Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock'n'roll began with white people playing rhythm and blues in the mid-'50s; the part of it most influenced by country music was called rockabilly; it all came to be called 'rock' in the '60s when it became big business: rock has now dominated popular music internationally for three times as long as the Swing Era lasted.

At the end of that era pop singers took over, following the lead of Bing Crosby; many of these were much-loved stars and fine musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Jo Stafford, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como; new stars Tony Bennett, Vic Damone came forward; Kay Starr, Georgia Gibbs etc had good voices and many hits. But the quality of new songs seemed to slump badly as the golden age of Broadway and American popular song faded, partly because the rise of television meant that radio broadcasting was abandoned to the playing of pop records, so that the easiest way to make money was playing a limited number of hit records by vocalists singing songs which in many cases were no more than jingles, made to fit between the adverts. (Thus bribing disc jockeys became big business: see Payola.) Good albums were being made which are still selling today, but the rise of the radio 'playlist' was the worst thing ever to happen to popular music; some people stopped listening to the radio when 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window' was no. 1 for eight weeks '53, and a new generation was growing up hearing fewer good songs and little jazz of any kind. Another problem was that few of the hits were dance music, and demographics has now played a part for decades: young people always want to dance.

As jazz had dominated pop music in the Swing Era, so black music once again came to the rescue (see Rhythm and Blues). A few young whites discovered urban blues, for example on radio from the south side of Chicago, but the full impact of that was not felt for some years; it was the dance/party strand of R&B that crossed over to the pop charts: the lyrics were more fun and true to life, the records had a danceable beat and the era of covers began: Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' '52, Joe Turner's 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' '54 were huge R&B hits that found white fans; Ray Charles had regional R&B hits in a smooth style from '49 and brought gospel fervour to them from '54; Buddy Morrow covered Jimmy Forrest's R&B hits; Bill Haley covered 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' '54. Black vocal groups were of great import (see Doo-Wop); the Orioles' 'Crying In The Chapel' '53 was covered by white acts, the biggest version by June Valli (b 30 June '30, NYC; d 12 March '93, Fort Lee NJ: Arthur Godfrey talent show winner had six RCA hits '52--4, married Chicago disc jockey Howard Miller). The McGuire Sisters had a no. 1 hit '55 with 'Sincerely', co-written by Harvey Fuqua for his Moonglows (who had no. 2 R&B hit); the Chords lost their novelty 'Sh-Boom' to the Crew Cuts, whose indomitably white version was no. 1 in the pop chart, and who took the Penguins' 'Earth Angel' to no. 3 '55; they also covered Gene and Eunice's 'Ko Ko Mo' '55, but Perry Como had the no. 2 pop hit. Georgia Gibbs took 'Tweedle Dee' (from LaVern Baker) to no. 2, then 'Roll With Me Henry' to no. 1 '55 (changed to 'Dance With Me Henry'; see Hank Ballard). Black songwriters got royalties from white hits (when they weren't cheated by publishers); Tom Dowd, a freelance engineer who was working for Atlantic, thought that after a black hit had made a lot of money there was no reason not to help major labels with the covers, which made more money for the owners of the songs, but there was more to it than that. As writer of a B side of a Drifters hit Dowd was handed a large cheque, then went to MGM to help with the follow-up to 'The High And The Mighty', an instrumental film theme that was a top ten '54; MGM factotums were talking to conductor LeRoy Holmes (1913--86; mus. dir. for MGM and United Artists Records). 'LeRoy asked how many his hit had sold, and they said it was just passing 300,000, and I was sitting there with a cheque in my pocket for a black record that hasn't seen the charts but has sold between 400,000 and 500,000, and I know it's sold that many because they've paid me for it ... and they're killing themselves, spending thousands of dollars, 25 strings, 14 voices and this and that to make a record which they hope will sell 300,000, and here we are with five musicians and a singer, two hours, two songs, put it out and sell half a million. What is this business about?' It was about institutionalized racism in broadcasting, publishing and everywhere else, that nobody questioned at the time: no matter how many copies a black record sold it would not get on the white pop chart. But the writing was on the wall: young people discovered, as they always do, that the original was probably better than the cover, and disc jockeys were important. By '54 the black disc jockeys had increased from a handful to several hundred and a lot of kids were already listening to stations that played black hits; among hip whites Alan Freed in Cleveland played the black originals rather than the white covers, and others incl. Art Leboe in LA, Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Gene Nobles and John Richborough in Nashville, Zenas Sears in Atlanta, Bob Smith ('Wolfman Jack') in Shreveport and Ken 'The Cat' Elliott in New Orleans.

