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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  4. The formation of a new musical stream
by Leo D'Anjou
  The deplorable state of Tin Pan Alley's white pop music stream in the early 1950s points toward a serious mismatch between the changing preferences of young people and the output of this segment of the music industry. This problem, Leo D'Anjou shows, only could be solved by the social construction of a new musical stream, with many new players in the field — artists, producers, disk jockey's and independent record labels — taking the hazardous and time-consuming steps of innovation and elaboration.
1 In search for fresh sounds. The story of rock and roll may be — and still is — told in many different ways and many different people are credited with the honor of having "invented" this music. Accordingly, the music's birthday is located at different points in time. Nick Tosches, for instance sets this date as early as 1942 while others put it as late as 1953 or 1954. There really is much to say for Tosches' view, because when listening to pre-1950s records one would categorize quite a few of them as rock and roll. The terms "rock" and "roll", moreover, were in use in the music business long before the mid-1950s — as Tosches (1991: 6-8) indicates. Musically, it would make sense to follow Tosches' lead and start with the story in the 1940s. Here, however, we are looking at rock and roll as a social phenomenon. Socially, rock and roll only surfaced in the early 1950s when white youngsters — inspired by avant-garde we mentioned before — began to listen to and to buy records with black music because they were fed up with the extant dull, lifeless, and uninteresting music of the white pop stream (Gillett, 1970: 13). "[T]hese young people were turning their radio dials and searching for fresh sounds on off beat black stations" (Shaw, 1974: 44). The result was that, already in the early 1950s, about 20% to 30% of the listeners to black radio stations were white (Clarke, 1995: 372).
  Photo left: Alan Freed, rock and roll's first superstar deejay, has often been credited with coining the phrase rock and roll

The turn to black music made the emergence of rock and roll as popular music possible, but by itself was not the first step in the process of the social construction of rock and roll. Below I will analyze this process on the basis of the three phases — steps — I recognize in it. The first step consists of the discovery of an existing musical style as one that is interesting and useful. Such a discovery is an innovation that often gets a specific label. The second step concerns the elaboration and development of the new-found style and encompasses the experiments of the people writing, composing, performing and recording this music and their exploration of its possibilities. In the third phase, the labeled and now elaborated musical style is consolidated; its canon is fixed and the style is cleaned of its too exuberant characteristics emerging in the second phase. These phases or steps are not separated in time. As the case of rock and roll makes clear, there almost never is a neat succession of steps and they will always partially overlap.

2 The innovation of rock and roll. The first step was set by some inventive members of what by now had become a prospering occupational category, the disk jockeys. The active search for rhythm and blues by a white minority meant the beginning of a trend that did not go by unnoticed. At that time, a couple of deejays witnessed this change in preferences and they succeeded in persuading the owners and directors of their stations to give them some air time for programming rhythm and blues music for white youth audiences — see for the names of the most influential deejays and of the radio stations where they made their programs: Gillett (1970: 38-39). Alan Freed has become the most well-known of them. He had his way in Cincinnati in 1951, where he organized a radio show filled with rhythm and blues music which he called "Moondog's Rock and Roll Party". From 1952 onwards, Freed presented the same and other, mostly black, artists also in live shows that became very popular among young audiences. This made him "... the white champion of black pop ..." (Ennis, 1992: 8). Examples of songs he and other deejays played are "Sixty Minute Man" (1951) by the Dominoes, "Fool Fool Fool" (1951) by the Clovers, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (1952) by Lloyd Price, "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's "Hound Dog" (1953).
  Photo right: Lloyd Price, known from his rhythm and blues classic "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (1952) also reached the rock and roll audience with songs like "Stagger Lee" (1958)

