Music Industry Discussion Questions


Address all aspects of

all three

of the following topics, with a combined total of at least 300 words.

1. How did Phil Spector change and expand the role of the producer? How was the approach to pop songwriting of Spector different from other 1950s rockers?

2. In the early 1960s, how was Motown unique in the record industry? Describe the Motown formula, and their strategy for success.

3. How was Brian Wilson’s musical vision unique? Describe Wilson’s “rock group” model.

PLEASE read the link below to answer the above questions.…

American Popular Music
© Scott Walton, Jason Robinson
16-Week Online
Weeks 9/10: Rock ’n Roll Explodes
The Transition from R&B to Rock ’n’ Roll
The Bridge: Fats Domino & Little Richard
Two Versions of Rock ’n Roll: Chuck Berry & Elvis Presley
The Electric Guitar
Covers, Producers, and Other 50s Rockers
Popular Music in the Early 1960s
Phil Spector
The Beach Boys
The “Nashville Sound,” and the “Bakersfield Sound”
Important Terms
DJ, payola, indie labels, baby boomer, American Dream
rockabilly, backbeat, pickup, cover, appropriation
doo-wop, a cappella, producer, teen idol, girl groups
wall of sound, Motown, chord changes, theremin, overdubbing
Nashville sound, countrypolitan, outlaw country
Pieces to Know
Fats Domino
Blueberry Hill
Little Richard
Long Tall Sally
Elvis Presley
Don’t Be Cruel
Chuck Berry
Johnny B. Goode
Bill Haley
Rock Around the Clock
Buddy Holly
That’ll Be the Day
Richie Valens
La Bamba
Phil Spector
Be My Baby
The Supremes
You Can’t Hurry Love
The Beach Boys
Good Vibrations
Patsy Cline
Merle Haggard
Okie From Muskogee
The Transition from R&B to Rock ’n’ Roll
The term “rock ‘n roll” first emerged in the early 1950s, and quickly spread amongst
musicians, the music industry, and a rapidly expanding youth audience. It was coined by
Alan Freed, a Cleveland DJ (disc jockey) who hosted a rhythm and blues radio program
called the Moondog Show. He most likely borrowed the term
from lyric references in R&B songs that talked about “rockin”
and “rollin,” which seemed to refer to various musical
elements, dancing and…sexual activity. “I rock ‘em, roll ‘em,
all night long, I’m a sixty-minute man” – that’s a line from the
lyrics of “Sixty Minute Man,” the huge 1951 hit by the R&B
vocal group, the Dominoes. Freed knew that most white
parents did not want their kids to be listening to black music
– by calling this new rockin’ style of R&B by a different name,
he could circumvent this prejudice. It sounds too crazy to be
true, right? But it worked! By the time Freed was popularizing
the term on his radio program and at the dances and
concerts that he organized featuring black musicians,
dramatic changes were already underway.
The emergence of R&B in the post WWII years was accompanied by several continuing
developments: the explosion of small record labels, the expansion of radio, new
technological developments in music instruments, and a new teen culture. Many small
independent (indie) record labels were key in supporting emerging R&B artists. Two of
these – Chess Records and Sun Records – were essential to the development of rock ‘n
roll. The “major” record labels (including RCA, Capital, and Columbia) were largely
blindsided by the explosion of rock ‘n roll in 1954. Their continued focus on an adult
market, and their confidence that “niche” musics like R&B would never go “mainstream,”
prevented them from foreseeing this fundamental
shift in the market. While some majors like RCA,
were able to quickly sign emerging stars like Elvis
Presley, most were outmaneuvered by the small
indie labels with their regional talent scouts, who
could quickly discover and promote new young
artists. This marked the end of Tin Pan Alley’s
reign, and indie labels quickly diversified the
recording industry, promoting artists and bands
who often wrote their own songs.
To illustrate how out of touch the major labels
were with the musical pulse of America in the
Alan Freed
mid-1950s, click here to check out this
juxtaposition: Patti Page, a country singer turned
pop vocalist, singing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” released in 1953,
followed by Elvis Presley singing his cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,”
released in 1956. Which record would you buy?
During the 1950s, radio in the US underwent tremendous change. Many radio stations
expanded their programming to embrace the newest trends in R&B. This included new
late night programs directed towards
teenage audiences – the idea of
“race records” was replaced in the
music industry by an awareness of
the interracial appeal of this music.
These new radio programs were
immensely popular. Two of the early
pioneering programs included Alan
Freed’s Moondog Show on WJW out
of Cleveland, Ohio, and the shows of
Hoss Allen on WLAC out of Nashville,
Te n n e s s e e . F r e e d a n d A l l e n
accurately judged the interest of white
teenagers in rhythm and blues – in
black music. This became an
explosive music market that offered a
kind of alternative historical narrative
Elizabeth Eckford integrating Central High School in Little Rock,
to the interracial tension evidenced in
Arkansas in 1957
Brown v. Board of Education: the
1954 US Supreme Court case that
overturned segregation in public schools, which was a major landmark in the Civil
Rights Movement. For more information on Brown v. Board of Education, click here.
