First, a jam session

Before we talk about the roads to rock'n'roll, have a look at it its latter years; it's never died, of course, but there are some legends here who will never grace a stage again.  Enjoy!

How many do you recognise?

The Roads to Rock'n'Roll

The Killer

It’s November 1954.  In Britain, Winston Churchill has finally ended rationing, and Roger Bannister has run the world’s first four minute mile. You can buy a 3 bedroomed semi for under £2,000.

Around the world, Arab nationalists are involved in pitched battles in North Africa.  America has detonated a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll.  Back in the USA, the main domestic stories are the banning of communism by President Eisenhower, and the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, setting in motion the Civil Rights movement.

Meantime, two stories in the USA fail to make even the local press, let alone the nationals.  At the Lake Cliff Club in Leadbelly’s home town of Shreveport, Louisiana, a young man billed as “Elvis Pressley” (sic) is beginning to attract attention, and an R & B singer called Big Joe Turner has caused a minor ripple with a record called “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. 

The pedigree of Rock'n'roll goes back through Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Swing and other influences.  Country music injected something extra to induce the birth, but the history of rock'n'roll is largely the history of black music.

The cotton fields of America’s Deep South and the levees of the Mississippi Delta were the starting point on the long road that was to lead, with many twists and turns, to rock'n'roll. 

In antebellum Mississippi more than half the population were slaves.  They voiced their suffering through the “field hollers” or work songs.  This lament often became a cry of despair to God as the slaves found comfort in the new religion foisted upon them.  Some were allowed to pray with their masters, but others formed "invisible" churches where they worshipped secretly in their own way.  The Negro Spiritual, father of the Blues, was born.  

After Emancipation the former slaves were often worse off than before.  Some were retained as low-paid servants or sharecroppers who were allowed to grow their own cotton.  In return for seed and equipment, they would pledge up to half their crop to the plantation owner.  In reality this usually left them with just enough money for the next year’s seed..

For the rest, they no longer had a room to sleep in or food to eat.  Those with a musical gift could try their hand at singing the Mississippi Delta Blues, accompanying themselves on the banjo.  The guitar, though it had been around for fifty years, did not become really popular until the 1920s when Sears started selling cheap Gibsons.

As the new century approached, the standard of living for many Afro-Americans remained dismal.  Black men in cities such as New Orleans could find work only in the brothels or “honkytonks”, where musicians were always in demand.  Their slang term for the sex act was “jass”, and this early “jass” music matched the general tone of the house: bawdy, loud and free-spirited.

Gramophone No. 534,543, patented 1895

Meanwhile, in1895, Emile Berliner patented the first gramophone to use disks instead of cylinders..  He sold a patent to the Radio Corporation of America and also formed his own recording company, using as a logo a painting entitled “His Master’s Voice”.  Thus were born the pioneers of the record industry, RCA and HMV.

Outside the sporting houses, the reputation of this “race music” was growing quickly.  By the time of the Great War it was being played all over America by the newly formed Jazz Bands, and people were buying records on the recently developed shellac discs. 

New Orleans became the crucible of jazz, with Joe “King” Oliver and Kid Ory at its centre.  Oliver was hugely popular in New Orleans, and was almost certainly the first black bandleader to cross racial lines, playing anywhere from poor black dance halls to wealthy white affaires.

Shortly after the war Oliver was arrested when a fight broke out at a dance where he was playing. He had had enough, and brought his music up the Mississippi to Chicago, where he made his fortune.  Others followed, and a lot of what is referred to as Delta Blues is in fact Chicago Blues.

The post war euphoria and the loosening of social mores during the 1920s in defiance of prohibition provided the perfect atmosphere for jazz and ragtime.  The latter was used as a vehicle for more than a hundred wild dances; the best remembered being the Charleston and the Black Bottom.  Both of these originated in the black communities of the Deep South, but were quickly appropriated by white “flappers”.

In the late twenties, New York clubbers adapted the Charleston into the Lindy Hop (named after Charles Lindbergh), which in turn evolved into the Jitterbug.  This was so called because the apparently uncontrolled dancing reminded people of drunks with the “jitters”.  Now we had something that looked remarkably like the rock'n'roll or jive that we know today.

Early jukebox

 Another significant landmark of this time was the appearance of the jukebox.  The word may come from the "jook house", a term used to describe out of the way shebeens used by southern field workers for dancing, drinking and of course “jassing”.  The jukebox provided the only outlet for black recording artists; they were excluded from the main radio channels, and were to remain so for another twenty years.

With the ending of prohibition, and the gradual merging of mainstream jazz with the Big Band sound, jazz became more acceptable to the general public.  Within a decade, bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie were playing to full houses.  During this time the older Blues sound had not gone away, and indeed gained a new lease of life thanks to a young man called Robert Dodds.  Doomed to die young before the decade was out, he is better known today as Robert Johnson, the doyen of the Delta Blues.

For one young man, born just three years after Robert Johnson, the forties were to make his name.  Not the name he was born with; as McKinley Morganfield he might not have had quite the same success.  As Muddy Waters, however, he was to be the inspiration for many of the great pioneers of rock'n'roll.

The decade ended with a boogie tune which, had the term been invented, might have been thought of as early rock'n'roll; Antoine “Fats” Domino was a 21 year old from a musical New Orleans family.  He drew his musical inspiration from ragtime and blues, and was playing piano at the Hideaway club in the city of his birth when he recorded a song called “The Fat Man”.  It sold more than a million copies.

In 1951, in Cleveland, Ohio, disk jockey Alan Freed wanted to avoid the phrase “Rhythm and Blues” for his show; this was what black people called the new music which he loved and played all the time.  No racist himself, he feared the term would alienate white listeners. Famously, he coined the phrase “rock'n'roll”.  What he didn’t know was that in the black community, the expression had the same sexual connotation as “jass” half a century earlier!

It was not, however, until 1954 that the first pure rock'n'roll record took the world by storm.  The writer was Charles Calhoun, aka Jesse Stone, who worked for Atlantic Records.  (His mentor was a man rejoicing in the name of Ahmet Ertegün, who is well worth looking up). In the spring of that year, he wrote Shake, Rattle and Roll for Big Joe Turner.   Six months later Bill Haley, a country dance band leader who sensed the spirit of the times, took it to the top twenty on both sides of the pond with his band The Comets.

Bill Haley changed many words he considered suggestive.  It seems amazing today that “you're a devil in nylon hose” could be deemed offensive, but he was aiming at a white, middle class audience in an era of relative innocence.  Haley topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic the following year with Rock around the Clock, from the soundtrack for the notorious 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many rock'n'roll records entered the USA charts in the early years, because there were many different ways of working out the Top Twenty; Billboard magazine alone published four different versions.  In the UK, where the rise of rock'n'roll exactly matched America, there were just three top twenty rock'n'roll hits in the UK during 1955.  Within two years there were more than 70 rock'n'roll records in the British charts, and by 1958 rock'n'roll completely dominated the market.  Music would never be the same again.