From the early days of rhythm & blues through today’s multifaceted hip-hop music scene, BMI has been at the forefront, recognizing the promise of musical geniuses before they came to be celebrated as such. The story can be traced back to 1939, the year in which BMI was founded. It was the same year in which saxophonist Charlie Parker hit on a new method of soloing while playing “Cherokee” in a New York jam session, giving birth to be-bop. As Bird and be-bop were changing the tune of jazz, BMI affiliated a budding Lester Young and Billie Holiday, building the foundation of what would eventually become an unparalleled jazz catalog featuring the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove. To this day, BMI continues the tradition it started in the late 1930s of nurturing the great (and often overlooked) American art form with the BMI Foundation’s Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, awarded annually to the best new work created in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. (History: BMI & Jazz)
In the post-war forties, as major record companies closed their doors on African-American artists and the existing performing rights organization failed to recognize the legitimacy of jazz and the promise of an emerging musical movement known as R&B, BMI allied with budding independent labels, adventurous radio stations and small publishing houses to find an avenue for the music. During this era, BMI licensed more than 90 percent of R&B radio hits on a weekly basis.
A continuity of teamwork exists to this day between BMI and great entrepreneurial minds in the music business who share the Company’s vision for the future of American popular music. One such figure in the late forties was Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish-American businessman who founded Atlantic Records in 1947. A songwriter himself, who championed the careers of BMI legends Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among many other musical greats, Ertegun was loyal to BMI for 53 years until his passing in 2006. His Atlantic Records would become one of the most important homes for gospel, jazz and R&B artists through the ages. Similarly, in the late ‘40s, Phil and Leonard Chess, the Polish immigrant brothers behind Chess Records, signed a BMI songwriter by the name of Muddy Waters. In 1952, Waters and his own band recorded in the Chess brothers’ studio, giving birth to an electrifying new brand of blues. Chess Records’ roster boasted a slew of BMI artists, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Etta James – all of whom formed the bedrock of modern blues, R&B and early rock and roll.
It was during rock and roll’s nascent era that Fats Domino’s signature dancehall piano playing, which originated in New Orleans, started to resonate with audiences across America. A little known fact, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is that Domino sold more records than any other fifties-era rocker, except Elvis Presley. Any discussion about the birth of rock and roll must automatically include Domino, as well as his BMI brethren Chucky Berry – whose guitar riffs and showmanship were a major influence on subsequent rock music – and Little Richard – whose shows united black and white audiences in dance during a time of racial tension in the U.S.
By the end of the 1950s, Berry Gordy had founded Motown in Detroit, with aspirations of taking over the American airwaves. Key to his empire were the songwriting and production talents of BMI members Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland (collectively known as Holland-Dozier-Holland), who churned out No. 1 hit singles for artists such as the Four Tops, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye. Recognizing their immense contributions to popular music, BMI honored the trio as Icons at the 2003 BMI Pop Awards.
In 1961, gospel/R&B performer Sam Cooke forever changed the game by taking ownership of his career and founding his own record label, publishing imprint and management firm – paving the way for hip-hop moguls like Diddy, Jay-Z and BMI’s own Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, who founded Cash Money Records, to do the same some 30 years later. Though his life was cut tragically short at the age of 33, Cooke’s accomplishments run deep – he laid the foundation for soul music by delivering music with a message. His “A Change Is Gonna Come” became a civil rights anthem in the 1960s and has been covered countless times by musical greats like Aretha Franklin.
Today, many contemporary artists on the BMI roster honor the emotionally stirring sounds of Cooke’s traditional gospel in their music – including minister, songwriter, producer and visionary nine-time GRAMMY-winner Kirk Franklin, along with Yolanda Adams, whom Billboard named the No. 1 Gospel Artist of the Last Decade in 2009. BMI is proud to unite legends and contemporary stars at its annual Trailblazers of Gospel Music Awards Luncheon, most recently honoring gospel giants Edwin Hawkins, Lady Tramaine Hawkins and Kurt Carr in a ceremony hosted by Donnie McClurkin and CeCe Winans.
By 1971, Berry Gordy’s Motown wasn’t the only game in town; prolific songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff launched Philadelphia International Records as a direct rival to “Hitsville: USA” – and succeeded, writing and producing over 170 gold and platinum records to date. The Philly Soul sound they created stood the test of time and continued to flourish, thanks to BMI artists like Bilal, who hails from the same city. As recently as June 2013, Gamble and Huff participated in BMI’s renowned “How I Wrote That Song” panel series in Philadelphia, and spoke to a new generation of aspiring songwriters about their accomplishments and creative process. In keeping with the tradition of recruiting and supporting some of R&B and pop music’s best songwriters and producers, BMI’s current roster boasts names like Babyface, Dallas Austin, Rodney Jerkins, Sean Garrett, Jerry ‘Wonder’ Duplessis, Polow Da Don, No I.D. and Cool & Dre.
