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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 influences, 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. So you see R&B/R&R was already just about everywhere. Another ‘brand’ or really just a 'label' for music was starting to catch on as well, here is one of the early songs on which there is no debate, for the Pop charts this was "Rock and Roll".

Based on the original "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. Then the cover version, 
"(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets, recorded April 1954, note the date of release, May 10, 1954. Big difference from the original, Ok now we’re talkin’ R&R!

This is the only memorable version of over 130 covers, the song was #1 in Germany, the UK and US Pop charts and #3 on the R&B charts-but not until 1955! It was originally the ‘B’ side to a song no one remembers, “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” and neither song charted on Billboard nor on any other chart I could find from 1954 (despite a claim in Wikipedia that it charted on Cashbox). It was featured in the truly great 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle” (with an interracial cast which for the time was exceptional), the films release was in March. After which radio DJ's then began to play the song and of note after Haley's cover of (Big Joe Turner) "Shake Rattle and Roll" had made a brief appearance in the top 10 Pop charts in January of 1955. “(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” started hitting Pop charts in May, reaching #1 in July, making it the very first in R&R. 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 digital formats like iTunes and requested on Spotify.
Blackboard Jungle 1955

So now for the first time with a R&R song at #1 on the popular music charts, 1955 was a big year for the genre and by then the push for the ‘white’ audience was full steam ahead. This is a topic I want to tackle looking more so from the 'business' aspect of R&R and a reality of the history of the music. At the forefront of that were the record executives but as an artist it 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 you have a lovely voice but not so much R&R. It took the general public a bit of time to fully catch on.

But before this in April of 1955 there was the release of "Ain't it a Shame".Written by Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino. I don’t think Fats ever used the word "it" from 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 for his version. Having said that many a song is similarly 'labeled' and the title words are not actually in the song itself. Here is the cover of "Ain't That a Shameby Pat Boone with Orchestra and Chorus, released in May 1955 just as “(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” was climbing the charts.

Fats had a very big hit with this song going # 1 on the R&B charts in June, but it wasn’t as big as Pat Boone who went #1 on the Billboard Pop charts where Fats reached #10.  Why does this make Boone's version 'bigger'? They both after all hit #1. It comes down to sales, as the #1 on the various Pop charts (Billboard/Cashbox etc.) vastly outsold the #1 on the various R&B charts (mostly posted by the same groups as the Pop charts). 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 (Fats) and his co-writer (Dave Bartholomew) made much 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. And of course when we say play “Ain't That a Shame” few remember the Pat Boone version, not to mention which version we buy and now as history has proven the original to also be the best seller in the end.

While most Billboard and Cashbox Pop charts represented the biggest selling and hence most 'popular' songs, by 1955 the R&B charts were already full of what we now view as true Rock and Roll classic songs. A good example is Little Richard's  "Tutti Frutti" which was released in October of 1955 just as the things were really heating up, consequently it does not appear in the top ten charts. His dynamic style would put him at the top of the R&B charts many times in 1956. 

So with this focus (for me) on the pivotal year of 1955 when R&B and Popular music was very much starting to merge into "Rock and Roll", I have examined the several R&B year end charts. While as I have pointed out in the prior posts there are plenty of R&B examples before 1955, this for many reasons is the critical year. As I have not found a credible 'amalgamated' year end list (since there were five different ones) referencing The Hits of All Decades' website, I based mine on a simple weighted scoring system and have come up with a representative Top 10 R&B songs for 1955.

1. "Ain't it a Shame", Fats Domino
2. "Pledging My Love", Johnny Ace
3. "Earth Angel", The Penguins
4. "Only You", The Platters
5. "I've Got a Woman", Ray Charles
6. "Maybellene", Chuck Berry
7. "The Wallflower", Etta James
8. "My Babe", Little Walter
9. "Sincerely" The Moonglows
10. "Unchained Melody", Roy Hamilton

As you read the above list, compare it to the popular music one below as it similarly had several charts with a few from Billboard, Cashbox and others totaling at least 7 different ones. I used this one (Billboard Retail Sales Chart) as I believe it the most common and recognizable reference. 

Here are the top 10

1.  "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" PĂ©rez Prado
2. "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" Bill Haley and His Comets
3. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" Mitch Miller
4. "Autumn Leaves" Roger Williams
5. "Unchained Melody" Les Baxter
6. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" Bill Hayes
7. "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" The Four Aces
8. "Sincerely" The McGuire Sisters.
9.  "Ain't That a Shame" Pat Boone
10. "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" Georgia Gibbs

You will note the original recordings on the R&B charts and the (white singers) cover versions for songs #5, #8, 9 and 10. With that exception a very different looking list.

Three of the songs that hit the top 10 on the R&B charts ended near the top on the Billboard top singles in 1955;

"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 as noted above at #4 on the R&B charts, it finished #29 on the Billboard Retail Sales chart.

"Earth Angel" by The Crew-Cuts in 1955 peaked at #3 and ended the year at #43 on the Retail Sales Chart. As you will note from the R&B list the original version is "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, written by Jesse Belvin, Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams. It reached #1 on several weekly R&B charts as noted landing at #3 for the year end, and it did peak at #10 on the weekly Pop charts ending the year at #47 four spots behind The Crew-Cuts cover version.

"Sincerely" The McGuire Sisters. Written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, originally recorded in 1954 by The Moonglows, it did hit #1 on the R&B charts that year. The McGuire version hit #1 on the Pop charts and was the better seller at  over one million copies.

So you are probably thinking what is the point here? What difference does all this chart business really mean? It means

...if you want to understand the roots of R&R and the truth of the beginnings of the genre then you need to look at the R&B charts, not the Pop charts because in 1955 with the exception of  “(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” Rock and Roll music is not there.

Of some interest the above mentioned "Ain't That a Shame", "Unchained Melody" and "Only You" as well as many other songs that year were recorded by two and three or more different artists, some made the weekly charts and some did not. There are many songs that have been recorded by over a dozen different artists all in the same calendar year. Cover songs were virtually everywhere, particularly during the 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s. Although they typically don't 'chart' as much anymore, covers don't seem to be going anywhere soon.

In summing up this series on the beginnings of R&R, we know it is strongly rooted in R&B. I mentioned that racism did play a part. The thing about music and in my estimation R&R in particular is about as multiracial as you can get, people from many different backgrounds have all contributed and continue to do so. The unfortunate reality is, it was for a long time easier for some 'whites' than it was for most people of colour to make a decent living playing music and again not just R&R. With so much historical evidence both empirical and anecdotal available and studying today's industry it seems unfairness still appears to be a systemic issue in the music business. 

Let's just say that..."Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" by Danny and The Juniors, released in January of 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 and key figure in previous blogs as you may have noticed.

A big thank-you to Barry Kowal, the man behind 'The Hits of All Decades' website.

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