Rock Around the Clock 2

Our first article in this series of posts about rock music mentioned Bill Haley and His Comets as the author of our title song,  Rock Around the Clock, being Bill Haley one of the fist widely known white rock and roll musicians, while some black cats like Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, Roy Brown and His Mighty-Mighty Men and Wynonie Harris had played music called jump blues years earlier. Jump blues sounded pretty much as early rock and roll does, especially when you pay attention to the rhytym.

Other important rock and roll musician were Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, among others. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley were white musicians and the music industry made that clear tagging them as rockabilly musicians, opposed to black rock and rollers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard.
Musically speaking the division was not that easy, even though the rockabilly labeled musicians were more related to early country music, while the black rock and roll musicians were supposed to follow the tradition of rhythm and blues (r&b) music.

Let’s listen to some music now! Here is a video with music from Jerry Lee Lewis. The song is call Great Balls of Fire and was recorded on a tv set. If you pay attention to the piano playing, you will notice that this is no live performance, watch Jerry doing the ‘glissandos’ (moving a hand from one extreme of the keyboard to the center in a very fast movement where the single notes aren’t recognizable any more) and listen. The movements aren’t in sync with the sound!

You may also notice, that the bass guitar player has no cable plugged into his electric bass. While this is common in our times, back when this song was recorded, the electric instruments had to be cabled, wireless had not been invented yet.
This video illustrates how television stations are creating unreal scenes trying to make them look real. This kind of practice is far away from the early days of jazz music, when music was almost exclusively experienced in settings where the musicians¬† and the audience were present in the same room at the same time. In these days, it was impossible to cheat the audience, and it was not much of a scandal, when a musician played a ‘wrong note’.
Unfortunately, the music industry did not want to allow their stars to be presented as normal human beings. They had to be an industrial product, which is a synonym for a standard look and behaviour. The musicians were not allowed to act naturally any more, instead, it became a common practice to play a record and have the musicians behaving as if they were singing and playing the song.
Back to the music itself, we must admit that Jerry Lee Lewis was a very good piano player. He began to play as a kid after his parents mortgaged their farm in order to buy a piano for their son who soon began to play at church services. However, his carreer in church music was short, since he dared to play a boogie woogie at a church assembly, an act which was punished by the dean of the Southwest Bible Institute who expelled Lewis from the school.
However, this scandal was nothing compared to what happened some years later, when Jerry Lee Lewis already was a star and was beginning a tour in the United Kingdom: It became public, that he was married to his only 13 year old cousin. Consequentely, the tour was cancelled and the scandal escalated. As a result, the rock and roll carreer of Jerry Lee Lewis came to an end until he got back to bigger audiences in the 1960s when he switched to more country and western style music.

Let’s move to the most successfull rockabilly musician: Elvis Presley. The next video is published on youtube and features the song That’s Alright, Mama, a song originally written by Arthur Crudup back in 1946. While you continue reading you can also click on the start botton of the original recording by black guitar player and singer Arthur Crudup

The song was no major hit until Elvis Presley recorded it about ten years later. However, the song was not accepted right away by the radio stations. Radio stations that usually played black rhythm and blues music labelled the song as white music in the country western tradition, while radio stations that usually transmitted white rockabilly music tagged the song as music in the tradition of black rhythm and blues music.

It took a while until a deejay named Dewey Philips had the guts to air the song, an action for which many people who favoured segretation hated him but much more people, especially the teenagers of the era, got very excited. It’s Alright Mama was the first hit of Elvis Presley and together with Rock Around the Clock it was a milestone in the evolution of rock music. These songs brought until then so called black music to white audiences. The music industry might have been in favour of segretation before the releas of these songs, but when they noticed the excitement they caused among the teenagers, they soon came up with a tag for this new mixture of country western and rhythm and blues music: rockabilly. The word itself was derivated from the terms hillbilly (applied to the music in rural America of the time) and rock.

Here are the lyrics of the song That’s alright, Mama:

Well, that’s all right, mama
That’s all right for you
That’s all right mama, just anyway you do
Well, that’s all right, that’s all right.
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

Mama she done told me,
Papa done told me too
‘Son, that gal your foolin’ with,
She ain’t no good for you’
But, that’s all right, that’s all right.
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

I’m leaving town, baby
I’m leaving town for sure
Well, then you won’t be bothered with
Me hanging ’round your door
Well, that’s all right, that’s all right.
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

Rockabilly was one of the first subgenres of rock music and it came to stay. While it’s popularity declined somewhat in the sixties and seventies. However, when its popularity declined in the United States, it became popular in the United Kingdom, where many musicians created their own versions of rockabilly songs, among them the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.
There was a revival of the rockabilly style between 1970 and 1990. After 1990, rockabilly is present in today’s music scene, not as pure a style as it was in the beginning and frequently mixed into other subgenres.


Leave a Reply