d Negro spirituals. Gospel. Jazz. The blues. R&B. Rock ’n’ roll. Funk. Hip-hop.
Black music is almost as old as America itself, yet the monthlong celebration that commemorates it—Black Music Month, celebrated in June—was only created in 1979. How did it come about? Who is behind it? And why do we need it when black music has been a dominant cultural force around the globe for centuries?
Music-industry icon and radio personality Dyana Williams, along with her ex-husband, Kenny Gamble, founder and owner of Philadelphia International, were the architects behind Black Music Month.
Williams cites black music, culture and artistry as being among the greatest American exports, all to the tune of several billion dollars around the globe. “For the month, we just take time aside to say these are the people that generate this great cultural, majestic resource that’s indigenous to America and is also one of our greatest exports from America, because it’s not just music; we’re exporting culture with the music, fashion and language,” she says.
On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter hosted the first Black Music Month at the White House. Since then, Williams has met with every president around the celebration of the month, except for President Barack Obama, which she says has deeply disappointed her.
Williams, current president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Recording Academy and life coach for everyone from D’Angelo to A$AP Rocky and the Zac Brown Band, spoke with The Root about the beginnings of Black Music Month and where we are today:
The Root: You just came back from Florence, Italy, to participate in a panel about black music and Black Music Month?
Dyana Williams: I was talking about Gamble and Huff as the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia. They were known for the message in their music. But they also put it down when it came to romance, and they created a blueprint when it came to intimate exchanges. We made love to those songs and made babies to those songs and got married to those songs. We broke up to them. Lou Rawls singing, “You’ll never find a love like mine.” We had affairs to those songs: “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Jerry Butler: “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Hey, Western Union Man.” Labelle, Dusty Springfield. The Supremes: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” which Gamble wrote with Jerry Ross.
TR: We all know Black Music Month exists, but a lot of people don’t know how it actually all started.
DW: Gamble is the father of Black Music Month, and when we were a couple, we conceived the idea. Gamble established the Black Music Association, and one time he made a trip to Nashville[, Tenn.,] and observed the Country Music Association and how they had created an entire industry and city and made it known for being the capital of country music. Gamble was inspired by that idea. He was inspired by the unity of country artists and wanted to replicate that in the black community.
The BMA was an organization of retailers, industry executives, educators, producers, songwriters, engineers, artists, with everybody from Dionne Warwick to Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. Gamble had an incredible relationship with artists because at the time, Philly International was a dominant label. Philly International was the first independent black-owned label to establish a relationship with a major label with CBS. It became a major player in the game. Gamble was a great influencer at a high level. And everybody was calling my phone for him.
I remember one night, I picked up the phone, it was Coretta Scott King calling for Gamble. He was very close to her. He produced Michael Jackson and his brothers. So Michael would call him in the middle of the night.
Gamble reached out to Clarence Avant, the godfather of black music, who has always had strong relationships with the major players. And through the efforts of Clarence Avant, through Jules Malamud, who was part of the BMA, they petitioned Jimmy Carter to host this reception.
Nothing like that had ever happened at the White House. Chuck Berry, Frankie Crocker, all of the who’s who in the music industry were there. It was a great day.
TR: That was the beginning of Black Music Month?