The attempts of Alan Freed and other adventurous deejays to bring black pop to white audiences were important contributions to the social construction of rock and roll as a new format in popular music. First, Freed gave a selection of the existing rhythm and blues music — those songs of which the beat, the feeling, and the lyrics appealed to his young audience — a new name. This labeling of specific musical pieces as "rock and roll" allowed for marking these and similar pieces off from other forms of popular music and made it possible to treat them as a new musical entity. Second, these deejays brought this erstwhile segregated music to the attention of a wider circle of white youth. The effect was that more and more white listeners turned to programs of disk jockeys who played black music instead of the programs of the mainstream pop radio stations in which the original rhythm and blues records were ignored (Gillett, 1970: 38-39). By creating their own audiences, these deejays brought the unknown black music into the mainstream of American popular music and gave young Americans a form of music they could enjoy, relate to, and identify with.

  The eager reactions of white youngsters to this programmatic innovation played an essential role in the take-off of rock and roll. Their enthusiasm did not only put pressure on the — mostly conservative — owners of the radio stations, but initiated reactions of the juke box distributors and other people in the music industry as well. The former put more and more rock and roll records in their machines and thus "... provided a new channel of communication for white record buyers who did not yet tune in to black radio stations" (Gillett, 1970: 14). The music industry, in its turn, increasingly crossed the boundary between the white and black pop music. More and more rhythm and blues songs reached the pop charts and an increasing number of rhythm and blues hits were covered. The result was that black artists and their music were introduced to a growing number of white youth next to those who already listened to deejays like Alan Freed. Together, the actions and reactions of white youth, deejays, juke box owners, and the music industry created the foundation on which rock and roll could develop in its own way and evolve into a separate stream — the seventh stream — in American popular music (Ennis, 1992).
3 The elaboration of rock and roll. During the times rock and roll was being innovated as a new musical stream, the external conditions enticing producers and artists to experiment with new musical forms played the most important role. Making the step toward elaboration, the internal dynamics of the field itself more overtly come into play — and with it the role of individual contributions. This second step in the social construction of rock and roll involved the shaping of the music into a format in its own right, once its foundation was laid. This transformation was wrought by a specific segment of the music business in a specific region. In the South, artists, small record producers and independent record companies now were deliberately looking for ways to combine rhythm and blues with the musical traditions they grew up in themselves. They sensed that there was a market for pop music with a markedly black influx alongside the existing rhythm and blues music. Johnnie Ray's instant success — two millions copies were sold of his "Cry" (1951; for 11 weeks at number-one) and its flipside "The Little White Cloud That Cried" — was an indication that they could be right.
  Photo left: Bill Haley, the man who was playing rock and roll even before it had a name

Bill Haley was one of the artists who combined black and white — particularly country and western — musical elements in search for this new market. A former deejay himself, Haley was quite familiar with all the postwar popular music styles and in the early 1950s his musical interests and commercial instincts took him to the crossroads where pop, rhythm and blues, and country music met (Ennis, 1992: 220). In 1953, after some tries that were not very successful, Haley and his band "The Comets" recorded "Crazy, Man, Crazy". It "... became the first rock and roll song to make the best selling lists on Billboard's national chart" (Gillett, 1970: 3). It was followed by a whole string of hits of which "Rock Around The Clock" (1954) became the most widely known. Other famous Haley hits were "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" (1954) and "See You Later, Alligator" (1956).

