New Voices, New Sounds
Whereas Domino, Haley, Holly, Diddley and many others contributed much to the development of rock in its infancy, there were four other rockers who dominated the airwaves in the time period from 1954 to 1959. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis were the four dominant pioneers of rock ‘n roll in the 1950s.
If early rock ‘n roll was essentially a combination of a predominantly white musical style (country) with a predominantly black musical style (rhythm & blues), then it is enlightening to examine these four musical forces. Two of them were black, two were white; two played piano, while the other two played guitar. It’s as if we have two sides of two different instrumental “coins”.
“Little Richard” Penniman, an African-American piano player and singer, was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. Like Lewis, he grew up singing and playing piano in church and gospel services.
Like Lewis, he set his religion aside to pursue his musical dreams. At age 14, Richard left home to join a traveling medicine show and became well known in the black Southern vaudeville and strip joint tours. While on tour, he was influenced by one of the fellow performers who wore makeup and dressed in wild clothes. Over a decade before “glam rock” hit rock ‘n roll, Little Richard began experimenting with makeup and colorful outfits.
After several demo records from ’51 to ’54, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Richard recorded the novelty song with a basic drums-bass-piano-guitar-saxophone combo. Because the original lyrics were so risqué (it openly flaunted the singer’s homosexuality), a lyricist had to be brought in to sanitize the words for public airplay.
The song hit #2 on the R&B chart in ’55 and #17 on the pop charts in ’56. Ironically, white pop singer Pat Boone, known for his squeaky clean image, covered “Tutti Frutti” and took it to #12 the same month that Richard had it on the pop charts.
Little Richard’s next song, “Long Tall Sally” also went into the Top Ten on both the R&B and pop charts in 1956. In the next ten years everyone from Elvis to The Beatles also covered it.
1957 was the peak of his career, appearing in two Alan Freed movies: “Don’t Knock the Rock” and “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll,” and having chart success with “Lucille” and then “Good Golly Miss Molly” in the following year.
By the end of 1958, Richard made the decision to leave rock ‘n roll and return to his religious roots. He had become increasingly frustrated with the financial arrangement he had with his recording company and promoter. After touring extensively and achieving chart success, his bank account was not what he felt it should be.
From 1959 to 1962 Little Richard spent time in Bible school and preaching the gospel.
His popularity in Great Britain and the opportunity to tour again drew him out of self-imposed rock ‘n roll retirement in 1962. He returned to England to tour for several months with a little known English band called “The Rolling Stones”.
Returning to America, Richard went back into the studio to cut new versions of his hits. Although the new record, Little Richard Is Back, released in 1965 is a disappointing rehash of his past glory, it is intriguing for the inclusion of one of his band-members. Traveling for a while with Richard and recording on the album was a guitar player by the name of Maurice James, later better known as Jimi Hendrix.
Whereas Jerry Lee Lewis returned to music in the ’60s to create new musical avenues for his talents, Little Richard’s return lacked any new direction or creativity. Although the ’70s brought numerous “come-back” albums, it was the ’50s Little Richard that was in demand in concerts and on talk shows. His flamboyance and sexual ambiguity fit the decade and faded by 1980.
Regardless of his contribution in the past four decades, Little Richard can lay claim to being one of the most influential voices in the golden age of rock ‘n roll. His exuberant stage presence and screaming falsetto was to be found later in such diverse performances as those of Jimi Hendrix and the more raucous singing of Paul McCartney. His dynamic piano styling and shocking asexuality were the starting points for rock pianists and glam rockers of the late ’60s.
And it all began with an outrageous falsetto vocal introduction to “Tutti Frutti”: “a-wop-bom-aloo-mop a-lop-bam-boom!”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis, a young, white, gospel piano player turned rocker was from Ferriday, Louisiana. Expelled from Bible school in his teens because of his raucous piano playing, Lewis hit the top of the R&B, country and pop charts with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1957, followed quickly by “Great Balls of Fire” and several others.
