The period 2003-2006 saw the passing of some of the truly remarkable artists in pop music. It’s Black History Month, so it’s only fitting to remember the mighty Black pioneers and creators of blues/soul/R&B who’ve left us physically, but never spiritually or creatively: Ray Charles, Hank Ballard, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Little Milton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Floyd Dixon, Ruth Brown, Willie Kent, King Floyd, and the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown. But two truly seminal white creators left us as well: Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash.1 These Prometheans are among those whom Hegel called “world-historical figures.” While we, the living, are diminished by their passing, we are also enriched by the creative legacies they bequeathed us as building stones for further development of a truly liberatory culture.
I’ll start by first discussing Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash. Sam Phillips, the founder of legendary 1950s Sun Records, was, of course, the first to record Elvis Presley, but he is notable for far more than that. He was also the first to record Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and a slew of other young rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll masters, and he had the great perspicacity to just leave the raucous music of these untutored Southern white boys alone and let them play the music the way they felt it. This is why Sun produced some of the greatest records to come out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era, and why its famed recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee is justly on the Register of Historical Places. Call him a capitalist entrepreneur in the staid Eisenhower-era 1950s — Sam Phillips stood tall with other independent record producers who had the good sense to refuse to artificially “sophisticate” the newly emergent rock and R&B sounds out of existence in order to make them more “palatable,” even though parents and critics cringed and dismissed them as “rotten roll” and “jungle music.” For this music, no matter how inchoately or incoherently, set off a cultural revolution that would make more “serious” rockers possible and give them the eventual accolade of “artists.” For my part, from the time I was knocked out by Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” through my young college days in the New Left to now over forty years of socialist activism, this cacophony with the driving beat inspired my sense of rebellion, as it did for so many others of my generation. Just as reading Marx and Malcolm X fueled our political radicalism, so did rock ‘n’ roll, and later rock and soul, fuel our cultural radicalism. For that alone, Sam Phillips was an unlikely revolutionary, who sensed but didn’t quite realize what an incendiary torch he held in his hand.
And just as Sam Phillips was more than just the man who discovered Elvis, so was Johnny Cash more than just another country music singer. In fact, the Man in Black transcended “mere country” to give musical voice to a greater consciousness, as one of the very few “pop” performers to regularly play folk festivals; to speak out in protest that found its way to the pop radio airwaves, in songs such as “The Ballad of Ira Hayes;” and to give early recognition on his TV show to the Young Turks of 1960s and 1970s rock. This gentle, open man was also the first to recognize the songwriting talent of Kris Kristofferson and recorded a definitive version of one of Kristofferson’s songs, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” He was also an opponent of both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
Another incongruous incendiary of this period was R&B master Hank Ballard. I wrote the following in the Indianapolis Eye about this seminal man of 1950s and 1960s R&B:
Ballard is best known as the author of The Twist, which made a star of Chubby Checker and ushered in a major dance craze in the early 1960s. Ballard and the Midnighters also recorded The Twist, and his version was a rival with Checker’s for chart dominance until American Bandstand guru Dick Clark gave his nod to Chubby Checker’s more sanitized version. Although Ballard’s rendition is definitely the artistically superior one, it was evidently too R&B (read: too Black) for the man who made a career of assuring Wally Cleaver’s parents that it was okay for white, middle-class, American teenagers to like rock ‘n’ roll; that it wasn’t just the music of juvenile delinquents, Rebel Without a Cause misfits; and, above all, streetwise African Americans. . . Ballard joined the already-established Midnighters in the early 1950s, and the group drew national attention and ire in 1954 with their #1 R&B hit, Work With Me Annie, one of the earliest expressions of overt sexuality to make a pop splash. 1954 was an important milestone in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, with the release of other driving, up-tempo records with tell-it-like-it-is lyrics. Songs such as Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and Muddy Waters’, Hoochie Coochie Man, that were popular with both Black and white youth, forming important precursors to rock. Such music was derided as “smut” and “jungle music,” and drew this scathing criticism from the musicologist who wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Book of the Year: “The rock ‘n’ roll school in general concentrated on a minimum of melodic line and a maximum of rhythmic noise, deliberately competing with the artistic ideals of the jungle itself.”
Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, and Hank Ballard are to the cultural revolutionaries of the long sixties what 1905 was to 1917 in the history of Russia. As John Lennon put it, “Before Elvis there was nothing.”
Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett, like James Brown and Ray Charles, stand, then, among the Prometheans of the cultural Petrograd in 1917. They helped shape the music of the 1960s and 1970s, each creating a variety of Soul Music in his own very unique way. I wrote in my tribute to Rawls and Pickett: they “always expressed so naturally, so excellently, that sometimes non-definable but obvious ‘you know when it’s there!’ thing called soul. Through their very different musical approaches, each could bring out this uncanny soul substance, make it real in the most unlikely of songs, songs one never thought could come out this way.”
Lou Rawls was, of course, known for the urbane sophistication he put into such blues-jazz ballads as “Love Is a Hurting Thing” and “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and for giving back to the African American community that nurtured him through his hosting of the “An Evening with the Stars” telethons on behalf of the United Negro College Fund, which raised more that $200 million for Black colleges. Wilson Pickett’s soul was of a rawer sort and ranged far beyond “Mustang Sally” to encompass 49 hits on the R&B singles hit charts and 38 on the pop singles charts, creating some of the most memorable soul songs ever, classics such as “In the Midnight Hour,” “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool you,” and “Funky Broadway,” and outstanding soul treatments not only of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” but even of the Archies’ bubblegum hit “Sugar, Sugar”!
