By Paul Denning
As sure as night follows day, articles are starting to appear in the popular press about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Motown music empire by Berry Gordy in Detroit. And the music of Motown was a very significant cultural and social development, there is no doubt about that.
Berry Gordy set out to make teenage music that would appeal to both black and white teens and he succeeded. Everyone knows the biggest stars, such as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and many more.
However, the facts are, that there were literally hundreds of Afro-American musicians and vocalists who had been commercially successful with both white and black audiences prior to the advent of Motown. Examples would include the Drifters, the Coasters, Chubby Checker, the Shirelles, Ike and Tina Turner and so on.
There were many popular artists who were contemporaries of the Motown artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and the Chiffons, to name a few.
Truly major stars who predated the Motown juggernaut and who sold many millions of records include Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and many more.
These were artists who sang rock ‘n’ roll, with blues influences and gospel influences, and that had big hits on the mainstream radio playlists and were not relegated to the “rhythm and blues” charts.
Of course, there were other categories of popular music, such as ballads, that were aimed more at the adult market, but were also selling to teens; examples include the Platters, Johnny Mathis, Nat “King” Cole, Brook Benton, Dionne Warwick and others.
There were, additionally, multiple Afro-American instrumental musicians with many “hits,” like King Curtis and Booker T. and the MG’s.
But too often in our popular culture, the general public and the media fixate on limited aspects of what are much more complex social and cultural issues, so we end up with myths and half truths, as a result.
As important and transformative as Motown was, it is far from telling the whole story of popular music and its crossover appeal from black to white culture. In light of Black History Month, let us remember the host of popular artists who came from the African-American traditions and roots.
I have come to these conclusions as an observer, but also as a rabid music fan. As a young suburban boy growing up in the Town of Tonawanda, my world was very far away, culturally, from the world of Afro-American music, until, at the age of 8 or 9, I discovered the pioneering disc jockey named “Hound Dog” Lorenz, on WKBW radio during nighttime hours. He was an important pioneering “jock” who played the original black versions of rock ‘n’ roll, not the white “cover” versions that other stations played. His show was the top-rated radio program of its kind in Buffalo.
I also have to give credit to my eighth-grade music teacher, Mr. Ron Swick, at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. He was the only music teacher that I ever had who had us study “rhythm and blues” music and who used the old song “Earth Angel” in class to teach us the structure and chord progressions of that school of music. I fell in love with that music and it has been a lifelong love affair.
Paul Denning, of Cheektowaga, got a radio education from “Hound Dog” Lorenz.