Exploitation of Early Rock & Roll

- September 23, 2011

"Rock & roll is the devil's work!"

Rock & roll is the devil's work!

In the 1950s, at least, many parents and religious groups saw it that way. When disc jockey Alan Freed (famous for a few things including the radio payola scandal) presented his first rock & roll show at the Cleveland Arena in 1952, riots ensued as 30,000 enthusiasts clamored for 10,000 seats. The resulting publicity was negative; rock & roll music was the culprit. Rock & roll brought black and white people together. (Gasp!) Rock & roll implied sex. (Oh no!)

Corporations and record companies didn't like or understand this "jungle music," but they weren't above using it to their advantage. Imagine that! Record companies cashed in on the rock & roll "fad" by using this simple formula: just add rock jargon to any album title and the artist was in on the latest phenomenon. Country/Gospel singer Tennessee Ernie Ford was promoted as a rocker with the album Ol' Rockin' Ern. Frankie Lane belted out some great western songs such as themes for Rawhide and Blazing Saddles, but was once likewise promoted as Rockin'. Clearly, these two had no future in rock & roll. Actually, let's face it, they weren't rock & roll then either. Record companies continued their exploitation with later trends such as the unlikely Do The Twist With Ray Charles and Surfin’ With Bo Diddley albums. And following the Beatles’ rise, it was imperative to work in, or imply, British association, as exemplified by the first Rolling Stones album being headlined England’s Newest Hit Makers.

Another example of this double standard involved Elvis Presley’s early appearances on television. His music and gyrations caused emotional shockwaves—positive for teen girls, negative for the older set. Elvis first played on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956, just weeks after Ed vowed to never present him to a family audience. Sullivan’s change of heart was purely an economic decision since Presley had previously played on rival Steve Allen’s show and trounced Ed in the ratings. So much for taste dictating programming. Following an earlier television appearance, John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar." Parents, religious groups and the PTA condemned Presley and his music. The protestations only served to boost his profile because, as we know, his records sold like crazy.

As with many aspects of culture, music that was considered radical often ends up being mainstream, especially when there are profits to be realized. Remember how odd Alice Cooper was perceived to be in 1969? Later he was seen socializing with conservative Colonel Sanders, and he has hosted the annual Alice Cooper Celebrity AM Golf Tournament. Who would be surprised to hear a Muzak version of “I’m Eighteen?” Welcome to my nightmare, indeed. Then there was Nick Drake, a depressed loner who eschewed publicity in his short and overlooked career. He died at his parents' home in 1974, but in the year 2000 his peculiar "Pink Moon" was featured in a Volkswagen ad. Currently the NBA, Allstate and Sears, among others, use hip-hop styles in their commercials.

All of this begs the question of where the designation "rock & roll" originated. Freed is often credited with coining the term, and while he successfully promoted it (as an alternative to the black-associated label “rhythm & blues”), he certainly didn't create it. The Boswell Sisters had a song by that title in 1934, Buddy Jones had "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" in 1939 and Scatman Cruthers sang "I want to rock and roll" in 1948. Nevertheless, Freed tried to copyright the term when his show became insanely popular, but it had already become too generic. Freed died in 1965 at age 43, but he eventually got his credit post-mortem: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was established in Cleveland. And in 2002, Freed’s ashes were moved from New York to within an undisclosed wall at the Hall.

So here we are approaching 2012 and hey, hey my, my, rock & roll will never die. Speaking of Neil Young, he has refused to lend his music to commercials. And the genre thrives without any help from Rockin' Ern, Rockin' Frankie or some middle-aged orchestra leader.