The Background and Beginnings of Rock and Roll
THE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL (unpublished)
KURT VON MEIER
"Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, Deliver me from the days of old"
Which is just exactly what it did.
And Chuck Berry, delivering this combination invocation-testament, was something like a modern shaman or a new kind of high priest from some potent emerging religion. The lines are from the tune "School Day,"(2) itself a classic expression of rock and roll. This product of the popular arts that came into being in the mid-1950s is not only one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the whole history of music or the popular arts--it is also a fascinating index for the decline of an outlook based upon the conventional historical mentality.
Rock and roll is just one manifestation of the electric/electronic revolution also expressed by such superficially disparate developments as color TV or teenage tribal society.(3) This revolution contains deep problems for any traditional historical approach, and presents a particular element of paradox for a history of rock and roll--all of which points toward new methods and concepts for dealing with new historical content. The days-of-old idea of history is irrelevant--with its sequence of events set in strict but often arbitrary causal relationships; lineal, fragmented, mechanistic and based upon visually-oriented print technology. Replacing it are new ways of looking at both history and the world for which the conceptual models are supplied by networks and mosaic structures. It is not fair to assume that what Chuck Berry was singing about had anything, consciously and intentionally, to do with either philosophies of history or historical methodology. But whether or not Berry realized it, old-fashioned history is one of the things from which rock and roll had begun, already by the mid-1950s, to deliver the teenagers of the world.
"Hail! Hail!" is not just a trite and hollow borrowing from Alma Mater hymns or "...the gang's all here." His line is a paean of praise for rock and roll, then (1957) a vibrant new musical idiom offering a radical alternative to the prevailing musical taste, and its products, of the preceding era. The incumbent nemesis was an incredible spate of slick and sentimental tunes ground out by Tin Pan Alley/musicians and the watered-down lyricists of the Brill Building--tunes that held the pop music field in a sweet strangle-hold right up until the advent of rock. It was those "days of old" from which Chuck Berry invokes deliverance; but the musical revolution had already happened in 1954, a good three years before. Berry's "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' roll/Deliver me from the days of old," is in the sense of a reaffirmation, we find--more like a ritualized proclamation than a prophecy or prayer--once we understand what happened even before Chuck appeared.
"Long live Rock 'n' roll,
The beat of the drums loud an' bold. Rock! Rock! Rock 'n' roll,
The feelin' is there, body an' soul."
These are the next lines from "School day," written and first recorded by Chuck Berry in 1957. By that time the field of rock and roll had already entered what art historians would call the "classic" phase of its development. This was inaugurated by Elvis Presley, whose impact was just slightly earlier but much more shattering than that of Berry.(4) Although rock and roll music really begins in 1954, the process of its solidification (functioning as something more than a mere passing fancy or superficial style) is completed only during the year 1955. Elvis Presley articulated this development with his first smash single for RCA Victor released in early 1956, "Heartbreak Hotel." He followed up with "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Hound Dog," "Don't be Cruel," and "Love Me Tender," all of them becoming number one national best-sellers. That meant the vast American cultural middle-class was following the teenager's taste, finding themselves to be both public and patron for this revolutionary phenomenon in the popular arts. By the end of 1956 there was no significant segment of either public or professional thinking that could seriously deny rock and roll was the most artistically vital and commercially potent field in the whole domain of popular culture.
When Chuck Berry sang the cheer, "Long live Rock 'n' roll," however, he could have had little idea how long it was really going to last. We can now look back upon just about one full decade until--with the Beatles and others in late 1966 and early 1967--rock and roll split up into so many different, healthy and fruitful directions that it effectively ceased to exist as a coherent stylistic or musical idiom. But understanding what this means in terms of cultural history will become more clear when we get some idea about those developments leading up to the creation of the medium, and the triumphs of Presley and Berry in the first place.
The exegesis of "School Day" could continue, line for line, by discovering other meanings--sometimes deep and specific, sometimes far-ranging and generalized--or by developing implication and hypothesis into interpretation and historical understanding. "The beat of the drums loud an' bold" suggests one of the basic stylistic features of rock music associating it with the rhythm and blues tradition. At the same time the beat helped to distinguish rock and roll from the structure of conventional pop tunes, based as they were upon linear, melodic concepts rather than upon a pervasive rhythmic statement. "Rock! Rock! Rock 'n' roll," with its emphatic repetition, further encourages us to distinguish between the sequential, discursive and logical (though often puerile) story-telling line of the pop song, and the syntactically disjointed but emotively coherent expression of rock and roll lyrics. In the pop tune an essentially literary mode of expression was set to music, while rock and roll made words function in a way that was more essentially musical. The parallels and extensions of this distinction should be quite easily apparent: the line-of-type, sequential and visual basis of pop structure vs the spherical, integrated auditory field of rock. And in a phrase such As “the feelin' is there, body and soul," we even have hints at the distinction between a formerly conceptualazed and theoretical sense of space or reality, and a new tactile, perceptual, phenomenological set of alternatives.
For the more immediate, less hypothetical concerns of cultural historians, the corpus of rock and roll hits provides a rich and expressive source of contemporary documentation. As might be expected with such material from the realms of folk or popular art, we encounter here a curious sort of accuracy which derives from the very naivete of expression, and which persists despite the commercial context in which it is generated.
The real content of rock and roll may indeed be the electric revolution, and all that it implies. But its immediate subject matter is most often related to a restricted level of content: the teenager's world. This is particularly true for the tunes of Chuck Berry--so often concerned, as in the example of "School Day," with perfectly believable sentiments and potentially quite real events in the daily life of an American high school teenager. In contrast, even Elvis Presley's tunes sound less real. They may have functioned just as importantly for the same high school teenage mentality--although more on the level of fantasy and the ideal. But of coarse dreams are real too, and the historian must also document them and subject them to a searching critical analysis if he is to derive valuable human insights from his study.
