When I was in Chicago in late November, I had the pleasure of hearing an interview with Marshall Chess, the son of one of the founders of Chess Records which produced some of the greatest blues artists anywhere – Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf, Etta James and Chuck Berry are some names that are recognizable. I was captivated by the whole interview, but something said by Marshall struck me. He made the comment “it took British musicians to introduce white audiences in America to the blues’ legends.” He would routinely take calls from Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards and eventually would be asked by them to manage Rolling Stones Records in the late 1960s. More on this later.
While thinking of this, I was reminded of the courage that Jackie Robinson had to break the color barrier in Major League baseball. For those who follow baseball, Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League in baseball. The American League had the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two historically successful teams which were among the slowest to integrate. And, it eventually caught up with them. Why do I say this? It may surprise many, but the Red Sox had scouted and could have signed two ball players that would go on to change history in the game of baseball. You see the Red Sox could have signed both Henry Aaron and Willie Mays to their team and passed because they did not want to change with the times. Aaron would eventually break Babe Ruth’s home run record, but was much more than a power hitter as a player. Mays is probably the greatest baseball player that many of us will have ever seen play. I cannot think of a current player who can sustain the level of excellence that Mays did.
What do either of these stories have to do with the Republican Party, known as the Grand Old Party (GOP)? The GOP is not a very diverse political party and it is causing them some concerns. It should. The GOP has remained the party of old white men and they have been throwing themes around for the past few years of “taking our country back.” According to no less an authority than former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, GOP leaders must erase “the dark veil of intolerance.” And, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal noted last week “we have to stop being the stupid party.” Yet, the party looks only to change tactics rather than do some serious soul-searching.
These two Black History month stories, though, offer lessons of what can happen if you do not adjust with the times. As for Marshall Chess’ point, white audiences were exposed to white versions of the blues, but not the blues artists themselves. Elvis Pressley and Jerry Lee Lewis were huge sensations, but the artists that spawned their interest had to stand in the shadows. Since I am from the south, African-American artists were not permitted on white stations. Johnny Rivers made a career of singing songs written and performed by African-American artists. In the early to mid-1960s this began to change with something called “The British Invasion.”
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton and his various bands (Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes) were all heavily influenced by American blues artists. As a result, Clapton, Richards, Jaggar, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page, etc. all had a healthy foundation of blues music. So, while American pop music got very stale after Pressley started being a movie star, Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin – a PR disaster that destroyed his career, and Buddy Holly was killed, this new British sound was a force to be reckoned with. It was innovative and different to white American audiences. In other words, American pop music was not changing with the times and it took others to show them the way. Others that were not as constrained with bigotry as we were in America.
The same held true for the Red Sox, Yankees and other American League teams. While these teams stayed less or not integrated, the National League teams signed eventual Hall of Fame African-American stars such as Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roy Campanella, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Orlanda Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Don Newcombe. It was not ironic that the National League dominated the All Star games which annually pitted the two leagues against each other from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. Once the Yankees great star, Mickey Mantle, faded in the mid-1960s, the Yankees were largely uncompetitive for several years. In other words, the American League stood still and did not adapt to the times until they got tired of being bested by the National League. Someone else had to show them the way.
The GOP is in this same position. They can choose to change tactics or they can look to see if their platform meets the needs of the changing demographics. If they do not do the latter, they are destined to become a minority party for years. The immigration issue is one of several. They cannot go on denying the truth in various issues such as man-influenced global warming, the huge success of the elite class at the expense of other Americans, gays and lesbians deserve equal rights and the need for access to healthcare to moderate costs and keep people from becoming bankrupt when a healthcare crisis occurs. If the GOP does not learn the lessons of the American League or American pop music, it will take others to show them the error of their ways.
Failure is a great teacher, but you have to be willing to learn from it. Is the GOP up to learning the lessons of Black History?