Rock, Race, and History: A Conversation with Vernon Reid

It’s been 33 years since Living Colour stunned the rock world with their debut album, Vivid. It marked the mainstream debut of a bold new guitar stylist, Vernon Reid. Reid’s adventurous playing incorporated the rhythmic and harmonic freedom borne of his avant-jazz roots. Living Colour were both an artistic and commercial success, topping the charts with their breakout single “Cult of Personality.” 

But Reid’s message wasn’t exclusively sonic. Before Living Colour broke, he’d been a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, a collective of African-American music makers rebelling against artistic restrictions that the music industry historically imposed on black artists. Decades after the Civil Rights Act, radio and record companies still segregated artists by race, often through the use of stylistic labels. African-American rock musicians were generally classified as “R&B artists,” which limited their exposure beyond the black community. Meanwhile rock was widely marketed as a white genre, even though it shares the same African-American origins as R&B. 

In 1988 I interviewed Vernon for a guitar magazine cover story shortly after Vivid dropped. In addition to dissecting his unique style, Vernon delved into rock’s racially fraught history, highlighting the work of earlier black rock guitarists who never won the mainstream attention they deserved. When Line 6 proposed a Vernon Reid interview to coincide with Black History Month, I leapt at the chance to revisit some of the topics we discussed decades ago. 

It’s never easy to talk about music and race. 

Talking about race is difficult, because race suffuses every aspect of American life. It’s imbedded in our history.But race can also freeze the conversation. It’s hard to discuss without it becoming about guilt and shame. People want to avoid that conversation because it’s uncomfortable. But it’s crucial that we engage with it.

The main thing we have to understand about African-American music is that it all evolved under duress. From field hollers on, everything was created under duress and beneath the white gaze. All of it was subject to appropriation and adaptation. As soon as jazz was created, it was appropriated and bifurcated into white and black. Segregation formed a knot in the middle of it. The music was undeniably African-American, but African-Americans had little control of the means of production. That cognitive dissonance runs throughout the entire history of American music.

Ernie Isley solos on “Summer Breeze” in 1973.

You often pay tribute to guitarists who failed to be recognized as rock greats because of industry segregation. Ernie Isley, for example.

I could spend this whole conversation talking about Ernie Isley. He’s one of the major guitar voices who have been left out of the conversation. Especially in the 1970s, when the Isley Brothers were making hit records featuring rock and roll guitar, like “Summer Breeze,” “Who’s That Lady,” and “Fight the Power.” He wasn’t just important for his style—he was commercially successful too. Yet he was completely absent from the guitar and rock media. He was never on the cover of a guitar magazine. The Isley Brothers were rock and roll pioneers whose hit-making career ran from the late 1950s through to early 2000s. How can that not be acknowledged?

Plus Jimi Hendrix was briefly in the Isley Brothers band. 

Ernie, the youngest Isley brother, was a kid at the time. The story goes that Jimi tousled his head and showed him a few things on guitar. Jimi had such a profound influence on this young, up-and-coming musician. But even though Ernie is very influenced by Hendrix, he sounds like himself. He has his own phrasing. That’s true of all my favorite post-Hendrix guitarists. Robin Trower, for example, is very much about the moody side of Hendrix—that dark, overdriven blues influence. His style is so different from other post-Hendrix guitarists like Frank Marino and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They’re influenced by Hendrix, but they all have completely distinct styles. Ernie emphasizes Hendrix’s R&B influences and his connection to the rhythm playing of Curtis Mayfield. Most people think of Hendrix as a rock and blues guitarist, but he was very much an R&B musician as well.

The Isley Brothers featuring Jimi Hendrix (1964).

Sometimes that R&B label is used to exclude music from the rock realm.

Look at Funkadelic! They were a rock band. American Eats Its Young was a rock album. Yes, it has elements of funk and R&B. But “Maggot Brain” is a magnum opus of rock and roll. So who gets to define the genre parameters? Who decides what is rock and what isn’t?

How about Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel?

Eddie Hazel never got his due because Funkadelic never got their due. From talking to George Clinton, I learned how George was an R&B singer who went to San Francisco and experienced the hippie movement. He heard Pink Floyd early on, and he wanted to create a Pink Floyd for black folks. He synthesized everything that was going on: the war, civil rights, black power. Also pimpin’, and the game, and the contrast between the church and the street. And the guitar foil for all that is Eddie Hazel. He always sounds like himself. On “Maggot Brain,” he’s a gospel singer. He’s a supplicant at the wake. “Super Stupid” is phenomenal funky hard rock. But Funkadelic was never really accepted as a rock band. I think that’s why they had to become Parliament-Funkadelic, with more of a funk/R&B expression.