To be sure, there was plenty of push back against rock ’n’ roll, mostly concerning the
perceived dangers of allowing the erosion of racial segregation in the US. An article in
the New York Times referred to rock ’n roll as a “cannibalistic and tribalistic” form of
music; an “authority” testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1958 referred to the
“raw savage tone” of the music, and its ability to stir “the animal instinct in modern
teenagers;” and Asa Carter of the White Citizens of Birmingham, Alabama, charged that
rock ’n roll was “a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro,” and
“a plot to mongrelize America.” Their fears were real: many historians believe that rock
’n roll music was as important as the Civil Rights Movement in breaking down racial
barriers in the United States.
Radio functioned as a primary intersection of white and black youth cultures during this
period. The exciting, jiving DJs spinning R&B (and eventually rock ’n roll) records on
late night radio programs captured the imagination of America’s growing mainstream
youth market. Click here to view a video clip that documents these new trends in the
radio industry. These new directions in radio were accompanied by the wide scale
spread of car stereos, and the institutionalization of jukeboxes in various teen hangouts,
like soda shops and diners. These two elements ensured that the newest music
releases would reach the listening market in a
multiplicity of ways – on the new radio
programs targeting white teenagers, and in the
social contexts where teenagers congregated.
In many ways, the emergence of rock ’n roll
was predicated on this new teenage market for
new music. The category of “teenager” as a
recognized social group was borne in this era,
an era marked by the emergence of the baby
boomer generation. The term “baby boomer”
refers loosely to Americans born between the
early 1940s and 1964. The birth of the baby
boomers were directly related to the social
contingencies of WWII. In the tension leading
Teens listening to a juke box at a soda shop
into the war, and in the jubilation after the war,
many young Americans sought mates and
families. The uncertainties of war – both the negative and positive elements – resulted
in a marked increase in the US birth rate. Many of the first boomers were coming of age
in the mid 1950s, the years that witnessed the explosion of rock ’n’ roll. A person born
in 1942 was 13 years old in 1955, the year that Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit
the top of the Billboard pop charts. Being a “teenager” became a desired subject
position – an identity that carried a certain currency.
And teenagers certainly had currency! During the post war years, America witnessed
tremendous economic growth and prosperity. The “American Dream,” a cultural attitude
that stressed upward economic mobility, was born during the 1950s. The “Fordist”
economic model of industrial growth (referring to the Ford Motor Company’s system of
mass production) encouraged one-income households, where the breadwinner (usually
male) was a career employee for a big company. This mainstream idea of the American
Dream became a reality for many. With a booming American economy, middle class
workers were able to buy a house, own a car, take vacations, save money, and,
perhaps most crucial to our context, finance the musical interests of their teenage
children. In 1959, teen purchasing power reached an all-time high: $10 billion. This new
teenage market fueled by expendable income, became a scientifically studied economic
formation. Many of the marketing strategies currently in use by multinational companies
stem from advertising practices first developed as the baby boomers reached economic
maturity. Ultimately, purchasing rock ’n roll records became a relatively safe and
affordable way for teens to rebel against their parents, and
assert their generational identity. “Generational gap”
became a part of everyday speech. It’s safe to say that
rock ’n roll music, along with television and movies,
invented the teenager as a commercial and cultural entity.
As the modern music industry was being born in the
1950s, its connection with teenage buying power and rock
’n’ roll prompted a variety of issues. In these early years,
the industry experienced various growing pains, one of
which was called “payola.” Payola was the phenomenon
of record labels illegally paying DJs, like Alan Freed, to
1959 news headlines
play specific records on their radio programs. This created
the illusion that Freed was deciding on his own free will
that certain songs, artists, and records were his favorites. The songs that well known
DJs “pushed” on their programs often became extremely successful, selling thousands
of records to eager teenagers. This led to an intense scandal. There were congressional
hearings on the illegality of payola, and the Federal Communications Commission, the
government agency that regulates the licensing of public airwaves to radio stations,
determined that there was a breach of trust between DJs and the public. In other words,
the public had the right to assume that DJs were playing music that they chose because
they liked the music. Several DJs (including Freed) were prosecuted for payola, and
were blacklisted from broadcasting. Some people allege that certain DJs – especially
those who had close connections to black artists, or who championed the connection
between R&B and rock ’n roll – were specifically targeted during the payola
investigations. When the investigations began in 1960, many conservative lawmakers
were still infuriated over the image of the black teenage singer Frankie Lymon dancing
with a white girl on a TV show sponsored by Alan Freed. Although payola was officially
banned, it resurfaced in different ways in later decades. Today’s music programming on
radio stations is largely controlled by huge transnational multimedia conglomerate
corporations – corporations that own other corporations. In the weeks to come, we’ll
explore how this factor has impacted the development of popular music in the US.
Now that we’ve arrived at the emergence of rock music in this class, click here to check
out an amazing website titled 100 Years of Rock in Less Than a Minute. It quickly flows
through the roots of rock that we’ve studied up to this point in the class, and then shows
the incredible diversity of rock-related styles that emerged from the 1960s on. Click on
any musical style to hear an example of that music, and to chart the historical/stylistic
connections that preceded it. You’ll find the song title and the name of the artist/band
next to the iTunes logo at the bottom right corner of the page. Enjoy!
