Western New York has housed gigantic musical talent throughout the past century, inspiring astounding work of international significance. Raising artists of tremendous variety and skill, our soil has been a fertile source of musical accomplishment. Though disqualified from this list for being born in Memphis, Tennessee, even the great Aretha Franklin spent formative years of her early childhood living in Buffalo, New York.
The following list in no particular order is an un-ranked reflection on the plentiful talent that has grown out of the Western New York area:
1. 10,000 Maniacs – This low-key alternative folk rock group from Jamestown, New York originated in 1981 and until 1993 featured the absorbing voice of Natalie Merchant (also of Jamestown). Their 1989 song, “These Are Days” was a number one Billboard Modern Rock Track. Merchant, now 49, continues to pursue a successful and spellbinding solo career.
2. Ani DiFranco – Born in Buffalo, the artful singer-songwriter maintains heavy ties with the city that formed her. As founder of Buffalo’s Righteous Babe record label, DiFranco helped rescue and renovate the historic Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church, now a concert venue. The politically active musician has garnered national critical acclaim since 1990.
3. Billy Sheehan – Buffalo bred, this dynamic and revolutionary bassist from the band Mr. Big has performed with Steve Vai and David Lee Roth. In Japan, Sheehan has repeatedly been declared the greatest bass player of all time by Player Magazine and at home has been entered into the “Gallery of Greats” as five-time “Best Rock Bass Player” winner in Guitar Player magazine.
4. Brian McKnight – The soulful R&B star behind the romantic super hits “Anytime” (1997) and “Back at One” (1999), McKnight has been nominated for several Grammy awards. Serving as a band leader at Sweet Home High School in Amherst, the Buffalo-born McKnight’s music has been heard in numerous films (including, memorably, The Prince of Egypt) and television shows.
5. The Buffalo Bills – Not to be confused with the area’s frustrating yet beloved football team (though credited with popularizing “Buffalo Bills” as a name), this barbershop quartet, formed in 1947, was featured in the initial Broadway run of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man and in the 1962 film adaptation. They enjoyed widespread television and radio attention throughout the 1950s and 60s. Their changing line-up was composed of members from throughout the Greater Buffalo region.
6. Cory Wells – A regular contributor to the Buffalo music scene throughout his teenage years (as lead singer of the Vibratos and the Enemys), Wells formed the rock band Three Dog Night with Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron in 1968, managed by Buffalo promoter Gen Jacobs. The band had 21 Billboard Top 40 hits including definitive covers of Harry Nilsson’s “One,” Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World,” and Paul Williams’ “An Old Fashioned Love Song.” He still tours with Hutton under the Three Dog Night moniker.
7. Goo Goo Dolls – Formed in 1986 in Buffalo, the rock band has been enormously popular since the mid-1990s. Their 1998 album, Dizzy Up the Girl, contained five Billboard top ten tracks. Among them was the love anthem “Iris,” ranked by Rolling Stone as the #39 greatest pop song of all time. Bassist Robby Takacs, who grew up in West Seneca, founded Buffalo’s Music is Art festival in 2004 to support young musicians. Vocalist and lyricist John Rzeznik (of Buffalo) was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.
8. Harold Arlen – Born in Buffalo in 1905, Arlen wrote the legendary music to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. He is most famous for the immortal classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung in the picture by Judy Garland’s Dorothy and featuring lyrics by Yip Harburg. Arlen also frequently collaborated with witty lyricist Jonny Mercer, providing music for such songs as “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “That Old Black Magic.” He passed away in 1986, having written songs for many musicals, films, and television programs.
9. Spyro Gyra – Briefly including drummer Gerardo Velez, who performed with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, in their line-up, these jazz-rock pioneers initially emerged straight out of Buffalo’s Main Street. The band released their first album in 1977 and went on to become stars on jazz and adult contemporary charts. Producing dozens of albums and enduring several personnel changes, Spyro Gyra remains an indelible part of progressive music history.
10. Ray Evans – The versatile songwriter behind the holiday classic “Silver Bells,” Evans was born in Salamanca, New York in 1915. He often partnered with songwriter Jay Livingston and with him penned the songs “Mona Lisa” (made famous by Nat King Cole), “Que Sera Sera,” and “Tammy.” Evans also wrote the themes to Bonanza and Mr. Ed, and received a Tony nomination for the musical Oh, Captain!.
11. Rick James – An unstoppable “Super Freak,” James was the king of funk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beginning as a “doo-wop” artist in Buffalo, James went on to become a major figure in Motown. Though controversial for his outrageous lifestyle, Rick James is an undisputed icon who produced countless pop hits for himself and others (including close friend Teena Marie). He is buried in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn cemetery.
12. Tommy Tedesco – The rapturous, often unaccredited session musician grew up in Niagara Falls and performed guitar on hundreds of songs, film scores (ranging from The Godfather to Jaws), and television themes (Bonanza, M*A*S*H, Green Acres, Batman, and more). Recording with classic artists such as the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Monkees, Sam Cooke, the Mamas and the Papas, the Ronettes, and Sonny & Cher, Tedesco’s touch can be heard on decades and decades’ worth of timeless musical favorites. Tedesco has been described as the most recorded guitarist in music history.
Honorable Mentions: experimentalist Morton Feldman, jam band moe., power pop act Cute is What We Aim For, film composer David Lee Shire who wrote numerous film scores and the hit song, "With You I'm Born Again," recorded by Billy Preston and Syreeta, hardcore’s STEMM and Cannibal Corpse, indie rockers Mercury Rev (featuring prolific high-profile producer and SUNY Fredonia faculty member David Fridmann) and Michael Angelekos of Passion Pit, American Idol’s John Stevens, hip-hop producer Stevie J, and singer - songwriter Willie Nile.