African American moments in rock and roll history


From blues to boogie-woogie, from jazz to soul, from R & B to rap, there is no question that African Americans have left their stamp in just about every musical genre (if they didn’t outright invent it!) and this includes rock and roll. These are a few of the many historic moments in which black musicians played a crucial role not only in the world of rock but in American pop culture.

Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm record “Rocket 88” in 1951.

Before Chuck Berry revved up the rock world with “Maybelline” and before Elvis wiggled and swiveled on TV with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” there was “Rocket 88.”

Recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., where so many future stars such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis would get their start, this is considered by many to be the first rock and roll record ever. With its up-tempo sax, boogie-woogie piano and unique guitar, it heralded an unmistakable new sound, one that would help transform the musical landscape forever.

Brenston, who was a member of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, sang the lead as the band backed him up, though the record was officially credited then to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. The song is about the Oldsmobile “Rocket 88,” which had come out it 1949 and was the fastest car on the road at the time.

The venerable B.B. King had arranged for Turner and his band–who mostly played black clubs in the South–to record at Sun Studio, and Turner wrote most of the song on the way to the session. During this drive, the band’s amplifier took a tumble out of the car and the woofer broke. Not one to be daunted, Turner crammed paper in it at the studio as a quick fix, and the distorted sound from the damage amp provided the song with its unique sound–for that reason this was cited as one of the first songs to use guitar distortion.

Little Richard releases “Tutti Frutti”

This ecstatic 1955 rave up was the first major hit for Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, and with its hard-driving sound and suggestive lyrics the song introduced a distinct rhythm and manic vocalizing that would become a blueprint for rock and roll songs for years to come.

In an early recording session at J & M Studio in New Orleans, the full feverish energy of Little Richard wasn’t being fully captured on tape. During a break Little Richard expressed his frustration by pounding on the piano and belting out a dirty ditty he had been performing live for years.

“A lot of songs I sang to crowds first to watch their reaction,” Little Richard had said famously. “That’s how I knew they’d hit.”

After hearing Little Richard sing this catchy song, record producer Robert Blackwell knew it was going to be a hit, but also knew that since the song featured such lines as “Tutti Frutti/good booty,” (along with lyrics that were far, far more risqué!) it would have to be toned down. Songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie helped Little Richard revise the words, though he still delivered the song in his characteristic wild man style. He recorded the revised version in about three takes, with the original piano part.

Though it has boogie-woogie roots, the song introduced a distinctive new rock beat–along with an ‘a cappella’ intro–and effectively kicked off a new era in music.

A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!

Jimi Hendrix performs the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to close Woodstock

Hendrix regarded music as a religion and called his own music “electric church.” At the famous Woodstock Festival in August 1969, he delivered an electrifying sermon, as truly only he could, by transforming the national anthem with his Stratocaster and forever changing the way it could be played.

By the end of the legendary three-day festival, there were only about 30,000 or 40,000 people still left on the muddy fields at Bethel, N.Y.,–down from over half a million at its peak–when Hendrix and his band took the stage early Monday morning. They played some well-known songs, including “Foxy Lady,” “Red House” and “Voodoo Child” before tearing into a freestyle jam. At the end of the musical improvisation, Hendrix launched into his mind-blowing version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This personal expression on the part of Hendrix was gutsy, considering that at that time any unconventional version of the national anthem would likely ruffle the feathers of many Americans. With a bombardment of heavy amp feedback and scintillating licks, his sonic-assault take on the anthem mimicked bombs dropping, screaming warplanes and other sounds of the battlefield.

 As the country was mired in the Vietnam War at the time, some thought Hendrix’s radical reinterpretation was disrespectful. Some believed it was his way of showing his disgust with the ongoing war and the country. Some thought it was just brilliant. Any way you look at it, it caught everyone by surprise and has left an indelible impression. It is immortalized in the film of the Woodstock Festival and on its soundtrack.

Afterward as a guest on Dick Cavett’s television show, Hendrix told Cavett: “All I did was play it. I’m an American, so I played it.” Perhaps anticipating the angry letters his viewers would send to the show, Cavett explained to the audience that Hendrix was a former paratrooper in the Army, and then told the rocker that any unorthodox version of the anthem would guarantee a percentage of hate mail.

Hendrix disagreed. “I don’t think it was unorthodox,” he said. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Bo Diddley develops the ‘Bo Diddley beat’

It is fierce and relentless, direct and infectious.

Bomp-bomp-bomp, a-bomp-BOMP!

The primal five-beat rhythm which appears in the 1955 song “Bo Diddley” would go on to bear its prominent stamp not only in the canon of performer Ellas McDaniel–that’s Mr. Bo Diddley–but also in countless pop/rock songs for decades to come.

Sometimes referred to as “hambone,” a style African-American street performers used to beat out rhythm on their own bodies while chanting out lyrics, the beat has been associated with bell patterns in Afro-Cuban music and even Yoruba drumming from West Africa. But it was Diddley that incorporated this beat into his songs when rock and roll was in its infancy, making it an essential component of pop music for over six decades.

“My beat is something I stumbled upon by accident,” he once admitted, “because I figured something more could be done with the guitar than what was being done.”

Diddley employed the beat in many of his songs aside from the peerless “Bo Diddley,” like in the bouncy “Pretty Thing” and the seductive “Mona (I Need You Baby).” Yet in his hands each song sounded different and what’s more, it made his music sound restless, dangerous and alive.

There is no shortage of subsequent songs by various artists to successfully use this beat blueprint, including “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly, “1969” by the Stooges, “Desire” by U2 and lest we forget, “Bo Diddley Is Jesus” by the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Run-D.M.C. “walks this way”

Hip-hop culture was becoming more and more visible in America by the mid-1980s with acts such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. at the forefront. Though the music and even fashions were working their way into youth culture, they were still far from mainstream.

Following the moderate success of their 1985 single “King of Rock,” Darryl McDaniels, Joseph Simmons and Jam Master Jay–known collectively as Run-D.M.C.–decided to turn their talents to covering a nugget by rock stalwarts Aerosmith, “Walk This Way.” Featuring vocalist Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry of Aerosmith performing with the rap group, the guitar-driven song is often credited with breaking hip hop into mainstream pop music, as it was the first hip-hop song to crack the top five in the Billboard Hot 100.

In the video for the 1986 song, the respective bands are rehearsing in side-by-side studio spaces, separated by a single partition. Just as Aerosmith tears into the drum-beat opening of “Walk This Way,” which they first recorded in 1975, Run-D.M.C. takes over the vocals by rapping them. At first Tyler stands stupefied but soon the wall between the two acts is broken down and they find themselves performing the song together to an appreciative audience–literally and figuratively, smashing the wall not only between rap and rock but black and white youth cultures.

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