11 May As we listen to and learn about the musical examples in this unit, you will read about and hear some musical threads? among certain musical artists. Choose one of the following two groups
As we listen to and learn about the musical examples in this unit, you will read about and hear some musical “threads” among certain musical artists. Choose one of the following two groups of musicians:
- Group 1: Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles
- Group 2: Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly
Identify what you believe are the common musical threads among the artists in your groups. Use the musical vocabulary that you are learning through your reading and share mashups of musical examples to support your views. In your response to at least three of your peers, share whether you agree or respectfully disagree with their choices. Explain why you either agree or disagree with your classmates and offer reasons and examples of why. Remember, it is not enough to simply say “I agree” or “I disagree.” You need to justify your choices. When sharing your musical selections with the class, you may use the mashup tool for YouTube. If you are uncomfortable with that or would like to post a traditional text response, that is acceptable as well. Below are the Mashup direction should you choose to use that option. Using Mashup is NOT mandatory.
Readings and Resources
Textbook or eBook:
Campbell, M. (2019). Popular music in America. 5th ed. Cengage Learning.
This reading will discuss the emergence of Rock and Roll as both a musical style and as a subculture in American teenage society.
· Chapter 11: Rock and Roll (pgs. 171-196)
Articles, Websites, and Videos:
Elvis Presley is known today as the King of Rock and Roll. When we look at him through our current perspective, it can be hard to see just how revolutionary he was as an artist. While we may see him as a relatively “tame” artist because by today’s standards, Presley comes across as clean cut, he was an artist who was a polarizing figure in American popular culture. Never before had an artist come across as so bols and daring. This film looks behind Elvis Presley’s experiences as a person and performer and delves deeply into the reasons behind why he was such an influential and controversial performer in the 1950s.
MVD. (2013, Nov 15). Elvis presley: Memphis flash.
Rock and Roll Begins
When did rock and roll begin? The answer depends a great deal on the context in which the question is asked. Was it when people labeled rhythm and blues “rock and roll”? Or when young white singers began covering rhythm-and-blues songs? Or when the media acknowledged a new kind of music and its new stars? Or when what was called rock and roll brought new sounds to the pop charts?
The term itself dates back to at least the 1920s. It came into popular music via blues lyrics. In these songs, “rockin’” and “rockin’ and rollin’” were euphemisms for sexual intercourse. One of the first “race record” hits was Trixie Smith’s “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).” The lyrics to Wynonie Harris’s 1948 R&B hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight” make the sexual reference as explicit as it could be and still get the record in the stores and on the jukeboxes in the late 1940s: “I’m gonna hold my baby as tight as I can, tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty man.” A few years later, “rock and roll” was used to refer to music, not sex, although sex remained an undercurrent for both teens and their horrified parents.
40-1Teens in the 1950s
After the war, the economy continued to boom. Economic growth meant more disposable income, some of which was spent on entertainment. America’s newfound prosperity trickled down to a newly enfranchised segment of society, the teenager. No longer burdened by farm chores or the work-to-survive demands of the Depression, teenagers had far more leisure time than their predecessors. They were also better off. Parents gave them allowances, and many found after-school jobs. More time and more money inevitably led to the emergence of the new teen subculture.
Teens defined themselves socially, economically, and musically. “Generation gap” became part of everyday speech. So, unfortunately, did “juvenile delinquent.” Teens put their money where their tastes were, and many had a taste for rock and roll. They rebelled by putting down high school; idolizing Marlon Brando, James Dean, and other “rebels without a cause”; and souping up cars (celebrated in the rock and roll of this era, from Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” to the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” and “409”). However, the most obvious symbol of their revolt against the status quo was their music.
Rock and roll and rhythm and blues epitomized this new rebellious attitude. The music was, by contemporary pop standards, “crude” and obviously black or black inspired. Some songs were blatantly sexual: Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” was a prime offender. Elvis and his fellow rock-and-rollers talked differently, wore their hair differently, dressed differently, danced and walked differently. All of it—the music, the lyrics, the look—horrified teens’ parents; that was part of the appeal. More than any other aspect of American life in the 1950s, music preference demarcated the boundary between teens and adults.
40-2The Beginnings of Rock and Roll
It was disc jockey Alan Freed who attached “rock and roll” to a musical style. Freed was an early and influential advocate of rhythm and blues. Unlike most of the disc jockeys of the era, he refused to play white cover versions of rhythm-and-blues hits, a practice which gained him respect among black musicians but made him enemies in the business. While broadcasting over WJW in Cleveland in 1951, he began using “rock and roll” as code for rhythm and blues.
