The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
Rock'n'roll; or, Black Music to the Rescue (Again)
Jazz and blues, or black urban music and black country music, were treated as separate, if related, genres in earlier decades; the saying was that the blues was not jazz, but jazz had the blues in it. But that had altered by the 1950s. While jazz effectively became the art music of the urban black (and some whites), the strands of black pop had come together. The blues had come to town, and rhythm and blues was big business.
Historically, black recording artists had often been given Tin Pan Alley tunes that white artists had already turned down. When Red Allen and Coleman Hawkins together led small-group dates in 1933, of eleven titles from three of the sessions, nine were pop songs of the day, only two of which had any currency: 'The Day You Came Along' was recorded by Bing Crosby and 'You're Gonna Lose Your Gal' by the Casa Loma Band. All had probably been shoved at the record producer by song pluggers; 'Shadows on the Swanee', 'My Galveston Gal' and the rest have not been heard of since.
Some of the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs were so good that jazzmen improvised lovingly on them. 'How High the Moon' became a bop standard, and countless riffs were composed on its chords. As late as 1960 Mingus did something interesting with 'Girl of My Dreams', a waltz from 1927. Plenty of black tunes were big hits for white bands. The success blacks and whites had with each other's tunes and arrangements was not a fair trade-off, but black bands were never going to get the best jobs anyway, and there was money in black tunes that were hits: Joe Garland was no doubt happy to have 'In the Mood' recorded note for note by Glenn Miller, because he'd got the composer credit. By the early 1950s, however, everything had changed. Blacks were doing their own thing in a new era, for labels created especially to sell to the black market, and anyway good white songs were becoming scarce. The Berlins, Gershwins and the rest had died or retired, and the classic songs they had written could not be imitated. What with Hitler, atomic bombs and a new Cold War mentality, perhaps something had been lost which made it impossible to accept songs in the style of a more innocent era. In any case, other changes in the music business meant that new, younger composers did not get a chance to build on what Kern's generation had done. The ballads still played by jazzmen were now standards, the airwaves were filled with jingles and the Broadway musical was beginning to disappear.
In the 1949-50 season the new shows included Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam and Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. (The latter included 'If I Were a Bell', soon to be played by the Miles Davis Quintet.) But in 1950-1 only nine new productions were offered, the lowest number since well back in the nineteenth century. Some were revivals, like Pal Joey from 1940, and two were Yiddish-American shows which in earlier times would not have found room on Broadway. All the new shows of that season lost money, including Top Banana, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (and starring Phil Silvers), and Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon. Musical shows were increasingly expensive to mount, while television and other social changes meant there were smaller audiences on the Great White Way, as Broadway used to be known. The hit shows of the 1950s, such as The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955), both by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, occasionally produced above-average pop songs, for example, 'Hey There' and 'Whatever Lola Wants', but not of the quality of earlier decades. West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and The Music Man (Meredith Willson) were both huge hits in 1957, and great in contrast, the one about racial strife in New York, the other, through rose-tinted glasses, about a small town. Gypsy (1959) was probably a masterpiece in every respect: it was Ethel Merman's last big role, it effortlessly revived all the 'shtick' of Broadway tradition, and the songs were by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. But among the most interesting events on Broadway in the 1950s were Bernstein's failure Candide (1956, lyrics by Lillian Hellman) and the emergence of Sondheim as a major talent.
Broadway shows were not what they used to be and were trying to become something else; no longer would they provide a central strand of America's pop culture. Nowadays the only shows certain to be profitable, indeed to set records for making money, are those of Britain's Andrew Lloyd Webber; even his third marriage in early 1991 got columns of space in British newspapers. Yet Lloyd Webber's music is perfect FM fodder, of no lasting value at all, in my opinion. Stephen Sondheim is acknowledged to be the most important composer for the stage today, even by the same critics who find something wrong with every show. All the same, even his Into the Woods, which received better reviews from the British critics than any of his previous works, lasted only five months in London. The musical theatre, once at the centre of popular music, is now well outside it.
It is impossible to say how much was lost on account of the low standards of American broadcasting. Harold Arlen's House of Flowers and many another show may simply have been too good to survive at a time when people went to a Broadway show despite the increasing price of the tickets only because their neighbours had seen it. Cabaret singers such as Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer and Blossom Dearie have had a huge repertory of songs that were almost totally unknown to the general public, raising the question of whether that sort of songwriting disappeared or is living in the garden shed on reduced rations. The big bands and the late-night live radio broadcasts that once promoted such songs no longer exist. It is tantalizing to imagine television's having taken over the function of the Broadway musical, but that was not to be. It did not take television long to descend from the live drama of the 1950s to the banality of today's assembly-line mini-series; there is no original music drama on television. Polly Bergen was a good actress as well as a good singer, but there was no place for her to work; similarly, Maureen McGovern has an excellent voice, a musical intelligence and is a first-class modern actress, but the genre in which she would have been a household name has disappeared.
Music on television's variety shows was almost exclusively ASCAP music, partly because there were few black faces to be seen, and radio disc jockey shows reflected this at first. But as the name of the Billboard 'race' chart was changed to rhythm and blues in 1949, a revolution was already brewing.
We have seen that Woody Herman had covered Louis Jordan's 'Caldonia' in 1945, that one of the biggest hits of 1950 was an inappropriate version of a country stomp, 'Rag Mop', and that Buddy Morrow covered the jump band hits of Jimmy Forrest. Along the way an historic court case settled the question of whether musical arrangements could be copyrighted, and the answer was that they could not. 'A Little Bird Told Me', a song by Harvey O. Brooks, was recorded by Paula Watson on a Supreme label; Decca copied not only the arrangement but also the vocal style to the last inflection, and had a big hit in 1948 by Evelyn Knight (whose other most successful hit, the same year, was 'Powder Your Face With Sunshine', a Lombardo song). Supreme sued, and lost. The Watson original sold well, but she had only one more minor hit, and there was now nothing to keep anybody from copying another's hit right down to the backbeat.
By 1954 there were at least four radio stations in New York aimed at the black market exclusively, and over 250 stations around the country. The number of black disc jockeys had increased from only a few to over 700, and they were joined by a handful of hip whites, such as Art Leboe in Los Angeles, Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Gene Nobles and John Richbourg in Nashville, Zenas Sears in Atlanta, Bob Smith (known as Wolfman Jack) in Shreveport, Ken 'the Cat' Elliott in New Orleans and Alan Freed in Cleveland. Several elements were at work: television forced non-network radio to turn to specialized programming to find an audience, while many sponsors found television too expensive, and could still reach large numbers of black families, who had fewer television sets than whites, and perhaps found it hard to relate to white sitcoms. But even with regard to black pop, the famous jocks were white: they were the ones that had the effect on the white market.
In 1953 $15 million worth of R&B records were sold, more than the entire record industry's sales of fifteen years earlier. Ruth Brown's contract was so valuable to Atlantic that it was renewed with an advance of $100,000: having been recommended to Atlantic by Duke Ellington, she had 21 top ten hits in the black chart from 1949 to 1960, five of which reached number one, and was the only female star under contract at Atlantic until LaVern Baker, whose first hit was in 1955. The Clovers, a vocal quartet and guitarist, also on Atlantic, had fifteen top ten black hits in four years; one of them reportedly sold two million copies (probably 'Fool, Fool, Fool', which was number one for six weeks in 1951).
Most new releases by the major labels never broke even, for they had to sell 40,000 copies to do so in 1953. The independent labels selling R&B, however, had lower costs and their own distribution, and new releases by artists like Amos Milburn on Aladdin and Little Esther (Phillips) on Savoy regularly sold 150,000 copies, and sometimes much more than that. A Texas-born pianist and barroom crooner, Milburn had nineteen top ten black hits (1948-54); his first, 'Chicken Shack Boogie', was number one for five weeks. Esther Mae Jones, also from Texas, was barely fourteen years old when her 'Double Crossing Blues' was number one in the black chart for nine weeks in early 1950. (Her career was interrupted by drug problems but she came back in 1962 as Esther Phillips.)
The major labels formed subsidiaries for R&B -- Decca had Coral, and later Brunswick, while Columbia revived Okeh -- but the product was too slick, and the independent producers of R&B had the jockeys in their employ, while the big companies were making a late start in black radio. In order to do more business they began to cream it off the top, covering R&B hits with white artists.
Some of the R&B hits were white songs sung by black groups. Deborah Chessler, a young white Baltimore woman who worked in a shoe store, wrote songs but couldn't get them sung the way she wanted them; then in September 1948 the Orioles, a black vocal group, had a no. 1 hit in the Billboard black chart with her 'It's Too Soon To Know', which Greil Marcus described in retrospect as the first rock'n'roll record. The Orioles continued to have hits in the black chart through 1953; their biggest was 'Crying In The Chapel', actually a country song, written by Artie Glenn and introduced by his 16-year-old son Darrell Glenn, but the biggest hit version in the white chart was that of June Valli. Hundreds of 'doo-wop' records, the genre named after the 'doo-waah' vocal device often used in the background, were made in the late 1940s-early 1950s by mostly black groups, but the sweet, soulful singing rarely got near the pop chart.
