In the late 1950s Chuck Berry was defining rock and roll, but by the time Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 the idea of a black man playing electric lead guitar was literally remarkable. What happened in the interim is the subject of Jack Hamilton’s Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. The book explains how, when, and why rock and roll music “became white,” and in doing so offers an interracial counter-history of Sixties music that rejects the ideals of racial authenticity, denies generic divisions between “rock” and “soul,” and “hears together” artists that have typically been separated by critical and commercial force.
We asked Hamilton to put together a playlist of some of the music threaded through the book. The songs he chose and his comments on their significance are below.
Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Dylan’s 1963 composition, the melody of which is borrowed from a 19th-century anti-slavery song, became an anthem of the civil rights movement and arguably the most famous musical work of the 1960s folk revival.
Sam Cooke, “Bring it on Home to Me” (Live)
This electrifying live recording from Miami’s Harlem Square Club in 1963 finds Cooke in full-throated, gospel-infused showmanship.
Sam Cooke, “Blowin in the Wind” (Live)
This 1964 performance from Manhattan’s Copacabana, recorded and released just a few months before Cooke’s death, shows a completely different side of the singer’s versatility, as Cooke suavely reworks Dylan’s folksong into a gently swinging nightclub number.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
Cooke’s most famous composition and one of the most powerful musical works of the civil rights movement, “A Change is Gonna Come” was released in 1964 and directly inspired by both “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
Widely regarded as one of the most important recordings in pop music history, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” became a smash hit in summer of 1965 and decisively marked the singer’s transition from folk revivalist to full-blown rock icon.
Lonnie Donegan, “Rock Island Line”
Donegan’s frenetic version of Leadbelly’s classic “Rock Island Line” shot up the British charts in early 1956 and sparked what would come to be known as the “Skiffle Craze,” a brief, intense musical happening that had drastic ramifications on the future of rock and roll in the UK.
The Rolling Stones, “Not Fade Away”
One of the Rolling Stones’ earliest hits came in the form of this pounding 1964 cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which finds them reworking Holly’s composition in the style of Bo Diddley.
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
The first single ever released by what would soon be known as Motown Records, this unbelievably infectious paean to capitalism is the perfect musical microcosm of Berry Gordy’s upstart label.
The Beatles, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
The last track on the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles (1963), this snarling, punk-ish cover version of Strong’s hit offers an early indication of the massive impact of Gordy’s label on the Fab Four (the fourteen tracks on With the Beatles included three Motown covers).
The Beatles, “Rain”
Paul McCartney’s bass playing on this extraordinary 1966 b-side to “Paperback Writer” shows the remarkable influence of Motown session bass player James Jamerson on the Beatles’ mid-1960s music.
Marvin Gaye, “Yesterday”
Gaye’s stunning 1970 cover of one of the Beatles’ most famous compositions came at the cusp of a major turning point in the singer’s career; just a year later he would release his masterpiece, What’s Going On, the last major Motown album recorded in Detroit.
Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out”
Similar to Gaye’s “Yesterday,” Wonder’s 1970 recording of the Beatles’ 1965 hit completely reimagines the original song and foreshadows Wonder’s own emergence as arguably the most influential recording artist of the 1970s.
Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)”
The Queen of Soul, in all her splendor: Franklin’s breakthrough hit for Atlantic Records in 1967 heralded the arrival of a transformational talent onto the landscape of 1960s pop.
Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Piece of My Heart”
Joplin’s incendiary version of “Piece of My Heart,” a song originally recorded by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma in 1967 and remade by Joplin in 1968, was one of Joplin’s biggest hits and remains one of her most iconic performances.
Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man”
The British “blue-eyed soul” star Springfield’s evocative rendition of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins’ composition, the biggest hit from her classic 1968 album Dusty in Memphis, is one of the more beguiling and beautiful recordings of late-60s R&B.
Aretha Franklin, “Son of a Preacher Man”
Hurley and Wilkins had originally written “Son of a Preacher Man” for Franklin, who turned it down; after Springfield had a hit with it, in 1970 Aretha recorded it herself in a churning, gospel-infused style.
Aretha Franklin, “Eleanor Rigby”
Franklin’s 1970 recording of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” transforms the song from an elegiac, string-octet dirge into a rollicking, bluesy statement of feminist resilience.
Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower”
Hendrix’s 1968 recording of Bob Dylan’s composition is one of the guitarist’s most famous performances and one of the most iconic musical markers of Vietnam-era tumult and dread.
Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
A dazzling display of instrumental and studio virtuosity and the closing track on Hendrix’s 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is an apocalyptic blues that showcases the nearly unfathomable dimensions of Hendrix’s musical abilities.
Jimi Hendrix, “Machine Gun”
Recorded live at Madison Square Garden on the very cusp of the 1970s, “Machine Gun” is one of Hendrix’s most explicitly political compositions and one of the more powerful pieces of anti-war music to emerge from the Vietnam era.
The Rolling Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
After an ill-fated flirtation with psychedelia, 1968’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” breathed new life into the Rolling Stones, and remains one of the most influential rock and roll singles of all time.
The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man”
One of the standout tracks on the Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet, “Street Fighting Man” transports Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 classic “Dancing in the Street” into the global unrest of the summer of 1968.
The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
This 1969 duet between Mick Jagger and the great black female vocalist Merry Clayton is one of the most visceral depictions of war and terror in all of popular music.
The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar”
The critic Robert Christgau once described this 1971 hit as “a rocker so compelling it discourages exegesis”; stunning, wild, and outlandishly offensive, it is perhaps the quintessential song of the Rolling Stones’ long and complicated career.