Freed’s Moondog’s Rock and Roll Party developed a large audience among both whites and blacks, so he took his advocacy of rhythm and blues one step further, into promotion. He put together touring stage shows of rhythm-and-blues artists, which played to integrated audiences. His first big event, the Moondog Coronation Ball, took place in 1952. Twenty-five thousand people, the majority of them white, showed up at a facility that could accommodate only a small fraction of that number. The ensuing pandemonium was the first of many “incidents” in Freed’s career as a promoter. Freed linked the term rock and roll to rhythm and blues, so it’s no wonder that Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, the mastermind of so many New Orleans rhythm-and-blues hits, commented that rock and roll was rhythm and blues. Bartholomew said, undoubtedly with some bitterness, “We had rhythm and blues for many, many a year, and here come in a couple of white people and they call it rock and roll, and it was rhythm and blues all the time!” As rhythm and blues began to find a white audience, white acts began to tap into this new sound. Among the first was Bill Haley and His Comets.
40-3Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”
One of the first big rock and roll hits came from an unlikely source, by way of an unlikely place, and took an unlikely path to pop success. Bill Haley (1925–1981), who recorded it, grew up in Pennsylvania listening to the Grand Ole Opry and dreaming of country music stardom. By the late 1940s, he had begun fronting small bands—one was called the “Four Aces of Western Swing”—and enjoyed some local success. Over the next few years, he began to give his music a bluesier sound and chose—or wrote—songs with teen appeal. “Crazy, Man, Crazy” (1953) was his first hit. In 1954, he had some success with a song called “Rock Around the Clock.”
A year later “Rock Around the Clock” resurfaced in the soundtrack to the film The Blackboard Jungle. The connections among film, song, and performer were tenuous. The film portrays juvenile delinquents in a slum high school, but “Rock Around the Clock” is exuberant rather than angry, and Haley, at almost thirty, looked nothing like a teenaged rebel. But it was music for and about teens (parents weren’t likely to rock around the clock), and that was enough for the producers. With the release of the film, the song skyrocketed to No. 1. It was Haley’s big moment. He had a few other minor hits, but he never repeated his chart-topping success.
40-4The First Rock and Roll Record?
“Rock Around the Clock” is often identified as the first rock-and-roll record because it was the first big hit clearly associated with rock and roll. And it was a different sound—at least for pop. The sound is a light version of jump-band rhythm and blues. Haley’s voice is bright, but it has little of the inflection that we associate with blues singing. The band supports Haley’s voice with a small rhythm section that includes a guitar played in a high register and drumsticks tapping out a brisk shuffle rhythm. The band plays riffs underneath Haley, then alone. In retrospect, we consider this energetic, upbeat music to be not rock and roll, but rockabilly, a country take on postwar rhythm and blues.
Even as Haley’s record zoomed to the top of the charts, Elvis Presley was recording a grittier kind of rockabilly at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records. We consider the relationship between Elvis, rockabilly, and rock and roll next.
“Rock Around the Clock” (1954)
Max Friedman and
Bill Haley and His Comets.
STYLE Rockabilly ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus blues form
Listen For …
Voice, electric guitar, acoustic bass, drums, and saxophone (accordion)
Haley’s voice is light and friendly but not bluesy or country—and not pop crooning either
Shuffle rhythm at a fast tempo
Syncopation in vocal line, guitar riff, and instrumental riff in sixth chorus
Light, layered texture with most instruments and voice in a high mid-range contribute to bright sound
“Rocking” here is simply about dancing the night away; nothing suggests a more intimate involvement between partners
The brisk tempo, discreet shuffle beat, and generally high register of Haley’s voice and the guitar give the song a bright feel
SOUND OF ROCKABILLY
A “lite” version of rhythmic R&B: faster tempo, higher register, less rough-edged vocal
Listen to this selection in the unit playlist.
In the summer of 1953, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley walked into the Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis to make a demo record. Phillips wasn’t in, so his assistant, Marion Keisker, handled the session. Perhaps to make him feel at ease, she asked him about himself. The conversation went something like this:
“What kind of singer are you?”
“I sing all kinds.”
“Who do you sound like?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
“Yeah, I sing hillbilly.”
