Category Archives: Music

Classic Rockers

The classic rockers didn’t invent rock and roll, but they defined it.  Starting from different directions, four different flavors of rock worked toward the middle.

Classic Rockers #1: R&B Artists

One batch of classic rockers were the base rock and rollers: The black artists who brought rhythm and blues up a notch to what we know as rock today. Following WWII, many Southern blues artists moved North and some of the best ended up in Chicago which became a center for the blues. It was also the time that Leo Fender and Les Paul’s electric guitar advances were taking the guitar from a rhythm accompaniment to a lead instrument. Blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon were early masters of guitar driven performances.

Classic Rockers #2: Sam Phillips and Sun Studio

The story moves next to classic rockers Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis and his early artists. Sun Studios recorded many of the top black blues singers including B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, Rufus Thomas, and Howlin’ Wolf, but in the 50s, it wasn’t socially acceptable for whites to buy records from black artists.

Label from Rocket 88. Ike Turner and his band wrote Rocket 88 which is considered the first rock and roll recording.
Ike Turner and his band wrote Rocket 88 which is considered the first rock and roll recording.

It was Sun Studios that released one of the contenders for the title of rock and roll’s first record. “Rocket 88″ was recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. As a side note, the song was written, and the band was led by a young Ike Turner, who later went on to fame with Tina.

Classick Rockers #3: Elvis

The next flavor of classic rockers was led by the king, Elvis Presley. As a white performer, Elvis’ versions of black blues tunes were considered acceptable by white audiences. It sort of helped that he had a great voice and over the top stage presence too, but many of his first hits were all covers of black blues tunes. That’s All Right Mama was written and previously recorded by Arthur Crudup and Good Rocking Tonight came from Roy Brown, and later Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel.

The Sun Studio
The Sun Studio

Sam Phillips and Sun Studios would go on score hit after hit by bringing white performers together with black music. He was the tops in rock and roll records while Sun Studios was up and running, producing more records than anyone else. His first love was blues and said “The blues, it got people- black and white- to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out.” He was also quoted as saying “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

Elvis wasn’t the only hero in the camp of classic rockers. It also included Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Billy Haley & the Comets, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, The Coasters, Bobby Darin, Ritchie Valens, Roy Orbison, and Gene Vincent along with others.

One of the classic rockers, Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry

Of this list, many will say that Chuck Berry is the true “King of Rock and Roll”, but racial attitudes of the times just wouldn’t allow it. He, along with Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, and others received a lot more recognition as attitudes relaxed, but at the time had difficulty finding recording studios and distributors. Many big names of rock from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones credit their influence.

Classic Rockers #3: Rockabilly

The third flavor of early classic rockers was rockabilly. The name came from a combination of rock and roll and hillbilly music, and that’s just what it was. Carl Perkins is the acknowledged leader here with hits like Blue Suede Shoes and Boppin the Blues. Many of Elvis’ hits were rockabilly as were early hits by Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and others. Rockabilly evolved quickly and by the early 1960s, it was merged into mainstream classic rock.

Banned Songs

Rock and Roll grew up with the post war baby boomers.  Living standards were better than ever before and teens in the 50s and 60s had more freedom than ever before.  Many had free time after school, allowances, and more freedom than their parents.

At the same time, new technologies made music more available.  Phonograph and radio prices came way down with new technology, and the invention of transistor radios allowed teens their own personal music players.

Rock and Roll was their music and parents weren’t happy!  It definitely wasn’t big band.  The beat was driving, the words weren’t always socially acceptable, and it wasn’t Frank Sinatra!

Of course, a couple of rock groups went a bit overboard … maybe more than a bit … and stepped on a lot of adult toes.  Here’s some of the worst … if you were a teen at the time you might say that they were some of the best.  Whichever way you see it, here are some of the banned songs and groups that got themselves censored in one way or another… which, of course, increased their sales and cool factor substantially.

censored banned songs
Censored and banned songs

When the Rolling Stones titled their song “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, they were asking for a ban.  Premarital sex was probably as common then as it is now, but it wasn’t discussed in public. It earned them a ban from the BBC for encouraging promiscuity. Mick Jagger didn’t help when he promised Ed Sullivan to change the words to “let’s spend some time together” for the family oriented Ed Sullivan Show and then jus mouthed the words so that the kids knew what he was singing.

