A Wop Bop a Loo Bop, A Wop Bam Boom! The lyrics of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” are screamed out and his piano’s keys are being pounded while he plays it standing up. Little Richard’s music must be rock ‘n’ roll, right?
With all of the Web sites on the Internet devoted to rock ‘n’ roll and all of its various interpretations and genres, one might think there would be no room for ambiguity on the topic of rock ‘n’ roll.
However, much like art in general, music is open to (and maybe best left to) individual interpretation. Rock ‘n’ roll: we know it when we hear it. It makes us move and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” so aptly put by Bill Haley and his Comets.
People dancing in the aisles and parents arguing with their children over “the devil’s music,” as the older folks put it. Gotta be rock ‘n’ roll. But what is rock ‘n’ roll, really? And does it truly have a King? If so, who is its Queen and Prince?
One cover of an album by Little Richard proclaimed his status as the King of Rock ‘n’ roll.” Other titles Little Richard has given himself include the Architect, Creator, Emancipator, Inventor, King, and Originator of Rock ‘n’ roll. And who’s to say he’s not.
How about the Rolling Stones, the so-called World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band? With such hits as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Street Fightin’ Man,” to name just a few from hundreds of songs, the Stones music has to be rock ‘n’ roll right?
We probably all agree that recording artists such as these are easy to categorize as rock ‘n’ rollers, and both are listed in the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame (http://www.rockhall.com), they technically play one or more sub-genres of rock ‘n’ roll.
According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rock_genres), there are over 100 genres of rock ‘n’ roll. But where did that foot stompin,’ bass-and-drum driven type of music originate?
Richard “Little Richard” Penniman’s musical roots are rhythm and blues. He got his start singing Gospel in Southern churches and by 1986 was such a master of his art that he was Inducted into the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame, which is located in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986, Little Richard has many hits to his credit.
According to http://www.softshoe-slim.com/lists/l/little_richard.html, Little Richard is credited with 21 albums and a multitude of Top 40 hits. This site has information on other recording artists also.
Speaking of “albums,” have you listened to a recording made on vinyl lately?
Have you actually laid a record on a turntable equipped with a stylus or needle? Even if you haven’t done it lately, you can reminisce at http://www3.sympatico.ca/gary.lessard/timeline.htm, an excellent Web site for esoteric rock ‘n’ roll history. The site is big on history and dates but contains almost no images. If you want to head farther down memory lane, this site will even tell you about Thomas Edison and how he invented the phonograph (the what?) all the way back in 1877. Another interesting tidbit on the site is how (it really is interesting) Les Paul invented the electric guitar.
Where did the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” come from? According to http://www.kolumbus.fi/timrei/lre.htm, Little Richard once said “Rhythm and blues had a baby, and somebody named it Rock ‘n’ roll.”
That somebody was Alan Freed, who nicknamed himself Moondog. He was a Cleveland disc jockey who played a mix of jazz and “pop” or popular music, primarily recorded by black artists. It’s said that Freed used the term “rock ‘n’ roll” to avoid using the phrase “rhythm and blues,” which was seen by some to be predjudicial (http://www.tsimon.com/freed.htm).
Freed is also credited with hosting the first rock concert, his Moondog Coronation Ball, held in 1952 (http://www.fiftiesweb.com/moondog.htm). The event attracted about 25,000 fans to the Cleveland Arena, where a riot broke out. Two years later, in 1954, Freed promoted a concert called The Rock ‘n’ roll Jubilee.” Rock ‘n’ roll history had begun.
If rock ‘n’ roll as an art form is difficult to describe and categorize, then trying to determine the first rock ‘n’ roll song should also be difficult. We can remember and identify our first car, and we can all remember our first roll in the—oops—I mean our first rock ‘n’ roll dance. There is much debate as to what the first rock ‘n’ roll record is. It might be “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats or “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry. It could also be “That’s All Right”, the Elvis Presley single for SUN records. Some rock historians (as you will be if you visit enough of these Web sites) go back to the 1940s to musicians like Fats Domino.
For examples of different types of rock music, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rock_genres, where you’ll find at least a hundred styles. There are the more well known, such as the blues, rhythm and blues, and folk rock. And there are the less well-known, such as math rock and avant progressive rock.
Let’s not forget Motown, the music that drove the Motor City. Can Martha and the Vandellas, who had everybody “Dancin’ in the Streets,” The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Four Tops be called rock ‘n’ roll? Similarly, can Ted Nugent, the self-proclaimed Motor City Madman, be called a rock ‘n’ roller?
The Temptations and The Four Tops, as all the Motown greats, featured wonderful lyrics and harmonies, tightly choreographed dance routines, and designer wardrobes (http://www.rollingstonesnet.com). And Ted, well, he’s a different sort of guy. You can see a picture of him apparently wearing only a guitar and boots by visiting http://www.starpulse.com/Music/Nugent,_Ted/gallery/PRZ-006443.
Nugent, a tremendously talented guitar player with diverse interests and achievements outside the musical arena, was the force behind the Amboy Dukes and their acid rock blockbuster hit of 1968, “Journey to the Center of the Mind” (http://www.tnugent.com).
Speaking of guitar greats, how about classic rock guys like Neil Young and Eric Clapton? Their individual styles have changed dramatically over the years and reflected the times and personal changes in their lives. Young, in fact, was sued once by his record company for his stylistic changes (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.03/young.html).
The musicians who, perhaps, have undergone the most dramatic changes in musical styles throughout their careers are known, quite simply, as The Band. Originally playing together as a backup band for Ronnie Hawkins, the Hawks, as they were known then, played hard get-up-and-dance-’til-you-drop rock ‘n’ roll from 1958 until 1963.
From 1968 to 1975, The Band played in such diverse styles as Ragtime, Blues, County and Folk. A few of their hits included “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “Tears of Rage,” and my personal favorite, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Perhaps the most telling way of learning about the impact of The Band is to see a movie called The Last Waltz, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese.
The musicians who played on stage with The Band (http://theband.hiof.no) at their legendary farewell concert are virtually a Who’s Who from the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame. Players included Neil Young, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and more. This was a concert for the ages and is a movie for anybody who appreciates good music played by some of the finest of musicians alive at the time—from any genre of rock ‘n’ roll.
Ken Rubino is a freelance writer, photographer, and curator. He has hung group art exhibitions on the East End of Long Island for 17 years.