From the Vaults: Rock ‘n’ Roll BEP
My mother loved music so our house was always awash with records by The Kingston Trio, Burl Ives, Percy Faith, and a mixture of light classical favorites she played on our hi-fi record player/radio. There is a ‘that is a story for another day’ asterisk in the mention of that old piece of furniture. Suffice to say there is a long and colorful history in that topic. I got my start borrowing and collecting records in earnest when I got interested in playing the drums in the mid-1960s. My personal Rock ‘n’ Roll history, if you will, began with The Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Dave Clark Five, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and any number of one hit wonders who put out a record (like The Music Explosion, The Electric Prunes, and The Strawberry Alarm Clock among many others). By the time Elvis Presley made his ‘comeback’ with his fabled 1968 TV special, he was, in my mind, already a relic of the distant past.
I never could cotton to people who pegged Elvis for, more or less, inventing Rock ‘n’ Roll. In one episode of the iconic TV sitcom about a fictional radio station, WKRP in Cincinnati (still one of my favorite shows of all time), Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hessman) is hired to host a TV dance show. To separate his radio and TV lives, he invents a new, sequin-attired, disco-guy persona (Rip Tide). When ‘Rip’ begins enjoying the perks a little too much, Johnny talks smack about ‘Rip’ on his regular radio gig. The line between the two personalities begins to blur and Johnny beats himself up for making what he considers to be the worst mistake an old pro DJ like himself could make. His sin? Dr. Johnny makes a ‘Rip’ mistake by wrongly attributing Blue Suede Shoes to Elvis. He quickly realizes his error and corrects his faux pas (for you Jeopardy fans, the correct question would have been, “Who is Carl Perkins, Alex.”) but fears he has now announced to the world that Dr. Johnny Fever is in a permanent nosedive toward irrelevance. I thought of this episode immediately when I hit the chapter about Elvis in James Miller’s book Flowers in the Dustbin – The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977 (Simon and Schuster – 1999). When this episode of WKRP aired on 2-7-1981 (officially titled Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide: Part 2), I realized I had been playing rock music for fifteen years, but really did not understand where it came from. There had to be something BEP (Before Elvis Presly) and it only took me forty years beyond this episode of WKRP to find some answers in Miller’s book.
James Miller’s book covers a thirty year span, but for our purposes, we will start with Elvis returning from his hitch in the Army in March of 1960 and work backwards. To understand how Elvis was crowned The King, we have to examine what was going on in the world of music circa 1960. Oddly enough, we need to anchor our backwards trip through time with another pop music giant of 1960; Old Blue Eyes himself. Yep, Frank Sinatra. Frank was no lover of Elvis or Rock ‘n’ Roll. A few years earlier, Sinatra described Presley in less than glowing terms: “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac!” Some would say Frank had the same effect on the Bobby Socksers two decades earlier, but let us not make that jump in time here. In 1957, Sinatra took on the whole R’n’R scene: “It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in your people. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons.” Personal opinions aside, the 1960 Sinatra found himself at the tail end of a disastrous period. His three year, $3 million contract with ABC TV had produced a failed weekly show and a series of specials that flopped as badly as The Frank Sinatra Show had. When Elvis mustered out of the Army in 1960, Frank’s longtime associate Sammy Cahn suggested they get Elvis as a guest star on the next special as a way to boost Frank’s ratings.
Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, held up Sinatra’s production team demanding an unheard of $125,000 fee and 400 free tickets for the taping (done at a nightclub in Miami where Frank was performing). Getting his Rat Pack buddies involved (Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr) ballooned the payroll and even a show ending duet with Elvis did not help Frank as much as it did the future King. Cahn commented, “You should make in a year what Frank is losing on this show,” and as Miller described it from Presley’s perspective, “It was an exercise in musical humiliation,” No matter, Elvis was back in the States and back to his Army interrupted career with a little jump start from Sinatra. The music he recorded at his next session even sounded more like Sinatra’s fare. Miller’s summation of Elvis in 1960 matches up pretty well with what I remember about him from my earliest musical memories: “If Elvis was the King, then this new music must be a part of his Kingdom. But if Are You Lonesome Tonight? And It’s Now or Never were now to be regarded as rock and roll, one might well wonder what, if anything, distinguished Presley’s new music from old-fashioned pop. In 1960, an honest answer might have been: very little.”
