Book Review

The History of Rock and Roll. Volume One 1920-1963. By Ed ward. Flatiron Books. New York. 2016. Hardcover. 402 pages.

Review by Francis DiMenno

This history, which came out about 12 months ago, will provide a wonderful primer for those who are under the impression that rock ’n’ roll didn’t truly really begin until the advent of the Beatles. Make no mistake: toward the end of the book, Ward does devote nearly 100 pages to the events leading up to the British Invasion. But the remainder of his history is a lively narrative recap of the major styles and trends which led to the consolidation and initial decline of the genre still known as rock ’n’ roll. It is a story familiar, perhaps, mostly to ethnomusicologists and savvy and erudite musicians.

We start with the latter part of the 19th century and the era prior to the widespread dissemination of recorded sound technology: field hollers, chain gang songs, and other work songs. Church music. Homespun fiddle and banjo music. There were not very many professional musicians, and they were mostly confined to the cities. Rural denizens made their own music, or would attend medicine shows, “a sort of low-rent offspring of the touring minstrel show,” which were accompanied by musicians, often young, who brought strange new sounds and forms of music to the hinterlands. At the end of the 19th century, guitar-based blues emerged. Then came piano-based ragtime. Ward begins his actual survey with Mamie Smith’s non-blues recording of “Crazy Blues”; a consensus choice, but a good one. As the recorded music industry blossomed, it issued shellac 78s of ethnic music, the new genre of Western music, and, of course, the rural and urban forms of the blues, known right up until the 1950s as “race” recordings. After the World War II, local scenes emerged for both blues and country music. Piano-based boogie-woogie, a form popular in the 1930s, enjoyed a revival in 1945 with Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie,” and the form was also widely adopted by country musicians. In 1948, Roy Brown wrote “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and eventually had a minor hit with it. Wynonie Harris immediately covered it and took it to #1 on the black charts. We are given a too-brief survey of gospel music, and then Ward proceeds to give us some background on Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Howling Wolf; practically unknown back then; legends now. And then we get to 1951, and Ike Turner, and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” which some now point to as the first recorded rock ’n’ roll song. That same year, Alan Freed, a white Cleveland DJ, bucked the higher-ups at radio station WJW, a 50,000 watt behemoth which blanketed Ohio, Pennsylvania, and points east and west. The name of his program was “The Moondog Show.” He labelled the type of black music which he broadcast as “Rock ’n’ Roll.” White teenagers latched onto it in a big way, and the rest is history.

What follows is a veritable roll call of the early history of the still-emerging genre. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. The Moonglows. Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Lieber and Stoller. Jackie Wilson. The Clovers. The Drifters. Early Elvis. Early Ray Charles. Hank Ballard’s somewhat smutty “Work With Me Annie.” Big Joe Turner. Chuck Berry. Anyone with more than a glancing familiarity with rock and roll needs to know these names. Ward gives them their due by chronicling their emergence and providing the needed biographical context, all within a narrative which is far from encyclopedic but also far more than merely cursory. We then proceed though the rise of Johnny Ace, Etta James (“Roll With Me, Henry”). Even The Five Keys, of whom Ward dryly notes, “They started 1955 off with a novelty hit ‘Ling Ting Tong,’ a racist bit about the title character, who lived in Chinatown and had a song he sung: ‘Eye a smokum boo-eye-ay, eye a smokum boo.'” (An early reefer song?) There then follows a familiar litany of standards: The Penguins, with “Earth Angel.” The Platters, with “Only You.” And… Bill Haley and the Comets, with “Rock Around the Clock,” which provided the opening soundtrack for the juvenile-delinquent themed exploitation movie “The Blackboard Jungle.”

But wait, there’s more! Far more. The inexplicable and practically indescribable Little Richard (“They thought I was stupid and crazy and that I didn’t know where I was going.”) He didn’t. At first. Until he was seen at a local nightclub piano performing an impromptu rendition of a raunchy song called “Tutti Frutti.” With lyrics re-written by Doris Labostrie, a married woman with children, and with the contributions of Earl Palmer (who “invented rock ’n’ roll drumming, setting a rhythmic template that would endure for decades….”), the song became a smash hit and even topped the pop charts. As a consequence, “Studies were launched to see if this music caused juvenile delinquency.”

