IS ROCK 'N' ROLL A WHITE MAN'S GAME?

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Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley, denies he ever said it, but the quote is still among the most famous--and most prescient--in the history of rock 'n' roll. "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel," Phillips is said to have said, "I could make a billion dollars." In a segregrated America in which certain radio stations would not play songs by black artists, Presley more than filled the bill, and in the process helped solidify the image of rock 'n' roll as the music of white teenage rebellion. Unfortunately for Phillips--who sold Presley's contract for an unprecedented $35,000--it was RCA that ended up making most of the money on Presley.

But the point is, rock 'n' roll is an art form that was created by blacks. "It started out as rhythm and blues," says Little Richard, the flamboyant rock pioneer who saw such tumultuous songs of his as Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally taken to the charts in white-bread "cover" versions by the likes of Pat Boone. "There wasn't nobody playing it at the time but black people--myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. White kids started paying more attention to this music, white girls were going over to this music, they needed somebody to come in there--like Elvis."

Pretty much since then, black artists who wanted to play rock 'n' roll--as opposed to pop, or doo-wop, or soul music, or funk, or disco, or rap--have had a hard time getting a hearing from the music industry, which, thanks to its perceived marketing needs, tends to pigeonhole artists in "black" and "white" slots. The irony, of course, is that while white artists like the Rolling Stones are exalted for their borrowings from black music, black artists who try to reclaim the now predominantly white classic-rock tradition are often met with industry indifference, if not hostility.

"When I was shopping my tapes around in my late teens, record companies would automatically send me to the guy in the black division," says Lenny Kravitz, whose guitar-driven music is deeply indebted to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, among others. "They would listen and say, 'We hear your talent, but you really can't make this music.' They would try to steer me toward pop." Guitarist Vernon Reid's sound reflects what he recalls as a "heretical" musical upbringing, shaped equally by Chaka Khan and Led Zeppelin. Angry and baffled by the failure of major record labels to acknowledge the music his band, Living Colour, and other adventurous musicians around New York City were making, Reid organized the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. The group's manifesto bluntly declared, "Rock 'n' roll is black music, and we are its heirs." Still, it took the intervention of Mick Jagger, who paid for and produced the band's demo tape, for Living Colour to get signed by Epic Records.

Fortunately, the artists who have chosen to travel this road have tended, almost by definition, to be staunchly independent--and, given the chance, audiences have often responded. Hendrix, who early on played guitar in Little Richard's band, built a cultural bridge that links the deepest blues to the furthest reaches of psychedelia. Sylvester Stewart, the indomitable Sly of the multiracial Sly and the Family Stone, mixed a hugely influential blend of funk and rock 'n' roll. And certainly no one could ever accuse the Artist Formerly Known as Prince--the moniker itself says it all--of caving in to industry pressures.

For four decades, George Clinton has been playing dance music that blithely ignores all preconceived distinctions between funk, jazz, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop. Now he finds himself as one of the main contenders to inherit the psychedelic Pied Piper mantle of Jerry Garcia. "We appeal mostly to white kids now, more than ever," Clinton says of the ever shifting assemblage of P-Funk All-Stars he takes out on the road. "A lot of the Deadheads follow us around. I'm telling the company that we got to make sure we do something to maintain that audience. I mean, we ain't got to worry about not being black."

A younger generation of such highly individual black artists as Seal, Dionne Farris, Tracy Chapman, Des'ree, Terence Trent D'Arby, Ben Harper and Me'Shell NdegeOcello have collectively also made an impact, both critically and on the charts. In the best rock-'n'-roll tradition, these artists, in varying degrees, have drawn on dance music, funk, folk, poetry, hip-hop, blues and R. and B. to concoct their own strange, flavorful brews.

And then there's Hootie & the Blowfish. While lead singer Darius Rucker's blackness is often brought up only to be dismissed as insignificant--as often by himself and the band as by anyone else--the group also met with initial industry confusion over its interracial lineup. Today Rucker's symbolic importance as the lead singer in a staggeringly successful "white" rock-'n'-roll band is, for some musicians, enormous. Says Reid: "Seeing Darius Rucker fronting this band at the Grammys--for me it was a powerful experience."

"I'm glad [for Rucker]. He's a wonderful singer," says Little Richard, reflecting on Hootie's success. "And I thank God for those white boys being with him to help him get there," Richard adds, a knowing laugh reflecting his more than four decades in the business. "Because if they wasn't there, he probably wouldn't be there." Fair sentiment or not, it's one that is certainly grounded in rock 'n' roll's past, and present.