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The ‘Black sound’ defines popular music for America and the world


America began as a land in search of an identity. Colonial America, for instance, had no uniformity in the arts—specifically literature—because the newly-arrived White citizens hailed from Europe and could only reflect on past tales of Elizabethan lore. Once across the Atlantic, some unlikely critics of the new land such as Phillis Wheatley, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper endeavored to carve out a specific “location and place” to anchor their literature to a particular setting. America was new. There were no contemporary literary expressions from which the characteristics of a nation could be left for succeeding generations to expand upon, therefore these writers had to develop a specific, original genre called American literature.

The same is true in music. American music had no real identity or “place” in terms of describing a particular historical period or social landscape.

Popular American music, for all intents and purposes, was invented by African Americans in the late 19th Century. The list of great performers spanning more than a century from Josephine Baker and Eubie Blake, to Beyonce and Drake are a testament to the influence African Americans have had on popular music in defining the artform for the world. Black musicians have always fashioned an “artistic survey” of contemporary society, thereby allowing their artform to speak to the Diaspora. And while the historic influence of African American music could fill volumes, some names over the years have become beacons or “signposts” within this musical history that has defined and enriched America’s contribution to the modern arts.

Duke, Ella and “Pops”

The 1940s were a time of trial for the nation. War in Europe and abject racial discrimination at home may have inspired music innovators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to fashion new and lasting musical tomes that reflected how African Americans expressed “place” on the artistic stage. No one in history has better exemplified America’s innovation of popular music (e.g. jazz, blues) than Louis Armstrong. Early in life in New Orleans, La., Armstrong took up the cornet and was later befriended by Joe “King” Oliver, the leader of the first great African American band to make records. He gave Armstrong trumpet lessons and by the early 1920s, the two musicians would become famous in Chicago for their jazz sound and, shortly after that, Armstrong would join legendary bandleader Fletcher Henderson in Harlem, N.Y. Soon, the trumpet would replace the clarinet as the lead jazz instrument.

Armstrong’s vocals, featured on most records after 1925, were an extension of his trumpet playing in their rhythmic liveliness and delivery in a unique throaty style. Armstrong innovated “scat” singing (the random use of nonsense syllables), which, as legend goes, originated during a recording session when he dropped his sheet music and couldn’t remember the lyrics.

While his trumpet playing may have reached its peak by the mid-1930s, Armstrong remained a drawing card throughout the 1940s, even after the Big Band era ended shortly after World War II. By then he had become an in-demand world traveler journeying through Europe, Africa, Japan, the South Pacific and South America. And while the listening public in later years would consider Armstrong more of a vaudeville entertainer because of his comic relief in movies and on television, he remained a influential force in popular music—shaping everyone from Harry James to Wynton Marsalis—until his death in New York City in 1971.

‘The First Lady of Song’

Duke Ellington called his music “American music” as opposed to jazz. He remains one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music, and is widely considered to be one of the world’s great composers of the 20th century. As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington’s reputation has increased since his death in 1974, with thematic repackaging of his signature music often becoming bestsellers online.

Ellington gave American music its own sound for the first time and in the process influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. In his 50-year career, Ellington played more than 20,000 concerts in Europe, Latin America, Asia and in the Middle East. Ellington transcended the artistic boundaries and filled the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of music lovers. He is best remembered for composing more than 3,000 songs, including iconic renditions of “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Take The A Train,” and “Satin Doll.”

When asked what inspired him, Ellington replied “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.” Ellington’s popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theater and soundtrack composers around the world.

Ella Fitzgerald was dubbed “The First Lady of Song.” She was the most popular female jazz singer in the world for more than 50 years, along the way collecting 13 Grammy awards and selling more than 40 million albums worldwide. With a flexible vocal range, Fitzgerald could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in the orchestra. She worked with all of the jazz greats from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat “King” Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. The era of Big Band music was shifting in the 1940s, and the focus was turning more toward BeBop. Therefore, Fitzgerald adopted this new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. “You Have to Swing It” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” were examples of her early experimentation with scat singing, and her unique improvisation and vocalization. Throughout her career, Fitzgerald would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.

