As the month officially devoted to celebrating Black music here in the U.S. draws to a close, trust that we will continue the celebration each week here on #BlackMusicSunday. I’d planned to explore music from and inspired by the Caribbean for this week’s offering, since June is also Caribbean American Heritage Month. Instead, I got sidetracked and highly irritated while I was doing research.
Here’s an example: Do a search for “I Shot the Sheriff” and see what pops up. This song, written by Bob Marley, was released in 1973 on the album Burnin’, by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Over the years, I’ve heard it played and sung at many Caribbean festivals and parades in my home borough of Brooklyn, New York, as well as in local restaurants where I’d go to get an order of jerk chicken, peas and rice.
First thing that popped up on Google, for me, was the cover version by Eric Clapton, which he recorded in 1974, a year after Bob Marley released it; Clapton’s “cover” was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2003. My annoyance spurred me to revisit a topic I’ve written about here in the past, though from a slightly different angle. In ”Black people create, white people profit: The racist history of the music industry,” I explored the history of racism and exploitation in the music industry as a whole. Today I’d like to present some of the Black music that was “borrowed,” “lifted,” “copied,” and made money for white artists, often garnering both commercial success and awards … while leaving the Black originators with far less, or nothing. Sometimes these creators ended up erased from the listening public’s memories.
Since Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” sparked this piece, let’s start with it. Here’s the original 1973 recording, followed by a live video version, with a logo from Tuff Gong, the Marley official studio and store, founded by Marley in 1965.
I’m not posting Clapton’s cover here, as most of you are probably very familiar with it, but here’s a link.
In “The ‘whitewashing’ of Black music: A dark chapter in rock history,” Chris Jancelewicz, writing for Global News, brings up both Marley and Clapton.
“Over the years, you see in the 1920s and 1930s, Black music was very underground, very benign, marginalized,” said Lisa Tomlinson, a cultural critic, formerly of York University and now a lecturer/professor at the University of the West Indies. “It was seen as sleazy. In a lot of cases, when this music becomes mainstream, it becomes disassociated from Black experience and Black context. We talk about cultural appropriation … we reduce it to just borrowing, or sampling, another reductionist term. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘sampling’ sound like nice words, because they sound like an equal exchange. But there’s a power dynamic embedded in that borrowing.”
For example, she points out, Bob Marley wrote the classic tune I Shot the Sheriff in 1973 and performed with The Wailers. It wasn’t until 1974 that it hit No. 1, when Eric Clapton redid the song. It was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003 and is frequently associated with Clapton.
“Instead of thinking of Marley or the song as Jamaican or Caribbean, most people think about Eric Clapton,” she said. “There is a thievery there, in the sense that the credit is not given to these pioneers.”
Clapton gets kudos from music critics for “introducing” Marley to the world? I guess “the world” is shorthand for “white folks.”
This theme of “theft” is continued by Mark Montgomery French, cited by Nastia Voynovskaya in a January 2020 blog post for KQED-FM, entitled “Setting the Record Straight on American Music's Black Roots.”
French's research led him to realize that the erasure of black people from rock 'n' roll history wasn't accidental, but a deliberate and systemic process. Since the rise of the recording industry, which began during segregation, labels sidelined black artists while promoting white ones who borrowed their sounds and aesthetics. In "All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black," he points out that in 1986, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame debuted, 60% of inductees were African American—and included pioneers of the genre such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Little Richard. In contrast, only one of 2019's inductees was black: Janet Jackson.
These white artists may not have thought of themselves as thieves, but the racist structure of the music industry enabled them to profit at black innovators' expense. Between the 1920s and '40s, blues, jazz and gospel recordings by black artists were pigeonholed as "race records," which were rarely played on large radio stations. Yet—much like today—black slang, music and dances were trendy among white young people of the 1920s, who dabbled in these forms of expression to rebel against their parents' Victorian-era customs and beliefs.
This short video clip of French presenting his research in February 2019, at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, gives a glimpse of how just one genre—goth—can find its roots in Black music.
