The History of Rock Music: 1955-1966

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(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi)

Rock'n'Roll 1951-57

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

Rock prehistory

The list of serious pretenders to the title of first rock'n'roll song (not just a title referencing the act of "rocking") begins with The Fat Man (1949), cut by Antoine "Fats" Domino, a New Orleans performer, which certainly sounded like a new kind of boogie. The man who is commonly credited with inventing the term "rock'n'roll" is a white Cleveland disc-jockey, Alan Freed, who in 1951 decided to speculate on the success of Leo Mintz's store and started a radio program, "Moondog Rock'n'Roll Party", that broadcasted black music to an audience of white teenagers. Other white disc-jockeys had done and were doing the same thing, but it was Freed's enthusiasm for black music that became contagious. That same year Ike Turner's Rocket 88 (1951) was definitely rock'n'roll (although an adaptation of Pete Johnson's instrumental Rocket 88 Boogie of 1949). And that same year Gunter Lee Carr cut the dance novelty We're Gonna Rock. Therefore, everybody was already "rocking". Alas, they were mostly black, i.e. distributed only locally.

The record industry was aware that a new music was being created by the blacks, and tried to exploit it with Bill Haley. His success proved that there was an audience for that music, and it was an audience desperate for anything that would play that music.

White people had the money, but black people were making the most exciting music. This created a niche for independent labels recording black artists for the white audience, but it could never become a mass market. The USA was still largely a racially-divided country. There was little chance that a black singer could become as popular as, say, Frank Sinatra. When Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in Memphis (Tennessee), he made the famous statement "If I could find a white man who sings with the Negro feel, I'd make a million dollars".

In 1952 a white singer, Bill Haley, formed the Comets, which can be considered the first rock'n'roll band. 1952 is also the year in which Bob Horn's "Bandstand" tv program (which in 1956 would become Dick Clark's "American Bandstand") began airing from Philadelphia every weekday afternoon, and the year in which Alan Freed (now more famous as "Moondog") organized the first rock'n'roll concert, the "Moondog Coronation Ball". The first rock'n'roll song to enter the Billboard charts was Bill Haley's Crazy Man Crazy in 1953. At the same time, Sam Phillips was recording the first Elvis Presley record in his Sun studio, using two recorders to produce the effect of "slapback" audio delay that would become the typical sound of rockabilly.

Rock'n'roll was certainly not the only thing to happen to the USA music scene in those post-war years. The sentiment of euphoria was contagious. Hank Williams reached the top of the country charts in 1949, and turned country music into a serious art. Howlin' Wolf (out of Memphis) and Joe Turner (out of Kansas City) were popularizing the aggressive blues style of the "shouters". In 1952 Roscoe Gordon, a Memphis pianist, invented the "ska" beat with No More Doggin'. Charles Brown's Hard Times (1952) was the first hit by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to enter the charts, and marked the beginning of a new era for pop music. The Orioles' Crying in the Chapel (1953) was the first black hit to top the white pop charts. The following year saw the boom of a new kind of black vocal harmony, doo-wop, inaugurated by the Penguins' Earth Angel (1954) and by the Platters' Only You (1955).

Technological innovations laid the groundwork for further stylistic innovations. In 1952 Gibson introduced its solid-body electric guitar, invented by Les Paul a few years earlier, and the following year Leo Fender introduced the Stratocaster guitar (that he had invented in 1950). In the meantime, since 1951 the first juke-box machines that played 45 RPM records had begun to spread in every corner of the USA.

In 1954 all the record companies switched from 78 RPMs to 45 RPMs: the 78 RPM was dead, and the 45 RPM came to symbolize a new era of prosperity and fun. That same year a Japanese electronic company, TTK (later renamed Sony), introduced the last thing that was missing to turn popular music into a universal language: the world's first transistor radio. The new, cheaper gramophones and the portable radios caused a musical revolution of their own in the way people (especially young people) listened to music. The masses were now able to listen to music when they wanted and where they wanted.

Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock (1954), written in 1953 by Max Freedman for a boogie group, was the first rock song used in a movie soundtrack. Bill Haley was the most unlikely "teen idol" (he was almost 30), and that song sounded like a novelty number, not a revolutionary anthem, but that was the song that turned rock'n'roll into a nation-wide phenomenon. Two films of 1955, "Rebel Without A Cause" and "Blackboard Jungle", established a new role model for teenagers: the rebellious loner and sometimes juvenile delinquent (not exactly the role model that their parents would have liked for them).

From black to white rockers

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Musically, the real event of 1955 was Chuck Berry's first recording session. His songs were the first ones to have the guitar as "the" lead instrument, and introduced the descending pentatonic double-stops (the essence of rock guitar). His music was the meeting point of the guitar technique of T Bone Walker, the vocal technique of the "shouters" and the rhythm of boogie-woogie (with help from his pianist Johnnie Johnson). His songs also told a story that teenagers could relate to, that emphasized the generation gap, and hinted at taboo subjects such as adolescent love, notably in School Day (1957) and Sweet Little Sixteen (1958). He began the process of transforming the issues of a young generation into mythology. The riffs of his three masterpieces, Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock And Roll Music (1957) and the mythological Johnny B. Goode (1958), electrified millions of white kids. Last, but not least, his songs were... "his": Berry was the first major composer of rock'n'roll (not just an interpreter). But Berry was black, and blacks did not get the same airplay as white musicians. He remained a cult item.

In the same city and in the same year, another black musician, guitarist Bo Diddley (born Otha Ellas Bates, raised Ellas McDaniel), invented the "hambone" rhythm (a syncopated boogie rhythm), that harked back to tribal Africa and gave songs such as I'm A Man (1955), the ominous Bo Diddley (1955) and Who Do You Love (1955) suspenseful, sinister and hypnotic quality. The album Bo Diddley (mar 1955 - ? 1957 - ? 1958), Mona (1957), Love Is Strange (1957), written for Mickey (Baker) & Sylvia (Robinson), Dearest Darling (1958), typical of his devilish approach to the mystical, the proto-rap Say Man (1959), the novelty Road Runner (1960) coupled primordial energy and good-time humor. He also pioneered the blues-rock format with the two lengthy jams of Two Great Guitars (mar 1964 - jul 1964), a collaboration with Chuck Berry.

Rock'n'roll was certainly more closely related to rhythm'n'blues than to country music. Chicago rhythm'n'blues naturally morphed into rock'n'roll with black musicians such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

If Berry invented the kind of rock'n'roll that will rule for the following 50 years, others laid the foundations for several strains of rock'n'roll. Perhaps the most influential on future generations was the kind of rock'n'roll that arose from gospel music. In New Orleans a singer and pianist named Esquerita (Eskew Reeder) coined a wild style of playing and singing that was popularized by New Orleans vocalist and pianist "Little" Richard Penniman. They performed like animals, and added another level of provocation: clothes and facial make-up that were obscene. Esquerita and Little Richard invented decadence-rock. Little Richard's frenzied songs of the time (mostly propelled by the drums of Earl Palmer) would remain the most hysterical specimens of rock'n'roll until punk-rock: Tutti Frutti (1955), Long Tall Sally (1956), Bumps Blackwell's Rip It Up (1956), Lucille (1957), Keep A-Knockin' (1957), Bumps Blackwell's Good Golly Miss Molly (1958). Larry Williams (also from New Orleans) was a Little Richard clone: Short Fat Fannie (1957), Bony Moronie (1957) and Dizzy Miss Lizzie (1958).

