Bringing the Beatles Back Home

Everybody knows (or ought to) that the Beatles drew heavily on black American music as source material for what became their signature sound. Particularly Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, the Isley Brothers, and—perhaps most importantly—“girl groups” like The Chantels, The Supremes, and The Shirelles provided a blueprint for harmony and arrangement.

The relationship between the British Invasion and American blues, soul, and R&B exposes the racially charged genre system of American popular music. White artists were able to sell reinterpretations of black music to white audiences—an old pattern, as old as any American music. Yet the Beatles were more than a blue-eyed-soul act, as illustrated by the fact that many black artists eventually reclaimed a piece of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. Pat Boone certainly never had that sort of cross-over appeal.

Wilson and Duane

Although singers often used Beatles tunes to capitalize on their popularity, some chose the songs for their musicality and lyricism. I would argue that Wilson Pickett’s transcendent revision of “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman playing guitar at Muscle Shoals studio is one such case. Perhaps another—though it may offend purists—is Aretha Franklin’s fully amped rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” especially performed live.

In addition to “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Bread’s “Make it With You,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” These choices amount to a deliberate gesture bridging racial and generic boundaries—musically integrating the usual Fillmore crowd, which Craig Werner describes as “accustomed to hallucinatory light shows and the psychedelic blues of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.” According to Werner, the “love crowd” found themselves “side by side with Black Power radicals” during the recording of Franklin’s album in March, 1971.

Aretha 1

It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the greatest R&B lineups ever assembled backing her: Bernard Purdie (drums), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Billy Preston (organ), and King Curtis and the Memphis Horns transform the material and, therefore, the audience. Preston had already earned the unofficial title “the fifth Beatle” or, alternatively, “the black Beatle” for his important contributions to Abbey Road and Let it Be. His playing in both groups illustrates the pedaltone of black innovation underlying pop forms.

In the early-80s Eddie Murphy cracked wise about this cycle of appropriation and re-appropriation. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, his character, Clarence, claims the Beatles stole everything they knew from him. Murphy’s own ill-advised singing career even includes the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” (disclaimer: click at your own risk).


Other highlights of the playlist include the stripped-down gospel feel Bill Withers brings to “Let it Be” and Esther Phillips’ aching version of “And I Love Him.” These two songs, along with “Eleanor Rigby,” reappear most across the many soul, jazz, and R&B versions of Beatles songs. Stevie Wonder also brings a dose of psychedelic soul and a potent political subtext to “We Can Work it Out.” He urges: “life is very short and there’s no time / for fussing and fighting my friends / I have always thought that it’s a crime / so I will ask you once again / try to see things my way.”

I end the set with a music nerd’s tribute to Abbey Road, featuring covers of nearly all the songs on the album played mostly in order. George Benson and Booker T. & the M.G.’s each recorded full-length tributes to the iconic concept album, helping here with some of the transitions and medleys that give the album its epic contour.

Instrumental Voices Radio 1.29.15–Brining the Beatles Back Home

Hey, Buddy Bolden


The fourth issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature is dedicated to technology and black poetry, guest-edited by SIUE Professor Howard Rambsy. Howard’s excellent book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetrycame out in 2011 and was crucial to my dissertation research on Black Arts poetry. His work in digital humanities, visual culture, and black American literature exemplifies an important, evolving conversation in African American literary studies. His blog, Cultural Front, is also a prolific and highly relevant resource on contemporary culture and politics.

DSC03863The back cover of the issue features a photograph, “The Blues Mural, Clarksdale, MS,” depicting a formidable trio: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith.

DSC03852My contribution to the issue is titled “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz.” The essay examines mythology surrounding Buddy Bolden, the musician who is said to have invented jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the century.

In early jazz criticism, the Bolden myth functions as an allegory for a paradigm shift in modern music. The invention of jazz is harnessed to new technologies that record, duplicate, and replay sound. Yet even as critics lamented the loss of pre-technological authenticity, they claimed recordings as the objective texts of jazz improvisation. Although no recording of Bolden has ever been found—or likely will be—his status as a folk hero is reinforced by each iteration of his story. The legend of Buddy Bolden is retold by musicians as a way to write themselves into the historical record of jazz’s origins. Because Bolden’s sound is not captured by phonographic technology, he becomes a symbol of the oral tradition—one inscribed everywhere in the written history of jazz.

I compiled a playlist for my Jazz Literature course last spring featuring tunes written by and about Buddy Bolden, as well as interviews with musicians who knew him. Jelly Roll Morton gives a colorful, but largely accurate recollection of Bolden’s life and times in his Library of Congress sessions with Alan Lomax. Duke Ellington boasts about King Bolden’s place in the heroic tradition in his spoken-word history of diasporic music, A Drum is A Woman (1956). And, more recently, Wynton Marsalis surveys the myth derived from Bunk Johnson’s letters and interviews with the editors of Jazzmen (1938).

DSC03868In his introduction, Rambsy writes that these wide ranging articles “explore aspects of music history, science fiction, hip hop, Afrofuturism, digital collections, contemporary poetry, and data analysis. The articles affirm the diverse manifestations of scholarly work on black poetry and technoculture.” Without such work, according to Rambsy, “the discourse about one of our most important art forms would lack essential upgrades.”