Rock ‘n’ Roll began to bloom in the mid-1950s and is often described in this stage as a mix between country music and rhythm and blues. Though Elvis Presley has been dubbed “The King (of Rock and Roll),” his success is due to the work of Black musicians before him. The producer who discovered (and, according to some, engineered) Elvis, Sam Phillips, is quoted as saying “I always said that if I could find a white boy who could sing like a Black man I’d make a million dollars.” And he was right (though he wasn’t the one who made millions of dollars, as his contract was bought out by RCA).
Rock music is often dubbed “white people music,” to the detriment of artists and fans of color alike. While it’d be impossible to trace the entire history of rock music in one article, we’d like to take this time to share the stories of a few Black artists who have pioneered the genre’s evolution over the years, as well as discuss the often-ignored influence of race in the music industry and rock scene.
Known as “The Father of Rock & Roll,” Chuck Berry got his start in high school, singing Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” at the school’s musical performance to thunderous applause. He soon began learning rhythm changes and blues chords on guitar, and in 1952 began performing. Since country-western was popular at the time, Berry began incorporating country into his style. In 1955, he signed to Chess Records, due to Leonard Chess’ interest in his ‘hillybilly’ track “Maybellene” (originally called “Ida May”). That summer, “Maybellene” hit number 5 on the Pop Charts and number 1 on the R&B Charts.
Throughout his career, Berry released numerous hits. His success is largely attributed to his ability to release music that his audience enjoyed and found relatable. In 1986, he was the first ever inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a tribute to his success, the Voyager 1, launched in 1977, included a clip of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Any article discussing the history of rock music wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Jimi Hendrix. After years of yearning to play guitar, he finally acquired his first acoustic in 1958 at age 15. For the next 8 years, he moved around, playing in various groups and backup bands, including the Isley Brother’s backup bands, Little Richard’s ensemble band, and various soul, R&B, and blues groups. In 1966, Linda Keith (then girlfriend of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones) discovered Hendrix, and introduced him to various industry players. Eventually, Hendrix connected with Chas Chandler, who liked Hendrix’s version of the song “Hey Joe.” Hendrix flew to London, and began playing with a band assembled by Chandler to showcase his talent, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The band’s first show was October 13, 1966 in France, opening for Johnny Hallyday, and the rest is history. Over the next year, the band released several singles distributed via Polydor Records, and appeared on UK television shows Ready Set Go! and Top of the Pops. “Hey Joe” peaked at number 6 on the UK charts, “Purple Haze” hit number 3. Are You Experienced was released in May 1967, and spent 33 weeks on the UK charts, reaching the number two position (number one was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Reprise Records released Are You Experienced in the US in August, where it reached number 5 on the Billboard 200.
Though Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27, his influence on rock music cannot be understated. He was the world’s highest paid performer of his time, and headlined 1969’s Woodstock Festival. Rolling Stone ranked him as the greatest guitarist of all time, and the Experience’s three studio albums among the 100 greatest albums of all time. Hendrix was also one of the first artists to make extensive use of guitar effects, such as overdrive, fuzz distortion, wah-wah, and others still widely used today.
Ike and Tina Turner
Ranked number 2 on the Rolling Stones 20 Greatest Duos of All Time, Ike and Tina Turner began performing in 1960 as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, backed by the Kings of Rhythm and the Ikettes. The pair started performing together in the 1958, and soon began dating. When singer Art Lassiter failed to show for a recording session in 1960, Ike allowed Tina to record a demo of the song instead. Music execs and DJs heard the song, and thus Juggy Murray (president of Sue Records) bought the rights to song and prompted Tina Turner to perform under that moniker (her name was Ann Bullock).
The song, “A Fool In Love” became an immediate hit upon its July 1960 release, reaching number 2 on the Billboard Hot R&B Charts. On October 3rd, they made their TV debut on American Bandstand. Just two weeks later, Tina gave birth to their son Ronald Renelle Turner. Their next single, “I Idolize You,” also saw great success, and they released their debuted album The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner in February 1961. Later that year, they released the single “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” which earned them their first Grammy nomination for Best Rock and Roll Recording at the 4th Annual Grammy Awards.
Ike and Tina’s career boomed throughout the 60s and into the 70s. They received 7 Grammy nominations, wining the 1972 award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group for “Proud Mary,” and released 20 studio albums. In 1991, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and both received stars on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Ike and Tina toured Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as both headliners and openers for acts such as the Rolling Stones
Before ‘punk’ was even a genre, there was a band called Death. Brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney began playing music together in the late 1960s, but began playing rock music in 1973. Soon after, the band recorded some of their songs with Groovesville Productions. Despite their talent, the band never took off. “I knew those kids were great, but trying to break a Black group into rock ’n’ roll was just tough during that time,” said Brian Spears, Groovesville’s publishing director who oversaw the band’s sessions. The band ultimately pressed 500 copies of “Politicians in My Eyes,” backed with “Keep On Knocking,” on their own label Tryangle. Unable to find much support on the radio (in part due to the rise of disco), the band gave up on rock and roll, and moved to Vermont to “clear their heads,” leaving their experience with Death behind them.
It wasn’t until 2008, when Bobby’s son Julian heard the band’s single being played at a party and recognized his father’s voice, that the band was rediscovered. A Google search by Bobby Jr. revealed the going rate of the band’s only release (one copy sold to record collector Robert Cole Manis for $400 and $400 worth of rare records). Mr. Manis saw a post from Bobby Jr. on a punk forum about the rediscovery of Death’s master recordings (which had been in storage for over 30 years), and put the brothers in touch with Chicago indie label Drag City, who released the band’s 7 recorded songs as “…For The Whole To See.” In 2012, the documentary “A Band Called Death” was released (and I highly recommend it), which detailed the band’s story from their origin to rediscovery.
While David Hackney unfortunately passed away before seeing the band’s rediscovery, he knew that the band was something special. In an interview with the New York Times, Bobby Sr. said “David came to me right before he died, and he had some master tapes of ours. I jokingly said to him, ‘David, I have enough of our stuff, man, I’m running out of room.’ And he said, ‘Bob, you’ve got to keep all this stuff, the world’s going to come looking for it one day, and when the world comes looking for it, I’ll know that you’ll have it.”
Poly Styrene/X-Ray Spex
Across the pond, Poly Styrene started the band X-Ray Spex in 1976 at the age of 19. The band started off playing small venues around the UK, and quickly gained momentum. The band released their infamous single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” on Virgin Records in 1977, and later released their album Germfree Adolescents (1978) on EMI. In the US, X-Ray Spex played twice a night for two weeks at CBGB’s in New York City. The band was only together for a few years, but was still massively influential. Though her music was more anti-consumerist than it was feminist, Poly Styrene is often credited as influence by riot grrrl artists. Artists such as FKA Twigs, Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) have cited Poly and her music as influences on their music and careers.
Check back soon for more influential artists from the 80s, 90s, and now! This is by no means an exhaustive list of Black musicians and artists from these decades, but we hope you found it informative!
For some amazing Black artists that are currently making music, check out last week’s article.
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