The History of Rock Music: 1955-1966Genres and musicians of the beginnings
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(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi)
Part 1. From subculture to counterculture (roughly 1951-1966)
Background: The 20th Century
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")
USA: Popular music as continuous innovationTM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Rock'n'roll is usually defined as a merger of rhythm'n'blues and country music. While this is roughly correct, many more factors came into play in the first half of the 20th century that enabled the birth of rock'n'roll and its future developments.
One could start with 1892, when popular music became big business and music publishers started renting offices around 28th Street in New York City, next to the vaudeville theaters of 27th Street, an area that would be renamed "Tin Pan Alley". Sheet music was the primary "product" of popular music and the industry was dominated by music publishing houses. In 1914 the American Society for Composers (ASCAP) was founded to protect songwriters. That same year, the first blues was published (Hart Wand's Dallas Blues).
Other events that would shape the rest of the century occurred in the first two decades. In 1914 Jerome Kern invented the "musical" by integrating music, drama and ballet and setting it into the present. While that would generate an industry of its own, the real revolution for white popular music took place without almost anyone noticing. In 1910 John Lomax published "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", and in 1916 Cecil Sharp published a collection of folk music from the Appalachian mountains, two events that sparked interest for the white musical heritage, although the world had to wait until 1922 before someone, Texan fiddler Eck Robertson, would cut the first record of "old-time music". The following year, John Carson recorded two "hillbilly" songs, an event that is often considered the official founding of "country" music. In 1924 Riley Puckett introduced the "yodeling" style of singing (originally from the Swiss and Austrian Alps) into country music, the style adopted in 1927 by the first star of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, who wed it to the Hawaiian slide guitar and, de facto, invented the white equivalent of the blues. In 1925 Carl Sprague became the first musician to record cowboy songs (the first "singing cowboy" of country music). And, finally, in 1925, Nashville's first radio station (WSM) began broadcasting a program that would eventually change name to "Grand Ole Opry". Country music was steaming ahead.
Black music also came into its own. The first jazz record was cut in New York in 1917. Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues (1920) was the first blues to become a nation-wide hit. And Bessie Smith would follow suit with her first blues record in 1923. Neither was a real blues musician (itinerant, street performer from the South). But in 1926 Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first real bluesman to enter a major recording studio.
By 1921, 106 million records were sold yearly in the USA, mostly published on "Tin Pan Alley", but control of the market was already shifting towards the record companies.
It is not a coincidence that, at about this time, new record companies were created that would last for a century. In 1924 the Music Corporation of America (MCA) was founded in Chicago as a talent agency, and the German record company Deutsche Grammophon (DG) opened the Polydor company to distribute records abroad. In 1926 General Electric started the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In 1928 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) of 47 affiliate stations was created. In 1929 Decca was founded in Britain as a classical music company, and RCA purchased the glorious Victor Talking Machines. In 1931 EMI, formed by the merger of Gramophone and the British subsidiary of Columbia, opened the largest recording studio in the world at Abbey Road in London.
Record companies also realized that the support was not adequate to a mass market. In 1926 Vitaphone introduced 16-inch acetate-coated shellac discs playing at 33 1/3 RPM (a size and speed calculated to be the equivalent of a reel of film), but they were hardly noticed.
The effect of all this turmoil was felt also in the much more conservative, traditional field of "pop" music. In 1925 the Mills Brothers invented the "barbershop harmonies", which would become the reference standard for all future vocal groups, and in 1926 Bing Crosby cut his first record and invented the "crooning" style of singing (thanks to a new kind of microphone), a style that would become the sound of the white middle-class of the USA. Maybe it wasn't "popular" music, but in 1927 the German classical composer Kurt Weill began a collaboration with the playwright Bertold Brecht, incorporating jazz, folk and pop elements in his soundtracks (probably the first time that the three genres had been merged).
The term "rock'n'roll" might be as old as any of these historical events.