Sam Phillips' dream came true when he met Elvis Presley. Presley went on to become the first great swindle of rock'n'roll, and the prototype for the ones that would follow. Sam Phillips had found his man, equipped him with a masterful rhythm section (Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar), and proceeded to market him as the juvenile delinquent that he was not. In a segregated society like the USA of the time, Presley became the ultimate white robber of black hits: Arthur Crudup's That's All Right Mama (1954), Roy Brown's Good Rockin' Tonight (1955), Junior Parker's Mystery Train (1955). He began to move towards "whiter" material with Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes (1956), with Frederick "Shorty" Long on piano, Mae Axton's Heartbreak Hotel (1956), perhaps his vocal masterpiece, Leiber & Stoller's Hound Dog (1956), but his black soul still emerged in Otis Blackwell's diptych Don't Be Cruel (1956), his greatest hit, and All Shook Up (1957). Leiber & Stoller's Jailhouse Rock (1958), finally an irreverent boogie, was his swan song. Presley the rocker died there: he went on to croon and shout operatic melodies such as old Italian songs, and to specialize in seduction numbers such as Love Me Tender (1956, stolen from the soundtrack of "Rancho Notorious"), and Hugo (Peretti) & Luigi (Creatore)'s Can't Help Falling In Love (1961, a rewrite of Giovanni Martini's Plaisir d'Amour).

Presley's success was important in enabling hundreds of kids to play the music of the blacks. White rockers were finally tolerated, and even promoted by the "majors" (major label companies). These rockers (or, rather, Sam Phillips' production) defined "rockabilly", a style whose singer sang in a stuttering and hiccuping manner, accompanied by a small combo of slapping bass and frantic guitars, while the whole was captured using two recorders to produce an effect of "slapback" audio delay. Rockabilly songs were simulated bursts of lust.

Among early white rockers, Jerry Lee Lewis was, by far, the most faithful to the wild style of black rockers. James "Roy" Hall's Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (1957) and Otis Blackwell's Great Balls Of Fire (1957) coined a style of psychotic singing that will make the history of rock music (unlike Presley's, that will make the history of easy listening) and coined a manic style at the piano that was as ferocious as Berry's guitar riffs.

Other notable white rockers (all based in Memphis unless noted) were Carl Perkins, the stereotypical rockabilly singer, who wrote Blue Suede Shoes (1956) for Presley; Buddy Knox of the Rhythm Orchids, a Texan who wrote Party Doll (1956) for his friend Holly; Gene Vincent (Craddock), an authentic rebel from Virginia who spew out Be Bop A Lula (1956), reminiscent of the Drifters' Money Honey, and formed the Blue Caps, one of the first rock bands; Louisiana's Dale Hawkins, whose swampy Suzie Q (1957) was derailed by James Burton's bluesy guitar solo; Johnny Burnette, a schoolmate of Elvis Presley whose trio re-recorded Tiny Bradshaw's 1951 Train Kept A-rolling (1956) with one of the first solos of distorted guitar (by Paul Burlison); Charlie Feathers, with a vocal style that was both nonsensical and virtuoso (Defrost Your Heart, 1955; Tongue Tied Jill, 1956); Albert "Sonny" Burgess of the Pacers, from Arkansas, one of the wildest (Red Headed Woman, 1956); Billy Lee Riley, leader of Sun's house band and one of the most sound-conscious (Billy Emerson's Red Hot, 1955; Ray Scott's Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll, 1957); West Virginia's wildman and one-man band Hasil Adkins (She Said, 1955; The Hunch, 1957; Chicken Walk, 1962); and Ronnie Hawkins (Mary Lou, 1959). Wanda Jackson in Los Angeles was the "queen" of rockabilly (Honey Bop, 1956; Fujiyama Mama, 1958), and one of the very first white women to adopt a provocative, rebellious stance. The fact that their songs didn't climb the charts does not mean that they were any less talented than Presley. If nothing else, they mostly wrote the songs they sang.

There was also a brief "Latino rock" fad, with Ritchie Valens' Come On Let's Go (1958) and Chan Romero's Hippy Hippy Shake (1959), two of the most frantic rockabilly songs.

