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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  5. The consolidation of rock and roll
by Leo D'Anjou
  Following lead, slowly the old powers of the music industry became involved in rock and roll, either hoping that it would prove to be a passing fad or that they would be able to control it. Their strategies involved the cleaning-up of the artists as well as the music and resulted in the deliberate creation of teenage idols. Still, this kind of teen music proved to retain enough of the rock and roll spirit to carry it through the seven lean years from 1958 till 1964, when the British Invasion hit the United States to secure the new stream.
1 Stepping into the fad. While rock and roll grew into a clearly defined new musical stream and the public interest in its musical output was expanding, the vested interests in the music industry reacted halfheartedly and defensively. Torn between the desire to keep themselves away from this horrible music as far as possible and the anxiety to loose their share in the music market, they kept in the background. The strategies employed by the majors — and other settled actors in the popular music industry — must be seen in the light of this dilemma. In several ways, these actors became involved in rock and roll, be it in the hope that it would either prove to be a passing fad — with their help if needed — or that they would be able to control it as they did control other forms of popular music. The arbitrary way in which they intervened in the market of youth music, however, preserved the music they hated so much and so, in their own way, the majors contributed to the evolution of rock and roll. This way, the established music industry — quite unintentionally — did set the third step in the social construction of rock and roll.
  Photo left: In de mid-1950s child star Brenda Lee made some strong rock and roll songs, but made it big in the early sixties as a teen idol

Entering the field in 1954, Decca was the first major record company that became active on the market of rock and roll music. It was the only major that could do so at such an early time in the development of rock and roll because it had been involved in producing black dance music for a long time out of the personal interests of Decca's founder, Jack Kapp. So it was no surprise that Decca employed A&R men that were susceptible for the changing preferences of a segment of white youth. Decca took over Bill Haley and his band from Essex and gave Haley the opportunity to make his rock and roll records. As Charlie Gillett (1970: 51) shows, however, Decca remained indecisive about what to do next on the market of youth music. On the one hand, the company produced imitative cover records like the hits of the McGuire Sisters and Teresa Brewer while, on the other hand, it later contracted Buddy Holly, the Crickets, and Brenda Lee.

  Other majors followed Decca's lead and contracted authentic rock and roll artists. Mercury, for instance, contracted the Platters who became one of the most famous black vocal groups. They enriched the fast developing idiom of rock and roll music with unforgettable songs like "Only You" (1955), "The Great Pretender" (1955), and "My Prayer" (1956). Mercury also took on Freddy Bell and the Bell Boys and the Big Bopper, as Capitol did with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, who made "Be-Bop-A-Lula" (1956) and Johnny Otis, who recorded the rock and roll song "Willie And The Hand Jive" (1958). The relationship between the major record companies and rock and roll music, however, remained an uneasy one. Though these companies did record and release rock and roll songs, at that time they were not really involved in developing this music.
2 Cleaning up the artists and their music. RCA-Victor intervened in a different way. At the end of 1955 this major took Presley over from Sun Records and adapted his songs and performance style as much as possible to mainstream standards. RCA succeeded in turning Presley away from "strict" rockabilly, but could not prevent that many elements of rock and roll still remained in his performances and records for the time being. This gave the music a chance to evolve further in its own direction, i.e. as rock and roll. Among the important rock and roll hits on the RCA label, are Presley's first record for RCA "Heartbreak Hotel" (1956), his rerecording of Carl Perkins' hit "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956), the cover he made of the famous rhythm and blues song of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton "Hound Dog" (1956), and the flipside of this single "Don't Be Cruel" (1956). Though Presley switched more and more to a crooner-entertainer's style over the years, songs like "My Baby Left Me" (1956), "Jail House Rock" (1957), "Don't" (1958), and "Hard Headed Woman" (1958) still clearly remain within the confines of the rock and roll idiom.
  Photo right: At least as popular as Elvis Presley at that time, teen idol Pat Boone personified the very essence of wholesome American values

