MUSI 2007 W12. Mid-1950s Rock and Roll. Since Elvis is often marketed as “the king of rock and roll,” it’s important that we understand how he came out of (and relied on) a particular context.
MUSI 2007 W12
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Since Elvis is often marketed as “the king of rock and roll,” it’s important that we understand how he came out of (and relied on) a particular context.
We’ve already looked at R+B, and noted how much it sounds like the music which came to be called Rock and Roll in the mid-1950s.
One crucial event was the emergence of young white musicians performing in the style. Elvis was by far the best-known and most successful of these, but he wasn’t the first. For example, Bill Haley first recorded “Rock Around The Clock” in 1954, and it became a hit on re-release in 1955.
Video: If possible, YouTube “Rock Around The Clock” on Ed Sullivan, 1955.
Equally important, and more general, was the interest in R+B that began to be seen among white teenagers. The roots of this existed even before superstars like Elvis became figureheads.
One crucial event was the advent of independent radio in the late 1940s. Talk about: the special nature of independent (versus network) radio (freedom of programming, celebrity DJs). Also note how it nurtured local and niche styles, and allowed for black-oriented radio, which began in 1948.
Related to this: the transistor and transistor radios, also in the late 1940s. Talk about the significance of this, and the phrase “you can’t segregate the airwaves.”
Finally, the importance of DJ Alan Freed. Originally based in Cleveland, in 1952 he re-named his show Moondog’s Rock And Roll party, and began to seriously pitch R+B towards a white teen audience. By 1954 he had relocated to NYC and had extremely high ratings, and in 1955 he began to promote live rock and roll dances. (Note, all this happened before Elvis became a national superstar in 1956).
Sam Phillips. A Memphis DJ and entrepreneur who started the Memphis Recording Service around 1950.
Discuss: the nature of Memphis, the nature of small independent recording operations (making a virtue out of limitations in various ways, both technical and demographic).
Two kinds of work done by the MRS: vanity recordings, and also recording under license to other record companies (e.g., for Chess records in Chicago). Phillips recorded some artists who became major, e.g., B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Also, some of his recordings seemed to become hits in part because of his unique production style and the sound of the studio (the best example might be “Rocket 88,” which he recorded for Chess in 1951).
Because of this, Phillips decided to expand the MRS into a full-scale record label, which came to be called Sun Records in 1952.
In order to understand the importance of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and like-minded people of the time, it is important to understand the racial politics of musical style in the U.S. during the 1940s.
U.S. society was still highly segregated at this time, especially in the South. It was widely assumed that black and white people had different tastes and different cultural interests, and this assumption was enforced in all kinds of ways.
This included segregation of musical style. Some styles were almost entirely made by black people, and it was also widely assumed that mostly only black people listened to them (e.g., R+B). Other styles were generally perceived as white (e.g., pop, country).
However, the success of Elvis and similar performers demonstrated that these assumptions were flawed, and was one part of a breakdown in segregation more generally.
Even before the emergence of Elvis, people like Sam Phillips were part of this process. From the start (and even earlier, during his time as a DJ) Phillips recorded both white and black artists, and all sorts of musical styles.
More importantly, he claims that he was always on the lookout for young white artists who could perform in the R+B style, because he claims to have always known this could be an extremely popular combination. Question: why would such an artist have a very high rate of success?
After the fact, Phillips claimed that he knew Elvis would be that person from the first moment he saw him. As we will see, there are reasons to doubt that claim. However, there’s no doubt that SP was consciously part of a process through which white and black styles and communities were being more closely merged, and that he did eventually recognize and promote Elvis as an effective agent for that sort of change.
Elvis Presley was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Miss. His family moved to Memphis in 1948.
Although the family was white, they were also working class (often outright poor). This meant that Elvis had a broader exposure to black American culture than more upper-class white children would have had. Why is that?
