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The History of Rock & Roll... Race and Corporate Greed

Updated on April 18, 2012

...the bastard baby of boogie and blues

The bastard baby of Boogie and Blues crawled out of the South over a hundred years ago; cut its teeth in the roaring twenties, and reached a rebellious puberty in the postwar years of World War II of the mid 20th century. Fueled by the technological revolution in the early part of the century, the sounds of folk genres from the poor south found their way to the now glowing electric cities of the East and Midwest. A growing country, now a solidified world power after WWI, was growing faster, and the music of the age was leading the way. As the rest of the world watched and listened, that “bastard baby” bellowed its first words, in the key of A flat.

The roots of what we now know as “Rock and Roll” stem back farther than the familiar music heard on the radio today. Long before Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, or the current flavor of the day, America's folk cultures laid the groundwork for the different variations of what we know now to be the offspring of Slave songs, Folk, Jazz, Ragtime, Swing, Country, Classical, and Gospel melded together with an electrical charge. Rock and Roll was stolen from black American folk music, mass marketed by record corporations, and spoon-fed to an anxious public complacent to accept any idea, which was new and somewhat radical. American slaves detached from their homeland and families; forced to work in Southern cotton fields enduring constant hardships often used song for spiritual release and emotional strength.

Urban migration brought the songs of the south to the cities where the mournful sound of the Blues, and soulful sounds of Gospel and other musical forms were brought together and gained in recognition, especially during the great depression when white America felt the economic bite, and related to this “new sound” of the day.

After the Civil War, freed slaves set off to northern cities bringing with them songs of faith and endurance singing about their newly found freedom. It was the late 1800's and as the railroad spread it's tentacles across the country, the African American worker, building many of these tracks spread out with them. They brought with them that style of music, which would become known as Folk-Blues. Many of the blues folksingers of this time got jobs touring with traveling entertainment groups, vaudeville troupes, and medicine shows. Later, as country-western music moved to the larger towns along the routes, blues players began adapting their sound to a more country-oriented blues style. According to Britannica on line, “Jazz is generally thought to have begun in New Orleans, spreading to Chicago, Kansas City, New York City, and the West Coast. The blues, vocal and instrumental, was and is a vital component of jazz which developed in the latter part of the 19th century from black work songs, field shouts, sorrow songs, and hymns,whose harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements were predominantly African.” (Britannica)

After the turn of the century, African American music was an integral part of mainstream American culture. Ragtime performers such as Scott Joplin became popular and the first musicals written and produced by African Americans to appear on Broadway. While Jelly Roll Morton was claiming to be the father of Jazz, Blues artists such as Hubbie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and Ma Rainey were making their own way and by the 1920 the sounds of African American music was sweeping the nation.The broadcasting boom of 1922 brought the music into peoples homes through the radio, and the Victrola allowed consumers to listen to Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, and Bessie Smith on record. At the outset, jazz was slow to win acceptance by the general public, not only because of its cultural origin, but also because it tended to suggest loose morals and low social status. However, jazz gained a wide audience when white orchestras adapted or imitated it, and became legitimate entertainment in the late 1930s when Benny Goodman led mixed groups in concerts at Carnegie Hall.

While white America was embracing the African American music, that's where the line was drawn. Racial inequalities still played a major role in America. The new sounds brought faster beats, and the new age brought newer tools. In 1931 Adolph Rikenbacker invented the electric guitar. Author Steve Waksman states that in the 1940’s the electric guitar was transformed into a solo instrument by the likes of musicians such as Charlie Christian. “Though not the first to play the electric guitar, Christian used the new sounds made available by the instrument to forge a unique single note style that broke Jazz guitar out of its confinement in the rhythm section.” (Waksman16)

All of these styles and innovations gained in popularity and carried over through World War II. According to his book, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll James Miller claims, on December 28 1947 an unknown named Wynonie Harris went into a Cincinnati recording studio and recorded“Good Rockin' Tonight.”The song was a major hit on jukeboxes and radio across black America, and by popularizing the word “rock” Harris’ recording would herald a new era in American history (Miller).

