Rock and Roll reflects the contemporary mood at the same time it shapes that mood along new lines. It also points up new directions for itself and its audience to explore. As far as such innovation is concerned, 1968 was a good, but not outstanding, year for black Rock and Roll.
There are now and have been for several years three overwhelmingly strong influences in black Rock and Roll. Foremost, of course, is Motown. For breadth of talent, monetary and technical resources, cross-cultural impact and sheer volume of sales, Berry Gordy's corporation is IT. In second place and trying harder is Atlantic, the parent company of the Stax-Volt labels. And all by himself, James Brown, the Culture-Hero Who Walks Like A Man, occupies a discrete, if not always discreet, position that for our purposes can be labeled number three.
Motown is essentially oriented toward the urban black, his experiences, attitudes and aspirations. This orientation and the care with which they arrange their records have been nearly as important in the company's success as the talents of its artists and song-writers. In 1968, the company put even more emphasis on the life of the urban black, in songs ranging from "Love Child" by MISS DIAN A ROSS! and the Supremes to "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations. These are good examples of the type of social-comment song Motown produces. The songs do have comparatively relevant messages to impart and the Temps at least, have double-meaning, humor, and understatement down to an exact science in "Cloud Nine." Given that Motown is very conscious of its image among white Americans, the future would seem to hold more of the same type of songs and an increasing orientation towards, if not a deep penetration into, the life-style of urbanized blacks, done in a style both clear and inoffensive to a moderately liberal white audience.
In '68 Atlantic played its Super Star for all she was worth and Aretha brought home some heavy income. She also did some of the best songs done in '68 or any other year, "The House That Jack Built" and "Say A Little Prayer." Aretha is honest, she sings it the way she feels it. Her sales should have encouraged all involved to believe her best course would be to continue to deal in her own way. Not so. On her latest album, "Soul '69," she is often, though not always, cramped and weakened by large and superfluous brass and string sections, not to mention a number of poorly conceived arrangements. Essentially, this seems an attempt to emulate the breadth and polish of the Motown Sound. As such, it is neither a notable success nor an unqualified disaster, and the use of percussion is, generally speaking, far better perceived and executed than on her previous albums. For the future then, it is reasonable to expect Atlantic to continue this exploration into more complected arrangements unless and until it begins to seriously hurt her sales and her feelings.
On the other hand there was a very hip continuation of an old trend on Atlantic. Joe Tex continued to develop himself along lines he can personally deal with and that also happen to be relevant to the contemporary urban social thing. 'Man, That's Your Baby" will certainly be one of the best of 1969 and Tex will certainly produce others like it. The hippest thing about "Man, That's Your Baby" is that it has none of the apologetics found in "Love Child" or theoretically, in "Cloud Nine," at the same time, it addresses itself to its primary audience, without regard for external comments or disapproval by shaky types, white or black. This ashamed-of-what? attitude that is so well represented by Joe and Aretha is not solely their property as witness, "Can I Change My Mind," "One Eye Open," and dozens of others, nearly all on minor labels. For that matter, the trend is not at all new, but it is stronger this year than it was last and likely to continue growing in strength for quite a while. The implications of this growth for the intensified interaction of Art and Culture are very heavy, little other than good can come from it.
James Brown is too unique a phenomenon to be approached solely as an entertainer. He has ceased to be a man and become a concept, the epitome (defined as the quintessence of the essence of the epitome) of the self-conscious, self-motivated Successful American Black Man. In consequence, he is under considerable pressure to not only entertain, as he does so very well, but also to keep step with and help shape the obvious trend of political opinion among the general populace. This is not his field of special competence. None the less he has made some notable and very successful attempts to shape his art to political necessity, as in "I'm Black And I'm Proud." Frankly, though, J.B. does not seem very comfortable dealing with politics. His own personal wishes seem closer to what he has done in the past, that is pure entertainment, despite his recent pronouncements on the political and economic condition of the race. Since he is so much the influential figure, no one can doubt that he will be under increasing pressure to follow somebody's political line. It should be very interesting to watch the quantity of a-political vs. political songs he produces in the next year and the orientation of the political songs he does write.
In 1969, there should be a radically different beat making an appearance and dominating the picture for several months at least. There is a fine chance that this beat will be originated by Clarence Carter, possibly the only man in the field with talents to match those of Smokey. In sum, 1969 probably will be much like 1968 with an intensified trend toward social comments and cultural self-awareness.