John Lennon defends The Beatles “ripping off” Black musicians in a handwritten note
One of the biggest asterisks which resided over the career of The Beatles was the accusation that they gentrified black music and stole their sound from the sub-culture, one which was then sold off to the masses whilst accruing millions of pounds and countless hit records in the process. However, that accusation never sat right with John Lennon and, being John Lennon, he wasn’t particularly quiet about it either.
Lennon was open about his love of music made by Black American musicians, it was almost exclusively what he listened to as a teenager and provided him with a musical awakening that he would then share himself with a new generation. Despite clearly wearing his inspirations on his sleeve, he never saw The Beatles re-interpretation of black music as being anything but a way of showing their adoration for it rather than attempting to profit from it.
When an article, which was published in 1971 in the New York Times, slammed how The Beatles “ripped off” black musicians came to Lennon’s attention whilst on a transatlantic flight, with time on his side, he decided to defend himself. Lennon got his pen and paper at the ready to write a letter in response to the journalist’s claim which laid out his firm response.
A few years later, Lennon reiterates a similar perspective whilst appearing on The Tomorrow Show in 1975, in what would tragically turn out to be the final major broadcast interview that the former Beatle would give before his premature death. During the conversation, Lennon talks in-depth about how The Fab Four got their sound from black musicians who were, in his correct opinion, the true rock ‘n’ roll pioneers and his admiration for the movement knew no bounds.
Lennon discussed why it took so long for The Beatles to be accepted in the States and why rock ‘n’ roll was frowned upon in the early 1960s, he stated, “People have always been trying to stamp out rock ‘n’ roll since it started, I always thought that it’s because it came from black music and the words had a lot of double entendre in the early days.”
Adding: “It was all this ‘our nice white kids are gonna go crazy moving their bodies’, y’now the music got to your body and The Beatles just carried it a bit further, made it a bit more white, even more than Elvis did because we were English,” he said with more than a pinch of honesty.
Lennon’s openness about how The Beatles took the sound which had been pioneered by the black musicians of America and he was well aware that the colour of The Fab Four’s skin played a part in their success, especially in comparison to their black counterparts. To Lennon’s credit in the furious letter to the journalist who claimed that they “ripped off” the sound and he instead suggested it was a “love in” rather than anything malicious.
Lennon later also said that “Chuck Berry is the greatest influence on Earth. So is Bo Diddley and so is Little Richard. There is not one white group on Earth that hasn’t got their music in them – and that’s all I ever listened to,” he added. “The only white I ever listened to was [Elvis] Presley on his early music records, and he was doing black music. Presley was in Memphis; obviously, he was listening to the [black] music. I don’t blame him for wanting to be that music. I wanted to be that.”
His line of defence was more at how the journalist had targetted The Beatles when in Lennon’s view every band of the day were as guilty as his old band. Potentially, coupled with some in-flight boredom as well and an opportunity to occupy himself for a short period, Lennon crafted a primed response for anyone claiming The Beatles weren’t aware of where they had come from or the opportunities they were afforded. Check out his handwritten note, below.
In Flight… yes
14th Sep. 71.
Dear Craig McGregor
‘Money’, ‘Twist ‘n’ Shout’, ‘You really got a hold on me’ etc, were all numbers we (the Beatles) used to sing in the dancehalls around Britain, mainly Liverpool. It was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could – i always wished we could have done them even closer to the original. We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough – the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could. in the ’50s there were few people listening to blues – R + B – rock and roll, in America as well as Britain. People like – Eric Burdons Animals – Micks Stones – and us drank ate and slept the music, and also recorded it, many kids were turned on to black music by us.
It wasnt a rip off. it was a love in,
John + Yennon
P.S. what about the ‘B’ side of Money? P.P.S. even the black kids didn’t dig blues etc it wasn’t ‘sharp’ or something.