There’s a saying among us rock gurus: “Elvis was King, but (Bo) Diddley was Daddy.” Yes, Bo Diddley along with other black musicians like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were the very first rock ‘n’ rollers – though Elvis Presley gets a great deal of credit as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
Being rock’s pioneers is enough to get these guys in the history books, but African American musicians didn’t just blaze trails on musical frontiers – they played important roles in black Americans’ battle for civil rights.
During rock’s earliest days, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday were two of the first performers to sing in integrated bands (with much risk to their own health during tours of Southern states.)
When rock cut its baby teeth in the ’50s, Little Richard lent some much-needed funk to the rock ‘n’ roll vibe while Fats Domino gave it a jazzy New Orleans flare. Meanwhile, Chuck Berry, the undisputed granddaddy of rock, won over black and white audiences with irresistible standards like “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode”.
In the tumultuous midst of the Civil Rights era, the black female group The Supremes owned the airwaves. Aretha Franklin demanded not only racial but also gender equality in songs like “Think” and “Respect”. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder challenged barriers set by both race and disability. Stevie Wonder was also a vocal advocate for commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday.
Otis Redding made young audiences sit up and take note of the vibrant soul scene during his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. And Monterey alum Jimi Hendrix has yet to be contested for his title as the greatest guitarist to have ever lived. Bob Marley brought the reggae genre to the world and awareness of apartheid in his home country of Jamaica. Michael Jackson blasted away whatever barriers stood between African Americans and the video-music scene in the ’80s as well as boldly combining genres like disco, R&B and rock into a style all his own.
As the ’80s came to a close, rap pioneers like Run DMC and Public Enemy forged a new genre while speaking out against racial inequality through their lyrics.
These days, young black musicians like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Usher have taken up the mantle of these great African American performers who came before them, ensuring that black Americans will always contribute many threads to the vibrant tapestry of American music.
Reprinted from Eufaula Tribune
Written by: Anastasia Harbuck