All shook up

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Fifty years ago next month, popular music was revolutionised with the release of 'Rock Around the Clock'. Gary Hayden looks back on a golden age.

"In the beginning, back in 1955, Man didn't know 'bout a rock and roll show, and all that jive. White man had the schmaltz. Black man had the blues. No-one knew what they was gonna do, but Tchaikovsky had the news" (From "Let There be Rock" by ACDC)

Fifty years ago, in April 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". This is often credited with being the song that started rock and roll. But a musical genre doesn't simply appear out of nowhere. It evolves. Rock and roll evolved from three distinct musical styles: pop, country, and rhythm and blues. It proved an irresistible combination. Half a century later, we're still captivated by it. Whatever our tastes in popular music, they can be traced back to the same roots.

And rock's influence goes beyond music. It affects our clothes, hairstyles, lifestyles, aspirations, attitudes and politics. It's a massive cultural phenomenon.

In the early 1950s most Americans listened to pop - a style that had its roots in the song-writing traditions of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Pop songs had pretty melodies, uncomplicated rhythms and gentle romantic lyrics. They were performed by silken-voiced singers such as Perry Como and Doris Day.

Most pop was written and performed by white artists and was pitched at the affluent white adults who could afford to buy records and sheet music.

Teenagers had little spending power of their own, and simply listened to the music their parents bought.

In the South, many people preferred country and western music. Performers such as Hank Williams and Roy Acuff sang about the struggles, heartaches and good times experienced by hard-working country folk, and achieved tremendous popularity.

Country and western had a very distinctive sound. Its rhythms were simple, though more pronounced than those in pop. The steel guitar and fiddle featured prominently. And the singer's voice was often accompanied by one or more voices in harmony.

Country and western, like pop, was usually created by white performers for a mainly white audience. Black people tended to have their own musical preferences. This is hardly surprising. Racial segregation was the norm in many parts of America at that time. So the black community naturally developed its own distinctive styles of dress, speech and music.

The most popular musical style among black audiences was rhythm and blues.

This was characterised by hard-driving rhythms, prominent melodic bass-lines and a distinctive "shouting" vocal style. Rhythm-and-blues musicians, such as Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, gave dynamic, exciting performances with plenty of musical spontaneity and improvisation.

Each of these styles had its own target audience, but cultural changes in the mid-1950s tore down these barriers and gave rise to a type of music with a very broad appeal: rock and roll.

For many Americans, life was good in the 1950s. With the Depression and the Second World War behind them, people enjoyed a decade of relative prosperity and peace. Things weren't perfect - racism, McCarthyism and the threat of "the bomb" saw to that. But, on the whole, it was a good time to live in the US.

One consequence of this new-found prosperity was that, for the first time, wealth began to trickle into the pockets of America's youth. Suddenly teenagers found themselves with spending money. This brought them the freedom to choose their own clothes, hairstyles, movies and music. A whole teen culture began to emerge.

In 1955, two films captured the imagination of these newly empowered teenagers. Both portrayed moody, angst-ridden young people with scant regard for society's conventions. Rebel Without a Cause launched James Dean on his brief career as a movie icon. And Blackboard Jungle introduced young Americans to a type of music that was as brash, exciting and rebellious as James Dean himself. The previous year, country-and-western group Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded a cover version of the rhythm-and-blues song "Rock Around the Clock". This was one of a number of innovative recordings in which Haley's band combined elements of black music with their country sound. The result was fresh and exciting.

Despite its originality, "Rock Around the Clock" achieved only modest sales on its first release. But, in 1955, it was used on the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, causing a sensation and quickly rising to the top of the pop charts.

Haley's achievement was remarkable. He had created a bold new sound that appealed to both black and white audiences, and introduced a generation of white teenagers to the excitement of rhythm and blues.

