Three people more than any others were responsible for the growth of the Rock & Roll culture in the mid-Fifties – Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Alan Freed, a radio disc jockey (“DJ”), who originated his radio show in many Eastern cities (Cleveland (WJW), New York City (WINS)) over the years, is credited with coining the phrase “rock & roll.”
While attending the Ohio State University, Freed became interested in radio. Freed served in the U.S. Army during World War II and worked as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio. Soon after World War II, Freed landed broadcasting jobs at smaller radio stations, including WKST (New Castle, PA); WKBN (Youngstown, OH); and WAKR (Akron, OH), where, in 1945, he became a local favorite for playing hot jazz and pop recordings. Freed called himself “The Moondog” and his show was “The Moondog Hour.” Its theme song was “Moondog Boogie,” by Freddie Mitchell (https://youtu.be/0fwcdaBBKMs). In addition to his radio show, Freed had a side business promoting live shows in big auditoriums – “concerts” – that featured the music that he played on the radio. Freed was “colorblind,” meaning it made no difference to him whether performers were black or white. His concerts featured white and black singers on the same stage. Freed also had a television show that originated on ABC in New York. Like his concerts, blacks and whites intermingled during the taping of the show. During one show, Frankie Lymon, black lead singer with the Teenagers, started dancing with a white girl from the audience. This biracial scene so upset ABC affiliates in the South that ABC cancelled Freed’s TV show.
Freed was one of the organizers of a five-act show called “The Moondog Coronation Ball” on March 21, 1952, at the Cleveland Arena. This event is known as the first Rock & Roll concert. Freed even appeared in several Hollywood motion pictures that were designed for teenagers and Rock & Roll music, such as the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock, featuring Freed, Teddy Randazzo, Tuesday Weld, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Johnny Burnette, LaVern Baker, The Flamingos, and The Moonglows. He also appeared in the 1957 film Don’t Knock the Rock featuring Freed, Bill Haley and His Comets, Alan Dale, Little Richard and the Upsetters, The Treniers, and Dave Appell and His Applejacks, and the 1959 film Go, Johnny Go! featuring Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, The Flamingos, Jackie Wilson, The Cadillacs, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, and Harvey Fuqua and The Moonglows. The films were often welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm by teenagers because they brought visual depictions of their favorite American acts to the big screen.
Freed’s career ended in early 1960 when he was implicated in a scheme to promote specific records for certain record companies in exchange for kickback payments. This practice was known as “payola.” This payola scandal added to Freed’s negative public image. Parents, who did not like Rock & Roll, blamed Freed for leading their kids astray. Detractors saw him as a dangerous Pied Piper leading the youth of America on the road to juvenile delinquency. The New York Daily News called the music “an inciter of juvenile delinquency” and pointed to Freed as a chief offender. (Establishment reaction to Rock & Roll is discussed in more detail in a following section.) On January 23, 1986, Freed was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
Elvis Presley – “The King of Rock and Roll”
Elvis was a hick white kid from Mississippi where he was influenced by the rhythm & blues music played by “negroes.” The music that would become Rock & Roll had many influences from other genres, most of which were predominantly influenced and created by African Americans. Music producer, and later manager of Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips stated, “lf I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” (Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s: Rockin’ for Civil Rights, by Eric Vaillancourt, January 2011, a thesis submitted to the Department of Education and Human Development of the State University of New York College at Brockport, https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1118&context=ehd_theses.) Artists like Presley knew that they owed gratitude to African Americans for the sound that made them famous, as Presley himself explained to a reporter in a 1956 interview: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know … I got it from them.”
Memphis, Tennessee developed into the center for white gospel music during the 1950s, so the four-part harmonies of the gospel quartets who regularly visited the city became another influence on the teenage Elvis. He and his parents, and later he and his girlfriend, regularly attended the all-night gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium. In addition, the city’s Beale Street district was home to the clubs and joints where African American musicians played blues and rhythm and blues. Elvis became familiar with the music of the well-known local R&B artists, including B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Big Memphis Ma Rainey.
Elvis inhaled the vibe of Blues, R&B and Gospel artists down to the last detail. He dressed like them, styled his hair like them, ate Soul Food like them, talked like them, strutted like them, and sang like them. The Black idioms of Memphis were as one with Presley’s early persona to the extent that some candidly referred to him as a “White Negro.” Elvis, for instance, grew up in the congregation of Memphis First Assembly of God, and he talked often about his admiration for the gospel quartets who came through, including the white Statesmen Quartet and the Stamps Quartet, along with African-American groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. Asked by a reporter about why he moved the way he did on stage, Elvis replied simply, “I just sing like they do back home.” And continued: “When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.” All these Southern-based musical genres inspired Elvis’s early singing style, which turned out to be a true fusion of sounds.
