Professor sheds light on lesser-known great African-American musicians

University Park, Pa. – Chuck Berry, James Brown, Michael Jackson. These artists justly are credited for shaping today’s music industry. They are heralded for inspiring countless musicians over several decades, but how did Berry, Brown and Jackson create their sound? Who were their influences and why weren’t those influences mainstream musicians as well?

Jerry Zolten, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona and expert on American roots and popular culture, has spent his life listening to and studying some of music’s biggest, unknown influences.

“It’s a long-term mission for me -- trying to bring recognition to people who are the bedrock of American popular music but who the general public might never have even heard of,” said Zolten, who also is an author, musician, and CD and radio producer. “And much of it is rooted in black gospel and religious music. Blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll all draw stylistically on black gospel music.”

While growing up near Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, Zolten listened to radio stations that catered exclusively to African-American listeners.

“Driving home in the wee pre-dawn hours of a Saturday night, I’d listen to (radio station) WAMO,” he said. “When I heard the gospel show, I was immediately taken with the emotional force of the sound and began seeking out recordings by groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds from Philly and the Fairfield Four. I’m a fanatic collector of blues, jazz and gospel.”

His passion drove him into the music scene. Zolten staged record hops, produced live performances by local artists, cut a nationally released 45-rpm record with his own group and eventually went on to graduate school to become an academic with a specialty in the communicative properties of American roots music. He’s still involved in touring with and writing about nationally known performers. Zolten talks about some of music’s least-recognized talents that shaped what we listen to today.

Soul/R&B: Not to be confused with jazz musician Tommy Dorsey, Thomas A. Dorsey, billed early in his career as Georgia Tom and later became the “father of African-American gospel music.” Dorsey learned to play piano as a young boy and started a band with Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues,” in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, after Dorsey’s wife died in childbirth along with their son, he abandoned the blues. His grief changed the tone of his music. According to Zolten, Dorsey brought the barrelhouse beat of blues and dance to religious music in a new way. In doing that, Dorsey paved the way for the soulful sound so crucial to the styles of artists such as James Brown and, later, Michael Jackson.

Rock 'n' roll: Another seminal gospel artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe started something in the late 1930s that also turned out to be trendsetting, Zolten said.

“She latched on to what was then the new-fangled electric guitar and backed herself with it on gospel tunes. Many in the older generation of more conservative African-Americans were put off by it, but the younger generation was far more accepting of her radical new sound. She certainly played a major role in making the electric guitar the prominent instrument it is in today’s pop music,” he said.

Often referred to as the “original soul sister,” Tharpe brought the inspirational religious music into nightclubs and concert halls with her rock 'n' roll style.

Hip hop: In the late 1920s to early 1930s, Rev. J.M. Gates, who recorded more than 150 records, used spoken sermons to rap out a message over a heavy beat. His titles were often colorful and metaphoric, Zolten said. For instance “Straining at a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel,” was a sermon that spoke out in strong and direct terms against racism. The title's metaphor referred to making a big deal – in this case the color of a person’s skin – out of something that should have no significance at all.

“One could reasonably say that Rev. Gates helped to lay the groundwork for today’s rap and hip hop artists who, at their best, use the spoken word against a rhythmic backdrop to take on the issues of the day,” Zolten said.

Jazz: From 1920 to 1933, when prohibition was sanctioned throughout most of the United States, the people of Kansas City voted against it. Kansas City turned into a party town and jazz artists like Benny Moten presided over the music scene. Moten and his fellow KC musicians played in a heavy-on-the-beat style called “stomp,” characterized by Duke Ellington as “the velocity of celebration.” When Moten died, Count Basie took over the band and showed the world how to “swing” the blues.

Zolten said Dorsey, Tharpe, Gates and Moten are just a few of the less-recognized musical pioneers. Zolten surmises that a large part of the reason they probably didn't get the acclaim they deserved was due to issues of race, limited appeal of genres and access to the broad commercial market.

“In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s there were numerous situations where owners of established record labels took what was popular within the smaller market of African-American music and found white artists to re-record or “cover” the originals. These cover versions took everything from lyric to arrangement and with access to the broader market and wider record distribution became better known and generated far more profit than the originals. In many cases, the cover artists became famous while the originators remained unknown,” Zolten said.

Producers claimed the song was a cover version, but never gave credit where it was due. The Crew Cuts, for example, were an all-white vocal quartet who scored a No. 1 hit with their cover of “Sh-Boom” in the early 1950s. The song, however, was originally written and recorded on a small independent label by an African-American doo-wop group called The Chords. The Crew Cuts got the fame and money, while the Chords and their creative original faded into obscurity.

Zolten said our country’s musical history has many similar stories. A lot of African-American musicians left the United States and moved to Europe leaving segregation behind. Paris was an especially popular destination where black musicians found dignity, receptive audiences and, in some cases, stardom. In Paris, they were treated as equals, with all the rights and privileges of anyone. Zolten plans to take Penn State students to Paris this summer to explore the neighborhoods where African-American musicians moved, see exhibits that honor their remarkable contributions to music and to visit clubs where they performed, that still are famous today.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010