Race is only skin deep, but so is voice; it’s one attribute that is indelibly intertwined with racial identity. Let us consider the tragic loss of the black voice in rock n’ roll.
Listen with me to the voice of Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin’ Wolf*:
The birth of rock n’ roll is usually traced back to the early African-American bluesmen, from Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you listen to those artists, you can see why; their vocal and guitar stylings are quite different from the prevailing Big Band, jazz and country/bluegrass sounds of their era, and you can hear echoes of the rock artists that have covered their songs and built on their foundation. But Johnson and Waters are not, themselves, rock; you would not confuse them with rock recordings. It’s listening to the more raucous and powerful voice of Howlin’ Wolf that you can hear, for the first time, the blues become something that would become rock. And Howlin’ Wolf, even moreso than his predecessors, did so with a voice no white man could quite duplicate. It’s why he was such a big influence on early rockers, especially the Rolling Stones, who – while they took their name almost by accident from a Muddy Waters song – not only imitated Howlin’ Wolf but opened doors for him to perform with them on white television (which in the early 60s was the only kind of television there was):
Rock, from the time of its inception, was predominantly black music. Never solely so; for example, one of the genre’s most important forefathers was electric guitar inventor Les Paul. Rock’s early days included a lot of people like Jerry Lee Lewis who brought country influences into what became rockabilly (Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, drew more obviously on both sources). And even Elvis, who famously got his big break because he was seen as a white man who could sing rock in the style of a black man, still drew a lot of his sound as a crooner from the Bing Crosby school of smooth singing. But many of the most dynamic, influential and oft-imitated early rockers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino – were African-American. As those early stars faded and the first generation of great rock bands arrived, the influences of the black pioneers were obvious – the Beatles covered songs by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys just openly stole his riffs, and the Stones recorded standards by the bluesmen. Yet, as white bands built on what they’d started, the voice of black singers was still something distinctive and irreplaceable.
That voice had moved by the early 60s to early R&B and soul, personified first and foremost by Ray Charles and James Brown in the late 1950s, but followed over the next decade by a long series of artists on the Motown and Stax Records labels: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown/Stax artists were commercially anchored in black radio and live performances to black audiences, but they crossed over repeatedly to white radio, and their work was frequently covered or influential on white artists. The instruments, the beats, the styles of production – both black and white artists of that era had a lot in common. And the relationship wasn’t entirely one-way, either; the Motown/Stax sound was influenced by white writers and producers like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector, and leading black artists would also cover songs by white artists. Consider Wilson Pickett’s version of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney and featuring the guitar stylings of Duane Allman.
The point of the foregoing is to emphasize that the 1960s were a high watermark for the cross-pollination of the most popular genres white and black music, and that a major component of that was the mainstream white rock audience’s acceptance of black artists and the unique sounds of black vocalists. True, African-American influences have always been a part of the American musical scene, from the influence of the old ‘Negro’ spirituals on American folk music to the influence of black jazz on the Big Band era; there’s really no dispute that no other racial, ethnic or religious group has had as much influence on American music. And true, too, music’s audiences were still basically segregated in the 60s – white listeners listened mainly to Top 40 and the newly-emerging FM rock radio, while black audiences generally listened to R&B and Soul stations. And true as well that while black artists influenced and were influenced by white artists, and white audiences embraced black artists, it seems that black audiences still mostly listened only to black artists. Musical integration was never truly symmetrical. But the musical ferment of that era was nonetheless the product of remarkable talents of both races feeding off one another’s sounds.
At the apex of this era, in 1967, rock got its first true black superstar. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t an R&B musician crossing over to rock; he was straight-up rock n’ roll, the archetypical guitar god. He was also his own lead vocalist, and while vocals were never Hendrix’s forte, there was no confusing him with a white man.
Did Hendrix bring a lot of black fans into rock, or even into his own music? I can’t answer that question, and I’m not sure the data is really out there to study the question in a systematic way, but it’s hard to detect any real signs of a cultural shift among black audiences (check out the sea of white faces in the crowd shots at any Hendrix show). I do know that his career lasted only four short years after Monterey, and that he died at age 27, probably leaving more great music on the table than anybody in rock history (only Duane Allman and Otis Redding could really compete). Hendrix had his share of problems handling success and more than his share of drug issues, but unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, there’s nothing in Hendrix’s life that makes it that hard to imagine him surviving, as Clapton and Keith Richards did, and prospering to this day as a 68 year old creative genius carrying the blues not as a pursuing demon but as an old companion, his self-designed studio still attracting younger artists. If that had happened, I have to believe that somewhere along the line, Hendrix would eventually have attracted a following both of black fans and black imitators, and maybe helped keep a bridge open from the rock world to the African-American audience.
