The Aesthetic Perspective
Rock 'n' roll, in the popular mind, was born fully realized in the mid-1950s, a product of the fusion of equal parts of rhythm and blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley pop music. In reality, the evolution of these styles into rock 'n' roll was the product of a long-term process of experimentation characterized by countless hybrid mutations. Robert Palmer, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1980), notes,
In a very real sense, rock was implicit in the music of the first Africans brought
to North America. This transplanted African music wasn't exactly boogie-woogie
or jazz, but it did have several characteristics which survive in American music
today. It was participatory; often a song leader would be pitted against an
answering chorus, or a solo instrument against an ensemble, in call-and-response
fashion. It sometimes attained remarkable polyrhythmic complexity, and always
had a kind of percussive directionality or rhythmic drive. Vocal quality tended to
be hoarse or grainy by European standards, though there was also considerable
use of falsetto. Melodies fell within a relatively narrow range and often incorporated
flexible pitch treatment around certain "blue notes." There was some improvisation,
but always within the limits of more or less traditional structures.
All these characteristics are evident in quite a few rock 'n' roll records. For example, in "What'd I Say," Ray Charles calls out a lead melody while a chorus responds, and riffing horns answer his piano figures. His band's rhythm section drives relentlessly, and superimposes fancy accent patterns over the basic beat. His voice has a hoarse, straining quality, with occasional leaps into falsetto. His melody is narrow in range and blueslike, and the improvisation which occurs never threatens the continuity of the song's gospel-derived metric and harmonic structure.
One shouldn't conclude from these similarities that pure African music was somehow transformed into rock 'n' roll. Music in Africa was always flexible, ready to accommodate new influences from the next village or from foreign cultures, and in America plantation owners and preachers tried to stamp it out entirely. Accordingly, it adapted. The traits that survived without much alteration tended to be of two kinds. Some were musical imponderables like vocal quality or rhythmic drive, aspects of style so basic to the culture they were rarely considered consciously and were therefore immune to conscious change. Others--blues scales, call-and-response forms--were close enough to some varieties of European folk music to be assimilated and perpetuated by whites.
The Man-Centered Perspective
Arnold Shaw, in The Rockin' 50s (1974), has attempted to pin down the birth of rock 'n' roll to a specific date: If one had to pick the recording session at which rock 'n' roll was born, it would be the date on April 12, 1954 at the Pythian Temple on Manhattan's West Side at which Bill Haley and the Comets cut "Rock Around the Clock."
It is certain, however, that rock 'n' roll songs existed before Haley's record topped the charts in 1955. Some historians have singled out the Crows whose uptempo r & b recording, "Gee," scored heavily on the pop charts in early 1954. As early as 1951 Jackie Brenston--fronting Ike Turner's band--hit number one with "Rocket 88," which featured a wild saxophone solo, a boogie-woogie beat carried by a fuzzed-out, overamplified electric guitar, and lyrics celebrating the automobile. Haley himself covered the song and by 1952 was recording full-fledged rockers like "Rock the Joint."
Still, the fact that remains that these, and other, rock 'n' roll prototypes appear in retrospect as oddities which made a dent upon the public consciousness and then disappeared. In contrast to these hits, "Rock Around the Clock" inspired a movement. The fact that the song framed a popular movie was no small factor in its favor; Blackboard Jungle caused riots among youth worldwide while the Haley recording inspired countless imitations.
Haley represented a temporary phenomenon, though; he accumulated only three Top Ten hits during his lengthy career. It wasn't until Elvis Presley achieved superstar status--first via television appearances in 1956 (on the Steve Allen, Tommy Dorsey, and Ed Sullivan shows), followed by radio, jukebox, and cinema saturation--that the commercial preminence of rock 'n' roll was assured.
Peter Guralnick, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1980), argues that it would be easy to underestimate Presley's role in the development of the genre.
In some ways the reaction may seem to have been out of proportion, for Elvis
Presley was in retrospect merely one more link in a chain of historical inevitability.
His ducktail was already familiar from Tony Curtis, the movie star whose pictures
Elvis haunted at the Suzore No. 2 in Memphis; the hurt, truculent expression we
had seen before in Marlon Brando's motorcycle epic, The Wild One. His
vulnerability was mirrored by James Dean, whose first movie, East of Eden,
was released in April 1955, just as Elvis's own career was getting under way.
