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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  3. The turn towards rhythm and blues
by Leo D'Anjou
  Looking into the American popular music scene at the beginning of the 1950s, Leo D'Anjou explores the structural setting in which rock and roll did rise and develop as a separate stream of popular music. Following Phillip Ennis footsteps, he describes the American musical landscape at the end of the 1940s as the specific setting that offered rock and roll a window of opportunity for its emergence. It started with the demise of Tin Pan Ally and the turn of a youthful avant-garde towards rhythm and blues.
1 Musical streams. Popular music is more than just a sequence of notes or sounds; it is also a form of social organization, an "art world." This world, moreover, is not a monolithic block. Rather, it is split into different streams which closely follow the channels of the extant social and geographical divisions in society. Though these divisions are seemingly fading away in present-day popular music, they were still strong and valid at the end of the 1940s. In the United States, there existed six such musical streams at that time: three main streams and three smaller ones. The more important streams were (1) (white) pop or Tin Pan Alley music; (2) country and western music, mainly hillbilly and western swing (C&W); and (3) rhythm and blues (R&B). Alongside these streams, there were another three smaller and more specialized streams: (4) jazz; (5) gospel (in its black as well as its white variants); and (6) folk music. The white pop stream presented itself as the popular music of the nation. In fact it was not; it was mainly the popular music of the white population in the urban areas outside the South. In the South itself and in some parts of the West, country and western was dominant. Next to that, the African-American segment of the population had its own popular music, rhythm and blues, which concurred with the factual segregation that existed in the United States. The smaller streams each had their own specific audiences. Yet, they were important because they influenced the main streams by "giving" them songs, style elements, and artists (Ennis, 1992: 20-22).
  Photo left: Tin Pan Ally's best-selling 1950s singer Patti Page, known from songs as "Tennessee Waltz" (1950) and "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window" (1953)

The formation of this six-stream musical landscape in the 1940s and 1950s provided the set of opportunities and constraints for the rise of rock and roll. Singers, musicians, and composers who made rock and roll music, took the ingredients of rhythm and blues, country and western, and Tin Pan Alley music as their basic musical resources, adding to it all the material that had come earlier on from the smaller streams. These smaller streams, particularly black gospel, also influenced rock and roll directly in much the same way as they affected the main streams, i.e. by supplying songs, style elements, and artists. Other conditions favored as well as constrained rock and roll's evolution into a separate musical stream. I will mention these elements in the next section when and where they are relevant for our understanding of what happened and why it did happen. I will, however, make an exception for four social developments, taking place after World War II. As these four developments were crucial in shaping the opportunities for the emergence of rock and roll, they will be treated preliminarily in this section. These are: (1) the musical developments in the "white" pop stream that turned Tin Pan Alley into a dead-end street; (2) the rise of a new social category, youth; (3) the post-war structural changes in the realm of popular music, particularly those concerning the record companies and the radio stations; and (4) the turn of a white youthful avant-garde toward rhythm and blues.

2 Tin Pan Alley music. Tin Pan Alley, the white pop style, was musically at its peak in the pre-war era. It still dominated the music scene after World War II, but its musical menu was less rich and varied than before. The music was badly affected by the dominant cultural climate in which conservatism and pressures toward conformism clearly discouraged musical experiments and innovations. The existing musical idiom was elaborated according to the rules of refinement and romanticism. So, in the 1940s and the early 1950s, sentimental ballads and melodramatic songs were predominant. It was the period of sweet love tunes, sung by suave crooners or elegant lady singers, packaged in complicated musical arrangements with scores of strings and background vocals. The only lively note came from a host of novelty tunes; a genre that became rather popular in those days. It was the era of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Doris Day, The Andrew Sisters and the — declining — big bands. Nick Cohn (1969: 12) characterizes the music scene quite aptly by observing that "... by the early fifties, the scene had come to a standstill ... showbiz survived on habit."
  Photo right: The Dominoes with Clyde McPhatter (lead), Charlie White (tenor), Joe Lamont (baritone), Bill Brown (bass) and Billy Ward (piano)

The exhaustion of the creative resources in the pop stream created a demand for "external" material. The people in the music industry took over songs and performers from the other streams. More and more hits directly crossed over from the rhythm and blues and country and western charts into the pop charts or were covered by well-known pop artists. Examples of such boundary crossings in the early 1950s are the direct crossover of the rhythm and blues hit "Sixty Minute Man" of The Dominoes (1951); Kay Starr's cover for the pop market of the Clover's rhythm and blues hit "Fool Fool Fool" (1951); June Valli's pop cover of the country hit — originally a white gospel song — "Crying In The Chapel" (1953); and the success of Gordon Jenkins and the folk group the Weavers on the pop charts with the folk song "Goodnight Irene" (1950). The same thing happened to country hits like Hank Williams' number-one hit "Cold Cold Heart" (1952), Jimmy Wakely and Margaret Whiting's "A Bushel And A Peck" (1950), and Red Foley's "Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy" (1950).

