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White artists realize great success with ‘Black’ music


For generations spanning back to Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller, White artists have realized fame and fortune in mimicking the sound and signature of Black music.

We know the names. Successful artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly captured the distinctive sound of Black R&B and soul and turned it into a new sensation, garnering fame not only within American shores, but around the world. Some of these artists grew up in the same region as their Black musical contemporaries—particularly in the South—where they were able to parlay their talent with tremendous success. They were able to take advantage of the segregation laws that would allow them to be heard on general market radio stations and appear on television. Black artists were not allowed these privileges.

Jerry Lee Lewis, aka “The Killer,” was reared on Black music and produced some of the greatest hits of the early rock ‘n roll era. A self-taught pianist, Lewis was a child of the segregated south. Years ago, he confided that what you heard coming out of the speakers was a calculated gamble that only he and a few others during his youth could present later with authority.

“When I was a boy, we lived near a Black church,” said Lewis, a Louisiana native. “I loved that music. Often I would slip away from home early Sunday and go there. I’d stoop by the window to listen to the piano. I loved the melody, the chord changes, and the energy that I heard. That’s pretty much how I learned my style of play.”

Lewis added that this was a closely guarded secret that he could not afford to reveal. “If my daddy knew I was going over to the Black church, he’d have torn me up good,” Lewis laughed.

The Four Seasons put a unique stamp of Black doo wop with their 1962 hit “Sherry.” With lead singer Frankie Valli providing a falsetto tone, this and other songs may have provided a gateway for other White artists to make a unique impact on American music. Among contemporaries then were the Righteous Brothers, Gary U.S. Bonds, and, a bit later in the decade, Janis Joplin. Also during this time, Booker T and the MG’s bridged cultural barriers by being one of the first groups from the South to have an integrated lineup.

The mid-60s was the time of the British Invasion, and nowhere was this replication of Black music better demonstrated than with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Each of these groups grew up listening to artists like Little Richard, Elmore James, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. While one group, the Rolling Stones, would make an early name for themselves refashioning blues standards from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or B.B. King, the Beatles placed more emphasis on Black R&B and made songs from Little Richard or Chuck Berry even more prominent. As well, some of the Beatles’ earliest hits were successful remakes of Isley Brothers songs such as “Shout,” “Twist and Shout” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

The British acts were largely fascinated with American-American pop music. Singer Dusty

Springfield tended to model herself after the famous female African-American singers, complete with a bouffant hairstyle and long ball gown. Tom Jones, from Wales, was another popular act that transcended color and sold millions of records based on his soulful sound, particularly on his biggest hit of the time “It’s Not Unusual.”

British blues artists were plentiful during the 1960s, including John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and Cream.

“All of us listened to American music during our youth, but I was particularly drawn to the blues,” Clapton years ago. “It took great effort on my part to capture the sound and meaning of these great artists. I kept working and working and one day I found that I had learned to play it. It was like ‘oh, that’s how you do that.’”

Perhaps no other British pop act realized more worldwide success than the Bee Gees. Siblings Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb began their stay on the Top 40 charts with their 1968 hit “Gotta Get A Message To You.” Just prior to that release, they wrote “To Love Somebody” for Otis Redding a few months before his fatal plane crash.

“Otis loved our music, and he met with Barry in New York to see if we could write something for him,” said Robin Gibb in a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. “When we began, we were naturally attracted to Motown, Stax Records. Those artists had a unique sound that transcended any color or culture. Our music is better defined as progressive R&B and it has carried us well.”

By the time of the Disco era of the mid-1970s, the Bee Gees were regularly played on Black radio stations nationwide. Some of their most popular songs of this period included “Nights On Broadway,” “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” “You Should Be Dancing,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Too Much Heaven.”

Teena Marie was another popular White artist who was fully embraced by the Black audience. Her early work with singer Rick James introduced the multi-instrumentalist to a broad range of fans who remained loyal to her unique sound until her untimely death in 2010 at age 54.

Phoebe Snow also garnered a large following among African Americans. A renowned interpreter of blues, soul and rock classics, many early fans initially believed Snow was a fair-skinned Black woman because of her Afro hairstyle and command of early blues standards. Snow died in 2011 at age 60.