There are two versions of the invention of rock and roll. Story One says (white) country music and (black) rhythm and blues collided, one mysterious day in 1955, in the heads of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Little Richard, and a strange new beast emerged, which Lo ! was Rock and Roll. Story Two says that this is a typical oversimplification of a long and complex evolution. Start with Ragtime, take a line through Tin Pan Alley, Duke Elllington and Robert Johnson, and we see a swirling phantasmagoria of music which changes gradually. At some arbitrary point we decide to label it “rock and roll”.
I quite like Story Two because I am a Child of the Sixties and have always found myself working backwards from Zeppelin and Clapton through John Lee Hooker, Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnston, and Scott Joplin. I fell in love with the blues. Just recently I bought some Elmore James – not sure why I had ignored him before. He is amazing, and was idolised by Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Peter Green. When I listened to my new purchase however I was surprised. From 1955, “Sunnyland” is straight ahead blues :
but “I Was A Fool” is fully formed rock and roll. In fact it sounds just like Chuck Berry only better.
and “Goodbye Baby” sounds kinda like Blueberry Hill :
How come Chuck Berry and Fats Domino got famous and Elmore James didn’t ?
Finally, for the “who invented rock and roll” detectives, we have the real source of the Nile : Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats – a band put together by Ike Turner. Four years before Elvis or Haley, the whole thing was there :
I once read in the excellent Mojo that Ike said the distorted guitar sound was a result of the amplifiers getting wet. Sort of like the Beatles starting to sing in harmony since the PA wasn’t loud enough with just one of them singing. And (again tip of the Stratocaster headstock to Mojo for the story) the origin of the long guitar solo: In the early days of Deep Purple, during a solo by Blackmore, Gillan crawls under Jon Lord’s grand piano (those were the days) to be, errmm, serviced by a groupie. Wanting to prolong his pleasure, he signals to Blackmore to extend the solo. 🙂
Story 2 is more correct, but story 1 is what most people perceived. Easy answer: Bill and Elvis were white. As Colonel Tom Parker said, get me a white guy who can sing like a black guy and I’ll become a millionaire. Cue Elvis (“I don’t know much about music; in my business, you don’t have to”). Pat Boone (a descendant of Daniel Boone) made a career of singing sanitized cover versions of black R&B hits to a white audience. Original white American rock music really began with Buddy Holly, but he died and so history took a different course (documented by Don McLean in “American Pie”; when asked what it means, he said “It means I never have to work again”).