Ear adjustment: Exploring the untold history of Black Music

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter inaugurated June as Black Music History Month, which President Barack Obama renamed African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009. Though the concept of “black” music could apply to any kind of music performed by black people technically, we usually tend to understand it in terms of genre. Artists associated with hip-hop, R&B, reggae, blues, jazz and gospel are usually the starting point for conversations about intersections of blackness and musicianship. The historical emergence of these genres from black subcultures, ranging from the derivation of gospel from the West African “ring shout” to the post-industrial urban context that wrought hip-hop, defines this iconic association.

Yet, just as blackness as an identity, culture and realm of experience, must be understood beyond conventional wisdom, the music created by black musicians must be understood complexly. Music is a compelling space for uncovering obscure, or forgotten, artists whose stories tell a fuller richer story of blackness than usual.


Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

 For example, most listeners primarily associate country music with Southern white musicians and audiences. Though many people are aware that artists like Ray Charles and Charley Pride broke color barriers in country music, and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has become a solo country star, there’s more to the story. The 1998 three-disc set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music introduced me to important figures rarely discussed in mainstream black music conversations. For many years, I thought jazz musicians were at the forefront of musical integration in the recording industry. In fact, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an integrated string band comprised of black fiddler Jim Booker, guitarist John Booker, banjo player Marion Underwood, guitarist Willie Young, and occasional vocalists, did the first racially integrated recording sessions in a studio in 1927.

 The geographic and cultural proximity of black, white and Native American musicians living in the South birthed a more diverse brand of Southern music than most people realize. There was a proliferation of string bands, like the Georgia Yellow Hammers, the Dallas String Band, James Cole String Band, and others, as well as solo performers.


The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first African-American musician associated with the Grand Ole Opry’s radio program, from 1926-41. He also appeared on the Opry’s 1939 television debut on NBC’s Prince Albert Show. Despite these monuments he was not accepted fully, and experienced being referred to as the Opry’s “mascot” as well as the denial of service at restaurants and hotels when her toured small towns. While racism is a familiar trope in discussions of black musicians of his generation, less familiar is the way blacks who grew up in the Southern U.S. listened to country music and often emulated radio artists. Bailey’s grandfather was a fiddler, and Bailey got his big break after white string band leader Dr. Humphrey Bates recommended him to the producer of the WSM “Barn Dance” radio show, which became the Opry. Though these cross-cultural alliances were not necessarily typical of the industry a gradual cross-pollination took shape especially in the post-WWII era. Many of the musicians included on the set discuss their appreciation for the music and lyrics of country music, viewing it as a parallel to the blues. There are also important voices represented on the set, like Dobie Gray (1940-2011; famous for 1973’s “Drift Away”) and Bobby Hebb (1938-2010; who wrote the 1966 hit “Sunny”), who have defied genre rules throughout their careers and challenged conventional wisdom about the sound of black music.


Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Folk music is another genre with a strong black presence. The more recent success of Rhiannon Giddens and her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a great link to the past. Before performers like Giddens, and Tracy Chapman, whose 1988 debut was an unexpected pop hit, there was the legendary Odetta (1930-2008). Classically trained as teenager Odetta performed in musical theater as a young adult before turning to folk music in the 1950s. After establishing herself on the nightclub circuit she became a prolific recording artist recording for the Tradition, Vanguard, Riverside and RCA Victor labels. Her recordings and performances, were complemented by her vigorous civil rights activism. Odetta was considered the premier folk singer of her generation and influenced performers like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, and Carly Simon.


Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Other black superstars of the 1950s who influenced folk performers include Harry Belafonte (1927-present) whose dynamic performances and popular recordings of folk music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Peru, Israel and other countries made him the first world music superstar. He was also integral to introducing U.S. audiences to the South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), known as “Mama Africa”. A gifted singer, composer, and actress, and a fierce anti-apartheid activist, Makeba began performing in the U.S. in 1959 and began a successful recording career on RCA in 1960. She committed her life to her music and her activism and performed until the very end of her life.


Just as the southern rural black experience is rarely discussed, beyond country blues and delta blues musicians, the presence of blacks in the chic, sophisticated world of New York cabarets, a thriving cultural space form the 1930s-1960s is also elided. Cabaret singing is an intimate style of singing performed by stately but highly distinctive, often idiosyncratic singers who frequently focus on the Great American Songbook and obscurities. Well-known black singers like Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eartha Kitt have roots in cabaret. There are, however, are many others who never crossed over to mass audiences through TV or film.


Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

One of cabaret’s most successful performers, Barbra Streisand began her career performing at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village. But long before her there was Mae Barnes (1907-96) an African-American singer and dancer who was so popular the club was referred to as the Barnes Soir. Combining elements of Broadway, Vaudeville, and jazz in her live performances, and famous for her wit she was highly revered and rarely recorded.

 Mabel Mercer (1900-1984), born to an African-American father and English mother, grew up in Europe before immigrating to the United States in the 1940s. Famous for her perfect diction, rolled “R”s, and incomparable readings of lyrical nuances she was adored by composers like Bart Howard (“Fly me to the Moon”) and Cole Porter. Mercer was the queen of cabaret who influenced singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and held court at legendary clubs like Tony’s, Ruban Bleu, the Byline Room, and others. The St. Regis Hotel named a room after her in 1975; ion 1984 Stereo Review magazine established the Mabel Mercer Award to honor outstanding musicians, and in 1985 the Mabel Mercer Award Foundation was established.

 If Mercer was the Queen of cabaret Bobby Short (1926-2005) was the undisputed King. Born in Danville, Illinois he was a gifted pianist and distinctive vocalist who became a successful child performer in Chicago and then began performing throughout the U.S. and Europe. Known for his throaty voice, vast repertoire, and rapier wit he became a mainstay at the Café Carlyle from 1968-2004, and enjoyed a long recording career at Atlantic Records. He also recorded five albums for Telarc Records from the 1990s-2000s. Other notable black cabaret figures include Josephine Baker, Thelma Carpenter, Jimmie Daniels, and Leslie Uggams.

 Contemporary black performers with a background in cabaret include actor-singer Darius de Haas, Broadway actor Norm Lewis, Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, and vocalist Paula West. Since cabaret is more of a performing genre than a recording field many cabaret-oriented singers are also actors. Related to cabaret then, is the history of black performers who have excelled in musical theatre on Broadway. This distinguished roster includes Belafonte, who won a 1954 Tony for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Sammy Davis Jr. who was acclaimed in 1964’s The Golden Boy, Eartha Kitt, nominated for Tonys for her performances in 1978’s Timbuktu! and 2000’s The Wild Party, Billy Porter’s role in 2013’s Kinky Boots, Lewis and McDonald, who performed together as leads in 2014’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and  the more recent triumph of actor-singer Leslie Odom Jr. in his Tony winning role in Hamilton.


Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Classical music is another arena where the contributions of black musicians are often overlooked. In the vocal field female singers Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Leontyne Price (1927-present), Jessye Norman (1945-present), and Kathleen Battle (1948-present) are important figures with popular notoriety. Notable male voices include legendary actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1903-98) who originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess in 1935 as well as the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weill’s 1949 production Lost in the Stars. Some more contemporary figures include baritone Jubilant Sykes, and more emergent male vocalists including Jamaican born baritone Rory Frankson, lyric tenor Lawrence Brownless, and tenor Issacach Savage.


Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

In the classical instrumental field there are many black musicians worth discovering such as Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, as well as notable organizations dedicated to diversifying the field. For example, the Sphinx Organization’s focus on training and developing underrepresented young musicians has culminated in the renowned Sphinx Virtuosi comprised of Black and Latino musicians. The website AfriClassical was also begun in 2000 to chronicle the history of people of African descent in classical music.


Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Any legitimate effort to explore black history comprehensively requires exploring unheard and overlooked figures. The relevance of Black History Month lies in the ongoing opportunity to expand our understanding of the stories, experiences and achievements of blacks in America. Music is an important dimension for the music itself, and the histories that inform its creation and reception. It is no coincidence that many of the musicians listed above, like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Belafonte, Odetta and Makeba are as well known for their activism as their music. Theirs is a story worth exploring for the way it speaks to a larger richer story of the historical contours of blackness in America.

