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I Thought They Were Black!

Blue-eyed soul and R&B hits that fooled everybody

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Crossing racial lines and defying expectations has been a part of rock and roll since the very beginning - Elvis was famously thought to be black when radio stations played "That's All Right Mama," and Buddy Holly and the Crickets were booked at the Apollo, believe it or not, before anyone realized they were three white guys from Lubbock. But by the 60s a whole generation of kids had grown up loving R&B, and the soul boom gave them a perfect reason to put their talents to good use. Here's a full dozen white artists, mostly from the Sixties, who helped blur silly racial distinctions simply by doing what they loved.

1. 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, they began their regional reign with a perfect cover of an obscure Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs single called "May I" and then parlayed that into two modest national hits: the properly pained "I've Been Hurt" and this stomper, which accelerates the Tams original until it rockets through the roof.

2. Bob Kuban and the In-Men

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 this story of infidelity all the way to #12; though they 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 hit.

3. Bobby Caldwell

The most recent, and therefore still most consistently surprising, entry on this list is Caldwell, whose big late-70s R&B hit perfectly presaged the more modern sounds of the next decade. Bobby was a smooth jazz man, not a shouter, 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 also covered by Phyliis Hyman and Vanessa Williams, and sampled by both Biggie and Tupac!

4. P.J. Proby

Houston native P.J. Proby was a huge star in '60s Britain, but never made that much of an impact in the States, even though this, his biggest US hit, utilizes his Texarkana swamp-pop leanings to great effect. Groomed as a teen idol in Britain and assumed to be the next huge superstar, P.J. sounded like a cross between his two biggest influences -- Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson -- and yet could essay show tunea and Beach Boys as well as anyone. His excesses drug him down, however, and despite having fans like Led Zeppelin (who backed him up on an his attempted comeback), he remains one of rock's greatest cases of wasted potential.

5. Roy Head

Another Texan, Head was first heard nationally after being discovered by famed swamp-pop producer Huey Meaux. This release on Scepter 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." Those who saw his Roy's early live shows even claim he credibly copped dance moves from James Brown! None of which stopped Head from pursuing a successful country career in the '70s and '80s.

6. The Casinos

This Cincinatti nontet (!) featured a doo-wop front five and a style that made them look more like the Four Freshmen than anyone else on this list. And they clearly lucked into this fluke of a smash, 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.

7. The Dovells

This hit was one of the last old-school R&B raveups heard on the radio before the advent of 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." "You Can't Sit Down" was actually a cover of a jazz-organ raveup, which might explain some of the confusion, as well as lead singer Len Berry, a Philly native who'd grown up in the only white family on his block. He went solo soon after and proved his soul cred once and for all with a hot slice of fake Motown called "1-2-3."

8. The Flaming Ember

One of the funkier hits to confuse listeners, "Westbound #9" sounded like a crossover hit Wilson Pickett or Clarence Carter could have used, 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. So authentic they were invited to play Wattstax. And singer Jerry Plunk gets extra points for also playing the funky drum track!

9. The Newbeats

Another late-period R&B hit, "Bread and Butter" was a novelty of sorts, but not as much as people might have realized -- that sassy 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 proved by the followup, a minor hit called "Run Baby Run (Back Into My Arms)." Formed by two brothers from Georgia, along with Henley, another Texas native, the trio met in Shreveport while doing backup for Ronnie Hawkins, after his old band had gone on to become what would be known as THE Band.

10. The O'Kaysions

Perhaps the biggest stunner on this list, the group behind "Girl Watcher" were 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" or "Shag" standard. Singer Donnie Weaver was/is so soulful that no less an expert than Marvin Gaye offered to record him, along with Motown's James Jamerson on bass... but unfortunately, those songs never saw the light of day. "Girl Watcher" was recorded by Donnie as "Wheel Watcher," however, and used for several years as Vanna White's entrance music on Wheel of Fortune.

11. The Soul Survivors

This Philly group was led by two Italian brothers (literally) who, along with another white guy named Kenny Jeremiah, started out doing doo-wop in the early 60s before soul came along. This hot slice of harmonized Motown-meets-Memphis was, in fact, the first-ever production by legendary Philly Soul moguls Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Little more came of that business arrangement, but this big hit is deceiving drive-time commuters to this day. (Jeremiah went on to work with Shirley Goodman of Shirley and Lee fame.)

12. Tony Joe White

In the late '60s, some folks thought Tony Joe would be the new Elvis, since his fatback downhome drawl was completely genuine and natural (Chomp!), and he shared the King's swampy good looks. As it turned out, this 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 subgenre 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.

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