Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Rock the House
For a long time, the standard narrative had it that the rock era began with Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in the summer of 1955--with some narrators going so far as to pinpoint the music's birth to the Fourth of July, when the song hit number one on Billboard. Except Billboard published several separate-but-equal charts in 1955, and "Rock Around the Clock" didn't become a consensus number-one hit on all of them until later that month. And even the mythical date of July 4, 1955, is no better date for the birth of rock and roll than several others I could name.

Take, for example, March 5, 1951. (This is the date the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame picks.) That's the day a struggling record producer named Sam Phillips recorded a song called "Rocket 88" by Ike Turner and his Delta Rhythm Kings. (Yes, that Ike Turner.) The record was later released under the name of Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats (Brenston was the member of Turner's band who sang it) and it became a major hit on the R&B charts. It sure sounds like what we'd consider early rock and roll--big beat, honking sax, and all about a hot car.

Or March 21, 1952. That's the night of the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland, a concert promoted by legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. The Ball was supposed to feature several prominent R&B artists Freed popularized on his radio shows, but when 25,000 people showed up at a hall that could safely hold 10,000, the fire marshals moved in and the event was shut down. It was the prototypical rock concert, and in its wake, more and more white kids began discovering the mostly black R&B Freed was playing on the air every night.

And finally, I submit July 6, 1954--exactly 50 years ago today. It was the day Elvis Presley walked into the same studio where "Rocket 88" had been recorded three years earlier, and for the same producer, cut "That's All Right," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "I Love You Because." "That's All Right" quickly became a hit on both the country and R&B charts, and within a year, Elvis would be the biggest star in the world--perhaps the biggest that's ever been.

We can't hear Elvis now the way people heard him then because he just sounds like Elvis to us. But in the mid 50s, he clearly was what Sam Phillips had been searching for--"a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel." So much so, in fact, that when Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) interviewed Elvis on the air, he made it a point to ask what high school he attended, which, in that segregated day, would have made his race clear to anyone listening. Listening to Elvis within the broader context of the Civil Rights movement makes it clear that his artistic achievement helped change the world in ways far removed from simply the musical. And it started 50 years ago today.

In 1997, as we approached the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death, The Mrs. and I visited Graceland. Before we'd left, I was already composing a piece about the visit and Elvis' impact, which I would later manage to actually get paid for. If I had to stake my reputation as a writer on one thing, "Rock the House: the Elvises at Home" would be it. And it seems like a good idea to dust it off today, poorly coded HTML and all.

This post has been edited since it first appeared.

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