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The soundtrack of our soul: Black influence on American Popular Music

"It broke down all my senses, yet made me feel so whole

See, I was lost until I found the music of my soul"

—Huey Calhoun, MEMPHIS (The following post is adapted from a presentation given by MEMPHIS director Brian Daye at the Patrick Beaver Library in Hickory, NC.) Without sounding too arrogant, there is no Popular Music without African-American influences. Or Latino influences, or some kind of cultural infusion to “make the musical example a little sweeter." One can easily look at Popular Music without the African-American influence as a meal without ANY seasonings or flavor. Totally bland and tasteless—devoid of any kind of heft or definition. Now that doesn’t at all diminish the power, influence and imprimatur of the African-American influence and Spirit that pervades Popular Music. Again, the meal without the seasonings. Some may call the influence the meal itself. That statement can be left for greater minds than ours. Potentially. Nevertheless, the greater question needs to be asked: What IS Popular Music?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “Popular Music” as “Music written and marketed with the intention of achieving mass distribution and sales now principally in the form of recordings.” Oxford Languages defines “Popular Music” as “Music appealing to the popular taste, including rock and pop, “soul”, country, reggae, rap and dance music.” The characteristics of “Popular Music," still from Oxford Languages, are “having a good rhythm and a catchy melody that is easy to remember and sing along to. There is usually a chorus that’s repeated several times with two or more verses. Most pop songs are between two and five minutes long, and the lyrics are usually about the joys and problems of love and relationships."

Now, that’s how the “standard-bearers” deemed “Popular Music." The late host Dick Clark on American Bandstand asked certain dancers on the show what they thought about any newly released song he would showcase before it was released nationally. That segment was called “Rate-A-Record." Overwhelmingly, the dancers said the song they heard was “catchy and had a nice beat." Merriam-Webster, Oxford Languages and Dick Clark seemed to have been Strange Bedfellows.

Conversely, Don Cornelius from Chicago created alternative programming that ultimately eclipsed American Bandstand’s prominence and completely provided a platform for all African-American artists looking to create a space for themselves. The program was named Soul Train and every Saturday morning (at least in my neighborhood) new and established acts performed—and lip-synced—on stage in front of The Soul Train Dancers and America.

That said, the American appetite for Popular Music has been consistently evolving, fluid and ever-changing. The African-American Influence on Popular Music has been a natural anchor for the ebb and flow of not just cute and catchy songs, but it has also been a natural barometer for the nation. Whether we created and enjoyed it freely OR whether it was stolen from us. From the enslavement of Africans in the United States IF and after we survived the Middle Passage, the one thing we kept intact with each other despite the horrors of chattel slavery was our sense of communication with one another. If it was the drum, or the banjo, or the kalimba, or the fiddle, or our mother tongue being forced to adapt to this strange and unfamiliar land, we used these instruments and our wits to simply survive. Survival lent itself to a behavior. Behavior lent itself to familiarity. Familiarity lent itself to adaptation. Adaptation lent itself to the beginnings of the creation of a narrative. The creation of a narrative lent itself to building—or revising—a way to communicate and speak intrinsically with and to each other. Those ways ultimately included a creative form of music that spoke not only from the motherland but a bastardized acclimation to plantation life. This creativity, for all intents and purposes, saved our lives while experiencing the most horrifying time in American History. Period.

What began as initial machinations and social gatherings on plantations grew to in some instances a form of entertainment, which made plantation and slave owners take notice. A misguided thought pattern of “happy darkies” also made entertainers and entertainment promoters take notice and ultimately create America’s first form of entertainment: the Minstrel Show. This was the first real “family-friendly” form of cultural enjoyment for Americans. At the expense of enslaved Africans. As early as the mid nineteenth century, the Minstrel show struck an entertainable and enterprising nerve with the American conscience. Traveling and touring White Minstrel acting companies mimicked African-American plantation life and wore burnt cork on their bodies while exaggerating “Slave” behavior on stage. In addition, Thomas “Daddy” Rice gained worldwide acclaim creating the Minstrel character, “Jump Jim Crow," which signified the Minstrelsy genre and transmogrified American culture into a “Jim Crow” based, terror-laden existence primarily for African-Americans and people of color. The African-American Influence on Music AND Culture took shape, and we had no control over it whatsoever at the time—even through our continued enslavement.

