Or. How Rock and Roll almost saved the world.
Rock and roll was born in the era of segregation. Its roots go much deeper. Traces of rock and roll can be found in the slaves who brought their rhythms from Africa, and from white pilgrims with primitive stringed instruments that became the guitar.
But the actual birth of rock and roll was in the early 50s in a time of racial strife. Legally enforced segregation was being challenged and the Supreme Court was ruling against it often. There were protests happening. In its infancy, for a brief time, racial issues disappeared when there was music that blurred the lines beyond recognition.
Whether we took advantage of the opportunity can be debated, but the birth of rock and roll is an example of how racial barriers can be overcome.
Some people say rock and roll was just (black) rhythm and blues cleaned up for a white audience. There is some truth to that idea, but like most things, the reality is much more complex.
The heart of rock and roll is R&B, but there were a lot of other influences as well. Jazz, country, gospel, bluegrass, and other genre’s also contributed to the creation of rock and roll. Rock and roll did indeed come out of R&B, but by the end of the 50s, it had its own unique style and was something different than R&B.
It is true that most of the early rock and roll hits were written by black Rythm and Blues artists. Segregation ruled. There was “black” music and “white” music. Studios recorded both black and white artists. There were several black musicians making a very nice living playing music, just as white artists were. They officially traveled in different circles, but there was a lot of mixing.
Some radio stations catered to one or the other. Some played both, and most teenagers liked both “black” and “white” music.
Teenagers were the first “consumers” of rock and roll, and it was the first genre of music that targeted a specific age group. There was “race music,” which was records made and sold to black teens and young adults. There was “adult” and “children’s” music in the white world, but nothing much for teens. That left a void that Rock and Roll was born for.
White teens liked “race music,” and that did not escape the notice of record producers.
Parents in the segregated world of 1950s America might have frowned on their kids bringing home “race records.” It didn’t take that long for a new version to emerge, that was socially acceptable for the most part, to parents. Teens bought the records the white artists made, and they kept their “race records” hidden to be played in private. A lot of teenagers and young adults had both versions, and sometimes both versions were sold in the same store.
( In the R&B world “rock and roll” was slang for having sex. It was also a phrase in the Pentecostal church for a religious experience. )
One of the biggest things that made the explosion of rock and roll possible in the early 50s was the development of the small recording studio. Before this time there were only a handful of studios and they controlled what was recorded and what got on the radio. The invention of the single 45 RPM record was also a huge piece of the puzzle.
Technology allowed the small recording studio to develop. This meant basically any businessman with a few thousand dollars could set up a studio and start making records. Suddenly control was in the hands of small studios all across the country. The big record companies no longer controlled what popular music was.
The music establishment was caught napping, and the small studio gave birth to rock and roll.
There were people like Sam Phillips who started Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. He “discovered” Elvis and recorded the first records by Elvis. Phillips had grown up in Alabama and loved the music black people played. He saw the reality of segregation though and realized he needed white singers to sing “black” music for the record sales to really take off. Phillips loved music and wanted to promote musicians as well as different kinds of music.
Phillips was a visionary who didn’t care about segregation. He also didn’t care about “perfect” records. He was the first to try to capture the emotion of a song in a recording. That was what made rock and roll a different kind of music.
He also recorded black artists and sold their records too. He recorded “Rocket 88” in 1951, which is widely regarded as the first true rock and roll song. The song was written by Ike Turner. Jackie Brenston sang the song with the Delta Cats, which was Turner’s band. They were all black musicians.
Elvis recorded “That’s Alright Mama,” in 1954 on Sun Records, which was his first hit. Black blues guitarist Arthur Crudup had written and performed the song. 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.
The white studio owners would buy the song from a black artist for the white guy to sing. More than likely the original song was being played on the radio already. When someone like Elvis recorded a song you had written, your own original song would also sell more copies too, so there was that benefit for the black artists as well.
Phillips was the first to record black artists B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin Wolf. He also was the first to record Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and many others.
Billboard started keeping a top 100 in the early 50s, and if you look at those lists, you may see the same song occupying two or even three slots at the same time by different artists. Copyright laws were not what they are today. Royalties were not being paid, leading many to think the black artists were being ripped off. Maybe they were, but it also made some of them rich.
There was also a lot of overlap. Even though there was segregation, there were people who broke through. Fats Domino was a black musician from New Orleans and had many hits himself on the “white” charts.
The music was breaking down the walls of segregation.
Why it failed to totally destroy segregation is a complicated issue, and there are no real good answers.
The idea that rock and roll “stole” black music is a way too simplistic of a view. There were some bad deals, but it also brought people together. There was a lot of cooperation, lots of understanding and learning from each other. The birth of rock and roll showed us how we can overcome racial issues.
Here is a quote from Little Richard about having his songs “covered” by Pat Boone.
“When I started with the ‘wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom,’ and Pat Boone covered it, I was woo, wop-boppin’ all over the place. I remember (Specialty Records owner) Art Rupe saying he would put my record on the top stations. Then here come Pat Boone. The white kids wanted mine, ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version. And so the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser. I was mad. When Pat Boone covered my record, I was mad, I wanted to get him. I said, ‘I’m goin’ to Nashville to find him.’
“I wanted to get him at that time because to me he was stoppin’ my progress. I wanted to be famous and here’s this man that came and took my song. And not only did he take ‘Tutti Frutti’ but he took ‘Long Tall Sally.’ I wanted to do somethin’ about it. Now, in later years, I thought about that and said it was good. But back then I couldn’t stand it.”
Here is a quote from Elvis
A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.
Here is a quote from Little Richard in 1970
“I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?