Rock & Roll: An Art History - 1954-66



The most significant cultural event of this century is the continuing revolution in all media of the arts that began during the mid-1950s. Fundamentally this is a revolution in communications. Its history is intimately related to technological developments in fields such as radio, television and the movies. The changes in these fields of mass communication run parallel to the radical alteration of our entire cultural outlook--as it has come down to us through centuries of essentially Western European tradition. The newly emerging revolutionary values are electric or electronic --either actually (as with the phonograph, the TV picture tube, and the computer) or metaphorically (as with Ezra Pound's "ideogramic method" in poetry, Eisenstein's principle of "montage" in cinema, and Marshall McLuhan's mosaic prose style plus the manifold other-media examples he cites).

Both the fine and the popular arts have felt themselves profoundly affected by this electric-electronic shift of focus, particularly in the decade that bridges the 1950s and the 1960s. For one thing, differences between the "fine" and the "popular" arts have become far less sure than before. A powerful reason contributing to this uncertainty about neat categories is that the arts are now beginning to be understood in new, functional ways--for instance, as systems of visual communication (or auditory, tactile, etc. communication). This tends to under­mine the nice conventional distinctions between painting, sculpture, and so forth. Naturally there are still many people--especially among those committed to the so-called fine arts, as critics, as collectors, or as practicing artists--who do not understand the nature of this electric-electronic cultural revolution. Hence they may fear and oppose it; but they cannot make it stop or turn around.

Rock and roll music was among the first, most im­mediate products of this cultural revolution. Historically, its rise and development reflects and documents the larger and vastly more complex pattern of the Great Turn-On. Emerging as a new musical field within the realm of the popular arts, rock and roll's pedigree was dubious from the start. In the matter of acquiring dignity, its association with other popular media (such as TV, or even the commercial world of advertising) helped little. But within a decade after the revolution started, writers all the way from hack journalists to university professors began to take these popular media of communications (or art media) very seriously indeed. Some of the best writers managed to take them seriously and humorously at the same time, and in so doing often managed to make the most sense. But there are drawbacks that sometimes accompany historical dignity: as the popular arts became proper objects of increasingly earnest study and analysis, humour was the first quality to evaporate. Such a loss, however, inevitably leads to a loosening of sympathy with the popular element, which in turn gravely compromises the understanding of the writer as well as the potential significance of what he writes.

So far no comprehensive history of rock and roll has been published. Many have been threatened--and doubtless, eventually, many will appear. For some of the public, com­promised and limited by their literate culture, this may prove tiresome, or even possibly horrifying. For scholars of the future, despite the work they will have (in sifting through the diversions and dross likely to appear in even the best of these studies) the more and the more different books the better. Just taking rock and roll, let alone the rest of popular music, there is such a complexity of historical develop­ment, such subtlety of stylistic heritage and influence, and such a wealth of colorful, crazy, comic and compassionate stories, as to provide plenty of material for everyone.

The Beatles in 1966.

The Beatles in 1966.

Rock and roll begins in 1954, just as it ends in 1966. There are some people who still don't even know it started, and others who resist believing that it has passed. Artists and groups still play rock and roll music, and many of us are still digging it. But usually the original disks fare better than the tired rehashes. As a vital and coherent "movement" in the popular arts, rock and roll became so multi-­directional and dispersed after about a dozen years of its existence, that it evolved into several other new. fields, each almost as different in flavor as rock and roll was originally different from the run-of-the-mill, sweet and jivey, contemporaneous pop ballad. Maybe some of the artists who seem to be singing rock and roll tunes today are already the first wave of a rock and roll revival movement.

Going in the other time-direction, there were some artists who may deserve to be called "proto-rock and roll." Groups such as the Crows or the Clovers span a very grey boundary area between the new rock and roll of the mid-1950s and the tradition of rhythm and blues. Despite such proto­types, the force and direction of rock and roll as a musical style first appeared with both clarity and consistency in 1954. Following its initial impact, there was a period of about three years during which this new field of popular music built up a huge audience. For the teenagers, rock and roll almost instantly achieved its vast popularity as an art form (and as a commercial product). For most other segments of the society, its notoriety was achieved with comparable immediacy.

After some adjustments of taste and temperament, rock and roll came to be recognized as the most demanding and alive field of popular music in the United States. Also, right from the beginning, this music developed international implications. By 1957, at the end of the initial three year period in its evolution, there was a clear indication that rock and roll music would become perhaps the first truly international art form--not just as a commodity widely imported and exported, but as a real world-wide style. The primary subject matter of this history is the music we call rock and roll, or in a shorter and simpler way, "r&r," and the intent of this study is to explore and outline the history of these first few formative years.


A subject as rich and fascinating as the history of rock and roll can be approached from several valid directions, and explored in many fruitful ways. Its component works of art, the tunes themselves, can be viewed as end products of individual or collaborative creative efforts. In a broader sense, they can be studied as a series of documents which illuminate general historical, sociological, cultural and artistic changes. But in turn, rock and roll may also be understood in active terms--as a significant causal agent in these same developments. For both approaches, r&r occupies an essential position in relation to those mid-20th century changes in communications media whose aggregate effects can only be characterized as a cultural revolution.

It is important to gain some understanding of the nature and configuration of the popular music scene in America --as it had evolved up to the early 1950s anyway--in order to grasp more fully the meaning of those changes. There were three major fields of music involved with popular tunes: the broad mainstream of the pop music tradition, with the Negro-oriented rhythm and blues on one side, and the country and western field on the other. For the trade and for the public each of these fields remained more or less distinct from one another.

The most widespread of these fields was the one we generally refer to as "pop." It had the least specific and unified character, and represented what was by far the largest commercial market. The overwhelming position of pop style, as gauged by dollar-and-cent appeal, meant that it received the major attentions of the recording industry. In contrast, the other two fields (r&r and c&w) comprised much smaller markets. These styles were also limited by regional tastes, and by distinctions of social, economic and racial nature. Both r&b and c&w were relatively self-contained musically, and mutually insulated fields--whether viewed in structural terms from within the industry, or from the point of view of public taste and com­mercial performance.

C&W singer Hank Snow.

C&W singer Hank Snow.

In the area of music among the popular arts, and espec­ially for the music fan of the early 1950s, the categories of pop, c&w and r&b represented quite separate styles. Each of these fields had its own market, as emphasized by different labels, dealers, and retail outlets, with different buyers, and with different radio stations devoted to one particular field or another. This held true even for extensions of recording activity into personal appearances, the nightclub circuit and and concert tours. But it was the medium of radio that under­scored distinctions between the three fields perhaps most em­phatically, because its feedback effects were the most influential conditioning factors in the promotion, distribution and sale of records.


In 1954 there begins a confluence of the three major fields of popular music (pop, r&b and c&w). Mutual influences from each of these fields upon one another were operative, of course, long before the beginnings of that calendar year. By way of general historical background, it is worth recalling that the big, bulging middle-ground of popular music, represented by the easy-listening pop tradition really began to occupy a prominent extent of the cultural landscape in the late 1920s and in the 1930s. This happened largely through the influence of radio. But the field stayed vital not only because of the Tin Pan Alley activity itself, or because of the popularity of Broadway show-tunes and broadcasts by studio or ballroom bands. From its inception pop was both inspired and revitalized by recurrent overlaps with the other fields. (Less regularly there were also in­fluences, sometimes mutual, between pop music and the jazz and classical fields.)

Singer Perry Como was a pop star who went on to TV.

Singer Perry Como was a pop star who went on to TV.

