THE JOLSON FACTOR - The Cultural relevance of UK/US POP Covers of 1960s SOUL ORIGINALS.
If one chooses, the release of a product, albeit a record or any other commodity can always be viewed merely as a mechanical stab at a given commercial market. Were the social and political circumstances surrounding the life experiences of 1950s and 60s Black Americans on a par with white Americans, then it would be fair to apply the same framework to the question regarding the relevance of White Cover versions of Black Soul originals.
However, there were vast differences between said life experiences, differences which cut deeply into virtually every strand of American life, this certainly including the Musical Entertainment industry. Music is an essential element of culture, especially in the cases of people who are collectively opressed as a group or race. When a social grouping is economically and socially disadvantaged, art becomes far more than a form of leisure. Historically for Black America, music has been a source of inspiration and fortitude from slavery onwards into gospel, blues, r/b and finally Soul. It is fair to say in fact, that Soul, being a direct descendant or a hybrid of gospel and the blues, was actually far more than a potential commercial product. It was and remains a cultural entity that emerged as a direct or indirect result of the social oppression of Black America.
Therefore to examine these issues 'culturally' we have to acknowledge that the social and professional experiences of Black Musicians/Artists were historically different and certainly, shall we say, more difficult than those of White artists during the same period. The restrictions applied to Black artists covered all aspects of their potential careers including limited TV, Radio and even 'live' performance opportunities. The 'Jolson' factor had been apparent for decades and many hit records were obtained by White Americans, after they covered black originals which simply could not get anywhere near the same level of radio exposure. In the 40s, 50s and 60s, radio was king in the USA when it came to the popular music industry. The budgets afforded to black productions were minimal but also CRUCIALLY, post production PROMOTION aspects, were virtually non-existent. Black records and Artists suffered massively because of that factor but it was not the single
The salient point is in fact very simple. It did not matter whether a Black original was superior creatively or not. There were solid barriers erected within all realms of the American Entertainment Industry and the talent of any given Black Musician/Artist/Actor was not, for many years, the barometer of creative and importantly commercial judgement. White owned Radio Stations and TV Companies simply did not want 'black' flavoured product because they deemed - wrongly, as eventually it would be shown - that their target audiences, primarily white, would not want it...
Thus for Black Songwriters/Artists, for a long time, the best that could ever be realistically hoped for, was that some White artist or Producer would pick up on a tune and utilise production, performance - and again that word CRUCIALLY - 'promotion' factors, this then resulting in a White hit and some much longed for paydirt for the composers. But that state of affairs still hid the truth for many years. Millions of Americans were unaware that BILL HALEY'S was not the orginal version of 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' and the same went for countless hits. With all this in mind, it seems quite logical to state that Black Musicians/Artists/Actors etc were for decades 'second class' cousins to their White counterparts. They could not expect coast to coast radio play, they could not expect lucrative TV appearances and exposure, whilst their concerts and performances were limited to an almost 'underground' 'Black circuit'. A nationwide string of venues and theatres that catered for the Black market and by extension helped ensure that Black Artists remained segregated from the popular mainstream.
It was the social revolution of the 1960s that helped break down the barriers that had existed for the previous 50 years within the US Recording Industry. As Black Americans began to demand equal rights via education, travel, politics and in every strand of American life, the prospects of Musicians/Artists/Actors etc took a decided turn for the better. Following on from PHIL SPECTOR'S dreamgirls and boys, BERRY GORDY'S MOTOWN blew a breath of fresh air across the radios and showed that teen idols did not have to be white, in order for white teenagers to idolise them. Whatever anybody said about GORDY attempting to 'whiten' the Motown Sound, his Artists were undeniably Black and they were accepted as such across the globe. Inside the Unites States, little by little, mile by mile, state by state, new rounds of legislation were enforced. These new laws made it harder for any party, be it civic, public or commercial wise, to uphold practises designed to impede the progress or advancement of any grouping on grounds of colour or race. The huge Civil Rights Marches, the elevation of MARTIN LUTHER KING and MALCOLM X, the VIETNAM WAR, all these components combusted simultaneously over a few short years. Collectively, they ensured that by the end of the 1960's, whilst certainly not gaining total equality, Black Americans could at least celebrate significant levels of social advance.
