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How rock became white (part 2)

A change is gonna come: Motown, The Beatles, and the rise of Soul

In the second of a three-part series, Geoff Bailey, looks at the racial politics of rock and roll, their implications for our understanding of racism today, and how they inform a critique of the concept of cultural appropriation.

Part one looked at the early history of rock and roll. The final installment will look at the rise of "Classic Rock."

Part 2: A change is gonna come

It’s difficult to imagine today that songs with titles like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom,” and the remarkably prescient “Rocking Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu” would provoke a racist backlash that would include bans on public dancing, censorship, vigilante violence, and Congressional investigations.

These were the songs that my father listened to. They didn’t speak out against racism, or oppose the U.S. war machine, or even suggest that something was “blowing in the wind.” For someone raised on 1960s protest music, punk, and early hip-hop, they sounded like, I don’t know… just, silly.

And yet, they provoked a conservative reaction far more hysterical than anything in the years that followed—a response that paralleled the vicious reaction to the early civil rights movement happening at the same time.

Music critic, Robert Palmer, may be overstating the radical potential of 1950s rock and roll, but he’s spot-on about white America’s reaction to it:

It is a measure of Fifties rock’s genuine revolutionary potential (as opposed to the revolution-as-corporate-marketing ploy so characteristic of the Sixties) that while Sixties rock eventually calmed down, was co-opted or snuffed itself out in heedless excess, Fifties rock & roll was stopped. Cold.

When the next wave of rock and roll finally broke through alongside the rise of the southern civil rights movement, it was shaped by the landscape left behind by this reaction.

Whereas the first wave of rock and roll had been insurgent, this second wave rode the cultural shifts taking place in the United States to a dominance unseen in popular music before or since, but it did so in ways that largely avoided confrontation. It’s very success was part of the process of co-optation and consolidation within the music industry around a genre that only a few short years before had nearly been snuffed out. And at the very moment popular music was at its most multiracial, it was being re-defined along stylistic lines that were as much determined by racial categories, as they were musical ones. Just as rock and roll seemed to have broken down the color-line, the stage would be set for a dramatic shift in the racial landscape of rock and roll.

(White people) All shook up

The “revolutionary potential” of early rock and roll wasn’t so much in its content as much as in what it represented. Images of Black and white youth dancing together to the same music sent segregationists into apoplectic fits of rage. To them it appeared as if the mantle of white supremacy was about to be torn down to the bouncing harmonies of “Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay (sh-boom).”

Conservatives railed against rock and roll in language that was explicitly racial; they called it “jungle stuff,” “cannibalistic,” and “tribalistic.” They were outraged by the possibility that Black and white kids might get “touchy” on the dance floor. The network of white supremacist organizations known as the (White) Citizens’ Councils released a statement that read, “the screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.” The battle against rock and roll, they warned, was a battle for the soul of America. And no one generated as much vitriol as Elvis.

A Baptist sermon on the dangers of “the Devil’s music.”

Elvis’ personal attitudes on race have been the subject of endless controversy. Chuck D famously called him out as a “straight up racist.” Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, because she said, “I know Elvis was a racist.”

Some of the opposition comes from an apocryphal quote later disproven, but still often attributed to Elvis, where he was quoted as saying, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” Much of it, as Chuck D. later clarified, is that Elvis is a convenient symbol for a host of other injustices that we explored in the first part of this series. Lost in much of the debate is the man himself, for better or worse.

Elvis was always outspoken about his respect for Black artists and went out of his way to direct praise toward them. And he directly challenged Jim Crow by repeatedly playing to Black audiences on so-called “colored nights.” But Elvis almost never confronted the issue of racism directly. He didn’t march on Washington or speak out directly on civil rights. To the degree that he had a political outlook, Elvis hoped that he could aid progress through his music and the example of his personal behavior without directly having to confront the powers that be and the edifice on which he increasingly sat so high.

Still, in 1956, his soulful voice and swinging hips were just too much for America. Across the country, there were efforts to outlaw rock and roll. On June 3, 1956, Santa Cruz, CA enacted a total ban on rock and roll performances, calling the music: “Detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.” Bans were passed in Asbury Park, San Antonio, Boston, New Haven, and New Britain. Cleveland, OH (now, ironically, the home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) went so far as to outlaw all public dancing for youth under 18.

