Black influence on rock and roll

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I was introduced to rock and roll by my cousin Brenda (Gibson) Herron back as early as 1961. Brenda’s mother, Irene, worked at Joseph’s Musicenter in Kingsport, TN and was allowed to bring home demo records after they had seen use. Brenda, a few years older than me, and I would spin hours listening to the single records and long-playing albums.

As I got older, especially during junior high and high school years, I continued to listen to records, the radio in the car, and would often fall asleep as the radio beside my head played the latest popular tunes.

I sometimes joke that my wife was socially deprived because she spent all her time studying and earning academic awards in high school while I was, at best, an average student who rarely cracked the books but knew the words to nearly every song.

It was only in the last few years, after I bought a car equipped with the Sirius XM radio channels, that I realized how so much of the music I listened to was influenced by black recording artists.

I grew up in the South and in a nation where the separation of the races was a fact of life. I remember the downtown water fountains that were labeled “White” and “Colored” and the two movie theaters in town had the same signs over separate entrances. Once, when Steve Duncan and I took a bus ride, we sat on the big back seat in the back of the bus. The bus driver came back and shooed us away telling us that the back seats weren’t for the white kids.

Although I didn’t know it during those pre-high school days, rock music was segregated as well. The stations in town catered to a white audience so music by black artists was rarely heard on the radio.

Today, it is well known that some of the greatest singers and musicians of the era were heavily influenced by black music. Elvis Presley, a native of Mississippi, loved black music as did the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and countless others.

In fact, many whites of an older generation despised Elvis because he “sang like a black man.” A number of rock and roll record burnings were held because rock and roll music was said to have “African influence.”

It wasn’t until Sirius XM, which has a channel for 1950s rock music and another for 1960s music that I was able to compare the two decades and gain some understanding of just how much influence there was.

“Do You Love Me?” recorded by the British band, The Dave Clark Five, was first recorded by the Contours. “Roll Over Beethoven,” first recorded by the legendary Chuck Berry, was picked up and recorded by the Beatles. And the list goes on and on.

Somewhere along the line, and Ed Sullivan and his variety show on TV had much to do with this, black music and black recording artists began to enter the mainstream.

The 1960s saw a “coming out,” as it were, of black music that began to be played on so-called white radio stations across the nation. By the time I hit high school in 1966, there had been a sea change in how black music and artists were seen. The Civil Rights Movement was well under way and white teenagers were buying the records of black singers by the tens of millions.

As walls of racism in the music industry began to crack, and as white record companies were signing black singers, Motown Records came along and helped tear the walls down.

Overnight, or so it seemed, the color barriers in radio stations disappeared as Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, and many, many others made their mark on music history and changed the world. By the 1970s, there was no more “black” or “white” rock and roll. There was simply Rock and Roll.

My cousin Brenda and I were part of that change as we became consumers of records, regardless of the skin tone of the singers. In high school, a girl friend and I had “our” song. It was “My Girl,” by the Temptations, a selection that might have been seen as scandalous, or at least rebellious, in the 1950s. By that time, however, even in the South (which, by the way, was certainly not the only part of the country that was rife with racism) black music was mainstream.

As pioneer Chuck Berry sang, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.” And hail to those who kept writing, singing, and performing against great odds in a culture that was biased against them.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

5 COMMENTS

  1. Music is like a universal language. It has the ability to break barriers such as ugly racism. I truly enjoy the songs regardless of skin color of the artist. If only other areas of understanding were the same.

  2. You are correct and thank you for the additional information. It’s hard to do justice to just about any complex subject when you’re limited by words and space. So, I have to pick and choose which information I use. I’m grateful for the additional history and information. David Epps

  3. Ah yes, brings back memories David. Overlooked in your article however is the well documented and quite sad affair that the record industry was very bad about awarding royalties to its black artists whether they are singers, songwriters, or musicians. Little Richard was one of the first examples of having their work stolen by white artists (like Pat Boone) and receiving little to no credit at all.

    And no story on black influences on Rock n’ Roll is complete without mentioning Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a black gospel singer that started primarily in the early ‘40s by singing, recording, and performing gospel tunes with an electric guitar. She influenced the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, and to some degree Bo Diddley, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

    As you know, Rock n’ Roll gained its roots from the Blues; particularly from the Mississippi Delta and with some artists that migrated north to the major cities. This later inspired an R&B sound (Rhythm & Blues) that you mentioned in your article and so fondly remember. And why the name Rock n’ Roll? Aside from Alan Freed naming it such, it’s said to be shortened from rocking and rolling, an early 20th century black slang-term for making love with your partner. Yep, Chuck announced it well, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!”

      • Yes, I picked up on that up above, David. Drilling down a bit on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll HOF only a few years back. You see she made an impact too on the British blues / rock n’ roll scene in the early ‘60s as well. At the time she was touring with blues artists Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry, etc. throughout Europe.

        But it was really in Manchester England that they had the biggest impact and at one particular show in ‘64. At that free concert at a railway train station there, in the crowd were young lads, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Brian Jones and Keith Richards that came to hear some “American” blues. Impressive was the electric guitar sound they heard coming from a female black gospel singer no-less, that was belting out a song they said, like no other. And here after so many years, I only knew of her gospel song variations and versions of Christmas songs like, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”