Minstrelsy continued—as a practice, as mainstream entertainment and part of American culture—through the ending of the Industrial Revolution, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth, Lincoln’s Assassination, Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, the infancy of the Film industry and ultimately giving birth to a child named Vaudeville in and around 1910. It must be noted there were a very small handful of African-American owned Minstrel shows that toured fairly extensively throughout the South during the turn of the last century. Despite the reality of minstrelsy, African-Americans began to take shape individually in the budding entertainment industry—albeit in a hardscrabble manner. Interestingly, songwriters began gaining a foothold in getting their own types of entertainment recognized by way of sheet music being sold to venues and music halls. The sheet music business opened the door ultimately for the record business. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the music form known as Ragtime began to take shape and Scott Joplin, an African-American composer of ragtime songs literally had his musical hand on the pulse of American musical tastes. Scott Joplin’s music was actively being sold and legendary songs like “Maple Leaf Rag” were enjoyed by White and Black Americans. Ragtime was scoffed at in many circles—particularly by affluent African-Americans who were overly conscious of the music “hindering the race." Scott Joplin died in 1917, but his music clearly started the ball rolling.

Quoting from Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm and Blues, the term “SELLING RACE” was active and sheet music companies fully recognized how much money they could and would make by catering to “a new business model." RACE MUSIC became the defining term for our music at the time. Another example of this was the massive hit, “The Saint Louis Blues," written by New Orleans composer W. C. Handy in 1914 and performed by the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. St. Louis Blues was so popular it was made into a 1929 short film starring Ms. Smith. She too lived a short life, but she clearly is one of the greatest singers who ever lived. Her life drove the discussion of the power of the Black presence in Popular Music.

When we talk about African-Americans who influenced Popular Music, the most significant transcendent figure throughout the first seven decades of the 20th Century is unquestionably Louis Daniel Armstrong. Louis Armstrong was a WORLD figure. His connection to the American Musical Soul is undeniable. From beginning his career at the end of the Ragtime era, to the beginnings of American Classical Music (i.e., Jazz), to his presence lasting between two World Wars, the Korean War and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, to his own “Hot Fives” and “Hot Seven” bands and him revolutionizing the idiom known as Jazz, to his pivotal entrances into film and television, to him single-handedly evolving the American Musical Palette where “swing” and “rhythm” were required parts of Popular Music. Whether you called him “Pops” or “Satchmo” or “Louie," an argument can easily be made that Louis Armstrong WAS Popular Music.

Two women who were pivotal in how Black women were eventually received, recorded and centered in American Popular Music are Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagin). Between the late 1930s through the early 1990s, both women held the ear of American Popular Music. Ella on more than one occasion had the Great American Songbook as her musical palette and was christened “The First Lady of Song." Billie was deemed one of the greatest songstresses of the 20th Century and was simply named “Lady Day." Where Ella “scatted” her way to immortality, Billie gave new meaning and illustration to what became known as a “Torch Song”—slow, deliberate and intentional in its’ beauty and delivery. Both women were pure and true artists with nothing (not even a terrible heroin addiction that afflicted Billie) standing in the way of their individual crafts. Another argument can be made that Billie and Ella made America listen to a woman’s interpretation of how to sing a song.

As the United States had won World War II and soldiers had come home from fighting for “Democracy," tastes and morays had changed and the after-effects of the war left a lasting impression on American culture. The changing climate became younger and more restless—and portable, to an extent. Transistor radios became wildly popular with young people and more and more homes had Televisions in them, especially after the enormous success of NBC’s The Milton Berle Show. The connection to seeing talent on a regular basis and connecting that talent to music that spoke to a younger generation made an enormous change in American Musical tastes. During the mid-1950s African-Americans were still battling racism from every facet of American life, but there were incidents that led Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Dr. Martin Luther King to begin resisting the racist climate that had been endured for so long by their predecessors and adopting activism to move themselves and our people forward. The changing tide of resistance was also reflected in American Popular Music.