But the most damaging attack was the 1959 Congressional inquiry into legendary DJ Alan Freed, which came to be known as the Payola Scandal. On the surface the investigation was fallout from the Quiz Show scandals a year earlier in which a number of TV game shows were discovered to have been fixed. The inquiry investigated the common-place practice of DJs taking bribes in return for playing certain records on-air. But the investigation was closely tied to the hysteria around rock and roll and targeted its most vocal advocates. It was kick-started by ASCAP, the guild that represented older, mostly white, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and was directed against BMI, which was more closely associated with the multiracial songwriters of rock and roll and R&B. And from the start, it focused on the two most well-known rock and roll DJs of their day, Alan Freed and Dick Clark, ending Freed’s career and nearly ending Clark’s.

In the space of a short few years—brought on by a combination of concerted reaction and self-inflicted damage—the major stars of the 1950s were silenced. Alan Freed was convicted by the Congressional Inquiry, fired, and died a few years later, broke and abandoned. Elvis was inducted into the army in 1958. Chuck Berry was busted in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines under the notoriously racist Mann Act and ultimately spent two years in jail. Little Richard quit at the peak of his career to preach the gospel. Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen-year-old cousin and was excommunicated by the industry. And Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper went down in a plane crash on the “day the music died.”

The first wave of rock and roll had upended American society, but there were many who hoped that it had just been a teenage fad—like hoola-hoops or phone booth stuffing—and not the defining cultural shift in popular music of the 20th century. Even as late as 1964, the major record labels still seemed largely clueless about what to do with this new phenomenon. Columbia had signed Bob Dylan—but largely on the recommendation of renegade producer John Hammond—RCA had Sam Cooke, and ABC had Ray Charles. But most rock and roll pioneers continued to be overlooked by the major labels. However, the world had taken notice and the next wave of rock and roll would emerge from two working-class cities on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Money (That’s what I want)

There are numerous, exhaustive histories of both Motown and The Beatles; it seems pointless to tread the same water in this article. Together they were responsible for transforming rock and roll into the dominant genre of popular music around the world—transforming it into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Together, their dominance of the industry, as well as the mutual respect and admiration they shared for one another, transformed (at least momentarily) the racial landscape of popular music. As the southern civil rights movement reached its high water mark in 1964-65, the most popular artists in the United States seemed to be erasing the color-lines drawn at the birth of rock and roll and strengthened during the anti-rock-and-roll reaction of the late-1950s.

And yet, for all the parallels between The Beatles and Motown artists, the subtle differences in the way they were written into the history of rock and roll, both then and now, set the stage for the rewriting of rock and roll as a white genre in the late-1960s.

In the mid-1960s, The Beatles and Motown dominated and transformed American popular music like no other force in its history. At one point in April 1964, The Beatles had twelve different songs listed in the Billboard Hot 100, including one in each of the five top positions. Meanwhile Motown was turning out hits at a remarkable pace. Between 1960 and 1969, it put a new single onto the charts more than 300 times, at a rate of once every week and a half. In the case of Motown, the assembly-line pace was not an aberration.

The parallels to the paternalistic, industrial capitalism of Henry Ford were intentional. Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy III, modeled his hit factory after the Detroit assembly-lines he had once worked on: make a good product, then make something similar, and make it quick. He didn’t want to be the largest Black-owned label in America, he wanted to be the largest label in the world.

Gordy set out to package rock and roll in a way that would force its way into mainstream American culture, color-lines be damned. As he would write later in his autobiography:

In the music business there had long been the distinction between black and white music, the assumption being that R&B was black and Pop was white… “Pop” means popular and if [a million records] ain’t, I don’t know what is. I never gave a damn what else it was called.1

He not only shaped the music, he molded his artists into his image of sophisticated, elegant stars. He sent his artists, both male and female, to an in-house finishing school known as Charm School, teaching them formal manners and etiquette, how to walk, how to hold their hands, how to present themselves in a way that would be acceptable to middle-class, white America.

Queen Elizabeth meets the Supremes backstage.

