REWIND: White people stole rock and roll from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry circa 1958, Courtesy: Wikicommons.

This is supposed to be a humor column. Granted, nobody has ever admitted to finding it funny, but that’s the general idea. But this week I’m not really feeling particularly humorous.

Fortunately for me, it’s also kinda a column about music history now, at least after the original premise ran out of years. So, good news! It’s Black History Month now and it will continue until I say it’s not.

This week, we learn about how white people stole rock and roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe — “Strange Things Happening Every Day”

This is generally accepted as being the very first rock and roll song. Released in 1945, a full decade before Elvis broke out, this clearly set the template. It’s guitar-driven, it has the dance beat and the piano that was common to early rock and roll.

You’ll also notice it’s being performed by a Black woman. Who’s playing the guitar.

How many Black women do you know who lead rock bands now? How many Black women do you know who play lead guitar? Well, there should be more, because one of them started it all.

Jimmy Preston — “Rock the Joint”

But maybe you disagree. You don’t think Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first rock star for some incorrect, misguided reason.

Well, might I direct your attention to Jimmy Preston.

This may sound to you like Bill Haley and the Comets, one of the quintessential early rock and roll bands. That’s because the spectacularly white Bill Haley did an inferior cover of this song in 1952—three years after Preston. When he played it at a jazz club the Black members of the audience, familiar with Preston’s version, walked out.

And, honestly, wouldn’t you? It would be like if Tiffany Trump decided to cover Beyonce’s “Formation.”

Big Mama Thornton — “Hound Dog”

“Wait a second,” you may say. “Sure, Bill Haley covered ‘Rock the Joint’ and it wasn’t very good. But he was known for ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and that was his! He didn’t steal that!”

Well while he was stealing a Black hit from 1949 in 1952, Big Mama Thornton was innovating. You may recognize this song. Go ahead, claim it wasn’t important to Elvis four years later when he released his cover.

This is why I specifically say rock and roll was stolen rather than, say, appropriated, or brought into the mainstream. The Beastie Boys and Eminem “brought hip-hop into the mainstream” by being white, but at least they wrote and recorded their own songs. This is like if the first single off the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill was just an uncredited cover of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, or if Eminem’s debut was him doing Tupac’s “Dear Mama.”

Chuck Berry — “Johnny B. Goode”

“OK, fine, all the music was stolen,” you mockingly concede. “But what about Elvis’ stage presence? The dancing? The hips? That was all innovative! Unprecedented!”

I invite you to watch that video above. Especially from the one-minute mark through the end of his guitar solo at 2:10. You’ll be convinced he’s a time traveler.

He begins as, basically, Elvis. But Elvis had already been around by this point, though at no point in his life was he this good at playing the guitar. But as the solo goes on you see every guitar player all the way to today. You can see shades of Jimi Hendrix, of Bruce Springsteen, of Eddie Van Halen, of Jack White. You can see things that would impress me on stage today.

Forget Marty McFly inspiring Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry was still ahead of his time when “Back to the Future” came out in 1985. There are some guitar players who should be studying old videos of his performances right now.

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup — “That’s All Right”

This isn’t a rock and roll song. It’s pretty clearly the blues. But I’m including it for two reasons. First, I want to emphasize that Elvis stole pretty much all his early music from Black people. He also covered Crudup’s “So Glad You’re Mine” and “My Baby Left Me,” because why not keep dipping into that well?

Second, Crudup is the quintessential example that, when white people stole rock and roll from Black people, they literally stole it. They didn’t just start playing it, too; Black people didn’t get to keep it or the profits.

While Elvis shot to fame on the strength of his songs, Crudup was barely getting by. He quit recording in the mid-’50s because, to quote the man himself, “I realized I was making everybody rich, and here I was poor.”

Reduced to working as a laborer and bootlegging to make ends meet while ironically being trumpeted as “The Father of Rock and Roll,” Crudup began fighting for royalties in 1968. First a record company agreed to pay him $60,000, but at the last minute refused to sign. In 1970 activists helped him sue but he lost.

Arthur Crudup died in 1974, still barely scraping by. Elvis Presley died in 1977 in his mansion with a net worth of about $5 million, the equivalent of $22 million today.

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