American RocknRoll Story: these extracts are from Derek Shelmerdine‘s book Rock’n’Roll Unravelled. (Please note, there is much more information in the book, this is simply to give a flavour of the story of Americian rocknroll in Rock’n’Roll Unravelled.)
These extracts give an insight into the rise of American rocknroll in the early-middle 1950s, before it imploded when the main protagonists, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, left the stage. It all started with disc jockey Alan Freed…
There will be a daily addition to the story…
American RocknRoll Story
19 November 1949 – 25 March 1955: The rise of American rocknroll
- 19 November 1949: Jerry Lee Lewis’s first public performance
- 5 March 1951: Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88
- 11 July 1951: Alan “Moondog” Freed opened his R&B show on WJW
- 16 October 1951: Little Richard – from talent show to recording studio
- 1 March 1952: Sam Phillips’s first single on Sun Records
- 18 July 1953: Elvis Presley’s 1st private recording with Sam Phillips
- 12 April 1954: Bill Haley and His Comets recorded (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock
- 19 Jul 1954: Elvis Presley released That’s All Right c/w Blue Moon of Kentucky – 1st Sun single
- 25 March 1955: Blackboard Jungle – kick-started rock’n’roll around the world
- 21 May 1955: Chuck Berry recorded Maybellene
- 14 September 1955: Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti
- 1 January 1956: Carl Perkins released Blue Suede Shoes c/w Honey Don’t (US)
- 10 January 1956: Elvis Presley recorded Heartbreak Hotel
- 4 May 1956: Gene Vincent recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula
- 29 December 1956: Elvis Presley held 10 slots on Billboard’s Top-100
- 25 February 1957: Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded That’ll Be the Day
- 15 March 1957: Jerry Lee Lewis released Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On
- 20 April 1957: The Everly Brothers released Bye Bye Love
- 12 October 1957: End of the line for Little Richard
- 24 March 1958: Elvis Presley joined the US Army
- 22 May 1958: Jerry Lee Lewis arrived in London for his career-ending British tour
- 3 February 1959: Buddy Holly died in a plane crash
- 21 November 1959: Alan Freed was sacked by ABC
21 May 1955 – 20 April 1957: American rocknroll ruled the world
12 October 1957 – To be continued… American rocknroll imploded
19 November 1949: Jerry Lee Lewis’s first public performance
The career of rock’n’roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis began with his first public performance at a Ford dealership in his Ferriday hometown in Louisiana. The 14-year-old Lewis performed Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.
Stick McGhee and His Buddies’ re-recorded Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee in 1949 and gave Ahmet Ertegun’s fledgling Atlantic label its first real hit. Stick McGhee and His Buddy had originally released the song on the Harlem Records label in 1947.
5 March 1951: Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88
Written by Jackie Brenston and often cited as the first rock’n’roll record, Rocket 88 was an early recording by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service studio.
The session was arranged to record Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm. Turner’s band cut four tracks that day. Piano player Turner took the lead vocal on Heartbroken and Worried, and I’m Lonesome Baby. This was released as Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm. Sax player Jackie Brenston took lead vocal on Rocket 88, a song that was to go down in rock’n’roll history. This was coupled with Come Back Where You Belong and released as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Willie Kizart played the fuzz guitar and provided one of rock’n’roll’s first examples of deliberate distortion. The two singles were released on the Chess label.
Bill Haley and His Saddle Men covered Rocket 88 shortly afterwards, four years before rock’n’roll burst onto the scene with his version of Rock Around the Clock.
11 July 1951: Alan “Moondog” Freed opened his R&B show on WJW
Alan Freed was one of the first American disc jockeys to popularise music by black R&B artists and introduce it to a new white audience. He was also widely credited with coining the term “rock’n’roll”.
Throughout the 1940s he appeared on radio and television as a sports presenter and DJ. Encouraged by local record store owner Leo Mintz, he joined Radio WJW in Cleveland, called himself “Moondog” and began presenting an R&B show. As the popularity of rock’n’roll music increased he became one of the most influential 1950s DJs on radio and television. His activities soon expanded to include concert promotions and movies.
Freed had to drop the name “Moondog” after a threatened lawsuit from Louis Thomas “Moondog” Hardin, a well-known street performer who had moved to New York in the early 1940s. Resplendent in Viking cape and helmet and brandishing a spear, he could be found plying his art at the corner of 54th Street and Sixth Avenue.
16 October 1951: Little Richard – from talent show to recording studio
Little Richard gained the opportunity to record for RCA as the result of winning a talent competition. He cut four tracks at his first-ever session, including Taxi Blues and Every Hour. These two songs were coupled for his debut single.
This was not yet Little Richard’s time and the single gave him little more than local success. He released another three RCA singles and a couple on Peacock, before he took the rock’n’roll world by storm in 1955 with his first single on Speciality, Tutti Frutti.