Elvis was extremely open-minded in terms of musical style. Some of the kinds of music he enjoyed included: hymns and gospel, country music, R+B, and TPA pop. As an amateur singer, he used to sing all these kinds of music (which complicates the claims made later by some rock critics that Elvis ‘sold out’ by doing more pop music later in his career. Elvis was always influenced by pop music).
In the summer of 1953, Elvis was 18. He went over to Sun and made a recording of himself singing two pop songs, for his mother’s birthday.
This is the part of the story where we can see that Sam Phillips likely did not immediately see Elvis’ potential, because he did not call Elvis back for another session until the summer of 1954 (i.e., about a year later). And this was largely at the urging of Marion Keisker. (Note, it isn’t clear whether Phillips heard Elvis in 1953 or not, but what is known for sure is that it was MK who pushed to have Elvis come back).
The session was dedicated to pop and country material, none of which ended up being very exciting. Near the end, when things were winding down, Elvis began to play around with an R+B tune, “That’s All Right,” which had been a minor hit for Arthur Crudup in 1946.
This seemed more interesting, and the band joined in. Phillips recorded it, and they all felt that they had done something very unusual and exciting.
Audio: “That’s All Right,” first the Aruthur Crudup version (1946) then the Elvis Presley version (1954).
In fact, it was so unusual that they were genuinely unsure about whether anyone would want to hear it. To our ears it sounds normal, but at the time very few artists had fused country, R+B, and pop to this degree. Let’s look at the details...
That’s All Right (Elvis version)
The single made a large impression in Memphis. Many listeners were fascinated because they couldn’t at first tell if Elvis were black or white. One DJ tipped listeners off by asking on air which high school Elvis had gone to.
The style came to be called rockabilly, and Elvis was marketed as ‘the hillbilly cat.’ Each of his Sun singles had a country song on one side and an R+B song on the other. So in all these ways, the racial/stylistic hybridity was highlighted.
But interestingly, as Elvis came to national attention, the first impulse of the larger record industry was to market him as a country musician. For example, In 1955 Billboard voted him the most promising Country & Western artist. Discuss: the inertia of established genre categories in the music industry. (Also the importance of Billboard).
Even within the rockabilly subgenre, Elvis was not the only important artist. One who can provide an especially interesting compare-and-contrast exercise is Chuck Berry.
Audio: Chuck Berry “Maybelline” (1955).
DVD: Chuck Berry discussing his early lyric themes.
Origin of the music is a fiddle tune (“Ida Red”). What other country/folk elements are present? And what elements make this clearly rockabilly rather than country?
What elements here are the same as Elvis?
In what ways did Berry introduce other elements that were essential to the early rock ‘n’ roll style and outlook?
Near the end of 1955 Col. Tom Parker became Elvis’ manager. Parker had an extensive show business background (beginning in the carnival), and had already had some success managing country artists.
Discuss: the central role of managers in some popular music careers. The distinctive style and importance of Col. Parker in particular.
In late 1955, Parker negotiated Elvis a very generous deal with RCA records (about $40,000, which was an unprecedented amount for a new artist).
The deal with RCA, along with his TV appearances, made 1956 the breakout year for Elvis. He became a superstar, and R+R became a major cultural phenomenon.
DVD: Excerpts from Elvis ’56.
Q: Why was TV such an effective medium for breaking a performer like Elvis?
Almost as soon as he got to RCA, Elvis’ image began to be softened a little and his material moved in a more pop direction. For example, what are the many pop elements we can hear in this recording...
Audio: Elvis Presley “I Want You I Need You I Love You” (1956).
In 1958, Elvis was inducted into the army. This is one of the events which leads most people to pinpoint 1958 as the end of the first wave of R+R (we’ll discuss others in later lectures).
When he left the army in 1960, Elvis did not for the most part return to his rocker image. By the late 1960s he had evolved into a spectacle-oriented Las Vegas-style performer, and began regular performances there in 1969.