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Posted under: Culture

5 Times White People Gentrified Songs By Black Musicians

It's very much giving raisins in the potato salad.

Celebrating Black music is a 24/7 endeavor for a lot of us, but Black Music Appreciation Month's officiated June placement is nonetheless necessary. 

Black music’s global influence is almost impossible to quantify. Even still, cultural music is often celebrated as a separate entity from the culture. 

Music history is filled with Black artistry made famous by white faces. This month is the perfect time to acknowledge the influence these often overlooked Black musicians had on some of music's most popular songs.  

“Hound Dog” -- Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

Elvis Presley is largely considered “The King.” But as Ray Charles so poignantly questioned in a 1994 interview with Bob Costas, “the king of what?"

Presley's 1956 hit, "Hound Dog" is easily one of his most famous songs. It was dubbed by Rolling Stone as 19th greatest song ever. However, the song’s history is a bit more complicated.

Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who once said they saw themselves as Black, originally wrote and gave the song to Willie "Big Mama" Thornton.

Though Thornton’s version was a hit when released, like many Black artists, her initial fame and lack of royalties contributed to her living her later years in poverty. Presley's rendition, however, took off. 

“It just sounded terribly nervous, too fast, too white," Stoller said of Presley's edition of "Hound Dog." But you know, after it sold seven or eight million records it started to sound better."

“Whole Lotta Love” -- Muddy Waters

Led Zeppelin could be considered a rock legend but he wasn’t that original. Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love” was basically a rewrite of Muddy Water’s "You Need Love," which was penned by Willie Dixon. And singer Jimmy Page would admit to the swipe. 

Zeppelin settled out of court with Dixon in a 1985 lawsuit.

“That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that...well, you only get caught when you’re successful,” he said according to Far Out magazine.

“Louie Louie” -- Richard Berry

Oldies radio mainstay, “Louie Louie” was originally written and sung by doo-wop artist and composer Richard Berry in 1955. But it’s the cover from all-white group The Kingsmen that is most remembered and used in promotion. Though Berry sold the song for a minimal amount to pay for his wedding, he struck it rich later in life when advertisers for a commercial tracked him down at his mother’s house to sign off on using the song.

It was also determined that Berry had millions of dollars of backpay that was illegally withheld from him.

Berry died in 1997 at 61, a wealthy man who still toured up until his passing.

“Tutti Frutti” -- Little Richard
“The Originator” Little Richard had been such an outrageous character and iconic musician for most of our lives it’s hard to imagine a world where he wasn’t getting his due. Richard's 1955 “Tutti Frutti” hit was instant and years later is considered a foundational element of Rock.

Predatory record deals that exploited Black art was, and still is, pervasive in the music industry. Richard sold the rights to what would become a Rock classic for $50 and he would receive only half a cent for each record sold, according to Forbes.

“I was a dumb, Black kid and my mama had 12 kids and my daddy was dead,” said Little Richard. “I wanted to help them, so I took whatever was offered, “he added.

Of course, the flamboyant, overtly sexual stylings of Little Richard weren't suitable for white-bread America. That’s why producers picked Pat Boone to sanitize the track with an unseasoned rendition just two months later. Though both versions were popular, Boone’s version would reach higher at number 12 while the highest the original hit its peak at 17. 

Richard was ultimately thankful for the exposure to a larger audience but he wasn't naive about the record labels motivations.

“They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer 'cause they liked my version better,” said Richard according to The Washington Post.

“But the families didn't want me because of the image that I was projecting,” he added.

“Sweet Little Sixteen” -- Chuck Berry

"Surfin’ USA" is a song synonymous with California sun and classic Americana. It’s also a song that was lifted from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”


The melodies are almost identical. So much so, that Berry confronted the band's manager about it.

Beach Boys manager Murray Wilson, and band leader Brian Wilson’s father, ended up turning over the copyrights to the song in order to avoid a lawsuit.

“Oops Upside Your Head” -- The Gap Band
When producer Mark Ronson teamed up with Bruno Mars, the result was the massively popular 2014 hit, “Uptown Funk.”

 Apparently the track sounded a little too much like Wilson’s “Oops Up Side Your Head.”

The song would eventually go 11x platinum but not before they had to grant Charlie Wilson and The Gap Band a 17 percent share of the hit's publishing royalties.

Black music is often imitated, but clearly, never duplicated.  

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My work is centered in narrative based social commentary and story telling. I forgot my twitter password a minute ago, but you can still tag me @ImAmandaMonroe. On IG: @moe_sizslack.