There have been numerous "crossover" successes in the pop category--or songs that were first hits in another field, and then scored high in sales in the big national pop market. Most frequent among these were "hillbilly" tunes, or "Folk" music as the genre was referred to for a period, before the current terminology "country," or "country and western" came into accepted use. Only very occasionally did a blues tune manage to sell well on a nationally competitive basis.

Along with the initial impact of r&r, this whole pattern changes dramatically, as the instance of crossover hits increases markedly. On a deeper level this suggests that especially from these other fields the influences on the pop category, ceased to have the character of sporadic and isolated events associated with individual tunes. Instead there appeared, at that time, a much more continuous and organic interpenetration of all three fields. It is, in fact, just this flowing together of three traditions that results in the creation of a new and different style of music--one different in kind and different in its effects from any style before. This confluence, in terms of both the immediate style and the deeper traditions, is a key factor in the formation of rock and roll--so much so that it may be taken as one of the definitive aspects of its emergence.

The character of r&r music itself involves more than merely the superficial overlapping of references in the lyrics, or the special effects of phrasing and arranging in the music. As for the quality of the sound, or the structure and character of the tunes, r&b provided the essential, initial groundplan. There was in the 195Os a heavy incessant beat, strongly and regularly accented within a rectangular framework, than can be traced back to the blues of the 1920s. But it was more of the rhythm than the blues that r&r borrowed from the tradition of r&b. Some of the grittiness of this sound was soon moderated under the influence of c&w instru­mentation--especially as the use of the guitar tended to replace the harsh lead sax that early r&r borrowed from the r&b style. From the field of pop music, r&r derived the basic orientation of its lyrics. Together with the driving beat that was essentially foreign to pop style, r&r added the whole library of romantic and sentimental words, with the full flight of fantastic metaphors and quasi-moralistic messages.

R&B star Chuck Berry.

R&B star Chuck Berry.

With respect to both subject matter and approach, pop and r&r lyrics are utterly distinct from those of the blues tradition. While the former had been typified by their confined concern for hearts and flowers, heaven, paradise, and the ethic of eternal love, the blues have a much more earthy focus, with the three ubiquitous subjects involving money (or lack thereof), women (usually very human ones--or the lack thereof), and trouble (usually a surfeit thereof). (2) Blues-influenced words and phrases do appear in r&r tunes--indeed from the beginning, but usually in proportions that vary with the individual artist or group and their background and orientation. And usually it is the blues earthiness that most aggravates censorship by those opposed to r&r music generally. The story of the re­sistance and reaction to r&r, including an inventory of those sometimes incredible efforts of rejection and repression, although on one level dismaying, on another offers perhaps the most engrossing and amusing chapter of this history. But even these responses cannot be historically appreciated before exploring somewhat more intensely the nature and background of the three sources of r&r, and the way in which the con­fluence resulted in the kind of music it did.


Mega-Star Elvis Presley.

Mega-Star Elvis Presley.

Individuals such as Elvis Presley, and groups such as Bill Haley and his Comets--or tunes like "Gee" "Sh-boom," and"Rock Around the Clock"--all serve as examples which epitomize early r&r as a synthetic phenomenon. But as r&r style bacame established and began to acquire a definite character, with a nascent tradition of its own, its influences reverberated back into these other fields. R&R did draw to­gether elements from pop and r&b--and slightly later from c&w--synthesizing them into a new field. Further, it soon actually controlled the mainstream of popular music. This means that r&r tunes thoroughly infiltrated the national pop charts. As often as not the same versions in the later 1950s and early 1960s overflowed into the other r&b and c&w charts dominating them as well. An excellent early example of this is the popularity of Elvis Presley, whose releases set the pattern for succeeding years in rising repeatedly to the top or near the top of all three polls (the separate pop, r&b and c&w best-selling record charts).

The r&r style that has since become virtually synony­mous with pop music began to develop internally, so many different stylistic directions that the coherence of the field gradually dissipated. There was especially in the 1960s, a subsequent blossoming in several parallel directions, only loosely associated to each other or to a central r&r style. These include acid rock and flower-power songs, the new blues, a real revived English quality, neo-classical directions, raga rock and the increasing importance of electronic composition, inter alia. First it had firmly controlled the pop field, then --for a variety of complex reasons--both the r&b and the c&w fields began to assert more stylistic and market autonomy, these fields returning to much of their original separateness.

Ray Charles began in r&b but crossed-over into c&w later in his career.

Ray Charles began in r&b but crossed-over into c&w later in his career.

Some twelve or so years after r&r began, strangely enough, the pattern of three separate fields reappeared on the American popular music panorama. The "soul" sound and a resurgence of r&b in the mid-1960s appeals to a wide non-Negro audience--but radio stations have reappeared that carry strongly Negro-oriented advertsiements, news, and public service announcements. And their programming is almost ex­clusively of music recorded by Negro artists, as presented by Negro DJs (disk jockeys). The same is true for the c&w field. Recently the name of the category has been shortened to "country music," although it remained "c&w" during our period of concern. Even fewer of these tunes today make the national pop charts than do the hit r&b disks. In the period from 1954 to 1966, however, there was a recurrent pattern of interrelationship, between and among, all three fields. At times it is virtually impossible to distinguish the different lists of top tunes then by the titles alone, without looking at the chart headings. For these approximately twelve years American popular music became integrated, democratic, and truly popular--of the people. This history of r&r does not attempt to tell people what they should like--it is concerned with what they do like, and the ways in which these likes have been demonstrated.


DJ Alan Freed credited himself with coining the term "rock & roll."

DJ Alan Freed credited himself with coining the term "rock & roll."

At this point, a certain amount of confusion about the meaning and implications of the term "rock and roll"might be cleared up with a few practical and historical reflections. Some­thing as significant for the history of popular culture as r&r could not possibly begin with just one tune--nor, say, at the stroke of twelve on New Year's Eve, 1953. The color­ful and immensely popular DJ, Alan Freed, who--before his death in 1965--was so intimately involved in the history of r&r, thought of it as going "back to 1951 in Cleveland, where I named Our music 'rock 'n' roll'." (2) Even in such a detail as the use by Freed, a Caucasian, or the capital "0" in his phrase "Our music," stresses the early broad­ening appeal of the music. This was to a teen-aged "folk," and it gave to Freed's "rock 'n' roll" an explicit folk orientation that consciously hoped to transcend the notions of a purely racial context. Nevertheless, while Freed's early listeners and followers--his folk--were teen-aged, they were not yet the real teenagers for whom r&r became real folk music in the mid-1950s.

The origins of the term "rock and roll" seem to be definitely rooted in the verbal soil of American Negro slang. As with other terms springing into the general vocabulary from similar sources, some of the suggestive overtones carry over, while the more frankly sexual conno­tations of the original context slowly seem to disperse. Another example of this process might be the term "funk" or "funky," which came out of sexually slanted slang first in reference to jazz, then later into the critical vocabulary of the visual arts. (3) A fascinating instance of the early origins of "rock and roll" is documented by a well-known sea shanty, "Do My Johnny Booker."(4) The text of the shanty carries the recurrent line, "Oh, do my Johnny Booker, come rock and roll me over,/ Oh, do my Johnny Booker, do." Kenneth Goldstein's notes add the following information:

According to authorities, this favorite short haul shanty was used mainly at tacks and sheets by American sailing vessels, and under the British flag was sometimes used also for furling sail.

Doerflinger (William M. Doerflinger, Shantymen and Shantyboys, The Macmillan Co., 1951, p. 9.) cites "Johnny Booker" as 'one of many characters shanghaied into shanty lore from the songs of the blackface minstrels, or possibly from Negro folksong...' And, indeed, the antics of the hero of this song are prominently displayed in songs appearing in various mid-nineteenth century minstrel songsters, as well as in orally cir­culated songs collected in this century mainly from Negro traditional singers.