White vocal groups were big business in the early 1950s. The Ames Brothers were a quartet, with a sweet, pretty sound, led by Ed, who was still a popular balladeer decades later. But the other groups all used the same conventional white harmony, and after decades of beautiful black, country and folk vocal groups, most white pop groups of the early 1950s still sounded like they were working too hard. The Four Lads were from Toronto; their voices blended well, but they sounded overwrought. They began by backing Johnnie Ray on 'Cry' in 1951. (Significantly, the record was released on Okeh: Ray had help and encouragement from LaVern Baker and her manager, and his emotional delivery was seen as appealing to black audiences.) Like Ray, the Four Lads then transferred to the parent Columbia label, where their hits included 'Moments to Remember' (1955), a perennial college prom song for decades, 'No, Not Much' (1956), a good pop song by the same writers, Robert Allen and Ray Stillman, and 'Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By)', which at least was supposed to be sung by a group. (It came from the Frank Loesser show Most Happy Fella.) The Four Lads had hits throughout the 1950s, according to Billboard, but their style was increasingly dated.
The Four Aces, from Pennsylvania, were worse. They yelled their version of 'A Garden In The Rain' in 1952, which turns out to have been a revival of a song from 1929, co-written by the English bandleader Carroll Gibbons; only when it was revived again by Diana Krall in the 1990s did we realize that it's quite a pretty song. The Four Aces' biggest hit was 'Love is a Many-Splendored Thing', a soupy film song in 1955, and the way they belted out the word 'luuuuuve' with their patented slow shuffle beat made you want to cry with boredom. There were also the Four Coins, the Four Esquires and so forth; the sound of the Hilltoppers on Dot was not too obnoxious (the group included Billy Vaughan, who became the label's music director and house bandleader). The Four Freshmen and especially the Hi-lo's were superb singers who used adventurous harmonies and arrangements, and sold albums to jazz fans; the white groups in the pop singles chart had learned very little from the essential sweetness of the doo-wop tradition.
The Crew-Cuts were the worst of all, another quartet from Toronto, where they had all been choirboys. Their first hit on Mercury in 1954 was a white novelty, 'Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby'. Meanwhile, a black Bronx group called the Chords, on the Cat label, had covered Patti Page's hit 'Cross Over the Bridge', basically a country song; the B side was 'Sh-boom', their own rhythm novelty with a fast shuffle beat. Jocks turned the record over and made 'Sh-boom' number two in the black chart. The Crew-Cuts, however, had already copied it: their 'Sh-boom' was a number one novelty hit for nine weeks in the pop chart, and is still described as the first rock'n'roll record, which it certainly was not. Their next and lesser hit, 'Oop-shoop', was written to cash in on the success of 'Sh-boom'. In 1955 a Los Angeles group, the Penguins, had a number one black hit on DooTone with a pretty doo-wop ballad written by the group's bass, Curtis Williams, called 'Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)'; the Crew-Cuts' version was a national number three. Gene and Eunice had a rhythm hit with 'Ko Ko Mo' in 1955, originally on Combo, soon picked up by Aladdin; there were several white covers, and the Crew-Cuts' was beaten in the charts by that of Perry Como.
Georgia Gibbs, who recorded on Mercury, the same label as the Crew-Cuts, was born Fredda Gibbons in 1920 and was a band singer of many years' experience, having worked with Hudson and DeLange, Frankie Trumbauer and Artie Shaw. She had a unique vocal colour, always an advantage in a pop singer, and could set up a rocking beat. In short, she was not as offensive as the Crew-Cuts, and might have deserved something better than to go down in history as a rip-off artist. She had one of the hit versions of 'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake' in 1950 and a huge hit in 1952 with an Argentine tango retitled 'Kiss of Fire'. (Mike Stoller: 'I frankly believe that a lot of those songs were bullshit and funny at the same time because they were so terrible.') 'Seven Lonely Days' was a good rhythm tune in 1953, a cover of a country hit by Bonnie Lou on King. In 1955 LaVern Baker had a top five black hit on Atlantic with 'Tweedle-dee'; Gibbs's version reached number two in the national pop chart. (There is a story that Baker and Gibbs, both on tour, met in an airport, and Baker asked, 'Did you buy flight insurance on me?')
In 1954 Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had an R&B hit called 'Work With Me Annie', which stayed at number one for seven weeks; the composer credit included Ballard, Johnny Otis and Etta James. The hit was slightly suggestive, in that the work assignment in question was meant to be horizontal. It was covered by James, who was only seventeen in February 1955 when her answer version, 'The Wallflower', was a black number one for four weeks, and this became the most flagrant swindle of all: Georgia Gibbs's 'Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)' was a pop number one for three weeks. The Midnighters had already followed up with 'Annie Had a Baby' and 'Annie's Aunt Fannie', but Mercury passed on those.
The kids who cared about music and who knew that what they heard on the radio were cover versions were curious about the originals. In fact, stations in the South that catered for blacks were aware that 20 or 30 per cent of their listeners were white youngsters, who had already discovered that black was best, and that most of the covers were very poor compared with the real thing: the Crew-cuts' 'Sh-boom' was an irritating novelty; in the Chords' original the rhythm was the whole point, yet the singing was sweeter. LaVern Baker's 'Tweedle-dee' reached the top fifteen in the pop chart and her 'Jim Dandy' (1956) was a number one black hit and a top twenty pop hit. The white covers of these artists cheated them of greater success, and in any case was a mistake on the part of the major labels.
Despite the success of Nat 'King' Cole, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and a few other black artists in the white market, there was an unthinking knee-jerk racism working in the music business. Eckstine had been the first black man to appear on the cover of Life magazine, which dubbed him 'the Sepia Sinatra'. He was seen to some extent as aping the dominant white pop style of the late 1940s, as though blacks should not be singing the best love songs for their own sake, which rankled Eckstine. Black pop's rhythm tunes were clearly gaining in popularity, and were thought to be more acceptable in their sterilized white versions, but the large minority of young white people who were listening to black radio and to the original black hits were ultimately the taste-makers, the most influential segment of music fans, and they were not fooled by any of this. They lost respect for the music business and for business in general, disgusted by the mindless greed for short-term profits, while the music business had little idea where the business was heading.
By 1955 the Platters, a black vocal quintet from Los Angeles, had already had their own national hits. Buck Ram had worked as an arranger for Mills Music and had managed the Three Suns, a sweet white vocal and instrumental trio who had hits in the 1940s; he then turned to black music. He managed the Penguins and saw their big hit ripped off; he wrote 'Only You' for the Platters, and it was recorded by a quintet for Federal, which did not want to issue it. Having made a personnel change and added the beautiful Zola Taylor, he took a sextet to Mercury and remade 'Only You', which reached the top five, followed by 'The Great Pretender', a national number one for two weeks. The next year 'My Prayer' (a revival of a French and English song recorded by Glenn Miller in 1939) was number one for five weeks. Furthermore, the Platters had staying power; they had hits every year until 1967, including two more number ones in 1958: 'Twilight Time', a lovely song written in 1944 by Ram and the Three Suns, and 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'.
Another factor in the burgeoning success of R&B was that the live shows on tour were cheaper to produce than those of big-name white acts. Promoters in the South and the Midwest found that they could get two top R&B acts for the cost of a white one, while the audience for R&B shows was already integrated and sharply increasing. After some years as a classical and record-request disc jockey, Cleveland's Alan Freed began playing R&B at the suggestion of a sponsor, a record-shop owner who saw the white kids buying the records. In March 1952 a dance at the Cleveland Arena offered Charles Brown, the Dominoes with Clyde McPhatter (one of the most influential of lead vocalists), the Orioles, the Moonglows and the jump bands of Tiny Grimes and Jimmy Forrest. Seventeen thousand fans of Freed's Rock'n'roll House Party radio show bought tickets (according to Russell Sanjek). Unfortunately, the Arena held only ten thousand people, and Freed almost went to jail after the resulting melee, and before everybody realized that the whole thing had been an accident: the huge ticket sales had been unexpected. Freed later packed dance halls with such shows, and the audiences were never less than one-third white.
Freed was not the first white jock to play R&B from choice; that may have been Art Leboe in Los Angeles, who made his station the most popular in the Hispanic community. But Freed knew a good thing when he saw it, and borrowed the term 'rock'n'roll' to describe it. To call it rhythm and blues would have been to point out that white people were listening to black music, and few people knew that rockin' and rollin' was a black euphemism for sexual intercourse. In any case, the term was not new: the Boswell Sisters had recorded a film song called 'Rock and Roll' in 1934, and there were many more song titles and lyrics that used the phrase.
