A Black History Month Hat Tip to The Beatles

A few years ago, it became a little bit of a buzz when the Beatles performance contract from 1965 specified that they could not be forced to perform in front of a segregated audience in the US. John Lennon is quoted as saying:

“We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. “I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”

But the story goes a little bit deeper than that; even if it isn’t directly related to this performance contract. First, let’s take a look at how the Beatles began…

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, rock and roll was becoming a pop music phenomenon. R&B was also rising to pop prominence. So you had Little Richard, Chuck Berry, as well as early Motown that where gearing up for widespread popularity. Elvis Presley was a crossover artist who took R&B and brought it into the realm of rock and roll.

The Beatles’ early work was heavily influenced by R&B, which they melded to a “beat music” style. One thing to understand when it comes to the availability of American music abroad; many times local bands and artists will discover, record, and release an American single before the original American recording is available in this country. The Beatles also participated in this. There renditions of songs like Money (That’s What I Want), Twist and Shout, and Long Tall Sally where just some of the Black R&B/rock and roll hits that were a part of their early repertoire. They brought this music with them when they became a pop music sensation in the US in 1965, and opened up the genres to a new, receptive audience of millions.

Beatles and Muhammad Ali

The Beatles and their sound changed and evolved. They moved away from their original beat music and into harder-edged and psychedelic rock. Then by April 1970, it was all over. But John, Paul, George and Ringo didn’t just slip into oblivion. They continued recording and ongoing involvement in music. Paul McCartney especially went on to collaborate with renowned Black recording artists such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Always giving a consistent message that the members of the Beatles have no issue reaching out across racial boundaries in order to make good music.

But in the end, my biggest sense of respect to the Beatles is due to personal reasons. It is safe to say that their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the very first record that I purchased that was not recorded by either a Black American or Jamaican performer. For a few years at least, it sat in my record collection as a child as the sole representative of classic rock music. I had always loved that album, with its mix of melodic, catchy anthems and multicultural pieces that resulted in really good music…for any genre. This album both opened my eyes and gave me the courage to really explore other types of music…besides the soul, R&B and reggae that was all around me. It also showed me that music has no racial limits. The fact that this world famous band found classic Indian music cool enough to draw such strong inspiration from was telling. It showed that you can in fact emulate without being patronizing.

So while I may not be the world’s biggest Beatle fan, the will always hold a special place in my heart for planting the seed to get me really interested in rock and roll. To be my very first step into exploring music without racial prejudice.  I would also like to mention that this post was inspired by the first week of lectures presented in the University of Rochester’s MOOC on Coursera called “The Music of the Beatles“. It’s been pretty interesting so far and we’ve had a lot of good discussions about the Beatles’ early years… 😉