Louis Armstrong, Not Michael Jackson, Broke the Pop Color Barrier

Decades before Thriller, Louis Armstrong was co-starring and crooning with Bing Crosby and, in 1949, made the cover of Time.

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If anyone was under the mistaken impression that I’m above rank self-promotion, here’s my review for The American Conservative of Terry Teachout’s wonderful biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, just now available to nonsubscribers.

And, since tomorrow marks the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, I thought this bit was worth highlighting:

With an absurdly foreshortened frame of historical reference, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in the wake of that other King of Pop’s death, “Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of color, way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama. Michael did with music what they later did in sports, and in politics, and in television.”

Come again?

Decades before Thriller, Louis Armstrong was co-starring and crooning with Bing Crosby and, in 1949, made the cover of Time, a recognition that, Teachout hastens to remind the reader, “carried far more weight in the forties than it does today.”

A year later, I’m still mystified that Jackson is thought of as breaking the color barrier in pop music. ( Here, from CNN, is just one of many such assertions from a particularly overeducated fan.)

The reason people forget that pre-Motown black artists were participants of mainstream American pop culture, even as they were personally subject to horrendous bigotry, is more or less the result of the way the Beatles changed the face of the industry—but without making any headway among black Americans and failing to introduce anything in the way of new dance rhythms, which, since the ragtime era, is where one typically located the pulse of pop music trends.

As the music historian Elijah Wald notes in his book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, the Beatles—through no fault of their own—ended up “re-segregating” Billboard’s pop charts, which by 1963 had absorbed the once-separate R&B chart.

This was the state of the industry from which Michael Jackson exploded.

But it hadn't always been thus.