Words like "rock" or "rockin'" or the full phrase "rock and roll" appear frequently toward the end of the 1940s. One of the best known r&b tunes of this time was Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" (backed with "Good Morning, Mr. Blues," King 4210). Later in 1949 came the following examples: B. Matthews with the Balladiers and the S. Evans Combo, "Rock and Roll" (backed with "Box Car," De Luxe 3220), Wild Bill Moore, "Rock and Roll" (backed with "Bright Light," Modern 20-674), or Roy Brown and His Mighty Men with their hit r&b tune "Rockin' at Midnight" (backed with "Judgement Day," De Luxe 3212).

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup was an early 50s r&b"race music" star, and had a major influence on Elvis Presley.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup was an early 50s r&b"race music" star, and had a major influence on Elvis Presley.

The music to which Alan Freed referred in 1951 as r&r was actually, in retrospect, what we would call r&b. At that time there was still derogatory implications of "race music" that could and did affect audience and DJ alike. The average DJ was constantly in direct contact with the public, and hence more sensitive and more vulner­able to their prejudices. Thus a person like Alan Freed probably intended "rock 'n' roll" as a euphemism, or at least as an alternative to "race music." As a phrase, it was more emphatic than "rhythm and blues"--which must have sounded to his ears like some librarian's classification, and one none too accurate at that. But what we call r&r did not necessarily exist musically in 1951 because Freed applied the term then, any more than r&r music existed already in 1949, or back in the early 19th century, just because the term existed then too. Even the efforts of the industry in 1949 to remove the offensive term "race music," in favor of "r&b," indicate a growing acceptance of the music outside the Negro community. This may be a more or less direct result of the important Supreme Court decisions on inte­gration at the time. Or, from a slightly different historical point of view, the spread of r&b's popularity can itself be looked upon as providing a real instance of effective inte­gration, thus documenting a cultural process that has con­tinued and increased in thoroughness ever since. (5 ) Billboard led other trade papers in changing from the phrase "race music" to "rhythm and blues" (in the June 25, 1949 issue) but without any formal statement of editorial reasoning. While the switch in terminology may have been softened by not making an issue out of it someone got the signals slightly crossed up: in the same publication (on page 4, under the heading "Number One Across the Music Disk Board") C. Brown's tune "Trouble Blues" is listed as the "Bestselling Retail Race Record." Also at the same time, Billboard switched termin­ology in the third main area of United States popular music: "Country and Western" became the new standard term for what had previously been referred to as "Hillbilly" or"Folk" music, under headings like "Folk Talent and Tunes." Five years later (as r&r was beginning to appear) Billboard recognized the dramatic shift in national taste that was occurring and devoted a special section of the April 24, 1954 issue to rhythm and blues. In an editorial preface, the emergence of the r&b field to a position of respectability and relative strength within the music industry is noted, together with the cross-over phenomenon of certain artists and hit tuns--from the r&b field to the much larger pop market area:

The r&b field has made great strides during the past five years. It is heartening to see that it has finally broken itself free of its old confines. It is no longer identified as the music of a specific group but can now enjoy a healthy following among all people, regardless of race or color.

These developments are particularly gratifying as we look back to June, 1949, when the Billboard took what was then considered a drastic step. It dropped the use of 'race' and 'sepia' then uni­versally used in referring to these recordings, and initiated the term 'rhythm and blues.' It appealed to the industry to follow suit and erase its former distasteful terms and thereby eliminate their restrictive connotations.

The acceptance by the trade of the term "rock and roll"cannot be symbolized by any such clear and dramatic gesture as Billboard's switch from "race" music to "rhythm and blues" in 1949. It is 1957 before Billboard incorporates "rock and roll" into its listings, although the practical pressures leading up to this had been increasing for the preceding three years. Over Gary Kramer's byline for a new column "On the Beat" there appears the new subhead: "Rhythm & Blues-- Rock & Roll."(6) In a brief explanation of editorial intent, Kramer says the column

...will cover not only the rhythm and blues field--but also the other musical areas that have developed in the last few years under the inspiration of the unusually wide acceptance of the r&b idiom.

Two of these areas singled out as the most important are "rock and roll" and "rockabilly."


C&W singer Carl Perkins attempted to cross-over to r&r, but was eclipsed by Elvis Presley.

C&W singer Carl Perkins attempted to cross-over to r&r, but was eclipsed by Elvis Presley.

A definite emphasis on the individual artists and on indie labels appears in the democratization of popular music following the advent of r&r. Aspects of anti-corporate American idealism are appealed to (with more than a hint of the frontier ethic of individualism). But it was indeed the indie labels, together with new, young performing per­sonalities who "pioneered and nourished rhythm and blues-- and rock and roll--and are still its vanguard."(7) A cor­ollary of these principles of free enterprise and the spirit of democracy in action, is a state of healthy pluralism. (8) Different kinds of music not only became more available to everyone--on the radio, on juke boxes and in the stores, although this was always true to some extent--but now the same people were actually buying different kinds of music. On a different level this pluralism of individual taste can be seen as an expression of the broadscale interpenetration of commercial markets.

No abstract categories prevent the teenager today from buying records by Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins or Little Richard at one and the same time. The trade, therefore, must revise, and perhaps abandon, some of its old boundary lines. ( 9)

The trade did not of course abandon its boundaries, although they were forced to become far more flexible in so far as they related to what was really happening.


Slowly r&b did fade out of the picture for a while in the late 1950s, but it survived as a point toward which the resurgence of Negro music in the 1960s became focused. During the formative years of r&r recognizing the existence of "boundaries" in the popular music trade proves helpful in analyzing and reconstructing the operative principles of stylistic development. Rather than breaking down boundaries and distinctions altogether, what r&r meant was the appear­ance of a new supervening field. The fact that, historically speaking, r&r drew upon these other traditions of pop, r&b, and c&w as sources, also enabled it to effect a reciprocal loosening-up of tastes. The buyer of r&r disks probably found his way into these other musical fields through r&r-­at least as often as he allowed newly developed r&r tastes to turn him off from any former more specialized interests. R&R developed strong allegiances of taste, but it did not demand them as prerequisites. Reflecting perhaps its syn­thetic origins, it recognized and embodied principles of simultaneity, pluralism and aesthetic co-existence.

The very pattern of r&r's development with its rapid pace, subtle shifts of popularity and manifold fluctuations of fortune, which cannot be explained away as the mere fickleness of the masses--reflects on yet another level the changed attitude toward the new, speeded-up media. Fixed doctrines of the acceptable, rigid canons of taste, or concepts of "classical" norms are out. If sides are to be chosen in the old recurrent dialectic of Art vs. Life, then the metaphors for r&r's stylistic fluctuations come more easily from Life. R&R reflects a Darwinian evolution of Life, with the adaptibility factor of non-specialization leading to a statistically higher chance for survival. R&R could have become almost anything, and it almost did, despite the idealizing tendency of Art. The renascence of music as "Art" (or as a leading art form) in the-mid-twentieth century, however, is directly tied in with the rise of r&r. Within one of the most vital of the popular arts, r&r served as a sort of springboard for a rich variety of subsequent musical developments. Or looking at it from a different historical perspective, the rise of r&r can be seen as reflecting and documenting the growth of an entirely new dimension of artistic expression, wherein the concept of "Art" has once again become integrated into the "Life" of people in the real world.

We can follow these multi-directional developments of r&r's blossoming into "rockabilly," back into "soul" music, out into the other fields of jazz, and crossing over even into classical composition, or to the inner space of acid-rock. But semantically we do seem to reach here a point of dimin­ishing returns. This is the point at which the term "rock and roll" ceases to contribute a general sort of utility for making sense.