1 March 1952: Sam Phillips’s first single on Sun Records
Two years after his first attempt to release his productions on his own record label, It’s The Phillips, Sam Phillips launched Sun Records.
Phillips recorded 16-year-old saxophonist Johnny London playing Drivin’ Slow and Flat Tyre and the first Sun single hit the shops in April 1952, both sides were written by London. It achieved only limited local success but Phillips was on his way into rock’n’roll history.
18 July 1953: Elvis Presley’s 1st private recording with Sam Phillips
Elvis Presley called into Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service studio for the first time, paid his $3.98 and recorded My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin. When Sam Phillips’s assistant Marion Keisker asked Elvis who he sounded like, he famously replied, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
Controversy surrounds whether Phillips or Keisker operated the tape that day. Doubt has also been cast on the idea that the recording was a birthday present for his mother Gladys. It would have been rather belated, given that her birthday was on 25 April.
12 April 1954: Bill Haley and His Comets recorded (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock
Bill Haley recorded this American rocknroll classic at New York’s Pythian Temple studios during his first session for Decca. It might not have been the first rock’n’roll record but it was definitely the spark that ignited the rock’n’roll explosion.
The song was written by James Myers and Max C Freedman, and originally recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights in early 1954. That version sank without trace. Haley released his version in May as the flipside of Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town), recorded at the same session. This initial release met with limited enthusiasm. The song’s meteoric rise came after it was used as the soundtrack behind the opening credits of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle. Rock around the Clock went on to top the charts around the world and has sold an estimated 25 million copies.
19 Jul 1954: Elvis Presley released That’s All Right c/w Blue Moon of Kentucky – 1st Sun single
When Elvis made his second private recording at the Memphis Recording Service on 4 January*, owner Sam Phillips told him that he would give him a call if he found a song that he felt would suit Elvis. On a trip to Nashville, Phillips came across a song called Without You and duly called Elvis to come into the studio and try it out. The audition didn’t go too well but rather than give up on the young singer, Phillips introduced him to guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Phillips asked Elvis to perform some other songs that he knew. They tried out a few numbers and on 5 July, with Phillips at the controls, they recorded That’s All Right as Elvis’s first Sun single.
A couple of days later Phillips gave Memphis disk jockey Dewey “Daddy-O” Phillips (no relation) an acetate of the recording and he famously became the first DJ to play That’s All Right on his Red, Hot and Blue show on Radio WHBQ.
The single credited the performance to Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill and coupled two 1940s covers. The A-side was written and originally recorded by Arthur Crudup, with the B-side written and recorded by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys.
25 March 1955: Blackboard Jungle – kick-started rock’n’roll around the world
The movie Blackboard Jungle was released in America.
Based on the novel by Evan Hunter, it was set in an inner-city New York school against a backdrop of teenage delinquency. The movie opened with a written preamble about the problems of juvenile delinquency, with the opening credits rolling to the strains of Bill Haley and His Comets playing Rock Around the Clock. Reaction to the movie was immediate and it kick-starting rock’n’roll around the world.
The song was originally recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights in early 1954. Bill Haley then recorded it during his first session for Decca on 12 April*. It was released as the B-side of Thirteen Women but failed to attract much interest. The film caused a sensation in the cinemas and it was following this reaction to Blackboard Jungle that Rock Around the Clock was re-released and became an international hit.
American rocknroll had arrived!
21 May 1955: Chuck Berry recorded Maybellene
When Chuck Berry travelled to Chicago he was introduced to Chess Records by the great bluesman Muddy Waters. At his first recording session for Chess he recorded Maybellene, a new title given to his reworking of an old Bob Wills country song, Ida Red.
When the single was released the songwriting credit went to Chuck Berry, plus DJs Alan Freed and Russ Fratto.
14 September 1955: Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti
Although Little Richard’s recording debut went back to a handful of singles on RCA in 1951 and 1952, it was this Bumps Blackwell produced song, his first single to be released on the Speciality label, that marked the beginning of his rise to becoming a rock’n’roll icon. The recording session featured Huey “Piano” Smith.
During a break in this first recording session, Little Richard started to sing one of the songs that he performed in the clubs. This lively song had a very catchy refrain in, “wop bop a loo bop”. Blackwell could see the song’s potential but the ribald lyrics were too much for the pop market. Dorothy LaBostrie was called in to clean them up and the result was Tutti Frutti, with joint writing credits for LaBostrie and Little Richard.
1 January 1956: Carl Perkins released Blue Suede Shoes c/w Honey Don’t (US)
Written by Carl Perkins, this release gave Sun Records its first million-seller. It was also the first rock’n’roll record to make top-3 on all three Billboard charts: Pop, R&B and Country. Elvis Presley achieved a similar feat with Heartbreak Hotel three months later.
