THE NUTSHELL IS THIS: rock & roll has had two golden eras, both times when the artists took control of the music and its direction and led the way. But that’s not the norm for popular music: the norm is for businessmen in the form of owners, Artists & Repertoire (A&R) men, and other “bean-counters” to say what’s so.
In the beginning, a bunch of old white men in the A&R departments of the major record companies dictated what was recorded and what was played on the radio based on their idea of what middle-aged white women wanted to hear.
The major companies (Columbia and RCA Victor were the Big Boys on the block) effectively dictated direction to the rest of the industry.
The music that we call rhythm & blues and early rock & roll was confined to a variety of usually tiny independent companies who had little clout with the radio stations.
Consequently, millions of white teenagers didn’t hear anything resembling “real” rock & roll music until 1956!
As head of A&R at Columbia, Mitch Miller produced a string of high quality if perfectly homogenized, fiber-free pop hits for artists such as Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Doris Day, the Four Lads, Frankie Laine, Johnny Mathis, Johnnie Ray, and Jo Stafford. He made Columbia the leading American record company.
Miller was one of the most powerful men in the record industry and fought a long battle against signing rock & roll artists to America’s biggest company. Consequently, Columbia went through the ’50s without a significant contribution to the new music form.
Not counting the introduction and the captions under the photos, my Nutshell History of Rock & Roll is 299 words in length. This is a little more than two tweets, and the perfect length for the Ritalin Generation.
The nutshell history of rock & roll
Rock & roll was bubbling under the surface of the record industry in the early 1950s.
Chuck Berry was one of the most important and influential rock & roll artists. Aside from his records of the ’50s, his style of singing, guitar-playing, and songwriting are part of the fundamentals of rock & roll that every wannabe rocker should commit to his internal hard-drive.
The First Rock & Roll Revolution
A bunch of young black rhythm & blues artists and white rock & roll artists wrested control from the old guys, effectively enacting the First Rock & Roll Revolution. These were arguably the most exciting years in pop music since the heyday of the Swing Era!
In the years between the First (above) and Second (below) Rock & Roll Revolutions, the middle-aged white men gave us ersatz rock & roll in the form of what are now referred to as Teen Idols. One such idol was Fabian, who scored three Top 10 hits in 1959: Turn Me Loose, Tiger, an Hound Dog Man, which sound like the kind of rock & roll that turned up on exploitation movies of the time.
A bunch of old white men in the A&R departments of the major record companies regained control and dictated what was recorded and what was played on the radio based on their idea of what pre-adolescent white girls wanted to hear. Lots of good music was made but it was often crowded off the charts by silly, soulless music.
In 1964-1965, the Animals were one of the biggest groups of the British Invasion, scoring six Top 40 hits in the States. House Of The Rising Sun topped the UK and US charts, selling more than 5,000,000 copies worldwide. The Animals were much more successful on the UK surveys than they were on the US charts.
The Kinks were another group that scored several Top 40 hits in the US but were considerably bigger on the UK surveys, where they had two #1 hits in ’64. They continued having Top 10 hits in England into 1967, long after their records stopped being played in America.
The Dave Clark 5 were a major presence on the US charts during the British Invasion of 1964-1965. Unlike most of the other bands, they scored more Top 10 hits in the US than in the UK (seven to four). After that, they only placed one side in the American Top 10 compared to four in the British Top 10.
The Second Rock & Roll Revolution
A bunch of young English artists wrested control from the A&R guys, effectively enacting the Second Rock & Roll Revolution—although everyone called it the British Invasion. They were joined by a bunch of young black and white American artists, and they all brought intellectualism and eclecticism to the revolution. These were arguably the most exciting years in pop music history!
For many fans and most critics, Chicago (originally the Chicago Transit Authority) was a faceless band with a soft-rock, pseudo-jazz sound that left them cold. Yet every one of their first thirteen albums (1969-1979) was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record! Total sales of all their records may exceed 100,000,000 worldwide—which may be more than the combined sales of the Animals, Kinks, and DC5!
Another group that divided fans and critics yet sold great gobs of vinyl were the Eagles! In fact, they may be the most reviled group in all of rock’s history—and yet remain faceless to most people. Total sales of all their records may exceed 150,000,000 worldwide—which may be more than the combined sales of the Animals, Kinks, DC5, and Chicago!
One of the unlikeliest superstars of the ‘superstar’-riddled Seventies was journeyman Peter Frampton. He had cut his teeth with the Herd (1966-1968) and Humble Pie (1968-1971) before launching a solo career that attracted little attention or record sales. Then in 1976, he released a rather nondescript live two-record album, FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE!, that exploded in popularity, topping the US charts and selling 4,000,000 copies!
A bunch of old white men in the A&R departments of the major record companies regained control and dictated what was recorded and what was played on the radio based on demographics, which replaced pre-adolescent white girls with perennially adolescent white boys. Lots of good music was made but it was often crowded off the charts by silly, soulless music.
The first time I recall hearing anything about “rap music” was a reference to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five in the early ’80s. I paid attention; I listened; I did not know I was listening to the future. Joseph Saddler aka Grandmaster Flash is one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJ-ing. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were the first rap/hip hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Somewhere in the ’90s, hip hop surpassed rock & roll as the dominant music. Ironically, the industry is still in the hands of A&R men—white and black, young and old. Lots of good music is being made but it’s crowded off the charts by silly, soulless music.
And the beat goes on (la-de-da-de-de)!
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page features Mitch Miller and Burl Ives in front with Commander Edward Whitehead, Rex Stout, and Skitch Henderson. These were a few of the men behind the scenes, the Wizards of Oz who pulled a lot of strings in the recording industry in the ’50s.