Additional resources:

AfriClassical website: http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/

"Black Men Storm the Gates of Classical Opera": http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/black-men-storm-the-gates-of-classical-opera-323#axzz4XpI5EogN

Mabel Mercer Foundation: http://www.mabelmercer.org/

"Six African American Country Singers Who Changed Country Music": http://www.wideopencountry.com/6-african-american-country-singers/

Sphinx Organization: http://www.sphinxmusic.org/


More than a novelty: Black girls "rock" too!

Free association time: Several months ago First Lady Michelle Obama was “scolded” for presenting at the Black Girls Rock Awards. This was apparently viewed by a few reactionaries as exclusionary though it was a nod to the organization Black Girls Rock Inc. a “youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color.” Founded in 2006 by Beverly Bond it exists for a reason: in a society that tends to operate in racist and sexist ways black women are often unheralded hence the necessity of outlets that acknowledge their status and provide genuine visibility. The coverage of Mrs. Obama’s presence sparked a musical thought in me: “Black Girls Rock, Too.”

                                                                                            Image of Tina Turner performing. Copyright   ©   tinaturnerblog.com.

                                                                                            Image of Tina Turner performing. Copyright © tinaturnerblog.com.

In the context of popular music contemporary listeners tend to associate rock ‘n’ roll and rock with white men like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly. Though black proto-rock ‘n’ rollers like Wynonie Harris, and pioneers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard are commonly understood as musical architects of rock ‘n’ roll the racial politics of the 1950s restricted their commercial exposure and recognition compared to white counterparts. This was eventually rectified (i.e. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions) but tellingly they are not referred to as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

 The story for women in rock ‘n’ roll is also complicated. Pioneers like the eclectic pre-rock singer Ella Mae Morse and the rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson only scored a few hits and never quite became stars. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that women like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick expanded the popular imagination to begin including women as legitimate rock performers. Since then Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and younger performers like Alanis Morisette have gained iconicity. Missing from this list for the most part are black women. Tina Turner, whose dynamic performances and raspy vocals led many to regard her as the “Queen of Rock,” is probably the only black female singer who immediately comes to mind in the rock pantheon. She also occupies an important place in R&B and pop as well; in terms of rock though although she seemingly stands alone among black performers. 

A closer look reveals a more diverse roster of performers of rock. Most recently the Alabama Shakes, fronted by the biracial singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, topped the albums charts with Sound & Color. I was aware of the Shakes’s 2013 debut but what caught me recently was Howard’s impassioned rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight” on Saturday Night Live (aired February 28, 2015). She sang with a stirring mix of power, control, and vulnerability modulating the song’s dynamics with impressive precision.  Her performance impressed me and reminded me of the ways the music industry tends to narrowcast black female singers. 

                                                                         Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. Copyright   ©   Getty Images.

                                                                         Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. Copyright © Getty Images.

The first female performer to win a Grammy Award for rock singing was Donna Summer whose victory for “Hot Stuff” proved she was more than a Disco Queen or an R&B singer. She was nominated again in this category for “Cold Love” (1981) and “Protection” (1982). In other words rock music was as integral to her sound as other more stereotypically “black” musical influences. Many people may be unaware that in 1981 Summer was working on a double album that showcased a different sound for her. The album featured rock songs, new wave tunes, dance pop and ballads. Her record company doubted its commercial viability and she hurriedly record and released 1982’s Donna Summer. In 1996 the unreleased album, called I’m a Rainbow was released and it showcased Summer on everything from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to songs that fit comfortably into the rock and new wave of the early ‘80s including “Leave Me Alone,” “Highway Runner,” “Melanie,” and “Romeo.”  Had she released the album circa 1981/82 it may have opened doors for other women-of-color to rock especially given her popularity at the time.

