Imagine you’re caucasian and living in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955. A local radio station is playing “That’s Allright” by a young singer named Elvis Presley, and the sound is a mix of black rhythm and blues and country…what came to be known as rockabilly.
Presley is booked to play a local fair and you check him out. He’s introduced, wanders out and you are in shock.
Many people thought so and the reason was, they had only heard him on radio. This was long before MTV and Muchmusic, and a few months before Presley’s appearances on national TV, back when there were only three American networks.
Similar stories have been told about Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. In the mid-’50s, white singers sounded like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Crooners who went to great lengths to sing every word as clear as a bell. There’s a scene in the film “The Buddy Holly Story” where Holly and the Crickets are booked at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York and when the curtains open, the African American audience is stunned to be viewing young white kids from Texas.
On the flipside, Chuck Berry’s first single was ‘Maybellene,” a reworking of a country song called “Ida Red” and when it hit the airwaves, country bars booked Chuck. Sounds good! Then Chuck would arrive at the club and the doorman would refuse to let him in. You can’t be Chuck Berry! He’s white.
I was in college when MTV and other video programs revealed the latest pop and rock stars, some pretty boys like Duran Duran, some not so pretty like ZZ Top (but their videos featured hot women). The video and song went hand in hand.
What if we had only heard singers back then and had no idea what they looked like? Would we have assumed Boy George was black? His sound was soulful, reminiscent of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. Same with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red.
The good thing is, rock and roll is colour blind. Ultimately the songs and performances stand the test of time. We drum our fingers and tap our toes to the tunes of Little Richard and regard the lame-ass efforts of Pat Boone as sad chapters in music history. Boone cut a horrible version of Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and, the story goes, wanted to change the chorus of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t that a Shame” to “Isn’t that shame?”
A shame indeed.
So hats off to that young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, who loved gospel music and rhythm and blues, and helped transform what was then regarded as “race music” into rock and roll.