It is possible to excuse various music business practices over the years on the grounds that that was the way it was, and it was not up to individual promoters or record industry moguls to try to change things. But there can be only one reason why the Chords, Penguins, Clovers and the rest did not do better in the lily-white pop chart; why Baker's own 'Tweedle-dee' was not as widely played on the air as Gibbs's version; why 'Dance With Me Henry' had to have its lyrics cleaned up. But the white man's racist fear, not only of the black man's supposed sexual prowess but of the power of sex itself, could not keep down the pressure that had built up by the mid-1950s. Black pop records could no longer be confined to 'race', 'sepia', 'ebony' or R&B charts. White pop was boring and black pop was not, and the floodgates soon opened.
Chuck Berry had grown up in St Louis, where he played guitar and led a trio including pianist Johnnie Johnson, whose importance has long been overlooked: Berry's songs and his guitar style were influenced by Johnson's keyboard, which gave them an unusual sound. Berry took a demo tape to Chicago, where Muddy Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess; one of the tunes on the tape was an adaptation of 'Ida Red', a country stomp recorded, for example, by Bob Wills in 1938. Its name was changed to 'Maybellene' and Berry recorded it in May 1955, with Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Jasper Thomas on drums; Alan Freed promoted the song and took a co-writing credit; it entered both charts in August, and was number one for eleven weeks in the black chart, reaching the top five in the white. A fast, swinging blues about cars and a girl, it inaugurated a new era. That month, with a few other kids, I was on my way across country (in a 1951 V-8 Ford, in fact) for a week of camping out, the car radio blasting out 'Maybellene' ('Nothin' outrunnin' my V-8 Ford'), and none of our lives was ever the same again. On the other side was 'Wee Wee Hours', a slow, midnight blues with fine piano playing from Johnson, which also changed a few heads. Berry's singing, his guitar and his lyrics still perhaps represent the essence of rock'n'roll. With his songs the genre became fully the music of a younger generation: 'School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)' added high school to the list of teenage obsessions, while 'Rock and Roll Music', 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and 'Johnny B. Goode' all became anthems.
His 'Brown-eyed Handsome Man' and 'Too Much Monkey Business' never reached the white chart, nor did Bo Diddley's 'Bo Diddley', 'I'm a Man' or 'Diddley Daddy', but by now more and more kids were checking out the black charts. Diddley was another transplanted Chicagoan; his records (on Checker, a Chess sister label) were weird, mysterious and slightly scary, known for the bags of tremolo on the guitar and his 'shave-and-a-haircut, six bits' beat. He has been copied by rockers ever since, but only had one top twenty pop hit: 'Say Man' (1959), listed by Billboard as a novelty.
The same year Chuck Berry broke through, New Orleans also got into the act. Lew Chudd had been the producer of the Let's Dance radio show that helped Benny Goodman to fame in 1935. In 1947 he formed Imperial Records to record top ten hits in Spanish-language covers for that market in the Southwest, and used the profits to expand into square-dance records, kiddie records, country music and R&B. Slim Whitman was a country success on Imperial, and his 'Indian Love Call' was a huge hit; he played in London in 1952 and became a bigger star in the UK than in the USA.
Chudd's R&B talent scout and producer was a New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader, Dave Bartholomew, who as a freelance produced Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' for Specialty and Shirley and Lee's 'I'm Gone' for Aladdin (both hits in 1952), as well as his own 'Country Boy' (1949, DeLuxe). He recorded other R&B songs in leftover studio time: 'Preachin' and Teachin' ' (Ace, 1952), like 'Country Boy', used the excellent session drummer Earl Palmer; 'Who Drank My Beer While I Was In The Rear' that year was on Imperial. But Bartholomew had more success producing others, such as Fats Domino.
Pianist and singer Domino was born in New Orleans; his first language was French. The New Orleans piano style can be traced directly from Jelly Roll Morton through Joseph Louis 'Red' Cayou (born around 1905) and Isadore 'Tuts' Washington (born in 1907, finally recorded in 1983), through Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), who worked for Bartholomew in 1949, to Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebennack (Dr John, the Night Tripper). Professor Longhair's imposition of fast triplets on a syncopated rhumba beat is directly descended from Jelly Roll's 'Spanish tinge'.
Domino was compared to Fats Waller by the bone-headed musical press when he later had a hit with 'What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You'; he was not a stylist of the calibre of Waller or Jelly Roll, but he did what he did extremely well. His warm personality transcended any question of race, and the music had a lilt, as well as a beat, that could only have come from New Orleans. Domino's smoky, laid-back voice, with just a trace of a French accent, together with the songs and Bartholomew's band, made history.
His first recording session yielded 'Hey La Bas', a coming together of strands of New Orleans history, including voodoo and French and Catholic influences. 'The Fat Man', a cleaned-up drug song recorded the same day, was his first R&B hit. His fifth release, 'Every Night About This Time', was a hit the same year; it incorporated the keyboard triplet which became a trademark, and may have been influenced by Little Willie Littlefield as well as Longhair. (Blues pianist Littlefield had a hit with 'It's Midnight' on Modern in 1949.) Domino's R&B hits 'Goin' Home' (1952) and 'Goin' to the River' (1953) were as good as national top thirty hits, they sold so well and got so much airplay, but they were not allowed on the white chart.
Randy Wood operated an appliance repair shop in Nashville in 1946, and dabbled in radio. He bought several thousand remaindered R&B records and sold them over the radio at six for a dollar; with some of the profits he formed Dot Records in 1950. He produced country records, but the demand for R&B was such that he began covering the songs with a squeaky-clean college student named Pat Boone, who was twenty years old when he had his first hit in 1955 with 'Two Hearts', an R&B hit by the Charms. Boone's second hit was a national number one version of Fats Domino's 'Ain't That a Shame' the same year, which helped pull Domino's own record out of the R&B ghetto into the pop top ten.
Domino's seventeenth and eighteenth top ten R&B hits were back to back, 'Bo Weevil' and 'Don't Blame It On Me'. In the first, an irresistibly rocking folksong, the melody is played tremolo by guitarist Ernest McLean, who floats over the backbeat, making the whole thing a timeless country stomp. 'Bo Weevil' reached number thirty-five in the pop charts, while the slick cover with much less style by squeaky Teresa Brewer entered the top twenty. The other side of Domino's record, 'Don't Blame It On Me', was not covered and didn't make the pop chart, but kids discovered it: the playing of Clarence Ford (alto), Herb Hardesty, Buddy Hagans and Lee Allen (tenors), McLean (guitar), Frank Fields (bass) and Cornelius Coleman (drums) sounded so good on jukeboxes after so many years of pap that we couldn't believe our luck.
In the same year, 1956 Domino's 'I'm In Love Again' was a number three national hit. Altogether he had over sixty Hot 100 Billboard entries in less than ten years. The New Orleans backbeat was rock solid, yet is like a happy afterthought compared with the noisy banging on today's pop records, and the riffing saxophones and Domino's laid-back style combine to make these some of the best party records of all time.
Also in 1956, and in New Orleans, the totally impossible, irrational and outrageous became reality; the inmates left the asylum, never to be recaptured, with a cry of (my transcription) WOMP-BOMP-A-LOO-MOMP ALOP-BOMP-BOMP! Little Richard was bisexual, he wore make-up, he was a tornado on stage and he passionately shouted dirty songs in a sanctified style, screams and all:
Long Tall Sally she's
In two minutes Richard Wayne Penniman used as much energy as an all-night party.
He came from a large, poor family in Macon, Georgia. He was influenced by Billy Wright, who wore loud clothes, curled his hair and performed a gospel-shouting R&B style, and was encouraged to play piano by Esquerita (who was also known as Eskew Reeder, SQ Reeder, the Magnificent Malucci and so on, and later imitated Richard, recording in New Orleans in the mid-1960s). Little Richard recorded for RCA with Wright's band in 1951 and 1952 after winning a talent contest; jockey Zenas Sears helped make the deal and the sides were recorded at WGST in Atlanta: 'Every Hour' was a local hit, but Richard's persona was not yet let loose. He recorded for Peacock in 1953 in Houston, at the second of the two sessions using Johnny Otis's band. But he was washing dishes in an Atlanta bus station when stardom beckoned. He had sent a demonstration tape to Specialty in Hollywood.
Art Rupe dispatched his assistant, Bumps Blackwell, to New Orleans to make records; and Cosimo Matassa's J and M Studio was primitive by today's standards, or even by the standards of the time: Blackwell placed his microphones by trial and error, going back and forth into the next room to listen to a two-track Ampex tape recorder on headphones; the bass player was on the other side of the room and the drummer was outside the door. But both Richard and Fats Domino made their classic hits at Cosimo's.
The band on Richard's first sessions, like Domino's band, included New Orleans' best: Melvin Dowden (piano), Justin Adams (guitar), Lee Allen (tenor saxophone), Alvin 'Red' Tyler (baritone saxophone), Frank Fields (double bass) and Earl Palmer (drums); Huey Smith was present part of the time and probably played some piano, and Richard himself played on 'Tutti Frutti', an outrageous song from the club scene. Blackwell heard him playing around with it during a lunch break -- the nearby premises had a piano, and Richard could not resist showing off. Dorothy La Bostrie was asked to clean up the lyrics: 'Tutti Frutti, good booty / if it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy' became 'Tutti Frutti, awrootie / I got a gal, named Sue / She knows just what to do', which at least left something to the imagination.