The Bridge: Fats Domino & Little Richard
To be sure, rock ’n roll was not the first time in the US that music was written specifically
to appeal to a youth demographic, it wasn’t a “new” style of music, and it wasn’t the first
time that black and white popular music styles were brought into close interaction. And it
certainly wasn’t any single style of music – early rock ’n roll was mostly based on African
American music, directly stemming from various musical trends in rhythm and blues that
started in the late 1940s. Yet in the mid 1950s, there were black, white, and Latino
artists playing music with varied influences – R&B, country, Latin American, and Tin Pan
Alley-style pop – all under the banner of rock ’n’ roll. By the late 1950s however, rock ’n
roll became more associated with white artists (Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, for
example), even if their performance styles owed largely to black musical practices. Two
artists – Fats Domino and Little Richard – illustrate the R&B/rock ’n roll connection. Both
emerged during the R&B years, and transformed into figures of early rock ’n roll.
Antoine “Fats” Domino (1928-2017) grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by the
Crescent City’s vibrant music scene. As a pianist and vocalist, Domino was versed in
jazz and blues, and was heavily influenced by the boogie woogie piano tradition. By the
time Domino recorded the R&B hit “Fat Man” in 1949, he was already an accomplished
musician with a dynamic vocal range. Although his style was firmly rooted in R&B, his
songs “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955) and “Blueberry Hill” (1956, which was a cover of an
earlier Tin Pan Alley song) became
extremely successful rock ’n roll
crossover hits. These two songs
demonstrate his rootedness in rhythm
and blues: the use of 12-bar blues
forms and riffing, with a traditional
R&B instrumentation (a piano-based
ensemble with horns). Domino sold
approximately 30 million records
during the 1950s, a tremendous mark
for an African American artist during
the decade of the Civil Rights
Domino collaborated with Dave
Fats Domino
Bartholomew, who became his
producer, arranger, and songwriting
partner, and they recorded most of their hits with studio engineer Cosimo Matassa,
releasing them on the LA-based indie label, Imperial. Click here to view a video clip
that includes live performances excerpts of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill,”
and details Domino’s connection to New Orleans, Bartholomew, and Matassa. Domino
always stayed true to his laid-back New Orleans R&B roots. It could be said that he
didn’t cross over to rock ’n roll – rather, he made the music crossover to him.
“Blueberry Hill” is typical of the New Orleans R&B sound. It’s in a slow quadruple meter,
with each beat divided into triplets (three parts), creating a rolling 1 & uh, 2 & uh, 3 & uh,
4 & uh feel. Notice the ensemble texture once the vocals start: Fats plays a repeated
right-hand chord on the piano on every triplet subdivision of the beat, the drums
emphasize a strong backbeat on beats 2 & 4, the bass and guitar play a rolling line in
unison, and sustained horns support the vocals. Click here to Listen to “Blueberry Hill,”
while following along with the listening guide below.
“Blueberry Hill” (Fats Domino – recorded 1956)
32-bar AABA form (8 bars per phrase)
0:00 The introduction features the piano, and locks in the groove.
Chorus – AABA
0:10 I found my thrill…
0:30 The moon stood still… (the A phrase melody is repeated)
0:51 The wind in the willow… (the contrasting B phrase bridge melody – horns become more prominent)
1:12 Though we’re apart… (the A phrase melody is repeated once again)
Closing half-chorus – BA
1:33 The wind in the willow… (B phrase bridge melody, again with horns)
1:54 Though we’re apart… (A phrase melody)
Another figure that made the transition from R&B to rock ’n
roll was Little Richard (b. 1932), whose real name is
Richard Wayne Penniman. Richard’s incredibly dynamic
live performances made him quite popular, and
foreshadowed his success as an early rock ’n roll pioneer.
Born in rural Georgia, he sang gospel music as a child, a
background that certainly supported his emergence as an
R&B vocalist and pianist. Richard’s rock ’n roll success
arrived in 1955, the year he signed with New Orleansbased Specialty Records, and released his first major hit:
“Tutti Frutti.” Unlike Fats Domino, whose hits tended to be
laid-back songs with inoffensive lyrics, much of Richard’s
music focused on unique novelty songs that highlighted his
gregarious performance style. Click here to view a video
clip that gives you an introduction to Little Richard’s
remarkable performance style, and includes several live
performance excerpts.
Little Richard
“Long Tall Sally,” released in 1956, was one of Richard’s
biggest hits. It became a rock ’n’ roll standard, and has been covered by literally
hundreds of artists, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The song is built on a 127
bar blues, that’s been adapted to sound like a more pop-friendly verse-chorus format.
The first 4 bars of each 12-bar cycle are set to changing lyrics, with the band playing
stop time, by hitting the first beat of each bar. Then for the remaining 8 bars, there are
unchanging words (beginning with “Oh, baby”) that repeat in each 12-bar cycle, and
function as a repeated chorus. Click here to listen to “Long Tall Sally,” while following
along with the listening guide below.
“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard – recorded 1956)
12-bar blues form, with each cycle divided into a 4-bar verse and an 8-bar chorus.
1st 12-bar cycle:
0:00 Verse – Gonna tell Aunt Mary…
0:05 Chorus – Oh, baby…
2nd 12-bar cycle:
0:16 Verse – Well, Long Tall Sally…
0:21 Chorus – Oh, baby…
3rd 12-bar cycle:
0:32 Verse – Well, I saw Uncle John…
0:37 Chorus – Oh, baby…
Saxophone solo:
0:47 A rockin’ sax solo is played over two 12-bar cycles. The second cycle arrives at 1:02.
