Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rock and Roll History: The Harvard Viewpoint


AFTER a twitter exchange with a defender of Current Affairs magazine, I agreed to look at essays by one of their lead writers, Briahna Joy Gray, to see if they represented a tops-down, Harvard-oriented viewpoint. I selected her 9/6/2017 essay, "The Question of Cultural Appropriation." Rock and roll music has always been an interest of mine. From my earliest memories, I grew up listening to 45 rpm recordings by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, and other early rock luminaries.

THE QUESTION isn't whether Briahna Joy Gray's article makes sense, and speaks some truth. The question is the viewpoint. Or: Does the essay give the full story, or only part of the story? It's looking at a mountain from one angle and thinking you understand it. But we live in a three-dimensional world.

I've covered Gray's chief example of cultural appropriation in a separate blog post, "All About 'Hound Dog.'" The one point I didn't bring up there was that Big Mama Thornton's recording sold 500,000 copies across America, to consumers black and white. For a small record company, Peacock Records, this was an astounding achievement. The record could've sold more if promoted by one of the major record companies. Elvis Presley faced a similar, or worse, situation in the early days of his career, in 1954 and 1955 when recording with a tiny but ambitious outfit, Sun Records. Not until he hired Tom Parker as manager, and his contract sold to one of the majors, RCA, did his career become a phenomenon.


The Harvard Viewpoint sees the world in simplistic terms-- the terms of neo-Marxist ideology. The caricatured lens of a Howard Zinn-style history. Tops-down in view and one-sided.

In this view, America's economy is a static, stratified thing, rigidly in place, with inflexible hierarchies based primarily on race. No understanding that this complex dynamo is in constant flux, absorbing influences and undergoing continual change.

To the Harvard-based-or-educated commentator-- the staff of Current Affairs, say-- there's the Music Industry. Run by plutocrats and highly placed. The Industry decreed that black performers were to be shut out. (Countless counter-examples from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole need not be considered, as they don't fit the narrative.)

Under the Harvard Viewpoint, black musicians and white musicians were separate entities, with strictly separate musical styles. There's enough truth to this to make Briahna Joy Gray's essay believable. When performers like Chuck Berry invented rock music (and he did help invent it), the Industry needed a white face to slap onto the genre-- and lo!, Elvis Presley was plucked from obscurity, through no effort of his own, to become the acceptable face. Thereby benefiting immensely.

This is the impression given by the Current Affairs essay.


In 1955, when rock music exploded onto the larger cultural scene, the industry was something of a monolith, dominated by the "Big Four" of RCA, Capitol, Decca, and Columbia. (Similar to the "Big Five" publishing conglomerates of now.) At the same time there was enormous musical excitement on the margins of the industry.

Roots music from the poorest segments of American society had been creeping into public consciousness at least since the 1930's, from the folk music trio the Carter Family, sprung from the wilds of Virginia, to seminal blues guitarist Robert Johnson in Mississippi.


Rock music would never have happened without business pioneers. The first black recording business upstart was Don Robey, of Peacock Records (founded in Houston, Texas, in 1949), and later, Duke Records. Robey recorded Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's original version of "Hound Dog" in 1952.


At about the same time, 1950, Leonard Chess and his brother Phil started Chess Records in Chicago. (Leonard's original name was Lejzor Czyz. "Chess" was an appropriation.) In 1951, Chess Records released what many consider to be the first rock n roll record, "Rocket 88," performed by the Ike Turner band, though the record was credited to the vocalist, Jackie Brenston. Another appropriation?


In the same year, a low-rent country-western band, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, recorded a cover of "Rocket 88." An appropriation. Haley, one of the top cowboy yodelers of the 1940's, had become increasingly interested in rhythm and blues, though his previous recordings had been of songs like "Ten Gallon Stetson." In 1952, he dropped the cowboy hats and changed the name of his band to The Comets.


While Bill Haley performed rhythm and blues with a country-western flair, fledgling rhythm and blues performer Chuck Berry began adding country songs to his repertoire. See my separate blog post about Chuck Berry.

(WHILE rock music's roots were in the blues, it was way more manic.)


The populist narrative views American culture as not imposed from on high by conglomerates, nor by Harvard-trained culturati in Cambridge. Populism means genuine culture springing from a land and its people.

