As much as white artists get criticized for performing "black" genres such as R&B, hip-hop, and blues, many black artists are not so much criticized as ignored when they perform heavier, guitar-oriented music. Which is bizarre, given that, you know, rock & roll was pretty much invented by African-American musicians. While groups such as the Black Rock Coalition fight the good fight against this sort of race-based musical pigeonholing, we offer this Black History Month list of big-name black artists who have brought the rock--either all the time or in specific tunes--over the years, bridging those artificial gaps the Music Industry has tried to impose on us as music fans and human beings.
Little Richard: "Long Tall Sally"
Little Richard is considered an entertaining old weirdo now, but he was one of the most revolutionary rock & roll artists of the 1950s and early-1960s. "Long Tall Sally" rocked harder and faster than almost any previous song, and it inspired several covers, including a great one by the Beatles. Legend has it that John Lennon wept when he first heard Richard because he couldn't believe someone was better than Elvis.
Chuck Berry: "Johnny B. Goode"
Chuck Berry was the first great black rock-guitar hero (more on those to come), and he blazed a trail for axe slingers of all colors. The duck walk, the bluesy licks and general outrageousness influenced all lead guitarists who followed, and "Johnny B. Goode" is perhaps his most enduring moment.
Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsys: "Machine Gun"
Jimi Hendrix built on the achievements of Chuck Berry and actually performed in Little Richard's band, being fired for wearing too outlandish a shirt and, thus, taking attention away from Richard. He took influence from blues, jazz, '50s rock and lots of chemicals to become the quintessential psychedelic guitar god. "Machine Gun" evokes the horror and violence of Vietnam and was the last classic recording he made before he tragically died at the age of 27.
The Temptations: "Ball of Confusion"
In the '60s, The Temptations were Motown's most popular male vocal group. Known for classy hits such as "The Way You Do the Things You," "My Girl" and "Since I Lost My Baby," they dominated the charts with their patented blend of soulful harmonies and pop hooks. By 1970, though, the group had gone through lineup changes and were exploring more serious themes and a new form of "psychedelic soul." "Ball of Confusion" was the heaviest and best example, full of pounding drums, horn blasts and stream-of-consciousness-influenced rhyming. "Great Googamooga," indeed.
Bad Brains: "House of Suffering"
In the '80s, hardcore was mostly played by intense, disaffected young white men. The major exception was Bad Brains
, a D.C.-based group made up of slightly crazy black guys who were equally influenced by punk, jazz and Rastafarianism. The 1986 album I Against I
was their masterpiece, and "House of Suffering" a fast, heavy and complex highlight.
Prince: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
Prince has one of the most fascinating careers in pop-music history. He could have been a top soul singer, funk bandleader or rock guitar master. Fortunately, he became all of those things and more. With 1987's Sign O' the Times, Prince produced one of the great rock double albums, and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" proved he could do catchy, guitar-driven pop as well as or better than anyone.
Janet Jackson: "Black Cat"
Janet Jackson had already hit the charts many times by the release of 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814. With this album, however, she broke record after record, including an astounding seven top five singles. "Black Cat" hit the hardest, a pure late-'80s hard-rock anthem wailed by one intense young woman. Interestingly, it was also the first single Jackson wrote by herself. Something about fame and fortune inspired a pretty heavy fucking track, and music-lovers (and strippers) have been thankful ever since.
Living Colour must have seemed like total oddballs when they arrived on the scene in the '80s. An all-black metal group that also drew on jazz, funk, electronic music and avant-garde noise, the group was championed by Mick Jagger, who later invited the group to open for the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour. Guitarist/bandleader Vernon Reid played one of the most significant roles in African-American rock history, helping to form the Black Rock Coalition (see above). "Type" was their highest-charting single and is a perfect example of their intense, eclectic vibe.
Public Enemy/Anthrax: "Bring Tha Noize"
Public Enemy were arguably the most acclaimed hip-hop group of all time, certainly the most controversial. They built up a loyal following among both rap and rock fans with their first three albums. Before their fourth, they teamed up with the quite-white NYC thrash group Anthrax to rerecord "Bring the Noise" from their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Now titled "Bring Tha Noize," the song simply rages, and it was so well-received both Public Enemy and Anthrax included the collaboration on their respective 1991 albums.
Lenny Kravitz: "Always On the Run"
Did you think we were going to forget Lenny? The multitalented half-black/half-Jewish musician mixes the classic and the modern as well as anyone in rock. On "Always On the Run," Kravitz
teamed up with fellow biracial guitar god Slash for a good-ol'-fashioned rocker that anyone of any background can enjoy.