Case in point: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who I wrote about last month in “Ladies don't just sing the blues. They play them, too.”
There were songs that I grew up with that I never realized had been snatched from Black artists and reinvented as hits by white stars. Consider “He’s So Fine,” an R&B hit written by Ronnie Mack for The Chiffons. It was recorded in 1963, and went to the top of the Billboard Charts for four weeks.
Mack would not live to see his song’s success.
Ronnie Mack died at the age of 23. At the time of his death he had the number one record around the world. He never got the chance to see his Gold Record, although his production company, Bright Tunes Production, had done a rush job on getting it made, but unfortunately by that time cancer had taken over his body and mind."
“He’s So Fine” would become the center of a major plagiarism and copyright infringement court battle with Beatle George Harrison, who recorded “My Sweet Lord” in 1970. There are dozens of articles about the case; almost all of them are sympathetic to Harrison, because even though he was ruled guilty, the judge stated he had done it “subconsciously”—a word that seems to be put in italics in every article I’ve read so far.
The New York Times reported the judgement in the case in 1976.
George Harrison Guilty of Plagiarizing, Subconsciously, a '62 Tune for a '70 Hit
George Harrison, the former Beatle, was found guilty yesterday of “subconsciously” plagiarizing the 1962 John Mack tune “He's So Fine” for Mr. Harrison's 1970 hit record, “My Sweet Lord.”
Judge Richard Owen of the United States District Court in Manhattan, a composer himself, ruled that Mr. Harrison was guilty of copyright infringement, although the judge concluded. “I do not believe he did so deliberately.”
Judge Owen scheduled Nov. 8 for trial on the issue of damages in the lawsuit brought against Mr. Harrison by the Bright Tunes Music Corporation, which owns the copyright to “He's So Fine.”
“It is clear,” the judge said, “that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as ‘He's So Fine.’ This is, under the law infringement of copyright and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.”
The case is discussed in musical detail in “He’s So Fined,” and this juxtaposition by YouTuber foxmass58 currently has over 642,000 views.
I can hear the theft … how about you?
Another case of outright theft took place in 1963. Unless you are a dedicated oldies doo wop fan, you may not remember The Rivingtons, though you may remember some of their sounds.
Bruce Eder wrote their bio for All Music.
Most people in the early 2000s are surprised to find out about the Rivingtons -- that's primarily because people mostly discover their existence when they hear one of the group's three hits, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," "Mama-Oom-Mow-Mow (The Bird)," and "The Bird's the Word," which are much, much better known in their composite re-recording by the Trashmen (as "Surfin' Bird"). And when they hear the Rivingtons' version, they're inevitably surprised by the fine singing and superb R&B phrasing, miles away from the Trashmen's punk stylings. Their version of the song was just as nonsensical, but it had amazing class and panache, and it's more than that -- it's part of a story of superb singing, bird dances and surfin' birds, great dances and even better times, before the world of the 1960s got all dark and serious and too dangerous for good clean fun. [...]
Their break came one day when they were fooling around in the studio and Rocky Wilson suddenly came up with the "papa-oom-mow-mow" vocal line, done basso, and everyone loved it. The resulting LP was startlingly compelling record that Fowley steered, along with the group, to a pair of producers, Jack Levy and Adam Ross. They came up with a $1200 advance for the song and against an eventual contract with group, and the name the Rivingtons (derived from the two having once lived on Rivington Street on New York's Lower East Side). They offered the recording to Capitol, who turned it down as a little too far-out (that from a label that recorded Yma Sumac and released the single "Tsukiaki"). Instead, it went to Capitol's younger rival, Liberty Records, who bought it but then sat on it for six months trying to figure out how to sell a song called "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow."
Eder continues their history, which ends with outright theft.
