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The Beatles and Black Folks

Beatles Hey Jude

My connection to the Beatles started in the very late 1970s, mainly through their solo work which then led me to their work as a collective. I was instantly impressed by all of the music I encountered. But as I embraced their magic, I also noticed that very few in the community where I lived (Laurelton, Queens NYC) shared my enthusiasm, which, initially, was a bit disheartening. Over time, I began to understand why The Beatles received this level of indifference from Black folks.

During the 1960s, Beatlemania existed concurrently with the rise of the Motown Sound. The inner cities of the U.S. were grooving to the sounds of the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and the rest of the Motortown Revue. It was, as Motown itself phrased it, the “Sound Of Young America.” But it was also without a doubt, the “Sound Of Young Black America.” These were the same brothers and sisters who seemingly didn’t pay a lot of attention to Beatlemania.

To date, the Beatles have never placed a single on the Billboard R&B singles charts. In terms of the R&B album listings, only Abbey Road would be able to chart. It peaked at number 38. Considering that the album chart itself had only 50 slots, Abbey Road’s performance on that chart was totally unimpressive. The first time that any member of the Beatles appeared on the R&B charts was in 1982 when Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on the track “Ebony and Ivory.” It would be the first of numerous duets that McCartney would record with prominent Black artists.

To be clear, I am in no way implying that Black folks didn’t dig the Beatles. But those Billboard stats don’t lie. Elvis Presley would also experience a similar fate, as he would stop having R&B chart hits in 1963. It’s no surprise that both the Beatles and Elvis would experience this kind of lockout on the R&B charts at a time when the musical tastes of African Americans were being defined by Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the various Stax/Volt artists.

These artists and many others were not only shaping the musical tastes of Black folks but were also shaping their cultural outlook. All of this was happening against the backdrop of a civil rights movement that was kicking into high gear (McCartney was inspired by civil rights activists in writing “Blackbird”). This process came to a head in 1968, when James Brown released “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).” 

Indeed, it seems that Black folks dig when other Black artists cover the Beatles (Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” are standout examples) way more than the original versions.

This very article was partly inspired by the story of how the Beatles refused to play for segregated audiences during the peak of Beatlemania. Lennon once stated, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now.” McCartney recalls refusing to play a 1964 show in Jacksonville, FL that had a segregated audience: “It felt wrong. We said, ‘We’re not doing that! ‘” Ultimately, the Fab Four won out.

While the footage of the band during this time, particularly their performance at Shea Stadium in NYC, is pretty familiar, it’s admittedly difficult to find Black folks in the audience. The same is true for their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It’s baffling that a band that showcased the influence of numerous early rock & roll giants (Little Richard and Chuck Berry among them) ran into a cultural brick wall in terms of their appeal to African Americans.

While their absence on the R&B charts may not tell the whole story, it represents a conundrum: the biggest band of the 20th century seemed to encounter a barrier when it came to appealing to the segment of American society largely credited with influencing that same band.

Overall, my love for The Beatles will never waver. Their constant creativity and innovation within the span of 6 1/2 years will always speak for itself. But the question of why they seem to underwhelm Black folks will always be in the back of my mind. Partially because it’s a question that has never been addressed to my satisfaction. If this article sparks a substantive conversation about this particular subject, so be it….and “Let It Be.”

-Tim Kinley

Photo: Getty Images

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51 comments on “The Beatles and Black Folks

  1. I have found this to be true at the various Beatles festivals I have attended: Beatleweek in Liverpool, Abbey Road On The River, The Flower Power cruise and The Fest For Beatles Fans in Chicago. I’ve only spotted one or two black fans out of thousands.

  2. Thoughtful stuff, Tim. Dunno here, actually.

    On the other hand, white folk comprise a significant share of the devoted fan base for Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, The Commodores, and on and on, yeah?

    To each his/her own I suppose is what we’re getting at, my friend. That’s the best I can do.

    • I think the first discussion to be had here is why we’re using results of an openly segregated Billboard R&B chart to evaluate a group that opposed segregation. The second is obviously about how heavily and openly influenced the Beatles were by blues and R&B artists, and the positive and negative effects that cultural conversation has had on world history and global artistic commerce. After that, if you want to write an article about each album, book, or magazine that you and your family didn’t get into in the Seventies, I mean, the world is your oyster. I never really dug Cosmopolitan. But it wasn’t aimed at me, and it was still successful.