Another perhaps less important, but certainly no less intriguing point about rock and roll lyrics--and again, especially those written by Berry--is that they frequently contain self-commentary. "Long live Rock in' Roll" is itself a line in a rock and roll tune, and hence a statement, in part anyway, about itself. There are many other references to rock and roll throughout Berry's repertoire; and one tune, "Rock and Roll Music," uses the genre of rock and roll as explicit subject matter. What this suggests beyond the element of adolescent narcissism familiar in the medium, is a prevailing sense of the instantaneous, in contrast to the reflective point of view of historical time. The revolutionary rock and roll frame of mind tends to reject the past as a source of authority ("Deliver me from the days of old"), while incorporating it as present and vital tradition, without conventional historical perspective. The critical and esthetic approach to "oldies" differs from the more competitive assessment of current "hits," although the two attitudes coexist without contradiction. In conventional pop and show-tune lyrics the sense of past time is retained and romanticized--the reverie providing one major topic incorporated by typical poetizing fantasy statements about current reality.(5)
But in rock and roll, simultaneity tends to replace historical perspective and causal relationships--thus the past and the present often become united. Berry's reference to "days of old" does indeed indicate a consciousness of time past; but as we have noted, this is in the context of rejecting the historically-determining past, while implicitly turning to and accepting the instantaneous present. Further, an impressive proportion of lyrics written during the twelve-year history of rock and roll are concerned with some anticipation of future time, but as a realization in the present: the future is now. In this way rock tunes are more closely related to science fiction than to the traditional plot lines of any other literary genre. (6 ) Usually the tenor of this future concern is on the order of "Baby, that's the way it's going to be." Sometimes though, brilliant folk poets like Chuck Berry seem to cut through the superficial subject matter of teenage romance to be strangely prophetic also on the level of self-commentary:
Oh Baby Doll, will it end for you and me? We'll sing old Alma Mater and think of things that used to be. (7)
Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley are only two of the superstars in the history of rock and roll. As important as they are, especially in terms of their releases during the middle and late 1950s, there were other great tunes by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, and groups such as the Drifters, the Platters, the Coasters and many more. Some of these, like Fats Domino or the Drifters, had already been active in the rhythm and blues field before rock and roll came into being in early 1954. Throughout the beginning phase of rock and roll--those approximately three years, from 1954 through 1956--it is such ex-rhythm and blues artists who, along with the major impact of Elvis Presley, contribute so heavily to the character eventually assumed by the new musical field. In these few years of the mid-1950s, rock both establishes its principal stylistic features as an art form and solidifies its commercial identity within the popular music industry. The field of rock and roll thus became gradually but convincingly distinct from either rhythm and blues or country and western, and also from the broad tradition of pop, "easy-listening," or "good" music." (8)
If this formative period was not complete until all three of the main traditions of popular music (rhythm and blues, country and western and pop) were synthesized by Elvis Presley, at the very beginning of this process there were already some clear indications of the illuminating documentation rock and roll could provide for students of cultural history. Without raising the old arguments about whether this tune or that tune is the first rock and roll recording, let us here consider one of the first key historical examples; "Sh-boom," the first record to sound anything like rock and roll that became the top tune in the country! (9) The implications of the tune are vast. It may just be that the "Sh-boom" of the title, despite its disarming setting in the nonsense, love-song lyrics, is an esthetically transformed expression inspired by the first full-scale explosion of a thermonuclear device in the history of the world. We are suggesting that "Sh-boom" is the sound of the first H-bomb at Enewetak, heard all the way around the world through the new medium of rock and roll.
The super-hit version of "Sh-boom," [https://youtu.be/Q9G0-4TWwew} recorded by the CrewCuts on Mercury, blasted the sensibilities of both conventional music lovers and tough old timers in the trade when it hit the number one position on the national best-selling pop music chart. What might pass for an aesthetic mutation of the actual explosion comes in the later part of the record--an effect made all the more dramatic as this musical expression (a resounding boom on the tympani) follows a stop-action or long break of silence in the music. A clever gimmick in the arrangement of the tune, it comes off as very cute--and probably helped to create a lot of the disk's novelty appeal. Whatever the express intentions of the CrewCuts may have been, or those of the arranger/producer, and/or of Mercury Records, the significance of this tune demands a broader level of investigation in the historical context of early 1954. "Sh-boom" can be read legitimately as both conscious social commentary and unconscious cultural expression. The immense and instant popularity of the record was conceivably one manifestation of a mass psychological response to the revelation that Man could, now actually and absolutely, destroy the earth. Some historians may be inclined even to view the inception and success of rock and roll as a kind of collective and commercialized response to the tension and secrecy surrounding the H-bomb and its awesome, all-too-real potentialities for destruction--a sort of cultural nervous laugh or whistling in the dark.
If these may seem to be fanciful extrapolations, they at least gain some support from advertising, that most unconsciously eloquent of self-conscious media. A picture of the Crewcuts, with a strange underlighting effect, appears in one of the ads for the record, with the title "Sh-Boom" set inside a'big mushroom cloud just like the one in the famous photo of the H-bomb explosion. (10)
Another quite unintentionally related detail appears in the same issue of Billboard that carries the ad, adding convincing weight to the proposal that the popular arts often provide illuminating historical evidence. This too is an ad: for the record entitled "Hole in the Wall," by the Andy Kirk Orchestra on Decca, with the "featured shouter" one H-Bomb Ferguson. (11)
The first H-bomb was detonated on Enewetak atoll under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission on November 1, 1952. News of this event was withheld until President Eisenhower informed the American public and Congress (whose members had also been kept ignorant) in an address delivered February 2, 1954--some fifteen months after the H-bomb had actually been detonated. Within what must have been a very short time after this announcement, the complex process of writing, arranging, producing and recording "Sh-Boom" was begun. The initial recording of the tune was finally released on April 24, 1954. This original version was issued by "Sh-Boom's" creators, a Negro and basically rhythm and blues group called the Chords. (12) They recorded on Cat label, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records that had just been established for catering to the broadening interest in rhythm and blues music. Actually, "Sh-Boom" was the flip side of the disk, with a version of "Cross Over the Bridge" on top--in retrospect, an ironic coupling for a record released within three months after entering the nuclear age.
