Thursday, 7 November 2013

black music of the 1960s

This post is a companion piece to Sixties Music: the Top Ten, which was posted almost two years ago, and is a response to the criticism that I received for not including more black music in that top ten. Although I started writing it almost immediately, I was forced to shelve it by a serious accident at the end of 2011. Finally, however, here is my assessment of the black music of the decade. I’ve included YouTube links to what I consider some of the best songs.

Booker T. and the M.G.s, circa 1965. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (third from left) has replaced Lewis Steinberg.

It is impossible to assess the political, social and cultural impact of black music in the 1960s without considering the black music of the previous decade, which was the inspiration behind the ‘beat boom’ of 1963–64 in the UK and the subsequent ‘British invasion’ of the United States. Until the mid-1950s, music performed by black artists in the United States had been aimed exclusively at a black audience, carrying on a practice that had started in the 1920s, when labels such as Okeh, Paramount, Victor and Vocalion released ‘race’ recordings as separate series, and almost the only white listeners were archivists such as Samuel Charters (author of The Country Blues, 1959) , and John and Alan Lomax, working for the Library of Congress.

In fact, there had always been two separate and mutually antipathetic strands in black music in the United States, sacred and profane. Gospel developed from the early negro spirituals, while the blues, described as ‘the Devil’s music’ by gospel singers and supporters, came from the work songs and field hollers of the bad old days of slavery. Nowhere is this schism better exemplified than in the controversy created by Ray Charles’ What’d I Say? (1959), which was unmistakeably an R&B song but which incorporated the call-and-response motif commonly associated with gospel music. It was a massive mainstream hit and as such a milestone in the development of rock music.

It is also important to remember that on the European concert circuit of the 1950s, the blues was regarded as ‘art music’. Its principal exponents were Big Bill Broonzy and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. This pretentiousness was punctured by Muddy Waters, whose European tour in 1958 gave rise to the probably apocryphal story of a prominent music critic retiring to the men’s toilet to write his review because he found the music too loud, echoing a lament that would be heard by countless teenagers in the 1960s.

Muddy Waters was one of the best-known artists recorded by Chess Records of Chicago, where he enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Howlin’ Wolf during the 1950s. Both men were from the Mississippi delta, where they were influenced by the blues of Robert Johnson and Son House, but Chess did have many other popular artists on its books, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy and Little Walter.

However, the only Chess recordings to be released in the UK in the 1950s were by Chuck Berry, who was a rising star in his home country with an uncanny ability, in his lyrics, to articulate the feelings of a young audience. Only Sweet Little Sixteen was a top 20 hit in the UK at the time though; other Berry songs, such as Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode, became classics in Britain only when they were re-released in the 1960s and/or were covered by leading British bands of the period. Unfortunately, Berry’s career nosedived in 1962 after he was jailed for three years for transporting an underage girl across state lines.

As was widely reported at the time, the Beatles cited Berry as one of their main influences when they burst upon the scene in January 1963. By this time, Pye had acquired the UK rights to the Chess recordings, and within a month the first 45 appeared: Howlin’ Wolf’s Just Like I Treat You. It may not have found its way into the charts, but it did find its way onto the jukebox of the coffee bar where I misspent my youth.

Other blues singers to make a mark in the UK in the early 1960s included John Lee Hooker, whose Dimples (1956) and Boom Boom (1962), became an integral part of the live shows of Newcastle band the Animals, and Slim Harpo, whose I’m a King Bee and Got Love if You Want It were covered by the Rolling Stones, and also by American bands the Grateful Dead and the Doors. Dimples was a minor pop hit in the UK in 1964.

The other important label for black musicians in the 1950s was Atlantic, where Ray Charles was the star turn throughout the decade. Other major acts included the Drifters, then an authentic doo-wop group, Big Joe Turner, who had started out as a ‘blues shouter’ fronting the Count Basie Orchestra and whose signature song, Shake, Rattle and Roll, was covered in a bowdlerized version by Bill Haley and his Comets, and the Coasters. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler is often credited with inventing the term ‘rhythm and blues’ to replace the older pejorative label ‘race music’. Whether this is true or not, Atlantic produced a massive string of R&B hits during the 1950s.

Although gospel music lacked the commercial reach of rhythm and blues during the 1950s, it is worth noting that several of the most significant black singers of the 1960s began their careers in gospel choirs in the 1950s, including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. The last three were the reason Atlantic continued to be an important influence in the 1960s, although the label lost Ray Charles to ABC Paramount at the beginning of the decade. The audience lost Ray Charles to country and western music.

