Billboard magazine – and their accompanying music charts—have been the defining music industry trade magazine since 1894. Any musician who believes they have made look at the Billboard charts for recognition in the music business. Of the top ten albums on the Billboard Rock Albums chart as of August 2012, we see bands like Pierce the Veil, Linkin Park, HellYeah, The Lumineers, Shinedown, fun., Tremonti, Baroness, Gotye, and Of Monsters and Men. None of these artists are or contain African American members, which shows a huge gap between the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s to today. When examining rock music history, we see the evolution of jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm, and blues coming together into that unique cacophony known as rock and roll. This paper will be an examination of the contributions of black artists to the birth of rock and roll music in the 1950s, and how their influence helped to break down barriers of all kinds in post-World War II America.
Life in the 1950s was a turning point in American culture. Men were returning from World War II to a brand new world. People who had lived through the Great Depression and the war were now adults and getting married in record numbers. Children who had lived through the lean times of the war were coming of age. Yamasaki tells us that
“Americans held off on purchases during the Great Depression. Rationing and other regulations limited consumption during World War II. The pent-up consumerism exploded after the war with unprecedented purchases of homes, cars, clothes, and appliances” (186).
The rise of the middle class was never more apparent than during that time. Batchelor adds to this by stating that:
The United States found itself in the enviable position of being far and away from the most powerful nation on earth. Its industrial base, undamaged and strengthened by World War II, manufactured over half the world’s products. America itself proved the biggest single consumer of this outpouring. Denied many goods during the austere war years, citizens rushed to buy everything that appeared on the new peacetime market, resulting in a period of unparalleled economic expansion that lasted through the decade.
One particular problem faced in postwar America was the lack of adequate housing. The Federal Housing Administration had policies in place to encourage segregation in their housing options. For example, African Americans, Jews, and Catholics were prevented from obtaining housing from their bureau. The Supreme Court decision of Shelly vs. Kramer in 1948 outlawed restrictive home sale and rental practices. However, African Americans were still discriminated against, such as with the Levittowns in New York. Only 52 out of 15,741 households were occupied by non-white tenants. Bill Levitt publicly stated that he would refuse the sale of his namesake homes to African American families. This is only one instance of the continued discrimination practiced against African Americans.
If anything, the discrimination suffered by African Americans in the postwar era revamped the focus for equal rights in the form of the modern-day civil rights movement. Joe Trotter wrote that the new civil rights movement was wrapped up in
“the new visual media of television, the worldwide decolonization movement, and the nation’s moral claims to leadership of the ‘free world’ during the Cold War era” (518).
It was not until 1954 when the landmark Supreme Court trial – named Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka – legally stated that the concept of “separate but equal” was deemed unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. This paved the way for the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. King who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott. He believed in integration and civil disobedience, which culminated in his definitive open letter called “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963.
While the groundwork was being laid for the civil rights movement, the Cold War began to assert itself into the American political arena. The Cold War began around 1947 and did not officially end until 1991. It was a sustained race of political and military superiority between the United States and Soviet Russia, a former ally, which had become a bastion of Communist ideals during the end of World War II. This in turn fueled the fire that was McCarthyism. Batchelor wrote that
“in February 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, said he had evidence that 205 active Communist agents had been employed at the State Department. … McCarthy launched a campaign based on fears, innuendo, and smears to track down Communists in government. By 1957, some six million individuals had been investigated by various related agencies and committees because of alleged sympathies to the Communist cause.”
As you can see, 1950s America was a turning point in the history of the United States as we know it today. The postwar economic boom, coupled with the civil rights movement and the threat of communism, drastically reshaped what it was to be an American.
One notable reshaping of the American identity was through leisure, entertainment, sports, and music. Music is – and always has been – an outlet of rebellion for young people. That was not necessarily the case in the 1950s. However, a new demographic group appeared in the form of teenagers by 1953. Yamasaki adds to this when he wrote that:
America became rich enough in the 1950s to give all its youngsters longer childhoods. They now stayed in school for twelve years. Many went on to college. This extended childhood gave birth to a youth culture based on group identity, material prosperity, and the prospect of a nuclear holocaust hanging over their heads” (187).
