Black History Month Spotlight: Chuck, Richard, and Some Guy Named Jimi

When my editor asked me to write a piece about black musicians and their influence on rock and roll, I advised myself to use caution. Don’t let me do it, I thought to myself. Don’t let me fall into the trap. He wants an article on all the innovative black artists who helped to shape rock and roll over the past century. Don’t screw up and be the kinda guy who gives him three pages on just Jimi Hendrix.

So, I won’t be that guy. But I could be. It’s so easy to be. Hendrix might be the biggest name in rock and roll history. His legend looms larger than anyone else’s I can think of. But I’ll show restraint. There’s a lot to get to before “Foxey Lady” and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” Lots of ground to cover before Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland, all recorded within a year and a half. Damn! Play it cool, man. Pace yourself. Okay. So, for our purposes, Jimi Hendrix will be the afro-sporting, guitar string-flossing, gypsy elephant in the corner of the room that we’re not going to talk about…just yet.

Trippin’ back to the fifties…

Decades before doing commercials for Geico and Taco Bell, not to mention a regrettable Full House cameo, Little Richard was dubbed the “Architect of Rock and Roll” and for good reason. While Elvis spent the fifties all shook up, Little Richard was laying the foundation for modern rock and roll as we know and love it: the charged piano, the raspy wails and howls, saxophone funk, and pulse-racing, spine-tingling barnburners like “Tutti Frutti” that hit audiences in the fifties like a speeding freight train. Good Golly Miss Molly!

Care to challenge Reverend Richard’s influence on rock and roll? (Reverend? He actually became an ordained minister.) Bob Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that he one day wanted to be in Little Richard’s band. Jimi Hendrix, who recorded with Little Richard’s crew in the mid-sixties, said, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” Talk about references.

Little Richard

“Good Golly Miss Molly”

If Little Richard was the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” you might say Chuck Berry was the Construction Foreman, because he built rock and roll. He brought in country and western influences, rhythm and blues, and the double-string guitar lick that soon became his trademark. If you want to find rock’s heart and soul, search no further than Chuck Berry’s guitar.

Do you know what I admire most about Berry, though? And, no, it’s not that he was melting faces before it was legal in most states. It’s those rapid-fire lyrics in his songs. Listen to “Johnny B. Goode” or “Roll Over Beethoven.” He stuffs every last syllable he can into his mouth and spits out these rock lyrics to kill for. “Roll over Beethoven/Tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Translation: Check this shit out.

Chuck Berry

“Johnny B. Goode”

You can’t talk about rock and roll without mentioning the late, great Bo Diddley. He’s right up there with the great bluesman, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry as fathers of rock; in some circles he’s even known as the “Grandfather of Rock.”  I could talk about the “Bo Diddley Beat,” his tremolo bar and cigar-box guitar, or his one-of-a-kind stage presence, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to remind everyone of an important but often overlooked part of this man’s legacy. Right up until his death in 2008, Diddley was one of the most outspoken artists about cheating and scandal in the music industry. Throughout the decades, hundreds of black artists, including Diddley, have been underpayed, ripped off, and signed to crooked contracts by those who tried to make record labels the new plantations. These artists gave us some of our most beloved music, and this was the thanks they got. It’s a damn shame, and praise should be given to Diddley for never letting this injustice rest.

Bo Diddley

“Hey, Bo Diddley”

I don’t have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white. ~ Bob Marley

While our focus today is on rock and roll, not reggae, we’d be remiss not to take a moment and look at the black experience beyond America. And who better to look at than the iconic Bob Marley? Marley only lived thirty-six years before cancer stole him away, but he used those years to create an indelible legacy and impact. He introduced reggae music to the entire world. And even more importantly, he used his gifts to speak out against the racial hatred and prejudice that has torn apart societies the world over. Marley, as much as any guitarist and singer, reminded us that music can at times have a purpose but should always have a heart and soul.

I’m a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which happens to be where Bob Marley gave his final live performance at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts) in 1980. I only learned this fact a few months ago after years of attending concerts and plays at this theater. Needless to say, this old building has taken on new meaning for me. To be able to take the feelings Marley’s music invokes and connect them to a concrete place that can be visited only helps to keep his memory alive and his message strong.

Bob Marley and the Wailers

“Concrete Jungle”

I’m beginning to feel a bit like the Ghost of Rock and Roll Past. There is so much more I want to show you. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and The Family Stone, and so many others, but our time together (and my column space) grows short.

So on to that Jimi guy…

Everything about Jimi Hendrix seemed bigger than life: the afro a mile in circumference, the ragdoll and gypsy fashions, the crazy feats on stage, but most of all the sounds he managed to extract from that Stratocaster or Flying V. Sometimes we forget about all the different elements he brought to rock and roll and how they’ve changed the genre forever. The wah-wah peddle and distortion effects. The alarming riff on “Purple Haze.” The delta blues influence on “Hey Joe.” And the dylanesque lyrics of “The Wind Cries Mary.” Hendrix mapped it all out. He built and paved roads in every imaginable direction for future artists to travel down.

The argument over whether or not Hendrix was the greatest guitarist ever has been debated ad nauseum and will continue to be argued over for as long as rock and roll survives. However, what I think is clear is that Hendrix got more sounds out of the guitar than any artist before or since. Some say he expanded the vocabularly of the guitar; to me, it sounds more like he invented an entirely new language.

I’m going to say goodbye with the video below featuring Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.  It’s funny. When Jimi played with his teeth or lit a guitar on fire, it was self-expression. When the rest of us do it, we’re just pulling a Jimi. That’s the difference. He’s just doing his thing. Anything he did instantly became his thing. The rest of us are just paying homage. We’re just doing his thing.

Jimi Hendrix

“Wild Thing”


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