I started listening to the radio in the early “70’s. At that time, there were many comedy television shows created to showcase a band’s music. There was, for instance, the “Sonny and Cher Comedy hour” with their great music and outlandish costumes interspersed with good-natured bickering. Several of these comedies, such as “The Partridge Family” with David Cassidy, “Getting Together” (with Bobby Sherman) and ” the Monkees” served to make their stars a teen heartthrob.
There were also variety shows like the “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”. Glen commented that “It’s awesome when you think about the power of TV and movies. If I hadn’t had hit records, I wouldn’t have gotten TV and movies, but the Goodtime Hour made my career explode all over the world.” I loved these shows, especially their music. Television shows have always been a big influence on our enjoyment of rock music, even now.
I soon developed an interest in the history of rock and roll. The words “Rock and roll” were apparently first used in 1951 by a Cleveland disk jockey called Alan Freed, and were taken from the song “My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll”. It was traditional in blues music, which evolved in the 1950’s from rhythm and blues, to use the terms “rock, roll, rock and roll, etc) to refer to sexual intercourse. Freed used the term to mean music with a raw, heavy, back beat in order to include whites in his audience.
He started a radio program called “Moondog Rock and Roll Party” that played black music for a white audience; his enthusiasm for black music became contagious. In 1952, Freed organized the first rock and roll concert. The record industry, aware that a new and popular music was being created by blacks, tried to exploit it.
In 1952 “Bill Haley and the Comets” became the first (black) rock and roll band, although at that time the US was still largely racially divided. When Sam Phillips founded Sun Records, he announced “If I could find a white man who sings with the Negro feel, I’d make a million dollars”.
In 1952 the “Bandstand” television program went on the air. In 1953, Bill Haley’s “Crazy Man Crazy” became the first rock song to enter the Billboard charts. “Crying in the Chapel” by the Orioles, became the first black hit to top the white pop charts. In 1954, doo-wop, a new kind of black vocal harmony emerged, with the Penguins’ Earth Angel (1954) and by the Platters’ Only You (1955).
Juke box machines were spreading in the early ’50’s and the first solid body electric guitars were brought onto the market. In 1954, record companies switched to “45’s, and the transistor radio was introduced. Record players became cheaper. Now teenagers could listen to their music anywhere they wanted.
“American Graffiti” was a great movie to highlight early rock and roll. Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was the first rock song used in a movie, and it became the national anthem of rock and roll; turning rock and roll into a nationwide success in 1954.
In 1955, Chuck Berry became the first major composer of rock and roll (instead of just an interpreter). He was the first one to have the guitar as the lead instrument and to have descending pentatonic double-stops (the essence of rock guitar). Unfortunately, being black, he didn’t get the same airplay as a white musician so he remained a cult figure. I remember him most for “Johnny Be Goode”
Elvis Presley’s recorded his first record was in 1954 and, since his first hits (such as Good Rocking Tonight) were all black ones, enabled white kids to play black music. With his huge success, white “rockers” were not only tolerated but even promoted by the major record producers. The music of black’s (such as “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”) was still more powerful and original however.
Slowly and steadily “white rockers” played more guitar than piano and singers began to sing their own songs (instead those of professional songwriters). “Black rockers” had always written their own songs and composed on the guitar. This is how rock and roll became guitar-based, utilized a small combo instead of an orchestra, and so emphasized the rhythm instead of the harmony. Rock musicians were expected to have a guitar in front of them even though most of the white ones didn’t know how to play the guitar.
The record industry boomed and independent labels flourished. By 1959, the market share of rock and roll was 42.7%. This, in spite of a bill proposed in Congress in 1955 to ban rock and roll in the U.S. Thank god, that didn’t happen!
The 1960’s saw a “British invasion” of rock bands. The Beatles were the most notable of these; they made rock the most popular music in America. Bob Dylan used rock and roll to protest war, poverty, and racism. Rock and roll continued to develop and change.
Although rock and roll is still around, it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did these first two decades. After the advent of disco in the “70’s, many people thought rock was losing its originality. It rebounded with hard rock and heavy metal in the 80’s. Rap, a black movement, became very popular. By the late 90’s people were complaining rock was too depressing. Then the very young group Hanson appeared with “MMM Bop” and took the world by storm. Other “boy bands” followed, along with shows on finding them and making them into stars. Even now we have shows like “American Idol” which are very popular.
Rock music seems to have its ebbs and flows, most of all evolving and changing with American culture. It has been the soundtrack of our lives.