“Boogaloo” is a term author Arthur Kempton suggests as an alternative to what was conventionally described as soul music, and a word to distinguish black popular music from jazz. Boogaloo encompassed three generations of signal personalities, from Thomas A. Dorsey, the so-called Father of Gospel Music, to Sam Cooke, Motown’s Berry Gordy, Stax Record’s Al Bell, and to the ascendency of hip-hop entrepreneurs Shug Knight and Russell Simmons. Their interconnections and influence on the art and commerce of black American popular music is the theme of his book, Boogaloo: The Quintessance of American Popular Music.
In the book, Kempton reveals the tensions between the sacred and the profane at the heart of “soul music,” and the complex centrality of “Aframericans” in the evolution of our mass musical culture. What that culture is all about, who owns it, and who gets paid are issues addressed in his narrative, which Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls a “comprehensive analysis of African-American popular music” and a “deep and gorgeous meditation on its aesthetics and business.”
Kempton talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita an August, 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician interview.
“While stars of [black popular] music stood with Martin Luther King as examples of the [mysterious] black church…they were still ahead of him in crossing over to a mass white audience.”
– Historian Taylor Branch
JJM What is “boogaloo,” and how did it get to be the term used to describe much of African American popular music?
AK Boogaloo was both a hit record and a dance. It was a hit record in 1965 by a rather minor Chicago clownish lounge act called Tom and Jerrio, and it was a coast-to-coast dance sensation among the black youth at the time. Later on — in the late sixties — some people began referring to “boogaloo” as an alternative term for what was then conventionally described as soul music. It was a word that distinguished black popular music from jazz, and has been used by many ever since. It was also used by the Latin fusion musicians of the late sixties, who named their particular genre of music after dance styles. So, Latin Boogaloo became a style of salsa in the late sixties. Soul music, in its original incarnation, referred to a particular style of rhythm and blues — a term coined by Jerry Wexler when he was working for Billboard magazine. Boogaloo is basically just a term that refers to rhythm and blues and soul music.
JJM Your study of boogaloo reveals much about American culture. The book traces a path from Thomas Dorsey to Sam Cooke to Berry Gordy of Motown to Stax Records to George Clinton to Shug Knight, over a seventy-five year period. I am curious about the bookend personalities, Dorsey and Knight. They have anything at all in common?
AK None really that I have thought about. The music business and the relationship of these various characters in the music business is a theme that extends across the entire book. So, if they have anything in common at all, it is in the fact that Dorsey was a student of his game — the music business — before there were any rules, and Shug Knight is as also a student of his game. Both men, to some degree, were masters of certain aspects of the business environments of their respective eras, but as characters, I don’t feel they have a lot in common. Dorsey was legitimately a breakthrough artist with a significant amount of social importance, given the effect of his work. It would be hard to say the same thing for Shug Knight, who is not an artist at all, but rather an entrepreneur of sorts.
JJM When did singing become a socially approved pastime among black men?
AK I would say it dates all the way back to the post-civil war South. During that period most of the barbers in the South were black men, and in fact the origin of the barber shop quartet comes from there. Then, as a part of the sacred music context in the post-civil war South, gospel quartets and other male singing groups came together. It became a socially respectable form of male recreation in established black society during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and extending into the twentieth.
JJM Thomas Dorsey wrote for and performed with blues singer Ma Rainey. What made him turn from Ma Rainey to writing songs of hope and faith?
AK Above and beyond everything else, apart from his extraordinary love of performance, Dorsey was a songwriter. One of the things that is easy to forget is that religious music was an extremely important strand of commercial music in the twenties, particularly in the black American context, and Dorsey straddled both worlds. He led a life in which he was knee deep in the commercial music world, training blues musicians and arranging music for Ma Rainey and Hank Williams recordings. At the same time, he married a woman who was a wardrobe mistress for Ma Rainey — a respectable southern girl who had a life in church. Dorsey’s career was always fed by a series of creative crisis and nervous breakdowns. He always kept a foot in respectable black society, and that always involved the church. Because songwriting was his paramount interest, writing church music was an outlet for him to make it in the music business.
The great thing about Dorsey and a key to his contribution was that he distinguished between sacred and secular music. After he was exclusively writing church music and had become a major figure in the Afro-Christian world, he never disavowed anything he had done in the field of popular music — even a salacious double entendre record like “It’s Tight Like That,” which was a great hit party record of its era. He spent several years performing as Georgia Tom with Tampa Red, while at the same time writing and performing religious music.
