The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World

For some of us, it began late at night : huddled under bedroom covers with our ears glued to a radio receiver pull in black voices charged with acute emotion and propelled by a wildly energizing rhythm through the after-midnight inactive. Growing up in the white-bread America of the Fifties, we had never heard anything like it, but we reacted, or remember react, instantaneously and were converted. We were believers before we knew what it was that had indeed spectacularly ripped the dull, conversant framework of our lives. We asked our friends, possibly an older brother or sister. We found out that they called it rock & roll. It was indeed much more vital and alive than any music we had ever heard before that it needed a raw category : Rock & roll was much more than new music for us. It was an compulsion, and a way of life .

For some of us, it began a little late, with our first glance of Elvis on the family television hardening. But for those of us growing up in the Fifties, it didn ’ thymine seem to matter how or where we first heard the music. Our reactions were signally undifferentiated. here, we knew, was a sonic catastrophe come abound ( obviously ) out of nowhere, with the might to change our lives constantly. Because it was obviously, inarguably our music. If we had any initial doubt about that, our parents ’ horrified — or at best dismissive — reactions banished those doubts. Growing up in a global we were entirely beginning to understand, we had last found something for us : for us in concert, for us alone .

But where did it come from ? How did it get started ? Thirty-five-odd years after rock & roll first burst upon us in all its glory, we still don ’ t have a dim-witted, authoritative answer to these questions. Of course, they are trick questions. Where you think rock & roll came from and how you think it grew depend on how you define rock & roll.

Fats Domino, the most amiable and pragmatic of the first-generation rock & roll stars, was asked about the music ’ sulfur origins in a Fifties television receiver interview. “ Rock & roll is nothing but rhythm & blues, ” he responded with characteristic candor, “ and we ’ ve been playing it for years down in New Orleans. ” This is a valid statement : All Fifties rockers, black and white, country born and city bred, were basically influenced by R & B, the black popular music of the late Forties and early Fifties. R & B was a catchall gloss for the sound of everything from stomping Kansas City swing bands to New York street-corner vocal groups to scrappy Delta and Chicago blues bands. a far as Fats Domino was concerned, rock & roll was merely a new marketing strategy for the style of music he had been recording since 1949. But what about the rest of the Fifties rock candy front-runners ?
When we get down to cases, we find that respective of the most classifiable and influential rock ‘n’ roll & axial rotation performers of the mid-Fifties were making music that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be defined as a sequel of pre-1955 R & B. There was no clear precedent in R & B for an artist like Chuck Berry, who combined hillbilly, blues and swing-jazz influences in more or less equal measuring stick and wrote songs about adolescent life and acculturation that black and white teens found equally appealing. ( Louis Jordan, the early idol of both Berry and Bill Haley, came closest, but his jump ‘ n ’ swing history songs were aimed as much at adults as teens, and any hillbilly spirit in his records was rigorously a comedic device. ) surely, mainstream popular music had never seen a performer whose vocal music manner of speaking, stage moves and seamless integration of influences ampere divers as down-home blues, white pentecostalism and hit-parade crooning remotely resembled Elvis Presley ’ s. And where, outside the wildest, most dionysian black shopfront churches, had anyone heard or seen anything like Little Richard ?
Sam Phillips, the rock candy & roll patriarch whose Sun label first base recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and other ace talents, has suggested that the dependable spell of Fifties rock & axial rotation had very little to do with musical content, let alone musical initiation. And it ’ s absolutely true that once you strip the music down and analyze it, riff by flick, cream by lick, you find a mélange of blues conceits, prewar big-band and western swing, gospel and early existing vocabularies. For Phillips, rock candy & roller ’ randomness real significance was twofold .

