THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL 1955

Posted: February 27, 2014 in MUSIC, Rock n Roll 1955
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by Robert Seoane

BILL HALEY & THE COMETS – MUDDY WATERS – BO DIDDLEY – JIMMIE RODGERS – HANK WILLIAMS – RAY CHARLES – CHUCK BERRY – LITTLE RICHARD – FATS DOMINO – PAT BOONE

The year was 1955. Dwight David Eisenhower was the President of the United States. The most devastating war in modern civilization had ended a scant ten years before. The Korean “conflict” was behind us. Senator McCarthy had been recently exposed as a crazed lunatic. “I Love Lucy” was the number one show on that eight year old upstart called television; a medium threatening to disturb the way things operated in the Hollywood movie industry. “On The Waterfront” had won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954. Actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” were not only introducing a new acting method, but symbolizing youth’s rebellion.

It was the beginning of what would prove to be the most lucrative and hopeful era of the century. The middle class comprised a large percentage of society and its way of life was affordable. Most modern homes had a telephone, modern kitchen luxuries, a black and white TV set and a monaural record player. Stereophonic sound was just being introduced into a few select living rooms that could afford the triple price of a system versus a regular mono player, and the $18.99 price tag for a stereo record, in contrast to only $.99 for the mono version of the same record.

It was a different world in 1955 in contrast to today, particularly in complexion. White faces comprised the vast majority of the middle and upper classes, and dominated the look Madison Avenue advertised to the country. White people were the niche market, with darker color skins relegated to the sidelines and in the roles of servants and criminals. But that perception also began to turn the corner in 1955. The first rumblings of change truly began in White America when, despite mainstream society’s desperate attempt to prevent the winds of tolerance from blowing, the countdown to a new era had already begun.

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock, five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock, nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock, we’re gonna rock around the clock tonight…” -Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley and the Comets

“Rock Around The Clock” is arguably the first rock and roll song ever recorded. Written by Max Friedman and James E. Myers under the pseudonym “Jimmy De Knight” in 1952, it was given to William John Clifton “Bill” Haley to sing and record. Carried along with a steady drum beat and Haley’s crisp, melodic voice, and including one of the best rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos in rock ‘n’ roll history, “Rock Around The Clock” strongly persuaded everyone under 30 to jump on their feet and dance ‘til they dropped.

Bill Haley himself looked like the antithesis of what a rock ‘n’ roller should look like. He had a round, plump face, short hair with a curlicue hanging over his forehead, was 30 years old when the song took off, an age considered the line of demarcation between rockers and The Establishment, and was fat. Still, Bill Haley and his Comets had already been charting in the Country Top Songs list with similar hits, such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, which had also climbed to Number Seven in 1954 in the Billboard Pop chart. It wasn’t going to be the first song that would cross over on to the main charts; Top Pop, Top Country and Top R&B, an achievement that is rare today.

Haley didn’t get around to recording “RATC” until a full year after Friedman and Myers wrote it for him, so an Italian-American band named Sonny Dae and his Knights beat him to the punch and recorded it in March, 1954. Nothing happened. It seemed that destiny was waiting around for Bill Haley to record it, and so he did, just a month later. Once he released it, again nothing happened. The song that was about to launch an entire culture needed a little push.

It came in the form of a teen movie called “Blackboard Jungle”, starring a then famous actor by the name of Glenn Ford, and introducing a young black actor named Sidney Poitier. The movie dealt with juvenile delinquents in school and was a mediocre melodrama. The producers wanted to choose a song that would symbolize what youth was listening to at the time, so the opening credits showcased Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”. Soon after the release of the song, it shot up to the first position in the Pop charts in July of 1955, a feat repeated throughout the entire world, and stayed there for eight weeks. The seed had been planted, and the song would remain the music movement’s starting point through the decades, as its legitimacy was proven once again almost twenty years later when it played on the opening credits of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973) and re-entered the pop charts a year later.

Teenagers went wild over the song. They danced in the aisles of the movie theater each time “Blackboard Jungle” began. Their dances were comprised of wild, disorderly gyrations that seemed to have no sense or style, a far cry from the classy and graceful dance moves of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The song was played loud, an essential pre-requisite to enjoying rock ‘n’ roll music. Everyone over 30 was horrified at what sounded to them like primitive savage beats that belonged in the jungle. But they accepted it quietly because Bill Haley was a white country boy and fit the description of what White America would accept. It was a flash in the pan, everyone thought. The song would leave the charts and American ears will be made safe once again for Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. Black singers before the rock ‘n’ roll era were only accepted into the mainstream as long as they sounded white. Nat “King” Cole filled that vacuum nicely.

