In the early 1950s, popular music was still dominated by the big bands and crooners of the 1940s. And, it was almost entirely white. Even when a non-white artist appeared on the charts – such as Nat King Cole – the song was still typical of those recorded by white artists of the era.
In the mid 1950s, rock music suddenly began to dominate the music charts. Descending from a number of African-American music genres, including blues and jazz, it was only natural that many pioneers of rock music were African-American, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Yet the charts still reflected almost entirely white artists, even as many of the early hit rock songs were by white artists covering songs that had been originally written and recorded by African-Americans.
A prime example of this was Pat Boone. Boone was one of the most popular artists of the early rock era, and he built his career performing watered-down, “safe” cover versions of songs by African-American artists. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” is now considered to be a classic of the early rock era but, at the time, the hit was Boone’s more sedate version.
However, by the early 1960s, African-Americans finally began to find their place on the charts. R&B and “girl groups” became popular, and, in 1962, for the first time, African-American artists recorded half of the top ten songs for the year. The 60s also saw the emergence of R&B on the charts, driven by artists on Motown Records, the first major African-American owned record label.
Up to 1957 only the Cuban bandleader Perez Prado made the charts. In 1958 two Hispanic artists had major influences on the Billboard charts. Ritchie Valens recorded his version of “La Bamba” and Danny Flores “The Godfather of Latino Rock” composed and played sax on The Champs’ “Tequila.” In the 1960s, a few more Hispanic artists appeared on the charts, such as Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s and ? & the Mysterians.
By the early 1970s, African-American artists were a fixture on the charts, and multicultural artists began to emerge. The most successful early multicultural group was Tony Orlando and Dawn – a Hispanic lead singer, with two African-American backup singers. They had a number of hits, including the #1 song of 1973, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” as well as a successful TV variety show.
The early 1980s saw a mini-trend of cross-cultural collaboration begin when Paul McCartney teamed up with Stevie Wonder to record “Ebony and Ivory”; two years later McCartney teamed up with Michael Jackson for “Say Say Say.” The mid 1980s saw big-name stars, across all genres, coming together for charity causes, including Band-Aid and USA for Africa, both for African famine relief, and Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight for AIDS awareness. These big name cross-cultural cross-genre artists had huge chart success.
Waves of African-American dominated genres and styles impacted the charts: Disco in the late 1970s and then, divas and hip-hop in the late 1980s and 1990s. Hip-hop and rap began in the African-American community in New York City in the early 1970s. Some credit Kool Herc as the Father of Hip Hop, as he introduced breaking and scratching, break dancing, and rapping at his infamous parties.
The first popular hip-hop recording was in 1979 with The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight.” In the years that followed, two white artists played key roles in bringing hip-hop to a broader audience: Blondie’s “Rapture” in 1981, and Aerosmith’s collaboration with Run DMC on “Walk This Way” in 1986, which literally “broke the wall” between hip-hop and rock music. By the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, hip-hop and rap had gained a broader following among many music fans, and the genres began to dominate the charts.
PLAYING NEXT: Together At Last! – Cross-Culturalism and Music of Today (Part III, Conclusion)