Let us accept 1954 as being the year in which r&r becomes meaningful as a musical term (when the music itself provides enough examples with enough consistency and with enough in common to form a viable "class"). 1966, then, would probably be the year by which time r&r had come to mean so many things to so many people (when the differences between members of the class become more important, or more operative, than the similarities) that its continued use tends to obscure rather than to clarify. Thus we can arrive at a basic period of some twelve years in which to trace the rise of r&r and its flowering. Then, as the music itself grows out of the r&r tradition and beyond it, there is a final obsolescence or transcendence of the term.


This dozen-year development of r&r in turn demonstrates three more or less distinct periods. First there is the formative phase, from 1954 until the end of 1956, by the end of which r&r is established as the commercially leading and artistically most vital field in popular music. From 1957 until 1964 there is a "middle period" in which r&r expands and diversifies--some of the great "classics" of the r&r tra­dition are created, new recording empires are formed and older dynasties perpetuated. There is a crucial point reached half­way through this period: 1960 is a time-fulcrum in the history of r&r. The anatomy of changes that began in the 1960s is a complex topic with many artistic, historical, sociological and philosophical ramifications. It is concerned essentially with the differing effects, shifting reception and new meanings of r&r. But nothing radically changes the structure or char­acter of the music industry during this phase--anyway, not in the same way that this happened at both ends of the period with Elvis Presley and with the Beatles.

Elvis' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show cemented his status as a national r&r celebrity.

Elvis' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show cemented his status as a national r&r celebrity.

It was Elvis--or through the agency of Elvis--that r&r became firmly established in the year 1956. Thus by the beginning of 1957 the music was regarded in an entirely dif­ferent way by most Americans--music of a kind that did not really exist three years earlier. Similarly with the Beatles in closing this middle period: they revolutionized the character of r&r with respect to its artistic and historical significance, and also with respect to its commercial impact as felt by the whole entertainment industry and by the inter­national economies of sovereign states. With the speeding-up process even further accelerated in the 1960s, the impli­cations of the Beatles were felt more profoundly and more rapidly than they were with Elvis Presley.

When RCA Victor signed Elvis late in 1955, the more astute might have been able to predict some of the dramatic consequences. But at that time it had never happened before--nothing quite like the way "Heartbreak Hotel" broke into the charts in early 1956. There had always been hits--sometimes of the overnight variety, some even more dramatic, in certain ways, than Presley's first release for Victor. A little over a year before Elvis, for example, there was the instantaneous demand for Joan Weber's "Let Me Go, Lover," following its presentation on TV. But the big difference in kind came out with Presley's second release, "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," and with his third release, "Love Me Tender," and "Hound Dog," and so forth in a virtually unbroken string of smash disks.

The Beatles were the first artists to come along after Presley who could hit with such immediate and phenomenally consistent success. But while this by itself would be important for any history of r&r to acknowledge, it does not fully sum up the differing nature of Presley's and the Beatles' music. The meaning of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for example, in the broader iconological sense, was very dif­ferent from that of "Heartbreak Hotel," released eight years earlier. For one thing the Beatles helped catapult r&r out of its categorization as an exclusively teenage form. Hence another important restrictive boundary was broken down, and post-Beatle r&r became acceptable fare for post-teens.

Fats Domino continued to record hits well into the late 50s.

Fats Domino continued to record hits well into the late 50s.

Of course it is more difficult to characterize the changes that suggest the end of r&r as a meaningful category. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and most of the other r&r superstars continue shining after 1966, although some with more brilliance than others. By 1966 the tail may have turned and the light waned (so that they wern't exactly blazing), but Bill Haley and the Comets were still rocking from time to time--if not around the clock. The very same Haley disk that sounded so wild in 1954 had come to sound so tame twelve years later that it could be ap­proached with a kind of historical objectivity. (10)

The Beatles in their early style (Phase One) made r&r respectable--not all by themselves, but by providing the major impetus to a direction already opened up in 1960 by the Twist breaking into High Society. By the end of 1966 one could look back over the history of r&r--one that had pretty well come to a close by that date. The later Beatles (Phase Two) then transformed one direction of r&r into essentially classical music. The world began to turn-on, and again it was the popular arts--and especially popular music--that first reflected and documented this larger cultural change.



The feeling that r&r would never again be the same (after being turned-on itself, and turning-on others in turn) perhaps accounts for the interest in looking back to the 1950s with an historical attitude. The basis for this sense of perspective already began to be established in the late 1950s with the release of albums referred to generically as "oldies." Under various titles, such as "Oldies But Goodies," "Golden Goodies," and so forth, these were 33 1/3 r.p.m. LPs with re-releases of former hit tunes. The replay of these oldies, together with the current hits, over the top popular music radio stations demonstrates another aspect of simul­taneity--an all-at-onceness of historical perception. Members of the r&r generation are generally those people who were still teenagers in the mid-1950s--hence still impressionable or at a culturally formative stage, when r&r, Pop Art, the H-bomb and TV took over on an international scale. "History" as a concept has come to mean something very different for them than it does for "adults." Like mashed potatoes, hair coloring, coffee and car washes, whether adults like it or even realize it history has become "instant." Radio stations playing "Super Golden Oldies," "Golden Gate Greats," "Sounds of Success," or just "Another Good Old Good One," take their historical perspectives from close range. The "dim past" supposedly begins about six months ago, at most. Historical distance is so packed together that in effect the present never dies. Instant history poses serious paradoxes for those committed to the intellectual values of a pre-electric civilization. They may suppose that it means the death of history as such. R&R does not necessarily mean that history must die, any more than do Telstar, TV, or TV dinners. Although they do suggest that most of the future relevant history will probably be created by those who are committed to (but hence also conditioned by) the values of an instan­taneous, international, integrated civilization. When it is created thus, then of course the very idea of what "history" is, or what it has been, will have changed radically.

Now we can pick key events like nails upon which to hang the banner of our history. Sometimes the arbitrary records (left to us by chance from the past, through all intervening time) must serve our understanding, as well as we can manage to recreate the events for which they stand. (11) There are several advantages in writing a history of rock and roll, however, that are not enjoyed by the classical archaeologist, nor by the Renaissance scholar. But there are also, surprisingly perhaps, some of the same difficulties en­countered by students of these and other historical periods. In most cases, the physical objects themselves still exist for historians of the arts--the primary subject matter, the works of art themselves.

For our purposes, this primary subject matter is comprised of the "event" of a tune's performance by an individual or group of artists, as documented and preserved in the form of the phonograph record. The 45 r.p.m. single is usually the physical object (basic unit) of subject matter. There is much rock and roll music that has been forever lost, if only because its performance was not recorded; but there are few r&r disks of which somebody, somewhere, doesn't have a copy. It is possible that entire stocks of small issue, indie label records may have been destroyed, or master tapes gone before they had been transcribed, pressed and distributed. But this is not true for the major tunes that contribute to the history of r&r, necessarily, because of their mass manu­facture and distribution. On the other hand, there are many people in the music business with precious memories of the Hit That Might Have Been. The history of these might prove indeed fascinating as well as instructive. To present it as a work of history of the arts, however, would be misleading--yet it might make a fine novel, or an intriguing documentation of real, human hopes and dreams.

That the history of r&r is part of the larger history of the popular arts, serves to keep it in touch with another level of reality. The subjects of a history of the popular arts of course must qualify as works of art--hence aesthetic and critical judgements are as integral in the process of writing this history as they are in any other similar project in the discipline.(12) Art history is not worth writing unless the works of art in question, whether tunes, paintings, sculpture or architecture, possess outstanding aesthetic quality.


