R&B, Rock & Roll, and Integration

As Little Richard’s drummer, Charles Connor, who later played with James Brown, put it, rock and roll is really just “rhythm and blues played with a fast beat.”

Now, however, black artists were sharing spaces formerly reserved for white artists, and were at the forefront of American popular culture.

In spite of the efforts of segregationists to ban this “licentious jungle music,” especially in the Jim Crow south,

a curious thing started to happen: Rock & roll shows became so boisterously biracial that it was sometimes impossible for officials to fully segregate them. Some recall the cops simply throwing up their hands. “A lot of places had the line when we first walked in, and after we started playing, they let them cross the line,” the Coasters’ [Leon] Hughes says. “It was beautiful.”

At the height of Jim Crow, young whites and blacks found ways to breach the separation. “After the first intermission, the kids were all dancing together,” [rock and roll singer Lloyd] Price says. “I just kept playing my music and the kids kept coming….They were rebelling through dance, through a beat I’d created….They start realizing we’re all human.” In his authorized 1985 biography, Little Richard gives himself credit for single-handedly bringing segregated audiences together. “We were breaking through the racial barrier,” he wrote. Richard’s producer, H.B. Barnum, recalled, “When I first went on the road there were many segregated audiences….And most times, before the end of the night, they would all be mixed together.”

The record companies were paying attention. So as to capitalize on the success of early (black) rock and roll, and to quietly influence white parents to lift their unofficial restrictions on the lucrative teen record-buying market, white artists were enlisted to cover songs first recorded by black artists.

The Chords, “Sh-Boom”:

The Crew Cuts, “Sh-Boom”:

Etta James, “Wallflower”:

Georgia Gibbs, “Wallflower”:

Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti”:

Pat Boone, “Tutti Frutti”:

Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”:

Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog”:

 

 

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