  By adding musical elements, originating from the country and western tradition, to rhythm and blues, Haley made a major contribution to the development of rock and roll. Particularly, the fact that he did so as a white artist — still more accepted than black artists in the America of the early 1950s — contributed greatly to the effect of his innovation. With his neat and cleaned-up lyrics he also made this music more acceptable to white youngsters. He for instance, cleaned up Joe Turner's rhythm and blues songs "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" and he was also careful enough with the lyrics of his other songs. Some people value this practice of cleaning badly while others praise Haley for doing so because he only concealed the real meaning and intentions of the lyrics for those who did not listen carefully enough. Nick Cohn (1969: 19), for instance, reject it as a watering down of the explicit sexual meaning of rock and roll but Charles Brown (1983: 25) on the other hand states, "He really did not take the meat out of the lyrics; he just covered it with a disguise." Another lasting contribution was his exuberant performing style — the bass player lying on his back while playing and the saxophone player holding his instrument above his head in his solos. He took this style of performing, as he said, from the "old style rhythm and blues" as performed by band-leaders like Lionel Hampton or Jimmy Preston and, of course, from the jump-styled rhythm and blues bands like Louis Jordan's Tympani Five (Gillett, 1970: 23; Pratt, 1990: 136). All in all, Haley's creative efforts promoted rock and roll's development toward a musical format that was something other than merely "relabeled" rhythm and blues music.
4 The contribution of Sam Phillips. Performing artists like Haley were not the only ones, contributing to the elaboration of rock and roll. At the same time, some of the record producers and owners of the small independent record companies who produced the bulk of rhythm and blues music were looking for ways to produce a new kind of pop music. Sam Phillips, no doubt, has become one of the most known among them, particularly because he was the one who discovered Elvis Presley. Phillips started out as a deejay after the war and founded his own business in 1950. His first enterprise was the Memphis Record Service, a company engaged in tracking down talents, supervising them, and recording their musical performances. The final results of these activities were leased or sold to independent companies. He was so successful at this, that he was able to start his own record company, Sun, within two years. He recorded white as well as black artists but proved to be the most successful with black blues singers as Jackie Brenston, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Junior Parker.
  Photo right: Before he met Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips reputedly said: "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."

Phillips' main contribution to rock and roll, however, came with Elvis Presley. The story of how they both met and worked together, already has been told so many times and in so many different ways that it has become an urban legend by now. It sure does not have to be reiterated here. The important thing about their cooperation is that Sam Phillips skillfully mixed his musical experiences and knowledge and his intuition of what young people were looking for with Presley's musical talents and roots in the white and black musical scenes of the American South. Putting these elements together in the pressure cooker of extended sessions in the small Sun studio in Memphis led to a new rock and roll style known as rockabilly in which gospel, rhythm and blues, and country and western, particularly hillbilly music, were merged into a new kind of songs. The "Presley-Phillips" cooperation led to classic rock and roll records like "That's All Right Mama" (1954) — Presley's first record, "Good Rockin' Tonight" (1954), "You're A Heartbreaker" (1955), "Baby Let's Play House" (1955), and the last record Presley made for Sun "Mystery Train" (1955).

