California Dreaming: A Note About Race

California Dreaming is a story of the LA pop music scene, but it’s not the story of the LA pop music scene. In writing it, I had to choose a starting point, and for the bits of the story that I wanted to tell, Moon Dawg by the Gamblers is just about as close to a perfect start as could be imagined. The part of the LA scene I was most interested in is the part around 1967, when at the same time something like half a dozen of the greatest creative minds ever in popular music were working in close proximity to each other and moving in the same social circles. This was a flowering of talent unlike anything I know of in pop music, and in about a three year period from mid-1965 to mid-1968 produced about as much of the music I enjoy as the entirety of human history throughout the rest of space and time (and I enjoy a lot of music).

But this didn’t just arise ab nihilio in 1960 when the Gamblers invented surf music. The reason the Gamblers were able to release their record — and Frank Zappa, Jan & Dean, Randy Newman, and all the rest — is because there were a lot of independent record labels in LA already. Records from LA in the years before 1960 included classics by T. Bone Walker, The Coasters, Etta James, The Penguins, Don and Dewey…

You might notice something about all those fantastic musicians.

Most (though not all) of the small record companies in LA in the late 50s and early 60s were owned by white men, and put out the music of black people. With the advent of surf music, they found a way to sell music made by white Angelenos, and given the levels of open, systemic racism in the US at the time (not that things are wonderful now, of course), it’s unsurprising that the focus of many small labels turned very quickly from black musicians to white ones. The white music of the 60s was only possible because of the black music of the 50s.

Many of the white musicians also played the same clubs when starting out as a lot of Mexican-American garage bands. Unsurprisingly, few of those garage bands made much of a dent on the wider music industry.

There were, of course, still black musicians in LA throughout the 1960s, and I have tried to emphasise their role in the story whenever they show up, as I have musicians from other ethnic minorities, to try to give the book some of the balance it should have.

But the sad fact is that BAME musicians like Cleve Duncan, Ronnie Spector, Tina Turner, Arthur Lee, Johnny Echols, Taj Mahal, Larry Ramos, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and Jimmy Carl Black, who managed to carve spaces for themselves in the white-dominated LA pop music scene of the 60s were very much the exception, not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of opportunity, as were the even smaller number of women who got to play a part in this story, who were kept out for rather different reasons.

None of the individuals I write about in the book was responsible for this situation, very few were racist in their personal lives or their own actions, but I thought it important to acknowledge that there are reasons that those people got to be the ones I wrote about. Some of those reasons are good, but some definitely aren’t.

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