People have to wear suits comprised entirely of red meat just to get noticed anymore.
Poor Lady Gaga...
Celebrity sex tapes practically dominate a 7pm broadcast of E! News, and families just feign interest until they eventually yawn with boredom, change the channel, and continue digging into their mashed potatoes
(a hypothetical situation).
We have become desensitized, for better or worse.
Conversely, in the birth of Rock n Roll, everything was shocking.
The era would've taken Lady Gaga in her meat suit, carted her away, and classified her as an alien.
She would then be killed by the big guys and written off as conspiracy.
Lucky for her, she didn't exist during these times, though she is able to exist today because of these
early rock n rollers, whatever cultural benefit that might provide. (if any).
The early pioneers paved the way for creative musical expression.
They gave voice to a youth erupting with unconscious, repressed desire.
But how do you begin a conversation about rock n roll, whose roots are so complex,
and whose influence infiltrates nearly every genre of music?
People can, and have, written many books on the subject.
Despite good intentions and thorough research,
a website posting is destined for insufficiency, to say the least.
The answer is: you just have to start.
I'm choosing to start here, with this quotation from Robert Palmer's piece,
Rock Begins: Rolling Stone History of Rock n Roll:
"Rock & roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social
and musical interactions between blacks and whites in
the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle.
Bedrock black church music influenced blues, rural blues influenced white
folk song, and the black popular music of the Northern ghettos--blues
and black pop--influenced jazz and so on. But the single most
important process was the influence of black music on white.
Rock might not have developed out of a self-contained
African American tradition, but it certainly would not have
developed had there been no African-Americans" (Palmer, 4).
Once traditional European structures absorbed African percussive drive and poly-rhythmic complexity (along with a few other components), rock n roll was prepared for discovery.
Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra "Boogie Woogie"
Tommy Dorsey influenced many "boogie woogie" musicians, as well as the great guitarist Chuck Berry.
This piece was also cited as a favorite of Sam Phillips, owner, producer, and recording engineer
at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
A song such as "Boogie Woogie" sounds great on a 1939
Wurlitzer 600 Jukebox, because acoustically, the two were meant for each other.
For the crap audio quality youtube videos usually bring to the table, this one still manages
to sound pretty snazzy. Visually, the short video provides further insight into the operation of a classic jukebox, offering a rare opportunity to witness something with clunky, inefficient, imperfect charm,
in direct contrast with the current trend of practical and aesthetically sleek music devices.
Along the lines of music players, I could honestly go for bringing back the Walkman.
The CD player was too big...but the Walkman could clip onto your pants. Very portable.
There is something relatively heartwarming about the act of rewinding music to hear it again.
Also, you have to be very particular about the stuff you put on your cassettes, because you don't want to have to do a lot of fast forwarding, which takes up valuable listening time.
Walkmans are objects of nostalgia for those that grew up in the 90s.
Wurlitzers perform the same function, not only for individuals who lived during this era, but for those who can appreciate cultural artifacts from the past.
Experience some nostalgia. Watch the video below.
Aaron "T-Bone" Walker "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong"
Rural bluesmen began moving to the cities, and with this cultural shift came an increased pace of life.
Rhythms became faster, heavier, bigger, with country blues evolving into "rhythm n blues".
The lead guitarist Mr. T-Bone Walker more or less invented modern blues, creating a style which has been emulated by the likes of Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and of course, Chuck Berry.
Whether out of creativity or necessity, T-bone exploited electricity in his playing.
He used the volume control on his amplifier to sustain pitches, which helped to fill the spaces in between his virtuosic playing, and combined this use of electricity with the string-bending technique of traditional blues.
In Rock Begins, Palmer makes direct reference to Walker's stylistic innovation, suggesting he was able to
"...reproduce the linear urgency of jazz saxophonists and the convoluted cry of
blues and gospel singers. In addition, he developed a chordal
style on fast numbers, a pumping guitar shuffle that led
eventually to the archetypal rock and roll guitar style of Chuck Berry"(Palmer, 9).
Charlie Christian "Swing to Bop" (1941 live performance)
Jazz guitarist Charlie Christian typically gets credited for popularizing the electric guitar.
He often played around New York City with Benny Goodman's group, at classy joints like
Minton's or Monroe's---places where customers probably consumed large undercooked steaks,
and chain-smoked fat cigars. Yum! Sign me up.
"Swing to Bop", recorded live at one such smokey gig, includes longer guitar solos than were normal,
giving Christian room to showcase his improvisational ability and technical skill, an attribute of playing he passed on to many budding, young jazz and rock guitarists.