His first recording contract was with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Phillips had been the one to “discover” Elvis Presley and had just months before sold Presley’s contract to RCA. His discovery of Lewis was just the energy his independent label needed.
Lewis’s boogie-woogie piano playing was often structured in a 12-bar blues format and chord structure. His highly-frenetic style of playing, combined with frequent slides up and down the keyboard (glissandi) was a perfect example of rockabilly, that melding of country and R & B.
On an Alan Freed tour of Great Britain in 1957, Lewis (nicknamed “Killer”) insisted on having the final set of the concert. When Freed decided to give that honored position to Chuck Berry instead, Lewis responded in typical maniacal fashion. Following his blistering set, he poured lighter fluid on the piano and set it on fire. As he left the stage, he was heard to say: “I’d like to see any son of a bitch follow that!”
While being a dynamo onstage, it was Lewis’s private life that was his downfall. At age 23, Lewis was married the third time (without actually divorcing wife #2) to his 13-year-old second cousin. The news of their marriage was made public while he was on tour in Britain in 1958. An outraged English public booed him off the stage and the rest of the tour was cancelled. Although his energetic personality and aggressive musicianship had shaped early rock ‘n roll, he had reached and passed the peak of his career.
During the decades to follow, Lewis continued to record and perform. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he made the switch to the country music charts and had success at #1 with “Chantilly Lace” (’72) and several others.
Killer’s most recent album, “Young Blood” in 1995 was described as the best comeback by a legend in many years.
Boogie-woogie piano playing seemed to run in the family. Two of Lewis’s cousins made a name for themselves at the keyboard: Mickey Gilley (country piano player and singer with his own well-known bar/restaurant in Texas) and Jimmy Swaggart, also a “piano-picker and singer” who made a name for himself as a gospel evangelist and performer in the South during the ’70s and ’80s. Unfortunately, Swaggart’s downfall from grace was even more public than that of his rockin’ cousin.
Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire” 1958
If two early piano players gave rock ‘n roll its bad boy image, flamboyant sexuality and explosive stage presence, then two early guitar players gave early rock ‘n roll the words, guitar solos, image and characteristic voice.
Although Chuck Berry was involved in the church choir while growing up in St. Louis, he soon found more excitement running with street hoodlums. After spending time in juvenile hall and then jail (for armed robbery) at age 18, Berry went to night school to become a beautician.
Along the way, his interest in the guitar led him to listen to jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, guitar innovator Les Paul and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. By the early fifties, Berry had joined a blues trio that featured blues piano player Johnny Johnson.
But Berry’s interest wasn’t in being just another R&B guitarist. He was also interested in the feel of country music, particularly the insistent rhythms of some honky-tonk music.
The “om-chunk-om-chunk” backbeat rhythms of country found their way into Berry’s guitar playing, while the blues and jazz guitar improvisations provided the basis for the four measure intros, the instrumental bridges and inner licks of Chuck Berry “classics”.
His first hit was a reworking of a country tune “Ida Red,” which Berry repackaged in a rockabilly format. After writing a new set of lyrics about a car and attaching biting guitar solos, Chuck Berry had a #1 R&B and #5 pop hit with “Maybellene”.
From 1955 to 1959, Chuck Berry found a successful formula: write about a teenager’s life (cars, school and love), include well crafted guitar solos, set it on a solid beat and sing it with energy. The formula was successful with “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and “School Days” among several others.
However, in 1959, Berry was jailed on charges of transporting a minor (a fourteen year old Apache prostitute from Texas) across state lines to work as a coat check girl in his St. Louis nightclub. The first court hearing ended in a mistrial; however the second trial sent him to prison for two years. By the time he was released in 1961, Chuck Berry’s songs were widely accepted as anthems of rebellious teenagers in both America and Great Britain.
Although he never returned to the glory of the ’50s, his lyrics, guitar solos and songwriting skills set the pattern for the next decade.
