Listen to this track by blues-rock supergroup and proto-metal progenitors Humble Pie. It’s “Black Coffee” a track as taken from their 1973 double album bluntly entitled Eat It, and presented in this clip from the British music program The Old Grey Whistle Test. This song was a part of a section on the record that featured the band’s interest in R&B covers. This one is from Ike & Tina Turner no less, written and recorded a year previous to this one on their Feel Good album, although Humble Pie’s take features modified lyrics to suit lead singer Steve Marriott’s point of view.
Besides Marriott, the earliest version of the group also included singer and guitarist Peter Frampton, who served as a co-lead singer, also sharing vocal leads with bassist Greg Ridley, late of Spooky Tooth. All three were backed up by drummer Jerry Shirley. But, by the early ’70s, Frampton had left, and Marriott was secured in the role of frontman, with new guitarist Clem Clempson as a lead to Marriott’s rhythm playing.
Marriott would also introduce a new dynamic to the band by encouraging a group within the group who would provide a much-needed counterweight to his searing vocal skills; backing singers! But who were they, and how did they fit in and then change the sound of the band?
Humble Pie began at the end of the 1960s, and was something of a rebound band for Steve Marriott who had made a name for himself in the Small Faces. While in that earlier band, he’d developed an approach to rock singing that still resonates to this very day more than twenty years after his death, to be heard in the delivery of nearly every white male lead vocalist who fronts a tradtional blues-based rock n’ roll band; big and ballsy, soulful, and yet slightly androgynous too.
By the Humble Pie era, Marriott wanted to deepen his connection with the blues and its roots with his vocal delivery. So, he approached former Ikette Venetta Fields about forming a backing vocal group that would sit inside the Humble Pie sound in order to link it more directly with that earthy gospel feel. Fields contacted singers Clydie King with whom she’d cut a number of sides by 1973, including on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. A third vocalist Shirlie Matthews joined to cut tracks in the studio, with her replacement Billie Barnum joining the line-up while on tour. They were christened the Blackberries.
When the blues, and many other R&B forms are discussed in the context of white singers and players, often the issue of authenticity is evoked. I think the band here are certainly aware of being white and British, as opposed to the American identity and blackness of their singing colleagues in The Blackberries. Even in the song’s modified lyrics, Marriott adds the reference “my skin is white, but my soul is black”, and also:
I said a dime is all it costs in the states
For a cup of black coffee
How good it tastes!
The original version of this song was in part about how those in the black community have overcome despite a history of oppression. This version of the song is about Marriott’s devotion to musical inspirations found in the work of black artists, acknowledging his foreignness in relation to it, but also delivering it in a voice that establishes his authority in singing his own take on that inspiration. And The Blackberries add another seal of approval just by the way their voices provide a witness to Marriott’s blues testimony, with that classic push-pull feel for which the best in R&B singing is known and loved . And as such, that’s all the authenticity that’s needed.
To me, this version of the song perfectly framed Marriott’s position where the blues and R&B was concerned, and maybe stands as something of an anthem for anyone inspired by this rich seam of American music, particularly if they aren’t American, or African-American, themselves.
For more information about Humble Pie and the Blackberries, take a read of this piece that talks about their background, collaborations, and about their later activities after Humble Pie ended.
To learn more about Steve Marriott, check out Stevemarriott.net.