The examples upon which any useful history of the popular arts is based must also be genuinely popular. With such colorful people involved in the history of r&r--the performing artists, DJs, critics and commentators, or even the men of commerce--the quality of their mistakes may be fully as interesting as the quality of their successes. Never­theless, we must return to the art: and for the art to count, apart from the curiosity or the very special case, it has to have been popular.

A rule of thumb for determining this admittedly nebulous attribute is provided by the popularity charts used by the industry itself. Their nature and use offers a separate topic for discussion; but for our general purposes, any given record, in order to qualify, had to make it at least to the list of the one hundred most popular tunes in America at a given time. Such charts, as initiated by Billboard, are now published weekly by several trade papers. For a disk to be regarded as a hit, generally it has to make somebody's top ten; or at least it has to be high up in the listings for a substantial period of time. Popularity with certain key people usually counts for more than abstract aesthetic values, at least in most parts of the music industry. But it counts differently depending upon whether it is popularity with DJs or with program directors, with average teenagers or with their average parents, with the academic musicologist or with the cultural historian who is writing about r&r. Popularity can be gauged by various means. Perhaps the most reliable and objective indexes are the charts representing popularity based on actual sales. This is not to say that popularity should ever be confounded with aesthetic merit. The problems are separate, however frequently they may overlap or interpenetrate.

Picking quality examples out of the mass of tunes that comprise twelve years or so of history--all of the tunes that made it into the top hundred--is no mean task. Nor is it merely enough to assume mechanically that superior quality will always rise to the top--or even if it does, that it will rise to the top ten. At that, every week's top ten for a period of a dozen years amounts to an intimidating list of tunes--many of them long since, and deservedly, forgotten. But these were hits in their time, and technically will remain so for posterity. Containing many undistinguished tunes, a list of these "hits" nevertheless provides a service: it indicates the gross change in character of popular taste. Thus a chronicle of these charts can create a specific frame of reference in which to place the "super-hits" or "classic" statements of r&r--the tunes we will focus on as the real works of art. The super-hits receive most of our attention--and the logic of this is admittedly circular--precisely because they manifest certain historical or stylistic traits more clearly than do the other disks, whether top ten or top hundred. Super-hits can also be cited for other than purely historical reasons. The history of r&r, it is worth empha­sizing, is part of the history of art because its proper subjects occur in one of the many forms which art may assume. That this history may also be thought of as "culturally sig­nificant" or "academically respectable" is natural because among the works of art which it treats there are some that achieve a measure of greatness. These are the super-hits that stand somewhat apart from (or above) the history, because of their inherent aesthetic worth--that is, their significance within the possibilities of the medium as great works of art.

In the popular arts as in the fine arts the exist­ence of such artistic value is no sure guarantee of its timely recognition. But in the field of r&r, as one of the popular arts that reflects so well the textbook theory of an open market within a free enterprise economy, fortunately there is a recourse. You can always attempt to revenge history by acquiring rights to the slighted "certain" super-hit, and re-release it under your own indie label--and then just sit back and wait for history to reward you appropriately.


Concentrating here upon the first few years of r&r's history, we can articulate its beginnings and rise by citing some of those key events that condition its course of develop­ment. There is a seductive beauty of regular arbitrary divis­ions for historians. But the dozen years of r&r, by way of counter-example, does not allow itself to be chopped up neatly into temporal parcels.  Nothing so important in its musical effects happened, after the 1960 shift, comparable to Presley before it--nothing nearly so earth-shaking for the entire entertainment industry--as the appearance of the Beatles in America, making them the first truly international super­stars.

Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and others helped to spread the music of r&r around the world; they were adopted by many, imitated and idolized. By such processes r&r effectively became the first international medium in the arts. But even Presley remained essentially American as an artist. And so might have the Beatles remained English, had it just been a matter of them going on tour to America and then returning to England--just as Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and the rest came back to America. In a sense, though, the Beatles really became American for a while, as have the Rolling Stones and others since. There were earlier near examples, as with Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley in England. A case might even be made for Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf having become the transplanted English soil which conglomerated into the Rolling Stones. But in becoming American, both the Stones and the Beatles also became at the same time totally international.

A workable and convincing division of this history of rock and roll into periods must follow a rationale more "organic" than abstract or arbitrary. Based primarily on what happens with the music, the first natural period is from 1954 to about the end of 1956. This three-year period is so relatively short, yet so densely packed with incidents which could be read as key events, that some kind of ar­bitrarily imposed concept such as a year-by-year subdivision begins to acquire a convincing seductiveness. To start with, there is all the convenience and reasoning of beginning the history with the year 1954.


It was in late December 1953 that the Federal Communications Commission announced the go-ahead for color TV, reported by Billboard in the January 2, 1954 issue. (13) And it was in January 1954, although at the end of the month, that the tune "Gee" by the Crows crossed over into the pop listings in the territorial charts for Detroit.(14) Taking the couple of weeks either side of New Year's Day (the focal point of reference) a plausible case for a year-by-year division can be made on the basis of chronological coin­cidence and convenience, while still coddling historical conscience. Thus a year later, in December 1954, Johnny Ace is the victim of Russian Roulette, which incident is reported only in the January 8, 1955 Billboard (page 14). It is just possible that the death of this culture-hero pro­vides as clear and apt a symbolic, Super-Existentialist event as did the death of Albert Camus. In terms of popular music it can also be thought of as the metaphorical death of r&b-- the burning of the Phoenix (although out of its own ashes in to r&r's fire, r&b was to rise again). However dramatic the event or fascinating the reactions to it or useful for symbolic constructs, it is hard to maintain that Johnny Ace's death was historically operative--that it has any extradordinary degree of causal relationship to major changes in the his­torical development of the music. A year later, on the other hand, there does seem to be such a significant event, when Elvis Presley leaves the indie firm of Sun Records to sign with a major publishing firm, Hill and Range, and with a major record producer, RCA Victor. (I5) But it was already into February 1956 before "Heartbreak Hotel" was released. And it was only toward the end of that year that the impact of Elvis Presley on the entire industry was beginning to be intelligently appraised.

C&W singer Eddy Arnold was voted most popular in a disk jockey poll of 1956.

C&W singer Eddy Arnold was voted most popular in a disk jockey poll of 1956.

The Billboard Annual Disk Jockey popularity polls show that in this crucial part of the industry, Presley rated only a tie for fifteenth place in a list of personal preference by c&w DJs by November, 1956. Yet he rated number one in the same poll in lists of the male vocalists most actually played over the air by both pop and c&w jocks. The latter DJs liked Eddy Arnold best. The pop DJs liked Frank Sinatra best, but could only work him in enough to gain a fifth place rating in actual fre­quency of air play, under Perry Como, Pat Boone and Tennessee Ernie Ford--with of course, Presley at the top, like him or not. (16) Closer to the end of the year there is a straw-in­the-wind article about England beginning to cover r&r imports from the U.S.. This reiterated, on a national level, the same process that marked one of the beginnings of r&r in the U.S. on the level of covers by record producing companies within the music industry. Again, after the first of the year there is another article which mentions an international tour featuring Bill Haley and his Comets together with Fats Domino and Joe Turner--a tour which was by then almost as well-integrated musically as it was racially. R&R is established by the end of 1956 as it definitely was not yet at the begin­ning of the same year. Beyond these guiding examples, it is probably fruitless to seek any more incidents with which to chronologically compartmentalize this history, if doing so forces us to the self-deception that the result is a true picture of what actually happened.