In this narrative poor whites and blacks in the South were experimenting with a variety of musical styles-- extensions of their original homelands; whether folk traditions in Scotland, England, and Ireland, or folk traditions in Africa. With the invention of the phonograph and the rise of radio, increased mixing of styles took place. Cultural integration. Integration that had been happening anyway. Technology increased its pace. As a teenager, Elvis Presley watched B.B. King playing on Memphis streetcorners, but he also listened to the radio.

Culture-mixing wasn't a one-way street, and the exchange was more horizontal than many believe. One of the few commentators to cover the topic has been Thomas Sowell, courtesy of a controversial essay, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," in a provocative book of the same name.

Neither rhythm and blues nor country and western music were mainstream or pop enough to capture middle-class America's full attention. Only when performers like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley synthesized influences and added a pop sensibility did rock n roll move on from its stray beginnings to become a truly separate entity. The result was a cultural earthquake.


More than a musical revolution, though, it was a business upheaval. Do-It-Yourself versus Monopoly. At the dawn of the rock era, the Big Four, along with mid-majors Mercury and MGM, controlled close to 90% of the record-selling market. Within a few years they lost nearly half their market share to many hundreds of new record labels. Unprecedented business change. This was with RCA buying Presley's contract from Sun Records.

The reaction came in 1960 when Congress, prodded by big business, held "payola" hearings in Washington designed to reign in free booting music tycoons. Alan Freed was destroyed. Dick Clark, more cooperative, later claimed he was forced to dissolve 200 corporations in one day. The two disc jockeys had owned or controlled hundreds of new labels.


Yet sharp Do-It-Yourselfers able to spot talent continued the wave. Prominent among them was Berry Gordy Jr. in Detroit, who founded Motown (first called Tamla) Records in 1959 with $600 borrowed from his sister. Gordy created another synthesis-- well-produced and structured rhythm and blues with a pop style-- "The Sound of Young America." Gordy deliberately sought to appeal to a very broad audience-- and succeeded, turning his upstart enterprise into a billion dollar empire.


In the real world, as opposed to Marxist-leaning textbooks, this is how change is made. By hustlers, of any color. Wannabe capitalist tycoons with over-the-top dreams. In changing the business-- and making money as a by-product-- they also went a long way toward integrating and changing American society.

(Be sure to read the rest of this analysis, "All About Chuck Berry" and "All About 'Hound Dog.'"

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

All About Chuck Berry

(This post is the second of three posts. The first, "Cultural Appropriation: The Harvard Viewpoint" is yet to be written. The third is here.)

THIS BLOG THREAD is an examination of Briahna Joy Gray's 9/6/2017 essay for Current Affairs magazine, "The Question of Cultural Appropriation."

ONE OF THE KEY POINTS Gray makes in her essay is about rock n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, using him as an example of an artist overlooked while Elvis Presley was given the spotlight. To bolster her argument she quotes Kenan Malik:

"In the 1950s, white radio stations refused to play (Berry's) songs, categorizing them as 'race music.' Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon."

The quote is a distortion at best. At worst, a falsehood. While Chuck Berry's life was by no means easy-- he went to prison as a young man-- his ascent as a recording artist went fairly quickly.


During his audition with Chess Records, his first recording session, he recorded a cover ("appropriation") of the 1938 Bob Wills country-western record "Ida Ray." According to wikipedia, Leonard Chess asked Berry to alter the lyrics and change the name to something less countrified-- Maybellene.

(Bob Wills.)

The wiki entry for the song states:

"It has been asserted that it was a common practice in the 1950s to alter the instrumental parts and lyrics of old songs and represent them as new songs . . . This practice took place because copyrights on older recordings were rarely asserted." 

Recorded May 21, 1955, "Maybellene," Chuck Berry's first record, "--was a major hit with both black and white audiences," selling a million copies and reaching #10 on the pop charts, #1 on the rhythm and blues chart.

How could this happen?? While radio stations, then as now, had formats for which Berry's record wouldn't fit (as with Presley's records), an increasing number of "white radio stations" were playing rhythm and blues, and its newborn cousin, rock n roll.