  The borders between the different streams were crossed in other ways too. A popular strategy of people working with the confines of a particular stream was to use the music of other streams as a source of inspiration for writing a new song. Songs were created that closely resembled hits in another stream, as so-called answer songs. Of course, songs like these had to fit in with the stream characteristcs and therefore the original material was cleverly mixed with the musical traditions of the receiving stream. A notable example is Patti Page's big success "Tennessee Waltz" (1950) in which elements of country and western and pop are combined. Originally, it was an answer song to an earlier country hit of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, "Kentucky Waltz" (1946). Several years after the success of Monroe, Patti Page turned her sung answer into a hit in both the pop and the country charts. Her song, in turn, was covered several times, and led itself to at least eight other answer songs in different streams over the next three years (Ennis, 1992: 203).
  Many composers and producers of the pop stream even took a broader view. They were not only active in borrowing people and material from the other streams, but they also roamed "... the musical theater, the movies, music from England, the Continent, anywhere ..." (Ennis, 1992: 194). They even forayed in the field of classical music. Vic Damone's "Tell Me You Love Me" was based on an aria from the opera "I Pagliacci" and Bill Darnell's "Tonight Love", to name just some examples, on Liszt's "Second Hungarian Rhapsody" (Whitburn, 1986). A popular practice also was to find out by trial and error "what went with what." This trick resulted in all kinds of combinations, some of which were simply too bizarre to be successful, like the teaming up of opera singer Enzio Pinza with the country and western group "The Sons of the Pioneers". Other — as seemingly improbable — experiments, however, proved rather succesful, like the duets by country-folk artist Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr whose style tended to rhythm and blues (Ennis, 1992: 195).
  The effect of all this trespassing of the borders between the musical streams was that pop music became a jumble of styles with hardly any identity of its own and with many songs of dubious quality (Cohn, 1969: 12; Shaw, 1974: 26; Miller and Nowak, 1977: 294). As Donald Clarke (1995: 311) states, the early 1950s were "... one of the most dismal periods in the history of popular music." Alongside weak reflections of earlier Tin Pan Alley hits went vaguely religious songs like Frankie Laine's "I Believe" (1950) or Kitty Kallen's "Our Lady Of Fatima" (1950) and folk songs like "Goodnight Irene" — with eight recorded versions in 1950 — and "On Top Of Old Smokey" — with four recorded versions in 1951. In many hits influences from country and western and South American music were clearly audible as well. This dismal situation in the white pop stream was, moreover, worsened by yet another notable trend; the production of — often nonsensical — novelty songs which proved to be very popular with the audience. One of the most widely known is possibly "The Thing" (1950). Related to this tendency was the strategy to use all kinds of sounds and other gimmicks. Master of this gimmickry and sound experimenting, no doubt, was the most important A&R (Artists and Repertory) man of the period, Mitch Miller, who added sounds to his arrangements like "snapping bullwhips ... honking wild geese ... barking dogs ... braying French horns ..." (Shaw, 1974: 27). There is probably no better illustration of how bad the situation had grown at that time in the field of pop music than Patti Page's rather silly "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window" — in 1953 for eight weeks at number-one. As David Jasen (1988: 279) epitomizes the popular music scene at the beginning of the 1950s:
  "At first, Alley operations at the beginning of the fifties seemed like a continuation of the forties, ... [but] during the early fifties ... there appeared on the top charts a greater variety of song types than ever before. Not only were the staples of the Alley, ballads, popular ("My Heart Cries For You"), but there was also success for Latin American songs ("Vaya Con Dios"), syncopated rag songs ("Music! Music! Music!"), hillbilly ("Your Cheating Heart"), homespun ("Dearie"), ethnic ("Come on-a My House"), folk ("Goodnight, Irene"), novelty ("Molasses, Molasses"), and polka ("Hop Scotch Polka")."
  All the same, the increasing variety of the Tin Plan Alley repertoire may have attracted adult audiences. However, it certainly did not make it more appealing to the needs of young people. In fact, the status position of youth was changing and with it their musical tastes.
