Sometime after posting "Why Black Rock?" recently, I reran the first few episodes of the mind-opening 1995 PBS series "Rock & Roll" (wasted a half-hour trying to find link to the normally great PBS web page for this classic). I was blown away, again, by this quote from Ben E. King (you know, the original "Stand By Me" vocal?) the former lead singer of The Drifters.
James [Brown] covered what blacks felt they needed...to survive the Beatles. The Beatles had all of what the whites [rock n' roll acts] needed to keep them going. The thing we had created with the Drifters was in the middle of all that. There was no separatism there. We had collected a people to listen to a music. But when [The Beatles] came along... with that long straight hair... that changed the whole attitude of the music in a racial way. So there was no competition...we couldn't compare with that if we tried for another 200 years. Maybe...if we had had Michael Jackson...maybe.
King was talking about the moment in rock history when race was allowed to divide the consumers and the creators of the music then known as rock n' roll. Until the Beatles and the "British Invasion" followed, that category included everything from the most sophisticated versions of black "doo-wop" (e.g. the Drifters) to Elvis to Ray Charles to California surf sounds (Beach Boys) to early Motown and "girl groups" like the Shirelles and the racially ambiguous Ronettes. And much more. The Beatles—still arguably the most important musical group of the last 50 years—had no idea of the collateral damage they caused. But, as the Shirley Reeves of The Shirelles points out in the documentary, many black acts were pushed off the pop charts as British acts covered their songs.
My point: We need "black rock"—the spirit if not the music of a specific group— to point the way back to the hot minute when the Civil Rights movement and the racial unity in the music of a new generation were about to merge. As King (Ben E.) said, they had collected a people, despite the mountain of political contradictions and sheer racism that stood (and in some ways still stands) between them. These are the people I call "The American Race."
It wasn't just The Beatles or their hair, of course. It was the strain that the bitter, inconclusive first finale of the Civil Rights movement (the assassinations and riots of 1968) put on the entire culture, musical and political. James Brown moved into (but didn't exactly invent) funk with the anthem "Say it Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud." No non-blacks were invited to follow him.
Meanwhile the white session musicians that were instrumental in creating the funkiest, grittiest "soul music" churned out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala. (think Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) had their collaborations abruptly cut off within a year of Martin Luther King's murder. Their interviews are telling and deeply moving.
I think the Rock & Roll series (a co-production of WGBH, Boston and the BBC) is available on DVD. This is the kind of "where we came from" that matters for anyone concerned about where we're trying to go.