2. Rock and roll developed as part of a period of technological change
In March 1949 RCA Victor released the first sample of a new and revolutionary recording format, the 45 rpm record. The 45 allowed for two sides being recorded, at first in monaural form, and rapidly became known as the single. Singles allowed artists to release two songs, one known as the A side, hopefully a hit for the performer, and the other the B side, which was viewed as more or less a bonus for the purchaser. Singles were priced affordably, with an eye toward a newly emerging purchasing group in the United States, the affluent teenager.
Independent record labels were soon recording and pressing their own singles, including Chess in Chicago, Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlantic, the last of which signed an artist named Ray Charles in 1952. Along with the independent labels grew local radio stations, which played music not heard on the national networks, frequently catering to the same teenage audience as the new records. Early records which were regarded as precursors to what became rock and roll included Rocket 88 (recorded by Ike Turner’s band under another name), Fats Domino’s The Fat Man; Rock the Joint by Jimmy Preston; and many others, all with a case for being considered the first rock and roll hit.
3. Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock
Rock Around the Clock is often cited as the first rock and roll record. It was not. Big Joe Turner had preceded it with Shake, Rattle, and Roll in 1954, (#1 on Billboard’s chart) and Haley had an earlier hit with Crazy Man, Crazy the year before that. But it can be said Rock Around the Clock was the first rock and roll anthem, which resonated with teens across the United States, and later Europe. It was an anthem which grew slowly, the song was not a hit when it was released in May 1954, on the B side of a single which featured Thirteen Women. In 1955 the song was used over the opening credits for the film Blackboard Jungle.
On August 7, 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets appeared on the popular Sunday evening television program Toast of the Town. The following month the program changed its name to The Ed Sullivan Show, in deference to the fact that most fans called it by that name anyway. By then Rock Around the Clock was a popular hit with teenagers in Britain, Germany, and Australia, scoring places in the top twenty, as well as in other locations world-wide. American music, including the newly christened rock and roll genre, became much in demand across the globe, and the American film industry was ready to supply it.
4. The Girl Can’t Help It celebrated American rock and roll music in 1956
The 1956 motion picture The Girl Can’t Help It was not a critical success in the United States. The New York Times called its female lead, Jayne Mansfield, a “weak imitation of Marilyn Monroe”. But an unintended consequence of its release was its exposure of rock and roll music. Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, The Platters, and Little Richard all appeared in the film as themselves. When the film was released in England in 1957, British teens were smitten with the film’s soundtrack, though Mansfield certainly made an impact on many as well. Demand for records from the American artists jumped in Great Britain.
Paul McCartney learned to play Twenty Flight Rock after seeing Eddie Cochran perform it in the film. Later that same summer he played it for a young John Lennon, cementing the partnership which later became The Beatles. The American performer Richard Penniman, already popular in Great Britain for his recording of Long Tall Sally and known as Little Richard, also scored another hit there with his recording of the film’s title song. For British teens, the previously unseen sources of the sounds they were hearing from America made the movie an icon, and prompted the formation of several groups, many of which would later travel to America with new sounds of their own.
Sam Phillips was a fan of rhythm and blues in Memphis, Tennessee, who scouted local talent for several record labels. In 1950 he established Memphis Recording Service, with a studio on Union Avenue in Memphis. It was there a band who called themselves Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88 in 1951 (the band was actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm). The success of the record led Phillips to create the Sun record label, and he renamed his studio Sun Studios. In 1954 Phillips, who wanted to bring the sound of black Memphis and delta blues to a national audience, began to consider that a local singer and truck driver – Elvis Presley – was capable of bringing the Memphis sound to a white audience.
In July, 1955, Elvis recorded a blues song from the 1940s, Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. Several days later Elvis returned to the studio to record a B side for the record, choosing Blue Moon of Kentucky. It was the first hit for Sun Records, and would be the first of many, though the label would never achieve financial stability. Elvis hit Great Britain as he did Memphis, he was the instantaneous King of rock and roll. But Sun was unable to profit from the star it had discovered, Presley’s contract was sold by Phillips to RCA before his explosion on the international music scene.
6. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s
Jerry Lee Lewis began pounding the piano at Sun Records in late 1956, recording his own music and working as a session musician, including with Carl Perkins. In 1957 Lewis, who listed himself on his records in the early days as Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano, recorded Great Balls of Fire, released in the United States in November. It sold one million copies in ten days, eventually surpassed 5 million, and climbed to the top of music charts around the world. In the United Kingdom it reached number 1, and Lewis’s popularity reached heights which rivalled any preceding American star.
The song was featured in the 1957 film Jamboree, which was marketed in Britain as Disc Jockey Jamboree. The film began the rivalry between Alan Freed, who often falsely claimed to have coined the term rock and roll as a Cleveland disc jockey, and a young Dick Clark. Clark was at the time a disc jockey for WFIL in Philadelphia, the same station from which he later hosted American Bandstand. The film was popular with teens in both the United States and the United Kingdom, though Jerry Lee Lewis’s popularity in the latter soon took a hit, when it was learned that his third wife was both his first cousin and only 13 years old at the time of marriage.
Chuck Berry developed the unique sound he made famous on guitar in his native St. Louis as a youth, though he was interrupted by a stint in a reformatory for armed robbery. After his release he returned to the guitar, emulating the rhythm of Mississippi blues. In 1955 he traveled to Chicago, where he met with bluesman Muddy Waters. Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, who agreed to record Berry’s songs, supporting him with session musicians. The song Berry chose was his own composition based on an old fiddle tune known as Ida Red. Berry called his adaptation Ida May, though Leonard Chess balked at the idea.
Chess surmised that the target audience for the song – teenagers – were interested in Berry’s lyrics, which described fast cars and interest in the opposite sex. It was Chess who suggested calling the song Maybellene. Released in July, 1955, it too was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Berry’s style on guitar, especially his leads, had never been heard before. Rolling Stone later wrote, in reference to the song, “Rock and roll guitar starts here”. Berry followed the song with hit after hit, in all of which the electric guitar moved to the forefront of the performance. Across the pond, musicians were listening enthusiastically.
8. Rockabilly, gospel, country, and rock and roll were intertwined
Several of the early artists in the genre of rock and roll also straddled the gap between the new format and American country music. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all found their songs on the country charts as well, often achieving higher rankings than in the pop music charts of the day. Rhythm and blues performers also found their music appealing to teens regardless of race, a somewhat new phenomena in the music industry. In the United States, white adults in particular viewed the new music with alarm, due to its links to the black music of the South. The link with American country was viewed as less harmful.
The influences of country music on rock and roll led to the use of the term rockabilly. Elvis Presley was linked with both rockabilly and the black rhythm and blues genre. Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was linked to rockabilly and American gospel music (Elvis too, was heavily influenced by gospel). Starting with Folsom Prison Blues (Cash) rockabilly grew into one of the most successful branches of rock and roll, and led to the development of another genre copied in Great Britain and Europe in the latter years of the 1950s.
Buddy Holly and his band, the Crickets, were one of the first to establish the classic rock and roll lineup of guitar, bass, and drums. In their earliest years, they considered for a time calling themselves the Beetles, before settling on another insect. In 1957 Holly had his first major hit, That’ll Be the Day, followed later in the year with Peggy Sue. Late that year their first album, The “Chirping” Crickets, was released in the United States. It was released in the UK in early 1958, where it rose to number 5 on the British album chart. Both the sound of the record and how it was generated were studied closely by aspiring British musicians.
The classic lineup, which at the time was two guitars, bass (though an upright bass), and drums, was one aspect which made listeners take notice, especially when the Crickets toured in England in 1958. Layered vocals were another. Holly’s short career and life ended in a plane crash in February, 1959, but his influence in spreading American rock and roll music was still felt sixty years later. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other early British rock and roll bands all covered his music in their acts and recordings, and one of the earliest hits for London’s Rolling Stones was a cover version of his song, Not Fade Away.
10. Rock and roll was short lived in Great Britain, leading to beat music
Great Britain in the late 1950s did not enjoy the variety of radio and television available in the United States. The BBC controlled virtually all broadcast entertainment in the United Kingdom. Popular music was heard only on a portion of broadcasting known as the Light Programme, which ceased broadcasting at midnight every day, and in any case carried other presentations beside music. When the Beatles first arrived in America in 1964, they all expressed astonishment at the wide selection of radio stations and the programs they offered, which were still not available in Britain.