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The limit of white rockers was their roots in country music. Their music was rarely as powerful and original as the music of black rockers. Black rockers who developed a unique style included Junior Parker, whose Mystery Train (1954) was the best wedding of country and blues, Richard Berry, a doo-wop performer who wrote Louie Louie (1956) for his Pharaohs (and sung it in Jamaican patois), Joe Turner, whose Shake Rattle And Roll (1957) would remain one of the most frenetic songs of all times, Screamin Jay Hawkins, from Cleveland (Ohio), who introduced voodoo into rock'n'roll with I Put A Spell On You (1956) and whose macabre stage antics virtually invented gothic-rock. Otis Blackwell, a black songwriter from New York, is one of the unsung heroes of the genre: he wrote Fever (1955) for Little Willie John, Don't Be Cruel (1956) and All Shook Up (1957) for Elvis Presley, and Great Balls Of Fire (1957) and Breathless (1958) for Jerry Lee Lewis. Jazz organist Bill Doggett bridged jump blues and rock'n'roll with the one instrumental track that mattered, Honky Tonk (1956), which actually emphasized guitar and sax.

Los Angeles-based Eddie Cochran was perhaps the greatest talent of the second white generation, but he died at 22. Summertime Blues (1958) and C'mon Everybody (1958), on which he overdubbed all instruments and vocals, were moving away from rockabilly.

Texas-based Buddy Holly was even more of an "enfant prodige": he also died at 22, but left behind an impressive corpus of songs. He radically altered the image of rock'n'roll: wearing glasses and a formal high-school outfit, he represented the exact opposite of the juvenile delinquent. His childish, naive optimism contrasted with the nasty, morbid world of the other rockers. His lyrics reached for the primal child in every teenager: they were made of onomatopoetic tongue-twisters and of "baby talk" (syllables, rather than words, silly repetitions, trifling rhymes). His vocal phrasing was a recital of exaggerated tones of voice, hiccupping from bass to falsetto, a nonsense lingo of guttural ejaculations and martial slogans. His music was catchy, but set to bizarre accompaniments (clapping, tom-toms, celesta), distilled from blues, tex-mex, folk, pop and country. That'll Be The Day (1957) and Peggy Sue (1957), a childish nursery-rhyme accompanied by one of the most famous drum beats in history, were his rockabilly masterpieces, but Words Of Love (1958), Everyday, It's So Easy and Well All Right already belonged to another genre, a form of jangling, melodic music straddling the line between folk and rock, and arranged in creative ways. In many ways, Holly was the first of rock's singer-songwriters. Last but not least, his Crickets forged the standard of the rock band: their line-up was two guitars, drums and bass; they wrote their own material, and the sound of their songs mainly relied on their playing (not on session musicians or orchestras).

A social disease

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Slowly but steadily, this new generation of white rockers overthrew two entrenched praxes of the recording industry. First, the guitar took over the piano. Second, singers began to sing their own songs. Since the beginning of the recording industry, professional songwriters had been writing the hits for pop singers to sing (and nameless players to accompany). Black rockers, instead, were writing most of the songs that they were singing. Pop songwriters were mainly pianists: they would compose a song on the piano, and then score the orchestral arrangements. Black rockers were composing on the guitar, just like bluesmen had been doing ever since, and knew too little about other instruments to arrange their compositions for an orchestra (they also used much simpler chords). Thus rock'n'roll became essentially a guitar-based genre. Thus the natural unit of delivery for rock'n'roll was the small combo, instead of the orchestra. Thus rock'n'roll emphasized the rhythm, not the harmony.

The guitar soon became integral part of the character: while pop singers only dealt with microphones, rockers were expected to swing a guitar in front of them (even though the majority of white rockers did not know how to play it).

