Sunday, June 1, 2008

Greyhound - The Story behind "Black and White"

Chances are that you have heard the song "Black and White" at some point in your life and its more than likely you've heard the Three Dog Night Version which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1972. Its more unlikely, unless you are a fan of reggae from the 60's and 70's, that you would know that a Jamaican band called Greyhound recorded a version first for the Trojan label in the UK in 1971 that was a huge hit there and inspired Three Dog Night to record their chart topper.

The back story behind this song that was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic a year apart is quite intriguing. Black and White" was written in 1954 by David I. Arkin and Earl Robinson. The song was inspired by the United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed racial segregation of public schools. The original folk song was first recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. in 1957. The original lyrics of the song opened with this verse, in reference to the court:

Their robes were black, Their heads were white,
The schoolhouse doors were closed so tight,
Nine judges all set down their names,
To end the years and years of shame.

David Arkin's lyrics and Earl Robinson's music were originally published as a song in 1956, a tune that celebrated desegregation specifically and the Civil Rights Movement in general. Arkin decided to illustrate the song himself ten years later with simple black and white pencil drawings and, at the end of the story, sparse splashes of color. David Arkin was a teacher, painter, writer, and lyricist and is the father of actor Alan Arkin. In 1945, Arkin moved his family to Los Angeles to take a teaching job. Arkin attempted to obtain work in the entertainment industry, but was unsuccessful. An eight-month Hollywood strike cost Arkin a set designer job, but the greater blow was as a result of the McCarthy "witch hunt". Arkin, a leftist, was accused of being a communist but Arkin refused to answer questions regarding his political affiliation. As a result, he was fired from his teaching job and was unable to gain work in Hollywood. Arkin challenged his dismissal, but did not achieve exoneration until after his death.

Earl Robinson was a songwriter and composer from Seattle. Robinson is probably as well remembered for his left-leaning political views (a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s) as he is for his music, including the songs "Joe Hill", "The Ink is Black, the Page Is White", and the cantata "Ballad for Americans". In addition, he wrote many popular songs and was a composer for Hollywood films.

Greyhound was originally formed by Danny Smith and Freddie Notes as The Rudies in the late 1960s and released tracks under a variety of names, including the Rudies, the Tilermen and Des All Stars, before settling on the Greyhound name. As the Rudies, the group had hits with reggae versions of Clarence Carter's "Patches" and Bobby Bloom's "Montego Bay." Notes left as the decade closed, and was replaced by Glenroy Oakley, and the reconstituted Greyhound hit with "Black & White." A cover of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" followed, and the group had a final run at the charts with"I Am What I Am" before breaking up.

Here is a video of Greyhound performing "Black and White" on Top Of The Pops in 1971


leolyons said...

In the early 1980s I worked at a petrol station in Kennington, Sth London. Altho the area was racially diverse there was not a lot of culture sharing back then. I was a young white guy but I used to bring my reggae cassettes to work with me and play them loud. Many of the black customers used to stop and chew the fat with me and listen to the music. One older guy, always in dirty overalls regularly used to talk to me about his youth playing music and the bands he liked. After some weeks he told me his name - Freddie Notes. Once a member of greyhound and of course Freddie Notes and the Rudies. Not sure which one he is in the video tho - twas a long time ago

Marco On The Bass said...


What a cool story! Its amazing when and where you will meet people. I'll do a future post on Freddie.

Thanks again for the comment.


Mourning Glory said...

..Such simple and important Truth contained in this beautiful song.., yet soo many do not hear..?!
Would love to see your post on Freddie..!?

Unknown said...

As I have been told the story, a writer for one of the New York city newspapers (it escapes me which) was sent to the south to write about the reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling in 1954. So he went to a small southern town in "Rupert, Virginia" that he had heard was integrating black students.
Expecting to find conflict among the school and the locals, he was so suprized by how smoothly it went when two negro students were admitted that he wrote an article about how if it could happen in this southern school, it should by acceptable anywhere in the country.
Arkin and Robinson were so inspired by the story that they wrote the song we now know.
Now the correction that has escaped notice for over 60 years..... There is no "Rupert, Virginia". It was Rupert, WEST Virginia.
My mother was in the class with the boy in the class of 1954 and remembered them as a fine family, accepted like anyone else in the community.
Unfortunately, I cannot recall their names but I do remember my mom talking about the " New York reporter" being at the school. Her name was Mary Jean Martin, Rupert High School, Class of 1954.
I'm sure someone with the resources can confirm this story but I've heard it all my life.

Robert Bruce Fisher
Sam Black Church, WV

Unknown said...

In 1954, a reporter from a New York newspaper was sent to the south to report on the desegregation allowed by the Supreme Court's decision.
He wrote about a high school in "Rupert, Virginia" that had admitted two negro students without any confrontations or trouble of any kind. When asking about local sentiment, he was surprised to find that there was very little, if any, opposition to the move. Everyone liked the family in the community.
When Arkin and Robinson read the article, they were so impressed that they wrote the song reasoning that if it could be accepted in Virginia, it could be accepted anywhere in the US.
Now the untold back story..... There is no Rupert, Virginia, much less a high school there.
My mother was a student in the school and remembered well the reporter being there and asking questions about what other students and their families thought about the whole situation. Like everyone else, she couldn't see anything wrong about any of it. They were fine kids from a fine family.
She laughed about it often and remarked that it seemed that tha only people that was even aware of there being a WEST Virginia were the "Ignorant old Hillbillies" that lived there.
This story was related to me, by her, on numerous occasions. Her name was Mary Jean Martin, Rupert High School, Rupert West Virginia, Class of 1954.
I do hope that someone with the capability to verify this will back me up because I know my mother didn't lie to me.....

Bruce Fisher
Sam Black Church,WV

Matt said...

We used to sing this in school in the UK in the mid 70s!