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Blue Rhythms: Six Lives in Rhythm and Blues.

Chip Deffaa. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996. 318 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by

Darryl Cox Hershey, Pennsylvania

When unique talent merges with the desire to display that singular quality before an adoring and paying public, the resulting mix can be both a blessing and a curse for a performing artist. This was especially true for those American singers and musicians who first came to prominence shortly after World War II and whose particular form of musical expression was called "Rhythm and Blues." Lured from the lower-paying and somewhat calmer harbors of local and regional stardom to pursue the more lucrative but, ironically, much more tenuous and turbulent guarantees offered by national booking tours and long-term recording contracts, only a relative handful of these artists ever found the fame and, perhaps, the fortune they were seeking. Whether they attained popular renown or faded back into the anonymity from which they had emerged, the narratives of far too many of their careers were punctuated by exploitative recording contracts, dishonest promoters and agents, poor business decisions, a lack of critical recognition, slight media exposure, and, of course, racism. It is a testament then to their integrity as artists and human beings, if not their formidable survival skills, that the six musical pioneers profiled in Chip Deffaa's latest book, Blue Rhythms, outlasted their hardships long enough not only to talk about their good and bad times, but also eventually to succeed in enticing triumphant applause again from audiences of old and new fans.

The six artists Deffaa chose to interview - Ruth Brown, Little Jimmy Scott, Floyd Dixon, LaVern Baker, Charles Brown, and Jimmy Witherspoon - were major innovators and contributors to a unique musical form that played a decisive, although not commonly recognized or sufficiently appreciated, role in altering America's popular musical tastes and, indirectly, the country's cultural and social milieu as well. In his book The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray offered up the telling insight that in America black people do not suffer from a lack of achievement but, rather, from a lack of recognition of their achievements. Blue Rhythms is a welcome exception to this principle. Deffaa has crafted a well-written and amply annotated book that succeeds in giving proper attention and credit to the pioneers of what he calls the "popular music that arose in black communities after the swing era and before the arrival of the Beatles." The book also contains more than thirty photographs taken at different times during the artists' careers. (Some jazz fans might enjoy seeing a particularly rare photo of a teenage Jimmy Witherspoon taken in California in 1939. The photo also features Don Cherry, who looks to be about four or five years old. Cherry, who died several years ago, would later become a highly regarded and influential jazz trumpet player who often recorded with Ornette Coleman.) The volume also includes an extensive index, seventeen pages of suggestions for further listening and reading about the music, and a comprehensive bibliography that appears to include every major book ever written about rhythm and blues, jazz, blues, soul, doo-wop, and rock and roll music.

Deffaa mixes oral history and a reporter's style that is more taken with providing us with an accurate historical picture of these artists and the milieu in which they operated than in peppering us with his opinions and insights. He asks his subjects questions about their lives and the music they made and then allows them to do what most people enjoy doing - talking about themselves. The results are stimulating, informative, unpredictable, and even sadly pathetic, as when Floyd Dixon tries to explain his lack of assertiveness regarding people who cheated him out of royalties, publishing rights, and concert fees during his career. Dixon tells Deffaa that "sorcery" must have been used to "mesmerize" his mind and take advantage of him. He goes on to say it had to have been the result of a "conspiracy" and he knows of a group that is "secretly studying about it."

Deffaa's interview with the late Jimmy Witherspoon threatens to blow up when he makes the mistake of asking the singer if he ever sang with Johnny Otis's band. Witherspoon immediately bristles at what he perceives as a suggestion that he had been a part of the white, but black-identified, group and tells Deffaa, "What do you mean, sing with Johnny - that's the shit that makes me mad! I'm the one that discovered, that called Johnny to come here [to California] from Omaha . . . . I have a pet peeve about writers, white interviewers . . . . when they mention white artists, they'll say, 'Oh, you played with Robben Ford,' or 'You played with Johnny Otis.' I'm the son of a bitch that discovered Robben Ford. I'm the man that discovered Johnny Otis." When Deffaa says that he meant no slight, Witherspoon responds, "I feel that way. Blacks are always secondary."