In the 1950’s, the South was heavily racially segregated, but Presley’s music broke past these racial barriers. He allowed African American music to be accessible to white American youth who had never really been exposed to it. Elvis challenged the social and moral values as his music and provocative dance moves created an entirely new generation. Little Richard, who was a popular African American artist of the time, spoke very highly of Presley: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through, but he opened the door.”
In the summer of 1953, Elvis visited the Memphis recording studio, Sun Records, owned by Sam Phillips. Phillips was an industry disrupter. He had a regional business, little access to capital, and no reliable distribution system for his product. He recorded a style of music that the major record companies that dominated the national market had deemed unprofitable. But, he helped identify an audience and that audience transformed the industry and the nature of popular music. “We Record Anything—Anywhere—Anytime” was his slogan. This meant a lot of church services, weddings, and funerals, but Phillips’s dream, the reason that he set up the studio, was to have a place where any aspiring musician could come in and try out, no questions asked. Phillips would listen and offer suggestions and encouragement. If he liked what he heard, he would record it. For a fee, the performer could cut his or her own record. In 1952, he started up his own label, Sun Records. Sun was designed as a walk-in business. And amazing performers walked in, some on their own, some referred by other musicians. By 1958, Phillips had produced sides by a major-league roster of talent. He was the first to record, besides Elvis, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. He produced and released songs that people born decades afterward still play in their heads while doing the dishes: “Mystery Train,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ooby-Dooby,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Elvis paid four dollars to record a few songs as a birthday present for his mother. A year later, Sam Philips called Elvis back to the studio for a recording session. Elvis played a few songs, but it was not until he broke out into “That’s All Right Mama,” a 1946 number by Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, that music would never be the same. Phillips bought the rights to record the song from Crudup, and Elvis made it a hit in the “white” world. Nearly all of Elvis’ early records were written by black blues musicians. Elvis also covered “Hound Dog” (https://youtu.be/lzQ8GDBA8Is) originally sung by “Big Mama” Thornton. Elvis’ combination of singing with a mixture of country, rhythm and blues, and black gospel was original and completely hypnotic. Not much later, Elvis landed a contract with RCA records, which paid him $40,000, and recorded his first single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” which rose to number one on the charts. “Heartbreak Hotel” (https://youtu.be/W4euyTDhFnk), “Don’t Be Cruel” (https://youtu.be/CpKyFTYvhpU), and “Love Me Tender” (https://youtu.be/2lD711_Xh8s) all sold a million records in 1956. (TFC, 142.)
On June 5, 1956, Elvis Presley performed on The Milton Berle TV Show. He performed a song called “Hound Dog” that had been written for African American singer Big Mama Thornton. The performance caused quite a stir in the media and in homes across America because of Elvis’ “bump and grind” physical gyrations while performing the song. These were the same moves that had been driving young women wild at his concerts across the country. The New York Daily News was not impressed with Presley’s TV performance of “Hound Dog,” stating “He gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar.” His performance was so controversial that even politicians were weighing in on it. Congressman Emanuel Celler stated that, “Rock & Roll has its place, among the colored people. The bad taste that is exemplified by the Elvis Presley ‘Hound Dog’ music, with his animal gyrations, which are certainly most distasteful to me, are violative of all that I know to be in good taste.”
Elvis Presley was scheduled to appear on the Steve Allen Show on July 1, 1956, just a couple of weeks after his Milton Berle performance. In response to the controversy surrounding Presley’s performance on The Milton Berle Show, Allen pledged, “You can rest assured, I will not allow him to do anything that will offend anyone.” Allen kept his promise by having Presley perform the song to an actual hound dog and by only filming him primarily from the waist up. During the performance Presley was obviously holding back from dancing the way he typically did while performing the song. Elvis Presley: A Revolutionist, by Marcie Wallace (https://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/citations/2012/11_Wallace_History.pdf)
Soon after, Ed Sullivan, who had one of television’s most popular variety shows during that time, declared that he would never hire Elvis Presley. But after Elvis’ performance on The Tonight Show, Sullivan decided to give Elvis a second chance. Sullivan offered Presley a three-show contract and during the first two appearances, the camera only pulled far back enough to show Elvis’ body for a short amount of time. At each movement of his body, however slight, the audience “erupted in paroxysms of emotion.” But for the final show, camera operators were told to only shoot Presley from the waist up, even during his performance of the gospel song “There Will Be Peace in the Valley.” At the end of the show, Sullivan assured the audience that Presley was a fine, decent boy. Elvis’ appearance on Ed Sullivan gave the show the second highest rating in its history and reviewers commented “whatever it is Elvis Presley has, he’s definitely got it.” An estimated audience of 54 million watched Elvis that night. Presley became a symbol of teenage rebellion and was condemned because of it. Not only was Elvis highly influential among females, but males as well. Young males began to imitate Elvis by slicking their hair back and growing sideburns. Soon all the teenage boys began to get Presley’s infamous ducktail haircut, black slacks, and open-necked shirts. Girls wanted to be with him, and guys wanted to be just like him.
