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”.
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.
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.
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.