Repeat of the 2nd & 3rd 12-bar cycles:
1:18 Well, Long Tall Sally…
1:34 Well, I saw Uncle John…
Ending refrain
1:49 Gonna have some fun tonight… (repeated)
If Fats Domino was a relatively safe bridge into early rock ’n roll for white teens, Little
Richard would strike fear into the hearts of their parents. His flamboyant performance
style and overtly sexual lyrics were a threat to conservative American values. And his
use of makeup and mascara provided a degree of gender bending that deeply alarmed
parents of young teenagers. Nobody embodied the extroverted, outrageous spirit of
rock ’n’ roll like Little Richard. His lyrics could be nonsensical, like “tutti-frutti, au rutti, awop-bop-a-loom-op, a-lop-bam-boom,” or salacious, like “I got a gal named Sue, she
knows just what to do,” but they were always uninhibited, accompanied by his falsetto
whoops and his pounding band. Seeing Richard dance on stage was a show in itself!
Ironically, many of his hits became so popular, that they were covered by more
mainstream white rock ’n’ roll artists, with cleaned up lyrics.
There were multiple conflicts that arose between the new social ideas put forth by rock
’n roll culture, and the conservatism of the parents of teenage baby boomers. Race
certainly played a role in the popularization of white rock ’n roll artists by the music
industry, and the marginalization of black artists. Although Elvis Presley might have
looked like a thuggish delinquent to many parents who had aspirations of upward
mobility for their teenage children, at least he was white. Click here to view a video clip
that discusses some of the racial dimensions to early rock ’n’ roll. Another major fault
line had to do with class – the perception of rock ’n roll as being surreptitious, morally
suspect, and reflecting “lower” class aspirations. Click here to view an excerpt from
Elvis Presley’s film Jailhouse Rock, that illustrates this class divide. Rock ’n roll provided
an alternative to the moral and social conservatism of mainstream American values
during the 1950s. Its connections to carefree (if not rebellious) attitudes among
teenagers, new forms of (perhaps morally questionable) dancing, and to African
American music and culture, challenged the straight and narrow lifestyle promulgated
by the cultural caretakers of 1950s “Americana.”
Two Versions of Rock ’n Roll: Chuck Berry & Elvis Presley
Two of the biggest figures in early rock ’n roll were Chuck Berry (1926-2017) and Elvis
Presley (1935-1977). Both of these artists saw themselves from the beginning as rock ’n
roll musicians (not as musicians playing music from other genres, that became
promoted as rock ‘n roll). And both became household names in America – Presley in
particular has had a tremendous impact on the shape of popular culture in the US and
elsewhere. Graceland, the house where Presley lived in
Memphis, which is now a museum, is the second most visited
house in America after the White House, and there’s an entire
culture built around the phenomenon of the Elvis
Let’s pose a question: Did the racial dimensions of early rock
’n roll affect the reception that Berry and Presley received
when they became stars in the mid 1950s? Both of these
figures have had an enduring impact on American popular
culture. However, Presley’s influence – especially through his
movie and television appearances – has been greater. Did his
racial identity as a white American aid his ascendancy to
becoming an icon of American culture? Did Berry’s racial
identity as an African American limit his access to the music
industry and mainstream America? While these questions
have no straightforward answers, and could be considered
Elvis Presley
controversial to many who celebrate the career of Presley,
they nevertheless help us place the developments of rock ’n
roll within the racialized landscapes of 1950s America. I won’t provide a straightforward
answer to these questions – instead, use the video and listening examples that follow
as tools to develop your own take on the question of race and early rock ’n’ roll.
Elvis Presley grew up poor in rural Mississippi. His musical tastes were shaped by the
white gospel that he heard in church, the blues he heard in the streets, and by radio
broadcasts of country music, R&B, and pop crooners. His music career began in 1954,
through his association with Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee (where his family
moved when he was a teenager). Sun Records was a small indie label that specialized
in regional country and R&B artists. Eventually, Sun would launch the careers of several
white artists associated with early rock ‘n roll, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash,
and Carl Perkins. Together with Presley, these singers were known as Sun’s Million
Dollar Quartet, because of their incredible commercial success. Presley’s career
developed from the country music side, and he became one
of the first white artists on Sun Records to actively bring in
R&B and blues influences. Click here to view a video clip
that discusses Presley’s early years, and illustrates the
influence that black music had on the young Elvis Presley.
At Sun, Presley helped to define the new emerging sound of
“rockabilly,” an up-tempo fusion of country music and R&B.
As his career developed, his voice and image became
ubiquitous in American culture, and his popularity exploded
after RCA acquired his contract from Sun in 1955. In part,
this was thanks to his appearances on television, RCA’s
connections with other major elements of the music
industry, and his management by Colonel Tom Parker, one
of the best promoters in the music business at that time. In
many ways, Presley represented the kind of racial mixing
that was feared by the opponents of the Civil Rights
Movement: his music, attitude, dress, dance, and other
elements of his stage identity, were completely indebted to
the newest trends in black culture. His dancing, for example,
was extremely controversial. The twisting of his hips was so
suggestive sexually, that television producers became
obsessed with it: Would he do it? Could they show it on the
air? His appearances on several popular television variety
shows, and his later career as a movie star, permanently etched his image into the
psyche of American popular culture. Click here to view a video clip that shows how
television quickly made Presley one of the most popular performers in the US.
