A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[Excerpted from Chapter 20, "The Age of Rock", pp. 618-623, reprinted from Music in the New World by Charles Hamm. Copyright © 1983 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

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Music in the New World


I believe my music can make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf and dumb hear and talk, because it inspires and uplifts people. It uplifts the soul, you see everybody’s movin’, they’re happy, it regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder splatter, the knees freeze.

—Little Richard1

Rock ‘n’ roll, which emerged as the dominant form of American popular music in 1955, was understood and enjoyed by a larger cross-section of the racial, ethnic, and cultural groups of the United States than had ever before responded to one type of music.

Worldwide reaction was similar. Rock ‘n’ roll was heard by responsive audiences in every continent, in virtually every country on the globe not too impoverished for its people to have access to radios and phonograph equipment.

It was perceived, everywhere, as a uniquely American product.

Rock ‘n’ roll was, first of all, an interracial music.

Performers were both black and white, in roughly equal proportions. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Platters, Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Lloyd Price, and the Coasters were black; Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent were white.

Billboard, the trade journal of the music industry, had carried weekly charts of top-selling phonograph records for some years before 1955. It was assumed that there were three distinct and discrete audiences, each responding to different types of popular music:

a white, middle- and upper-class group, partial to the products of Tin Pan Alley songwriters;

a black audience, responsive to music by black performers, known at this time as “rhythm and blues”;

an audience located principally in the South, the Midwest and the West, largely rural (or recently descended from a rural heritage), dedicated to country-western music.

Between 1955 and 1960, a number of rock ‘n’ roll performers released discs that enjoyed equal popularity with two and even all three of these groups. Some of them—by Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Horton—not only appeared on all three charts, they became No. 1 hits with all three audiences.

It seems fair to say that rock ‘n’ roll came as close to being a universal musical language as the country—and the world—had ever known, at least within the age group that responded to such music.

And it was not merely a matter of blacks and whites listening to the same music—they were listening to it together. Alan Freed, a white disc jockey at radio station WWJ in Cleveland who began a show in 1951 featuring music mostly by black performers, organized a live concert in March of 1953; the some 75,000 people who turned out-attempting to get into an auditorium designed for a third of that number—were equally divided between black and white. Similar racially mixed audiences showed up for concerts organized by Freed in Cincinnati, New York, and elsewhere; and when the first rock ‘n’ roll stars gave live performances, they were confronted with mixed audiences, in all parts of America.

The following sequence of events will serve to underline the interracial nature of rock ‘n’ roll:

—Two young white songwriters, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, wrote a song entitled “Hound Dog” in 1952 for a black singer, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton .2 First sung by her in clubs in San Francisco, it was recorded in August on the Peacock label and by the late winter of 1953 had become a No. I item on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues charts.

—After being “covered” by several other singers with little commercial success, it was recorded by Elvis Presley for RCA Victor in the winter of 1956. In July it reached the top of the white pop charts in Billboard.

—In August, Presley’s disc became the top-selling disc on both the rhythm-and-blues and the country-western charts.

The success of this music with mixed audiences is a reflection of the fact that its style reflects elements of both black and white culture.

The prototype of rock ‘n’ roll had begun to emerge as early as the 1930s. In order to understand this, it is necessary first to define the rock ‘n’ roll style of the 1950s.

In any representative sampling of pieces recorded between 1955 and 1958 which were taken by listeners of the time to be unequivocally in the rock ‘n’ roll style—say “Rock Around the Clock” (1955) or “See You Later, Alligator” (1955) by Bill Haley and the Comets; “Maybellene” (1955) or “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) by Chuck Berry; “Heartbreak Hotel” (1957) or “Hound Dog” (1956) by Elvis Presley; “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (1957) or “Good Golly Miss Molly” (1962) by Jerry Lee Lewis; “Tutti Frutti” (1955) by Little Richard; “That’ll Be the Day” (1957) by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; “I Can’t Go On” (1955) or “Blue Monday” (1956) by Fats Domino—the following characteristics may be observed:

—Formally, the pieces are shaped in a 12-bar blues structure or some variation on this pattern.

—Instrumentally, there is a rhythm section of drums and bass, sometimes augmented by a piano; one or more amplified or electric guitars function both as melodic and rhythmic instruments; there are usually one or more horns, most commonly an alto saxophone and/or a trumpet. Rock ‘n’ roll bands had in common a loud but clean sound: all instruments were either naturally loud or amplified, and the small size of the ensemble allowed each to be heard without being lost in a jumble of sound.

—Rhythmically, they are in 4/4 or C meter, moving along at a fast, driving pace, suitable to energetic dancing; many early discs were labeled as fox trots. There is a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure, marked by power strokes from the drummer-Europeans soon called it Big Beat or Beat music-and an emphasis on the second and fourth beats as well, usually by a cymbal or other high-pitched percussion instrument and/or by rhythm guitar.