      • Perhaps it was/is because the Beatles weren’t black. It may not matter to many people, but it’s apparent it matters to blacks.

      • First of all, unless you know exactly how Billboard methodology works, you can’t simply assume that operated under a segregated premise. While the R&B chart wasn’t associated with the African-American community pre-1963, it definitely became an accurate barometer for the sales and popularity of singles and albums by Black artists post-1965. Let’s be totally clear on that.

  3. Frank Davis

    Choices made, gains and losses, maybe some have seen the loss that others were fortunate enough to avoid, personal!!

  4. Len Roberts

    A very good article, Tim. I grew up in London’s East End and there were black and Asian kids in my school in the 60s. The Beatles were easily the most popular group/recording artist among all of us: black, white or Asian. The East End has always been a melting pot and there was a lot of music cross-pollination. I heard Motown at my black friends’ houses and Indian music when I went to see my Asian mates but that’s because they knew I liked the early Beatles’ albums when they’d covered songs by black artists and the fusion of Western/Asian music in some songs written by George Harrison. Music shouldn’t be defined as being black, white, Asian, Oriental etc – it’s either good or bad and that judgement is down to personal taste.

    • Amandula Garcia

      Personal taste- so true. I was born in 1963, grew up a rocker amidst a family of r&b, soul, and gospel. Loved jazz and classical (I should say baroque- BACH! TELEMANN!) And then I fell in love with music from all over the world. If it wasn’t for my parents allowing me to sing and harmonize rock songs every morning as I prepared for elementary school, I never would have known about groups throughout my life like the Beatles, Muse, Poets after the Fall, Heart, Motown, Wes Montgomery, slangpolskas, bluegrass, folk, and become a music educator.

    • mike green

      Absolutely ! it’s either good or bad. No one can claim to be the judge of that to every ear!

  5. First of all, I’m black. I love Paul, Ringo, George and John’s later music; when they went their separate ways, and had solo careers. But, from my young vantage point, their very first hits seemed so childish to me as a Black kid back then growing up in LA. Based on my memory, me and my siblings and friends laughed and was embarrassed at the girls and some boys who in America how they were acting over this group; screaming like they lost their minds! In 1963, I was five years, and we learned the early Beatle songs from the group the Chipmunks singing Beatle songs on an LP, on a small record player. In my opinion, they just weren’t playing “real music” to us then, like Motown, Aretha, James Brown, to name a few. That set the precedent for me about how serious to take them as then, especially since Black music was blowing us out the water (1963-now), which changed our lives, and became the fabric of our lives. Our music (Black Music) was sacred. It was what we had to hold on to back then, and the Black Folk hits just kept on coming. So, in those early years, I never took them seriously. When I became a teen in the early 70s, we had Soul Train; and that was all she wrote! Hope this helps from my experience as a child and what I thought of the Beatles’ music then.

    • Diane, I can definitely tell you’re not a Beatles fan since you kept writing 1963, when it was 1964 (specifically Feb. 9th on The Ed Sullivan Show) that Beatlemania truly began in the U.S. I was 8 in late Dec. 1963 when they first played “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the radio and I became instantly interested in them.

    • No that doesn’t really “help” much, you actually say in your comments that you and your black friends “laughed” at the Beatles and their fans and go on to put Black artists up on a pedestal.I have known how Black folks felt about the Beatles for many, many years, mostly they showed indifference, except for Black musicians who mostly admired them. It’s a shame that the greatest band in the world coudn”t have been “accepted” by the Black community, but that’s is their and your loss for sure.

      • Having said all that, I feel very fortunate to have grown up in the 60’s when you could hear The Beatles, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, & Johnny Cash, on ONE station, the music was amazing and it didn’t matter much at all about the color of the artist to this Southern white guy, I loved it all !

