American Music in the United States

Rock & Roll at BMI

On Monday, July 5, 1954, the #1 song on Billboard's charts was Kitty Kallen's "Little Things Mean A Lot," a smooth ballad in the style of the old standards. But a change was in the air. That evening, in a cramped 30- by-20 foot recording studio in downtown Memphis, three young musicians were doggedly trying to come up with a sound that would satisfy the hard-to-please owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. A former disc jockey and radio engineer, Phillips had opened his recording studio in 1950 and started out recording local blues musicians, leasing the tracks to independent record companies like Chess. Two years later, he started his own record label.

Long in search of a young white artist who could capture the raw energy of black music yet crossover to a multi-ethnic audience, Phillips listened carefully as the trio fumbled through take after take until the 19-year-old singer began clowning around with "That's All Right," a minor blues hit written and recorded by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Suddenly some connection was made; the music was lively, fun, and fresh. Phillips's attention was secured, and he honed the trio's raw sound, urging them through several more numbers, including Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Blue Moon Of Kentucky."

A week later a single with these two songs was playing on local Memphis radio, and within a month it was number one in that market. The singer, Elvis Presley, was headed for stardom. In little over a year, RCA Victor had bought Presley's contract from Phillips. Phillips went on to record such rock & roll pioneers as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. Elvis went on, of course, to become the catalyst for the rock & roll revolution and the biggest record seller of all time.

However, while Elvis created the public fanaticism for rock & roll, he did not invent the genre. Other artists across the country had been experimenting with a similar style throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. In New Orleans, a piano player named Antoine "Fats" Domino, in conjunction with bandleader Dave Bartholomew created a mellow, rolling style of boogie-woogie that entered the r&b charts in 1950. In 1955, Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" reached #10 on the pop charts only to be beaten by the smooth white pop singer Pat Boone's "cover" version of the same song, which reached #1. Boone's record, which replicated Fats' arrangement while diluting its energy, was one of the first of many such "covers," a phenomenon which added to the writers' royalties while introducing rock material to a mainstream audience. Fats, on the other hand, placed five more of his own songs on the pop charts in 1956, indicating that there was an ample audience for rock in all its undiluted glory.

Other black performers found a home on the pop charts. Again in New Orleans -- in fact, at the same studio where Fats Domino recorded his hits -- 20-year-old Richard Penniman, who had unsuccessfully recorded on RCA and Peacock, was instructed by Specialty producer Bumps Blackwell to pull out the stops on the wild suggestive tune he had been playing around with during recording breaks. Blackwell had a local songwriter, Dorothy LaBostrie, tone down the lyrics which resulted in "Tutti Frutti" and the establishment of Penniman's alter ego Little Richard. His recording reached #17 on the pop charts while Pat Boone's "cover" scored a #12. However, with his next record Penniman beat out his copyist when "Long Tall Sally" reached #6, Boone's "cover" placing behind it at #8.

In Chicago, Chuck Berry, a young St. Louis blues guitar player who Muddy Waters had introduced to Leonard Chess, failed to interest the label owner with an original blues, "Wee Wee Hours," but caught his attention with a highly original version of a traditional old country chestnut, "Ida Red." The result was "Maybellene," a #5 pop smash as well as a hit on the r&b and country charts (the latter in a cover by Marty Robbins), during the summer of 1955. Berry soon captured the youth market with such memorable hits as "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." His work combined a uniquely propulsive guitar style with lively, evocative lyrics, making Berry the quintessential rock & roll songwriter.

In Lubbock, Texas a young bespectacled teenager named Charles Hardin Holly was listening avidly to country and r&b artists. As Buddy Holly, he would write such classics as "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue," only to die in a 1959 airplane crash, along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, at the age of 20.

Rock & roll was fast occupying the musical mainstream, as the generation that would come to be known as the "baby boomers" were making their preferences known. With the development of the transistor radio, they could more easily listen to the latest hits.

Television remained the province of mature adult audiences who responded more readily to the mainstream pop repertoire than the uninhibited beat of rock & roll. In 1956 when Elvis Presley appeared on network television, first on the "Dorsey Brothers Stage Show" and Steve Allen's program and then scoring his greatest success on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show, the demographic audience of television transformed overnight. As Sullivan received his highest audience share to date due to Presley's appearance, the source of the pop standard began to change.

Information on this page courtesy of the bmi library