Two important new record labels appeared in the late 1950s—Motown and Stax—although neither made much of an impact in the UK at the time, mainly because of poor distribution deals. Motown’s first US million-seller, Shop Around by the Miracles, went almost unnoticed in the UK.

During this early period, Tamla/Motown recordings were released in the UK on the Oriole American label, which explains the indifference of the British public (Oriole was the UK’s smallest record company at the time). Even though the chief reviewer of the Record Mirror heaped extravagant praise on Fingertips by Little Stevie Wonder, an electrifying harmonica-led live instrumental, it made almost no impression.

The company’s fortunes began to look up when it signed a distribution deal with EMI, originally for its records to be issued on the Stateside label. This covers the period when the distinctive Tamla-Motown sound was still in an embryonic state of development, which probably explains why most of the Tamla/Motown records that I would consider classics were released during this period. I recommend that you listen to Can I Get a Witness? by Marvin Gaye, which wasn’t a hit in the UK, even though I bought a copy at the time, and even though it was covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album. The ‘honky-tonk’ piano accompaniment may have marked this track as R&B, but the style of Gaye’s vocal delivery betrays its gospel influences.

If the later Motown sound was instantly recognizable, the same could also be said of the output of the Stax studio, which is most clearly seen in Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour. Pickett wasn’t a Stax artist, but Atlantic dispatched him to Memphis to record much of his early work. The ambience of Stax’s studio (a former movie theatre, complete with a raked floor where the seating had once been), Steve Cropper’s understated but expressive lead guitar (Cropper co-wrote In the Midnight Hour), and a pulsating horn section are the distinctive elements of this track. I wore out my original vinyl copy.

However, In the Midnight Hour was recorded in 1965. Three years earlier, Stax had released one of the most influential records of the decade: Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.s. The most significant aspect of this track is not musical but social: two of the band were black (Booker T. Jones (Hammond organ) and Al Jackson Jr (drums)); and two were white (Steve Cropper (guitar) and Lewis Steinberg (bass)). Such a lineup might not be unusual nowadays, but it should be borne in mind that this record came out a year before Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. At the time of this recording, all four were merely members of Stax’s house band, and Green Onions was the result of a jam session that just happened to be recorded. Nevertheless, within a couple of years, every British band with a keyboard player was performing a version of it at their live gigs.

The undoubted star of the Stax roster was Otis Redding. He could belt out an up-tempo number with the best of his contemporaries (Respect; I Can’t Turn You Loose), but he excelled at slower numbers such as Pain in My Heart and That’s How Strong My Love Is. As the best example of this aspect of his work, listen to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, in which Steve Cropper’s lyrical guitar phrasing provides a perfect counterpoint to Redding’s impassioned delivery.

In addition to Pickett and Redding, Atlantic had another formidable presence on its books: Solomon Burke, who had a string of hits in the early 1960s. It isn’t easy to pick out one track from his repertoire as typical, but I would go for Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which was covered by the Rolling Stones on their second album. This record, more than any other, betrays the gospel origins of what was beginning to be called ‘soul music’, because it is impossible to listen to this pulsating up-tempo song without gaining the impression that one is listening to an old-style revivalist preacher whipping up the emotions of his congregation.

Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music namechecks several of the leading performers of the time, including, inevitably,
Spotlight on James Brown y’all,
He’s the king of them all, y’all.
He’s the king of them all, y’all.
I have always disliked Brown’s mannered, histrionic stage performances, and all those I’ve mentioned so far were superior singers. Nevertheless, he made an important contribution to the decade with songs like Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good), and his influence on future generations of black musicians cannot be ignored—he pioneered what came to be known as ‘funk’. But he certainly wasn’t ‘king of them all’.

Stax was hit by a double whammy towards the end of the decade. In 1967, a few months after an acclaimed performance by Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival that propelled him into the mainstream spotlight and the earlier and equally successful Stax Road Show tour around Europe, which also featured Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.s, the Markeys and Eddie Floyd, Redding was killed in a plane crash. Then, the following year, Stax executives discovered that the distribution deal they had signed with Atlantic in 1961 had assigned all rights to their recordings to Atlantic. Stax was never again the same force.

Meanwhile, Tamla-Motown was entering the most prolific period in its history, with hit after hit by vocal groups the Supremes, the Temptations, the Miracles, the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandellas, and solo artists Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Unfortunately, the studio came to resemble a factory in the process, and as in any system of mass production, individuality was sacrificed (‘you can have any color you like, as long as it’s black’—Henry Ford), exemplified by the sign over the entrance to the studio: ‘Hitsville USA’.