'Tutti Frutti' reached number two in the R&B chart and the top twenty of the pop chart, and -- incredibly -- Pat Boone's cover went higher than Little Richard's. (Bible student Boone later claimed he had not known what the song was about.) This was a bit like June Allyson having a hit with 'Jazz Me Blues', and it was the end of the cover era: white kids were by now sorting each other out according to who bought 'Baboon' and who bought Richard. Later the same year Richard tried to record 'Long Tall Sally' as fast as possible so that Boone would not be able to sing it; they both had hits with it, but this time Richard's record went higher than Boone's, and the rest of Boone's hits were mostly Hollywood ballads. A new kind of cover era immediately began: Blackwell and John Marascalco wrote 'Rip It Up' and 'Ready Teddy', a two-sided hit for Richard; both were covered by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, but more appropriately and out of admiration for the songs: ripping it off was going out, but ripping it up was definitely in.
Some of Richard's records were too frenetic to dance to. The master of 'Keep a Knockin' ' was only fifty-seven seconds long, and a single was made of it by means of repetition. Others were better: 'Lucille' is one of the finest, inexorable at exactly the right tempo, while 'Send Me Some Lovin' ' and 'Can't Believe You Wanna Leave' are actually slow. One of Richard's biggest contributions was his personality; his live act was like nothing anyone had ever seen. He wore his hair in a huge pompadour with marcelled waves on top; he wore the loudest clothes in the business and cosmetics to match. At the beginning of a set his band never knew what direction he would come from. When producer H. B. Barnum first saw Richard, Barnum was about fourteen years old, and playing saxophone with touring R & B shows:
He'd just burst onto the stage from anywhere, and you wouldn't be able to hear anything but the roar of the audience ... We might vamp that first number for four to five minutes before he even got to the piano. He'd be on the stage, he'd be off the stage, he'd be jumping and yelling, screaming, whipping the audience on ... Then when he finally did hit the piano and just went into di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di, you know, well nobody can do that as fast as Richard. It just took everybody by surprise ... That's the first time I ever saw spotlights and flicker lights used at a concert show. It had all been used in show business, but he brought it into our world.
At the end of a set Richard was covered with sweat, and it was not long before girls started throwing their underwear onto the stage.
For the second time New Orleans permanently altered the course of the world's popular music. Huey 'Piano' Smith had a hit in 1957 with 'Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu', and the next year with 'Don't You Just Know It'. He had played piano on Bartholomew's wonderful 'I Hear You Knockin' ', an R&B classic by Smiley Lewis which had not made the pop charts in 1955 (but was covered in a dull but successful version on Dot by actress Gale Storm). Smith's band, the Clowns, included lead singer Bobby Marchan, as well as Red Tyler and Lee Allen. Another seminal figure was pianist and bandleader Paul Gayten, whose R&B hits in 1949-50 included 'I'll Never be Free' (with vocalist Annie Laurie), and who wrote 'For You My Love', on which he backed Larry Darnell for a number one. (The song was also a hit duet by Nat Cole and Nellie Lutcher.) Later he backed Clarence Henry on 'Ain't Got No Home' (1956), which became a pop hit, and took a co-writing credit for the amusing 'Troubles, Troubles' on the reverse side. Gayten's own instrumental jukebox hits, such as 'Nervous Boogie' in 1957, were tossed off during leftover studio time, like some of Bartholomew's. Tenor saxophonist Lee Allen wrote his 1958 hit 'Walkin' with Mr Lee' while working as a Gayten sideman.
But while rhythm and blues was breaking through to the pop charts and washing away the cover merchants, rock'n'roll was also coming from another direction. Among those white kids listening to R&B in the early 1950s were the hillbilly cats who invented rockabilly; in fact, it was at first called 'cat music'.
For decades the excellent playing of a great many instrumentalists in country music had been directly influenced by black music. There was the lingering effect of the country jazz, or western swing, of Bob Wills, and the important folk poems of Hank Williams, with their swaggering beat and their true-to-life concerns. 'Country boogie' had been gaining ground. The Delmore Brothers had recorded 'Hillbilly Boogie' as early as 1945, and then 'Freight Train Boogie', 'Blues Stay Away From Me' and 'Pan American Boogie' were hits. Jack Guthrie, Woody's cousin, had a hit with 'Oakie Boogie' in 1947, and Hawkshaw Hawkins's 'Dog House Boogie' and guitarist Arthur Smith's 'Guitar Boogie' were successful in 1948.
'Guitar Boogie' may have been recorded much earlier, in 1945, on a Super Disc label; an instrumental, it was played by a string band, with a gently amplified guitar and no drums. It continued selling for years. The chart hit, perhaps a new recording, was on MGM, and it was issued on that label in England. It had a 4/4 feeling but with a backbeat. (Compare it with the other side of the British 78, for example, called 'Bebop Rag': despite the title, its two-beat style is corny.) Tennessee Ernie Ford's 'Shotgun Boogie' was a big country hit in 1950; Webb Pierce's band had hit after hit from 1952 with a honky-tonk backbeat. Meanwhile, Bill Haley and his Saddlemen, billed as the Cowboy Jive Band, mixed yodels, polkas and western swing.
Haley was born in Michigan and grew up in Pennsylvania; he began as a yodelling cowboy on radio. His Downhomers first recorded in 1944, and his various groups included the Four Aces of Western Swing. He started covering R&B hits like Jackie Brenston's 1951 'Rocket "88" ', which sold fairly well, then 'Rock the Joint', a 1949 hit by Jimmy Preston, which sold even better. The country covers were not selling at all, so he threw caution to the wind: he changed the name of the Saddlemen to Bill Haley and his Comets and recorded his own 'Crazy Man Crazy' for the tiny Essex label, whose biggest hits were 'popular instrumentals' like 'Tropicana' by Monty Kelly, and 'Oh, Mein Papa' by trumpeter Eddie Calvert, both in 1953. And Haley suddenly reached the pop top fifteen that year. The tune was just a stomp, like 'Rag Mop', with words that were not up to much, but seemed at the time to borrow from jazz: 'Man, that music's gone, gone!' This already sounded trite then, but Haley's 'jive' slang was as much a part of the act as the relentlessly slapped string bass. The hit was covered on Mercury by dance band leader Ralph Marterie, who, with his bigger name (and vocal by the Smarty-aires), almost caught Haley in the charts with his own tune.
Haley soon moved to Decca, where he was produced by Milt Gabler. Haley could not read music, according to Gabler, so he had to hum the riffs to him: 'It was like recording a barbershop quartet or the Mills Brothers, you have to woodshed it and learn it by rote. They'd work out the harmony among themselves.' Gabler had recorded not only Louis Jordan, but the jump band of Buddy Johnson, with vocalist Arthur Prysock. Johnson's drummer, and also Lionel Hampton's, had to be kept from playing too loud for the recording technology of the time, Gabler said, but Haley's band was recorded in a disused ballroom, which had a high ceiling, curtains hanging from the balcony and a live wooden floor. This acoustic, together with up-to-date recording equipment, allowed Haley's drummer to play his tinny rim-shot backbeat as loud as he liked, and the steel player to bang his bar on the strings until sparks flew. Gabler put reverb on the master tape and overdubbed Haley's weak voice.
'Rock Around the Clock' was a Tin Pan Alley rhythm novelty, and similar tunes and lyrics had been around for years. It barely made the top twenty-five. But the next hit, still in 1954, reached the top ten. It was a cover of 'Shake, Rattle and Roll', a number one R&B tune recorded by Big Joe Turner, originally a singing bartender from the roaring days of Kansas City. (The tune was written by Jesse Stone under the name Charles Calhoun.) By the mid-1950s Turner was a seasoned blues shouter; after his R&B hit 'Chains of Love' (1951) on a Freedom label, Turner moved to Atlantic and had big hits in the black chart every year until 1958. He was too big, too old, too black and too powerful to become a pop star, but hits like 'Corrine Corrina' and 'Lipstick Powder and Paint' (both 1956) made him a more deserving father of rock'n'roll than most. 'Shake, Rattle and Roll', with its three-chord tune and the lines 'Get out in that kitchen / And rattle those pots and pans!' was an archetypal rock'n'roll song.
Then came the film The Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, starring Glenn Ford and a very young Sidney Poitier. Gabler makes the point that film soundtracks were usually 'pinched' at the top and bottom of the frequency range, to save the ears of the people in the front rows from the big sound of the huge speakers and amplifiers used in big cinemas; but The Blackboard Jungle soundtrack was processed wide open. It was a realistic film for the time about a rough high school ('juvenile delinquency' had been a media theme for years), and its music director was said to be the publisher of 'Rock Around the Clock'. Haley's record dominated the soundtrack and shot to number one more than a year after it was first released, and also reached number three in the R&B chart.
