19 songs that prove how much pop music owes to black rock

From Mariah Carey to Run-D.M.C., the most critically acclaimed pop of the last 60 years was shaped by black rock VIDEO

Topics: Video, Jimi Hendrix, mariah carey, otis redding, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, ceelo green, De La Soul, jody watley, Run DMC, Miles Davis, Freddie King, Music, lists, , , ,

19 songs that prove how much pop music owes to black rockJimi Hendrix (Credit: AP/Legacy)

When people think of black rock musicians, Jimi Hendrix is often the first name that springs to mind. To some degree this makes sense; Hendrix is an incredibly talented and important songwriter, and certainly one of the all-time rock greats. But regarding Hendrix as the beginning and end of a genre can be deceptive.

The list below proves that rock has been black music from the beginning, long before Hendrix, and has remained black music up to the present day. (Hat tip to Dee at  http://blackrockandrollmusic.tumblr.com for the idea for this post.) Basically, black rock music is central to the most critically acclaimed pop of the last 60 years.

Roy Brown, “Butcher Pete” 1950

Roy Brown was one of the great jump blues vocalists, foreshadowing Little Richard in his explosive vocal style, and any number of raunchy rockers in his single-entendre penis jokes (“Oh, Pete, he loves that meat!”). Rockabilly is often presented as the beginning of rock. As a result, jump blues performers like Brown and Wynonie Harris, who laid the groundwork for Elvis and Jerry Lee, are mistakenly seen as outliers rather than founders.

LaVern Baker, “Soul on Fire” 1953

Musicians like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley are, like Hendrix, performers who can be easily slotted into a narrative about white guitar bands. LaVern Baker shows how limited that view is. A major, successful, early rock star, her music was horn- and piano-based rather than rooted in guitar and country. “Soul On Fire” in particular, is in a torch song tradition that has remained part of rock, from Aretha to Joni Mitchell to Journey.

Ray Charles, “What’d I Say” 1959

One of the most massively influential rock records of all time. The rhythmic assault and lascivious lyrics of “What’d I Say” convinced Paul McCartney to become a musician; it was the first song performed by the band that would become the Rolling Stones, and the blueprint for black rock artists from James Brown to Aretha Franklin. It became a standard in the repertoire of Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet Charles is rarely mentioned among the seminal early rock artists like Elvis or Little Richard. Instead, he’s pigeonholed as the inventor of soul, as if inventing soul somehow means he can’t have invented rock as well.



Howlin’ Wolf, “Mama’s Baby” 1962

Even playing guitar isn’t necessarily enough to get black artists acknowledged as rockers. Howlin’ Wolf’s harsh, dirty sound, influenced by blues and country, is an essential part of the DNA of heavy rock, and Wolf was recording at the same time as canonical rock stars. Yet he’s called “blues.” Maybe it’s all part of some sort of plot to make “Exile on Main Street” look original?

Cookies, “Wounded” 1967

Girl-group pop was an essential subgenre in early rock. It was a major influence on rock bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, not to mention Ray Charles, with whom many of the Cookies recorded as the Raylettes. This track shows that Beatles and Beach Boys’ influence is coming back around. “Wounded” isn’t some embalmed source for the rock music innovations of white-boy geniuses, but a slice of psychedelic rock itself.

Otis Redding, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” 1968

Redding was a huge Little Richard fan, and performed with Richard’s backing band early in his own career. But, in a quintessentially rock star mode, his influences were eclectic; he’d cover blues and country as well as rock songs like the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” This performance of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is so tight and fierce it just about turns into metal — hard rock funk.

Freddie King, “Going Down” 1971

One of the great progenitors of electric guitar rock listened to his disciples on both sides of the Atlantic, and then stepped up to show them he could beat them at their own game. King is supposed to be a blues artist, but if this were recorded by Zeppelin or ZZ Top, there’s little doubt where it would be shelved at your local record store.

Miles Davis, “Black Satin” 1973

Davis’ “On The Corner” was hugely controversial when it came out; his use of tape loops and electronics and the studio as an instrument alienated jazz purists and just about everybody else. The album’s genius has long since been recognized. And yet, though its eclecticism, experimentation and fierceness scream “rock!”, “On the Corner” still never gets mentioned in lists of greatest rock albums, and Miles is never really considered as an important rock musician. But he is.

Donna Summer, “Hot Stuff” 1979

Rock and disco are supposed to be sworn enemies. But if the rhythmic funk of Ray Charles and the vocal tradition of LaVern Baker are seen as part of rock, it starts to look like disco is an offshoot rather than an opposite. Donna Summer’s great, swaggering disco-rock fusion in this case isn’t a synthesis of strangers, but a reunification of siblings, separated briefly perhaps, but both raised on gospel, blues, snarling guitars and rhythmic hot stuff.