Although I listened predominantly to black singers throughout the 1960s, by the early 1970s, any saccharine ballad performed by a black singer or vocal group was being labelled as ‘soul’, and the gospel roots of the genre had disappeared. I lost interest. Four decades on, when anything carrying the label ‘rhythm and blues’ bears no resemblance to the music to which that label was attached in the 1950s and 1960s, I do not expect that interest ever to be rekindled.


  1. A good well-written piece.

    I never knew that Stax got screwed over by Atlantic. The music industry seems prone to that sort of thing, doesn't it?

    1. Thanks Big D. I didn’t know at the time either.

  2. Awesome post Dennis! I loved this music and still do.
    In my humble opinion, this was BY FAR the best overall decade of music, ever. Motown, Soul, British Invasion, Surf rock, Psychedelic rock, Folk, Protest, Hard rock, Heavy Metal and progressive rock. It was all new or peaking. I do agree with you about the Gospel/Soul/R&B thing, but I still loved it. You gave some great examples. One that is at the top of my list is the Rolling Stones. Especially their early stuff. I know it didn't come out in an album until the mid-60's, but I think the Stones released their amazing version of Little Red Rooster as a single a couple of years before that. Only a short time after Howlin' Wolf released his version. I know that several other groups released their own versions of the song in the 60's, but to me, the Stones versions was best. The Stones even recorded their version at Chess Studios, just like Howlin' Wolf did. One more thing...

    Did you ever see the live jam session filmed at The Checkerboard Lounge (owned by Muddy Waters) in Chicago? The Stones were on tour at the time and stopped in. The jam session included Muddy Waters (and his band), the Stones, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Lefty Dizz and of course, the amazing Muddy Waters Band. It was all great, but the most amazing parts were the Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger vocals. I think they did about 20 songs. Not all were recorded though. The one song I REALLY wanted to hear (Long Distance Call) was so good.

    Okay, whew! I love this stuff... Again, great post Dennis!

    1. I agree with your first point Pat, but of course we’re biased. One of the best aspects of the sixties was that 45s were not merely marketing tools to sell an album. Every single release was an event in itself. I would have to disagree with you regarding the Rolling Stones though. I liked them better when they started releasing their own material, but I hated their early stuff, especially Little Red Rooster. I saw Howlin’ Wolf perform this live in 1964 (by the way, I think he recorded his version in the fifties), and he was always my favourite blues singer. I never saw Muddy Waters, but I did see Buddy Guy in 1965. What a guitarist! I didn’t see the jam session you refer to, but I did see the Stax Road Show in 1967. That was some show.

      By the way, there was a lot of rubbish in the sixties too. Herman’s Hermits anyone?

  3. My sons, both of whom are musicians in a blues-infused psychedelic grunge band, still listen to Howlin' Wolf. In fact, they recently covered "Spoonful" at one of their shows. Timeless.

    1. I still listen to Howlin’ Wolf Kris. And Spoonful is definitely one of his best.

  4. I’ll see your Herman's Hermits and raise you a Dave Clark Five! You are correct; there were a lot of insipid "pop" groups and tunes then also.
    I also liked the Rolling Stones better later on, but to me, songs like Little Red Rooster were a musical roots thing. Mick Jagger is no Howlin' Wolf, or Muddy Waters, but the influence was still there. They even named their band after a Muddy Water's song. Different and clearly white, but they were doing it in a blues/rock fusion kind of way. Early “white” blues performers like Alexis Korner and then later performers like Jack White, Johnny Winter, Charlie Musselwhite, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Bonamassa and many others introduced “black” music (gospel/blues) to the mainstream white world. As a result, guys like Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters and others became more popular and FINALLY got the national exposure they deserved. Of course, the white artists that I just mentioned made far more money than did the original artists they emulated. That part is pretty sad.
    What did you think of Alexis Korner?

    1. I’ll see your Dave Clark Five and raise you Freddie and the Dreamers (the worst live band I ever saw).

      I take your point about introducing the blues to a white audience Pat, but back in the 1960s I was very intolerant of what I saw as frauds—Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, etc. I didn’t feel I needed any introduction. Some of my favourites from that time were Blind Willie McTell, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, and the original Sonny Boy Williamson.

  5. Your range of interests never ceases to amaze me.

    1. You couldn’t have paid me a better compliment Bruce.


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