Blues on MTV?

I’m a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia, and this semester I’m happily assigned to Karl Hagstrom Miller‘s Popular Music seminar. Today, 240 or so undergrads, plus me and the other TAs, took in Karl’s lecture on early MTV. In the beginning there were videos, and they were mostly of white men rocking. This did not go unnoticed by artists and labels:

In the early 1980s, MTV focused primarily on music videos by white male rock and pop artists from Australia, Britain, and the United States, prompting some to charge the network with racist business practices. MTV’s nearly all-white programming strategy began to erode when CBS Records allegedly threatened to pull its videos from the network if it did not show Michael Jackson’s videos from the Thriller album. Ultimately, the overwhelming popularity of Jackson’s videos paved the way for other nonwhite artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, and Run-D.M.C., to receive airplay on MTV. (Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, edited by Mary Kosut, page 243)

This got me thinking: blues was big in the 1980s. Were there blues music videos? Was that an investment labels were willing to make? For whom would they make this investment? Perhaps only white blues artists? 

Ok, ok. Damn. Way to strike while the iron is hot, Mercury Records. In 1985 Cray won Best New Artist at the Handy Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) and released his third album on the indie label Hightone. The next year he earned a Grammy for his work with Albert Collins and Johnny “Clyde” Copeland on the now-classic Showdown album. By 1987 Cray was as big as a blues artist could get; Mercury was pushing his major label debut, Strong Persuader, as a crossover record.

But did MTV play this music video?

Yup. According to Wikipedia, the song reaching #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Cray was nominated for the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards for Best New Artist in a Video. Wow. 1987 is looking very, very cool.

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2 thoughts on “Blues on MTV?

  1. There was a strange period in the 80s where multiple blues and roots based bands had MTV exposure; besides Cray, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Stray Cats, and George Thorogood all had MTV airplay. There are a lot of contemporaneous records by blues and roots acts of that era that were clearly aiming to capture that success, and didn’t necessarily showcase the artists doing what they do best.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting. But I remember the 80s, well the mid to late 80s, as a blues low point. White artists such as Mike pointed out, were kind of popular. There was a T Birds song, “tuff enough ” used regularly on General Hospital!

    Like

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