Inventing the inevitable
Rock and roll is one of many phenomena that seem inevitable in hindsight — a natural musical development that was bound to come sooner or later, perhaps even a natural force that was rising in the shadowy half-world beyond popular culture, waiting simply to be discovered. Yes, in a sense, the times were ripening toward rock and roll, and even in the early 1950s a few people had a premonition of what rough beast of new music was slouching toward Memphis to be born.
But like Thomas Edison with the incandescent light bulb, and the Wright Brothers with powered heavier-than-air flight, rock and roll was invented, not discovered. These things didn't just happen, they were created by people who knew what they were aiming for. They could not have defined the new thing very precisely until they had it working. In each case there was a vision, and a complex, creative, and laborious process to realize that vision.
Sam Phillips and Sun Records
Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins is the story of Sam Phillips and his Sun Records label in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s. Here this process of musical invention is shown at work.
Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Studio in January 1950. The equipment was simple and Phillips was not a musician, but he had knowledge and a feel for a wide variety of music as well as a background in local radio. He began recording everything that came his way: weddings and funerals, demo records for aspiring musicians — both country and blues — and doing a radio broadcast every night.
He knew it when he heard it
March 5, 1951, was the night it all came together for Sam Phillips. Ike Turner, a DJ on WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi, had driven up to Memphis with a band featuring his underage cousin Jackie Brenston. A feature in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in June 1951 reported that "B. B. King of Memphis, one of the race artists Sam has been recording, passed the word along to Ike Turner, a negro bandleader of Clarksdale, Mississippi, that the market was open." Ike, Jackie, and the band had worked up a rollicking R&B number — called "Rocket 88", after the hot Oldsmobile coupe — and they decided to audition it for Phillips.
But during the drive from Clarksdale, guitarist Willie Kizart's amp fell off the top of the car, breaking the speaker cone. "We had no way of getting it fixed," Phillips told Robert Palmer, "so we started playing around with the damn thing, stuffed a little paper in there and it sounded good. It sounded like a saxophone."
Rather than submerge the distorted sound of Kizart's guitar, Phillips took a chance and overamplified it, making it the centerpiece of the rhythm track. Kizart played a simple boogie riff in unison with Ike Turner's piano. Raymond Hill contributed two screeching tenor sax solos, and Brenston rode over the top with a hugely confident vocal that belied his tender years. Phillips later characterized "Rocket 88" as the first rock 'n' roll record. ...
The new style that Sam Phillips was seeking to conjure from the musical depths wasn't pop, nor country hillbilly, nor rhythm-and-blues. It would not be a new kind of crooning, not blues or spirituals, not white kids singing black music. It wasn't just the guitars up front instead of big-band brass or woodwinds. Phillips told people that he'd know it when he heard it.
Phillips recorded B. B. King and Howlin' Wolf as well as many country and blues singers who had a few local hits or not quite that. Good Rockin' Tonight has detailed and fascinating chapters on Phillips discoveries Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Not just these famous names, but lots of less-known musicians filled out the tapestry as the new music was beginning to come together.
Harmonica Frank Floyd was in his thirties when he recorded with Sun Records — he not only played guitar, but at the same time "played harmonica out of one side of his mouth and sang out of the other side — he didn't use a harmonica bracket." Of his July 1954 record,
Some reviewers noted that "Rockin' Chair Daddy" was a good blend of black and white musical styles; the problem was that it blended the black and white musical styles of the 1920s.
The moment of creation — and recognition
Sam Phillips continued to look for talent and to experiment. Elvis Presley's first record came out that same month as Floyd's. Presley had begun inauspiciously, with several recording sessions that didn't show much promise before something went right in a Spring 1954 session:
Elvis Presley looking for a venue
Still working on his crooning, Presley tried "I Love You Because", which moved Phillips to hit the Record button on his Ampex. Then, apparently, the little group took a break for coffee and Cokes. "All of a sudden," recalled Scotty Moore, "Elvis started singing a song, jumping around, acting the fool, and then Bill [Black] picked up his bass and started acting the fool too, and I started playing with 'em. Sam had the door to the control booth open ... he was either editing some tape or something, and he stuck his head out and said, 'What're you doing?' We said, 'We don't know.' 'Well, back up', he said, 'try to find a place to start and do it again.'"
The song that Presley was fooling around with was "That's All Right (Mama)", a song that had been on his mind for possibly seven years. [Since Arthur Crudup's rendition.] ...