JJM In fact, you write of Dorsey, “You couldn’t help but think of churches as just another theatrical workplace where he catered for a particular clientele the menu he had chosen from his varied bill of faire.” How did Dorsey’s work impact the experience of attending church?
AK It was extraordinarily significant in the development of black church music, and also in the socialization of the urban black church. When Thomas Dorsey broke into the black church world in Chicago, the music being performed in the mainstream black churches of the North were for the most part choral European masterworks. You had this whole compilation of conservatory-trained black composers and musicians who couldn’t get jobs anywhere other than in these big churches. And what these conservatories did was train people to sing Bach, basically. This was what was considered to be respectable in the Sunday worship service. At the same time, as migrants pushed up from the South, they were hungry for music they were familiar with. For the most part, they were shunted aside. What Dorsey did was make the profane respectable in the highest black churches, first in Chicago and then all over the country. By doing so, he opened them up in a serious way to this new population they were still trying to figure out how to serve. In that way he helped churches maintain their relevance for the up-South migrants who were beginning to constitute more and more of their congregation.
JJM Did white audiences accept gospel music?
AK White audiences didn’t hear it. The black church music white audiences were exposed to, for the most part, were Negro spirituals that the Fisk Singers or the Tuskeegee Choir performed while on tour. The Negro spirituals were white America’s idea of black church music. But for the most part, this was a strand of commercial black music that was not exposed to white audiences.
JJM Mahalia Jackson changed that, didn’t she?
AK She did to some extent yes. It’s interesting that you mention Mahalia because one of her big hits in 1949, “I Will Move On Up A Little Higher,” sold a million copies, yet white people never heard it. So, white people became conscious of Mahalia Jackson in the fifties when she was signed to Columbia Records and she became, to some extent, middle America’s idea of black church music.
JJM You describe Sam Cooke as the “sort of adolescent who was rarely overlooked by adults in the business of being interested in young people.” What was his cultural appeal?
AK Some of his appeal had to do with the emergence of the youth market — which began in the early and middle sixties — when a whole generation of white kids no longer listened to the music that their parents listened to, and became attracted to the black music they were hearing on the radio. What has tended to be consistently true in pop music is that when there is no music being made by white kids for the consumption of other white kids, black music has always filled the vacuum, as it does even today. So, Sam Cooke, who was a big star in the gospel world as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, and who was movie star handsome, was actually credited with bringing young adolescent black females to Soul Stirrers performances at a time when youth were not generally attending church. What he did that was so critically important in terms of commodifying black popular music was “crack the code” on how a black male singer could safely reside in the romantic imaginations of white teenage girls. This had to do with his vocal qualities, the material he presented to them, his clean-cut good looks and the way they were marketed to a white audience.
JJM You say that his audience identified in his voice “hope and uplift” and that white adolescents heard it as being “winsome and youthful” as well.
AK What I was suggesting is that hope and uplift were identifiable in his voice by gospel audiences who heard him. He was a different kind of a gospel singer than any of the other stars in that business. In a sense, he was a modernist in a field that was becoming increasingly antique as the golden age of gospel music began to fade into what became soul music. His lightness of tone was understood by white teenagers as being winsome. Part of what Sam Cooke presented as an image — both vocally and visually — was that of a black person with whom white adolescents who normally did not come into contact with black people could safely associate with. In a more fraught context, he played the romantic lead to young white females, which obviously in the middle fifties was extremely dangerous. The fact that he was able to pull that off is what I mean when I say he “cracked the code.” That was the cross-over code. It was the holy grail, basically, for every laborer in the vineyard of black popular music.
JJM He was successful quelling the anxieties about integrated audiences.
AK Yes. One of the things I do in the book is contrast Cooke with Jackie Wilson, who was a contemporary in some respects with a kind of parallel career, but who exuded sexuality in a way that made him very threatening to white audiences and catnip to black female audiences. But Jackie Wilson could not have had the career that Sam Cooke had in that respect because he simply would have gotten arrested.
JJM I was doing an interview with Jazz Modernism author Alfred Appel recently, and he was talking about how Louis Armstrong used scat singing and singing in code to his black audience to make it clear to the white audience that he wasn’t trying to sing romantically to white females. It is possible that Wilson, in the pop music field, may have threatened the white audience, whereas Sam Cooke did not.
