Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Rock and roll: the era of musical legends

Published:Sunday | September 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Fats Domino tinkling the ivories and belting out 'Tracking to New Orleans' at the Carib Theatre, Kingston, in 1961. That evening, he gave his final performance in Kingston.-File
Elvis Presley, king of rock.

The rock and roll era of which we spoke last week was in full blast by 1956 when artistes like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Bill Haley and The Comets presented themselves at the forefront of the genre in a manner that had the world rocking from one end to the other.

They perhaps epitomised the late-1950s uptempo rock and roll music more than any other, releasing a barrage of hits, mainly influenced by the rhythm and jump blues of Louis Jordan and the hillbilly music of the southern regions of the United States.

Although all exhibited copious energy in their musical delivery, in accordance with the demand of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, a black man born in San Jose, California on October 18, 1926, was undoubtedly the most flambuoyant of them all. He has the distinction of being rock music's first guitar hero, bringing the electric guitar to the forefront of popular music, which would later make it a major influence in subsequent rock music. The wavy-haired vocalist, composer, and guitar maestro would send audiences into a frenzy while exhibiting his 'duck walk' gait, guitar acrobatics and showmanship on stage. Most of his vocal-driven rock and roll recordings were spiced up with his inimitable guitar solos, which brought a whole new dimension to rock and roll music.

Entering the fray with songs like Maybellene (1955), Roll over Beethoven (1956), Rock and Roll Music (1957) and Johnny B. Goode (1958), Charles Edward 'Chuck' Berry, helped to refine and develop rhythm and blues into a major distinctive element called rock and roll. His lyrics focused mainly on consumerism and teenage life. In one song, titled Sweet Little Sixteen, he noted:

"Deep in the heart of Texas

All round the Frisco Bay,

All over St Louis, way down in New Orleans,

All the cats wanna dance with sweet little sixteen."

It is interesting to note that the country-influenced rhythm of Berry's first recording, Maybellene, fooled many disc jocks into thinking that he was white, and they readily played the record, with Berry selling more records to whites than blacks.

elvis presley

It is also interesting to note that Berry's contemporary, the white Elvis Presley, arguably the 'King of Rock and Roll', fooled many at the outset into thinking that he was black. History has it that Presley was the white boy singing black music that Sam Phillips was looking for to make a fortune. Phillips, who also played an integral part in the genesis of rock and roll, operated a small independent label called Sun Records, and was the first to record Presley. Presley was actually born into a white sharecropping family in Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, on January 8, 1935. His earliest musical exposures were white gospel from the Church and school's talent shows by age 10.

By his early teens, Presley moved to Memphis, where he absorbed the vibrant melting pot of blues, country and gospel music. After graduating from high school, he worked as a truck driver before entering Sam Phillips' studios to record his first song, That's Alright Mama. With a record 18 number-one American hits, Presley, accompanied by his guitar, rose to the pinnacle of musical stardom after the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) bought his contract from Sun Records for an unprecedented US$40,000. Presley's million sellers almost equalled or surpassed his number one hits. Heartbreak Hotel, recorded for RCA on February 10, 1956, was his first. He followed up with seven consecutive gold records in 1956, the majority of which were of the rock and roll style.

antonie 'fats' domino

Antonie 'Fats' Domino was another of the late 1950s uptempo rock and roll stars. Born in New Orleans, USA, on February 26, 1928, he became well known for his affable character, his driving piano playing, and his corpulent frame, which inspired his first recording and hit, The Fatman, in 1949. He was proud of it, as he chanted:

"They call me the fatman, 'cause I weigh 200 pounds,

But all the girls, they love me, cause I know my way around."

In a professional partnership with his producer and co-songwriter, Dave Bartholomew, Domino charted dozens of number one rock and roll hits, in both the slow and uptempo styles.

Between 1955 and 1960, he was at his commercial peak with hits like, Ain't That a Shame, Whole Lotta Loving, I'm Ready, When My Dreamboat, Sick and Tired, It's You I Love, and Be My Guest, in which he urged his party fans to:

"Come join the party and meet the rest.

Everything's gonna be alright.

So be my guest tonight."

One of the kings of rock and roll, Domino was reported missing during the New Orleans Katrina floods some years ago, but resurfaced, and is now living comfortably in the twilight of his years.

little Richard

Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, was born in Macon Georgia in 1932. He became known in the mid-1950s rock and roll for his screaming falsetto shouts, his crazy piano playing and his exaggerated dress and make-up, which terrified middle class America, yet it made him one of the most popular figures in the rock and roll era, and one of the main architects of the genre.

Like many others, he began in church, growing up in a devout Seventh-day Adventist family. Vacillating between the gospel sounds of the family group and the sinful world of rock and roll, Penniman soon got stuck with the latter. His hits will forever remain with us - Lucille, Shake a Hand, Good Golly Miss Molly, Jenny Jenny, Long Tally Sally, Tutti Fruiti, and others.

Bill Haley, born in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1925, successfully merged country and western with rhythm and blues to create rock and roll. Also highly influenced by hillbilly flavours, he created some enduring pieces. Haley created history in 1954 with his self-penned hit, Rock Around the Clock from the movie, Blackboard Jungle, when it became the first rock single to top the pop charts, thereby launching the rock era. His follow-ups, Shake, Rattle and Roll and See You Later, Alligator, were just as successful.