Parents might disapprove of the beat and of their children listening to what they knew was black music, but their disapproval only added to Presley’s popularity and made him more of a hero among the young. Local ministers would get up in their churches (almost always well covered by local newspapers) and attack demon rock as jungle music and threaten to lead a crusade to have this Presley boy arrested if he dared set foot in their community (generally, there was no problem, their towns were too small for him to play). It did not matter: Elvis Presley and rock music were happening. A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music.
While teenagers adored watching Elvis on television, religious leaders did not have the same reaction. Religious people were not very fond of the fact that young teenage girls were swooning over Presley. Pastors observed the effects Presley was having on young girls as they screamed and shouted Elvis’ name. One pastor who attended an Elvis concert described the scene as “screaming, falling to their knees as if in prayer, flopping limply over seats, stretching rigidly, wriggling in a supreme effort of ecstasy.” As Elvis expressed himself by gyrating his hips in a suggestive and sexual manner on stage, religious leaders became worried. His music became referred to as “devil music” and preachers began to warn their congregations to not listen to Rock & Roll music. Elvis was “the most visible figurehead of the new youth culture; he was an inviting target for those eager to blame him and his music for a litany of social ills, from juvenile delinquency to teen promiscuity.” A Roman Catholic Church even went so far as to denounce Elvis in their weekly magazine where they published an article titled “Beware Elvis Presley.” The priest editors described their disgust for Elvis and his music and told the public that his actions were obscene and vulgar. The Sons of St. Ignatius responded to Elvis by saying “if the agencies would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presley’s of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.” Many preachers felt compelled to preach the danger of Elvis and the impact he was having upon society. Despite their efforts, Presley’s music continued to significantly influence American culture.
Chuck Berry – “Mr. Rock and Roll”
Chuck Berry’s rise to popularity in the 1950’s did not influence Rock & Roll, it defined Rock & Roll. At the same time, teenagers were coming into their own as an economic and cultural force, and they adopted Rock & Roll music as their own. Berry’s arrival on the Billboard charts in 1955 began a mutual relationship with the first of several teenage generations that would discover his music. Teens elected “Mr. Rock and Roll” with their dollar votes, and he agreed to be their cultural representative. Berry reflected teenagers’ departure in racial attitudes, musical tastes, and general interests from their Depression- era parents. Without Chuck Berry teenage culture would not have developed in the way it did, but without teenage fans, Chuck Berry might never have recorded a song. “Chuck Berry and Teenage Culture in the 1950s,” © 2001, Michael Gallant-Gardner, http://www.plosin.com/beatbegins/projects/gallant-gardner.html
While many artists are rock pioneers, Chuck Berry is universally considered the first who put it all together: the country guitar licks, the rhythm and blues beat, and lyrics that spoke to a young generation. In just a few songs, he drew a musical blueprint for what the world would soon know as Rock & Roll. In his so-called “golden decade,” 1955-1965, Berry recorded a string of songs now considered the foundation of Rock & Roll. Chuck Berry was “rock’s first great composer.” Berry didn’t stumble into his sound like Presley did; the St. Louis singer-songwriter completely understood the dynamics of the new genre, and brilliantly played to its burgeoning audience. In the process, he “gave Rock and Roll its original voice and attitude, capturing the spirit of American youth in the 1950s, both black and white.” “Chuck Berry Invented the Idea of Rock and Roll, Bill Wyman, Mar. 18, 2017, https://www.vulture.com/2016/12/chuck-berry-invented-the-idea-of-rock-and-roll.html
Other Rock & Roll artists may have had more and bigger hits than Chuck Berry, but none matched his influence in defining the style. “As Rock & Roll’s first guitar hero, Berry, along with various rockabilly musicians, made that instrument the genre’s dominant musical element, supplanting the sax of previous rhythm and blues. In his writing and performing, he had the uncanny ability to relate rhythm and blues to the white teenage culture without disowning his blackness. He was a true storyteller in the folkloric sense of the term, but he was also a man for his time. As he told his fans: “I said: ‘Why can’t I do as Pat Boone does and play good music for the white people and sell as well there as I could in the neighborhood?’ And that’s what I shot for writing ‘School Day’.” (Id.)