Following the success of "Rock Around the Clock", the barriers between pop, country, and rhythm and blues began to crumble. Crooners like Pat Boone released successful (albeit rather bland) pop covers of rhythm and blues songs. White teenagers began to buy records by black artists, such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. And a number of country artists injected some rhythm and blues into their performances.

The result of all this cross-fertilisation was the emergence of a new type of music, which became known as "rock and roll" - a name originally used in 1951 by Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed to describe the rhythm-and-blues records he played on his radio show.

Rock and roll was energetic and exciting. It featured a hard-driving rhythm, often hammered out on the drums. Electric guitar and boogie-woogie piano also featured strongly. Vocals were delivered at high volume, often using the rhythm and blues shouting style. And lyrics dealt with everyday teenage concerns such as sex, cars, school and rock music.

Most early rock and rollers were black musicians who had started their careers playing rhythm and blues. These talented artists put their own stamp on Haley's infectious mix of musical styles, and produced classic recordings such as Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame", Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven".

But none of these artists was really in a position to put rock music on the map. Black musicians, however talented, couldn't hope to win over sufficient numbers of the white record-buying public. And middle-aged Bill Haley simply wasn't sexy enough to keep the interest of a teenage audience.

A new star was needed to convert the masses to rock and roll.

Elvis Presley grew up in the South, and learned to love all kinds of music: pop, country and western, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, and even classical. Between mid-1954 and late 1955 he cut a number of records for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Local teenagers couldn't get enough of Presley's distinctive cocktail of musical styles; and the girls went crazy over his brooding good looks and sexually-charged performances.

By 1956 he had outgrown Sun Records. His recently-appointed manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, negotiated a record deal with RCA, and Elvis soon achieved unparalleled commercial success with rock and roll hits such as "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up".

Elvis was the perfect ambassador for rock and roll. He was young, attractive and charismatic. He was a talented vocalist and a versatile performer, who sang pop and country songs as well as out-and-out rockers.

And, despite the rebellious edge to his performances, he was obviously a decent, God-fearing boy at heart. Everyone could "dig" Elvis.

Elvis ushered in the golden age of rock and roll. All across America, teenagers clamoured for more and more of the exciting new sound. Disc jockeys such as Alan Freed, Dick Clark and "Wolfman" Jack began broadcasting dedicated rock and roll radio programmes; and rock music blared out of a million juke boxes.

It was a great time to be young. Rock and roll was great to listen to, and even better to dance to. Fashion was also fun. Girls wore circle skirts, bobby socks and ponytails. Boys plumped for jeans, T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, leather jackets and greased-back ducktail haircuts.

Talented new artists arrived on the scene, each with their own take on rock and roll. This led to a divergence of styles and a further broadening of rock's appeal. Hardcore fans could continue to enjoy the raucous offerings of mainstream performers such as Little Richard. More conservative listeners could appreciate the lighter, cleaner sound of rockabilly artists such as Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. Meanwhile, pop fans could hum along to the soft-rock melodies of Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and Brenda Lee. The smooth sound of black close-harmony groups, such as the Platters and the Coasters, also became popular.

Sadly, towards the end of the decade, many of rock's top performers disappeared from the music scene. Elvis was drafted into the army. Little Richard became a preacher. Chuck Berry was (wrongly) imprisoned for carrying a 14-year-old girl over a state line. Jerry Lee Lewis's marriage to a 13-year-old girl destroyed his career. And Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. By 1960, the golden age of rock and roll had already passed.

Although the careers of many early rockers had fizzled out by the 1960s, their influence was still strongly felt. A new generation of musicians built on the foundations they had laid, and took rock music in new and exciting directions. For example, the Beatles took the guitar-based music pioneered by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly to new levels of artistry and sophistication.

In the decades that have followed, rock music has continued to re-invent itself, and is still going strong. A bewildering variety of musical styles have appeared and disappeared: Motown, psychedelic rock, glam rock, heavy metal, disco, punk and rap to name just a few. But they can all be traced back to the glorious music of the 1950s.

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