Musings On Music

Setting The Records Straight

This Sunday, January 8th, Elvis Presley would have been 77 years old. I’m not sure any of us can imagine a 77 year old Elvis, honestly, but I do wish he was still around so we could all wish him a good one.  Around this time of year and later in the year around the anniversary of his death, there is the constant chatter about the ”King Of Rock’n'Roll” and I can handle that, but sometimes it gets into talk of him  inventing rock’n'roll, or the man who put out the first rock’n'roll record, or slightly inane and factually bizarre revisionist tidbits of history are uttered by talking heads on TV and folks on the radio that should know a little bit more about the music that employs them. I have to write something that sets the records straight…not the record, but the records. Each year around this time I read a lot of articles, blurbs and various references to this idea of Elvis as the inventor of rock’n'roll and I shake, rattle and roll my head every time I see that. This also happens alot in the music media around the start of July because on July 5, 1954 a hillbilly truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi walked into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and recorded a cover of a blues song by Arthur Crudup called “That’s All Right.” That young man had been trying for nearly a year to convince Sam Phillips to record him at Sun and finally his big break had come. After a series of stops, starts and near disasters, the inspiration during a recording break with his two sidemen, over some Cokes, came to him and a 19 year-old Elvis Presley began his triumphant and perhaps tragic 23 year recording career.

Now anyone who knows me, knows I love Elvis. And if you thought you knew me and didn’t know that, you probably don’t know me all that well. The first concert I ever saw was on May 29, 1977 at the Baltimore Civic Center and it was the King himself…it was his last tour and he was literally larger than life, bloated beyond comprehension, out of sorts and he had to leave the stage twice that evening–but even at that point, two month before his death, that hillbilly from Tupelo could sing. I remember loving the performance, not understanding why he left the stage or seemed as though he was about to pass out, I remember people shaking their heads as they left the civic arena and now it all plays out in my memory as the ominous harbinger of what was to come–the day I remember my mother answering the phone and her friend telling her Elvis was dead. As the years waxed on, I moved away from the Elvis camp, tried to forget how much I liked his music, because the ethos of punk rock was definitely not in line with the fat, jump-suited, Vegas Elvis that died on the toilet in Graceland. But in the last five years or so I’ve returned to my love of Elvis and his music. The point is, I’m an enormous Elvis fan, my first son’s middle name is Presley, after all–I don’t dress up like him or have a shrine (well, ok, it’s a small shrine)–the cat was cool for most of his time and now even the later years seem cool in a strange kitschy way. And if his early rockabilly pre-army career doesn’t strike one as consistent with all that is punk, then I’m not sure what does. But no matter how you slice it, “That’s All Right” was not the first rock’n'roll record.

“That’s Alright” was definitely a landmark in that it was Elvis’ first slab of wax, but, beyond that not much can be said–it wasn’t even a hit, except on local Memphis stations in 1954…sure it led to his RCA contract as did all of his other Sun recordings, but it really didn’t have quite the effect that revisionist historians would like to make us believe it did. No one could argue that none of the early rock records made that much of an impact on their own, but together they founded a movement–I can agree with that, but even with that in mind, I still have to say that “That’s All Right” still arrived three years after the first rock’n'roll record was released and two years after the first rock’n'roll event occurred. It may, more honestly reflect when a white guy started performing what was considered black music–and if that’s how historians are judging the history of rock, then they’ve completely missed the goddamn boat on rock’n'roll, its true roots and all that’s happened since.

If we’re judging the birth of rock’n'roll by national success…the prize still would not go to Elvis…his first Top 40 charting hit was “Heartbreak Hotel” somewhere in the early spring of 1956…over half a year after Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” had swung a number five hit and nearly a year after Bill Haley and the Comets hit number one with “Rock Around the Clock”…but again that was all in 1955, the first year that Billboard began tracking the chart success of pop and rock hits. Big Joe Turner had first released “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954 with great success, but he was considered largely a boogie woogie or jump blues artist and white audiences completely missed the leering lyrical intent of the song. It was clear though that the sound came out of the south, the deep south where the roots of blues, country and jazz had been fermenting in the swampy soil for quite some time. It was also clear that the sound was black and in the beginning, that’s why it was considered so damn dangerous, the very term itself–rock’n'roll–was a black euphemism for getting laid. And I will admit that if it wasn’t for that white, hip swinging, mama loving hillbilly from Tupelo who could sing like a black man, rock might never have taken a foothold or it would have had to wait a year before a geeky Texan named Buddy Holly made a brief splash on the scene.