The cover version of "Sh-Boom" by the CrewCuts, heavily based on the original recording by the Chords, came out within another two months. Around that time, early summer of 1954, the Chords had begun to rack up big sales in the pop market with their rhythm and blues-type treatment, breaking through the traditional market barriers that existed between musical fields at that time. (13) By the end of June, rights to "Sh-Boom" were picked up by Hill and Range Music Company. Then it broke into the top ten national listings of best-selling pop records for the week of July 10, 1954. The version by the CrewCuts was entered at the number eight position, surpassing the Chords who were listed, with the same tune, at number thirteen. (14) But the key date in the history of "Sh-Boom" is August 5, 1954. In the issue of Billboard of that date, the tune (as sung by the CrewCuts) reached the top of the pile--the number one best-selling record in the country.
"Sh-Boom's" rise on the charts was regarded as meteoric, the result of a sales avalanche. It reached the number one position after only five weeks on the charts, and (for the CrewCuts) within two months of the record's release date. And as its title might suggest, 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 had happened for any rhythm and blues-oriented group. Sales in England brought this disk into the top twenty listings there, which underscores the international character of the new music. "Sh-Boom" became well-known in other countries too—the first world-wide rock and roll hit. In the following year came the most subtly ironic twist--one which may be thought of as closing the circle of "Sh‑Boom's" development from Life to Art and back to Life again, seen in the fateful context of the "Lucky Dragon" incident: the Japanese fishing boat caught in the H-bomb's radioactive fallout. One writer reports hearing a version of the tune performed by a Tokyo Geisha in a Ginza nightspot, complete with Japanese lyrics and sung to the accompaniment of an ancient samisen. (15)
If we accept "Sh-Boom" as the first major example of rock and roll style in popular music, then it is possible to focus on August 7, 1954 as the key date for the early history of the emerging field. On that day "Sh-Boom" was listed as the number one record, replacing Kitty Kallen's "Little Things Mean a Lot" at the top of the charts. The immediately preceding artists with number one recordings had been Perry Como, Jo Stafford, Doris Day and Eddie Fisher--taking us back to the beginning of 1954.
Clearly the achievement of the CrewCuts indicated the beginnings of a vast and profound shift of popular taste. Elements of the rock and roll style, however, had been coming together at least as far back as the beginning of 1954. Even earlier than that were the prototypes or anticipations of rock and roll--almost all of which appeared in the rhythm and blues field. Yet apart from one or two individual tunes, the character of the new music as a separately developing field first really began to be apparent and acknowledged in 1954. The year of the H-bomb and public awareness of nuclear power, the year of a widely spread and pop TV culture and the very beginnings of color TV, the year of the teenager and of an increasingly teen-influenced economy, also became the year of rock and roll--the first truly global art form in history.
Of course the background of rock and roll stretches back into the past along several lines of development. Toward the end of 1953, and on into 1954, there were a number of rhythm and blues tunes riding high on the Black market charts. These were rock-type disks, definitely more pop-oriented than the typical rhythm and blues tune. A good example that could also qualify as one of the great early rock tunes was "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight," by the Spaniels. (16) This was essentially a ballad, although it did have a beat--slow, but groovy and emphatic. Another great early tune, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," was released on the r&b market in the original version by Joe Turner on Atlantic, and was covered by Bill Haley and His Comets who scored well with both r&b and pop audiences. (17)
At this same time, Billboard carried an intriguingly prophetic article about five companies with plans to enter the background music tape system business, one of which was Muzak. (18) This reference provides yet another example of the total-environment concept beginning to manifest itself in the mid-1950s and paralleling the sensibility of rock and roll, even though the music played in tape systems was certainly not the rock product itself.
By August 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets--among the most important early rock groups, at least in part, because they were Caucasian and did not start off in the r&b field--had released both "Rock Around the Clock" and the cover version of Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll." So when "Sh-Boom" hit the top of the charts, the scene was already widely underway, and had been gathering steam for about half a year up to that time.
With the English release of the "Sh-Boom" disk cut by the Chords, this new rock tradition also initiated. a pattern of international spread and importance. Just what this could mean became apparent a decade later, when the Beatles completed a cycle of influences, evolving in their own creative originality to manifest reciprocal and profound effects upon the American (and international) popular music scene. Already in the first year of rock and roll’s existence there were foreign tunes making it in the U.S. music market. But to some extent this had always been possible in the pop field. On the key date of August 7, 1954, there was a new release cited in Billboard's Review Spotlight that exemplified the internationalism of interacting musical influences--or, potential influences--as results of the music itself travelling in both directions. Just as the Chords' disk was appearing in England, America was being introduced to "Skokiaan," originally recorded on London by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band from Northern Rhodesia, a time which was destined to become a big hit on the pop charts--along with other versions by Ralph Marterie on Mercury and Ray Anthony on Capitol. (19)
At precisely the same time in 1954 there were two other news items--each of which, in different ways, contained profound implications for the future development of rock and roll and popular music generally. Both subjects demand far more detailed consideration than they can receive in this introductory article although their mention here is important to rounding out our picture of the background and beginnings of rock and roll. The first of these involve the switch-over from 78s to 45s by the record. industry. This was documented by an article admitting that the end of the 78 rpm record was at hand. (20) 45s, it was reported, had now firmly taken over the singles market—claiming, for example, over fifty percent of RCA' Victor's sales. The second item mentions the very first record--released on Sun label and entitled "That's All Right" (backed with "Blue Moon of Kentucky")--by a new singer named Elvis Presley. (21)
It would be false to create the illusion that rock and roll sprang full-blown into being on August 7, 1954. Something as significant as the whole rock tradition in the history of popular culture certainly did not begin with someone pushing a button on that or any other given date. Similarly, it would make little sense to claim that rock and roll's background extends only to the stroke of twelve on New Year's Eve--December 31, 1953. Rock and roll often does have the character of an instant musical tradition--in an age of instantaneous world-wide communication as well as instant mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, the term "rock and roll" was not invented instantly to refer to "Sh-Doom," nor to any other particular tune. All of these starting points we have acknowledged are open to question--and to a measure of healthy disagreement. Some may want to place the beginnings of rock a bit earlier, with pre-1954 disks by the Drifters, the Clovers, the Crows, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter, or Sonny Til and the Orioles. (22) And there are other perhaps equally strong arguments: that rock and roll, for instance, has a prototype in Bill Haley and his Comets, but that it really doesn't start until Elvis Presley. But then, which Elvis Presley: "That's All Right" or "Heartbreak Hotel"? And why not Bill Haley?