Richard Penniman (aka Little Richard), Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, The Platters and other similar acts electrified young White and Black America—largely to their parents’ chagrin in the 1950s. Billboard Magazine was and still is the recording industry bible and the truth of Popular Music tastes and trends are always found on the weekly Hot 100 chart. Plus, every one of these artists had multiple hits reflected on the Pop Charts and the Rhythm and Blues/R&B Charts. (Another note: Elvis Presley was called “The King of Rock and Roll," but had Big Mama Thornton not recorded and released “Hound Dog" his worldwide ascendance based on his own recording of that song may not have come to pass at all.) Another artist, nowhere near as radical who still made history with every record he made and song he sang was Nat “King” Cole—a brilliantly talented jazz pianist and leader of the King Cole Trio whose silken voice and smooth appearance gave America a reason to follow his music. Even if Advertising companies refused to advertise on his one season long TV show. “The Christmas Song," recorded by Cole, is the universal anthem to celebrate Christmas annually to this day. A legendary artist influenced by Nat “King” Cole in his own way took the baton from Louis Armstrong symbolically for the second half of the 20th Century and gave American Popular Music an entirely new way to hear an existing genre. His beginnings were enormously challenged, however. Going blind from glaucoma at age seven, Ray Charles gave the world Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel from his heart, blazed trails in each genre he touched and further continued the argument on the power and influence of African-Americans in Popular Music. But in 1962, Ray Charles recorded two albums that single-handedly changed the industry: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes One and Two. Country Music had never been given the breath, depth and technological advancement that these two albums had. “Brother Ray” had completely opened a new door for Country Music to be heard and experienced, further cementing the presence of African-Americans foothold in Popular Music. More building blocks supporting the argument.

The 1960s meant upheaval for the United States in so many ways—American Popular Music was no different. Just as Black men were making their mark in the music industry, Black women were making their own strides with added sexism and racism in their collective faces. John Hammond, an influential talent scout and record producer for Columbia Records was on track to making his second major influential discovery (Billie Holiday was his first). An 18-year-old enormously talented Gospel singer from Memphis by way of Detroit was brought to his attention. Aretha Franklin already had an influential background by way of her father, Rev. Cecil Franklin, whose sermons were broadcast nationally and he was named “The man with the Million Dollar Voice." (He had his own following and led a path for Aretha to, at the very least, watch and learn from.) Aretha’s voice helped lift Rev. Franklin’s presence even higher and drew attention to John Hammond. She didn’t have real success at Columbia however—when she left and signed with Atlantic Records, her success took off and America returned the favor in the form of RESPECT and numerous additional songs. Aretha at the height of her success was given the title of “The Queen of Soul” and was one of the world’s best-selling artists. Her impact on American Popular Music was undeniable.

James Brown, born in South Carolina and moved to Augusta, Georgia at age five literally and figuratively exploded on the music scene in no uncertain terms. His funk laden, horn-heavy, powerful and rich songs became anthems for the Black community and his fierce, uncompromising stage presence gave him the permanent titles ‘Mr. Dynamite," “Soul Brother No. 1” and the “Godfather of Soul." By him saying it loud that he was Black and proud, James Brown’s presence and style of R&B and Funk opened yet another door musically for himself and culturally for African-Americans and socially conscious “mainstream” Americans. His style of music became a ‘BIG TENT' presence for the recording industry, which I’ll explain further on.

