By Bill Bronk
At Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, on August 12, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service issued a new Elvis Presley tribute stamp as part of its Music Icons series. In the brief biography that accompanies the new stamp it reads, "through his music, the King of Rock and Roll helped break down social barriers in the 1950s, and in the process changed American Pop culture forever." The statement "break down social barriers" is a gauzy, roundabout way of saying that Elvis' music shook up the establishment big time, and flung open the doors to much needed reform, not only in the music business, but in the way Americans looked upon, talked with and acted toward one another.
As any Elvis fan knows, that good ol' country boy was greatly influenced by the sounds of his favorite country singers on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, including such greats as Hank Williams, Red Foley and The Louvin Brothers. And he was deeply respectful of the black singers and musicians he was drawn to, such as Jimmy Reed, The Ink Spots and Clyde McPhatter. Throw in the likes of Dean Martin and you've really got a polyglot of musical genres dancin' around young Elvis' head. And, of course, we fans know it was his innate ability to fuse black music (aka race music or rhythm & blues) with country, pop and gospel that was instrumental in getting the whole ball rollin' ...and rockin'.
So who would have thought? Music as an equalizer, and a conduit to better understanding between people who were too often at odds with one another. But then again, why shouldn't it be so? Music has always been known as the universal language. Yet, it took a white teenaged kid (who was once known as The Hillbilly Cat ) from Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to shine a world-sized spotlight on music that was rarely heard on popular radio stations.
Why? Because that was a time when most black singers and black music were considered inferior (to put it mildly) and not fit for white radio audiences. The music business back then was structured such that very little R&B music crossed over and sold well in the white teenage market. To knowingly and deliberately restrict your product universe and a potential source of new customers? Can you think of any dumber way to run a business! Note that we're talking about R&B music, not the music from popular performers such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, The Mills Brothers or Billy Eckstine. Country music had a little easier time crossing over, but seldom did ... unless you were Hank Williams.
The situation with R&B music would soon change for the better, starting around 1954 and moving into 1955 and beyond, as R&B singers were beginning to have more success and being heard more often on white radio — with such notable songs as "Shake, Rattle and Roll,” really a "jump blues" rave-up written by Jesse Stone and originally sung by Big Joe Turner. His recording had been a big hit on R&B stations, then crossed over to moderate success on mainstream radio. It became a big hit again when Bill Haley & His Comets recorded a rocking version of it later in the year. Another example was “Sincerely,” a "doo wop" type ballad recorded originally by Harvey Fuqua‘s Moonglows and appearing on both the R&B and pop charts. It became a #1 hit on the pop charts in early 1955 for The Maguire Sisters. "Sh-Boom" was an upbeat novelty R&B hit for The Chords which crossed over to the pop charts. Their version was on the charts the same time as a cover version by The Crew-Cuts, which also reached #1.
Success sometimes results in unforeseen consequences. For those who are in the right place at the right time, and ready to take up the challenge, this can lead to a golden opportunity. As R&B singers and their songs were gaining greater acceptance and crossing over to white radio, their hits were being "covered" more and more by white singers. Not always, but usually the cover versions became bigger hits than the originals. This was good for the songwriter, but a cause for resentment on the part of some R&B singers. But even with the friction, it not only resulted in greater exposure for the R&B artists and songs ... it sold more copies of sheet music and records. And isn't that the ultimate goal ... for a songwriter, a publisher, a recording company and the performer? During 1955, for example, Fats Domino, who wrote "Ain't That A Shame," had to be quite pleased that Pat Boone and he both had a hit with his song. And the same goes for Little Richard. Both he and Pat Boone had hits with "Tutti Frutti".... a song he had penned.
To some degree, this piece, or certain elements of it, is about the haphazard, happenstance way that the new music soon to be called rock 'n' roll came to be known and owned, not by "square" adults, but by '50s-era teenagers, a group that had hitherto been ignored by the major recording companies. If Bill Haley, one of the early icons of rock 'n' roll, was still around today he would be saying, "yeah, back then it was really 'Crazy, Man, Crazy'!" The kids wanted music they could call their own. To boil it down in concise terms, it had to be something that had a good beat and that they could dance to and sing along with. Nothing more, nothing less. Despite what some might have you believe, the music that was beginning to come on to the scene wasn't meant to be raucous and wild, and targeted for the stereotypical "juvenile delinquent" types seeking to rumble as depicted in "hot rod" exploitation movies. Compared to today, it was pretty tame stuff ... involving matters of the heart. They just wanted music they could "dig"! Of course, a good song was great for making out, too!
