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 email@example.com.
Assuming one must choose (why?) one can objectively see Berry’s influence on what was later called “rock” in the mid-Sixties much more strongly than Elvis’.
Even given your brief focus in the post you seem to dismiss out of hand the influence of keyboard instruments (chiefly piano) in pre-Rock Rock’n’Roll. If one lists the usual pantheon of instrumentalist focused rock’n’roll in the Fifties you have something like: Berry, Elvis, Cash (maybe, considered a C&W artist at the time), Jerry Lee Lewis, Perkins (maybe, a wonderful player but a two-hit wonder), Holly, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bill Haley and the Everlys. For some reason piano playing Ray Charles doesn’t usually make those Fifties lists, perhaps because is non-R&B hits started later in the decade. Of those Fifties pantheon acts, Berry, Richard, Lewis, and Domino all had fundamental piano playing on record, and, with all but Berry, the piano player was the front man. And with Berry, one of the most unique things about Berry’s classic records was the seamless mix of piano and guitar licks–that mix was not so common. But piano and piano playing front men were not a rare thing at all. One of those claimants to “first rock’n’roll record” “Rocket 88” was credited to to the piano player, and even the title punned on the piano keyboard.
The other thing you leave out (hey, I understand, focus, length, TLDNR) is that much of what people were listening to and performing in the Fifties and calling “Rock’n’Roll” was vocal harmony group based, even some of Elvis’ records, even some of the Beatles work. Once the music became “Rock” this was forgotten, and retrospectively folks leave this out–but listeners at the time would have found that puzzling, as most of their rock’n’roll was just that kind of thing, not guys with guitars and hot riffs and licks.
Sorry if this sounds critical. I don’t mean it that way.
Thanks for the feedback Frank! There’s a whole lot of the 50’s music scene that could be gone into in more detail and if you have any suggestions for future articles then you can send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
You make a good point. Sometimes I think the Chuck Berry should be considered the father of “rock” or even “hard rock”- i.e. guitar dominant music and the “guitar god”, paving the way for the likes of Jimmi Hendrix and Jimmy Page in the late 60s, and the guitar dominant hard rock and heavy metal music of the current day.
Frank, I enjoyed your comment, a very nice read. Nevertheless, I’ve always thought Bill Haley played with the Comets.
I personally think there is only one king, which is Elvis. And I don’t think that only applies for the title “King Of Rock And Roll” but just simply “The King” for in my opinion you ask anyone who is the king they will always reply with Elvis, from an experience point of view. Obviously this opinion could be biased as have been, and am an Elvis fan since I can remember. But baring that in mind I have still come to the conclusion that this was an interesting read so thank you for that :)!
Without Elvis blacks would’ve been left out because of the nasty issue of racism. Elvis was an integrator between blacks and whites.
They were both great .Could we leave it at that? Elvis had more success.
Imagine if rap music had begin in the 50’s by a not so well known black man. Later comes a white guy, M&M and now he’s more popular and successful and he’s Accepted has the king of rap! Thank goodness rap started when it did or else it would have been misrepresented by a white guy too.
Elvis was first not berry end of story.
Mr Tuss I agree with you.There’s only one Father and King of Rock and Roll and that’s Mr CHUCK BERRY.
WHITE RACISM makes them think they are in 1st place when Facts Prove they are only poor imitators.i pity the fools who are so delusional to true facts.they constantly use lies and propaganda to produce a false narrative.they refuse to face facts that they are only 2nd place imitators .they know they will always be in second place BEHIND
BLACKS.Thats why they use racism to help with their
Without Black People they would be boring nerds.
Elvis was recording and touring two years before Chuck Berry set foot in a recording studio. Chuck had also played guitar in a white country music band. You can hear the country influence in the songs he wrote, songs with stories plus the guitar sound he developed. So in both Elvis and Chuck you can hear a mix of their influences that they combined and took forward. Elvis is king not because he’s white, but because he made great music that sounded better than anything else at the time, and he did it before anyone else. And because Chuck was getting arrested and locked up his career took some blows in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, so he lost time, hurt his reputation and it never really recovered. And he kept getting arrested and by all accounts was a rather unpleasant person. So as a musician Chuck was great. But Elvis continued on, made a couple years of great records after he served in the military and before he started making forgettable movies. Then he came back with great music and live performances in the late ‘60s, by which time Chuck was washed up and “My Ding-a-Ling” was the best he could do. So Elvis remains king.
In Memphis in 1954 when Dewy Phillips played That’s Alright for the first time on WHBQ radio, the station got so many calls that at one point he had to play the song supposedly 15 times in row. Most everyone thought and assumed the artist was black. So racism had nothing to do with it. Elvis was just good and sounded like nothing else at the time. Also it’s amazing that those early Sun recordings had no drums, just electric guitar and stand up bass with Elvis on acoustic guitar. His vocal delivery at that time sounded unreal and those songs were movin’ and grooving !