“Who do you sound like in hillbilly?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
This now-legendary encounter gives us some insight into Elvis’s success. Imagine yourself—barely out of high school and with no professional experience—having such a clear sense of who you are and what you can do. Elvis truly didn’t sound like anyone else. Less than three years later, he would be a household name.
41-1Elvis Presley: The First Rock-and-Roll Star
Elvis Presley (1935–1977) recorded his first local hit for Phillips’s Sun Records in 1954. The record, a cover of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” sparked interest on country-western radio (although some stations wouldn’t play it because Elvis sounded too black). Within a year he had reached No. 1 nationally on the country-western charts with “Mystery Train”—one of Elvis’s most enduring early hits. In late 1955, he signed a personal management contract with Colonel Tom Parker (actually Andreas van Kuijk, an illegal immigrant from Holland), who arranged a record contract with RCA. RCA quickly got Elvis in the studio. “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first No. 1, topped the charts in March 1956. Soon, Elvis was a national phenomenon. By 1957, he had recorded several No. 1 hits and made numerous television appearances, most notably on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Elvis quickly became the symbol of rock and roll for millions, for both those who idolized him and those who despised him. With his totally uninhibited stage manner, tough-teen dress, greased pompadour, and energetic singing style, Elvis projected a rebellious attitude that many teens found overwhelmingly appealing. To the audiences of today, Elvis may seem almost wholesome. However, his seeming lack of inhibition when performing contrasted sharply with white pop singers who stood in front of microphones and crooned. In his day, this was bold stuff, and he took a lot of heat for it because he refused to tone down his style despite the criticism. In sticking to his guns, he gave rock and roll a sound and a look—both of which immediately set the style apart from anything that had come before. Elvis was rock and roll’s lightning rod. For teens he was all that was right with this new music; for their parents he symbolized all that was wrong with it. And for all intents and purposes, he stood alone.
Elvis performs on The Milton Berle Show, April, 1956.
The Billboard charts reflect his singular status. Except for Elvis’s hits, rock and roll represented only a modest segment of the popular music market. The top-selling albums during this time were mostly soundtracks from Broadway shows and film musicals. Even sales of singles, which teens bought, show that rock and roll did not enjoy the unconditional support of America’s youth. The top singles artists during the same period were either pre-rock stars (Frank Sinatra and Perry Como), younger artists singing in a pre-rock style (Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis), teen stars like Pat Boone, who covered early rock-and-roll songs, or vocal groups like the Platters, whose repertoire included a large number of reworked Tin Pan Alley standards. Among the lesser figures—from a commercial perspective—are such important and influential artists as Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. Elvis was, by far, the most important commercial presence in rock and roll; no one else came close.
41-2Elvis at Sun
Elvis could not have picked a better place to start his musical career than at Sam Phillips’s studio. By the time Elvis arrived at his door, Phillips had been operating his recording service for over three years and had recorded numerous blues-based acts, including Jackie Brenston, Junior Parker, and Bobby Blue Bland. Elvis brought only himself, his rudimentary guitar skills, and his remarkable voice. Although he didn’t play much guitar, he played the radio really well. He was an equal-opportunity listener with an insatiable appetite for music. And what he heard, he used: Elvis could emulate almost any style—pop, country, gospel, R&B—and still sound like himself. For Sam Phillips, he was the “white man with the Negro feel” that he had been searching for. Phillips recruited guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to back up Elvis, and advised him on what songs to record. Several were covers of rhythm-and-blues songs: “Mystery Train” was a cover of a 1953 recording by bluesman Junior Parker, who also recorded for Sun. Elvis’s version transforms rhythm and blues into rockabilly.
Carl Perkins, perhaps the truest of the rockabilly stars, once explained his music this way: “To begin with … rockabilly music, or rock and roll… was a country man’s song with a black man’s rhythm. I just put a little speed into some of the slow blues licks.”
Rockabilly began as a white southern music. Its home was Memphis, more specifically Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, which would also record Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Even today the style retains this strong southern identity. The sound of rockabilly, however, was not confined to Memphis or even the South: “Rock Around the Clock” is a familiar example.
Elvis’s Sun sessions are quintessential rockabilly. In Junior Parker’s 1953 version, “Mystery Train” is a boogie-based rhythm-and-blues song; it chugs along at a slow pace underneath Parker’s bluesy vocal and the occasional saxophone train whistle. Elvis’s version is brighter and more upbeat, and it uses a modified honky-tonk beat: two-beat bass alternating with a heavy backbeat on the electric guitar that is modified with a quick rebound that begins alternately on, then off, the beat. In form, the song is a modified blues; it has the poetic and melodic form of a blues song, but its harmony and phrase length are slightly irregular.
