SOCIETY, MUSIC, BIPOC
A Brief History of African-American Influence on Rock & Roll
by MERCY FERRARS
“For some of us, it began late at night: huddled under bedroom covers with our ears glued to a radio pulling in black voices charged with intense emotion and propelled by a wildly kinetic rhythm through the after-midnight static. Growing up in the white-bread America of the Fifties, we had never heard anything like it, but we reacted,”
writes Robert Palmer in the Rolling Stone.
Rock & roll was born in 1950s America, largely pioneered by Black rhythm & blues musicians. Their sound, crudely put, had been transformed due to their labels’ flirtations with white country music and Black blues and jazz. Born into the era of segregation—which was firmly established in the legal and cultural structure of U.S. society, especially under the South’s so-called Jim Crow laws—it popularised Black music, acted as a catalyst in overcoming racial division and delivered the dream of freedom and revolt to white teenagers’ doormats. Rock & roll history is also a history of race both within and without music. In such light, rock & roll possessed subversive political power in its early forms, moments before it became a capital industry. When early rock & roll first saw the light of day, its sound was so close to rhythm & blues that it made musicians such as Fats Domino question the emergence and necessity of the genre. Country, swing, African-American and Latin influences bled into 1940s’ R&B, blending it into a new sound: energetic, revolutionary and young. Musically, rock & roll did not originate from innovation but a fusion of racialised sound properties such as riffs, beats and rhythms. Its multi-ethnic influences cannot be denied:
“The Bo Diddley beat, which […] began showing up on records by everybody from the former jazz bandleader Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) to the Texas rockabilly Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”)—was Afro-Caribbean in derivation. The most durable (read “overused”) bass riff in Fifties rock & roll […] had been pinched by Dave Bartholomew, Domino’s canny producer and bandleader, from a Cuban son record. […] Traditional Mexican rhythms entered the rock & roll arena through Chicano artists.”1
Emerging artists had segregated multi-colour audiences dance in the same venue, set up self-expressive flamboyant shows and oozed joie de vivre, sexuality and freedom. This new found feeling of rebellion and revolution resonated with listeners. Rock & roll became an emancipating culture, characterised by youthful rebellion and social nonconformity. It was mostly marketed towards white teens who had money they were keen on spending and who had already been immersed in the energy and soulfulness of Black music behind closed curtains. Especially for teenagers, rock & roll opened up a new form of self-expression, when “hard-driving rhythm-and-blues and raunchy blues records” introduced them to “a culture that sounded more exotic, thrilling, and illicit than anything they had ever known.”2
Fifties’ rock & roll loosened the dehumanising ideologies set by the Jim Crow laws and prepared culturally what the civil rights movement would achieve in the next decade. In the same year of 1954, the ‘separate but equal’ policy which had ruled since 1896’ Plessy v. Ferguson was razed with the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling; all the while a young white Elvis Presley was recording his first hit—“That’s Alright Mama”—with rock & roll’s most avant-garde producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation illegal in schools, allowing Black kids to attend white schools, which included busing between Black and white neighbourhoods; and it became the first step taken towards ending segregation.3 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 while Little Richard started to rise to fame, transforming the way white and Black folk shared public spaces while combating racial stereotypes show by show. Elvis Presley’s first hit metaphorically cut the ribbon for rock & roll to become a lifestyle and genre white folk would embrace and which they could openly identify with. African-American music, which had previously been derogated as “race music,” was now made available to a wider white audience, which changed its sound into a more sterile version of itself. With the new music style, a new name was needed: rocking and rolling, allegedly an early 20th century Black slang term for sexual intercourse, titled the rebellious, fast-paced, exciting new genre and lifestyle.
As the century progressed into its 60s, several acts followed the desegregation of schools ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. While the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. was active from roughly 1955 to 1968, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act (1964), banning discriminiation based on race or gender; the Voting Rights Act (1965), protecting non-white voting rights; and the Fair Housing Act (1968). Rulings like Loving v. Virginia (1967) which lifted the ban on interracial marriage and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964) helped to further accelerate and upkeep civil rights progress. However, while politics seemed to move forward, rock & roll took a step backwards in its attitude towards race—a regrettable development considering its early philosophical backgrounds laid out by one of its founding fathers, Sam Phillips.
The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities claims that “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records” in a 2016 article.4 Sam Phillips (1923 — 2003) was one of the key figures of rock & roll. A white boy from rural Alabama, he was influenced early on by a variety of musical styles, including the music of his African-American peers with whom he had worked in the fields as a child. Another formative event was a visit to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, “home to an energetic and diverse music scene where yet-to-be blues and jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and B. B. King could be heard.”5 From the beginning his studio had been a welcoming place for white and Black artists alike, although he founded Sun Records in the last decade before a political upheaval of racial politics in the States. Phillips’ philosophy remained sincerely unaffected by the cancerous segregation of his time. As a result, he produced rhythm & blues luminaries such as B.B. King, Ike Turner and Rufus Thomas. Phillips released what some declare to be the first rock & roll single, “Rocket 88” by the Ike Turner fronted band Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. But his earnings were tenacious, and he soon realised that he would do better in the era of segregation if he could market Black rock & roll to a white audience by proxy of white artists.
