Rock & Roll
From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The Rock & Roll chapter was written by John Collins
There was no specific point in time, in the continuing history of popular music, when something characterized as ‘rock & roll’ suddenly appeared. Even more easily identifiable movements, such as psychedelia or the British punk rock of the mid seventies, will be seen to have antecedents, to have evolved into a recognizable form from what had gone before. The term ‘rock & roll’ was in common use in the rhythm & blues music of the forties as an obvious euphemism for the sex act, often cloaked as a reference to dancing. Just as female blues singers had long been looking for a ‘chauffeur‘ to ‘drive their car’, so urban blues singers of the immediate post-war years were in the habit of suggesting that ‘we rock & roll all night’, without having only the dance-floor in mind. The credit for lifting this phrase from blues parlance, and applying it to the black music of the day, is usually given to Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed. In 1951, noticing that white youngsters were demanding black records at the local record store, he inaugurated a radio programme which he called ‘Moondog’s Rock & Roll Party‘: he presumably felt that a new title was necessary since existing descriptions of the developing black music – from ‘race records’ to ‘rhythm & blues’ itself – had pejorative racial overtones, and with Fats Domino‘s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ and, in particular, Little Richard‘s ‘Tutti’ Frutti’, There was no trace of Uncle Tom left in Richard’s music, but it must be noted that at the time the bland white singer Pat Boone outsold both Domino and Richard with his cover versions, more precisely orchestrated and clearly enunciated. The process continued, black records finding it progressively easier to gain national exposure, until by the late fifties a record was allowed to be judged, by all but racists, on its merits alone. One should remember, though, that the men making the money were still usually white.
Since the black music of the time has a section in this series (‘ Rhythm & Blues ‘) devoted to it, and has a further section for its development into soul, the emphasis of this chapter is on those white artists who overcame this accident of birth and produced music to stand beside that of the best of the black performers. Racism is a social, not a musical, problem, and for the commercial explosion of music in the fifties to take place, it had to involve whites.
Before the mid fifties, which brought with it the post-war technological developments that allowed for an expansion in the music industry, the ‘teenager’ hadn’t been invented. These developments included cheaper record-playing equipment and the less fragile, more easily distributed 45 rpm record, which, very quickly, superseded the ’78’; its advent coincided with the expansion of local radio, which made the music more accessible. The stars of the early fifties, even Johnny Ray, did not appeal specifically to adolescents. Rock & roll, from the simple espousing of black music by white youth to the dangerous sexuality of Elvis, marked the arrival of the ‘generation gap’, of adolescent rebellion, on a scale formerly inconceivable. It was fuelled by the increased spending power of the teenager as America, and more slowly Britain, recovered from the war; the music industry soon became geared to relieving young people of their pocket money.
When Elvis Presley was sold by his small label (Sun) to a major record company (RCA) with the capacity to peddle him world-wide rather than locally, the revolution arrived. In this brief essay, complex developments must be reduced to their key moments. The arrival of Bill Haley was one, of Little Richard another. Elvis’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was the biggest yet. Those early-fifties American teenagers who picked up on black music were an elite; to the rest of us, Elvis was a revelation.
The great white rockers who followed were galvanized by the success of Elvis: Carl Perkins (referring to Elvis on Sun) – ‘I suddenly heard on the radio what I’d been doing all along’; Buddy Holly – ‘Without Elvis, none of us would have made it.’ Gene Vincent got his chance because the Capitol label was deliberately searching for their own Presley-styled artist to compete with RCA, who had bought out Elvis’s contract from Sun, and had succeeded immediately with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. These were all country musicians who now knew that the injection of black influence into their music, together with ‘teen-appeal’, gave it the missing ingredient.
It is now possible to chant, with conviction, the slogan ‘Rock & roll will never die’. Not so in the fifties, in spite of Danny and the Juniors‘ optimistic 1958 song title ‘Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay’. It was seen by the older generation, because they wanted it to be so, as a temporary aberration. The businessmen were happy to milk it for a while, but in the end it was they who signed the death certificate (prematurely, as it turned out). Convinced it was a craze, they looked for anything – even calypso – to keep them in the style to which they’d become accustomed when the fad passed away. It seems strange now to consider that such recorded Bo Diddley‘s ‘Who Do You Love’, using it as the basis for a lengthy improvisation, though they can hardly have pleased rock & roll fans with their musical doodling. Creedence Clearwater Revival provided a welcome antidote to the pretentiousness of the late sixties, at the same time that Canned Heat were reminding young Americans of their rhythm & blues heritage. Chuck Berry re-emerged in the early seventies with his best album for years, and ‘Rock & Roll Revival Shows’ were big business. There are dozens of rockabilly bands ‘currently playing in London and, most encouraging of all, when the American r&r legends visit Britain, a large proportion of their audience is under twenty.