The economic boom allowed advertising agencies, manufacturers, radio stations, movie studios, and record companies to see teenagers as a source of income to be exploited. They had disposable income for the taking, particularly with the consumption of popular music. Yamasaki further sums up the consumption of music by saying:
Many white teenagers rejected the music of their parents. Crooners, such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como, did not move them. Nor did they expect to find happiness ‘somewhere over the rainbow.’ Some began listening to rhythm & blues. Their parents disapproved of this ‘colored music,’ considering it lewd, vile, and vulgar. Inventions of the transistor radio and the car radio, however, gave teens control over channel selections. Healthy allowances gave them a degree of economic autonomy. Teenagers became the largest consumers of the inexpensive 45 RPM records, putting black artists, such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, on the mainstream pop charts. To avoid ‘rhythm & blues’ negative image, record labels marketed their music as ‘rock ‘n’ roll’” (187-188).
From here, we must examine the sources of talent and the different genres that gave birth to rock and roll. This will allow us to better understand the progression of rock and roll music up until the genre creating “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Music performed by black artists before the rise of rock and roll was found in the public arena, limiting its consumption to live performances only.
“During the 1940s, a group of black jazz musicians, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and pianist Thelonious Monk, used Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse and other after-hours clubs to develop new music forms” (Trotter 567).
Their brand of bebop opened the doors for “cool jazz” in the form of Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” in 1949. Another genre that sprang up during this time was called “modern jazz” during the 1950s and into the 1960s. It was spearheaded by talents such as saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, as well as bassist Charles Mingus. As further noted by Trotter,
“jazz expanded and picked up a broad following among blacks and whites in the postwar years, (but) rhythm and blues best captured the cultural impact of the desegregation movement” (568).
Rhythm and blues (R&B) was a definitive point in the creation of rock and roll. If it had not been for R&B, we would not have rock and roll music as we know it today.
One talent that was an inspiration in the rhythm and blues genre was Louis Jordan. Louis Thomas Jordan was born in Brinkley, Arkansas, on July 8, 1908. After bouncing between bands and orchestras through most of his career, Talevski notes that Jordan embraced
“novelty-style material and adding comedic showmanship to his stage act.”
His music adopted a danceable, shuffle-boogie beat, and the percussion-heavy music was the precursor of 1950s R&B.
“With the birth of rock, a whole new crop of imitators had replaced the 46-year-old Jordan. Borrowing Jordan’s shuffle-boogie and sax-heavy sound, Jordan’s longtime producer, Milt Gabler, turned former hillbilly singer Bill Haley into a star” (Talevski).
Bill Haley is best known for his two hits, “Rock Around the Clock,” and his cover of black bluesman Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”
One question continues to show itself as we examine the rise of rock and roll music. Why were black musicians covered by white musicians, and the white cover almost always ended up becoming more popular? The problem with the music of the time was that, like in real life, it was segregated. Batchelor reminds us that
“radio stations, most of which were white-owned, had been segregating music for years. ‘Race records,’ recordings aimed at a predominantly black clientele, differentiated between white and black bands. Because of such practices, rhythm and blues, which characterized much of this music, went unheard and unappreciated by most white listeners.”
In fact, it was not until 1949 that the Billboard charts renamed “race records” to “rhythm & blues.” Alan Freed was a Cleveland disc jockey who popularized the term “rock and roll” when he played rhythm and blues records on his Moon Dog radio show in 1952. Freed’s decision to air R&B records over the radio created a demand for R&B music.
Two men helped to bring rhythm and blues to the masses. Leonard Chess was born Lazer Chez on March 12, 1917, in a Russian Jewish family that emigrated to Chicago’s predominantly black South Side in 1928. In 1945 he and his brothers opened the Macomba, which was a jazz and blues nightclub. After recognizing that they could not fill their jukeboxes with records by black artists,
“the Chess brothers launched the Aristocrat label in 1947, first recording a Macomba vocalist, Andrew Tibbs” (Talevski).
Chess Records filled a void for African American consumers by selling millions of R&B, jazz, and blues records. Chess went as far as traveling throughout the South, personally scouting for talent and taping performers on a primitive, wire tape recorder. Chess moved from primarily R&B and blues artists into developing rock and roll musicians by 1955.
“Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry recorded landmark hits such as ‘I’m a Man’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’” for the Chess label (Talevski).
It was this movement from blues and R&B records that made Chess a household name amongst white consumers.