The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was banned from many station play lists because the title was thought to be a reference to LSD, a common hallucinogenic drug at the time.

Louie Louie by the Kinsmen was banned by many stations because … we’ll there really wasn’t a reason.  It was a suggestive story and a lousy recording.  Some people just imagined it to be dirty.  There’s more on Louie Louie here.  Louie Louie even got an FBI investigation!

Splish Splash by Bobby Darin was banned by some stations because it described a guy getting out of the bathtub and finding a party going on in his living room, then putting just his towel back on.  This song did wonders for Bobby’s teen idol image.

Wake Up Little Suzy was banned because it was about 2 teens sleeping together, even though they just fell asleep during a boring movie.

Puff the Magic Dragon drew the ire of no less than the Vice President of the US Spiro Agnew.   He labeled it as “blatant drug culture propaganda”.  Peter Yarrow claims he wrote the song about losing the innocence of childhood.  History has treated Peter well and Peter, Paul, and Mary are considered folk music gods and goddess.  Spiro Agnew had to resign as VP to serve some jail time.

And Chuck Berry had a lot of fun with his #1 hit “My Ding-a-Ling”.  It got banned by many stations.  The song had been around for a while and the words are clear and clean, but Berry twisted them in concert with loads of innuendo.

Themed Albums

Themed albums, sometimes called concept albums, have a special place in rock history. Most albums are simply a collection of songs by an artist or group. A themed album has an additional story to tell and is based around a central concept or story.

Albums with a theme weren’t new with rock music, but rock brought them to a new level. Maybe it was the advanced capabilities of the recording equipment that made it possible or maybe it was that music production had progressed. It was probably a combination of both, coupled with a few extremely talented musical geniuses, that made themed albums some of the tops of the 60s.

A few of the musical greats recorded successful concept albums before the rock era. Woody Guthrie was probably first with his Dust Bowl Ballads about life in the 30s. Frank Sinatra recorded several, most notably In the Wee Small Hours about loneliness and heartache, and Come Fly with Me about world travel. Going off subject a bit, but I can’t help thinking what a fantastic rock star Frank Sinatra would be if he was at his prime during the golden age of rock.

Jazz great Nat King Cole recorded a few notable themed albums with After Midnight and Penthouse Serenade. And Country legend Johnny Cash built his reputation with Songs of Our Soil, a gospel inspired theme about death and mortality.

Then came rock and themed albums ruled

The Ventures, an instrumental group of highly skilled but low visibility studio musicians launched a series of themed albums in the early 60s. Their albums themed with surf music, country, outer space, television themes, and psychedelic music sold by the ton.

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds themed album
The Beach Boys Pet Sounds Album

Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds album with The Beach Boys highlighted his musical genius. Even now, 50 years later, the musical world still talks about the Pet Sounds album as a single composition. Many of the individual songs were hits but the genius is in the assembled package. Paul McCartney credits Pet Sounds as being a major inspiration.

And they just got bigger from here…

Inspired by some of their predecessors, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band raised the bar. Many will say that the Sgt. Pepper bar is so high that it won’t be topped but there are many that come close.

The Moody Blues Days of Future Past put a psychedelic spin on everyday life. The psychedelic spin came from the London Festival Orchestra twisted to the band’s R&B rock style.

We’ve mentioned some of the finest examples, but space doesn’t allow, and I’m not enough of an expert, to list all of the golden age of rock theme albums. There’s two more that we need to mention though.

Cover from Tommy, a themed album from The Who.
Tommy Album Cover

All of the examples so far have been musical themes, where the song or emotion style tied the album together. In 1969, just a few months before Woodstock, The Who released their rock opera Tommy. In addition to the musical theme, Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote a storyline into Tommy that turned it into a rock opera. It tells the story of a deaf mute boy and how he gets along with family and his life and the relationship with his family.

I hate to mention this last one. Musical purists hate it, but we’re all guilty of listening to them. It’s the themed compilation. Titles like The Greatest Love Songs or The World’s 20 best Cha Chas. I’ll admit, that I own quite a few of them (I’m not a music purist), and they’re the only way to go for holiday songs.

