The Birth of Rock and Roll
The world of rock and roll has two large historical divisions – before Woodstock, when it was called rock and roll (and rock & roll, and rock 'n roll, and rock n' roll, rock'n'roll, and even rock-'n'-roll), and after Woodstock, when it gradually came to be called just rock. The reduction of the term is of little consequence, except that today's scholars and critics can call up a host of impressions by the use of the earlier term "rock and roll" to suggest a kind of innocence and purity as compared with the later days of "rock", a less innocent genre that has associations with the seedier parts of life – sex, drugs, drinking, and violence.
Exactly when disc jockeys (sometimes abbreviated deejays or DJs) came into existence is a matter of conjecture. Up until the 1940s they were just called "announcers". They introduced the programs, read the commercials, and announced the titles of the record selections being played.
But the idea of playing records and offering remarks goes way back. One Christmas Eve in 1906, Reginald A. Fessenden, an engineer for Edison, transmitted Handel's "Largo" [probably from the opera Xerxes] out of his laboratory in Massachusetts. As early as 1910, Doc Herrold played recordings over his own San Jose radio station which acquired the call letters KQW in 1929. In 1932 Al Jarvis played recordings and offered ad lib remarks on a noonday program over KJWB in Los Angeles (Ewen 1997, 287).
The first really famous national disc jockey was Martin Block, whose Make Believe Ballroom over WNEW in New York was picked up and rebroadcast by hundreds of stations all over America through the 1930s and 1940s. The first black disc jockey of national influence was Jack L. Cooper. From the early 1930s to the 1950s, Cooper and his wife, Gertrude, played black music and offered black-oriented radio programming over station WSBC in Chicago.
By 1947 there were three thousand disc jockeys filling the radio airwaves with pleasant sounds and chatter. They became late-night companions to truck drivers, second-shift factory workers, and to the growing teenage high school and college market. The stage was now set for one of those DJs to reach out to the new music of the day, rhythm and blues.
The story is well known, now, that radio announcer Alan Freed (1921-1965) took a dramatic career turn when he went to Cleveland in 1951 to take a job with the independent station WJW. Trained in trombone and music theory, Freed was quite successful with his early evening classical music program. But, as he passed a local record store on his way to work each day, he saw groups of white teenagers jumping around to the sound of black jazz-blues musicians Red Prysock and Al Sears (Szatmary 1987, 20). He decided to try to reach that young audience with this new energetic music.
An ambitious young man, Freed got permission from the station owner to follow his classical program with a program of this rhythm and blues (hereafter abbreviated as R&B). As his theme song, he chose a King Records release by Todd Rhodes, "Blues for Moondog", and he called his show The Moondog House. He even began to call himself "Moon Dog". Shortly thereafter, a blind New York street musician named Moondog sued the station, and after a $5000 settlement, the name of the show was changed to just plain [Alan Freed's] Rock 'n' Roll Party (Ewen 1977, 552).
Because he feared the term rhythm and blues would drive away his white audience, Freed pick up the phrase "rock and roll" from one of the R&B recordings. Whether or not he knew that the term was used in the black community as early as the 1920s as a euphemism for sexual activity has never been established by rock scholars.
Already thirty years old, Freed was an unlikely candidate to launch a teenage revolution, but he certainly did. He would often shout "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" and "Go, man, go!" into the microphone while he pounded on a telephone book in rhythm to the music. He also drank a lot, but the kids had no way of knowing that. They loved him. He was a kindred spirit. He too, thought their parents were stuffy and old fashioned. They just knew it, you could tell by the little remarks he made between the records.
Freed became a celebrity of the highest order. He sponsored concerts which featured Charles Brown, the Orioles, the Moonglows, the Dominoes, and many other R&B acts. In March of 1953, he sold eighteen thousand tickets for an auditorium that had only nine thousand seats. When eighteen thousand screaming teenagers appeared, he had to cancel the show, and police vans hauled away the rioting youngsters to cool them off in jail for a few hours.
