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Perspective: The Black Roots of American Popular Music

Mike Lawson • February 2021Perspective • February 6, 2021
Mike Lawson

Mike Lawson

The music that inspired and influenced me as a kid, that made me want to pick up an instrument, to sing, all had one significant thing in common: African Americans. An early childhood discovery was that a Hammond organ can be upbeat, exciting, and inspiring when flowing out of a nearby AME church with its windows open so all could hear the high-energy Black Gospel band and choir on any given Sunday, which certainly did not sound like the somber funeral dirge style of organ played at the pretty-much all-white Southern Baptist church half a mile away. The AME church music would find me riding my bike to the sidewalk across the street and listening.

My early love of 1950s original rock and roll, all of it, every bit of it, started with Black musicians playing the blues, playing in big bands, jazz, swing. I remember somebody saying to me, “Elvis got that song from Big Mama Thornton…” when referencing “Hound Dog.” I was probably around nine at the time. What? Elvis didn’t write that? No child, no.

And it was at that fairly early age, in the pre-internet world of the 1970s, that I began discovering the real roots of the music I was so enthralled with was lifted, borrowed, adapted, or let’s be honest, even plain stolen, from Black musicians. Finding out about Big Mama Thornton, as a kid, when I just assumed somebody who sang the hit probably wrote the hit, was an epiphany moment that led me to reading the labels of the 45s and LPs I was starting to buy. Then, I had questions. OK, did those names record versions, or were they “just songwriters?” I had to find out. That led to being the obsessed kid in one of the two record stores at the new mall, asking too many questions. Sometimes I got lucky and there would be an older music freak working the store who shared my passion and enjoyed steering me towards the things that inspired or were the originals to what I was asking about. Other times, it was the teenage kid working the store trying to look cool who really didn’t have much knowledge but got to work a cool gig at the record store. I learned to wait for the older cats at the store when I had questions, fairly quickly. Led Zeppelin? Ha! Here kid, check out Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the whole Chess Records catalog. Blues Brothers? You don’t want that soundtrack; you want the real thing. Let me turn you on to Stax Records. It became very clear that everything I loved listening to was a leaf on a branch of a tree that led back to the roots of that music. And those roots were Black.

My mentor in music for many years was an African American, the late, great Merl Saunders, a jazz organ trio performer signed to Fantasy Records, had given Johnny Mathis his first gigs when they were teenagers. He later formed a band with, and taught jazz standards to, Jerry Garcia, expanding his musical vocabulary far beyond his folk, bluegrass, and raw blues influences into expansive long instrumental improvisations of “My Funny Valentine,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “I’ll Take a Melody.” They expanded those concepts into blues, R&B, soul, funk, and rock music.

As we celebrate Black History Month at SBO, we are delighted to spotlight the new National Museum of African American Music, opening here in Nashville and its host of educational offerings. Our associate editor, Victoria Wasylak, sadly will be leaving us for an exciting new career opportunity, but not before she profiled my friend, Grammy-winning producer Deezle, who owes his success to playing saxophone in his high school band growing up in Louisiana. Plus, our Modern Band column spotlights how to integrate hip-hop into your music programs.

At SBO, we love to taste the rainbow of musical genres. We love classical music, and all of its spender, we love marching music, from the origins of Sousa to modern day Drum Corps. However, we can’t ignore the real world around us which includes myriad genres, and it should go without saying that none of it would be as spiritually, sonically, or sensationally satisfying without the rich contributions of Black musicians throughout our history as a country.

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