At the same time that several country performers were playing rhythm and blues, and adapting the songs to their own style-- Bill Haley first among them-- Chuck Berry was playing country songs and adapting them to his style. Also adapting his style and voice to sound more "white," eager from the beginning to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

The rockabilly singer Carl Perkins, who toured with Chuck Berry, noted that "Berry not only liked country music but knew about as many songs as he did," per wikipedia.

(Carl Perkins.)

It's interesting to note the natural process of musical integration taking place at the roots level. Picture Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in cowboy gear playing the occasional rhythm and blues song to redneck audiences-- by some accounts, being occasionally booed-- and Chuck Berry playing occasional country songs in front of black audiences, who were also at first hesitant, then accepting. This is what being a pioneer in any field is about.


Among the white disc jockeys across America featuring black music was Dewey Phillips in Memphis. Many of the recordings he played came from the tiny Memphis storefront recording studio run by Sam Phillips (no relation), a southern talent scout for Leonard Chess. Sam Phillips recorded both white and black musicians, quickly starting his own label-- Sun Records.

Elvis Presley's first record for Sun, recorded on July 19, 1954-- ten months before Berry's-- was "That's All Right," backed with a country bluegrass tune, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." While the record received local airplay due to Dewey Phillips, it didn't chart. The only recording Presley made for Sun which made it onto the pop charts was "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine," in 1955. It went to #74.

Not until Presley jumped to RCA at the end of 1955 would his career take off nationally. Why? Because RCA was one of the bigs and was able to give his recordings for them-- "Heartbreak Hotel" in January 1956 first among them-- better promotion and distribution.


One area where whitewashing of a sort did take place was in the movies. The 1957 Elvis movie, "Jailhouse Rock," in at least a couple of its particulars better matched the life of Chuck Berry than of Elvis.

However, Chuck Berry appeared in at least three early rock n roll films himself. "Rock, Rock, Rock" in 1956, "Mister Rock and Roll" in 1957, and "Go, Johnny, Go!" in 1959.


Why did Elvis Presley, and not one of the other rock pioneers, become a monster national phenomenon? Why not Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino on the black side, or Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, or even Pat Boone on the white side?

Part of the reason was race, no question. It's unlikely this would have happened if Presley were black. But another reason was that Presley was able not only to synthesize the various roots music strains into his style, but to add to the mix a more "pop," mainstream, crooner aspect as well. A touch of Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. (Pat Boone did this, but couldn't get the rest of it down.)

Undeniable as well was the fact of Presley's youth, looks, and charisma. What happened was that, like the fine-tuned universe, every aspect of the Elvis presentation, by intent or accident, was calibrated to create pop hysteria. He was outrageous-- but not as outrageous as Little Richard. (Though Elvis also wore mascara at some of his shows, perhaps an appropriation of the Little Richard act, though at this stage no one really knows.)

Promotion is never easy. The promoter-- especially when operating at a lower or working class level, like carny barker Colonel Tom Parker, the man with the big cigar-- is continually looking for just the right performer, or right mix, to punch a hole through the general, tops-down dominated culture. When Parker spotted Elvis he threw over his current act, bland country singer Eddy Arnold, for the more exciting and new.

NEXT: In Part One I'll tie the argument together-- I'll make the basic argument-- and examine the difference between the populist and elitist viewpoints applied to American culture.

Monday, March 05, 2018

All About "Hound Dog"

THE FULL STORY? (Third of Three Parts. Other Parts to Be Written.)

There's been much talk about cultural appropriation, including in this article by Current Affairs writer Briahna Joy Gray. The target (as in Alice Walker's much taught short story "Nineteen Fifty-Five") is Elvis's recording of the song "Hound Dog." Are the criticisms of Elvis valid? Or are they distorted?


Mama Thornton's 1952 Peacock Records version:


The Elvis Presley 1956 RCA vinyl single version:



The notable thing about the two versions musically is they're from similar but different genres. The Thornton version is clearly rhythm and blues. A blues song with rhythm backing. The Presley version is what rhythm and blues morphed into-- rock n' roll. Faster, less bluesy, with hard backing; drums, lead guitar, bass. The driving Bill Black bass and Scotty Moore guitar breaks are what give the song much of its energy. For all of Elvis's vocal chops, he's along for the ride.