        • Patty Lewis

          Oh, Ken I’m a soon to be 70 year old black female, lived in MN all my life. Spent a good part of my growing up singing Beatles songs with my best friend, a biracial girl, about the same age. I was in love with Paul, she wanted Ringo. I remember one day being asked by one of my female cousins, about the same age about my taste in Beatles music, when there was Motown. I didn’t have older siblings living with me, they had flown the coop, but if they had still been around, maybe they would have brought home some Motown. I still remember that Sunday, when Ed Sullivan introduced the FAB Four to us. I was just listening to a song In My Life, that always makes me stop in my tracks. It’s so visual, so personal, and yes, makes you run through the long list of people that we’ve loved and lost. The other day I listened to Dylan and Cash do a duet I think it’s called ‘ Girl from the North Country. It’s so beautiful, it gives you shivers. Cash’s voice cannot be duplicated. He was a gem. Motown, The Temptations , Smokey, The Supreme, etc, will make you jump up and dance, spin, and try to do those spins, even with no platform shoes. They were all one of a kind. One genre of music doesn’t exclude another. I love Gospel, some Country, oh wait. To be honest, I hate , hate, hate Rap. I only like Gangsters Paradise. To listen to something constantly rhyming vulgarities, hatred to police, women, N word, glorifying guns, drugs and death- well, that’s not music, it’s what’s played in hell , on bright red boom boxes , with batteries that never run low.

          • Patty, I’m 68 & white and I’ve been a Beatles fan since day one, and also a Motown fan as I grew up west of Cleveland and we could listen to CKLW (“The Motor City!”) across Lake Erie from Detroit! Totally agree about Rap! The only Rap song I liked was “Stan” by a white boy – Eminem! 😂

        • 100% agree

    • What I would add as a point of interest; it was the Beatles who pressured EMI in the U.K. to licence and issue and promote Tamla Motown and all of its artists. They themselves were huge fans. It’s because of them that Motown became so big in the U.K.

      • Johnny Townsend

        The Beatles were indeed influenced by the Motown artists musically but Motown was introduced to the UK by Dusty Springfield when the Motown review were first seen on British Television after being invited by Dusty herself

    • Diane, that was a very well thought out and excellent response. Music is and always will be a personal choice and I understand what you are saying.

  6. Very cool, Diane. I would offer that the music The Beatles created from 1966 until the group’s breakup in ’69 departed from the childish.

    Like, WAY departed. ;]

  7. Why the Beatles didn’t appeal to more Black Americans is simple: to certain ears, the Beatles simply weren’t soulful enough. Imagine being brought up on black gospel, southern and east coast soul, blues, and pure rock and roll performed by the originators of the genre, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc. Which version of “You Really Got A Hold On Me” are you likely to prefer–the original version by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or the Beatles? You’re talking about the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and juice from concentrate.

    But, turns out, plenty of Black Americans were raised on juice from concentrate–meaning, millions of Black Americans, in addition to music performed by Blacks, could also get into white top 40. I’m one of them. I came up on the Beatles, Motown, some country, and the music coming out of the Brill Building (think Dionne Warwick, the Righteous Brothers, Neil Diamond, Leslie Gore, The Ronettes, etc.) There are plenty of us, and our musical sensibilities are represented by Black artists who covered Beatles songs. Stevie Wonder covered “We Can Work It Out” because, like me, he loved what he heard. So did Maurice White when he covered “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Or Ray Charles when he cut “Elenor Rigby.” I could go on. Lennon and McCartney were great songwriters–strong melodies, and great, durable music. Plenty Black folk dig the Beatles. Just not on the scale of whites.

    • I’m a 45 year old black woman and discovered the Beatles through their individual work starting with George. Once I started listening to the Beatle’s catalog and recognized a lot of songs I didn’t realize were theirs. I asked my 80 year old mother about what she thought about the Beatles when she was in her late teens/twenties. She told me that she had heard of them but didn’t know who they were. She didn’t mind their music and said it was ok but what she couldn’t understand was all the screaming, crying, fainting and all the other craziness that went along with it. Today there are some of their songs that she likes that she didn’t know was theirs until I told her. She still doesn’t understand why people went nuts over them back then.

    • I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t say plenty. That’s an obvious exaggeration. I would say that the Beatles Black fans represent a microscopic minority within the overall fan base and the Billboard chart stats back that up 100%.

  8. Anyone here like the Rolling stones over the Beatles in the ’60’s ?

    • Glyn Jones

      Yup. Lot’s of people didn’t like early Beatles, hence the somewhat manufactured rivalry. But to lots of people I Wanna Hold Your Hand was too boyband for anyone over 16 yrs of age. Also, the US was heavily segregated at the time, and ‘Black folks’ had access to some of the best entertainers known to man! The Stones were paying attention.

  9. The lack of interest may be due to the fact blacks already had a very strong and dynamic popular music tradition (gospel, blues, jazz, r&b, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, etc.) and were not impressed. Also, if black radio stations weren’t playing the Beatles then most blacks probably weren’t being exposed to them. I was taken to see A Hard Day’s Night film and thought they were funny. I’ve been a fan ever since.