first, it was the alone human body of democratic music that specifically addressed and was tailored to teenagers — there had been adult records and kiddie records, but nothing for that burgeoning bulge of the baby-boom population caught between childhood and adulthood. Second, rock & roll enabled “ bare ” Americans — poor white sharecroppers, black ghetto youths and, not coincidentally, shopfront record-label operators in off the beaten track places like Memphis — the opportunity to express themselves freely, not as purveyors of R & B and C & W, whose audiences were limit, but as a dominant violence in the popular market. Elvis was transformed from yokel truck driver to idol of millions in less than a class. on the spur of the moment, it seemed, the sky was the limit, if there was a limit at all .
The coming of rock & bankroll in the mid-Fifties was not merely a musical revolution but a social and generational agitation of huge and unpredicatable telescope. It besides represented a major reverse in the business of democratic music. There were no pre-rock & bun counterparts to Sam Phillips, who parlayed a bantam Memphis label with a staff of one into a company whose artists sold millions of records throughout the global. In record-business terms, rock & bankroll think of that belittled, once specialize labels like Sun, Chess and Specialty were invading the upper berth reaches of the pop charts, long the exclusive sphere of the major bodied record labels and oldline Tin Pan Alley music-publishing interests .
Concentrating on high-volume sales and bland, lowest-common-denominator crop up disposables, the majors were caught napping by an unholy alliance of Southern recreant radio engineers ( Phillips ), jewish immigrant merchants ( the Chess brothers ), black ex-swing-band musicians and raving hillbilly baseless men. These were the “ bare ” Americans who had been recording for specialized audiences since the majors had about ceded them that territory at the end of World War II. The ghetto-storefront, nickle-and-dime record operation of 1949-53 on the spur of the moment emerged an industry elephantine in 1955-56, accounting for many and often most of the records at the top of the pop charts .
Because many of the lapp small labels that had taken over the R & B market were besides dabbling in nation & western music, and frailty versa, these musics had been drawing closer together. The younger generation of C & W fans were besides listening and dancing to black music, and as a result white country musicians were encouraged to record R & B songs and free rein with a heavier, decidedly rocking rhythm .

meanwhile, many blacks growing up in isolate pockets of the rural South listened to and were influenced by the state music on radio programs like the Grand Ole Opry, from Nashville. Black performers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley found that when they performed a song that was vaguely hillbilly in style or derivation, black audiences went for it. Despite the still-rigid racial segregation of the Fifties, the white and black underclass of music fans and performers was finding more and more park crunch .
With the unfolding of the postwar baby boom, teenagers, specially white teenagers with money in their pockets, represented a potentially enormous and largely untapped consumer group. It didn ’ t take a brilliance to realize, as Sam Phillips and other early-Fifties indie-label owners did, that more and more of these free-spending kids were listening to black records, spin on local radio stations by a raw generation of black-talking but largely white-skinned disk jockeys. If a white performer with an R & B style and adolescent attract could be found …
The runaway success of Bill Haley and the Comets following the use of their “ Rock Around the Clock ” in a identify succession of the 1955 juvenile-delinquent movie The Blackboard Jungle was a clear signal that R & B and C & W ( Haley ’ s Comets were a former C & W ring recording R & B tunes in a style resembling Louis Jordan ’ randomness ) weren ’ triiodothyronine going to remain ghettoize from the pop-music mainstream much longer. But Haley wasn ’ t precisely teen-idol material. It took an assiduously groomed and promoted Elvis Presley — who, caption has it, walked into Sam Phillips ’ s bantam office to make a read for his mother ’ sulfur birthday — to assure the victory of rock & roll .
To succeed in the adolescent market, the new music — new, at least, to the teenagers who embraced it — needed a list. Rhythm & blues was a date condition with entirely black connotations. Alan Freed, the white R & B magnetic disk jockey whose motion from Cleveland to a top-rated New York post in 1954 was as all-important to the emergence of rock & roll as the seasonably appearance of the Pelvis, came up with the name. It must have amused Freed and other insiders a big cover that the condition rock & roll was black gull for sexual activity — and had been vitamin a early as 1922, when blues singer Trixie Smith recorded “ My serviceman Rocks Me ( With One Steady Roll ). ” It was a secret shared by the disk jockey, the performers and the kids : amazingly, “ creditworthy adults ” didn ’ t seem to “ get it. ” Certainly, cipher who was in on the jest was going to spell it out for them. Teenagers were developing their own codes of in-group complicity, expressed in clothes, in accouterments ( from girls ’ earrings and pins to greasers ’ switchblades ) and increasingly in their own slanguage. The culture medium that spread this metro adolescent culture was rock & roll .
From its earliest days the rock & wheel label covered a broad musical terrain. The cliché is that rock & roll was a melt of nation music and blues, and if you are talking about, say, Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, the description, through simplistic, does fit. But the black innercity vocal-group sound, which itself was divers enough to accommodate the rugged, soulful Midnighters and 5 Royales, the neo-barbershop harmonies of “ bird groups ” like the Orioles and the Crows and the kid phone of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or Shirley and Lee, had little to do with either blues or country music in their pure forms.