The colorful and immensely popular DJ, Alan Freed--who, before his death in 1965, was so intimately involved with both the background and the history of rock and roll--thought of the tradition as going "back to 1951 in Cleveland, where I named "'Our music 'rock 'n' roll.'" (23) An interesting detail is the use by Freed, in this statement, of a capital "0" in the phrase "Our music." Freed, a Caucasian, eventually built up an integrated and widespread audience; but the music he played originally was what we would clearly understand as "rhythm and blues," and his audience was predominantly black. However, in itself this detail stresses the early broadening appeal of the music. Just what Freed meant by "Our music" even remains somewhat ambiguous. Based on the style of his radio patter--very much the hot, fast and heavy, shouting and telephone-book-slapping technique following a venerable tradition of Negro rhythm and blues DJs--many of his listeners might have assumed that Freed himself was a Negro, and that "Our music" in fact meant the rhythm and blues that, in the early 1950s, was almost exclusively directed toward, and consumed or purchased by the American urban Negro market. (24)
In another sense, though, by Freed's use of the term "rock 'n' roll" as "Our music," he also may have intended to include his teen-aged audience. The effects of this were to give the music a new "folk" orientation--one that consciously attempted to transcend the more restrictive, purely racial context. In such a case, the "folk" were the teen-aged kids who began to listen to rhythm and blues in the late 1940s and early 1950s--the kids who became the nucleus of the rock and roll audience in the mid-1950s. One important point here is that although Some of Freed's early listeners and his growing band of followers were teen-aged, they were not yet "teenagers." Every adult has, of course, been teen-aged; but the teenager is, strictly speaking, a cultural and historical phenomenon. Just as with rock and roll, the teenager first comes into being in the mid-1950s.
In fact rock begins as, and largely remains, the music of the teenager--their histories are parallel and almost necessarily, by definition, intertwined. Thus, if our picture of the rock and roll tradition shatters into a kaleidoscopic image after about 1966, it may follow that the cultural phenomenon of the teenager also disintegrates at the same time. In the later 1960s what was once a socially and culturally coherent notion of the teenager becomes divided into teenyboppers and instant adults. But for the dozen or so years during which rock and roll reigned, the teenager was a principal fact of economic, social and cultural history.(25)
In this broad context rock and roll is but one field of a complex and subtle history. Yet it is one intimately related to the larger problems of historical development, which it faithfully reflects and documents. In addition it contains as principal subject matter many esthetic statements of enough intrinsic worth to warrant their serious consideration by the cultural historian. This does not mean that the works of art--the individual rock and roll tunes, whether as "popular" or as "folk" art---must be judged by those same standards we recognize for the fine arts.‘ (26) The intent and effect, and ultimately the meaning of rock and roll are distinct from that of the "serious" or classical music associated with the fine arts. Within a few years of the time Alan Freed began playing what he called "rock 'n' roll" music, the teenager had come into existence and had claimed this art form as his own cultural property. In that context rock and roll did actually function as folk music--despite the breadth of its appeal also as a popular art form. And it persisted as an art form just so long as teenage "folk" continued to exist.
However Alan Freed May have spelled the term, "rock and roll" seems to have its origins further back in time than 1951, and deeply rooted in American Negro slang. As with other phrases coming into general vocabulary from such sources, some of the typical suggestive overtones tend to carry over, while the more frank sexual connotations of the original context gradually seem to disperse. (27) But the term is interesting for more than these titilating reasons.
A fascinating instance of the early origins of "rock and roll" is documented by a well-known sea shanty, "Do My Johnny Booker." 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 Shanty boys, 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. (28)
Words like "rock" and "rollin'" or the full phrase "rock and roll" appear frequently in popular music toward the end of the 1940s. One of the best known rhythm and blues tunes of this time was Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight." (29) Later in 1949 came the following examples: B. Matthews with the Balladiers and the S. Evans Combo, "Rock and Roll,"(30) Wild Bill Moore, "Rock and Roll,"(31) or Erline (Rock and Roll) Harris and her disk "Rock and Roll Blues" on Deluxe. (32)
A few years later, when Alan Freed was exposing early 1950s rhythm and blues to a new and wider audience, there were still heavily derogatory implications to what was known as "race Music which could and did affect both audience and disk jockey alike. The average DJ was constantly in direct contact with the public, and hence sensitive to criticism and vulnerable to their prejudices. Thus, some DJs like Freed may well have intended "rock 'n' roll" as a euphemism, or at least as an alternative, to the prevailing term "race music." Freed's phrase was more emphatic than "rhythm and blues"--which might have sounded like some librarian's classification, and a none-too-accurate one at that. But what we call rock and roll did not necessarily exist musically in 1951, just because Freed applied the term at that time, any more than rock and roll music existed already in 1949, or back in the early 19th century, just because the term existed then too.