3 Youth: a new social category. The post-war economic and technological transformations had yet another effect. On one hand, these changes generated a demand for better qualified employees while, on the other hand, they created the financial room to free young people from the obligation to join the work force at an early age (Weinstein, 1992: 94). The effect was that more young people than ever before went to school till they were eighteen years of age or even older. That way a new social category was created: youth, a category consisting of people who were no longer kids but not yet belonged to the adult world either. Figure 1 is reproduced from a seminal article by Martin Trow (1961), published in the early 1960s and describing the "second transformation" of American education. The black line represents the growth of high school enrollment as a proportion of the population's age group of 14-17 year of age; the dotted line represents college and university enrollment as a proportion of the population's age group of 18-21 year of age. The figures are based on ten year intervals; the years during World War II and the Korean War are not shown and the figures for the years after 1960 are estimated.
  Figure 1: Enrollment rates in secondary and higher education in the United States, 1870-1980 (source: Trow, 1961: 110)
  Characterizing the changes in educational attendance as a "second" transformation, Trow pointed at the rise participation rates in tertiary education — the colleges — and the consequent change of secondary education — high school —- from a mass terminal system into an institution preparing pupils for further education. This also changed the role and position of youth itself. Their new position in-between more clearly defined status positions, meant that neither the role set that belongs to the position of children with its values, rules, responsibilities, and identities nor that of the adults fully applied to this new category. The position and role of the school-going youth between 12 and 18 was thus vague and indistinct. This ambiguity was, moreover, strengthened by the fact that the parents of these youngsters let them fully participate in the growing affluence and so these youth had money to spend. This gave them the only position in which the adult world would took them seriously — that of consumer (Denney, 1965: 159). Together, the limbo of transition that high school became and the new luxury bestowed on the young created the basic conditions for the emergence of an autonomous youth culture (Hine, 1999: 226; Miller and Nowak, 1977: 292).
  Youths attending high school formed a social category whose position was not yet fixed and who — just like any other social category — needed a place in society that was clearly demarcated with its own cultural peculiarities, lifestyles, and identities. Popular music is an important means to obtain such a place because it may function as a catalyst in creating a youth culture and be a crucial building stone for such a place (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 292). The popular music around 1950 did, however, not offer much in this respect. The pop stream was, artistically seen, dead, geared mainly to adult taste, and oriented to an Eastern urban environment. It lacked, above all, passion. Emotions and feelings were reduced to worn-out cliché's and often hidden behind euphemisms. As Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak (1977: 293) ironically note: "Pop records had the final passionate impact of marshmallow whip." This bland music obviously could not give young people the good times they were craving for. Another of its weak points was that it did not relate to the conditions and therefore the feelings of these young people. Moreover, pop offered little for the new youth to identify with. As Nick Cohn (1969: 16) rightfully notes, young people in the early 1950s "... had no music of their own, no clothes or clubs, no tribal identity. Everything had to be shared with adults." The only thing Tin Pan Alley had to offer was that ridiculous doggie of Patti Page. The other streams could not help out, either. Country and western was regionally bound, often associated with the "country bumpkin", and, in general, way too far off from the life world of the young in the (sub)urban areas of America. With bebop, jazz moved toward the intellectual scene and gospel was music for church services. Rhythm and blues, on the other hand, had much in store for young people but for the time being, segregation held it out of reach of most of them. Helped by a few vital innovations in the music industry, however, some of them found their way to this musical stream.
4 Changes in the realm of popular music. The post-war economic boom brought work and affluence to many Americans and led to a drastic rise in consumption. This consumptive demand was met by an enormous increase in mass production. The technological spurt, we mentioned before, added strongly to this change toward production for consumption, by upgrading the productive capacities of America's industry. It fostered the improvement of existing products like automobiles and, last but not least, the production of new ones like television. The growing production of an ever-expanding variety of consumer products, ranging from automobiles by refrigerators to television sets, further promoted economical growth. The consumer became the new hero of the postwar era and according to Aquila (1992: 270), "[T]he booming postwar economy produced a culture of consumption that washed over America like a tidal wave."
  Photo right: a small RCA 45 rpm record player with built-in amplifier

Product innovation also found its way into the distribution of music. In the music industry two technological product innovations proved to be crucial. The first was the invention of the vinyl record which made it possible to replace the shellac 78 rpm record by the twin formats of the 45 rpm single record and the 33 rpm long playing record. The second was the introduction of a smaller and less expensive phonograph player. Both these innovations interacted, thereby strengthening their success on the music market. In 1948 Columbia introduced the first 12-inch 33-1/3 rpm microgroove LP vinylite record with 23-minute play-time per side. A year later RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch 45 rpm micro-groove vinyl single. These new formats enabled the record companies to create a two-tier record market: one for the hit single records to be played on the inexpensive record players and one for more serious — popular and classical — music on the long-play record to be played on expensive hi-fi sets. This strategy proved rather succesful and as a result the basic unit of popular music of the pre-war period, sheet music, now definitely gave way to the new post-war unit, the record. Philip Ennis points (1992: 99) to the fact, that this shift from sheet to recorded music also implied an important artistic change:

  "The song as written notes, inviting varied interpretations by any performer, was gradually being replaced by a unique performance by a single artist — soloist, vocal group, or a band. The performer came to dominate the creative side, overshadowing the songwriter and lyricist" (emphasis by Ennis).
  These technological and creative changes brought record companies to a dominant position in the music business as they were more and more taking care not only of recording the music but also of tracking down musical talents and catering for them.
  At the same time, the structure of the broadcasting industry was changing, partially as a consequence of the antitrust measures that the federal government took from 1938 onward. The monopoly of the nationwide broadcasting networks was broken up which favored the growth of smaller local radio stations; as a result "... the small, independent station became the postwar meteoric star of the broadcasting industry" (Ennis, 1992: 136). In 1950 there were already about 2.000 AM radio stations, a number rising to about 3.400 in 1960. Moreover, television pushed radio from its throne and the number of TV stations expanded quickly from about 100 in 1950 to about 600 in 1960 (Ennis, 1992: 265). TV became the main form of family entertainment and its programs particularly replaced the nationwide broadcasted radio shows that thrived on bringing live music. The success of television also meant a lowering of the advertising income of the radio stations and thus smaller program budgets.
  These developments transformed broadcasting thoroughly. The national radio market dominated by four contending national networks with lavish assets, split into a large number of local markets each served by several competing, mostly poorly capitalized, independent radio stations. The latter solved their budgetary problems by broadcasting records instead of live music. By this transition from live music to records as the basis of radio programs, radio stations and record companies were from then onwards "... inexorably bound together" (Peterson, 1990: 105). The small radio stations, moreover, tended to specialize by making specific programs for distinct audiences such as housewives or teenagers. They also employed far less staff, which favored the rise of the disk jockey. That way, radio became the medium for broadcasting recorded music by deejays for audiences that were commercially important for the advertising companies. Among those audiences the young slowly came to prominence. As Deena Weinstein (1992: 92) assesses, "[I]n their rooms or cruising in cars, they played the radio." And, so we can add, they already were trained to listen to recorded hit music by being exposed to a growing number of "automatic coin-operated phonographs," better known as jukeboxes.
  Recorded hit music already was brought to the young by the rising number of jukeboxes that were being produced in great quantities between 1935 and 1950. In the early 1950s, the jukebox exploiters bought between a quarter and a third of all records and paid a fee for every time a record was played in their machines. This further strengthened the already strong position of the record companies. At the beginning of the 1950s, there were many record companies, though only a small number of those dominated the market. These were the large companies, the so-called majors, who recorded and released the bulk of white pop and country and western songs. These companies were not really interested in the music from and for African Americans and this offered a niche for the — mostly small — independent record companies, the so-called Indies. The latter flourished in the early 1950s, not only because the black population got their share of the growing prosperity but also because there were now radio stations specifically aiming their programs at black audiences — about 700 in 1954 according to Gillett (1972: 279). As we will see in the next section, the Indies and the "black" radio stations would play an important role in bringing about rock and roll and in shaping its format. But even before that time, the "black" radio stations proved important by their power to attract a youthful avant-garde to their programs.
5 The turn towards rhythm and blues. At the end of the 1940s, the border lines between the musical streams were still solid but were crossed at an ever-accelerating pace in the years that followed. This was caused by the fact that everyone in the music industry tried to enlarge their share of the music market — or at least prevent losing their share in it — while they often lacked the material to reach this end on their own. In this competition, the music producers in each stream also tried to keep the border lines of their own stream intact. In their view, they were allowed to take over hits and artists from other streams but they objected to others doing the same. Keeping to the boundaries, however, involved more than keeping one's share of the music market. It coincided with the central cultural and normative trend of the 1950s; the endeavors to keep culture a large unchanged and to maintain its norms strictly. This cultural torpor could be witnessed in all cultural fields and popular music certainly was no exception.
  At this point, it is important to note that this stagnation not only resulted out of the oligopoly of the major record companies as, for instance, Richard Peterson (1990) contends. To explain the continued existence of Tin Pain Alley and subsequently the late arrival of rock and roll, Peterson points at the ASCAP-BMI feud. The ASCAP was the oldest organization of copyright holders of popular music. Over the years, it launched two major attacks both focusing on the broadcasters. The first started in 1939 when the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), representing the nation's radio stations, founded its own copyright organization (BMI) to counter the high rates, charged by ASCAP for the right to play their songs on the radio. In reply ASCAP announced that it would double its rates in 1940. The NAB, however, struck back by boycotting all ASCAP tunes until ASCAP finally surrendered in 1941 (Ennis, 1992: 105-108). However, it was not the end of the war between both parties. One way or the other it continued till the 1960s. For Peterson this long episode proves that the record companies needed time to adjust to the new situation and for him this explains why people had to wait till 1955 for the emergence of rock and roll. As we shall see, there is more to this question than just the inability of the music industry to adapt to new markets. Popular music is not only a commodity. It is also a part of the culture of a society and is as much influenced by cultural trends as by economic factors. One such a cultural trend, certainly, was the rise of a youthful, white avant-garde turning towards rhythm and blues.
  Photo left: Rhythm and blues pioneer Wynonie Harris, also known as "Mr. Blues"