Back in Memphis in 1971, at Stax Recording Studios, a BMI songwriter by the name of Isaac Hayes was composing, arranging, producing and recording a double album as the soundtrack to the movie Shaft – which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 charts and spent 60 weeks on the chart. In 1972, the album’s “Theme from Shaft” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, making Hayes the first African-American to win an Oscar in a non-acting category.
The ‘70s also saw the advent of P-Funk, a musical genre built on BMI Icon George Clinton’s experimental sounds and thunderously prominent bass lines that revolutionized the entire musical world. Fluent in a range of styles including ‘50s doo-wop, deep soul and psychedelic rock, Clinton helped build the foundations of today’s rap and rock. His work has resurfaced in hit-making hooks for songs by contemporary hip-hop royalty, including BMI members OutKast, Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy and Busta Rhymes.
In 1976, Michael Jackson became affiliated with BMI, a partnership that spanned decades and saw the evolution of the former child star into the undisputed King of Pop. Upon its release in 1982, Jackson’s Thriller sold an estimated 29 million copies, making it the highest selling album in history. For the “Thriller” video, a 13-minute-43-second masterpiece, Jackson went, like he often did, where no artist had ever gone before, merging filmmaking and music. The video, directed by John Landis, was MTV’s first world-premiere event. Along with his sister, Janet (also a BMI member), Michael took pop music to unexpected heights and had a profound influence on mainstream culture. His musical genius cannot be overstated, despite the media’s fascination with his personal life and the public scrutiny he endured. Jackson’s legacy as an entertainer is evident in younger stars such as BMI’s Chris Brown.
The same year that Jackson released Thriller, BMI writer-DJ-performer Afrika Bambaataa constructed “Planet Rock” over a sample of “Trans-Europe Express,” a track by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. This fusion of dance, rock and hip-hop still towers today over much modern dance music, with BMI songwriter and mega pop producer Will.i.am putting his own spin on what Afrika Bambaataa started.
In 1988, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back set a new standard for social commentary and production value in rap. The album’s critical and commercial success set a blueprint for others to follow. Public Enemy’s contributions are still recognized to this day – in 2013, they, along with BMI legends Albert King and Lou Adler, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Flash-forward to the present, and BMI’s hip-hop catalog boasts some of the biggest and brightest stars in the genre, including Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Macklemore, Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy – all of whom are synonymous with pop music. But just as BMI is proud to support the evolution of established talent, it also seeks out the next generation of stars via its annual BMI Unsigned Urban Showcase in Atlanta. Aspiring artists from the genres of R&B, rap and hip-hop are encouraged to apply for the opportunity to perform at this lauded, star-spotting event.
Just as hip-hop grew from what some believed to be a passing fad into a multi-billion-dollar industry stretching beyond music and into the realms of fashion, beauty, politics, philanthropy and art, R&B continues to push the envelope and welcome a new generation of superstars. John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Allen Stone, Anthony Hamilton and Trey Songz stir up new soul traditions for today’s R&B fans, as Babyface and Aaron Neville did before them.
Likewise, the movement that began with soul sisters Diana Ross, Carla Thomas, Martha Reeves, Irma Thomas and Jodi Whatley found new life through Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Faith Evans, Corinne Bailey Rae and Angie Stone. Carey’s five-octave vocal range remains unmatched in the pop world, but it’s her talent as a songwriter that often gets overlooked – which is why, in 2012, BMI honored Carey with the Icon Award at the BMI Urban Awards for her “unique and indelible influence on generations of music-makers.” The honor was first bestowed on the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, at the inaugural BMI Urban Awards in Miami in 2002. One such artist that has followed in Carey’s footsteps is Rihanna, whom BMI signed in 2005, when she was just a Barbadian ingénue. The superstar’s influence over pop culture is undeniable on Twitter, where she commands nearly 30 million followers and connects directly with her legions of fans (whom she affectionately calls “the Rihanna Navy”).
Diversity, innovation and encouragement of burgeoning styles and new artists are hallmarks of BMI’s commitment to paving the way for R&B and hip-hop music to develop in its many forms. BMI salutes its illustrious history and continues to champion its influence today as a defining part of popular music.