Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ebony & Ivory, Pt. I

  You know, every week this column runs under the bold heading “AIRWAVES.”  And rarely, if ever, do I write about the state of radio.  So this week, we’ll talk radio—particularly Top 40 radio.

  I was reading an interview last week with a radio programmer in Lafayette, LA.  He was asked by the interviewer how Top 40 (Mainstream) radio had changed in the last five years or so.  His answer echoed something I’ve been writing in this column for the last four and a half months.

  His seemingly politically-incorrect response was (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the label “Black Music” no longer exists.  Music by black artists no longer carries the stigma that it did as recently as five years ago.  This speaks loudly in favor of my repeated assertion that the so-called “Mainstream” is broadening.

  Black Music, for lack of a better term, has never been a welcome guest at mainstream radio.  It’s a long history that goes back to the 1950s with Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Pat Boone.  One doesn’t have to look very far to see evidence of this.  Pat Boone took “Ain’t It a Shame” higher up the Top 40 charts than Fats Domino did.  Boone’s recording of “Tutti Frutti” did better at mainstream radio than Little Richard’s version.  In fact, much of Pat Boone’s success came from the re-recording of Black Music for a white audience.  You might expect this in pre-civil rights America, but it didn’t stop there.

  Rock and Roll was born of Rhythm and Blues, with people like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard helping to bridge that gap.  Yet Elvis is known as “The King,” and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton are some of its best-known icons.  In fact, Elvis had almost twice as many Top 40 hits as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard combined.

  One more piece of evidence to seal the deal: guitar-god Jimi Hendrix had only one hit on the Top 40 charts.  It was “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan cover, which he took to number 20 on the charts.  Steve Martin also had one hit, “King Tut.”  It made it to number 17 on the charts.

  Black Music has always been a powerful force that commands respect, demands attention, and has won over white audiences for generations.  But its victory has been in our visceral response, the way it settles in our soul, makes us dance. And, for generations, it has almost always been met with the disapproval of our parents.  This goes back to the early days of Rock, and continues today with our parents and our Hip-Hop.  “That’s not music,” they said then of Rock.  “That’s not music,” they say now of Rap.

  We’ll pick up next week where we left off, talking about the broadening of the mainstream and “Black Music,” and why the term has gotten tired.  How it no longer applies.  Meanwhile, spend an hour listening to a Top 40 station.  You’ll immediately be able to see what I’m talking about.

-From Pulse
   January 20, 2005