 

The Day The Music Died

The golden age of  rock suffered a tremendous loss on February 3, 1959.  Rock was still in its infancy when 3 of it’s biggest and most promising new stars were lost in a plane crash.  The day has been immortalized as The Day the Music Died.  Rock lost Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Buddy Holly was the star of the show.  He already had 3 hit albums out.  His Peggy Sue and Oh Boy had made the top 10 and That’ll Be The Day was a #1 hit.

Ritchie Valens was a newcomer to rock recording.  He released his first album barely 8 months before.  Ritchie had a few hits including La Bamba.

J. P.” Richardson, known best as “The Big Bopper” was a DJ and songwriter.  J. P. wrote several songs that became #1 country hits for George Jones and Johnny Preston.

Winter Dance Party

The Winter Dance Party tour was planned to visit 24 midwest cities in only 3 weeks.  Just about every night was a concert and every day was travel.  It was winter in the midwest, the weather stank, and the tour bus had heater problems.  Some of the band members caught the Flu and drummer Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized for frostbite on January 31st.  It was a long way from the way that we pamper rock stars today.

The Winter Dance Party tour poster that led to the day the music died
Poster for the Winter Dance Party tour that led to the day the music died

Their next date was February 1st in Green Bay, Wisconsin with Dion and the Belmont’s Carlo Mastrangelo filling in on drums for everyone.  Richie Valens and Buddy Holly filled in on drums when Carlo was singing with the Belmonts.

February 2nd brought them to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  Their next concert was in Moorhead, Minnesota, almost 400 miles away.  Buddy Holly wanted to avoid the long trip on the unheated bus and arranged for a small charter plane.

The Day the Music Died

As the story goes, the plane had room for the pilot and only 3 others.  Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson claimed the first 2 sets, Dion DiMucci decided that the $36 share of the charter was too much and didn’t go, and that left Waylon Jennings and Ritchie Valens to fight over the remaining seat.  They flipped a coin and Ritchie Valens got the seat.   I can’t really say that he won because the plane crashed shortly after take off and all aboard were killed.

The fateful day was given its historical name “The Day The Music Died” by Don McLean in his 1971 opus American Pie.

Rock’s Influences

Rock family influences
Rock family influences

Chuck Berry, one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll, had a great quote about Rock’s influences:
“The Blues had a baby.  They call it Rock and Roll”. Fats Domino said just about the same “”What they call Rock and Roll I’ve been playing in New Orleans for years.”

It’s clear that Rhythm and Blues is Rock’s closest relative, but as it grew, influences from many different genres found their way in.  Here’s a few of rock’s early influences:

Country Music

Some of Rock’s most influential ancestors fall in the space somewhere in between Country Music and Rhythm and Blues. Music historians list several sub-genre in here, including Western Swing, Hillbilly Blues, Honky Tonk, and Bluegrass.

Rockabilly

Early in the history of Rock, the country / blues combination was combined with early Rock. The result was Rockabilly, and it brought the first major wave of popularity to the Rock craze. Elvis’ 1954 recording of “That’s Alright Mama” started it off, and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” spread Rock’s musical influence around the world.

Gospel

Over the years, Rock has borrowed heavily from Gospel, most notable in the harmonies. Many of the early stars credit their church and Gospel music for their musical training.

Teen Idols

“Sex sells” is the old advertising slogan and it proved itself in the early history of Rock. Elvis, of course, started it off with his “Elvis the Pelvis” stage appearance, but after Rock’s initial burst of popularity, the buzz faded. All of a sudden, there were no stars. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) were killed in a plane crash, Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis had shocked even the liberal rockers by marrying his underaged cousin, and Alan Freed had been convicted in the Payola scandal.

When the Winter Dance Party Tour (Buddy Holly’s tour with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper) resumed, it included three clean cut, all american teenage heartthrobs. Jimmy Clanton, Frankie Avalon, and Robert Velline (Bobby Vee) sang soft rock love songs and rocketed to stardom. They were followed by Neil Sedaka, Bobby Vinton, and the California beach singers like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean.

