Celebrations of What’s Goin’ On’s 50th anniversary lead me back to an crucial era of black media expansion
This month I’ve done a number of interviews about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ album, which turns fifty this year. In a poll Rolling Stone magazine named it the number album of the rock era. It’s been cited by activists and social commentators as a recording that speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement like few contemporary albums do. It’s seamless synthesis of blues, doo wop, gospel, jazz, funk, Afro-Cuban and classical elements beautifully compliments Marvin’s multi-layered vocal arrangements and lyrics that referenced the Vietnam War, the ecology movement, police brutality and so many other topics that mattered in 1971 and still do in 2021.
But ‘What’s Goin’ On’ was not an isolated artistic or social achievement. I would argue that 1971 was one of the most important years in black music history and part of a breakthrough era in entertainment/communication entrepreneurship. It was a year when black singer-songwriters busted out of the box of making only love and dance songs to create personal, idiosyncratic albums that reflect some of the same yearning for self-expression and freedom as Gaye’s landmark work. Sly & the Family Stone made ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On.’ Bill Withers debuted with ‘Just As I Am.’ Gil-Scott Heron made ‘Pieces of a Man.’ Reflect on these titles: What’s Goin’ On, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Just As I Am, Pieces of a Man. While there were hit singles on all these LPs these were very much coherent song cycles that spoke very intimately about the way they saw the world as black citizens of the United States and as a individual men with their own quirks and passions. That same year saw the release of two of the greatest concert albums ever — Curtis/Live!, a double album by Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha Live at the Filmore West — which both released in May of ’71. Both are recordings that show the Chicago born troubadour and the Detroit singer-pianist at their height of their powers, singing and connecting with audiences with a rawness and spirit even their greatest studio recordings can not match. This was also the spring and summer when black directors connected with great African-American musicians to connect provocative imagery with remarkable music. In April Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ hit a few theaters before turning into a cult classic with much of the music coming from a then young band called Earth, Wind & Fire. In time for the fourth of July weekend the black private dick flick ‘Shaft’ reached theaters. Photographer turned filmmaker Gordon Parks’ blaxploitation classic and Isaac Hayes’ Oscar winning score dominated the black pop culture of that summer.
All this musical and cinematic progress were matched my business moves that still impact the dissemination of black images and ideas. I’ve gonna cheat a bit here and include the years 1969 and 1970 but I think you’ll see why. Uni-World advertising, one of the first black owned ad agencies, opened in 1969 in New York. Two years later Burrell Communications, an ad agency in Chicago, opened its doors. In 1970 two magazines that continue to be crucial voices for black aspirations began publication — Essence and Black Enterprise. That same year Inner City Broadcasting, with its flagship station WBLS in New York, came on the air. Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff went from record producers to label owners with Philadelphia International records in ’71. Don Cornelius moved his ‘Soul Train’ show from Chicago to Los Angeles in this year with the support of George Johnson’s black owned hair care company. ‘Soul Train’ was a nexus through which much of this emerging black music and business was exposed.
All the music of Gaye, Sly, Aretha etc was heard on ‘Soul Train’ and, eventually, all these acts would grace the stage where the show was broadcast. Many of the actors who appeared in the blaxploitation films that ‘Sweetback’ and ‘Shaft’ spawned appeared on ‘Soul Train’ for Cornelius’ trademark interviews. The black ad agencies benefited from the syndicated show’s popularity since it demonstrated the buying power of black consumers — the same buying power that Essence would attract and Black Enterprise would report on.
So ‘What’s Goin’ On’, as singular as it was as an personal statement, was part of a wave of expansion in black media that touched music, film, radio, advertising and periodicals. Moreover fifty years from that period Essence, Black Enterprise, Uni-World, Burrell and WBLS are all brands that still exist, while the ‘Soul Train’ brand is an important part of BET’s current roster of award shows, and its visual and dance style part of our collective memory.
Black capitalism is an idea that has come into attack in recent years. There was an well known essay looking at the business and charitable efforts Jay-Z’s and others black business/media figures that black capitalism can’t save African-Americans from systemic racism and capitalist exploitation. That’s probably right. No cabal of black businesses would be be enough to shift American history.
At the same time black capitalists have consistently opened doors and given experience to talent from our community’s that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. Let’s not forget, despite Berry Gordy’s reluctance, ‘What’s Goin’ On’ was released on black owned Motown Records, as was ‘“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by the Temptations and all of Stevie Wonder’s stunning series of albums in the early ’70s. ‘Soul Train’ projected black joy on television for the first time under Cornelius’ control with the support of other canny entrepreneurs like Clarence Avant and Dick Griffey. The quartet of black businessmen who raised the money for Essence provided a platform for several generations of editors, writers, photographers, designers and models. Under the guidance of Earl Graves Black Enterprise magazine gave independent black businesspeople a platform, while existing as forum for the aspirations of folks struggling to get in the door at corporate America. Percy Sutton, the politician turned businessman, built Inner City Broadcasting into formidable network of stations. Though that empire has been sold off, the legacy of his star program director/DJ Frankie Crocker, who at one time made ‘BLS the music station in New York, is still remembered with awe and affection by those who lived through his glory days.
Many of these brands have been sold several times since the ’70s — some to white corporations, some to younger black entrepreneurs. These were not perfectly run businesses. Some suffered from the great man syndrome with a male leader who developed a cult-like following. Outside of Essence woman were rarely given leadership roles at these businesses, though all of them had diligent, smart women in key roles. Nepotism often trumped merit in the running of these businesses. Yet what would our collective memory of the ’70s be without Soul Train, Essence, Black Enterprise, Inner City Broadcasting, Johnson Hair Care Products, Uni-World, Burrell Advertising, Philly International and, of course, Motown?
In a subsequent newsletter I will look more closely at the black media institutions founded in and around 1971, seeking in their journeys lessons about the struggle of black capitalism in America. In the meantime listen to ‘What’s Goin’ On’ and revel in Marvin Gaye’s mastery.