In June of 1977, then President Jimmy Carter declared that in the United States June would be known as Black Music Appreciation Month. Barack Obama our 44th President renamed it to African American Music Appreciation Month. No one dare in good sense argue the tremendous influence that African Americans have been not only in music but to this country in general.
Our music has been our refuge historically and will continue even now. Leaning away from the obvious at times, but those true music geeks will peruse this list and appreciate the tracks and if not feel free to chime in your favorites for next year’s list.
Here are some songs and their influence on African American culture. Enjoy, pick up a few , and since it’s summer, you might want to fire up the grill.
20. Song: My Favorite Things
Time Period: The Early Sixties, The beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Rides Begin
Impact: While Sarah would cover the song during the sixties, her cover and her signing career would continue a tradition of jazz set forth earlier in 1944 when Sarah left her then band to join a new band of what would become jazz legends – Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
19. Song : Take The “A” Train
Artist: Duke Ellington
Date: Feb 15, 1941
Time Period: First African American Actress to win an Academy Award for best supporting Actress in Gone With The Wind – Hattie McDaniel, Richard Wright Publishes Native Son – first best selling novel by an African American author. Tuskegee Air Squadron also known as the Tuskegee Airmen is established by the United States Army.
Impact: although initially on the wane of swing music. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others would be part of the beginning as well as a revival of the big band, swing music styles in 50’s and 60’s. During it’s heyday swing music was the impetus for opening numerous clubs where the bands would play including the Cotton Club, Roseland, The Savoy and the Blue Room.
18. Song: It Is Only a Paper Moon
Artist: Nat King Cole
Time Period : Big Bands, Jazz and Swing, the Great Depression
Impact: continuing the tradition of excellence and improvisation brought forward during the Harlem Renaissance, Some would argue that Mr. Cole took on the mantle of becoming an “acceptable negro” and was rewarded with crossover appeal and a tv/variety show. The ballad as we now know it started way back her with the smooth soulful stirrings of Mr. Cole.
17. Song: Tears of a Clown
Artist: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Time Period : Civil Rights, Vietnam War
Impact: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles were one of several chart topping groups that launched the company named Motown and brought the Motown sound that would last for decades. Legends were created there: The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder to name a few. Many of which have music that influences our culture and music today still.
16. Song: The Happening
Artist: Diana Ross & The Supremes
Time Period: Motown Sound, Black Power Movement
Impact: Motown Sound was in full gear and as the Civil Rights movement and black empowerment sentiment grew the status and interest in groups like the Supremes featuring Ms. Diana Ross grew exponentially. Working with Brian Holland Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland – arguably the best song writing trio ever their music channeled, romance, heartbreak, while giving new, examples of black being beautiful.
15. Song: Signed, Sealed Delivered
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Time Period: Black Power movement, 2008 & 2012 Elections
Impact: While the song was at the top of the charts at its inception back in 1970, it would be years later during the election of the first African American to the office of the President of the United States that would irrevocably tie this song to one of the most pivotal moments in African American history. It was the first song that Stevie produced on his own and was at the time his sixth Grammy nomination.
14. Song: I Wish it Would Rain
Time Period: The golden age of soul music, Motown based groups like the Temptations reigned supreme.
IMPACT: The original guys group that all others would aspire to. The vocals of Eddie Kendrick defy mimicry to this day. This song reflects the period. The Beatles on the other side of the record dial who were dropping out hits with dual meanings and profound lyrics were not by any stretch of the imagination singular in being able to do so. The lyrics to this song allow for and express a level of creativity that gets proper treatment by Eddie Kendricks & Co aka the Temptations.
13. Song: Just Another Soldier
Artist: The Staples Singers
Time Period: Black Power, Vietnam War
Impact: The Staples Singers were originally a gospel group that made the segue into R&B. The timing could not have been more perfect for a group that was physically, melodically and artistically a voice of the movement. The voices of the Staples would be the African American branch of the American Folk revival heralded by Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger. Their songs spoke to the American condition, poverty, unions etc. The Staples spoke to the Black experience in this country while keeping the music groovy and flowing. From their tight afro’s to their dashiki’s they were a walking visual and audio for the black power movement.
12. Song: Wake Up Everybody
Artist: Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
Time Period: Black Power Soulful 70’s
Impact: The raspy vocals of the lead singer would take R&B into the thrall of the male lead singer that would drive all the women crazy. There have not been many who have been able to accomplish it since. The songs of the time were half conscious music and half romance. All with great lyrics and good instrumentals to back them.
11. Song: Old Landmark
Artist: Aretha Franklin
Time Period: Black Power, the 70’s
Impact: No list would be complete without the Queen of Soul and no one can claim to be her fan without knowing it all started for her in her father’s church. Gospel is where many soul artists got their start. It is a very demanding audience maybe more so than within the walls of a studio where you can edit out mistakes.