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”, 1958
For all the success that early rock ‘n’ roll was having, it had not yet been fully embraced by mainstream America. Certainly, growing numbers of teenagers were becoming avid fans. Occasional offerings from Hollywood, such as “Rock, Rock, Rock,” “Mr. Rock and Roll,” and “Don’t Knock the Rock” all recognized the growing trend; but, the resistance from the extreme conservative South and the ignorance of mainstream America were still obstacles. The new sound would never be fully recognized until it could be presented in a package that average Americans could understand and accept.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, an independent Memphis recording studio which recorded numerous black R&B and blues artists, felt that the new sound needed a young white, Southern singer who had the feel of his black R&B artists, but could be versatile and appealing enough to sell to middle America.
What Phillips was looking for wandered into his studio in the summer of 1953: Elvis Aaron Presley.
To put it simply, Elvis Presley was more than the first rock ‘n’ roll superstar; he was “The King” of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Younger than the pudgy and balding Bill Haley, more acceptable to white America than Little Richard or Chuck Berry, more respectful than Jerry Lee Lewis, more energetic than Fats Domino or Carl Perkins, Presley was the perfect vehicle to market the new sound. He had, in various moments, a look of innocence, rebelliousness, sensuality or even good-natured purity. He could be the rebel hanging around the pool hall, the soloist in the church choir, your daughter’s dream date for the prom, or the kid next door. His winning charm gave him charisma on the movie screen, his voice propelled more songs into the Top 40 chart than any other singer, and his grinding pelvis and stage antics caused more screaming fans than any previous pop or rock artist.
Although others were recording and performing in the R&B and rockabilly style prior to 1954, many refer to Presley’s recording of “That’s Alright Mama” on July 5, 1954 as the starting point for modern rock ‘n’ roll. The song, which became an instant local hit on Memphis radio stations, was released with an up-tempo rockabilly version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B-side. In September ’54, Presley made his one and only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Following his performance, the stage manager advised Elvis to stick to his day job — truck driving. For the rest of 1954 and 1955, Presley performed on Louisiana Hayride, a live radio program in Shreveport, LA, local fairs and made his television debut on Hayride, a television program in March 1955. “That’s All Right” was followed with “Good Rockin’ Tonight” another local hit.
Sam Phillips, Sun Records and Presley’s guitar player, Scotty Moore, who was managing Presley, lacked the finances, contacts, and professional knowledge to promote him on a national scale. In late 1955, Phillips sold Presley’s recording contract to RCA Records for an unheard of $35,000; Presley hired Col. Tom Parker to be his new manager and the regional celebrity known as Elvis Presley gave way to the national superstar known as Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The rough edges of Sun Records was polished in the studio by Chet Atkins, who would also design the country-pop style known as Nashville Sound for RCA as part of the commercializing of Patsy Cline. Atkins gave Presley more background instruments and singers and smoothed out some of the Presley vocals to gain some appeal with pop-oriented America. The remaking of Elvis Presley worked.
In 1956 Presley’s reign as “The King” began, with arguably the most successful national debut year of any artist either previous or since. In this single year Elvis appeared in his first motion picture Love Me Tender (the $1 million cost was recouped in 3 days of ticket sales), nearly a dozen national television appearances, had ten singles in the Top 20 on the charts. These including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” – all of which went to #1 on the Billboard charts. Col. Tom Parker and RCA had taken a regional rockabilly singer and made him into a national icon with television, stage, radio and movie exposure. The following year, three more movies starring Presley hit the theatres: Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole. Although Presley continued to make movies in the ‘60s, these first four are often recognized as his best film work.
Late in 1957 Presley received notice that he was being drafted into the Army. Ever the patriotic American, Presley served from March 1958 until March 1960 in the Army, most of it at an Army base in West Germany. While in the service, Col. Tom released previously-recorded Presley material at regular intervals in order to maintain his position on the charts and in the public view.
While stationed in Germany, Elvis met Priscilla Beaulieu, the girl who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his only child, Lisa Marie.
Upon returning to civilian life, Presley resumed recording, performing and appearing in films. During the rest of 1960, Presley released two films and several singles including three #1 hits: “Stuck on You,” “It’s Now or Never,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.