Bill Haley’s comet fizzled out rather quickly, just as White America thought he would. He released a few more singles that did not do as well as “Rock Around The Clock”. Soon, he was quickly forgotten in the US, although Europe still coveted and respected him well into the 60s, and as a result, Haley enjoyed a resurging career overseas. His faltering career however, took a toll on him and he began to drink heavily in the Seventies. On February 9, 1981, he died of a heart attack at age 55.

 

BEFORE 1955

THE BLUES

The term “feeling blue” is a phrase that’s in dispute as to its origins. The term supposedly began with the custom among many old deep water sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

Legend also has it that blues music began back in the days of slavery. West African slaves sang as they worked, mourning their state. One of the plants that grew in the many plantations they were forced to work on was called the Indigo plant. This plant also grew in their native Africa. There, the blue indigo dye that the plant produced was used in their West African wardrobe as part of their traditional death and mourning ceremonies, when everyone wore blue to mourn the parting of their loved one. The fact that the plant also grew in American plantations allowed these West African slaves to mourn and sing in this traditional garb in their new, forced-upon country. The type of singing the white landowners heard coming from their fields was quickly dubbed ‘the blues”. White America didn’t give it a second thought, but I suspect they quietly enjoyed the sound emanating from their fields.

As the 20th century dawned and America became industrialized, wired and packaged to be sold to a finicky public who demanded to be entertained and distracted from the woes of daily life, the blues found itself a home in the brand new music recording industry. The industry was already heady competition with sheet music, the standard of the 19th century when the only way to listen to music was to go see a performance or buy the sheet music and play it yourself. In 1908, the very first blues sheet music was white Italian-American Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues”.

Despite the fact that African American rhythms and melodies had a significant impact on the start of America’s music recording business, blacks were still not allowed to perform. Instead, white entertainers like Al Jolson painted their face black, as was the practice of black-face minstrelsy of the day, and came out to sing; lampooning, stealing, insulting and inadvertently honoring African-American talent at once, while at the same time giving a boost to the US music industry. In other words, White America got a tremendous boost in starting a future multi-million dollar industry, in part by pretending to be black people.


The first African American to record a blues song was Mamie Smith. The song “Crazy Blues” was written by fellow African-American Perry Bradford. Soon, White America began to accept black entertainers, culminating in the 1920s with Jazz musician Louis Armstrong, who leaned more towards jazz arrangements. In the meantime, the blues was becoming increasingly popular and soon gave way to boogie-woogie in the 1930s and 1940s. Usually featuring a piano, boogie-woogie comprised of a small combo, in contrast to Big Band blues, of which the Count Basie Orchestra remains one of the best of time.

In the 1950s, the Blues grew an arm that blossomed into an entire genre, simply by adding the word “rhythm”. Jerry Wexler, a music journalist and aspiring record producer, worked at Billboard Magazine at the time and coined the term “Rhythm & Blues”. Wexler went on to become a pioneering producer of many great artists into the 1980s, but not before he gave the blues a little respect. “Rhythm & Blues” replaced the label they used before, which was “race” records, and soon after received its own singles chart on Billboard magazine. It was as if the stars were aligning to give birth to the primary force of music that would catapult the industry in the latter part of the 20th century.

Rock ‘n’ roll is essentially the blend of country & western music with rhythm & blues. Traces of rock ‘n’ roll that still reverberate today are rooted directly from the work of legendary blues artists who blossomed in the late 1940s and 1950s. Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson are just a handful of artists who profoundly influenced the styles of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and their Sixties peers. Three songs by Muddy Waters in particular, pointed the direction to the future and ultimately became inextricably a part of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

A copy of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” was laying on the floor the day Brian Jones was speaking on the phone with a club manager interested in booking the still struggling group. When he was asked what the name of the band was, Brian glanced over to the record.

“Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working” along with the inspiration to the name of one of Rock’s greatest groups, were the fertile soil that rock ‘n’ roll blossomed in. This one was written by Willie Dixon, a prolific songwriter who wrote over 500 songs, many of them blues classics and favorites of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin among many more.

