Why fight about what it is?…it’s all music…it’s all magical
By Phill Marder
(As promised last time, this exciting episode explores the definition of Rock & Roll)
Like me, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is far from perfect.
I know, I know. Hard to believe.
For starters, it should have been and still should be designated the Rock Era Hall of Fame. That way, when Abba, Madonna, Bob Marley, Miles Davis and countless others were inducted, there could be no screaming, ” They’re not Rock & Roll,” as if anyone can provide the definitive definition of Rock & Roll in the first place.
Ironically, the variety of music provided by the Hall of Fame inductees is one of the nominating committee’s crowning achievements. For while I can’t tell you what Rock & Roll is anymore than anyone else, I can tell you it’s not as limited as some of you like to believe. Rock & roll is not just two guitars, bass and drums, though that may be the trunk of the Rock tree, and the Hall of Fame recognizes that. The trunk yes, but many branches have developed as the Rock Era years have gone by.
Buried deep below the surface are the roots, Country and Blues. The branches? Everything else. So don’t tell me The Moody Blues aren’t Rock & Roll. And the Commodores aren’t Rock & Roll. And Yes isn’t Rock & Roll. And Donna Summer isn’t Rock & Roll.
As John Sebastian sang in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe In Magic?,” “don’t bother to choose, it’s jugband music or rhythm & blues.” You’re right, Eric, it’s all meat from the same bone.
It’s Buddy Holly doing “Rave On,” then turning around to do “True Love Ways” or “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” It’s Elvis snarling “Hound Dog,” then doing “It’s Now Or Never.” It’s Fats Domino pounding out “Blue Monday,” then weaving “Walkin’ To New Orleans” in and out of the string section. It’s Ricky Nelson releasing two-sided hits that paired opposites such as “Just A Little Too Much” and “Sweeter Than You.”
Did Roy Orbison become a rock & roll star singing “Ooby Dooby” or such symphonic mini-operas such as “Running Scared,” “Crying” and “In Dreams”? Who was the real Eddie Cochran, the one who gave us “Somethin’ Else” or “Sittin’ In The Balcony”? Who was the real Gene Vincent, he of “Dance To The Bop” or “Wear My Ring”?
Were the Everly Brothers those of “Bye Bye Love” or “Devoted To You”? Was James Brown not symphonic in “Try Me” or “It’s A Man’s World.”? How about Ray Charles? Have you ever listened to the album “Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul”? Was Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” closer to Donovan’s “Lalena” or AC/DC’s “Back In Black”? Or Bobby Darin – “Queen of the Hop” or “Mack The Knife?”
How about Jackie Wilson belting out “All My Love” or “Night”? Was Jackie Wilson not rock & roll? The Skyliners “Since I Don’t Have You” and “This I Swear,” two of the greatest ballads in the history of rock & roll…not rock & roll? For that matter, I could name almost any ballad that has become a rock & roll standard, “At Last” by Etta James, “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” by Brook Benton, for instance. Not Rock & Roll?
How about anything by rock’s greatest ’50s vocal group, The Platters. Not rock & roll?
Two different looks of Rock & Roll from two of the greatest groups, The Platters, the masters of the ballad, & The Beatles, the masters…period
Consider this album: Side 1 – 1. Till There Was You; 2. And I Love Her; 3. She’s Leaving Home; 4. Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill; 5. Eleanor Rigby; 6. Julia; 7. Martha My Dear.
Side 2 – 1. Fool On The Hill; 2. Honey Pie; 3. When I’m 64; 4. If I Fell; 5. Yesterday; 6. You Know My Name, Look Up The Number; 7. Good Night
If that had been the only album you ever heard by the greatest band of the Rock Era, would you have called them a Rock & Roll band? And I could have turned it into a full four-disc box set.
The Beatles are a four-piece band that played rock & roll. Because they were so versatile, they could change instrumentation, style, mood, whatever you want to call it, to give us an unbelievable variety of fantastic music. Was it all rock & roll? I think yes. Was “As Tears Go By” or “Backstreet Girl” not rock & roll? They were great cuts written and recorded by what many consider the “greatest rock & roll band of all.”
Brian Wilson gave us some of the most beautiful music ever written. Was he and his group not rock & roll?