One of the fields that saw an impressive level of advancement was indeed the Entertainment Industry. The success of MOTOWN, STAX, ATLANTIC et al and the profiles of genuine Black Superstars like JAMES BROWN and ARETHA FRANKLIN smashed away the old ideas that the showbiz crowns had to be worn by white stars alone. SIDNEY POITIER blazed a trail for the likes of RICHARD ROWNTREE, SAMUEL JACKSON and WILL SMITH to follow and the bona fide Black Movie Superstar was born.
Whilst thousands and thousands of Black sixties Soul releases still fell by the wayside of low production budgets and subsequent under promotion, (thus creating fertile ground for the future UK 'NORTHERN SOUL' scene) an unprecedented amount of Black releases attained enormous pop chart success in America. OTIS REDDING and JIMI HENDRIX, a rock guitarist who began his career with the legendary ISLEY BROTHERS stole the stage at the Monterey Festival and the big Black acts moved out of the 'black' circuit and into the mainstream concert arenas. The market for American Soul spread across the world. As the thirst and reception for authenticity and originality grew, the old market for White cover versions of Black American popular records disapeared forever. Groups like THE BEATLES, THE ROLLING STONES, THE SMALL FACES and various others moved on from impersonating Black music and in doing so, genuinely widened the creative boundaries of pop music. Likewise, by the turn of the 70s, Black Artists like MARVIN GAYE, STEVIE WONDER and CURTIS MAYFILED were siezing a position amongst the major league Singer/Songwriting categories. The idea of the Black Musician desperately needing a white act to cover his song before it gained a worldwide audience - or a worthwhile pay cheque - had at last died a death. Not before time.
The rash of White pop covers of 60s Soul originals can indeed then, be genuinely viewed as cultural entities in their own right. Whilst there were of course some seriously genuine fans and admirers of black music amongst the groups and musicians concerned, taken as a collective whole, these records represent the death throe of a culture and a tradition that had held the Black Musician/Artist back for decades. It is no personal indictment of any one individual or group, but this was to be the last decade when White owned Radio stations could reject Black records from their playlists whilst regularly hoisting pop covers of the same songs onto an often unknowing audience. The Black originals represent the last cultural posessions of Black Musical America which could be easily 'borrowed' and sold off by White Artists to an essentially White market, thus creating a level of acclaim and success that was beyond the reach of the original composers. Whilst things
were certainly not perfect, in the future Black Musicians would be able to sell their own wares on a fairer playing field. From now on Black Music was not dependant on the patronisation of White Musicians in order to generate serious capital. Viewed from within the umbrella of overall advancement, this was a significant progression within the American cultural and Economic systems.
As such The 'Jolson factor' does not exist today. Whatever 60s and 70s Soul fans think of Hip-Hop, legions of White groups and Producers do not trawl the black charts to try and find cover versions that they can sell to a white audience that will happily accept a diluted form of Black America's own popular music. Hip Hop and contempoary R/B is is a billion dollar industry in it's own right and white kids across the states and the world groove to it. If a flurry of Record Companies and White acts attempted to cover Hip Hop classics nowadays, they would find a very small audience. The 'blackness' of the music is visually re-inforced by MTV and the video culture that relentlessly drives 21st Century sales. Radio is very much a poor relation today and music cannot hide the colour of it's ethnic orientation behind a velvet curtain of invisble airwaves. When an Artist like EMINEM does arrive, he is hailed and accepted by Black America itself as being a natural
talent and a genetic progression rather than an opportunistic tail-jumper. If White artists want to make Black-orientated music today, they have to be up to the mustard because they have to sell it in the marketplace alongside the Black Originators of the genre. Culturally this is a valid progression and brings an enrichment to America's musical culture that was sorely lacking during the days of creative segregation.
Whether the artistic creative quality of modern day output, can ever match the halycon days of Soul America during the 1960s and early to mid 70s is open to question. Sometimes oppression and adversity can bring art forms to pinnacles which can only be reached once, but that is another debate!
Richard Chorley July 27th 2009
' I NEVER HAD A SINGLE LESSON, ALL THIS TIME I BEEN GUESSING!!! '
site note: this article was drawn out by a question in the thread
Sitting In The Park - Billy Stewart Or Georgie Fame