Essential Rock & Roll Singles
Good Rocking Tonight
With many r & b hits, Brown was an influential forerunner of rock & roll with an impassioned up-tempo blues style: this song was revived by Presley.
Their brand of sentimental melodramatic ballads, featuring Tony Williams, proved more commercial than the earthier offerings of other vocal groups; they were chart fixtures throughout the rock & roll era.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
I Put A Spell On You
Rock & roll’s greatest eccentric, Hawkins improvised wild, often hilarious lyrics over tight r&b backing. This manic waltz, not a huge hit though selling over the years, is a marvellous oddity.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
Why Do Fools Fall in Love
Label owner George Goldner was responsible for recording some of the finest black vocal group pop of the fifties: Lymon’s gimmick (his voice hadn’t broken) made him the most successful.
Danny and the Juniors
At The Hop
By this time the frantic qualities of early rock & roll could sound formularized, removed from their roots, but this Philadelphia group produced the most engaging of synthetic rock.
A white Canadian group who had a hit with this beautiful, humorous song by covering the Gladiolas’ original. The Gladiolas hit back, re-named Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, with the even-better ‘Stay’.
A white Louisiana rockabilly singer who produced this one classic, made unforgettable by the biting, hypnotic guitar riff. His guitarist James Burton, one of the greatest of the era, went on to join Ricky Nelson’s band.
It was the success of this, and its original B-side (Jimmy Bowen’s ‘I’m Sticking With You’) that attracted Buddy Holly to Norman Petty’s studio. A good example of a regional (Texas) hit taken up nationally by a major label.
A label-mate of Little Richard’s, and in the same frantic, heavy-riffing mould, Williams gave the world three classics: this one plus ‘Short Fat Fanny’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’.
Link Wray and His Wraymen
Instrumental rock & roll, particularly by Duane Eddy and Johnny and the Hurricanes, persistently made the charts. ‘Rumble’ is the most curious example; a distorted, threatening noise of moronic but intriguing simplicity.
Teen-ballads were also staple chart fodder in the rock & roll era: this West coast example, together with his more typical ‘C’Mon Let’s Go’ and ‘La Bamba’, suggest that Valens would have become a substantial talent had he not died with Holly and the Big Bopper.
A third fruitful sub-category: the ‘death disc’. They may often require tongue-in-cheek listening, particularly when they go as far over the top as the hilarious ‘I Want My Baby Back’ (Jimmy Cross), but the imagery of ‘Sleep’ is nonetheless effective.
Cramer established the "crushed-note" style of country piano playing, and this haunting, moody instrumental came out of Nashville during Its temporary recession, caused by the impact of rock & roll.
A wild, staccato rocker from New Orleans, master-minded by Dr John; the exception that proves the rule that the best rock & roll was usually commercially successful.
Starting as a twelve-year-old country singer, Lee became a teenage rockabilly phenomenon, the most successful of the few female rockers.
Let’s Have A Party
Before turning to God and country music, Jackson had some rock & roll hits, notably ‘Mean Mean Man’ and ‘Party’ one of the most exciting records of the era and the best female rock & roll achievement.
Reviving a ’58 B-side, Shondell had his moment of greatness with this perfectly ponderous ballad; the fact that the piano solo seems to be in a different key may add to its appeal, and certainly doesn’t detract.
This came came from nowhere (in fact Texas, where 200 copies were originally pressed) With a unique sound that turned if into an international hit, a sound owing much to the eerie harmonica of the great white r&b musician Delbert McClinton; the Beatles stole the sound for ‘Love Me Do’.
Who Do You Love
A menacing blast of white rock & roll, long after the genre was meant to have died, by a larger-than-Iife Arkansaw rockabilly singer backed by the musicians who were later to be the Band; the song came from Be Diddley.
I Can Help
The ‘spirit of rock & roll’ may be indefinable, but this perfect pop record clearly had it; a breath of fresh air in an era when most hits came off a conveyor belt.