The ports were how American music gained a foothold in Great Britain, through the records which were brought in, both legally and illegally, from overseas. Listening to the music from the records, rather than occasional play on the radio, allowed the listeners to parse them carefully. British musicians learned to play the sounds from America, often modifying them to allow use of available instruments. Different sounds developed in Great Britain, sourced from the same American records. In London, Manchester, Tottenham, Liverpool, and other cities, distinctly different styles of British music were derived from the works of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and other American performers.
11. British rock and roll bands were a bland imitation of American acts
British record producers and music entrepreneurs, aware of the record sales of American rock and roll acts, made several attempts to create home grown British competition. For the most part they were unsuccessful. Acts such as Johnny Gentle, Marty Wilde, and Adam Faith had several hits in Britain, but their success was not repeated in the United States, and they received little regard in Europe, including Germany, where American rock and roll was well received. They were pale limitations of their American counterparts. There were of course some exceptions, but they were relatively few.
Billy Fury was one, who mimicked the rockabilly style on Sound and Fury in 1960 with some success (with the help of guitarist Joe Brown). Johnny Brandon went on a tour of the United States in 1956, self-billed as the “King of Rock and Roll”. He was not so regarded by American audiences. A true British rock and roll star was Johnny Kidd, who with his group the Pirates recorded Shakin’ all Over, which continued to be covered by American and British bands for decades. Beginning in the early 1960s, British rock and roll ebbed, replaced by development of beat music in the north, and rhythm and blues in London and Manchester.
12. British rock and roll acts had little influence in either Britain or America
In London by the beginning of the 1960s, fans of the American genre of rhythm and blues began studying the sources which had influenced current American artists. Even Chuck Berry, considered by many in Great Britain (and America) to be the consummate rock and roller, was examined for the influence of American blues on his music. In London and Manchester, interest in rhythm and blues music led to many young musicians seeking its roots, including in the Mississippi blues and in Chicago’s famous bluesmen. But it was in the north where the next great musical wave formed, along the Mersey in Liverpool.
In Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney continued to perform primarily American songs in their expanding repertoire, including those of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and others. So did other area bands, as they developed. New releases from America were avidly awaited by the aspiring musicians, as they were in London. Lennon also was heavily influenced by Smoky Robinson and Elvis Presley, as well as Roy Orbison. McCartney added Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis to the list of American rock and roll performers who influenced and shaped the early Beatles, including during their stints in Hamburg, where they honed their craft as performers.
13. The doo wop sound emerged from American cities in the 1950s
The sound of extensive vocal harmonies behind the voice of a lead singer, as presented by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; the Platters; and the Coasters was itself rooted in the earlier works of groups such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. The style developed from the sounds of the streets of American cities, where groups would gather together for spontaneous singing sessions on street corners or alleyways. By the end of the decade the doo wop style, which had exploded among black acts, merged with rock and roll in a style reflected by several bands in the United States, most notably Dion and the Belmonts.
Dion and the Belmonts were from New York (the Bronx) and their accents were a discernible part of their sound. They had several hits before splitting up in 1960, but their lead singer, Dion DiMucci, merged their doo wop style with rock and roll in the record Runaround Sue in 1961, followed by The Wanderer later that year. Both songs sold well in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The idea of merging a rock and roll beat with complex layers of vocal harmonies was yet another influence on the growing musical scene in Britain, particularly in Liverpool, where several bands were by then following the lead from the United States.
14. The transistor radio changed the way music was heard
Until 1954 one needed to be near a radio, which was plugged into an outlet, to listen to music. Or near a record player, or jukebox, or at a record store, or in a car. That year, the transistor radio was introduced, and teens could carry the source of their music with them to school, or to social activities after school, or to work. The booming post-war American economy gave teens access to spending money, leisure time, and school activities which had not existed before the war, due to the stresses of the Great Depression. Portable record players, which played only 45 rpm records soon followed. The sales of radios, records, and record players soared.
The same wasn’t true in Britain and Europe, both of which were still in recovery from World War II. Rationing from the war continued in Britain. There was less disposable income, and in any case, less product to listen to on the radio. The market in the United States led to heavy competition for teens’ disposable dollars in the form of new acts in rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and that competition was soon being shipped, in the form of the performers and their records, to a welcoming British market. The stream of new acts from America to Britain seemed unending through 1962.
