Rock ‘n’ Roll emerged as Rockabilly in the mid fifties. In some ways the advent of Rockabilly was the story of Elvis Presley but in reality he was the catalyst and catapult that sent the style stratospheric. The sound had been bubbling around for a few years just waiting for the right person and the right moment. Elvis hit the spot and brought it together. It probably would have coalesced without him but it wouldn’t have been the same.
Rockabilly was the merging of two quite separate styles – black R&B and white C&W. The imposed segregation of the southern States had created a separation of the musicians and styles. Both had developed in their own way to fulfil a need. Following the Second World War there was a change in mood. The country wanted good-time dance music. They’d had it during the war with the Swing Bands. The dance-halls had resounded to the bid-band style as the young people jitter-bugged and lindy-hopped. The black youth seemed particularly adept and the black GIs had certainly impressed the British girls during the war.
As with so many things there was a convergence from many different directions. Elvis happened to emerge as the focus.
There is much conjecture as to the first authentic Rock ‘n’ Roll recording. The fact is that there probably wasn’t one. The term ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ had been in use since the thirties in black slang where it was a euphuism for sex. It was used in a number of Black R&B records in the forties. Rockin’ was also used to denote something was really jumping.
The musical elements of Rock ‘n’ Roll were also coming together in a number of different styles simultaneously. As early as 1946 Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup had recorded ‘That’s Alright’ and ‘So Glad You’re Mine’ as up-tempo electric Blues and Bill Monroe recorded his bluegrass version of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’. Louis Jordan was developing his electric Jump Blues band style with dance numbers like ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ in 1946 and the ‘Saturday Night at the Fish Fry’, with its chorus of ‘It was Rockin” in 1949. In 1947 Amos Milburn recorded ‘Down the Road Apiece’ and the following year ‘Chicken Shack Boogie’. Hank Williams, with his Honky-Tonk style, recorded ‘Move it on Over’ as early as 1947. The Jump-Blues experts had really begun to put the components together by 1947 when Roy Brown wrote and recorded ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’. This was covered by Wynonie Harris who also recorded numbers like ‘All She Want To Do is Rock’ in 1949 in the new up-tempo Rock style. This was joined by Goree Carter who released ‘Rock Awhile’ and Jimmy Preston ‘Rock the Joint’. Before the fifties had even begun there was a whole plethora of ‘Rock’ songs coming from Boogie Woogie, Bluegrass, Honky Tonk, Blues and Jump Blues. But the earliest contender of all may well be Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with her electric guitar and the Gospel song ‘Rock me’ incredibly recorded in 1942!
The scene was set for the fifties with segregated audiences, radio stations and ‘Race’ records. It was ripe for a coming together.
Young white audiences were getting hip to the great sounds coming out of the black radio stations. They were digging the Jump Blues, Doo-Wop and Boogie Woogie they were hearing. Black kids and musicians were also tuning in to the white Country stations and liking what they were hearing. It only goes to show that you may segregate the bodies but you can’t segregate the minds.
In the fifties the Blues had electrified and taken on a heavy beat with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and co. In Louisiana the R&B sound had come together with Fats Domino and Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry. In 1950 Fats Domino released ‘The Fat Man’. Hank Williams and Bob Wills were producing up-tempo Country Music.
In 1951 Jackie Brenston, with the Ike Turner Band, released what some say is the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record with ‘Rocket 88’. In 1954 Joe Turner released ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’. You could even make the case for Bill Haley being the first white Rock ‘n’ Roller. He released Rock songs like ‘Rocket 88’, ‘Rock the Joint’ and ‘Rockin’ Chair on the Moon’ in 1951 and 52.
The ingredients were all there. The audience was eager. The times were right. The kids were looking for excitement, something different to their parents. Even the films were reflecting the age of rebellion with James Dean and Marlon Brando. The TNT had been put together all that was needed was the match.
That’s where Elvis came in.
