Category Archives: Founding Fathers

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens, born Richard Steven Valenzuela, was a Mexican-American singer-songwriter who left an indelible mark on the music industry. His brief career, which spanned less than two years, has become legendary, and he is now widely recognized as one of the founding father of rock and roll.

Valens’ influence on the genre has been immense, as he helped to break down racial and cultural barriers by introducing a unique blend of Mexican and American music styles. His hits such as “La Bamba,” “Come On, Let’s Go,” and “Donna” remain timeless classics to this day, and his legacy has been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2001. Valens’ story is inspiring and remains an important part of rock and roll history, and he will be remembered as its founding father for generations to come.

Early Life and Musical Career of Ritchie Valens

Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941 in Pacoima, California, a small town located in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, near Hollywood. His parents had migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1920s, and they placed a high value on music, which they hoped would become a source of income. Valenzuela Sr., his father, was a musician and had performed with the likes of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. His mother, Virginia Garduno, was an avid singer as well. Valenzuela’s first instrument was the trumpet, which he first picked up at age five. He soon switched to the guitar at the age of eight, and he began taking informal guitar lessons from a local musician named Bob Norwood.

Cultural and Racial Impact of Ritchie Valens’ Music

Valens’ songs and legacy are an important part of rock and roll history, and have helped to break down racial and cultural barriers. Valens’ normalization of rock and roll music helped to bring it into the mainstream. At the time of his breakthrough, rock and roll was still a relatively new genre of music, and the sound of it was unfamiliar to many. Many people were wary of the genre, as they were concerned that it was too provocative and would negatively influence society.

Valens’ normalization of rock and roll helped to bring it into the mainstream, and his music wasn’t met with as much resistance as it might have been had he not been Mexican. Additionally, many early rock and roll stars were black, and their music was received negatively by many white people. However, Valens, who was Mexican, helped to break down some of these racial barriers, as he appealed to both Mexican and white audiences.

Breakthrough Hits and Chart Success

Valens’ first single, “Come On, Let’s Go,” was released in 1957, but it was only a modest commercial success, and it failed to chart. His follow-up single, “Donna,” released in 1958, was an entirely different story. “Donna” became Valens’ first hit single, reaching number one on the Billboard chart and remaining there for six non-consecutive weeks. It also became the first rock and roll single by a Latino artist to reach number one, and it helped to introduce a unique blend of Mexican and American music styles. “Donna” was followed by other chart-topping hits, including “La Bamba” and “Telephone,” which both reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959. Overall, Valens released a total of 11 hit singles, nine of which reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

Sam Phillips, also known as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was a pioneering American record producer and the founder of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout his career, Phillips played a crucial role in shaping the sound and direction of rock and roll, and his impact on the genre continues to be felt today.

Phillips grew up in rural Alabama, where he developed a love for blues, gospel, and country music. After working as a radio DJ and sound engineer, he opened Sun Records in 1952, with the goal of recording and producing music that reflected the sounds he heard in the South. It was through Sun Records that Phillips discovered and recorded some of the most influential artists in rock and roll history, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Sun Studio in Memphis

Phillips’ contributions to the development of rock and roll are numerous and varied. Firstly, he was instrumental in popularizing the sounds of black blues and gospel musicians, which had previously been ignored by the mainstream music industry. Through his recordings and production, Phillips helped to bring these artists and their music to a wider audience, influencing the sound and style of early rock and roll.

Innovations in Recording

Secondly, Phillips was known for his innovative recording techniques and his willingness to experiment with new sounds and styles. He was among the first producers to use echo and reverb to enhance the sound of his recordings, and he was also one of the first to utilize multiple microphone setups in the studio. These innovations helped to create the distinctive “Sun sound,” which became synonymous with the early days of rock and roll.

