Native American music – traditional Native American music – isn’t known for swinging or grooving. Which is why the “powwow beat” didn’t evolve into rhythm & blues.
But a few Indians (or semi-Indians) have made their impact on rock ’n’ roll. And I’m not talking about Hendrix, who was one-eighth Cherokee.
Click the song titles below to hear what I mean.
1. “Come and Get Your Love” – Redbone
You know I had to start with this one. Redbone in the 1970s was packaged and sold as a Native American R&B band. But brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (born Vasquez) could’ve more easily presented themselves as Latino.
To this day, Mexican Americans embrace Redbone as more Chicano than Native American... even though the Vegas brothers talked up their Yaqui and Shoshone ancestry.
The story goes that Jimi Hendrix – who strongly identified with his own Indian heritage – encouraged the young Vegas brothers to form an all-Indian rock band. “Jimi made me aware of my roots,” Pat Vegas once said.
Prior to forming Redbone, Pat and Lolly had cut a few surf-rock singles and toured with the Beach Boys. They also did studio gigs with the likes of Sonny & Cher and Dobie Gray.
“Come and Get Your Love” was a huge hit for Redbone in 1974. (And it’s one of my favorite singles of the ’70s.) Just this year, Redbone was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame.
2. “Washita Love Child” – Jesse Ed Davis
Guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, a full-blooded Indian (Kiowa and Cherokee), worked with some of the top stars of the ’60s and ’70s – John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, John Lee Hooker, Conway Twitty, Taj Mahal...
Davis signed a couple of major-label solo deals in the early ’70s, and he put out three albums. This song, supposedly autobiographical, is from his debut LP, “Jesse Davis.” Eric Clapton plays on it.
Jesse Ed Davis died in 1988 after years of drug and alcohol problems.
3. “Apache” – Link Wray
Half a century ago, a humble pioneer of the electric guitar named Link Wray put out a grungy instrumental 45 that is still influencing rockers today: “Rumble.”
(Quentin Tarantino used it in “Pulp Fiction.” Click here to listen.)
Wray’s sound was admired by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia and Bruce Springsteen, to name but a few. Link Wray is on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
Later in his career, Wray called attention to his Indian heritage, eventually recording tunes with titles like “Indian Child,” “Geronimo,” “Comanche” and “Shawnee.”
“I’m half Shawnee Indian, born to a Shawnee mother [in North Carolina],” Wray told a reporter in 2002. “Elvis... grew up white-man poor. I was growing up Shawnee poor.”
This track – Wray’s cover version of “Apache” – was released in 1990.
Link Wray died in 2005 at the age of 76. The following year, he was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame.
4. “Unbound” – Robbie Robertson
For his membership in the legendary rock group The Band, Robbie Robertson is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He wrote classic album-rock songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight.”
As the Canadian son of a Jewish father and a Mohawk mother, Robertson has focused in recent years on a musical exploration of Native American identity. (He had spent childhood summers on the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario.)
“Unbound” is from Robertson’s 1998 album “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.”
5. “An American National Anthem” – Geronimo Black
Texas-born drummer Jimmy Carl Black (Cheyenne) was a founding member of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s trailblazing band. Black famously ad-libbed this line during a recording session: “Hi, boys and girls. I’m Jimmy Carl Black, and I’m the Indian of the group.”
After Zappa disbanded the original Mothers, Black formed a short-lived band called Geronimo Black.
Geronimo Black’s 1972 LP included a scathing (and jamming) protest song called “An American National Anthem.”
I’m streaming a demo version of that tune, released years later on an album called “Welcome Back Geronimo Black.”
Jimmy Carl Black bounced around the fringes of the music business ever since his days with Zappa... until his death from cancer earlier this month in Germany. He was 70 years old.
6. “Don’t Let Me Go” – Indigenous
So who’s keeping alive that flame of American Indian rock ’n’ roll? Guitarist/singer/songwriter Mato Nanji, that’s who.
Nanji grew up on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, listening to his dad’s blues records.
Now he leads the popular blues- rock band Indigenous.
Mato Nanji’s guitar chops have brought him a lot of attention. He was greatly influenced by Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Recalling his early performances, Nanji told an interviewer in 2005: “[E]verybody thought that we’d be a traditional flute band... but we’d come out... and they’d be totally surprised. They never expected a band like us to come out and do what we do.”
“Don’t Let Me Go” is from the band’s 2005 CD, “Long Way Home.”