There are times, however, when blacks are not always secondary either in terms of the public recognition they receive or the special place they occupy in the affections and memories of others. When LaVern Baker died in March of 1997, the New York Times published her obituary above the newspaper's fold, along with a recent photograph. She had not had a hit record in nearly forty years, but her absence from the hit parade had done little or nothing to diminish her stature as one of the true giants of rhythm and blues music. Although Baker was absent from the United States for nearly twenty years, she returned in 1988 to perform at a show celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Atlantic Records and was greeted with critical and public acclaim, launching a second career for her. She went on to appear on Broadway, was inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, saw Atlantic reissue her hit songs, and made two new albums for a different label. Baker's story in Blue Rhythms is less the account of a victim once again ascendant so much as it is a tale about the endurance and vitality of the human spirit and the power of music to touch people in ways they had never imagined or thought possible.

It is hard to conceive today, when the stylings and voicings of black artists such as Luther Vandross, Babyface, and Whitney Houston are frequently heard on pop music stations, that this state of affairs simply did not exist prior to the late 1950s. When Jerry Wexler, the celebrated A & R man who produced Aretha Franklin's legendary Muscle Shoals sessions, was asked how hard it was to get songs sung by black artists played on the euphemistically described "general audience stations" in the early 1950s, he declared that it was "impossible." What changed this state of affairs was the frenzy generated by the emergence of rock and roll as a potent cultural and commercial force in American life. And it was rhythm and blues music that provided the foundation on which rock and roll built its house.

Elvis Presley's meteoric ascent to the heights of musical stardom was partially attributable to his having successfully blended elements of country music with the cadences, timbres, and sounds of the rhythm and blues music he had heard black artists such as Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup perform around Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. He told one interviewer in 1956, ". . . the colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. . . . they played it like that in the shanties and juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up. I got it from them . . . ." Presley's predominantly white fans may not have known or even cared about the actual sources and inspirations for his music and stage mannerisms, but he and the black artists whom he emulated and admired knew that the springs that fed Presley's talents were broader, deeper, and more diverse than his adoring fans dared or cared to recognize.

Deffaa sets out to give this uniquely American form of music its due and succeeds, in part, because he is so clearly appreciative of the music and has a genuine respect and fondness for the artists who created this music and their culture. This reverence, however, can have its down side. Deffaa, for example, dutifully reports incidents his subjects relate of their having been wronged by record companies, promoters, managers, and agents, but he fails to press any of the artists, especially Little Jimmy Scott and Floyd Dixon, about why they never sought legal counsel before signing these deeply flawed contracts. This is a small ommission in an otherwise excellent book, but Deffaa's lapse on this point only serves to reinforce the view that these black men and women were relatively helpless when faced with the financial power and odd accounting practices of companies like Atlantic Records. The notion that these artists had no recourse is difficult to believe.

Ignorance and poor education are often cited, but not all rhythm and blues artists were uneducated about business matters. Charles Brown, the composer of the classic "Driftin' Blues" and the perennial Christmas favorite "Merry Christmas, Baby," graduated from Prairie View A&M College, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. Ten years later, in 1952, he successfully sued Aladdin Records for royalties he felt were owed him. After his legal victory the company lost interest in promoting his career, but the suit confirmed his feelings that Aladdin was exploiting him.

Although many of these artists did not have access to the mainstream media, they did have points of entry with the black press and black disc jockeys. And why they did not use their fame to air their grievances against companies that literally made millions of dollars off the black community while keeping black artists in a state much closer to penury than affluence is a question that Deffaa should have addressed. After all, these events were occurring at a time when blacks were beginning to become more restive over issues such as segregation. Blacks were also beginning to demonstrate against businesses that openly discriminated against them.

It is not easy to draw a causal connection between the modern Civil Rights Movement and the simultaneous emergence of rhythm and blues music as a popular cultural force within Black America. At that time, America was still a rigidly segregated society. Big band and swing music no longer seemed adequately to reflect or capture the new social and cultural rhythms that the war had stoked into being. The symbols of change, though, are not always as clear as highway signs, and they are more easily deciphered in hindsight as opposed to foresight.

Rhythm and blues forever altered the sound and outlook of American popular music. It also accompanied and accelerated the movement to lift the country's most onerous racial barriers and helped to make black Americans and their contributions to the whole of American society more visible and acclaimed as well. Elvis Presley and millions of other Americans, black and white, may not have anticipated the consequences when he made his first appearance on network television one Saturday night in 1955, but when Presley began his rendition of "Good Rockin' Tonight," a slyly racy song popularized by one of his musical idols, the great rhythm and blues artist Wynonie Harris, it was clear that this music had finally stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight. Nothing in America has been quite the same since.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cox, Darryl
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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