Finally, Phillips’ influence extends beyond his production work and into the realm of artist development. He was a mentor and a sounding board for many of the musicians he worked with, and he helped to guide their careers and encourage their artistic visions. For example, he famously challenged Elvis Presley to find a unique style that would set him apart from other musicians, leading to Presley’s development as one of the most iconic figures in rock and roll history.

Sam Phillips Finds Elvis

Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley through a series of chance encounters. In the early 1950s, Presley was a struggling truck driver who had a passion for music and had made a few amateur recordings. One day, he walked into Sun Records in Memphis and asked to record a song as a gift for his mother. Phillips was intrigued by Presley’s raw talent and unique sound, and he offered to record him professionally.

Presley returned to Sun Records several times to make additional recordings, and Phillips began to see potential in the young musician. He encouraged Presley to incorporate elements of black blues and gospel music into his sound, and he helped him to refine his style and stage presence. Eventually, Phillips signed Presley to a recording contract, and he went on to become one of the most famous and influential figures in rock and roll history.

It is said that Phillips recognized something special in Presley’s voice and his ability to connect with audiences, and he was willing to take a chance on the young artist despite the lack of interest from other record labels. This willingness to take risks and to support new and innovative talent was a hallmark of Phillips’ career, and it was a key factor in his success as a record producer and his role in shaping the history of rock and roll.

Johnny Cash

Sam Phillips discovered Johnny Cash in the early 1950s when Cash was still a young man serving in the United States Air Force. After completing his military service, Cash visited Sun Records in Memphis and auditioned for Phillips. Impressed by Cash’s deep and distinctive voice, Phillips offered him a recording contract and helped to shape his sound and style.

Phillips encouraged Cash to incorporate elements of country and folk music into his recordings, and he also encouraged him to write his own songs. This combination of Cash’s natural talent and Phillips’ production expertise resulted in a series of hit recordings that helped to establish Cash as one of the most influential figures in the country and rockabilly genres.

In addition to his work with Cash, Phillips also recorded other influential musicians such as Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who, along with Presley and Cash, became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet.” These artists helped to define the sound and style of early rock and roll, and Phillips’ role as a producer and mentor to these musicians was critical to their success and to the development of the genre.

Altogether, Sam Phillips’ contributions to the history of rock and roll are immense. He helped to popularize the sounds of black blues and gospel music, pushed the boundaries of recording technology, and played a key role in the development of many of the most iconic artists in the genre. Today, his legacy lives on through the countless musicians and producers who have been influenced by his work, and his impact on the music world continues to be felt decades after his death.


Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley was an influencer of many of the founding fathers of rock.  His birth name was Otha Ellas Bates.  It was in the deep South, in McComb, Mississippi, on December 28th, 1928.  He later took the name of Ellas McDaniel when he was adopted by his mother’s cousin and moved to Chicago’s South Side.Bo Diddly's square guitar

Ellas learned music at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.   He mastered the trombone and violin first before taking up the guitar.  And oh, what a guitarist he would be!  Like many musicians, he started out gigging in Chicago clubs as a sideline.

Image: In the 1950s, Bo Diddley had a square guitar custom-made. He’d go on to make guitars of all shapes.

No one is really sure where the name Bo Diddley came from.  He says that it was a name given to him by some pals when boxing in the Golden Gloves.  He suspected that it was an insult, but he also noted a stage name previously used by a comedian related to his mother.  Wherever it came from, it stuck.

Bo Diddley’s Music

It wasn’t until 1951 when he landed his first regular gig at the 708 Club and in 1954 when he recorded his first demo record.  The demo included “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley.”  Chess Studios liked the demo,  recorded it, and in March of 1955, he had a #1 R&B hit with  “Bo Diddley.

Bo Diddley 45 rpm recordOn November 20, 1955, his musical stardom was when he appeared on the popular television program The Ed Sullivan Show.  In the 1950s, when you hit Ed Sullivan’s show, you were a star.  Unfortunately, there was some confusion with Sullivan’s staff, and Bo ended up performing an as-yet-unreleased “Sixteen Tons” along with “Bo Diddle.”  Sullivan was angry and never invited him back.  Bo Diddley went on to record “Sixteen Tons,” and we’re still listening to it today.