His eponymous sneer and the whole attitude it exemplified--not derision exactly
but a kind of scornful pity, indifference, a pained acceptance of all the dreary
details of square reality--was foreshadowed by Brando, John Garfield, the
famous picture of Robert Mitchum after his 1948 pot bust. Even his music had
its historical parallels, not just in the honky-tonk clatter of Bill Haley and his
Comets but in the genuine popular success that singers like Frankie Laine and
Johnnie Ray--and Al Jolson, Mildred Bailey, even Bing Crosby in an earlier eraŚ
had enjoyed in bringing back black vocal stylings to the white marketplace.
The fact remains that Presley's astounding commercial success (fourteen consecutive million-sellers simultaneously topping the pop, country, and r & b charts following his signing with RCA) has been duplicated only by the Beatles in the post-World War II era. And this success assured rock 'n' roll of mainstream acceptance. As noted by Guralnick,
Today, like every trend and tidal wave that comes along in our consumer oriented
society, with its voracious appetite for novelty and its pitiless need to reduce what
it does not understand, [Presley's] achievement has been subsumed, his art has
been converted to product, and rock and roll itself has become part of the fabric
of corporate America.
The truly revolutionary nature of Presley's career cannot be fully appreciated until one considers the legions of disciples that followed in his stead. Their names--Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Rick Nelson, Conway Twitty, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Jack Scott, Roy Orbison, Bob Luman, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Bobby Darin, and many others--read like a roll call of rock 'n' roll's early years. The first generation of rock 'n' roll stars unleashed a movement which Charlie Gillett, in Making Tracks (1974), has termed "the only revolution in the 80-year-old history of the American record industry."
The entire structure of the industry was to be overhauled in the latter half of the 1950s. Segregated audiences became a thing of the past and the artist-and-repertoire men who had dominated the first fifty years of the twentieth century gradually gave way to freelance songwriters who were close to their audience both in age and outlook. Often the artists themselves wrote and produced their own songs. Despite continued attacks by groups having a vested interest in rock 'n' roll's demise, including the older record labels (whose control of the industry had been broken by the independent companies), the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (whose sales of sheet music, piano rolls, and recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs had been seriously eroded by Broadcast Music Incorporated's virtual monopoly of c & w, r & b, and rock 'n' roll material); and various defenders of the status quo (ministers, educators, parents, lunatic fringe groups, etc.), which climaxed with the congressional payola hearings in 1959-1960, the genre emerged intact if in a somewhat chastened and watered-down form. While the hits during 1959-1963 were in a decidedly softer vein than the representative output of the Beat Era (1956-1958), the ascendancy of the Brill Building brand of pop (comprised of songwriters--e.g., Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil--and artists usually still in their teens) reaffirmed that the new order was there to stay. Within a short time, even the majority of record company executives, talent managers, and concert promoters were young people.
The Socio-Economic Perspective
The prevailing mythology of rock 'n' roll's origins employs the following scenario. The recording industry was expanding in the early 1950s due to improving materials (vinyl was displacing shellac) and technology (e.g., high fidelity, the transistorization of radios). Popular music, already a major portion of that industry, encompassed a wide array of traditions already familiar to most Americans.
During the years immediately following World War II, certain pop styles (e.g., r & b, the blues, gospel) remained regional in nature. However, the ongoing migration of southern blacks to the northern urban centers in significant number since the World War I era assured the presence of radio stations and record stores across the nation catering to regional music styles. Since neither radio-dial-twiddling nor shopping around were easily censored, increasing numbers of white youth began listening to r & b, and then rock 'n' roll. Local disc jockeys, jukebox operators, record retailers, and independent record label owners noted this trend and began to promote r & b music for white listeners. The bland state of pop music in the early 1950s helped facilitate the defection of young listeners.
The post-World War II boom engendered a hitherto unequaled scale of working class and middle class affluence. Both pocket money and widely available part-time work swelled the disposable income of high schoolers and college kids. The overall effect was to create a large group of independent-minded youth, possessing relatively high spending power and increased leisure time (much higher numbers of them were now remaining in school).
The search for "novelty" sounds, a result of the competitive economic environment characterizing the record industry (most notably the attempts of independent record companies to outflank the majors), led to "cover versions" of dance blues and vocal group successes within the "race" market which were directed at the white pop audience. This practice also had its parallels regarding jazz and country material; however, the r & b market received the greatest attention due to pressure from teen listeners and the predisposition of adventurous deejays and studio producers to take artistic and economic risks. These cover versions were normally produced by "acceptable" white artists, and involved changes in musical style and the occasional cleaning up of song lyrics. While the early wave of covers invariably outsold the originals, they helped arouse interest in the latter and had the long-term effect of familiarizing white pop audiences with some of the conventions of black music styles. Ultimately, some white musicians began to specialize in a "half-way" style perhaps best exemplified by Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
A cluster of media events coalesced at this time to shoot the Haley style--and that of smoother black r & b artists such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino--into national prominence: (1) the popularity of the soundtrack to Blackboard Jungle (1954), which facilitated the rise of its opening number, "Rock Around the Clock," to the top of the pop music charts; (2) the appearances of Elvis Presley on The Grand Ole Opry and several high visibility TV variety programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show; and (3) the rise of more teen films featuring rock 'n' roll music such as Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Rock Around the Clock (1956), and The Girl Can't Help It (1957).
