Native Americans in Classic Rock and Oldies

Here are some Native American musicians who have made contributions to music in the 60s and 70s. As well as rock and roll, Native American musicians in the 60s and 70s have made contributions to folk music, disco, blues music, and country music. Even before the invention of rock and roll, Native American musicians were very important in blues music and there were influences from Native American music in the blues. Here’s an interesting article from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian about it. Many of your favourite musicians are also of partial Native ancestry such as James Brown, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Cher.

Blackfoot: A Southern Rock band from Florida founded in 1969. Southern Rock is a subgenre of rock that has country, gospel, and blues influences, and sometimes has long jams and solos within songs. Most of the band members were of Native American descent. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, whose grandfather, Shorty Medlocke, a blues musician, is a descendent of the Blackfoot Confederacy; Bassist Greg T. Walker of Creek descent; and Drummer Jakson Spires of Cherokee descent. Rickey Medlocke and Greg T. Walker both were members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rickey Medlocke is currently playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Blackfoot released their first album in 1975 called No Reservations. One single that was released from that album was “Railroad Man”. Blackfoot’s highest charting single was “Highway Song” from 1979.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: A folk singer-songwriter born on a First Nations Reserve in Canada, adopted and raised in the United States. She is Cree. She released her first album, It’s My Way, in 1964 and she still releases new music to this day. She also continues to play concerts. She has an album that will be coming out soon called Power In The Blood. She has won many awards: Grammys, Junos (Canadian version of the Grammys), an Oscar, a BAFTA award, and she has received medals from Queen Elizabeth II. More than a musician, she does visual art, speaking engagements, and has worked with charities such as the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education. Her band that she currently tours with are also all Native American/First Nations. They are made up of Jesse Green (Lakota/Ojibwe), Michel Bruyere (Ojibwe), and Leroy Constant (Cree). Some songs I recommend of hers are “Starwalker”, “I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again”, “Universal Soldier” (notably covered by Donovan), and “Cod’ine”.

Chan Romero: Rock and roll musician of the late 50s and early 60s best known for the 1959 song “Hippy Hippy Shake”, which was a hit in the US, Australia, and the UK. He wrote the song and performed the original version of it. This song was covered by The Beatles, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and Czesław Niemen. He was born Robert Lee Romero in Montana to a part Spanish, part Apache father and a part Mexican, part Cherokee mother. A few years before his biggest hit came out, he was inspired by Elvis Presley and the song “Hound Dog”. At the age of 16 or 17 he went to Los Angeles to try to begin a recording career, but ended up returning to Montana to finish secondary school. He came back to LA in the spring of 1959 and signed a record deal with Del-Fi Records, the same label that Ritchie Valens was signed to. People at the label compared him to Ritchie Valens and there were some similarities between the two from their music style to their ethnic backgrounds. They were born within months of each other too. Besides “Hippy Hippy Shake”, I would recommend the songs “I Don’t Care”, “It’s Not Fair”, “Baby Doll”, and his cover of “La Bamba”.

Debora Iyall: Lead singer of new wave/post-punk band Romeo Void. She was born in Washington, raised in California, and is Cowlitz Native American. Romeo Void were started in 1979 and they were very inspired by Joy Division,  Her vocal delivery style is half spoken, half singing. One of the best examples of her style is the hit single “Never Say Never”. She has been compared to her contemporaries Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, and Patty Donahue. Don’t just stop at “Never Say Never”, “A Girl In Trouble (is a Temporary Thing)”, “Just Too Easy”, and “Your Life is a Lie”.

Felipe Rose: Member of The Village People. He is half Puerto Rican and half Lakota. Before he joined the Village People he was a dancer. He was famous for wearing Native American traditional regalia in performances and music videos. The Village People were a disco band best known for party favourite “Y.M.C.A.” (a #1 in many countries) and other hits such as “Macho Man”, “In The Navy”, and “Go West”.

Jesse Ed Davis: A session guitarist. He is part Muscogee Creek, Seminole, and Kiowa. He was best known for working with blues musician Taj Mahal. As far as classic rock musicians he has worked with Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Keith Moon, and Rod Stewart. Sadly he passed away at the age of 43 in 1988. Here’s a song he was a guest musician on:

Jimmy Carl Black: Vocalist and drummer for The Mothers of Invention in the 60s. After he left the band he started the band Geronimo Black. Here’s a song they did called “Low Ridin’ Man”. At the end of the song “Are You Hung Up?” he says “Hi boys and girls I’m Jimmy Carl Black and I’m the Indian of the group.” He was in 200 Motels. He even was a guest on a few Frank Zappa albums after his time in the Mothers of Invention. On his website, you can see his discography.

