Some 1950s rock history:
[In 1954] “They did multiple takes; nothing seemed to click. Everyone was ready to quit for the night when, as Elvis told the story later, “this song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago and I started kidding around.”
The song was “That’s All Right,” an old rhythm & blues number, written and recorded by Arthur Crudup. “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them,” Scotty Moore recalled. Phillips stuck his head out of the booth and told them to start from the beginning. After many takes, they had a record.
To make a record that people could buy, they needed a B-side. So, the next day, Presley, Moore, and Black recorded an up-tempo cover of a bluegrass song called “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and, in July, 1954, Elvis Presley’s first single came on the market. In Sun’s promotional campaign, Phillips emphasized the record’s “three-way” appeal: to pop, hillbilly, and rhythm-and-blues listeners.
The point was that Elvis was not a pop singer who covered R. & B. and country songs. Plenty of pop singers did that. Elvis was a crossover artist. Sam Phillips announced in a press release: “According to local sales analysis, the apparent reason for its tremendous sales is because of its appeal to all classes of record buyers.” The press bought the theory that Elvis was unclassifiable in conventional terms. “He has a white voice, sings with a Negro rhythm, which borrows in mood and emphasis from country styles,” a Memphis paper explained.
Presley was made for television. Offstage, he was bashful and polite, but, with a microphone and in front of an audience, he was a gyrating fireball with an unbelievably sexy sneer. He loved to perform.
He made his first national television appearance on Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” on CBS, in January, 1956. His big television moment came a few months later, though, when he sang back-to-back versions of “Hound Dog,” the second time with full range of pelvic motion, on Milton Berle. Forty million people watched his performance, and that summer “Hound Dog” and its flip side, “Don’t Be Cruel,” went to No. 1 on all three Billboard charts. The rest is history.
Rhythm and blues was hot. By 1954, the all-black-programming WDIA had become a fifty-thousand-watt station reaching the entire mid-South. A year later, there were more than six hundred stations, in thirty-nine states, that programmed for black listeners. When the young Pat Boone walked into the studio at Dot Records, in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the summer of 1955, he was shocked to be asked to sing an R. & B. song. Like Presley, Boone saw himself as a ballad singer. But he recorded Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and it went to No. 1 on the pop chart. The same summer, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” became a No. 1 song after it was heard in the movie “Blackboard Jungle.”
In May, 1955, Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” for Chess Records; Chess rushed the record to Alan Freed, in New York, and it went to No. 1 on the R. & B. chart and No. 5 on the pop chart.
Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was released a few months later. By January, when Presley was beginning to appear on television, it had reached No. 17 on the pop chart. In 1954, only three per cent of songs on the pop retail chart were by African-American artists; in 1957, it was nearly thirty per cent. That was unprecedented.
Presley quickly covered “Tutti Frutti.” So did Pat Boone, who, in the nineteen-fifties, was second in record sales only to Presley. An aspiring English teacher, Boone insisted on announcing his first big hit onstage as “Isn’t That a Shame.” He did not, even remotely, “sound black.” But, from an industry point of view, he brought respectability to the material. He helped make R. & B. the new pop.
In 1956, seventy-six per cent of top R. & B. songs also made the pop chart; in 1957, eighty-seven per cent made the pop chart; in 1958, it was ninety-four per cent. The marginal market had become the main market, and the majors had got into the act.
It’s tempting to interpret it as a generational rebellion against a buttoned-up, conservative domestic culture, but this is almost certainly a retrospective reading, created by looking at the period through the lens of the nineteen-sixties. Folk songs had a message, and some sixties rock songs had a message. Rock and roll did not have a message, unless it was: “Let’s party (and if you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair).” Or maybe, at its most polemical, “Roll over, Beethoven.” But it was music intended for young people, and this was the distinctive thing.
In order for a music for young people to come into being, young people have to have a way to play it. The jukebox was one delivery mode: kids could listen to the music in a diner or an ice-cream shop, someplace outside the home and in the company of other kids.
More significant, as Ennis points out, were several inventions. The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.
In 1954, transistor radios came on the market. Kids could now carry the music anywhere, including to school.
“Hound Dog,” one of Presley’s biggest hits, was originally released by a black R. & B. singer named Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton, in 1953, and went to No. 1 on the national R. & B. chart. But Thornton didn’t write the song. It was written by a couple of Jewish teen-agers living in L.A., Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, on commission from the producer Johnny Otis, who was recording Thornton for Peacock Records. It took them about fifteen minutes to compose it.
Presley needed thirty-one takes to record “Hound Dog.” He didn’t cover Big Mama Thornton’s version, though. He had decided to record the song after hearing it performed by an all-white Las Vegas lounge act called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who had rewritten the lyrics to turn “Hound Dog” from a song about a lover who won’t go away to a song about, actually, a dog. It was a gag number, and that’s how Elvis performed it. When he sang it on “The Steve Allen Show,” Allen brought a basset hound onstage and Presley sang to the dog.
The flip side of Presley’s “Hound Dog” single, “Don’t Be Cruel,” is completely different, a doo-woppy, country-sounding song. “Don’t Be Cruel” was written by Otis Blackwell, who later gave Presley two more songs with the same sound, “Return to Sender” and “All Shook Up.” Blackwell was African-American.
It’s natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism, and good luck, and of demographic and technological changes whose consequences no one could have foreseen, and shape them into a heroic narrative about artistic breakthrough and social progress.”
The Real History of*Rock and Roll | The New Yorker