  10. Cindy Clark

    Perhaps in a variety of different strokes for different folks…but this is an intense time in the country’s history of Black spirit…soul.ans sophisticated expression of the best of the best of Black everything..don’t want to minimize or tamper with that by looking at what’s coming across the pond from Liverpool..not even the Beatles are going to mess with what’s coming out of Motortown or the Black communities….I’m Black and I am proud….says it all

  11. Cindy Clark

    Black life in the mainstream U.S. culture and then Black life in U.S. Black culture…I think it played out well…the way it went was the way it was supposed to happen..

  12. Thank you, all, for your kind, thoughtful comments. We really appreciate it. Please keep ’em coming!

  13. Cindy Clark

    At the time.. Civil Rights…MLK. ….Jim Crow…..Black literature….all of it marches to the beat of a different drummer…which was meant to be….it’s good it’s okay…

  14. Cynthia Clark

    It’s a great question for us as Americans to look at our cultures in a critical way and learn something new about us as a culture and cultures and as country….way cool

  15. I’m black, grew up in the inner city east coast. Mom had the little am/FM radio tuned to wabc radio on school mornings because they mentioned the time frequently and kept us on track. I came to love the Beatles, Rolling Stones Sonny & Cher etc. At other times there was the far end of the radio dial where the black stations were. I loved the Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Otis Redding. I learned to hear and disect harmonies on early Beatles songs (that opening chord on A Hard Day’s Night). James Jamerson’s bass(Motown) made me pay attention to the bottom. I could go on rambling, just wanted to say I love music!!! Bach, Beethoven, Hendrix, Coltrane……..

  16. It’s certainly an interesting topic to ponder. Rather than an answer, I have other questions.

    Why did it take so long for white people to fall in love with musical artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, etc.?

    Why don’t black people seem to like the “Blues” anymore? It’s not uncommon to hear black blues musicians wonder why their audiences are almost exclusively white.

    Why do we even look at music in terms of black and white in the United States? As I racially “White” American, it seems normal to view music in racial terms. On the other hand, I am the child of two Cubans. This way we have in the USA of seeing music in terms of black and white seems odd to the Cuban part of my personality. When I was a child I noticed that that Cubans don’t look at music like that. I have never heard a Cuban refer to the legendary Mambo King, Pérez Prado, as a black man who played black music. No, he is considered a Cuban that performed Cuban music.

    I also noticed that on my parent’s Cuban vinyl records, the covers always showed bands made up of both black and white musicians.

    Lastly, whenever I play my African style Cuban Conga drum, I don’t think of it as playing black rhythms on a black person’s instrument. It’s just music, although I do appreciate and acknowledge the African origins. Unfortunately, I dance like a typical white person. Then again, so did Whitney Houston.🤣

  17. My parents came to America via the Bracero program in the ‘50s. Our household resonated with the sounds of Javier Solis, Pedro Infante, etc. one day my older brother purchased Meet the Beatles and thus a family of Mexican descent suddenly became Beatlemaniacs. Years later I discovered that many of my Latino friends were and still are diehard Beatles fans. We all agree that no other artist compares. Not even close. Viva Los Beatles!

    • Awesome Javier…did you like the Rolling Stones also ?

    • That’s so cool that you mentioned Javier Solis, Pedro Infante and the Beatles. My dad was a big fan of the ones you mentioned

  18. On the other hand, The Beatles, Stones and other British Invasion groups, through their covers and in interviews extolling their love of black artists, opened up that world to people like me who had little prior exposure to black music. James Brown’s appearance on the T.A.M.I. changed my musical perspective for life. Motown also did a lot towards exposing white audiences to Black music.

  19. Stephen B. Ward

    I’m just going to throw this out there. Is it possible that the criteria for the Billboard R&B charts was built in part on racist ideas? Given that the term Rhythm & Blues itself was conceived of as a more market-palatable term than “Race Music,” it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that the radio stations that were deemed to play R&B were ones that primarily played the music of Black artists. In that light, it is remarkable that the Beatles’ Abbey Road even made the R&B album charts. As a person who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, I remember top-40 Pop radio playing a mix of music from Black and White artists. So, for the author to refer to Motown as the “Sound Of Young Black America,” overlooks the plain fact that Motown artists consistently had hits on the Hot 100 charts; that is, EVERYONE loved Motown, including the members of The Beatles. It wasn’t just the inner cities, as the author suggests.