In 1954, at age 33, Freed went to WINS in New York, and was soon making nearly a million dollars a year – not only playing, but selling records over the air, along with dozens of other teenage commodities made by his sponsors. He became a very famous spokesman for the new teenage subculture, and soon appeared in three movies, Don't Knock the Rock, Rock Around the Clock and Rock, Rock, Rock.
Freed eventually got summoned before Congress, indicted for accepting bribes from record companies to push their recordings, and spent the last few years of his life a broken man.
In Cleveland at about the same time as Alan Freed was veteran disc jockey Bill Randle (1923-2004), who already had a very successful career going.
Like most disc jockeys, Randle was possessed of a powerful ego, but unlike most others, Randle had, and still has, a daunting intelligence to back it up.
The afternoon time slot and Randle's more mature audience made him a far more powerful figure to record company executives than Freed in the early going (Smith 1989, 183).
With 65 percent of all of the radios in Cleveland tuned to him from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. each day, Bill Randle had the highest rating of any DJ in the country in 1954. In November of the same year, he signed on with WCBS in New York to do a weekend stint for four hours each Friday night, in addition to his work at WERE in Cleveland, where he was a stockholder as well as an employee (Smith 1989, 183).
At the suggestion of Marks Music executive Arnold Shaw, Sam Phillips of Sun Records sent his brother, Jud, up to Cleveland with a several records by an unknown "hillbilly" singer named Elvis Presley. Most of the Cleveland disc jockeys rejected the records, but Bill Randle – with a keen musical ear and a shrewd businessman's killer instinct – knew he was listening to pure gold. He played one of the Elvis recordings every fifteen minutes that weekend, and changed the history of pop music in America.
It was monumental. Randle telephoned Shaw,
"I don't know what those Presley records have, but I put them on yesterday, and, Arnold, the switchboard lit up like Glitter Gulch in Las Vegas. He hits them [the kids] like a bolt of electricity. My phone hasn't stopped ringing and I haven't been able to stop playing those records" (quoted in Ewen 1977, p. 558).
Randle was no stranger to success. Earlier, in 1951, he made a hit out of Mantovani's symphonic pop version of a beautiful old waltz, "Charmaine", demonstrating that repeated air play had become a major factor in the new world of popular music.
Among his other coups was Johnnie Ray, whom he had heard singing in a Cleveland nightclub and championed on the air, making him a star.
Randle was also the mentor of a male quartet that was known as the Canadaires when he found them. He clipped their hair, changed their names to the Crew-Cuts, and lined them up with Mercury Records where their tunes "Crazy 'Bout You, Baby" and "Sh-Boom" became rock-'n'-roll classics (Smith 1989, 185).
Bill Randle took a break from radio in the 1960s to pursue other interests (including an undergraduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, and a career in law), but returned to radio in the 1970s now and again until his death in 2004.
There were disc jockeys all over America who rose to fame and fortune on the strength of the new music called rock and roll – Rufus "Bear Cat" Thomas, Bill "Hoss" Allen, Bob "Wolfman Jack" Smith, Dick "The Screamer" Biondi, Douglas "Jocko" Henderson, Zena "Daddy" Sears, Murray "The K" Kauffman, and hundreds more.
They "were to the airwaves what Holden Caulfield and 'Catcher in the Rye' were to literature and Marlon Brando and James Dean were to the movies – sources of identification for the stirring teenage rebellion of post-World War II" (Smith 1989, 26).
The disc jockeys were colorful and popular characters, and they often talked and acted like the pubescent teenagers who made them so famous. Many took payola in the forms of money, drugs, and sex. They promoted local concerts and traveling tours, and got carried away with the power they seemed to have over their teenage listeners. A few of the DJs were frustrated entertainers, and got a break, leaving radio for careers as performers. Some went on to open record stores and businesses related to the entertainment world. Some are still around today, hosting "Golden Oldies" programs on the nation's airwaves.
