History is a selective thing. Usually the stories we’re familiar with are the ones we want to believe, or maybe the sad reality is we haven’t been taught any other alternative from the “mainstream” schools of thought.
Case in point is the history of music, and specifically, for this analysis, classic and modern rock. As a white person born and raised in Canada, I’ve grown up believing that Janis Joplin wrote all of her biggest hits, as did the Beatles, Elvis Presley and any other big artist from the ’60s and ’70s. That’s not to say I’m naive to the songwriting process — I know that most songs have multiple collaborators — but what isn’t clear in pop culture history is how many songs were written by Black people and only made “famous” by white artists.
In the majority of cases, it turns out most Black songwriters of those eras barely made a dime off of their creative work, while the white musicians found radio airtime, fame, money, and notoriety for generations using the exact same song. Many Black creators died penniless and nameless, without any credit for the music they brought to the world.
Have you ever heard of Big Mama Thornton? Otis Blackwell? Luther Dixon? Richard M. Jones? Lorraine Ellison? Chances are, unless you’re steeped in Black history or Black music knowledge, you haven’t.
Thornton wrote Ball n’ Chain, one of Joplin’s hits, and originally recorded Presley’s Hound Dog in 1952, among her many contributions to the genre. She gained some recognition for her Hound Dog performance, but saw very little, if any, profit from it. The song’s origins as a female empowerment tune disappeared after Presley’s version was released.
Blackwell wrote Presley hits All Shook Up, Don’t Be Cruel and Return to Sender, as well as the future Jerry Lee Lewis hit Great Balls of Fire. Dixon composed 16 Candles (which was reinvigorated when the movie of the same name was released in 1984, covered by white trio The Stray Cats on the soundtrack), along with other tunes like Boys and Baby It’s You, both later recorded by the Beatles.
Jones and Ellison wrote two other Joplin classics, Trouble in Mind and Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), respectively. (Not to pick on Joplin specifically, but the majority of her tunes were written by Black people, with a few exceptions like the self-penned Down on Me, Move Over and Mercedes Benz.)
And this is just a taste. Ideally, the songs would be presented as written with credit for their origins completely transparent, but unfortunately in a lot of cases, the songs were adjusted to be more “palatable” for a white audience. And worse still, it usually worked — countless songs written by Black folks reached No. 1, purchased and listened to by white folks.
“It’s not because we’re Black, it’s because the system is white.” — Ron Westray
It was absolutely a different time, there’s no arguing that. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a Black musician to be selected by a record company to come in and write some songs, then be given some paltry payment as the agents turned around and gave the song to a white musician. This was how things worked, for far too long.
In modern speak, it’s referred to as “cultural appropriation,” the unacknowledged adoption of customs, practices and ideas of one group of people by members of another and typically more dominant group of people.
“Over the years, you see in the 1920s and 1930s, Black music was very underground, very benign, marginalized,” said Lisa Tomlinson, a cultural critic, formerly of York University and now a lecturer/professor at the University of the West Indies. “It was seen as sleazy. In a lot of cases, when this music becomes mainstream, it becomes disassociated from Black experience and Black context. We talk about cultural appropriation… we reduce it to just borrowing, or sampling, another reductionist term. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘sampling’ sound like nice words, because they sound like an equal exchange. But there’s a power dynamic embedded in that borrowing.”
For example, she points out, Bob Marley wrote the classic tune I Shot the Sheriff in 1973 and performed with The Wailers. It wasn’t until 1974 that it hit No. 1, when Eric Clapton redid the song. It was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003 and is frequently associated with Clapton.
“Instead of thinking of Marley or the song as Jamaican or Caribbean, most people think about Eric Clapton,” she said. “There is a thievery there, in the sense that the credit is not given to these pioneers.”
Another example? Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, made famous by white singer Pat Boone. This was a distinct record company strategy, she says. “We couldn’t have a Black man shaking his booty, the sexuality of it, or any other stereotypes associated with Blackness. Boone’s image was much more tame and family-like, much more softened, compared to Richard’s gyrations.”
“The record company circulated those types of images in the form of whiteness to appease white people, and they have that power because of the institutional system,” she continued. “To a great extent, the media is controlled by white men, and they’re the ones who use their monetary influence, and dictate who is going to be seen.”
To their credit, Clapton, Joplin, the Beatles and others attempted to get their Black counterparts more (or in some cases, any) recognition. Clapton was a dedicated advocate and friend of Hendrix, and Joplin invited Thornton to open for her at some gigs.
It didn’t matter in the end when it came to Ball n’ Chain: the label held onto the copyright, meaning that Thornton got zero royalties for her work when Joplin recorded and released the song several years later.
“Big Mama Thornton did not have lawyers. She didn’t have a distribution network that can say to record stores, ‘You’ve gotta pull Elvis’ song, or else we’re not going to service the rest of our catalogue to you.’ She’s left with breadcrumbs,” said Eric Alper, music expert, correspondent and PR manager.