Subsequent legendary rock artists like Eric Clapton played the song, copying Waters’ exact enunciation of the lyrics, down to the way he sang the word “womens”.

Other great blues artists besides Muddy Waters, like Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Big Joe Turner, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Little Willie John, Buddy Guy, Albert King, were such influential blues musicians that they have been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

 

BO DIDDLEY

Honorable mention should be given to Elias Otha Bates, otherwise known as Bo Diddley, whose single of the same name was released in March of 1955 and charted in the R&B charts, making it the first rhythm & blues song to mix rock ‘n’ roll with African rhythms, led by a series of waves of tremolo guitar that was so innovative for its time, it got to be known as the “Bo Diddley Beat”. His influence pervaded most of the upcoming rock ‘n’ roll legends of the next ten years, from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Parliament Funkadelic, The Velvet Underground, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles, among others.

“Bo Diddley’s b-side was another classic called “I’m A Man” which was inspired by Muddy Waters 1954 recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Having heard the song, Waters then recorded an answer song called “Mannish Boy”.


Diddley recalls having difficulty recording the song due to the timing of spelling out “M…A…N”. The two-sided hit made it to Number One in the R&B chart.

Many versions of “I’m A Man” was recorded over the years, but the most well known of them all was by the Yardbirds. They had recorded it live in 1964 when Eric Clapton was the band’s lead guitarist. The group then went into the studio to record it for single release the following year, but this time with Jeff Beck on lead guitar. The Yardbirds’ version picks up the pace from the original, speeding up as it churns along, and includes Beck’s “scratch picking” during the instrumental break.

Slavery, therefore and ironically enough, had become a vitally instrumental contribution to the varied culture of America’s music and entertainment. If White America had not pillaged and kidnapped so many unfortunate souls from Africa, we would probably not have rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today.

 

COUNTRY & WESTERN

Country and Western music was also encumbered with its own stereotypes as it grew in popularity. Like the blues’ “race” records moniker, C&W music was called “Hillbilly” music up until the 1940s, when it was re-labeled “country”. C&W music originated from the southeastern and western part of the US and first became evident in the 1920s. It too, borrowed inspiration from the blues and re-twanged it into its own signature style. If you were to trace the origins of C&W, you would go back as much as 300 years to the Irish, who brought their fiddle to the New World. That and the banjo, originally from West-Africa, among a handful of other instruments (drums weren’t introduced into country music until the 1930s), formed the foundation for country music. The reason for this influence is simply because blacks and whites would get together back in those days to play their particular instruments; the Irish with their fiddle, the blacks with their banjos. Music , once again, manages to cross ethnic boundaries.

Atlanta was the first location to produce recorded country music in the 1920’s and one of the first country songs ever recorded is “Turkey In The Straw” by two fiddlers named Henry Gilliland and A.C. Robertson in 1922. Throughout that decade, Jimmie Rodgers pointed the direction to the future as he mixed country with jazz, blues and gospel and other genres such as folk and pop.

As the decades unfolded, country music became extremely popular thanks to movie westerns showcasing cowboy songs with movie star heroes like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Soon, women joined the country music fray as Rogers sang with his wife, Dale Evans.

Meanwhile, other female country singers began to debut. The blues continued to influence country music through one of its branches; boogie woogie was a profound influence to several country artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford. It’s offspring was christened “country boogie”. In the meantime, blues and different forms of country music continued to collide like atomic experiments. Honky tonk, a mix of western swing and Mexican rancheras, originated from Oklahoma and Texas, and was similar in its birth to the blues in that it also came from the voices of the poor. Honky tonk got into a mixed marriage in 1937 when Al Dexter released “Honky Tonk Blues”.

But the biggest influence borne from honky tonk was Hank Williams.

Hank Williams’ influence can be heard in the songs of early rock ‘n’ roll artists such as the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and in the songs of future rock icons like Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and many, many others, including the one man who firmly cemented rock ‘n’ roll into American society, Elvis Presley. When country music became so evident in some of Elvis’ songs, along with Lewis, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly to name some, the name “rockabilly” was invented to label this mix of rock ‘n’ roll with country.

So there you have it. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a collision of musical cultures that were flirting with each other for decades before it finally came into full bloom. Since 1955, rock ‘n’ roll remained one of the most popular forms of music for the remainder of the 20th century. It’s declined somewhat in the beginning of the 21st century and has been mostly replaced by hip-hop and dance pop songs in the charts. Today, the most popular forms of music on the radio are country and religious. Rhythm & Blues also remains a potent force, and although there are still strong rock artists today successfully recording and releasing popular albums, the real dollars and cents in the rock industry today is in touring.