"What" these singers sang also changed. Pop songwriters had always focused on universal values and feelings: each story was rehearsing the eternal themes (love, for example) of western literature. Black rockers came from a tradition that was more realist: the bluesmen sang about life in the plantation, in the jail, in the street, in the ghetto. Black rockers continued that tradition, except that they set their stories in a modern milieu that connected with the personal experiences of the white youth of the USA.

Rock'n'roll was, in many ways, the by-product of changes that were taking place within the USA society: mass education through a public school system (that put kids of the same community in daily contact with each other), the widespread diffusion of the radio, the juke-box and the 45 RPM record (that put kids from far-flung communities in daily contact), consumerism (that granted teenagers limited financial independence from their parents), increased racial integration (that allowed white kids to learn the more libertine customs of black people). The sexual revolution may have started before rock'n'roll, but certainly rock'n'roll became its soundtrack. The net effect of these developments was to favor a "clandestine" genre such as rock'n'roll was in the beginning. In 1955 the establishment applied the capitalistic rules of mass marketing to this new product, and sanctioned its existence. Rock'n'roll was, therefore, an almost inevitable synthesis of the USA civilization of the 1950s.

The tone of rock'n'roll was certainly different from the traditional tone of popular music. The sentimental, the tragic and the comic tones of popular music became (respectively) erotic, violent and sarcastic. That "was" a teenager's view of the world.

Rock'n'roll was revolutionary at several levels. It originated from small, independent labels (rather than big corporations). It ridiculed the stars and the sounds (and, indirectly, the lifestyle) of the establishment. It bridged the gap between the white public and the black public. It invented the notion of a rebellious youth. These were all destabilizing facts.

Puritans were right when they claimed that rockers (by appropriating the convulsions of strippers, the sensuality of perverts, and the "savagery" of blacks) were inciting male teenagers to become criminals and female teenagers to become prostitutes. It was their way to vent a generation's feeling of independence.

Through rock'n'roll, young people began searching for an identity, a process that would continue for decades, parallel to the evolution of rock music.

There had already been signs of discontent and dissent within the white capitalistic society (the beatniks in literature, for example), but they had not affected the masses. The "revolutionary" power of rock'n'roll far exceeded any political or cultural movement that had preceded it. Music became the terminal stage of an anelastic process: from social alienation to musical alienation to musical revolution to social revolution. Music became more than entertainment. Music became more than a universal language. Music became more than a message board. Music became a revolutionary tool for the youth of the USA.

The disease spreads

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Rock'n'roll spread to Britain, causing the first mass adoption of a USA musical style by the European masses. British rock hits included: Tommy Steele's Rock With the Cavemen (1956), Cliff Richard (Harry Webb)'s Move It (1958), written by his guitarist Ian Samwell, Marty Wilde's Bad Boy (1959), Frederick "Johnny Kidd" Heath's Shaking All Over (1960), and especially Billy Fury, who made the best album of British rockabilly, The Sound Of Fury (apr 1960 - ? 1960). These rockers laid the foundations for the British takeover of rock'n'roll.

The popularity of rock'n'roll caused the record industry to boom and allowed independent labels to flourish. Between 1955 and 1959, the USA market share of the four "majors" dropped from 78% to 44%, while the market share of independent record companies increased from 22% to 56%. The US market had increased from 213 million dollars to 603 million, and the market share of rock'n'roll increased from 15.7% to 42.7% in 1959. The excellent health of the recording industry was probably one reason why they kept experimenting with the format. In 1956 Elektra pioneered the "compilation" record, containing songs by different musicians, and in 1958 RCA introduced the first stereo long-playing records.

As musicians were allowed to make more and more bizarre records, they began to plunder the repertory of the rest of the world. In 1955 Pete Seeger released the first album of African music by a white musician, Bantu Choral Folk Songs (? 1955 - ? 1955), and in 1956 Martin Denny's Exotica created a new genre. Interest in Indian music (until then largely unknown in the west) was triggered by sarod player Ali Akbar Khan's 1955 concert in New York. Mexican composer Juan-Garcia Esquivel concocted super-kitschy lounge music, scoring odd melodies and counterpoints for exotic instruments and just about anything that had an unusual sound, from theremins to harpsichords. As a title of his best album goes, Other Worlds Other Sounds (jan 1958 - ? 1958).

