African American moments in rock and roll history, part 3


Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson rocks out with “Beat It”

From his time as the young singing sibling of the bubble-gummy R & B group the Jackson 5 in the late 1960s through his solo efforts in the 1970s which culminated in the 1979 disco-funk-soul album “Off the Wall,” Michael Jackson never showed much interest in letting his talents tackle rock songs.

But all this change with the release of his monster 1982 record “Thriller,” which featured the guitar-propelled, bona fide rocker “Beat It.”

Since the song is about gang violence it begins with ominous-sounding notes before kicking into wicked drum break followed by one of the most danceable guitar riffs in history.  Spitting out the verses in breathless fashion (“They’ll kick you, then they beat you, then they’ll tell you it’s fair”) while letting his vocals soar during the super-catchy chorus, Jackson showed that his voice could hold its own in an arena rock setting where scorching guitars and thunderous drums ruled the roost.  With “Beat It” he not only copped the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance but also took home the Grammy for Record of Year.

In the music video—which was just as memorable as the song itself—Jackson breaks up a rumble between two gangs before leading them through a synchronized dance routine. This may sound over-the-top ridiculous but M.J. not only pulls it off but deserves props for using real-life members of rival gangs Bloods and Crips as extras in the shoot, where a push could’ve led to a shove which could have led to a switchblade or two springing out…

The blistering six-string solo in the middle of the song is served up by none other than guitar god Eddie Van Halen, and the rocking single earned a spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. With its unrelenting energy and muscular guitar riffs, “Beat It” helped drive “Thriller” on its way to becoming the best-selling album in history.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins opens his spell book

Possibly the king of campy theatrics, Jalacy Hawkins, known better to most of us as Screamin’ Jay, had a heavy hand in writing the (spell) book on shock rock.

Hawkins initially recorded “I Put a Spell On You” as a straightforward blues song, but when he re-recorded it for Okeh Records in 1956, it seemed to take on a life of its own as it sounded far more, well, demented. “I put a spell on you/Because you’re mine,” Hawkins madly howls, later warning the target of his witchcraft, “I don’t care if you don’t want me/I’m yours right now.” Unleashing primal yells between the lyrics, he sings/screams his way through the record. Though a catchy tune and a good seller, some stores and radio stations around the country banned the song, apparently deeming it was just too weird.

But the real fun came when Hawkins performed the song. As a gimmick to promote the song on various TV performances, Hawkins would sometimes rise out of a coffin amidst smoke and fog to perform the tune. Often he’d wield a staff crowned with a human skull in one hand and a tambourine in the other, and with his wild-eyed, wild man delivery, he impishly jumped and shook all over the stage, looking like a bona fide witch doctor who had somehow wandered into a television studio.

Long capes, tusks in his nose and bursts of smoke out of nowhere were all part and parcel of Hawkins’s performance of this tune. Chortling, snorting and more than once speaking (well, singing) in tongues, Hawkins convinced viewers that there was an even money chance that the man on the stage was possessed. Or just a nutcase.

This brand of spooky-themed showmanship opened a new avenue in rock performance and in the coming decades, the horror show shtick of such performers as Alice Cooper, the Cramps and Screaming Lord Sutch owed a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hawkins. After “I Put Spell on You” was first released, a host of acts have covered it including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone and Marilyn Manson—no stranger to harnessing the power of shock value in rock and roll.

Booker T. & the M.G.s

Booker T. & the M.G.s

Booker T. & the M.G.s cut “Green Onions”

A racially integrated band-which was a relative rarity in 1960s America, Booker T. & the M.G.s was the house band for legendary Memphis soul music label Stax Records. Though they backed such worthy performers as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, they also recorded their own originals in between sessions but their standout single has to be the soulful instrumental “Green Onions.”

Hypnotic in its simplicity, it is driven by a 2/4 beat and propelled by a catchy Hammond organ groove written and played by a 17-year-old Booker T. Jones. Since they had already laid down a track called “Behave Yourself” that they wanted to release as a single, the band needed a B-side to accompany it.

“One of the tunes I had been playing on piano we tried on the Hammond organ,” Jones said, “so that the record would have organ on both sides and that turned out to be ‘Green Onions.’”

The day after the band recorded it, guitarist Steve Cropper handed it over to his DJ friend Reuben Washington at Memphis radio station WLOK. Sufficiently wowed by the record’s unique sound after hearing only part of it during off-air time, Washington promptly played it on the air, several times in a row. The phone lines lit up in the town’s enthusiastic response, and the band decided to make “Green Onions” the A-side in subsequent pressings of the single. It peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962 and nabbed the top spot of the R & B singles chart.