Granted there is no, absolute, one answer to who created rock’n'roll, but there is a beginning…that one record, that one day when the blues went beyond the blues and if not a record, than there was an event, one gathering that lit the torch. As rock stands today, it’s easy to see who contributed what, who laid the groundwork for all that was to come and Elvis is absolutely and obviously included in that crowd, because, after all, he was the first true rock star, superstar or whatever else you would like to call his cult of personality phenomena that bookended the Beatles career by six years in either direction. Chuck Berry was the architect; I mean what the hell would we do without the guitar intro? Elvis the star. Bo Diddley and the quintessential backbeat. Buddy Holly and the beginning of rock’s history of youthful tragedy. Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis using the piano like the others were using guitars and so on…in fact they had to get the sound from somewhere as well, those are the people everyone knows, but the true originators of rock were probably penniless poor folk somewhere in the Mississippi Delta just playing the blues and dying uncredited for their creation.

Rock’n'roll should have celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 2001 or at the latest, 2002. In 1951 in the very same studio where Elvis would record “That’s Alright” three years later–before Sam Phillips had started the Sun label to promote black artists that were taking jump blues a bit further than most people thought proper–a group called Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded the true first rock’n'roll record with a song titled “Rocket 88″. The band itself, didn’t really exist, it was in fact Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm recording under an assumed name. Brenston was Turner’s saxophonist and is still given the songwriting credit for the tune, though everyone, most notably Sam Phillips who produced the record and Brenston himself admit that it was all Ike’s doing…but even that’s a mistruth. Sure one of the world’s most famous wife beating child haters was responsible for arranging the sound, writing the song and providing the monstrous backbeat–but,”Rocket 88″, an ode to an Oldsmobile, the first rock’n'roll record, owes much of its mystique, mystery and brilliance to an accident. You see Ike’s guitar speaker was damaged on Highway 61 on the way to Memphis and when Ike plugged in, his guitar created a distorted, fuzzy sound that had not been heard before–Sam Phillips loved it and the song became quite a hit, the rest is obscured history.

If we’re not considering the first record to be the start of rock’n'roll, what about the first rock concert? On March 21, 1952, Alan Freed–a radio disc jockey in Cleveland who was notorious for playing “race” records and coining the term “rock and roll”–booked the Cleveland arena with two partners for the Moondog Coronation Ball. Unfortunately, they sold something on the order of 25,000 tickets for a venue that could only hold 10,000 people–the show was promoted relentlessly on Freed’s Moondog show and kids were lined up around several city blocks waiting to get in. By the time the opening act, Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, played one song the arena had been torn to pieces by a crazed mob of people dancing, fighting and freaking out. If you’ve ever wondered why the rock’n'roll hall of fame is in Cleveland, this is your answer.

So there you go, pick your myth and if you want to stick with what the white folks like to believe, that “That’s All Right” is where it all began, that’s fine too. According to a recent CNN poll, 35% of those asked agree with you, the largest percentage of respondees incidentally. For me, it’s “Rocket 88″ and how an accident on Highway 61 transformed the sound of modern music, for others it’s how the first rock concert only lasted for one song…for someone else it may be the day that Big Joe Turner enlisted a young Fats Domino for his backup band in New Orleans. Perhaps the best answer to the question of when rock’n'roll began is that it never began, that it is infinite and timeless, as old as the cosmos itself…after all that supposedly began with one big bang.


2 Responses

  1. Ruttealse

    Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.

    January 22, 2012 at 10:42 pm

  2. Mitchell L. Hillman

    You are most welcome and thank you for reading!


    January 30, 2012 at 10:32 am

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