Now that we’ve done the early influences, I think it’s time to move on to early rock itself. By early rock, I mean the music post-Perry Como, but pre-British Invasion. I’m not sure whether this will be a series or not but since it’s a long story if I do 1955-1962 it probably will be. This is yet another installment in my fly-by night review of the history of rock.
We start, of course, with Chuck Berry. Berry was a guitarist and songwriter who found himself interested in blues at an early age. He burst on to the scene with the first song that I’ll credit as being rock. Sure, there were some Elvis songs, and probably a couple of Howlin’ Wolf ones that resembled rock, but Maybellene, released August 20, 1955, rose to #5 on Billboard and was truly it. It defined what rock was to be. Unfortunately, segregation kept a great many white people from really hearing black artists’ music until a bit later when they broke down the barriers and rock and roll radio stations were created.
Before all this, Berry was born in St. Louis, Oct. 18, 1926, and became friends with Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess. In a time where white artist with easy going songs with no offensive messages or inspirations reflected the “wholesomeness of american society,” it was hard for black R&B; artists to find labels to sign with, and therefore get their music out. Two important groups who decided to change that were Sam Phillips and Phil and Leonard Chess. Phillips set up shop in the southern states with the Memphis Recording Service, the first black recording studio. The Chess brothers were in Chicago, and offered Chess Records to the blues musicians of that area. Any Elvis fans will know that he signed with Phillips when he was a 19-year old truck driver. Berry signed with Chess records, though, and produced a great many hits, such as “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
If you have the artist, and you have the studios, it’s only a matter of time before you have radio stations (see above). In Cleveland, site of the RHoF, a DJ named Alan Freed had started a controversy by playing black R&B; tunes. In ’54 he moved to New York and brought his show with him. Although he was fired for payola charges (to come later in this series), many DJs followed his example. From the airwaves to the silver screen, rock was making leaps and bounds. A legendary film, The Blackboard Jungle, featured Bill Haley and The Comets and, more importantly, their song “Rock Around The Clock.” White artists had brought rock to white youth. All you people who think Elvis did it first are wrong. He, at this time (1955) was just a regional country and western artist in the south.
’55 was truly the first Year of Rock, rolling out Ain’t That A Shame (Fats Domino), Earth Angel (The Penguins. You know, from Back to the Future?), Mannish Boy (Muddy Waters), Maybellene (Berry) and Rock Around the Clock, all of which are considered by the RHoF to be among the 500 most influential songs. One reason for the popularity of rock is that teenagers had just lost their rebel without a cause, James Dean. Teens were now allotted bigger allowances, more fringe benefits, later curfews, pretty much anything so that their parents, who had lived through the great depression, could rest assured that they would never go through what they had to.
The teenager was essentially born, and wanted to be independent from mom and pop (again, see “Back to the Future” for more proof). They were the baby boomers, the biggest demographic the world has ever known. They were rebellious, impudent, arrogant little upstarts who liked their food their way, their cars their way, and certainly, their music their way. Rock was so wrong, for so many reasons. It was black, at a time when segregation was imposed all throughout the states and Canada, certainly in homes as well. It was sexual, whereas their parents were very conservative, and certainly had no time for songs that even suggest any kind of this behaviour (even harmless Maybellene was banned in some cities for explicitness).
It was too loud, it was too fast, and it suggested a whole alternative lifestyle of freedom and spontaneity which appealed to these boomers, and had them dancing their hearts out, instead of simply sitting at home. The fifties got rough for the parents and the uninformed kids, but got better and better for those who could dig it (see Grease). You could do anything, be anybody, with rock. Rock had been born and was here to stay for as long as their was oppresion and people who wanted to break free.
Okay, that’s part one, Rock is Born. Next week, we see what comes after that as the History of Rock continues. Basically, I’m gonna go through to 1980 and then come back and focus on specific things. Until next time, rock on!