Early Rock ‘n’ Roll

“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans

Way back up in the woods among the evergreens

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood

Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell.

Go go. Go Johnny go….

Johnny B Goode.”

Ah, rock. Ah, roll. Ah…’n.’

Rock ‘n’ roll is yet another one of the many genres of music we come to explore in All Around This World that stands on the shoulders of the musical giants that came before it–could not stand at all if not for millennia of music-making in Africa, in Europe and then in America–yet when it emerged as a distinct form it sounded so shocking that it shook American society–“white” American society–to its core. A central issue at work here–often, but not always, unspoken–was race. When rock ‘n’ roll coalesced as a genre in the 1950s, America was entering a period of unprecedented interracial conflict. The South was still segregated, overtly and obstinately. The North was segregated too–though more covertly, insidiously. When America’s “white” teenagers started listening to and, heavens forbid!, dancing in suggestive ways to “black” music, spinning these contemporary “race records” on the player in their very own suburban bedrooms, not even in some swing era dancehall or a jazz club in a separate, seedy part of town…. Many who were in power in America saw this not as a moment of frivolous, cross-racial musical curiosity, but as a pronounced step toward breaking down the barriers between races that had structured American society since days of slavery. Dangerous, and potentially destabilizing. And, in
great part, they were right.

Our mission this week isn’t to detail the development of every twist and turn of every subgenre of American rock ‘n’ roll from its origins in the ’50s to the present–I did that with English rock and pop in our Western Europe and The Nordic Counties season, and, while it sure was a fun thing to go through, and I’ll one day do that for American rock music, oy! it took a lot of work. Instead, let’s go back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, before rock was what we know as ROCK. Back then, in the latest 1940s and early ’50s, record companies still mainly sold “white” music–Appalachian folk, for example, or most kinds of country–to “white” people and “black” music, like jazz and blues, to “black,” much as they had in the ’20s when they openly marketed “hillbilly” music to whites and “race records” to African Americans. As we’ve learned in in other weeks, none of the “white” forms of music was actually just by, or for, whites, and the same with music like jazz and blues, but when the record company marketing machines fired up, they most often chose sides.

Fortunately for us music-lovers, musicians themselves, and the fans who really appreciate their art, rarely listen to machines. As we’ve seen pretty consistently in our global explorations, musicians not only keep their ears open for interesting new ways to create, but the best musicians take genre-bending risks as a matter of course. Music fans don’t lag far behind.

So no one should be surprised that even in stratified, highly segregated 1950’s America, young, white musicians, especially in America’s south–like Tupelo, Mississippi’s ELVIS PRESLEY–were eager to cross racial boundaries and learn how to play “black” music. ELVIS and other white artists, like CARL PERKINS, JERRY LEE LEWIS and JOHNNY CASH combined blues rhythms with an accentuated “backbeat” and gave their songs a country flair to create a new form of music called “Rockabilly.”

Because rock ‘n’ roll evolved slowly into own genre there is much dispute among music historians about which musician can claim “the first rock record.” The prime candidate for rock record #1 seems to be “Rock Around the Clock,” which was a big hit for BILL HALEY & HIS COMETS; it may not have been the first rock record per se, but it certainly was the new genre’s first breakthrough hit. Coming in a close second may be “Rocket 88,” a 1951 recording by a band known as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. (This was actually an alias for IKE TURNER and The Kings of Rhythm.)

Whoever can claim the first rock record, by the mid ’50s record companies realized white teenagers were buying this music, and so a genre was born. Elvis, many of whose early hits were reworked versions of old blues songs, was certainly the most popular early rock artist, but black “electric blues” artists like CHUCK BERRY, who effectively transposed jump blues piano sounds onto guitar to create the first rock riffs, BO DIDDLEY, who adopted the Latin “3-2 clave” to create a blues-rock rhythm called the “Bo Diddley Beat”–watch him perform “Hey Bo Diddley” and count it out: bop bop bop, bop bop–not to mention a dynamic gospel/jump blues/booige woogie piano player known as LITTLE RICHARD, also became part of the early rock scene.

On February 3, 1959, three popular early rock musicians–BUDDY HOLLY, J.P. “THE BIG BOPPER” Richardson and RITCHIE VALENS–were flying together from one city on their concert tour to another when their plane crashed and they all lost their lives. (“The day the music died.”) Rock fans mourned not only the loss of three promising performers–fans and some critics believed Holly to have the talent and vision to advance rock songwriting some other, uncharted level, and Ritchie Valens was already breaking new ground, bringing Mexican son jarocho into the American mainstream with his rendition of “La Bamba”–but the end of what had seemed to be an idyllic era (no matter what the controversies rock had wrought).

Of course rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die with Buddy Holly, but the ’50s did certainly turn into the more turbulent, much more challenging ’60s. Within just a few years, straightforward three chord, 12-bar blues-based rock would become the sound of the past.

[Elvis appears on The Milton Berle Show in 1956 where he scandalously gyrates his way through the Lieber and Stoller song (first performed by BIG MAMA THORNTON), “Hound Dog.” Public outcry followed, as did harsh critical assessments, such as this: “Popular music has been sinking in this country for some years. Now it has reached its lowest depths in the “grunt and groin” antics of one Elvis Presley.” | Little Richard wows us with “Lucille” (in 1957) and his own version of “Hound Dog” | Watch “rock and roll specialists” Buddy Holly & the Crickets perform “Peggy Sue” on The Arthur Murray Dance Party in 1957 | Watch a theatrical Big Bopper sing–well, lip synch–“Chantilly Lace” in 1958 | Listen to Ritchie Valens perform, “Come On Let’s Go“]


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