Another — very popular — tactic the majors employed, consisted of the well-known practice of covering successful hits. This strategy implied — if needed — the cleaning up of the lyrics by removing or altering offensive bits, the softening of the music, and having the song performed a neat, clean-shaven artist — "castrating them" as Nick Cohn (1969) called it. One of the first companies involved in covering rock and roll was Dot, an independent company that was mostly active on the pop market. Dot launched college boy crooner Pat Boone who, despite his reservations about this music, "... did his best and that turned out to be enough to smother the originals of "Ain't That A Shame" (originally performed by Fats Domino), "Tutti Frutti" (originally performed by Little Richard), and "At My Front Door" (originally performed by the El Dorados)" (Gillett, 1970: 100). Covering hits from other streams was a standing practice among the majors and they continued this policy, when rock and roll broke through. Mercury was the most active major record company in this respect. Examples are the cover versions of LaVern Baker's "Tweedle Dee" and "Tra La La" by Georgia Gibbs and of "Sh-Boom" and "Earth Angel" by the Crew Cuts. Though, when the greatly adapted cover versions of the pop singers became less acceptable to the youthful audience, the company reacted by keeping the covers more in line with the originals. See in this respect the cover version of the Gladiolas' hit "Little Darlin'" by the Diamonds (Gillett, 1970: 52). Still, in most cases, there was quite a difference — a "chasm" as Gillett calls it — between the cover and the original because cover artists often did "as if" while the original singers and musicians felt what they were doing (Gillett, 1970: 25; emphasis by Gillett). Yet, with their practice of covering rock and roll, the music industry unwillingly furthered the development of the new musical stream. As Arnold Shaw (1974: 29) remarks: "Ironically, it was the cover that led him [a youth] to the original and helped pave the way for the rise of rock and roll."

  The way in which the major record companies reacted, initially, proved not to be very successful. Realizing that they were losing an ever-increasing slice of the growing music market to the Indies, they started looking for other ways to regain control. By now, they had learned that covering rock and roll songs was a dead-end street toward mastering the rock and roll market. They also realized that most of their own producers and stars were not really able to produce rock and roll records. Perry Como, for instance, turned Gene and Eunice's "Ko Ko Mo" (1955) into a pop success, but the result definitely was not a rock and roll record. At the same time, however, they had learned that is was possible to subject this new music to their familiar production techniques. The main example was set by the way the rough edges were knocked off from Elvis Presley. This practice quickly evolved into a formula that the majors used for producing other records like "Butterfly" by Charlie Gracie and "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors (Gillett, 1970: 40-41). From here on, it was but a short step for the companies to start the production of their own "rock and roll" singers — a phenomenon known as the creation of the teen idol.
3 Creating teen idols. Ideally, a teen idol is a neat looking boy — or girl for that matter — who sings songs that are acceptable to teen audiences, while not offending their parents. Though the making of a teen idol may seem an easy thing, it proved to be rather difficult. The problem was that these clean, neat, and innocent looking boys should at the same time correspond as closely as possible to the image that Elvis Presley initially had set for rock and roll. One way or the other, they had to look unconventional, however without any overt suggestions of sexuality and being bad. As Gillett typifies the strategy of the vested music industry: "Managers sought out dark-complexioned boys whose pictures would look right in the teen fan magazines, and producers harnessed an ever-more blatant beat to their sing-along songs" (Gillett, 1996: 113). For the music itself, the vested music industry went back to their familiar — equally clean — Tin Pan Alley formulas and adapted them to teen criteria. The old formulas led them to emphasize romance in the lyrics and, if anything, to include strings and vocal backings by close harmony singers in the music. As concessions to the teenage audience, the music was provided with at least some beat to make them suitable for dancing, and the lyrics carefully dealt with the feelings of teenagers, such as love, cars, school, and so on. Paul Anka's "I Am Just A Lonely Boy" (1959) is a good example of the teen-idol-format that the major record companies had in mind. This singer-songwriter from Canada was the neat boy the majors were looking for and his songs fitted in with their requirements. As the first in a whole series of idols, Anka acted as a prototype. His first hit "Diana" (1957) — 9 million records sold (Cohn, 1969: 55) — became a teen anthem by which the feeling of self-pity was introduced as a lasting feature of teen music next to the attitude of self-assertion that was propagated by the earlier rock and rollers (Gillett, 1970: 63). Anka made some other famous songs, with telling titles like "You Are My Destiny" (1958); "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" (1959), and "Puppy Love" (1960).
  Photo left: Singer and actress Concetta Rosemarie Franconero changed her name in Connie Francis and recorded a long list of world wide hits