Two sets of songs help illustrate Presley’s connection to both country music and R&B.
In 1954, Presley covered a Bill Monroe song called “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Monroe’s
1946 recording is a relaxed-sounding waltz, accompanied by bluegrass string
instruments. Presley’s cover version for Sun Records transformed it into an up-tempo
rockabilly song, which he performed with his Sun collaborators, guitarist Scotty Moore
and upright bassist Bill Black. This is a good example of Presley’s early sound: rough
around the edges, with strong connections to the roots music that originally inspired
Click here to listen to Bill Monroe’s original recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Now click here to listen to Elvis Presley’s cover of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
We recently listened to Big Joe Turner’s recording of “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” a classic
R&B song recorded in 1954, that topped the R&B charts and crossed over to the pop
charts. Turner’s version has a medium tempo and a strong backbeat in the drums, with
a horn-driven ensemble. Presley’s 1956 version for RCA keeps the strong backbeat, but
bumps the tempo up with a guitar-driven sound, to turn it into a rockabilly song. We can
still hear the raw energy of early Elvis – be sure to check out Scotty Moore’s exciting
guitar solo at 0:46.
Click here to listen to Big Joe Turner’s original recording of “Shake, Rattle And Roll,”
Now click here to listen to Elvis Presley’s cover of “Shake, Rattle And Roll.”
These covers provide a great opportunity to compare Presley to other artists, and to
hear his connections to country music, R&B, and emerging trends in rock ‘n roll.
Although Presley did not write his own songs, his success went far beyond cover songs.
“Don’t Be Cruel,” recorded in 1956 for RCA, was Presley’s first crossover sensation – it
captured Number 1 on all three charts: pop, country, and R&B, and it remained at the
top of the pop chart for nearly 3 months. Presley’s vocals are heavy with both blues and
country inflections, and we hear the “hiccuping” effect that was popular with rockabilly
singers. The recording is a real stylistic amalgam, that bears witness to how quickly
traditional barriers in pop music were dissolving in the mid-1950s. Based on a 12-bar
blues, there’s a strong R&B backbeat, the opening electric guitar riff references Western
swing, and a pop veneer is achieved through the sweet backing vocals that are rooted
in white gospel music. Like Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” the song is built on an
adapted 12-bar blues form, but this time the first 8 bars of each 12-bar cycle are set to
changing lyrics, while the remaining 4 bars function as a repeated chorus. Click here to
listen to “Don’t Be Cruel,” while following along with the listening guide below.
“Don’t Be Cruel” (Elvis Presley – recorded 1956)
12-bar blues form, with each cycle divided into an 8-bar verse and a 4-bar chorus, usually with a 6-bar
extension added to the chorus.
0:00 The introduction features a repeated guitar riff, that functions as an instrumental “hook.”
1st cycle (12 bars):
0:05 Verse – If you know…
0:16 Chorus – Don’t be cruel…
2nd cycle (16 bars):
0:23 Verse – Baby, if I made you mad…
0:33 Chorus – Don’t be cruel…
0:39 Chorus extension – I don’t want…
3rd cycle (16 bars):
0:48 Verse – Don’t stop a-thinkin’ of me…
0:59 Chorus – Don’t be cruel…
1:05 Chorus extension – I don’t want…
4th cycle (16 bars):
1:13 Verse – Let’s walk up…
1:24 Chorus – Don’t be cruel…
1:30 Chorus extension – I don’t want…
Ending refrain:
1:39 Don’t be cruel…(repeated)
1:50 I don’t want… (chorus extension
Chuck Berry, an African American guitarist and vocalist, grew up in St. Louis, where he
was exposed not only to blues and R&B, but also to country music and pop crooners.
Like Presley’s connection to Sun Records, Berry had a similar relationship to the
Chicago-based Chess Records. Playing his own county-infused version of R&B, Berry
was recommended to Chess by Muddy Waters. His first recording for the label (in 1955)
was “Maybellene,” a key early example of
rock ‘n roll, and the song that launched
his career as a popular artist. Click here
to listen to “Maybelline.” Check out
Berry’s delivery of the lyrics – although
sung at a breakneck speed, they’re
articulated with amazing clarity and force.
Try to follow the clever description of a
lover’s quarrel in the form of a car chase.
The song is based on a 12-bar blues,
with each verse and each chorus
encompassing one 12-bar cycle (the
chorus begins with “Maybelline, why can’t
you be true…”)
Chuck Berry
Berry arrived on the scene as a fully
formed pop artist, with an original
approach to songwriting, lyrics that resonated with teenage concerns, and a guitar style
that would have a seminal influence on rock music. His goal from the beginning was to
be a rock ‘n roll crossover artist, with equal appeal to
white and black teenagers. To achieve this, he
incorporated a country twang into his vocal stylings and
country music grooves into his rhythm section. But his
music was still grounded in R&B: most of his songs were
built on 12-bar blues structures, there was usually a
strong backbeat to his grooves, and the buzzy timbre of
his guitar evoked the sounds of electric blues. It was a
winning package, and as he defined the sound of rock ‘n
roll as a guitar-driven music, his songs became more
explicit celebrations of American teenage culture:
“Sweet Little Sixteen” describes teenage angst, “School
Day” describes frustrations with school, and “Roll Over
Beethoven” praises rock ‘n roll at the expense of
classical music.