My intention in writing this down is to bring out the knowledge I’ve collected about the rock ‘n’ roll era from 1955 to 1999. Being not only a music lover but an avid follower and student of rock ‘n’ roll history, I feel I should write the events that I not only know, but have also lived through, for anyone who cares to reminisce or is eager to learn.

 

THE PIONEERS OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

The year that spawned “Rock Around The Clock” was also the year that the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll began to spring out from the other music genres. Ray Charles, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were percolating under the world audience radar when Bill Haley helped them bubble up to the surface. Each of these artists, although having already established their careers in the R&B circuit, brought with them one song apiece that will forever be part of the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll and opened the door to a string of songs that became closely identified with the infancy of the genre. Those songs are Ray Charles, “I Got A Woman”, Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”.

 

RAY CHARLES

Ray Charles Robinson carried a grab-bag of musical styles. Jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, gospel and country were the genres in which he would write and sing with ease. Blind by age seven due to a two-year, slowly progressing glaucoma, his lack of sight took him to a school for the blind in St. Augustine, Florida. It was there that he began to develop his musical talent.

Charles started his career in the mid-forties playing piano at bars for $ a night in Jacksonville. He picked up his trademark sunglasses when he was a member of the Florida Playboys and toured through Orlando and Tampa. By 1950, he was in Miami, staying in the segregated Overtown, but being noticed enough to have done an actual recording that went nowhere. Soon after, Jerry Wexler, the man who coined the term “rhythm and blues”, found him in St. Augustine and signed him to a contract. Two years later, Wexler joined Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun, another legendary record producer, and brought Charles along with him.’

Charles recorded songs during his early days in Atlantic that became modest hits in the Rhythm and Blues charts, but the first single that went to No. on that chart was “I Got A Woman”. It was also the first song Charles wrote for Atlantic. He would always play a loose rendition of the song live, but never got around to recording it. Finally, it was released as a single in December of 1955 and by January it had become a rhythm and blues standard, although it never managed to crack the Pop charts. The song itself however, had strong legs and was soon picked up by Elvis Presley a year later and subsequently sung by many artists including The Beatles, the Monkees, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Sammy Davis, Jr. and countless others.

A portion of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” is sung by Jamie Foxx in an uncanny resemblance to Charles’ original recording, in Kanye West‘s song “Gold Digger” fifty years later. Ironically, it isn’t Charles’ version that is best remembered but Presley’s because of the ending Presley made up on the spot and thus ushered it into rock ‘n’ roll immortality. Where Ray Charles’ version just adds with a simple fade-out, Presley declares three times that his woman “is alright”, then suddenly stops, only to come back with his trademark enunciation of the repeating lyric that he sings slowed down and deliberately before coming to a drum crashing end.


Ray Charles’ career soared soon after that, producing hit after hit. None of them really fit into the rock ‘n’ roll genre, but his reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer was cemented by “I Got A Woman”. Later songs like “What’d I Say”, “Hit The Road, Jack”, “Georgia” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became major hits in the late fifties and early sixties. His two albums, “Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music” Volumes I and II, released in February and September of 1962 respectively, were massive hits, spawning the aforementioned single “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. Charles took a handful of standard C&W songs he loved and gave them the “Ray Charles” feel, adding a bluesy sound to them both instrumentally and with his amazingly rich and soulful voice.




His popularity in the charts however faltered once the British Invasion took hold in 1964 and his records no longer charted. But his concerts were still a sold out affair and he toured late into his age until he died of acute liver disease in June of 2004. He was 73.

 

CHUCK BERRY

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”-John Lennon

Where the music of Ray Charles varied widely in that he could easily take command of practically any musical style, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was more of a developer. He developed and altered rhythm & blues into a totally different sound his own that ultimately defined the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Being a songwriter and guitarist, Chuck Berry’s guitar style, in the open to “Roll Over Beethoven” for example, consists of rapid guitar picking, climbing up the keys like a car being revved up, only to quickly steady, then dip down and idle into a repetitive melody distinctively his own. Soon, not only his electric guitar style, but also the things he sang about; girls and cars, set the theme for countless rock songs to come. It was copied by many of the biggest stars that followed throughout the rest of the 20th century, including the Beach Boys, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His opening guitar lick is so recognizable as symbolizing the sound of rock ‘n’ roll, that it almost sounds like it should be the necessary open to ANY rock ‘n’ roll song.