Elvis Presley covered the A-side and the B-side was covered by the Beatles.
10 January 1956: Elvis Presley recorded Heartbreak Hotel
For the first time since leaving Sam Phillips and Sun Records Elvis was back in the recording studio, this time for his new record company RCA. He was accompanied by his old Sun buddies, guitarist Scottie Moore and upright-bass player Bill Black. By now he had also acquired a regular drummer DJ Fontana and added the services of legendary Nashville session musicians, guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer.
The song was written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton after spotting a newspaper article headed “Do You Know This Man?” The paper wanted to identify a man who had killed himself and left a note simply saying, “I walk a lonely street”.
4 May 1956: Gene Vincent recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula
Following his recent signing to Capitol Records, Gene Vincent travelled to Owen Bradley’s studio in Nashville for his first recording session. The first single, Woman Love, was released with his co-written classic, Be-Bop-A-Lula as the B-side.
It was thanks to radio DJs flipping the record that Be-Bop-A-Lula became a rock’n’roll classic.
29 December 1956: Elvis Presley held 10 slots on Billboard’s Top-100
Elvis had ten entries on Billboard’s Top 100, a phenomenal achievement considering that he had only recorded his first single for RCA, Heartbreak Hotel, on 10 January*.
Two of the songs, Love Me Tender and Poor Boy were from the soundtrack of Elvis’s first movie Love Me Tender, released on 15 November*. Five of the songs on the chart listing were covers. Hound Dog was written by Leiber and Stoller and recorded by Big Mama Thornton on 13 August* 1952. Blue Moon was written by Rodgers and Hart and performed by Shirley Ross as The Bad in Every Man in the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama. Old Shep was written and recorded by Red Foley in 1935, this was the first song that Elvis ever performed in public, at a talent show in Tupelo on 3 October 1945.
25 February 1957: Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded That’ll Be the Day
Buddy Holly’s backing band was now settling down to drummer Jerry Allison, guitarist Niki Sullivan and bass player Joe B Mauldin, although Larry Welborn played bass on the Holly and Allison penned That’ll Be the Day.
After Holly’s failure at Decca, Norman Petty became his and the Crickets’ manager. They travelled to his Clovis Studios in New Mexico and recorded That’ll Be the Day. Shortly afterwards, on 16 March*, the Crickets signed to Coral Records. Buddy Holly signed a separate recording contract, resulting in That’ll Be the Day being credited as a “Crickets” release. It became an immediate smash hit. This inspired Decca to also release their Buddy Holly version of That’ll Be the Day, recorded at their studios the previous July.
An early-Holly collaborator, Welborn also played with the Crickets after Holly’s death.
The song title was taken from a line in John Wayne’s movie The Searchers.
15 March 1957: Jerry Lee Lewis released Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On
Jerry Lee Lewis’s first hit came with his second Sun Records release Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, originally recorded by Big Maybelle on 21 March* 1955; with the B-side It’ll Be Me
20 April 1957: The Everly Brothers released Bye Bye Love
After releasing their unsuccessful debut single Keep a Lovin’ Me on Columbia, the brothers moved to Cadence and released the first of a string of hits that would take them to international stardom.
Bye Bye Love was the first of many of the Everly Brothers’ hits to be penned by wife and husband team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
12 October 1957: End of the line for Little Richard
On his Australian tour Little Richard found God and renounced rock’n’roll.
Billed as the Big Show, Rock’n’Roll, Little Richard was supported by Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Australia’s first rock’n’roll band Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays. Partway through the tour he played in Sydney and is reputed to have said to the audience “If you want to live for the Lord, you can’t take rock’n’roll too. God doesn’t like it.” Sources vary as to the details but the date of the announcement is most frequently given as 12 October.
Shortly after this, he threw his jewellery into the Hunter River, or maybe Sydney Harbour. Sources vary as to the location of the watery grave he consigned his worldly goods to. Some suggest the epiphany was due to a sputnik passing overhead and signifying the end of the world, others a traumatic plane journey with the engines on fire.
Whatever the reasons and sequence of events, rock’n’roll was much the poorer when Little Richard returned to America. He recorded one final session for Speciality and enrolled to become a Seventh Day Adventist preacher at Oakwood Theological College in Huntsville, Alabama. Following his conversion he only performed gospel songs until his return to rock’n’roll in 1962…
24 March 1958: Elvis Presley joined the US Army
The US Army greeted 53310761, Elvis Presley, into its family when he was inducted at the Memphis Draft Board.
He received his army haircut the following day and proceeded to Fort Hood, Texas for basic training. He was there for six months.
Whilst on leave on 10 and 11 June he made what would be his last recordings for nearly two years. He recorded 5 songs: I Need Your Love Tonight, Ain’t That Loving You Baby, I Got Stung, A Fool Such As I and A Big Hunk O’ Love. Session artists included regular drummer DJ Fontana, guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer.
