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Important Pop Music? Really?

Question recently asked on Facebook:

Do you agree that most of the important white pop music of the 20th century has been based on white musicians imitating black musicians?

This is a complicated question because it comprises several nested questions, each of which is complex in its own right.

Question 1: What is “imitation” and what is influence.

In my life, it has been a de facto assumption that Elvis fashioned his vocal style from Otis Blackwell (“Don’t Be Cruel”), Little Junior Parker (“Mystery Train”), Arthur Cruddup (“That’s All Right Mama”). Led Zepplin went so far as to copy a Willie Dixon tune and claim authorship (“Whole Lotta Love”). And fergit about Vanilla Ice, fer cryin’ out loud!

However, the lines are not clearly cut. For example, Jimmie Rodgers undoubtedly heard and admired early rural delta blues performers. But, conversely, great bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett professed to be fans of Rodgers’ music, the latter even suggesting that his “howl” originated in attempts to mimic Rodgers’ “blue yodel.”

To further smear the yard lines, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and other great R&B artists have been heavily influenced by early exposure to country roots music. Willie Dixon allegedly referred to Chuck Berry as “a hillbilly.” “Maybellene” was based on “Ida Red” which had been a hit for Bob Wills and was well known to Chuck.

And while on the subject – Ray Charles was little more than a talented Nat Cole impersonator in his early career. Chuck Berry, quite openly, copied entire phrases from T-Bone Walker. Is there really a difference between a developing “white” musician admiring and absorbing influence from an established “black” musician, and a young black, likewise, admiring and imitating another performer, whatever the color?

It is clear from even a cursory examination of the behavior of record labels such as Chess, King, Sun and others who recorded both black and white artists, that there was: 1) a conscious and concentrated effort to promote white artist recording material written by black artists; and, 2) a purposeful effort to shortchange the black composers. However, they did the same thing to their more ethnic white artists.

These same labels also funneled other “ethnic” music – a term which applies equally to African-American and Hillbilly -- to mainstream performers seeking what all business seek: profit. Is Pat Boone’s “Tutti-Frutti” significantly different than Nat Cole or Ray Charles cover of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. (Yes… I recognize that Pat Boone’s cover is not so good… that’s not the point here.) Or to stay within color lines – Patty Page covered the great Pee Wee King/Red Stewart standard, “Tennessee Waltz”; Guy Mitchell covered Melvin Endsley’s “Singin’ the Blues”, as well as Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number; The Andrews Sisters had a hit with “Crazy Arms”. Likewise, Mickey and Sylvia hit with Bo Diddley’s, “Love is Strange” – and, reportedly, it was the stuff of lawsuits; and on the subject of Mickey & Sylvia… their recording, “Darling (I Miss You So)” not only sounds like The Everly Brother’s “Lucille” – it IS the Everly Brother’s recording of Lucille! How this happened, no one seems to know… how convoluted is that? And while not too far from the subject of Bo Diddley, isn’t the “Bo Diddley” beat REALLY just a guitar rendition of the “clavé” beat (click click click -- CLICK CLICK), lifted from yet another ethnic music.

It’s difficult to separate what is influence and what is imitation. All learning, and social order itself, is based on some form of imitation and influence. There is nothing intrinsically exploitative about either imitation or influence. . I would offer that the best musicians don’t imitate. Instead, each musician absorbs certain elements of the environment. They refashion these building blocks into their own voice. The process often follows this course: imitation often becomes influence, which becomes allusion, which becomes style, which becomes one’s own personal voice.

But, back to the original question, that most of the important white pop music of the 20th century has been based on white musicians imitating black musicians.

Question 2: What is the “important white pop music of the 20th century”.

I know what music I like, but it’s hard to assess what is the “important” pop music. Pop music, like all pop culture, is disposable. “Important pop music” is arguably an oxymoron. In every decade of the 20th century, there was music that was wildly popular, and influential in its time, but notable only for being forgettable. For example, “Chickery Chick” performed in 1945 by Sammy Kaye, among others, stands out as utterly unremarkable, except in silliness – yet still, it was a number one hit, ousting Bing Crosby’s “It’s Been a Long Long Time”, in my opinion, a much better song.

In the late 70’s, KC and the Sunshine Band, Alicia Briges, The Commodores, Donna Summer, crooners of all colors slathered disco mayonnaise across America’s radio sandwich. Who imitated whom? Who really cares?

And, if you actually lived though the 50s’ and 60’s, you know that it was not all great rock ‘n roll masterpieces. Sure, there was “Johnny B Goode”, but there was also “Johnny Get Angry”; there was “Summertime Blues”, but also “Theme from a Summer Place”; and replays of Nat Cole’s 1950 version of “Mona Lisa” were more frequent than Carl Mann’s 1959 Sun records rocker.

Often times, the “IMPORTANT” music has been relegated to the corners of society, to be swept out by cultural janitors who turn it into tomorrow’s lucrative pop music: Led Zepplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix mined the blues – with respect, but with great commercial success, too. Likewise, Austin roots musicians are musical dumpster divers, gleeful when a dusty, little played gem by Wayne Kemp or Ray Pillow turns up on YouTube. John Lomax, A.P. Carter, and others made a lifetime out of ferreting out “important” folk music, which became the basis some great, money-making pop-folk hits such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier”, the former a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, the latter, best known as an album cut for Donovan in 1967.

The difficult question is whether this music treasured by musicians is any more “important” than Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”, Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity”, The Merry Macs, “Mairzy Doats”, The Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out”, Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful”. It’s hard to argue that these, and other chart busters, influenced following generations of musicians in the manner of Nat Cole, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck D & Public Enemy, and other innovators. However, the music may be equally important in a larger sense in as much as these blockbuster hits shape surrounding pop culture. While diverse ethnic groups may be eager to claim their influence in some areas, it’s unlikely that charges will be levied that Leslie Gore stole “Sunshine and Lollipops” from Sleepy John Estes, or that Frankie Avalon ripped off Mississippi John Hurt when he recorded “Venus”. But are these musical works important? Who is to say?

Question 3: Are there original and influential white artists?

After the advent of the phonograph, radio, and later, TV and the internet, it would be impossible to find musicians who developed in isolation sufficient to prevent influence across ethnic borders. In my own life, I can never go back and “un-hear” Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Freddy King, James Burton, Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, B.B. King, Joe Maphis, Ralph Mooney, Merle Travis, Nokie Edwards, Duane Eddy, Frank Plas, Link Wray, Herb Ellis, Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Jörgan Ingmann, Mickey Baker, Bo Diddley, Jody Williams, Scotty Moore, Jimmy Bruno Sr.… or any of the dozens of guitarist that helped form my paradigm in my early years of studying guitar. Now, if a young guitarist were to hear my performance and, poor guy/gal, to be sufficiently affected to imitate, would he/she be influenced by black or white musicians?

All good musicians follow a muse that has no ethnicity and no color. We pay homage to the great musicians that taught us. We honor our influences by playing what’s in our hearts and giving it 100% effort EVERY TIME!

As all good questions are answered, so is this one answered - with simply more questions.


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