Chapter 2: The Birth and First Flourishing of Rock and Roll Introduction
There is no clear “first year” of rock and roll, but 1955 is a useful marker.
Rock and roll was born with the emergence of rhythm and blues into the mainstream.
A middle class, teenage audience helped to blur the divisions between country and western, rhythm and blues, and mainstream pop.
This chapter will consider the “first wave” of rock and roll, roughly 1955–1960.
The early years were crucial in establishing rock as a musical style and element of youth culture.
The Rise of Youth Culture in the 1950s
The First Wave of War Babies Reach Adolescence (This Is Not Your Father’s Pop Music)
The postwar period was the first to have a pop culture devoted exclusively to teenagers, who wanted their own music.
For white teens, listening to rhythm and blues was an act of social rebellion; conversely, juvenile delinquency was a concern for adults in the 1950s.
Radio and Records
The Rise of the Disc Jockey
Many white teens first heard rhythm and blues on the radio, and small, inexpensive radios were increasingly common.
Disc jockeys such as Cleveland’s Alan Freed helped rhythm and blues to break into the mainstream in the early 1950s.
Freed emulated other DJs who were already playing rhythm and blues across the country.
Freed’s success took him to New York City in 1954, where he reached a much larger audience through his radio show, television, films, and concerts; he faced backlash, but also influenced many other DJs.
Aggressive Marketing by Independent Labels
Most rhythm and blues was recorded and released by independent labels; aggressive marketing tactics, including the practice of paying disc jockeys to play records on the radio, were required to compete with major labels.
Unlike mainstream pop, rhythm and blues and country and western were markets where independent labels could more easily beat major labels and make a profit.
Crossovers and Covers
Hit Records and the Charts
Tracking the music business and trends within it was important to people in the industry; periodicals such as Cashbox and Billboard carried sales charts that assisted with decision making.
Charts tracked listening populations, not musical styles, and were segregated into rhythm and blues, country and western, and mainstream pop based on assumptions about markets.
When a record or song holds a position on more than one of the three types of charts, this is called crossover, which can occur in different ways
The First Rock and Rollers Cross Over
Antoine “Fats” Domino was one of the first early rockers to have consistent crossover success; he topped the rhythm and blues charts and also had many Top 40 hits.
Berry recorded for Chess records; his record “Maybellene” crossed over from the rhythm and blues to the pop charts, and he had several more Top 40 singles.
Berry stated that his intention was to write songs geared to the average teenager.
Berry’s lyrics were varied and can be interpreted on many levels.
Many of Berry’s songs are in simple verse or simple verse-chorus and based on the 12-bar blues; his guitar style was widely imitated in rock.
Richard cultivated a flamboyant, “wild man” persona; he had nine Top 40 hits, but his style made it more difficult for him to advance his career in the mainstream pop market.
The “Whitening” of Rhythm and Blues
The practice of changing the lyrics and music of rhythm and blues songs to appeal to white listeners could be called the whitening of rhythm and blues; Bill Haley did this in some of his records and helped to establish a model for early rock and roll.
Haley was originally a disc jockey and swing musician; Bill Haley and His Comets were signed with Decca in 1954, and had hit singles that appeared on both the pop and rhythm and blues charts.
b. Pat Boone covered rhythm and blues songs such as Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and his versions sometimes outperformed the originals on the charts; Boone’s image made him less threatening to white parents, allowing him to help establish rock and roll within mainstream pop music.
The Controversy over Cover Versions
The success of cover songs may have reduced the crossover potential for the original records and artists; at the same time, they benefited mainly record companies and white performers.
In 1955, it was still common for several singers to record a given song in their own styles; many white covers of rhythm and blues, however, were close copies.
Singers like Pat Boone and Bill Haley claimed that the rhythm and blues songs they covered would not have been played on white radio otherwise.
The Rise of Elvis Presley: In Steps Corporate America
Elvis at Sun
Elvis Presley further blurred the boundaries between pop, country and western, and rhythm and blues.
Elvis was raised in Memphis from the age of thirteen; Sam Phillips owned and operated a record label there, Sun Records, where Elvis made his first records.
Elvis’s recording with Scotty Moore and Bill Black of “That’s All Right (Mama)” launched his career and established Sun Records on a national level.
The Big RCA Deal
Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA in 1955; Elvis’s manager felt that Phillips did not have the capital to promote Elvis, and Phillips needed the funds to keep Sun going.
Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” was a hit on the pop, country and western, and rhythm and blues charts, and he began to gain international exposure.
Elvis’s move to RCA marked the beginning of major label interest in rock and roll.
Covers in Elvis’s Early Career
Elvis was not a songwriter; he chose from a wide variety of songs and stylistic influences.
Elvis’s Sun records helped to establish a style known as “rockabilly.”
Presley’s Move to RCA for Broader Appeal
Elvis broadened his appeal beyond a teenage audience during his years with RCA, when he also made films and served in the U.S. Army.
Rockabilly in the Wake of Presley
Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun
Carl Perkins was a singer-guitarist whose “Blue Suede Shoes” sold more than a million copies and was a hit on all three charts.
Johnny Cash was popular on the country and western charts, though he crossed over with “I Walk the Line” before moving to a major label.
Jerry Lee Lewis was known for energetic performances at the piano; he had hits that appeared on all three charts before his career stalled due to a scandal.
Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran
Other labels also signed rockabilly artists: Gene Vincent recorded for Columbia and Eddie Cochran for Liberty.
Women also performed and recorded rockabilly, including Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson.
As rockabilly became mainstream, artists such as Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Ricky Nelson developed a musical style that was more pop and less country.
Buddy Holly was influenced by the rock and rollers who were active in 1955 and 1956.
Records by Holly and his band, the Crickets, were released by Decca Records and two of its subsidiaries.
Holly had seven Top 40 hits before his death in 1959; he also wrote songs that were made into classics by other artists.
Buddy Holly can be compared to Chuck Berry, as both were guitarists and songwriters with unique performance styles.
The songs “Oh, Boy!” and “Peggy Sue” illustrate Holly’s distinctive stylistic approach.
Holly was most influential as a songwriter; he employed more song forms and stylistic influences than many of his contemporaries in 1950s rock and roll.
The Day the Music Died
The Misfortunes of Many in Rock and Roll’s First Wave
Rock and roll suffered a series of setbacks at the end of the 1950s, resulting in the loss or departure of many important figures.
The Payola Investigations
The longstanding practice of payola in the music industry was the subject of investigation and scandal beginning in 1959.
The payola scandals were caused in part by struggles between major labels and independent labels, and between BMI and ASCAP, two organizations that collected royalties for songwriters.
Some opponents of rock and roll thought that its popularity could only be explained by indie labels buying airtime; in 1959, a congressional committee began investigating.
Radio stations that played rock and roll were a focus of this investigation from the start; the FTC and FCC became involved, and stations made changes to avoid poor public perception or the loss of their broadcast licenses.
Alan Freed and Dick Clark were high-profile subjects of the investigation; Freed was driven out of the music business.