Haley had sixty USA chart hits in seven years, and you could say that he had invented rock'n'roll while Elvis Presley was still driving a truck. But 'Rock Around the Clock' was Haley's only number one hit. It might be named by many as the first number one rock'n'roll record, and therein lies part of the music's tragedy. Bill Haley did for rock'n'roll what the Original Dixieland Jazz Band did for jazz in 1917, establishing it in the public mind as a noisy party music, but the ODJB was at least an innovation at the time. Haley was an unlikely pop star, a chubby married man and almost thirty years old when he came to the fore; he was far more popular in the UK, where he had no competition, than in the USA. By all accounts he was a pleasant man, modest and grateful for his success. It is a pity that the music was so bad. It was worse than bad; it was a major environmental hazard. The bass had to be slapped all the way through every record, the drums had to be tinny and loud, and nobody showed any understanding of time. The closest to musical excitement the Comets ever came was 'Rudy's Rock', an instrumental in which Rudy Pompilli plays a decent jump band saxophone style; it moves at a faster tempo than the band's usual clock-ticking, so the rhythm section had to concentrate on what it was doing. Haley and his group starred in several rock'n'roll films of the period, such as Rock Around the Clock in 1956 (the song was endlessly recycled). The films were mostly dreadful, but this particular Freed epic had at least the virtue of integrating the music, featuring the Platters as well as Haley. Haley was soon reduced to a nostalgia act, eclipsed by more talented hillbillies.
Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee, would have more influence on popular music in the 1950s than all the major labels put together.
Radio engineer Sam Phillips formed the Memphis Recording Service in 1950, and taped a session with jazz pianist Phineas Newborn for RPM/Modern. He soon launched a Phillips label, with local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation). The idea was to record local black R&B talent, but masters continued to be leased to other labels. B.B. King worked at the local black radio station, and his hits on RPM began appearing in 1951, some of them recorded in the Sun studio.
Guitarist and bandleader Ike Turner was a talent scout for RPM/Modern, and saw to it that B.B. King remained an RPM artist, but some of the other records were leased to Chess in Chicago. Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett) became an R&B legend. He had a double-sided hit, 'Moanin' at Midnight' / 'How Many More Years', in 1951, the same year Turner scored a massive R&B number one under the name of his saxophonist and vocalist: Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats were Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm. 'Rocket "88"' is often described as the first rock'n'roll record; it sounds tame today, but its four-wheeled subject-matter beat Chuck Berry by four years.
Rosco Gordon had a top ten hit on RPM, then a number one in 1952 that had been leased to Chess. RPM/Modern decided that they had Gordon under contract and successfully got 'Booted' back from Chess. Walter Horton, Earl Hooker, Bobby Bland and Joe Hill Louis were other blues artists who recorded for Phillips, but this was almost too much success. Some of them moved to Chicago. James Mattis and Bill Fitzgerald formed the Duke label in Memphis in April 1952 and leased some tracks from Phillips, but sold Duke to Peacock in Houston only a few months later; Duke squabbled with RPM/Modern over Gordon, and in December Lester Bihari, of the entrepreneurial family that had founded RPM/Modern and Flair, came to Memphis to form the Meteor label. With all this activity the obvious thing for Phillips to do was form another label, and the first Sun records were released in March 1952.
Sun limped for a while because Phillips was still leasing masters to others, but in 1953 it made a distribution deal with Nashville's Jim Bulleit, who had sold his Bullet label and now operated Delta and J-B Records; Sam Phillips's brother Judd came in, bringing his promotion experience. The new label's first success was 'Bear Cat', by Rufus Thomas, Jr, an answer song to Big Mama Thornton's 'Hound Dog' on Peacock, using the same melody. (Don Robey's Lion Music sued and won.) 'Feelin' Good' and 'Mystery Train' by Little Junior (Parker) and his Blue Flames were hits, and Billy 'The Kid' Emerson and Little Milton were doing well.
Phillips was also recording country music: the Ripley Cotton Choppers, Earl Peterson ('Michigan's Singing Cowboy' doing 'Boogie Blues'), Doug Poindexter and his Starlite Wranglers, Malcolm Yelvington and his Star Rhythm Boys (who performed a hillbilly version of 'Drinkin' Wine Spodee-o-dee', which had been the first big R&B hit for the Atlantic label in 1949, by Stick McGhee). And there was Hardrock Gunter. Sidney Louie Gunter may have been the first rockabilly; he growled 'We're gonna rock'n'roll' on 'Gonna Dance All Night' on the Bama label in 1950, and recorded for Bullet, Decca, MGM, King and his own labels, but without much luck. A new version of 'Gonna Dance All Night' came out on Sun 201 in 1954, but it was too late: Sun 209 was Elvis Presley's first record.
Phillips knew there was a bread-and-butter country market out there, and he was doing well with R&B, but his secretary, Marion Keisker, remembered his saying that if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black he would make a million dollars: all the musical fusions in the world would not do any good if the talent could not appear on network television or reach the pop chart. When Judd Phillips was peddling the records out of his car in the early days, 'even then it occurred to me that people were really digging the music that was on our R&B records ... But there was so much prejudice and division that they couldn't idolize the artist that was delivering the song.' Marion remembered the truck driver who had come in one day in 1953 to make a record for his mother's birthday, and suggested getting him in to see what he could do.
In July 1954 bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, who had already played on Sun sessions, got together with the nineteen-year-old truck driver in the studio. It was apparent from the beginning that Elvis Presley had no idea who he was or what he wanted to do. An only child, he had been haunted all his life by a twin who had died at birth; his father was a lazy failure and his mother a doting monster. He had certainly heard spirited singing in church and was steeped in country music; B.B. King said he had seen the kid hanging around the black part of town, but in any case Elvis heard black music on the radio. He played with a guitar and had the makings of a good voice; in fact, he had an enormous natural talent, and the flowing juices of any horny nineteen-year-old, but no confidence to go with it. His life was to be the tragedy of a born loser, yet he became a cultural artefact.
They tried ballads, because Elvis basically wanted to be Dean Martin, but none worked. 'Casual Love Affair' was a tune written and given to Phillips by an inmate at the Tennessee state prison, and years later a version of 'Harbor Lights', such as you might hear in any threadbare small-town supper club, was discovered in Sun's vault. Then, as with Little Richard in New Orleans the following year, the magic happened during a break, fooling around with 'That's All Right (Mama)', a blues by Arthur Crudup. There were no drums, but it didn't matter; the bass was slapped, but with style and urgency, and country jive finally became the fusion known as rockabilly. Bill Monroe's 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' was worked over until it too became something new. A white kid could sing the blues, and a bluegrass tune could yield rockabilly heat.
As soon as the record was played on local radio a few days later, orders for seven thousand copies came in. Elvis was interviewed on the radio, and the name of his high school established that he was white. But the legendary success did not happen overnight. Marty Robbins covered 'That's All Right' on Columbia, adding a fiddle, and the Presley record was the nearest thing to a national hit that Phillips had had since Junior Parker's 'Feelin' Good', but the market was confused: pop stations thought the record was so country that it should not be played after 5 a.m., while country stations did not know what to make of it either. Elvis was a flop on the Grand Ole Opry, who told him to go back to driving a truck, but found a regular spot on the Louisiana Hayride, and played at county fairs and dance halls for anybody who would have him.
Sun persisted in releasing a country song and a black song back to back: the only way to crack the market was to take it head-on. 'I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine', written in 1949 by Mack David and recorded by Presley's idol, Dean Martin, became a country boogie, backed with 'Good Rockin' Tonight', a Wynonie Harris R&B hit in 1948. 'You're a Heartbreaker' was a bore, backed with 'Milkcow Blues Boogie', credited to Kokomo Arnold and complete with some badly dated jive; this was Presley's worst record on Sun. With the fourth single the recording quality improved: 'I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone' was a good country song with a beat, and a kid named Jimmie Lott on drums; 'Baby Let's Play House' on the flip had been an R&B hit in 1955 on Excello, the only hit Arthur Gunter ever had (not Hardrock Gunter, as Albert Goldman reported). This side of the record did not need the drums; the primitive plea was right up Presley's alley and his first national hit, top five in the country chart. The fifth and last Sun release was 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget' backed with Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train'. The former was a number one country hit for five weeks in 1955, and in November Presley's contract and Sun masters were purchased by RCA.
The effect that Presley had on women did not go unnoticed in the music industry. The fact that he looked and dressed like white trash went with his excess of hormones: like Hank Williams a few years earlier, he had only to twitch a leg to make all the females scream. He enjoyed himself on stage; for the first and last time in his life he did as he pleased, and the girls loved it. He was managed at first by Scotty Moore, then by Memphis DJ Bob Neal, and they were all snookered by 'Colonel' Tom Parker, who also snookered his business partner at the time, country star Hank Snow. Parker was a carnival huckster who had managed Eddy Arnold for a while, but Arnold probably had too much self-respect to be handled for long by such a man. Phillips offered Presley's contract to Nashville producer Owen Bradley, who turned it down; Columbia's Mitch Miller made an inquiry, but would not pay the price, allegedly $20,000 and going up. Snow had alerted the industry to the new sensation, and RCA executive Steve Sholes was instrumental in the final gamble. Parker secured Presley for RCA for $35,000, of which $5,000 went to Presley for unpaid royalties on the Sun records, and which he spent on a Cadillac. This was a large amount of money for an artist who was still a cult, and Phillips never regretted the sale; he knew he could not promote Presley properly, and had more rockabillies waiting in the wings.
