The rock of the 50’s had many influences. All music does. It is hard not to be influenced by what preceded you. Even the most original rockers got some of their ideas from other music, even music that seems on the surface to be entirely different.
Many rock historians will make the claim that rock music started with Bill Haley and the Comets. Bill Haley was a DJ on a station in Chester, PA when he started the group as a country band. The group, then known as Bill Haley and The Saddlemen, was very much influenced by what became known as country swing. That genre, which is best demonstrated in the music of Bob Willis, was a combination big band jazz and country music. This highly unlikely combination never had a large audience, but did it did influence many rockers.
If you listen to Bill Haley and The Comets huge hit “Rock Around the Clock”, you can get a good idea of what the mix of country swing and rock sounds like. Just listen to the acoustic upright bass and the sax. It is right out of country swing. The riff that helped make the record one of the biggest selling singles of all time (second all -time best at last count) is right out a big band sound book.
“Rock Around the Clock” didn’t happen overnight. The record was a flop when it was first released in 1954. In fact the group had three charted hits before the song known as the anthem of rock and roll made it big time. The popular movie called “Blackboard Jungle” changed all that. For many who attended the film, it was the first time they ever heard the song that went on to be the number one record on the charts for eight straight weeks.
In looking back it is hard to believe that a paunchy, balding, with one floating eye, married man would become the first rock star. He was much closer to middle age than teenage, but he caught the imagination of teens around the world. Times were changing. The big war was over and the 50’s brought in a new prosperity to the US. For the first time teens had their own money to spend. The big band music of their parents was dead or dying. The youth of this country wanted their own music and found it for the most part in rock and roll. Bill Haley may have been old enough to be their father, but he didn’t act like it and his music didn’t sound like it.
Early rock was driven totally by the tastes of teens. Smart record people and performers alike saw that the teens were the perfect audience to sell records to. As a result, most of the early rock and roll hits were geared toward the youth market. The lyrics were about life as a teen in the US, written by adults. Teens bought it - big time!
Just three months after “Rock Around the Clock” made it big, a song that many would argue was the first real rock hit, made it into the top ten. Like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry was not a teen. He was a married (still married to the same woman since 1948) and was a factory worker. He got some work playing with some Chicago blues artists that very much influenced his music. After playing for very little money, the man who is often called the grandfather of rock, decided to combine country and blues with lyrics that the teens could relate to. Much of what he learned came from Johnnie Johnson, a man who was never given due credit for the development of rock and roll. Berry developed his style while playing in the Johnnie Johnson Trio and later Johnson played exceptional piano on all the early hit records.
The first big hit, “Maybellene”, had some elements of the blues and country. The big difference was the back beat that became the rhythm of Rock and Roll. The song itself was a complete makeover of a country song called “Ida Red”. Legend has it that Chuck didn’t want to call it “Ida Red”, but couldn’t come up with a good name that fit. It is said that he saw an ad for Maybellene eye makeup and settled on the name for his song.
It was the first of a string of hits that fully qualifies Chuck Berry as the biggest influence on classic rock. He not only had a knack for playing simple, yet catchy guitar licks that have never been topped, but his way of capturing the life of the teens of the day was unmatched. He came up with great new words like “botherations” that became part of daily vocabulary.
Another member of the Chess Records family, Bo Diddley, created another new beat. It became known as the Bo Diddley Beat and was copied by many classic rockers. “Mona” by The Rolling Stones and almost anything by George Thorogood are some the best examples. The song “Bo Diddley” by Bo is probably the best starting point for listening to Bo. The amazing thing is the trio was made up of just three elements. Bo was on guitar with Maracas and drums backing him up. Elias McDaniel (his real name) had to do the lead and the rhythm at the same time. This limited him and may have kept him from being an even bigger star. Some would argue that his guitar playing wasn’t all that great, but if you listen to him stretch out a little on his albums, you would hear that he was far better than given credit. Listen to the album cut called “Mumbling Guitar” and then tell me that it didn’t influence the Jimi Hendrix sound.
Chess Records had an off shoot label. Their blues artists were on Chess. So was Chuck Berry. The label had gained a name for itself with black artists, so when they started signing white rockers like Dale Hawkins, they started a new label called Checker Records. “Susie Q” was the biggest hit for the new label .and it only barely made it to the top 30 in the country. Despite that, the song was a huge influence of many including Creedence Clearwater Revival who did a cover of the song. It was the group’s first hit. Even though the song was only a little over 2 minutes long, it had a sound that made the audience want more. Hence the song for many was the beginning of the “Jam” sound.