The efforts of the industry in 1949 to remove the offensive term "race music," in favor of "rhythm and blues," indicate a growing acceptance of the music outside the Negro community. This may have been 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 rhythm and blues' popularity can itself be understood as providing a real instance of effective integration, thus documenting a cultural process that has continued and increased ever since. (33) 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 further explanation or 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." At the same time, Billboard also switched terminology in the third main area of American 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 rock and roll was just beginning to appear) Billboard recognized the dramatic shift in national taste that was occurring and devoted a special section of one issue to rhythm and blues. In an editorial preface, the emergence of the rhythm and blues field to a position of respectability and relative strength within the music industry was noted--together with the crossover phenomenon of certain artists and hit tunes from the rhythm and blues 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. (34)
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 was 1957 before Billboard incorporated "rock and roll" into its listings, although the practical arguments leading up to this must have been building for the preceding three years. Over Gary Kramer's byline for a new column called "On the Beat" there appeared the subhead: "Rhythm & Blues -- Rock & Roll." In a brief explanation of editorial intent, Kramer says the column “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 were "rockabilly" and "rock and roll." (35)
A definite emphasis on the individual artists and on indie (independent) labels appeared in the democratization of popular music following the advent of rock and roll, along with certain aspects of anti-corporate American idealism and with more than a hint of the frontier ethic of individualism. 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." (36) A corollary of these examples of applied free enterprise and the spirit of democracy-in-action was a state of healthy pluralism. (37) Different kinds of music became more available to everyone--on the radio, on juke boxes and in the stores, although this was always true to some extent--and also the same people were actually buying different kinds of music. On another level this pluralism of individual taste can be seen as an expression of the broad scale 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. (38) The trade, of course, did not abandon its boundaries although the older categories were forced to become somewhat more flexible in order to reflect what was really happening--i.e., market boundaries were crossed by record sales, performing and popularity boundaries were crossed by artists and stylistic boundaries were crossed by the music itself.
Nevertheless, an awareness of the hypothetical boundaries between fields proves helpful for analyzing the principles of stylistic development, particularly in the formative years of rock and roll. For rather than break down existing boundaries and distinctions altogether, what rock and roll indicated was the appearance of a new, supervening field. If rock and roll drew upon the previously existing fields of pop, rhythm and blues, and country and western for its stylistic sources, it also had a reciprocal effect--especially in loosening up the otherwise rather rigid patterns of taste. The young buyer of rock and roll records also occasionally found his own taste expanding to these other related fields of music. And it is highly unlikely that those fans who were converts to rock and roll stopped altogether listening to and enjoying music from those fields associated with their earlier and somewhat more restricted enthusiasms. Rock and roll developed strong allegiances among its growing public, but it did not demand them as a prerequisite. Reflecting its synthetic origins, rock and roll recognized and embodied principles of simultaneity, pluralism and aesthetic co-existence.
The very pattern of rock and roll'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--on yet another level reflects a changed attitude toward the new, speeded-up media. Fixed doctrines of the acceptable, rigid canons of taste, or concepts of "classical" norms are out. In the recurrent dialectic of Art vs. Life, certainly metaphors for rock and roll's stylistic fluctuations come more easily from Life. Rock and roll reflects in some ways even a Darwinian evolution of Life, With adaptibility and non-specialization as traits implying a statistically higher chance for survival.
The renascence of music as a leading art form in the mid-twentieth century, is directly tied in with the rise of rock and roll. Within one of the most vital of the popular arts, rock and roll served as a sort of spring board for a rich variety of subsequent musical developments. Or, looking at it from a different historical perspective, the rise of rock and roll 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 rock and roll'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 sooner or later we do reach a point of diminishing returns: the point at which "rock and roll" as a term ceases to contribute a general sort of utility for making sense. This seems to happen in the stylistic development of the music itself around 1966. if we accept 1954 as the year in which "rock and roll" becomes meaningful as a musical term (when the music it‑ self provides enough examples, with enough stylistic consistency to form a viable "class"), then 1966 is the year by which time rock and roll had come to mean so many things to so many people that its continued use tends to obscure rather than to clarify when the differences between members of the class become more important, or more operative, than their similarities). It is thus we arrive at a basic period of some twelve years in which to trace the rise of rock and roll and its flowering. Then, as the music itself grows out of the rock and roll tradition and beyond it in many directions, there is inevitably a final obsolescence or transcendence of the term.
This dozen-year development of rock and roll 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 rock and roll 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 rock and roll expands and diversifies--some of the great 'classics" of the rock and roll tradition are created, new recording empires are established and older dynasties solidified or reformed. There is a crucial point reached half-way through this period: 1960 is a time-fulcrum in the history of rock and roll. 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 rock and roll. But nothing radically changes the structure or character of the music industry during this phase--anyway, not in the same way that such changes occurred marking both ends of the middle period, with Elvis Presley and with the Beatles.
It was through Elvis that rock and roll became firmly established so that 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, say, three years earlier. Similarly with the Beatles in closing this middle period: they revolutionized the character of rock and roll 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 various sovereign states. With the speeding-up process even further accelerated in the 1960s, the implications of the Beatles were felt even 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 even then the dramatic consequences, some of which we mentioned earlier. 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 between the two artists became clear with Presley's virtually unbroken string of smash disks .(39)
The Beatles were the first and only artists to come along after Presley who could hit with such immediate and phenomenally consistent success. But while this in itself would be important for any history of rock and roll 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 rock and roll out of its categorization as an exclusively teenage form.
