Rock Music by any other name, is NOT Rock 'n' Roll
When Danny and the Juniors recorded Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Stay in 1957 there was no question that they were making a profound musical statement.
Rock 'n' roll is here to stay, it will never die
It was meant to be that way, though I don't know why
I don't care what people say, rock 'n’ roll is here to stay
There was only one kind of "Rock Music" . . . then and now. In the forthcoming years, there were many interlopers who tried to lay claim to rock 'n' roll . . . many of them bare-chested, genital-exposing whackos with hair down to their ass-crack who, in their haze of designer drugs, confused smashing guitars and kicking holes in bass drums as a form of music. Suddenly, there was a rash of rock 'n' roll wannabes trying desperately to associate with the true music by putting labels on their distorted forms of noise such as Acid Rock or Alternative Rock or Glam Rock or Psychedelic Rock or Punk Rock. And, it’s a shame to even mention this thing called Rap Rock. The only connection with rap and rock ‘n’ roll is the lead singer of Danny and the Juniors – his name was Danny Rapp.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were many great singers with fantastic music throughout years that I really admired, such as The Beatles, Meatloaf, Dr. Hook and Billy Joel to name just a few. But, simply put, rock music is not rock 'n' roll. In fact, speaking of Billy Joel, he was the only post-50s performer who truly tried to preserve the rock 'n' roll sound of that special era. That’s what he explained by writing and singing:
Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound
Funny, but it's still rock 'n' roll to me
There are several different stories of just how rock 'n' roll (you can call it “50s rock” but never, ever insult the music by calling it "doo-wop") came about. One of my favorites is the one that way back in September 1922 the first mention of "rock" occurred in a song that was so sexually explicit it would have been Banned in Boston and 47 other states at the time. A vampish singer, with the lascivious name of Trixie Smith, actually recorded a song called My Daddy Rocks Me, in which she crooned in sultry tones:
My daddy rocks me with a steady roll
There’s no slippin’ when he once takes hold.
Well, while Trixie may have been experiencing her own "brand" of rocking and rolling, other people insist the first rock 'n' roll record was Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 by a band called Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, which featured Ike Turner. Ike, of course, teamed with nubile singer Anna Mae Bullock in 1957, and, although they were not married, changed her name to Tina Turner, and went on to record mega hits such as I Want To Take You Higher, Proud Mary and River Deep - Mountain High. Still others insist Rocket 88 was actually based on the 1947 hit Cadillac Boogie, as well as being influenced by the even earlier double-sided instrumental hit, Rocket 88 Boogie, Parts 1 and 2.
By the way, 50s groups seem to have had a romance with Detroit, selecting their names from many of that city’s products. Rocket 88, of course, was a best-selling automobile model introduced by Oldsmobile in 1950. And, well, Cadillac, being the top of the line, not only had its own song, Cadillac Boogie, as previously mentioned, but also became the name of one of the most popular groups of the 1950s, The Cadillacs, which recorded hit songs like My Girl Friend, Gloria and the super hit, Speedo. In addition, the classic car became a major player of Chuck Berry’s first big hit in 1955, Maybellene:
As I was motivatin' over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille
A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road
Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin' 'bout ninety-five
She's bumper to bumper rollin' side by side
Other rock 'n' roll groups to jump into the driver’s seat in the 50s were: The Impalas (Chevy), Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home); The Edsels (Ford), Rama Lama Ding Dong; The Coronets (Dodge), Nadine; The Thunderbirds (Ford), La Dee Dah; The Fleetwoods (another Cady), Come Softly To Me; The Skyliners (Ford), Since I Don’t Have You, and several others, including – in keeping with the top of the line – The Eldorados (Cady), At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama). Of course, Cathy Carr (Ivory Tower) was a model of her own.
(Note: Cadillac is the most sung about car in history; it is mentioned in more than 250 song lyrics . . . so far).