This need not kill all the fun. Histories are invented--they can be accurate and, at the same time, as much works of art, as just weak and wishful thinking posing as factual record. The relating of events to arbitrary structures is a forceful reminder of the limitations encountered by mechanistic approaches to the humanities. Maintaining this awareness, we may nevertheless find these structures useful, as men sometimes find governments--but under some circum­stances we may also chose to alter or abolish oppressive forms of history. With structures, or models, and whatever sort of interrelated concepts we develop for understanding history, then: the more organically they emerge from the nature of the subject matter, the more useful they are likely to be in determining that history's real content and meaning.


Let us concentrate on the year 1954. This is the key year for the inception of r&r--and any conceptual model that helps us to grasp what actually went on in the history of popular music, should also help us to understand why 1954 was one of those watershed years on a much larger scale of cultural history.

Throughout the early part of 1954, it is easy in retrospect to pick out those musical events that gave fore‑ warning of the impending emergence of r&r. It is even more tempting to read meanings into events in other fields in some attempt to establish, ex post facto, causal relation­ships between them and developments in popular music. For example, there was that announcement by the FCC in December 1953 authorizing a go-ahead on color TV transmission. (17) Apparently there had been only experimental use before this. A major event occurred on January 1, 1954 when these early color TV efforts really graduated from the lab stage to become a transcontinental medium: this was the TV transmis­sion in color, by NBC, of the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California--for the first time from West to East, reaching the entire nation. Accepting for the moment Marshall McLuhan's regard for color TV as an essentially different medium than black and white TV, this date is also a crucial point in the development of a total-environment culture. And appealingly enough, the event just happens to fall on the first of the year. To be certain, widespread and popular color TV re­ception was a long way off. (18) In fact, it was only in 1954 that black and white TV really took over in America, in terms of the industry's own attitudes and the public's acceptance.(19) As reported in an early 1967 Newsweek cover article:

McLuhan holds that the changes in the environment "since TV" are so pervasive that he despairs of presenting them. All he is able to offer is an "inventory" of effects that includes: Sex...morals... fashions...sports...the politics of consensus... the generation reorganizations. (20)

Perhaps we may relate r&r to the "cool," involving environ­ment created by TV, as McLuhan himself does elsewhere--and further, to the consequent post-TV shifts in cultural, social and psychological outlook. (21) Popular music is related to this general process not only through TV but also through technological innovations that resulted in the total-environ­ment of Muzak and other long-playing tape systems for back­ground music. Then too, there is the advent in the mid-1950s of the transistor radio with its portable, personal, absorbing environment. In turn, these developments mark the rich and triumphant flowering of a post-literate civilization, man­ifested in and reflected by all media of the arts, both fine and popular. Together with TV, there was the related change in character of radio, the rise of r&r, plus the associated large-scale and radical shift from an adult-oriented economy to one increasingly conditioned by teenage tastes and in­fluence. The fine arts also begin to document these changes.

The work of artist Jasper Johns is credited with presaging Pop Art.

The work of artist Jasper Johns is credited with presaging Pop Art.

In 1955 there is the break away from the Romantic individualist stance of the Abstract Expressionist painter, especially in the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. This has been typified as a turning from the intensely personal inner world of visions as the source and well-spring of art, outward once again to the "real" world--a process that eventually led to Pop Art. (22) In the realm of the academic intellect, the philosophy of Existentialism was pretty much putting an end to the relevance of previous formal systems. The Beatniks were soon to put an end to Existentialism by carrying the system of thought out into Life, and hence to cap off the history of formal philosophy, in a sense. The Beats, as contemporaries of it's watershed position vis-à-vis the past and the future, are similarly ambivalent. With their traditional literate and (initially) intellectual commitments, they demonstrate strong attachments to the ideals of an individualistic past. But they came to embody the new tribal characteristics as well, and some of their most pro­minent members became leaders, teachers, or gurus for the following generation of more fully tribalized hippies. The important civil rights decisions on integration by the United States Supreme Court in 1954 provide another close parallel to the musical integration of r&r. This question of racial implications, however, can be more fully investigated in relationship to "indies," to covers, and to developments at this time in the field of r&b music.


It was media scholar Marshall McLuhan who in the mid-60s predicted a "re-tribalized" society due to the effects of electronic media.

It was media scholar Marshall McLuhan who in the mid-60s predicted a "re-tribalized" society due to the effects of electronic media.

The altered cultural and philosophical attitudes of teenagers, hippies, and other members of the new young, integrated, re-tribalized, post-literate, auditory and tactile, total-environment civilization, can be summarized under two main headings: Love and Violence. With these two concepts as points of reference we can better understand the function­ally "religious" implications of these new and altered views. The old conventions of both love and violence are rejected by teenage culture; but then in new ways they are re-incorporated into the life-structure of the McLuhanesque Tribe. Its members no longer give credence to the restrictive and repressive control-myths about love; nor are the conventional means for channeling and controlling violence any longer either ef­fective or relevant. Non-members of the tribe find it dif­ficult to appreciate some of the particular attitudes toward love even when these do not necessarily involve sex. When sex is involved, the difficulties approach the point of the impossible. For one thing, following the Great Sexual Revo­lution, the relative importance of sex as a topic for the tribe is reduced to the extent that practical, working solutions to conventional problems effectively evolve. This seems paradoxical (if not incredible) to the non-tribal person so much over-influenced by misapplied Freud that he assumes sex to be a perpetual, necessary and intrinsic human hang-up. Non-tribal adults are usually those people who were of legal age or older in 1954—that is, who were not still teenagers in this crucial year. There are overlaps in age categories going both ways. Some older adults were still astute enough to perceive the significance of what was happening, and to tune in with the changing times. There are, on the other hand, many older teens who have not become tribalized-- especially those insulated from the effects of this cultural revolution by institutions of higher learning, limited by the blinders of goal-orientation and specialization, or inhibited by their own commitment to conventional establishment values.


The Establishment values, vis-à-vis those of the new Global Tribe, involve an altered attitude toward violence in that it is being both fundamentally challenged and absorbed. A psychological extreme was reached with the H-bomb, where the implications of state-controlled violence were seen to involve the possibility of the destruction of the earth.

This generated impressive new arguments against conventional nation-state concepts of sovereignty and self-help. At the same time it added a desperate sense of urgency to alternatives: first for movements for world peace, and then for renewed ideas of either world government or benevolent anarchy. As an awe­some embodiment of violence, the A-bomb announced (and then the H-bomb confirmed) the possibility at hand for the literal destruction of the entire world--and further, that this power was kept under control by the Establishment in nations which might very well use it. No longer could one lightly exclude these logical extensions of violence from day-to-day thoughts. Any child born after 1954 comes closer, much more naturally, to the post-Existentialist philosophical stance that he was "born dead." (23)

"Duck and Cover" drills in preparation for nuclear war were common for American school children of the mid-fifties.

"Duck and Cover" drills in preparation for nuclear war were common for American school children of the mid-fifties.

For those born into a world that did not yet know about the H-bomb, the physical reality and the psychological force of this phenomenon exist on a different level than that of the teenager. It is perhaps impossible to approximate the new reactions to implications of the H-bomb among the young. Most people who were already adults in 1954 had long since been preconditioned to accept violence, incorporating it into their lives in certain standard, comprehensible, and psych­ologically manageable ways. The war propaganda both from the Second World War, and from Korea, provided ample apologias  for violence--it was subjugated, as was love, to the phil­osophy and aesthetics of control. More and more it was the twentieth century state that extended its monopoly of control--into all aspects of life, in addition to just violence and love. As the more hide-bound customs eased in certain areas, they were perhaps more than countered by the increased tech­nological means and efficiencies. These were developed by the Establishment (through its governments, police forces, schools, and communications media) in order to extend further this philosophy of control. It did not take long for the world to realize some inherent flaws in the threats of total state control as expressed in novels such as Fail Safe, On the Beach, A Canticle for Lebowitz, or as prophetically anticipated (even earlier) by a host of science fiction classics. This message was brought home repeatedly by the proliferation of the H-bomb, coupled with a protracted Cold War United States foreign policy.

