Number 44 / February 1987:
PLAYERS....Tom Raber and Lee Ballinger write: The free interchange of ideas between sports and pop music has been going on for so long that we take it for granted. Cheering sections gave Leiber and Stoller the handclaps for "Poison Ivy" and a generation later provided the grist for "Let's Go" by the Cars and Toni Basil's "Mickey." Auto racing gave rock & roll one of its primal subjects and a clue about the volume and intensity at which it should be played. Scores of guitar heroes borrow their wristband/sneaker look from the NBA, which is also the wellspring for hiphop's B-boy styles. Michael Jackson learned some of his best moves by watching Muhammad Ali. Marvin Gaye tried and failed to make the Detroit Lions as a wide receiver but later used friends from the team to create an unforgettable introduction for "What's Going On." An integrated group of San Francisco 49ers backs Huey Lewis on Fore! and occasionally on stage. The Baltimore Sun's first rock critic, John Schulian, went on to join the vanguard of a new breed: the socially conscious sportswriter.
Going the other direction, Joe Namath just as surely copped his pose from Elvis as Jim McMahon cops his from Billy Idol. TV's musical highlight each February is far more often the singing of the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game than it is the Grammy Awards. Sports television was years ahead of MTV in matching music with visuals; now even Chicago Bear coach Mike Ditka has his own music video on the market.
This seems perfectly natural, since professional athletes and pop musicians generally come from the undesirable element that has few, if any, other avenues for advancement. Yet that's been true for far longer than the existence of the merger between sports and music. In the fifties, televised sports events weren't introduced with spiffy versions of pop tunes; they came on the air with marching music. The national anthem was sung only by choirs and polite vocalists like Robert Goulet. Sports was supposed to be the exclusive province of "good" kids, promoters of conservative thought and paramilitary regimentation. Pro athletes were lionized like war heroes, not as sex symbols or pop stars. Rock & roll was the refuge of the awkward kid in glasses (Buddy Holly) or the would-be jock who wouldn't cut his hair for football (Presley).
The emergence of large numbers of black professional athletes, which consummated the marriage between music and sports, was a long time coming. It began with the massive post-war migration of rural blacks to the cities, which provided the impetus for the birth of rock & roll and forced token integration upon professional sports. Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the majors in 1947, was keenly aware of the potential box-office draw of black players among the newly arrived black population. But while Robinson and his counterparts in football and basketball were important trailblazers, they were still tokens. When Chuck Berry and Little Richard first blasted black music into white homes in the mid-fifties, the only pro sport truly open to blacks was boxing. (James Brown, Berry Gordy, and Jackie Wilson all gave it a shot before turning to their only other option.)
1965 was the watershed year: The Voting Right Act was passed, several Stax southern soul gems hit the Top Ten, and an all-black team from Texas Western defeated an all-white one from Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship.
Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, blacks were still allowed success only in sports and music with the result that, from the mid-sixties onward, pro locker rooms were filled with more and more black faces and the ever-present sound of music. The booming economy put a TV set in every American home and a sports franchise in every city big enough to float a stadium bond. Just as radio had made the Southern-based sound of rock & roll national, television displayed the skills and styles of black athletes for all to see. The media reflected and amplified the fact that a new generation had its own brand of sports heroes and music.
The integration of sports and music seems almost complete today, but the same cannot be said of the racial integration that fueled it. In an eloquent editorial in the December 22-29 Sports Illustrated, Frank DeFord quoted the turn-of-the-century comedian Bert Williams: "It's no disgrace to be colored, but it's just so inconvenient." DeFord continued: "Forty years after Robinson made the lineup in Brooklyn, twenty years after Bill Russell became coach of the Boston Celtics, everybody can get into hotels and almost everybody can even get to be mayor of Philadelphia, but it's still terribly inconvenient to be colored if, for example, you would like to be a race car driver or a jockey or a coach in the NFL." Or if you're a black man driving a nice car in Tampa, as Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets discovered the night of December 13. Gooden was pulled over by police, thrown to the ground, hogtied, and severely beaten by eight cops.
It's still not very convenient to be colored in the music business, either. Technical and decision- making jobs are still the almost-exclusive province of whites, while debate continues to rage over how much, if any, black music is appropriate for video channels, radio formats, award shows, and concert venues.
"Forty years after Pee Wee Reese, a young white man from Kentucky, made the noble effort of putting his arm around the beleaguered Robinson," DeFord wrote, "there still isn't all that much fraternization away from the arena by teammates of different races." Musicians of different races seldom even play together, glorious exceptions like "We Are the World" and "Sun City" notwithstanding. As for the fans, while millions of whites and blacks like the same music, integrated concert audiences are as rare as black race car drivers. This perverse phenomenon takes place no matter what the color of the performer. Lionel Richie's concert audiences are virtually all-white, Teena Marie's all-black. As DeFord notes, "The neighborhood must change before the locker room does."
Even in this most segregated of countries, Americans manage to enjoy the same music and come together every day in thousands of gyms and playing fields. But eventually we must return to our separate neighborhoods. We can see what's at stake in all this from the energy expended by our enemies to keep us there, from the district attorneys in the 1950s who openly attacked rock & roll for its "race-mixing" to the churches that still maintain separate basketball leagues for whites and blacks. As long as "there goes the neighborhood" remains an epithet, there will be something missing in the power of music and the beauty of sport, no matter how artfully they're combined. [Tom Raber is a St. Louis-based writer.]
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