AK That is absolutely right. This is a burden that every black male performer in any popular art form in this country has had to negotiate. Denzel Washington had to just as Sidney Poitier did before him. Sam Cooke figured out how to do it in music.
JJM Following the chapter on Sam Cooke, you write extensively about Motown, a label whose sound appeared to have been crafted to appeal to a clean-cut white audience. How did Berry Gordy discover the formula for mass-producing black music that whites bought?
AK I wouldn’t necessarily say the Motown sound was consciously developed to appeal to a white audience, but Berry Gordy was the great pioneer, the mass commodifier of black culture. A lot of what he did had to do with the quality of what he produced. It is interesting for me to see people’s reactions to my portrayal of Gordy and Motown in the book. One reviewer, for example, said I liked Stax Records more than I liked Motown. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I am a huge admirer of Berry Gordy. I believe he is a twentieth century industrialist as great in his way as Andrew Carnegie or Rockefeller was in theirs. He did set out to sell his music to a young white audience, and did so without compromising the music, but by figuring out the market place. For example, one of the things Gordy did was mix those records so they sounded good on car radios. So, I don’t think it was particularly an issue of trying to make music for white people, but of understanding that the music he was making and the way he was making it could be sold to white people. Some of that had to do with Motown establishing its foothold in the early sixties, right before the so-called British Invasion when there wasn’t much music being made by young white people for young white people. His commercial consciousness was extraordinarily well attuned to the general American culture, and part of that had to do with Gordy’s own aspirations. After all, he was a man who got a crush on Doris Day after seeing her in the movies. He always had a very clear sense of where the culture in this country was headed, and possessed an extraordinarily shrewd attunement how to market the music he was producing.
JJM How did the British pop invasion change the economics of boogaloo, and how did Gordy react to that?
AK The Beatles upped the ante for everyone, particularly in terms of the value of publishing, which was of paramount interest to Gordy, as it was to Dorsey and Cooke before him. They all realized that the “real estate” in the music business was in publishing. The Beatles and the British Invasion expanded the value of the market significantly. The value of “crossing over” became evident, with the possibility of selling three times as many copies of the same record to white people as black people simply on the basis of the numbers involved. By 1968, Gordy was selling seventy percent of his records to white people. It is a tribute to the strength of his product that Motown was essentially the only home grown American music that for several years withstood the British Invasion. As I said before, there wasn’t a lot of music produced by white people that white kids wanted to buy. When the British Invasion came in and changed that, Gordy got bigger. This had to do with the extraordinary quality that Motown produced. From my point of view, there has never been anything like it before or since. One of the things that Gordy understood is that while other people were selling records, he was building a brand, and he built Motown into one of the three most recognized American brands in the world, right up there with Coca Cola and McDonalds.
JJM How did the televising of the civil rights movement impact the way white consumers bought music?
AK For those of us around to witness this period, the civil rights movement unfolded as a daily ongoing drama on the six o’clock news. It introduced a whole generation of white American youth to an image of southern black Americans that, for the most part, was quite heroic and noble. I suspect that in certain parts of this country, outside of what they heard on the radio, it was the first time that white kids had any exposure to black Americans at all. This opened them up to the possibilities of understanding those who they may have previously regarded as alien, and understanding the basic humanity involved in their struggle.
Because the black music coming out of Motown, Stax and others of the era was mostly relationship-based in terms of its lyrical content, it entered the emotional lives of white youth in ways that dovetailed with what they saw on television. There was a kind of symbiotic effect on the psychology of the white youth of the mid-sixties who were simultaneously exposed to the civil rights movement on television, and to the black music of the era — particularly Motown — on the radio.
JJM What effect did the songs of Motown have on how men viewed love?
AK From my point of view it had a very real effect on my emotional landscape as well as many of those I knew at the time. Since sixty percent of the people who bought records at that time were female, so much of the lyrical content had to do with men basically trying to apologize to women in affectionate terms. The basis of the music had to do with relationships, which is very different, it seems to me, from today. The emotional content taught the adolescent males of that era something about feelings, loss, and things they otherwise might have had difficulty addressing.
JJM Yes, at one point in the book you wrote, “Males in emotional disarray featured prominently on the soundtrack of black adolescent lives. This had a tenderizing effect on a generation of man children as conversant as today’s is with the player’s code that affirms as its cardinal precept that ‘all bitches are whores.'” A little bit different message being communicated.