  The combined efforts of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips made the resources of the three main streams in popular music available to a host of new-coming rock and roll singers, musicians, and songwriters. That was important by itself, as it was crucial for the development of rock and roll as a separate musical stream. Both men, however, did more. With his way of singing Presley solved what still was a contradiction in Bill Haley's approach — the incongruence of being white while doing black — by doing black while being white (Ennis, 1992: 253). Surprisingly, this also opened the way for black artists like Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon to do the opposite — doing white while being black. It made, as Ennis rightfully assesses, rock and roll a racially mixed and even integrated stream. The purposeful efforts of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and of course Bill Haley to produce a new kind of music changed the scene of popular music drastically. As Charlie Gillett states, "Presley's success ... encouraged Phillips to try other singers with comparable styles and material ..." This way, he brought artists and performers to the front lines of the changing music scene like Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnnie Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who by themselves contributed greatly to the elaboration of the new stream. The first of these artists, for instance, wrote and performed one of the now classic rock and roll hits "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956); the last one became one of rock and roll's major figures with his wild stage act, his intense way of singing, and his hammering style of piano playing. Lewis' "Whole Lotta of Shakin' Going On" (1957), "Great Balls Of Fire" (1957), and "High School Confidential" (1958) still belong to the best of what rock and roll has to offer.
  Presley's way of singing, his voicing of emotions closely following and adding to the songs' chord changes, also directly inspired young artists all over America, among them singers like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, and Buddy Holly. Presley brought, however, more to rock and roll than just music. He thoroughly influenced the way the music was to be performed and thereby set the standards for appearance, dress, and behavior of many youngsters. Important in this respect were, particularly, the open and hidden suggestions of sexuality in his performances and his image of the leather-clad boy from Beale Street with greasy hair. Of course, Sam Phillips was not the only independent in the record business who took the rock and roll road to success and Presley also was not the only young artist who seized the opportunity which the independent record companies offered. By that time many other independent record producers and companies were busily experimenting and recorded new — often young — artists who longed for a chance to make it.
5 Looking for niches. In the mid-1950s the popular music market was booming and attracted enterprising people from outside the music business into the hit game; some of them founded a record company themselves, others became freelance producers tracking down new talents, coaching them and managing their careers. All were looking for their own niche in this new market; now producing a specific sort of music for a specific kind of audience. Almost all of them were taken by the hope to find music with the potential to break into the national market. At this point we encounter one of the main differences between the majors and the Indies. The majors were almost exclusively focused on the national market. In order not to jeopardize their position in this market, they avoided risks in their choice of music. The Indies served more specialized markets, but the possibility of a breakthrough in the national market, if only occasionally, for them was a prime mover. And, all people involved with the Indies were very well aware of the fact that their chances depended on more risky musical experiments. As rock and roll songs at that time were such risky experiments, the policies of the Indies favored the emergence of rock and roll in a major way. The result was a profusion of new labels, artists, songs, musical styles, and records which enlarged the diversity in rock and roll music to a large degree.
  Photo left: the Penguins — Cleve Duncan, Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby, Curtis Williams and Dootsie Williams with Dootone distributor Sid Talmadge at the left (1954)

Joel Whitburn's reviews of the Billboard charts (1986; 1987a) show that the interest in the new music was not evenly spread over all the Indies. Some kept aloof from rock and roll but others were more active in recording this style of music. In fact, only Sun and Specialty were fully committed to rock and roll (Gillett, 1970: 86). Nevertheless, most of the independents were frantically looking for new venues into the music market, which often meant giving young talent a chance. One way to do this was by producing records of vocal groups — a practice of almost all Indies (Gillett, 1970: 69). These groups were important in shaping rock and roll music, because alongside recording straight forward rock and roll songs they used musical material that came from the area where rhythm and blues, Tin Pan Alley, and country and western met; precisely the area where rock and roll emerged. This way they contributed to its further development. The Orioles' hit "Crying In The Chapel" (1953), mentioned before, is a good example. Here country, white gospel, Tin Pan Alley, and black pop met and the song brought the producing record company — Jubilee — success by reaching the national market. Other notable vocal group records were "Gee" by the Crows (1954; Rama label), "Sh-Boom" by the Chords (1954; Cat label), "Earth Angel" by the Penguins (1954; Dootone label), and "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers (1956; Gee label). Most of these groups were one-hit wonders but some survived over a longer period; a good example in this respect is offered by the Coasters, a vocal group recording hit songs for Atlantic from 1957 to 1964.