“Mystery Train” (1955)
STYLE Rockabilly ⋅ FORM Blues form with modified harmony (both first and second phrases start on IV) and phrases of variable length
Listen For …
Voice, electric guitar, acoustic bass, drums
Elvis’s high, lonesome sound, plus occasional special effects in vocal asides
Two-beat rhythm with “rebound” backbeat at fast tempo
Different take on blues harmony: start on IV chord
Open sound, with light bass and drums, guitar just under Elvis’s voice
FAST TEMPO WITH A MODIFIED TWO-BEAT RHYTHM
Drums maintain a light, fast rhythm very much in the background; the distinctive feature is the “rebound” backbeat in the guitar, which comes with, then ahead, of the backbeat
ELVIS’S SOULFUL SINGING AND UNIQUE SOUND
Elvis’s singing is bluesier than traditional country singing, and without a twang. At the same time, it is distinct from the timbres of 1950s R&B singers
MODIFIED FORM OF THE BLUES PROGRESSION
Each chorus starts on a IV chord instead of a I chord; in the vocal sections, the first two phrases are of variable length instead of the customary four bars
Listen to this selection in the unit playlist.
Elvis’s singing is the magical element. In both its basic timbre and its variety, his sound is utterly unique—the purest Elvis. It ranges from a plaintive wail on the opening high notes to the often-imitated guttural singing at the end of each chorus. Elvis positions himself not only between country and rhythm and blues, but beyond them. We don’t hear the nasal twang so common in country music, nor do we hear the rough-edged sound of a blues singer. Elvis draws on both but sounds like neither (“I don’t sound like nobody”).
41-4Elvis in Hollywood
Elvis’s sound brought him radio attention, but it was his looks and his moves that propelled him to stardom. Shortly after breaking through with “Heartbreak Hotel,” he made his first Hollywood film, Love Me Tender. He would make three more, including Jailhouse Rock, before his induction into the army. Among the songs featured in the film was “Jailhouse Rock.” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, an up-and-coming songwriting/ producing team, wrote the song for Elvis. Released in conjunction with the film, it went to No. 1 in the fall of 1957. In the film, it serves as a soundtrack to an extended dance number.
We get some sense of his presence and his appeal in the scene from his 1957 film Jailhouse Rock where he sings the title song. In staging the scene, choreographer Alex Romero wisely asked Elvis to perform some of his songs, then choreographed the movements of the other dancers to mesh with Elvis’s moves. In the scene, we see that for Elvis, all of this is fun. He moves freely, spontaneously; the other dancers seem routine by comparison. Elvis’s uninhibited movement, evident in film and television clips, contrasts sharply with pop singers—white and black—who simply stand in front of microphones and croon their songs.
“Jailhouse Rock” highlights the qualities that made Elvis so appealing and evidences the craft of Leiber and Stoller, who wrote and produced the song. The song begins with guitar and drums marking off a stop-time rhythm, which continues as Elvis begins to sing. The beginning of the song is, practically speaking, all Elvis, and he makes the most of it. There is an exuberance and a lack of inhibition in his singing that jumps out of the speakers. In this song, Elvis communicates fun—the exhilaration of moving to the beat (even when it can only be felt)—in a way that was unprecedented in pop. There is an emotional honesty to Elvis’s singing that transcends the staginess of the scene in the film. The story may be fake, but Elvis’s enthusiasm is real. Elvis found this kind of realness in the blues, and in songs like “Jailhouse Rock” he brought it into the mainstream.
Rhythmically, “Jailhouse Rock” shows rock and roll in transition. The most rocklike feature is the guitar pattern, which divides the beat into two equal parts. By accenting and slightly lengthening the first note of each pair, Elvis creates a rhythmic feel (evident especially in the stop-time verse sections) that is somewhere between a standard rock rhythm and a shuffle rhythm. And even though the bass player is playing an electric bass, he is still walking—one note on each beat, like a swing-era or jazz bassist. Most strikingly, the band switches to a swing rhythm in the instrumental interlude; we can almost hear a sigh of relief from the guitarist and drummer as they let go in a rhythm that they know how to feel. Because of the rhythmic inconsistencies, “Jailhouse Rock” is rock and roll commercially, but not quite rock and roll rhythmically.