Other than most of the earlier rock and roll artists, the host of the teen idols came from the North. They often had an Italian-American background that gave them the dark complexion that was so useful for their pictures in the teen magazines and their appearances on TV. The most widely known of these teen idols and examples of their songs are Tommy Sands with "Teen-Age Crush" (1957; Frankie Avalon with "Ginger Bread" (1958); Connie Francis with "Who's Sorry Now" (1958); Dion and the Belmonts with "I Wonder Why" (1958); Neil Sedaka with "Oh! Carol" (1959); Bobbie Rydell with "Little Bitty Girl" (1960); and Bobbie Vee with "Rubber Ball" (1960). Another often mentioned teen idol is Ricky Nelson. This "teen-age son" of the famous TV soap "Ozzie and Harriet":

  "... stood somewhere between the raucous classic rocker and the tepid teen idol ... [his songs] were reminiscent to rockabilly and classic rock but his weak voice and clean looks resembled the teen idols" (Friedlander, 1996: 60).
  In the late 1950s, he presented a "soft-rock" alternative to Elvis Presley with songs like "Be-Bop Baby" (1957) and "Poor Little Fool" (1958).
  The careers of these teen idols were helped considerably by TV as were the careers of earlier rock and roll stars such as Elvis Presley who appeared in the TV shows of Ed Sullivan, the Dorsey Brothers and Steve Allen. The decision of the TV networks to present rock and roll singers and teen idols in these shows did much to make this music acceptable. At the same time, TV was a family affair and this compelled the networks to keep their presentations neat and clean in order not to annoy the adult viewers. One TV program became of central importance: Dick Clark's "American Bandstand". In this program, teenagers danced to the music of the new teen stars — rock and roll singers as well as the emerging teen idols — under supervision of the brotherly, clean-cut Dick Clark, the master of ceremonies. As in all these TV programs, the clear emphasis was on being nice and civil. This program format spread all over the country and brought rock and roll within the reach of every teenager but — by favoring the softer approach of the teen idols — it hindered rock and roll's progression, i.e. improving the music while retaining its original characteristics such as loudness, rhythm, and directness.
  The teen idols' success induced, moreover, the music industry to fabricate more of the same; a policy that Gillett (1970: 325) typifies as taking "... the image of Elvis Presley and repackage it as Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Freddie Cannon and the rest ..." The whole process culminated in the person of Fabian. Ironically, Cohn (1969: 78) describes this highpoint as follows:
  "All of this, the whole 1960 bit, was epitomized by Fabian. His real name was Fabiano Forte and he came from Philadelphia. When he was thirteen, he was signed up by two local record men and computerized. To start with, he had the basic requirements — olive flesh, duck-ass hairstyle, conveyer-belt features. He had the required passing resemblance to Elvis Presley. On top of this, his management did the full Professor Higgins bit. They had him groomed, had him taught to speak nicely, had his voice trained. Made him round and flawless like a billiard ball. One snag: he couldn't sing. He ran through voice teachers the way old-time Hollywood stars once ran through wives. What did that matter? His management launched the biggest publicity campaign ever, besieged the trade papers for weeks, howled him from rooftops. Fabian himself only stood still and sparkled."
  The music of the teen idols — teen pop — became to dominate the market of youth music after 1958, when the early rock and rollers themselves faded from the screen. Apart from the push that the music industry and TV gave this music, it was the reaction of the wider youth audiences to it that gave teen music the edge over the classic rock and roll music. The irony of it all was that rock and roll's capacity to draw an ever-wider circle of young people into its orbit, contributed to its own demise. Among the growing number of people who gave up on Tin Pan Alley music, there were more who went over to teen pop than to "real" rock and roll. Most youngsters with a preference for the real thing obviously had crossed over earlier on. This shift was also promoted by developments in radio land. Partially due to the payola scandal the role of the hit-making deejay declined and the popularity of the Top Forty format, which was less susceptible to plugging, rose. The latter was based on the sales of singles in the record stores and thus furthered the rise of teen music to prominence. The demise of rock and roll was also advanced by the behavior of some of its stars and by events out of their control, the most important of which are described by Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak (1977: 309) as follows:
  "Many of the great stars left the music by that time [1958-1959]. Elvis Presley went into the army and emerged a pop singer. Little Richard took the orbiting of Sputnik I as a sign from heaven and quit the music business. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14-year-old cousin and was ostracized by the entire industry. Chuck Berry was, in the late 1950s, charged with a violation of the Mann Act, for which he would go to jail in 1962. His time was also absorbed by business — in 1959, he sold his St. Louis nightclub and opened a vast amusement park. Some of the greats were dead — the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens all died in the same 1959 plane crash."
4 Bridging the lean years. Still, and particularly if we focus our attention not entirely on the worst examples, teen music did retain enough elements of rock and roll to carry the music through the musically lean years which began in 1958/59 and lasted till the British Invasion hit America in 1963/64. Several songs that were performed by the teen idols, moreover, can be judged as rather good rock and roll songs. Examples are Neil Sedaka's "Oh! Carol" (1959), Frankie Avalon's "Ginger Bread" (1958), and quite a few of Paul Anka's songs. The same can be said of some of Connie Francis' hits. Look, for instance, at "Lipstick On Your Collar" (1959) or "Stupid, Cupid" (1958).
  Photo right: Don and Phil Everly, the Everly Brothers, set new standards for close, two-part harmony singing in rock and roll

