Roots of Rock n’ Roll

Elvis was the product of a financially planned strategy: Get me a white boy with a black sound & I’ll make you a million bucks.

Well, you should read “Last train to Memphis” which I think is very authoritative. Clearly there were lots of people that figured out quickly the money potential to this emerging phenomenon, and Elvis wasn’t the brightest stone in the tiara and got manipulated horrendously. But I’m talking more about the very early years in which his raw talent blew up in front of everyone. His ability to weave a gospel aura into a song that plucked the strings of emerging American youth in the Eisenhower era. Read Halberstam- “The Fifties”. Emerging prosperity and few social problems and a vision of an idyllic future that directly led to the election of Kennedy, which by rights never could have happened in any other era. Kids in the 50s were evolving toward a more earthy, sexual vibe that reflected prosperity. Music than was offered by big band swing era and bop which were technically competent but uninspiring.

Someone mentioned “earlier” rock artists like Bill Haley (and the Comets). The early rockers bounced around getting close but never spot on, and it needed to be to hit the jackpot, like the Beatles did in 1964. Bill scratched the surface, but never clicked. Haley died broke and obscure as did most of the others. Someone also mentioned “Punk”. The evolution of Punk is thought by many to be a reflection of societal nihilism following Elvis’s death. The one great idol in musical society having been found to have clay feet (drugs, booze and fat). What is left after your idols are all found to be fake? Never mind the bollocks, her come the Sex Pistols.

IMHO, if an individual can be labelled as the king & rock & roll, it’s Chuck Berry.

Technically and historically correct. Remember the famous Saturday Night Live skit where they send a time capsule into deep space. Among the contents was a Chuck Berry record. Years later the capsule comes crashing back to earth with a note pinned to it: “Send more Chuck Berry”. I agree with you, in the purist sense, Chuck Berry is truly the King of Rock and Roll, but Elvis became the visual personality embodying rock and roll. I was in 7th grade when Chuck Berry hit it. At noon, everyone in school repaired to the attic where the girls danced with each other and the boys gawked at them, speculating on what they looked like naked. 7 out of ten songs played were by Chuck Berry. No one knew he was black because no one ever actually saw him. Blackness was downplayed at ever level. Album covers from black artists were printed in “sepia” to minimize the complexions.

But Berry was a victim of his unfortunate complexion as was the “Architect of rock and roll” Little Richard. There is no doubt whatsoever that the roots of rock and roll are black, drifting up from the Mississippi delta, electrified and maturing in the back street clubs of the Chitlin Circuit and spread to the masses by Alan Freed. But no one ever visualized these artists. White kids “listened” to Little Richard, Chuck Berry and a host of others, but these guys pretty much stayed in their place except for making records which I might add they never saw any money from. You have to remember that this was an era of discrimination that extended to every sphere of American life. White performers like Pat Boone covered Little Richard and made it big with personal appearances, movie acting and concerts. Little Richard got turned away from hotels. Elvis was the first white boy to effectively translate the vibe effectively. A white boy singing black music made it acceptable to be seen and heard in public.

Next time you hit town, you must go to the R & R Museum in Cleveland. it is really worth the trip. Then go to the top floor and sit through the Birth of Rock and Roll (if they still have it). About 30 minute video. At the end, there is a cacophony of voices singing songs. Slowly, imperceptibly, then progressively building, you hear Elvis singing one of his early songs through the mish-mash. As the Elvis voice slowly builds you find yourself honing in on it, sorting it out, shutting out the rest. It’s electrifying. As radical as Hendrix in 1967. In a few seconds and no narrative you understand the radical change in the evolution of rock and Elvis’s place in it.

And if one musician has to be labelled as the most influential in 20th century American music, it’s Louis Armstrong. Elvis was at the right time & place, & his success is based purely on the music created by these two. He really had nothing new to say musically.

Armstrong was just like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Stevie Ray never did anything that a whole lot of other blues players didn’t do as well or better. He just did it with a lot of class.

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