Trixie Smith cut My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll
(1922) four years
before Chuck Berry was born. In 1934 John Lomax and his son Alan began
recording black music of the southern states, and discovered the gospel
genre of "rocking and reeling" that had been around for years, if not
While most of these events were unknown (and are still unknown)
to even the most
scrupulous music historians, their effects were rapidly visible. The
of classical music were not as lucky: they did not have a recording
that was interested in selling their ideas. But their ideas would come
after many decades to haunt the grand-grand-children of the roaring
For example, in 1906 Thaddeus Cahill built the first electronic
In 1907 Ferruccio Busoni published "Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der
Tonkunst", predicting the use of dissonant and electric sound in
In 1913 the Italian "futurist" Luigi Russolo published "L'Arte dei
Rumori", in which he proclaimed noise to be the sound of the 20th
century, and especially noise produced by machines, such as his own
In 1916 Henry Cowell composed quartets using combinations of rhythms
and overtones that are impossible to play by humans.
In 1920 Eric Satie composed music not to be listened to ("musique
d'ameublement", furniture music), the first form of "ambient music".
In 1922 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy advocated the use of phonograph records to
produce music, not only to reproduce it.
In 1923 Arnold Schoenberg completed his 12-tone system of composition
(the first form of "serialism").
In 1928 Maurice Martenot invented a new electronic instrument, the
In 1927 the Russian composer Leon Termen performed the first concerto
with his "theremin".
In 1930 Leon Termen invented the first rhythm machine, the
In 1931 Edgar Varese premiered a piece for percussions, Ionisation.
All of these people were considered little more (or less) than eccentric
characters, and widely ignored by the musical establishment. Instead, they were
correctly predicting the future. Without their ideas, today there would be no
ambient, electronic, industrial or disco music.
Unfortunately, just when these rapid-fire set of events was picking up speed, the "Great Depression" destroyed the record industry. The record industry had hardly been affected by World War I, but suffered a devastating blow during the "Great Depression". As people stopped spending, record sales collapsed.
Needless to say, suddenly there was no interest anymore in new ideas. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to say that the 1930s did not witness important events for the future of popular music. For example, the "boogie" pianist Meade Lux Lewis cut Honky-tonk Train in 1929, a premonition of the boom of "boogie woogie" that would take place in Chicago and Kansas City after Pete Johnson's and Joe Turner's first records. Gene Autry's That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine (1931) popularized the "honky-tonk" style of country music, and Bill Monroe's Kentucky Waltz (1933) popularized the "bluegrass" style. In 1932 Thomas Dorsey's Precious Lord coined gospel music in Chicago. In the same year, Milton Brown and Bob Wills cut the first records of "western swing". Last but not least, Woody Guthrie wrote the Dust Bowl Ballads (1935) and became the first major singer-songwriter.
Two instruments debuted that were to become the staple of rock bands: George Beauchamp invented (1931) the electric guitar (the "Rickenbacker") and Laurens Hammond invented (1933) the Hammond organ. Also important for the future of rock media, in 1930 the first "fanzines" debuted: these were science fiction pulp magazines ("Comet" and "Time Traveller") that allowed sci-fi fans to communicate. They created an "underground" community.
While it is true that the market for records had collapsed (in 1933 only six million records were sold in the USA), recovery was on the way. In 1935 the radio program "Hit Parade" was launched, and soon Roy Acuff became the first star of Nashville, and in 1937 records by the "big bands" rejuvenated the scene. In 1939 the "Grand Ole Pry" moves to Nashville's "Ryman Auditorium" and was broadcasted by the national networks. In 1940 Disney's "Fantasia" introduced stereo sound. Interestingly, in 1939 the Panoram visual jukebox was invented, a device that played short films of records, i.e. the first music videos, an idea that would be shelved for about 40 years.
Black music, in particular, was on the rise in every sense of the word. A symbolic date is 1936, when bluesman Robert Johnson cut his first record. In 1939 Leo Mintz opened a record store in Cleveland, the "Record Rendezvous", that specialized in black music and was serving a white audience: black music found an audience beyond the ghetto. In those years a new style was born, that came to be called "jump blues" after Louis Jordan scored a hit with Choo Choo Ch'Boogie (1946). That was, de facto, the birth of rhythm'n'blues. Few people noticed it, but Carl Hogan played a powerful guitar riff on Jordan's Ain't That Just Like a Woman (1945) that, ten years later, would make Chuck Berry famous. Los Angeles bluesman T-Bone Walker absorbed jazz chords into the blues guitar, starting with I Got A Break Baby (1942) and culminating with Strolling With Bones (1950). White bluesman Johnny Otis assembled a combo for Harlem Nocturne (1945), that was basically a shrunk-down version of the big-bands of swing, and that would remain the epitome of all future rhythm'n'blues combos.