Despite the cultural stasis, there were pockets of resistance or niches in which people attempted to fashion — parts of — society to their own standards. An example of such a niche is the Beat Generation in literature. The same happened among young listeners to popular music. Here an avant-garde arose at the end of the 1940s that consisted, according to David Riesman (1950), of a small minority characterized by elaborate standards of music listening and a dislike of name bands and the commercialization of radio and music. This youthful avant-garde tuned their receivers into black radio stations and bought the records they heard in black record stores. They even were helped by the ASCAP-BMI struggle, for, as BMI was strong on rhythm and blues, a growing amount of this music could be heard on the radio since the early 1940s. This "rebellious" minority tuning in to rhythm and blues was special in other respects as well because — as Riesman (1950: 365-366; Gillett, 1970: 11-13) keenly observed at that time — there are always:

  "... ways in which the minority may use popular music to polarize itself from the majority group, and thereby from American popular culture generally: a sympathetic attitude or even preference for Negro musicians; an egalitarian attitude towards the roles, in love and work, of the two sexes; a more international outlook, with or without awareness, for example of French interest in American jazz; an identification with disadvantaged groups, not only Negroes, from which jazz springs, with or without a romantic cult of proletarianism; a dislike of romantic pseudo-sexuality in music, even without any articulate awareness of being exploited; similarly a reaction against the stylized body image and limitations of physical self-expression which "sweet" music and its lyrics are felt as conveying; a feeling that music is too important to serve as a backdrop for dancing, small talk, studying, and the like; a diffuse resentment of the image of the teenager provided by the mass media."
  The turn to black pop music is the more remarkable because one of the most solid barriers in society, the racial one, kept this music practically out of the reach of white youth. Rhythm and blues records were only available in black neighborhoods and most "white" radio stations deliberately kept to the policy of not broadcasting rhythm and blues records. The arrival of this avant-garde was a signal of a serious mismatch between the preferences of youngüpeople and the music the pop stream was offering.
6 A window of opportunity. In retrospect, other signals were clearly visible as well, although the vested music industry did not see — or blatantly ignored — the writings on the wall (Shaw, 1974: 114-115). One of these other signs was the growing preference for black music in the realm of white pop music. From 1950 onward, the black presence in pop music increased as even more rhythm and blues hits were crossing over directly to the white music stream or were covered there by white artists. The fact that the rhythm and blues cover version of "Crying In The Chapel" (1953) by the Orioles could become a pop hit while June Valli's pop version had already been one earlier that year, shows that the preference for black styled music grew even further (Ennis, 1992: 216). Charlie Gillett (1972: 279) points out that the Orioles' version was preferred by the largest group of record buyers, which obviously were the young.
  Photo right: In the late summer of 1948 the Orioles released their hit "It's Too Soon to Know", by many claimed to be the first rock and roll record

Another hint of the rising preference for black styled music gives the swift success of Johnnie Ray whose songs were characterized by a direct emotionalism and a black voicing — the first white boy who could sing black (Ennis, 1992, 215). Moreover, there were signs that there were other mismatches as well as young people began to tamper with the conventions in society, particularly those concerning sexual behavior. Such a sign is the popularity of songs that dealt directly — the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man" (1951) — or indirectly — Nat King Cole's "Too Young" (1951) — with this issue. The turn of a youthful avant-garde to rhythm and blues was important for the genesis of rock and roll because it showed other young people the way to a more promising music style. Therewith, it opened the window of opportunity for everyone in the field of popular music who looked for new avenues outside the well-trodden path of Tin Pan Alley.

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