The Crew Cuts' 'Sh-Boom' was described as the first rock'n'roll record, which it was not, but it was the first no. 1 rock'n'roll hit. Trixie Smith recorded 'My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll' '24; the Boswell Sisters sang 'Rock And Roll' '34 in a film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round '34; the black sexual euphemism was now borrowed by Freed, among the first to perceive the new trend, to avoid the obvious racial connotation of 'rhythm and blues'. The first R&B act to cross over to no. 1 on the pop chart was the Platters with 'The Great Pretender' '55; Chuck Berry stormed the pop chart from the same year, his songs about cars, girls and high school appealing to white and black kids equally, with emphasis on electric guitar; the New Orleans scene exploded with pop hits by Fats Domino '55, Little Richard '56, Huey Smith '57, all incl. rocking sax solos. Shirley and Lee with 'Let The Good Times Roll', Thurston Harris with 'Little Bitty Pretty One' crossed over '56--7. Covers by Pat Boone, Gale Storm etc. continued for a while, but soon abated. Meanwhile country boogie came from honky tonk, infl. by Hank Williams and by hits like 'Freight Train Boogie' by the Delmore Brothers late '40s (especially Alton's guitar playing), Arthur Smith's 'Guitar Boogie' '48, Ernie Ford's 'Shot Gun Boogie' '51, and by the long career of Sidney Louie 'Hardrock' Gunter (b 18 Sep. '18, Birmingham AL): Gunter growled, 'We're gonna rock'n'roll' on 'Gonna Dance All Night' '50 on the Bama label; he recorded for Bullet, Decca, MGM, King and his own labels but not even his worst records could hit ('Hillbilly Twist' on Starday '62); he gave up and joined the insurance business (compilation Gonna Rock'n'Roll, Gonna Dance All Night! on Rollercoaster). He leased a new version of 'Gonna Dance All Night' to Sun Records in Memphis '54, not long before Elvis Presley made his first record.

The fusion of country music and R&B called rockabilly made Presley the most successful rocker of all, indeed a phenomenon beyond the merits of his undoubted talent. He brought the clearest infusion of black blues to the new genre, covering songs by Price, Turner, Charles, Arthur Crudup and others. Rockabilly also incl. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, who all began on Sun; local boys Dorsey and Johnny Burnette were turned down by Sun; from Texas came Buddy Holly and Buddy Knox; Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were also young white hopes. Surf music began on the West Coast with Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys; its harmonies and adolescent values led to the soft rock of today's MOR radio, but for the most part rock'n'roll was simple, twelve-bar music with a good beat, unashamedly sensual (the best songs of earlier decades had been sensual in a more lyrical way, but a new generation knew nothing of that and had no way of knowing). The music business hated rock'n'roll, not seeing that its own sleazy greed had made it inevitable; Count Basie took the reasonable view that anything that got kids dancing again couldn't be all bad. Then the excitement abated as there was a terrible toll among the stars: Presley was drafted, then sold out to Hollywood; Perkins was sidetracked by a car crash when he should have been touring to promote 'Blue Suede Shoes'; Lewis disappeared from the charts when he married his 13-year-old cousin without divorcing his wife; Berry was hampered by a racist arrest under the outmoded Mann Act, Holly and Cochran died in accidents, Vincent drank too much and Little Richard quit to get religion. Racism and payola continued to affect what was played on the radio, and before long every TV studio band played an unnecessary backbeat, while hack songwriters jumped on the gravy train: Kay Starr's 'The Rock And Roll Waltz' '56 was in 3/4 time with a kling-kling-kling piano because the business embraced the distasteful as soon as it smelt money. New rock'n'roll entrepreneurs found teen idols like Fabian; clever producers like Phil Spector (a millionaire at 21) invented instant nostalgia (his studio technique sounded like a transistor radio even if it was heard over a 12]im[ woofer). Off-the-peg songs from the Brill Building were the best part of US pop early '60s; then rock'n'roll was rescued by the British Invasion.