Click here to view a video clip that contains footage of
several live performances, and illustrates how Berry’s
music spoke to both black and white audiences. Be sure
to check out the trademark Chuck Berry “duck walk” at
4:50. As the video demonstrates, there were various
racial barriers within early rock ‘n roll, that many artists,
producers, managers, and radio DJs sought to transcend. And yet, there was a natural
segregation that occurred within the industry – look at Sun and Chess, the two most
important early rock ‘n roll labels: eventually Sun only released music by white artists,
while Chess featured black artists. And although rock ‘n roll proved to be a powerful
force in breaking down racial barriers, prime time television shows were still reticent to
feature black artists, for fear of alienating their Southern audiences.
“Johnny B. Goode,” recorded in 1958, is perhaps Chuck Berry’s consummate statement
on rock ‘n roll mythology. One of the most recognizable songs in popular music history,
it celebrates rock guitar playing as a path to fame and fortune. The opening solo guitar
passage is iconic, and quickly became a trademark of Berry’s style. He creates a denser
texture for the ensemble by adding a pianist, who improvises secondary melodies to
support the vocals and guitar solo, and he adds a second guitar: his own! Berry
overdubbed one of the guitar parts – he’s playing the prominent the guitar line, but also
the rhythm guitar part, which is inspired by a boogie-woogie left-hand piano pattern.
Like “Maybelline,” the song is based on a 12-bar blues, with each verse and each
chorus encompassing one 12-bar cycle. Click here to listen to “Johnny B. Goode,”
while following along with the listening guide below.
“Johnny B. Goode” (Chuck Berry – recorded 1958)
12-bar blues form, with each each verse and each chorus encompassing one 12-bar cycle.
0:00 This famous introduction is played over a 12-bar cycle. Listen for the entrance of the rhythm
guitar part (also played by Berry) at 0:06.
Verse 1:
0:17 (Deep down in Louisiana…) Notice how the verses to this song are packed with words – none of
the AAB lyric structure that was so common in earlier 12-bar blues-based R&B and blues.
0:33 (Go go, Go Johnny go…) Listen for the call and response between Berry’s voice and his guitar in
all of the choruses.
Verse 2:
0:51 (He used to carry his guitar…)
1:07 (Go go, Go Johnny go…)
Guitar solo (two 12-bar cycles):
The guitar solo starts with a stop time passage similar to the opening of the song. Another stop
time passage marks the second 12-bar cycle at 1:43.
Verse 3:
2:00 (His mother told him someday…)
2:17 (Go go, Go Johnny go…)
Chuck Berry was the ultimate architect of rock ‘n roll. He established that the music
would have a guitar-driven sound. His guitar stylings would become fundamental to the
vocabulary of rock guitarists for decades to follow. And he established a model for the
concept of the rock band: a self-contained ensemble featuring flashy guitar solos, stage
showmanship, and self-authored songs. While Berry’s music certainly had a huge
impact on rock ‘n roll in the 1950s, his popularity faded soon thereafter. Presley, on the
other hand, enjoyed tremendous popularity all the way until his tragic, untimely death.
Because of his tireless concert schedule, promotional activities (on television and film),
and the ingenious managing of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley gained unprecedented
access to mainstream American audiences, even if the parents of his enthusiastic teen
admirers were troubled by his popularity. Berry did not receive this kind of access to
mainstream America. Some have argued that this was due to his racial identity.
The Electric Guitar
The saxophone became the iconic instrument associated with jazz – thanks to Chuck
Berry, the electric guitar became forever associated with rock music, and remains the
central instrument for most popular music styles today. The acoustic guitar, even with
steel strings, was never loud enough to be heard in a space larger than a juke joint or
small club. But when the Gibson company introduced their hollow body electric guitar in
the mid 1930s, it was revolutionary. Electric
guitar technology revolves around the “pickup” –
a magnetic plate or coil attached to the body of
the guitar, underneath the strings, that converts
the physical vibrations of the strings into patterns
of electric energy that can be transferred through
an electric cable to an amplifier. Jazz musicians,
especially the guitarist Charlie Christian,
immediately embraced the new technology, and
though not a dominant instrument in jazz, the
electric guitar became common in swing and
bebop ensembles.
Hollow body electric guitars are based on the
design concept of the acoustic guitar: a wooden
box (or body) with holes or patterns cut out of
the front surface of the guitar, to create a natural
resonance. So despite the electronic
amplification, hollow body electric guitars still
have a “woody” acoustic timbre. In the postwar
era, the solid body guitar was developed, and
was first used in electric blues, R&B, and
country bands. While some solid body guitars
Fender Stratocaster & Gibson Les Paul
were still based on the “box” design, minus the
front surface cutouts, most were solid pieces of
wood cut in guitar-like shapes, on which the electronics and strings were mounted. As a
result, solid body guitars have a much more “electronic” sound, that can be timbrally
manipulated and modified by switches and dials on on the amplifier and on the guitar
itself. Multiple pickups were soon added to create a palette of different sounds.
