Once again, a person of presumed victimization reminds us white guys that we just don’t have natural rhythm. This does seem to be our burden in life: to live on the sidelines of toe-tapping civilization, stealing occasional musical crumbs from blacks and calling them our own. Helen Kolawole, a former music editor of a magazine called Pride, informs us of the following:
As another celebration of a dead white hero winds up, in this hallowed Week of Elvis, shouldn’t the entertainment industry hold its own truth and reconciliation commission? It needn’t be a vehicle for retribution, just somewhere where tales of white appropriation of black culture, not to mention outright theft, can finally be laid to rest. Following Michael Jackson’s recent outburst accusing Sony chief, Tony Mottola, of racism, perhaps he could officiate and champion all black musicians who have been ripped off by nasty white music business CEOs. . . .
Putting Parsons’s vision into practice, let’s imagine that instead of Elvis mania, Big Mama Thornton — author of Hound Dog — reigns supreme with her ode to no-good men. Big Mama’s cultural conquest gives birth to a radical white teen culture and a complete and lasting overhaul of America’s putrid racial politics. White teens frighten their parents silly with their extreme bids not to become Elvis’s pale imitation of the black performers he witnessed, but the very image of Big Mama. Sounds outlandish? Any more audacious than stubbornly maintaining that this talented — but more importantly white — man deserves to be king of a genre created by black people?
Well, I guess that puts us in our place, as usual, except for one seemingly inconvenient fact: “Hound Dog” was written Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was recorded by Big Mama in 1953. Lieber and Stoller were a couple of Jewish boys, both born in 1933. They were 20 years old when they wrote “Hound Dog.”
Lieber attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. In my day (1955-59), Fairfax High, which I did not attend, was the only high school in southern California to close on Yom Kippur. Maybe eight people would have showed up if it had stayed open, half of them physical education teachers. I have no reason to believe that this wasn’t also the case in Lieber’s day.
So, what we have here is a premier black entertainer, Big Mama Thornton, one of the unsung founders of early rock and roll, who made her big entry with a song written by a couple of white guys.
She wasn’t the only one. Lieber and Stoller wrote the following: “Love Potion #9” (The Clovers), “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “On Broadway” (The Drifters), “Stand by Me” (Ben E. King). And then the all-time jackpot, a string of hits recorded by the hippest, funniest group of the ‘fifties, The Coasters: “Searchin’,” “Young Blood,” “Along Came Jones,” “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back),” “Poison Ivy.” They also wrote, “I’m a Hog for You, Baby,” so I guess they weren’t Orthodox Jews. This had to be the greatest string of hit rock & roll songs written by non-performing song writers during the ‘fifties, and I would contend, ever.
In 1957, they wrote “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis as the title song for his movie. Then they started their own music company. They produced records for black performers.
As music journalist Robert Palmer has noted, “They didn’t just perform songs for these artists; they arranged the songs, picked the backing musicians, supervised the recording sessions.” The pair added, “We didn’t write songs, we wrote records.” And they yet again unwittingly furthering the evolution of rock by taking under their wings a young producer, Phil Spector, attracted by this sort of acoustic innovation.
They were inducted into the Rock and Toll Hall of Fame in 1987.
But I’m supposed to feel guilty for being an accomplice of a white heist of black culture.
Victimization is in high gear these days.
‘TIS PASSING STRANGE
It is worth mentioning that Big Mama Thornton was discovered by Johnny Otis, the blues and rock band leader in Los Angeles. So was Etta James. He was a pioneer in rhythm & blues. In 1950, he had 10 songs that made the Top-10 in Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues list. He has been described as the Godfather of rhythm and blues. What none of us knew until more than four decades later was that Johnny Otis was “passing” — a Greek guy who decided to become an honorary black. He did it really well. An Otis Web site says:
Johnny Otis discovered many legendary Rhythm and Blues singers such as Esther Phillips, Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thornton, Etta James, and the Robins (who later evolved into the Coasters), all of whom were at one time featured vocalists in his band. He also discovered Sugar Pie DeSanto, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John. He produced, and with his band played on the original recording of “Hound Dog” with “Big Momma” Thornton. He produced and played on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”, and produced some of Little Richard’s earliest recordings. On his own Blues Spectrum lable, Johnny has recorded and played with Rhythm & Blues pioneers such as Big Joe Turner, Gatemouth Moore, Amos Milburne, Richard Berry, Joe Liggins, Roy Milton, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Charles Brown, and Louis Jordan. Johnny played the drums on Charles Brown’s first major hit “Driftin’ Blues” in 1946. He also recorded with Illinois Jacquet, and Lester Young. One of the many highlights of his long career was when he performed as a drummer with the great Count Basie Orchestra.
In the 1960’s Johnny served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervin Dymally [black], whose career he followed from the State Assembly, State Senate, Lieutenant Governorship of California, to the U.S. Congress. His first book “Listen To The Lambs”, which addressed the 1965 race riots was published in 1968. His next book, “Upside Your Head! Rhythm & Blues on Central Avenue” was published in 1993. Many of his paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings are displayed in “Colors and Chords — The Art of Johnny Otis” which was published in 1995. His most recent book, “Johnny Otis — Red Beans & Rice and Other Rock ‘n’ Roll Recipes” was published in 1997.
