With A Little Help From My Friends | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

With A Little Help From My Friends

Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, I never heard any "black" music.

My childhood was filled with strains of country—Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., Merle Haggard, Tammy and George, Porter and Dolly, Mel Tillis. Actually, I did know the music of one black man, Charley Pride. My mother played his music over and over again, and I pop in the CD of his greatest hits when I'm especially missing her.

But I didn't hear Motown or early funk or R&B. I didn't know what the Detroit Sound was; I knew nothing about the haunting tracks of Smokey Robinson's tears, I hadn't begged The Temptations to not stop, I didn't know that some day Diana Ross and I would be together.

Of course, I wasn't hearing white protest music, either, on AM radio in Neshoba County. My appreciation of Three Dog Night, Bob Dylan and even The Rolling Stones—"Satisfaction" is anti-consumerism, you know—would come years later after the ridiculous Vietnam War was firmly ensconced in the "loss" column.

My first exposure to protest music came when my mama fell in love with my soon-to-be stepdaddy in about 1971. He was on leave from Fort Benning in Georgia and was called up for Vietnam, where he would go soon after they married. She bought a copy of "Peter, Paul and Mary: 10 Years Together" so she could pine to "Leaving on a Jet Plane." I played that vinyl over and over again—learning every word to "Blowin' in the Wind," "If I Had A Hammer" and even "Puff the Magic Dragon."

Still, though, I'd had no exposure to "soul" music. I remember people talking about the radio station in Jackson—WJMI, I think; they called it the "n*gger station"—but I never listened to it. I thought it was dangerous, somehow. Maybe because that's what people around me led me to think.

I did hear the song "Drift Away," which had crossed over, when I was in junior high—but I didn't even realize Dobie Gray was black. And I sure didn't know the rest of his music, even as that one song would become my all-time favorite song ever (except when Michael Bolton sings it).

So I went through my high school years listening to 8-tracks of Atlanta Rhythm Section, the Alan Parsons Project, the Eagles ("Last Resort"), Kansas, Styx—the rock 'n' roll of young white kids driving around in pick-up trucks on dates. I would punch the 8-track as I sat up close to my boyfriend Mike in his bright-red Ford pickup truck, thinking that I knew everything there was to know about rock 'n' roll.

Rap didn't enter my life until I got to college at Mississippi State, and then only in a limited way. My college boyfriend, Russ, loved to dance to "black music," as he called the funk of the time. He was a city boy, from Jackson, and was exotic like that. He'd play JMI when we visited his mama and daddy off Ridgewood Road, and we'd all go to The Club in Columbus, and he'd wiggle his ass all over the dance floor, at first causing me great embarrassment. Then, one night they played "Rapper's Delight," and the world went several rotations wider, and I started dancing a lot more often.

But it wasn't as if my musical taste grew overnight. It wasn't until I left Mississippi and landed in a bar in downtown Washington, D.C., as a fill-in deejay that I discovered what I had been missing all those years. Hell, I hadn't even heard much of the Beatles and certainly not The Who. And, oh, the Motown that I'd missed.

I happened to fall into deejaying just as the hottest music going was the "Big Chill" age. That is, The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. But it didn't stop there. I started to learn about the intersection of black and white music in America—why Creedence Clearwater Revival sounded like they did and that, while Elvis might have been the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Little Richard was its daddy.

So just as Madonna burst on the scene—that witch will always be older than me, I'm happy to report—and I started learning to mix her music with other dance music, I was completing my music education. And I didn't stop with Motown. I went backward into DooWop, falling plum in love with the Girl Groups ("The Shoop Shoop Song" may be my second favorite ever, and I'm not talking about a Salt 'n' Pepa, or a Cher, song.) I learned to love Big Band, and then jazz, mainly the Bop era, and, oh, especially Charlie Parker. I started a relationship with Ella and Billie and Nina.

I also started trying to learn old dance moves. My taxicab-driving friend, whose name I've long forgotten, would come through at least three times a week in his huge cowboy hat pulled low over his freckled black face, grab me from behind the DJ console and continue trying to teach me to do the Philly Bop. I did pretty good, he'd tell me, "for a white girl." Then I'd hit him.