Faith in the benevolent monopoly of state-controlled violence was further undermined with discussion of the Cobalt Bomb. It did not even have to be tested because no one doubted that it would work, and it would work, and it would keep on working (since the half-life of radioactive cobalt is approximately 5000 years--in contrast to the shorter periods for radioactive materials produced by the H-bomb, such as Strontium 90 with a half-life of twenty-seven days). The insane irresponsibility toward humanity of nations contemplating, and then threatening to act upon, schemes of almost unimaginable potential violence have led most young people to reassess the meaning of violence itself.

Photos of the two A-Bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan at the end of World War II.

Photos of the two A-Bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan at the end of World War II.

The how and why of this process again underscores the significance of the year 1954. Part of the explanation can be derived from understanding why the A-bomb did not have such a total and pervasive cultural and psychological effect when it was dropped, almost a decade prior to the H-bomb. The A-bomb was exploded over enemy cities during war time. As terrible as it was, it was still several years before all but the most sensitive and astute members of the American public began to discover just what this secret weapon meant in terms of physical destruction and human suffering. The public's attitude toward it at the time was perhaps under­standably ambivalent; after all, it was argued, the violence of the A-bomb supposedly brought the war with Japan to an end more quickly. Thus it not only "saved the lives" of many American men in the armed forces; it also supposedly "saved the lives" of many Japanese as well. Not much was said about the 175,000 people who died instantly. Although the more insistent and inquiring minds could well be suspicious of the sophisticated and implicitly inhuman tenor of such an argument, the factum est was the end of World War II immediately following the A-bomb. All other arguments had to remain academic--although serious moral issues were later raised, especially when it was mooted that Japan had been ready to surrender even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This forced an examination of the question of "unconditional surrender," which in turn was related to a concept of total warfare.

World War II already implied total mobilization of the nation's resources at home, and a correspondingly total attack on the enemy nation--as in the methodical bombing of German cities by United States and English planes, without distinguishing between military and civilian targets, or the random attacks on London by the Nazi's V-2 Blitzkrieg. All of this reflec­tion forced a recognition of the totality of violence that was possible. There sprang up also an awareness that the state was claiming to control this violence with a hope­less, out-worn set of lies; about statesmanship and about ideals of government. The CIA and the Cold War gambits took care of most latent wishful thinking about statesmanship. High government scandals, and the witch hunts of HUAC and McCarthy, settled with practicality most residual fantasy-notions about government.

Nor was the tendency of the young to begin to view with suspicion this monopoly on violence at all alleviated when the quite normal propaganda lies began to be uncovered about World War II. There was, as in the example above, the supposed concern only for military targets in America's "Strategic Daylight Bombing" of German cities. The main point here stresses the difference between propaganda directed toward the enemy to mislead or to discourage him, and that directed toward the general public at home, to mislead them about what their government is doing. America's World War II claims did not fool any German civilians who were bombed out of their homes, however many Americans at home may have been convinced. The bombing was strategic, as was that of the British, apparently only in so far as it proceeded according to prearranged patterns--but it was systematic and total in concept. A repeat of the state lying to its own citizens by controlling the news media, and through other propaganda devices, occurred during President Kennedy's Administration following the Bay of Pigs incident. (It wasn't the Cubans who were fooled by American claims that Cuban Air Force men supposedly took off in a plane from a Cuban air field and then bombed it before defecting to the United States).

As for sheer violence, by the end of World War II the average American had built up a high tolerance. When the A-bomb was announced, its force was described in terms of an equivalent number of "blockbusters" or 1000-pound bombs used in earlier stages of the war. These in turn were easy multiples of smaller bombs. There were also propaganda appeals citing the Roman broadsword, Greek Fire, and traffic accidents--all intended to show how the A-bomb (or war itself, for that matter) was sup­posedly not so devastating after all. But a more intellectually respectable argument was provided by the vast educational cam­paign that sought to teach school children about the nature of atomic energy. This was a new and romantic subject, all the more mysterious and appealing because of the dramatic demonstration of concentrated energy by "the world's best-kept secret," the A-bomb. It was only several years after the end of the war, in fact, before there was any significant portion of the American public that understood even the rudiments of atomic theory. Again, in retrospect, it was this almost complete ignorance of atomic power that prevented America, and the rest of the world, from grasping the full terrible implications of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


By the time the H-bomb was announced in 1954, there was a good eight years worth of school children who might immediately comprehend the scale of forces involved. In this knowledge, they possessed a decided advantage over their parents and elders. The A-bomb created a virtual tabula rasa—the person with a commonsense understanding of classical Newtonian physics was now more likely than not encumbered by his knowledge, when confronted by problems of quantum mechanics and relativity theory. These new problems had to be visual­ized according to different, sometimes conflicting conceptual and intuitive models. Theories elaborated earlier in the century, such as Werner Heisenberg's and Neils Bohr's Principles of Complementarity and Uncertainty began to acquire new popularity for the young imagination. But in the implied challenges to rule-of-thumb concepts of separateness and con­sistency, for example, such theories presented a confusing, distressing and threatening picture to many of the older, rigid mentalities. Most people, of course, just didn't bother to think about such problems at all. Hence they left the entire field open to the young, by default.

1954 is perhaps one of the only times in history that there has been such a coincidence of technological events with such per­vasive effects, so that the traditional advantages that usually accrue to age were actually turned into disadvantages. Nor was it long before youth began to capitalize upon its new effective power--although generally it lacked the craft and guile of its elders necessary to construct instruments and institutions of control. In this sense, the commercial market represented by popular music is only one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon: the emergence in the middle 1950s of a new teenage orientation in the general economy. Certainly in the music of r&r we can find ample examples to illustrate the changed attitude toward violence. But there is an even more direct and intriguing connection between the H-bomb and the beginnings of r&r--manifested in one of the tunes itself.


Promotion of the mega-hit "Sh-Boom" included the image of a mushroom cloud.

Promotion of the mega-hit "Sh-Boom" included the image of a mushroom cloud.

"Sh-boom" can be regarded as the first real example of r&r music. The "sh-boom" of the title represents that same blast at Enewietok--the first full-scale explosion of a thermonuclear device in the history of the world, the first H-bomb. It is hard to derive this or any other conventional kind of sense out of the lyrics of the song as such--but in the super-hit version by the Crewcuts, which reached the number one position on the national pop music charts, the explosion is expressed musically by a resounding boom on the tympani. This effect is all the more dramatic because it follows a long break of silence in the music itself. As a gimmick in the production of the record, this was a cute trick and probably created a lot of the disk's novelty ap­peal. Quite apart from whatever were the intentions of the Crewcuts, of the arranger, or of Mercury Records, the meaning of the time in that historical context can legitimately be read on this other level of social comment. Yet, as it so happens,this is also supported in the unconsciously eloquent medium of advertising. A picture of the four Crewcuts, curiously under-lighted, is shown in an ad for the record, the title of which is set in type and enclosed in a big mushroom cloud. (24) If that is not convincing enough as an embodiment of current events in the literature of the popular arts, in the same issue another record is cited: "Hole in, the Wall" by the Andy Kirk Orchestra, on Decca, with H-Bomb Ferguson as "the featured shouter."(25)

This is a photo of the H-Bomb explosion at Enewietok atoll, nicknamed "Mike."

This is a photo of the H-Bomb explosion at Enewietok atoll, nicknamed "Mike."