John Phillips: Member of The Mamas and The Papas. He was half Cherokee. He was married to Michelle Phillips from 1962 until 1970. John Phillips was the primary songwriter for the band and wrote hits such as “Monday, Monday”, “Go Where You Wanna Go”, “California Dreamin'”, and “Creeque Alley” (cowritten with Michelle). After The Mamas and The Papas, John Phillips had a brief solo career and did more folk and country music. A couple of songs from his solo career include “April Anne” and “Mississippi”.

Link Wray: Half Shawnee. He was an influential guitarist because of his use of distortion and fuzz guitar. His career started in the late 50s. His music was similar to contemporaries The Shadows and Dick Dale and The Del-Tones in that it was instrumental and had a surf rock and rockabilly sound. “Rumble” was his first single, released in 1958. It used power chords and distortion techniques, which was very new at the time and was one of the first song to use these techniques. He recorded three songs whose song titles were Native American tribes: “Comanche”, “Apache” (The Shadows recorded it in 1960 – Which was later covered by The Incredible Bongo Band in 1973 – Which The Sugarhill Gang heavily based Apache on the 1973 cover in their 1981 song), and “Shawnee”. A couple more Link Wray songs I recommend are “Raw Hide” and his cover of The Batman Theme.

Mark Farner: One-eighth Cherokee. He is best known as the long haired guitarist from Grand Funk Railroad, the band whose biggest hits included “We’re an American Band”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, and “Bad Time”. He was born in Flint, Michigan and before Grand Funk, he was in Terry Knight and the Pack and The Bossmen. In 1999, he was honoured with the Lakota Sioux Elders Honour Mark and five years later he received the Cherokee Medal of Honour.

Redbone: Best known for “Come And Get Your Love” – a hit from 1974. The members were of Native American descent. Brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas were of Yaqui and Shoshone descent. Tony Bellamy was of Yaqui descent. Peter DePoe is of Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Chippewa, and Iroquois descent. Some songs I recommend of theirs are “Already Here” and “One Monkey”, and “The Witch Queen of New Orleans”.

Rita Coolidge: 1970s country singer-songwriter of Cherokee descent. The famous piano melody of “Layla” was actually her creation, but Jim Gordon, her boyfriend at the time took it from her without credit. She was well known for her collaborations with husband at the time, Kris Kristofferson. Their first album, Full Moon, topped the US Country charts. Her self titled debut had some famous contributing names on it: Stephen Stills and Booker T. Jones (Rita’s sister, Priscilla married him).

Robbie Robertson: Member of The Band as a guitarist. The Band toured with Bob Dylan in the mid 60s. were a Canadian band Robbie Robertson is half Mohawk, half Jewish and was born in Toronto. He wrote songs for The Band such as “The Weight” (one of the best known songs of theirs), “Chest Fever”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, and “The Shape I’m In”. In the 80s he had a solo career and was in the movie Carny with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. He also contributed to soundtracks for two Martin Scorsese films, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. He has worked with Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond. In the concert film, The Last WaltzThe Band performed with Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, and Muddy Waters.

Winterhawk: A Native American hard rock band that started in the 70s. Their music is reminiscent of Deep Purple and Rush. They started in San Francisco. They opened for famous a like Motley Crue, Tina Turner, and Santana. Embedded below is their debut album, Electric Warriors, produced by Tom Bee of XIT.

I highly recommend the songs “Got To Save”, “Black Whisky”, “Dark Skin Lady”, and “Custer’s Dyin”. The band members were: Nik Winterhawk Alexander, Alfonso Kolb, Frank Diaz De Leon, and Frankie Orsco.

Nik Alexander said of the band’s music:

 “Music is a very sacred part of Native American lifestyles. If a person of a tribe possesses a rattle or a drum or a stick to beat the drum, those articles are treated with great respect. Winterhawk carried that same reverence toward music, because the ability to play music is a gift”

Note: There is another band that formed around the same time called Winterhawk from Chicago, they are not Native American. From my research, the other Winterhawk band came out later. 

XIT: A Native American rock band from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The band was started by Tom Bee. As well as being a founding member of XIT, he started the first Native American owned record label, SOAR (Sound of America) Records in 1989. He wrote a song for The Jackson 5 called “(We’ve Got) Blue Skies”. From there, that’s how he got acquainted with Motown. XIT recorded a couple of albums for Motown. They released their first album in 1972 called Plight Of The Redman. A couple of songs from that album I recommend are “War Cry” and  “Someday”. “Reservation of Education” was released as a single in 1973.

Other resources worth looking at if you want to learn more about Native American musicians:

Until next time!