 

Rock and Roll Family Tree

Chuck Berry, one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll, described the rock and roll family tree with a great quote about Rock’s origins:
“The Blues had a baby.  They call it Rock and Roll”.

It’s clear that Rhythm and Blues is Rock’s closest relative, but as it grew, influences from many different genres found their way in.

Country Music

Some of Rock’s most influential ancestors fall in the space somewhere in between Country Music and Rhythm and Blues. Music historians list several sub-genre in here, including Western Swing, Hillbilly Blues, Honky Tonk, and Bluegrass.

Rockabilly

Early in the history of Rock, the country / blues combination was combined with early Rock. The result was Rockabilly, and it brought the first major wave of popularity to the Rock craze. Elvis’ 1954 recording of “That’s Alright Mama” started it off, and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” spread Rock’s musical influence around the world.

Gospel

Over the years, Rock has borrowed heavily from Gospel, most notable in the harmonies. Many of the early stars credit their church and Gospel music for their musical training.

Teen Idols

“Sex sells” is the old advertising slogan and it proved itself in the early history of Rock. Elvis, of course, started it off with his “Elvis the Pelvis” stage appearance, but after Rock’s initial burst of popularity, the buzz faded. All of a sudden, there were no stars. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) were killed in a plane crash, Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis had shocked even the liberal rockers by marrying his underaged cousin, and Alan Freed had been convicted in the Payola scandal.

When the Winter Dance Party Tour (Buddy Holly’s tour with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper) resumed, it included three clean cut, all american teenage heartthrobs. Jimmy Clanton, Frankie Avalon, and Robert Velline (Bobby Vee) sang soft rock love songs and rocketed to stardom. They were followed by Neil Sedaka, Bobby Vinton, and the California beach singers like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean.

The Origin of Rock and Roll

Rock and Roll, Rock n’ Roll, or just plain Rock wasn’t really new when it started to gain popularity in the early 50s. The basics of the beat had been around for years, known as Rhythm and Blues. Boogie Woogie, a form of Rhythm an Blues that was popular in the late 30s and early 40s is considered Rock’s closest relative.

Technically, Rock and Roll and Boogie Woogie are nearly the same. Both are 8 to the bar, 12-bar blues, but Rock has a greater emphasis on the back beat than Boogie Woogie. Add a drummer’s snare to the backbeat of a Boogie Woogie record from the 30s or ’40s, and it becomes Rock and Roll.

Rocking was a term commonly used in black spirituals of the American South with a religious meaning similar to rapture (ex Rock my Soul). Over time, it picked up a slang meaning similar to dancing, but hinting of sex. At first, its use was confined mostly to Rhythm and Blues. This was a mostly black audience and, at the time, was called Race music.

In the segregated times of the 1920s and 30s, it was rare for a black performer to be accepted by a white audience. The same Race music though, was accepted when it was played by whites and was accepted as an African American flavor of Jazz.

Then in the early 50s, a Cleveland disk jockey named Alan Freed began playing this type of music on the radio and built a strong multi-racial audience. He is generally regarded as the one responsible for popularizing the term Rock and Roll and went on to organize rock and roll shows attended by both whites and blacks, further helping to introduce African-American musical styles to a wider audience.

Freed didn’t invent the name, but he’s credited with popularizing it. There are numerous examples of the term being used in songs going back to the 20s. In 1922, Trixie Smith had a song titled “My Man Rocks Me with One Steady Roll”. In 1948, both Wild Bill Moore and Paul Bascomb recorded different songs titled “Rock And Roll”. In 1949, Erline Harris recorded “Rock And Roll Blues”.

Since Rock was really an evolutionary step, the first Rock and Roll song is open to interpretation. Some of Fats Domino’s songs from the 40s are very close, for example “The Oakie Bookie”, and recordings made by Big Band leader Benny Goodman with electric guitarist Charlie Christian are noted.

Rolling Stone magazine’ opinion from a 2005 article names Elvis Presley’s first single for Sun Records, “That’s All Right (Mama)” (1954), as the first. Other musicologists favor Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (1951), “Honey Hush” by Big Joe Turner (1953), or “Sh-Boom” by The Chords (1954).