Of course it is most difficult to characterize all the changes that lead to the end of rock and roll as a medium. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and most of the other rock and roll superstars continue shining after 1966, although some with more brilliance than others. By 1966 the tail may have turned and the fire begun to go cut, but Bill Haley and the Comets were still rocking from time to time--if not as before, around the clock. The result is that the very same Haley disk that sounded so wild in 1954, bad come to sound somewhat tamer Fourteen years later; but it still sounded timely enough to warrant several re-releases. (40)
The Beatles in their early style made rock and roll 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 we could look back over the history of rock and roll--one that had pretty well come to a close by that date. The later Beatles then transformed one direction of rock and roll 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 rock and roll would never again be the same (after becoming the first turned-on medium and then 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 ia 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 rpm 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 rock and roll generation are generally those people who were still teenagers in the mid-1950s--hence still impressionable or at a culturally formative stage, when rock and roll, 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. Rock and roll does not necessarily mean that history must die, any more than do Telstar, TV or TV dinners. However, these phenomena as well as rock and roll suggest that most of the future relevant history will probably be created by those who are to some extent committed to (but hence also conditioned by) the values of an instantaneous, international, integrated civilization. (41)
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. (42) There are several advantages in writing a history of rock and roll, however, that are enjoyed by neither the classical archaeologist nor by the Renaissance scholar. There are also, perhaps surprisingly, some of the same difficulties encountered in these other historical periods. One advantage is that 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 45 rpm single phonograph record. There is much rock and roll music that has been forever lost, if only because its performance was not recorded. It is also 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. If it is not yet true that historical evidence of the major tunes has vanished, it is not because they are being systematically preserved, but because of their mass manufacture and distribution, as well as the continuing demands for re-release of "oldies."
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 from the scholarly point of view seriously misleading--yet it might make a fine novel, or an intriguing documentation of real, human hopes and dreams.
That the history of rock and roll 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 judgments are as integral in the process of writing this history as they are in any other similar project in the discipline. (43) Art or cultural history is not worth writing unless the works of art in question, whether tunes, paintings, sculpture or architecture, possess outstanding esthetic 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 rock and roll--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 extraordinary case, it has to have been popular.
A rule of thumb for determining this admittedly nebulous attribute is provided by the popularity charts used in 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 for consideration, 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 big 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 an estimate of abstract aesthetic worth--at least as a practical rule--in most parts of the music industry. Also 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 rock and roll. Popularity can be gauged by various means. Perhaps the most reliable and objective indices are the charts representing popularity based on actual sales. This is not to say that popularity should ever be confounded with either esthetic or commercial merit. The problems are separate, however frequently they may overlap or interpenetrate.
In the popular arts as in the fine arts the existence of such esthetic value is no sure guarantee of its timely recognition. But in the field of rock and roll, as one of the popular arts that reflect so well the textbook theory of an easy-entry market within a free enterprise economy, fortunately there is an open 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.
Kurt von Meier
University of California, Los Angeles
1. I am indebted to Dr. Carl I. Belz for his assistance in developing the thoughts for this article, which is currently being expanded into a book on this subject.
2. "School Lay," words and music by Chuck Berry Music Inc. (c. Arc Music Corp., 1957 and 1965). The tune appeared as a "Spotlight" pick in Billboard, March 16, 1957, 51. The actual release dates of rock and roll records, and of popular music in general, are seldom reported either consistently or accurately. The most handy and reliable means of establishing the approximate date of release involves citing reviews of new records that appear weekly in music trade publications. Of the several such weeklies, including Cashbox, Variety and Billboard--in addition to Melody Maker and New Musical Express in Great Britain, or more recent American music newspapers and magazines--far and away the most helpful and accurate reference publication for studies in the history of popular music is Billboard. I would like to express my particular appreciation to the editorial staff and management of Billboard for their cooperation and assistance.
3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Nan, 2 ed., New York, 1964. See especially pages 264, 268 and 282. Also see, by the same author, "What IV Is Really Doing to Your Children," FamilyCircle, 17 No. 3, : March 1967, 33 f.
4. Elvis Presley's earliest releases date from 1954, when he began to perform as a country music artist. The key step in Presley's career came in November, 1955 when the late Steve Sholes signed him to a contract with RCA Victor. At the same time, then 19 year-old Presley also signed a publishing contract with Hill and Range-‑both of which deals were engineered by his manager, Col. Tom Parker. Billboard, December 3, 1955, 1 f.
5. Facts of Life," Etc., 12, 1955: 83 f. printed in Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (eds.), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, Glencoe, IL., 393 f.
6. I am grateful to Mr. Chester Anderson for pointing out the relationship between rock and roll lyrics and science fiction. See also his extraordinary article, "Notes for the New Geology," San Francisco Oracle, 1 No. 6, 1967, 2 f.
7. "Oh Baby Doll," words and music by Chuck Berry Music Inc., (c. Arc Music Crop., 1957 and 1965). Sec also, published by Arc Music, Inc., Folk Blues, New York 1965, 112-113.
8. Pop tunes curiously came to be referred to as "good music" only after the advent of rock and roll, especially during and following the programming crisis faced. by many radio stations in the late 1950s.
9. Billboard, August 7, 1954, 30. The recording to reach the top of the national best-sell charts was by the Crew Cuts on Mercury--a "cover" disk, or version strongly-influenced by the original recording, which , was by the Chords on Cat. Considerable controversy has surrounded the various popularity and sales charts as compiled by the trade publications or other music industry services. Cashbox, December 5, 1959, o; Billbcard, November 23, 1959, 3. The presint author has found those charts published in Billboard which are based on record sales to be the most useful; and subsequent references to popularity, unless otherwise stated, adopt these charts as indices. Billboard, June 19, 1954, 23. Among other examples, see also the ad for Bill Haley and His Comets, in which the leader is billed as "Atomic" and the mushroom cloud incorporated as a graphic element.
10. Billboard, March 26, 1955, 100. One ad for Gene Vincent carried the astounding bit of bally hoo, "The hottest thing since the Hydrogen Bomb!" Billboard, November 10, 1954, 105.
11. Billboard, June 19, 1954, 38.
12. Release of the original version of "ShBoom" by the Chords was reported in Billboard, April 24, 1954, 52. The full title of the tune is "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)," words and music by James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, and James Edwards, (c. St. Louis Music Corp./Progressive Music Publishing Co., Inc., 1954). Nat Shapiro (ed.) Popular Music: An Annotated Index of American Popular Songs, 2ed., I (1950-1959), 1967, 124.