Motown was also an important influence on the early Beatles. Ringo Starr would later recollect that when they were first getting to know one another, they bonded over their love of groups like The Miracles and Barrett Strong, along with earlier rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Of the twenty-five covers that they recorded between 1963–1970, 18 were songs that had originally been performed by Black artists. Many of them (along with the majority of white artists they covered) were rock and roll legends of the previous generation like Chuck Berry, The Isley Brothers, and Little Richard. As John Lennon once quipped: “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” What was more unique was their championing of contemporary Black artists.

Their first album, Please Please Me (1963) had included covers of The Cookies’ 1962-hit “Chains” along with The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” (1962) and “Boys” (1961). On their second album, With the Beatles, four of the fourteen tracks were covers of songs by contemporary Black artists, three of them Motown artists: The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” The Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” Barrett Strong’s “Money (It’s What I Want),” and “Devil in Her Heart” by a relatively obscure Detroit-based, girl-group, The Donays.

Motown returned the favor, covering the Beatles over and over from 1963-1970, including transforming The Supremes’ entire third album into an ode to The Beatles and the first wave of the British Invasion, titled A Bit of Liverpool, which included covers of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “You Can’t Do That.” Other stand-out covers came later including Aretha Franklin’s reworking of “Eleanor Rigby,” Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work it Out,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Yesterday.”

Together Motown and The Beatles were a revolution. And for many activists, they were the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. Looking back on that era, music critic Wesley Morris writes of Motown:

Even now it feels like an assault on the music made a hundred years before it. Motown specialized in love songs. But its stars, those songs and their performance of them were declarations of war on the insults of the past and present. The scratchy piccolo at the start of a Four Tops hit was, in its way, a raised fist. Respectability wasn’t a problem with Motown; respectability was its point. How radically optimistic a feat of anti-minstrelsy, for it’s as glamorous a blackness as this country has ever mass-produced and devoured.

It was a rebellion, but it was a different type of rebellion from the 1950s, shaped in part by their respective labels, who were looking to break into popular music without the kind of backlash seen at the end of the 1950s.

Motown and EMI (the label that represented The Beatles) were very different from one another: Motown, a Black-owned independent, which quickly became one of the largest labels in the world; and EMI, a conglomerate of European recording labels stretching back to the origins of recorded music, but which, prior to The Beatles, had a limited roster of popular artists. But they were similar in that these were not the idealistic iconoclasts of Sun Records. Their goal was very clear: they were not yet in the majors, but they wanted to join the club, and they picked and groomed their acts accordingly.

The Beatles might have moppy hair, dress like beatniks, and provoke reactions from their female fans that freaked out the squares, but their fun-loving, early-60s persona was not about to undermine the edifice of Western capitalism. Motown was perhaps more radical, simply by being Black and successful, but they shook the system by doing exactly what white America expected of pop stars. They just did it better. They were, to abuse a sports analogy: Jackie Robinson to Little Richard’s Muhammad Ali (if Ali had fought in drag).

Am I Black enough for you?

And yet, the place of The Beatles and Motown in the racial landscape of rock and roll today is perhaps equal, but still separate. Despite its commercial success, Motown faced (and continues to face) a critical reception that was often very different from that faced by The Beatles. Whereas the runaway success of The Beatles was taken as evidence of their artistic genius, then and now Motown was often seen as too polished, too commercial, too white.2

Legendary music critic, Nelson George, said Berry Gordy presented himself to white America on the terms of “don’t worry; I want to be just like you,” and accused the label of harboring, “powerful feelings of black inadequacy.”3 Peter Guralnick excluded Motown from his exhaustive study of 1960s R&B and soul because they “appealed far more to a pop, white, and industry-slanted audience.”4 And Nik Cohn called the commercialism of Motown and other contemporary Black pop artists, “depressingly Tom.”5 As Motown historian Andrew Florey writes: “due largely to crossover success, historical representation of Motown and its music often suffer from being branded as ‘inauthentic’ black music.”6 And Motown wasn’t the first.

