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Combining unrivalled archival research with extensive oral testimony, Ward examines the contributions of artists and entrepreneurs like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Berry Gordy to the organized black struggle, explaining what they did for the Movement and just as important—why they and most of their peers failed to do more. In the process, he analyses the ways in which various groups, from the SCLC to the Black Panthers, tried—with very mixed results—to use Rhythm and Blues and the politics of celebrity to further their cause. He also examines the role that black-oriented radio played in promoting both Rhythm and Blues and the Movement, and unravels the intricate connections between the sexual politics of the music and the development of the black freedom struggle.
This richly textured study of some of the most important music and complex political events in America sinceWorld War II challengesthe belief that white consumption of black music necessarily helped eradicate racial prejudice. Indeed, Ward argues that the popularity of Rhythm and Blues among white listeners sometimes only reinforced racial stereotypes, while noting how black artists actually manipulated those stereotypes to increase their white audiences. Ultimately, Ward shows how the music both reflected and affected shifting perceptions of community, empowerment, identity, and gender relations in America during the civil rights and black power eras.
Author Biography: Brian Ward is Lecturer in American History at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is coeditor of The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement (1996).
Citation for the 1999 James A. Rawley Prize
A model of how to marry the study of popular culture with political history—social history at its best.
Citation for a 1999 American Book Reward
A superb demonstration of how to write American cultural history. Richly detailed and textured.
"I hear you knocking ...":
from r&b to rock and roll
I heard Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters and the Mills Brothers. The Charioteers, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Glenn Miller, Tex Beneke ... I heard Sonny Til and the Orioles ... But then on Sunday I heard Wings Over Jordan and the Southernaires, and the Golden Gate Quartet ... A lot of different influences. (Ruth Brown)
When the Chords' "Sh-boom" crossed over from the Rhythm and Blues charts into the predominantly white pop charts in July 1954, it was not the first r&b record to leap that racial and commercial divide. "Gee" by the Crows -- the latest in a flock of "bird" vocal groups descended from the Ravens and Orioles -- had pecked at the lower reaches of the pop chart earlier that year. The Dominoes' "Sixty-minute man", Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", and Faye Adams' "Shake a hand" were among the other r&b records which had appeared on that chart earlier still. Nevertheless, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka) was essentially right to claim that r&b in the early 1950s "was still an exclusive music". It was "performed almost exclusively for, and had to satisfy, a negro audience". In 1950, for example, only three of the records which made the national Rhythm and Blues charts also crossed over into the pop field: and all three -- saxophonist Lynn Hope's "Tenderly", Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa", and Billy Eckstine's "Sitting by the window" -- were markedly from the slicker end of the broad r&b spectrum.
Before "Sh-boom", r&b forays into the pop record charts were relatively isolated phenomena: musical mavericks which implied no major realignment of white consumer preferences. Accordingly, they elicited little response from the major record companies which were primarily geared to serving the tastes of the mainstream market as they perceived and helped to define it. Capitol, Columbia, Decca, MGM, RCA and the newcomer Mercury showed little interest in leaping onto bandwagons not of their own making, especially ones they believed were of doubtful moral roadworthiness and limited commercial mileage.
After "Sh-boom", however, there was a sustained surge of r&b into the pop charts, with more than twice as many records crossing over in 1954 as in the previous year. In the months that followed "Sh-boom", Joe Turner's "Shake, rattle and roll", LaVern Baker's "Tweedlee dee", the Charms' "Hearts of stone", Five Keys' "Ling ting tong", and Spaniels' "Goodnite sweetheart goodnite" all appeared on the pop record sales lists. By the end of 1954, income from r&b records and tours constituted a $25 million branch of the industry. A growing, if still relatively small, contingent of young white fans had combined with the black audience to double the market share claimed by r&b from 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the total industry gross.
And this was just the beginning. By the end of 1955, rock and roll, as performed and consumed by both blacks and whites, had emerged as a distinct musical style, rather than simply a euphemism for the black r&b which spawned it and with which it continued to overlap. In late 1956, Billboard reported that 25 of 125 pop chart entries during the first 50 weeks of the year had been black r&b/rock and roll records. Many others were either white cover versions of black songs or by white artists performing in styles obviously derived from black music. In 1957, the independent record companies responsible for recording much of this material accounted for an astonishing 76 per cent of the year's hit singles. In 1958 more than 90 per cent of the 155 records appearing on the national Rhythm and Blues charts during the year also appeared on the pop charts.
Taken together, the rise of these Independents and the unprecedented popularity of black and black-derived styles with young white audiences threatened the traditional distribution of power and influence within the music industry. According to Charles Hamm, "At no other point in the two-hundred year history of popular song in America had there been such a drastic and dramatic change in such a brief period of time". The powerful alliance of Tin Pan Alley music publishing houses, professional songwriters, network radio stations and major recording labels, which had long dominated the popular music business, was challenged and for a while bested by a new breed of song publishers, black-oriented radio stations, distributors, and record labels.
The reactions of the recording and broadcasting industries to the initial breakthrough of r&b and the hostile responses of sections of adult white America to that phenomenon were closely linked. Together, these reactions reflected the dominant racial assumptions and beliefs of the mid-to-late 1950s, just as they were coming under pressure from the same political, economic, demographic and cultural forces which shaped the modern civil rights movement. Coupled with important developments taking place within the black community, these interlocking commercial and public reactions helped to account for many of the key musical and lyrical changes in r&b as sustained success in the mainstream became a realistic possibility for some of its black practitioners.