While some Black outliers found immense success — B.B. King, Hendrix, Aretha Franklin among them — it was a hard, uphill battle for most, and ultimately, as Alper attests, at that time it’s how music was done.
“It’s really impossible to go back and say, ‘Wow, this person really, truly ripped it off, because you can’t place the context of what happened in 1940 into and say that was wrong,” he continued. “You can’t change what was going on back then, but what you can change, as an artist, is the world around you.”
In some cases, as Tomlinson says, the narrative was manipulated in order to camouflage the record labels’ behaviour.
“ end up broke and poor, especially in the case of the jazz and swing eras,” she said. “There’s a narrative around Black singers like Billie Holiday, it usually revolves around their drug addiction and how it prevented them from going further in their careers and that’s why they died broke. That wasn’t true a lot of the time: sometimes they weren’t paid for songs they’d written that were sung over by white artists. Their narratives were sanitized, which helped disguise the fact she was exploited.”
One of Holiday’s biggest hits, Strange Fruit, famously uses the haunting metaphor for lynched and hanged Black people. The opening verse clearly illustrates the symbolism:
Southern trees bear strange fruit/
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
In what can only be described as a complete disconnect from the meaning of the lyrics — and an outright dismissal of the gravity of the song — in 2005, the song was remixed (by Black electronic artist Tricky) on a club album, The Verve Remixed. A song that should be untouchable was redone so people could dance along to it at a club.
There’s something reprehensible about redoing the song as a dancefloor hit, especially knowing the meaning of the lyrics.
Global News reached out to numerous music labels for this article. Some labels replied with no comment, others didn’t reply at all. Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization that promotes the interests of its members, which include Sony Music Canada, Universal Music Canada and Warner Music Canada, says it is committed to diversity and equality.
“We all have a responsibility, as individuals and organizationally, to align our practices with our values,” said Music Canada President and CEO Graham Henderson in a media release from late 2018, highlighting the presence of women on their board of directors. They make up approximately 40 per cent of the body.
The release also outlines Music Canada’s adoption of a “diversity policy” and an “industry advisory group” to “give voice to diverse constituencies in the music industry.”
“Music Canada and our members are committed to inclusion and equality,” said Henderson.
American jazz trombonist, composer and educator Ron Westray, who’s lived the often-harsh reality himself as a Black musician from the south, confirms the insidiousness of the music industry, and says this “whitewashing” is still happening today.
“It’s the transfer of the value of the artistry to other individuals,” said Westray. “This is the music industry. It’s not because we’re Black, it’s because the system is white. It’s a question of what knowledge is passed down. As a musician, I’m going to be somebody else’s profit unless I get my stuff in order.”
“Being a Black artist, being from the south… this is a microcosm of the dilemma of brown people in American history,” he continued. “It’s going to be the same model you see in the sciences with Black mathematicians, for example. It’s the same exact thing. It’s exactly the same now. That is my opinion.”
“To a great extent, the media is controlled by white men, and they’re the ones who use their monetary influence, and dictate who is going to be seen.”
Julian Taylor, a local Toronto musician who identifies as both Black and Indigenous, agrees with Westray. He also thinks that as much as we feel like we’ve gotten better at recognizing other cultures and the history of classic rock, the needle hasn’t really moved at all.
“Listening to rock radio, no matter where I am in the world, the only Black artist I ever really hear is Jimi Hendrix, maybe Lenny Kravitz,” said Taylor. “When you get into modern rock, there are even fewer Black people represented unless Bob Marley gets played at 4/20, which is frankly a little insulting,” he said, referring to April 20th “pot day” celebrations. “It’s just really weird to embrace a stereotype like that and think it’s OK.”
Indeed, it’s hard to name mainstream Black rock musicians — try for yourself. Aside from Lenny Kravitz, Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish, William DuVall of Alice in Chains, Tracy Chapman and Ben Harper, it’s a very white, very male landscape. There are barely any Black women on rock music stages, and if they are, they’re often relegated behind the scenes.
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Apart from the race issue, Alper thinks age and inexperience in the industry also have parts to play in the modern music-making world.
“Some artists feel that it’s still going on because of the lack of ownership of their master recordings, and record labels who might know more about the business side than they do,” said Alper. “With pop artists having success at a much earlier age than in the past, it’s in the artist’s best interest to learn from those who came before them and learn about the music business as much as they can before signing a contract.”
“It was amazing that these classic rock artists were so inspired by this music, but it’s a shame that people don’t know who they are, and it’s a shame that those artists didn’t get what was, in large part, rightfully theirs,” said Taylor. “What they deserved on a monetary level… since we can’t do that now, then perhaps it’s a good and wonderful thing to give credit where credit is due, from a recognition standpoint.”
This is not to say that you should stop listening to the classic rock you know and love. It’s to push forward an understanding of where it came from, its origins, its roots. To truly appreciate something, we need to grasp where it all began. So next time you pop on some tunes, why not look up the original songwriter and develop a whole new appreciation for the birth of the genre?
It’s a part of music history many rock fans choose to ignore. So let’s stop ignoring.
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