In October Elvis arrived at his German base in Friedberg, near Frankfurt, where he spent the next year and a half. In mid-September 1959 he met his future wife, the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. He was promoted to Sergeant in January 1960. Elvis’s two years of service life came to an end on 2 March when he flew out of Germany and headed for home. He was officially discharged on 5 March 1960.
Three weeks later Elvis returned to being the “King of Rock’n’Roll”. On 20 March* he was back in the studio working on his new album, Elvis Is Back and cutting his first post-army single, Stuck on You. Filming for his fifth movie, GI Blues, started shortly afterwards and heralded the next phase of Elvis’s career – the 1960s Hollywood screen idol.
22 May 1958: Jerry Lee Lewis arrived in London for his career-ending UK tour
At the height of his success as a rock’n’roll performer, Jerry Lee Lewis arrived in London for the beginning of his first British tour. He was supported by The Treniers and The Hedley Ward Trio.
Myra Gale was identified as Lewis’s child bride when responding to a reporter’s question about her age. Lewis told the British press that she was fifteen. It soon transpired that Myra Gale was only thirteen years old and the daughter of his bass-playing cousin, JW Brown. His relationship might well be legal in Louisiana but Lewis soon discovered that in the eyes of his British fans it was totally unacceptable. He played just three poorly received concerts before pulling out of the tour and returning to America. The tour continued with British skiffle legend Chas McDevitt, brought in as Lewis’s replacement.
As a result of the scandal American audiences also deserted Lewis in their droves and his record sales plummeted. His rock’n’roll career never recovered, despite previously being a real contender for Elvis Presley’s title of the “King of Rock’n’Roll”.
He left Sun records in 1963 and moved to Mercury’s subsidiary label Smash. Reinventing himself as a country artist, Lewis began a string of American country hits in the late 1960s and continued with his new found success into the early 1980s.
3 February 1959: Buddy Holly died in a plane crash
The Winter Dance Party had reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was a short tour of the Midwest which had started out on 23 January* in Milwaukee. The tour bus had been breaking down regularly in the sub-zero temperatures and to make the journey more comfortable Holly chartered a light aircraft to fly to Fargo, North Dakota for the next concert at Moorhead, Minnesota. Holly’s backing musicians Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup were originally planning to accompany him on the flight to Fargo. Fate took a hand and Jennings gave up his seat for the Big Bopper. Ritchie Valens ‘won’ the flip of a coin and he took Allsup’s seat. The plane took off shortly after midnight but crashed a few miles out of Clear Lake, killing the pilot Roger Peterson and his three passengers, Buddy Holly, aged 22, the Big Bopper, 28, and Ritchie Valens, who was only 17.
It’s an ill wind… and the tragedy launched the career of Fargo’s own Bobby Vee. As news of the fatal air crash spread around Fargo, the search for local talent began. 15-year-old Bobby Vee with his backing group the Shadows stepped up to perform at the Moorhead concert that very same evening.
The tour continued and gave its final performance on 15 February at Springfield’s Illinois State Armory. Frankie Sardo and Dion continued with the tour and were joined by new headliners Jimmy Clanton and teen idols Fabian and Frankie Avalon.
21 November 1959: Alan Freed was sacked by ABC
Iconic American disc jockey Alan Freed, credited with coining the phrase “rock’n’roll”, was sacked by ABC. He refused to sign an affidavit stating that he had never promoted any artists’ recordings in return for payment, payola.
The practice of taking payment for pushing new recordings or particular artists was known as “payola” and was widespread amongst radio and television DJs in the 1950s. As well as payments being in the form of money or gifts, a more subtle payment vehicle was to include the DJ’s name on the writing credit of a song. Freed was one of the highest profile DJs that the House of Representatives subcommittee took action against when it turned its attention to payola in late 1959. In May 1960 Freed was arrested for receiving payments of over $30,000 from a number of record companies.
In December 1962 he pleaded guilty and received a fine of $300 with a six month suspended sentence. The experience broke Freed. His career was over. At the time of his alcohol related death on 20 January* 1965, he was penniless and facing tax-evasion charges.
Well, that’s the story of the rise and fall of American rocknroll. The extracts above are all taken from Derek Shelmerdine‘s book Rock’n’Roll Unravelled.
This is just a taster for the book, there are many more stories of how American rocknroll dominated the 1950s, before the main protagonists left the stage. In the early 1960s American rocknroll fragmented into clean-cut rock’n’roll teen idols, dance crazes, surf music, Phil Spector and other avenues. In the UK, British rock’n’roll morphed into beat music, with the classic two guitars, bass and drums. The Beatles released their first UK single, Love Me Do, on 5 October 1962 and by early 1964 were leading the British Invasion, when for the first time British artists and bands dominated the American rocknroll scene.