12 White R&B Singers Many People Assumed Were Black
Crossing racial lines and defying expectations have been part of rock and roll since the very beginning. Elvis was famously thought to be Black when radio stations first played “That’s All Right Mama,” and Buddy Holly and the Crickets were booked at the Apollo before anyone realized they were three white guys from Lubbock. The white singers below, mostly from the 1960s, blurred racial distinctions simply by doing what they loved.
Bill Deal and the Rhondels
Carolina Beach music kings Bill Deal and the Rhondels came by their love of soul honestly, born into a scene that had already been rewarding white R&B bands for 20 years. An awesome show band with a killer horn section, the group began its regional reign with a perfect cover of an obscure Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs single called “May I.”
Bob Kuban and the In-Men
Bob Kuban was a drummer and bandleader with his own horn section as well, this time from another R&B hotbed: St. Louis. Singer Walter Scott had a Jerry Butler-ish sort of baritone which helped send “The Cheater,” a story of infidelity, all the way to #12. Though the group never scored another national hit, Kuban and his crew remained local legends for decades. Sadly, Scott was murdered by his wife’s lover in 1983, a bit of extreme cuckoldry that had many referring to the lyrics of “The Cheater.”
The most recent and most consistently surprising entry on this list is Caldwell, whose big late-1970s R&B hit perfectly presaged the more modern sounds of the next decade. Caldwell was a smooth jazz man, not a shooter, but he was so in command of his instrument at a time when Daryl Hall was the gold standard that he still fools people even today. It doesn’t hurt that his claim to fame (released on a heart-shaped 45) was covered by Phyllis Hyman and Vanessa Williams and later sampled by both Biggie and Tupac.
Houston native P.J. Proby was a huge star in ’60s Britain, but never made that much of an impact in the States. Groomed as a teen idol in Britain and assumed to be the next huge superstar, Proby sounded like a cross between his two biggest influences—Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson—and yet could perform show tunes and Beach Boys classics as well as anyone. His excesses dragged him down, however, and despite having fans like Led Zeppelin (who backed him on his attempted comeback album), he remains one of rock’s greatest cases of wasted potential.
Another Texan, Head was first heard nationally after being discovered by famed swamp-pop producer Huey Meaux. “Treat Her Right” was a major factor in bringing gutbucket soul music into the mainstream, roaring to #2 on both the pop and R&B charts and only kept from being the most popular song in the land by the reign of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Head later pursued a successful country career in the ’70s and ’80s.
This Cincinnati group featured a doo-wop front five and a style that made them look more like the Four Freshmen than anyone else on this list. Their smash hit was the single “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” a slow dancer released during the Summer of Love. Perhaps it was just that throwback to Black doo-wop balladry that made the hit so inevitable in a tumultuous time. The late Gene Hughes’ seductive vocals—close-miked for extra intimacy—were probably also a factor.
The Dovells’ “You Can’t Sit Down” was one of the last old-school R&B rave-ups heard on the radio before the British Invasion, but it was authentic enough to sound Black to those who’d forgotten the group’s earlier, tamer hit “The Bristol Stomp.”
One of the funkier hits to confuse listeners, “Westbound #9” sounded like a crossover hit Wilson Pickett or Clarence Carter could have released, replete with Steve Cropper-style lead guitar and production that strongly resembled late-period Motown. In fact, these Detroit natives turned down a Motown deal to sign instead with Hot Wax, where they could work with the former Motown songwriting and production wonders Holland-Dozier-Holland. They sounded so authentic they were invited to play Wattstax.
Another late-period R&B hit, “Bread and Butter” was a novelty of sorts, but not as much as people might have realized—that Black woman singing the chorus was actually a blond man named Larry Henley. Odder still, it was his natural singing voice, not a joke at all, as proven by the follow-up, a minor hit called “Run Baby Run (Back Into My Arms).” Formed by two brothers from Georgia along with Henley, a Texas native, the trio met in Shreveport while doing backup for Ronnie Hawkins.
Perhaps the biggest stunner on this list, the group behind “Girl Watcher” was thoroughly white, all six of them, horn section and all. No surprise: they also hailed from the Carolinas, where this song is considered a “beach music” standard. Singer Donnie Weaver was so soulful that no less an expert than Marvin Gaye offered to record him, along with Motown’s James Jamerson on bass. Unfortunately, those songs never saw the light of day. “Girl Watcher” was re-recorded by Weaver as “Wheel Watcher,” however, and used for several years as Vanna White’s entrance music on “Wheel of Fortune.”
The Soul Survivors
This Philly group was led by two Italian brothers who, along with another white guy named Kenny Jeremiah, started out doing doo-wop in the early ’60s before soul came along. The group’s big single—”Expressway to Your Heart”—was a hot slice of harmonized Motown-meets-Memphis and the first-ever production by legendary Philly Soul moguls Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Jeremiah went on to work with Shirley Goodman of Shirley and Lee fame.
Tony Joe White
In the late ’60s, some folks thought Tony Joe White would be the new Elvis, since his fatback down-home drawl was completely genuine and he shared the King’s good looks. As it turned out, “Polk Salad Annie” was his only hit, although he lent some of his soul out to Brook Benton, who scored a big comeback with White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” No matter: this gem pretty much created the sub-genre known as “swamp rock,” and with Muscle Shoals’ finest behind him and Billy “I Can Help” Swan producing, it was bound to sound gritty. As if to drive the point home, the album featuring this hit was named “Black and White.”