Chuck Berry’s career began almost immediately when he bumped into Muddy Waters. After Waters first heard him play, he urged Berry to contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Leonard Chess was, likeJerry Wexler and Ahmet Ehtergun, a music producer who loved rock ‘n’ roll and was determined to help in developing it.

Leonard Chess’ ear, and his instinct for the sound of this burgeoning new genre, told him to discard the rhythm and blues material Berry had composed. Instead, Chess chose a country and western standard called “Ida Red” and gave to Berry so he can interpret it in his own way. The result was “Maybelline”, a song whose title was chosen when Berry saw an empty box of the make-up brand on the studio floor. It seems that a lot of legendary rock ‘n’ roll names began on floors.

The electric guitar that opens the song heralds in this exciting new sound. Berry’s opening guitar riff almost sounds like a car horn before the song settles into a fast, steady drum rhythm, reminiscent of a standard country song’s beat. His lyrics deal with driving his Cadillac and chasing after this elusive girl in a Coupe Deville. “Maybelline” hit No. on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues charts and No. on Billboard’s Best Sellers in Stores charts. Thanks to Berry, the electric guitar became the most important musical instrument and essential component to the rock ‘n’ roll sound.

Country music deeply influenced Berry’s music, but it was his electric guitar that made it distinctly a Berry tune. His career took off and he composed hit after hit throughout the rest of the 50s. Besides the aforementioned “Roll Over Beethoven”, there are classics like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Memphis”, “School Days” and Rock & Roll Music”; just a handful of rocking tunes that helped keep rock music on the radio.



Berry’s music since has been covered by rock’s greatest bands and probably every garage band who wanted to learn to play rock ‘n’ roll. His influence even helped inspire other classic rock songs. “Come Together” by the Beatles and written by John Lennon for example, is simply a slowed down version of “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon even took lyrics from the Berry tune to open his version: “Here come ol’ flattop…”. If this subtle rearranging of the song was missed by most, it wasn’t by Berry, who sued The Beatles and then settled out of court for using the lyrics and the same blues chord sequences. Lennon admitted Berry’s influence but stayed adamant against ever having stole the song.

“Come Together is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in ‘here come ol’ flattop’. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘here comes old iron face’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry and of everybody else on earth.” – John Lennon


Berry’s influence was so profound on The Beatles and a major inspiration on their sound, that they recorded their own version of two of Berry’s greatest hits for their own early albums: “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rock & Roll Music”.


The same went for the Beach Boys, going so far as to downright stealing not only the opening guitar riff from “Roll Over Beethoven” but singing a different melody over the same “…Beethoven” beat and turning it into “Fun Fun Fun”.

The song “Roll Over Beethoven” is a perfect blend of what rock ‘n’ roll is about. Besides the legendary guitar open, its lyrics are a gentle nudge to those “over 30 Establishment types” who thought rock ‘n’ roll was just a lot of noise. “Roll Over Beethoven… tell Tchaikovsky the news” was Berry’s way of telling everyone who wasn’t a teenager to deal with it because rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay, and he proved it again and again by composing songs celebrating youth (“Almost Grown”, “School Days”), life (“Too Much Monkey Business” with its dizzying display of finger picking in its electric open) and even the genre itself (“Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” “Reelin’ and Rockin’”).



Many of his songs echoed his “Roll Over Beethoven” guitar open buried within some of his solos. Only sometimes would he veer slightly from his usual style and managed to compose catchy, meaningful music (“Havana Moon” with its Bahamian rhythm; “Memphis”, a father’s plea to his daughter).

“Johnny B. Goode” is arguably Berry’s most famous song. Altering his trademark guitar lick only slightly, he settles into a musical repetition of guitar picking that makes it hard not to move. It reached #8 on the Billboard’s Singles Charts in the spring of 1958 and became the soundtrack of that summer. The song was further cemented into 50’s rock ‘n’ roll lore when it became part of the soundtrack to George Lucas’ “American Grafitti” (1973) in a memorable scene involving a prank from the day called a “chinese fire drill”, where a group of teenagers jump out of their cars during a red light, squirt whipped cream and release the air out of the tires of the adjacent, unsuspecting car, then dash away when the light turned green.


