The White Appropriation of Rhythm and Blues
The music of the African American artists of the 1940s and 1950s is the basis for the music of the modern day. The electrified delta blues sound that became known as Rhythm and Blues (R&B) was adopted by white America and became Rock and Roll. While there are some success stories for African American artists in the history of Rock and Roll, it was the white appropriation of the music that really saw it take off. “African American artists developed the music,” said Jonny Otis, “but the glory and the money goes to the white artists”. The following discussion aims to explain why white artists succeeded in covering African American music and the negative and positive affects had on African American musicians. Case studies will include early white artists such as Elvis Presley, the “British Invasion” and the Rolling Stones, and the alleged plagiarism of Led Zeppelin.
The electrified versions of the delta blues played by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other artists of the Chess Label were the prototype for the rock music of the 1960s. Szatmary explains in Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll how R&B was born. During the 1940s, many southern African Americans migrated to northern and western cities in an effort to avoid the crippling racism they felt in the south. A new ‘urban’ version of the blues soon emerged which combined electric guitar, a ‘jump’ rhythm and a more optimistic sound. This became known as R&B. This sound was born in Chicago which was home to Chess Records; those on their roster included the great bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley amongst others. Willie Dixon was employed in 1950 as a songwriter and created many of the label’s hits. Other independent labels also began achieving moderate success with black R&B and white teenagers began to take an interest in the new sounds.
Acceptance of black R&B musicians was very rare in 1950s America, and it was those who were considered non-threatening that first struck a chord with white audiences. Chuck Berry and Little Richard were younger than their Chess label mates, and played hard driving, frenetic R&B. Richard played up tempo boogie-woogie on piano and his first hit, “Tutti Frutti” sold 200,000 copies in its first week. Berry combined country and boogie-woogie on electric guitar and created his first hit “Maybelline”, and he and Richard would go on to have many more hits during the Rock and Roll era. Little Richard believed his feminine appearance meant that many white parents did not see him as a threat. Chuck Berry down played his race, singing accessible lyrics in a ‘white’ voice. The success of these black artists coincided with the end of law imposed segregation and audiences began to integrate at R&B shows, pre-empting the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately this optimism failed to last and as white teenagers, the pop music buying demographic, began to buy R&B songs, their parents and established music industry figures started a racially fuelled backlash. Szatmary cites Vance Packard a man who testified against what was then being called Rock and Roll in front of senate sub-committee in 1958. He told the committee that he believed the “raw, savage tone” of the music only appeals to the “animal instinct” of teenagers. Disgruntled crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis jnr also spoke out against the new music. Soon there began radio bans of what was called “offensive music” across the USA.
This type of racial backlash occurred because of the perceived ideas surrounding African Americans in the 1950s. It had been taught in the USA that they were an inferior people and though official segregation was ending many whites felt it unacceptable to associate with any part of African American culture. This fits with the cultural hegemony theory put forward by Van Horston. This suggests that the material and cultural practises of people must fit within the belief system embraced by the power elite, who at this point were older white men. R&B music certainly did not fit within the accepted cultural practises.
Despite the denunciation of R&B and Rock and Roll by white America, there was still a great interest shown in the music by white teenagers. Major labels catered to this audience by introducing white artists to cover African American R&B. Pat Boone was one of the most successful artists to benefit from this ploy and he provided the white face to open up acceptance. He re-recorded songs by Fats Domino, T-Bone Walker and most successfully Little Richard, in doing so toning down the lyrics and presentations of the songs for white audiences. He called this process, making songs more “vanilla”. Other artists of the same ilk were also successful but it was another more authentic singer who had most success with the black sound.
The owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, has been famously quoted as saying “If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” History suggests that Phillips found this man in Elvis Presley. He and other white rockers such as Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis were prime examples of white men profiting from a black sound. In Helen Kolawole’s article, “He Wasn’t My King,” she argues that the myth surrounding Elvis has meant the originators of his music were not recognised. Elvis’ first single was Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama”, and while Elvis gained widespread celebration for his heavily African American influenced sound, Crudup has never achieved any sort of notoriety. Although Ed Masely suggests that Elvis brought a whole new sound to “That’s All Right, Mama” and he in fact recorded the song a year before Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”. In Kolawole’s article she cites Bertrand’s “Rock, Race and Elvis,” and he explains that Elvis helped southerners rethink their attitudes towards African American culture. It can be said then that while many of Elvis’ influences remain unacknowledged he was able to stir major influence in R&B with his new ‘Rockabilly’ sound. His place as “King of Rock and Roll” however would be heavily disputed if he was an African American, as it was the racial setting 1950s USA that allowed him so much success.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, American R&B had reached the ears of English teenagers. Inspired by the music, many started up their own “skiffle” bands. Bands such as the Rolling Stones played American R&B in an English style. Many English band became popular in the USA during this time, these bands became termed as the “British Invasion”. Chappell argues that British Invasion bands were affectively selling Americans their own music that had been watered down and sung with funny accents. Indeed, the years 1965 to 1968 during the height of the British Invasion, were bad years for African American R&B music sales. Keith Richards claims that by covering their inspirations they were aiming to help others discover them. It seems that British Invasion bands did help reignite interest in R&B artists when many African Americans had moved onto soul music. Artists such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf regained popularity and were discovered by a new generation by the late 1960s. Muddy Waters explained that the Rolling Stones through covering his songs led him to a much wider audience. B.B. King said British bands “made the US as a whole aware of the blues”. The Rolling Stones made much more money than the artists they covered but they were able to bring widespread acclaim to their influences by acknowledging the history of their songs. It was another English group whose reputation has been tarnished by allegations of plagiarism of African American artists.
Born out of British Invasion group The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin had massive success with their bluesy hard rock sound. They were strongly influenced by African American blues and R&B artists and incorporated many ideas from older songs into their own. Unfortunately their lazy crediting of other writers meant that while they became rich, their African American influences gained little money from their work. When questioned on allegations of plagiarism in an interview with Guitar World, the guitarist of the group, Jimmy Page responded “I always made sure to come up with some variation, in most cases it’s hard to tell the original source”. He then goes on to blame vocalist Robert Plant for not changing the lyrics of borrowed songs.  Plant often used lyrics of delta blues musicians as homage to his favourite artists.
There are many examples of Led Zeppelin borrowing ideas and lyrics from African American artists. Some of these were correctly attributed to their original writers, such as “I Can’t Quit You” and “You Shook Me” both by Willie Dixon. Songs that were not direct covers however were not often credited properly. These include “Bring It On Home” and “Whole Lotta Love” which both led to lawsuits brought forward by original writer Willie Dixon. Others include “How Many More Times” derived from Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and “The Lemon Song” which incorporated elements from Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. In the interview with Guitar World, Page explains that they were often paying tribute to their influences within their songs. Even if this is the case the lack of proper source crediting means that Led Zeppelin are another example of white musicians exploiting the sounds of African Americans.
The racial climate of the 1950s allowed white artists to benefit from African American R&B. These artists such as Elvis, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin became very successful using the general sound and direct covers of black artists. While it could be said that white artists brought their influences to a wider audience, it does not seem fair that African American artists could not achieve the same success as their white counterparts.
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