Friday, February 24, 2012
The Beatles and R&B
However, as I've been immersing myself in R&B this past year, I've been surprised by the extent to which the influence was mutual--the Beatles' influence is clearly felt in R&B. Not in cover versions, although legends like Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all covered Lennon/McCartney tunes during the 1960s.
The Beatles weren't influencing R&B during the early 60's--when they themselves were aping the genre. It was only after the band left behind their early, more insistently rhythmic music that the influence filtered back. It was the studio-based, baroque and psychedelic Beatles--the Beatles of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"--whose music altered American R&B.
It was connecting a couple anecdotes that led me to recognize R&B's embrace of the Beatles. The first was about Otis Redding. In the months before his death, Redding became obsessed with Sgt. Pepper's. He had previously covered the Beatles,* but this was different. He channeled Pepper's psychedelic sounds in writing "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of A Bay"--a song whose pensive beauty resembles "Strawberry Fields Forever." "Dock Of A Bay" was drastically different from anything Redding had previously written. Different enough that Stax was reluctant to release it at all. Otis, of course, knew better: he predicted the song was a number one hit, although he didn't live long enough to see that come true himself.
A couple years later at Stax, Booker T found himself so inspired by Abbey Road that he and the MG's recorded an entire album of Abbey Road covers. They called it McLemore Avenue--where the Stax studio was--and that's the album cover, at the top of the post.
The second anecdote is about Richard Pegue, a Chicago DJ who ran the Nickel and Penny record labels. The wonderful work of Pegue's labels was recently excavated by the Numero Group. In that release's liner notes, it mentions that Pegue's record collection featured lots of British Pop, including several Beatles LPs. The influence is clear on some of the later cuts on the reissue, when Pegue began using colorful production techniques in his R&B.
This was more broadly true of R&B acts. Stevie Wonder--who hit number one with a cover of "We Can Work It Out" in 1970--took the studio-as-instrument and synthesizer to astounding places. These were sounds that the Beatles and producer George Martin helped introduce into the pop vocabulary. Stevie's Motown colleague Norman Whitfield, in his work with the Temptations and the Undisputed Truth, was transforming R&B into something as psychedelic as anything from Magical Mystery Tour.
By the early 70's studio experimentation had taken firmly taken hold in R&B. So had the album format, as opposed to the barrage of singles. Credit to that goes to Isaac Hayes more than the Beatles. But it's clear that Hayes was listening to the Beatles--he does a ten-minute version of "Something" on the brilliant Isaac Hayes Movement, and his sophisticated arrangements and multipart songs recall Abbey Road's medley.
I don't want to overstate this case. Psychedelic ideas were in the air. The Beatles were a gateway to those sounds for music fans like Richard Pegue, others in the R&B world. But they weren't the only one (Sly & the Family Stone were another crucial gateway group). And the Beatles were hardly the main influence on late 60's and early 70's R&B. That'd be James Brown, who flipped the Fab Four's trajectory on its head and placed all his emphasis on the rhythm.
But it's a story with a nice circularity. That the Beatles, the world's biggest and most revered rock band, were able to inspire a few new sounds in a genre from which they took so much.
*The Beatles, for their part, had shown their admiration by sending limos to pick up Otis and other Stax performers from the airport during a British tour. And--though this seems ridiculous and it's hard to find documentation for this--Wikipedia and other sites report that the Beatles bowed and kissed the ring of Stax guitarist Steve Cropper.