Groundbreakers Part 2
Rock & Roll
I have talked about R&R in numerous posts, and I have many reasons for doing so, aside from the many great songs. R&R revolutionized Popular music and by extension almost every facet of the music industry. The music itself, even today, has not definitively been described to my or many others satisfaction. But here are some things that we do know, it’s genesis came from Rhythm and Blues and we can give that a full stop. We also know there were many other influences that brought about this phenomenon that kicked off a music frenzy in the mid 1950’s. For example it’s also an amalgam of many forms of music including Country, Folk and the wild child of Hillbilly music known as Rockabilly. In the early days we have artists such as the New Orleans sound from Lloyd Price and Fats Domino under the same umbrella as Etta James, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets and I could go on. Sometimes just based on particular songs they were identified as “Rock and Roll” singers. We know some were associated with other genre such as R&B with Etta James or Country & Western with Bill Haley.
Definitions and origins aside there are some groundbreaking events, inventions, songs and people that helped shape Rock and Roll, Rock ‘n’ Roll or Rock & Roll or however you want to write it.
As I discussed in the R&B portion of my last post, the cover song has had a lot to do with the development of most genre and none more so than Rock and Roll. If I piggyback on this idea and I can point to dozens of songs but here I will talk about just a few. All of these tunes I have brought up in past posts but today they bear mention as groundbreakers.
Elvis Presley’s cover of an Arthur Crudup song from 1946 is a groundbreaker in many ways. After many hours of somewhat unsuccessful recording at Sun Studios, the then (Sam Phillips discovered) strictly ballad singer named Elvis Presley, started goofing around with a song he liked to listen to called “That’s Alright Mama” recorded July 5, 1954, released July 19, 1954 as ‘Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill‘. Elvis would be the first to cover “That’s Alright” and it would not be the last time he covered R&B songs. The style in which he sang it set the tone for much of the music to come from Elvis and it was a catalyst for other artists to take an older song and give it more of an upbeat rhythm.
Sam Phillips, as mentioned above is well known to have ‘discovered’ Elvis in 1953 along with numerous other recording artists, and of course as the founder of Sun Records. He really deserves a big nod as a groundbreaker. Not only for the artists he recorded such as Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash but his determination to create something different. It was his ear that caught Elvis singing the above song and he decided to record and release it. While it’s true other things were happening in Rock and Roll he was a key element of its early development. Sun produced so many songs that are now iconic, such as: “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, “I Walk the Line”, by Johnny Cash, “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis and although Roy Orbison would find greater success after he left Sun Records in 1958 he recorded some great sides like “Ooby Dooby”. He also wrote the hit song “Claudette” in 1957, first recorded by the Everly Brothers. Sam Phillips would sell Elvis’s contract to RCA Records, later he would ‘lose’ all of his artists that either went on to larger companies and bigger paychecks or just migrated to other labels and management.
Chuck Berry ‘adapted’ the music from the Western Swing song “Ida Red” (recorded by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys) in 1938 and in 1955 he released “Maybellene”. Now Bob Wills version of “Ida Red” is also an adaptation of the song with the same name from the ‘Fiddlin’ Powers & Family’ in 1925. Sorry about the rabbit hole here but it’s also based on the 1878 popular song written by Frederick W. Root, “Sunday Night”. So it’s a long story about song credits on this one (I’ll save you from that) however, I did read that Berry was going to call the song “Ida Red”, but Leonard Chess (founder and part owner of Chess Records in Chicago) spontaneously renamed it after looking at a box of Maybelline cosmetics in the studio left behind by one of the recording artists. Hence the odd spelling to avoid a lawsuit.
Upon its release in July 1955, still freshly pressed, “Maybellene” was rushed off to Alan Freed who, now in New York City, would play the heck out of the song. It was Berry’s first hit song reaching #1 on the R&B chart and peaked at #5 in 1955 on the Pop charts. This song is a groundbreaker because it was so different from what was available at the time and it came from an artist who could write his own songs.
