A longer history

The history of modern popular music – at least in the United States – could largely be understood as a matter of the encounter and exchange between ‘black’ and ‘white’ musical forms. Of course, there is a long discussion to be had about the definition of these terms. Can every kind of music performed by ‘black’ performers be described as ‘black music’? Can ‘black music’ only be created and performed by ‘black’ people? How, indeed, do we define who’s ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the first place? Throughout the twentieth century (at least), black artists and composers created and performed an enormous diversity of different types of music – including classical music in the ‘Western’ tradition. ‘Black’ music itself encompasses a continuum from folk music to commercial popular music to various forms of art music (most obviously jazz), but the distinctions here are often far from clear. Meanwhile, white artists are regularly featured in the charts of ‘R and B’ and ‘urban’ (that is, black) music; and in the UK, they win awards for ‘Music of Black Origin’ – albeit controversially so. Jazz could be seen as a result of the encounter between the music of African slaves and white ‘Western’ harmony and instrumentation; rock-and-roll emerged from the encounter between black gospel and blues on the one hand and white folk or ‘country’ music on the other. This story is often told as one of white appropriation (of theft or plagiarism), and black resistance. But the detailed reality of this musical miscegenation is undoubtedly much more complex than that. As Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor have convincingly shown, the search for ‘ethnic’ authenticity has been a constant preoccupation throughout the history of modern popular music; but in most respects, this is both an illusory search and a mythical necessity.

The early history of black popular music in the UK illustrates this very clearly: it is very much a story of what the British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy calls ‘the Black Atlantic’. By the mid-nineteenth century, black American (and occasionally African) musicians were regularly performing in London, not only in minstrel shows and music halls but also in upscale concert venues. Of course, such performers were bound to adjust to what they understood to be the expectations of white audiences, and the infrastructure of the industry was entirely white; but the music performed was nevertheless diverse. From the 1910s, ragtime and then jazz styles were quickly taken up by white performers – albeit with varying degrees of sincerity and conviction. In London in particular, African-American artists performed alongside non-American members of the black diaspora, including those from British colonies in the Caribbean and Africa, as well as local white musicians. In some contexts, more raucous or bluesy elements of the music were toned down in favour of styles drawn from light classical music; but even at this time, some critics were keen to identify and celebrate what they regarded as more ‘authentic’ examples.

In the early 1930s, several leading African-American jazz artists played in London (including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins); but the Musicians Union soon prevented this, implementing a partial ban on foreign performers that lasted for over twenty years. The ending of the ban in 1956 brought a flood of visiting US musicians, although by this time British musicians had already discovered – and begun to create their own versions of – both bebop and ‘traditional’ New Orleans jazz. Meanwhile, there were several Caribbean performers making a living in London, not just playing American jazz and swing, but also forms of Caribbean folk music (most notably steel pan bands). Mass migration from the Caribbean, beginning in the late 1940s, brought many performers to London, most notably exponents of calypso; in some cases, their music was recorded in the UK and then sold back to the Caribbean. At the same time, some Caribbean musicians recorded with British disciples of traditional jazz, and some (such as Joe Harriott) became innovative exponents of modernism. By the end of the 1950s, white performers were achieving chart success with new forms such as skiffle, which were partly derived from rhythm and blues. Meanwhile, black American forms were taken up by white youth subcultures: the teddy boys adopted rock-and-roll (performed by both black and white artists), and there were fierce conflicts between white enthusiasts for traditional and for modern jazz.

The detailed history of all this is fascinating, although it’s beyond my scope here. Two broader points are important, however. Firstly, black popular music (or perhaps ‘music of black origin’) has maintained a continuing appeal for white audiences. This is partly about its physical qualities as dance music. However, black music has also been seen to have a direct emotional appeal that is allegedly lacking from mainstream ‘white’ music. Secondly, there has been an ongoing exchange and cross-fertilization between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music, to the point where it becomes difficult to claim that any particular example is somehow ethnically pure or authentic. The critical debate about black music – not only among specialist critics, but also among fans – is thus not simply about aesthetics: it is also inevitably about cultural politics.


