Our Indianapolis spotlight starts in the late 1920s with “Kokomo Blues” by Scrapper Blackwell. Blackwell, an Indianapolis native, wrote and recorded this song in reference to Kokomo, Indiana, and the song is notably the basis for Robert Johnson’s iconic “Sweet Home Chicago.” Jumping forward 20 years to 1949, Indianapolis continues to be home to iconic blues artists like Guitar Pete Franklin, who in addition to solo recordings is credited alongside delta blues legends like Tampa Red.
By the 1950s and into the 1960s, pop music shifted to accommodate a growing interest in country, rockabilly, and vocal groups. The Blankenship Brothers of Indianapolis were unique in their blending of rockabilly tempos and rhythms with country-influenced vocal harmonies and traditional fiddle accompaniment, as heard on their 1959 B-side “Lonesome Old Jail.” Vocal groups like the Four Freshman would fade entirely from popular music by the 1960s, but their impact on the future of popular music is undeniable, and the Indianapolis quartet is cited as a major influence by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Bobby Helms, a singer and lifelong Indiana resident, is notable for his place in country music history, contributing to the growing market for country records with singles like 1957’s “My Special Angel” and the 1959 holiday classic “Jingle Bell Rock.” Even lesser known Indianapolis artists like Lattie Moore anticipated the coming popularity of rock ‘n’ roll with upbeat, guitar-driven recordings like “I’m Not Broke, but I’m Badly Bent.”
By the 1950s and 1960s, a surprising amount of jazz artists came out of Indianapolis, revolutionizing the world of jazz in the process. J.J. Johnson, a notable trombonist and Indianapolis native, released the iconic “Blue Trombone” in 1957. Meanwhile, three Indianapolis brothers, Wes, Monk, and Buddy Montgomery, each changed the trajectory of jazz with their mastery of guitar, bass, and piano respectively. Though they are each notable members of independent groups and solo compositions, their chemistry together is undeniable, as heard on tracks like “Bock to Bock” from 1961’s Groove Yard. Wes himself is an icon in jazz, revolutionizing jazz guitar with his unique stylings best represented in the recently released live concert performed in Indianapolis in 1959.
By the late 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic music had fully invaded popular culture, influencing groups across the city to experiment with a fusion of historically popular music and psychedelic studio effects. Garage rock act Sir Winston and the Commons exploded out of Indianapolis with 1966’s “All of the Time,” becoming mainstays in Chicago nightclubs. Southeast of Indianapolis, in the small town of New Palestine, bands were traveling to the home of Moe Whittemore to record at 700 West, an independent recording studio welcoming the experimental artists of Indianapolis. Sessions at the studio produced hours of psych-influenced gems, from the acid-funk of Ebony Rhythm Band and Indianapolis legends Amnesty to the guitar driven Anonymous and proto-metal group Primevil.
The city housed a thriving soul, gospel, and funk scene in the 1970s and 1980s, sparking the formation of LAMP Records, based in Indianapolis. LAMP was home to a plethora of Indianapolis soul and funk groups, the city’s artists producing countless lost hits like the Indy’s “Come See About Her” and P.H.D.s’ “The Way It Used to Be.” Bands like Manchild, an early project of Indiana star Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, came close to stardom with the hit “Especially for You” released in 1977. Gospel groups like the Stovall Sisters and King James Version made national waves with driving rhythms and powerful vocal arrangements. Into the 1980s, Indianapolis continued to produce iconic recordings reflective of national music trends. Al Hobbs and His Indianapolis Mass Choir released the upbeat and energetic gospel record Let Him Have His Way in 1982. As new wave and power pop grew in popularity across the globe, Indianapolis’ The Late Show released their album Portable Pop in 1980, and though it failed to chart, potential hits can be heard, as displayed on “Take a Chance.”
By the 1990s and into the 2000s, hip hop had taken the nation by storm, and artists in Indianapolis began to release their own contributions to the genre. The city’s early hip hop scene is best exemplified by Mudkids on their 1998 debut 4 Trackmind. Experimental hip hop artists like MAB LAB also came up in the late 1990s naptown hip hop scene, offering a unique blend of beats, samples, live instrumentation, and soul influenced vocalizations on their 1999 track “Fade Back.” Towards the end of the 2000s, instrumental artists like The Sound Defects offered their take on hip hop instrumentation, as heard on 2004’s “Faded Soul.”
Moving into the 2010s and 2020s, new artists have emerged to carry the torches passed on by their musical predecessors. Country, folk, and pop rock are blended together into the sound of Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, as represented here by “Broadripple is Burning.” Experimental hip hop and electronic music is being pushed to new extremes by artists like Indianapolis’ DMA. Garage and psychedelic rock have seen a resurgence in the last decade as represented by artists like Vacation Club. Indianapolis natives Hoops continue to release soul and funk influenced guitar rock, with a new record due out soon. Hip hop in Indianapolis is more active than ever, led by exciting young artists like Nagasaki Dirt, Oreo Jones, Mark Battles, and Sirius Blvck. These and many more modern Indianapolis artists represent a coalition of the city’s rich musical history, pushing the boundaries of their genres into the new decade and continuing the tradition of leaving powerful cultural artifacts for future generations of naptown artists.
Resources for Further Exploration
On LAMP Records – episode of “Cultural Manifesto” on LAMP Records, out of Indianapolis
700 West Studios – label website for 700 West Studios, out of Indianapolis
Oreo Jones – interview with Oreo Jones about Indianapolis and growing up in Indiana
The Mudkids – interview from NUVO magazine with the Mudkids