There has been a lot of banter among us about what really constitutes rock ‘n’ roll.
For those of us who have contributed to the site–as well I suspect to those who have been kind enough to read us–we all have our interpretations and definitions of the musical form that ushered our generation into control of the various airwaves.
For certainly no matter what else be said, when Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf and even the Beatles Revolution are the sound backing mainstream TV commercials (for the cynics, note that Joni Mitchell has never let a song of hers be used for advertising purposes) then the influence of rock in our culture simply cannot be denied.
But, it has struck me with the first challenge tunes going back to the very early days of the genre Alan Freed so aptly named, the real soul of the music belongs to the African American community.
Not that I am the first to note this, but when we do talk about the music and its roots, and what it really means, Bill Haley always gets a nod. And, that is fine for Haley was a trendsetter, and had a great band and deserves some respect there.
But really it was Shake, Rattle, and Roll, recorded in February of 1954 by Big Joe Turner, five months before Bill Haley covered the same tune and three months before Rock Around the Clock was recorded and released, that probably owns the title of the breakthrough song pushing the then new form to the masses.
Of course, what cannot be denied is that irrespective of the quality of either version of Shake, Rattle, and Roll, it is the Haley version that got the ink and reaction and coverage in those days. It was also a much bigger hit, as was his cover of Rock Around the Clock.
However, it is important to remember the context of why, and the large reason Haley enjoyed more success than his African American counterparts was that in 1954, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy.
So, aside from the fact that Haley reached a bigger market, white America’s attitude to the African American community was such that music, styles, food, hell virtually anything from the rich culture that emerged from slavery, and to a large degree out of the notion that necessity is the mother of invention (guess whose band grabbed at that one?) was driven by evil dark forces.
It was in May of 1954, that the Brown v. The Board of Education case declared that segregation, and the notion of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. And, that decision, was 15 months before Rosa Parks and her dog tired dogs, after a hard day of work, refused to step to the back of the bus.
Even with that, it was seven more years until James Meredith was granted admission to the University of Mississippi, the first African American to gain entrance to that institution, and one that met with a fair amount of violence at the time (I still remember reading the headlines, and not being able to understand who cared who went to what school as a then nine-year old). Mind you, that was almost a decade after segregation was ruled unconstitutional.
But, as with Pat Buchanan, inexplicably announcing before his dismissal from MSNBC a few years ago that America was built on the backs of white people, the real grunt work of the country–and like it or not, our current music scene–can completely be owned by that same African American community in the same sense that the Egyptians or the Romans can take credit for their great civilizations, but the building of the cities and the pyramids was completed by slaves.
And, while I can give that respect to Haley, for example, I can give none to Pat Boone for bastardizing the true rock ‘n’ roll of Little Richard. For, Richard, and Chuck Berry come as true to defining the form for me as anyone (and the truth is, it would not matter to me if they were pink Martians, they still rocked the shit out of what Boone and his ilk turned into pablum).
For Boone’s treatment of Little Richard was sanitized out of the fearfulness that the African American community–particularly their men–simply wanted to get white women drunk and/or stoned and then have sex with them, using music as part of the means to that end. And, if that sounds outrageous, try reading Daniel Okrent’s excellent narrative on Prohibition, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. (Also remember that the Volstead Act was repealed barely 20 years before the Brown V. the Board of Education decision.)
In fact, in reviewing Okrent’s tome to that troubled period in our history, Publisher’s Weekly notes that ” He unearths many sadly forgotten characters from the war over drink—and readers will be surprised to learn how that fight cut across today’s ideological lines. Progressives and suffragists made common cause with the Ku Klux Klan—which in turn supported a woman’s right to vote—to pass Prohibition.”
If you wonder about this, here is a vid of Boone’s treatment of Tutti Fruitti:
And, now, here is the man, Little Richard showing us exactly how it should be done:
But, essentially the blues form, and rhythm and blues, and Motown, can all be looked to as the seeds of modern rock and pop whether anyone likes it or not, for virtually all modern rock ‘n’ roll stems from that 1/4/5 chord motif that the blues presented.
Further, if you look to the British wave of music, that followed Haley and Richard by ten years, the bands who made a difference–The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, for example–all cut their early chops playing a heavy dose of Motown and Soul music.
In fact, it really was that amalgamation of American rhythm and blues and the Noel Coward sort of tin pan alley that formed the essence of the Brit-pop that invaded America and changed the musical scene around the world forever.
Oddly, despite now being almost 60 years beyond Brown V. the Board of Education and Shake, Rattle, and Roll being released, we are still essentially fighting the same stupid fights, with laws about immigration and diversity (which are the essence of America’s success) and voting rights.
It is easy to get sanctimonious about all of this, but, at the end of the day, as noted by another great freedom fighter, Mohandas Gandhi, “in the end, the truth is still the truth.”
Long live Chuck, Richard, Turner and rock! They started it all (with a little help from their friends).