THE BIRTH OF ROCK N ROLL 2: AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE
AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE
Behind Kerouac‘s literary road and the photographic path taken by Frank loomed a country that was a victim of its own emptiness and immobility, no longer looking forward to anything, without future, without hope. The pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the Constitution found its realization in a consumer frenzy and a petty regulated existence in which ‘dangerous’ – or ‘immoral’ – activities such as sexual relations, motorcycle rides and certain types of dancing were prohibited.
Middle-class white society prospered, resigned, self-satisfied and suspicious of its neighbours — particularly its black neighbours. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, blacks did not enjoy their full civil rights. Southern states still practised segregation, and most blacks’ economic level, urban as well as rural, was extremely low. Set apart culturally from the white community, blacks invented their own forms of expression, particularly in the musical field, and created systems of independent distribution for it: record labels, concert circuits, local radio stations. Simply by listening to those stations, white teenagers discovered, to their great relief, music far more lively than the tunes being sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the stars of the day.
Groups like the Ink Spots, which were very popular in the thirties, were also descended from gospel. One music would devote itself to the secular virtues of teenage romance, and the other would remain deeply religious. Blues singers occasionally found more lucrative outlets in bands that played on the weekends for social occasions. One popular dance, developed in the forties, was named ‘rock and roll’. To balance, to roll, to reel, to spin … the graphic vocabulary of the black world had little in common with repressed white ways when it came to describing physical or sexual pleasure. Often backed by a honking saxophone, certain singers known as ‘shouters’ had begun to emphasize the beat by screaming, a technique inherited directly from preachers. Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and, to a lesser extent, Ray Charles, exemplify this style.
A pianist, organist, saxophonist and – primarily – a singer, much inspired by gospel music, Ray Charles skilfully combined the best of blues, jazz and soul. Discovered by Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, Ray Charles recorded several tunes in the fifties that were immediately popular with young audiences: ‘I Got a Woman’, “What’d I Say and ‘Hit the Road, Jack‘. Strongly influenced by rhythm and blues, this was rock and roll music before the term was even defined.
Enormously exciting for the teenagers who discovered it, this music was often recorded in makeshift studios in Memphis, St Louis and Chicago, on the old migration path to the north, marking these cities as capitals of the blues. Black radio stations in the south were the first to broadcast it, well before big cities like New York or Los Angeles. Small labels (Vee Jay, Ace, King) flourished, featuring stars like Howlin’ Wolf who recorded in Memphis with producer Sam Phillips Muddy “waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were great musicians, experienced bluesmen who charged up the old blues idiom with electricity.
At the same time further south, in New Orleans, pianists ruled, playing a musical style born in the brothels and barrelhouses of the French Quarter. Dave Bartholomew (‘The Monkey’) and Fats Domino (‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘My Blue Heaven’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’) played music that combined the influences of boogie-woogie, traditional jazz inherited from Jelly Roll Morton” and Fats Waller, and the energetic rhythm and blues of dance halls. They enjoyed a solid local reputation well before the historic appearance of rock and roll.
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