Once upon a time when things were still pure in the world Adam and Eve frolicked nude in a garden without a care in the world other than their own pleasure and enjoyment… until a snake showed up and ruined everything.
Centuries ago the North American continent was a place of natural beauty with thriving communities, its native inhabitants living off the land while not feeling the need to possess it, for how can anyone possess something that brings them life? Then
white European settlers arrived and showed them how through brutal massacres and broken treaties.
From mid-1947 through mid-1951 Black Artists created rock ‘n’ roll, a rich and exciting music designed to reflect this specific community’s views, culture and vibrant lifestyle.
Then in June 1951 a white artist showed up and like the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted the record industry with forbidden fruit.
Things were never the same again.
A Long Hot Run
We knew this day was coming. If you’re a sadist you may have even had it marked on your calendar. But it’s not anything to get too rattled about, for while those preferring the unmelanated brand of rock ‘n’ roll did indeed attempt a musical
genocide in the history books, and almost succeeded, the fact of the matter is this brand of music – rock ‘n’ roll – could never truly be taken over by cultural interlopers no matter how much praise they lavished on themselves in the process.
No, rock remains – at its core – rhythmic black youth music, full stop, and no self-serving re-writing of the dictionary term will ever change that.
Not to say they haven’t tried, for as we know over the years they’ve attempted to exclude every true style of rock descended from the originators into various and entirely “separate” categories – doo-wop, soul, funk, disco, rap, often just
lumping it all under the term “rhythm and blues”, a non-music style that was nothing but a polite industry term for “black tastes”, showing the true motives behind their insidious plot was always racial segregation, not musical homogeneity.
How do we know? Because along the way they would happily include each of their own stylistic creations under the rock banner, no matter how far removed they are from Roy Brown and company… or even how radically different they are from one another.
In due time we’ll meet folk artists granted lifetime membership in this club for merely plugging in their guitars… British acts swarming the shores like locusts will be hailed as saving the entire genre. Progressive artists with pretentious classical
aspirations will sit comfortably aside punk acts with no musical aspirations whatsoever, both let in with no questions asked. Even as metal acts ominously predict doom and destruction, the genre won’t bat an eye at allowing them a seat at the table.
Yet without the black foundation in place, the very thing that gave this music life as well as the genre term that would in time grow to symbolize the attitude behind these artists and fans as much as the music itself, they would have absolutely nothing.
Jalopies And The Noise They Make
The first of the white styles of rock came about with the switching of allegiance undertaken by failed or restless country artists who were desperately looking for commercial sustenance or – less cynically – musical rebirth and turned to rock ‘n’
roll to give it to them.
Though it’d eventually coalesce as rockabilly in the mid-1950’s, the first steps taken in this direction were far less organic.
In 1951 Bill Haley was a country music aspirant with a few records to his name and no real future beyond being a modest local attraction in Pennsylvania.
He wasn’t terrible, but he also wasn’t anything particularly special, just good enough to keep working and while he had lofty ambitions, one of which was to combine Dixieland and hillbilly, he hadn’t yet hit on a reliable formula and was writing
more or less standard issue country tunes such as Tearstains On My Heart which adorns the flip-side of this release on Holiday Records.
Though the title of that song suggests it might’ve been influenced by Ruth Brown’s epic hit Teardrops Form My Eyes that ruled the charts all fall and winter, one listen tells you this isn’t the case as it’s almost a stereotypical mid-paced
country weeper with prominent steel guitar from Billy Williamson, one of his partners in The Saddlemen.
But it was the other side of the record that was the attraction, precisely because of the novelty aspect of it, as (and this point is clear) they were talked into cutting Rocket 88 after Jackie Brenston’s original was storming the charts.
We’ve looked at the various putrid attempts of white pop music to cover rock ‘n’ roll a handful of times so far, but this was something entirely different, because Haley and company weren’t trying to make it a country record, as you’d think,
but rather they were trying to make a white version of rock ‘n’ roll.
They weren’t altogether successful maybe, but they were more aesthetically successful than you’d ever suspect by looking at them.