While all this was going on a performer, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame without ever having a rock hit, was on the charts with his unique guitar work. Les Paul and his then wife Mary Ford made the charts in large part to this totally different guitar sound. Listen to “Waiting for the Sunrise” and pay close attention to the guitar work. Then listen to “Race with the Devil” by Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps. You will hear that same sound in many classic rock songs. It would influence guitar players forever. The sound was Les Paul’s very own because he invented the guitar that made it. The Les Paul guitar has become the gold standard in guitars. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, and Jimmy Page are just some of the big name rock stars that use the Gibson Les Paul guitar. Les Paul was an inventor his whole life. He is given credit for developing revolutionary engineering techniques such as close miking, echo delay, overdubbing and multitracking. All these innovations that became the standard recording studio tricks, changed the sound forever. No, he never played rock, but he is in the hall of fame because of his many contributions to a music he was less than fond of.
Gene Vincent and his lead guitar player Cliff Gallop were a huge influence on the UK rockers. While here in the US Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps were hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard or Fats Domino, for the British audience, he was a superstar. As a kid Jeff Beck went to see him in a UK concert and loved the show despite the fact that his guitar hero Cliff Gallop was not on guitar. Jeff styled himself initially after The Blue Caps lead guitarist. The whole ‘rave up” sound made in England by groups like The Yardbirds was a copy of Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps. “Be-Bop-A- Lula” with a Presley style vocal and a very unique guitar style is one of the very best rock ballads ever done. The song was covered by John Lennon among others. The LP BLUE JEAN BOP was a top 20 seller here the US and it remains one of the best and most influential albums of all time.
Gene Vincent was one of the many southern rockers who pioneered the new sound of rock that started to sweep the nation and the world. Early rock was a hybrid of many forms of music, but the two biggest influences were in blues (or R & B) and country music. Nowhere is a better place to have the two combined than in the south. Both genres were born there. Many of the best of classic rockers like The Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Tom Petty, Lynnrd Skynryd, etc. call the south home. If you had to pick two southern cities that contributed the most to the birth of rock it would be Memphis and New Orleans.
Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee was the spanning ground for so many of the early rock stars. Like most of the very small labels, Sun Records were willing to sign artists that the big labels wouldn’t touch. That was especially true of rock or R & B performers. Most of the big companies like Columbia Records held out until it became a liability not to have rock artists on the label. Mitch Miller of Columbia Records was the biggest hold out. He hated the music and was selling tons of records without having any rockers on the label. How ironic that Columbia became one of the biggest labels for classic rock with signings of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Chicago, etc. Sam Phillips, the owner of the small Sun record company, discovered many of the big name stars. Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins all first recorded on the Sun label.
Carl Perkins’ song “Blue Suede Shoes” was one of the biggest selling rock songs of all time but it could have been even bigger had it not been for the fact that he had to compete with a cover of his song. It wasn’t just any cover, but it was done by the biggest rock star of the 50’s, Elvis Presley. Despite the formable competition Carl Perkins’s version made it to the top of ALL the charts at the time. It was number one on the pop, country and R & B charts. It was the first record to ever reach that milestone. The Beatles were so much in love with the Carl Perkins sound and that they even invited him to sit in with them on the recording of some of his tunes.
Elvis Presley didn’t stay with the Sun Record label very long. Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA. It turned out to be a good deal for RCA as Presley sold millions of records. Sam says he didn’t have much choice. He didn’t have the resources to keep Elvis on the label. “Heartbreak Hotel” was such an original sound that Elvis was an immediate success with RCA. “Hound Dog” was a great example of the new rockabilly sound. Elvis was not a songwriter and had to depend on others to keep his sound alive. It soon died. John Lennon said it best when he said that “Elvis died when he went into the Army”. When he did return he became a pop star and the 50’s rock was dying with him.
Despite being called a country star, Johnny Cash was a big influence on many classic rockers. Bob Dylan loved the man and his music. There is no better country song with a touch of rock than “I Walk the Line”. It was one of the very first songs to give the bass guitar more of an influence on the music. Before he died, Johnny got a chance to record with Dylan and did many covers of many classic rockers. His version of the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” is better than the Petty version. The song just seemed to be written especially for Cash.