Majors and Independents
In The sound of the city, Charlie Gillett explained the breakthrough of r&b primarily in terms of a consumer revolution on the part of an increasingly affluent white teen audience and a successful, guerilla-type action waged by small, often under-financed, but endlessly resourceful independent record labels against the major recording companies and established song publishing firms. In most subsequent accounts, Independents have also appeared as the heroes of the piece: feisty outsiders who challenged vested interests within the industry, nobly championed the neglected music of black America, and finally made it available to the mainstream market. For many commentators, this amounted to nothing less than a spirited assault on the hegemony of the middle-class white values enshrined in the popular music of Perry Como and June Valli. This conventional wisdom requires finessing, however, both in order to appreciate important differences among the Independents, and to contextualize them within -- albeit often at the margins of -- the American entertainment industry, where they were caught in much the same web of social expectations, racial assumptions and commercial aspirations as the Majors.
Most of the Independents involved in the production of r&b had emerged in the mid 1940s, after the Majors, responding to the enforced economies of the Depression and then war, had curtailed minority ranges like black music and concentrated on the more lucrative mass market for white popular music. After the Second World War, however, a disparate group of entrepreneurs moved into the market niches created by these cutbacks, encouraged by the fact that the cost of entry into the business of record production remained relatively low. A thousand dollars was enough to hire a studio (typically at $50 an hour), book musicians, pay American Federation of Musicians (AFM) dues, have a master tape prepared, and press 500 singles at 11 cents a shot.
Although routinely depicted as outsiders, at the heart of the new Independents were men and a few women -- like the black ladies Lillian Claiborne, who founded the DC label in Washington, Deborah Chessler, who mistress-minded the Orioles' flight from a Baltimore street corner to national celebrity, and Vivian Carter, co-owner of Vee Jay in Chicago -- who had been in and around the music business for years. Genuine industry newcomers, like Ahmet Ertegun, the wealthy, jazz-loving son of a Turkish diplomat who founded Atlantic Records, were rare. And even Ertegun had some experience of booking black acts to perform at the Turkish Embassy in Washington and at the city's Jewish Center, which provided a rare opportunity for integrated entertainment at a time of widespread segregation in the nation's capital. When Ertegun formed Atlantic in 1947, he did so in partnership with Herb Abramson, a talent scout and producer for National Records who had already run his own label, Jubilee, before selling his share to partner Jerry Blaine. Moreover, when Abramson was drafted into the military in 1953, Ertegun brought in another music business insider, ex-Billboard staff-writer Jerry Wexler.
Like Abramson and Wexler, most of the key figures in the Independents had industry backgrounds in record retailing, nightclub ownership, music journalism, broadcasting, songwriting, arranging, and record manufacturing. A good many began their careers as jukebox operators. The half-million jukeboxes in place in the mid 1950s devoured between a quarter and a third of all the disks produced in America, but they also acted as "free" advertising for individual records, thereby stimulating further domestic sales. Moreover, as the number of plays each jukebox selection received was regularly checked, they provided operators and record companies with a peculiarly accurate insight into changing consumer preferences in different locations and among different sections of American society.
Thus it was as industry veterans, as insiders, that these Independent impresarios were able to spot the potentially lucrative gaps in the services provided by the Majors. Art Rupe, who founded Specialty in Los Angeles in 1945, having initially dubbed his label Jukebox, recognized the symbiotic relationship between the Independents and the rest of the industry. "I looked for an area neglected by the majors and in essence took the crumbs off the table of the record industry".
Prior to setting up Specialty -- later home to r&b stars like Jimmy Liggins and Little Richard -- Rupe had worked for Thomas Robinson's tiny black-owned Atlas label in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, relatively few of the more than 2,000 labels in operation by the late 1950s, as many as 600 of which had some involvement in r&b, were black-owned. Of those which were, fewer still -- Class, Dootone, Fortune, Peacock and Vee Jay -- were really national, or particularly durable, operations.
Black music, whether r&b, gospel or jazz, was actually only one of many minority markets explored by the Independents in the decade after the Second World War. While some of the white entrepreneurs, writers and producers involved, like Ertegun, Wexler and Ralph Bass at King-Federal in Cincinnati, had a genuine interest in, admiration for, and understanding of black music, most cared little if the product was r&b or rhumba, as long as it sold. And even Atlantic in its early days was happy enough to release all manner of product, from poetry and children's stories to Shakespeare plays, to try to turn a dollar. Many Independents issued a similarly eclectic mixture of minority styles and novelty records in their search for an untapped market niche. Ike and Bess Besman's Apollo label grew out of their New York record shop and cut some fine r&b by the likes of the Four Vagabonds and Larks. But Apollo also released calypso, Jewish, Hawaiian, gypsy, polka and country records, while ex-record manufacturer Lew Chudd initially aimed his Los Angeles-based Imperial label, whose r&b catalogue subsequently included Amos Milburn and Fats Domino, at the Mexican market.
Such opportunism was not restricted to white-owned companies. Dootsie Williams' Dootone label, responsible for many of the finest west coast vocal group recordings of the mid-to-late 1950s, made much of its early profit from comedy albums and party singalong records. Jack and Devora Brown's Fortune label, which set up its studio in the garage behind the Browns' Detroit record shop, was one of several "r&b" Independents, including King-Federal, Imperial, Super Disc, Gilt-Edge and National, which maintained hillbilly or country music lines.
Another consequence of the simplistic Majors/Independents distinction in writings on r&b has been a tendency to use the collective term "Independents" to describe a diverse range of recording companies, from relatively stable, nationally distributed labels like Atlantic, Chess, Imperial and King, to tiny, economically vulnerable, and often short-lived, community-based labels like Angeltone in Los Angeles or Celeste in New York. Such casual usage suggests an entirely spurious homogeneity regarding both the sound and business operations of these labels.