James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” and Ray Charles, “The Genius,” stand in a class by themselves. They defined the rock and soul genres, putting their stamp on songs so unforgettably theirs that few ever try to copy them. In songs such as “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Sex Machine,” James Brown created the horn section anew, using it in his band, The Fabulous Flames, as a funky, percussive rhythmic accompaniment. Although he endorsed Black Capitalism and supported Nixon for President, he gave musical voice to the Civil Rights Movement, most notably as his hoarse, emotion-dripping voice cried out, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud!” Ray Charles echoed the same sentiment in his own career and found himself banned from Georgia in the 1960s for refusing to play in segregated venues. Musically, Ray Charles is most identified as the artist who first infused gospel into the “devil’s music,” the blues, in such hits as “I Got a Woman” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” But his musical genius couldn’t be confined to one or two genres, and he left his inimitable signature on not only blues, soul, and R&B, but also jazz and even country! James Brown and Ray Charles brought worldwide acclaim to African American pop music and made it a global musical influence.
Another African American R&B artist whose global influence should be remembered is King Floyd, a true King of New Orleans soul. The infectious beat of his first hit single, “Groove Me,” caught the receptive ears of Caribbean record buyers and inspired the telltale beat of reggae. King Floyd was extremely popular in Jamaica and even toured there with reggae’s two pioneer developers, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley.
The other significant artists who recently passed but left behind immortal legacies — Little Milton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Ruth Brown, Floyd Dixon, and Willie Kent — are associated with the blues rather than R&B. It’s fair to say that none of them was as well known as the greats discussed above, yet they were not without popular hits on the R&B charts. Ruth Brown was a noted blues/R&B singer in the 1950s and scored hits with records such as “Oh What a Dream” and “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown also scored big on the R&B charts in the 1950s with hits such as “Okie Dokie Stomp.” They continued on until their deaths as musical powerhouses, recording and playing well into the 1980s, the 1990s, and even beyond. Little Milton had a big hit in the early 1980s with his self-penned contemporary blues anthem, “The Blues Is Alright,” which now has become a blues standard that’s de rigueur for a blues band to know. Little Milton also had a number of other blues hits as well from the mid-1960s on, songs that have also established themselves in the contemporary blues repertoire: “We’re Gonna Make It,” “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” “Annie Mae’s Café,” “My Dog and Me,” “Little Bluebird” and “Walkin’ the Backstreets and Cryin’.” He was nominated for a Grammy for his 2001 CD, Welcome to Little Milton, and was considered as seminal a guitarist as B.B. King. Floyd Dixon, “Mr. Magnificent,” was a hard-fisted piano player/vocalist and West Coast blues/R&B mainstay, whose song, “Hey Bartender,” became a signature part of the Blues Brothers’ repertoire.
Least known to general audiences among them is Chicago bassist/bandleader Willie Kent, who was just beginning to be recognized as the blues powerhouse he was shortly before his death. Willie Kent’s life and raw, deeply emotive vocals powerfully exemplify the hardships of the African American people, vividly portraying what 1950s African American singer Al Hibbler called the meaning of the blues: “knowing what that slavery shit is all about.” Kent was wrongly convicted of a crime when he was thirteen and spent eighteen months on a Mississippi prison farm. He moved to Chicago as a teenager in the 1950s and played with almost all the Chicago blues notables in his thirty-year career. In his last years, he jammed regularly with vocalist Bonnie Lee, guitarist Johnny B. Moore, and harpmen Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport and Billy Branch. His legacy includes four CDs on the internationally renowned blues and jazz label, Delmark Records. Lois Ulrey’s notes to one of these CDs, the aptly-titled Too Hurt to Cry, appropriately sums up Willie Kent, the blues, and the African American experience: “The blues are some part of his blood and the marrow of his bones. He knows . . . the sweet joy of release in offering up all he is and all he has. . . . Facing the pain and staring it down and finding peace, he continues to sing and play the blues.”
Willie Kent, Ruth Brown, Little Milton, Floyd Jones, King Floyd, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash. Immortals all, immortals indeed! But do we fully understand what they really mean to us?
For they are ours. Their music is ours. It has become a part of us, a part of working people everywhere. Their repertoires are our repertoires, their voices our voices. Pop music, despite its travesties and bastardizations, is also an authentic voice of the people, every bit as positive a legacy for us as “Solidarity Forever” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
Willie Kent, Ruth Brown, Little Milton, Floyd Jones, King Floyd, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash. They too are the people’s poets, they too give voice to our deepest hopes and our finest aspirations. And every bit as deserving of our study and appreciation as Karl Marx and W.E.B. DuBois, Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg. As much as we need our V.I. Lenins, we need our John Lennons, and just as crucially!
1 I have had the honor of publishing well-regarded obituaries of and tributes to some of these artists. In the now-defunct online newspaper Indianapolis Eye (still-extant Web site, www.indianapoliseye.com), I published “Hank Ballard: An Appreciation,” on March 10, 2003; “Rock ‘n’ roll Pioneer Sam Phillips: In Memoriam,” on August 4, 2003, which was reprinted in the left bimonthly Against the Current (January/February 2004); and “Johnny Cash: The Man in Black Leaves a Legacy of Gold,” on September 15, 2003. I also published an obituary of Ray Charles, “Hallelujah, We Just Loved Him So,” in the September-October, 2004 Solidarity News; a dual obituary of Little Milton and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in the November/December 2005 issue of Against the Current, “‘The Sky Is Crying,’ But . . . ‘The Blues Is Alright’,” and another on Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett, “Giants and Immortal Legacies,” also in Against the Current, May/June 2006.
George Fish is a long-time socialist activist and present member of Solidarity, whose writings has appeared in a number of left/socialist publications. More of Fish’s writings are available at www.frogmajikmusic.com/Georgefishhome.html. He can be contacted at email@example.com.