The instrumental also proved popular in dance clubs in Britain, where members of the subculture “mod” scene—with their penchant for American jazz and soul—lovingly embraced the song.  Reasserting its popularity during a mod revival in the late 1970s, “Green Onions” cracked the top ten in the UK charts.

Developers of the unique Stax sound, Booker T. & the M.G.s were one of the most admired and imitated musicians of their era, and with “Green Onions” they served up their most flavorful hit.

B.B. King

B.B. King

B.B. King brings love to town

Kicking off with a machine gun blast of drums, “When Love Comes to Town”—the electrifying 1989 single by Irish band U2 and bluesman B.B. King—nailed down the sound of a sublime blues rocker and proved to be one of the best collaborative efforts of the decade.

From the Mississippi Delta, you had a self-taught guitarist born on a cotton plantation with 40 years of recording and performing under his belt. Riley B. King had played juke joints and clubs of all sizes before recording such hits as “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Every Day I Have the Blues” on his path to eventual royalty status, earning the moniker “King of the Blues.” With his free-flowing style of play and string-bending innovations, he was one of the most influential blues guitarist ever.

From Dublin, Ireland, you had four lads who started as a socially conscious rock band in the late 1970s and following the megaton success of such landmark releases as “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree” in the 1980s; they had pretty much become the biggest act in the solar system. In 1988 the band decided to soak up the Americana and inspiration of legendary Sun Studio, in Memphis, Tenn. by recording some tracks there for their upcoming record “Rattle and Hum.”

For “When Love Comes to Town,” easily one of the album’s strongest songs, they employed the gravelly growl and nimble string-plucking fingers of Mr. King, who had recorded at Sun in his youth and had been performing in Memphis for years. With its runaway train energy, this spirited song about the redemptive power of love features a dual guitar attack while King and U2’s lead singer Bono trade fervent vocals with a passion bordering on frenzy. Oh, and if you can sit completely still while listening to this song then someone should shove a mirror under your nose ASAP to see if you’re able to fog the thing.

Though drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton supply the driving rhythm and guitarist The Edge and Bono are at the top of their game here, it is King’s generous helping of tasty guitar licks and his one-of-a-kind throaty yowl that infused the song with a bluesy flavor and made it so memorable. Released as a single in spring 1989 complete with a music video, it helped to win King many new loyal subjects in the rock and roll sphere.

In the following years King would join U2 onstage to perform the song, which reached the top ten on the Billboard Alternative music chart. During a performance in Australia, Bono paid his own homage to King as he changed one of the lyrics by singing: “As B.B. played guitar, my life turned around!”

Peggy Jones

Peggy Jones

Peggy Jones meets Bo Diddley

Harlem, N.Y., summer of 1956.

A young woman has just performed with her doo-wop group, the Bop-Chords, at the Apollo Theater. Bo Diddley, one of rock’s rising stars, happened to be there that same night and was impressed with the sight of a girl with a guitar—eyebrow-raising in itself, in those days. Their chance meeting would change not only the life of young Peggy Jones, but female musicians everywhere.

“I ran into him on the outside when he was taking a break,” Jones said. “I had a guitar with me…and he wanted to know, did I play, and I said, ‘Yeah…why?!’”

Drawn to music at a young age, Jones purchased her first guitar at 15. Her ambition was to attend a little music school by the name of Julliard College to study classical music theory, but after Diddley met her and invited her to join his band, she decided to alter her path. In signing on with Diddley’s band, she smashed the mold by becoming the first female guitarist to be hired by a major recording act.

Jones—who came to be known as Lady Bo—learned the unique tunings Diddley’s songs demanded and became adept in performing the “Bo Diddley beat” in unison with Diddley. The confident lady strummer handled her instrument with pluck and attitude as she often traded lead and rhythm guitar roles with Diddley seamlessly onstage. Offstage, she worked closely with him to develop new sounds for the band, and in employing a variety of effects and innovations with her electric guitar broke through the then-male-dominated world of rock. She played with Diddley during his most fruitful stretch, involved with such standout songs as “Roadrunner,” “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger,” “Hey! Bo Diddley!” and showcased her lively guitar style on the beautiful instrumental “Aztec.”

A bandleader in her own right, Jones even maintained her own career throughout her stint with Diddley, which included writing songs and fronting her own band, the Jewels. Though she left Diddley in 1962 to concentrate on the Jewels, which had become one of the top draws in the East Coast club scene, she reunited with him in 1970, bringing her own band with her and played with him until the early 1990s. In helping to anchor the Bo Diddley sound, Jones firmly nailed down her place in rock history and considered by some to be the “Mother of Rock and Roll.”

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