  20. Moses Moonbeam

    Putting the music aside, let’s not overlook the fact that the Beatles were white. People tend to favor things that they can relate to and is like themselves. And back in the sixties, when there was a huge racial divide, there would probably be a stigma from one’s peers if you showed interest in an artist that wasn’t of your race. And Motown was churning out some of the greatest music and songs that made black listeners proud to call it “their music”, rightfully so. Even today I think there are music styles that are considered “black or white” that are favored by their respective races though the line is more blurred.

    • Great contribution here, Moses.

      I grew up liking songs because I liked them. Not by who performed them.

      Still in that place today.

      Ain’t leavin’.

      And so we rock on…

    • Yeah, that’s too bad, the so called “racial divide” has zero to do with music, like Bob Dylan said once “there is good music and bad music, good music makes you feel “. Try listening to “good” music and not feeling, it’s impossible, dont care what “color” you are.

  21. Charles Bradley

    I also grew up in the 60’s & 70’s, (70, yo now) in Northern Illinois. Listened to WLS as much as possible on my transistor radio in my bedroom. I could only afford 45’s sometimes and I didn’t care what label it was, as long as I liked the music. Loved living in the Midwest because we were the melting pot of all styles from Doo Wop, to Motown to Surf Music to Soul to Hard & Soft Rock to Country Crossovers to the British Invasion. We got it all and I’m so glad I was exposed to the greatest Era of music. Great writers, performers and all around musicians!
    Too bad it all went to hell with the introduction of rap. Can’t sing to it, can’t dance to it, can’t listen to it.

  22. I was 15 in 1964, so I was there, living in New York City, listening to the three rock stations WMCA, WABC & WINS. I think there were cultural and economic reasons why the Beatles were not that big in the black community. First off, culturally, the Beatles basically sang pop music. It was not R&B, it was not soul. In NYC there was a station, I think it was WLIR? that was “the black” station. They played mostly black artists, lots of R&B and soul. So chances are, if you are a 15 year old black kid in NYC you’re listening to WLIB and not being exposed to “Beatlemania” the same way a 15 year old white kid is by listening to the three big rock stations. And who was buying the records? Teenagers. Did white teenagers have more disposable income than black teenagers? Probably yes. So if I’m a black teenage boy with $3.00 to spend on an album in the summer of 1964, do I spend it on the Beatles, or do I spend it on The Supremes? (And let me tell you, despite “Beatlemania”, I still think the Supremes owned the summer of 1964.) And that’s another thing. There was so much good music in the 60s from black artists (Chubby Checker, Little Eva, The Ronettes, The Orlons, The Drifters, Ben E. King, The Chiffons, The Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Dione Warwick, and on and on) that it it makes sense when money is spent, to spend it on an artists and a song that resonates with your psyche, with your world view.

  23. OK, I’m one that always like to cultivate substantive conversation. This topic was one that was simmering in my mind for quite a while. And while some of the comments posted here are thoughtful and sincere, there are some responses that come close to implying that I’m accusing the Beatles of burning a cross on someone’s lawn. I would like to address some patently false assertions. 1) Because of the relationship between African-Americans and their music, we have always found the resources to support our artists financially. R&B, Soul and Funk artists are usually launched in the Black community and then, if they’re popularity grows to certain degree, branches out into the white community. 2) Regardless of how our existence was defined in the 1960’s, there was no way in the world we could have escaped the popularity of the Beatles. And yet, they still weren’t able to penetrate the Black audience in any significant way, mainly due to the reasons I’ve outlined in this article. Personally, I’ve always felt that these kinds of questions should always be asked. The phenomenon of Beatlemania seems to always overlook the perspective of the African-American community. The same community (and culture) that the Beatles themselves sought so much inspiration from.

  24. Louis Jacinto

    You forgot to mention the Temptations singing “The Beatles’ new record’s a gas”.

    • Ken Godsey

      Yes, always loved that line in “Ball of Confusion”, it was topical and of course true !

  25. Did you see the “Eight Days a Werk” documentary? Some good insights there.

  26. I loved the Beatles since 1964. I went to an ALL black elementary school. Being a brave little Black girl, I stood on stage at my school and I had a report on the Beatles that I wanted to present. I started off read about John Winston Lennon was born on… I started getting booed off the stage and I left in tears. That’s when I realized that Black America was not ready for the Beatles

    • Rene Vizcaino

      That sucks being booed when your heart ❤️ was elated by the report you made

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