The competitive logic of the record industry again kicked in, producing a race to imitate the initial successes and to promote the music with all the resources at hand. The independents saw their chance to compete on more equal terms with the majors since both were relatively new to the style. As no one was very sure as to how to predict who or what would be successful, many young artists were signed up to produce rock 'n' roll. Others were converted overnight, from aspiring crooners or country singers into imitation Elvises.
The resulting over-production and financial chaos ensured that this situation would not go on indefinitely. By 1958, the initial explosion of production of rock 'n' roll was over. The revolution, however, had left a lasting impression: (1) a number of indies were able to establish themselves as small majors; (2) a new generation of producers, artists, and songwriters gained a foothold within the industry; and (3) some r & b artists shared in the breakthrough, performing their own music as they would be doing anyway, but now reaching young white listeners.
Top Artists and Their Recordings
Major White Artists
Eddie Cochran--"Sittin' in the Balcony" (1957); "Summertime Blues" (1958); "C'mon Everybody" (1958/9)
Bill Haley and the Comets--"Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954); "Dim, Dim the Lights" (1954/5); "Mambo Rock"/"Birth of the Boogie" (1955); "Rock Around the Clock" (1955); "Razzle-Dazzle" (1955); "Burn That Candle" (1955); "See You Later, Alligator" (1956); "R-O-C-K"/ "The Saints Rock 'N Roll" (1956); "Rip It Up" (1956); "Rudy's Rock" (1956); "Skinny Minnie" (1958)
Dale Hawkins--"Susie-Q" (1957); "La-Do-Dada" (1958)
Ronnie Hawkins--"Mary Lou" (1959)
Buddy Holly (and the Crickets)--"That'll Be the Day" (1957); "Peggy Sue" (1957); "Rave On" (1958); "Early in the Morning" (1958); "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" 91959)
Brenda Lee--"One Step at a Time" (1957); "Sweet Nothin's" (1959/60); "I'm Sorry"/"That's All You Gotta Do" (1960); "I Want to Be Wanted" (1960)
Ritchie Valens--"Come On, Let's Go" (1958); "Donna"/"La Bamba" (1958/9)
Gene Vincent--"Be-Bop-A-Lula" (1956); "Lotta Lovin'"/"Wear My Ring" (1957); "Dance to the Bop" (1957/8)
Major Black Artists
Chuck Berry--"Maybelline" (1955); "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956); "School Day" (1957); "Rock and Roll Music" (1957); "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958); "Johnny B. Goode" (1958); "Carol" (1958); "Almost Grown" (1959); "Back in the U.S.A." (1959); "Nadine" (1964); "No Particular Place to Go" (1964); "You Never Can Tell" (1964); "My Ding-A-Ling" (1972); "Reelin' and Rockin' (1972/3)
Fats Domino--"Ain't That a Shame" (1955); I'm in Love Again" (1956); "Blueberry Hill" (1956); "Blue Monday" (1957); "I'm Walkin'" (1957)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins--"I Put a Spell on You" (1957)
Little Richard--"Tutti-Frutti" (1956); "Long Tall Sally"/"Slippin' and Slidin'" (1956); "Rip It Up" (1956); "Lucille" (1957); "Jenny, Jenny" (1957); "Keep a Knockin' (1957); "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (1958); "Ooh! My Soul" (1958)
Lloyd Price--"Just Because" (1957); "Stagger Lee" (1958/9); "Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?" (1959); "Personality" (1959); "I'm Gonna Get Married" (1959)
Larry Williams--"Short Fat Fannie" (1957); "Bony Maronie" (1957)
Jackie Wilson--"Reet Petite" (1957); "To Be Loved" (1958); "Lonely Teardrops" (1958/9); "That's Why" (1959); "I'll Be Satisfied" (1959); "You Better Know It" (1959); "Talk That Talk" (1959/60); "Night"/"Doggin Around" (1960); "All My Love"/"A Woman, A Lover, A Friend" (1960); "Alone at Last"/"Am I the Man" (1960); "My Empty Arms" (1961)