In my last blog I skipped from 1949 to 1962, but I never promised to do this in order but I feel I’d better mention the fifties as it is in some ways and for many people, year zero in terms of the history of pop music. It certainly saw the first commercial success of rock’n’roll and although the term ‘rock’n’roll’ was first used in a great song by the Boswell Sisters in 1934, the DJ Alan Freed is credited as first using the term to describe this new music that was emerging.
Rock’n’Roll can simplistically be described as any pop song that had an accentuated backbeat, and based on a bass guitar, drums, lead and rhythm guitar combo. This of course had its variations.
There was a thing called Race Records. These were records recorded by black artists for black people and although the term ‘race records’ seems derogatory now, it wasn’t at the time and there was even a Race Chart, but this changed its name through the years from Rhythm’n’Blues chart to Soul Chart to RnB/Hip Hop chart etc. etc. It still exists and I don’t know why.
Anyway the whole segregation thing in America was there for all to see in these charts. Eventually a lot of the black performers would appear in the main Billboard charts; black artists like Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Little Richard. Initially these black artists were part of a thing called the Chitlin Circuit, something I only found out about a year or two ago. More of that in another blog.
If you ask anybody to name a rock’n’roll record they will probably say ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets. The interesting thing about this record is that it was released as a B side a year earlier and didn’t really do that well. Then it was used in a movie; the controversial Blackboard Jungle, all about a tough school, they used this B side as it’s Soundtrack and guess what? It became a massive hit. There were riots in cinemas because of this film, I’ve not seen it all the way through, but it was obviously the template for other films about tough schools with bad kids and new teachers coming to ‘clean it up’ etc. In some ways this film really personified what was to become known as the ‘Generation Gap’, as the term teenager didn’t exist until after World War II.
The history is interesting but what really interests me is the power of film and subsequently TV to significantly launch successful careers for its performers, something we have seen happen time and time again since Blackboard Jungle.
Rock’n’Roll declined in the late fifties after Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, Elvis joined the army, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were embroiled in sex scandals with under age girls and high profile names in the industry like Alan Freed were caught up in corruption, bribery and a thing called the Payola Scandal which was basically chart rigging and promotion of artists that somehow covered up money laundering of drug money and prostitution. What’s new eh?
Wikipedia says that one of the reasons for the decline of Rock'n'Roll was the arrival of producers like Joe Meek which, coincidently and with shoddy continuity was how I started my LAST blog.
My favourite rock’n’roll record, for what its worth, is Tutti Fruitti by Little Richard. In recent years I have come to the conclusion that this is the most important song from that era. Plenty of people copied Elvis or Bill Haley, but the likes of David Bowie and Paul McCartney were forever influenced by Little Richard, one of the first shouters, who stood up playing the piano, wore makeup and by the sound of the some of his frenetic recordings was using a lot more than a strong latte as a stimulant.
There was decadence in the lyrics too. The song originally had unsubtle references to gay sex:
“Tutti Frutti, good booty, If it don't fit, don't force it, You can grease it, make it easy.” These words were changed prior to recording to “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty, Tutti Frutti, aw rooty”.
A lot of the original Race Records had explicit or very unsubtle sexual references so Tutti Fruitti is one example. However, the song’s endearing legacy will be its first line. Some say the greatest rock’n’roll lyric ever.
“A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom”
Can’t argue with that.