Cultural appropriation is the gift that keeps on giving. Thursday marked what would have been the 80th birthday of Elvis Presley, whose relationship with Black music was complex, to say the least. Madonna created a social media backlash when she posted altered photos of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to promote her new album. And… Iggy Azalea.
But what about good old fashioned theft?
Some of the most successful songs performed by white singers are songs written and/ or performed by Black singers. Here is a mere sample of some of the countless examples (that we know of).
1. Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin
This is “Whole Lotta Love,” the Led Zeppelin hit of 1969:
And this is “You Need Love,” written by Willie Dixon and performed by Muddy Waters in 1962:
Dixon became aware of the Led Zeppelin song thanks to his daughter Shirley. When she was 13, Shirley heard a song she thought sounded familiar at her friend’s house. She asked her friend if she could borrow the album, and then played the song for her dad, who realized it had borrowed heavily from the lyrics and music of his song. In In 1987, Dixon won an out-of-court settlement over the song. Dixon is now officially credited, along with all four members of Led Zeppelin, and he used the money from the settlement to help support his Blues Heaven Foundation, which helps musicians preserve their royalties and music rights. Dixon died in 1992 but his daughter Shirley maintains the foundation.
2. The Chiffons and Ronald Mack vs. George Harrison
This is George Harrison’s first solo recording and number 1 hit “My Sweet Lord” (of 1970):
And this is “He’s so Fine,” which was written by Ronald Mack and recorded by the Chiffons in 1963:
In case you have any doubts, here are the songs played together:
In 1971, Harrison was sued for copyright infringement and was ultimately found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism,” and ordered to pay $1,599,987 to publisher Bright Tunes. Mack had died in 1963.
3. Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys
This is “Surfin’ USA, “which the Beach Boys released in 1963, crediting its own Brian Wilson:
This is “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which Chuck Berry wrote and performed in 1958:
Berry sued and got song-writing royalties and writing credit.
4. Stevie Wonder vs. Oasis
Here is the Oasis song “Step Out” (1995):
Oasis wound up removing “Step Out” from its album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, mysteriously enough. It released the song later as a b-side track on the CD single of Don’t Look Back In Anger and it officially credited Wonder as one of the writers. [Insert Wonder Wall joke pun.]
5. Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke
This is Robin Thicke’s date-rape-alicious hit “Blurred Lines” (2013):
And this is “Got to give it up,” written by Art Stewart and recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1977:
6. Public Enemy vs. Madonna
This is Madonna’s scandalous hit “Justify My Love” (1990):
And this is Public Enemy’s “Security Of The First World” from 1988:
Perhaps because they aren’t exactly strangers to sampling, Public Enemy didn’t sue over the use of their beat. Instead, they allegedly had Young Black Teenagers come out with “To My Donna” in 1991, which used the same beat.
7. Flame vs. Katy Perry
This is Katy Perry’s hit “Dark Horse” (2013):
And this is “Joyful Noise,” a 2008 song from Christian rappers Flame and Lecrae Moore:
Flame and Lacrae sued Perry and Capitol Records for stealing riffs from from “Joyful Sound.” Even worse, the suit claimed, the Christian ballad had been “irreparably tarnished by its association with the witchcraft, paganism, black magic, and Illuminati imagery evoked by the same music in ‘Dark Horse’.”
8. The Isley Brothers vs. Michael Bolton
This is Michael Bolton hit “Love is a Wonderful Thing” (1991):
This is the song “stagger Lee,” written by the Isley Brothers in 1964 and released in 1966:
When the Isley Brothers sued Bolton, his co-writer Andrew Goldmark and Sony records for plagiarizing their song of the same name, the defendants were ordered to pay $5.2 million, the largest payment in music history.