While television viewers in the 1970s may remember the audio-tape commercial featuring Fitzgerald shattering a glass with a high note, she continued filling concert halls around the world despite suffering from heart disease and diabetes. By the 1990s, Fitzgerald had recorded more than 200 albums and would give her final performance (26 in all) at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Fitzgerald died of heart disease in 1996 in Beverly Hills. Hours after her death was announced, signs of remembrance appeared all over the world.

Although the 1950s may be most remembered as the height of the Cold War, there was nothing “cold” about Black music during this period. Black performers were the “hottest” acts on the radio. In fact, much of rock ‘n roll music in the following decades can be traced directly to three incredible artists: Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino.

‘Father of Rock ‘N Roll’

Chuck Berry is identified as the “Father of Rock ‘N Roll” whose music transcended generations of fans. He gained much of his early success by watching the audience’s reaction while playing accordingly, basically putting his listeners amusement above anything else. Songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Memphis” became anthems to an American audience that was slowly integrating socially among youth and popular culture in general.

Berry had many influences on his life that shaped his musical style. He emulated the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat “King” Cole, while playing blues songs from artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James. Berry took up guitar in the late 1940s and found that if he learned rhythm changes and blues chords, he could play most of the popular songs on the radio at the time. His sound comes from holding two strings and bending the notes accordingly, making for a more full, dynamic electrified sound. In 1952, he began playing and singing regularly—primarily blues and Calypso music—and was quickly becoming an accomplished showman by incorporating facial gestures and body movements to align with the lyrics.

Because country and western music was big at the time, Berry adapted these guitar riffs—and also that of rhythm and blues—to develop the lasting sound of rock ‘n roll. This period saw White teenagers attend his shows in droves (40 percent in most cases). Berry commented years ago that he would purposely frame his guitar playing toward a country and western sound in an effort to develop a loyal following among White teenagers:

“I would slur my strings to make a passage that Johnnie (Johnson) could not produce with piano keys but the answer would be so close that he would get a tremendous ovation. His answer would sound similar to some that Jerry Lee Lewis’ fingers later began to flay.”

In Chicago in 1955, Muddy Waters introduced Berry to Leonard Chess of Chess Records and he was quickly signed with his first recording “Maybellene” becoming a smash. Berry continued his success with such hits as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Rock And Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Days” and “Back In The USA.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, Berry’s music was the inspiration for such groups as the Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Beatles and Rolling Stones. While the British Invasion and the popularity of soul artists from Motown and Stax records may have eclipsed him on the radio, Berry had a number of comeback recordings and in 1972 had his first and only number-one hit in the novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling.”

In 1986, Berry was the first inductee into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. His song, “Johnny B. Goode,” was included in a time capsule placed aboard the Voyager I spacecraft in 1977. Chuck Berry died earlier this year at age 90.

The incomparable Little Richard

Richard Wayne Penniman caught his first big break, when a performance at an Atlanta radio station in 1951 yielded a record contract with RCA. However, his repertoire of mainly mild blues masked the searing vocals and piano theatrics that would come to define rock ‘n roll, so his career didn’t take off as quickly as he had originally hoped. Four years later, Little Richard became the music legend we know today after “Tutti-Frutti” made the Billboard Top 10. Over the next two years, Little Richard churned out rock ‘n roll mainstays such as “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Send Me Some Lovin,” “Lucille,” “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Slipin’ And Slidin’.”

With his blood-pounding piano playing and suggestive lyrics, Little Richard has defined the sex appeal of rock ‘n roll more than any other artist and was among the early innovators of the musical sound that would inspire many other artists and groups—most notably the Beatles—to make a go of it. At the height of his career, Little Richard in 1957 decided to discard rock ‘n roll in favor of Gospel music exclusively, but by 1964 with the success of the Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally,” he returned to the stage and recording studio.

Little Richard’s importance in the development of rock ‘n roll has never been questioned, and in 1986 he was among the first inductees into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and in 1993 was awarded the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In recent years, Little Richard has taken a break from the concert stage, stemming from a heart attack suffered in 2012.