AK That is about right. That player’s code coexisted with a popular music that really was about feelings at some level, so there was more of an emotional balance. I don’t think that balance exists today. I don’t hear much that is about relationships and emotional content in the music today.
JJM Concerning Stax Records, you describe Al Bell’s marketing of the Memphis based label as “sociological.” What do you mean by that?
AK I think this is in reference to what he called the “Mississippi River culture.” Bell understood that it was the children of the migrant generation who were inhabiting American cities in the South and Midwest. He was making music in Memphis, which in a sense is the capital city of Mississippi, and his precept was that he could sell those records by moving through St. Louis, up the River and into Chicago, expanding his market that way. One of the things that Bell understood is that in order to cross a record over into the white market you had to establish a black market first. While he was a great admirer of Berry Gordy, the nature of the music Stax was producing was an inherently Southern flavor, and he understood the way to sell it was to move it through certain markets in a certain sequence, and he did very well at that.
JJM Who best exemplified the sound of Stax?
AK From my point of view, Otis Retting became emblematic of the sound of Stax. There was a group called the Soul Children who were a particular creation of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who in many respects best exemplified the sound of Stax, but Otis Redding became emblematic of it. In some respects the consistent element in that sound was the house band, which sort of underpinned all of those artists.
JJM It is a bit ironic that the Stax house band was made up mostly of white musicians, and their music was geared primarily for the black audience, and the reverse could be said for Motown.
AK To some degree, yes, although I would say that Motown was an uncompromised black music, so I would never say that Motown was made for whites. In terms of those musicians, there is a place in which the music that is native to white Southerners and black Southerners meets. For instance, there are stories about how when Ray Charles was a kid in Florida, all that he had to listen to on the radio was the Grand Ol Opry. The same was true of Isaac Hayes when he was growing up in Tennessee. Those white kids that played in the Stax house band grew up playing country music on the one hand, while on the other they stood outside black nightclubs trying to get in to listen to that music as well. It is true that the Dixie Flyers, the house band in Muscle Shoals — which was another major recording center for black music in the South — was also pretty much white. So, yes, it is kind of ironic in one sense, but not necessarily an aberration.
JJM You speculate that had Otis Redding lived he would have been a pop star of giant magnitude. Why?
AK In some ways, Redding stepped into the vacuum that Sam Cooke left. In 1967 and 1968, he was hugely popular with a young white audience. To some extent, the rawer sounds of Memphis were more appealing to the white youth of that period, some of whom began to look at Motown as formulaic and as a bit of a factory. Redding had an extremely appealing persona. He was coming along at a time when the youth’s exposure to the civil rights movement — therefore to the Southern Negro — was at its height. He was emblematic of that. My sense is that his career was moving to a place where, arguably, he would have been more popular among the white audience in another five years than among a black audience.
JJM And like Cooke, he was a symbol of racial conciliation.
AK Yes, that is right.
JJM You wrote that Al Bell of Stax was a “sucker for urban outlaw mystique.” Was Stax Records the model for modern day hip-hop labels?
AK In some ways, perhaps. The Stax story is sort of a parable of the way that the big conglomerates began to relate to smaller independent black enterprises, and it reveals the way CBS Records pioneered the business of predatory partnerships with smaller labels. On one hand, the demise of Stax had to do with the overreaching of its management, but on the other hand, its fall can be tied to it being the first example of a big record company taking apart an independent, thriving, identifiably black record company. That is relevant to the modern music business of today because all of the hip-hop entrepreneurs are partners with conglomerates. They all got into in the music business under the auspices of the five or six multinational conglomerates, resulting in what I call “sharecropping in wonderland.” This, by the way, is in contrast with how Berry Gordy operated, who never had partners, which was another of his great achievements.
Al Bell relied a great deal on Johnny Bailor, who was a gangster from New York, basically, and who became the head of promotion at Stax. Bailor’s relationship with Bell eventually became the instrument of his undoing. Bell in some respects was a naïve, preacherly, and ideological man who came to understand the value of what guys like Bailor could do for him in a predatory business. So, in that sense I think you are right, that what happened to Stax presaged, in some ways, the way the contemporary music business is run.
JJM How did hip-hop become boogaloo’s predominant form?