Dancing into the sixties

By the early 1960s, these trends were especially apparent not just in the cosmopolitan context of London, but also in other English cities such as Liverpool and Bristol, which had historically been a focus of the slave trade. The popularity of jazz faded rapidly with the demise of the trad jazz boom at the beginning of the decade, while modern jazz remained a preoccupation for a dwindling minority. However, black popular music and associated dance styles became increasingly influential, both for musicians and for audiences. There are several parallel and interwoven histories here that are difficult to separate out.

On the one hand, the link with the Caribbean – especially with Jamaica – underwent a significant change with the advent of more dance-oriented genres such as bluebeat and ska, which emerged in Jamaica in the wake of independence in 1962. Some of this music crossed over into the mainstream British pop market – most notably with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ (1964), which was recorded in the UK, and later in the decade with a string of hits for Desmond Dekker. Nevertheless, Jamaican music and style remained a fairly specialized enthusiasm at this point. The modernists, or ‘mods’, who emerged as a distinct youth subculture in the early 1960s, wore clothes that reflected elements of Jamaican ‘rude boy’ style, although their primary influence was from continental Europe. It was not until much later in the decade that Jamaican music began to be taken up by the first generation of skinheads, who emerged in the wake of the mods; and not until the 1970s that reggae more generally began to gain wider acceptance among white audiences.

Another less widely acknowledged influence at this time was Africa itself. By the late 1960s, visiting and ex-patriate African musicians in London were forming bands and achieving some measure of chart success – meaning that they were reaching white audiences. Few of these bands included any white musicians, although there was some cross-fertilisation with other black musical styles, most notably soul and jazz. This led to new hybrid forms which were then ‘exported’ back to the musicians’ home countries – most famously in the Nigerian style of ‘Afrobeat’, developed by Fela Kuti, who was a student at London’s Trinity School of Music in the early 1960s.

However, it was black American rhythm and blues, and eventually soul, that was the most notable aspect of this phenomenon at the time. From the early 1960s, London clubs like the Flamingo were running all-night sessions featuring black American musicians – many of whom were visiting GIs – playing alongside whites and those from the Caribbean and Africa. Bands like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, and Geno Washington’s Ram Jam Band were wildly popular with an ethnically mixed clientele, although (with the exception of Fame) they had relatively little chart success. Notably, Fame himself was white (born in Lancashire), James was Jamaican, and Washington was a former GI. Meanwhile, following in the wake of the trad jazz boom, well-established British musicians such as Alexis Corner and John Mayall began playing American urban blues, and often backed visiting US artists.

Younger British bands of the time were more heavily influenced by black American pop: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among many others, recorded covers of Motown and other soul hits on their early albums. Indeed, it could be argued that the ‘British invasion’ of the US music charts in the 1960s was partly a matter of white British bands discovering and then selling back black American music to its country of origin (although that was obviously just part of the story). Meanwhile, the British musicians’ ‘discoveries’ led some British fans to go in search of the originals: some older American blues artists were pleasantly surprised to find their British fans, at a point when many of them were struggling to make a living at home.

Photo by David McEnery/REX/Shutterstock

While some forms of soul – especially the more commercially-oriented sound of Motown – were popular with a mass audience, there was already a specialized market in more obscure forms of the music. The mods had their own soul-influenced bands like the Who and the Small Faces, but (like the blues enthusiasts) they also went in search of the more obscure American recordings, often available only as expensive imports. The scarcity of these records – or at least the difficulty of obtaining them on this side of the Atlantic – bestowed a powerful aura of exclusivity. As we’ll see, the mods eventually splintered, but this pursuit of original American recordings and artists became significantly more intense in the Northern Soul scene of the following decade.

To some extent, it’s possible here to separate out Caribbean, African and African-American musical styles, but the key point – at least in the context of the UK, and especially in London – is that these different forms of black popular music steadily cross-fertilised, both with each other and with ‘white’ (or ‘whiter’) forms of rock and pop. One might also separate out the contribution of producers and consumers of such music, but this is also difficult: it was not simply a question of black music playing to white audiences. Both audiences and performers themselves were ethnically diverse; and as the decade progressed, ethnically mixed British bands (most notably the pioneering North London group The Equals) began to emerge. Most of the leading white performers who were heavily influenced by ‘black’ music obviously began as fans: Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison and many others from all parts of the UK have described how they began their musical careers by attempting to imitate recordings of black American artists. (Ironically, in the more segregated context of the United States itself, much of this music would have been unheard by white audiences at the time.) Likewise, while there is a history of ‘black’ dance clubs in many of Britain’s major cities, it’s important to acknowledge that these tended to cater for a multicultural clientele, and played a range of different styles of black music.