In 1953 he walked into Sun studios in Memphis and made a demo. That young Elvis had been exposed to it all and had absorbed it like a sponge. He was full to bursting. In 1954 Sam Philips put him with two trusted musicians in Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on Bass. The result was a series of searing tracks that created Rockabilly. The trio had no drums but created a driving, fast sound that drew on the R&B and C&W songs that Elvis was familiar with. He breathed a life into them that transformed them into something more. ‘That’s Alright, Mama’, ‘So Glad You’re Mine’, ‘You’re a Heartbreaker’, ‘Shake Rattle & Roll’, ‘I forgot to Remember to Forget her’, ‘Let’s Play House’, ‘Hound-dog’, ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘I forgot to Remember to Forget’, ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, ‘Milkcow Blues’ and ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’ formed the basis of his live act and most were recorded for Sun. They were joined with some crooning ballads like ‘I Love You Because’ and the legend was off the ground.
Elvis was not only a great singer but also a brilliant performer. Elvis had the style that fashioned a revolution with his greased back long hair, long sideburns, duck-tail, contrasting bright jackets, shirts and ties, tight trousers, and smouldering looks – he had animal magic and charisma. He was incredibly good looking and moved his body sensuously in a way that nobody had seen. It was a mixture of dancing, posing, acting and raw sex with the fluidity of a large cat. It drove the girls crazy. He was called ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ because of his sexual gyrations. He also drove the parents and establishment into paroxysms of shock. Elvis was bringing the sexual vulgarity of black R&B into the white sitting room. The effect on their daughters was all too obvious. They were appalled. He was promptly banned.
However, the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle. There was too much money to be made.
Every record label in the land was hunting for its own Elvis and the doors were even opened for the Black Performers.
From Sun Studios we got Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess and Johnny Cash. From Chess in Chicago we had Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. From New Orleans Fats Domino and Little Richard. From Texas Buddy Holly. Then there was Eddie Cochran, Ray Charles, Gene Vincent, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, and Dale Hawkins. It was like they all emerged ready-made. They exploded into the charts and a new age was born.
Allan Freed coined the term ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll on his ‘Moondog – Rock ‘n’ Roll’ Show. He championed R&B, Doo-Wop and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Was among the first to play it and organised the first Rock ‘n’ Roll concerts.
Elvis moved from Sun to RCA and took Colonel Tom Parker as his manager. For a couple of years we had the new Rock ‘n’ Roll complete with drums. The trio was ditched, the Jordinaires were used as vocal backing and then Elvis was eased over into a series of mediocre films and conscripted into the army. He had his hair and sideburns shaved and Lennon remarked that they cut his balls off with it.
By 1960 Rock ‘n’ Roll was through. The establishment had been horrified and quick to act. They thought it had a bad effect on the morality of youth and created delinquents. The authorities effectively shut it down using the ‘Payola’ scandal as an excuse. Radios were no longer allowed to play it. The TV stations moved over to the new ‘clean-cut’ boy next door, nicely presented in suits with trimmed hair Philadelphia Pop-Rock of Fabian, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin and Bobby Rydell.
Chuck Berry was in prison. Elvis was in the army. Little Richard had discovered religion. Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were dead. Gene Vincent was badly injured. Jerry Lee Lewis was banned and ostracised because of his marriage to his thirteen year old cousin. Fats Domino had his records covered on the day of release by the clean-cut Pat Boone.
The energy and revolution petered out. Rock ‘n’ Roll was dead.
I visited Memphis and went to Sun Studios. It hadn’t changed. The ceiling was still up and down. They still had the old microphones. I stood on the very spot where Elvis had recorded ‘That’s Alright Mama’, all those years before. You could sense the energy and history.
It was incredibly nostalgic. My greatest regret is that Elvis didn’t have the self-confidence to reject Colonel Parker and the money, to turn his back on the films, and to stand up as a real angry James Dean rebel and stay with his music and his original trio. He rolled over. He watered his music down, tamed his act and became a parody of himself. He should have stayed true.
I wonder if Rock would have died?