                     Donna Summer rocks out! Copyright  ©   Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

                     Donna Summer rocks out! Copyright© Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

Alongside Turner, Summer, and Howard several other black females are part of the rock continuum, and their recordings are easy to find. From the 1930s to the early 1950s country blues singer-songwriter Memphis Minnie pioneered the singer-composer-performer archetype rock ‘n’ rollers adapted in the mid-1950s. She wrote much of her material wasn’t afraid to sing about sexuality (“Me and My Chaffeur Blues,” “In My Girlish Days”) in playful but discernible terms. Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, and Lucinda Williams are indebted to her and have covered her material. About a decade later the guitar slinger Sister Rosetta Tharpe broke with gospel tradition inflecting traditional songs with touches of the blues that generated considerable controversy. Her legacy has shaped the technique and repertoire of folk, gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz performers including Odetta, Bob Dylan, and Little Richard. Before Etta James gained crossover fame with “At Last” she sang some of the slyest and most buoyant tunes of the mid-1950s including “Roll with Me Henry” and “Tough Lover.” While the music industry steered many black singers primarily toward R&B, funk and disco in the ‘70s, from the ‘80s onward performers as disparate as Joan Armatrading, LaBelle singer Nona Hendryx, Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon, Me’shell N’degeocello, and Dionne Farris have all flexed their rock chops on record throughout their careers. 

Country blues pioneer Memphis Minnie. Copyright   ©  1993 Delta Haze Corporation. 

Country blues pioneer Memphis Minnie. Copyright ©1993 Delta Haze Corporation. 

The racial rock deficit grew to the point that black male and female musicians responded in the mid-1980s by founding of the Black Rock Coalition in New York.  The group’s website defines its mission as supporting the “development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.” The idea that rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that drew heavily from gospel, the blues, and jump blues, and its offshoots, are now viewed as “alternative” music for black performers is perversely ironic. Since the mid-1950s performers as diverse as Rick James, Prince, Living Colour, Fishbone, Lenny Kravitz, Terence Trent D’Arby (now called Sananda Maitreya), and more recently Raphael Saadiq and Gary Clark Jr., have asserted enough of a black male presence in rock that it is slightly (only slightly) less novel for audiences to associate black men with rock.

In the mid-1990s Darius Rucker stood out as the black lead singer of the otherwise white pop/rock group Hootie & the Blowfish, and he has remained a virtual outlier in his recent solo career as a success country performer. Rucker’s successes in these incarnations did not exactly motivate record companies to seek more diversity in rock and country; he remains a musically conventional but socially unique performer. One hopes that Brittany Howard is not a novelty, but yet one of many women of color with the chops and industry support to make a living performing in a rock vein. Until the culture recognizes the historical roles of black musicians in shaping the rock tradition and until record labels acknowledge the commercial viability of women of color in rock organizations like the Black Rock Coalition and Black Girls Rock Inc. remain vital resources for their literal and symbolic encouragement for musicians of many stripes to rock.


Revelations in Memphis: New encounters with Ol’ Time religious music

I recently traveled to Memphis, Tennessee one of America’s most musically significant cities. From W.C. Handy’s blues to the clubs on Beale Street to the pioneering labels Sun Records, Stax Records, and Hi Records, Memphis is a touchstone in the development of classic blues, proto-rock ‘n’ roll, and the “Southern soul” branch of R&B. Memphis is pivotal in the musical legacies of Al Green, B. B. King, Ann Peebles, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, and Carla Thomas among other notable artists.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

An under recognized part of Memphis’s music heritage are the gospel sounds emanating from its nearly 2000 (mostly Protestant) places of worship. Though Tennessee is obviously part of the “Bible Belt” surveying a variety of sources revealed  more specific information on the high percentages of Tennesseans who identify as “very religious,” the state’s high concentration of megachurches (large Protestant congregations with 2000+ regular attendees ), and the high numbers of churches per capita. Both Memphis and its home state are among the more religiously oriented locales in the country.

My recent visit was my third trip to Memphis in four years as I travel professionally with a group of students studying the Civil Rights movement and Southern culture annually during spring break. Among our many stops is a trip to the Sunday worship service at Monumental Baptist Church, an inclusive church known as the “Friendly church on the Parkway.” Monumental is also famous for the long tenure of their pastor (now pastor emeritus) Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Kyles is a theologian and community activist who was one of the last people to interact with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prior to his assassination in 1968. As a pastor and organizer Reverend Kyles has contributed to the fight for social justice well into the present. As the students and I perused the impressive walls of photos in his office featuring figures like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Harry Belafonte, Bill Clinton, and various other notables, one could see a continuum of social justice history unfolding before them in an abbreviated form.

