In 1964 the Beatles took America by storm on the basis of some catchy original songs and a scattering of ’50s rock and roll retreads like “Matchbox.”
In quick succession they were followed by bands like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. What would become known as the “British Invasion” changed the face of American — and world — pop music forever.
What got lost between the lines was that Black American blues fueled the white “British Invasion.”
“Matchbox” is a good case in point, because the Fab Four said they learned it off the 1957 dance album by rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. Perkins readily admitted, “I just speeded up some of the slow blues licks” for his seminal rock guitar style. He is also given writer’s credit for “Matchbox,” which was written and recorded by blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927.
The Rolling Stones took their name from a song by blues icon Muddy Waters and patterned themselves after the Waters band. Many of their “original” hits were direct lifts from older blues recordings.
“Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin’s only Top 10 single, was a close copy of an earlier song by blues man Willie Dixon. Dixon heard the song 15 years later, sued and won a rare settlement.
Many British rock bands did wholesale appropriations of blues compositions, arrangements, lyrics, bass lines, and guitar solos, and directly mimicked vocal styles and intonations much like their white counterparts in the 19th century minstrel shows.
All of a sudden, the rock world was awash with English, Scottish and Irish singers who sounded like Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James.
However, it’s a misrepresentation of the truth to point a disapproving finger overseas. The Brit rockers were only following a long-time American musical tradition of white-owned recording and publishing companies appropriating African American blues for popular and lucrative use in the entertainment world.
The blues can rightfully be called the fountainhead of 20th century pop music, out of which flowed jazz, swing, bop, rock, and — yes — country and western. It was born in Africa, nourished in the wretchedness of slavery and raised in the cauldron of segregation. It is a unique music of an oppressed people, unique because of its honesty, dignity and defiance, and its ultimate 12-bar truth.
The blues is also unique because none of its creators reaped any of the incredible financial payoffs it generated. From the beginning, wads of money flowed not to the community from which the blues emerged, but to the looters who ran away with it.
Muddy Waters wrote famously that “blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll,” but blues also had two older children named jazz and country music.
The extraordinary relationship of blues and jazz has been the subject of many worthy dissertations. The fact that American country music has always been one of the most financially rewarding arenas for blues-based music is not very well known.
Jimmie Rodgers is known as the “Father of Country Music,” but this title is based not only on his incredible impact on generations of performers but also on his sales of millions of blues-laced records of the late 1920s, like “Muleskinner Blues” and “Blue Yodel #2.”
How did the white Rodgers, whose musical tradition comprised modal jigs and reels, morph into a blues lyricist and singer? Easy: when he was not working on the railroad as a young man, he worked in blackface and minstrel shows with Frank Stokes, a Black singer from whom Rodgers is thought to have acquired much of his song repertoire.
However, Stokes’ name does not appear on any of the multitude of copyrighted songs claimed by Rodgers, nor did Stokes share in the recording and publishing windfall.
Bluegrass is regarded as Bill Monroe’s creation, but Dennis Deasy, the late San Francisco musicologist, argued that all Monroe did was inject the blues scale and 12-bar format into Scots-Irish hoe-down music. He believed that it should more rightfully be called “Bluesgrass.” It is also worth noting that the featured instrument in bluegrass, the banjo, came from Africa.
Sometimes the thievery is so outrageous that it boggles the mind. Leon McAuliffe was the signature steel guitar player of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and his trademark tune was “Steel Guitar Rag.” McAuliffe claimed authorship — and, of course, the royalties — for “Steel Guitar Rag.” The truth is that he stole it from “Guitar Rag,” a 1923 recording by Black blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver. In fact, it has been recently established that playing a stringed instrument by sliding a piece of steel on it can be traced to Central and West Africa. Like the banjo, African slaves brought the concept of playing steel to America.
In the early 1950s, Sam Phillips, the genius behind genre-bending Sun Records, reportedly said, “If I could only find a white boy who could sing like a Negro, I could make a million dollars.” Ultimately, he found that boy, who began cutting blues sides written by Big Boy Crudup, Roy Brown, Little Junior Parker, and Kokomo Arnold. That white boy’s name was Elvis Presley.
These are just a few examples of the extent of the cultural theft of African American music. The beat goes on with continuing CD sales, blues festivals, documentaries, and even a sizeable Internet market of instruction videos like “How To Play Guitar Like Blind Blake.”
The money made on record sales alone is formidable. The record company makes money; the publishing company makes money; the recording artist and the songwriter get royalties. Then there are further royalties for performances, radio play, and usage in film and television.
The corporate recording and publishing share of music income is the lion’s share of a very expensive pie, amounting to billions of dollars in rock and roll alone. Blues had a very fat baby, but the African American mother community only received a pittance — if anything — in return.
Blind Lemon died on a street in a snowstorm in segregated Chicago. It was regarded as such an inconsequential event that no death certificate was issued. Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” was buried in an unmarked grave. Her recording contract had a “no royalties” clause.
Many other blues geniuses died in Jim Crow poverty and illness. Leroy Carr was barely 30 when he died of alcoholism. As late as 1960, Jesse Belvin, a young rhythm and blues artist, was killed in a suspicious car crash after performing the first integrated concert in Little Rock, Ark. Earlier in the evening, white supremacists had repeatedly disrupted the show.
This is not to say that white musicians didn’t suffer similar fates as a result of corporate exploitation, but the exploitation of the white musicians was not a result of the color of their skin.
The blues was stolen from the Black community simply because the white musical power structure had the ability to do it. It was not given away for free and billions of dollars were made on the blues. It is time for the music industry to pay the bill.
Don Santina is a cultural historian who writes on film, sports and music.