Meanwhile, as the migrant population of some parts of the UK grew, young people were increasingly attending multi-cultural schools. It was some time before academic researchers began to pick up on the increasing influence of black (and especially African-Caribbean) youth styles and language on white youth, but this was already a significant factor by the late 1960s. Writing in the 1980s about his research in the highly multicultural context of inner city Birmingham, Simon Jones paints a vivid picture of how white youth adopted elements of black cultural styles – not just in their preference for music or particular dance styles, but also in their dress and appearance and their use of language. He describes how an early adolescent phase of infatuation and mimicry gave way to a more careful and situational – and less pretentious – approach as his subjects reached their later teens and twenties. As he suggests, this appropriation of black style can be seen to express not only opposition to racism, but also towards authority and forms of oppression much more generally; although it can also be fraught with difficulty, and often meets with suspicion from black peers.

Of course, there was considerable resistance to multiculturalism as well, including among young people. In the late 1950s, the teddy boys played a major role in provoking the ‘race riots’ that erupted in Notting Hill in West London; and by the end of the 1960s, the skinheads were becoming a significant source of recruitment for the right-wing racist groups that were beginning to emerge (the fascist National Front was formed in 1967). Yet even here, music played an ambivalent role: the teddy boys were dancing to rock-and-roll (itself a hybrid form), while the skinheads were followers of Jamaican music such as ska, and adopted elements of ‘rude boy’ fashion.

By the start of the 1970s, this cross-fertilisation of music and style had become increasingly complex. Youth styles were mutating, but the music itself had also significantly changed: different audiences and different dance and music scenes began to emerge. In the late 1960s, much of the music business shifted its attention towards the psychedelic or ‘progressive’ rock sounds of the counter-culture: while this was predominantly created by white groups, there were also some notable black performers such as Jimi Hendrix (who again was more popular in the UK than in his native America, and mainly performed with white musicians). This style also began to impact back on American soul, in the work of performers like Sly Stone and the Temptations; and by the early 1970s, soul was arguably dividing further, with the rougher-edged sounds of funk on the one hand, and the smoother, more luxuriously produced sounds of Philadelphia soul on the other. As we’ll see, these changes became a particular point of contention for the followers of Northern Soul some years later.

These shifts are perhaps most apparent in the fragmentation of the mod style, which was arguably at its height between 1963 and 1966. This fragmentation was partly a matter of the time-honoured dynamics of youth culture: as elements of a style become more widely known and adopted, it loses its exclusiveness and hence much of its appeal. As marketers picked up on mod fashion trends, some original enthusiasts were already beginning to move on. Meanwhile, mod bands like the Who and the Small Faces started to adopt some of the emerging psychedelic fashions and musical style of the hippies, sometimes with awkward and embarrassing effect. In the process, black American soul music came to be dismissed by some as too commercial – although as we shall see, this was a somewhat different story outside London. Some elements of mod mutated into the skinhead style of the late 1960s, and were also a key influence on the early Northern Soul scene; and, like many other youth subcultures, mod has been periodically revived and rediscovered ever since.

Like all histories of popular culture, the brief account I’ve offered here is undoubtedly contentious. Readers who lived through these developments (if there are any of us left) are almost certainly cursing at my omissions and oversimplifications: trust me, I am doing so myself. My aim thus far has primarily been to set the scene for my more detailed account of the ‘soul scenes’ of the 1970s. There are many dimensions of this history that might be drawn out; but my main concern here is with the enduring appeal of ‘black’ music – and particularly soul music – for young white audiences. It should be apparent by now that this issue begs other questions. Given the growing cross-fertilisation of musical styles, and the increasingly multicultural composition of audiences, the binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’ is to some extent inadequate – although there’s no doubt that it remains highly significant in the scenes I go on to discuss.


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