The Birth of Rock: the Black and White Revolution of the 1950s
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The Birth of Rock: the Black and White Revolution of the 1950s

Despite Black artists’ long established roots in Rock music, the 1950s brought what many music historians view as an unprecedented White/Black role reversal in the American popular music scene. This seeming role reversal was promoted by the fact that top-selling Black artists of the day like Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”), Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), and Johnny Mathis (“Chances Are”) had geared their music primarily to White audiences, and by R&B groups like The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby”), The Coasters (“Searchin’”) and the Platters (“Only You”) whose new twist on traditional “Negro” music seemed to let the field wide open to all the Black-sounding White performers--a field increasingly dominated Elvis Presley.

Despite Black artists’ long established roots in Rock music, the 1950s brought what many music historians view as an unprecedented White/Black role reversal in the American popular music scene. 

While Little Richard stayed true to the “Negro” genre with a series of monster hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” in 1955, “Lucille” in 1956, and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in 1958, they were perceived by the record-buying public (and DJs) as no more “Negro” than Elvis’ “That’s All Right” released in 1954, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1955, or Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1956.  In fact, many radio listeners who hadn’t seen Elvis, Carl, or Jerry Lee assumed they were black.

The seeming Black and White role reversal of the 1950s was further promoted by the fact that top-selling Black artists of the day like Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”), Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), and Johnny Mathis (“Chances Are”) had geared their music primarily to White audiences, and by R&B groups like The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby”), The Coasters (“Searchin’”) and The Platters (“Only You”) whose new twist on traditional “Negro” music seemed to let the field wide open to all the Black-sounding White performers--a field increasingly dominated Elvis Presley. 

In the mid- to late 1950s as Elvis was turning out one Black-rooted hit after another including the Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton hit “Hound Dog,” “All Shook up,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” LLoyd Price had switched from the niche that had produced the hugely popular “Lawdy Miss Claudy” to the pop-oriented “Stagger Lee” and “Personality,” while Jackie Wilson released “Lonely Teardrops” and “I’ll be Satisfied,” which while becoming huge successes, were more popular with White record-buyers than Black.  As a result, the Black and White revolution was becoming increasingly more deeply embedded in the American psyche.

Added to this White-oriented pop list were Roy Hamilton (“Pledging My Love”), Sam Cooke (“You Send Me”), and Brook Benton (“It’s Just a Matter of Time”) who while each received phenomenal successful and acclaim, were typically referred to by DJs as “café au lait” stylists rather than “Negro” artists. 

As the 1950s came to a close, the Everly Brothers were breaking into the music scene with “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Suzie,” and “Bird Dog,” and a long line of clean-cut teen idols came to dominate the pop scene including Paul Anka (“Put Your Head on My Shoulder”), Frankie Avalon (“Venus”), Ricky Nelson (“Never Be Anyone Else But You”), Fabian (“Tiger”), and Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”).  The decade closed with the Black market represented by Lloyd Price’s “Personality” at #3 and “Stagger Lee“ at #13 on the charts, Brook Benton‘s “It’s Just a Matter of Time” at #27, the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” at #29, Danah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” at #45, and Ray Charles’ “What I Say” at #50. 

But perhaps the best indication of where the Black music influence was headed was Elvis Presley’s “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” a decidedly rock-oriented song driven by electric guitars, a Jerry Lee piano riff, and a savage Little Richard tempo that came in at #30.   Although Folk music was on the horizon of the American pop scene, the seeds were clearly planted for what would follow just a few years later: the British invasion.

References:

The Rock Revolution, A. Shaw

The Rock Generation, J. Marks

Music Guide to Rock: the definitive guide to rock, pop, and soul, Bogdanov, Vladimir; Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

Thumb via: http://www.solcomhouse.com/images/rock-n-roll.jpg  with my appreciation

Visit JAMES R COFFEY WRITING SERVICES AND RESOURCE CENTER for more information

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Comments (5)

Very interesting write-up.

Ranked #1 in Music

Thanks, Sharla. I hope it makes the events of this time period clearer to those who weren't there.

brings back some memories here

I remember a lot of these artists....Sam Cooke is great!

Ranked #1 in Music

Yep, Sam Cooke was one of the greats!

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