—Texts are concerned with sex: “rock and roll” was a euphemism among blacks for sexual intercourse. A string of episodic verses is interspersed by instrumental choruses; the time restrictions of the 45-rpm phonograph disc-the most important vehicle for the dissemination of this music-imposed a pattern of 3-4 vocal verses alternating with an instrumental chorus or two. In live performance, with no such time restrictions, this pattern was varied with additional vocal verses and many more instrumental choruses. The dominant instrumentalist of a given band would be given the solo verses, whether he was a guitarist, pianist, or saxophonist.

—Rock ‘n’ roll singers were concerned with a type of vocal projection that would match the raucous, rhythmic sound and mood of the instruments. They shouted, screamed, sobbed, and punctuated their texts with explosive interjections or nonsense syllables.

These stylistic features are drawn from both jazz (the instrumentation and rhythmic propulsion) and blues (the structure and singing style). Thus the term “rhythm and blues,” used by Billboard as a label for its charts of music by black performers for black audiences between 1949 and 1969, is an apt one.

Once the most important characteristics of early rock ‘n’ roll have been defined, one can identify similar pieces recorded before the “official” beginning of the genre in 1955, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard charts.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which became a best-selling disc among blacks in early 1954 in a recording by Joe Turner, is a piece of rock ‘n’ roll in everything save name. “Work with Me, Annie,” recorded the same year by the Midnighters, was just as solidly in the mold of what would soon be called rock ‘n’ roll, as were also a number of rhythm-and-blues hits of the previous year (1953): “Have Mercy, Baby,” by Billy Ward and His Dominoes, the abovementioned “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton. Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” is a transitional piece—the 12-bar blues form has been extended to 16 measures through the addition of a fourth phrase; the band is larger and has more the sound of pure jazz, with no guitars; and the tempo is somewhat more leisurely. A recent writer has said of “I’m Your Hootchie Coochie Man,” recorded in 1952 by Muddy Waters:

All the elements of rock are present: whining treble electric-guitar fills around the melody; a slurring, muttering, shouting delivery of the lyrics; rolling drum rhythms underpinned by a near-contrapuntal bass line and a call-and-response riff pattern; a beat that socks away unmercifully. There is even a strong sense of Mick Jaggerish mystical-macho sexism in the lyrics. 2

“Good Rockin’ Tonight,” recorded by Wynonie Harris in Cincinnati in 1947, is perfectly defined by the characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, and the text even uses the term itself. “Call It Stormy Monday” (1947), featuring the singing and electric guitar playing of T-Bone Walker, needs only a faster tempo and more emphatic drumming to qualify fully as rock ‘n’ roll. The same is true of many blues recorded as far back as the 1930s in which the singer is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble playing in a markedly rhythmic style. In fact, in a somewhat broader sense, the entire range of rhythmicized blues of the jazz era, including the “jump blues” featured by many bands (Lionel Hampton’s “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” of 1945 is a classic example) and even the boogie woogie school of piano playing may be seen as direct ancestors of rock ‘n’ roll.

All of this music was played by blacks, mostly for black audiences. But some Southern and rural whites were hearing music in a quite similar style in the decades leading up to 1955. Bill Haley’s background was in country-western music; beginning with “Rocket 88″ in 1951 and continuing through such pieces as “Crazy, Man, Crazy” (1953) and “Happy Baby” (1954), Haley’s group performed and recorded a string of rhythmic 12-bar blues pieces approaching the rock ‘n’ roll style of “Rock Around the Clock.” One of Hank Williams’s first discs, “Move It On Over” (1949), is in 12-bar blues form with insistent rhythmic drive (including important accents on the second and fourth beats), instrumental choruses featuring an electric guitar, right down to its text filled with sexual innuendoes. The melody of the opening phrase, incidentally, is virtually identical with that of “Rock Around the Clock.”

Just as with black music, it is possible to move back into the 1940s and even 1930s in country-western music to find prototypes of this sort of piece. Many of these were the product of the “honkytonk” culture of the Southwest, the breeding ground of the electric guitar. Others date back even further; “Keep It Clean,” recorded in Atlanta in 1930 by the white musicians Rufus and Ben Quillian and James McCrary, is a rhythmicized blues with a highly suggestive text, a clear anticipation of “Move It On Over” and other later pieces of this genre.

Thus pieces moving in the direction of rock ‘n’ roll may be found in both rhythm-and-blues and country-western music for a quarter-century before 1955. Most of the elements of this music evolved among black musicians; the 12-bar blues form had its origins in Afro-American music, the rhythmic propulsion has much more to do with black than white music. But, as with ragtime and jazz, it was not simply a matter of white musicians appropriating a style developed by blacks. The rhythmicized blues of country-western music developed its own rhythmic dialect, similar but not identical to that of rhythm-and-blues, colored by the eccentricities of rural white dance music. And the pervasive use of the guitar, which became the basic instrument of the entire rock era, grew out of country-western music.

Whether black or white, virtually all musicians of the early rock ‘n’ roll period had their musical and cultural roots in the rural South. Rock ‘n’ roll was not only interracial, it was also Southern. Many of the reactions to this music can best be understood if one keeps these two factors in mind.

1The Rolling Stone Interviews (New York: Paperback Library, 1971) pp. 376-77.

2Don Heckman, liner notes for New World Records 261.

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