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Miller Beer's '50th Anniversary Of Rock' Missing One Thing: Black Artists

Company says licensing issues caused exclusion, but admits, 'We just blew it.'

The Miller Brewing Co. has tapped the keg of controversy with a promotion designed to commemorate the "50th Anniversary of Rock and Roll." Miller, working with cover images from Rolling Stone magazine, chose rock musicians to be featured on cans of Miller Beer. Icons like Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson made the cut -- but questions about the selection process arose when no black artists did.

"Our objective going into the promotion was to get cans that were as representative as possible of the diversity of rock and roll," said Miller spokesman Scott Bussen. "Obviously, we hope people understand our intentions were right. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the real world when putting together a program like this."

The eight-can series, in stores since May, features images of Presley and Nelson, along with Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Blondie, Alice Cooper and two images of guitars. According to Bussen, the reason for the exclusion of black artists -- like Chuck Berry, James Brown and Little Richard -- had everything to do with licensing.

"The people at Rolling Stone had to get permission from artists or their estates," he said. "That was really a process. We looked to them for the artists we could get, and they came back to us with a list that was pretty limited."

Gary Armstrong, chief marketing officer for Wenner Media, which publishes Rolling Stone, agreed.

"Editorially, we acknowledge the importance of a lot of these musicians in our '50 Years of Rock: Immortals' issue," he said. "On the marketing side, anything we do with these covers, we need the artist's permission. Jimi Hendrix's estate declined participation. Some artists wanted fees, and we weren't paying people to participate. Some had rehab issues, and they didn't want to align with an alcohol product."

The beer cans are part of a Summer of Music promotion by Miller, Rolling Stone, Napster Music and Fender guitars, all culminating with a two-night concert at New York's Roseland Ballroom on September 17 and 18. Bussen noted that "The concert in New York, we had a little more control over. We've got Bo Diddley and James Brown, and also Lenny Kravitz and Wyclef Jean. It's the diversity that we believe represents rock and roll's history over the past five decades."

A statement from Miller read, "We're strong supporters of diversity in all our marketing efforts, therefore we regret any inference of the lack of African-American representation on the commemorative cans as being insensitive to diversity.

"Our original wish list included many legends -- African-American and others -- but regrettably, we were unable to secure permissions. Obviously, African-Americans have played a huge role in the development of rock and roll and we just blew it.

"Our support for diversity is ongoing, as evidenced by the influential artists who are set to appear at our special two-day concert that wraps up this promotion, featuring artists such as James Brown, Bo Diddley, Alice Cooper, Wyclef Jean, Lenny Kravitz, the Strokes and Velvet Revolver, among others."