Presley's first RCA recording session, in Nashville in January 1956, yielded covers of Ray Charles's 'I Got a Woman', a big R&B hit a year earlier, and 'Money Honey', by the Drifters with Clyde McPhatter, which had been at number one for eleven weeks in 1953. Presley's young voice sounded strained on country ballads: 'I'm Counting On You' is a decent song by proven hit-writer Don Robertson, but the dreadful 'I Was the One' was chosen as the B side of 'Heartbreak Hotel'.
The sound quality of that first session was not good, and 'Heartbreak Hotel' is the worst of them all. Chet Atkins played rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer was added on piano, together with an entirely unnecessary vocal trio led by Gordon Stoker, lead singer of the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet. Scotty Moore's guitar sounds exceptionally, irritatingly tinny, Cramer is too prominent and the whole track sounds like it was made underwater in a breadbox. It was a disgraceful recording for 1956, but a good song for Presley. Written by Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, it was inspired by a newspaper account of a suicide note saying, 'I walk a lonely street'. Despite its shortcomings, 'Heartbreak Hotel' reached all three Billboard charts in March. It was number one for eight weeks in the pop chart and for seventeen weeks in the country chart, and a number three R&B hit.
Think of it: one of the biggest, most famous hits of all time, recorded in January and in the charts less than forty-five days later. And this was already well into the age of tape recording, overdubbing, reverberation and all the rest. Why does it take months to make a pop record nowadays? Is it that today's record producers are musclebound with their technology? If only the studio had been up to the job: one cannot help wondering what these records would sound like if one could go back to the master tapes and tinker with them. (RCA's reissue of 'I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone' revealed it as one of the cleanest records Sun ever made, while an English LP reissue in the 1970s was dreadful.)
More recording dates in New York, in late January and early February, were the most successful of Presley's entire career. With better sound and adding only Shorty Long on piano to Scotty, Bill and drummer D.J. Fontana, the eight sides were a permanent statement of what rock'n'roll is supposed to be, and represent the last time that Elvis Presley's inherent talent was let loose in front of a microphone. Presley was hitting the big time, recording in New York rather than in some provincial hole in the wall, and he gave it everything the natural optimism of youth can offer. He and the group pushed the beat on every track, generating tremendous excitement; Fontana seemed the ideally functional rock'n'roll drummer and Scotty's guitar solos became unpretentious templates for the new genre. 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You' and 'One-Sided Love Affair' were good rhythm tunes; Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti', Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' and Joe Turner's 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' were already rock'n'roll classics, and Carl Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes' was a brand new one; 'So Glad You're Mine' and 'My Baby Left Me' were both by Crudup. Presley was different: his R&B covers, from July 1954 to February 1956, are equal to the originals, and even better in the case of one or two of Crudup's songs. Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup made nearly eighty sides from 1943 to 1954, almost all for RCA; 'Goin' Back to Georgia' (1952) is particularly fine, but some of them sound as though there should have been another take, while there was not much money for studio time in major-label R&B. Crudup never received a penny from his Presley covers, by the way, any of which had soon sold more copies than all Crudup's records put together.
But it was already over. In April, back in Nashville, he recorded 'I Want You, I Need You, I Love You', an incredibly dreary rockaballad and his second number one hit (with 'My Baby Left Me' on the flip side, one of the two or three best records he ever made). They couldn't find decent songs for Presley because they were not looking. We were lucky with 'Heartbreak Hotel'; Axton and Durden were experienced songwriters, but even so Presley got a co-writing credit. 'I Want You, I Need You, I Love You' was written by hacks and published by Elvis Presley Music. 'My Baby Left Me' is mysteriously listed as published by Elvis Presley Music, which did not exist when Crudup had his R&B hit in 1946. Parker knew he was sitting on a gold mine, and became an archetype of everything that has gone wrong with pop music in the decades since then. He milked Presley's career in order to live in a Las Vegas hotel, gambling at Presley's expense for the rest of his life; he started by gambling away the music, and Presley let him do it.
In July 1956 'Hound Dog' and 'Don't Be Cruel' were recorded, Presley's back-to-back third and fourth number ones. 'Hound Dog' had been an R&B hit in 1953 for Big Mama Thornton, credited to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, soon experienced writers of pop hits; Johnny Otis claimed to have had something to do with writing 'Hound Dog' as well. Leiber and Stoller achieved their greatest fame writing for Presley ('Jailhouse Rock', 'Loving You', 'Bossa Nova Baby' and others). 'Don't Be Cruel' was by Otis Blackwell, a black New York songwriter who had sold it the previous Christmas Eve with a bag of others for $25 each. Both songs were ruined by the incessant caterwauling of the Jordanaires, who added hand-clapping on 'Hound Dog', which, in the hands of Presley and his managers, ominously became a novelty.
From then on the songs were pop songs, and almost from the beginning Presley seems to have copied the demo records he was given, such as 'Heartbreak Hotel' (sung by Glen Reeves) and 'Don't Be Cruel' (Blackwell). Leiber said, 'If Jeff Barry was the singer on the demo, Elvis would imitate Jeff Barry.' Presley was willing to work hard and would sing all night; but except for low-down dirty country blues, the boy had no style of his own. He could wiggle an audience of girls into a frenzy, but had no idea what to do with a slow blues, which 'Hound Dog' should have been. It is said that during his first Las Vegas gig, which was a flop, he heard a black vocal group doing a frenetic version of 'Hound Dog', which he simply imitated. By the time he copied 'One Night' in 1958, which should have been his type of song, something was missing: it was a tantalizing moment for those of us who hoped for a return to the truth, but perhaps he had already had too many cheeseburgers. 'One Night' by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King, an R & B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1956, was now published by Elvis Presley Music; the lyrics were cleaned up for Presley, just as lyrics had been cleaned up for Georgia Gibbs a few years earlier.
Blackwell wrote 'All Shook Up' for Presley, who was credited as co-writer on that as well as on 'Don't Be Cruel', and later 'Return to Sender'. Meanwhile, Scotty Moore and Bill Black had left in 1957, because Elvis was making millions and they were still on $100 a week. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote '(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame', 'Little Sister', 'A Mess of Blues', 'Suspicion' and others, all published by Presley. Leiber and Stoller and Pomus and Shuman were hardened professionals who at least did not have to give up a writing credit, but if Presley published the song and recorded it, he was paid twice every time a record was sold; and if he got a co-writing credit, he was paid three times, and so was Parker, who had set it all up. Hence the dire quality of most of Presley's later material, and the dire future of pop music. (To be fair, Presley was embarrassed by his songwriting credits, admitting he'd never written anything.)
A few of these were fine pop records, especially, for example, the two-sided hit 'Little Sister' / 'His Latest Flame'. Presley's voice matured and became a beautiful one, and he acquired an easiness which the best pop singers had had ever since Bing Crosby. He continued to be influential, in the same way as Crosby had been, but he had abdicated, and was no more the 'King of Rock'n'roll' than Paul Whiteman was the 'King of Jazz': rock'n'roll was supposed to wash away the Crosbys. He became the God of show business because he had been a nobody who had come from nowhere to accomplish the important thing that he did in two or three years, and the illusion that people with talent are Just Like Us was becoming the guiding principle of show business.
He had been controversial at first because he was sexy, 'ruining the morals of our youth' and all that, but he confused everyone, for offstage he was polite and soft-spoken and worshipped his mother. He ended up singing for blue-rinsed matrons in Las Vegas. Those of us who were interested in a fence-flattening fusion like rock'n'roll had known the worst since Presley's first appearance on Ed Sullivan's show. The Sunday evening vaudeville hour was the biggest thing on the air; in September 1956 came the first Presley appearance on the show, and we all metaphorically flipped a coin when we tuned in. We had listened to the ballads alternating with the rock'n'roll, some of them excruciating, and we knew that Elvis was going to be a movie star, and that he was going to sing the title song from his first film. We held our breaths, and we lost the toss. 'Love Me Tender' turned out to be 'Aura Lee', the Civil War campfire ballad, conveniently out of copyright and turned into another dreary ballad with new words; claiming 'words and music by Elvis Presley and Vera Matson', it was published by Elvis Presley Music.