Now, getting back to just how the term rock 'n' roll” came about . . . it’s interesting to read about all the theories and superstitions, especially the one about Trixie and her rocking and rolling hanky-panky, but the fact is radio disc jokey extraordinaire Alan Freed coined the words which would name the music that changed history. And make no mistake about it . . . rock 'n' roll, spelled in this manner, pertains only to 50s rock – "rock music" is a totally different genre. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica points out the distinction . . . it regards rock 'n' roll as "the music that originated in the mid-1950s and later developed into the more encompassing international style known as rock music." While Alan Freed invaded the New York radio scene in 1951, it wasn’t until 1954 that he actually referred to the music he was playing on the air as rock 'n' roll. That was the same year that two songs – one by a white band, the other by a black group – dominated the charts and put an exclamation point to the fact that teenagers finally had a music custom made for their lifestyle. Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets, had kids dancing their own version of The Lindy, and Earth Angel by the Penguins gave a whole new meaning to slow-dancing, or, as it was sometimes called, The Fish.
In addition to playing rock 'n' roll on the radio in New York, Alan Freed took his music to the burgeoning medium of television with prime-time series, The Big Beat. Then he went even further, producing several rock and roll movies. Films like Rock, Rock, Rock; Mister Rock and Roll and Don’t Knock The Rock featured performers such as Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and many other hit record makers. Alan Freed was also the first to expose his music to live audiences, producing concerts in many major cities. My personal experience of seeing, live at the Brooklyn Paramount, performers like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, and others, is an experience I still remember in detail some 60 years later.
Over the years, my roots in rock 'n' roll have served me well. Since my father bestowed a Wurlitzer jukebox on me when I was fifteen, I was able to amass an impressive collection of some 3,000 78rpm recordings, long since converted to digital. I never tire of hearing rock 'n' roll, and while I’m listening I can envision Chuck Berry skip-jumping across the stage to Roll Over Beethoven or Elvis gyrating to Hound Dog or Bobby Lester in a velvet-collared jacket, leading The Moonglows in Sincerely. In addition to playing my rock 'n' roll records at home, until my mother threatened me with the wooden sauce spoon for some peace and quiet, I heard it in mainstream films, in addition to the Alan Freed classics. Hollywood movies such as Blackboard Jungle, Rumble On The Docks, Go Johnny Go and Hot Rod Gang all featured rock 'n' roll soundtracks. It’s no wonder that when I wrote my bio-fiction novel, Be Bop A Lula, about coming of age in the 1950s, there would be no way of telling the story without the background of a written rock 'n' roll soundtrack. More than seventy 50s songs are featured.
Indeed, the 1950s was the first decade that produced the music that teenagers could call their own, of which I’m proud, mostly, to be apart of. The thing that makes me ashamed is how "the powers that be" distorted this grass roots music, completely whitewashed it, and tried to take it from teens and sell it to adults, sans the black performers who, in many cases, made the songs popular in the first place. Whoever came up with the monstrosity called the "cover record" should be encased in Lucite and permanently displayed in the "hall of shame." We all know the misguided reasoning behind this atrocity, but nothing – absolutely nothing – can justify hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti ridiculously sung by Pat Boone or The Moonglows’ Sincerely whitened up by The McGuire Sisters or The Chords’ Sh-Boom purified (or putrefied) by The Crew Cuts. The most interesting story concerning the dreaded "cover record," however, comes when Hank Ballad’s classic song, Work With Me, Annie, was recorded by white pop singer Georgia Gibbs. But, that’s not the worst of it. The record producer, Mercury, found the title and lyrics too suggestive, so the song was changed to Dance With Me, Henry, which had the same 12-bar blues melody. But, Hank had the last laugh. His follow-up record was Annie Had a Baby, (Can’t Work No more). And, for some reason, no one from Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol or Mercury records would even touch that one. Hooray for the winner – Rock 'n' Roll. It’s a good thing we had independent record labels like Chess and Specialty with the cojones to produce original, authentic rock 'n' roll, or we may have been condemned to a life of listening to Pat Boone trying to sing Long, Tall Sally instead of Little Richard, or Gale Storm's counterfeit rendition of Fats Domino's I Hear You Knockin, or Mantovani instead of Red Prysock. Perish the thought.
There’s only one way to close this dissertation, and that’s by returning to those visionary boys from Pennsylvania, Danny and the Juniors:
Rock 'n’ roll will always be our ticket to the end
It will go down in history, just you wait, my friend