I have droned on much too much about “Rocket 88” (also a cover song) and my position on it not being the first Rock and Roll song, however it has turned out to be a groundbreaker in a different way. There is a story attached to how the guitar amplifier got damaged on route to the recording studio, with no time for repair it got stuffed with newspapers resulting in a fuzzy distorted sound when Willie Kizart played his lead guitar. This seemingly innocent little sound fluke was so loved it was later duplicated by many other guitarists, a device was even invented to reproduce the effect and the sound appears in many R&R songs. By the way the producer was Sam Phillips who used his portion of the profits from this song to fund the formation of Sun Records/Studio.
Technology and Music
The 45 rpm record was first introduced in 1949 and it paved the way for an inexpensive way for people (later mostly teenagers) to buy their favorite song. The so designated (by the record company) ‘hit’ song was typically on the ‘A’ side and you’d get a bonus song on the ‘B’ side, and sometimes they were called “Double A Sides’ with two hit songs. It seems some people thought Napster invented the ability to get one song at a time and Apple was so creative with their ‘buy a single mp3’ format.
Because of the faster spinning torque than the 331/3 rpm, the 45 rpm record required a big hole in the middle, so the home phonograph needed an adaptor. Soon the small portable record player would become popular yet still quite expensive and the adaptor was placed inside the hole of the record itself. By the early 60’s cheaper models would allow most teens and young adults to have one. Finally, they didn’t have to depend on their parents system to play their records.
Other than a live performance, for a very long while, radio was the only means by which people got to hear music. So in the early days of Rock & Roll, listeners would gather wherever one was available. Like the record player, portability would play a huge role in the popularity of R&R. Following the 45 rpm record in 1949, another key invention would be the car radio in 1955. Again it was rare and expensive to start but within a few years it was included in mass produced vehicles.
Yet another invention released in 1955 was the portable transistor radio. This still fairly large unit could be moved from place to place but had to be plugged in. Fortunately the newly named Sony company would soon begin to manufacture the smaller transistor radio that operated on batteries.
Most of us are familiar with what a Jukebox looks like, even if you haven’t seen or used one they often appear in period movies and tv shows. During the opening sequence of the show Happy Days it showed the first popularized and mass produced Seeburg M-100. A product of a line of inventions dating as far back as the 1880’s the early models had eight and later 10 separate turntables to allow a 10 song choice from 78 rpm records. These expensive devices could be found in limited venues with selections of Big Band and Jazz records.The early 1950’s models could store fifty 45 rpm records and play any one of the 100 songs for a dime. This device allowed the selector(s) to be their own DJ of sorts and for almost 40 years they were the mainstay of the teenage hangout spots, bars and restaurants. I recall using the record selectors that were installed in the seating booth in restaurants (pictured above), later these were just actuators that were connected to a central speaker with the Jukebox often located out of site in a storeroom or basement. A quarter (25 cents) would get you three tunes that would be queued up with others choices, sometimes you’d leave the place before your songs even got played!
It seems like the perfect storm, the new music was being pumped out at a rapid rate by 1955/56 and these playing and or portable creations would become less expensive (and smaller) over time, helping to spread the accessibility and popularity of R&R. Something we now take for granted was another sound revolution now referred to as “Stereo” sound. First invented in the 1930’s with much of the development coming from the movie industry, Stereo would be introduced into music recording and radio broadcasts. This necessitated changes on the receiving end, so by the 1960’s we heard the FM Radio frequency and home phonograph (record player) technology now included two speakers.
The Sony people would strike again in 1979 with the personal stereo which came to be known as a “Walkman”, this portable device allowed the user to insert a cassette tape with their favorite music and literally walk around wherever you wanted to. It would later be adapted to play a CD (compact disc) and with the plug in headphones it was the progenitor to the Digital Audio player which they launched in 1999. Apple would release the Ipod just two years later and this proprietary device set off another revolution with it’s compact portability.
Of course Rock & Roll was not the only beneficiary of these earlier technological advancements but the coincidental timing of them certainly helped to propel it to its lofty heights. It’s been discussed by many over the years but one truly has to wonder if without the 45 rpm record would Popular music culture have developed at all or at least not at such a rapid rate.
Well that’s the end of my thoughts on some of the groundbreakers in music, my recent research has me looking at the transition of Rock and Roll into being called just Rock.
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