chapter  3
The Politics of Race Erasure in Defi ning Black Popular Music Origins
ByPortia K. Maultsby
Pages 19

In the late-1970s, and as a scholar of post-World War II African American 2 popular music, I quickly became aware of the limited number of treatises and commentaries published on this topic and its disproportionate representation in studies on the broader American popular music tradition. Moreover, I became intrigued and concerned that many critics of African American and American popular music ignored or omitted the voices of the music’s creators. 3 After all, in the mid-1950s, a new style of rhythm and blues evolved and traveled from the racial margins into the mainstream of society where it was marketed as rock and roll. In this new context, White artists recorded imitative and adaptive versions of rhythm and blues labeled “covers” 4 and they appropriated the vocal and instrumental stylings of Black artists in their recordings of pop songs. 5 With few exceptions, the segregated structure of the music industry prevented mainstream exposure of African American artists, whose recordings were promoted exclusively in Black communities under the “rhythm and blues” label. 6

This racialized marketing of Black popular music, in part, accounts for the imbalance in the representation of rhythm and blues as well as the varying conceptions, meaning, and signifi cance of rock and roll in the literature on American popular music. Written primarily by journalists, 7 accounts of Black popular music reveal the writers’ personal experiences with the music based primarily on recordings and performances in mainstream venues, music festivals, White universities/colleges before predominately White or mixedrace audiences (depending on region), and include only occasional interviews. 8 This is in

contrast to the coverage of rhythm and blues artists by Black publications such as Ebony , Sepia , Soul Illustrated , and Soul . 9 Feature stories derive from the personal and musical histories recounted by artists and critiques of recordings and live performances before African American audiences. The photographs that accompany the narratives demonstrate how these audiences engage with performances, revealing the meaning and signifi cance of rhythm and blues in Black community life. 10 As noted by popular music historian Peter Guralnick, Black musicians tailor their performances to meet the expectation of audiences. In an all-Black setting, he described bluesman Buddy Guy as “relaxed and singing for his own people in a way that was altogether different from any of the countless times I have seen him perform for white audiences.” 11

Centering my discussion on James Brown, Alan Freed, and Elvis Presley as case studies, this chapter revisits the histories and accounts of the contributions of central fi gures in the development of African American and American popular music. It examines Black popular music as an expression of Black life and as a mediated commodity for mass consumption. This discussion seeks to affi rm how scholarly study that engages perspectives of the musical creators can generate counter narratives that reveal the complex intersections of race, culture, and power that have shaped and continue to shape the presentation and representation of African American popular music. This chapter draws from library and archival resources and interviews I conducted with artists and record company executives from 1983 to 2000. 12


In the early 1960s James Brown, later known as the “Godfather of Soul,” approached Sid Nathan, the founder-owner of King Records, with a proposal to record a live album of previously recorded material. Nathan immediately responded with an emphatic “ no! ” He simply didn’t believe that Brown’s fans would buy a live version of an existing studio recording. When Brown explained that the live recording he envisioned would differ from the studio version of songs, given that the audience would become active participants in the fi nal product, Nathan quickly responded: “I am not going to spend money on something where a lot of people are going to be screaming. Who wants a lot of noise over the songs?” 13 Nathan’s vehement rejection of Brown’s proposal indicates that he had absolutely no comprehension of the value placed on the interactive dimension of performance in Black communities, where audience feedback is regarded as a vital contribution and an enhancement to the cultural and aesthetic experience. Audience participation is an important gauge used by Black artists to determine whether they are meeting the aesthetic expectation of the audience. As songwriter-vocalist Smokey Robinson later stated, he judges his live performance to be unsuccessful if the audience is “not involved in what’s happening on stage.” 14

Despite Nathan’s objection to the proposed live recording at the Apollo Theater 15 in Harlem, Brown took control of the project by making all of the arrangements and fi nancing the production himself. Live at the Apollo (recorded in 1962 and released in 1963 by King Records) became one of Brown’s best-selling LPs, precisely because it successfully captures the energy and the character of Black music as lived experience. As such, the recording represents much more than a mere musical performance reproduced on vinyl in time and space; it was a well-executed musical production that held both cultural and social relevance among its primary targeted audience.