Lionel Hampton "Flying Home" (1957 TV Performance)
Sophisticated jazz groups found popularity with the masses throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s,
but the music didn't resonate with many urban African Americans, whose tastes required a much
raunchier, relaxed style with a heavy beat. To solve this dilemma, Lionel Hampton, a vibraharpist and percussionist who often worked with Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian, produced a "jump-blues"
record in 1942 that helped define the genre.
Louis Jordan/Carl Hogan "Don't Worry 'bout That Mule" (from Beware)
Although he may have imitated Carl Hogan's playing style, Chuck Berry earned some of his best
qualities from Louis Jordan: his ability to tell a story, humorously, and make it into a song.
If a person can make you dance, great. If they can make you laugh, better.
Louis Jordan and Chuck Berry possess the wit and charm to make a person do both.
Muddy Waters "Got My Mojo Working" (1966, Canadian TV)
Muddy Waters is an influential musician and deserves
more focus in a separate post on Blues.
For more information right now, you can go to the official website, here.
Chuck Berry mentions that he frequently listened to Muddy Waters, and arrived at one of his shows while they were performing one of their last tunes, "Got My Mojo Workin'".
Here is that track as performed on Canadian television, in 1966.
Before covering Chuck Berry, the renowned father of rock and roll, lets see what
else was forming with the same rebellious energy, shall we?
Little Richard "Tutti Frutti" (performance from Alan Freed's 1956 film Don't Knock the Rock)
I can say, with almost complete certainty, that for Richard Penniman, the former dishwasher
from Macon, Georgia, there was never a girl named Sue, who knew just what to do.
There wasn't one named Daisy, either.
No. Richard Penniman, or Little Richard as the public knows him best, is wild, black, and gay...
3 social stigmas working against him in the segregated south of the 1950s.
He represented everything Eisenhower's America feared.
Another certainty is that I love this man. He is the extremely feminine, gay best friend
you'd love to invite over for an evening of Girl Talk and doing each others makeup.
Except that seems kind of creepy.
And I don't wear makeup...
Gay best friend or not, he appears to be a wonderful human being. I am a fan of Little Richard.
He has a fierce, untamed presence that frequently gives way to energetic mania.
He shrieks with vocals from field holler work songs, and yelps with the spiritual ecstasy of Gospel.
In his combination of these aspects with jump blues and boogie woogie piano,
rock n roll became more attainable.
The song "Tutti Frutti" comes attached to a very interesting and entertaining story.
I read this story in the chapter entitled 'Tutti Frutti', from the book Flowers in the Dustbin.
I will paraphrase briefly below:
Little Richard and Producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell obtain a very limited amount of studio time.
A professional is hired to cover Richard's piano playing.
Robbed of his primary instrument/prop, Richard was very stiff, and not even remotely
immersed in the musical environment. Not a good way to be in a recording session.
Sensing this creative blockage, Blackwell took Little Richard out to lunch at the Dew Drop Inn, a place where local musicians could drink and jam.
Of course, Richard spots the club's piano, walks up to it, and bursts into...
Awop-bop-a-Loo-Mop a-good Goddam..
Tutti Frutti, good booty
Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don't fit, don't force it (repeat 2x)
You can grease it, make it easy. (repeat 2x)
The lyrical depiction of anal eroticism couldn't be lost on even the most naive, prudish figure.
Although these lyrics had to be replaced...quickly..."Bumps" immediately knew this was the right feel.
A lady named Dorothy La Bostrie was called in to rewrite the lyrics over lunch, and when they returned
to the studio, there was only enough time for two more takes. That's quite a bit of pressure to deal with.
After two takes and a little professional Mastering, this is what they ended up with...
(as seen in the Alan Freed film):
Pretty damn good.
I would love to hear the original version, though.
Little Richard "Tutti Frutti (Pat Boone Cover)"
America's question: How can we take something great, and make it horrible and lame?
America's answer: Have Pat Boone cover it!
Pat Boone's cover of Tutti Frutti is about as white as it gets.
By 'white' I don't mean skin color (specifically), but white as in 'square, uptight, lacking flavor'.
This is conformity tied up neatly in a musical present.
At first, Little Richard was pissed that his music was not only being stolen, but butchered.
Then he realized it was actually making him more popular, which just demonstrates
that genuine spirit and musical talent can overcome conservative (white) culture any day.
Little Richard "Ready Teddy" (performance from The Girl Can't Help It, Frank Tashlin, 1956)
This scene from The Girl Can't Help It shows the wildness of Little Richard, and ultimately Rock n Roll, asserting their influence over a very conservative public.
I love how cute he is, especially with his graceful bow at the end.
Bo Diddley "Bo Diddley" (1955 Ed Sullivan Show)
Bo Diddley was another important figure in the formation of rock n roll.
Below is a performance from the Ed Sullivan Show, where the group
decided to play a different song than originally discussed, without informing anyone.