He made over 30 films, each one worse than the last, full of songs like the one about how to do the hula in a sports car. During his lifetime he had 146 Hot 100 hits and 75 chart albums (including most of the wretched film soundtracks), but the good records he made after the first 19 months might fill up a single CD. His number one hits in 1960-61 were 'It's Now or Never', adapted from 'O Sole Mio', 'Are You Lonesome To-night?', a 3/4 time porch-ballad from 1927, and 'Surrender', adapted from 'Come Back to Sorrento'. From 1962 to 1969 he had no number ones at all. His status as an icon carried a once great record label for twenty years; he should have had as much power over pop music as anyone who ever lived, but he blew it. There were no worthwhile interviews with Presley because Tom Parker would have charged a fortune for the privilege. Parker saw to it that Presley paid the maximum in income taxes and never toured overseas, because Parker was an illegal immigrant (from Holland) and didn't want the government snooping around. He was divested of his interests in Presley in 1983, long after it was too late. Presley's recording of Paul Anka's 'My Way' was a hit after he died; the tragedy was that he had done almost nothing his way.
Carl Perkins, also from a poor family, had formed a band with his brothers to help make ends meet. They played country songs and jump tunes, and Carl started writing his own songs, in the style that did not yet have a name. He picked cotton during the day and his wife took in laundry. When they heard Presley's 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' on the radio, the brothers went to Memphis and camped on Sam Phillips's doorstep; having signed a contract and added drummer W.S. Holland, they made their first recording, 'Movie Magg', a two-beat bit of country fatalism about a boy who is taking his girl out on horseback. He might also want to get up to something else; he knows her father is keeping an eye on her, and that all this might lead to a lifetime of obligations, but he doesn't mind:
That double-barrel behind the door
The second release was happy rockabilly jive, 'Gone, Gone, Gone', and a month after Presley had left for RCA 'Blue Suede Shoes' was recorded. In February 1956 it was number one on the country jukebox chart for two weeks, after which it was knocked out of the top spot by 'Heartbreak Hotel'. In March Perkins's record reached number two in both the pop and R&B jukebox charts, being kept from the top by Presley, and was number two or three in the 'best seller' charts in all three categories. The song had been suggested by a remark overheard at a dance; but a hillbilly singing about his shoes was widely regarded as a novelty, because middle-class Americans do not know who is in their midst.
A poor man has nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of working for somebody else; this, above all, was what the great majority of southern blacks and whites had in common. On his way out to 'Rip It Up', Little Richard announced:
Well, it's Saturday night and I just got paid,
Hank Williams, out on the town with his best girl, had told her:
You clap hands and I'll start bowin',
Carl Perkins allegedly worked in a bakery, as well as picking cotton. In a bakery in the 1950s the hours were long, the pay was low, the work was hard and it was hot. In the car factory, on some summer nights, they had to send you home, it was so hot; you could not even light a cigarette, because the sweat ran down a Lucky Strike and soaked it before you could get a match to it. But if you came from a poor family, or if you were poorly educated, and above all if you were black, you were going to sweat in that bakery or on that assembly line from paycheck to paycheck, because that was what your father did, and his father before him. This sort of fatalism on the part of the people who do most of the work is exactly what the American economy has always depended upon. The hillbilly cat with the new shoes is just going out to rip it up on a Saturday night, and if he has squeezed a few bucks out of his pay for some fashionable footwear, he will have just that much more fun. He knows that on Monday he is going to pick that cotton, or punch that timeclock, and he knows that the shoes will be worn out in a few months and thrown away. But that doesn't bother him either; he can't afford to think too far ahead. It is not surprising how many early rock'n'roll songs are about working for a living.
T-Bone Walker sang in 1947, 'The eagle flies on Friday / And Saturday I go out to play.' U.S. military parlance was 'the eagle shits on Friday' (payday). In 'Blue Monday' Fats Domino sang:
On Monday my head is bad.
Chuck Berry made us feel guilty every time we bought a buck's worth:
Workin' in a filling station,
Carl Perkins's hillbilly goes out to party:
Well, you can knock me down, step in my face;
The way Presley sang 'Blue Suede Shoes', he was daring you to step on them, so he could try to punch you out. Perkins, by contrast, is almost saying please. He doesn't want any fuss; he is tickled with his new shoes, and all he asks is, please don't step on 'em. But if you step on 'em by mistake, let alone on purpose, you might get into trouble. 'Blue Suede Shoes' is what rock'n'roll (or rhythm and blues) is supposed to be: instant folk music for the working class. It sounds as though it has been made up on the spot, rather than calculated to sell a million; and it is also full of joy, because you can dance your feet off to it.
The other side of Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes' was 'Honey Don't', too strange in 1956, too country, and without the novelty aspect of the shoes. 'How come you say you will when you won't' was a powerful, swinging line, but when you played that side at a party, the other kids didn't want to know. In another era, just a few years later, the Beatles covered it, but Ringo's vocal was pedestrian by comparison.
Johnny Cash was another of Phillips's discoveries. His first recording on Sun and his first country hit was 'Cry! Cry! Cry!', with the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass). 'I Walk the Line' (1956) was his first country number one and his first pop chart entry. He wrote those two, as well as 'Train of Love' and others. His songs were similar to one another but his words were as simple and memorable as those of Hank Williams, and his voice was both yearning and sepulchral; rhythmically the records had that rockabilly inevitability about them. 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen' was overproduced, but 'Guess Things Happen That Way' was better; both were written by 'Cowboy' Jack Clement, a maverick producer who cut his teeth at Sun. Cash became an American legend, but stayed in the country camp; he had sixty-nine hits in the Billboard country chart up to 1970, but only forty-five in the pop chart.
The last Sun superstar was Jerry Lee Lewis, whose cousins include country singer Mickey Gilley, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and Myra Gale Brown, his third wife, whom he married when she was thirteen, and evidently without quite divorcing his previous wife. Jerry Lee was shy at first, but on tour Perkins and Cash told him to make a fuss, so he began kicking over the piano stool, revealing a compulsive and frenetic pianist and performer. After that he always wanted to close the show, but on another tour, with Chuck Berry, he was forced to open it, so he set fire to the piano as he left the stage, saying, 'I'd like to see any son of a bitch try to follow that!'
Lewis's first hit was 'Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On' in 1957, closely followed by 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Breathless', both written by Otis Blackwell. These were big pop and R&B hits, and the first two were number one country hits: they were pretty noisy and not very good to dance to, but exciting novelties. The flip side of the second, a cover of Hank Williams's 'You Win Again', also reached the country top five. His 'pumping piano' was simplistic and dominated by right-hand glissandos, though effective in its context.
In 1958 when he went to England on tour, he took young Myra with him and introduced her to the British tabloid newspapers. The British have some of the worst newspapers in the English-speaking world; they sell millions of copies daily to the kind of people who like to spy on the neighbours from behind the curtains, pretending that the Presleys, Perkinses and Lewises are not the direct descendants of British white trash. Lewis was crucified by the press, the nonsense spread to the USA and Lewis never had another top ten pop hit. He remained a compelling performer, and made a strong comeback in the country charts from 1968, with songs like 'What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser out of Me)' and 'She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye'. He was nicknamed the Killer, not necessarily because some of his wives died young; Myra lasted longer than most and wrote a book about it. Like Presley and some of the others, Lewis was a gun freak, and once shot his bass player. Myra's father was a bass player.
Roy Orbison's recordings for Sun included his 'Ooby Dooby', a minor hit. His soaring voice on 'Only the Lonely' and 'Oh! Pretty Woman' and aching ballads like 'It's Over' were influential in the next decade on another label, Monument. Pianist, singer and songwriter Charlie Rich, a sideman at Sun, became a country star from 1968 on other labels and was known as the Silver Fox. Doug Poindexter, Malcolm Yelvington, Warren Smith, Charlie Feathers and other Sun artists were good rockabillies, but never broke into the national charts. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette were just about the only local rockabillies who never recorded for Sun.
Phillips carried on into the 1960s, but by then his era was over. His credit was always good in the record industry and he could have had a bigger label, but he never wanted to order pressings too far ahead; he became famous without risking too much. 'Until rock'n'roll came along,' he said, talking about genres, 'the worst discrimination in America was in music. I just hope I played some part in breaking that segregation down in some way.'
Meanwhile, other labels were scrambling to catch up with what Sun had discovered. Capitol's Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps had a top ten hit with 'Be-bop-a-lula' in 1956, which seemed an archetypal bit of rockabilly. The new West Coast Liberty label discovered Eddie Cochran, whose first hit was 'Sittin' in the Balcony', a sweet tune about going to the cinema with his girlfriend. It was also a hit on an obscure Colonial label for 'Johnny Dee'; this was the song's composer, John D. Loudermilk, a singer-songwriter who later found his own following.
Cochran's next two hits were his own songs. 'Summertime Blues', a top ten hit in 1958, was perfect teen fodder, the story of a kid who can't go out because he has to work late:
I called my congressman,
This was followed by 'C'mon Everybody', about a boy who is rolling up the rugs for a party because his parents aren't home. Cochran was a good guitar player and an innovator in the studio who knew exactly what he was doing, and the session drummer on his best records was Earl Palmer. (When rock'n'roll spread through the industry, many of the best session musicians were black, including pianist Ernie Freeman and tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, who first played Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.)
