Race, Sex and Rock & Roll
To celebrate Black History Month, TIDAL asked a pair of experts to create a playlist that tells the story of African Americans and rock & roll. Gayle Wald is author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and is a co-editor of the 33-1/3 series of books on albums for Bloomsbury. She lives and teaches in Washington, DC. Maureen Mahon is the author of Right To Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race. She lives and teaches in New York City.
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The African American influences on rock & roll are many and varied. This playlist is a starting point for indicating these contributions and tracing the participation of African Americans in rock & roll. The wide range of musicians and musical sounds included in this list reflects the fact that “rock & roll” is a vexed term with its own complicated histories.
In the following conversation, we discuss some of the logic behind our choices and reflect on some of the complexities associated with defining rock & roll.
Gayle: Making a list like this is both revelatory and a reminder of why the category of “rock & roll” is so limiting. When doing the research for the list, I kept bumping up against genre labels — blues, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, pop — and, of course, many of these are categories that were explicitly put into circulation to signify the music that African American audiences were listening to and that African American artists were expected to produce.
This formulation of audience is itself problematic, since we know that in the early days of “rock & roll,” plenty of African American listeners were also tuning in to country music played on radio broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry. And in addition to being limiting, the category of “rock & roll” is so broad. Does “rock & roll” begin when the term begins to circulate widely as the name of a kind of music, or did the term just give a name to a set of musical and cultural practices that were already out there?
So working on this has also been an exercise in thinking about the ways that the recording industry has been channeled or policed the artistry of black musicians in particular ways.
Maureen: We wanted to represent some of this “pre-history” of rock & roll by including music by African Americans that helped set some of its sonic and lyrical terms in the 1930s and 1940s. As we took the list into the ‘60s, ‘70s, and beyond, our response to the problem of genre seems to have been to embrace the breadth and unruliness of rock & roll and all of its sub-genres and list songs that represent the varied ways that African American musicians have participated.
Gayle: Yes! Purists might insist that Gwen McRae’’s “Rocking Chair” is “disco,” that Rick James’s “Mary Jane” is “funk,” that Bad Brains’ “Attitude” is “hardcore,” or that Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is “hop hop.” But we were interested in musical conversations across and even within industry labels. And we know that musicians listen to all kinds of music, so if you think with your ears, you can hear across the labels.
Maureen: What’s interesting about the category “rock & roll” is that when it was first introduced in 1955, it was intended to make the music African American musicians were creating more accessible to white teenage audiences who were showing an interest in it, and to temper the blackness associated with rhythm & blues, the label that had been used for the music since the late 1940s.
The idea was the name rock & roll would set off the music as a genre for the youth and, sure enough, both black and white teens embraced it. African American artists such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, LaVern Baker and Chuck Berry were among the early rock & roll stars along with white southerners such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
Gayle: There is, to be sure, a certain randomness in our list, too. You come up against the greatness and the prolificness of an Aretha Franklin, a Chuck Berry or a Prince, or the significance of Jimi Hendrix, and the influence of figure like James Brown whose shifts in musical direction help precipitate key changes in popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For the most part, we simply listed a representative song from each artist — and sometimes not the most obvious choice — with the hope that people would seek out more songs.
Maureen: Both Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Tharpe as an “Early Influence.” For an institution that has been slow to recognize the contributions of African American artists and women artists, having these two important African American women artists included is a huge advance and, given the impact of both artists, their inclusion is well-deserved.
Gayle: Although she was musically formed within the Pentecostal church, Rosetta Tharpe was indeed an early rock innovator, not only because of the prominence of the electric guitar in her music, or her charismatic playing of that instrument, but also because her moves across the sacred/secular divide anticipate the groundbreaking work of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles a decade later. When she toured Britain in the 1960s, to the delight of a generation of British teenagers, she was perfectly happy to have her music grouped in with “rock & roll.”
Maureen: Placing Nina Simone in a genre is much more difficult. She resisted being boxed into the jazz category throughout her career; she defined what she was doing as “black classical music” and she was known as The High Priestess of Soul. Her resistance to categorization, her attack on white supremacy in a song like “Mississippi Goddam,” and her commentary about the experience of being black and female in the song “Four Women” introduced a forthrightness in lyrical content and performance attitude that provided a template for subsequent artists.
Gayle: We chose “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” here to represent her, but we might easily have chosen “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song she recorded in 1964. The British Invasion band the Animals covered it the following year. Simone embodied the spirit of rebellion that’s such an important part of the energy of rock & roll.
Maureen: The fun of curating a list like this is revisiting the music and figuring out what to put in; the challenge is what to leave out. There’s plenty of material this list leaves off and different omissions will seem particularly egregious, depending on what a reader’s favorites are.
We could have made a deep dive into doo-wop in the 1950s, girl groups in the early 1960s, Motown and Stax artists during the 1960s and 1970s, and funk bands in the 1970s.
And then there’s the whole question of the numerous African American women who were background vocalists during the ’60s and ’70s. Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones, Venetta Fields and Clydie King brought African American gospel sound into rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
We didn’t list their songs individually — with the exception of Clayton in “Gimme Shelter” and “Love,” the uncredited lead vocalist on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” — but their voices reverberate in rock. The documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) brings their sound and story to light.
Gayle: Because we were compiling this list for African American History Month, it is also, intentionally, a list of African American artists without reference to important African diaspora artists who’ve engaged with rock.
Maureen: An even broader list might have included Black Brits like punk rock pioneer Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex; the two-tone bands of the 1980s like the Specials, the English Beat, and the Selector; trip hop maven Tricky, and the marvelous vocalist Skin from Skunk Anansie. There are also bands like Blk Jks out of South Africa and of course Bob Marley from Jamaica. Punk would not have taken the form it did in England without the influence of reggae.
Gayle: It was such a pleasure to revisit music I haven’t listened to in a while. I was blown away in 2001 by Res, but I’m not sure how many millennials know of her work. And the pre-1955 songs we selected deserve a serious listen.
Many people don’t know that Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was the first to record “Hound Dog,” a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and later popularized by Elvis Presley. Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordan deserve a listen for the exuberance and youthful feel of their music. And we noticed that so many of the songs we ended up choosing were also paeans to raunch and sex and rebellion; the word “rock” is in a fair number of them.
Maureen: That might not be accidental. Before it was used to name a musical genre, “rock & roll” was a slang term for sex in African American communities and rock & roll music has always had a strong sexual undercurrent as well a lot of overt sexuality — think of Elvis Presley swinging his hips or Jimi Hendrix working his guitar. Rock & roll has been a way to explore taboo subjects like sexuality. This, coupled with the blackness of the music, was the reason it was so controversial in the 1950s, and the reason so many youth were attracted to it.
Gayle: Where white teens’ attraction to the music was concerned, you’re essentially describing the racial and sexual dynamic of “love and theft,” as Eric Lott memorably put it in his book of the same name. And women and queer artists have been able to draw on the sexual energy of the music to craft and explore their own expressions of sexuality, both in response to, and outside of, the traditional male canon.
Finally, we really wanted to extend this list into the present, to suggest that rock & roll is a living category. In an era when hip hop dominates, it may not hold the same cachet it used to hold, but it’s still here.
Maureen: I was glad to include “Boot” by Tamar-kali, the singer-songwriter who composed the score for the Dee Rees film Mudbound (2017). People who’ve seen James Spooner’s documentary Afropunk might already be familiar with her, but including less mainstream artists like her and Chocolate Genius, as well as newer artists like Santigold and Gary Clark, Jr. alongside rock & roll stalwarts such as Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix permits us to point to rock & roll’s futures, not just its past.
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