Where some bands would emphasize their “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” side and sprinkle in the occasional “As Tears Go By,” some bands go the opposite route, emphasizing the “Nights In White Satin” style while sprinkling in “I’m Just A Singer In A Rock & Roll Band” or “Question.”
And I could go on and on, which most of you would say I usually do.
I can’t pretend to know the definition of Rock & Roll. But I was there from the beginning. Actually, I must admit, before the beginning. I had a collection of 78s which I played on an old wind-the-crank phonograph, so I was into Perry Como, Jo Stafford, Hank Williams etc. before the “big bang.” Then I got a paper route – actually two – for the prime purpose of having money to purchase the latest 45s, the first three of which were “All Shook Up,” “Blue Monday” and “Mama Look At Bubu.” And I ended up delivering the bad news on the doorstep.
Still, I was the Northern kid who said, “But I will” every time the record store stocked a new yellow Sun 45.
Take my first three 45s as an example of what I’m blabbing about. “Blue Monday,” a driving rocker by Fats Domino, was backed by “What’s The Reason I’m Not Pleasing You,” which also became a hit. “What’s The Reason” was originally a hit for Guy Lombardo in 1935 and Fats’ entire catalog is sprinkled with remakes of old standards. If Fats wasn’t Rock & Roll, who was? Elvis’ “All Shook Up” also was a two-sided hit, the flip being the quiet “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” written in 1937 and recorded by the Ink Spots in 1941. Elvis…”The King of Rock & Roll.”
Harry Belafonte was one of the biggest superstars of the early Rock era
The third became a No. 11 record by the superstar Harry Belafonte whose genes were provided by his Jamaican mother and West Indian father. In the style of what was then known as calypso, many today would not classify it as rock & roll but the chalypso was one of early rock’s most popular dances and it fit “Mama Look At Bubu” perfectly. Belafonte also had other major hits, “Jamaica Farewell” and today’s ballpark favorite “Banana Boat,” more commonly known as “Day-O.”
Twenty years before Bob Marley and just as much a star, why isn’t Belafonte accorded the same rock & roll respect? Only because those alive at Rock’s outset, when Belafonte was cranking out hits, are few and far between today. If “Mama Look At Bubu” doesn’t fit your definition of Rock, then reggae shouldn’t either. But both, chalypso and reggae, are branches of the Rock Era tree. By the way, the flip, a soft ballad entitled “Don’t Ever Love Me,” also charted, then returned four years later as the Arthur Lyman instrumental, “Yellow Bird,” which rose all the way to No. 4.
Which brings us to the conclusion. Can I tell you what “Rock & Roll” is? No chance. The best I can come up with is “music released since 1955 that appeals to young people.” Some young people find Metallica appealing, some like Dionne Warwick. Some love Eminem, others Linda Ronstadt. Some like The Association, and some, yes, The Velvet Underground. Some love Bob Dylan acoustic, some love Bob Dylan electric.
And some, me for instance, love all of it … practically.
Having been there from the start, when the radio played Little Richard followed by Johnny Horton followed by Paul Anka followed by Jerry Lee, I was exposed to every form of what was simply known then as Rock & Roll and, fortunately for me, I kept my ears open as the years passed or else I would have missed a lot of great music no matter what name you wanted to give it.
Why listen to the Moody Blues or The Commodores and try to fit them into a category? The Moody Blues, Procol Harum and other progressive groups such as Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Rush…you get the picture…are simply bands expanding the boundaries of Rock as far as they are capable of doing. Groups such as The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & The Family Stone and others simply follow the lead of Brown, Wilson, Cooke et al. They’re just different branches of the same tree.
Little Richard rocks…and so does Emerson, Lake & Palmer
It’s not Rock & Roll if you confine the definition to something that approaches “Keep A Knockin’,’ but it is rock & roll if your definition encompasses “Keep A Knockin’” as well as “My Special Angel,” “Dark Side Of The Moon” and “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
So applaud the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this time. Their choices leave much room for debate – and, in case you haven’t noticed, no one has ranted more incessantly about them than yours truly – but give credit where credit is due. The Hall of Fame recognizes the great diversity making up what is known as Rock & Roll. It can be The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It can be Chaka Khan. It can be Eric B. & Rakim. It can be Heart.
Those who were there at the beginning will tell you the strict categorization came later. When it started, it all was just Rock & Roll. When the new 45 by Elvis or Connie Francis or The Drifters came out, only one question was asked…
Is it fast or slow?