Berry toured with rock revues and performed in three movies with Alan Freed: “Rock, Rock, Rock,” “Mr. Rock and Roll” and “Go, Johnny, Go.” On film and in concert, he dazzled audiences with his duck walk, a guitar-thrusting strut that involved kicking one leg forward and hopping on the other. In “Go, Go, Go,” one of many songs to feature Johnny B. Goode, he celebrates his magic on stage, an act irresistible to young and old, boy and girl, dog and cat.
Duckwalkin’ on his knees, peckin’ like a hen
Lookin’ like a locomotive, here he comes again
Meow said the kitty, puppy bow, wow, wow
Go and pick your guitar, Johnny don’t stop now,
“Reason to Rock: Rock Music as Art Form.” https://www.reasontorock.com/artists/chuck_berry.html
Chuck Berry, who with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs about cars, girls and wild dance parties, did as much as anyone to define Rock & Roll’s potential and attitude in its early years. Of the original people who were there when rock was formed, Berry was the only one who not only wrote most of his own material, but wrote substantive material. He filled his songs with meaning and subtext that resonate still today. “Johnny B. Goode” (1959) is Berry’s greatest song about Rock & Roll. (https://youtu.be/I8JULmUlGDA) After an opening of guitar fanfare, Berry tells the story of a backwoods “country boy,” who, “never learned to read or write so well / But he could play guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell.” Goode practices near the railroad tracks, capturing the rhythms of the passing trains. When the chorus comes, Berry leaves the narrative to yell, “Go, Johnny, go!” and we hear Goode himself deliver a blistering guitar riff. Berry’s art is explicitly based in the sweep and promise of both the American century and an individual American: “Maybe someday your name will be in lights,” Goode’s mother says, “Saying, ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight.’”
Berry wrote and recorded a song called “Maybellene” (1956) (https://youtu.be/75RiHJGfyUE) and took it to the executives at Chess. They immediately offered him a contract; within months, “Maybellene” had reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts. With its unique blend of a rhythm and blues beat, country guitar licks and the flavor of Chicago blues and narrative storytelling, many music historians consider “Maybellene” the first true rock ‘n’ roll song. Alan Freed played the song enthusiastically, and “Maybellene” — the 28-year-old Berry’s first single — became a top-ten R&B hit. “Maybelline” was the first record by a black artist to outsell covers of it by white musicians. While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.
Berry sang about cars (“You Can’t Catch Me”) (1956), sang about girls (“Carol”) (1959), sang about school (“School Days”) (1957) and sang about driving around in a car with a girl after school (“No Particular Place to Go” (1964)). Another early hit was called “Rock and Roll Music” (1958) a defiant line in the sand. (“It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music / If you wanna dance with me.”) “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958) is about a young music fan; “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” is about an even younger one. (“Nine years old and sweet as she can be.”) “Carol,” among other things, is about finding a “swinging little joint where we can jump and shout.” Virtually everyone’s heard “School Days,” Berry’s jaunty description of a day at school (“Ring, ring goes the bell……American history and practical math; you’re studying hard, hoping to pass …”) and the slow movement of the kids to a local “juke joint” at three. The song ends with a sudden out-of-nowhere outburst: “Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!” (https://youtu.be/DHG5-GxI_Es) Berry quickly followed with a slew of other unique singles that continued to carve out the new genre of rock & roll: “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956), “Too Much Monkey Business” (1957) and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (1956) among others. (https://youtu.be/9ECqL51SRUk)
In 1959, at the height of his fame, Berry got in trouble with the law. The Mann Act was a federal law about taking women across state lines for what the law called “immoral purposes.” Berry and his bandmates, on tour in El Paso, met a woman who was apparently a street prostitute. They ended up taking her along with them, to help out on show nights, and wound up back in St. Louis. Berry eventually gave her $50 to take a bus back to El Paso. The girl, angered, went to the police. There’s a complex backstory; a year or two previously, Berry had been pulled over with an adult white woman and faced similar charges, but was not prosecuted. The DA in this case, feeling that Berry had been giving a pass the first time, went after him ruthlessly. Berry could make the argument that the earlier arrest was a product of racial harassment, and that the law in any case was preposterous. He was sentenced to three years in prison.