by Hillary Crosley
Since 1979, June has been designated as Black Music Month. The annual celebration was the result of a collaboration between songwriter and producer Kenneth Gamble of Gamble and Huff and broadcasters Ed Wright and Dyana Williams, who lobbied then-President Jimmy Carter for a month, like Country Music Month in October, that celebrated the business of African Americans in entertainment. Fortunately for the trio, they had friends in high places.
The Root spoke to Gamble about how Black Music Month was born, what the first celebration at the White House was like and whether the annual observance remains relevant.
Kenneth Gamble: The Black Music Association was a trade association at the time, and it was an educational forum for young producers and writers – African Americans in particular – where they could discuss the benefits of the music industry. History says that most African Americans in the industry were robbed of their songs and their property. The Black Music Association spoke to the marketing of Black music. The whole theme was “Black Music Is Green,” and it dealt with the economics of African-American music. It was very helpful not only to us but also the industry at large.
Then the Black Music Association created Black Music Month, which was another original, because October was Country Music Month. What happens when you have a music month? You get additional marketing dollars, and it helps to market and promote the artists. It’s still working, because right now we’re talking about something that started 34 years ago.
TR: Your BMA team petitioned for one year to push President Carter to institute Black Music Month. What was your convincing argument?
KG: There was a guy named Clarence Avant who was pretty close to the Democratic politicians like Carter. The administration had a country music night at the White House, so I called and asked, “Hey, Clarence, can you get us a Black music night at the White House?” Thank God he was successful, and it was a beautiful night on the White House lawn.
TR: What were some of the songs performed that night back in June 1979?
KG: Chuck Berry was there, so he did “Lucille,” playing his guitar. Little Richard was there, and Evelyn “Champagne” King was a young artist then, so she sang her first or second record. Billy Eckstine, who’s a legend, he sang, too. The whole atmosphere of the evening reflected an idea whose time had come, and it was good to see the whole music industry there and celebrating this original American music. When you talk about jazz, the blues and rhythm and blues, this is what America produced, and it has influenced many other types of music.
TR: Did President Carter have an awkward dance moment, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
KG: No, he was pretty cool. He just sat and enjoyed the music. It was a great night because it gave the country an opportunity to celebrate the music that so many people had stolen from the rightful creators, so we could give credit where it was due. I think it was a great move on Jimmy Carter’s behalf …
TR: You mentioned the marketing dollars allocated by companies in support of Black Music Month. Do you think those efforts are still needed, or is Black Music Month primarily a cultural celebration today?
KG: It’s absolutely still needed. Fortunately, so many institutions have created their own Black Music Month agenda, celebrating people like Miles Davis or Bessie Smith. It’s a time to remember the great African-American artists and the contributions that we’ve made to American music.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter @hillerycrosley.