With the post-Army Elvis now on his way to becoming the jump suit, big belt, and shades wearing ‘Graceland’ – ‘Las Vegas’ Elvis, we can now begin our step back in time. Back to the time ‘BEP’ so we can seek the true roots of Rock’n’Roll. Yes, Elvis fans, his younger self did have a good deal to do with the birth of R’n’R, but it was more of a transitional role. There were a slew of artists who became famous by taking the ‘grit’ out of African-American sourced R’n’R. The Pat Boones, Rickie Nelsons, Frankie Avalones, and Bobby Darins sold pale imitations of Black Rhythm and Blues via the radio stations that did not cater to the regular R&B population. Hearing Pat Boone’s more grammatically correct Ain’t That A Shame (the aspiring English teacher in Boone could not go with Fats Domino’s original title Ain’t It A Shame) is a case in point. Was it fair to the original artists to have their songs redone for white America? Yes and no. At a club in New Orleans, Fats heard Boone was in the audience and called him up to the bandstand. Boone later recalled, “He said to the crowd, ‘I want you all to know something. You see this ring?’ He had a big diamond ring on every one of his fingers, and he said, ‘This man bought me this ring with this song,’ and the two of us sang Ain’t That A Shame together.” The baton was being passed from the middle runners in the race to the artists who would pass it onto the musicians my generation learned from, but they were not the originators of R’n’R. At least Elvis’s earliest efforts retained some of the grit (and grits) of the music he heard during his southern upbringing.
Not all the transitional artists lived in the white bread Pat Boone – Ricky Nelson world. Berry Gordy took his love for music and found a formula that would eventually be known as the Motown Sound. After a failed attempt at running a record store devoted to jazz, Gordy got a better paying job working on a Ford assembly line. There, as he attached chrome to the passing car bodies, he occupied his mind writing pop songs, one of which eventually put him in touch with Jackie Wilson. The legendary songwriters Leiber and Stroller (who were white and made a living writing music that sounded ethnically black) did not get what Gordy was trying to do: “We said, ‘Man, those are white teenage stories. What does that have to do with black culture?’” In the fall of 1958, Gordy and Wilson hit gold with the song that would become Wilson’s signature tune, Lonely Teardrops. The song turned Jackie Wilson into the first black teen idol and paved the way for an entire roster of Motown artists like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, David Ruffin, and Martha Reeves. They became stars, Gordy became very wealthy (and moved on to Hollywood), but they were all standing on the shoulders of those who pioneered the gritty sound of R’n’R. By finding a formula that appealed to a broader audience than those who bought earlier Rhythm & Blues records, Gordy sold a lot of records and kick started a lot of careers.
The aforementioned Carl Perkins started out as just another of the ‘honky-tonk’ artists who filled dance floors with songs about fast living and hard drinking. He got the bug to follow Elvis in a more R’n’R direction when his wife heard Elvis on the radio and told him “Carl, that sounds like y’all.” Hearing the similarity in the ‘Elvis sound’ (his own Perkins Brothers Band employed electric lead guitar, acoustic rhythm guitar, and bass just like Elvis), he decided to visit the same record company Elvis recorded for, Sun Records. Sun was a mere seventy-five miles away from Perkin’s Jackson, Tennessee home, but label owner Sam Phillips refused to see him. Phillips eventually caved when they wouldn’t leave. Perkins said, “Sam later said he felt sorry for me. He said I looked like I would have died if he hadn’t listened to me. And I just might have.” Phillips felt Perkins had more of a hard core country sound than Elvis, so that is how Sun recorded his band. That is, until Perkins turned a honky-tonk encounter between a dancer and her partner’s blue suede shoes into a hit R’n’R song. The change in direction for Carl was due. By the time Perkins began to record ‘music with a beat’, Phillips had sold Elvis’s contract to a partnership between RCA records and Colonel Parker. The money kept Sun Records afloat while making Carl Perkins the heir apparent to become Sun Records’ next rockabilly star.