Monumental is a predominantly black church characterized by “the preacher, the music, and the frenzy” W.E.B. DuBois described in 1903’s classic The Souls of Black Folk. It is the music that I turn to here. Though I have identified as a humanist-ethicist for years I was raised in a Christian household. For the first few years of my life my parents were Seventh-Day Adventists, and then they converted to Protestantism, particularly the Baptist tradition. As a child I found church boring and repetitive except for the music. Though most choirs are composed of untrained singers a lack of formal “classical” training differs greatly from a lack of skill.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Black Protestant churches are the source of training for many of our greatest singers (i.e. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin) and the root of many signature techniques in popular music (i.e. melisma, call-and-response vocal arrangements). As a wonderful exhibit in the freshly renovated National Civil Rights Museum illustrates, churches were as much community centers as they were centers of worship for African-Americans who relied on churches, benevolent societies, and fraternal organizations to sustain themselves during and beyond Jim Crow era discrimination and apartheid.

As such many African-Americans, regardless of denomination, have some level of relationship to religious institutions. To return to my story, I recall having many positive developmental experiences in the churches of my childhood such as being a Cub Scout, and learning about religious history. But, as I developed more intellectually and politically during adolescence I began questioning many aspects of Christianity, as practiced in the Baptist context, ranging from attitudes about reproductive rights to negative characterizations of sexual and gender diversity. After being essentially forced to attend church as a teenager I was relieved by the spiritual autonomy offered in college; no more obligatory Sundays. Like many college students I adapted a “spiritual not religious” stance typical of college students. I still clung to the emotional safety of the Protestant belief structure and the amorphous beauty of “faith” but wrestled with its implications as practiced by many preachers and their followers.

Looking back, my stance was a rejection of childhood teachings and a subtler rebellion against social expectations. After all, I grew in up in a city where it was normal for people to ask you “And what is your church home?” without blinking. Gradually, as I matured into early adulthood I shifted from a reactionary approach to a more informed and deliberate embrace of an ethically based humanism with room for the intangibles of life. These beliefs surfaced the first time I attended Monumental’s service in 2012 when my co-chaperone and I reviewed the agenda of previous trips. We both viewed this stop with some antipathy. I was particularly concerned that a “fire and brimstone” approach would alienate students, and that I was compromising my beliefs by regressing to the naturalized “authority” of church, which was off-putting mentally.

Realizing there was no coffee shop or alternative spot to hang out at during the service before we arrived, I decided to approach the service open heartedly. Having not attended church formally in years I was surprised at the familiarity, and humbled by the warm and welcoming congregation. Reverend Kyles’s sermon was a stirring parable about authenticity. Building up to his sermon were numerous rituals (i.e. Bible recitations, announcements, tithes and offerings) including the highlight: multiple choral performances. Though I can’t recall the exact songs from 2012 the soloists (female and male) were dynamic, bending notes purposefully, and the choir exemplified the antiphonal (call and response) tradition with its perfect timing, led ably by the musical director and band. This tradition continued during my visit in 2013 and 2015.

The interesting musical quandary this evoked for me is the odd emotional placement of the formal and performative qualities of spiritual music in our lives. Though the Christian philosophy intrinsic to gospel music differs from my chosen life philosophy I enjoy much of the music. When a student once remarked “That’s the best music I’ve ever heard in my life! Do they sing like that every Sunday?” I remember nodding my head and saying “Yes. And sometimes on Wednesdays too!”

Surveying my personal musical collection I have a surprisingly large number of gospel albums for a humanist including Aretha Franklin’s classic 1972 album Amazing Grace, collections by gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, and more recent recordings by jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, country singer Ronnie Milsap, and a group of female singers paying tribute to the great Rosetta Tharpe. Gospel repertoire also routinely informs the discographies of many of my favorite singers including Maria Muldaur and Aaron Neville. The best gospel, like any genre, often transcends its original context and appeals to the senses of listeners purely as music.

Understanding the innovations of classic blues composer W.C. Handy, master musician B.B. King, and other Memphis music legends is incomplete without understanding the ways gospel has factored into the musical foundations of so many benchmark performers with Memphis roots. Various Memphis museums including the Civil Rights Museum, the Rock and Soul Museum, and Stax acknowledge the gospel roots of R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul. But I fear that audiences view its impact in cursory fashion as a mere ingredient in a stew. My most recent Memphis trip reminded me of the raw appeal of traditional melodic gospel music and its inescapable influence on the shape of 20th and 21st century “pop” music across genre. Like many “former believers” I have an abject relationship to Christianity. The music, more than anything, ties me to the tradition, and that’s not such a bad thing.



