How The Beatles Reinterpreted Black Music

The BeatlesThe Beatles. 1964 (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Beatles are often given the label of saving rock and roll, and usually for overblown reasons. Yes, they were incredibly creative, fully embraced technical innovations, and managed to propel popular music into a more advanced form. However, it’s perhaps most important that they always had their own particular identity. Integral to The Beatles’ success was the sheer amount of music they played before they even made it big – from dancehalls in Britain to seedy nightclubs in Hamburg, armed with the advantage of playing little known numbers from “race music.”

They were just four lads from Liverpool, albeit with tremendous interest in music, an interest which the port city more than ably supplied. Records from the United States passed from seaman to teenager, and this old fashioned form of exposure transformed The Beatles from music starved teenagers to record store rapscallions. They would spend hours in future manager Brian Epstein’s North End Music Store – what they affectionately called NEMS – not to buy records, but to absorb all music had to offer.

Early rock and roll was largely “race music” – gritty and visceral – often only a few steps removed from blues numbers that had traveled up the Mississippi Delta. While Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran no doubt influenced The Beatles, the boys from Liverpool were just as much – if not more – appreciative of black artists like Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, and Barrett Strong.

McCartney covered “That’s Alright (Mama),” (on a BBC radio show on July 2nd, 1963) but The Beatles covered far more songs from black groups to showcase on their LPs. In fact, all of the covers from Please Please Me (“Chains,” “Boys,” “Baby It’s You,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Anna (Go To Him)”) were done originally by black artists, and only “Til’ There Was You,” a number from the Broadway play The Music Man, was an exception to the rule on With The Beatles. Lennon, in particular, was outspoken on the impact black artists had on his music. In the aftermath of The Beatles’ breakup, the New York Times published a piece entitled “So in the End, the Beatles Have Proved False Prophets,” accusing the band, among other things, of making off with black music for their own benefit. Lennon would respond with a note written on an airplane taking the author to task. “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough,” Lennon remarked, “the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could.”

Not just merely appreciative, The Beatles wanted to make the black music that had influenced them their own. One of Lennon’s favorite artists at the time was the little known Arthur Alexander – a black singer and songwriter who had released a couple of singles with the Nashville Dot Label. “Anna (Go To Him)” was Alexander’s latest, released on September 17, 1962. Alexander’s version is maudlin, even slightly off-kilter, given the knee-jerk rhythm and the placid nature of Alexander’s vocal.

Though Lennon insisted “it was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could – I always wished we could have done them even closer to the original,” The Beatles’ rendition of “Anna (Go To Him)” has two distinct differences that make it a seminal piece. Perhaps most obvious is the shift of the piano’s melodic hook to a very clean guitar hook. More dramatically even – and in Lennon’s case more importantly – they shifted the key up a step to D major. Usually a shift in key is due to a singer’s inability to sing in the original key, or so that the song becomes easier for a musician to play. Yet this change is unusual because Lennon would have been comfortable in a lower key, and C major is one of the most basic keys for musicians to play because of its lack of sharps or flats. The result was a much more strained and anguished vocal.

It was February 11th, 1963, and Lennon was battling a nasty case of pneumonia, but this was a time of 4-track tapes and no sure road to stardom. He had to perform, even if his voice wasn’t up to it. What remains from this day’s session of recording is probably some of the most passionate singing Lennon has on record.

Most contemporaries who were doing what The Beatles were doing, bands like The Rolling Stones, for example, typically tried to emulate the exact vocal performance of the original. (“Mercy, Mercy” is a fine example of The Rolling Stones mirroring an original. First recorded by the criminally unknown Don Covay, “Mercy, Mercy” would be one of the earliest appearances Jimi Hendrix ever made on a record – though uncredited – and Covay would also be responsible for Aretha Franklin’s hit “Chain of Fools”). But The Beatles made “Anna (Go To Him)” their own.

The song started around the top of Lennon’s vocal range, and the strain on his vocal chords as well as its emotional heft brought an additional resonance to Lennon’s delivery – it crackles and wails, pleads and begs. The Beatles also brought to the song great vocal harmony, from the hauntingly sultry “Aaanna” call and response in the beginning to the more traditional backing vocals that try to steady Lennon’s emotional waver in the refrain.

“Twist and Shout,” a cover of the Isley Brothers original, would be the last song Lennon sang that day after chugging a glass of milk to soothe his throat. What’s evident from listening to The Beatles’ early career was their admiration of black artists and black music. What’s important was that they made it distinct – they married black and white music and exposed less known acts to wider audiences. When audiences went back to the originals, they weren’t just hearing carbon copies; they were hearing the roots of what inspired The Beatles to brilliance. So when the New York Times author accused The Beatles of misappropriating black music, Lennon felt justified in firing back a demonstration of his own deep knowledge of his artistic predecessors. After explaining The Beatles’ reverence for black music, Lennon attached a post-script. “P.S. What about the ‘B’ side of Money?” The ‘B’ side in question that Lennon most certainly believed the author had to look up? “Oh I Apologize.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Art of the Song.

About the Author

Hugh Willett

Plumbing the depths of popular music, Hugh Willett is a writer at large. His first memory involved Jimmy Cliff and a Walkman, and he's been devoted to exploring the stories behind the music ever since.

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