Sixty years ago the nascent British singles charts were dominated by middle-aged middle-of-the-road balladeers, young middle-of-the-road balladeers, a glut of novelty acts, and American stars who divided their careers between the recording studio and the cinema screen. Sound familiar? The new world of the seven-inch single was just another extension of the Tin Pan Alley franchise, the powerful cartel of record companies, music publishers, Svengalis and hit songwriters that completely controlled the listening habits of the western world; but in a soundscape consisting of Slim Whitman, Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Frankie Laine, Jimmy Young (yes, that one), Alma Cogan and Doris Day, something was changing.
The early summer of 1956 saw the UK chart debut of a young American singer from the Deep South called Elvis Presley, singing an unsettling echo-laden song called ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That Elvis should emanate from a part of the States that the materialistic boomtown of Eisenhower’s America viewed as a shameful embarrassment is significant.
The South was very much the poor relation at the halfway point of the twentieth century, and only the South could have produced a musical form so alien to Hollywood or Broadway sensibilities. For all their cool credentials, both LA and New York were too rooted in showbiz economics to have produced something as dangerously unpredictable as Rock n Roll in the middle of the 1950s. Indeed, the minute they recognised its commercial potential and got their hands on it, they completely castrated it and turned into another inoffensive branch of the entertainment industry.
At the point when Rock n Roll erupted over-ground, the old Confederate States had been officially absorbed back into the Union for 90 years, yet the legacy and grievances of the Civil War had been passed down the generations, particularly that contentious aspect which the 50s American Dream turned a blind eye to, segregation. Segregation was effectively a substitute for the slavery the Southern States had reluctantly surrendered when the white flag was waved in 1865, but for all its undoubted evils, what the policy of segregation did was to create a unique set of circumstances that proved potent in cultural terms.
It’s no coincidence that Rosa Parks should refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a privileged white butt in 1956; the incident that served to set the whole civil rights ball rolling took place the same year as a raw hybrid of the Blues, Bluegrass Country, R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel emerged into the national spotlight – both pointers to the end of a stagnant system of separating black and white that had reached the end of its unnatural life.
Segregation was based in part on fear; the realisation that white kids were adopting black music as their own sparked paranoia of a possible mixed race union that flew in the face of Southern traditions. As opponents to Rock n Roll declared publicly at the time, this was ‘nigger music’ and its race-crossing popularity was viewed by these same enlightened souls as a conspiracy designed to drag the white man down to the same lowly level as the Negro.
In a mainstream America suddenly obsessed with juvenile delinquency – the rebellion of children born during the War years – portrayals on the big screen by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were bad enough; but the prospect of a form of music that dispensed with the smooth orchestrated sheen favoured by the crooners and stripped the sound down to an unrestrained sexualised core posed a threat to the status quo they were determined to silence. That this unwelcome development should crawl out of the No-Man’s Land of the South merely added insult to injury.
Technically, the Blues and R&B, the long-standing sounds of Black America that were too crude to enjoy the mass acceptance of Jazz, were not Rock n Roll; they were component parts. It was the blend of these genres with others already listed that constituted the new sound. And while the likes of Chuck Berry (from St Louis, Missouri) and Little Richard (from Macon, Georgia) were already pursuing a path that would formulate the Rock n Roll template, it took a white man, Bill Haley (a Michigan-born nomad shaped by a Great Depression-scarred childhood), to score the first recognised Rock n Roll hit in the national charts with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1955, four years after the first acknowledged Rock n Roll record, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a band led by Ike Turner). The sheer size of the USA as a landmass meant that Rock n Roll took time to make an impact beyond the Southern States, but what had been a regional sound slowly gathering pace through the early 50s now had countrywide notoriety.
Tuning-in to exclusively black radio stations was a clandestine obsession of more open-minded white teens in the South, but Elvis Presley’s experience of poverty was an undoubted leveller that made him colour blind when it came to music; the Blues spoke to him and his poor white ilk as much as it did to his black neighbours, so there was no opportunistic exploitation of a black sound where he was concerned. If that came at all, it came when he was signed up by the archetypal Southern showman and shyster ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker.
Elvis’s phenomenal success in 1956/57 may have enabled other white Southerners to gate-crash the musical establishment, such as Buddy Holly (from Texas), Gene Vincent (from Virginia) and Jerry Lee Lewis (from Louisiana); but it also enabled Colonel Parker to sell the product to Hollywood, serving to airbrush its animalistic heart and soul in the process. It’s so easy to overlook the sheer sonic shock of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sixty years on; but the record’s importance in acting as the opening missive of the cultural revolution that so illuminated the second half of the twentieth century should never be underestimated. When Radio Luxembourg transmitted a show presented by the white Southern DJ Alan Freed (widely credited with creating the term ‘Rock n Roll’) in the late 50s, it had a particular impact where the infamously-bad reception of the station was better than anywhere else in Britain – Liverpool.
© The Editor