The “Fat” Man

Fats Domino made his first record, “The Fat Man,” in 1949 which marked the beginning of a series of rhythm and blues hits that sold more than 1 million copies each. He found success in mainstream America with his 1955 song “Aint It A Shame” (later retitled “Ain’t That A Shame”) and the next year, his cover of  Glen Miller’s “Blueberry Hill” became his highest charting hit. During his career, the New Orleans native would endure the challenges of racial discrimination to become one of the defining powers of rock ‘n roll music, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Four of Domino’s songs have been selected to the Grammy Hall of Fame for their significance in music history: “Blueberry Hill” in 1987, “Ain’t That A Shame,” in 2002, “Walking to New Orleans in 2011 and “The Fat Man” in 2016. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.

The 1960s may have represented the most prolific contribution of work from the African American songbook. Innovators such as Ray Charles, James Brown and Motown Records took Black music to new heights during one of America’s most turbulent periods.

Ray Charles was an American institution and is generally recognized as the originator of soul music. Blind since the age of six, Charles had his first Top 10 hit in 1951 with “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand.” It was at Atlantic Records, however, that Charles truly found his voice with the R&B hit “I Got A Woman.” This song has been frequently singled out as his pivotal performance, on which Charles first truly “let go” with his unmistakable “gospel-ish” moan and backed by a tight, bouncy horn-driven arrangement. These early songs lay the pathway for Charles great success in the 1960s with “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit The Road Jack,” “Georgia On My Mind” and, in an unexpected departure from soul music, the country and western standard “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

By the late 1960s, Charles had placed his focus more so on all-around pop music rather than one specific genre. His music had come to rely more on string arrangements aimed at the “easy listening audience,” while remaining one of the most sought-after performers on the world concert circuit. His audience appeal never waned throughout his career and he was planning a tour in early 2004 when hip replacement surgery forced a delay. Charles died later that year of liver cancer at age 73.

James Brown, the Motown sound

James Brown was arguably the most famous name in Black music. In much the same way Louis Armstrong innovated jazz music for the masses, and what Ray Charles did with soul music, Brown did with funk music.

Early on, Brown was determined to “be somebody.” After all, he called his group “famous” before they had a right to. He called himself “Mr. Dynamite” before his first hit record. He proclaimed himself “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” before the music business really knew his name. Brown was a singular talent that was not replicated anywhere during his ascent to become “Soul Brother Number One,” or the larger than life “Godfather of Soul.”

“‘James Brown’ is a concept, a vibration … a dance,” he once said. “It’s not me, the man. ‘James Brown’ is a freedom I created for humanity.”

His string of hit songs spanned several generations, all beginning with the gospelized “Please, Please, Please” in 1955. In the 1960s, Brown had formed one of the best bands in the music industry, relying on tight horn arrangements and unique guitar riffs to augment his “one-and-three” rhythm beat on classics like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Cold Sweat” “Sex Machine” and “(Say It Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

During his heyday, Brown was a “one-man-gang” against entire record companies such as Motown and Stax, circling the globe many times over in delivering his signature dance moves and dynamic stage show. James Brown died on Christmas morning 2006 at age 73.

While General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler operated automobile factories in Detroit, Motown Records churned out the “Sound of Young America.” And what a sound it was as artists such as Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye produced a series of hit songs that captivated teenagers around the world.

Motown was known for great melodies, lots of tambourines and hand-clapping, blaring horns, and a driving bass line paired with foot-stomping drum parts all while injecting unique interplay between the lead singer and his/her backup vocalists. With outstanding musicians behind them (the Funk Brothers), the aforementioned groups and artists became known for pop standards such as “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Heat Wave,” “Shotgun,” “Where Did Our Love Go?”, “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” and “I Want You Back.”

While the glory days of Motown Records has long since passed, every “oldies” station around the world has made this catalog of music a staple of radio play and the sound is as fresh and vibrant today as it was more than 50 years ago.