The Ultimate Guide to Black History and Oldies Music

How did the African-American struggle affect oldies music and vice-versa?


The history of rock and roll is forever intertwined with the history of black America, given how heavily the musical style leaned on African-American culture; in fact, many historians consider it the final triumph of black music in American society, or at least the first real mixing of white and black cultures in the country's pop music history. So it's only natural that the civil rights struggle, which, not coincidentally, also began to enter the mainstream around the same time, would dovetail with the music.

R&B and the Birth of Rock

Jazz, blues, and later, swing had made serious inroads into the mainstream between the advent of recorded music and the end of WWII, but black music had reached critical mass by the early Fifties -- and had become simultaneously harder and more urbane as blacks, leaving the oppression of the South, headed to big Northern (and some Southern) cities for better opportunities. Couple that with the rise in "hillbilly" music among whites, and you have the perfect storm for cultural mixing in cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York.
  • Louis Jordan The father of rhythm and blues, the man who took swing to a harder, funnier, jumpier place, scoring an uncommon number of smash hits and paving the way for rock.
  • He was a leading light on the Kansas City jazz scene, but it was only much later, in his forties, that Big Joe Turner cut the jump blues sides that put the swing in what was to become known as rock and roll.
  • Hank Ballard and the Midnighters A crucial link between R&B and the development of rock and roll, charting with bawdy stompers like "Work With Me Annie" and more clean-cut fare like "Finger Poppin' Time," while also helping to invent the dance craze with their original version of "The Twist."
  • Many think rock and roll started with Elvis, or Bill Haley, or even "Rocket 88," but there are at least 25 songs widely considered to have helped create the sound and style of rock.

    The Civil Rights Struggle

    The blending of black and white cultures that became known as rock and roll found its way to a new breed of white American teens that had, for the first time, spending money, loads of free time, and their own cultural identity. But the music made no positive impact on anyone over the age of 18, and the older black musicians who made much of this music were still faced with the Jim Crow laws established after Reconstruction -- making them second-class citizens who were heroes to suburban kids. As the Fifties turned into the Sixties, the disconnect between the two ideals would erupt into mayhem and sometimes violence.
    • Ray Charles and Racism An incident that changed the nature of Ray Charles' life and career, while providing an important early step for desegregation.
    • Songs About Racism Oldies classics that delineate the fear, prejudice, murder, anger, and hope that have marked the African-American struggle. Despite the controversial nature of these songs, about half of them actually made the American Top 40.
    • I Got The Feelin: James Brown In The 60s DVD A release that captures a pivotal moment in American history, when Brown was called on to save Boston (and, in some respects, America) after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

      Musical Leaders

      Several influential black artists of the time, aware that the old norms were changing, began speaking directly to their people about their centuries-old struggle in song. As a result, they often occupied the same position in black society that Martin Luther King and other civil-rights leaders did: except that, as working musicians who had found a foothold in the pop charts, they were also making good on their promises to "move on up" and take control of their own destiny. They talked the social talk and walked the financial walk.
      • James Brown The "Godfather of Soul" himself. There may be no single performer who better embodied the African-American musical experience of the 20th century, and no musician who meant as much symbolically to his community.
      • Curtis Mayfield With his group, the Impressions, and later, with his solo and soundtrack work, Mayfield turned Chicago soul and funk into a powerful vehicle for social and political change.
      • The "Black Moses of Soul" was more than the man behind the "Theme From Shaft," or Chef on TV's South Park -- from his songwriting days at Stax to his legendary solo work, he provided a soundtrack for the upwardly-mobile black American.

      The Struggle for Self-Determination

      Black-owned businesses were by no means uncommon in the postwar era, obviously, but like the music they made, black-owned music labels (and those labels heavily identified with African-Americans and their music) often found themselves faced with the difficult decision of how to make money from the mainstream while retaining their precious cultural identity. Like any other group of individuals, black label owners approached their solutions in markedly different ways.
      • Review: Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection The other Chicagoland label of the Fifties played an important role in the development of rock and roll, soul, and R&B -- and it also holds a special place in the history of African-American progress, long before Motown even arrived on the scene.
      • Motown Berry Gordy's vision of a "Sound of Young America" made him the first black label owner to cross over to pop audiences using Detroit assembly-line practices.
      • Stax It was owned by a white pair of siblings, but the importance of the Stax/Volt labels to the African-American community can't be overstated. Black songwriters and producers worked together to create a thriving business and cultural community in the heart of Memphis.
      • Philadelphia International Motown was the sound of Young America, and Stax/Volt arguably the sound of Black America, but for its era, Philadelphia International Records somehow managed to be both at once: Gamble and Huff and their black-owned, black-operated enterprise rivaled even the great Motown in success.