Among Phillips’ greatest discoveries was Elvis Presley. Elvis’ sound was not a white sound. Many compare his voice to that of African American R&B singers. Countless of his songs were covers of African American musicians. But to the rebellious teenagers of his time, he became an idol while copyrights issues weren’t as strictly dealt with as today. Many white teens had previously listened to rhythm & blues, and often did so in secret in heavily segregated America, but Elvis brought rock & roll to the white world and presented an icon white teens would identify with. He triggered a frenzy that many white rock bands followed. Step by step, African-American influence receded into the background in the mainstream’s perception of rock music. In the 60s and 70s, most successful rock artists were white in percentage. Phillips hosted the country’s superstars at Sun Records, including none other than Johnny Cash. Having switched to producing Black-sounding white musicians styled accordingly for a white audience, he consequently chose to move away from producing Black artists. And although at the beginning of his career Phillips orchestrated the philosophy of rock & roll as a cross-colour, inclusive movement; spirited by dreamy freedom and racial equality; he ultimately contributed to the erasure of Black influence from the history of rock music. In 1955, Philipps sold Presley’s contract and in 1969 he sold Sun Records, choosing to retire. Despite the slow aversion from its African-American roots, rock & roll added significantly to the social change in the States. “What could be more outrageous, more threatening to the social and sexual order subsumed by the ingenuous phrase traditional American values, than a full-tilt Little Richard show?” Palmer challenges.6
By the 1980s, rock & roll had long since established itself as “white music.” Whitewashing had covered its mid-century roots under a thick blanket. Most modern generations’ general knowledge of rock history does not date back further than the 70s, and so the narrative that rock music is inherently white culture upholds itself. By the 80s, rock music had also grown into a huge capitalised industry and had morphed from youth culture into the mainstream. At the same time, hip-hop was developing as a diametric antagonist to rock, not only musically but also racially. If rock & roll was now considered white culture, the key figures of early hip-hop were African-Americans from New York who rhymed lyrical verses over scratchy records, dealing with the still starkly unequal reality of life in the States—marked by police and gang violence, poverty and systemic racism.7
If the genesis of rock & roll has proven anything, it is that music tends to cross boundaries, brings people together, and is able to both define and dissolve stereotypes. As the races are musically divided once again, in the 1990s rap suddenly comes in connection with rock music and progresses to nu-metal or “rap-rock.”7 World-famous 90s’ and early 2000s’ bands like Linkin Park, KoRn, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Rise Against the Machine or the Beastie Boys are famous representatives of the genre and dominated pop culture for at least a decade. Even though most of these bands are white, there are also collaborations instigated by Black rap artists like Run D.M.C. with Aerosmith on a 1986 “Walk This Way” remake, Public Enemy’s collaboration with Anthrax on 1991’s “Bring The Noise” remix, rapper Ice‑T’s band Body Count, Jay‑Z’s collaboration with Linkin Park on “Numb/Encore,” 1990’s “Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth and Chuck D, 2001’s “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz and Del the Funky Homosapien, and countless others.
What can be established of the history of rock & roll? The genre and youth culture which emerged from late Forties’/early Fifties’ Black R&B was influenced and affected by a multitude of ethnic stimuli and eventually developed into a highly esteemed industry. With unprecedented drive it instilled in many the feeling of freedom, revolt and self-expression. But money and politics coloured it white and caused it to turn its back to its subversive roots, passing on a false “rock is white” narrative to future generations. The analogy of rock’s genesis and its many waves of racial separation and approximation reflects the ideologies of its time. All the more important is keeping up the part of history which is excluded from the history books.
EDITED BY LARA HELENA.
1Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone, April 19, 1990.
2Kot, Greg. “Rock and Roll.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
3McWhorter, John. “The Origins of the ‘Acting White’ Charge.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company. July 20, 2019
4Scanlan, Laura Wolff, et al. “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records.” The National Endowment for the Humanities, 2016.
5Scanlan, Laura Wolff, et al. “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records.” The National Endowment for the Humanities, 2016.
6Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone.
7Grierson, Tim. “Rap-Rock and Its Hip-Hop Origins.” LiveAbout, 13 Apr. 2019.
History.com Editors. “Black History Milestones: Timeline.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Oct. 2009.
Jordan, James. “Racial Roots of Rock and Roll.” Medium, Publishous, 1 Oct. 2019.
“Rock’n’Roll.” Board of Music.
Reents, Edo. “Sam Phillips: Der Mann, Der Elvis Erfand.” Frankfurter Allgemeine, 31 July 2003.
“Sam Phillips.” Sun Records, 7 Jan. 2022.
Caroline Peacock. “The True Story of Rock and Roll: How Whitewashing Let down the Black Voice.” The Kollection, August 3, 2020.
Vanderburg, Colin. “How Rock and Roll Became White.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 24 Nov. 2016.