How America Gave Rock 'n' Roll to the World
How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World

Larry Holzwarth - December 9, 2019

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
Teen idols such as Fabian, surf music, and songs of teenage tragedies dominated American music in 1963. Wikimedia

19. Rock and roll was in a lull in America in 1963

Rock and roll was at a low point in the summer of 1963. Jerry Lee Lewis had lost popularity due to his marriage and other issues, making him toxic to promoters and concert managers. Elvis had returned from the Army singing ballads and making movies, instead of performing rock and roll music. Teen idols, manufactured by record companies and movie studios, such as Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, and Pat Boone, dominated the record charts and theater marquees. The top charting song in the United States in 1963 was Sugar Shack, by Jimmy Gilmer. Folk music and the California surf sound displaced rock and roll.

The Beatles became an international phenomenon in 1963, their records selling massively everywhere but in the United States. EMI owned Capitol Records in the United States, but Capitol refused to market the band in America. American newspapers noticed the craze in Britain and reported it to their readers, usually in dismissive terms. Capitol offered the Beatles’ records to a small independent label, Vee-Jay Records, of Chicago. Vee-Jay copies of Please Please Me failed to sell, in part because the label lacked the resources to ensure it received sufficient airplay, and EMI cancelled the contract in August, citing non-payment of royalties as the cause.

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
Beatlemania in Europe was well known to American record executives, who didn’t think it carry into the United States. Wikimedia

20. American record producers felt rehashed American rock and roll wouldn’t appeal to audiences

The press in America covered Beatlemania in Britain as the British finally accepting rock and roll music, at a time when the fad had run its course. EMI tried again to sell Beatles records in the United States, through Philadelphia’s Swan Records. The Beatles’ She Loves You on that label also failed to sell when released in September. In November Brian Epstein and Ed Sullivan came to an agreement for the band to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964, and Epstein leveraged a record distribution deal with Capitol using the substantial influence of Sullivan’s large weekly audience. On November 22, 1963, the CBS Morning News aired a segment on Beatlemania in Great Britain.

The segment was to have been repeated on the CBS Evening News that same day. That afternoon John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Through the end of the year and well into January, the nation remained in a state of shock as well as suspicion over the events surrounding the assassination and its aftermath. Such was the national mood when The Beatles appeared on Sullivan’s show in February. By that time, I Want to Hold Your Hand had been released by Capitol, and was a major hit in the United States. American rock and roll had returned to the land of its birth, Anglicized along the way.

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
The Rolling Stones played American R&B and blues as closely to its roots as they could. Wikimedia

21. The British invasion rejuvenated American rock and roll

Until 1964, British acts had failed gain popularity in the United States, where music fans regarded them as tepid imitations of American rock and roll. But by 1964 American rock and roll was little more than a tepid imitation of itself. The British Invasion introduced a fresh sound by injecting new ideas into American music. When the Rolling Stones made their first tour of America in 1964, their setlist was almost entirely American rhythm and blues songs and blues standards, as well as Chuck Berry’s rocker, Carol. The British bands, in particular the Beatles and the Stones, also changed the way American bands recorded their music.

In America, albums usually included two or three high quality tracks – the singles – and the rest was for the most part filler. The British bands didn’t typically repeat their singles on albums, and instead produced albums which contained higher quality tracks. In the United States, Capitol (The Beatles) and London (the Rolling Stones) issued copies of albums which differed in content from the British releases, including the bands’ hit singles and removing other tracks. American bands recognized the higher quality content of the British albums and began to change the way they recorded their own music, with bands demanding more control over the process from producers.

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
The Beatles’ arrival in New York, February, 1964 Wikimedia

22. The early Beatles were modeled after Buddy Holly on stage

With the exception of hairstyles, the Beatles appeared to American audiences as Buddy Holly had to British the preceding decade; guitars, bass, and drums, layered vocals, and a bow to the audience following a number. Holly had by then been dead five years, and though his records were still receiving airplay, his visual memory had faded. But not to the British acts, which had imitated him faithfully during their development. When Paul McCartney sang Long Tall Sally it was in a voice taught to him by its composer, Little Richard, during a tour in England in which the Beatles had shared the bill with the rock and roll pioneer.

Little Richard too had been largely forgotten in the United States by the important teen audience, having switched to gospel music following a religious experience in the late 1950s. He had returned to rock and roll in the early 1960s in Britain (when he toured with the Beatles) but his career had not recovered in the United States by the time the Beatles arrived. American teens heard his music, through the voice of Paul McCartney, without knowing that McCartney was imitating the man who had brought the song to Britain from America just a few years earlier.

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
Eric Burdon and the Animals were a British Invasion group playing mostly American music. Wikimedia

23. Other British bands brought American music home during the British Invasion

The success of the Beatles brought several British bands to America, with American record companies competing for the rights to market their records. A review of the track listings for the albums the bands released in America, and supported by playing the songs on their tours, reveals the extent of the influence of American rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and blues on the British. American folk music had influenced them too, carried to Britain by the early stars. Surprisingly, the influence of Elvis Presley was limited, Elvis was not a songwriter of note, and he never performed in Britain. But a guitar player for Elvis (and others), Scottie Moore, was a major influence on the British.

The Animals came to America in October, 1964, through the portal used by many British bands, The Ed Sullivan Show, after which they performed in several theaters around New York City. Their repertoire was almost entirely cover versions of American rhythm and blues songs. The American song factory known as the Brill Building provided a large portion of their recorded catalog. American influence continued even as the British Invasion was at its peak, with several bands picking up new sounds as they absorbed American radio and culture.

How America Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to the World
By 1965 Bob Dylan’s influence was evident in the writing and playing of John Lennon. Wikimedia

24. American music continued to influence British bands during the British Invasion

Rolling Stones front man and singer Mick Jagger adapted the stage presence and dance moves of American performer James Brown, having already begun using the inflections of black bluesmen in his band’s cover versions of their songs. John Lennon absorbed the influences of Bob Dylan, both in his lyrics and in his guitar playing on some of his own songs. The Motown sound emerged during 1964; both the Temptations and the Four Tops reached the top twenty that year, as did the Supremes. The Rolling Stones recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago. Three of the five songs recorded there were by American artists, including Chuck Berry’s Around and Around.

The British invasion changed radio playlists, and the American rock and roll from which it had sprung all but vanished from the airwaves. Some British bands even came to the United States sporting American names, such as the Nashville Teens, who had a hit with Tobacco Road in 1964. The song itself was an American blues song about life in North Carolina. The British Invasion was over for the most part in early 1967, and other new genres spun off from the rock and pop music it left behind, with the British bands continuing to influence those in America, and vice versa. It was an era which would never have happened had it not been for the reception of American rock and roll in Great Britain a decade earlier.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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