The Bo Diddley exhaust — which, once Bo popularized it, began showing up on records by everybody from the former wind bandleader Johnny Otis ( “ Willie and the Hand Jive ” ) to the Texas rockabilly Buddy Holly ( “ not Fade Away ” ) — was Afro-Caribbean in derivation. The most durable ( read “ overused ” ) sea bass riff in Fifties rock & peal, as exemplified by Fats Domino ’ s “ Blue Monday ” or Lloyd Price ’ sulfur and Elvis Presley ’ s “ Lawdy Miss Clawdy, ” had been pinched by Dave Bartholomew, Domino ’ s cagey manufacturer and bandleader, from a Cuban son criminal record. The yell, acrobatic sax play that was Fifties rock ’ second dominant instrumental voice before the electric guitar moved front and center was straight out of Forties big-band swing, as were typical rock & roll arrangers ’ devices such as riffing sax sections and stop-time breaks. traditional mexican rhythm method of birth control entered the rock & roll arena through Chicano artists, most prominently Ritchie Valens. Rock & roll proved an all-American, multiethnic hybrid, its sources and developing substyles excessively assorted to be explained away by “ blues plus country ” or any other reductionist formula .
At the stature of the initial chaos, in 1955-56, a choose number of front-runners emerged, stars whose personalities and performing antics set the phase for all that was to follow : Elvis, of run ; Chuck Berry, whose authoritative guitar expressive style ( rooted in swing jazz and the uptown set blues of T-Bone Walker ) was as widely emulated as his brilliant, vividly economic lyrics of adolescent tribulations and wallow ; Little Richard, the archetypal rock & roll scorcher and ambisexual stripper artist, with the toughest, most influential road ring of the period, the mighty Upsetters ; friendly, reliable Fats Domino, who mixed New Orleans blues and jazz with Tin Pan Alley pop and quietly racked up more hit records than anyone but Elvis ; Jerry Lee Lewis, the prototype of the rock & roll barbarian serviceman, his stage character and life style perfectly matched ; Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the paradigm of the singer-songwriter-fronted guitarband ; Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the 5 Royales and a young James Brown, all of whom enact Pentecostal religious ecstasies on the rock ‘n’ roll & roll stage and spawned the Sixties soul men in the serve ; and Eddie Cochran, who combined teen-idol looks with a probing melodious news and who understood early on that the recording studio apartment was a musical musical instrument .
Certain sub-rosa figures were arguably american samoa authoritative as even the brightest sing stars in build and shaping rock & roll as a feasible musical parlance, with a future ampere well as a spectacular, slam-bang give. The producer Milt Gabler, who applied what he learned producing Louis Jordan ’ mho Forties jump-blues novelties to Bill Haley ’ s breakthrough hits. Dave Bartholomew, the New Orleans trumpeter, bandleader, songwriter and record manufacturer, whose musicians powered most of the hits by Fats Domino and Little Richard. Bartholomew ’ s drummer, Earl Palmer, who defined rock ‘n’ roll & paradiddle rhythm in New Orleans and moved on to first-call condition among the Los Angeles studio elite, playing uncredited on a stagger count of the earned run average ’ s most influential records, from Richard ’ s “ Tutti Frutti ” to Cochran ’ s “ Summertime Blues. ” If any single musician can be credited with defining rock & seethe as a rhythmical dialect distinct from the jumpstart, R & B and all else that preceded it, that musician is surely Earl Palmer. But it was another drummer and little Richard associate, the Upsetters ’ Charles Connor, who first put the funk in the cycle, as even