When examining the success of Leonard Chess and Chess Records, it is easy to look over the fact that there were black people who undertook administrative positions at predominantly white-owned record labels. Sanjek reminds us of one man named Henry Glover who:
acted as one of King Records’ principal A&R men, producing as well as writing material recorded by both white and black artists, often featuring racially mixed bands that frequently performed the same material in generically different formats. Not only was Glover one of the intermediaries through which some of the finest American popular music was produced, but he also possessed a substantial and rewarded administrative and creative role in its production (543).
“Glover worked with artists of both races as well as any number of genres, from blues to r&b, country, bluegrass, hillbilly, boogie-woogie, jazz, and rock and roll” (Sanjek 544).
Rock and roll music did not just break down barriers in mainstream America, but also on the economic side of things. If it has not been for people like Henry Glover or Leonard Chess, pounding the pavement in search of talent and producing them, the racial gap in America would have grown.
One talent of the 1950s rock and roll music scene that transcended the racial gap was Chuck Berry. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. Schinder sums up his career by stating that he wrote
“songs that played a crucial role in chronicling and defining the youth culture that spawned rock and roll, and in introducing much of the cars-and-girls iconography of early rock and roll. He forged his style by mixing country guitar licks and country-inspired narrative songwriting with a rhythm and blues beat and the rudiments of Chicago-style electric blues.”
His career started in his church choir but Berry did not become a guitarist until his teenage years. In 1955, Schinder goes on to state that:
He met legendary electric bluesman Muddy Waters, who suggested that Berry contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Chess told the young hopeful to bring him a demo tape. … The resulting demo included the slow blues original “Wee Wee Hours” and an up-tempo reworking of a much-recorded country standard titled “Ida Red.” At Chess’s suggestion, “Ida Red” was renamed “Maybellene,” and it was released by Chess as Berry’s first single in July 1955.
After the single’s release, Alan Freed put “Maybellene” into constant rotation on his Moon Dog Show. This exposure catapulted Chuck Berry to fame. In fact, the song was so popular that it rose to number one on the Billboard R&B charts, as well as getting to number five on the pop charts. This success
“demonstrated Berry’s ability to transcend the racial barriers that ruled the music industry in the 1950s. At a time when it was common for discs by African American performers to be outsold by watered-down cover versions by white acts, it was Berry’s original that white teenagers bought” (Schinder).
Rock and roll music was a source of rebellion, as earlier noted, but it also improved the impact of the civil rights movement by breaking down those barriers of race.
“Teenagers deserved much of the credit for the integration of black and white musical forms. In their purchase of millions of rock and roll records, concert attendance, and other preferences, they displayed a remarkable lack of prejudice when it came to music—especially rock and roll” (Batchelor).
If teenagers had not accepted rock and roll music in this way, it would not have helped break down doors in the civil rights movement.
Another name that helped shaped the rock and roll music scene was a pianist by the name of Little Richard. Born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932, he was raised in Macon, Georgia. Talevski tells us in his biography on the musician that
“Richard vacillated between the gospel sounds of a family singing group, the Penniman Singers, and the sinful world of rock and roll.”
Little Richard won a radio station talent contest which awarded him an RCA-Victor record contract in 1951. The records he cut for RCA-Victor were not successful at all. After the death of his father, he returned home to Georgia briefly. He soon signed a deal with Specialty Records in 1955, whereupon he was taken to the J&M studio in New Orleans. This proved to be a turning point for the young musician, as Talevski tells us that
“after initially performing several blues numbers, Little Richard unleashed an unplanned, sizzling, bawdy version of what would become ‘Tutti Frutti.’ With new lyrics provided by songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie, ‘Tutti Frutti’ was a rock smash, capturing the attention of America’s youth.”
Unfortunately, Little Richard could not duplicate Chuck Berry’s crossover success with “Maybellene.” Pat Boone, a white crooner, released a watered-down version of “Tutti Frutti.” Boone’s cover eclipsed the original in airplay. Batchelor tells us that:
The use of white artists to cover black performers represented a continuing fear among record producers: that black artists could not attract a large, profitable white audience. They would be proven wrong, but it took much of the decade to convince them. In fact, one of the singular accomplishments of 1950s rock and roll involved the success of integrating black performers into the previously all-white mainstream. In many ways, this blending of musicians and compositions served as a harbinger of the civil rights triumphs of the 1950s and 1960s. Rock and roll were ahead of the curve of social change, and it opened many doors previously closed to minority artists.