Let Me Introduce You To… Controversy
Here’s where we’re kind of stuck, because this is an important facet of the entire story of white rock’s origins (and no, Johnny Otis certainly does not appreciate you calling him white no matter what his DNA tells you, and Doc Pomus would surely
voice his objections to that onerous charge as well).
There are conflicting reports as to Haley’s reaction to this request by Dave Miller, the owner of Holiday Records.
According to Miller, Haley did not want to record “this n****r music”… hardly an innocuous start for the change in style that would launch his success. But in the future Haley would go out of his way to cite the influence of black artists and
befriend many of them, drawn together and forever linked in this musical melting pot. So our educated guess is, whatever term he used, chances are he wasn’t keen on the idea, not necessarily due to cultural prejudice as much as stylistic ones. He was a
country act and cutting a non-country song in a non-country style wasn’t something he thought would do him any good.
Haley’s own subsequent claims about being the one to hit upon the idea of playing black rock ‘n’ roll were definitely revisionist history but at least he got to promote his version of the story, whereas Miller’s role in this has been largely
omitted from the history books. Surely he wanted the credit he felt he deserved and so by painting Haley as being adamantly opposed to the idea, even crudely so, it would help his own cause in promoting himself as the progenitor of the entire idea.
One would tend to lean towards Miller’s side of the story based on how Haley kicks off Rocket 88, almost intentionally fouling up the delivery of the first line, indicating a form of disgust at having to stoop this low to satisfy the label. Maybe he
even thought by butchering it nobody would bother listening to this side and instead focus on the flip.
But it’s a good thing listeners didn’t turn to the pedestrian country tune he offered because from that point on this side of the record picks up speed and handles itself fairly well, especially considering none of them knew what the hell they were
Step In My Rocket
The highlights here are precisely the atypical aspects of the performance as after a really inventive inclusion of a car horn and squealing tires Marshall Lytle’s slap bass becomes incredibly prominent, driving the arrangement confidently as the other
instruments fall in behind with the drums keeping time nicely.
It takes awhile to get used to the instrumental attributes here, as without horns they bring in guitarist Danny Cedrone, who’d play the leads on their most well-remembered hits without ever being a member of the band, and his early solo replicates the
basic role of the sax but with a much different feel. Williamson’s steel picks up the ball from Cedrone the first time around and despite it not being the best fit, he doesn’t derail things.
Surprisingly it’s Haley’s rhythm guitar which holds Rocket 88 together by contributing alternately chunky and slashing counterpoints to the solos. While he was never considered a great musician, he does show why that instrument – much like Elvis
Presley’s role on the Sun sides – was so vital, even with limited duties.
The later solos by Cedrone are really solid and even though it’s safe to say that Haley is the weakest aspect of the record, both the condescending attitude he projects at times as well as singing altered lyrics which eliminate the drinking aspect
entirely (“oozing and cruising”???), he does have natural rhythm and some evident vocal abilities with a strong tone when he ditches the country twang.
Heck, it’s even got a nice fade, letting the instruments drift off before bringing back the sound effects for the car… an underpowered automobile by the sounds of it, but that’s only fitting for an underpowered rock record by a white act in their
first time on the road.
I’ll Be Around Every Night
Would you have thought this to be anything other than an anomaly when you heard it as summer kicked off in 1951?
No, not at all.
First off white listeners who were the target audience for Haley’s Rocket 88 were mostly in the dark about rock ‘n’ roll and so while it might have some curious appeal it also would be presented as novelty, not a revolutionary record… and
truthfully it just wasn’t exciting enough for that even if you WERE intrigued by the possibilities.
Black audiences of course wouldn’t even think that highly of this effort, one that merely offered them yet another chance to roll their eyes at the audacity of white America feebly moving in on their creation.
But if history tells us anything it’s that these are exactly the moments when you need to have your guard up, for as we’ve seen before when these people set their sights on taking over something it’s never good to just ignore them and hope they’
ll quietly go away and leave you alone.