Rock and roll superstar Chuck Berry, whose early work did so much to define the genre, died at 90 on March 18th. Some of the appreciations published in the days since his passing have noted Berry’s prickly relationship to a rock establishment that championed white musicians who, as Jon Caramanica writes, “had been studying him, and were building up a version of rock ’n’ roll that no longer required Mr. Berry, nor his blackness.” The messy transition from Chuck Berry’s rock and roll to that new “version” is the subject of Jack Hamilton’s Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, which we published last year—the book’s cover depicts Berry sharing a moment with Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, whose bandmate Keith Richards Berry would later punch in the face for helping himself to Berry’s guitar. Hamilton’s opening pages are below.
In January of 1973—the same month that the Rolling Stones were banned from touring Japan due to prior drug convictions, the same month that a band called Kiss (or KISS) played its first gig in Queens, and the same month that a young New Jerseyan named Bruce Springsteen released his debut album on Columbia Records—Harper’s magazine published an essay by future Pulitzer Prize–winner Margo Jefferson entitled “Ripping Off Black Music.” The piece was partly a broad historical overview of white appropriations of black musical forms, from blackface minstrel pioneer T. D. Rice through the current day, and partly a more personal lament over what Jefferson, an African American critic, had come to see as an incorrigible and endless cycle of cultural plunder. The article’s most striking moment arrived in its penultimate paragraph:
The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites. Future generations, my dream ran, will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.
That Jefferson’s “dream” came true is so obvious it seems self-evident. According to anthropologist Maureen Mahon, by the mid-1970s young black musicians who wanted to play songs by Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad recalled being ridiculed by white and black peers. In July of 1979 thousands of white rock fans rioted at Chicago’s Comiskey Park at the now mythic “Disco Demolition Night,” burning disco records in what many since have described as an antiblack, antigay, antiwoman, reactionary uprising. In 1985, the Hollywood blockbuster Back to the Future featured a climactic sequence in which history is altered so that Chuck Berry’s “sound” is retroactively invented by a Van Halen–obsessed white teenager. By 2011, when a popular New York “Classic Rock” radio station held a listener poll to determine the “Top 1,043” songs of all time, only twenty-two—roughly 2 percent—were recordings by African American artists, and sixteen of those twenty-two were by the late Jimi Hendrix (the “Jimi” of Jefferson’s dream), the lone black performer whose place in rock music hagiography is entirely secure.
Jefferson’s words above were accurate, and it’s tempting to call them prophetic, but they weren’t: Jefferson’s nightmare had in fact come true before she wrote her article, even before “the night Jimi died.” When Hendrix passed away in 1970, one prominent obituary pointedly described him as “a black man in the alien world of rock,” and throughout Hendrix’s tragically brief stardom the guitarist’s race had been an incessant topic of fascination among fans of the music that had once been known as “rock and roll.” Even in the late 1960s, the hypervisibility of Hendrix’s race confirmed a racial imagination of rock music that was quickly rendering blackness invisible, so much so that at the time of his death the idea of a black man playing electric lead guitar was literally remarkable—“alien”—in a way that would have been inconceivable for Chuck Berry only a short while earlier.
This is a book about how this happened, how rock and roll music—a genre rooted in African American traditions, and many of whose earliest stars were black—came to be understood as the natural province of whites. Moreover, this is a book about how and why this happened during a decade generally understood to be marked by unprecedented levels of interracial aesthetic exchange, musical collaboration, and commercial crossover more broadly. Many of the most famous moments of 1960s music are marked by interracial fluidity: a young Bob Dylan’s transformation of a nineteenth-century antislavery anthem, “No More Auction Block for Me,” into the basis for a song that would become one of the most indelible musical works of the American civil rights era; or the revolution of Motown Records, in which a black American entrepreneur actually bet against the racism of white America and won, and in doing so created the most successful African American-owned business in the country. Or the previously unimaginable inundation of groups from England, most notably a quartet from Liverpool called the Beatles and a quintet from London called the Rolling Stones, both of whom were tireless evangelists for black American music and would soon hear their own songs performed, frequently, by the very musicians they once idolized. And of course there was Aretha Franklin, the Memphis-born and Detroit-raised daughter of one of America’s most famous black preachers, who linked up with a band of white southerners and transformed R&B music; and Jimi Hendrix himself, a black man from Seattle who’d joined up with a couple of white Englishmen in London, and transformed the possibilities of the electric guitar.
If, then, by the time of Hendrix’s death, rock and roll music had in fact “become white,” how did this happen, and why? And perhaps most importantly, if rock and roll music did “become white,” what does it even mean to say such a thing? What ideological forces and cultural logics conspire to elide the audible imaginary of music with the visual imaginary of race? These are questions that we often assume we know the answers to—after all, to describe a singer as “sounding black” or “sounding white” is to gesture toward entire universes of ill-defined but widely understood aesthetic criteria—and yet we rarely take the time to really ask them, to peel back everything that makes such descriptions both nonsensical and strangely commonsense. If we fix our eyes and ears and step back far enough, the repeated disruptions and reconstitutions of this elision of race and sound begin to resemble something like the history of American music itself.