About that time, I was told for the first time by a club owner to "stop playing that n*gger music," thus teaching me that Mississippi didn't have a corner on bigotry. I would hear the same thing from bosses in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and North Dakota during my deejay career.

I hit my stride as a deejay just as rap went mainstream. For nearly a decade in my nighttime DJ gigs, I constantly did a dance between people who wanted me to play "black music" and those who wanted "to hear some rock 'n' roll," meaning non-black music (because they were too stupid to know any better).

My biggest musical lesson over the years has been realizing how stupid (and uncool) it is to limit ourselves to one genre of music, or to dismiss an entire genre because of prejudices or ignorance of the music. From the time of my Madonna and Motown fusion, I started living to expand my musical knowledge, and thus my circle of friends. After all, you can always talk about music when all else fails.

Make new friends and dance to Motown and other great music, old and new, by These Days with Jewel Bass this Saturday night at the Friendship Ball at Hal & Mal's.

Previous Comments


Glad to see you evolved, Donna. I must tell you I never paid white female musicians much attention either until MaDonna. I love me some MaDonna. That girl can sang and dance with the best of them. And she's brave enough to not give a crap what anyone thinks of her. I also like Bonne Raitt and many more. That girl group from Texas made me an instant fan with what they said about George Bush a couple of years ago. In Louisville, next door to you, the radio station there played one hour of black music. We would wait and listen attentively during that hour then immediately turn the radio off to keep from hearing white music. However, I liked and still love 2 bands back then called the Average White Band and the Doobie Brothers (mixed race). I also liked Spyro Gyro (jazz). But for the most part, if Motown, STAX or TSOP didn't make it I wasn't listening to it. The we had a few artist like Aretha and James Brown to go with labels different than these three so I expanded to listen to them. Before going to Houston in 1979, I hated the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and all rock bands. As far as I was concerned they couldn't play or sang. And yes I was sure no white girl or white person could really dance. I even asked a white male friend to explain to me what y'all were hearing so as to try to track and understand your movements. As I got fully integrated into corporate America in Houston and started to interact and socialize with people of all races i began to see mostly similarities and very few differences. I saw white girls and boys who were starting to dance just like us. I even saw some that could outdance most of us. And I saw black girls and black boys whose dancing looked more like that of white people. Probably me inlcuded here. Once in Houston I heard all of these other kinds of music and my good musical sense and taste couldn't help but like all of it. Now I claim to love the Eagles and many other white bands including the Rolling Stones. One of my favorite songs because of the guitar licks and bass lines is Sweet Home Alabama. I can't guote you a single lyric but I can mimic those instruments lciks or lines. I know I'm supposed to hate the song but I can't ignore that great music. These kind of stories make me say "What a wonderful World."

Ray Carter

This article also brings back to mind the days when record labels or producers would remake a black hit with a white artist so as to blacken-down and/or whiten-up a song. I still have a hard time believing Pat Boone and others would let record companies use them in such a way considering how bad their versions sounded compared to the originals. Pat Boone must have been tone death and sure all white people were too. But once Elvis came along white people couldn't fake the funk anymore. The first time I heard Pat Boone's tooty-fruitty I wondered how he got out of the studio alive. Anybody in my neighborhood would have gunned him down during the first verse of the song. But I know he was just a yougster trying to make it too, and being used in a way he didn't understand. The big reason I love the PBS Telethons on all kinds of music is because old folks like us who got cheated by racism and separation can now listen to the same songs and freely admit we love them irrespective of who the artist is or was.

Ray Carter

As old as I am, I have developed a "passion" for some rap music. Most of the young rappers use lyrics from the old school R & B and Funk artists. The Rolling Stones will simply go down in history as one of the greatest bands of all times. And for me, country music always tells a story if you listen close enough. Hell, I even like classical music! Thank you Donna Ladd for sharing your musical evolution. I turly believe that everyone can relate to song and dance.


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