Archive for the ‘Rock n Roll 1955’ Category

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

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