It seems now that every other song on my radio was a Motown hit when I was a kid. The Supremes; Al Green; The Temptations; Gladys Knight and the Pips; Otis Redding (one of my personal favorites); and the list goes on and on.
Of course there were other songs as well by White artists; with a couple of Native Americans here and there; a Mexican or two etc.
These artists left a musical legacy as great as any before or since but was it the only legacy they left? Or did their music and their way of acceptance leave something else for us?
Something more profound?……………………..
………………………Curtis was definitely one of the greats of his time; all time really. I grew up listening to a variety of music but I began with 1950s Rock and Roll. As I see it; the old 50s Rock and Roll became the pop music of today. It has had many contributors from other genres like Country; Soul; Funk; Jazz; Classical; Gospel; but the mainstream was from the early Rock and Roll days. This music is and has always been fairly color blind. Pop is like a separate stream made up of pieces of all the other genres. So while these artists were making Top 10 hits on the radio; they were; many of them making other music that the average Pop listener never heard and perhaps didn’t even know about.
If you were a “Hard Rock” fan; you would buy the records of the Rock artists but might only hear what Motown artists were offering for the Pop fans. If you were a “Soul” music Fan or a “Funk” fan or a “Country ” fan; you bought their albums and on and on.
But “Pop” accepted some songs from all genres as worthy. And artists of any race were welcomed. This; during the very time when our nation was being ripped apart by the battle for justice for all Americans; a battle that divided the nation by color but also by age; lifestyle; and beliefs. A battle that expressed itself not only on the streets and in the courtrooms of America; but in the “Pop” music we listened to. Each genre was making music that expressed their personal point of view about the same social issues. It was a time of coming together for many people of all races. If not in body; at least in spirit and direction. We were young and the generation before mine began this empathy. It has continued and has grown as we age and our children have had a different experience. So will theirs and each generation becomes more in harmony with the rest of America; color be damned.
The Civil Rights demonstrations were primarily made up of Black Americans but there was a few White Americans (comparatively) there as well and who knows how many other races were represented.
As we moved into the late sixties; the harder Rock emerged and most of these artists were white with some notable exceptions like Jimi Hendricks. To me it seemed that there came to be; after that a wider division between the music created by Black artists and White artists. Each seemed to me to be moving into “Harder”; less similar avenues of musical discovery. The number of Black rockers seemed to dwindle after Jimi died. Whether there is a causal connection or not; I don’t know.
I mention this because it seems a strange tale to tell how the music has both identified the differences in our lives and served to unite us at the same time. Before 1950, White music and Black music were different; not always in the songs; because so many White groups covered black records and had big hits with them; but different in the way these songs were presented and performed; different too in the likelihood of having a hit with the American White Bread audience that dominated the industry. Songs like Sha-Boom; originally recorded by a Black group called “The Chords” was covered by a White group called “The Crewcuts”. Not that they did a bad job with the song. It was loved by many Poodle Skirt
wearing teenage girls and clean-cut young men. But the real Rockers were seeking the more authentic experience and defined the smoothed-out, cleaned-up, versions pumped out of the industry as “Too commercial” “Too bland”. These were the people who were finding it ever more difficult to tow the party line so to speak; to rely on the traditional belief system and social order they were taught by their parents. they were seeing the restrictive nature and unchanging view point of such a system and were rejecting it by the millions
So they sought out the original; R&B renditions and the obviously more rockin’; more funky versions previously recorded by Black groups.
It is a strange and not wholly complementary thing that “Musician” was one of the few professions where a Black man could gain a modicum of respect; though it must be said that in many areas that still didn’t get you a room at a decent hotel. This is because even in granting a measure of respect; the dominant White society were perpetuating a stereotype. The assumption that if you were Black; you could tap dance like Mr. Bojangles and would be willing to accept some humiliation for the entertainment of your “superiors”.
When Rock and Roll began; it was so obviously influenced by Black music and so unsuccessfully copied by White musicians; that those who were looking for the real, true , Rock and Roll experience naturally began seeking out the Black musicians who created it.
As we moved into the late fifties and early sixties, Black musicians gained more recognition for their work as even the most “White Bread” kids discovered that the originals were the best. Before long Motown arrived was producing Black musicians left and right and the White people were loving it. Curtis Mayfield was one of those artists whose work transcended the Race barrier and brought people together. As so many others did. The entire Industry watched with awe as America forgot about Race and just enjoyed the sounds. Sadly this primarily applied only to music but it was an amazing thing even so.
The divergence and merging of these groups of musicians led us to what we have today. Still; while these changes were taking place among the individual genres; there was always the hard rock and the funk and the soul and the R&B and country mix we call “Pop”.
Now; we are seeing a more visceral blending of the White and Black genres. Even the Hard Rock Industry has been influenced by the Rap music originated by Black artists. Groups like “Linkin Park”; “Limp Biscuit”, “Sublime”; “The Red Hot Chili Peppers”; and a plethora of others are rocking and rapping and performing “Reggae” and various other styles of traditionally Black music. Not to even mention the Marshal Mathers experience; which had the ability to make even an old Hippie like me see the value of “Rap”.
He got me listening to some “Rap”; both Eminem; because honestly; the persona of the “Angry White Man” so melded with my experience and feelings; and Black rappers as well who seemed to speak to me in a different way but one that I was getting more of; for the first time since “The Sugar Hill Gang” produced that album length Rap called “Rappers Delight” in 1979. It was a great story; very funny too. it was the first Top 40 Rap ever recorded and released and it was the only Rap I had ever heard or knew existed. To be honest; I never thought of it again until years later when the Hip-Hop and Rap explosion began.
We are also seeing the emergence of more Black musicians playing Country and Classical and other genres typically identified with White music.
It’s only music?
No. It is Music. Music. It has the power to unite; to calm; to bring about empathy between people and cultures and nations. It is no small thing that our music is becoming more integrated as time goes on. It is no small thing; when you consider that a small thing like music can effect such enormous changes in the way people think and feel.
This is the one thing I can answer with confidence when people ask why I feel that racial tensions are easing overall though we still have a long road to the top of that mountain. It is proof that we are melding (what took so long?); that our cultures are blending (oooh; scary); and that we can and will come together with increasing ease as time goes on. It seems difficult to understand why it has taken as long as it has. In truth; it wasn’t the music holding us back. The music was ready long before we were. The music of all of the people of the world have always been redy to come together and work it’s magic on our hearts. It is we; the human factor that has failed to recognize the similarities between our various styles. Rather we have tended to focus on the uniqueness of each type; a neccesary first step but one which has perhaps taken up too much of our time and attention.
We are coming together though; especially the young people. Old guys like myself are still somewhat rare. Not unheard of by any means but not as common as younger people who think as I do.
If you are White; and older than say 35; do what I did. Get a few tattoos; a few piercings; and embrace the differences between people.
Or; just embrace the differences between people if you really can’t do the body art. For me the tattoos and piercings are a way to say:
I am different from most 54-year-old white men.
I will not buy into the American Fiction created by the establishment and I am willing to mark myself permanently to say so and pledge my loyalty to an alternate reality where all men are equal and the goal to make that reality “Our Reality”; for real.