Jerry Lee Lewis became the biggest star for Sun Records. “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls of Fire” are often cited by classic rockers as the reason they started playing rock music. His pumping piano style was so unique and exciting. Even classic rockers that you wouldn’t think were influenced by Jerry Lee, were indeed influenced. Listen to songs like “Waiting for My Man” by The Velvet Underground
There was no better early showman than the mad mop haired blonde. Elvis may have had the sex appeal, but it was Jerry Lee Lewis who gave the first real exciting live performance that really rocked. His antics on stage were legendary. Throwing piano stools around, jumping on the piano or playing the piano with his feet or a mike stand made the crowds go wild.
The more R & B style of music in Memphis was led by a studio musician named Bill Doggett. He and his combo backed many hits that came out of Memphis. His only personal big hit was one of the best instrumentals ever done. “Honky Tonk” made it to number 2 on the charts in 1956.
Elsewhere in Tennessee, Nashville was making their contribution to Rockabilly. The biggest act was the Everly Brothers. Don and Phil harmonies are the blueprint for so many classic rockers. Graham Nash recalls how much they influenced him. In an interview he said that being asked to sing along with Don and Phil on stage was a thrill of a lifetime. “Wake up Little Susie” was their first number one record and stayed on top four straight weeks.
Farther south in New Orleans a combo of R & B and rock was exploding. Some of the earliest influences never made it big. Professor Longhair was a legend in the city known for all kinds of music and was a huge influence on Fats Domino, Little Richard and Huey “Piano” Smith and classic rocker Dr. John. His fame never left the city limits.
Fats Domino had a string of hits, but again if you want to hear him at his best, you have to check out his albums. “I’m Walkin’” was covered by Rick Nelson and it became a major hit. His boogie style there was used by Huey “Piano” Smith with his huge hit “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu” (that was also a big hit for Jonny Rivers) Is a great example. The Beatles paid tribute to Fats by writing “Lady Madonna” with him in mind. Fats covered the song and had a hit with it.
While Little Richard wasn’t from New Orleans, he was very much influenced by what he heard. In what is a typical rise to fame story in Rock and Roll, Richard rose from a poor family in Macon, Georgia. Even when he was washing dishes in a bus stop, he knew he was going to make it big. Rock music did a lot for not only race relations, but gay relations. Little Richard had two things going against him. He was black and he was gay. He wore clothing and makeup that was years ahead of his time. Yet the kids of the US didn’t care. They just cared about the rocking style as best heard in “Lucille” or “Slippin’ and Slidin’”.
The man who was not given enough credit for Little Richard and Fats Domino was David Bartholomew. He played sax on almost all the hits that came out of New Orleans and co-wrote many of these hit songs. He also did some production.
One of the biggest influences on Classic rockers was Buddy Holly. Along with his group, The Crickets, the music known as rockabilly reached its peak. They also went from playing country songs in concert to expressing themselves in a whole new way with the combo style they developed. With songs like “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll be the Day”, they were able to influence countless numbers of Classic rockers. The Beatles are the most notable, but almost every artist talks about how much influence had on their music. His death at only 21 was one of the major factors in the decline of 50’s rock. Much of this is already known, but if you are not totally aware, you should check out two movies. One is the major film hit THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY and the other is the much lesser known THE REAL BUDDY HOLLY STORY that has Paul McCartney as the host telling many details of the way the music grew.
One of the biggest names in Rockabilly wasn’t even from the south. His parents were from Oklahoma, but they moved to Minnesota before Eddie Cochran was born. The family moved to California where he learned to play several instruments. His guitar sound in “C’mon Everybody” and “Summertime Blues” gave birth to the sound of many of the British groups. Eddie was a bigger star in the UK than in the US. Ironically his touring of the UK led to his early death at age 21. Both the US band Blue Cheer and The Who had hits covering Eddie’s “Summertime Blues”.
One of the names that is often lost in the history of rock is Link Wray. An accident helped him develop a new sound in Rock in 1958. “Rumble” made it to only number 16 on the charts for Link and his Ray men, but it was the sound that lasted forever. In an interview I did with him in the 70’s, he explained that in moving his amps, they punched a small hole in one of the speakers. The hole was small enough that no one noticed it until Link started to play his guitar. A whole new sound emerged. That coupled with him playing what became known as the power chords of rock, allowed Link Wray to leave his mark on Rock and Roll history. His name belongs on this short and incomplete list (I’m sure I left some important people out) of those who had a major influence on what developed in the late 60’s and is known today as Classic Rock.