Large Independents tended to develop discernible house styles and exert a more consistent musical influence on their performers than small labels, which often recorded local solo or group heroes in a more or less documentary style. To develop and maintain a distinctive label style required a fixed team of writers and arrangers with a broadly shared musical vision and, ideally, a resident house band. At the very least, it required the financial wherewithal to send artists to record with musicians, arrangers and producers who worked together regularly. Imperial and Specialty, for example, hired Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio and let Fats Domino and Little Richard record there with the cream of the Crescent City's session players, usually under the musical direction of Dave Bartholomew and Bumps Blackwell respectively.
At Atlantic, an in-house writing-arranging-production team of Jesse Stone, Rudolph Toombs, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun and later Ray Ellis concocted "something like the authentic blues, but cleaner, less rough and perforce more sophisticated", while a semi-permanent studio band built around the formidable talents of ex-jazzmen Mickey Baker, Willis Jackson, Panama Francis, Sam Taylor and Van Walls provided the complementary instrumental touch. The extraordinary engineering skills of Tom Dowd ensured that the music produced by the likes of the Drifters, Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown was committed to disk with astonishing clarity. Moreover, while many Independents preferred to pursue hit songs, racking up a succession of one-off hits with transient artists signed to short-term contracts, Atlantic preferred to recruit performers it felt could sustain long-term careers. Many Atlantic artists stayed with the label for years, which again promoted a certain aural consistency when contrasted with the revolving-door policy of other labels.
Although the Brooklyn-based Onyx label, established in 1956 by Jerry Winston -- a typical white r&b entrepreneur who had previously tried his luck with a specialist mambo label called Mardi Gras -- regularly featured Sammy Lowe and his Orchestra, such neighbourhood companies rarely enjoyed the luxury of a resident band. Often they simply recruited available local musicians on an ad hoc basis to make a session in a hired studio. Moreover, the material they recorded was rarely conceived in terms of a full orchestration. For all their undoubted charm and emotional integrity, many of the vocal group recordings of the 1950s simply sounded like the work of street-corner groups who were used to performing a cappella, or with a single guitarist or pianist, onto which a full instrumental arrangement was sometimes crudely grafted.
By the early 1950s, the seven largest r&b Independents (Aladdin, Atlantic, Chess, King, Modern, Savoy and Specialty) accounted for almost two-thirds of the best selling black singles, and regularly notched up sales of over 100,000, and sometimes many more, to what remained principally a black market. By contrast, the biggest seller in the history of a typical local label like Celeste in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn was the Mellows' "Sweet Lorraine" which sold barely 2,000 copies. The label's usual expectations can be better gauged by the fact that it pressed only 200 copies of the Minors' "Jerry", half of those as free promotional copies for deejays. Some locally oriented labels did enjoy sporadic national success. "Stranded in the jungle" by the Jayhawks on Flash sold over 120,000 copies in 1956, but sales were usually much more modest. The Jayhawks' previous release, "Counting my teardrops", sold just 987 copies and the label's day-to-day operations were primarily geared to servicing black Los Angeles.
Throughout the decade, most of the national hits on neighbourhood labels were the result of distribution deals with bigger labels, or of selling the rights to a recording outright. In 1958, Al Silver -- the owner of the Herald-Ember labels -- bought the Silhouettes' hugely popular crossover hit "Get a job" from black deejay Kae Williams' nascent Junior label. Williams simply could not exploit the full potential of a record which was selling rapidly in the group's native Philadelphia. Silver also bought the Five Satins' million-selling "In the still of the night" from Marty Cougle's Hartford-based Standord, because Cougle "was going to lose the hit value of the record because he didn't have the money to press thousands of copies". Indeed, for many under-financed local Independents, success in the form of an unexpectedly large regional or national hit could be fatal, since they usually had to empty the company coffers to pay in advance for mass pressings and then endure an agonizing wait until -- hopefully -- the revenue from sales came in.
Clearly, then, the r&b recording scene had its own centres of power and influence and some Independents were rather more independent than others. Small companies were often dependent on the production facilities provided either by the Majors, who sometimes hired out their excess pressing capacity, or by the larger Independents, some of whom had their own plants. By the early 1950s, however, a new range of specialized firms had emerged, sometimes from the ranks of the Independents themselves, to handle the production and distribution needs of r&b labels.
One of the first of these independent record-pressing facilities was run by Bob Geddins, a black record store owner and aspiring record producer-songwriter based in Oakland, California. For about a decade after 1946, the bulk of the Bay Area's r&b disks were pressed at Geddins' plant. Together with other new manufacturing firms, like Allied and RGR, Geddins helped free west coast labels like Swingtime, Modern, Aladdin and Imperial from their dependence on the Majors' pressing plants. This proved important as the mass market for r&b and its rock and roll derivative expanded, since the Majors often withheld access to their facilities, or charged extortionate rates, in what was but one of many efforts to undermine their upstart competitors.
In Cincinnati, King-Federal boss Syd Nathan also set up a pressing company, Royal Plastics, as part of an eager quest for genuine organizational independence which also prompted him to create his own recording studio, publishing company and even a photographic laboratory to produce record labels and album covers. Nathan also established an independent distribution network for the marketing and placement of King-Federal products throughout the nation. Other independent distribution firms, such as Jerry Blaine's Cosnat, George and Ernest Leaner's black-owned United in Chicago, Pan-American in Detroit, Davis Sales in Denver and a similar operation run by Jack Gutshall and Leon and Googie Rene on the west coast, were also crucial in the formation of a truly national r&b scene. By 1954, many Independents had abandoned the crude "trunk of a car and Pullman porter" distribution methods of their early days to become a sophisticated division of the industry, with a small army of legendary sales and promotional men, like Morty Craft, Hy Weiss, Irving Katz and Dickie Kline, scouring the country, using means both fair and foul to get their products onto the airwaves, into the jukeboxes and right to the front of retailers' record racks.