Sam Cooke, who before becoming a pop star had been the biggest gospel star in the world, had been the target of many of the same criticisms. He was faulted for either abandoning his roots and selling out, or alternatively for naively falling under the influence of white producers. But most notably, like the criticism of Motown, a stylistic move toward pop music was seen as a move away from an essentialized ideal of what Black music should be. The legendary (and notably surly) music critic Dave Marsh wrote that in the transition from gospel to pop, “the aesthetic purity of [his] music had been sullied.”7

Black artists seeking to reach a mainstream audience were presented with an impossible double-standard: the very nature of success brought them farther from the imagined qualities that supposedly made Black music unique. It was the “authenticity trap.”

Criticism of crossover success as something “inauthentic” or something that rendered music outside the Black musical tradition, has a long history, going back to critical appraisals of blues and jazz at the turn of the century. But in the mid-Sixties, it was particularly noticeable in the way it was contrasted by music critics to the emergence of soul music.

There had always been a close, if somewhat adversarial, relationship between gospel and rock and roll. Etta James, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles, to name just a few, came directly out of a gospel tradition, and Cooke and (especially) Charles leaned heavily on secular re-workings of traditional gospel hymns in their work. But in the mid-1960s a younger group of musicians centered mainly in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and distributed by Atlantic Records, emerged as the core of a new sound.

Although “new” needs to be put in perspective. Because clearly defining soul music from earlier traditions of R&B and rock and roll has always been difficult. It’s true that the grooves were sometimes a little slower and a little funkier, the horns sometimes had a bit more swagger, and yes, some artists identified with soul music, like Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, or Aretha Franklin, were more willing to hold on to the religious themes and imagery of gospel. King’s breakout solo hit “Stand By Me” was a close re-working of the early 20th century hymn “Stand By Me” by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. But often, when critics tried to describe soul music, it was not in historical or musical terms, but as an expression of an inherent Black-ness.

In an article in Time covering a young Aretha Franklin, Chris Porterfield, tried to explain what defined soul:

Soul is a way of life—but it is always the hard way… It is compounded of raw emotion, pulsing rhythm and spare, earthy lyrics—all suffused with the sensual, somewhat melancholy vibrations of Negro idiom. Always the Negro idiom.8

This image of “authentic” Black music as something raw, unadorned, born of poverty and suffering, has deep roots going back to the popular image of the itinerant blues musician—even if it’s a bit much when it comes to Aretha, who was the product of Black Baptist royalty and had been performing music professionally from the age of 12. But, as historian and critic Jack Hamilton writes, this notion of “authenticity” is “rooted in imaginings of black music as primordial and premodern, definitely divorced from the market and ambitions of mobility.”9

This “authentic” sound was to be contrasted with its various “deviations.” Amiri Baraka wrote in a 1967 essay titled “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)” that “R&B is straight on and from straight back out of transitional spirit feeling.” However, as it interacted with Western (white) music, it was diluted and became less authentic. “[A]s the arrangements get more complicated in a useless sense, or whitened, this spontaneity and mastery is reduced. The R&B presents expression and spontaneity, but can be taken off by the same subjection to whitening influences.”10 These arguments, like those surrounding the rise of soul, “abstracted musical practice to a magical realm: instead of music being something people did, music became something people were.”11

To some degree, these ideas were a product of the shift from the integrationist politics of the civil rights movements to the radical nationalism of Black Power, of which Baraka was very much a proponent. But more often than not within the music industry and among music journalists, it was white critics making these claims. For instance, Ralph J. Gleason, who was a renowned music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and would go on to become a founding editor at Rolling Stone, could write: “the only true American Negro music,” which he explicitly contrasted to the work of The Supremes and James Brown, “is that which abandons the concepts of European musical thought, abandons the systems of scales and keys and notes, for a music whose roots are in the culture of the colored peoples of the world.”12 So much for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis… Mike Gershman complained in the Los Angeles Times of “denatured Negroes” who “have learned only too well… the value of getting Top 40 airplay.”13 Again and again, African-American artists were put into an untenable position, often by white critics: boxed into the “authenticity trap” that equated any attempt at mainstream success as an abandonment of the Black musical tradition.

