History of Rock Music in America
Judging by the sounds heard on the radio today, it should not be surprising to know they are traced back to the early days of Rock and Roll. The term “Rock and Roll”, dubbed by Radio Ohio Radio Disk Jockey Alan Freed in the 1950s, symbolized the youth movement and breaking away from the older generation that grew up on Big Bands. What is heard today can be attributed to the pioneers of Rock Music. (Crampton, p. 11)
Elvis Presley is considered by many to be “The King” of Rock and Roll. He is hailed for taking blues music and making it more appealing to the masses. His good looks and stage presence made him popular with all types of people and groups. Elvis’ popularity expanded into movies, concerts and television specials.
He also sold many records because of controversy. On “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Presley was filmed during one of his performances shaking his hips suggestively. This was a big shock to television viewers in the 1950s, many of whom were shocked and outraged by such antics. The next time Presley appeared, he was filmed from the waist up to prevent any disgruntled viewers. As future Long Island, NY musician and “Piano Man” Billy Joel said, “they didn’t film him below the waist, but you can tell what he was doing.” (VH1, 2004)
What Sullivan attempted to do was quell the potentially combustible mixture that teenagers of that era saw. A raw energy mixed with rebellion and saying no to the establishment made for a volatile mix between the young ones and the older generation. Other musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”), Carl Perkins
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(“Blue Suede Shoes”) and Little Richard (Perriman–“Lucille” and “Tutti Fruity”) joined Presley as alternatives to the laid back music of the time. (Du Noyer, 24)
Presley and Perkins each used a guitar to drive up the rhythm. Elvis switched between acoustic and electric while Perkins stayed with the electric version. Lewis and Richard played the piano to have their beats heard. Lewis would attack his instrument while Perriman would usually bang on the piano as if he was enjoying the same note repeatedly (24-25). Nonetheless, the message within the music was simple: you did not have to listen to your parents, teachers or authority in order to live your life.
The origins could be traced back to the Blues that were popularized by Black musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. White musicians heard the songs in the 1950s and began copying them leading to a larger audience and some anger from the original songwriters. Music then reflected the mood of the times. Blacks and Whites could not eat at the same restaurants, congregate at the same places, including houses of worship, or even sit wherever they wanted on public transportation. Music was a way to bring people together, albeit taking time. Du Noyer, 12)
Then Elvis came along and the rules changed. It became OK to listen to that type of music. Bill Haley and His Comets recorded a song, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” that also became a rallying call to youth. Its up-tempo beat and lyrics struck a chord (no pun intended) with teenagers. (Crampton, 33)
The show “American Bandstand” also helped change the music landscape. Filmed in Philadelphia starting in 1952, the show launched the careers of many musicians and of its host, Dick Clark. (Crampton, 21) Audience members on the show could dance to the latest records and rate how well received a certain song was. Once again, the show became an institution because
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the kids could relate to the musicians of the time and struggling bands had a forum in which to shine. Acts such as Blondie showcased their talents on the show. (33)
Another show in the 1970s that had an impact on the music scene was “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert.” It was a television show that showcased some veteran acts and up and comers. Groups such as KISS and The Steve Miller Band would perform for the 90-minute program. (Wikipedia, 1) Kirshner was a music producer in dating back to the roots of rock and roll and could use those contacts to land these groups. (DeCurtis, 151). Kirshner continued his series until the early 1980s. (Wikipedia, p.1)
Another point that should be mentioned is the radio and television was the only avenues in which audiences could hear music. The Internet, Napster and other ways to hear and download music were not available at this point. That meant many bands trying to hit the airwaves with little time between commercials, news, traffic reports, etc. Bands that broke through at that point were very lucky (in addition to be being talented—proving that it is sometimes better to be lucky than good).
What had not been discussed is the competition involved with radio and the pursuit of being heard. In the early days of rock and roll, it was common for agents of aspiring bands to pay influential disk jockeys to have their particular band’s songs be aired. This became known as Payola, and it became taboo within the recording industry. Freed, who earlier was credited with coining the term “rock and roll,” was brought down in a payola scandal and had his career ruined as a result of the ordeal.
Freed was accused of accepting $2,500 from a record executive in exchange for playing a certain band during Freed’s radio program. Freed countered that the money did not affect his
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decision to play (or not to play) certain songs, he was eventually ordered to pay a fine. He committed suicide from alcohol poisoning as a result of the scandal because none of the other stations would hire Freed after the controversy. (History, p. 1)
Payola is now illegal in the United States and offenders may be punished with a $10,000 fine and/or one year in prison. (1) That does not mean the process in which bands are sought to be heard is any less intense. Bands play free concerts, go on promotional tours, advertise by word-of-mouth, and get downloaded on YouTube or other sites to be heard. Getting
some band heard is tough and getting them to stay on the radio is even tougher.
Take Billy Joel’s song “The Entertainer,” in which the musician must fight to have his songs heard by the public. The song reveals the battles all bands have in staying relevant in the public’s consciousness. Joel pointed out in the lyrics that, “it took years to write” but the song “ran too long…if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it to 3:05.” (Songs365. p.1)
Joel said that no matter how well regarded he thought the song was, the record industry, along with his label and the audience had the final word over what went on the record and what got cut. (1)
It worked out well for Joel, who still sells out venues wherever and whenever he decides to tour. It has also led to many bands becoming “one-hit wonders.” There are many reasons for that; from not capturing what made the band famous in the first place to fighting, relationships woes, and/or substance abuse. There are too many bands to mention in this space that had careers flame out as fast they were launched. People can hear them on the radio and say something to the effect of, “I remember that song; I wonder what happened to them?”
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For the people that began the journey of providing a new sound and voice to a group that was not previously seen or heard, their names are forever etched in history. Few people can say they have never heard of Elvis or the Golden age of Rock and Roll. Even fewer can say that rock music has not influenced other genres of music, such as punk, new wave, heavy metal and more. What many people may have trouble believing is the prospect that there is nothing more to be gained by this type of music.
Those people could not more wrong. Music constantly evolves from the swing era to the Do Wop era to the early stages of rock music to the British Invasion and the San Francisco music scene, which spawned Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead of the 1960s (and another topic)
to singer-songwriters and corporate rock of the 1970s. Hair Bands ruled the 1980s until
Grunge bands from the Pacific Northwest took over in the 1990s until today where what was once old is new again.
The point is that music touches everyone in different ways. It was used as part of a rebellion against the establishment of the 1950s. Today, it is primarily used to sell something to different groups. Witness the number of songs used in television and/or radio commercials today and one can understand why values and priorities change.
Rock music is not dead; it is just reinventing itself on another stage.
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Crampton, Luke, and Dafydd Rees, Rock and Roll. New York, DK Publishing, Inc., 2003.
DeCurtis, Anthony et.al. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York, Random House, 1976.
Du Noyer, Paul. The Story of Rock and Roll: The Year-By-Year Illustrated Chronicle. New York, Carlton Books, an imprint of Simon & Shuster Macmillan, 1995.
History of Rock. “Payola.” No date or author provided. Retrieved April 24, 2009 from: http://www.history-of-rock.com/payola.htm
Joel, William. “The Entertainer.” Streetlight Serenade. 1975. Retrieved April 24, 2009 from:
Video Hits 1 (VH1) “100 Most Influential People in Rock and Roll.” Initial air date: 2004. Billy Joel discussed the impact of Elvis’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Wikipedia, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” Retrieved April 24, 2009 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Kirshner’s_Rock_Concert