The 1950’s were a diverse and overall great decade for music. Classical music was still big, country and blues were still increasing in popularity and new styles of music were born. Crooners, or jazz-influenced singers, dominated the early 50’s with artists like Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and Tony Bennett being household names. But by the middle of the decade, a totally new giant had moved into the music industry and its name was Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll was controversial, edgy, and imperfect. Many were captivated by its energy while others thought it was horrible or even “satanic” in some cases.
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry are the best-known progenitors of rock and roll, but other giants of the genre’s early days include Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash’s music was almost country while Carl Perkins had a more distorted sound. Jerry Lee Lewis even played piano in a guitar-based genre. Each artist made a unique form of the genre by adding their own personal touch to it. Johnny Cash had a big country influence, Elvis mixed crooning with rock and roll, and Jerry Lee Lewis played the piano which was mostly unused in rock music. Every artist made it their own. An interesting fact is that these three musicians and Elvis played together one night at Sun Studios. It was a huge moment in music history when they all came together. An album of the songs they played there was released 10 or so years after. They were called the “Million Dollar Quartet”.
Chuck Berry was the creator of the genre, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins were all popular, but no one reached stardom like Elvis.
Elvis Aaron Presley grew up on the edge of poverty; his father drove trucks and his mother operated sewing machines. At a young age, Elvis would drive trucks with his father to help earn more income for his family. Presley loved music but thought of having a career in it as an impractical dream. Not much money was to be made and he needed a steady income for his family. In 1953 after graduating high school, Elvis was about to become a full-time truck driver. He decided to record a few songs at the local studio as there was a cheap price of $4 for the whole session. As soon as he started playing for producer and engineer Sam Phillips, Phillips signed him to their label as he thought Elvis was “a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” Sam Phillips knew the faults of the music industry and felt that although black musicians were just as good as white musicians the radio audience might not be as willing to listen to them because of their race.
Elvis quit his job and had huge success with Phillips’s Sun Studios and made many hit singles such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Mystery Train.” Eventually, when his studio was in financial trouble, Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA for an unheard of (at the time) $35,000 dollars. At RCA, Elvis really became a star.
In 1956 Elvis released hit songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and more. Soon, he would join the army and put his musical career on pause. After his career in the military, he would release a few more hit songs and then mainly focus on movies. The height of his career occurred during the late 50’s. From the beginning of the 60’s and on, his popularity began to wane.
In the 50’s, racism maintained its big influence on the music industry and the majority of musicians on the radio were white. Many people think that if singer and guitarist Chuck Berry were white he would be considered the king of rock and roll. Even though this doesn’t diminish Elvis’s talent it’s a sign of how racism played a huge part in culture. Everybody knows Elvis or at least has heard of him, but this is not the same story for Berry. Chuck Berry wrote all of his own music, came out with the first rock songs, and was his own manager but never struck stardom like Elvis did.
Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926, as Charles Edward Anderson. He was raised in St. Louis in a middle-class black neighborhood. His father Henry was a contractor and his mother Martha was a school principal. Berry was a troublemaker and dropped out of high school at 17. He and his friends went on a road trip to California and it was here that he would get caught for robbing a convenience store. He served three years in jail before being released. Chuck married young and had children whom he had to support by working in a factory and as a janitor. Since his childhood, Chuck had a passion for music but didn’t pursue it fully until he started playing small clubs at night in his spare time for extra money.
Berry played with Sir John’s Trio and started to get more attention. White people were starting to appear at his shows which was a sign of his growing popularity. Soon he would meet with Muddy Waters, his idol, and get advice on how to move on with his career. Muddy told him to sign with a label he knew called Chess. They signed Berry and soon after one of his songs would break into the top charts. The song was called “Maybellene,” which many people consider the first rock and roll song.
Berry would have good and bad moments in his career. His ‘rock and roll’ genre hadn’t completely taken flight yet but more and more people were paying attention. Eventually he would go to jail again for two years. Chuck Berry wouldn’t see stardom like he once did at the beginning of his career but he continued to make great records.
John Lennon once said about Chuck, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ He paved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sex Pistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.”
Chuck Berry created rock and roll and was never properly credited by the world. He went to jail multiple times and had only a few smash hits. Does this discredit his claim to the throne? Elvis was the man who made it popular, but was he really ‘The King’? Was the fact that he was white really the only reason he was more famous than Berry?
Maybe it is time to reconsider who really deserves to wear the crown.
The Evolution of Modern Rock is a regular column in which Scatterbrain54 discusses the music industry and how it has changed over time. Got a suggestion for Scatterbrain54? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.