Johnny Otis’s song writing credits include “Every Beat of My Heart”, (a song he wrote originally for Jackie Wilson, but was made a hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips), “Roll With Me Henry”, (also known as “The Wallflower”), “So Fine”, “Willie and the Hand Jive” (which sold over 1.5 million copies), and many, many others.
Johnny has been inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Archives of African American Music and Culture at the University of Indiana has cataloged hundreds of hours of his past radio shows for his interviews, comments, insights, and historical significance. Today he teaches a course for the University of California at Berkeley exploring the history of African American music titled “Jazz, Blues, & Popular Music in American Culture”. http://www.johnnyotisworld.com/biography
If you would like to read about his cooking, and get his recipe for Greek egg-lemon soup, click here.
I am not sure how guilty I should feel about all this. I used to watch Johnny’s local TV show in Los Angeles. “Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis . . . boom, boom . . . Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis!” Was I an accomplice of an unconscionable white guy who stole black culture and delivered it to us white guys? Or was I an accomplice to a Greek bearing gifts to black performers who needed radio and TV exposure? I’m not sure. But I know I’m supposed to feel guilty. As Ms. Kolawole says:
But the reality is, black music never stays underground. White people always seek it out, dilute it and eventually claim it as their own.
In Johnny’s case, blacks claimed him as their own, and more than a few of them prayed for some air time on his TV show.
BLUEGRASS ISN’T BLACK
Elvis recorded Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for his first single. It wasn’t clear whether this song or the flip side, “That’s All Right (Mama),” would be the hit. His band was called The Blue Moon Boys, which is understandable. He would not have done nearly so well as part of the All Right Mamas.
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. His group was called The Bluegrass Boys. I am unaware of anyone who has argued that Bill Monroe was an offshoot of black American culture. A band that toured in suits and cowboy hats was not in big demand in any of America’s ghettos — at least not black ones.
When he added banjo picker Earl Scruggs to his band in 1946, what is known as bluegrass music came into being. It was Scruggs’ staccato three-finger picking style that was henceforth to identify the music as a separate category. Monroe’s group’s name stuck to it. Rare is the bluegrass band, such as Nickel Creek, that has no banjo.
You could argue that the banjo was a black instrument. Blacks could not afford to buy guitars. The nineteenth-century minstrel shows featured banjos. But the blues is a guitar-based music form. Dixieland jazz sometimes uses a four-string banjo, but the five-string has been a white Southern mountain instrument for over a century. If anything, a cultural exchange was made a century ago: blacks got the guitar, and whites got the banjo.
Blacks added the bottleneck to establish a brief cultural monopoly, but after the Dopera brothers — Slovakian immigrants — invented the dobro guitar in 1926 or 1927, whites regained access to the steel bar’s wailing sound. The compromise: blacks play it vertically; whites play it horizontally. If you want to see the difference, see how the white Canadian bluesman — yes, Virginia, there is a white Canadian bluesman — Colin Linden, plays it vertically, while Jerry Douglas plays it horizontally: “Down from the Mountain.”
Such is the stuff of cultural exchange.
Helen Kolawole made a factual mistake. She forgot to look up who wrote “Hound Dog.” She also did not know about Johnny Otis’ role in launching Big Mama’s career. Big Mama had a lot of help from a couple of Jews and a Greek. This makes Ms. Kolawole’s tirade look silly. This can happen to anyone who invokes some fact as a symbol of an all-important cultural movement, and the fact turns out to be wrong. But what about her main point? What about the aleged theft of black culture by crackers like Elvis?
First, the story of Elvis’ roots in black music is as familiar as his legendary pelvis. Second, he really did have natural rhythm — again, the pelvis. What is the problem here? The fact that Little Richard never made the transition to ballads, or that Chuck Berry never ate grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches? Are reparation royalty payments next?
Bill Monroe’s version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is not much like Elvis’ version. There is no doubt that rock-a-billy has a lot of black in it. When Elvis was interviewed for the first time on radio by the Memphis disk jockey who had launched his career by playing his record over and over, DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) kept mentioning Elvis’ high school, which was a white school. Phillips wanted no confusion on that score.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ initial piano style was influenced by the black boogie-woogie piano style. His cousins, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, were not equally influenced. But to argue that Lewis was not initially part of the white gospel piano tradition would be ridiculous. In his later career, the white country music tradition became dominant.
Music is a universal language, like mathematics and money. It knows few borders. (OK, maybe Chinese music does. I hope so, anyway.) Jazz began in the return of black bands from graveyard internments in New Orleans. But the bands played white hymns out to the above-ground graves.
Black guilt masters are everywhere. Some of them are doing their best to claim that their people invented the dominant popular music forms. I will let them retain title to rap. But as for other imports into and out of the world of the ghetto, let us say that royalties have been paid both ways.
August 17, 2002