For some of us, it began late at night: huddled under bedroom covers with our ears glued to a radio pulling in black voices charged with intense emotion and propelled by a wildly kinetic rhythm through the after-midnight static. Growing up in the white-bread America of the Fifties, we had never heard anything like it, but we reacted, or remember reacting, instantaneously and were converted. We were believers before we knew what it was that had so spectacularly ripped the dull, familiar fabric of our lives. We asked our friends, maybe an older brother or sister. We found out that they called it rock & roll. It was so much more vital and alive than any music we had ever heard before that it needed a new category: Rock & roll was much more than new music for us. It was an obsession, and a way of life.
For some of us, it began a little later, with our first glimpse of Elvis on the family television set. But for those of us growing up in the Fifties, it didn’t seem to matter how or where we first heard the music. Our reactions were remarkably uniform. Here, we knew, was a sonic cataclysm come bursting (apparently) out of nowhere, with the power to change our lives forever. 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 world we were only beginning to understand, we had finally found something for us: for us together, 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 simple, definitive 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’s origins in a Fifties television 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 fundamentally influenced by R&B, the black popular music of the late Forties and early Fifties. R&B was a catchall rubric 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. As far as Fats Domino was concerned, rock & roll was simply a new marketing strategy for the style of music he had been recording since 1949. But what about the rest of the Fifties rock front-runners?
When we get down to cases, we find that several of the most distinctive and influential rock & roll performers of the mid-Fifties were making music that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be defined as a continuation 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 measure and wrote songs about teenage life and culture 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’ jive story songs were aimed as much at adults as teens, and any hillbilly flavor in his records was strictly a comedic device.) Certainly, mainstream popular music had never seen a performer whose vocal delivery, stage moves and seamless integration of influences as diverse as down-home blues, white Pentecostalism and hit-parade crooning remotely resembled Elvis Presley’s. And where, outside the wildest, most Dionysian black storefront churches, had anyone heard or seen anything like Little Richard?
Sam Phillips, the rock & roll patriarch whose Sun label first recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and other first-rate talents, has suggested that the true import of Fifties rock & roll had very little to do with musical content, let alone musical innovation. And it’s perfectly true that once you strip the music down and analyze it, riff by riff, lick by lick, you find a mélange of blues conceits, prewar big-band and Western swing, gospel and other existing vocabularies. For Phillips, rock & roll’s real significance was twofold.
First, it was the only form of popular 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 “marginal” Americans — poor white sharecroppers, black ghetto youths and, not coincidentally, storefront record-label operators in out-of-the-way places like Memphis — the opportunity to express themselves freely, not as purveyors of R&B and C&W, whose audiences were limited, but as a dominant force in the popular marketplace. Elvis was transformed from hick truck driver to idol of millions in less than a year. Suddenly, it seemed, the sky was the limit, if there was a limit at all.
The coming of rock & roll in the mid-Fifties was not merely a musical revolution but a social and generational upheaval of vast and unpredicatable scope. It also represented a major reversal in the business of popular music. There were no pre-rock & roll counterparts to Sam Phillips, who parlayed a tiny Memphis label with a staff of one into a company whose artists sold millions of records throughout the world. In record-business terms, rock & roll meant that small, formerly specialized labels like Sun, Chess and Specialty were invading the upper reaches of the pop charts, long the exclusive domain of the major corporate record labels and old-line Tin Pan Alley music-publishing interests.
Concentrating on high-volume sales and bland, lowest-common-denominator pop disposables, the majors were caught napping by an unholy coalition of Southern renegade radio engineers (Phillips), Jewish immigrant merchants (the Chess brothers), black ex-swing-band musicians and raving hillbilly wild men. These were the “marginal” Americans who had been recording for specialized audiences since the majors had virtually ceded them that territory at the end of World War II. The ghetto-storefront, nickle-and-dime record operation of 1949-53 suddenly emerged an industry giant in 1955-56, accounting for many and often most of the records at the top of the pop charts.