Paired with Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” is another example of how covering songs by other artists may end up as a failure for the original artists. This was indicative of the audience both songs played to in the 1950s. To make songs more palatable, they remade the songs, toned down the lyrics, and changed the tempo of the music.
Big Joe Turner was born Joseph Vernon Turner was born on May 18, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri where he grew up listening to his mother’s blues records. By age 16, he began sneaking into local music clubs where he learned to sing. Talevski writes that
“Turner often recorded and performed with (pianist Pete) Johnson and other boogie-woogie style pianists Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. … Later in 1941, Turner joined Duke Ellington Orchestra’s ‘Jump for Joy’ revue.”
He was eventually signed to Atlantic Records. Turner created a persona where he was a sharp dresser and confident performer. He became what we know as a rock star today, with these defining attributes. Musically, he combined a strong, danceable beat to the 1930s boogie-woogie, up-tempo, jump blues he was known for. The biggest hit of his career was “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in April 1954. Bill Haley and His Comets’ version was released in August of that same year.
The defining moment of rock and roll as a viable genre was the emergence of the song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Haley’s arrangement of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” is credited with bringing rock and roll to the mainstream. As is typical of popular music, songs were created by one artist and covered by another. One can see that the lyrical differences in the two versions of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” provided by both Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets exist. Most rhythm and blues music was heavily laden with sexual puns and innuendos. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was no exception. The main difference between Turner’s version from Haley’s is that the latter was bouncier, and removed the sexual innuendos as best as they could without sacrificing much from the original tune. For example, one verse of Turner’s version was:
I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store
I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store
Well I can look at you till you ain’t no child no more
Bill Haley’s version went like this:
I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store
I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store
I can look at you, tell you don’t love me no more
I do not aim to break down every lyrical or aural difference in the song. But both are indicative of the time period that birthed rock and roll. Turner helped usher in rock and roll by originating “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with his blues influences. Before this hit, Haley was primarily known as a country musician. That is not to say that Turner is the only one who had a hand in the creation of rock and roll. As we can see throughout this paper, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Alan Freed, and Leonard Chess were but a few men who did. Like all definitive historical events, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was a song that was created and released in the right place and time. It combined R&B, blues, and gospel genres to create an entirely new sound that allowed blindfolds to be removed from mainstream America. It opened up a world that was hiding in the shadows to teenagers, which allowed them to become a force to be reckoned with, economically and socially.
“I believe to the soul you’re the devil and now I know/well, the more I work, the faster my money goes”
in the original version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Those lyrics are still as relevant as ever today. Rock and roll music was epitomized through this song, with the guitar licks and the kicks of the drum kit. Popular music of the first part of the 21st century has evolved to the point where one could argue that it has segregated itself again. There are no black artists on the top 10 Billboard Rock charts. There are no white artists on the Billboard top 10 R&B/Hip-Hop charts. For a genre born out of rebellion, one can only wonder if there is anything left for us to rebel against in 2012. I would like to believe that there is. I can only hope that we all wake up from this Autotuned dream and get music back to that raw, youthful feeling of rebellion.
Batchelor, Bob. “The Birth of Rock and Roll (Overview).” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 July 2012.
Batchelor, Bob. “Introduction to the 1950s (Overview).” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 July 2012.
Batchelor, Bob. “Rock and Roll Music in the 1950s.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 July 2012.
Haley, Bill, and His Comets. Shake, Rattle and Roll. 1954. MP3.
Presley, Elvis. Shake, Rattle and Roll. 1955. MP3.
Sanjek, David. “One Size Does Not Fit All: The Precarious Position of the African American Entrepreneur in Post-World War II American Popular Music.” American Music 15.4(1997): 535-562. JSTOR. PDF file.
Talevski, Nick. “Big Joe Turner.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 July 2012.
Turner, Big Joe. Shake, Rattle and Roll. 1954. MP3.
Yamasaki, Mitch. “Using Rock ‘N’ Roll to Teach the History of Post-World War II America.” The History Teacher 29.2(1996): 179-193. JSTOR. PDF file.
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