Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay” Danny and the Juniors (1958) ( (Critics of rock & roll were sure that it was a temporary fad; teenagers of the Fifties were convinced otherwise. Thus, this song was a hit.)

Rock & Roll is not just an American invention; it is an African-American invention. If you look at basic rock & roll, the fundamental formula is African American blues with a little more speed and electricity. Then, you add bass and drums and suddenly you’ve got something new. Rock & Roll was originally done by black musicians, such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. It very quickly got co-opted by white musicians, and it became a white phenomenon.

In the early to mid-1950s, the monolithic music industry, centered in New York City, got an electric shock worse than an earthquake with the coming of Bill Haley & His Comets, followed by Elvis Presley and his pelvic gyrations. After that there came a romping, stomping legion of rude, crude rockers, strange creatures emanating from the hinterlands and the Deep South. Mixed in with all this mayhem came urban rhythm & blues, conjoining with the above hillbilly music to create the phenomenon glorified as Rock & Roll by renegade disc jockey Alan Freed. (How The Great American Songbook Survived The Onslaught Of Rock & Roll, by Ian Whitcomb

Little Richard once said, “The blues had an illegitimate baby, and we named it Rock & Roll.” This is a fair and clever summary of what happened between 1949 and 1954, when black and white musical traditions cross-polinated with each other, and disc jockey Alan Freed popularized the phrase “Rock and Roll” and declared that Elvis Presley invented the music. That is revisionist history; no one person started Rock & Roll. It was a black and white alloy of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Ike Turner, Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. (Who Really Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,  by Jack Newfield, September 21, 2004, The New York Sun

The new music did not develop in a vacuum, and it wasn’t all that new. It resulted from the convergence of two earlier musical styles, Rhythm & Blues and Country. Rhythm & Blues developed from the music called the Blues, which grew out of African American religious music and work songs sung by African-Americans, who lived mostly in the South. This music tended to be an infusion of country and gospel genres by such groups as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. Like the Great Migration of the 1920s, the Great Depression also caused many white and black families to migrate to urban centers, from the countryside. One of the earliest musical innovations that led to Rock & Roll was a combination of Country Blues with Urban Blues. The Country Blues player Chuck Berry combined these two forms into a new genre called Rockabilly. In 1955, Chuck Berry met the Chicago Blues giant, Muddy Waters, who introduced Berry to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, which soon launched Berry’s career as one of the first musicians marketed as Rock & Roll. The sound of Rock & Roll was also unique because of technological developments in electric instruments and amplification that created a new market for music.

Although its roots were in the Deep South, the music that became Rock & Roll issued from just about every region in the country. Most of its formative influences, as well as virtually all of its early innovators, were black. T-Bone Walker’s pioneering work with the electric guitar on the West Coast had an obvious effect on the Memphis-based B. B. King (“Three O’clock Blues,” “The Thrill is Gone” (1951)), whose single-string runs influenced dozens of rock guitarists to follow. Delta-born Muddy Waters (“Got My Mojo Working” (1957)) “electrified” the blues in Chicago; shortly thereafter Bo Diddley (“Bo Diddley” (1955)) crossed over into the pop market as a Rock & Roll star with his distinctive variant of the style. The New Orleans boogie piano of Professor Longhair influenced Fats Domino, whose successful rhythm & blues career was transformed into Rock & Roll with hits such as “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955), “I’m in Love Again” (1956) and “Blueberry Hill” (1956). The jazz/gospel fusions of Ray Charles (“I Got a Woman” (1957), “What’d I Say” (1959)) and the more pop-oriented gospel stylings of vocalists like The Drifters’ Clyde McPhatter (“Treasure of Love” (1956),“A Lover’s Question” (1958)) and Sam Cooke (“You Send Me” (1957), “For Sentimental Reasons” (1957)) brought the traditions of the black church into the secular world of Rock & Roll. The assertiveness of Joe Turner, veteran blues shouter from Kansas City, was taken up by female vocalists such as Ruth Brown (“5-10-15 Hours” (1952), “Mamma, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953)) and Lavern Baker (“Tweedle Dee” (1954), “Jim Dandy” (1956)), and carried to an extreme in the outrageous Rock & Roll performances of Little Richard (“Tutti-Frutti” (1957), “Long Tall Sally” (1956) and “Rip It Up” (1957)). The elegant harmonies of urban vocal groups like the Orioles (“Crying in the Chapel” (1953)), the Crows (“Gee” (1953)), the Chords (“Sh-Boom” (1954)), and the Penguins (“Earth Angel” (1954)) ushered in a whole genre of rock & roll known as “doo wop.” (See discussion of “doo wop” below.) Even with the new name, however, there was no mistaking where this music came from. As late as 1956, Billboard referred to the music as “a popularized form of rhythm & blues.” (Garafola)

An important reason for the turn to this new music was a simple one: Rock & Roll was just fun. This loud, rhythmic, direct and simple style of music contrasted with the reigning “June, croon, spoon” sort of music that was being released in great amounts by Tin Pan Alley. (“Tin Pan Alley” was the collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The name originally referred to a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Manhattan.) Instead, Rock & Roll promised the opportunity of having a good time and some release from the urgent everyday commitments of school. Rock & Roll, moreover, was not only fun to listen to, but its beat made it even more fun to dance to. Dances, dating back to older and wilder days, like the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug were revived while others, like the Duck, The Pony, The Locomotion, and the Twist, were newly invented to fit the music. (Braun 1969, Belz 1969) Buying and listening to Rock & Roll records, listening to this music on the radio, gathering around juke boxes, dancing at high school hops, going to Rock & Roll concerts were symbolic tokens of what it meant to be “young”. Rock & Roll had even more to offer to young people besides the marks of identity and life style. The lyrics of the songs dealt with the exigencies of adolescents’ lives and with their experience, feelings and problems.

The new music differed from previous styles in that it was primarily targeted at the teenage market, which became a distinct economic entity for the first time in the 1950s. Rock & Roll proved to be a difficult phenomenon for older Americans to accept. There were widespread accusations of it being a communist-orchestrated scheme to corrupt the youth. It was characterized as “…an unrelenting, socking syncopation that sounds like a bull whip; a choleric saxophone honking mating call sounds; an electric guitar turned up so loud that its sound shatters and splits; a vocal group that shudders and exercises violently to the beat while roughly chanting either a near-nonsense phrase or a moronic lyric in hillbilly idiom…” (Century, p. 345, quoting Time Magazine, June 18, 1956.) But, despite adult convictions that it was bound for the junk heap, “rock & roll was here to stay.”