How June Became Black Music Month ... And Why
May 31, 2016
You have to get a better understanding of the past to relate to the present. Even Black Music Month has a creation story reaching as far back as the selling of sheet music. Here is the short version.
Sheet music stores sold the popular songs of the day. They came with lyrics, so people would go home to sing the songs with family and friends. Enter the phonograph in the late 1800s and department stores then sold both sheet music and records. Leap forward to the 1950s with the increased popularity of black music, but department stores would not sell the product. Then we arrive at the creation of independent record stores that sold black music and rock and roll. At that time, some referred to the popular new stuff sung by black performers as "race music."
I am sure you are wondering what this has to do with Black Music Month. Well hold on, I'm leading up to the relevance. Now, where was I, oh yeah -- race music and the independent record stores both grew far beyond what anyone could have imagined. Some of those small stores grew into huge businesses responsible for selling a lot of music sung by Black and Rock 'n' Roll artists.
Commerce and Culture
Blues, Jazz, and Gospel are considered an American art form in Europe. It is recognized as having originated in the black communities in the U.S.; music attributed to African-Americans have sold a lot of units for record companies. Did you know the first major record company to have an in-house Black division was CBS Records?
The Original Reason For Black Music Month
I think those who were behind the Black Music observance did not intend it to become commercialized, but the music industry powers saw a way to capitalize. Black Music Month became a way for the industry to use the cultural aspect of Black musical contributions to distribute and package old and new Black music products. It became an economic program which also highlighted the accomplishments of African-American musicians. Much of this new found revenue was due greatly in part to the success of CBS Records and black music sales; many of the independent promoter companies were swept up into the other major companies ... and new in-house Black promotions departments were created. Black music had become more profitable than ever.
Black Music Association (BMA)
While CBS was having a field day with its in-house Black division, another independent label distributed by CBS was operated by a two African-Americans by the names of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Years later, Gamble would go on to form the Black Music Association. There were four divisions created within the organization; Marketing/Merchandising, Record Company Execs, Communications (radio air personalities/TV execs/journalists), and Entertainers/Artists.
I can still remember a promotion friend of mine telling me about their slogan, "Black Music Is Green." Apparently, Gamble and two others who helped spearhead the organization used the Country Music Association as the model for promoting June as Black Music Month -- CMA had established October as Country Music Month.
President Jimmy Carter/BMA/Clarence Avant
In 1979, Black Music Month became a reality with the help of Clarence Avant, an African-American record exec/communications entrepreneur. Best described as an unassuming gentleman with influence in areas far beyond the music industry, Avant was asked to help get a night at the White House with President Carter and his wife Roslyn ... like the one the CMA had enjoyed. Apparently after a lot of well-placed phone calls, it worked. Just to impress upon you the significance of Avant, he was later part of the Clinton White House economic transition team.
It Started As A Party
The Black Music Night at the White House gave birth to a Black Music Month. The guest listed that night included Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Andre Couch, Evelyn Champaign King and Billy Eckstine. The BMA selected June as the month to celebrate the economic and cultural power of Black music. President Carter gave it his stamp of approval on June 7th with that first night of celebration at the White House. The names credited for the creation of Black Music Month include Kenny Gamble, Ed Wright and Dyana Williams.
Black Music Month Support
Earlier I mentioned the major companies' discovery of increased dollars from their new in-house Black divisions. The Black Music Month angle was an excellent way to package and sell Blues, Jazz, Gospel and R&B at record stores. There was a lot of advertising dollars poured into media for marketing and all sorts of displays highlighting the merchandise.
What Has Happened To Black Music Month
Most independent record stores have gone out of business and along with them the model for celebrating and selling product for Black Music Month. There is not exactly a large demand for creative artwork for artist displays these days. With the changes to music delivery systems, the record companies financial support has become almost non-existent. To a large extent it's because the music industry restructured its marketing plans to keep up with society's new ways of getting music. After all these years, the only things left for Black Music Month are some radio syndicated programming, a few cable TV music specials, PBS documentaries, and some well-produced NPR programs. The month itself is recognized, but many don't remember why or how it came about.
Supply and Demand
Regardless of its origins, Black Music Month is still an excellent way of paying tribute to the entertainers and musicians of past and present. Maybe there is a way to get the millennial generation to find a new way to pour dollars into the art form and continue the growth and message of Black Music Month. Thanks to the digital age, it will be achieved more effectively for generations to come.
There is a legacy for Black music which goes as far back as slavery and the contributions have been many; from the Gospel of Mahalia Jackson to Gamble & Huff, Stax Records, Thelonious Monk, Motown, Prince, Nat King Cole, Jay Z, Keith Sweat, Beyoncé, BB King, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, The Weekend, Philadelphia International Records, The Winans, The Spinners, Charlie Parker, Rihanna, Barry Gordy, Jessye Norman, Muddy Watters, Michael Jackson, Louie Armstrong, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Kanye West, Teddy Pendergrass, Shirley Caesar, Babyface, Lloyd Price, The Drifters, Salt-N-Pepa. Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Snoop Dogg, Eartha Kitt, Rock Nation, Regina Carter, Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston, Notorious Big, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Jay Z, Cab Calloway, Chris Brown, Chuck Berry, Lionel Hampton, Stevie Wonder, Fetty Wap, Vanessa Williams, Shaggy, 50 Cent, Dinah Washington, Tupac, Ray Charles, Alicia Keys, Duke Ellington, Marion Anderson, Curtis Mayfield, MC Hammer, Natalie Cole, Tyrese, Darlene Love, and so many more.
The Black Music Month message may no longer be packaged and marketed by the old standards, but culturally the music plays on worldwide.