  It would carry too far to give a survey of all the relevant vocal groups and their record companies and to assess which of their records belonged to rock and roll. It suffices to note, that the Indies were important for rock and roll by recording these new young groups. It would also take us too far to describe all the independents that once produced a particular rock and roll record. It will only recall the most relevant ones in order to assess the importance of the role the independent record producers and companies played in the elaboration of rock and roll music and the exploration of its potentialities. I have already mentioned the two most important companies, Sun and Specialty. The first company produced over 200 rock and roll records (Gillett, 1970: 90) and the second one discovered one of rock and roll's most flamboyant stars, Little Richard. Richard Penniman made "Tutti Frutti" (1956), "Long Tall Sally" (1956), "Lucille" (1957), "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (1958) into rock and roll classics. His way of performing made him, moreover, a real rock and roll legend — for Cohn (1969: 33) he even is the most splendid rocker and the most exciting live performer — and by this he had a great effect on later rock performers.
6 Some other independents. Alongside Sun and Specialty, four other independent record companies — Atlantic, King, Chess, and Imperial — were influential in shaping the new music. Among those, Atlantic is probably the best known and most influential independent company of the post-war era. As Gillett (1970: 70) rightly observes, "[its] staff ... has shown a flair for assessing performing styles and audiences tastes that has been unmatched in the post-war history of popular music." Atlantic — on its own label and that of its subsidiaries Atco and Cat — was very active in the field of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The company's A&R men, particularly Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, tracked and guided new talent and novel musical material and produced a stream of catchy records. Among their invaluable contributions to the development of rock and roll music were the rhythm and blues styled records of LaVern Baker, such as "Tweedle Dee" (1954) and "Tra La La" (1956), the genuine blues record "C.C. Rider" (1957) of Chuck Willis, and the earlier mentioned "Sh-Boom" (1954) of the Chords. Atlantic also produced straightforward rock and roll records, such as Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" and "Queen Of The Hop" (1958) and the Coaster's famous hits "Searchin" / "Young Blood" (1957), "Yakety Yak" (1958), and "Charlie Brown" (1958).
  Photo right: Otis Williams and the Charms landed a number-one R&B hit for almost ten weeks in 1954 with "Hearts of Stone," and later made several rock and roll hits for the King label

King's effect on rock and roll came above all from its geographical position, Cincinnati, which offered the company privileged access to artists from the South and the Midwest. The company was equally strong in the field of country and western and rhythm and blues and took the initiative to record rhythm and blues versions of country and western songs. From there it was but a short step to rock and roll with songs like "Hearts Of Stone" (1954) and "Ling Ting Tong" (1955) by Otis Williams and the Charms, "Honky Tonk" (1956) by Bill Doggett, and "Seventeen" (1955) and "My Boy Flat Top" (1955) by Boyd Bennett and His Rockets. King also produced a typical number-one rhythm and blues hit, "Work With Me, Annie", in 1954 and in the same year its inevitable sequel "Annie Had A Baby" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Like their predecessor "Sixty Minute Man" (1951) these songs — "... whose lyrics barely disguised their sexual celebration" (Ennis, 1992: 212) — also had a moderate success on the pop chart, where they reached a number-22 and number-23 position.