Another important strain of popular music had to do with folk music, which Guthrie had already associated with social awareness. In 1940 Pete Seeger went further: he formed the Almanac Singers to sing protest songs with communist overtones.
Surprisingly, World War II fostered an economic boom and, indirectly, helped the music industry develop in different directions. It was during the war that Bing Crosby's White Christmas (1942) became the best-selling song of all times (and would remain so for 50 years) It was during the war that the first "disc jockeys" followed the USA troops abroad. It was during the war, in 1941, that a radio station in Arkansas (KFFA) hired Sonny Boy Williamson to advertise groceries, the first case of mass exposure by blues singers. It was during the war that labels such as Savoy (1942) and King (1943) were formed to promote black music. It was during the war that Capitol was founded in Hollywood, the first major music company not to be based in New York (1942), and Mercury was founded in Chicago (1945). It was during the war that the "barbershop quartets" evolved from the slow, melancholy style of the Ink Spots to the casual, innovative style of Ravens, Orioles, Clovers. At the end of the war, the USA was electrified. War was over, the USA had won, peace reigned, and wealth was spreading. The new mood helped popular music too.
The 1940s witnessed progress both in the technique and in the style. As electric instruments spread, they affected the way musicians played. Around 1945 Les Paul (born Lester Polsfuss) invented "echo delay", "multi-tracking" and many other studio techniques that would be rediscovered years later by producers all over the world. In 1946 Muddy Waters cut the first records of Chicago's electric blues. And it was in 1947 that Billboard writer Jerry Wexler coined the term "rhythm'n'blues" for this new genre of blues. More labels were born to promote black music, such as Modern (1945), Specialty (1946) and Imperial (1946), all of them in Los Angeles. Atlantic was founded in New York to promote black music at the border between jazz, rhythm'n'blues and pop (1947). A label, in particular, was founded in Chicago's South Side by two Polish-born Jews to promote rhythm'n'blues: Aristocrat, better known as Chess (1947). Black music was "rocking" harder and harder, as Roy Brown stated in his hit Good Rockin' Tonight in Texas (1947), and Detroit rhythm'n'blues saxophonist Wild Bill Moore claimed in We're Gonna Rock We're Gonna Roll (1948) and in the follow-up, I Want To Rock And Roll (1949).
At the same time, after the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film company opened a recording business to sell their movie soundtracks (1946), the mainstream popular music was controlled by six "majors": Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol, MGM, Mercury. A gap was being created between these six majors, that sold white music for white people, and the small independent labels that were sprouting up around the country. The first confrontation had taken place in 1941, when radio stations refused to accept the higher royalties requested by the ASCAP, that controlled most of the New York artists, and started BMI (Broadcast Music Inc), which mainly represented independent country and blues artists from the rest of the nation. Tin Pan Alley and the ASCAP were marketing adult white families, not black families and not young people. But the independent radio stations had more success among young white people, a market that was virtually unexplored.
1948 (when Pete Seeger formed the Weavers) saw the prodromes of the "folk revival", which would affect thousands of young singers and induce many of them to migrate to New York's Greenwich Village. Jazz and folk musicians shared the same clubs and lofts, and inevitably came to influence each other. The intellectuals of the Greenwich Village were listening to both. In 1948 Billboard introduced charts for "folk" and "race" records, the latter being a euphemism for "black people's records" (and renamed in 1949 "rhythm'n'blues"). In 1950 Elektra was founded in New York to promote both scenes, and Dutch electronics giant Philips entered the recording business.
1948 was also the year that Ed Sullivan started his variety show on national television (later renamed "Ed Sullivan Show"), a show that would hypnotize the youth of the USA. In the meantime (1949), Todd Storz of the KOWH radio station had the idea of a radio program devoted to the "Top 40" songs in the country.