There were other things afoot in 1955 that helped transform the earliest forms of R’n’R into a new musical genre. No one can ignore the contributions of Chuck Berry and Richard Penniman. Berry fooled around with an old acoustic guitar, trying to copy licks he heard on the radio. After being released from prison (for armed robbery) in 1951 he finally got his first electric guitar. Finding it much easier to play, he sought out any opportunity he could find to perform music. Along the way, he injected the pop and country standards he was covering with his own signature style, one that would be copied by guitar players for decades to come. When Morris Levy, the owner of Chess Records in Chicago, first heard Chuck play, according to Berry, “He couldn’t believe that a country tune (Ida May) could be written and sung by a black guy. He told me to ‘give it a bigger beat’.” Recorded on May 21, 1955, the retitled Maybellene (Levy said Ida May sounded ‘corny’ and got Maybellene off a cosmetic container he spotted in the studio), put Chuck Berry’s wild career into high gear.
Pennimen’s initial recording attempts were less successful than his producers at Specialty Records expected. His live shows with his band The Upsetters were dynamic, but what they got down on tape sounded listless. On a lunch break at a local tavern, the frustrated Little Richard hopped up on the bandstand and pounded his way through one of his concert songs. The soon to be familiar Awop-bop-a-Loo-Mop that would become his signature phrase was there, but the lyrics were too baudy to record. The producer, Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell brought in songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie to clean up the song and suddenly, Little Richard had a hit on his hands. Not bad for a song he had composed washing dishes in Macon, Georgia between tours. “I dreamed I was going to be a star,” he said and Tutti Fruiti was the song that would open doors. Had Pat Boone heard the original lyrics, maybe he would have passed on that one.
A little further back in the timeline, we find another unlikely pioneer of the Rock’n’Roll sound. His name was Bill Halley and he was a country crooner ( billed as the ‘Ramblin’ Yodeler’ when he broke into show business in the late 1940s) before there R’n’R was even a recognized musical genre. Halley’s repertoire began to change in 1951 when a producer convinced him to take a stab at recording one of Sam Phillips’ barrelhouse blues called Rocket 88. The single flopped, but Halley found the song got a great reaction in the clubs, so he changed directions. With a new band of jazz schooled musicians, he recorded a hot version of a 1948 jump blues called Rock the Joint. By 1953, Halley’s producer had commissioned a sixty three year old Tin Pan Alley pro to write a new hit song. (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock barely dented the Billboard pop charts but his follow up cover of Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll sold a million copies nationwide.
Hollywood called next and the inclusion of Rock Around the Clock in a movie meant to symbolize the ‘youthful mayhem and menace’ (according to Miller) of the 1950s marked what many people remember as the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was loud and according to Miller, “The louder the sound, the more strongly it would connote power, aggression, and violence. Halley’s band may sound quaint when compared with Led Zeppelin or the Sex Pistols; but heavy metal and punk both have their origins in the shock waves produced by the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle. When a young George Lucas picked Rock Around the Clock to open his movie American Graffiti, he knew it would take the audience back to what he remembered about that time.
Halley marks the beginning of the road in terms of the popularization of Rock and Roll, but the true roots go back even further . It is hard to pin any one moment as the ‘birth of Rock and Roll’.
The blues were first cultivated in the deep south and migrated to Chicago, Kansas City, and both coasts, The artists playing southern blues carried the roots of R’n’R with them. Leo Fender’s pioneering work with the electric guitar also has a place in the mix. The ability to be heard in the noisy juke joints and clubs helped the music reach a larger audience. Artists recording R&B hits with a beat like Wynonie Harris (Good Rockin’ Tonight), Joe Lutcher (Rockin’ Boogie), Wild Bill Monroe (We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll and Rock and Roll), and Jimmy Preston (Rock the Joint) gave the newly emerging music a name. Charts stopped calling it ‘Race Music’ and not long after it had been rechristened ‘Rhythm & Blues’, the term ‘Rock and Roll’ appeared in the charts.
Playing the song Kansas City back in the early 1970s, I was unaware the song had been written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952. That two white, teenage record collectors (and fans of what was then called ‘Negro dance music’) could evoke the essence of early R’n’R pioneers in one song is kind of mind boggling. Kansas City quickly turned into a ‘standard’ (a tune played by just about every bar band in the world), but its historical significance was lost on me. Thanks to James Miller, I now have a better understanding of how songs like Kansas City and Rock and Roll as a new genre of music evolved in my lifetime. In order to go all the way back to the seeds that produced the first roots of the tree, it will take another future FTV and a lot more research.
Top Piece Video: Everyone has done KANSAS CITY – even Fats Domino! That is why we call it a STANDARD.