Perhaps the most important of these distributors was the Chicago-based Central Record Sales Company, which handled recordings by Atlantic, Imperial, Specialty and many other Independents. In 1954, Central introduced a daring 100 per cent exchange deal which allowed retailers to order disks without having to forfeit the usual 5 per cent privilege fee if they could not sell them. This was of considerable importance in encouraging the breakout of r&b, since it persuaded cautious white retailers to stock what they considered risky novelty or minority lines like r&b, for which there appeared to be an increasing, if still puzzling, demand among young whites.
While the crude distinction between Majors and Independents exaggerates the nature of the latters' "independence" from the dominant forces in the record industry and obscures differences among them, it also under-estimates the steady interest of the Majors in the black market. Nelson George, for example, has voiced the conventional wisdom about the Majors' reaction to the black r&b singers, shouters, vocal groups anti honking saxophonists who flourished after the Second World War: "[Louis] Jordan, [Nat King] Cole, and the big bands recorded for large, nationally distributed companies such as Decca, Victor, and Capitol. However, all the new artists were signed to independent labels that began appearing during the war and would proliferate in the next seven years".
George's "all" is simply incorrect and most commentators have ignored, or grossly underestimated, the amount of r&b recorded for the major labels and their subsidiaries in the decade after the Second World War. It is true that racial prejudices and simple market considerations combined to make the Majors' presence far less pronounced in r&b than in pop, or in the country field, where they accounted for around 95 per cent of the best selling disks in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, as Table 1.1 shows, many r&b acts did record on major labels for an overwhelmingly black audience, long before the crossover of r&b and the advent of rock and roll. In 1947, four of the five most successful labels in terms of r&b sales were Majors, while as late as 1951 RCA and Decca were still among the top ten purveyors of black music. For the period 1955 to 1959, Mercury, Capitol, Decca and the recently formed ABC-Paramount were all among the ten most successful producers of black chart hits.
With the dollar value of the black consumer market rising from around $3,000 million in 1940 to $11,000 million a decade later and $20,000 million by 1961, it would have been surprising if the market-conscious Majors had entirely neglected black popular music. Although the annual median income of non-white families was still only 55 per cent that of white families at the end of the 1950s, it was actually rising more rapidly, increasing more than fourfold between 1940 and 1957, and nearly doubling during the 1950s. Moreover, while reliable figures on black teen income during the decade are scarce, it appears to have been broadly comparable with white teen income, and occasionally in excess of it. Paradoxically, widespread poverty and cruelly limited educational opportunities meant that black teens were more likely than their white counterparts to seek paid work, while the traditionally low wages foisted on all black workers made them attractive propositions for menial jobs. Partly as a consequence of this greater level of employment, by the late 1950s median black teen income in New York State was actually 131 per cent that of the equivalent white cohort. Of course, much of this income was dedicated to buying the bare necessities of life, but estimates suggest that blacks spent much the same proportion of their earnings (3.5 per cent) on recreation as more affluent whites (4.1 per cent).
Table 1.1 Black r&b acts recording for major labels and their subsidiaries before 1956
Capitol: Annisteen Allen, Joe Alexander, Blue Lu Barker, Tiny Brown, Esquerita, Five Keys, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher, Nuggets, Sugar Chile Robinson, T-Bone Walker.
Columbia (includes the Okeh and Epic subsidiaries): LaVern Baker (as Bea Baker), Joyce Bryant, Charioteers, Arnett Cobb, Paul Gayten, Roy Hamilton, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Annie Laurie, Big Maybelle, Chris Powell, Red Saunders, Shufflers, Sugartones, Treniers, Titus Turner, Velvetones, Chuck Willis.
Decca: Barons, Dave Bartholomew, Blenders, Cabineers, Chorals, Four Knights (also recorded for Capitol, Jackson Sisters, Louis Jordan, Marie Knight, Mello-Tones, Tommy Ridgley, Shadows, Singing Wanderers, Skylarks, Tangiers.
Mercury (includes the 8000 series and Wing subsidiary): Wini Brown and her Boyfriends, Empires, Four Blue Jackets, Four Plaid Throats, Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, Helen Humes, Joe Huston, Ivories, Buddy Johnson (also recorded for Decca), Penguins, Platters, Ravens (also recorded for Columbia and Okeh), Bill Samuels and the Cats `n' Jammer 3, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dinah Washington.
MGM (includes the 5500 series and the Orbit subsidiary): Blentones, Carter Rays, Crickets, Five Satins, Bill Gaither, Harptones, Hide-A-Ways, Ivory Joe Hunter, Marie and the Decors, Normanaires, Preludes, Ramblers, Sam "The man" Taylor, Twilighters.
RCA (includes the Bluebird, X and Groove subsidiaries): Avalons, LaVern Baker (as Little Miss Sharecropper), Blow Top Lynn, Billy Bunn and his Buddies, Arthur Crudup, Deep River Boys, Du-Droppers, El Vinos, Four Tunes, Four Vagabonds, Erskine Hawkins, Heartbreakers, Illinois Jacquet, Etta Jones, Little Richard (1951-2), Mickey and Sylvia, Mr Sad Head, Nitecaps, Robins, Sycamores, Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson.
In short, there was a relatively buoyant black consumer market, with particular areas of strength and growth among the teens and young adults most likely to buy records. The Majors, just like the Independents, sought to exploit this market. The crucial point, in terms of the configuration of racial consciousness in mid-century America, is that it never occurred to any of those companies that -- the odd maverick hit notwithstanding -- they could consistently sell anything resembling r&b to more than a tiny, fleeting, and economically inconsequential audience of whites.
