JET: Ex-Beatle Tells How Black Stars Changed His Life

“I was given back my body in the 1950s by Black music. I appreciate it, and I’ll never stop acknowledging it – Black music is my life.”
– John Lennon, 1972

John & Yoko with their friend Dick Gregory at Ronnie Hawkin's Ranch in Streetsville, Toronto, 21 December 1969

Out of the Liverpool waterfront not too many years ago, four young men with something new to perform burst beyond the insularity of the English port to revolutionize popular music around the World.

The Beatles-George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney – quickly distinguished themselves in music halls and on records as entertainers and composers with a distinctive musical style. They went on to star in motion pictures and on television. But in time, they went their separate ways, each establishing a successful career as a solo artist.

John Lennon, tall, wiry with intense, fox-like vision and sweat pouring down his small but solid English frame, has been a controversial figure for some time now. He has been linked with everything from electric dreams to drugs.

But, according to Lennon, next to meeting and falling in love with his Japanese-born, Sarah Lawrence College-bred wife of three years, Yoko Ono, the most profound experience in his life was when he first heard Black music. With Yoko and good friend, comedian-social activist Dick Gregory, Lennon visited JET’s new Chicago offices and talked about his upbringing in Liverpool and how Black stars changed his life.

“Liverpool is a seaport city and many Blacks live there. The ugly scars of an earlier, racist-colonial period in England still mar the ports. Slave rings are still anchored to the front of the docks there. But it was usually hipper, this port city, than most of the country. We’d been hearing funky Black music all our Jives, while people across Britain and Europe had never heard of it.

“I grew up with blues music, country and western music. The sailors came in, brought folk music, -all kinds. I was at college and listened to the music. It was an easy progression to rhythm and blues via Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. First I heard Leadbelly, then Robert Johnson and Sleepy John Estes; from there I went to Chuck Berry and the other R&B (rhythm and blues) artists in 1958. I did not discover B. B. King, Mary Wells, T. Bone Walker and Albert King until in the 1960s.”

Recounting his first visit to America when The Beatles were riding a fantastic wave of high emotional idolatry generated by fanatic white youngsters, Lennon went on:

“The amazing thing about America was (in 1963-64) people asked “where is the influence-who influenced us? And all the musicians we named were Black but, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. We didn’t know anything about the race records business then. Music to us was music. And we were talking about all these Black people and the questioners’ faces fell. They said, ‘Oh, you don’t go for The Beach Roys, Jan & Dean?’ And we said, ‘C’mon man, that’s rubbish’ One thing we always did was to tell where we got our music from. In fact, when we arrived (in the U. S.) in 1964, we had a total of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard as musical idols. It hurt my heart that they were not as big as they were in the 1950s.

“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. The only white I ever listened to was 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. So, I said, ‘Why can’t I sing like that?’ I wanted to do it, so, I tried to do it. I copied all those people and the other Beatles did, and so did others (whites), until we developed a style of our own.” He caught his breath, then plunged on:

“I’m still based in Black music. I still feel it. Listen to this record (Woman Is The Nigger Of The World). To me, nothing has really happened to me (except his wife) since 1958 when I heard my first Black rock and roll. This is the same music people talk about, The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper and all that jazz. It doesn’t mean a thing. All I talk about is 1958 when I heard Long Tall Sally, when I heard Johnny Be Good, when I heard Bo Diddley. That changed my life completely. I dropped my art (classes); I dropped out of school. I dropped everything. I got me a guitar and that was the end of it.”

“So Black music was my life and still is. Of course, there is a lot of great white music these days. But it is still Black music, where it is at, man. Black music started the revolution in the world, the so-called youth revolution-this whole change of style, of attitude, was started by rock and roll, and rock and roll is Black. I believe one of your Black leaders said some time ago that ‘we Blacks loosed them young middleclass white kids and gave them back their bodies.’ I was given back my body in 1950.” He caught his breath. “Yes, I was given back my body in the 1950s by Black music. I appreciate it, and I’ll never stop acknowledging it – Black music is my life.”

JET – A Johnson Publication
October 26, 1972, Vol XLIII, No. 5