridge-Haywood, has a theory on why a laidback region better known for beachfront resorts and maritime history has produced so much game-changing talent.

Its under-the-radar status gives artists the space to dream up something truly original, away from the pressure of the mainstream, she speculates.

“There’s just this fresh talent that’s looking beyond, looking to be real, and to not copy what else is out there,” says Breckenridge-Haywood, a cousin of Brown.

With live performances largely paused due to the pandemic, use your favorite streaming music service to take a deep dive into five Hampton Roads music legends.

Ella Fitzgerald, jazz singer

Born: Newport News, 1917

Breakthrough: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” 1938

Honors: 14 Grammys, National Medal of Arts, Presidential Medal of Freedom

Background: First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald reigned as the nation’s most popular female jazz singer for more than half a century. With a voice both bright and deep, she recorded the definitive versions of many jazz standards and performed with other jazz stars like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

Trailblazer Cred: “I’m going to try to find out the new ideas before the others do,” Fitzgerald was often quoted as saying. A master improviser, Fitzgerald revolutionized swing and helped give rise to bebop. At just 22, she became a successful bandleader at a time when female leadership was rare.

Listen: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “My Baby Likes to Be-bop (And I Like to Be-bop Too)”

Visit: A portrait and shrine to the jazz legend are on permanent display in Newport News’ Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, which named a theater for her and hosts the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival to commemorate her April birthday.

Pharrell Williams, artist, producer

Born: Virginia Beach, 1973

Breakthrough: Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” 1992 (co-songwriter)

Honors: 13 Grammys, six Billboard Music Awards, three BET Awards and four BET Hip Hop Awards

Background: Pharrell Williams’ influence transcends hip-hop, pop, and even music in general as he branches into film, television, and fashion. But he got his start at Virginia Beach’s Princess Anne High School, where he and instrumental polymath Chad Hugo formed what would become a production powerhouse, The Neptunes. Producer Teddy Riley, of New Jack Swing and Blackstreet fame, discovered the pair at a local talent show in the mid-’90s and launched their careers.

Trailblazer Cred: Whether it’s introducing live instruments on hip-hop tracks or teasing out spacey, stuttering beats, Pharrell and The Neptunes gained a reputation early on for experimentation and a playful sound.

Listen: “Rump Shaker,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” “Happy”

Visit: Pharrell speaks fondly of his days at Princess Anne High School and hanging with friends at Mount Trashmore Park, the 165-acre outdoor space with a skate park and two lakes that was once a landfill.

Ruth Brown, R&B singer

Born: Portsmouth, 1928

Breakthrough: “So Long,” 1949

Honors: Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Tony for Best Actress in a Musical

Background: The daughter of a church choir director, Ruth Brown had to sneak out of the house to perform in her early years. She went on to belt out so many hits for her nascent record label that Atlantic Records became known as “The House That Ruth Built.” Master of the genre mashup, Brown could turn from bebop scat to a rock wail on a dime.

Trailblazer Cred: Her hit “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” leapt from the top of the R&B charts to the pop charts, a rare crossover feat for the segregated era. In the ’80s, Brown fought for and won royalties for herself and other veteran R&B musicians.

Listen: “Teardrops From My Eyes,” “Lucky Lips”

Visit: Ruth Brown Way now runs in front of Portsmouth’s I.C. Norcom High School, which Brown attended. In Old Town Portsmouth at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Brown made her public singing debut at 4, thanks to her choir director father. The second-oldest church in Portsmouth was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Call ahead to schedule a visit. (757) 393-2259.

Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, DJ and producer

Born: Norfolk, 1972

Breakthrough: Ginuwine’s “Pony,” 1996

Honors: Four Grammys, BET Hip Hop Producer of the Year, Shine a Light Award, People’s Choice Favorite Hip Hop Song

Background: From a Casio keyboard in a Norfolk bedroom (often with Missy Elliott at his side), Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley launched a production career that changed the path of hip-hop. Another genre-buster, Timbaland has worked with everyone from Jay-Z to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to Elton John and helped define the sound of many pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado.

Trailblazer Cred: Whether it was the belching synth on “Pony,” the stop-start rhythms on Elliott’s early hits, or sampling unorthodox sounds like the baby gurgle in Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” Timbaland zigged when others zagged, Fredericksburg-based music writer and culture critic Chris Williams notes. “He was just different,” he says. “He was thinking outside the box at a time when people were copycatting.” During the COVID-19 shutdown, Timbaland and fellow producer Swizz Beatz dreamed up another fan-favorite innovation: online DJ battles between hip-hop’s biggest stars, dubbed Verzuz, which attracted millions of viewers.

Listen: Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” One Republic’s “Apologize”

Visit: The Virginia Beach studio where Timbaland produced “SexyBack” and countless other chart toppers now has a new name and new ownership, but the same world-class setup and equipment. The couple who runs Virginia Beach Recording Arts offers free tours of where the hits are made (by appointment).

Gene Vincent, rock ’n’ roll frontman

Born: Norfolk, 1935

Breakthrough: “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” 1956

Honors: First inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee

Background: A Korean War veteran, Gene Vincent planned a military career before a motorcycle accident left him with a shattered leg and a medical discharge. Instead, he formed Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps and became an early example of rockabilly.

Trailblazer Cred: If Vincent’s wasn’t the world’s first rock ’n’ roll band, it was close. And while he never recaptured the Gold Record success he had with “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” his band gave musicians like Jerry Lee Merritt their start and influenced everyone from The Beatles to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

Listen: “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” “Race with the Devil,” “Lotta Lovin’ ”

Visit: Vincent is one of 18 local musicians honored with a plaque along Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame.

When she’s not going a mile a minute, Jessica Fender chronicles her adventures in New Orleans and across the South at

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