Hello. Come on in. The daddy writes about current events, literature, music and, once in a while, drops something on you from back in the day to make you pause and ponder, stop and stare, and begin to wonder. Who knows? You may start to pace the floor, shake your head from side to side, then fall down on bended knees in a praying position and cry, "Lawd, have mercy! What is this world coming to?" Check yourself! But this blog is NOT about the daddy. It's about you: your boos, your fam, your hood, your country...our hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. So let's make a pact: the daddy will put it on the track if you'll chase it down and hit him back. Together, we can definitely take it to another level. Shall we?"

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Albert King, the Blues and Rock & Roll, Part I

Got no big name.
Well, I ain't no big star.
But I’ll play blues for you on my guitar.
And all your
I just got to soothe.
I’ll play the blues for you.”

--“I’ll play the blues for you,” by Albert King

"It changed th
e world, what we did at that little studio. I'm taking nothing away from all of the other great independent labels, but what we did managed to cut through the segregation to such an extent that it was way beyond what I had even hoped we could do. That not only affected this nation, it affected people around the world, and it absolutely had a lot to do with encouraging communication between people of different races."
-- Sam Phillips, Sun Records

Today, the daddy’s talking about Albert King? Why talk about King? Okay, some of you
blues lovers already know about him. Now, you can check out the book “Nothing But the Blues” and it will say that Albert was born on April 25, 1923, that he came from a family of 13, that he was born and raised on a farm. It will say he bounced around cities like Indianola (in Mississippi ), St. Louis, Chicago (briefly), among other places, playing the blues, making a few regional hits but nothing that made much money or made him well known.

It will tell you that he becam
e well known when he landed in Memphis and at Stax Records, where he made a series of quality albums that made him famous. It will tell you that, as a left-handed guitarists, he learned how to play a guitar for right handed players by perfecting a technique of pulling down the strings. And, yes, they’ll tell you that he influenced English groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and that guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan worshiped him and copied his licks.

But to say Albert influenced a number a few now-famous rock groups and guitarists is like saying Bob Dylan wrote a few songs, when everybody and their momma knows the dude wrote songs that defined a generation. No, Albert King didn’t influence a few rock groups or musicians. He resurrected a genre; he transformed a d
ying music into a living, breathing phenomenon that continues to speaks not only of relationships between men and women but hard times on the cold concrete of Urban America—hard times that reach all the way back to the cruel introduction of Africans, a sun people, into a strange, new land. To fully appreciate King's influence, the daddy will take you back to the early fifties, when the twin heads of racism and opportunity combined to create rock & roll and, ironically, catapult Albert King into world prominence.

Sam Phillips
In the fifties, Albert, like other black bluesmen, played “the chitlin circuit,” the neighborhood bars, clubs and theaters frequented by African Americans. B.B. King played them too, but Albert never reached the level of B.B. This was due to nothing but straight-up white racism. You see, white fathers didn’t want their precious, “innocent” daughters deflowered by listening to what they called that “jungle” music and by watching those “savages” (black men) wiggle their hips on stage. But a guy named Sam Phillips, head of record company called Sun Records, ever the businessman, had an idea: We’ll get a white guy to play black music and shake his hips on stage (Note: This is not to suggest that Phillips was a racist. In fact, he recorded a number of black musicians as well, including Ike Turner, Howlin Wolf and B.B. King. It’s only to suggest that he understood the role that racism played in American culture). So, on July 5, 1954, Phillips got a young, good looking white truck driver named Elvis to record “That’s Alright, Mama,” an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup blues tune; and the rest, they say, is history.

Elvis Presley went on to record “Jail Hou
se Rock,” a song written by black songwriter Scrapper Blackwell. He recorded “Hound Dog,” a Big Mama Thornton tune that seemed to be about a male stalker. But who cared? It had a crazy, bouncing beat that drove white teeny boppers wild, especially when the pretty white boy shook shook his hips on stage. Phillips was a genius.