At Art Rupe's Specialty label the bread-and-butter acts were black gospel groups. One of the most successful was the Soul Stirrers, who had been around for a while: they had once recorded for Lew Chudd. Their new lead singer, Sam Cooke, had a gorgeous voice and a big following among young female gospel fans. Rupe knew that gospel fans disapproved of their heroes recording secular material, so when he caught Bumps Blackwell recording Cooke on a song called 'You Send Me', he told them to keep the tape in lieu of royalties and get out. Blackwell took the tape to Bob Keene, who put it out on his own Keen label and had one of the biggest hits of the year -- number one in both the pop and R&B charts in 1957. The banal song was a vehicle for Sam's melisma, the gospel-derived technique of wordless improvisation on the melody; nothing like it had been heard in pop until then, and his uncanny voice was beautiful. He was signed by RCA, where he was overproduced; like many black entertainers, Cooke had different acts for black and white audiences.
Johnny Otis, a musical all-rounder, was born in California, where his Greek parents (named Veliotes) ran a grocery store. He grew up in a black neighbourhood and never considered himself anything but black. He helped to invent rhythm and blues; at his shows in the Watts area of Los Angeles Hispanics were among the most enthusiastic fans. On his other label, Del-Fi, Bob Keene recorded Richard Valenzuela, renamed Ritchie Valens, whose 'Donna' was a number two hit in 1958. It was not much of a song, but good for slow dancing, no doubt born out of long experience of playing for teen dances. It was backed by 'La Bamba', a pan-Latin folksong sung in Spanish, with a guitar riff that generated excitement, and became a legend. (Keene later recorded more of what came to be called Tex-Mex groups, including the Bobby Fuller Four, whose 'I Fought the Law' was a hit in 1966.)
Norman Petty was a musician from Clovis, New Mexico, across the border from Texas, where he had a small recording studio. His trio had a couple of minor hits in the mid-1950s (among them Ellington's 'Mood Indigo', with Norman on organ, his wife on piano and a guitarist). He used the money to improve his studio, and began recording local rockabillies. Buddy Knox had written 'Party Doll' as early as 1948, and was leading a trio called the Rhythm Orchids, with Jimmy Bowen on bass. 'Party Doll' was released with Bowen's 'I'm Sticking With You' on Knox's Triple-D label, using a cardboard box as a drum because Petty did not know how to record drums. It aroused national interest and was picked up by Roulette, who separated the tracks and had two million-sellers in 1957. (Bowen later became one of the most successful producers of country music.)
Roulette had been formed in New York in 1956 by George Goldner and Morris Levy. Goldner, who had started out in black doo-wop, had a hit on his Rama label in 1954 with 'Gee', by the Crows. On the Gee label he had an international million-seller, 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love', by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The thirteen-year-old Lymon sang himself into history: bouncy, beautiful and heartfelt, replete with doo-wop trimming and a rocking saxophone solo, the record almost justifies all the sins committed in the teen-love genre since.
Meanwhile, back in Clovis, Petty was recording Buddy Holly, from Lubbock, Texas. Holly had signed with Decca Records and recorded in Nashville in early 1956 when he was only nineteen; his group included guitarist Sonny Curtis and drummer Jerry Allison, and among the sides was an early version of 'That'll Be the Day'. In 1957 he formed a new group, the Crickets, and began experimenting with Petty. Together they taught themselves how to do what they wanted to do in the studio, such as recording drums. Roulette turned the records down; Bob Thiele signed them to separate Decca subsidiaries as Holly and as the Crickets. 'That'll Be the Day', early but fully-fledged rock'n'roll, was number one in August 1957; 'Peggy Sue' and 'Oh, Boy!' reached the top ten; 'Early in the Morning', written by Bobby Darin, was not with the Crickets, but had Sam 'the Man' Taylor on tenor saxophone; 'It's So Easy' and 'Every Day' did not enter the chart.
Holly's career was not moving fast enough to suit him; he split from the Crickets and from Petty. His last recordings, in New York, included a Paul Anka song, 'It Doesn't Matter Any More', made with strings. Like Cochran, Holly was an innovator in the studio, though some of his songs amount to little more than cowboy jingles; he had a good voice, but his hiccupping vocal style was an acquired taste. Like many of the others, he was more popular at the time in Britain.
In 1957 a new phenomenon appeared in the record shops: advance orders for a record that nobody had yet heard. Archie Bleyer, author of those remarkable stock dance-band arrangements from the late 1920s, became prominent as music director for radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey, and in 1953 formed his own Cadence label, which had high production standards and good technology. He had hits by the Chordettes ('Mr Sandman') and Julius LaRosa from Godfrey's television show, by pianist Roger Williams and singer Andy Williams, and also his own instrumental hits, such as 'Hernando's Hideaway'. Then he signed the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, whose parents had played and sung on the radio. (Ike Everly had inspired many a guitar player.)
However the excitement over their first Cadence release was generated, it was not misplaced: distributors and jukebox operators were besieged with orders for 'Bye Bye Love', a song by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who had been writing country hits since 1949; its rockabilly beat (provided by acoustic guitars and bass, no drums) and the brothers' traditional country harmony was irresistible. The Everlys' first album contained two big hits, but their second, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, was a beautiful compilation of their roots, folksongs and old country songs, including Gene Autry's 'That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine'. They had a total of thirty-eight Hot 100 Billboard hits before they split up in 1968.
There were a great many miscellaneous hit records, or one-hit wonders, that gave the quick pleasure of a novelty, yet seemed to be more than that. Cadence had one in 1958 with Link Wray; for the menacing instrumental 'Rumble', holes were poked with a pencil in the speaker fed by the electric guitar's amplifier, giving the music (and the listener) a buzz. (In the 1950s a rumble was a gang fight.) The fuzz-tone became every electric guitar's accessory, and was done to death in the next twenty years. The slightly uptempo flip, 'The Swag', was also a good instrumental; Wray made a few albums over the years which became cult items.
A Texas DJ, J.P. 'Jape' Richardson, chuckled and nonsensed his way through 'Chantilly Lace' on Mercury as the Big Bopper in 1958. There was Sanford Clark's laid-back rockabilly 'The Fool' in 1956, with Al Casey on guitar (not the same Al Casey who played with Fats Waller). Jim Lowe's 'The Green Door' was a hit the same year. (Was the mysterious door the back entrance to the local hot-spot, or to the musicians' union?) Doo-wop continued to produce lovely records which did not appear in the chart, and a few that did: the Dell-Vikings' 'Come Go with Me' (1957) and 'Get a Job' by the Silhouettes (1958). The latter, which included plenty of rhythmic doo-wop nonsense syllables, was about a kid whose parents are nagging him.
Parents did not like rock'n'roll, of course, whatever it was called. Elvis Presley 78s were given away free at a Texas filling station, so that customers could smash them. ASCAP did not like it because many of the hits were BMI publications (though 'Rock Around the Clock', the most notorious hit of all, associated with riots in cinemas, was an ASCAP song). When BMI added an annual R&B award to its pop and country awards in 1957, an NBC executive huffily declared that this was bad public relations in view of the anti-R&B attitude in some quarters; the obvious response, that NBC's subsidiary RCA should divest itself of Elvis Presley, was met with silence.
Frank Sinatra had long complained that Mitch Miller at Columbia had forced him to perform sub-standard material, and sent a telegram to a congressional subcommittee investigating the networks in 1956. It turned out that of all the songs Miller had recorded during his sensationally successful period at Columbia, 95 per cent were ASCAP songs. Of the fifty-seven tracks Sinatra had recorded, only five were BMI songs, and two of those were published by Sinatra's own BMI company. Furthermore, it was revealed, the sweet ballad that had done the most for Sinatra's comeback, 'Young at Heart' (on Capitol in 1954), was a BMI song.
Much of the music business hated rock'n'roll, even as it scrambled to take it over and reap the profits. Yet at the time rock'n'roll suddenly seemed to be dead almost as soon as it had been born. In March 1956, while on the road promoting 'Blue Suede Shoes', Carl Perkins was badly injured in a car crash. Little Richard's lifestyle and his sincere religious feelings were in conflict; in 1957, on tour in Australia, he suddenly quit, which cost a lot of money in cancelled dates. Presley was selling out, and was drafted in 1958; Jerry Lee Lewis's career had gone on hold; in February 1959 a plane crash took Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. That year Chuck Berry opened a club in St Louis, and was arrested for taking a teenaged hatcheck girl (who already had a criminal record for prostitution) across a state line for immoral purposes. In 1960 a car crash in England killed Eddie Cochran and badly injured Gene Vincent, who, already unstable, soon became an alcoholic. It was 1964 before Sam Cooke was shot to death; but the great white hopes of rock'n'roll and a couple of the black ones were out of action. Some came back, and of course Elvis and Tom Parker got richer, but one way or another, none of these careers ever recovered its momentum. The music appeared to have been strangled in its cradle, but it was too late. The rock generation had already been born.