It was not to be. There were other black rockers (e.g. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), and eventually in the late 80s there were a few who tried to step into Hendrix’s shoes (Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Slash – Slash’s mother is African-American), but times had changed, and the moment could not be recaptured. There was never another time when you could find a black face among the handful of rock’s biggest stars. Hendrix had come along at a moment in rock history when it was possible to imagine a genuine integration of black music and the rock world that owed so much to its black forbears. That possibility would evaporate within half a decade.
The world didn’t change overnight when Jimi Hendrix died; it never does. But the trends started moving in different directions. Motown and Stax suffered a series of reversals between 1967 and 1972 – Otis Redding died, Sam & Dave broke up (as, later, would the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as Sly & the Family Stone, which wasn’t a Motown or Stax act but shared a similar sound), the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team left Motown, and eventually Motown left Detroit in 1972, around the time Stax went into irreversible decline. Many of the signature artists of that era – the Four Tops, the Temptations – never found the same success after the early 1970s, while others (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles) went into slower decline.
At first, the next generation of Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, recorded in something like the old style, and by the early to mid 70s, Stevie’s various experiments included funkier rock (Superstition, his best song, remains the high watermark of his rock influences). But by around 1976, tastes and trends were changing quickly. R&B and Soul moved more in the direction of crooners like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass who had little in common with anything being done by the rock bands of the era, and then the disco craze hit, propelling stars like Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Gladys Knight to success that left the old Motown sound in the dustbin. Some mainstream rock acts (the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart) tried their hands at disco as well, but unlike the blues, disco had no lasting imprint on the rock world.
It’s debatable, given the complex racial politics of the 70s, what drove white and black audiences in divergent musical directions from the mid-70s on, but the trends away from the Motown and blues sounds were evident on both sides. Led Zeppelin drew openly on the blues roots that traced back to Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds days, but the success of Zeppelin ushered in a whole era of metal that would be almost entirely white, as were the glam rock of acts like David Bowie and Queen, the ethereal sounds of the likes of Yes, Styx, Supertramp and eventually Journey, the mellow California rock of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and most of all punk, which rose and fell in parallel with disco (neither the prime years of Sex Pistols, the Clash, nor even the Ramones lasted much longer than those of the Bee Gees). (I’m simplifying here by skipping the rise of reggae, which had only a modest impact on the rock world.) The keepers of the flame of the integrated musical heritage of the mid-60s – Springsteen, Southside Johnny, even the Blues Brothers (backed by essentially the old Stax house band) – were audibly out of step with their times. And when the waters of disco and punk receded, the nascent genre of rap began to emerge.
And that, for the most part, is where we stand today: despite its black roots, rock is made by and for white people, abandoned by African-American performers and audiences alike. Oh, every few years we get a black-fronted rock act – Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ben Harper. But they don’t represent a significant movement, anymore than Grant Fuhr represented a significant movement in the NHL. Michael Jackson’s Beat It aside, the leading black performers popular with black audiences haven’t set more than a toe in the rock world in the past 30 years; the lone exception would be Prince, who in his 80s heyday melded electric guitars with current funk. And Prince has been over the hill for almost 20 years. Black women have been even more absent in the ranks of rock vocalists – any list of the best straight-up rock acts of all time will get down in the hundreds before you locate a black female lead vocalist, even though the pool of talented black female singers is perennially deep, and their voices unique (as one can see by the number of major rock acts that have drawn on black women for backing vocals).
This doesn’t mean that the music world is wholly segregated today – there’s still crossover in other formats (like Elvis back in the day, arguably the biggest star in rap is a white man, Eminem), although surely the gulf between rock and other formats contributes to a more generally heightened level of segregation in radio and live entertainment. But the loss of black influence and interest in rock is surely a loss for rock, and a contributing cause in the fragmentation of the nation’s musical culture. Some voices can never be entirely replaced.
* – Howlin’ Wolf was also almost certainly the last major African-American music star named after a Republican president.