The music these three rock ‘n roll pioneers created changed music — and helped shape the culture of the US and the world.
On the heels of Black History Month, it’s fitting to remember that rock ‘n roll music would not exist without the African-American styles that preceded it and the artists who pioneered the genre. This tribute to three important African-American rock ‘n roll pioneers – all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inaugural inductees in 1986 – highlights the explosion they set off decades ago that still echoes around the world to this day.
Perhaps the most complete rock ‘n roller of them all, Chuck Berry was rock’s first monster lead guitarist. His style and riffs set the template for every other rock lead guitarist to follow. Based around staccato double-stop bursts imitating the lines of his pianist Johnnie Johnson (see the openings to “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven”), his deceptively simple-sounding solos incorporated unison string bending and other rhythmic and technical innovations widely imitated either consciously or unconsciously by every rock player since. They were also in horn/piano keys like Eb, Ab, and Bb, not the easier-to-finger E, A, and B guitar keys of later followers.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Berry also wrote his own songs. A devoted student of not just Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters but also country wordsmiths like Jimmy Rodgers and Bill Monroe, his lyrics were clever, fast-paced, and rhythmic. Berry had a strong sense of narrative and an equally strong sense of economy; he had big stories to tell but knew he only had two minutes and 30 seconds in which to tell them. Often each verse would tell a complete story in and of itself:
Flying cross the desert on a TWA
I saw a woman walking cross the sands,
She been walking 30 miles en route to Bombay
to meet a brown-eyed handsome man
her destination was a brown-eyed handsome man
—”Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”
You know she wiggles like a glow worm
Dance like a spinnin’ top
She got a crazy partner
Oughta see ’em reel and rock
Long as she got a dime the music will never stop
—”Roll Over Beethoven”
Been to Yokohama, been fightin’ in the war,
Army bunk, army chow, army clothes, army car, aaah
—”Too Much Monkey Business
Songs like “Havana Moon” and “Thirty Days” followed complete narratives, at which Berry was equally skilled at creating:
If I don’t get some satisfaction from the judge,
I’m gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge,
If they don’t give me no consolation,
I’m gonna take it to the United Nations,
I’m gonna see that you be back home in thirty days.
As if this weren’t enough, Berry was also a dynamic singer and exciting stage performer. His adherence to the performance ideals of Louis Jordan meant that his physical performances were vibrant and full of energy. His signature move, the duck walk, was as original as his playing and his songwriting. Chuck Berry had it all and did it all! Like John Lennon said, “If rock ‘n roll had been given another name, it might have been called ‘Chuck Berry.'”
Unfortunately, when Berry made his debut in the ’50s, America was deeply segregated and under the institutionalized discrimination of Jim Crow laws in the south. The music world was no different. Berry’s first single, “Maybelline,” shot to #1 on the R&B charts, but was largely ignored by white-owned radio stations. It took the efforts of DJ Alan Freed, who did as much as anybody to popularize black rock ‘n roll artists and is credited with coining the term “rock and roll,” to spread the music of Berry and his peers to a wider audience. Berry never saw the sales success of some of his white contemporaries like Elvis and Pat Boone, even though he often tweaked his lyrics to try to include white audiences (e.g. the original line in “Johnny B. Goode” was “colored boy” not “country boy”).
Berry was arrested in Mississippi in 1959 when a white girl rushed out of the crowd and kissed him. In 1960, his conviction and subsequent jail sentence due to a rarely-invoked law called the Mann Act was likely racially motivated. Never one to wallow in bitterness, Berry forged ahead and, due to the reverence paid his music by the British Invasion groups, managed to have a solid and lucrative career through the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond. His legacy is undeniable among all rock ‘n roll fans, especially musicians, and he did achieve a #1 hit with the novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972 and never stopped performing until he passed away at age 90 in 2017.
The most flamboyant of the early rock performers, Little Richard’s signature yelps, yowls, whoooos, furious piano playing, and high-octane energy captivated audiences from the get-go. The first rock performer verified to have underwear thrown at him, Richard employed spotlights, dramatic stage lighting, and outlandish costumes to create a spectacle for the crowd. He jumped on the piano, he ran off the stage, he whipped audiences into a frenzy, and brought a level of excitement to rock music that never left.
Besides his energy, Richard’s unique gospel-influenced shout-singing was probably his most important musical contribution; the first raw, raspy rock screamer, he spawned a long line of musical progeny in his wake. His piano playing was also notable for its fusion of boogie-woogie, New Orleans R&B, and gospel. Richard’s singles are all short, sweet, and amped up. They combust in the listener’s ears and just as quickly disappear.
Not particularly interested in songcraft, Richard contributed to the writing occasionally (“Long Tall Sally”) but also appended his name to compositions that he didn’t write (“Lucille” was purchased and the authorship of “Tutti Frutti” is disputed by the other writer). He did, however, select songs that complemented his wild stage act, and the resulting creative unity was dynamite. Not surprisingly, the subject matter he sang about was usually lascivious and sexually charged, especially for the 1950s.
Saw Uncle John
with bald-headed Sally
saw Aunt Mary coming and
they ducked back down the alley, oh baby.
—”Long Tall Sally”
Good Golly Miss Molly
you sure like to ball
Good Golly Miss Molly
you sure like to ball
When you’re rockin and a rollin’
Can’t hear your momma call.
