Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music

By Arthur Kempton

Review by Mark in the TLS November 2003

“Can blue men sing the whites?” was once a standby rock’n’roll wisecrack. The witty phrase evokes something of the curious and psychologically complex malaise that runs though the history of American and much British popular music: the white musician’s romance with funk and the ache of the blues, and the contrasting black musician’s cultivation of  the dominant culture’s aesthetics. For Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger, pelvic thrust and teasing pout were symptoms of their respective infection by what bluesman Dr. Ross called the ”Boogie disease”.. They were drawn to something that was vital and exotic, both more spiritual and sexual than their own safer cultural traditions.   From the other side of the distorting mirror, starry-eyed blacks bent on success straightened their hair, took lessons in deportment and dreamed of being Frank Sinatra or Doris Day. Strange dreams indeed….

Although the white appropriation of black style paid off commercially the driving motivation was mainly artistic. From the other side of the tracks, the drive to ‘whiten’ black musical manners was driven by a desire to tap into the majority of the market, as well as a deep and understandable insecurity that stemmed from being considered fundamentally inferior.

The African-American (or “Aframerican” as the author would have it) side of this story provides one of the main strands of Arthur Kempton’s “Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music”,  a fascinating and often original addition to the extensive literature, academic, journalistic and biographical which covers this complex territory.  The book’s title, originally coined to describe a short-lived dance-trend in the 1960’s, but later used more widely as a label for black popular music, is an apt choice: ‘boogaloo’ with its vaguely onomatopoeic evocation of the jungle, is the mot juste for the shifting cultural space in which ‘negritude’ ( a term which Kempton uses in both straight and ironic mode) could be a source shame as well as pride, or just a marketing tool to promote the thrill and threat of ‘Other’

Kempton focuses on a small number of key players – Thomas Dorsey, Sam Cooke, Berry Gordy and Suge Knight – embedding their respective stories in an evolving and well-described social and political context. All four managed to find ways of escaping from what Kempton vividly describes as a “plantation system” controlled by white businessmen.

Thomas Dorsey, who vacillated between the proselytising spirit of gospel and the double-entendre of salacious blues, was the first black musician to fully understand the importance of music publishing, as well as getting rich with it.  Sam Cooke started as a sanctified singer, crossed over into pop and played a crucial role in developing the secular version of gospel known as ‘soul’. Cooke whose “sense of dignity”, as Kempton puts it, “proscribed pelvic thrusting” aimed at breaking into the night-club circuit, not least the Copacabana, “citadel of low white culture”, and modelled himself on Sinatra and other white crooners. But he also flirted with the Nation of Islam, and created his own record company to make music aimed at black audiences, without having recourse to the adulteration required by the mainstream white youth market.

Berry Gordy, moved from unsuccessful pimping to setting up the Motown empire, an independent black-owned recording and publishing enterprise, through which he fostered talent as much as he ruthlessly exploited it, in the manner of white music biz moguls, and the black pimps whom he’d known on the street.

The success of these black pioneers spurred others on, and provided alternative role models which would influence the generations that followed. Gordy’s spectacular progress was a major inspiration to Suge Knight, the violent and temperamental force behind Death Row Records, the leading label for ‘gangsta rap’. In the world of doo-rags and gold chains, real violence was mixed with a great deal of posing – something the purveyors of what was to grow into the biggest commercial success in the history of ‘boogaloo’ understood very well.

Alongside the central narrative, Kempton weaves in a number of sub-plots, from the careers of Mahalia Jackson, James Brown and Aretha Franklin to a convoluted, and at times much too detailed account of the extraordinary rise and fall of the Stax label, as well as the careers of George Clinton, Tupak Shakur and others.

Most ‘boogaloo’ people are snared in the inescapable tension between the aesthetics of the old black South  variously described as ‘country’ or ‘gutbucket’ and, beyond that, the often unspoken but very powerful legacy of Africa, and a desire for the perceived sophistication of Las Vegas, Hollywood and white suburbia. So ‘funk’ is what James Brown cooks up when “ he realised that a rich vein was to be mined in some conversations Aframericans had among themselves when white people weren’t listening”, and the gold-chained ‘outlaws’ of hip-hop and rap in the 1990’s knowingly played on the frisson that street violence – real and imagined – created in the white youth market. Times had changed, and Doris Day was no longer a role model for blacks.

As his foreword clearly demonstrates, Arthur Kempton is a fan, one of those white boys who probably longed to be black, and hung out conspicuously on the edges of the heart-lifting ‘soul’ ceremonies of the 60’s. As he writes in a moving description of the climax of a Billy Stewart show at the Harlem Apollo,  “right then I would have forsaken the rest of my life’s presumed possibilities for mere moments in possession of his gifts”. He was, as those of us who had the chance to witness concerts of this kind, touched by a kind of grace that was qualitatively different from the raw excitement generated by the white rock bands of the period.

For the most part, and at times it is a pity, Kempton leaves his passion behind, and delivers an astute and witty account of his subject, with a particular emphasis on the almost unbelievable business machinations that dominated the creation of ‘boogaloo’. His central metaphor of the pimp-whore relationship is a valid one: it is indeed embraced to this day with pride by many black entrepreneurs and musicians. Kempton’s writing swings from the literary to a style closer to the street he is writing about. He has a fondness for meandering paragraph-long sentences, that explore ideas creatively, with a plethora of criss-crossing sub-clauses that can make for sparkling reading, like listening to an unfolding of stunning improvised riffs, but the density of his thought often gets the better of him, and gets clogged up in an excess of mannerism.

In defining ‘boogaloo’, in the sub-title to his book, as the “quintessence of American popular music”, Kempton is true to the dominant liberal perspective of recent times, a view in which white popular music has drawn (or even stolen) its strength from black sources. But, arguably,  the essence of America’s popular music in the 20th century had as much to do with a continuous two-way interplay of black and white culture, from slavery days onwards: the impact of the encounter between Scots-Irish and English folk poetry and melody with West African rhythm and song and the meeting between the introspection and tragic dimension of European popular traditions and the ethical and social bias of the African arts. The results are plain to see, as the musicologist Alan Lomax, who knew black and white traditions very well, often pointed out: in bluegrass as well as in blues, in blues-tinged country as well as in country-infected ‘soul’.

Kempton is rightly angry about the exploitation of blacks by whites, and he describes very clearly the way in which income differences have widened, and the vicious circle of poverty, drugs and violence have made the life of black in the USA worse than ever before. But, culturally, and taking a long view of the music, there is another story to be told, that picks up, less combatively, on the mutual nourishment that even an exploitative relationship can foster.  But that aside, there is plenty in “Boogaloo” to set your mind and heart alight, as well as some flashes of  brilliance and originality, rare in music writing today.