Before Elvis

Even casual music fans know the story: rock ‘n’ roll as “invented” by Elvis Presley and was just African American blues music set to a faster beat and in some cases with less salacious lyrics.

Yet as in most things musical, it’s not quite that simple. Many writers such as Nick Tosches (Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll) and Robert Palmer (Rock & Roll: An Unruly History) have over the years attempted to explain the origins of one of America’s greatest home grown art forms. But Stereophile Contributing Editor Larry Birnbaum has found previous accounts to be lacking and so has devoted years of his life to producing an exhaustive account, Before Elvis, The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll, (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2013), that documents all the streams that led up to the first big rock ‘n’ roll hit: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” in 1955.

“Until now, rock ‘n’ roll has largely been viewed as a bolt from the blue, an overnight revolution provoked by the bland pop that preceded it and created through the white appropriation of music that had previously been played only by and for blacks,” Birnbaum writes in his introduction. “The connection between rural blues and early rock ‘n’ roll is oblique, mediated by jazz and country music.”

In the 380 pages that follow, Birnbaum meticulously traces the cross pollinations and tangled webs that have informed and inspired a music that many, even today, view as simplistic, subversive or as Frank Sinatra so memorably put it, the music of “cretinous goons.” Organized as chapter long discussions of the roles played by the various musical flavors that mixed and influenced each other on the way to becoming rock ‘n’ roll, Before Elvis runs through detailed yet very readable discourses on the blues, hokum, boogie woogie, jazz, big band jump jazz, country music forms like western swing and hillbilly boogie and finally an R&B chapter that details saxophone honkers and blues shouters, and culminates in a great sub chapter on New Orleans R&B. Particularly fascinating is the way Birnbaum traces the common origins of a number of famous rock ‘n’ roll standards like “The Train Kept A–Rollin’,” “Cow–Cow Boogie” and “Johnny B. Goode,” following them through all of their recorded versions, and concluding that in some ways, they are all the same tune.

This not light reading by any stretch, this study could have benefited from more flavorful scene setting and fleshing out of the personalities involved. Music, as opposed to say references to the socio–political climate at the time this music was being made, is the strict focus here and the resulting mass of names, dates and song titles here may frighten off the less musically obsessed. But for those interested in the multi–hued origins of this most essential American music, this volume is a welcome and important leap forward in tracing the capillaries and veins leading to rock ‘n’ roll’s heart.

dalethorn's picture

It's too bad that I wasn't born 10 years earlier like some of my cousins in Akron Ohio -- they got to hear Alan Freed playing a few of those R&B 78's on WAKR (before he got moved to Cleveland) when I was still in the crib. The radio museum in Akron didn't give Freed any recognition when I last visited, so most of what I learned was from my cousins, and from the Johnny Otis radio program in the L.A. area.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I remember him on NY WINS AM & WNEW TV. Nothing special: loud, stupid & vulgar, like most DJ's, an adult pandering to kids. Didn't he call himself the "5th Beatle"? Anything for a buck.

As for the book above, the material has been extensively mined. Can't imagine what it could present that's new. Do recommend reading Robert Palmer, however, esp. his Deep Blues.

One advantage of the cyber/digital age is the ready availability of all kinds of roots of rock music (rockabilly, territorial band jazz, gospel, R&B, blues, country, western swing, boogie, doo wop, soul, reggae, ska, etc. etc.).

I would look at the book's discography to assess its quality, its depth and breadth.

dalethorn's picture

Freed as a DJ may well have been a louse, but what the guys in L.A. recognized was his acquiring the R&B records from New Orleans etc. and getting some of them on the air in Akron (of all places), to get those artists some airplay. Freed at that point had little to gain and lots to lose playing what most white folk in Akron greatly feared at the time - R&B, rock-n-roll, "earthy" music, music of rebellion, whatever. And that fear was precisely why he wasn't recognized in his home town - i.e. "A prophet without honor in his own country".

Lofty's picture

I think you're confusing Freed with "Murray the K".