Symbiotic synchronicity

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Major innovations often occur in the same time frame as related innovations (as is happening now in computer software and home electronics) which enable them to rapidly build on each other’s success.

In the mid-50s, there was a batch of breakthrough technologies of mutual benefit to each other—a veritable hi-tech hit parade—that brought to life a brand new musical form: rock & roll. The rapid rise of rock is a dazzling illustration of the power of symbiotic innovation.

Here are four of the most important inventions that helped rock & roll in its early days—and which were helped by rock & roll.

• The transistor radio. Developed in late 1954 (just in time!) and made possible by the invention of transistor-based circuitry, this pocket-sized, battery-powered “mobile device” enabled teens to listen to the music of their choice by themselves. (No more crowding around the big RCA Victor console in the living room!) Young folks could listen to that crazy jungle music in their bedrooms, unsupervised. A “teen empowerment” tool if there ever was one.

• The Fender Stratocaster. Electric guitars had been around for years, used by jazz players in the 30s and 40s, but with the advent of Leo Fender’s solid body guitars, especially the Stratocaster in 1954, the rock & roll guitar was born. The Strat was the guitar of choice for many early rockers from Ike Turner to Buddy Holly to Ritchie Valens (and for later rock gods like Clapton and Hendrix). The Fender electric bass guitar also became popular at the same time which freed up one more band member to prance around the stage.

• The 45-rpm single. This was a seven-inch plastic vinyl disk that was more pliable, easier to file, and better sounding than the less durable 78-rpm record it replaced. Sales of these singles took off in the mid-fifties because these 45s—played on radios and juke boxes everywhere—sold at an affordable price for pre-teens and mid-teens.

• The Seeburg Select-o-Matic jukebox. Juke machines predated rock & roll by many decades, but Seeburg dominated the market in the 50s with its new hi-tech modifications: “high-fidelity” sound; 45-rpm records; a “select-o-magnetic” feature; a 100-record capacity; a “wall-o-matic” box (that made the main juke box accessible from booths); and eventually a 200-record floor model that appeared in 1955. After watching American Bandstand on TV you could go to the neighborhood soda shop in the late afternoon, select your favorite new tunes, and dance your brains out.

Of course there were later technologies which aided mightily in rock’s surge in subsequent years, including the birth control pill. (You can figure out the cause-and-effect relationship of that one on your own.) But if we focus on events closer to 1955, we can see how synchronistically (and almost magically!) everything came together. Consider the following timeline:

• October 18, 1954: the first transistor radio appears, the Regency TR-1.

• January 1, 1955: RCA drops its list price for 45-rpm singles from $1.16 to $.89. Other record labels quickly followed suit.

• January 16, 1955: Alan Freed in New York City produces the first rock & roll concert ever.

• February 26: 45s begin to outsell 78-rpm records for the first time in the US.

• March 19: The film Blackboard Jungle is released featuring Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock," which later goes to #1 on the rock & roll charts.

• May 13: The first riot occurs at an Elvis Presley concert.

• May 21: Chuck Berry records his first hit, "Maybellene"—about which Rolling Stone later says, "Rock & roll guitar begins here."

By the time Little Richard released his first hit, "Tutti Frutti," in November, the rock revolution was underway.

Such is the role of symbiosis and synchronicity in innovation, then and now.

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  1. thank you, professor ... but what about the shure unidyne microphone? wasn't that a game changer for recording? and why do you focus on 1955? some great r&b records came out in the early 1950s.

  2. Yes, that Shure mike was apparently the rock standard, but the Unidyne series had been around quite awhile. If I wanted to include all the earlier technological innovations that enabled rock (like magnetic recording tape!) it could be an infinite list. I was focusing on the innovations that seemed to immediately catalyze the explosion of interest in rock & roll circa 1955, and which helped market each other.

    There are lots of debates about when rock was “invented” and there were lots of great “proto-rock-&-roll” tunes in the earlier years—“Rocket 88” by Ike Turner in 1951, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner in 1954, etc. But most rock historians consider the confluence of events in 1955—the release of Blackboard Jungle with Haley’s hit song, along with Chuck Berry’s and Little Richard’s first hits—to mark the beginning. Some call 1955 the beginning of “white rock & roll” but, the way I see it, rock didn’t become rock until blacks AND whites embraced it. I still consider Chuck Berry & Little Richard to be R&R’s founders. (I call Chuck the architect and Richard the spiritual leader.) Then Elvis lit the fire in 1956.

    1. Some comedian joked about how the 60s began in 1965.

      Rock & roll wasn't born in a day, or even a year. But it's hard to argue against '55. Especially since Tom Waits and Chevrolet agree.

  3. Thanks for this great historical summary of how technological advances helped spark the rock revolution - or did they create it?

  4. One of the dozens of insights I absorbed during Skunk Baxter's guided tour of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, was that we've reached the point that it no longer takes infinite funds and a giant team to create a great recording. The album he was working on at the time was being recorded on $4,000 worth of equipment. Yeah, he owned eleven million dollars worth of guitars, but he was adamant that anyone with writing, playing, and a bit of tech skills was now free to produce the same quality as the best studio in the world.

    Computers are the single biggest game-changer of my lifetime (hah! born in '59, you old geezers.) Computers and their natural habitat, the Internet.

    1. Born in '59? You missed the Big Bang!

      Never heard of the MOMM. Had a girl friend lifetimes ago in San Clemente though.

      1. It's only been there about 10 years, but it's wild. Just inside the front door is a plexiglass concert grand piano: you can see all the workings as you play it.

        Circular path around the building takes you, one decade at a time, from about 1890 to 2000 or so. Instruments of the era (and usually not replicas.) Jukeboxes so you can hear popular tunes. Memorabilia of all kinds.

        Martin and Gibson each have a million-dollar guitar display which show up now and then. Some classic machines that you'd think would have armed guards.

        If you're ever near San Diego, it is well worth spending a few hours in.

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