ROCK AND ROLL PIONEERS
His mother was a piano teacher, his dad played mandolin, and he liked country music. So Bill Haley (1925-1981), from Chester, Pennsylvania, by way of Detroit, was drawn into the entertainment business first as a country yodeler, then as a disc jockey, then as leader of The Four Aces of Western Swing, later called The Saddlemen. They played "country and western" music.
In 1951, Haley did a cover of Jackie Brenston's blues release, "Rocket 88", and though the recording sold only a few copies, Haley's live performances of the tune drove white teenage dancers wild. He renamed his group Bill Haley and The Comets, and set out to create a new R&B image for his band. He signed with Decca Records in 1954, then covered Sunny Dae's 1952 treatment of "Rock Around the Clock" and Joe Turner's early 1954 classic "Shake, Rattle, and Roll".
As was the case for nearly all cover records, the sexual references in the original black version were muted, modified, or deleted. The black artists delivered all those sexual innuendoes in jest, with whimsical good humor. But the white record executives took the remarks seriously, missing the light-hearted intent.
A chubby married man in his late twenties with several small children, Bill Haley did not look like a promising rock and roll star, but he became the first really big one. "Rock Around the Clock" was of only modest interest until it appeared in the movie The Blackboard Jungle. It went to No. 1 in America for seven weeks, and stayed in the Top Ten for forty weeks.
As always, the movie moguls could see big dollars in the making, and soon came out with a movie called Rock Around the Clock, the story of how Bill Haley and his band were discovered and put on national TV by Alan Freed, who played himself in the picture (Chapple and Garofalo 1977, 37).
Haley made a specific effort to capture a black feeling in his band. His pianist said, "We'd begin with [Louis] Jordan's shuffle rhythm ... and build on it" (Szatmary 1987, 34). The result was an appealing mixture of country music and R&B, which even Haley did not call rock and roll until he had been playing it a year or so.
Of the twin sons born to Gladys and Vernon Presley of Tupelo, Mississippi Jesse was stillborn. Elvis Aron Presley (1935-1977) survived, healthy and strong. His childhood was as normal and uneventful as that of most children of poor southern white day laborers. After high school, he started driving a truck for Crown Electric, and decided to make a recording for his mother at Sun Records. He caught the interest of the owner, Sam Phillips, who brought in Scotty Moore and Bill Black from a neighborhood club band to practice with him and coach him a little on style and stage presence.
Before long, Presley was on his way to local fame. Encouraged, Sam Phillips got him on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. He sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky" to a mostly silent audience who were polite but did not quite know what to make of the young man shaking his hips during the instrumental part of the song. Jim Denny, talent scout for the Opry, suggested that Presley take up truck driving again (Lazell 1989, 384).
When former carnival barker "Colonel" Tom Parker (1909-1997) took over as Presley's manager and agent, things began to move in a hurry. Before Elvis, Parker had great success in promoting country singers Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Parker knew the business, there is no doubt about that. He talked Elvis and his parents into signing a management deal that gave the Colonel complete control over the singer's career and an incredibly high percentage of his income – as much as fifty percent in some instances.
[Incidentally, there was no real "Colonel Tom Parker". In actuality, he was born Andreas Cornelis ("Dries") van Kuijk in Breda, the Netherlands, and, although he did enlist in the U.S. Army, he did so under the assumed name "Tom Parker". He served two years in Hawaii, obtained an honorable discharge, and reenlisted shortly thereafter in Florida. This time, he was charged with desertion and was punished with solitary confinement. His time in solitary induced a psychosis, which garnered him a medical discharge from the Army. Although he later married an American wife and would also have been eligible as a U.S. Army veteran, Parker never applied for U.S. citizenship. As his true identity was not discovered until the 1980s, there has been much speculation as to whether the "Colonel's" lack of citizenship (and therefore, the lack of papers needed for international travel beyond the U.S. and Canada) was the reason that Elvis never toured overseas.]
In November of 1955, Presley signed a contract with RCA records, and before long Elvis was doing guest shots on the television shows of the Dorsey brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and finally on The Ed Sullivan Show. Parker then formed Elvis Presley Music, Inc., to issue all the folios of printed music made famous by Elvis.
