White artists realize great success with ‘Black’ music

Bridging the color and cultural divide

Merdies Hayes Editor | 6/13/2019, midnight

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 et.al. 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.”