Friday, February 24, 2012

The Beatles and R&B

It's not news that the Beatles began their recording career heavily indebted to black American music. Early rock and roll, R&B and the blues were all important ingredients of their sound, as Anglicized as it was (the Beatles were probably less shameless in their appropriation of these genres than most of their peers). Anyways, a quick listen to their earlier recordings, or glance at the covers they recorded, reveals that R&B had made an impact in Liverpool.

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.


  1. Those examples of reflexive genre cross-pollination are really fascinating--obviously the Beatles were highly influential to many genres but there's something particularly about their contributions to R&B, that psychedelic sheen, that as you say really paves the way for long-form R&B experimentalists like Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Sly, etc.

    You rightly point out that, more generally, "psychedelic ideas were in the air" and lately I've been wondering about another possible classic rock/R&B connection, and maybe you can shine more light on this. Specifically, I've been wondering about whether there was some sort of mutual recognition between the psychedelic 60s bands (of "Nuggets" fame) and Northern soul artists. Northern Soul seems to be harsher, more ragged and high-tempo than the pristine stuff coming out of Motown, etc., and a lot of that stuff rocks in a manner not unlike the best "Nuggets" rough-edged garage classics. There have been a few times recently when I'm listening to something like the Exciters and a bass line appears that sounds like it could have been dropped from an E-Types or Electric Prunes single. What cements the connection even further is that they are two subgenres heavily dominated by singles artists. Have you ever perceived a relationship between the Nuggets bands and the edgier dance-funk musicians of the late 60s/early 70s (or maybe I am just imagining this)?

  2. Never considered a connection between 60's garage and Northern soul. There's definitely a lot of parallels.

    For one, the recording process for both genres was probably similar. Generally, they were using mediocre equipment (no 8-tracks for these guys), cutting tracks in one take, for regional labels. That probably accounts for a lot of the roughness that people love in that stuff so much--they didn't have the means or technology to fuck around in the studio like Sly or the Beatles.

    There's a similarity as well in the culture that's grown up around this music. People spend their lives and huge fortunes hunting down Northern soul and Nuggets. Both genres are weirdly inexhaustible.

    And both only became genres after their golden period. Nobody talked about Nuggets or Northern soul in the 60's--those terms didn't exist. People probably just considered them rock and roll or soul, and I'm sure they were usually considered bad knockoffs. Lenny Kaye and English R&B fans had to "create" the genres, like how French dudes "created" film noir by simply labeling existing movies as a genre.

  3. The song Proud Mary was initially recorded by the excellent rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival and was composed by lead artist and guitarist John Fogerty. more info