  Chess, in turn, was specialized in blues with famous names like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. In 1954, the company entered the vocal group market with the Moonglows and the Flamingos. Chess made its most lasting contributions to rock and roll, no doubt, by recording Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Berry, in particular, became one of rock and roll's major figures with songs like "Maybellene" (1955), "Roll Over, Beethoven" (1956), "Too Much Monkey Business" (1956), "School Day" (1957), "Rock And Roll Music" (1957), and "Johnny B. Goode" (1958). Berry made important contributions to rock and roll as a guitarist but, above all, he excelled as the lyricist of American teenage life. For Belz (1969: 61-66), Berry is the "Folk Poet" of the 1950s who expressed the ordinary realities of the world of youth — cars, girls, growing-up, school, and music — and for the same reason Shaw (1974: 147) crowns him with the honorary title "the song laureate of the teen generation."
  Imperial produced another of rock and roll's legendary figures, Fats Domino. Collaborating with his bandleader Dave Bartholomew, this piano-playing singer from New Orleans developed a specific rhythm and blues style, the New Orleans Dance Blues. This warm-sounding laid-back music retroactively became rock and roll as "... Domino's sound, called rhythm and blues in 1954, was heralded as rock and roll by 1956" (Friedlander, 1996: 29). The "fate" of Fats Domino by itself is a clear demonstration of how the social construction of a music style works; in order to belong to a new style it is not necessary to change one's music — labeling this music as such may suffice. Domino's rhythm and blues records — dating back from the late 1940s — thus became rock and roll in the mid-1950s and songs like "Ain't That A Shame" (1955), "My Blue Heaven" (1956), "Blueberry Hill" (1956), and "I'm Walkin" (1957) now rightfully belong to the canon of rock and roll.
  Alongside these Indies, there is yet one other company, Cadence, that deserves to be mentioned, because they brought us the Everly Brothers. This duo singing in a close-vocal harmony style also contributed to the development of rock and roll, though they are somewhat difficult to place. With Chuck Berry they share the same subject: teen concerns. Their country roots coincide with rockabilly, and their close harmony style of singing corresponds to the vocal groups we mentioned before. These sons of established country and western artists began their career in the country and western stream for Columbia in 1956. Their manager, Wesley Rose of the famous Nashville Acuff-Rose music firm, brought about their breakthrough "... by finding them a source of distinctive song material [Boudleau and Felice Bryant — a husband and wife team that wrote country and western songs], ... an enterprising independent record label [Cadence], ... and a production team [Archie Bleyer — owner of Cadence — and Chet Atkins — friend of Everly family and head of RCA's country division] ..." (Gillett, 1970: 109). Despite their strong leaning toward the idiom of country music, Don and Phil Everly belong to rock and roll to which development they made important contributions. Songs like "Bye Bye Love" (1957), "Wake Up Little Susie" (1957), "Bird Dog" (1958), and "(Till) I Kissed You" (1959) belong to rock and roll classics as do "Cathy's Clown" (1960) and "Lucille" (1960) produced by Warner.
  Finally, the emergence of the freelance independent producer, a new figure in the music business, strongly influenced and shaped rock and roll. Following the lead of their predecessor, Sam Phillips, many former composers and artists started to produce and manage artists. Leiber and Stoller, for instance, produced the songs of the Coasters that were recorded by Atco. Another influential independent producer was Norman Petty who supervised the careers of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Buddy Holly started his career in 1955 and, originally, was heavily influenced by Presley's rockabilly style. He was contracted by Decca and made five singles in 1956, that were not selling very well. After this fruitless adventure Holly met producer Norman Petty in 1957 and out of that meeting a successful cooperation and a new group, the Crickets, emerged, leading to now classic rock and roll hits like "That'll Be The Day" (1957) and "Peggy Sue" (1957).
7 Photo left: Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holly and his Crickets became one of the top attractions of rock and roll in 1957

The rise of rock and roll. From 1954 onward, rock and roll advanced very quickly and soon about 40% of the hit songs belonged to the emerging rock and roll stream (Anderson a.o., 1980: 35). Many of the established pop stars had — at least for the time being — to give way to the advancing "rock and rollers"; the major exception being Frank Sinatra (Peterson, 1990: 97; Shaw 1974: 28). The major record companies lost their grip on the popular music market for a while but partially recovered their position toward the end of the decade. The openness of the independent record companies and producers for new artists and novel musical forms and their eagerness to find new niches in the field of popular music provided the commercial structure for the development and elaboration of the newly discovered musical style. The exploration of its possibilities depended, however, not only on the room the Indies offered, but as much — if not more so — on the creativity and energy of the new — mostly young — artists and — last but not least — on the musical resources the latter had at their disposal.

  At this point, a factor that proved to be vital for the development of rock and roll comes in sight: the geographical location — the American South — in which this music emerged. Here, the musical traditions that provided the building blocks of rock and roll existed alongside each other and, despite the extant segregation, the streams met not so much in public as in the people who created rock and roll. Examples in kind are Bill Haley, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Alongside the Indies and the artists, we must not forget the crucial role the receptive young people played. Without the swift and enthusiastic reception of rock and roll by young audiences there, surely, would not have been such a thing as rock and roll. Though far less glamorous than others in the rock and roll stream, they are as indispensable. The actions and interactions of the record companies, the producers, the artists, and the audiences were the necessary ingredients of the second step in the social construction of rock and roll.
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