The musically significant part of Elvis’s career lasted only three years. It ended in 1958, when he was inducted into the army. Although still a major public figure in the sixties and seventies, he seldom recaptured the freshness of his earlier years, and he seemed out of step with 1960s rock and rhythm and blues. Still, during his ascendancy, he was crowned the king of rock and roll. What justified his coronation?
41-5The King of Rock and Roll?
Here’s a heretical thought: Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, sang very little rock and roll. Such a statement would have been literally incredible to teenagers living in 1956 or 1957; for them, and their parents, Elvis embodied rock and roll. As Carl Belz, the first important rock historian, noted in The Story of Rock:
Elvis Presley is the most important individual rock artist to emerge during the music’s early development between 1954 and 1956. His extraordinary popularity surpassed that of any artist who appeared in those years, and it remained as a standard for almost a decade…. For the music industry, Presley was “king” for almost ten years. He was the first rock artist to establish a continuing and independent motion picture career, the first to have a whole series of million-selling single records—before 1960 he had eighteen—and the first to dominate consistently the tastes of the foreign record market, especially in England, where popularity polls listed him among the top favorites for each year until the arrival of the Beatles.
Belz equates importance almost exclusively with popularity. His list of Elvis’s firsts contains no musical innovations; importance is strictly numbers and visibility. However, Elvis’s contributions to rock history extend beyond his remarkable commercial success. He brought a fresh look, a fresh attitude, and a fresh sound to popular music. All three proved to be enormously influential.
Elvis gave rock and roll its most memorable visual images. His looks sent girls into hysteria and guys to the mirror, where they greased their hair and combed it into Elvis-like pompadours. His uninhibited, sexually charged stage persona scandalized adults even as it sent teen pulses racing. These images endure, as the legion of Elvis imitators reminds us. There had been flamboyant black performers, like T-Bone Walker, whose stage antics included playing his guitar behind his head while doing the splits, but no popular white entertainer had ever moved like Elvis did, and no one had ever looked like he enjoyed it as much. Even now, when we watch clips of Elvis performing, we sense that he is having fun. This was an extraordinarily liberating presence for a new generation of pop stars.
His musical contributions were less influential. Certainly, he brought a new vocal sound into popular music. In his various blends of blues, R&B, country, gospel, and pop, Elvis summarized the musical influences—and epitomized the musical direction—of this new music. But his musical significance stops there. He neither wrote his own songs nor consistently used the rock-and-roll rhythm and sound copied by so many late-1950s and early-1960s bands. The road from rock and roll to rock would follow a different path.
“Jailhouse Rock” (1957)
Jerry Leiber and
Elvis Presley, vocal.
STYLE Rock and roll ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus blues form in which the first phrase is doubled in length
Listen For …
Voice, electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums
Primitive rock rhythm, kept mainly in guitar during refrain; Elvis and band not sure whether to rock or swing
Nice contrast between syncopated stop time in verse and rocking/walking in refrain
“Talking blues” in verse; simple riff in refrain
Wide spacing: guitar low, just above bass, Elvis in the middle, piano high
Exuberant and uninhibited, influenced by blues and country, but a completely new vocal sound
FULL RHYTHM SECTION WITH PROMINENT ELECTRIC GUITAR
Rhythm section includes drums, bass, piano, and electric guitar; the guitar stands out in both its accompanying and solo roles
EXPANDED VERSE/CHORUS BLUES FORM
Verse-like section is extended to eight measures; the chorus remains eight measures in length
Stop time in the verse versus consistent timekeeping in the chorus
MULTIPLE RHYTHMIC CONCEPTIONS
Rock rhythm in the band during the chorus, swing during the instrumental interlude (one can almost hear the band relax back into a rhythm they’re familiar with), and Elvis somewhere in between: not really swing or the even beat division of rock
Listen to this selection in the unit playlist.
The Architects of Rock and Roll
In the latter part of the 1950s, the most apparent distinction between rock and roll and rhythm and blues was racial: Most of the prominent rock-and-roll stars were white; R&B stars were black. So if one simply extrapolated the history of rock and roll from what had developed through the end of 1956, it would be reasonable to assume that rock and roll was simply white takes on black music, like rockabilly and the pop covers of R&B hits.
In fact, however, the crucial difference between rhythm and blues and rock and roll was
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