For Black Music Month, we're looking back 15, 25, 35 and 45 years ago to take stock of black music's most memorable and pivotal moments. In the final part of our four-part series, we revisit 1967, a pivotal 12 months for some of black music's legends of the '60s — Aretha, Jimi, James, Marvin and Tammi — and a year when reggae bubbled from the Caribbean. Tell us what you loved most about black music 45 years ago in the comments below.
Captions by Julia Chance
The year started off great for New Orleans crooner Aaron Neville. His soulful ballad "Tell It Like It Is," written by George Davis and Lee Diamond, was released in late 1966 but wound up going gold in 1967, landed atop Billboard's R&B chart for five consecutive weeks. It also peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 list. The fact that the song has been covered by a laundry list of artists from Nina Simone to Andy Williams is a testament to its enduring quality.
Largely regarded as the greatest guitar player in rock history, Jimi Hendrix and his Experience band didn't immediately set the U.S. on fire. First they became the toast of London's rock scene early in the year with the release of their singles "Hey Joe" and "Purple Haze," not to mention the masterful double-album debut, Are You Experienced? But it was their exhilarating performance at the Monterey Pop Festival — the climax of which is Hendrix burning his guitar — that made Jimi and crew bona fide rock stars stateside. Caught on film in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Monterey Pop, the moment saw Hendrix christened as the ultimate guitar god.
Though the Otis Redding-penned song "Respect" was a No. 5 R&B hit two years prior, Aretha Franklin's declarative rendition — recorded in New York on Valentine's Day in 1967 — transformed it into a smash hit and feminist anthem. The tune, with its tight rhythm section, compliments of the popular Muscle Shoals musicians, catchy "sock it to me, sock it to me" refrain and Franklin's signature "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" chorus, held the top pop spot for two weeks. As the opening track to her astonishing first album on Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Franklin staked an early claim on soul music greatness.
The jazz world mourned the loss of two legends. First, Billy Strayhorn, the pianist, composer and longtime Duke Ellington collaborator responsible for Take the A Train, died on May 31 at the age of 52 of esophageal cancer. Two months later revolutionary saxophonist and free jazz pioneer John Coltrane died on July 17 of liver cancer. At just 40, Coltrane had been recording that year with drummer Rashied Ali. The resultant avant-jazz album, Interstellar Space, was released in 1974. But Strayhorn and Trane left a musical legacy that has inspired generations of musicians worldwide.
In late 1967, the Supremes founding member Florence Ballard got fired from the group after missing several shows and recording sessions due to an escalating drinking problem. It didn't help that Motown head Berry Gordy was positioning Diana Ross (who also happened to be his lover) as lead vocalist instead of Ballard. By the time he finally picked former Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong to take Ballard's place, he had renamed the group Diana Ross & the Supremes. Their song "Reflections" peaked on the charts at No. 2. However, Ballard's voice and image appear on the LP since it was recorded before her dismissal. She died nine years later at age 32.
A string of hits, international performances and a rousing appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June helped soul singer Otis Redding leap from R&B to pop music with great success. Sadly, by year's end he and four members of his band the Bar-Kays perished in a plane crash reminiscent of a similar accident that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper eight years prior. His deeply contemplative tune, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," became the first posthumous chart topper and the biggest hit of his career.
In August, Staxx Records scored big when R&B duo Samuel Moore and David Prater, known simply as Sam & Dave, dropped "Soul Man." The high-octane soul stirrer went gold and became their biggest hit. According to co-writer Isaac Hayes the song was inspired by the nation's bourgeoning black pride, particularly how it played out during the 1967 riots in Detroit, during which black business owners wrote "soul" on their establishments to prevent them from being looted.
During the fall, the Soul Survivors, a New York City blue-eyed soul band, collaborated with Philadelphia producers-songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to release "Expressway to Your Heart." The song became the first major hit for Gamble and Huff, who would go on to establish Philadelphia International Records and become architects of the famous Philly Sound. The duo would go on to produce a boatload of classic songs for the O'Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, among others.
Trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis released Sorcerer in December, the third album with his second quintet, which consisted of Wayne Shorter (sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums) and Ron Carter (bass). Cited as a more cerebral effort than the group's previous LPs, it featured compositions by Shorter, Hancock and Williams. It was also a tribute to actress Cicely Tyson, then Davis' wife, and her profile graces the cover.
Oakland, Calif.-based arranger and pianist Edwin Hawkins funkified the mid-18th-century English hymn "Oh Happy Day" for his newly formed California Stage Youth Choir. The following year the choir, renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, recorded "Oh Happy Day," making it one of the biggest gospel hits ever and a pop-chart topper as well. Reverend James Cleveland, the visionary composer and choral director who modernized traditional gospel by infusing it with jazz and secular elements, established the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an annual weeklong international interfaith conference for gospel lovers.
Motown's love couple, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, was riding high on duets like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love," written by then real-life couple Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. But things took a tragic turn in October when Terrell passed out onstage during a performance at Virginia's Hampton-Sydney College. After complaining of severe headaches, she was later diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that would ultimately claim her life at age 24.
Dionne Warwick worked her magic on "Alfie," the theme song for the eponymous film that received modest attention a year before. First she recorded an impromptu version on her Here Where There Is Love album and later sang it at the 39th Grammy Awards, causing it to climb Billboard's Hot 100 Chart and peak at a respectable No. 15.
After a gig one night, the Godfather of Soul grunted the base lines of a songhe'd thought up to his bandleader Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis. The result: "Cold Sweat," the pivotal single and LP that presented the funky new direction in which James Brown (and R&B consequently) headed. Ellis, an ardent Miles Davis fan, modeled the song's horn riffs off of those on the jazzman's popular "So What."
"I Wish It Would Rain," delivered with poignant conviction by the Temptation's lead singer David Ruffin, became one of the most melancholy tunes of the group's career. Written by Motown lyricist Roger Penzabene, it reflected the pain he experienced when he learned his wife had been cheating. A distraught Penzabene committed suicide on New Year's Eve, a week after the song came out.
With their debut album A Whole New Thing, Sly and the Family Stone broke the R&B mold as the first interracial, multigendered band ever. The album was a critical success, despite low sales, and paved the way for the stew of soul, funk and psychedelic music that would help to define the next decade.
The growing Black Power and Black Arts movement inspired Los Angelenos Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton and Otis O'Solomon to form the spoken-word group the Watts Prophets. With their fiery social commentary and tendency toward black militancy, they were the predecessors to contemporaries the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, and all manner of conscious rap music to come.
Reggae, a mixture of Jamaican music styles ska and rocksteady, is born with recordings like The Pioneers’ “Long Shot Bus’ Me Bet” and Clancy Eccles’ “Say What You’re Saying” being early examples. Coincidently, 12-year-old Jamaican Clive Campbell emigrated to the U.S., settling in the Bronx. A decade later as DJ Kool Herc he’s credited with originating hip-hop with big sound systems and rapping – talking over a song’s beat – being a direct influence from his homeland.