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CROSSCURRENTS: NEW FRONTIERS
AMERICAN MUSIC’S INTERTWINED BLACK AND WHITE ROOTS

T H E  G O L D E N  Y E A R S

Motown and Stax, the smooth and the rough, the exquisite choruses and down-and-dirty grooves, had the world by the ears. Across the pond, a generation of young Brits fell in love with American music—not only this exemplary soul/R&B but also first-generation rock ’n’ roll, jazz, country and Delta and Chicago blues. Still stepping over the rubble of the blitz and recovering economically from the privation of the war, these kids forged their own electric hybrid of U.S. forms and sold it back to us.

The British Invasion overtook the American biz, reigniting interest in black musical forms among young fans. Blues legends like Muddy Waters (right), Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King (pictured in preview) saw their careers resuscitated thanks to the reverence of these Limey punks. Mick and Keith and John and Paul and company covered Little Richard, Ray Charles, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Otis, Solomon Burke, Barrett Strong, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, The Shirelles, The Isley Brothers, Arthur Alexander, The Marvelettes and many more. Eric Clapton, guitar god, recycled the tropes of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Albert King.

As blues-rock gave way to psychedelia in the middle of the decade, the most important black rock artist of the ’60s turned the whole idea of guitar on its head. Seattle-bred Jimi Hendrix—a former paratrooper in ’Nam who paid his dues backing up Little Richard, the Isleys and also-rans like Curtis Knight on the Chitlin Circuit before decamping to London and becoming a pop supernova—galvanized the stoned masses by playing his Stratocaster behind his head, picking the strings with his teeth, smashing his axe to pieces and setting it on fire. But the thoughtful, inventive musician had loftier things on his mind than the showbiz tactics that made him a marquee must. With a head full of Dylan lyrics and dreams of symphonic hybrids, Hendrix evolved from blues-rock hurricane to genre-busting visionary in a few short years before dying in 1970 at the age of 27.

Another legendary African-American executive/entrepreneur, Clarence Avant, recently soaked up the kudos that accompany the Industry Icons Award at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy soiree, which threw a spotlight on the career of the man known as the “Godfather of Black Music.” Starting off in booking and management with a stable of major jazz talent (including Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard and Jimmy Smith), Avant cannily and creatively incorporated soundtracks, technology and more into his undertakings. With Venture Records, launched in ’67 via MGM, he put together the first major-label JV for an African-American artist (Motown writer/producer/exec William “Mickey” Stevenson). He then worked with Al Bell to sell Stax to Gulf+Western for $4.3m. The short-lived Sussex Records (distribbed by Buddah in the early ’70s) boasted Bill Withers and Dennis Coffey on its roster. He resumed his management career in the mid-’70s. He then bought an FM radio station in L.A., becoming the first African-American station owner in the market, which marked the beginning of Avant Garde Broadcasting, Inc.

The visionary Quincy Jones, a bandleader for Lionel Hampton by his teens and an architect of both jazz and soul (helming and/or arranging seminal recordings by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Sinatra to his mentor, Ray Charles, decades before producing his most celebrated work, Michael Jackson’s 1982 blockbuster, Thriller, expanded his influence as a musical force during the ’60s, emerging as a hugely important (and Oscar-nominated) film composer. Among many other films, he scored the powerful 1967 drama In the Heat of the Night, one of the most potent films about racism to emerge from Hollywood during the period.

The hope that had buoyed the movement dimmed considerably as the decade burned on. First JFK was shot dead, then Malcolm X, then RFK, then Dr. King. Riots had roiled U.S. cities nationwide, leaving ash and broken glass and despair in their wake. The plea for tolerance and coexistence by well-scrubbed kids, which had appeared so forward-looking just a few years before, began to seem insufficient. The political circumstances demanded a more direct, militant stance as the war dragged on and a reactionary establishment dug in. A more painfully honest look at home life came in The Supremes“Love Child” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” By the early ’70s, Marvin Gaye’s questing LP What’s Going On, and in particular its anguished, majestic title track, set the tone. The early years of this decade saw The Temps’ scorching “Ball of Confusion,” Edwin Starr’s righteously indignant “War (What Is It Good For)” and Stevie Wonder’s explosive “Living for the City,” not to mention songs on rival labels like the jaundiced “Back Stabbers” by Philadelphia International’s O’Jays.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who wrote an array of hits in the ’60s, made their own play for a piece of the marketplace with the launch of Philadelphia International in 1971 via Clive Davis’ CBS. Philly soul gave Detroit a serious run for its money, thanks to acts like The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul and more.

In 1972, Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles, and while its biggest acts continued to loom large on the charts and in pop culture, it would never again dominate as it had in the preceding decade. But as a musical brand and an American success story, its dominion had only begun.

To be continued...

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