Growing up in Olney, Illinois, I had WVLN-AM/WSEI-FM on my dial and the great Top 40 of the 70s. On Top 40, you heard everything and basically I absorbed all sorts of sounds: rock, disco, pop, pop country, R&B, funk, and even easy listening. Olney was almost all white but music was not seen by me as an issue of race. I started making mix tapes once I got my Panasonic “all in in one” stereo. Casey Kasem’s Top 40 show was on every weekend. I can remember liking Ami Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” and the Commodores'”Brick House.”
Then I moved to Florida with my folks in 1979. In an ironic twist, although I was now going to public school with people of color in Winter Haven, I also had discovered “Album Oriented Rock” radio. This meant that I essentially stopped listening to any R&B or urban music, unless it was through the lens of Jimi Hendrix. In fact, I went through a phase that was caught dramatically in the summer of 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago when radio DJ Steve Dahl blew up disco records, provoking the rock fans to run out onto the field, cancelling the White Sox game because of the ensuing chaos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA). Disco sucks (said the guy who had bought Saturday Night Fever in Olney). So, yeah, why did I need “black” music? Sure, in my head I knew rock and roll was generated as a combination of R&B with country in America, but I didn’t need any disco or R&B as I entered high school; I had “graduated” to pure rock and roll.
Of course, it would have been great to has someone play me some Funkadelic or anything from Sly and the Family Stone to dissuade me from my ignorance but alas that didn’t happen. In fact, I was intent on playing catch up with Southern rock as I had a very distinct memory of asking about Lynyrd Skynyrd and a classmate saying “You can’t hear them anymore, they’re all dead.” (The Skynyrd plane crash of ’77 had claimed three members but obviously had broken up the band for that time being). So…no exposure to black musicians who could rock hard was had in my limited world. Most rock radio stations were owned by whites who weren’t interested in black musicians as well, and this was the era of the beginning of radio playlist standardization. This institutional racism was continued by MTV not playing black musicians until the popularity of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the applied pressure of white musicians, like David Bowie, who understood how incredibly racist it was to not play people of all races, changed their playlist (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/01/11/how-david-bowie-confronted-mtv-for-ignoring-black-artists-in-the-early-1980s/).
I remember thinking at one point there was this new guy I was hearing during my senior year in high school (new to me, LOL) who was actually getting played on the Tampa and Orlando rock stations called Prince. It was catchy—not really uptempo, but a seductive song called “Little Red Corvette.” Sad as it was, I let the radio stations define for me what was “rock” and what wasn’t. And I wasn’t going to feature Prince on our school newspaper’s Rock Rap page (yes, the irony of that title hits me between the eyes).
More than a year later, “Let’s Go Crazy” exploded out of my radio and in the summer of ’84 I realized that I had a limited palette to use when rocking. This, combined with the fact that I was also dating someone who loved Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie, opened me up. I went to Purple Rain like most of America and saw somebody embodying great guitar playing like my other guitar heroes and he (gulp!) was black (I remember thinking that I only liked Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” because it featured Eddie Van Halen). I couldn’t wait to buy Around the World in a Day a year later, and then Sign ‘O the Times was a revelation in ’87….
Although I didn’t go out and buy a bunch of Funkadelic albums after my epiphany (taping saved money), I realized implicitly that I had cut myself off from discovery and that I was worst for it. After all, where did Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, and so many other groups get their inspiration from? African Americans.
When Prince died a few weeks ago, I was brought back to the fact that like a lot of middle class white kids, I was liberated musically by this guy who epitomized so many musical styles. Along with the great Bowie, we mourn the fact that these artists went beyond what radio and the music business demanded or assumed not only in terms of their music but their affect. Who is that guy producing Bowie’s “Let’s Dance?” Nile Rodgers? What band was he in? Really? That “disco” band? And the discovery goes on…may we all be open the great new music that comes down the pike, regardless of what our preconceived notions may be. Thank you, Prince Rogers Nelson. Rest in power. You’ll be on Lisa and John’s stereo infinitely (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sv_2LzgoBe0).