Eddie Hazel performing live with Funkadelic in 1979.

At that time, rock and R&B almost became enemy camps, thanks to the “disco sucks” movement. 

Disco was a maligned style. “Disco sucks” expressed a sense of threat about the domination of dance music on the airwaves. Disco was so ubiquitous that there was a certain oversaturation. Still, the reaction was very unfair. Disco hasn’t received the critical assessment that it deserves. That applies to great players like Jerome Smith, who played with KC and the Sunshine Band. Their “Get Down Tonight” has this phenomenal, pre-Whammy Pedal, super-high-pitched guitar intro. They used the half-speed tape technique that Les Paul used.

And of course, there was Nile Rodgers from Chic.

Nile Rodgers transcends. He comes in at the fulcrum point. His productions with Bernard Edwards were so influential. Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” couldn’t have existed without the influence of Chic. Nile Rodgers became a producer to the stars: Human League, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughan. You know, I always say the first hip hop record is Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes the Judge” because it had a backbeat with lyrics spoken in cadence. But you can also say hip hop starts with Chic’s “Good Times.” Chic was so crucial.

Chic perform “Good Times” on television in 1978.

That segregation arose again when MTV debuted in the early ’80s. Initially they wouldn’t play music by black artists. “It’s not rock,” they’d say. “It’s R&B.”

Yes—and at that point they even had an African-American VJ, J.J. Jackson. You had a black person presenting videos, but content was almost 100% white. That’s the curious nature of racial dynamics. MTV checked a box with an African-American presence, but the content was in opposition to that idea. Look, the beauty of the rock genre is how elastic it can be. It’s Pink Floyd and Van Morrison. It’s Yes and the Sex Pistols. My problem is, why didn’t it include War, or Earth, Wind & Fire, or Parliament-Funkadelic?

I think something similar happens when we’re told that rock and roll began in the 1950s. That detaches rock from its roots. For example, we say that both Chuck Berry and Kiss are rock and roll. But Louis Jordan’s hits from the 1940s are far closer to Chuck Berry’s sound than Chuck Berry is to Kiss. Same with Rosetta Tharpe, who was playing in a style much like Chuck Berry’s by the late 1930s. 

It’s so shocking how Rosetta Tharpe was neglected for so long. She was a badass guitar player. I mean bad ass! She deserves the credit Chuck Berry gets as an influence. She was a major star in her time, but then she wasn’t even part of the conversation for many years. It’s only in the last decade or so that her importance has been re-acknowledged.

Louis Jordan performs “Caldonia” circa 1945.

Why was Jimi Hendrix an exception? How did he get to the top of the rock pantheon? 

I doubt that it would have happened if Jimi had stayed in the U.S. and not gone to England. He could have turned down Chas Chandler’s offer to take him to the U.K. He had to take a walk into space, a leap of faith. He had to take that so-called hero’s journey. He had to go into the unknown to fulfill the quest of making the music that existed only in his mind. Another incredible thing about Hendrix is how in touch he was with where the U.S. was at the time, at the peak of the Viet Nam war. You can understand why Hendrix had to make his two greatest electric guitar performances, “Machine Gun” with Band of Gypsys and “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. With his guitar and the volume that he used, he took listeners into the rice paddies of Viet Nam. He forced people to walk point with him. He was channeling all the war’s fear and anxiety, all the young lives that were erased. 

Rosetta Tharpe plays “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In the Air)” on Gospel Time TV in the mid 1960s.

People also tend to detach Hendrix from his roots. For example, he didn’t invent flashy moves like playing behind his back or with his teeth. T-Bone Walker was doing all that stuff on the chitlin’ circuit in the 1940s. [The term “chitlin’ circuit” refers to the collection of performance venues that catered to black artists and audiences from the late 19th century through the Civil Rights era.]

T-Bone Walker was the one. That circuit was competitive! Regionalism had a big part to play in that. People from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta—who would get the most applause? Sure, playing nice on the guitar might be great, but not as great as someone who puts the guitar behind their back! The audience prefers the guy who plays behind his back.

I’ve seen lots of letters from guitar magazine readers saying things like, “Jimi wasn’t really black or white—he was a child of the universe.”