What resulted was the "Bo Diddley Beat", similar to a "Hambone" beat, an African rhythm based on 5 beats but strummed using one chord.
He was banned from the show.
In defiance of Sullivan and other conservatives, he gave the world this music.
I think he made the right choice.
(pictured with his cigar box guitar)
Jerry Lee Lewis "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" (1957 performance)
The only thing Jerry Lee really contributed to rock n roll was his tendency to kick the piano
seat back and play standing up, often finishing on top of the instrument.
So you don't like to sit down while you play, eh Jerry Lee? Feeling kind of antsy...?
The solution is easy: kick your seat back, stand up, pound the keys, cause riots,
maybe marry your underage cousin...?
He tried to claim he was the father of rock and roll, but Chuck Berry quickly, and rightfully, won that
battle. Though he may have embodied the rebellious spirit in his performances and wrote a few good songs,
his talent and influence do not remotely compare to that of Chuck. Enough said.
There is nothing more you need to know about Jerry Lee Lewis. Really.
But here is a video that shows him doing what he does best.
Chuck Berry "Johnny B. Goode"
There are very few rock guitarists who wouldn't cite Chuck Berry as an influence on their playing.
In the segment entitled "Chuck Berry", written by Robert Christgau
for the Rolling Stone History of Rock n Roll, the author notes the performer's unique playing style:
"Berry was the first blues-based performer to successfully reclaim
guitar tricks that country and western innovators had
appropriated from black people and adapted to their own uses
twenty-five or fifty years before. By adding blues tone to some
fast country runs, and yoking them to a rhythm and blues beat and some
unembarrassed electrification, he created an instrumental style with
biracial appeal" (Christgau, 62).
In this video you can hear Berry's talented lyricism, and see his famous "duck walk" stunt.
Chuck Berry "Maybellene"
Originally titled "Ida May", Berry was told to change the name by
Leonard Chess (of Chess Records).
Maybellene sounded the same rhythmically, and that was that.
Although a girl's name, it's not actually about a person.
He first heard the name in a story book, about Maybellene the cow.
One of the first and greatest rock n roll songs of all time is about something
you eat for dinner.
Think about that.
Chuck Berry went to beauty school. He started off as a hairdresser, and then went into
carpentry with his father.
Although he played music throughout, he worked as a carpenter and painter
until music became the more profitable option.
Chuck Berry "Roll Over Beethoven" (live 1972 performance)
In American Hot Wax, a film about radio DJ Alan Freed, the authorities try to stop the music of
'Alan Freed's Rock n Roll Show' by seizing the money acquired from ticket sales and
therefore denying any payout for the performers, ideally stopping the show due to a lack of finances.
Chuck Berry, the good man that he is, says he'll do this one for rock n roll...(he then plays this song)
Here's a video of Chuck in the 70s...
Chuck Berry with Etta James and Company "Rock and Roll Music"
In Hail Hail! Rock n Roll (Taylor Hackford, 1987), the viewer witnesses many sides of Chuck Berry.
A smart, funny, and confident, but ultimately bitter, cynical and vulnerable man,
one sees the pros and cons of being in the music industry for so long,
simply by noticing his facial expressions.
Simultaneously, his immense love for music seems overshadowed by
something darker, perhaps a consequence of dealing with shady managers,
an oppressive public, time in prison, and years of touring.
Keith Richards, guitarist for The Rolling Stones and one of many
Chuck Berry disciples, put on a concert for his idol's 60th birthday, a rehearsal process
and event that is beautifully depicted in Hail Hail! Rock n Roll.
He put together a tight band, himself included, and invited numerous musicians along for the performance.
He explains that this concert was what he wanted to give his idol, and has thus become
artistically fulfilled in doing so.
Performing with Chuck on "Rock and Roll Music" is the late Etta James, with both
Eric Clapton and Keith Richards on guitar.
The lyrics offer helpful insight into what it takes to be rock n roll music.
Really though, everyone knows where Rock n Roll actually came from :
Michael J. Fox.
I hope you enjoyed reading this limited introduction to rock n roll music, but as with everything,
there's always (at least) two sides to every story.
The next post will explore the influence of African American music, as well as iconic film stars,
on a Southern white boy who took Rock n Roll in a different direction and eventually became the King.
If you don't know who it is, I can't tell you. Google it.
Either way, read the post! It should be up sometime next week!
In the spirit of rock n roll, I leave this post to go drink beer and practice piano,
followed by several hours worth of playing Rock Band.
But first, I should probably get some sleep. I've been up for more than a day.
No wait....this is rock. Who the fuck needs sleep?
Beer and music it is!
But really, I'll probably just drink lemon water all day,
which is actually more rock n roll.
Until next time,