Skiffle had got British kids playing guitars in the '50s; black R&B artists and bluesmen were more honoured in Europe than in USA, many playing in London; Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies opened a blues club '55, and Long John Baldry, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, future Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts played in their band Blues Incorporated, succeeded by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds and the Stones. In Liverpool young people heard US rock'n'roll as merchant seamen brought home the latest records, and on Continental radio (Cochran, Vincent and Holly were more popular in the UK in their lifetimes than in the USA); the Merseyside scene threw up rock'n'roll bands incl. the Beatles, who took the USA by storm '64 and set the music business on its ear for the rest of the decade. Many reasons for the emergence of rock'n'roll came to a head: the '50s had been a decade of boring hypocrisy, seen by a Washington journalist as 'the age of the slob', when the average American seemed interested only in the crabgrass in his lawn, while Britain suffered from post- war drabness as rationing was extended far longer than necessary. Demography meant that post-war baby-boomers became the largest group of consumers, whose economic clout meant the ability to dominate popular culture (and willingness of commercial interests to allow them to do so); people who grew up in the '50s overthrew that decade's values with a vengeance. The name of the music was shortened to 'rock' c'67 to differentiate it from manufactured pop that had briefly subverted rock'n'roll; it became 'progressive' rock as the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and Who in UK, Beach Boys, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield etc in USA wrote their own songs for their generation, resulting in an unwise attitude on the part of critics that everybody should write their own songs, lowering the average quality still further. (Artists who wrote their own hits were able to keep more of the money, and before long managers and producers got into the act: the economics of music publishing is another factor that has helped lower the quality of the average pop song.)

Progressive rock was a contradiction in terms, and soon began to decay as the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd invented the banal imitation of Mahler symphonies for rock band, and as Yes, Kiss, Gong, King Crimson and others made pomp-rock, art-rock, classical rock etc bestowing a weight that a form based on the blues could never carry. (In the UK mid-'80s, Marillion was a new 'progressive' success, the act the same from one year to the next.) Paul Butterfield played electric blues at Newport '65, while soul music replaced R&B as the dominant black genre, bringing good songs and gorgeous singing to the charts; psychedelic rock and acid rock began in San Francisco during the hippy/flower-power era infl. by ingested chemicals. Soft Machine in UK, Chicago in USA made early attempts to invent jazz-rock. Baker, Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton formed the blues-based power trio Cream, bestowing long, loud, improvised solos on a form that again could not bear them; Led Zeppelin carried the grandiose further towards heavy metal, an absurd antithesis of the blues. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison of the Doors were culture heroes, but died young; Hendrix was a hugely influential guitarist who might have gone on to forge a new direction. Durable work came from UK folkrockers Fairport Convention etc; in the USA Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground (with Lou Reed) had individual voices; the Band, Creedence Clearwater, Neil Young, Little Feat and others created classic rock, effectively white rhythm and blues and infl. by country music, neither pretentious nor imitative. Graham Parsons came though the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers to pioneer country rock, of great importance for the future; singer/songwriters had their day in the charts, the best incl. Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, rock's best writer, who knew he was no hero but was wilfully misunderstood. Others such as John Prine, Tom Paxton, Loudon Wainwright, Steve Goodman, Bob Gibson, Tom Rush, Phil Ochs and John Stewart came from folk/country musics: the singer/songwriters were the true art-rockers, but would not have accepted the label. By the early '70s most of rock's stars had done their best work, some not surviving its excesses, and rock had become diffuse, lost its impact and was in fact exhausted: it had become a socio-cultural phenomenon having little to do with musical values, a bad omen for the future, the rock concert established as ritual; as the '70s were marked by politics as usual, terrorism and the floundering of the world economy, the idealism of the '60s went underground and popular music floundered too: Elton John was a big star of the new decade, rock's Liberace; the lounge-lizard cabaret style of Bryan Ferry was an attempt at chic rock; Brian Eno and John Cale invented electronic Muzak; Gary Glitter invented glitter- rock; David Bowie was responsible for glam-rock and several other images: a clever poseur, or expertly catching the narcissism of the era, or simply determined to be a star, or all three. The promo video began to have undue influence, leading to the complaint 'nice video, shame about the song'. Disco soon went sour, its electronics overused and production too elaborate; critics complained that disco was the worst thing that ever happened to rock, not realizing that rock itself had nowhere to go.