Not so in church. This song brings forth the tradition of gospel in the black community going back to the negro spirituals. The call and response is here as is the theme of God making it all work out all right. The lyrics mean nothing without a set of powerhouse vocals to set them and, in this case the church congregation off. That may be why to this day no one has even tried to attempt redoing this song. It is one of those that if sung in church the “holy ghost” will be let loose.
10. Song: Disco Heat
Time Period: Disco, Aids,
Impact: The impact Sylvester has had is profound in that he was openly gay at a time where the world was just entering into the AIDS epidemic and fear of homosexuality was rampant and the treatment of gay men and women was brutal, and unduly harsh. On top of his musical talents he is also one of the first artists to introduce big girls into the spotlight. Martha Wash and Izora Armstead aka Two Ton’s of Fun were initially his background singers, but went on to become Two Ton’s of Fun and released the hit single Just Us. It would be the first imagery of big girls as sexual and not portrayed as a “mammy” figure.
9. Song: September
Time Period: Disco
Impact: If you have a black power movement you have to have an Earth Wind And Fire. The group’s imagery was to promote Egyptian symbolism and took that through their name and their stage presence and shows. This in terms of iconography – Earth Wind And Fire was all the black power that was is and will be. The musicality runs the gamut from the high falsetto of Phillip Bailey, to the ultra-macho vocals of Maurice White -it doesn’t get too much blacker than Earth Wind and Fire. The only artist to attempt a stage presence on par with the group was of course Michael Jackson who was known for his incredible stage shows.
8. Song: Whodunit
Time Period: Black Power, Guy Groups
Impact: the Tavares were one of several male groups reminiscent of the original Temptations. Their music styles and footwork on stage invoke Motown comparisons each time they took the stage. Their look was a product of the time they were in tight afro’s and elaborately detailed suits were required if one wanted to be a serious group and on point at the time. This song speaks to the time period in that very popular during those years were the TV Mysteries usually of the “whodunit” variety. The song is an homage to these shows
7. Song: You And I
Artist: Rick James
Time Period: Disco, Black Power
Impact: Rick James was about bringing the funk <pass the J> no matter what. His impact and contribution to soul music was his unapologetic rawness that he combined with funk to turn out hit after hit. Purists turn their nose up at what some call “synthesizer funk” but Rick James will get almost anyone up dancing to the funk or the kind of party.
6. Song: She Won’t Talk To Me
Artist: Luther Vandross
Time Period: Golden Age of R&B
Impact: R&B in the early 80’s was real dance oriented in that a lot of it was real upbeat and bouncy as opposed to laid back . Although only one artist had the skills to produce on both and do it well. The impact of one of the greatest vocalists to ever pick up a microphone is many babies born during his time here performing. The eternal search for a ballad – singer with vocal styling and range to make even Mary had a little lamb sound good. The search continues…RIP Luther.
5. Song: Ride The Mighty High
Artists: Mighty Clouds of Joy
Time Period: Disco, Black Power
Impact: Many people don’t realize that this song is actually a Gospel song. At least that is the explanation that the lead singer provided regarding the origins of the song and its lyrics. The song literally was meant to be a crossover hit and it was more than they realized it would be. IT became more popular in the R&B genre and managed to make it up to 32 on the Billboard R&B Charts.
4. Song: SideShow
Artists: Blue Magic
Time Period: Black Power, Disco, Male Vocal Groups
Impact: impact heavy on the male vocal group scene. The song itself was reflective of the balladeer groups during the 70’s. This would include groups like the Chi-lites and the Stylistics whose main bodies of work were not dance music per say but were infused with romance and broken hearts and reminiscent of in some ways of the blues. One might say music to cry in your beer to.
3. Song: Man In The Mirror
Artist: Michael Jackson
Time Period: the 80’s
Impact: This song came out in the shadow of Live Aid which was a super concert to raise money for starving in Africa and was broadcast simultaneously all over the world and performances taking place in all major continents. The Song We Are the World was written expressly for this purpose with a writing credit given to Michael Jackson. Man In the Mirror was another thoughtful and somewhat conscious song in that it asks ones to do some soul searching or look within.
2. Song: Just Us
Artist: Two Ton’s Of Fun
Time Period: 80’s
Impact: big girls of the world unite it was no longer shameful or a negative to be a big girl. Big girls were sexy and were not shy about it. The ladies from this group introduced us to looking at and seeing big girls in a whole new light.
1. Song: I’m Every Woman
Artist: Chaka Khan
Time Period: black power, the 70’s
Impact: This was the first chart topping single by Chaka since leaving her band Rufus. It brought a little dance and funk together with her powerful vocals and the rest as they say is history. The song was covered years later by Whitney Houston and has become an unofficial anthem for women of color. Speaking clearly to the black women experience – the song itself should come with the label “Do Not Touch – Unless you are capable of killer vocals”. Both versions – Chaka Khan’s and Whitney’s are not for the timid singer and fall into that group of songs that one should not attempt unless you have taken extensive singing lessons at the very least.