The marginalization and oppression of peoples of African descent in America has always been more than a purely legal, political, economic and social phenomenon. It has involved an integrated system of thought, categorization and action which constitutes the fundamental grammar of American racism. As part of that system, the recording and broadcasting industries did not merely reflect the prevailing racial assumptions of the 1950s, they internalized them, functioned according to their dictates and, in so doing, helped to perpetuate them. Racial conventions permeated the organization and structure of the music industry at every level. The very existence of separate "Race" and, from 17 June 1949, "Rhythm and Blues" charts for black popular music, symbolized the routine segregation of blacks in American society as much as the segregated schools and separate drinking fountains of the South, or the restrictive housing covenants and discriminatory hiring practices of the North.
In accordance with these racial customs, the Majors carefully kept r&b off their white popular music labels. They set up special series or subsidiaries, like Mercury's Wing and 8000 series, Columbia's Okeh label, and RCA's Groove, to cater to the segregated black market, distributing the disks to a different range of retailers and radio broadcasters from those handling white pop. Racial assumptions even shaped the actual sound and content of the material deemed appropriate for the Majors' black-oriented subsidiaries. Black artists recording for the black market were usually expected to conform to preconceptions about black style which held that r&b should never be anything other than raw, relentlessly uptempo, sexually risque or riotously funny. Indeed, in the early 1950s, RCA actually rejected the black vocal group the Four Fellows for sounding too polished, professional and therefore too "white" to attract a black audience. This reductionist view denied the diversity of both r&b and black consumer preferences, and instead substituted the sort of racial stereotypes which continue to haunt and stultify discussions of black music nearly half a century later.
Whenever artists of either race challenged these aural and, by extension, social conventions, special arrangements were made to alert the public. For example, when a Major recorded more pop-oriented black performers, hoping to emulate the exceptional crossover success of black pop acts like Nat King Cole and the Ink Spots, they often appeared on the company's popular label and not its r&b imprint. Thus, pop-oriented black vocal groups like the Charioteers and Velvetones appeared on Columbia, rather than its r&b subsidiary Okeh. In 1955, the Platters' "Only you" was originally released on Mercury's "purple" race label; only after mounting interest beyond the traditional black market was this melodramatic masterpiece transferred to the company's "black" pop label.
Conversely, when white Frankie Laine fused a country-pop sensibility with the bellow of black shouters like Amos Milburn, he found his first home at the r&b label Exclusive, before moving on to Mercury and a succession of major hits like "That's my desire" which charted on both sides of the racial divide. Similarly, when the theatrically lachrymose white crooner, Johnny Ray, "the prince of wails", borrowed some of the raw emotionalism of black music, his records, which included the number one Rhythm and Blues hit "Cry", were released on Okeh rather than Columbia.
The Independents, with their more extensive and intimate links to the core black market through local black performers, deejays, club owners, record retailers and jukebox operators, were generally more responsive and sensitive than the Majors to the diverse tastes of their primary black audience. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Independents, large and small alike, were hardly immune from the racial assumptions which circumscribed the Majors' policy towards the categorization, production and marketing of black music.
This was certainly true of Atlantic. Just as RCA had rejected the Four Fellows for sounding too white for the black market, so Atlantic felt obliged to transform the Clovers from the smooth, pop-oriented balladeers who cut "Yes, sir, that's my baby" for Eddie Heller's Rainbow Records, to the streetwise roisterers of "Your cash ain't nothin' but trash", in an attempt to target the national black audience more effectively. A similar, if less dramatic, process was inflicted on the Mellotones, a slick black group from East Baltimore whose idols included staid white harmonizers like the Ames Brothers. The Mellotones duly emerged, slightly rougher and bluesier around the vocal edges, as the Cardinals.
Like the Majors, Atlantic and the other Independents were party to the segregated mentality which characterized American racial consciousness in the early 1950s. This mentality continued to structure the operation of the music business even after sales ledgers and account books offered powerful evidence that the old compartmentalization of musical tastes along racial lines was vanishing fast. "We were making black records, with black musicians and black singers for black buyers. It never occurred to us in the beginning that there were crossover possibilities", Jerry Wexler admitted. He did, however, notice that some young white southerners had picked up on the music. "Many people believe that rhythm and blues records sold exclusively to a Negro market up until that time (1953-4). This is not true. `Drinkin' wine spo-dee-o-dee', for example, `went white' throughout the South, as did many Ruth Brown and Clovers records in both North and South prior to this", Wexler recalled.
Black-oriented radio and black consciousness
Most young southern whites first heard black music on jukeboxes or on one of the growing number of black-oriented radio stations in the region. In Lubbock, Texas, Niki Sullivan, Buddy Holly's third cousin and later a member of the Crickets, noted how the music defied the routine segregation of southern culture. "I started listening to rhythm and blues in high school. I can remember in my junior year, the Midnighters were very popular -- where I ate lunch they had those records on the jukebox, like `Work with me, Annie'. And we listened to KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, and XERF in Del Rio and by 1954 or so, there were radio shows on KSEL".