admitted. Atlantic Records ’ Tom Dowd introduced true stereo and gave Atlantic singles by the Coasters, the Drifters and many others a alone clearness and presence. Sam Phillips was as significant for his clever engineering, his find for echo and atmosphere, as for his talent spot and genre mix. And Phillips ’ s multiracial populism, an unpopular stance for a white southerner in the Fifties, to say the least, had a lot to do with defining what we might choose to call either the spirit of rock & roll or its politics. It was Phillips who expressed most clearly, through his read policies and his public utterances, the sight of rock candy & roll as a dream of equality and exemption .
much has been made of Sixties rock candy as a fomite for revolutionary social and cultural change, but it was mid-Fifties rock candy & roll that blew off, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of centuries. What could be more hideous, more threaten to the social and sexual regulate subsumed by the ingenuous phrase traditional american values, than a full-tilt little Richard prove ? There he was, camping it up androgynously one infinitesimal, then ripping off his clothes to display for a pack house of screaming adolescent white girls his finely muscled black body .
It is a quantify of Fifties rock ’ s genuine rotatory potential ( as opposed to the revolution-as-corporate-marketing gambit so characteristic of the Sixties ) that while Sixties rock finally calmed down, was co-opted or snuffed itself out in heedless excess, Fifties rock & roll was stopped. Cold .

Rock & roll ’ s takeover of the pop-music market in the mid-Fifties was as threatening to the enterenched oldline music and entertainment commercial enterprise as it was to professional authority figures everywhere. RCA had Elvis, but most of the early rock & roll hits were on regionally rooted indie operations. Most of the major labels, arsenic well as the established music publishers that had been the industry ’ s anchor for more than a hundred, reacted slowly to the rock & scroll barrage, and most were decidedly not amused by it .
It took a alliance of these Tin Pan Alley interests and publicity-hungry congressmen to bring rock & roll to its knees with the payola hearings that so disgracefully capped a rightfully disruptive decade. The payola hearings managed to pillory Alan Freed, who had constantly played original black recordings preferably than the bland whiten “ cover ” versions being offered by squeaky-clean opportunists like Pat Boone .
At the same time a combination of economic forces and the gradual takeover of record-distribution networks by major labels made running a small label more and more unmanageable. The indie labels that had launched the music and sustained it during the two or three years when it ravaged the bring either caved in to the pressure and restfully wound down their operations, like Sun and Specialty, or diversify and became corporate giants themselves, like Atlantic .
On top of all this came a serial of mishaps in the careers of some of rock ’ second leading lights. The army and Colonel Parker conspired to make Elvis dependable. Chuck Berry was busted and exhausted time in jail. short Richard depart at the acme of his powers to preach the gospel. Jerry Lee Lewis married his barely pubescent cousin and was blackballed. Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper went gloomy in an Iowa discipline. Alan Freed ’ s fall from grace ended at the buttocks, with his end as an alcoholic hermit .
During the few brief years when high-octane rock & roll ruled unbridled, the possibilities seemed mind-boggling, even limitless. Viewed with hindsight, the whole affair turns out to have been the cultural vanguard of a drift toward racial, sociable and sexual equality that was then only beginning to assume an explicitly political form. It ’ sulfur no mere accident of history that Rosa Parks ’ s refusal to move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus, the germinal act of what became the civil-rights bowel movement, occurred during the brief pop-music dominance of performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, black men whose every fathom and signal communicated their refusal to respond to the racist ’ s traditional “ C ’ bare, boy ! ”

If Fifties rock & roll failed to realize the creative and social aspirations it so eloquently expressed, on a strictly cultural level it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams anyone could have entertained at the clock time. not lone has it proved more than a evanesce fad or an episode of youthful folly, it has provided the model, the template, the jumping-off bespeak for virtually every subsequent wave of pop-music invention. The best of Fifties rock & hustle may have promised a utopia that was not to be, but adenine retentive as the music survives, the dream will live on .

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