In 1977, Chuck Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode”, along with other taped recordings of music and sounds, was shot into space by NASA in the hopes that some day it would reach a point where alien worlds may sample earthly culture. In an amusing sketch on “Saturday Night Live” back then, Steve Martin plays a psychic and announces in a sketch called “Next Week In Review”, that the capsule had indeed reached alien forms and these forms had returned a message that consisted of only four words. Those four words, according to Martin, were, “Send More Chuck Berry”.

Chuck Berry’s visual style was as strong as his musical abilities. Rock ‘n’ Roll goes hand in hand with outrageous, envelope pushing fashion and antics, and Chuck Berry helped cement hairstyle with the attitude of a young rocker. His slicked back, jet black hair with a curl dangling in front, his outlandish, shiny jackets, his equally outlandish shoes… and his duck walk. Berry would go to one end of the stage, crouch as in a seated position, and literally walk to the other side of the stage in that crouch as he plucked his guitar and moved his head to and fro like a duck.

“While no individual can be said to have invented rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest.”-Inscribed on his statue on Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame


Ironically, it was one of his favorite topics to sing and write about that stopped his career to a dead halt. “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, “Carol”, “Beautiful Delilah” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” were innocuous love songs to teenage girls, rock ‘n’ roll’s primary market.


In January of 1962, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison for violating the Mann Act and transported a 14 year old girl across state lines. It had not been the first time he had been incarcerated, having already served another three years for armed robbery in 1944. When Berry was finally released from this second infraction, he managed to come out with just a few more singles in 1964, the most memorable of them being “No Particular Place To Go”.

Changing musical styles soon turned him into a 50s relic and a headliner in nostalgia festivals. Besides a novelty hit in 1972 called “My Ding-A-Ling”, Berry was relegated to touring the rest of his life. But his shadow is long and tall and would loom large over the sound of rock music for decades to come.

 

LITTLE RICHARD

“When I heard Little Richard, I mean, it just set my world on fire.”-David Bowie

“When Little Richard used to stand up and play, it was just fabulous. The piano is the most ungainly musical instrument of time but (he) transcended it.”-Elton John

“Wop bop a lu bop ba lop bom bom”-“Little” Richard Wayne Penniman

With those words, Little Richard introduced variations to the rock ‘n’ roll sound by introducing a piano as the main instrument and a groovy sounding horn section that usually consisted of a wailing sax. He also introduced the scream, an essential component to any crazy rock song, and a sound that would be picked up by many legendary artists, including Paul McCartney who could imitate Little Richard’s wail down to a tee. Soon, The Beatles also took his “oooh” screams for themselves and made it part of their own style, peppering Little-Richard “oooh’s” in many of their early songs like “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist & Shout”, “From Me To You” and “She Loves You”.

By 1955, Richard Penniman was practically a musical veteran, having toured with groups he had formed over the years and having recorded his own R&B compositions for companies like RCA, only to meet with public indifference. After being picked up this time by Specialty Records after he sent them his demo, Specialty owner Art Rupe set Penniman up with Fats Domino’s back-up band to record. It was during a particularly frustrating recording session that Penniman stood in front of a piano between takes and belted out a song he had been singing as a gag since the days he washed clothes in the 40s:

“Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy”…

Rupe heard that and knew he had a hit. He called Dorothy LaBostrie to re-write the bawdy lyrics and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most legendary songs was soon born.

“Little” Richard’s persona was infinitely more threatening to White America than any of the aforementioned musicians. His music, the spark that inspired and began two entirely new genres: soul and funk music, was primal. It screamed from the gut and aroused the loins. Little Richard’s howl, his crazy look and over the top wardrobe was a threat to every white teenage girl in America, or so the parents thought. Despite “Tutti Frutti” hitting No. 17 on the Billboard Top 100, it was given to Pat Boone to re-record and homogenize. Boone, a clean cut white boy that was being groomed as the next teen idol, had already had a hit with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame”. Once again, Boone was trotted out to sanitize a potential hit. This time it was “Tutti-Frutti”. Despite the fact that Boone did not want to record it, simply because he could not understand it, he did. It peaked five positions higher than the original, to No. 12. White America had won another battle (albeit a minor one) against rock ‘n’ roll.