In fact, teen music did serve as a bridge between classic rock and roll of the 1954-58 period and later revolutions — the beat music of the early 1960s and the rock music that evolved from it. Teen music could do so because it retained the main elements of rock and roll, such as its beat, its focus on the concerns of young people, the way it delivered feelings and passions to its audiences, and its use of electrical instruments. The teen pop, moreover, did not fade away completely from the musical scene as classic rock and roll did after 1959. Ironically, mostly out of the greed to make some profits, the vested interests in the music industry kept the very music alive they hated so much and so their interventions contributed to the consolidation of rock and roll as a self-evident part of the popular music scene. This consolidation forms the third and final step of the social construction of rock and roll.

  One should, moreover, not forget that at the same time — despite the demise of important rock and roll stars — many others continued with their music, as did Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, and Clyde McPhatter. Vocal groups like the Coasters and the Platters did the same. There were also singers from the rhythm and blues stream who succeeded at last to break through on the pop chart. Among them we find the names of Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, Etta James, and a vocal group, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. These singers and groups all contributed to the continuation of rock and roll as a music style. Others kept the torch of rock and roll burning as well; singers like Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee and black girl vocal groups such as the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Crystals, and the Ronettes. It would, however, take me too far to delve deeper in their music and their contributions to the rock and roll stream. It may be clear that the attempts to smother rock and roll failed one way or the other. As Richard Aquila (1992: 278) concludes:
  "In the end, the attempts to homogenize rock music into a uniformly safe pop form did not succeed. Not only did rock and roll retain its musical diversity and identity, but the sound remained creative and vital. As a result, the late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed some of the greatest hits in rock and roll history."
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