Stevie Wonder, “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me?” 1980

Like Hendrix, Funkadelic is often presented as the quintessential example of black funk rock; the one soul funk band interested in crossing over. Funkadelic was certainly rock — but seeing George Clinton as singular obscures the way that ’70s funk in general both engaged with the tradition of Ray Charles and reached out to the neighboring subgenre of hard rock. Stevie shows here, as he often did, just how arbitrary that line between soul and rock is.

Run-D.M.C., “King of Rock” 1985

“Hey, this is a rock and roll museum! You guys don’t belong in here!” Run-D.M.C. begs to differ. Who says a hip hop band can’t play rock? “Music ain’t nothin but a people’s jam/ It’s DJ Run-D.M.C. rockin without a band.” I think the best part is when they unplug Jerry Lee Lewis. He really would have hated that.

Jody Watley, “Looking for a New Love” 1987

Like Funkadelic before him, Prince is seen as the iconic soul-to-rock crossover artist of his day. This is especially confused given how pervasive the man’s influence was; the Minneapolis Sound was everywhere., and Jody Watley’s massive hit is just one example. “Looking for a New Love” was produced by André Cymone, a bassist who worked with Prince, and it’s got that archetypal synth-New Wave funk sound. Which makes it rock, even if Prince himself didn’t happen to be in the studio to do a guitar solo.

de la Soul, “Who Do You Worship?” 1991

Run-D.M.C. presented hip hop as a logical extension of rock. De la Soul is less straightforward; “Who Do You Worship?” is basically a parody, sneering at the banal satanic posturing of hard rock from Mick Jagger to Slayer. Part of the joke, though, is that that posturing is part of hip hop too. Rap, de la seems to say, is just more rock stars pretending it’s cool to be an asshole. And of course you have to be a swaggering jerk to point that out — which is totally rock and roll.

Aubrey and Lori Ghent, “Praise Music” 1993

The importance of gospel performers like Rosetta Tharpe to early rock is rarely discussed, but you can’t miss it when you listen to this amazing recording. Aubrey and Lori Ghent perform in a sacred tradition of steel guitar which has grown up in Florida and a number of other states. This fiery live show has obvious links to both Ray Charles-style rhythmic rock and the gritty blues guitar of performers like Howlin’ Wolf and Freddie King. The compilation Sacred Steel, which collects performances by Ghent and many others, is one of the great unsung rock recordings of all time.

Mariah Carey, “Heartbreaker” 1999

Carey’s mixture of pop and rhythm recalls girl groups, classic Motown and bands like the Beatles. How is “Heartbreaker” categorically different in approach, or message, or execution from something like “I’m a Believer” — and why do the Monkees get to be (critically appreciated) pop rock, and Mariah Carey doesn’t?

Cee Lo Green, “El-Dorado Sunrise (Super-Chicken)” 2001

In 2008 James Hannaham wrote a Salon article about TV on the Radio in which he bemoaned “the nearly total segregation among bands who have played rock music since the early ’70s.” That segregation existed — but in the minds of music critics, not in the performances of black musicians. Cee Lo Green is generally pigeonholed as a hip hop artist, even though, as “Super-Chicken” shows, he’s steeped in a Southern stew of soul, gospel and funk. In case you missed it, that’s the formula for rock.

Brooke Valentine, “Thrill of the Chase” 2005

Brooke Valentine is virtually forgotten, but she was one of the most inventive and audacious R&B performers of the 2000s. This non-album track is a good example of why — “Thrill of the Chase” is built around a massive hard rock riff spiced with touches of reggae and gangsta heavy bottom. Valentine’s willingness to experiment was probably what doomed her commercially; the separation of R&B from rock can inhibit the kind of intermixing of black and white styles that made rock possible to begin with.

Rye Rye ft. M.I.A., “Sunshine” 2010

The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” was a famous early rock girl group performance that incorporated folk rhymes and nursery-like chants; the Dixie Cups used an aluminum chair, an ashtray and a Coke bottle for percussion. Rye Rye and M.I.A. pick up on that gleeful tradition, blending girl harmonies and skip-rope rhythms.

SZA ft. Rashad, “Warm Winds” 2014


SZA’s recent release “Z” is part of the latest wave of alt-R&B by folks like Solange, Kelela and Dawn Richards — artists who are as much indie rock as soul, and seem as influenced by Bjork as by Beyoncé. It would be nice to think that this innovative effort to cross musical boundaries could prompt a reconsideration of those boundaries themselves.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...