“They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.” -Richard Penniman

This image consisted of crazy on-stage antics as he stood up at the piano, jumped onto it, lifted his leg on it while playing, ran on and off-stage and into the crowd… in a night’s work. His wardrobe rivaled Liberace, a popular pianist of the time, in that he also wore sequins and capes and came out bedecked in jewels and gems. These antics, as well as his outrageous wardrobe, later copied by Jerry Lee Lewis , Elton John, Lady Gaga and to a lesser degree, Prince, were outrageous to the Establishment at the time. Everything about Little Richard was bright and loud. His shows always involved spotlights and flicker lights, quietly ushering in the beginning of future and much grander rock extravaganzas.




The hits kept on rolling out for the next few years despite White America’s brave attempts to steal his music and process it like white flour, robbing it of any primal urges that may be created from heavy listening. “Ready Teddy”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up” and “Lucille” were destined to be rock ‘n’ roll classics. However, except for “Long Tall Sally”, none of them even got near Billboard’s top 10 at the time. After Tutti Frutti” debuted in 1955, those subsequent hits were released in 1956 alone, and he followed up the next year with “Good Golly Miss Molly” “Keep A Knockin’” and “Jenny Jenny”. This time they cracked the Top Ten. Little Richard was slowly but surely carving a vitally important niche for himself in rock ‘n’ roll legend and even managing to creep into America’s radio with his matchless screaming, raw sound and sexually suggestive lyrics. Along with Chuck Berry, he crossed racial lines with his music.



“Little Richard is, without question, the boldest and most influential of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll” – GQ Magazine

He was at the top of his game when, during a tour through Australia with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, he shocked his fans by announcing that he was giving up the rock ‘n’ roll life for a life in the ministry. Having been bisexual, or “omnisexual” as he called himself, his life, he felt he needed to repent for his wild carousing and eccentric lifestyle after flying into Sydney in a plane that barely made it, and then later seeing a fireball in the sky, considering these events an omen from God. The fireball turned out being the Sputnik entering earth’s atmosphere and burning up. But it was enough for Little Richard to begin a spiritual life. As a result, his chart success waned and, once The Beatles arrived and opened the door for a whole new sound, was regulated along with Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Fats Domino, as relics from another age who still toured but never managed to continue the success they’d enjoyed when they founded the very music that began to reject them in popular acclaim.

 

FATS DOMINO

Although his songs did not have the impact of the aforementioned power trio, Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino. Jr. deserves a mention as another early pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll”. His musical style was firmly rooted in the rhythm & blues tradition with the basic musical instruments: bass, piano, electric guitar, drums and saxaphone. His career took off in 1950 when he released “Fat Man”, a rhythm and blues number that sold a million copies and has been often called an early rock ‘n’ roll record. He released five more million selling singles before cracking theTop Ten Pop charts with “Ain’t That A Shame” in 1955. Smelling a hit when they hear one, The Establishment trotted out Pat Boone to record a more palatable version for mainstream (read “white”) society. Released soon after the original, it made it to Number One.


Fats Domino recorded over 60 singles for the Imperial label from 1950 to 1963, placing 40 songs in the top 10 on the R&B charts, and scoring 11 top 10 singles on the pop charts. Twenty-two of Domino’s Imperial singles were double-sided hits. His follow up to “Ain’t That A Shame” was a remake of 1940’s “Blueberry Hill”. It was his biggest hit and sold five million singles, even after it had already been recorded by Louis Armstrong and Gene Autry.

Domino managed to release several more hits that today are considered part of rock ‘n’ roll history, like “I’m Walkin’” “I’m Ready” and “Walking To New Orleans”. In 1963, he jumped to ABC Records, but the British Musical Invasion of 1964 curtailed his success and relegated him to the dustbin of 50s nostalgia, although he continued to tour into the 1980s. His last charted single was The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” in 1968, a song that curiously enough, Paul McCartney wrote with Fats Domino’s style in mind.



Having been born and raised in New Orleans, Fats Domino has made it his home his life until Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. Domino had decided to stay put, as his wife was ill. His house was located in a working class neighborhood and in the path of destruction of Katrina’s wrath. He and his family lost everything, and just a few days later, was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter from his flooded home. In 2007, a foundation was formed for Domino and the restoration of his home. President George W. Bush paid him a personal visit and replaced the National Medla Of Arts that President Clinton had presented him with a few years earlier. Capitol Records and the RIAA replaced his gold singles.

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