15. The Cunard Yanks connected Liverpool with the culture and sound of America
Liverpool had long been Britain’s major port linking the United Kingdom with the United States. Though the transatlantic passenger trade had decreased significantly following World War II, trade between the English speaking nations remained brisk. Britain remained depressed financially, while the American economy boomed. Trade between the nations was by sea, and the Cunard Yanks were the employees of the ships which traveled between the countries. The sailors visited the Canadian port of Montreal and the American port of New York, returning to Liverpool with not only music, but other aspects of American culture such as jeans, biker jackets, and ducktail haircuts.
They brought back to Britain products unavailable to all but the wealthiest, including washing machines, cameras and projectors, record players and tape recorders, suits and hats and overcoats. And they brought back musical instruments. One such young seaman, a man named Ivan Haywood, purchased a black Gretsch guitar in New York in 1957. Upon his return to Liverpool, he sold the instrument to a boy with a scouse accent named George Harrison. The British seamen who worked on the Cunard ships connecting America to England were the chief pipeline of American rock and roll to Britain until the late 1950s.
16. The teen embrace of rock and roll drew an adult backlash
Rock and roll music in America drew the majority of its fans from teenagers, both black and white, male and female. Though by no means all, many adults were wary of the new genre, and many more openly hostile towards rock and roll. It was called the devil’s music, particularly from conservative Southern Baptist churches. It was blamed for juvenile delinquency, lower grades in school, defiance of authority, sexual promiscuity, and racial intermixing. The music itself, with its steadily pulsing rhythm, was called sexually provocative, as were the dance moves of its performers and listeners. The dance moves exhibited by Elvis Presley and others were regarded as obscene by those determined to guard public mores.
Similar concerns followed the music across the water as its popularity grew in Britain. Rock and roll fans began to dress differently, adopt American slang and American mannerisms. British youth divided itself into groups called mods and rockers, each with their distinctive dress, and each openly hostile to the other, as well as to adult authority in all of its manifestations. Teen contempt for authority in staid Britain was blamed on the evil influence of the American music which was uprooting British tradition. When Brian Epstein decided to clean up the Beatles in order to make them more presentable to adults, he elevated “his boys” above the fray over the bad influences of rock and roll.
The clubs and cafes of Liverpool were crowded with fans listening to a newly developed genre of rock and roll music, called beat music, around 1962. In Liverpool the most popular of the beat bands was the Beatles, having honed their craft in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles covered songs made famous in Britain by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Buddy Holly, and many others, including songs from Broadway musicals popular at the time. They covered songs from the so-called girl bands, such as the Shirelles. They also performed original songs, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, which were received enthusiastically by their growing fan base.
In 1963 the band began an extensive period of touring throughout Great Britain, playing virtually every day, sometimes multiple times a day, in theaters and cinemas, and music halls. The Beatles appeared in uniform clothing, wearing neckties and jackets, rather than the black leather of their early days. They bowed to the audience to acknowledge the applause of their fans. As McCartney sang the lyrics from Little Richard or Fats Domino, laden with sexual innuendo, his appearance was one of innocence. The Beatles weren’t threatening to the parents of their fans, they were neat, and polite, and ready to rule the music world.
The ships which plied the waterways between Liverpool and New York and other American ports carried British culture and change back to the Americas as well. The large number of American troops which had passed through Great Britain during World War II generated interest in aspects of British culture. Coming back to New York from Britain were a number of British products, including British records. Music from newer British bands seeped into the United States in the months before the full-fledged British Invasion of the mid-1960s. This created a small demand for British acts in the early 1960s.
A British group from Tottenham, the Dave Clark 5, cut their teeth playing the enlisted clubs on military bases, developing a fanbase which included American GIs. Their popularity created a demand for their records in the early 1960s, which sold well enough in America that they were actually the lead band of the British Invasion, the first to go on a full tour of the United States (though their Ed Sullivan appearance followed the Beatles). The new sound of rock and roll came to America in a manner similar to how its predecessor went to England, carried in the holds of the ships linking the ports of the two countries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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