Samuel A Floyde’s The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States, chronicles this transition stating, “In the 1940’s certain transitional events began to take place in African American music, events that would have far reaching effects and would change the course of black music in subsequent decades. These events took place as follows: In Jazz, the rise of Be-Bop, with its creators returning to and embracing elements of African American myth and ritual, changed course of the genre. In popular music, the rise of Rhythm and Blues laid the foundation for Rock and Roll and Soul music and also caused an incursion of black music into white society (Floyde 136).

The 1950’s are thought by many to be the decade of the birth of Rock and Roll. To some extent it was. Alan Freed was the first disc jockey and concert producer of Rock and Roll. Often credited with coining the term Rock and Roll, to avoid the stigma attached R&B. On July 11, 1951, calling himself “Moondog,” Freed went on the air and became among the first to program Rhythm and Blues for a white teenage audience. Other small stations followed eventually forcing the larger stations to join in. Due to the predjudices of the time, Freed began calling the Rhythm and Blues records he played Rock “n” Roll. What was ironic was that the term Freed was using to make Rhythm and Blues more acceptable to a white audience, was slang for sex in the black community (History of Rock “n” Roll).

The rest is pretty common knowledge, Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis and such. However, one can’t help notice names like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Fats Domino on the list of the earliest recorded rock tunes, and I can’t finish this section without the mention of probably the greatest African American influence on Rock and Roll, the first guitarist/singer to reach the charts…Chuck Berry. John Lennon once said, “If you had to call Rock and Roll by another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”

In his book Race, Rock, and Elvis, Michael T. Bertrand quotes Elvis on the subject of the origin of rock: “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but Rock and Roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Lets face it, I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that” (Race, Rock,and Elvis 199). The recording industry was not to be denied, they saw opportunity and jumped on it. One incident documented in the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll went as follows: : While attending a nightclub in Chicago in 1955, Chuck Berry met his idol Muddy Waters and asked Waters where he might cut a record. Waters directed him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. In May, 1955, with an introduction from Waters, berry went to Chicago to audition for Chess in hopes of landing a recording contract. Berry thought his Blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was the Hillbilly “Ida Red” that got Chess’ attention. Chess, a great Blues label, in recent years had seen its market shrink and was looking to move beyond the Rhythm and Blues market and Chess thought Berry might be the artist that could do it. So on May 21, 1955 Berry recorded “Ida Red” renamed “Maybellene,” the name taken from a line of cosmetics, with Johnny Johnson, Jerome Griffith (from Bo Diddley’s band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums, and Blues legend Willie Dixon on the bass. Johnson’s piano playing, the heavy drums and maracas, and Berry’s lead style gave Maybellene the hard Rhythm and Blues feel that balanced the country elements. Maybellene reached the Pop charts and number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts. To help get airplay Chess gave a copy of the record to the influential disc jockey Alan Freed. In return, Freed and his associate, Russ Frato, were given two-thirds of the writing credits, something Berry was unaware of until the song was released and published. Freed aired the single for two hours on WINS in New York. The song went on to sell over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard’s R&B chart and nimber five on the Hot 100.” (History of Rock “n” Roll 3)

When music was first played on the radio, the recording industry tried to ban it, claiming no one would buy records if they could hear music for free on the radio. To appease the recording industry, radio stations agreed to pay small fees to licensing agencies such as The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) each time a song was played. This assured that the record company would receive payment for music in the form of royalties. The royalties they received were nowhere near to what they paid out. It was almost instantly clear that radio was a better form of promotion than the music industry had ever dreamed of. People who heard music on the radio did buy records. When music fans heard a song they liked, they had to have the record, and the stores couldn’t keep them in stock. Soon this promotion was not free. If you produced a record, you wanted to sell it, and the only way to do that was to get it on the radio. To get that, you had to pay disc jockeys and radio stations. Often promoters would give the DJ a copy of the record with money in the jacket, and the DJ would play the record, this was called “Payola.” The Payola Scandal was brought to loght in the late fifties and Alan Freed and Dick Clark were charged with taking money. Clark paid money back, plus a fine, and continued on with a successful career. To this day, he can be seen hanging around with Dorian Grey (just checking to see if you’re still awake). Freed never recovered and died broke in 1961.