Getting Away…Letting Go…Gone: Reflecting on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston

Though Michael Jackson passed way in 2009 and Whitney Houston in 2012 their record companies continue to market their catalogs. In 2014 Epic released Xscape, a compilation of previously recorded but unreleased material. It spawned the hit “Love never felt so good” and lot of controversy from members of the Jackson Family. After releasing a Houston compilation in 2012 Sony/BMG released Whitney Live: Her Greatest Performances in 2014. They continue to intrigue audiences in death as in life.

Thriller  cover Copyright  © 1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic.  Whitney Houston  cover Copyright ©  1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Thriller cover Copyright ©1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic. Whitney Houston cover Copyright© 1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson share reputations and roles as the most iconic black singers of the 1980s. As such they epitomized the longstanding black “crossover” dream better than any other black singers of the rock era. Or rather, as we learned from their tragic premature deaths they embodied the nightmarish side of the dream to the extreme.

 Even compared to commercial heavyweights like Stevie Wonder or Diana Ross, who achieved immense success as pop-soul artists, Houston and Jackson gave up more. In the ‘70s Wonder and Ross still had to make it with black audiences first before crossing over. But Jackson and Houston reached a point much earlier in their careers where they started with the general/white/pop audience and did not need to “crossover.” They had already arrived. White audiences, and global audiences, embraced them as eagerly as blacks—maybe more so.

 In morphing from black acts with presumed “specialized” urban appeal/ethnic resonance (and other industry euphemisms) they mutated into distant commodified versions of themselves. Jackson was a prodigy who became a promising, awkward teenager who grew into a handsome independent young man before becoming a human commodity with Thriller. The fragile tenderness on Off the Wall’s ballads (i.e. “She’s Out of My Life”), the recurring escape themes on its dance cuts (“Burn this Disco Out”), especially the title track gave him away, in retrospect. The leap from his sappy middle-of-the road (MOR) solo albums at Motown to Off the Wall’s layered expressions hinted at reservoirs of suppressed emotion within Jackson.

 As ear candy these songs are expert pop craft. As tell-tale signs of something impending in his psyche and career they are frighteningly prescient. Thriller is almost exclusively an opportunity for Jackson to escape into meaningless accessibility tinged with paranoia (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”). Content is not so much the message as feeling; like the milk you drink to cool hot foods Thriller was a rich, sweet, creamy balm that could never cool the sting of Jackson’s life in the long-term. Its beginning was his (the real MJ) end as opposed to “His” (MJ global superstar/King of Pop). The kinds of social, psychological, and emotional developments young men usually traverse from childhood to young adulthood were already complicated (stifled?) when he went into making Off, and Thriller cemented their stagnation.

 Because the American popular culture industry was not built for or by blacks, black artists always struggle to get in. Once “in” they know what they have left behind (safety, comfort, empathy, cultural understanding from the black “niche” audience), they are often daunted by what they want to see (fame, success, acceptance), and what could be seen by cautious eyes (second-guessing, rejection, contempt). Fame has not proven itself as an antidote to racial pandering as figures as disparate as boxer Jack Johnson, athlete/actor O.J. Simpson, former Ms. America Vanessa Williams, and golfer Tiger Woods experienced at different phases of their careers.

 Though Houston lacked Jackson’s adolescent commercial pedigree she was a young woman when Arista record exec and producer Clive Davis shepherded her into pop heaven. Even her mother Cissy’s experience as a renowned background singer and minor R&B star could not prepare her for the platform she reached with her immense vocal talents. Davis’s “hit” single mentality was broad enough for her to crossover but too narrow to really “get” who Whitney was and what she might face. This is where Farah Jasmine Griffin’s classic book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is crucial. Her book localizes the sources of Billie Holiday’s pain and elusiveness. There’s something we cannot know (hence Mystery) because there was something Holiday was trying to protect (not hide). Drugs helped her establish this distance; the same was tragically true of Houston in many respects.