Black-oriented radio was a vital cog in the commercial machinery and creative process which enabled r&b to establish itself at the heart of a national black popular music culture and then cut across customary and, in the South, legal barriers between the races to make that music available to young whites. In the decade or so after the Second World War, the broadcasts of black deejays like Spider Burks on KXLW-St Louis, Vernon Chambers on KCOH-Houston, Bill Spence on WNLA-Indianola, Mississippi, and Chuck Richards on WBAL-Baltimore, together with those of their white counterparts, Dewey Phillips on WHBQ-Memphis, Jay Perry on WEAM-Washington DC, and Alan Freed on WERE-Cleveland and later WINS-New York, made possible the chaotic black-white collisions, fusions, thefts and homages which characterized the new musical hybrid: rock and roll. Consequently, these deejays have justly been hailed as the midwives of the whole rock and roll tradition, although in the course of such celebrations they have frequently been credited with an unrealistic degree of economic independence, artistic freedom and political power.
The development of black-oriented radio after the Second World War closely paralleled and frequently intersected with the rise of the r&b Independents. By the late 1940s, when white-owned WDIA in Memphis and WOOK in Washington DC adopted the first all-black programming formats, the three main characteristics of black radio -- aside from the preponderance of black records on air -- were already apparent. The first was the flamboyance and vernacular virtuosity of those at the microphone. Black-oriented radio was dominated by men and women, black and white, whose personalities were as vital to their success as the records they spun. The second characteristic was the brokerage system of broadcast financing, whereby deejays bought airtime from station management and were then personally responsible for re-selling portions of that time to sponsors and advertisers to make money. Variations on this brokerage system, which left deejays with considerable latitude in what they chose to play and say on air, remained the mainstay of black radio until the early 1960s.
The third key characteristic of black-oriented radio was that few of the station owners, managers, or even technical staff, were black. "We had heap paleface men", recalled the pioneering black Chicago deejay Al Benson. In 1949, Jesse Blayton, a wealthy Atlanta accountant and financier, became the first black to own a station in the United States when he purchased WERD from some white business associates for $50,000. Yet by 1960 there were still only four black-owned radio stations in the nation (WEUP-Birmingham, WCHB-Inkster, KPRS-Kansas City and WERD) and at most 14 a decade later.
Three major factors shaped the dramatic growth of black-oriented radio during the decade after the Second World War. One was the decline of network radio, which had dominated American broadcasting since the 1920s. Between 1947 and 1955 the proportion of America's AM radio stations which were network affiliates fell from 97 per cent to just 30 per cent. Moreover, by the early 1950s drama shows, not their increasingly jaded musical offerings, were the networks' most successful fare.
The second factor was the rapid growth of television, which lured away much of the traditional adult white radio audience. In 1945 there were six commercial television stations in the United States; a decade later there were 411. By turns desperate and daring, radio programmers in the late 1940s and early 1950s began to explore the minority markets which television, with its overwhelming emphasis on middle-class adult white audiences, did not serve at all and mainstream radio served poorly. Just as the independent recording companies of the era exploited the gaps in the services provided by the Majors, so a new breed of radio stations emerged in concert with those Independents, often heavily dependent on their disks for cheap programming, to cater to the more than 90 per cent of American blacks who owned radios by the late 1950s. Again like their Independent record label cousins, these ambitious radio entrepreneurs were not only concerned with targeting black audiences: they also sought out other neglected sections of the market. KOWL-Santa Monica, jointly owned by cowboy singing star Gene Autry and an Irish impresario named Arthur Kroghan, targeted black listeners but also "had programs beamed toward the large Mexican-American segment of the Southern California populace, and foreign language shows in Jewish (sic), in Japanese, Serbian, and half a dozen other tongues".
The third major factor in the growth of black-oriented radio was the discovery of an expanding and increasingly concentrated black consumer market. The greater urbanization of the black community after the War meant that even small wattage stations in key locations could reach vast numbers of black listeners. Moreover, the average income of those blacks rose by 192 per cent between 1940 and 1953, when 90 per cent of blacks were in some form of paid employment, and the total value of the black consumer market was $15,000 million. Local and national, often white, advertisers increased their support of black-oriented stations in line with this burgeoning purchasing power and by 1961 were spending $9 million annually on black-oriented radio advertisements. Whereas in 1954 corporate advertisers accounted for barely 5 per cent of the revenue on a major urban black-oriented station like WLIB-New York, by 1964 the proportion was 85 per cent.
The history of WDIA-Memphis revealed how these essentially economic motivations on the part of white businessmen could provide a showcase for black music, limited employment for blacks, and a cultural institution which resonated to the changing moods of the black community. The station opened on 7 June 1947 and endured a disastrous year trying to penetrate the white Memphis pop radio market. In response, white co-owners John Pepper, who in the 1930s had successfully utilized black programming on his Mississippi station, WJPR-Greenville, and Bert Ferguson, who had witnessed the success of black-oriented shows during a stint as programme director at WHBQ-Memphis, gradually switched WDIA to an all-black format. On 25 October 1948, Nat D. Williams, an educator, journalist and Beale Street nightclub compere who had previously served as an announcer on WHBQ, became the first black deejay on WDIA, which in turn became the first radio station in the country to be programmed entirely for the black community.
Backs bought an estimated 40 per cent of the merchandise sold in Memphis. The success of WDIA depended on its ability to attract a large and prosperous enough proportion of those 150,000 blacks to convince Memphis businesses to advertise on the station. As Variety pointed out, the use of black deejays and the programming of r&b immediately helped to rally this segregated black audience into a solid block of potential customers.
The Negro disk jockey has a much stronger standing in the colored community, particularly in the South, than the ofay platter pilots have generally due to the social situation. This influence over their listeners is proportionately stronger and that explains why their shows are solid commercial stanzas ... Their accent on R and B platters stems from that music's widespread and almost unique acceptance by Negro audiences.