The Musicians Union was no fan of the record companies, or the radio. Twice in the 1940’s Union president James Petrillo (who once cabled Italian dictator Benito Mussolinni, demanding that he reprimand the Consul General in Chicago for hiring a non-union band), barred all musicians from recording music. Petrillo hated recorded music knowing that the musicians were not getting a fair deal. In 1942 he put the recording industry on halt for two years, then again for a year in 1948 until he reached an agreement with the industry to establish The Music Performance Trust Fund. (WTTW 11)

Along with Payola, other forms of corruption existed in the recording industry. When record industry execs realized the economic potential of this market, they began to take on African bands as well. The companies would sign black artists and release their music on what were called Race Records,” but while the record industry flourished in the years following World War II, minority performers in not only Jazz, but also in Blues and other musical styles were often cheated out of the royalties they deserved. With the rise of the American Federation of Musicians, the nation’s labor union for recording artists, exploitation of Jazz artists decreased as record industry contracts were brought up to union standards, and higher wages were guaranteed.

Arguments still surface as to the roots of modern American music. Racism still overshadows common sense, and there are still people in this country who claim that Rock and Roll is as pure as the driven snow. Even the cited examples given here can be contradicted by an overzealous “Rocker” with too much time on their hands and a penchant for digging up frivolous detail and innuendo.The recording industry is still greedy, and given the chance will exploit any form of music to come around the corner…it’s the American way. African Americans are now being given more appreciation for their impact on the American music scene, even though it was their scene to begin with. At a ceremony at the White House in 2005 honoring African American musicians, President Bush’s speech writers had him say this, “Throughout our history, African American artists have created music with the power to change hearts and reshape our national conscience. The songs of black musicians heralded social change. Music like Jazz, and Blues communicated across racial barriers. That music began in America’s country churches, and urban clubs of Chicago, New Orleans, and Harlem. Today it is cherished here at home and around the world.” (Office of the Press Secretary)

So that’s about it, there’s so much to cover, and I’ve had to condense what I had to fit these pages the best that I could. So in closing, America is realizing the contribution of the African American. So the slaves brought their songs and music up north and it was a hit. So the record companies stole the music. So they push crap all over the radio still today…what’s it all mean?

What it means is this: That past and ongoing corporate exploitation of individual art and idea is accepted as the American way. It means, in the eyes of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, slavery is still very much alive, and the color of your skin doesn’t necessarily keep you exempt. It means that the crap you’ve been listening to on the radio for the past twenty years is just that, crap…the music played for profit to the tune of billions of dollars a year, while the real art lay on the cutting room floor. Worst of all, it means that imagination and original concept are stifled, or at least held hostage by the chastising powers that be in corporate office and their subliminally mesmerized charges, an uninformed, overindulgent, apathetic American public. So be grateful for the trailblazers, whose blood, sweat, and tears made the music we all listen to today a possibility at all, and the technology which enables that music to break your heart and melt your brain at the same time. But, beware of a carpet bagging music industry intent on telling you what it is you need to listen too, and more importantly, what art is, and what they tell you it is supposed to be.


Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, and Elvis. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Britannica on line

Floyde Samuel A., Floyde Samuel A. Jr The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States, Samuel A Floyde, Samuel A Floyde Jr. Oxford University Press, 1966, US

Miller, James. Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999

The History of Rock “n’ Roll

Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. May 2001

WTTW Chicago Stories,7,1,1,38

White House Press Release. Office of the Press Secretary. June 6, 2005


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