If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.
– attributed to Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Service, and the man who “discovered” Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley (incidentally, Phillips denied having ever said this)
It starts with the blues riffing of a swaggering, possibly gay, gospel preacher named Sister Rosetta Tharpe; her barnstorming approach to blues guitar inspires a poor boy named Bo Diddly. It rises in the duck-strut of a handsome dude named Chuck Berry. It ignites when a white truck driver catches “that Negro sound” in the gyrations of his infamous hips. It booms when they all come together, catching storms in their hands in the name of rock-n-roll.
This nightmare of respectable parents everywhere, rock is the bastard offspring of ghettos and ballrooms, factories and fields. Rock’s roots may be black, but its parents wreck the racial divide. You can hear them singing a capella doo-wop on Harlem street corners, ripping holes in the speakers of an Alabama recording studio, hooking up Les Paul’s new electrified guitars from London to Nashville to Seattle and beyond. Black artists like Ike Turner, white ones like Buddy Holly, Native Americans like Link Wray, and foreign brats like John Lennon all start rocking around the clock. Though major labels try to tame rock’s fury with “whitewash” clowns like Pat Boone, rock remains a proud hotbed of miscegenation. In a time and place where segregation is often the law of the land, rock spits in the face of that law. This music refuses to “know its place.” Soon, it brings the old order down.
Though it won’t seem that radical in hindsight,’50 and ‘60s rock is an enemy of the state. Adults raised on “old-timey music” are horrified by rock’s raw sensuality and ethnic promiscuity. Compared to the socially conservative mainstream, early rock looks and sounds like a punch in the face. Worst of all, it’s popular… especially with those damn kids. The teenager – a new concept in post-War America – is rock’s biggest fan. Caught restlessly between hormones, luxury, a shaken social order and the threat of sudden nuclear death, America’s teenagers reflect the awkward prosperity of that post-War nation… and rock, in turn, reflects those teenagers. Buoyed by a strong economy, big cars and surges of shiny new technology, rock-n-roll captures the anxious adolescent spirit of the time.
(The King’s opening statement.)
After World War II, the United States become the world’s teenage nation. Essentially a “child” on the global stage before that War – a big, cranky child suffering from its Great Depression – America comes of age during WWII. Alone among the major combatants, the United States survives that war with its cities and industries intact; in the aftermath, every other world power relies upon America for resources and technology… and everyone wants to know what America plans to do next. The “Baby Boom” of children born after the troops return home creates a vast new generation of kids, and the unspoken guilts and traumas of the War haunt the parents who raise them. Add the threat of yet another global war with Russia, China or both – this time waged with nukes – onto unprecedented prosperity, new gadgets and the upended social roles of class, race and gender, and you’ve got the stage for rock-n-roll’s revolt.
Boiling up between the cracks of America’s bloody past and present, rock-n-roll seethes like some demonic entity. Contrasted with the smooth flow of tame Classical or whitebread crooner jazz, rock sounds pissed. Horny, reckless and spoiling for a fight, it rides on bucking hips, rattling drums and amplified guitars. Its spokesmen – frenzied Jerry Lee Lewis, seductive Chuck Berry, booming Big Bopper, feral Elvis Presley – seem almost possessed. Rock’s fringes host other, more frightening figures, too – dark-skinned avatars of racial terror. Ike Turner bristles with barely restrained violence; Little Richard embodies raw sexual paradox; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins capers with coffins and skulls, while James Brown simply channels something Other. It’s old-school blues showmanship, but their fury is real. This is an era where black men can be lynched or burnt alive simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rock gives them a voice, and America’s kids, white and otherwise, respond. It’s fire-n-brimstone in the pulpit and sweat-n-fire in the streets. Old Pan himself would be proud.
(Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, nightmare clown of Jim Crow’s America.)
Rock’s rebellion transcends words. Authority fights back. When Shawnee war vet Link Wray cranks up his ominous distorted guitar, the instrumental result – called “Rumble” – gets banned for “inciting violence.” Rock’s greatest advocates, DJ’s like Alan Freed and Murray the K, soon get hushed up or shut down. Within a few years of rock’s appearance, laws are passed and artists are censured. Elvis gets drafted, Jerry Lee goes to jail, and Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper literally crash and burn. The Behind the Music myth-cycle – struggle, success, excess, self-destruction, and possible renewal – begins with rock’s first generation. By the early 1960s, most of rock’s biggest stars have dimmed, sold out or collapsed in on themselves. Record companies, movie studios and radio stations co-opt a castrated version of the rock-n-roll style. For a while, the beast seems tame.
And that impression is so very, very wrong…
(“Bitch, PLEASE!” Little Richard, King and Queen of early rock-n-roll.)
[This article is the fifth part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]
The rest of this series can be found below: