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Rock and Roll Part 4

Beginnings of Rock and Roll (Part four)
As you may gather from parts 1 to 3, one can seesaw on the debate of the beginning of R&R. What I am attempting to demonstrate is that R&R was perhaps a spontaneous eruption of interest but not of a type of music. There are other artists and songs I could identify as forming the roots of R&R, but as I’ve discovered, much was borrowed from the past. Chuck Berry responded when asked about his music and his ‘original’ sound and I am paraphrasing here; he mentions many influencers, that he used guitar riffs, lyrical hooks and performing tricks from other people.
“If you can, call it my music, but there's nothing new under the sun.” Even his quote was borrowed from the Bible.
By 1954 Rhythm and Blues music was on fire, and that little station in Memphis had increased its wattage to cover the entire mid-southern U.S.  R&B listeners could tune in to nearly 600 hundred stations, almost nationwide in the USA.  
Another ‘brand’ of music was starting to catch on as well, here is one of the early songs on which there is no debate, this was ‘Rock and Roll’.
Rock Around the Clock” written by Max Freedman and James Myers, first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights March 1954. This version does not quite grab it nor was it a 'hit' song.
(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets, recorded April 1954, note the year of release, May 10, 1954. Big difference from the original, Ok now we’re talkin’!
This is really the only memorable version of over 130 covers, this song was #1 in Germany, the UK and US Pop charts and #3 on the R&B charts-but not until 1955! Released originally as the ‘B’ side to a song no one remembers, “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” neither song charted in 1954. Featured in the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle” (with an interracial cast), the song took off and the rest is R&R history. Had this song not been used in the movie it most likely would have become a footnote left to be discovered by music historians, instead it was to become a R&R anthem and sell over 25 million copies and it's still selling on formats like iTunes and requested on Spotify.
Blackboard Jungle 1955

So now, 1955 was a big year for R&R music and that push for the ‘white’ audience was full steam ahead. This is a topic I want to tackle looking more so at the 'business' aspect of R&R. At the forefront of that was Pat Boone. From what I’ve read, I don’t believe he himself planned to sing covers of popular R&B songs as he, like Elvis was originally a ballad singer. Fact of the matter was they all sounded like ballads anyway, sorry Pat but you have a lovely voice but not so much R&R.

Ain't That a Shame” by Pat Boone with Orchestra and Chorus. Released May 1955. Written by Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino.
The original, released a month earlier in April 1955. “Ain't it a Shame”. I don’t think Fats ever used the words in the title, anytime he sang it was always “Ain't That a Shame”. Subsequent covers of which there are over 40 mostly use “That” rather than ‘it’ in the title. I also read it originally had been a misprint on the record label, also that Pat Boone was involved in changing it. Having said that many a song is similarly 'labeled' and the title is not actually in the song itself.
Fats had a pretty big hit with this song, but it wasn’t as big as Pat Boone who went #1 on the Billboard Pop charts where Fats reached #10. So this would be a good place to talk about an idea I’ve read about where ‘whites’ stole the music from the ‘blacks’, this is not my issue nor yours I’d imagine but it has been the subject of much debate. As I have and will continue to point out there has been plenty of 'borrowing' of music going on irrespective of a person's colour. While it’s true in this instance Pat Boone’s version initially sold more copies and topped the pop charts, Fats version benefited also. From what I gather his record sales continued to rise after the Boone version came out and both he and his co-writer made more money from the song than Pat did due to owning the composition rights. I've read that Fat's once said after inviting Pat on stage, "Pat Boone bought me this ring." while flashing a piano shaped diamond ring.

Song 'rights' aside this was not atypical from what I have read. ‘White’ cover versions from Pat Boone and others had the effect of helping raise awareness of the original versions, many ‘black’ musicians including the once furious over this, James Brown came to realize the fact that it helped more than it hurt. Just wait until I blog about the “British Invasion” and you will see what I mean. And when we say play “Ain't That a Shame” few remember the Pat Boone version, not to mention which version we buy.

I can site you hundreds if not thousands of examples where songs originally by 'black' artists were covered by other 'black' and 'white' artists alike. Typically what makes a song likely to be covered is the artist and or their record company thinks they can make a hit out of it or the artist themselves feels strongly enough about it to want to record their own version. The bandwagon effect is very strong in the music industry, and many wanted to exploit a 'hot' tune.

Notwithstanding there are certain cover versions that were promoted more than the original song, once again I can site many instances where this was not exclusively an issue of colour. Enter "The Twist" written and originally done by Harold Ballard, covered by I don't need to tell you, Chubby Checker. Still there are cases where artists were unfairly kept from collecting royalties and many performers were not adequately compensated. This issue of unpaid royalties for songwriters and performers alike is something that happened for years in the music world, you need only look at the lawsuits and the more recent effects of streaming music to see it still is.
There are many documented cases where lawsuits have not ever been launched or dropped because they are expensive or were unsuccessful. I am really only talking about instances where the singer of the song wrote the song, most often the song was written by someone other than the artist anyway. The song itself is a commodity, open to be bought and sold if you will, or re-recorded by anyone without permission so long as the writers are credited and the royalties are directed to the right people.

Having said all this, I am no expert on racial issues nor do I assume to be able to relate to those who have experienced racism and bigotry. I've researched this a fair bit but we all should know it was not easy for many people of colour and 'blacks' in particular. Even the most successful were degraded by having to use 'blacks only', service or back door entrances to the venues they were playing.  I reference this subject because I think it's relevant, but only in the context of how I understand it relates to the history of what we call Rock & Roll and for that matter any recorded music. Back to the music!

Based on the Billboard Top 100 year-end chart, here are some of the other big hits of 1955;
Sincerely” The McGuire Sisters 1955, written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, originally recorded in 1954 by The Moonglows, and it did hit #1 on the R&B charts that year. However this version did even better reaching #1 on the Pop charts and selling over one million copies.
Only You (And You Alone)” by The Platters, written by Buck Ram, yep real name Samuel Buck Ram, also their Manager. This was the original tune, and it went on to be covered some 140 times.
Love and Marriage” by Frank Sinatra, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Another original that has been covered at least 30 times.
Earth Angel” by the Penguins, written by Jesse Belvin, Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams. The original version which came out in 1954, reached #1 on the R&B charts and peaked at #10 on the Pop charts.
Earth Angel” by The Crew-Cuts in 1955 peaked at #3 and ended the year at #43 on the Billboard Pop Chart.
I know you thought I was finished however it so happens this last song is a good case to support my above point, the Crew-Cuts who happened to be ‘white’ covered this song. And the original song by the Penguins who happened to be ‘black’ got a second life later in 1955 and ended the year at #47 on the Pop 100 Chart, so while slightly surpassed on the charts, it went on to sell about 10 million copies, vastly outstripping the Crew-Cuts version and really the only version history remembers. The Penguins would be very busy singing this song for years. Having said that the writers of the song who were all ‘black’ ended up in a battle with the record company (Dootone) owner Dootsie Williams who incidentally was also ‘black’ over royalties.

The above mentioned “Ain't That a Shame” and at least two more songs that charted in the 1955 year-end 'Pop' Top 100 were recorded by two different artists, “Unchained Melody” and “Only You”. There were many other songs that year recorded by two or even three different artists, some made the weekly charts and some did not. Cover songs were virtually everywhere during the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s and though typically they don't 'chart' as much anymore covers don't seem to be going anywhere soon.

Just to clarify my 'chart' references, I use Billboard rather than Cashbox as it is the more authoritative and happens to be still around. Topping the Pop charts in the early days would result in more record sales than topping the R&B chart, though not exclusively but typically this was the case. Many songs of course charted on both, R&B songs being more likely to 'cross over' to the Pop chart than the reverse from what I've seen.  Over time that gap would narrow and I read this year for the first time ever Hip Hop and R&B records have outsold Pop and Rock and Roll 'charts' and become the most popular genre of music.

In summing up this series on the beginning of R&R, we know it is strongly rooted in R&B. Previously I mentioned that racism did play a part in the early years but in my estimation R&R is about as multiracial as you can get, 'blacks', 'whites', 'latinos' and native peoples and more have all contributed and continue to do so. The unfortunate reality is, it was for a time easier for some 'whites' than it was for most people of colour to make a decent living playing music, not just R&R.

All this being said, I think this is not a 'black and white' matter in more ways than one and those wishing to look for a controversy where there is none, they (I don't think) have done their research. There is much anecdotal evidence and I think unfairness is systemic in the music business as there are so many instances. Regardless of my ranting on, I don't plan on making such racial references again unless during my blog it is critical to my story telling about a particular artists experience.

"Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" by Danny and The Juniors, released January 1958 covered 12 times.

Here ends my journey on the beginnings of R&R, as I risk referencing another couple dozen songs and artists and going up to a 'Part 10'.  I've mentioned many an influencer in previous blogs as you may have noticed. Going forward I will focus on specific artists, years or groups of artists that had an early impact on the genre such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Delta Blues and so on. I will also cover other types of music and genres and subgenres. I also won't stay shy of more contemporary artists who have and will, cover songs with a history I find compelling enough to blog or shall I say blather about. I will jump around quite a bit as I seem to have done so far. Suggestions are always welcome so speak your mind in the comments section.

Click here for a playlist of all the videos in this blog

A bonus playlist of other influential songs and artists

Music Trivia: Which song beat out “(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” for the number one spot for the year end Pop chart in 1955? It was "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" by PĂ©rez Prado. Never heard of it? Me neither!

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