Now, the music business was changing. Thanks to the business genius (Phillips) and the pretty white boy (Elvis), black music was being transformed from a slower, syncopated groove with a heavy backbeat into a faster clone that was more acceptable to white America. As the great bluesman Muddy Waters put it, “The blues had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll.” Pretty soon, Carl Perkins was warning people not to step on his blue sued shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis, who stole Little Richard's beat and piano act from Little Richard, was telling white teeny boppers to “come on over, baby, whole lotta shaking going on,” and Bill Haley (from Bill Haley and the Comets), who stole Big Joe Turner’s act and songs, told them now-deflowered white girls to “Shake, rattle, and roll” and “Rock around the clock tonight.”

But once you open the floodgates, there’s no telling what or who might come in. Soon, white girls would be dancing in the isles as Little Richard kicked away the stool, banged on the ivories, and cried “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me?” and a tall black guy named Chuck Berry, a former blues guitarist with Chess Records, tapped into teenage boredom and raging harmones that made them sneak out of their bedrooms, when he sang “Maybelline, why can’t you be true? Oh, Maybelline, why can’t you be true, and start back doing the things you used to do?”

A British Invasion
Meanwhile, some white guys across the waters heard this music. They loved it, but they wanted to know its true origin. This got them to buying records of blues musicians like Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bill Broonzy, B.B. King, Freddie King, and, of course Albert King. So the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Burton and the Animals, John Mayall and other European bands made the blues an integral part of the musical repertoire.. The Beatles sang “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come,” Eric Burton sang “There is a house in New Orleans,” John Mayall played blues harmonica like the great harmonica player Little Walter (former great harmonica player for Muddy Waters), and Clapton backed him up with B.B. and Freddie King’s riffs, alternately bending and pulling strings over notes ala Albert King. Yes, it was cool to play the blues.

And while some white rockers (like Clapton) played it well, others played it poorly: Too fast too loud, too
uptempo, not giving the listener time to take in the music, to feel it in their bones. But, bad or good, whites loved it anyway; and with whites playing the blues fast and loud, the blues, in terms of the way it was played on the chitlin circuit, began to sound out of date. Indeed, the genre itself was in danger of being superseded by rock, its derivative, of being tossed into the garbage can of history-- to fade away like folk music or spirituals. Though still popular with musicians and a core group of whites, the blues, by and large, was becoming extinct, taking on the appearance of a few old black men sitting on a porch with a guitar, lamenting their trials and tribulations with a woman who left them in between swigs of strong, cheap whiskey. The blues needed to be rescued. More than any other artists, guess who did it?


sdg1844 said...

I love the way you tell stories. Nice mix of facts and prose. I'm looking forward to your next post.

Anonymous said...

daddy, you said Sam Phillips wasn't a racist. He promoted Elvis and didn't do much for the black musicians. Don't make excuses for them.

MacDaddy said...

sdg: Thanks.
anon: You're not going to like my answer, but I'm going to say it anyway. First, I didn't say he wasn't a racist. I said the fact that he used Elvis to play black music showed an understanding of a racist white America. Just so you know, he used money from the sale of Elvis records to record blacks as well as whites. I could be wrong on this, but I see him as a shrewd businessman but also a guy who wanted to expose people to the talent that came through Sun Records. Like it or not, Elvis caused a lot of that to happen. Once he made Elvis famous, other musicians like Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry came to Sun Records

MacDaddy said...

anon: If you come across an article on Sam Phillips or Elvis that indicate or suggest that they were racist, send it to me and I'll share it. Meanwhile, here's an article from the New York Times related to the subject. It's called "How did Elvis get to be racist?"

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

u know im from memphis - sun records
that texas man could play a guitar

rainywalker said...

Your educating me here and brings back some good merories. Thanks!!

MacDaddy said...

torrance: Coming from Memphis, you probably know this stuff already. I apologized, if I'm insulting your intelligence.
rainywalker: It brings back good memories for me too. I just pulled out a CD with a song by Little Richard called "Send me some loving." What a sweet ballad! said...

Hey MacDaddy,

I love this series!

Keep on...keep on...