THE SUN ROCKING YEARS - Rock and Roll is the generic term used to describe the dominant strain of American popular music from 1955 to 1965. In general,
rock and roll was teenage-oriented dance music that synthesized elements of black and white folk and popular music styles, specifically and most conspicuously, rhythm and blues and country (or hillbilly) music, is superseded by Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo,
Mississippi, and reared in Memphis, Tennessee. All of the other subsequent rock and roll innovators, with the arguable exception of Chuck Berry (born, San Jose, California, 1926), were native southerners:
Carl Perkins (born, Bermis, Tennessee, 1932), Jerry Lee Lewis (born, Ferriday, Louisiana, 1935), Buddy Holly (born, Lubbock, Texas, 1936), Fats Domino (born, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1928), Little Richard (born, Macon, Georgia,
1932). From 1955 to 1958 rock and roll remained largely a southern phenomenon. Two principal regional recording centers were Memphis and New Orleans, each of which produced a distinctive idiom of its own. Memphis, long a cultural crossroads where various southern
musical traditions flourished, especially Mississippi Delta blues and hillbilly music, produced a dynamic hybrid known as rockabilly.
Rockabilly was firmly rooted in
country music but drew heavily from black sources, most notably gospel and rhythm and blues. It was characterized by small ensembles (often a trio), stringed instrumentation, and a persistent yet light beat layered over frenzied vocalizing and an echo produced
in the recording studio. The classic rockabilly sound, engineered by Sam Phillips and performed by Elvis Presley (vocal and acoustic rhythm guitar), Scotty Moore (electric lead guitar), and Bill Black (acoustic upright bass) was first recorded at Phillips'
Sun Records studio in Memphis in July 5-6, 1954. Sun soon attracted dozens of aspiring young musicians from across the South who performed in a style similar to Presley's. Important Sun artists after Elvis Presley were Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny
Cash, Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty. A definitive rockabilly group from Memphis, which recorded for the New Yorkbased Coral label, was the Rock And Roll Trio (Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison).
After 1955 the basic Memphis rockabilly sound underwent a gradual modification. Elvis Presley moved toward a mainstream rock and roll sound after signing with RCA Victor in November 1955.
Jerry Lee Lewis introduced his own boogie-woogie-based piano style into rockabilly with his first Sun releases in 1955. Beginning in 1957 Buddy Holly created an original pop-influenced variant of rockabilly, exemplified by such recordings as "That'll Be The
Day" (1957), "Peggy Sue" (1957), and "Rave On" (1958). In Louisiana, Dale Hawkins recorded in a strong blues-influenced style, which gained its greatest expression in the hit recording "Suzie Q" (1957). Numerous influential rockabilly artists lived and recorded
in Los Angeles after 1955, including Gene Vincent (originally from Virginia), whose best-known song was "Be Bop A Lula" (1956), Wanda Jackson (originally from Oklahoma), the most talented female rockabilly performer; Eddie Cochran, next to Carl Perkins, the
finest rockabilly songwriter, who recorded such definitive items as "Summertime Blues" (1958) and "Something Else" (1959), and Ricky Nelson (born in New Jersey), who sold more rockabilly recordings than anyone other than Elvis Presley. Nelson and the Nashville-based
Everly Brothers followed Presley and Holly in moving rockabilly in the direction of pop music by removing much of the rawness and dynamism from the idiom. The Everly Brothers were especially significant for introducing the traditional hillbilly duet style
into rock and roll. Their best recordings such as "Wake Up Little Susie" (1957), and "Bye, Bye Love" (1957), retained much of the potency of early rockabilly. A few mainstream country performers also recorded in a rockabilly mode, most notably Marty Robbins
and Johnny Horton.
The New Orleans sound, which formed the second major component of southern rock and roll, was infused with the blues. It was characterized by small
ensembles (usually five or six pieces) whose central instrument was the piano. Accompaniment usually consisted of saxophones, drums, electric bass, and horns. It was noted for a heavy, rolling beat and Carribean-derived polyrhythms. New Orleans vocalists,
most of whom were black, sang with the thick inflections indigenous to the city. Most of the songs identified with New Orleans rock and roll were exuberant, joyous, and urgent, yet less frenzied than those from rockabilly music. Lyrics were seldom teen oriented.
Though no record label of comparable importance to Sun Records existed in New Orleans - most of the city's recordings were released by West Coast companies such as Imperial and Specialty
- virtually every recording made in the city came from the studio of engineer and producer Cosimo Matassa. Matassa and Dave Bartholomew, a musician, writer, and producer, were key figures in the evolution of a distinctive New Orleans rock and roll style.
The quintessential New Orleans rock and roll performer was Fats Domino, a musical heir of the great rhythm and blues pianist Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd). Domino was a popular
rhythm and blues recording artist in the early 1950s, and he made his entry onto the national pop charts in 1955 with "Ain't That A Shame". In the 1955-60 period, Domino produced a remarkable series of hit recordings, including "Blueberry Hill" (1956) and
"I'm walking" (1957).
Other important contributors to the New Orleans sound included Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Huey Smith, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Frankie Ford, Bobby
Charles, and Jimmy Clanton. Clanton, a white performer, accomplished the closest approximation of the New Orleans style to a mainstream rock and roll sound with recordings like "Just A Dream" (1958). The only non-Louisiana artist to play a significant role
in the popularization of the New Orleans style was Little Richard (Penniman) of Macon, Georgia. Little Richard became one of the most dynamic and controversial rock and roll performers of the 1950s with such hits as "Tutti Frutti" (1955) and "Rip It Up" (1956).
By the early 1960s rockabilly music had largely been subsumed by the rock and roll mainstream. The New Orleans sound remained a vital and distinctive regional rock and roll form, though
it too declined in popularity and experienced a certain degree of accommodation with the mainstream approach. Both Memphis and New Orleans ceased to be important recording centers. Most southern musicians left to work in Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville
where, if successful, they tended to produce recordings of minimal regional identity. Southern rock and roll, which, in the forms of rockabilly and New Orleans music, had exerted a formative influence on the creation of a national rock and roll style, now
merely existed as one element within the broad form as evinced by such representative recordings of the period as Johnny Tillotson's "Poetry In Motion" (1960), Johnny Burnette's "You're Sixteen" (1960), and Elvis Presley's "Return To Sender" (1962).
After 1963 American rock and roll began to succumb to the so-called British Invasion, spearheaded by the Beatles, who were soon followed by such groups as the Rolling Stones, the Animals,
and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Ironically, the British invaders were themselves extremely indebted to the southern-derived forms of early rock and roll and thus revived much of the southern character and identity of the music. The most successful American rock
and roll recording artist of the mid- 1960s was Johnny Rivers, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana (born 1940), who had begun his musical career as a rockabilly stylist. Rivers's music combined many varied styles, from urban folk music to rockabilly, but retained
its essential southern character.
By 1966 the Beatles and Bob Dylan (another musician devoted to southern musical forms) led the way toward "rock" as contrasted to rock
and roll. Rock had a general, national (and even international) identity. It was a form oriented more toward concerts than dance and was linguistically and thematically sophisticated and complex. Only in the early 1970s, with the emergence of the Allman Brothers
Band and the attendant success of Capricorn records of Maco, Georgia, did a specific, self conscious, and identifiable southern rock style evolve.
by Colin Escott, Hank
Davis, and Martin Hawkins
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