Rock'n'roll was only the tip of the iceberg. Music was changing at every level. The Chordettes of Mr Sandman (1955) were the first "girl-group". Also in 1955, Ray Charles invented "soul" music with I Got A Woman, a secular adaptation of an old gospel.

The first Jamaican recording studio had opened in 1951 and recorded "mento" music, a fusion of European and African folk dance music. By fusing the mento rhythm and Memphis' rhythm'n'blues, a new genre, "ska" began to spread in the island.

So many parallel developments did not eclipse the traditional forms of popular music, which was still largely dependent on Broadway's musicals. For example, the best-selling album of 1955 was Doris Day's Love Me Or Leave Me ( ? 1955 - may 1955), and the mega-seller of the following year was Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Oklahoma (may-jul 1954 - ? 1955). The kids were still only a fraction of the market. Presley himself began to dominate the market only with his movie soundtracks (from 1957 on), and even he was eclipsed by the album of Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story (1961), that spent 54 weeks at the top of the charts (a record that no rock musician would ever beat).

While the youth of the USA danced at a faster rhythm and was being entertained by rebellious singers, isolated minds were experimenting with ever more unusual sounds. One of the most under-rated and eccentric geniuses of the 20th century, Moondog, who was a blind New York street performer, virtually invented every future genre of rock music between 1949 and 1956. Harry Revel's suite Music Out of the Moon (1947), issued as a set of three 78 RPM records, was arranged by Les Baxter for cello, horn, choir and (mainly) a theremin played by Sam Hoffman, the man who had debuted the instrument in Miklos Rozsa's soundtracks for Lost Weekend (1945) and Spellbound (1945). Louis and Bebe Barron's soundtrack for the science-fiction film The Bells of Atlantis (1952), and later for the more famous Forbidden Planet (1956), employed only electronic instruments.


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It didn't last. Soon, the puritanical element that was so pivotal in the USA society managed to kill the new genre. Actually, there were at least three forces working against rock'n'roll, despite its commercial success: a political force (the USA was coming out of Joseph McCarthy's "witch hunt" but unruly behavior was easily suspected of communism), a religious force (rock'n'roll, with its obvious references to sex, wasn't exactly the kind of music that church-goers desired for their children), and a racial force (rock'n'roll was clearly a black invention, in an age that was still obsessed with racial separation).

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The impact of rock'n'roll could still be felt long after the last rocker retired or emigrated: the new pop idols promoted by Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" program (which was broadcast by 105 tv stations), were younger, and spoke to a younger audience. But the format went back to the melodic, romantic song of the vocal groups, and the guitar/bass/drums band was replaced by the string orchestra.

This was not true in Britain, where neither of those three forces was particularly strong, and where bluesmen and jazzmen were treated like living legends. Black music became very popular among white kids of the British middle-class at the same time that was being forgotten in the USA. In fact, two of the most influential phenomena of the 1950s originated from this passion for the Afro-American culture. London was the center of "trad" ("traditional jazz"), which spawned a generation of white musicians playing black music, notably Alexis Korner. Rock Island Line (1955), sung by Lonnie Donegan for trombonist Chris Barber's jazz combo, launched the fad of "skiffle", a sort of fast-paced, exuberant and melodic jug-music performed with cheap instruments. (In the 1920s, "skiffle" was used by USA record companies to refer to music performed by musicians who were too poor to buy instruments, thus using washboards, kazoos and jugs). Within a year, there were almost a thousand groups of skiffle bands in London alone, notably the Vipers (featuring the young Hank Marvin) of Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O (1956) and Streamline Train (1957).

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