That’s part of the cognitive dissonance. Someone might have racist stereotypes of black people, but they love their favorite running back, who’s black. People fell in love with Jimi’s image, his vision, and the conceptual space that he occupied. He was a larger-than-life Icarus figure. Many people had to separate him from African-American culture. Black people did it too! It’s not just white people who police the boundaries of blackness. We also do a great job of defining who is and who isn’t in the club. That can get into really uncomfortable territory, talking about colorism and lightness and darkness of skin, as in the case of Louis Armstrong.

T-Bone Walker performs “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” in 1962.

How so?

Louis Armstrong was an international superstar, but there was a fetishized attachment to his features—the darkness of his skin and his big white smile. That was really him, but he also played into an entertaining notion of “the darkie.” [Influential jazz drummer and bandleader] Ronald Shannon Jackson, my first real boss, told a story about a time when he and a bunch of younger jazz cats were playing a festival, and Louis Armstrong was on the bill. They were talking about Armstrong like he was Uncle Tom. But then Armstrong came over, and he was the nicest guy, asking if they had everything they needed and whether the festival was treating them right. Shannon said he felt ashamed. The young black guys had projected an image onto Armstrong, but then they came into contact with him and realized he was not what they thought. It’s a real phenomenon, being despised by black people because white people like you.

After 33 years, has anything changed?

Things have shifted. Every generation has to have its reawakening. This generation is currently experiencing both a trauma and a reawakening, and it’s going to be expressed in the music. There will be conflict, but there will also be new questions and new levels of engagement. The question of blackness is one thing. Now we’re also dealing with the question of whiteness in a way we haven’t had to before. If white supremacy is in the background, then we quietly understand who’s running things. If everybody goes along with that quiet understanding, change will proceed at a snail’s pace. But now there’s a real chance to challenge that. Are we going to be a community of white, black, brown, yellow, or whatever? Are we going to transcend color? It’s not going to happen by itself!

Main photograph: Scott Friedlander

Joe Gore is a musician, writer, and tech geek from San Francisco. He’s recorded and performed with dozens of renowned artists and written thousands of articles about music, musicians, and music tech for major publications. He also designs analog stompboxes and sound collections for Helix.

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  1. wabaynes

    Absolutely loved this. One of my favorite posts on this blog so far.

  2. anthony1048

    This is a better live version of Ernie Isley performing Summer Breeze from the same time period:

  3. dougvarty

    I loved this article! Vernon is one of my heroes, and Joe too. It’s great to read such thoughtful discussion, and to see so many fine examples of the musicians discussed here.

  4. Vella1

    That was awesome! If every blog could be this good…
    Vernon has been one of my all-time guitar heroes since I was 17 and I would rage to Which Way to America!

  5. toot55

    Thank you Joe and Vernon for the contributions and the blogs you have blessed
    us with. You are appreciated.

  6. Sunday Session: March 7, 2021 -

    […] Two-Thirds of New York City’s Arts and Culture Jobs Are Gone (* Rock, Race, and History: A Conversation with Vernon Reid (* 25 essential jazz songs that trace the quintessential American artform through history (USA […]

  7. Tripper

    Joe has always been one of my favorite guitar writers and Vernon one of my favorite guitarists/composers. To have them both here on my favorite manufacturer’s blog is just…my favorite. Ha ha ha. I feel that it is very important for people to understand how much Living Colour meant to kids like me – I was just a suburban white kid, living in New Jersey, never thinking much about race except that I wanted everyone to be treated equally. Then I was educated by hip hop and Living Colour that there’s a world I didn’t understand because I didn’t experience it. I HEARD what they were saying. It reached me. Run-DMC’s “Proud to be Black” was scary for me to hear because I don’t think I’d ever heard a black person talk like that about themselves or their race. And “Open Letter (To A Landlord)” opened my eyes to things happening in the city of my parents’ youth in a way that I’d never considered. Then I moved to California and my new best friend was another new kid – the only black kid in my school. Our moms were both nurses. Our dads were both managers. We had so much in common, including an admiration for Living Colour and rock music in general. But I saw how he was treated differently because of his race. It opened my eyes even wider. Shortly after that, my education continued with “Time’s Up” – so many important songs on there and ideas I hadn’t considered or been exposed to. I am a better human being because of Vernon and his band (and my friend, and hip hop), and I thank you for featuring him here and for both of you having a great dialogue. Thanks, guys, and thanks Line 6/YGG!

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