There was no end to Tom Parker's ingenuity. After that he licensed Special Products, Inc., of Beverly Hills, California, to market all the commodities bearing the name Elvis – jewelry, soft drinks, guitars, book ends, dolls, greeting cards, diaries, pillows, stuffed hound dogs, cosmetics, girls' underwear, pens, pencils, hair curlers, combs, belts, big buttons that said "I Love Elvis", big buttons that said "I Hate Elvis", and so on. "The Colonel" took a sizable portion of the immense profits from all of these ventures for himself, of course.
Elvis altered the history of popular music in America, to say the least, and things were never the same after he arrived at the top of the world of pop culture in late 1958. It was Parker's idea for Elvis to serve in the regular Army. Presley wanted to go into the special entertainment division. Parker persuaded him it was better for his image to go in as a buck private. Like an obedient child, Elvis did.
No matter, perhaps, because by March of 1959, Elvis Presley's real contributions had been made – he absorbed, internalized, and delivered the mixture of country and black musical traditions so effectively as to create, along with Chuck Berry, a whole new art form. Presley wanted more, however. He wanted to be a giant movie star in the manner of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Dean Martin.
But the Colonel would have no part of it. Parker examined all movie scripts submitted, and rejected anything not in that narrow vein of the hillbilly singer who always gets the prettiest girl at the end of the show. Although Parker did get Elvis into 32 B-movies, some rock scholars believe that Elvis had enough raw talent to grow into a substantial movie career, but Parker had limited vision.
After his Army duty, the rest of Elvis Presley's monumental career was simply a matter of astute business management designed to break every existing record in every existing category of achievement in popular music – highest paid Las Vegas act, most records sold in various styles, biggest crowds in history at all the huge stadiums, first satellite global concert to a billion viewers, and on and on and on. He did it all, and he did it well.
Parker's control was absolute. He even chose the date, the site, and the guest list for Elvis' wedding to Priscilla Wagner in 1967 – and he excluded many of Presley's body guards and drinking buddies, the so-called Memphis Mafia.
But Elvis' image of who and what he was never grew. Without saying a word, the Colonel reminded him every day that he was just a hillbilly singer in the hands of a smart businessman. His personal life crumbled. Off the road, his weight ballooned up to two hundred pounds. He would then go on a crash diet with amphetamines and lose thirty pounds to go back on tour. His marriage went sour. He was mobbed every time he went outside his mansion, Graceland. For recreation, he would sometimes rent an amusement park or movie theater from midnight to six in the morning, then invite his friends to join him in what had to be an artificial kind of fun.
It was all a magnificent, but shallow, existence, which served only to delay the inexorable decline of both personal identity and musical gifts. He yearned to be more than a sexy hillbilly singer. He wanted a bigger role in American society. He wanted to put his talent (his value to the world) in a greater frame of reference. But the Colonel knew better, each time, and Elvis turned inward to drugs, sex, and motorcycles.
Elvis Presley's final years were sad, indeed, as the good natured country boy tried to make some kind of sense out of the strange and difficult world of pop superstardom Colonel Tom Parker had created for him. He died at age 42, officially due to a heart attack, but with the contributing factor of multiple drug interactions.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Another country boy who rose quickly in the world of rock and roll was Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935), born into a deeply religious family from Ferriday, Louisiana. When he revealed musical talent, his father mortgaged the family home to buy a piano. Jerry Lee taught himself in a few weeks, and by age twelve he was being hauled around town, piano and all, as the father tried to encourage the boy to a musical career.
At age fifteen, Jerry Lee was expelled from a Bible school in Waxahachie, Texas. At age sixteen he married a preacher's daughter, Dorothy Barton, and, when he went on tour, Lewis knowingly committed bigamy when he married Jane Mitcham at a shotgun wedding attended by her brothers.
At age twenty-one, he got a break and recorded "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" backed by "Crazy Arms". His career was beginning to look up as he became better known. In December of 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis joined Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins at Sun studios for an impromptu recording session called the "Million Dollar Quartet". Johnny Cash was the fourth member, and, although he appears in the famous picture, he left the session before it started, at the insistence of his wife who wanted to go shopping (Lazell 1989, 298).
