Sunday, June 9, 2013

Bill Haley, Blackboard Jungle and Birth of Rock N' Roll

Rock Around the Clock - the theme song of the movie
What is Rock N' Roll? The term was originally coined by Alan Freed, a disc jockey from Cleveland. The simplest definition of it is: a White guy singing like a Black guy. In other words, rock n' roll is White rhythm and blues.

It's widely known that the inception of rock n' roll is attributed to a person by the name of Bill Haley. His band, Bill Haley & His Comets performed Rock Around the Clock for the movie, Blackboard Jungle in 1955. The movie itself wasn't memorable, but the song was, although it was only heard in the background in opening and closing credits. Part of reason was that the  song was "new." It had a faster rhythm compared to the conventional blues, and a rebellious sound. Most importantly it was sung by a White guy. 

Rock Around the Clock became very popular. It enjoyed widespread attention and billboard chart success. The song was favorable among White and Black audiences alike - especially White teenagers. This was the definitive start of the mainstream rock n' roll scene.

Although the song was a massive hit, Bill Haley couldn't prolong his success because he was too old. He didn't fulfill the needs of record companies that were looking forward to reach-out to the massive White teenagers who had enough money in hand to buy songs. This opened door for other rock n' roll artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. From 1955 to 1959, rock n' roll was more popular than rhythm & blues and country music.

Racial tensions were still high in the US in 1950s. Classrooms were segregated; Black kids went to night school. Therefore the arrival of rock n' roll wasn't greatly appreciated by White adults, presumably parents. They saw it as a threat to their way of life since music would somehow integrate both White and Black communities together. As a matter of fact, the title Blackboard Jungle has a slight racial tone to it. Elvis was the most prominent artist at the time as he was the only one signed to a major record label. When he appeared on TV to perform Hound Dog, his legs were cut off from TV due "inappropriate movements." In other words, he was White but danced like a Black guy. As far as the parents concerned, such behavior "crossed the line."

There were also Black Rock N' Rollers. Chuck Berry was the best example. He was the Black guy who sang like a White guy. Contrary to Elvis, Berry wrote his own songs. He also played the electric guitar.  His songs, too, were very well received by White and Black audiences.

The golden era of rock n' roll came to an as the decade wounded down. Elvis was sent to West Germany as a part of the Cold War draft. Chuck Berry was arrested for crossing boarder with a non-Black girl( MANN Act ). Jerry Lee Lewis was caught being married to his young cousin. And Little Richard was caught in an enter battle with himself: he was a devoted Catholic, but eventually came to terms that he was gay - something the Catholic Church despised.

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