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 well-worn single of “Twist And Shout” from 1964)

There is a misconception that The Isley Brothers originated the song.  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.

By the way, The Beatles performed another Isley Brothers’ song, “Shout”, which the Isley Brothers wrote.  The Beatles sang it on a television special in 1964.  They were obviously fans of the Isley’s.

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.  The Beatles had it in their performance contract that they would not allow their audiences to be segregated.

(My 1969 record with a photo of Billy Preston)

The only artist The Beatles ever added to their name on a single was Billy Preston, a friend from their time playing in Hamburg, Germany in the early ‘60’s.  Preston made an extremely positive impact on the sessions for the album that became Let It Be, and his keyboard solos in “Get Back” show he deserved the billing.  The Beatles signed Preston to Apple Records.

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.  (Update:  Now it’s been included on the newly remixed Red Album.)

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.'”  During the 1960’s, Top-40 stations played a greater mix of music than ever before.

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

7 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.

    1. Dino, the Beatles went to Trinidad and Tobago and there is a famous picture of John and Ringo being entertained by Trinidad’s first Prime Minister, Eric Williams. George Martin told me that he had been in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force when he was 17 and had been posted to Trinidad, which he loved. He told the Beatles how much he liked it and they went to visit. Apart from the fact that their first manager, the “written out of Rock n Roll history” brilliant Harold Phillips (aka Lord Woodbine) taught them a lot about guitar chords, paid for them to go to Hamburg the first time and coached them in stagecraft, John’s first ever composition was “Rock n Roll Calypso. The Beatles loved Black music and Black musicians and it is notable that the only “extra” musician seen in a Beatles video is Billy Preston, whom they first met and befriended in Hamburg. Many black musicians credit the Beatles and Stones for spreading their music around and bringing it to the notice of white people, in spite of the fact that white owned radio stations in America would not play Black music. When Chuck Berry released Maybelline, his voice did not sound particularly Black (in the way that Muddy Waters or Howlin’ wolf did) so the white stations played it…until they found out that Berry was a Black man and then they pulled it from their radio stations. No sir, the Beatles were pioneers for black artists to be heard and we British teenagers could not get enough of the real thing after we heard the Beatles and Stones’s versions.

      Editor: Thank you for the excellent information.

  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.

    1. And once again Americans got Lennon’s comment completely out of context. About one third of the world’s people are Christian and this percentage has been maintained for about the last hundred years or so. In 1966 there were about 3 and a quarter billion people on earth and about a billion were Christians (but not necessarily “practicing Christians”). When Lennon said incautiously “we’re bigger than Jesus” he was referring to the hysteria surrounding their fame and he was not being disrespectful, but just amazed by their fans fanaticism. As, in fact there were South East Asians, Japanese and other groups who were non Christian who loved the Beatles but did not attend Christian religious practices, Lennon was right. They were indeed bigger than Jesus in terms of fame but in a commercial sense. Millions of Americans threw their albums onto bonfires ” in solidarity” with their outraged colleagues, only to buy them again in secret, after the scandal had ceased to be a big deal. In the UK we shrugged our shoulders and put the album on one more time to enjoy the world’s best band.

      Editor: Having lived through it here in America, it was almost exclusively in the Deep South that some Americans didn’t get it, and it might have been “thousands” instead of “millions”. I think most young Beatles fans just took it in stride like you said it was in the UK. The exposure in the media made it look like a bigger deal than it was. Beatles fans certainly bought Revolver, which was the newest release at that time. It’s the second-highest selling regular Beatles album, trailing only Sgt. Pepper. Thanks for your input.

  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.

  4. The biggest load of racist rip off crap was Pat Boone singing more than a few of Little Richard’s hit. If you can watch him singing Tootie Frutie and clicking his fingers, it’s hilarious.

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