The different pace and different vocal style are what country added to rhythm and blues as the two genres melded their styles to create a new synthesis which captured the planet. Though saying that is even a simplification-- Elvis's biggest idol as a vocalist was Italian-American crooner Dean Martin.


The first question raised: Why "Hound Dog"? Why is this song, of Elvis Presley's vast repertoire, used as the example of cultural appropriation? At the time, Presley was appropriating everybody. He was very eclectic, fan of every possible musical style, which made him unique.

Was "Hound Dog" his signature tune? Maybe-- he performed it often. It was part of his biggest-selling single, but people forget that "Hound Dog" was backed with the even more popular "Don't Be Cruel."

At the time, Elvis was more identified with another appropriation, "Blue Suede Shoes."


Here's the original 1955 Sun Records version of "Blue Suede Shoes," by country singer Carl Perkins:


Note the hillbilly twang to the vocal.

Now, the Elvis Presley 1956 RCA version:


The Presley version is faster, less countrified. It's rock.


The Next Question is: How seriously do we take the appropriation? How seriously were the recordings taken at the time they were released? We're not talking hindsight, projecting 60 years of criticism and revisionism back onto that time period. How important were the recordings taken to be then?

The answer is: Not Very.

"Hound Dog" was written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, two Jewish teenagers from Los Angeles who loved rhythm and blues and wanted to make it in the songwriting business. They saw the genre as a quick avenue. How much authenticity of the black experience could two young white guys from California really bring to the game? In a sense, the song was an appropriation from the beginning. At some point, worrying about "appropriation" begins to be hair-splitting.

Many Leiber-Stoller songs were obviously tongue-in-cheek. For instance, "Charlie Brown" and "Yakety Yak," both recorded by the Coasters. One of their biggest hits, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots," recorded by the white vocal group the Cheers, was an outright parody of motorcycle gang movies:

The 1955 Capitol Records version:


A novelty record, of the kind George Martin was producing for EMI records in England. In a sense, all of the musical subculture of the time were considered novelties. Dismissed by intellectuals and critics in New York City, which then as now dominated the cultural scene. Many of the singers themselves, such as Big Mama Thornton, no doubt took their art seriously-- but not the established arbiters of culture, art, and taste, whose main focus was still classical and Broadway (think Leonard Bernstein). They had recently warmed to jazz.

This scene from the 1957 Elvis movie "Jailhouse Rock" encapsulates the divide:


As does this trailer for the cheezy 1956 movie "The Girl Can't Help It," which was loaded with every rock n' roll act the producers could find. Rhythm and blues to rockabilly, the acts were eager to cash in on what everyone considered a not-to-last fad.



What happened was that America's musical subcultures burst forth from underground, gaining popularity by their very crudeness, directness, and simplicity.


The most infamous performance of "Hound Dog" was on the Milton Berle Show in 1956. The honky-tonk show was burlesque in more ways than one:



Here's where the hypocrisy of today's Harvard-educated intellectuals comes in. They're happy to celebrate a chiefly-spent, roots-spawned musical force which came from America's lower classes, black and white. At the same time they pay no attention to underground forces in their own realm of writing and literature. No subcultures which could bring energy to a moribund scene allowed there!

They worry that Chuck Berry was banned from the radio airwaves in the 1950's. (He wasn't.) But care not a whit for banned or blackballed writers from now. A subject I know about, as I was part of a project to spotlight underground "roots" literary culture as a member of the Underground Literary Alliance. The writers we promoted included zine/roots luminaries from transgender star Urban Hermitt to Texas outlaw writer Wild Bill Blackolive.

As current editor of New Pop Lit I still feature or review the occasional authentic underground lit star, whether long-time zinester "fishspit" or e-book pop writer "Kitty Glitter." Their art is a tad rougher than anything taught at Harvard or published by the Big Five-- but, for good or bad, it's the genuine article. The sound of America now.

NEXT: "Cultural Appropriation: The Harvard Viewpoint."

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Two Essays

A REMINDER that not only do I run a literary site, with all that entails (and work a shitty job)-- but I also write. This past week in my spare time I wrote two essays:

One about Detroit.

The other a short review of The NewYorker magazine.

Take a look. I don't post here much anymore but I occasionally put my ideas out there someplace.

(Painting by Colin Campbell Cooper.)