Ferguson and Pepper recognized and shrewdly exploited black listeners' identification with black announcers by hiring almost exclusively black on-air staff at WDIA. They also orchestrated a 40,000-flyer mailshot to the black Memphis community to encourage a lucrative racial pride in this black-oriented, black-staffed operation. But while black deejays like Williams, Maurice "Hot Rod" Hubert, Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, and Rufus Thomas provided the creative flair and commercial appeal, executive and managerial power at WDIA remained firmly in white hands.
By 1956, when it had become part of the Sonderling chain of stations, WDIA was broadcasting 50,000 watts westwards into Arkansas, east to Atlanta, north to Cairo, Illinois, and south to Jackson, Mississippi, reaching more than 500,000 blacks. In Memphis, it was heard regularly in seven out of ten black homes. Of course, its r&b and gospel shows were also heard by many southern whites, not least Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips at nearby Sun Records.
WDIA's success heralded the major expansion of black-oriented programming in the South and beyond. Hordes of other charismatic black deejays emerged, including Ernie "The Whip" Brigier in New Orleans, Bruce "Sugar Throat" Miller in Winston-Salem, Andrew "Sugar Daddy" Dawkins in Bessemer, and half a dozen Dr Daddy-Os scattered around the South under the tutelage of the original, Vernon Winslow in New Orleans. By 1956 there were 28 radio stations with all-black programming and another 36 which broadcast over 30 hours a week specifically for blacks. Many more stations offered at least some regular black programming.
Few of those who owned or managed these black-oriented stations consciously sought to use them to promote or even facilitate the gathering black struggle for equality. Nat Williams explained that Bert Ferguson and John R. Pepper were not driven by any sense of racial enlightenment or philanthropy in switching WDIA to the service of the black community in Memphis. "They are businessmen. They don't necessarily love Negroes. They make that clear. But they do love progress and they are willing to pay the price to make progress". Even when white owners and executives did permit the airing of news programmes, discussion forums, history features and public service announcements which inevitably touched upon the racial situation, it was the commercial wisdom of doing so which was usually uppermost in their minds. Ferguson warned those who neglected these "community" aspects of black programming that it would "cause the weakness or failure of many an operator who thinks that the key to the mint in the negro market is a few blues and gospel records, and a negro face at the mike". For the most part, the white -- and even the handful of black -- owners, managers and technicians in black-oriented radio in the 1950s, especially in the South, were extremely cautious about airing any material relating to race relations or black protest because of the hostility it might arouse from precious advertisers and other whites.
For Mort Silverman, the station manager at WMRY-New Orleans, commercial considerations, rather than any affinity with blacks, their culture or their struggle for equality, certainly lay at the heart of his interest in r&b. "Before 1950 we were featuring good music and failing. May twenty-eighth of that year we switched to a solid Negro format. In a month we paid our way, and revenue has increased steadily ever since". Silverman's casual distinction between "good music" and "Negro format" suggests the pejorative white value judgements routinely applied to black culture and music in the 1950s, even by those who made a living from it.
In the late 1940s, Shelley Stewart was a resourceful, self-educated young black man who had spent considerably more time on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, than in its segregated public school system. In August 1949, Stewart parlayed boundless enthusiasm for black music and a rare rhetorical gift into a job at WEDR, which had just opened with its white owner, J. Edward Reynolds, carefully announcing his black-oriented station's intention to "stay completely out of politics". Stewart knew the bottom line for such men. "It was about dollars and cents. It was not about supporting racial justice ... for some of the white station owners you could not do a PSA [public service announcement] for the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] ... They didn't want you to do an announcement on voter registration ... 'cause that would empower coloreds".
For Shelley "The Playboy", as Stewart became known, there was no mistaking where the power in black radio resided. Although some resisted the yoke, black announcers were usually expected to bite their talented and persuasive tongues on matters of racial politics and even fair remuneration for their efforts. According to Stewart, many WEDR deejays "would talk one thing in the control room as blacks and show our dissatisfaction. But if there was a meeting called with ... whomever was in charge, when they get before the white ownership or the white management, most of the blacks would say, `oh, everything is fine'".
All of which makes rather a nonsense of Nelson George's nostalgic depiction of the 1950s as a golden age of black-oriented radio, during which independent r&b jockeys established a "self-sufficient" black radio industry, exalted the beauties of an "autonomous" black culture, and provided the black community with grassroots economic and political leadership:
black radio grew through the war and in the ten or so years after to become institutions and examples of "natural integration" -- that is, the mix of whites and blacks it created shared genuine interests economically and musically. Moreover, if you consider the deejay as entrepreneurs -- as I do -- and not merely as employees, then in the midst of this integration (but not assimilation) it is clear the era produced a wealth of Washingtonian figures.
It is true that blacks and whites in the business of radio and recording did share broad economic interests upon which musical kinships were sometimes built -- which is to say, both wanted to reach the widest possible black audience and appreciated that r&b was the best way to do it. Yet, to collapse completely the tensions and contradictions present in the unequal relationship between black announcers and the overwhelmingly white-controlled financial, legal and managerial framework within which they operated is misleading. The multiple restraints on the black deejays' economic power, their political influence, and even their artistic freedom were always far greater than George allows.
Even in the early 1950s, when a combination of the brokerage system and general white indifference to the content of shows they assumed only reached black ears gave black deejays unprecedented freedom in what they said and played on air, they were still bound by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules and guided by a code of conduct prepared by the National Association of Radio and T.V. Broadcasters known as the "Broadcasters' creed". Both these august bodies were white -- the FCC did not have a single black member until the appointment of Ben Hooks in 1972 -- and their charters enshrined the values of the dominant culture. The "Broadcasters' creed", for instance, demanded that broadcasters "observe the proprieties and customs of civilized society ... honor the sanctity of marriage and the home".
