The Beatles and Black Artists

In the 1990’s, I was talking with a younger man who was the Music Director of one of the radio stations where we worked.  He said he wasn’t sure he could like The Beatles, because they “used songs by black artists to become popular.”

That’s the kind of impression a younger person could get if they don’t know the real story.  Besides the fact some white artists were used to popularize songs by black artists in the ’50’s, this type of thinking might be attributed to the popularity of “Twist & Shout”.

                   My worn out copy of “Twist And Shout” from 1964.

There is a misconception that The Isley Brothers originated the song, but it was written by professional songwriters Phil Medley and Bert Russell, and was first recorded in 1961 by the Top Notes.  It was not a hit.  The Isley Brothers covered it in 1962 in an R&B/Pop style and it hit #17 on the Billboard singles chart.

Before they were popular, The Beatles were listening to all the U.S. records they could get their hands on.  Like all new bands, their live shows were filled with songs by their favorite artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and American “Girl Group” songs like “Baby It’s You”, “Please Mister Postman” and “Boys”.

After having hits in England with songs they’d written, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”, The Beatles recorded their first album, Please Please Me.  They had four songs completed, and then on February 11th, 1963 they recorded another ten songs they needed to fill out the album, and they did it in just 13-hours!  Six of the fourteen songs were ones they didn’t write (cover songs), including “Twist And Shout”.

The Beatles’ version of “Twist And Shout” is an all-out rocker that adds muscle and excitement to the song.  Some may prefer the R&B/Pop style of the Isley Brothers, and that’s okay.  In fact, like The Beatles and The Stones, we can like both of them.

The Beatles only released self-written songs as singles, and never intended to have “Twist And Shout” as a single.  However, the record company that had the rights to the Please Please Me album in the U.S., Tollie, saw how popular The Beatles became in 1964, and chose to release “Twist And Shout”.  It was a major hit (#2, held out of #1 by “Can’t Buy Me Love”).

So, I pointed out this kind of information to my friend and co-worker.  I showed him The Beatles rose to popularity on the strength of their own songs, and that they had written all 21 of their number one hits.  Their few scattered cover songs to hit the charts were released by U.S. record companies, and were not part of what The Beatles considered their official singles.  In England, The Beatles only had their own songs on both sides of every single.  My friend was surprised and satisfied to see how The Beatles became popular on their own merit.

Beyond that, The Beatles not only didn’t “use” black artists, they championed them.  When The Beatles came to New York, they were guest DJ’s at a radio station and could play anything they wanted.  Instead of choosing their own songs, they played songs by their favorite artists, like The Ronettes and Little Richard who were friends from their early touring days.  The Ronettes were the opening act for The Beatles’ last American tour.  By the way, The Beatles had it in their performance contract that they would not allow their audiences to be segregated.

Smokey Robinson (of The Miracles) was asked if it was okay that The Beatles recorded “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”.  He replied that he was thrilled.

In a Rolling Stone interview with Smokey Robinson and Otis Williams (of The Temptations), Robinson said The Beatles were the first huge white act to admit they listened to black music and love it.  Williams said…”I must give credit to The Beatles. . .It seemed like at that point in time white America said, ‘OK if the Beatles are checking them out, let us check them out.'”  The popularity of Motown acts and other black artists grew, and in the 1960’s Top 40 stations played a greater mix of music than ever before.

Also, it wasn’t long before other artists, black and white, were covering Beatles songs.

3 Replies to “The Beatles and Black Artists”

  1. Cant find any evidence the Beatles played black countries like in Africa Nigeria Ghana etc or west Indies. Doesn’t seem they did. South Africa was hugely white. The bets are nobody would go and see them because they were a white group. Any views.

    Editor: It’s my understanding that except for South Africa, Pop music wasn’t played in Africa until the 1980’s.

  2. They were offered 1 million to play in South Africa in early 1966. Just to play one concert. They refused because of the sanctioned apartheid. When the Lennon quote of Beatles being bigger than Jesus came out later that year SA banned all Beatles music to get back at them. Were pop or rock groups even allowed to play in African countries? This type of music and hairstyles of the performers were not looked on fondly by governments. I know they were not in South America very much.

  3. They did play Japan and The Philippines, and refused to play segregated venues in the United States. John Lennon performed (free) at The Apollo to benefit families of inmates killed at Attica State. Paul McCartney recorded “Band on the Run” in Lagos, Nigeria. All four Beatles admired, thanked, and assisted Black artists. In their early years, when they covered other artists, they mentioned them in concert and in interviews, and naively believed that the original artists would get royalties from The Beatles’ recordings and performances. They chose Black artists as opening acts, and signed Doris Troy and Billy Preston to Apple. They were absolutely guilty of the same racism that prevailed among well-intentioned white people of their time, but that’s not entirely their fault.

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