Called "The Killer" because of the savage way he attacked the piano and because of his success with the ladies, Lewis was on his way, and his recordings were selling very well. After getting the Barton marriage dissolved, but while he was still married to Jane Mitcham, Jerry Lee again committed bigamy when he secretly married his bass player's daughter, Myra Gail Brown, who was only thirteen years of age at the time and who was also Lewis' cousin. His other cousins, country singer Mickey Gilley and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, made no comment about the marriage, but Lewis' faithful fans were outraged.
In England, he was booed off stage, and thirty-four out of his next thirty-seven scheduled concerts were canceled. He took out a five-page ad in one of the trade journals to notify the world that he had properly divorced Jane, and then he immediately re-married Myra Gail in an impeccably official and legal ceremony (Lazell 1989, 298).
Late in 1957, Sun Records released "Great Balls of Fire", written by Jack Hammer and Otis Blackwell who had provided Elvis with "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up." Hammer and Blackwell also wrote "Good Golly, Miss Molly" for Little Richard. Lewis appeared on the Steve Allen television show and in a movie called Jamboree. He was riding high in the charts and all looked well.
In 1958, however, he began to lose his place in the sun. "High School Confidential", the title song from the MGM movie (1958), was his last significant hit. Somehow he could never regain the musical authority and popularity he had before he married his young cousin. The remainder of his professional life was just average. He continued to generate enormous energy and enthusiasm on stage, and made a good many more tours, recordings, and guest appearances, but the magic was gone.
His personal life became an endless string of bad luck – four more wives (for a total of seven), two of whom died tragically, several arrests for drunken and disorderly behavior, major troubles with income taxes, the loss of two sons in freak accidents, hospitalization for bleeding ulcers, law suits with former friends and record companies, and an occasional moment of joy with a few second-generation British rock stars who remembered his great early days.
For all the complexity of his personal and professional life, Jerry Lee Lewis was a superb bluesman. He sang with a natural sense of the meaning and power of the text. He was the white Little Richard of the late 1950s, and he earned his place in the history books.
Charles Hardin Holley (1936-1959) was born in Lubbock, Texas. He took violin lessons, but switched to guitar in his early teenage years. By age thirteen, he was being called "Buddy" and was performing country music with school chum Bob Montgomery. They soon had their own radio show on station KDAV in Lubbock. Soon after, the "e" disappeared from his last name.
A talent scout recommended Holly to Decca Records in 1956, and he went to Nashville three times that year to record under veteran producer Owen Bradley. The recordings did not make the charts, but Holly's ambition was now on fire.
He formed The Crickets, and went to record with producer Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico. They hit it off well because they were kindred spirits, greatly interested in every aspect of the recording process. The Crickets set the model – two guitars, bass, and drums – and established the precedent for the self-contained rock band, writing their own material and choosing what and how to record (Helander 1982, 255).
Holly and Perry continued to experiment in the studio, utilizing different forms of echo ("Peggy Sue"), double-tracking ("Words of Love"), and close-miking techniques, now commonplace in the industry (Erlewine 1992, 136).
Holly's distinctive "hiccupping" vocal style, his skinny build, and his black horn-rimmed glasses gave him an immediate identity. He could not be confused with the other rock pioneers.
On February 2, 1959, following a concert at Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly, at age twenty-two, died when his chartered plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Also killed were Richie Valens and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Bassist Waylon Jennings had been bumped from his seat, and therefore was not on the flight. Dion and The Belmonts, also on the tour, had made alternate travel arrangements.
That "rockabilly" style – an energetic mixture of R&B, Country and Western, honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, and gospel – served well for Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes"), Roy Orbison ("Ooby Dooby"), Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues"), Gene Vincent ("Be-Bop-A-Lula"), the Everly Brothers ("Bye, Bye, Love"), and many, many other pioneers of rock and roll all through the 1950s and 1960s.