History of Rock: 1956: Rock and roll music, Early Rock Part 2

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Continuing our series on Early Rock, we move on to the years after the birth of Rock. Five “Most Influential” songs, four true rockers, three producers and their two studios, and finally one unfaithful girlfriend in a Coupe de Ville had brought rock to the surface. This was only the bare beginning, however. Rock was soon to expand to include more artists, more studios, more radio stations and many, many more fans. While the first few songs that followed Maybellene were ballads, Little Richard was still yet to come.

Note: To really understand why rock was so important, you have to imagine yourself in a place where white people and black people and to almost completely separate groups. You’ve heard the stories about separate schools and washrooms. Well, it went much deeper than that, especially in the Southern States, where most “respectable” white people didn’t want to have anything to go do with blacks. Rock was one of the first things to transcend that racial barrier, proving once again that music is a greater power than any man could ever be.

1956 was an incredible year for rock. For Elvis, it can be seen as the true beginning of his stardom. In 1955, he was pretty much just a regional country and western (gag, gag) singer in the South. He made that famous “That’s All Right Mama” recording a little while ago, and was now starting to make it big. He met Colonel Tom Parker in ’55 and had since cancelled his contract with Sun Records, thus ending the Million-Dollar Quartet. The Colonel wanted Elvis to go national and offered him to Decca, Mercury, Columbia and Atlantic before signing him with RCA records, at which point he recorded and released his first number one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me Tender”.

Elvis is known far more for his personal influence than that of his music, because he took essentially black music and made it acceptable for white people to listen to. In the ’50s, parents still didn’t feel right about listening to music that black people recorded because of segregation and racial discrimination. With Elvis, however, it was no longer black music. The predominantly white stations in the States were now allowed to play rock, although that decision would later be repealed for a great many, because of the opinion that rock was immoral and satanic. (Religion was a much, much bigger thing back then than it is now. Can you imagine if the Pope decided no one should listen to The Offspring or Aerosmith? How many people do you think would really care?)

There are three main ways to get really, really famous in rock: fuse two or more types of music together (examples: any of the early influences guys, Berry, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, etc.), bring rock to a wider group of listeners (examples: Elvis, Paul Anka, Frankie Lymon, Neil Sadaka, etc.) or do both (examples: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, etc.) Any of these truly help rock encompass a greater perspective, which is why Elvis was so important while his songs weren’t really.

Anyway, back to the story. As I said, Elvis was part of Sun Records’ “Million-Dollar Quartet” of himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Carl also had a number one hit that year, “Blue Suede Shoes”, which Elvis would later cover. Carl’s story behind the song is that he was playing at a dance, and he noticed that a young man refused to dance with a beautiful girl because he was afraid she would step on his shoes. Johnny Cash was actually into rock at the beginning of his career, and also had a hit single, “I Walk The Line”. Carl and Johnny were much tamer than Elvis and Jerry Lee, which is probably why they faded into the distance as far as early rock is concerned.

Although Jerry Lee didn’t get his hits until ’57, he was already signed to an indefinite contract with Sun Records. He and Elvis both shocked parents and other authority figures with their explicitness that had since been unheard of, Elvis with his thrusting hips and Jerry with his cousin-marrying (among other things). Whereas Carl and Johnny were slowly making it through to kids by way of sneaking past the parents unnoticed, the other two were up front and in everyone’s face which made them only more appealing. Aside from them, the Platters hit it big with “The Great Pretender”, as did Gene Vincent with “Be-Bop A-Lula”. More importantly though, Little Richard scored twice with “Tutti-Fruitti” and “Long Tall Sally”, two energetic and fun songs. He was one of the first black artists to be a big hit with the kids, so because of his race and the content of his songs, he was another person parents wanted to see gone.

All these people helped keep rocking moving forward as it gained new ground and reached new audiences. Most of these were the original shock artists who weren’t afraid to confront parents and their beliefs. The fact that kids flocked to them shows that rock could have no limitations and that it is more than music. It’s a feeling, an identity, the part of the teens that couldn’t be ignored anymore. And even though it wasn’t rock’s intention to make the wall of race divisions crumble, it did succeed in finally doing that, at least as far as teens were concerned. Unfortunately, parents weren’t hip to this new acceptance and continued to persecute black people, especially in the south.

Okay, that was our look at the music of ’56. Next week, obviously, ’57 and maybe a bit beyond. ’57 was a big year for rock, so the article’s going to be fun to write. Until next time, rock on!