—”Good Golly Miss Molly”
Little Richard’s trailblazing didn’t just extend to the music. While not completely out in his public persona, Richard was openly bisexual among his bandmates and friends in a very repressed era. He had performed in drag shows before becoming famous, continued to wear makeup and blouses on stage after fame hit, and apparently used his effeminate persona to gain entry to white clubs because “white men wouldn’t think that I was after the white girls.” Richard’s courage in being flamboyant in the ’50s seems all the more striking when viewed through a modern lens, knowing what we know of the intolerance of that era and how much it has changed (and how much it has not changed).
In addition, Richard’s chaotic and frenzied performances had another positive effect. In the ’50s, audiences for African-American performers were often segregated into different parts of the auditorium; sometimes law enforcement would actually draw a line down the center of venues that the kids were not supposed to cross. But once the show started and everybody was dancing, the kids would mix and the line would be erased. Richard, more than anyone, shattered the myth that black performers couldn’t succeed in white-only venues.
Richard had 18 hit singles in three years; his explosion onto the music scene was as incendiary as his wild stage persona, his forward-thinking ideas of racial unity, and the music itself. He became a millionaire despite very little airplay and recognition from white radio and the pop charts, but Pat Boone’s pop success with “Tutti Frutti” still galled and annoyed him as late as 1987. He said in the Chuck Berry film, Hail Hail Rock and Roll, “I wanted to be famous … and here this man came and took my song.”
In 1957, Richard quit music and became a Pentecostal minister, returning to his family roots. He vacillated for most of his life between religion and being Little Richard the rock icon; currently, he sits on the religious side, an old man repudiating his previous brilliant work.
But his present opinions aside, Richard cut a path through the musical woods where no path existed. He was loud, he was in your face, and he was singing about sex and the eternal party with a gospel fervor. It’s no wonder that rock ‘n roll became a religious endeavor for those who followed his trail: Bob Dylan (who wrote in his yearbook under “Ambition:” “to join Little Richard”), Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, even Bon Scott of AC/DC, and of course, Prince.
It seems inevitable in hindsight that New Orleans’ spicy gumbo of European, African, and Latin American cultures would create some amazing music. The birthplace of jazz, it seems that The Big Easy has had a musical contribution in almost every era and genre. Thus it would make sense that at least one of the pioneer rockers would be from the Crescent City.
“Rock ‘n roll is nothing but rhythm and blues,” said Fats Domino, “and we’ve been playing it for years down in New Orleans.” Indeed, he was making records several years before Berry and Richard and had a 1949 hit called “The Fat Man” that sold a million copies by 1951. Ultimately he actually achieved more hits than the other two put together! The most modest and laid-back of the three artists, Domino’s music and personality were smooth and seductive rather than frenetic and explosive. His boogie-woogie piano style was drawn from a deep tradition of New Orleans piano and again reflected his geography in that it drew from blues, swing music, and pop forms. There is more jazz attitude and style in the Fats Domino canon than in any other of the early rock pioneers, with the exception of Ray Charles. The smoothness and non-threatening presentation definitely contributed to Domino’s success on the pop charts. His biggest hit, “Blueberry Hill,” hit #2 in 1956.
Dave Bartholomew was consistently involved as Fats’ co-writer and producer, receiving co-credit on all of the self-penned big hits. The lyrics were never complicated, the themes were basic – the focus of the music was the rhythm and attitude.
Eeny-meeny and miney-mo
Told me you didn’t want me ’round no more
Hoo-ee, baby, hoo-ee
Baby, don’t you let your dog bite me
—”I’m In Love Again”
Saturday mornin’, oh Saturday mornin’
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I’m out on the stand to play
New Orleans pianists are often divided into two categories: the “professors” who studied musical theory and were often classically trained, and the “barrelhouse” players who were self-taught and mostly stuck to the blues. The lines were blurred by the artists themselves – for example, “Professor” Longhair was a barrelhouse player whose unique style came from playing a piano with missing keys. Fats fell mostly into the barrelhouse category, learning his craft on the job at NOLA venues, but the influence of Bartholomew and his ability to draw from multiples genres lifted his music from the barrelhouse to something new and captivating.
Domino’s pop success meant that he often played to white audiences and, like Little Richard, was at least slightly responsible for normalizing integration in a divided country. But, like all black artists of his day, he was thwarted by the overt racism of his era. Pat Boone had bigger hits with his material, neutering the bite and greatness of the originals but seen as “more palatable” by white audiences. Often when on the road, Fats and his band had to drive hours before finding a hotel that would accept African-Americans. When he attended the premiere of The Girl Can’t Help It, a film in which he performed, he was made to sit in the balcony. Fats soldiered through with a characteristic stoicism, and his early success allowed him to keep basically the same band for almost 30 years.
It should be noted that while these three artists significantly contributed to public perceptions of integration as being normal and demonstrated the futility of segregation, all of the African-American artists of this era faced the challenge and humiliation of seeing doors open faster for white artists. DJ Alan Freed saw his career destroyed by accusations of “payola” (accepting money to play records); clearly Freed was brought down by people who didn’t like his support of African-American music.
Still, these rock ‘n roll pioneers had long, prosperous careers. Unfortunately, their journeys have come to an end: last year Domino and Berry passed away and Richard permanently retired. Still, the explosion of rock ‘n roll they gave birth to changed the culture of the world forever. In fact, should an extraterrestrial civilization happen upon the Voyager 1 or 2 spacecraft, the representative recording of rock ‘n roll music on board is Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” so the music he created might someday echo through the cosmos.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.