This article won’t go into his discography and professional accomplishments.  There’s plenty of that on the web.   We’ve included him here as a member of Rock royalty and one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.

road runner album coverHis special way of playing the guitar, using it almost like a percussion instrument rather than for melody or harmony.  It was an African rhythm that Bo Diddley transitioned into American R&B, which is the basis for today’s Rock and Roll.  The Bo Diddley beat is heard in many other early rockers, notably Buddy Holly,  Elvis, The Beatles,  the Stones, and others.  It’s grown to become the backbone of today’s hip-hop and rap.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, and more have honored him.  He’s been awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.   But most of all, Bo, we thank you for your music.

Ike Turner

Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm "Rhythm Rockin' Blues" album cover
Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm “Rhythm Rockin’ Blues” album

Ike Turner makes our list of founding fathers of rock and roll for his 1951 song Rocket 88. It’s considered as possibly being the first rock and roll song. There are several other contenders for this title as rock and roll wasn’t a new “out of the blue” type of music but rather an evolutionary change from Rhythm and Blues.  Many of the experts though credit Rocket 88, or Rocket “88” as it was originally known, as being the first true and pure, through and through, rock and roll record.

Turner’s music career started in high school where he joined a band called The Tophatters.   This was in the late 40s, and The Tophatters specialized in Big Band music.  The Tophatters eventually broke up with the band splitting in two directions.  Some of the originals stayed with the Jazz based big band dance music, and part was going towards blues and boogie-woogie.  The blues and boogie spinoff was led by Ike and named itself the Kings of Rhythm.  Ike kept the Kings of Rhythm name for his band throughout his music career.

Turner and his band found some influential friends along the way. B.B. King already had a recording contract with RPM records.  King helped them to get gig dates and introduced Ike to his producer at RPM, the legendary Sam Phillips, who later went on to found Sun Records.

Rocket 88

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.

While driving to Memphis to meet Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, he and his band wrote Rocket 88.  It wasn’t Ike but Jackie Brenton, the band’s saxophonist that did the vocals.   Sam Phillips sold the record to another studio, Chess in Chicago, where it was released as coming from “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats”.  Delta 88 sold somewhere around a half-million copies, a big number for a new band, and it became part of rock and roll history.

Rocket 88 launched the careers of two rock and roll giants.  Ike Turner and Sam Phillips. Sun Studios went on to record several of the other founding fathers of rock: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.  Ike Turner didn’t fare so well at first.  Different accounts show him selling the rights to Rocket 88 at alternately $20 and $40.  And Jackie Brenton didn’t handle fame well.  He and several of Ike’s musicians went off on their own, soon went broke, and faded from the scene.

Turner spent the next several years as a session musician, songwriter, and producer for Sam Phillips and the Bihari Brothers while he rebuilt his band.  The Bihari’s were notable because they were white businessmen in a predominately black R&B world.  They had substantial success in crossing R&B, over to the white audiences of rock and roll.

Two big changes happened in the late 50s.  Many say that the musician lifestyle finally caught up to Turner.  The former clean-as-a-whistle star had his first couple of run-ins with the law.  It was the start of problems that plagued him for the rest of his life.  Later on, he would miss his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he was in jail.

The second change was in 1958 when he was introduced to Anna May Bullock.  Anna was eventually given a tryout and joined the band as a singer.  She started as “Little Ann”, but eventually changed her first name to Tina, and later took the last name of Turner.  It was only a stage name at first, although Tina says that they were eventually married in 1962 (Ike disagreed).

The Ike and Tina Turner Review was a big success until 1976 when they broke up for good.  Details of their rocky times together were made into a movie “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.

Ike and Tina Turner were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.