The actual explosion of the H-bomb occurred at Enewietok atoll under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission on November 1, 1952. News of this event was with­held until President Eisenhower informed Congress and the American people in an address on February 2, 1954, some fif­teen months after the H-bomb had actually been detonated.

The first recording of "Sh-boom" was released on April 24, 1954 by a Negro r&b group named the Chords, on Cat Label. (26) Actually it was the flip side of the disk, with a version of "Cross Over the Bridge" on the top. This was within three months of the first public awareness of the H-bomb. Within another two months the cover version by the Crewcuts had been released, just as the Chords' record began to score big sales in the pop market, breaking through the usual barriers between musical fields at that time. (27) The rights to the tune had also been picked up (at the end of June) by Hill and Range Music Company. (28) It broke into the top ten national pop best seller list at number eight, on July 10, with the Crewcuts--while for the same week, the Chords' version was number thirteen on the same list. But the key date is August 7, 1954, when the tune (as sung by the Crewcuts) reached the top of the pile: it was the number one best selling popular record it the country. This was only five weeks after its first appearance on the charts, and within two months of that version's release. The tune had an enormous impact. By August there were other versions recorded by Billy Williams on Coral, Bobby Williamson on RCA Victor, Sy Oliver on Bell, and Leon McAuliff on Columbia, with yet others to follow. The Chords also had their disk released in England--one of the first times this happened for an r&b group. It was an­nounced in the same August 7, 1954 issue of Billboard--and sales in England brought the record into the top twenty there. The following year there was the final ironic twist to complete the story of "Sh-boom." It was heard in a version sung by a Tokyo Geisha with Japanese lyrics to the accompaniment of an ancient samisen. (29)


If we regard "Sh-boom" as the first major example of r&r style in popular music, then the key date for the early history of the field is August 7, 1954, when it became the top selling record in the country. The background of r&r had been coming together since the beginning of 1954--and the character of the new music was already beginning to be pretty clearly indicated. There were a whole group of r&b tunes riding the charts that were very definitely rock-oriented in one way or another: "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" by the Spaniels was a ballad with a beat and a groove. "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in the original version by Joe Turner was released by Atlantic on April 17, in the same issue of Billboard that carried an article on five companies, including Muzak, planning to go into the large-scale distribution of background music tape systems. (30) Haley and his Comets had already released both "Rock Around the Clock" and their cover version of Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" by August, 1959. So the scene was in full swing for "Sh-boom" to go all the way to the top, while the Chords were making it an international happening.

This internationalism meant interaction in both directions too--as Billboard's Review Spotlight for the week of August 7 was on a tune called "Skokiaan," originally recorded for London by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band from Northern Rhodesia, and destined to become a hit in the United States (along with versions by Ralph Marterie on Mercury and Ray Anthony on Capitol). Two other news items that appeared on the same date should round out this introductory picture of the beginnings of r&r. The first of these was an article admitting that the end of 78s was at hand, as 45s had not firmly taken over the singles market- with over 50 percent of RCA Victor's sales. (31) The second item mentions the initial record release--on Sun Label, entitled "That's All Right," backed with "Blue Moon of Kentucky" --by a new c&w singer named Elvis Presley. (32)

Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.


(1) S.I. Hayakawa, "Popular Songs vs. the Facts of Life," Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, The Free Press, Glencoe; 1957, pp.393 ff. Reprinted from Etc., volume
12 (1955), pp. 83-95.

(2) Liner notes by Alan Freed, Alan Freed's Top 15. End LP 315. Billboard, January 30, 1965, p.

(3) Although "hank" has been for a long time a perfectly acceptable English word, its modern uses cited here derive front the more or less independent etymology out of Negro slang. Carl Belz and Kurt von Meier, "Funksville: The West Coast Scene," Art and Australia, volume 3, number 3 (December 1965), pp. 198-201 ff.

(4) Included on the LP Foc'sle Songs and Shanties, sung by Paul Clayton and the Foc'sle Singers, Folkways Records, FA 2429; recorded and with notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein.

(5) Billboard, June 11, 1949 (page 4) contains an article having little directly to do with music, entitled "Anti-Jim Crow" concerning an overlooked Washington DC ordinance banning segregation, originally passed in 1872, which had never been repealed.

(6) Billboard, February 16, 1957, page 27.

(7) Ibid.

(8) As Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote of mass culture, "the most important ideal is pluralism, making a wide variety of aesthetic goods available, rather than lifting us all half an inch by the great collective bootstrap." ("Ideals, Dangers, and Limitations of Mass Culture," Culture for the Millions: Mass Media in Modern Society, ed. Norman Jacobs, D. van Nostrand Co. Beacon Press, Boston, 1961, p. 131; Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mass Media, in Modern Society, Spring,1960)

(9) Billboard, February 16, 1957, page 27.

(10) Haley's redoubtable recording of "Rock Around the Clock" was reissued ten years after its initial release following the appearance of MGM's movie The Blackboard Jungle on Australian TV. The tune originally sold over 100,000 copies down under, on the Festival label. Billboard, May 30, 1964.

(11) Fortunately the history of art proceeds with the advantage over other histories by retaining at least one thread of relevance through its primary subject matter to objective reality: physical works of art that do, or at least that did at some time, exist in the real world. Thus art history distinguished itself from both aesthetics and criticism--as what art may be or might have been--although both of these disciplines overlap the history of art generously and often.

(12) James S. Ackerman, "Art History and the Problems of Criticism," Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Art and Sciences, p. 253-263.

(13) Billboard, January 2, 1954, page 4, the story datelined Washington, D.C., December 26, 1953.

(14) Billboard, January 30, 1954, Page 38.

(15) Billboard, December 3, 1955, page 1.

(16) Billboard, November 10, 1956, page 22, 123.

(17) Billboard, January 2, 1954, page 4;r January 9, 1954, page 2.

(18)  Westinghouse was the first firm to market a color TV for the home in 1954; but it was priced at $1,025.00. Billboard, March 13, 1954, page 2.

(19) "Whereas the preceding age, the one we tend to think we still live in, was an age of pictures, with TV 12 or so years of age we moved very suddenly into an X-ray period in which our vision of ourselves and things became in depth, X-ray style." Quote from Marshall McLuhan in "McLuhan in California'" by Aleen MacMinn, Los Angeles Times Calendar, April 16, 1967, p. 1.

(20) Newsweek, March 6, 1967, vol. 69, no. 10, p. 56.

(21) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, New American Libraries (Signet Books), New York, 1964, page 268 ff.

(22) Kurt von Meier, "Introduction," Mixed Masters. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, May-September, 1967.

(23) Ibid. The motto, "Born Dead," appears on a popular decal designed by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. The philosophical position can also, perhaps, be discovered in the name of the San Francisco acid-rock group, The Grateful Dead.

(24) Billboard, June 19, 1954/ page 23. An incidental point of internationalism is that the Crewcuts were all Canadians. They started off together (so the liner notes of their LP, The Crewcuts Rock and Roll Bash (Mercury MG 20144) tells us) at the Toronto Cathedral Choir School.

(25) Billboard, June 19, 1954, Page 38.

(26) Billboard, April 24, 1954, page 52.

(27) At the same time another record was also en­joying commercial success in both the pop and the r&b fields, "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" by the Spaniels. Billboard, June 19, 1954, page 43, R&B Notes.

(28) Billboard, June 26, 1954, page 14.

(29) Billboard, April 30, 1955, page 20.

(30) Billboard, April 10, 1954, page 28, 1.

(31) Billboard, April 10, 1954, page 19.

(32) Ibid., page 39.

Below is a letter from Kurt to James Fitzsimmons, publisher of Art International, about this article.


This is the cover of the October, 1969 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-69.