Then came the era of Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and Johnny Cash. And even 13-year old Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. All with their accompanying stories and lore. Take, for instance, James Brown & the Famous Flames, and their song “Please, Please, Please.” And the reaction of the dyspeptic and nearly blind owner of King Records, Syd Jacobs. “What is this shit?… Fuck it. I’m putting it out cross-country just to prove what a piece of shit it is.” It wasn’t. It was a hit. We then proceed to names both big and small. Roy Orbison. Alis Lesley, “the female Elvis.” Wanda Jackson. Otis Rush. Nervous Norvous. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The Chips. (“Rubber Biscuit.”) The Cadets. (“Stranded in the Jungle.”) Warren Smith. (“Ubangi Stomp.”) And Jerry Lee Lewis.

By now we’re up to 1957. The brief Calypso craze. “People were so eager to see rock ’n’ roll off that they welcomed Calypso as its successor.” Not a chance. because, in the summer of that year, rock ’n’ roll came to television with Philadelphia’s American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark. “For the kids… it was a window to a teen paradise.” Perhaps in more ways than one. Ward notes that “Firsthand reports from regulars detail make-out sessions and outright sex in the cloakroom and reefer smoking on the building’s roof.” The summer of 1957, Ward asserts, “saw the first flowering of rock ’n’ roll as a national phenomenon, although it was still controversial.” Even Hollywood began to churn out quickie rocksploitation movies, in order to quickly cash in on the supposed craze.

In 1958, Elvis was drafted into the Army as US53310761, and underwent basic training. (Ward thoughtfully provides the famous picture of a scrawny white-haired and white-smocked army barber giving him his “regulation military haircut.”) Who would fill the void? There were at hand The Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Dion & the Belmonts, and even Little Richard’s mentor Esquerita. There was also a search for more wholesome music which would be provided by “the next Sinatra.” Frankie Avalon. Fabian Forte. Paul Anka. Bobby Darin. And there were also novelty tune peddlers such as Sheb Wooley, as well as David Seville and his execrable Chipmunks. And a brief craze for instrumentals, by the likes of Duane Eddy. Among the college crowd, rock ’n’ roll was yesterday’s news; jazz and folk was now the music that was in.

1959 was a disastrous year. On February 3rd, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valnes died in a plane crash. It was not, as Ward is careful to note, “the day the music died,” although he does mention that “… more and more, ‘good music’-leaning performers were taking over white rock ’n’ roll.” This was also the year that Soul emerged, with Ray Charles, though it didn’t yet have a name. Phil Spector recorded his first single. And 1959 was also the year that Berry Gordy founded Motown, as Tamla Records. Rock ’n’ roll consumers were already already becoming nostalgic for the early years, as seen by the success of the Oldies But Goodies series of records on the aptly named Original Sound label. At the end of the year, another disaster struck. Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act, for prostitution, and eventually landed in federal prison on this trumped-up charge. Also in November, the DJ Payola scandal would usher in the 1960s, and the fall of Alan Freed.

There is a tendency for old-time rock ’n’ roll aficionados to write off the period from 1960 to 1963 as a virtual wasteland. This impulse is not totally misguided, yet it overstates the truth. True, there was the massive “Twist” craze perpetrated and perpetuated by the former chicken plucker Ernest Evans, who performed under the name of Chubby Checker, in homage to Fats Domino. (We should be glad, I suppose, that he didn’t select the name “Oleaginous Bingo”.) But it was also a time during which “…country was as sclerotic as pop… It was the black charts where the action was.” There was the rise of Motown, and of the New Orleans sound. There was R&B. There were even the ever-present “oldies.” Plus surf music. Folk music. And jazzman Dave Brubeck even had a massive hit with “Take Five” b/w “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” which in 1961 became the top-selling jazz single of all times, spending 12 weeks on the chart and peaking at #25. Late in 1961 21-year old Phil Spector founded Philles records. Spector (and others) heralded the emergence of “Teen Pan Alley.” And the Pendletons changed their image and their name and became… the Beach Boys. All was not lost. The British Invasion was waiting in the wings.

Ward has a story to tell, and he covers a massive amount of material in a briskly efficient fashion, without omitting any truly significant developments. He even leaves room for many, though not too many, interesting biographical asides. Overall, this history provides an excellent survey course in the origins and development of rock ’n’ roll. I am enthusiastically anticipating his second volume.

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