Boring '70s rock brought reactions: pub rock bands in London went back to basics, playing R&B-based music in local venues; punk rock tried to lead a revolt but was merely revolting, its new broom's worn-out bristles followed by new wave pop, whose willingness to experiment mostly proved to be ephemeral: the 'new romantics' (e.g. Boy George) were frank about simply having a good time. New teen idols came and went (Duran Duran, Wham!; New Kids on the Block disappeared quickly, Take That lasted longer). The big rock acts mid-'80s incl. U2, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, having in common sincerity, complete identification with fans and little originality. Technology has resulted in little more than ephemeral pop after a decade, much of it merely noise; the best rock rhythm sections had always learned from rhythm and blues, while machines do not and cannot swing, yet drum machines and electronic drums are used by people who should know better, and then there were studio engineers who did not know how to record live drummers (digitalized noisemakers were fitted with a device providing a random element: a 'humanizer'). Rock is now repertory, like all popular music, but rock fans have grown up to control advertising and TV music: the inappropriate backbeat, irritating in film scores and TV adverts, reached an apotheosis in 'Little Rootie Tootie' on the Thelonious Monk tribute LP That's The Way I Feel Now '84, and the debut LP by UK saxophone quartet Sticky Fingers '87: what incessant, loud, unswinging rock drumming has to do with jazz is hard to fathom. In the early '90s a particular UK TV advert became a bad joke, featuring a passionate female soul singer screaming about feminine napkins. After 30 years neither the MOR radio rock of Heart, Journey, Foreigner etc. nor the adolescent angst of the Smiths, Thompson Twins etc. were an advance on 'Doggie In The Window': pop music is about image, a pastime, a lifestyle choice, and hard-core music lovers cannot take it seriously.

The major record labels were caught flat-footed when the bubble burst for the first time (see Disco): the baby-boomers were getting older and buying fewer records as the music got worse; suddenly the major labels could no longer get money for old rope, and a decade later had not got over the shock, but wrung their hands and asked for a tax on blank tape. While technical advances have made it possible for kids to make hit records in their kitchens without being able to play a note, and black music seems to be dominated by banal, chanting polemicists who can't sing, ironically the continuing reissue of the best music of the century on CD (jazz, rock, folk, country and all) has made more good records available than ever, many of them leased from the major labels, who regarded their vaults as hindering the search for a new megabuck. The availability of everything means that there will never again be domination of popular music by one genre, and the market is so fragmented that it is possible to have a hit record selling fewer copies than at any time in the last 40 years. Rock'n'roll has gone back to the prairies and gin mills whence it came; there is probably better good-time music to be heard on any weekend in Austin than in the entire Billboard pop chart. When methods of counting records sold were finally modernized around '90, country music turned out to be outselling pop, to no one's surprise; country is a genre where the song still comes first. Lack of taste and imagination on the part of the industry, not rock'n'roll itself, is to blame for the apparently dismal state of popular music today; the biggest record labels are run by tone-deaf lawyers and accountants, but as the song always had it, 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll': while pop/rock drowned in noise, many a bar band played basic music with roots in R&B but without studio toys or over-production. Carl Belz's The Story Of Rock '69 was an early book; see also Charlie Gillett's updated The Sound Of The City; The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll '81 (ed. Jim Miller) had 83 essays on artists/genres. Rock Of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock And Roll '86 by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker is very good, though Ward on the '50s takes a familiar attitude that the whole history of music was only a prelude to rock. Rock'n'Roll Is Here To Pay '77 by Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo was useful on the history/politics of the rock industry, except for the naive flower-power sentiments in the last chapter; Frederic Dannen's Hit Men '90 was about the people who presided over perhaps the final prostitution of pop music; Donald Clarke's The Rise And Fall Of Popular Music '95 was a polemic from someone who has been buying records for 50 years; Fred Goodman's The Mansion On The Hill '97 chronicled in fascinating detail the collision of rock and commerce from the '60s onwards.