Probably the most monumental and permanent presence during the 1960s wasn’t so much a person as it was a label, which became an ideal and a state of mind. Berry Gordy, a Detroit native and former professional boxer was also a budding songwriter and record producer. After a string of local and national hits, most notably “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create and build a record company. The result became Motown Record Corporation—incorporated on April 14, 1960. Berry Gordy established a partnership and relationship with fellow songwriter and producer William “Smokey” Robinson, who founded his own group, the Miracles while on the label and set his own mark on American Popular Music. Motown (short for Motor Town) not only introduced a bevy of new artists and groups to the American Music scene, but each of these acts presented themselves in a professional, highly cultivated and crisp manner—more than likely to be palatable to American audiences. Motown soon became known as simply “The Motown Sound” because of how immediately recognizable the music was and how instantaneous the good feeling was when the music was played. And Motown was also identified as “The Sound of Young America." Totally indicative of where the label was culturally for American Popular Music tastes and particularly for Young American teenagers. Specifically, young White teenagers. The marketing from Berry Gordy’s perspective was brilliant. Lastly, Motown formulated a BIG TENT presence for the Recording Industry whose performers retain legendary status and moved the label into the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The following artists illustrate that fact:

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles

The Four Tops

Jr. Walker and The All-Stars

Stevie Wonder

The Temptations

Diana Ross and The Supremes (Ross' career exploded after she left The Supremes to forge her solo career while still on the Motown label.)

Mary Wells

The Commodores (Lead singer Lionel Richie left the group in 1982 to forge his own successful solo career while still on Motown.)

Marvin Gaye (His career with Tammi Terrell was cut short due to her death. Her death, along with his depression over her death and his growing dissatisfaction with America’s involvement with the Vietnam War in the 1970s co-created the classic album What’s Going On—despite Berry Gordy’s initial misgivings about the album narrative.)

The Jackson Five (Michael Jackson with his brothers left Motown for CBS Records. He forged one of the most successful, herculean and earth-shattering solo recording careers ever known. His solo album Thriller was released in 1982 and produced by the legendary and prolific music producer Quincy Jones. Thriller became the best-selling album of all time with worldwide sales of 70 million copies and won eight Grammy Awards in 1984. Michael Jackson became synonymous with the American Musical Conscience. Period. He became ingrained into American Culture and was given the title “King of Pop." The title lasted until his death in 2009.)

With James Brown being mentioned earlier in this piece, his BIG TENT presence led to another music genre altogether—from the streets of New York—starting in the mid-to-late 1970s. Young African-American teenagers within the five boroughs of New York City were thoroughly engaged in buying and listening to Black Music, yet the neighborhood DJ’s running the parties were experimenting with enhancing those parties to build up the crowd’s excitement. A very interesting convergence took place—DJ’s from the Bronx, Harlem, Southeast Queens and Brooklyn began taking parts of records and mixing them with parts of other records, thereby creating a new song with a unique beat based on the combination of the songs played on the DJ’s turntables. This practice included what was called “scratching and mixing." In large measure, parts of James Brown’s prior records were played outright along with parts of other songs. What became of that literally and figuratively created a new genre and a new generation of listeners who would have been completely ignored by mainstream America and, truthfully, upscale Black listeners who initially rejected this style of music and behavior. Rap and Hip-Hop music grew like wildfire from coast to coast. The culture in some sad instances bred violence and drug-based lifestyles, but Rap & Hip-Hop changed the recording industry permanently. Lifting artists like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, The Sequence, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Roxanne Shante’, Run-DMC, NWA, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Fat Joe, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Queen Pen, Public Enemy, Full Force, The Fresh Prince and countless other acts out of obscurity and into…the American Popular Music conscience. Inclusive of myriad detractors to this day, yet if you walk or ride past young people’s cars, they are hands down listening to Rap and Hip-Hop. That supersedes race, culture and class—to this very hour. Billboard and other trade publications reflect that fact outright.

The century we live in continues to be fluid and ever-changing. Musical tastes are no different. The American Musical Palette is the same. As the artists reflected in this article changed their own lives and the lives of the music buying public as well as the country where this music was produced, we need to have an open mind about how what we listen to is truthfully reflective of who we are as human beings. Ultimately, generationally and historically, the song remains the same.

Brian Daye 8/1/22


The Merriam Webster Dictionary

Oxford Languages

The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George

The Power of Black Music by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.

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