“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.
photo Michael Ochs Archives
Sam Cooke in Times Square
“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
Listen to Sam Cooke sing You Send Me
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.