13 Black Artists Who Inspired Rock: Introduction
When looking back at the history of rock ‘n’ roll, you may find it strange that music once created and inspired by black artists is now primarily for and by whites. There are black artists associated with the music throughout the decades. They play rock and roll despite an invisible racial barrier. They continue to play for white audiences while inspiring performers of all races. These artists may never hit the charts or become household names. They simply play for their passion.
In this fourteen-part series, we will pay homage to some of these great black artists who shaped rock and roll. Several of them may be household names, and others you may be introduced to for the first time. We are aware there are more than we will mention. There is no order or rank in our presentation.
The Birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll
The 1940s see the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll’s infancy. This new sound is the result of the blending of electric blues, jazz, black gospel, and country music. It became known as “rhythm and blues.” This new name replaces “race music,” used previously by the Billboard Charts. The music popularity rises in urban black communities. This new sound appeals to a youthful audience because it is more urbane and jazzier. It contains a more danceable, consistent rocking backbeat. The lyrics move away from traditional blues which often dealt with pain, despair and the yearning for happiness. On the other hand, rhythm and blues express the success and failures of topics such as love, freedom, money, hope, and sex.
With the influx of more and more blacks into northern cities, the new music also grows in popularity with white suburban teens. Sadly, due to racism and segregation, none of the great black artists of the genre received airplay. That is until disc jockey Alan Freed went against the segregated airways with his rhythm and blues radio show. Freed coined the new name “rock ‘n’ roll,” although the phrase was already widely known to be slang for sex in the black community. It stuck, and Freed is credited.
The newly named “rock ‘n’ roll” continues to grow in popularity with a young white audience. Parents did not approve of the music due to their prejudice toward the segregated ethnic group performing it. Whites at the time consider rock to be lower-class. To make matters worse, they are shocked to see their kids twist and gyrate to the new music. They soon judge the new music as offensive and dirty, while churches label it as Satan’s music.
Fortunately, the kids continued to rebel against their parent’s music, and rock keeps growing in popularity. The record industry soon recognizes the market potential, but to appease the parents, they search for white artists to cover the hit songs performed by black artists. Thankfully, this fails as the whitewash cover songs sound like watered down versions without the heart and soul of the originals. The black artists continue growing in popularity despite the subversive attempt.
The late 60s, early 70s lead to a segregated crossroads of sort. Eventually, rhythm and blues become more favored by black artists and their fans, while rock ‘n roll performers and fans are predominately white. They both continue to survive through many different variations like glam, punk, hair bands, alternative, and indie, to name a few. Rhythm and blues continue through Motown, disco, soul, hip-hop, and rap.
We like to think that music crosses race and there is little segregation in airplay today, but as late as 2013, the Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 chart contained no black artists. The first time since 1958 that this has happened. There are many theories about how this happened despite there being so many talented black artists. We do not know exactly why, but hopefully, it is a fluke and not a trend, for history will repeat if you let it.
d-_-b “hound dog” by Big Momma Thorton