The Fender Stratocaster, designed in 1954, and the Gibson Les Paul, designed in 1952
became the most popular instruments for rock guitarists. The Les Paul has a warmer,
more resonant sound, and a rich sustain. The Stratocaster has a thinner, more biting
sound, and a greater variety of timbral possibilities – it was also the first electric guitar to
have a vibrato bar (also called a whammy bar), that allows the player to bend pitches
with a bar cradled in the right hand. Eventually, special effects devices like the wah-wah
pedal and fuzz box could be connected between the guitar and the amplifier to provide
even more coloristic options. What is it about electric guitars that makes them so
fascinating, to the point of becoming a fetish object? It’s a complex question bound up
with the rebellious attitudes of rock ‘n roll, the way it lends itself to on-stage
showmanship, and the suitability of its being used as a phallic symbol – all of these
things add to the electric guitar’s aura of excitement and danger.
Covers, Producers, and Other 50s Rockers
The cover song – the practice of recording a song that was originally recorded by
another artist – was an important precedent for the emergence of rock ‘n roll. In its
narrowest sense, a cover is very similar to the original, often in an attempt to cash in on
the success of the original recording. Just as the music industry needed white
performers to popularize the hot swing jazz created by African-American musicians in
the 1930s, the industry felt the same need in the 1950s, if they were going to be able to
successfully rebrand R&B music as rock ‘n roll. Oftentimes, a new rock ‘n roll recording
sounded very similar to the R&B hit it was covering, with the main difference commonly
being cleaned-up lyrics (eliminating any overtly sexual references). The music industry
saw covers as a key way to separate rock ‘n roll from its African-American roots, in the
eyes of the broader American public. By the late 1950s, more than any stylistic factors,
it was often race alone that distinguished an R&B recording from its rock ‘n roll cover
By the time Elvis Presley was a teenager, he already had a strong connection to R&B
music and African-American culture. More often though, the white rock ‘n roller’s who
were covering R&B hits had limited connections to black culture. The idea of
“appropriation” maintains that people who have only a distant relationship to a cultural
form, but then adopt that form to achieve some kind of benefit (monetary, cultural
capital, prestige, or something else), have in fact appropriated (or stolen) that other form
of cultural expression. From a current perspective, taking into account important ideas
from cultural studies, we could see that this idea about appropriation relies on notions of
authenticity. In other words, which recordings are authentic? And how might our
understandings of racial belonging relate to the boundaries that regulate notions of
authenticity? Should there be ethical considerations when issues of social and financial
inequity are involved? These questions often don’t have black-and-white answers
(pardon the pun), but what is clear, is that by the end of the 1950s, rock ‘n roll was
perceived as a music mostly performed by white musicians, even if what they were
playing was often a fairly literal version of black R&B.
Now, looking at the legal aspects of covers, here’s a case in point: The Rolling Stones
and Led Zeppelin are two British bands who have been deeply influenced by AfricanAmerican blues, both country and electric. There was at least one electric blues cover
on each of the Rolling Stones first four albums – all of those songs were credited to the
original electric blues composers, and royalties were paid to record the cover versions.
But on Led Zeppelin’s second album there were two songs that were clearly covers of
earlier electric blues recordings – one song was almost identical, and still had the same
title. Yet, Zeppelin listed both of those songs on their album as their own compositions.
Why does this matter? Because they were sued by the real composer (bluesman Willie
Dixon) for copyright infringement. Zeppelin lost both cases, which were settled out of
court for undisclosed (but presumably large) sums of money.
We’ve already seen how covers helped to launch the career of Elvis Presley. Returning
to “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” remember that Big Joe Turner released the original
recording of that song in 1954, and Elvis released his version 2 years later. But Elvis
was riding the coattails of the success that Bill Haley and the Comets had with the song,
just months after Turner’s release. Refresh your
memory once again, and click here to listen to
Big Joe Turner’s original recording.
Haley’s version is just slightly faster than
Turner’s, and while there is an electric guitar in
the mix, the horns and piano still drive the
sound of the song. But instead of a walking
bass line, more typical of R&B, Haley
incorporates a “slap” bass, with a lighter
backbeat in the drums – both of those elements
reflect Haley’s country music influence and his
connection with the rockabilly side of rock ‘n roll.
Finally, all of the sexual innuendos in Turner’
lyrics have been eliminated – the first line of
Bill Haley
Turner’s version starts with “Get out of that
bed…” while Haley’s begins with “Get out of
that kitchen…” Click here to listen to Bill Haley’s cover of “Shake, Rattle And Roll.”
While Turner’s recording crossed over to the pop charts, the bulk of its success was on
the R&B charts, where it held the Number 1 position for three weeks. Interestingly,
Haley’s cover version never appeared on the R&B charts at all, and while it only
reached #7 on the pop charts, it stayed a top 40 hit for over 6 months, and helped to
launch Haley’s career as the first “King” of rock ‘n roll.
Now let’s listen once again to Presley’s rockabilly version of the song. The sound is now
dominated by electric guitar, and the tempo is much faster than the other two versions.
Like Turner’s version, there’s a kickin’ backbeat in the drums, and while Elvis largely
sticks with Haley’s cleaned up lyrics, he does begin the song with Turner’s “Get out of
that bed…” Click here to listen to Elvis Presley’s cover of “Shake, Rattle And Roll.”