13. Examples of earlier crossovers are common from the country and western to the pop field, although not in the other direction. Rhythm and blues tunes seldom crossed over into the pop field before the mid-1950s. An important and relatively early example was "Gee" by the Crows. Billboard, February 20, 1954, 22. The disk was released in Sumer 1953, and enjoyed a lone, though fitful and unspectacular chart life. Billboard, June 27, 1953, 26. Another earlier recording by the Crows, like "Gee" also on the Rama label, was "No Help Wanted;" this tune also enjoyed popularity in more than one field, appealing to country and western music fans as well as to the r&b audience toward whom the record was basically directed. Billboard, May 9, 1953, 40. Nevertheless, until rock and roll became established as a new musical field superveneing the traditonal ones--especially during 1956 with the commercial and popular success of Elvis Presley--pop, country and western, and rhythm and blues tended to remain separated from each other by firm traditional boundaries.
14. Billboard, July 10, 1954, 24.
15. Billboard, April 30, 1955, 20.
16. Billboard, March 27, 1954, 36. This review noted the wide potential appeal of the disk. "An almost pop-like piece of mate, rial which swings enough to make it in both the pop and r&b markets."
17. Turner's disk was reviewed as a "Spotlight" pick. Billboard, April 10, 1954, 46. The following week it was cited as a "Best Buy," indicating a record with outstanding sales performance immediately after its release. The cover version by Bill Haley and His Comets received a "Spotlight" review in Billboard, July 10, 1954, 28, with a "Best Buy" tab again being affixed in the following week.
18. Billboard, April 17, 1954, 1 f. The Muzak Corporation began selling background music systems with manual disk operation in 1944. Billboard, June 12, 1954, 19.
19. Billboard, June 19, 1954, 23. An incidental point about rock and roll's internationalism is that the CrewCuts were all Canadians. They started off together at the Toronto Cathedral Choir School. Liner notes, The Crew Cuts Rock and Roll Bash (Mercury MG 20144). Further quaint evidence of the music's international character is provided by many disks, just one of Which was Spike Jones and His City Slickers' release, "Japanese Skokiaan."
20. Billboard, August 7, 1954, 19.
21. Billboard, August 7, 1954, 39.
22. All of these artists would have been regarded as being within the rhythm and blues field in the mid-1950s. Both the Clovers and the Drifters had hit r&b tunes that caught on with the kids before the first wave of rock music in 1954. The Clovers scored big national sales with "one Mint Julep" in 1952, for example. The Drifters had "Money Honey" at the end of 1953, in addition to "Honey Love" in 1954; and although both of these were hard-core rap tunes, they did appeal to many White teenagers as well. The Craws, as suggested above in note 13, broadened their appeal beyond the confines of the strongly Negro-oriented r&b rarket. Fats Domino's music evolved from the heavily blues-inspired releases of the early 1950s into a somewhat softened and lightened style in the later 1950s that came to epitomize rock and roll. This change was also reflected in the titles of his LP albums, Rock and Rollin' With Fats Domino (Imperial LP 9004) and Fats Domino, Rock and Rollin' (Imperial LP 9009), cited among the "All-Time Best Selling Album" listings by Cashbox July 20, 1957, in the "Annual Encyclopedia and Directory" section. Fats actually recorded pop standards such as and "My Blue Heaven", "Blue Monday" and with great success. Ivory Joe Bunter had a similar appeal for the pop ear with "Since I Met You Baby," like "Blue Monday released in 1957; and also like Fats Domino, he had hits in the more traditional r&b vein back in 1950, such as "Guess Who" and "I Almost Lost My Mind." Sonny Til and the Orioles provide another fascinating example. They were an established r&b group—responsible for a classic 1949 recording, "Tell Me So"--which later in 1953 cut an r&b cover version of the pop hit "Crying In the Chapel."
23. Liner notes by Alan Freed, Alan Freed'sTop 15 (End LP 315). See also Billboard, January 30, 1965, 4.
24. Stylistic distinctions between r&b and rock and roll are often extremely subtle through-- out the mid-1950s, as indicated by the examples cited above in notes 13 and 22. The earlier orientation of r&b to a continuing funky city blues tradition tends to fade out in the later 1950s. As r&b developed an integrated audience, it sacrificed a certain vitality and sense of stylistic leadership in the realm of popular music. From 1954 on, there appeared an increasing number of hit tunes manifesting elements of both pop and r&b (and later also c&w) style, so that distinctions between r&b and rock and roll became correspondingly more academic. The music trade itself came to accept rock and roll as a viable field by the end of 1956, incorporating in its notion of the category many pop-oriented r&b tunes. See Bill Simon, "Category Spread: Term PO Hardly Covers Multi-Material So Grouped," Billboard, February 4, 1956, 55; and "Barriers Being Swept Away in C&W, Pop, R&B Fields," Billboard, March 3, 1956, 54. In referring to music of this period it is frequently necessary to use the terms rob and rock and roll together in order to avoid a misleading specificity. For practical purposes the distinctions between r&b and rock and roll disappeared by 1960--in terms of the artists, the music itself, and the market--although Billboard and certain sectors of the trade persisted in regarding r&b as if it were a separate field until long after this had ceased to be the case. See "Pop Absorbs Rhythm and Blues," Cashbox, March 20, 1960, 3.
25. The music industry was strangely reluctant to acknowledge the teenage market. Apparently the real impact of the American teenager in influencing or controlling even large-scale family purchases only began to be widely appreciated by men of advertising and commerce following the emergence of rock and roll. Within the history of the popular arts, rock and roll provides one of the first major manifestations of teenage culture expressed in economic terms on a national scale. Billboard, August 25, 1956, 15, and November 10, 1956,
26. For the problem of the "folk" nature of rock and roll see Carl I Belz, "Popular Music and the Folk Tradition," Journal of American Folklore, I, No. 316, April-June 1967, 130 f. This important article contains many other insights for the history of the popular arts. See also James Reeves, The Idiom of the People: English Traditional Verse, London, 1961, 14 f.