I don’t want to rehash what I wrote in the first part of this series, and we’ll return to some of these same arguments again in the final part when we look at the rise of “classic rock.” But there are two things that are worth repeating here:

First, like early rock and roll, the racial composition of the soul movement is complicated in actual practice. The quintessentially soulful “Stand By Me” was co-written by two white songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who we met earlier in our discussion of “Hound Dog.” And while the Motown in-house band, the Funk Brothers, was largely (but not exclusively) Black, the “pulsing rhythms” coming out of Stax Records in Memphis and Fame in Muscle Shoals were mostly created by white kids.14

Second, challenging the idea of what constitutes “authentic Black music” doesn’t mean ignoring the existence of a shared Black historical experience, shaped in large part by survival under, and resistance to, a system of white supremacy in this country. But that shared historical experience is one current among many, some of which define a distinct history of music within the African-American community, and some of which cut across attempts to correlate particular musical genres (let alone particular styles or orchestrations) with racial histories.

Understanding music as historical (“something people did”), as opposed to essentialized (“something people were”), allows us to both understand why there is a real, and distinct, history of African-American music, with its own dynamics, stylistic conversations, and evolutions, without walling it off either from external “infiltration” or internal “heresy.”

The racial essentializing of particular forms of music, while often motivated by an attempt to reassert the centrality of Black artists against the very white-washing we are looking at here, all too often had the opposite result of boxing-in those very same artists, chastising them for the very artistic experimentation and commercial ambition that white artists like The Beatles were exalted for.


It may be surprising to readers today that everyone I’ve talked about—The Beatles, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King—was thought of at the time as rock and roll. When Time ran a cover article in May 1965 titled “Rock ’n’ Roll, Everybody’s Turned On,” they didn’t include a photo of The Beatles or Bob Dylan, but they did include The Supremes. And Sam Cooke’s obituary in the Chicago Defender listed him as a “rock and roll singing star.”15 And yet, when was the last time you heard either on a radio station devoted to rock music? We’ve inherited the racial divisions between rock, soul, and pop. But at the time, it was only rock and roll…

The mid-Sixties represented, in many ways, the height of the original rock and roll ideal. The music had finally found a mass, multi-racial audience. Black and white youth had only just won the right to eat in the same restaurants or go to the same schools; they rarely lived in the same neighborhoods or worked in the same jobs, but they were listening and dancing to the same music.

But this was happening at the exact moment the industry was beginning a period of dramatic consolidation that we’ll explore in the next section. And it happened at a moment when despite the breaking of racial boundaries, the various sub-genres of rock and roll—particularly “rock” and “soul”—were increasingly defined along racial lines.

In the last years of the 1960s, rock music would be fundamentally re-defined yet again in ways that permanently altered the racial landscape of American popular music right up until today. In late 1965-66, a series of events would shift the music industry on a new course, crystallized in a single night in a New York hotel room.

A history of rock and roll might be very different if it weren’t for an apostate folk singer from Minnesota, four working-class Brits stagnating at what seemed to be the height of their career, and one really good bag of weed.

Next: A hazy shade of whiteness: the rise of Rock and the limits of cultural appropriation

  1. Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, & the Soul of America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 17.↩︎

  2. I’m heavily indebted in this section to the work of Jack Hamilton, who is really the only writer to address the question of how Black rock and roll artists have been represented by (mostly white) rock critics. Jack Hamilton, Just around midnight: rock and roll and the racial imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).↩︎

  3. Quoted in Hamilton, 125.↩︎

  4. Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (New York: Back Bay Books, 2012), 2.↩︎

  5. Nik Cohn, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (New York: Grove Press, 2001), 115.↩︎

  6. Quoted in Hamilton, 125.↩︎

  7. Quoted in Hamilton, 34.↩︎

  8. Guralnick, 268.↩︎

  9. Hamilton, 35.↩︎

  10. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Black Music (London: Akashic Books, 2010), 138,↩︎

  11. Hamilton, 212.↩︎

  12. Ralph J. Gleason, “Like a Rolling Stone,” American Scholar (Autumn 1967). Accessed at↩︎

  13. Colin Vanderburg, “How Rock and Roll Became White,” Los Angeles Review of Book (November 24, 2016). Accessed at↩︎

  14. Guralnick, ch. 5 and 6.↩︎

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Geoff Bailey View All

Geoff is a director and independent socialist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of "How Rock Became White: the limits of cultural appropriation," “Accumulation by Dispossession: A Critical Assessment,” and “Visualizing Revolution: Revisiting Sergei Eisenstein.”