When I discuss early rock & roll with pop music lovers I’m surprised that many don’t know how and when rock took hold in America. Nor do they know how quickly it disappeared—to be rescued by the Brits.
And few appreciate a simple lesson it teaches us about innovation.
Rock & roll was a combination of many musical elements of course, including Rhythm & Blues, Rockabilly, Blues, Gospel, Boogie-Woogie, Jazz, Swing, and Country. All of these were in full bloom by the late 40s and early 50s when records by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Preston, Goree Carter, Ike Turner, and Big Joe Turner (among many others) were hinting at what was soon to come.
Although the phrase “rock & roll” was heard in African-American R&B lyrics prior to the mid-50s, it was disk jockey Alan Freed who helped popularize the term for whites when he was playing R&B and Country to a racially mixed audience, calling his show “The Rock & Roll Party.” Soon “rock” and “roll” were widely used in lyrics and song titles that were marketed to middle class teens. Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” became an R&B hit in 1954—but a bigger hit for Bill Haley and His Comets. Then Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” shot to #1 after the 1955 release of Blackboard Jungle which featured the song as its soundtrack. Rock was about to go mainstream.
But it took Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley—the most influential musical pioneers of the time—to break down the door and launch the new era.
Chuck Berry had his first hit with the rockabilly-influenced “Maybellene” in 1955 followed by a string of clever Top 40 tunes in subsequent years, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen, and “Johnny B. Goode.” He wrote his own songs with inventive lyrics that celebrated teen life and American consumerism and performed them with outrageous stage movements (like his famous duck-walk) and original lead guitar flourishes.
Little Richard (Richard Penniman) had his first hit later in 1955, “Tutti-Frutti,” followed by barnstormers like “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Richard was a wild gospel-influenced singer whose pounding piano-playing and screaming vocals drove young girls to hysteria—generating outrage and denunciation from moral crusaders. He played a major role in making R&R a symbol of sexual freedom.
And finally Elvis Presley, the energetic heart swoon with the swiveling hips—who was not shown on TV from the waste down on one of his earliest appearances lest he corrupt television viewers—grabbed a nation’s attention with rockers like “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” and “Jail House Rock” (along with equally popular ballads like “Love Me Tender”). He was the quintessential white singer who could sound black—just the thing to attract teens who were dancing up a storm to what was originally called "race music." A Catholic diocese in Wisconsin even sent a warning to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI that "Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States...[His movements could] rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth." The rock revolt was on.
To be sure, R&R would not have existed without the contribution of other musical styles. But all innovation is a synthesis of other innovations. And with the help of the “rock & roll" label, this music was given its own identity. It represented something new, exciting, and insurrectionary.
By 1957, thanks to these rock & roll innovators, as well as other contributors like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, etc.—and of course their R&B, rockabilly, and gospel predecessors—rock had become a major musical and cultural force that had to be reckoned with. Many businesses saw opportunities to exploit the new genre by selling new products, services, and technologies to teenagers (including transistor radios, high fidelity record players, and inexpensive musical instruments, as mentioned in a previous post)—while many parents feared for their kids' safety!
But as fast as rock & roll took over in 1955, the best of it was off the charts by 1959. (Literally.)
How could this happen?
To put it simply, the innovators went MIA. Elvis was drafted in 1958, never to return to his rock & roll roots (though he was later featured in technicolor B movies and had a second career in Las Vegas). Little Richard became a preacher in 1958 (though he would return to his sinful performances in subsequent years). Chuck Berry was busted in 1959 (essentially a DWB conviction—Driving While Black) and spent a year and a half in prison before returning to rock. Jerry Lee Lewis was blacklisted for marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958. And Buddy Holly died in a plane crash with Richie Valens in early 1959.
In the wake of their departure the record companies apparently decided on a dubious strategy: send in the clones. Multiple crooners with the first name of Bobby would sing on American Bandstand, snap their fingers, and try to make everyone forget the revolution had stalled. There were occasional glimmers of light from talented R&B, doo-wop, or gospel acts—such as the Isley Brothers—but for the most part darkness reigned until a band from Liverpool, England lit up the charts in 1964, single-handedly resurrecting rock & roll.
The Beatles' infectious songs, delivered at high energy—combined with their shocking (at the time) hairdos—grabbed the attention of youth worldwide and enabled them to dominate the airwaves for months. Soon the bluesy Rolling Stones joined them in their makeover of the pop charts, followed by a flurry of other talented British and American rock acts who were similarly inspired to do their original music.
For rock & roll lovers it all worked out in the end. But the Dark Age of Rock—only five years, yet a lifetime in pop culture—shows us what happens when the innovators leave the scene, for whatever reason. When Elvis, Chuck, and Richard did come back, they never regained their stature because the new kids in town—Beatles, Stones, Dylan, etc.—had changed the rules of the game.
When you stop being a force for innovation, somebody behind you is ready to step up.