27. A parallel of recent interest to some art historians can be found in the use of the term "funk." Although the word has been perfectly acceptable in. English for a long time, its application in the terminology of esthetics betrays a more or less independent etymology out of Negro slang. For a fuller discussion of "funk" with a list of usages and sources, see Peter Selz, Funk, Berkeley, 1967, the catalogue of an exhibition first shown at the University of California April 18-:May 29, 1967. For one earlier consideration of the term in the saner context see Carl I. Belt and Kurt von Meier, "Funksville: The West Coast Scene," Art and Australia, III, No. 3, December 1955, 198 f.
28. Liner notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein, Foc'sle Songs and Shanties (Folkways FA 2429).
29. The best-selling version of "Good Rockin' Tonight" was by Wynonie :Harris on King. Other releases included what was presumably the original version by Roy Brown, since he is given credit for composing words and music. Shapiro, Popular Music, II (1940- 1949), 253. Elvis Presley also issued a cover version; and there was another tune by Roy Brown and His Mighty ?en called "Rockin' at Midnight."
30. Billboard, March 19, 1949, 40. The Matthews release was on Arlington.
31. Billboard, May 2d, 1949, 31. This was on Modern, and possibly a cover version of the above recording, not yet heard by this author. By way of excuse and/or explanation, let it be suggested that research in the history of popular art, when it deals with original sources over two or three years old, is frequently reduced to almost archaeological procedure.
32. Billboard, May 14, 1949, 32.
33. The concern with problems of integration on the part of the music industry was repeated and real. This can be documented by articles occasionally appearing in trade publications having little or nothing to do with music directly. For example, there vas one report in 1949 headed "Anti Jim-Crow," about an overlooked Washington, D.C. ordinance banning segregation. The law had been passed originally in 1372, and never repealed. Billboard, June 11: 1949, 4. The acceptance of rah and rock and roll did tend to support strong social pressures toward integration; these were most clearly reflected in the changing position of the Negro within show business itself, as the music's popularity also enabled Negro artists to break out of ethnic markets or supper club circuit. Billboard, July 23, 1955, 18. But even within the entertainment world problems surrounding integration have remained, despite frequent cliches to the contrary, as the following exerpt from a recent article may indicate: "Chicago-- Sammy Davis, Jr. said here last week that he was 'ashamed of show business' because Negroes of the lack of allowing/opportunities to gain executive positions. Asked specifically if he thought the recording industry had been too slow in opening management positions to Negroes, he said, 'I'd hate to rap the recording industry by itself. There are too few opportunities in all areas. I'm reminded of a comment by Elmer Bernstein after the Oscar TV Show was postponed. He said it was too bad the television crew didn't have a couple of black cameramen instead of postponing the show out of courtesy to Dr. Martin Luther King.'" Billboard, April 27, 1963, 5.
34. "Spotlight on R&B," Billboard, April 24, 1954, 12 f.
35. Billboard, February 16, 1957, 27. See also Variety, May 22, 1957, 41; June 5; 1957, 44.
36. Billboard, February 16, 1957, 27.
37. For the observation that rock and roll supplies a superb model of capitalist, free-enterprise economic theory, see, Billboard, October 20, 1956, 51.
38. Billboard, February 16, 1957, 27.
39. Joan Weber found it difficult to follow up her hit release (although she did try) partly ¬because she gave birth to a child shortly after the teleplay was aired on CBS-TV's "Studio One" show. Billboard, November 27, 1954, 1, 12. An important early competitor for Elvis Presley was Carl Perkins with his disk "Blue Suede Shoes." This was released about the same time as Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," and the two tunes fought a tight popularity race on the charts. Perkins suffered severe spinal injury in an automobile accident on March 21, 1956, just when his record was riding high--so he was never able to follow up its success. Billboard, April 7, 1956, 20.
4o. Haley's redoubtable recording of "Rock Around the Clock" has a long history of reissuings. Not only was its biggest success the result of a reissue, but ten years after the original, the tune appeared again on record racks in Australia. Back in 1954 Haley sold over 100,000 copies down-under, on the Festival label. The resurgence of popularity in 1964 was attributed to the revival of The Black-Board Jungle on Australian TV. Not that the tune died there, either. Fourteen years after the original release, an article cited the reissuing of "Rock Around the Clock" in Britain by MCA Records, where it again climbed into the top brackets of the popularity and sales charts. Billboard, April 27, 1963, 10.
41. For related insights on changing concepts of time, see McLuhan, Understanding Media,141--especially his discussion of the lines from Marvell. In another work, McLuhan also offers this: "Only oral peoples [such as teenagers) have any memory for the past, which, for them, is always present. A literary people entrusts its memory to its scribes not its bards." Verbi- VocoVisual Explorations, New York, 1967, Item 6.
42. Fortunately the history of the arts proceeds with a major advantage over other histories in that its primary subject matter is comprised of physical objects that do--or did at one time--exist in the real world. Hence the concerns of the art historian can be distinguished somewhat from those of the esthetician or art theoretician, however frequently their respective disciplines may overlap. But in the popular arts there arises a disdain for the object even among serious men. Not only is this ill-considered as a general response to the art itself, it also tends to demean the study of the popular arts, and of their history, despite the abundant evidence of this area's enormous significance. Such attitudes are, of course, not entirely new. In writing about the Billie Pauperum, McLuhan comments on the problems of dating incunabula, explaining that "these cheap and popular prints, despised by the learned, were not preserved any more than are the comic books of today. The great law of bibliography comes into play in this matter of the printing that precedes Gutenberg: 'The more there were, the fewer there are.' It applies to many items besides printed matter--to the postage stamp and to the early forms of radio receiving sets." McLuhan, Understanding Media, 146-147. Similar problems in the disappearance of primary evidence rapidly threaten study of the popular arts--especially the history of rock and roll and other forms of popular music--and this, paradoxically, just when some scholars are beginning to concede historical significance and cultural validity to phenomena outside the conventional "fine" arts classifications.
43. James S. Ackerman, "Art History and the Problems of Criticism," Daedalus (Journalof the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), 89 No. 1, winter 1960, 253 f.