We know that rock 'n' roll didn't exist in 1953; there was nothing musically exciting for the kids then. "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window" just wasn't cutting it. So it was that 1954 seemed to be the time when it all started to come together — a veritable stew of rockin' music in the making. A little bit of R&B, a little bit of country, and a whole lot of this and that. And the teens didn t care about the color of those who sang it, how they got it or where it came from. They just wanted some really cool music.
So this is about them and what they had not been getting from their hometown radio stations. They couldn't have gotten it, because it wasn't available, except perhaps from an enlightened DJ like Cleveland's Alan Freed (who is credited with coming up with the artful and descriptive phrase "Rock 'N' Roll" ). On his popular Moondog Show, he did not spin white covers of black hits; he only played the originals. Shows like his were few and far between.
Back then, as it is today, the music business (record companies, songwriters, publishers, singers, musicians, et al) was big business, and just like any profit-minded business, one must create and sell their goods to make a profit and survive. So this too is about an awakening music industry that got a lot smarter and was beginning to see the potential in satisfying the musical wants and needs of eager teens with money in their pockets. Seizing upon that opportunity, all of the above parties played their part in making music they thought sure the kids wanted to hear. If they had not gotten on board, they would have foundered and been left adrift by a musical tsunami that was about ready to unleash its fury. The smaller, independent record labels started the ball a-rollin', soon to be followed by the majors.
While cover recordings of black songs sung by white singers, such as Bill Haley, Pat Boone, The Fontane Sisters, The Crew-Cuts and the McGuire Sisters were important to their careers and to the bottom line of the evolving music industry, that was but one ingredient in the stew that was now beginning to bubble with intensity. These same performers, and others, also gained their early success recording non-R&B material.
Like Bill Haley & The Comets, with their now classic "Rock Around The Clock," The Crew-Cuts, a Canadian group, was another white group which came on the scene in 1954 and provided more of the kind of music the kids could jitterbug to. Their self-penned song "Crazy 'Bout You Baby" was a top ten hit. Also in 1954, the McGuire Sisters had a hit with "Muskrat Ramble", a Creole jazz number written by Kid Ory and first recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five in 1926. In 1955, Boyd Bennett and His Rockets soared on the scene with their hit, "Seventeen," which was then covered by Rusty Draper and the Fontane Sisters. The Fontane Sisters also charted in 1955 with "Rock Love" and "Daddy-O." "Gee Whittakers!" and "No Other Arms" were also chart hits for Pat Boone in 1955.
Get ready! For it was 1956 when the floodgates crashed wide open. It was a momentous year for Elvis, with "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender," "Money Honey," "Hound Dog" and 12 other hits on the charts. It was just as good for everyone else: Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers with "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" and "ABC's of Love," Carl Perkins with "Boppin' The Blues" and "Blue Suede Shoes," Ivory Joe Hunter with "Since I Met You Baby" and "Eddie My Love" by The Teen Queens. And let's not forget "My Prayer" and "The Magic Touch" by The Platters, "Ka-Ding-Dong" by The Diamonds, "Love Is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia, "Ooby Dooby" by Roy Orbison and "Please Please Please" by James Brown. What's that you say? Don't forget Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday," Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up" and "Ready Teddy," LaVern Baker's "Jim Dandy" and Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula." Wow!!!
Elvis...as "The King"? Absolutely! But as he would somewhat presciently express in his 1958 smash of "I Got Stung," "Holy smokes, land sakes alive, I never thought this could happen to me."But it is a good thing that in its description of the new stamp, the U.S. Postal Service didn't give Elvis all the credit, because, let's face it, he would be the first to say that he didn't do it all by himself. He had lots of help from others who are rightly considered rock 'n' roll royalty — from those mentioned above and for those yet to hit the big time in years to come. (And actually, he didn't like being called the King of Rock and Roll either). But most importantly for 1954, considered to be the beginning of what is now known as "The Golden Era of Rock and Roll" — 1954-1963, it was Elvis (along with Scotty and Bill) cutting loose on "That's All Right (Mama)" at Memphis Sun Records, a tune written by Delta blues singer, Arthur Big Boy Crudup, that rocked the house (from its foundation to the rafters) and helped put in motion a musical phenomenon that has enveloped the world. The historical and sociological impact is a given.
The late and great "Not Fade Away" icon, Buddy Holly, said it best when he stated that "without Elvis none of us could have made it." And according to a quote in "Elvis: His Life From A to Z," Pat Boone, the most popular '50s singer behind Elvis, said this about his main competition: "There's no way to measure his impact on society or the void that he leaves. He will always be The King of Rock 'n' Roll."
Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll. Long live ... The King!