The truly surprising thing, though, is how perfectly Presley, Moore, and Black retained the loose-jointed swing of the original. This was the unmistakable black feel to which Phillips responded when he stuck his head around the door. ...
With "That's All Right" on tape, Phillips needed a B side for his debut Elvis Presley single, and looked back to 1947's "Blue Moon of Kentucky", Bill Monroe's stately bluegrass waltz. Presley changed the meter and the tempo, bringing Arthur Crudup's sparse, freewheeling approach to the country song.
A fascinating bit of rehearsal tape from the session was found in the early '70s; the song started out slower, more countrified, not yet removed an entire dimension beyond its origin, as it became. Those who discovered the tape couldn't identify the artist until the snippet was played to [record producer] Jim Dickinson, who declared, "What you have there is what it sounded like ten minutes before rock 'n' roll was invented." Phillips' eureka — "Hell, that's fine!" he cries, "that's different! That's a pop song now!" — was captured on the tape. He is clearly electrified by what he has just heard.
Elvis Presley performed "Blue Moon of Kentucky" at the Grand Ole Opry show in Nashville in October 1954; but the Opry was not impressed, and Presley was not invited back.
He was worried that he might offend Opry veteran Bill Monroe with his goosed-up version of the song, but Monroe apparently told him that it was fine for his style of music and the way he sang. Those may just have been the most charitable words Presley heard that night. ...
It was probably Bill Monroe, the stern, unsmiling apostle of pure country music, who knew that he had heard something special ...
Fortunately the Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport two weeks later proved more congenial, and offered Presley a contract to appear on their Saturday night broadcasts.
Sessions and songs, in detail
Good Rockin' Tonight is full of such great stories, if not quite so pivotal as Elvis Presley's. The history is illustrated with hordes of black-and-white photos, including several of the famous session on December 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley dropped by the Sun Records studio as "a Carl Perkins session was winding down, and Jerry Lee Lewis — just settled in town — was trying to earn some spending money playing backup piano." They started playing together. Phillips called Johnny Cash, who also came to the studio and joined in.
Escott and Hawkins state that along with the songs the young musicians had fun doing together, that day's session tape "represents the only time we catch Elvis talking unguardedly about music." And the authors give about a page of transcribed comments.
This almost novelistic historical detail, with the photos, the personal biographies and social background, and the analysis of the songs and musical trends, combine to make Good Rockin' Tonight an excellent history of a seminal period in music. The book is easy to read, can be read straight through which is more or less chronologically; but also you can start with a chapter on a favorite musician, and then branch forward and backward. There's business history intermingled, because this story is also of Sun Records, recording contracts, musicians' careers, and royalties — such as they were. There wasn't much money in the early business of developing rock and roll; the relative successes generally paid out royalties in the hundreds of dollars, and many didn't do that well.
Rock and roll takes shape
But before long, what Sam Phillips and the musicians were striving for was taking recognizable shape. The creativity and sheer inventive persistence was paying off. Escott and Hawkins provide a detailed chronology of the key hit song, "Blue Suede Shoes":
While it seems almost pointless to try to pinpoint where rock 'n' roll began, it's fairly clear that the music incorporated elements of blues, country, and pop. "Blue Suede Shoes" was the first record to borrow from all three categories and become a hit on all three charts. That is Carl Perkins' achievement ...
Fall 1955. Johnny Cash joins Carl Perkins for a show in Amory, Mississippi. He suggests that Carl write a song based on a saying he had heard in the chow line while he was in the service, "Don't step on my blue suede shoes."
A few nights later Perkins is playing in Jackson, Tennessee, when he sees a dancer in the crowd trying to keep his girlfriend away from his new blue suede shoes. It connects with the idea that Cash had given him. At three o'clock the following morning, Perkins awakes with the genesis of the song in his head. He goes downstairs and writes out the lyrics in pencil on an empty potato bag. ...
Early March 1956. ... "Blue Suede Shoes" appears on Billboard's Hot 100 on March 3. Presley's debut RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel", makes its appearance on the charts the same week. Billboard dubs both songs "mongrel music" and notes that Perkins is showing up on seven territorial R&B charts.
Perkins returns to the studio to cut a follow-up. Four songs are recorded, but the intense action surrounding "Blue Suede Shoes" convinces Phillips to delay mastering a new single. "Blue Suede Shoes" is selling over twenty thousand copies a day. ...
Rock and roll had arrived.