In those years, two little-noticed technical events took place that would change the way music is distributed and consumed: Columbia introduced (1948) the 12-inch 33-1/3 RPM long-playing vinyl record, and the idea of the "album" was born, and RCA Victor introduced (1949) the 45 RPM vinyl record. In 1951 they would agree to split the record market: Victor selling 33 RPM long-playing records and Columbia selling 45 RPM records. (In a matter of months, Columbia converted its entire catalog of 78 RPM records to the 45 RPM format).
Another strain in popular music, "exotica", was created piecemeal starting from the late 1940s. First (1947) Korla Pandit (John Redd), pretending to be an Indian guru and playing a Hammond organ, started a Hollywood-based tv program that, indirectly, publicized exotic sounds. Then (1948) Rodgers & Hammerstein's Tale Of The South Pacific became a Broadway hit. Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac (Zoila Chavarri), blessed with a five-octave range, was presented by her composer/arranger Moises Vivanco as an Inca princess when she recorded Voice Of the Xtabay (feb 1950 - ? 1951), arranged by Les Baxter. Finally, Les Baxter's Ritual Of The Savage (? 1951 - ? 1952) incorporated exotic themes and a theremin in instrumental easy-listening music. Martin Denny's Exotica (dec 1956 - ? 1957) gave a name to the trend. His vibraphonist, Arthur Lyman, recorded Taboo (? 1958 - may 1958), the third classic of the genre.
Those were also the years of Carl Stalling's cartoon soundtracks.
Stalling had started by scoring the first "Mickey Mouse" cartoons for
Walt Disney in 1929, and had joined Warner Brothers in 1936. The 1940s
were the golden decade of cartoon soundtracks, when composers such as
Stalling had virtually unlimited free hand in assembling the most
eccentric and awkward combination of sounds and samples.
(The following is an excerpt from my book on avantgarde music).
The end of the decade and the beginning of the 1950s were also important for avantgarde classical music. Composers in both Europe and the USA experimented with techniques that, again, would not be fully understood until the end of the century. John Cage had already composed Imaginary Landscape N.1 for magnetic tape in 1939. When (1946) the city of Darmstadt in Germany set up a school for avantgarde composers, the magnetic tape became one of their "instruments". In 1946 New York jazz pianist Raymond Scott founded "Manhattan Research", the world's first electronic music studio, for which he built one of the first synthesizers. In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer created a laboratory for "musique concrete" (music made of noises, not notes) in Paris and performed a concerto for noises. Joseph Schillinger published "A Mathematical Basis of the Arts" (1949), in which he proposed that popular music could be composed by combining snippets of existing popular music. Needless to say, few people realized that, fifty years later, that process (renamed "sampling") would become widespread. Karlheinz Stockhausen joined the school of music at Darmstadt in 1951, and began composing "elektronische musik". In the same year, the French national radio set up a studio to record electronic music in Paris, and the West Deutsche Radio created a similar studio in Cologne (the NWDR). Across the ocean, John Cage was composing music for radio frequencies (1951), multi-media pieces that employed a computer (1952), and electronic collages of hundreds of random noises (1952), while (1952) electronic engineers Harry Olson and Herbert Belar built the first synthesizer at RCA's Princeton Laboratories, the "Mark I".
It was just a matter of time before new genres based on electronic instruments appeared: Edgar Varese inaugurated tape music with Deserts (1954) and premiered his Poeme Electronique (1958) in a special pavilion designed by architect Le Corbusier, where the music was reacting with the environment; in 1957 Max Mathews began composing computer music at Bell Laboratories and a computer composed the Illiac Suite (1957), using software created by Lejaren Hiller; Bruno Maderna's Musica su Due Dimensioni (1957) was the first "electroacoustic" composition, mixing traditional instruments and electronic tape; and John Cage's Cartridge Music (1960) was the first example of "live electronic music", which uses the electronic instrument "like" a traditional instrument (save that, obviously, the electronic instrument can play the sounds of all instruments as well as sounds that no acoustic instrument can play).
Last, but not least, John Cage had introduced "chance" and non-musical gestures into the compositional process. The structure of Music Of Changes (1951) was determined by coin tosses and the patterns of the "I Ching". Water Music (1952) instructs the performers to also perform non-musical gestures.