R&b was initially well stocked with vibrant songs explicitly about sex, infidelity, alcohol, gambling and crime which potentially contravened these codes. Thus station owners usually set broad guidelines on "good taste" within which r&b deejays had to operate, even before the crossover successes of the mid 1950s. In 1951, King, a company hardly prudish in its attitude to the raunchier side of r&b, felt it necessary to record a special "radio version" of the Dominoes' carnal classic "Sixty minute man", while Atlantic later shelved the Drifters' sublime tale of bought sex, "Three thirty three". These were acts of pre-emptive censorship by Independents who recognized that certain disks might not get airplay, even on black-oriented stations.
While some of the leading black titans of the turntable did diversify into related businesses, such as promotion, nightclubs, recording and publishing, which were more convincing examples of the black petty-capitalism George exalts, most remained in financial thrall to white station owners and sponsors. Tommy Smalls, one of George's entrepreneurial "Original 13" of "Washingtonian" black deejays, did not even own his radio name, "Dr Jive", which had been copyrighted by WWRL-NY station manager Fred Barr in 1950. Similarly, Vernon Winslow's Dr Daddy-O persona was owned and franchised by the Jackson Brewing Company. When his kids asked him what he did for a living, the Dillard University graduate, teacher and radio pioneer ruefully replied, "I sell beer".
Few black-oriented deejays or stations could survive without white advertising revenue: not even in Harlem, where WWRL flourished with major sponsorship from corporate giants like Coca Cola, Arrid, Budweiser, Vaseline and Wrigleys, as well as the odd large black firm like Parks Sausage and spot announcements for local, often white-owned, neighbourhood retailers. The pressing need to court such sponsors was certainly evident in WWRL's sales pitch for Tommy Smalls, which boasted that "Commercials are delivered by Dr Jive in his easy free-flowing conversational style, that will deliver sales for you ... This is the same Dr Jive who broke 25 yr. attendance record at the Apollo 3 times ... who can sell YOUR PRODUCT for you to over 1 million Negro people in New York and get the same following and brand loyalty to your product".
Black deejays were hardly culpable for finding themselves caught between their personal ambitions and the political economy of American race relations. Most were only too grateful for the opportunity to sell their sponsors' goods and services to the black community. "Genial" Gene Potts of WGIV-Charlotte, another of the celebrated "Original 13", offered a jive analysis of the economics which allowed him to air both r&b and the community announcements which made him the Charlotte Post's "Man of the Year" in 1953: "Most of my commercials are done in rhyme but I am sincere all the time ... I love my sponsors and hold them in the highest esteem. They can always count on their job being well done by `Ye Olde Swingmaster Genial Gene'". Most black deejays found themselves using their status within the black community in this way, promoting national and local white-owned businesses in addition to a few, invariably under-financed, black enterprises. This was not the result of any "natural integration", but a pragmatic response to the harsh realities of black economic underdevelopment and restricted opportunity which inadvertently strengthened the grip of corporate white America on the black economy.
Ultimately, this racial and economic configuration of power in the broadcasting industry meant that black-oriented radio struggled to meet the challenges of a new age of mass black protest, both in terms of the quantity and quality of its news and public affairs broadcasting, and in the extent of its public commitment to the struggle. Nevertheless, the medium's contribution to the emerging Movement and its attendant black consciousness in the 1950s should not be underestimated. The multiple meanings of black radio cannot simply be reduced to the base racial politics and economics of its production, since those meanings were also dependent on the specific content of the programming, and the manner in which those programmes were consumed by black listeners. As blacks became part of an interactive radio community, that interaction took place primarily with deejays and the records they played, not with the whole paraphernalia of the thoroughly exploitative and generally racist industries which lurked behind them.
Simply by airing black music, speaking in the distinctive argot of the black streets and fields, promoting black concerts and dances, and, in so far as it was allowed, reporting on the achievements of black leaders, athletes and celebrities, and announcing the latest black community and national news, black radio helped to define what was distinctive about black American culture and to legitimize it as something unique and valuable. Throughout the country, black-oriented radio helped to codify and promote new patterns of increasingly urbane black conduct and consciousness.
As a result, black radio, together with the emergence of a genuinely national, if regionally distinct, r&b scene, helped to revitalize and reshape a sense of common identity which had been severely strained by the successive black migrations of the first half of the century. Of course, this revived black consciousness was also critically linked to the shared experience of a long struggle against the diverse effects of racism. But it was also arranged culturally around distinctively black styles of leisure, pleasure, humour, sport, worship, fashion and dance. Above all, a rejuvenated black consciousness was expressed and validated through the various forms of Rhythm and Blues music which, not coincidentally, also comprised the major portion of programming on black-oriented radio.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]
|Pt. I||Deliver me from the days of old|
|1||"I hear you knocking ...": from r&b to rock and roll||19|
|2||"Down in the alley": sex, success and sociology among black vocal groups and shouters||56|
|3||"Too much monkey business": race, rock and resistance||90|
|4||"Our day will come": black pop, white pop and the sounds of integration||123|
|Pt. II||People get ready|
|5||"Can I get a witness?": civil rights, soul and secularization||173|
|6||"Everybody needs somebody to love": southern soul, southern dreams, national stereotypes||217|
|7||"All for one, and one for all": black enterprise, racial politics and the business of soul||253|
|8||"On the outside looking in": Rhythm and Blues, celebrity politics and the civil rights movement||289|
|Pt. III||One nation (divisible) under a groove|
|9||"Tell it like it is": soul, funk and sexual politics in the black power era||339|
|10||"Get up, get into it, get involved": black music, black protest and the black power movement||388|
|11||"Take that to the bank": corporate soul, black capitalism and disco fever||417|
Posted July 13, 2013
Posted July 13, 2013