AK That began to happen in 1979, and took hold in the early eighties. The music of the classic boogaloo era ran from 1961 to 1977, when it simply petered out. As a result, there was this new energy percolating pretty much unmediated from the urban black street. Combine this with a variety of other things going on in the culture and by 1990, hip-hop had come to dominate the radio. So-called R&B became a vestigial and degraded form. A lot of it had to do with what got played on the radio and with the economics of the business. One of the things that should not be underestimated about hip-hop is how cheap it is to produce, and how high the profit margins are. Instead of having to spend six figures on a record in the studio, it is a music that can essentially be made in the basement of somebody’s home, so it is a much more economical way of making and getting a product to the marketplace. I think most of that process had to do with what was going on in the culture.
JJM You mentioned something earlier about how the major multinational conglomerates who distribute music — the Sony’s and the WEA’s of the world — are connected with the distribution of hip-hop. Some do it willingly, others do so at the peril of how society views the art, therefore the business relationship is scrutinized. What also happened as a result of the economics of producing hip-hop is that there was a real growth in the number of independent labels unrestrained by societal boundaries, and whose music became very popular. This presented a business challenge to the multinationals who wanted to cash in on the market, but understood by doing so would potentially alienate a society who consumes their other goods. The music from the era of Stax and Motown did not pose socially challenging problems or communicate politically incorrect messages multinationals had to run from. Today, other factors come into play.
AK There have certainly been instances where big companies have had to back off of relationships they had with some of these producers — particularly in the late eighties and early nineties — but there is so much money involved that the big corporations can’t back away from it. I just think the hip-hop business is a lot like drug money — not in terms of its moral import — but in terms of the amount of money that can be made with a relatively small investment, and how quickly it can be made. My sense is that the corporations really can’t back off. When the gangsta-rap thing went through periods when it was too hot for certain corporations to handle, somebody else always picked it up.
JJM Interscope is a good example of that.
AK Yes, and who does Interscope belong to? Universal. There is a huge amount of money at stake. What I find interesting about the business side of it is that the hip-hop entrepreneurs know they must eventually get into business with the conglomerates because there is no other way to do succeed. The smartest of all of these guys is Russell Simmons, who understood that Def Jam is in the lifestyle business. He makes a lot of money selling clothes. Puffy Combs is probably making more money on clothes than on music.
JJM I know we are entering a part of the conversation where we are sounding like moldy figs. Echoes of my father’s voice scolding me about the music I listened to in the sixties are everywhere as I say this, but my sense is that the music today’s youth culture is exposed to leaves them melody-starved.
AK I agree, it is melody-starved. One of the things I always question is what music do young listeners fall in love to? The music of the seventies was the exclusive province of the sound engineers, and it is very interesting from a sociological perspective to see where the music went once the street kids got a hold of the technology. I don’t believe there is anything emotionally satisfying about the music. What interests me about it is what it says about the culture, because I happen to think that black urban youth — being less insulated than middle class whites — are the canaries in the coal mine of American culture. What you see and what you hear in this music you can pretty much guarantee is going to permeate the whole culture.
There have only been two times in my lifetime when music has percolated up from the street, unmediated into the mainstream. The first was the doo-wop era of the late fifties, which one could argue prepared a generation of white kids in big American cities for the civil rights movement. They discovered music that they loved and became interested in the people behind the voices they heard on the radio. Hip-hop is the second instance, and I wonder, without having an answer, what it is preparing this generation of white kids for. Because I don’t think suburban white kids who buy hip-hop — particularly gangsta rap — have any interest in knowing who the people behind the voices are. It is a theme park, and it goes along with the video games where kids can pretend to be thugs and gangsters without ever leaving their rooms, which is an interesting social phenomenon.
The Quintessance of American Popular Music
About Arthur Kempton
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
AK Willie Mays. I was born in 1949, and my father was a New York Giants fan. I was introduced to the greatness of Mays when I was five or six years old, and he so strikingly epitomized the vivid artist that my young eyes had seen. I spent much of my childhood living and dying by what Mays did in the box score.
JJM So you viewed Mays as an artist.
AK Yes, as I understood that term when I was six or seven. I developed other heroes, particularly musical heroes. Bessie Smith was very important to me when I was ten years old. I used to write her lyrics on my schoolbooks. To some degree, my sense of aesthetics was formed by Lester Young.
Arthur Kempton was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and received a B.A. in English from Harvard. He has been a radio disk jockey, deputy superintendent of Boston’s public school system, and an educational consultant. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Arthur Kempton products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on August 27, 2003
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Dixie Hummingbirds biographer Jerry Zolten.