While the middle-class of the USA was listening to the gracious, peaceful,
pleasant music of pop crooners and harmony groups, a whole new world of sound
created that would literally disintegrate that old world of ordered notes.
The illusion of peace after the bloodbath of World War II did not last for long.
After the Korean war (1950) it became apparent that another war was underway,
a war by proxy against the Soviet Union (that had just exploded its first
atomic bomb). The two winners of the war represented two opposing ideologies:
capitalism versus communism, democracy versus tyranny. Previous wars had been
largely fought over territory, resources, prestige, patriotism; not quite over
ideology. The tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the confrontation all
the more dangerous: a war between the USA and the Soviet Union would have caused
massive destruction. China became no less hostile to the West, shutting down
all communication with the capitalist world. India gravitated mostly towards
the Soviet Union too. The communist countries supported independence movements
by all the former European colonies, and many of them ended up being ruled
by socialist regimes. Thus the "Cold War" would spread throughout the planet.
Another impact of the "Cold War" on USA society was a renewed sense of insecurity.
Between 1948 and 1954 senator Joseph McCarthy successfully launched a
"witch hunt" against intellectuals suspected of being communist spies.
When a civil war in Cuba was won by the communist Fidel Castro (1959),
the paranoia only increased.
The late 1950s and the 1960s were the age of the car. After all, owning
and driving a car was almost cheaper (relative to the returns) than
owning a television set: in 1950 the average cost of a new car was
$1,500 versus $250 for a (black and white) tv set and $60 for a radio,
and gasoline was still only 18 cents per gallon (68 cents per liter).
A new house in California cost less than $10,000,
which was only twice the average salary. Ten years later prices had not
changed that much: the average house was $13-15,000 and the average car
was $2,500 and a gallon of gas was 25 cents. But the median income had
almost doubled, and it almost doubled again during that decade. The
cars were big and heavy. The average Cadillac weighted more than two
tons. And a new kind became popular, the two-seat convertible sport
cars: General Motors introduced the Corvette in 1953, and Ford the
Thunderbird in 1954 (but even more successful was to be the Mustang
introduced in 1964). And USA car manufacturers dominated the world
market, especially after the end of the Korean War allowed them to
focus on civilian cars. People liked to spend so much time in their
cars that "drive-in" cinemas, restaurants and even churches popped up
Those were also the years of consumerism, of shopping malls, of tv commercials, of fast food (the first McDonald's restaurant had opened in 1955), of appliances, of "plastic fantastic", of Disneyland (that had opened in 1955 and represented a metaphor for the artificial life of the economic boom). It was still an age of routine lives with well-defined roles both in the family, in the community and at work, although the triumph of the suburban bourgeoisie had slightly changed the stereotypes of husband and wife, of neighborhood and of workplace. Suburban life emanated a reassuring sense of "artificial" that replaced the insecurity of down-to-earth rural life.
However, there were strains in the society. On one hand, black communities
were still segregated, and in 1955 the arrest of Rosa Parks, a humble woman
who refused to give her seat to white folks, sparked non-violent protests
led by Martin Luther King, while in 1956 Malcom X became the spokesman for
the violent "Nation of Islam".
In 1960 Martin Luther King delivered his speech "We shall overcome", inaugurating the era of the civil-right movement.
On the other hand the white intellectuals of the "beat generation" repudiated
the "American way of life".
Last but not least, the youth of the USA was increasingly torn between the
traditional morality (represented by the stable family of a working husband, a
housewife and three children, and by a puritanical ethic that criminalized sex
and fun) and a looser lifestyle. The older generation became paranoid about
the "juvenile delinquents" that were out to subvert the codes of conduct.
In 1962 Tom Hayden and others founded the "Students for a Democratic Society"
(SDS) in Michigan, introducing the generational issue at the intellectual level.
This marked a strategic move, because it initiated the process by which the
youth became a political force.
On another front, in 1962 Helen Gurley Brown published
"Sex and the Single Girl", a book that defended a woman's right to have sex
for pleasure. While very few girls read it, it marked the beginning of the
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