 Beneath the studio gloss, the elegant phrasing, and the entertaining if often prosaic songs lies something raw and unarticulated that usually gets condensed into a broader emotional field of pop feeling. Yet this is unsatisfying because Houston was not easy to reach or understand despite her apparent commercial accessibility. Beyond the hits was someone unseen; one who betrayed the obvious sentiments of her attractive but unchallenging music. Who knows how she would have developed differently if her fame came when she was more seasoned? This is where 1990’s mediocre album I’m Your Baby Tonight is crucial. In wanting to make Houston seem “blacker” (via hiring New Jack producers like Babyface, L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons) her record company essentially rejected who she was to win the black audience’s favor. As such she descended publicly into a black urban tale fit for Maury Povich: Erratic behavior, a loutish husband, self-destructive behavior, drug abuse, and unidentified angst. What she wanted—acceptance? understanding?  fame? catharsis?—killed her. Drug use is never passive, but the gradual erosion of self occurs at slower speeds and lower frequencies.


My first thought with both of these singers is always to wonder when their biological families and black audience “families” had to let them go, hence the essay’s title. Our families, however flawed, usually know us best because they are intimate witnesses of our becoming. Jackson’s proximity to his parents and his siblings is both a testament to family support (usually rare for artists) and an understandable motivation for him to become more independent artistically and personally. Since he remained affiliated with The Jacksons (musical group) into the early ‘80s it’s not clear when his family’s respect for his solo pursuits drifted toward concern. And if his audience thought he was growing increasingly strange in the mid-80s during the acme of Thriller his family surely noticed.

 Similarly, the symbolic grounding the black audience offered performers grew increasingly strained as the black managers, mom and pop record stores, chitlin’ circuit venues, and black radio formats that created the black music sub-industry, and fostered affinities between performers and their audiences crumbled under the weight of change. Music critic Nelson George’s 1989 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues chronicles this especially well. Record company consolidation, MTV etc. all widened the gaps. While Jackson has understandably attained loyalists from multiple cultures black culture is still his root. It was not until the early 1990s when he was accused of child molestation that black audiences reasserted their support for him. And this was reignited in the early 2000s when he accused record exec Tommy Mottola and Sony Music of racism prior to the launch of 2001’s Invincible.

Between Thriller and his death there were multiple lulls in the black audience’s interest in Jackson the musician.  By the rise of New Jack and hip-hop in the late ‘80s he was catching up with the black audience’s taste rather than leading it. The child star that emerged as icon incarnate for black kids around the world grew into a distant relative black people cared for but had lost touch with.

 Houston’s mother Cissy wisely waited until Houston reached a certain level of maturity to let her record for Arista Records, and years of “wood shedding” occurred under Davis’s tutelage. Her commercial success and stable image marked her as a responsible and competent person publicly. No one would have suspected she needed her family to intervene too much after her first two blockbuster albums in 1985 and 1987. Davis guided her career closely for years but in the early ‘90s, around the time she married Bobby Brown, Davis’s grip started slipping. The once unreachable star suddenly appeared more vulnerable (i.e. weird behavior, missed gigs) but in the most clichéd of ways. Rumors about drug use, her troubled marriage, and diva-like behavior overshadowed her music. The once unstoppable force was grounded by tawdry scandal. By the 2000s all of her recorded output began to be viewed (or rather labeled) as “comebacks” rather than records. Her personal life overshadowed her music and black audiences ate up the drama but not necessarily the music. They reveled in the tabloid shenanigans but still wanted her to be OK. A woman once viewed suspiciously as a pop princess whose “blackness” was under question was reunited with her root audience in her darkest hour. But the gaps grew so wide that by the end it’s not clear if anyone knew what to do with her or how to handle her struggles.

 Labeling talented, affluent vocalists with agency as tragic “victims” is a misnomer. Houston and Jackson made choices that benefited them creatively and enabled them to amass huge fortunes. Beyond this material reality their deaths compel reflection because they always seemed to be reaching for something we’ll never quite know and slipped in the process. My guess is that their most dedicated listeners and fans will continue guessing what happened in that gap between their initial public life and their sudden deaths.