The Beatles and Black Folks

My connection to the Beatles started in the very late 1970s, mainly through their solo work which then led me to their work as a collective. I was instantly impressed by all of the music I encountered. But as I embraced their magic, I also noticed that very few in the community where I lived (Laurelton, Queens NYC) shared my enthusiasm, which, initially, was a bit disheartening. Over time, I began to understand why The Beatles received this level of indifference from Black folks.

During the 1960s, Beatlemania existed concurrently with the rise of the Motown Sound. The inner cities of the U.S. were grooving to the sounds of the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and the rest of the Motortown Revue. It was, as Motown itself phrased it, the “Sound Of Young America.” But it was also without a doubt, the “Sound Of Young Black America.” These were the same brothers and sisters who seemingly didn’t pay a lot of attention to Beatlemania.

To date, the Beatles have never placed a single on the Billboard R&B singles charts. In terms of the R&B album listings, only Abbey Road would be able to chart. It peaked at number 38. Considering that the album chart itself had only 50 slots, Abbey Road’s performance on that chart was totally unimpressive. The first time that any member of the Beatles appeared on the R&B charts was in 1982 when Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on the track “Ebony and Ivory.” It would be the first of numerous duets that McCartney would record with prominent Black artists.

To be clear, I am in no way implying that Black folks didn’t dig the Beatles. But those Billboard stats don’t lie. Elvis Presley would also experience a similar fate, as he would stop having R&B chart hits in 1963. It’s no surprise that both the Beatles and Elvis would experience this kind of lockout on the R&B charts at a time when the musical tastes of African Americans were being defined by Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the various Stax/Volt artists.

These artists and many others were not only shaping the musical tastes of Black folks but were also shaping their cultural outlook. All of this was happening against the backdrop of a civil rights movement that was kicking into high gear (McCartney was inspired by civil rights activists in writing “Blackbird”). This process came to a head in 1968, when James Brown released “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).”

Indeed, it seems that Black folks dig when other Black artists cover the Beatles (Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” are standout examples) way more than the original versions.

This very article was partly inspired by the story of how the Beatles refused to play for segregated audiences during the peak of Beatlemania. Lennon once stated, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now.” McCartney recalls refusing to play a 1964 show in Jacksonville, FL that had a segregated audience: “It felt wrong. We said, ‘We’re not doing that! ‘” Ultimately, the Fab Four won out.

While the footage of the band during this time, particularly their performance at Shea Stadium in NYC, is pretty familiar, it’s admittedly difficult to find Black folks in the audience. The same is true for their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It’s baffling that a band that showcased the influence of numerous early rock & roll giants (Little Richard and Chuck Berry among them) ran into a cultural brick wall in terms of their appeal to African Americans.

While their absence on the R&B charts may not tell the whole story, it represents a conundrum: the biggest band of the 20th century seemed to encounter a barrier when it came to appealing to the segment of American society largely credited with influencing that same band.

Overall, my love for The Beatles will never waver. Their constant creativity and innovation within the span of 6 1/2 years will always speak for itself. But the question of why they seem to underwhelm Black folks will always be in the back of my mind. Partially because it’s a question that has never been addressed to my satisfaction. If this article sparks a substantive conversation about this particular subject, so be it….and “Let It Be.”

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