race and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll

David Jones [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

So, with my last posting about twerking and cultural appropriation, you probably have an idea of where I am going when it comes to talking about the development of rock ‘n’ roll.  Yes, this is about race and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.

Writer Robert Palmer wrote, “Rock ‘n’ roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social and musical interactions between blacks and whites in the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle. Bedrock black church music influenced blues, rural blues influenced white folk songs, and the black popular music of the Northern ghettos, blues and black pop influenced jazz, and so on. But the single most important process was the influence of black music on white.”

The genre had its roots in the blues. Sam Phillips, who would become owner of Memphis-based Sun Records, was raised by low-income tenant farmers and often picked cotton in the fields alongside African-American workers. He was deeply moved by the singing he was hearing in the fields. His interest in blues further developed in the 1940s when he worked as a DJ at a station that played both Caucasian and African-American musician. In 1950 he started the Memphis Recording Service which would let amateurs record and many of the early blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists started there.  Phillips also launched Sun Records in 1952 to showcase some of these artists.

Phillips recorded African-American musicians such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, and Caucasian musicians such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Phillips was said to have claimed that his biggest discovery was Howlin’ Wolf, with Elvis Presley being his second biggest discovery.

In those days, there was no clear line between rhythm & blues and rock’n’roll.  Genres don’t just suddenly happen, they are retroactively named after what seems to be a clear new trend in music, and the musicians who suddenly find themselves associated with a genre have resisted the label.  Phillips recorded in 1951 what has been widely regarded as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats–a band led by then 19-year old Ike Turner. A video for it is below. But other people cite other recordings further back in the 1940’s.  But the same year “Rocket 88” was recorded. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed started playing rhythm & blues music and using the word “rock ‘n’ roll” to describe it.

Under Sun records, artists like Elvis Presley achieved popular acclaim across the South, but despite this, Sun Records ran into financial difficulties and in 1955, Elvis Presley’s contract was sold to RCA Records. It was while on RCA that Elvis Presley gained national and international acclaim.

So was Elvis Presley’s success in that he was able to market rock ‘n’ roll to a wider audience or a whiter audience?  From what I’ve read of Sam Phillips, he held held African-American musicians and African-Americans in general in high esteem, as did Elvis Presley. But as the record companies marketed to a wider/whiter audience, rock ‘n’ roll became more of a white phenomenon. It could be argued that Elvis Presley became the “King of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” mainly because he was crowned by white people.

It is worth asking to what extent race was a factor in the widespread negative views of rock ‘n’ roll back in the 1950s. Despite the influences that black and white musicians have had on each other, rock ‘n’ roll and its succeeding genres and sub-genres have, for the most part, frequently remained a racially segregated affair. Love, which released its first album in 1966, was one of the first racially integrated bands, and the number of racially integrated bands increased with the disco and 2-Tone eras.

The denigration of disco, which arguably reached its peak with Disco Demolition Night in 1979, was another clear example of the racial divide. Rap and Hip-Hop have also often gotten bad, um, “raps.”  I remember when Public Enemy came out with It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, a white guy with long hair in my environmental studies class warned about the racism associated with that hip-hop group. Wanting to see what the fuss was about, I bought the cassette and after listening to it, I decided not to “believe the hype.” While their lyrics and style sometimes seemed quite militant, I really didn’t hear anything that I objected to. Fortunately, with the younger generation, I am seeing less race-based division as hip-hop is more popular among younger people than it was when I was growing up.

But my point of writing about this is to give credit where credit is due, so I will conclude this post with videos from early rockers Howlin’ Wolf, and my personal favorite from that era, Bo Diddley.

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