An album followed, entitled Doin' the Bird, in late 1962, that the group wasn't too happy about, and a follow-up single, "Mama-Oom-Mow-Mow," but not before "Kickapoo Joy Juice" interrupted their momentum. They followed with up with "The Bird's the Word," which capitalized on the first two records on that theme, and then "The Shaky Bird." They rode the crest of a wave for a year, into the second half of 1963. By that time, a Minneapolis-based surf band called the Trashmen co-opted the boom started by the Rivingtons, combining their first and third Liberty singles into a composite work entitled "Surfin' Bird," pushing the beat into warp nine and rocketing them to the Top Ten and linking the Rivingtons forever to the tail-end of the surf music craze and also, to an extent, displacing the originals.
The Trashmen’s theft made it all the way to American Bandstand, where Trashmen lead singer Steve Wahrer makes a point of insisting to host Dick Clark that the band wrote the song, claiming it was inspired by Tarzan films.
Wahrer also hints at another song in the works that “might just resemble” the “Surfin’ Bird.” Sure enough, the Trashmen released “Bird Dance Beat” the following year, and the band split up shortly thereafter. However, The Rivingtons’ story didn’t end there.
They went to court. Songfacts has details:
The Trashmen were a garage band from Minneapolis, which isn't surfing territory. Despite critical acclaim, they managed just one more minor hit before disbanding in the late '60s: the 1964 #30 "Bird Dance Beat." When this became a hit, The Rivingtons were awarded writing credit for the song, since it was based on their compositions. This was a huge financial benefit, as they receive royalties every time the song is used in a movie, TV show or commercial. The Trashmen claimed that they heard The Rivingtons songs through cover versions played by a Wisconsin band called the Sorenson Brothers, and insisted that "Surfin' Bird" was an original recording.
The Trashmen were left with the performance royalties, which while certainly not scraps, were far less lucrative. The band says that for their first payment, they each received a check for $1.88, but they eventually got a lump sum of $4,500 each. This was all they got until the mid-'80s, when they filed a lawsuit against the company that had bought the recording.
The modern white-ification of what had been Black doo wop was complete when the Trashmen’s version of The Rivingtons’ stolen song became part of Family Guy, a Fox TV series.
In “These Black Artists Didn't Get Credit For Some Of Your Favorite Songs, :Michael Dixon Stevens, writing for VIX, adds to the list of rip-offs.
Whether or not Led Zeppelin stole a number of songs have come into question, but it’s no secret that Whole Lotta Love borrowed heavily from the lyrics to You Need Love by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Take a listen.
Stevens references a much longer piece which points to Led Zepplin being serial borrowers, and not just from Black artists. It was written in 2014 by Benjamin Smith for VH1— “The Case Against Led Zeppelin: Is Hard Rock’s Greatest Band Guilty Of Musical Plagiarism?”
Smith points out that ”Led Zeppelin lifted guitar riffs, the title, and much of the lyrics from this original recording by Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, who died in 1945 at the age of 48.”
Even The 1619 Project, currently being excoriated by the racist right wing, explores the theft of Black music in "For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.” This detailed historical survey of Black music, written by Wesley Morris, concludes with:
Loving black culture has never meant loving black people, too. Loving black culture risks loving the life out of it.
And yet doesn’t that attraction make sense? This is the music of a people who have survived, who not only won't stop but also can’t be stopped. Music by a people whose major innovations — jazz, funk, hip-hop — have been about progress, about the future, about getting as far away from nostalgia as time will allow, music that’s thought deeply about the allure of outer space and robotics, music whose promise and possibility, whose rawness, humor and carnality call out to everybody — to other black people, to kids in working class England and middle-class Indonesia. If freedom's ringing, who on Earth wouldn't also want to rock the bell?
So, while the world loves Black music, “borrows” Black music, covets our “soulfulness” and some people, including some Black artists, are making a good living at it and more, the Black community faces police repression, voter suppression, unequal health care access, disparities in both treatment and mortality, and ongoing housing segregation.
Next time you buy or stream Black music, consider also making a contribution to an organization who is fighting for us to survive and thrive.
Please join me in the comments section for more.