But during the next eight years, from 1961 to 1969, Presley gradually moved away from live concerts and the recording studio and more into films. During that time period, in an effort to gain respect as an actor (he emulated Frank Sinatra in that regard) Elvis made 25 movies, most of which are forgettable.
By the late ‘60s, Presley was aware that the public no longer viewed him as a first-class performer. Col. Tom had by then so saturated the market with Presley goods and images that Elvis was no longer a respected performer, but rather, a commercialized caricature of himself. Elvis the King had given way to Elvis the Icon.
In the summer of 1968, in an attempt to resuscitate his career, Presley began taping several hours of studio performances that were edited into a final television special that aired Dec. 3, 1968. In retrospect, the special, entitled simply Elvis but called by many the ’68 Comeback Special, was perhaps the most significant moment in his career.
Due to the success of the Elvis television special, Presley was again offered opportunities to perform in front of live audiences. In July 1969 Presley began a four-week run in Las Vegas for which he was paid over $1 million. As if making up for his eight-year performing hiatus, Presley toured almost constantly, selling out arenas, theaters, auditoriums and frequently, Las Vegas. The audience that had seemingly abandoned him in the mid 1960s had returned to their seats. Two documentary films were made of his tours; ironically, “Elvis On Tour” in 1972 won a Golden Globe award for Best Documentary. The critical film acclaim that eluded him for years had come finally when he played his best role: himself.
The final five years of Elvis Presley’s life, though, remain as an embarrassing blight on his career. Addicted to painkillers and drugs, obsessed with firearms and constantly fighting obesity, Presley attempted to maintain a tour schedule despite failing health. The last few years of Presley’s life were filled with stories of on-stage babbling, days of public isolation, wide weight fluctuation and on at least one occasion, complete physical collapse in the middle of a performance.
On August 16, 1977 Elvis Presley was discovered dead in his Graceland mansion. Official cause of death was reported to be congestive heart failure, although his habitual use of prescription painkillers, amphetamines, and barbiturates undoubtedly contributed to his death.
In looking back on the life and impact of Elvis Presley, it is too simple to look at Elvis Presley the Icon, as an ongoing highly-marketable trademark around the world. In the 1980s, Elvis’ ex-wife, actress Priscilla Presley, took over control of the estate and had the name Elvis Presley legally declared a trademark, giving the estate full control over the name and likeness of Elvis. A portion of every t-shirt, calendar, coffee table book, mug, and CD goes to Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). Far from being miserly, EPE has established many charitable foundations and causes including the establishment of Presley Place in Memphis, which provides a year of free housing, child care, job training, and family services to homeless people of Memphis.
But the greater cultural impact of Elvis Presley should be seen in his contribution to American way of life. He is clearly part of a select group that has made a permanent imprint on American music and culture. Together with Stephen Foster and Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley stands above both his contemporaries and those who have attempted to follow in his footsteps. Artists from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Bono and Bruce Springsteen have acknowledged his impact on their careers. It is estimated that total record sales for Elvis Presley have exceeded 1 billion worldwide. One of his early Sun records, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was just recognized as the 150th Presley record to reach at least gold-record status. He has had nearly 120 singles in the Top 40, forty in the Top 10, and eighteen #1 records.
It is impossible to imagine what rock would look and sound like if Elvis Presley had not been a part of the process in the early years. Perhaps someone else would have come along to create the stage charisma and musical passion that he did. Perhaps someone else would have been recognized as the personification of all things rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps someone else would have had his or her whole persona marketed for decades on a worldwide basis. Perhaps someone else would have transcended simple classification as a mega-superstar to create a distinct and singular stratosphere of fame far above mere superstars of American music. Perhaps, but they didn’t. If the landscape of American music had been robbed of the significant pinnacle that was Elvis Presley, the resulting terrain would have been altered and changed to be unrecognizable from what it is today.
Elvis Presley, “Blue Suede Shoes” – 1956