We can also compare two versions of the song “Sh-Boom,” both recorded in 1954, first
by the Chords, an African American vocal group, and then by the Crew Cuts, an allwhite pop vocal group. Another important aspect of postwar rhythm and blues were the
vocal harmony style known as “doo-wop.” Developed in
the black neighborhoods of urban cities such as New
York and Philadelphia, high school kids specialized in
smooth four voice singing that often featured a lead, high
falsetto singer. Click here to view a brief video clip that
discusses doo-wop, and features a live quartet.
The Chords’ version of “Sh-Boom” includes an a
cappella vocal introduction (a cappella music features
singers without instrumental accompaniment),
occasional improvisatory scat vocals, and is in an R&B
style. The song was written by the Chords, and although
it was their only hit, it reached #2 in the R&B charts, and
#9 on the pop charts. Click here to listen to the Chords’
original recording of “Sh-Boom.” While their record
features an R&B-style saxophone solo,
their vocals are accompanied only by a
background rhythm section.
The Chords
The Crew Cuts, recorded their cover
version of “Sh-Boom” just months after
the Chords’ release. The Crew Cuts’ polished version features tight
big band-style horn arrangements, and clever novelties like the
humorous kettle drum feature, and two false endings. While their popfriendly arrangement made this one of the two biggest hits of 1954,
staying on the pop charts for five months, the Chords’ version is the
one that really swings. Click here to listen to the Crew Cuts’ cover of
While many early rockers wrote most of their own songs, professional
songwriters still played an important role in the music. But as the
recording itself increasingly became the essential document of rock ’n
The Crew Cuts
roll music, the role of the “producer” became steadily more important.
While producers traditionally handled logistics – booking studio time,
hiring backup singers and instrumentalists, assisting with the engineering process, and
coordinating marketing campaigns – they progressively took on a more creative role:
helping to craft the characteristic “sound” of the finished record. Although a largely
behind-the-scenes job, the best producers imprinted the record with their own musical
personality, by making important decisions during recording and mixing, that guided the
conception of the song through the recording process. The late 1950s saw the rise of
powerful songwriter/producers – the phenomenally successful team of Jerry Lieber
(1933-2011) and Mike Stoller (b.1933) were the most innovative in the early years of
rock ‘n roll.
The photo on this page shows Leiber (on the right) and Stoller with Elvis Presley, as he
reviews their song, “Jailhouse Rock.” Originally from the East Coast, they met just after
high school in Los Angeles, and began writing hits like “Hound Dog” when they were still
in their teens. Throughout the 1950s they wrote successful songs for R&B artists,
penned a string of hits for Elvis Presley, and
went on to help create the “girl group” sound
in the early 60s. Like Chuck Berry, they often
wrote songs with lyrics specifically for and
about teenagers, helping to mainstream rock
‘n roll in the mid-1950s. Click here to view a
video clip that explores the deep connection
that Leiber and Stoller had to rhythm and
blues music.
Before moving into the 1960s, let’s briefly
look at three other important 50s rockers.
You’ve already been introduced to Bill Haley
(1925-1981), who became one of the first
stars of early rock ‘n roll. He began his
Lieber & Stoller with Elvis
musical career leading western swing
groups, performing in cities throughout the
northeast. In the early 1950s, he dropped his cowboy image and converted to rock ‘n
roll. His band, Bill Haley and the Comets, were picked up by Decca records who paired
them with a brilliant producer, and in short order they began turning out Number 1 hits.
His synthesis of western swing and rock ‘n roll would (along with Elvis Presley and other
Sun Records artists) help to create the new rockabilly style that became associated with
most white rockers in the 1950s.
Haley’s recording of “Rock Around the Clock” was the first rock ‘n roll record to become
a Number 1 hit on the pop charts, where it stayed for two full months in 1955. Based on
a 12-bar blues form, the guitar-driven recording blends clear elements of R&B
(saxophone riffing) and country music (slap bass). The song quickly became an anthem
for rebellious teenagers, and although Bill Haley’s claim that he invented rock ‘n roll
deserves little credibility, this record is widely considered to be the catalyst that brought
rock ‘n roll into mainstream pop culture. Click here to listen to Bill Haley and the
Comets, performing “Rock Around the Clock.” This is a tight ensemble, that included
many professional session musicians, including guitarist Danny Cedrone, whose solo at
0:42 is considered one of the greatest rock ‘n roll guitar solos of all time. Also, check out
the exciting unison riffing at 1:30.
Buddy Holly (1936-1959, born Charles Holley) presented a stage persona that was
practically the opposite of Elvis Presley’s aloof and sexually suggestive devil-may-care
attitude. Holly’s persona was wholesome, clean-cut, and perfectly in harmony with
1950s moral values – basically a nerd, except that he was a brilliant songwriter and
guitarist, who knew his way around a recording studio. Born in Texas and beginning his
career in country music, Holly was inspired in his late teens by Presley, and formed a
rock ‘n roll band called the Crickets. His first record in the new style, “That’ll Be the Day,”
quickly rose to Number 1 on the pop charts in 1957. With this first hit we already hear
Holly’s distinctive approach, synthesizing elements of
country, R&B, and mainstream pop, with a vocal style
full of country twang and expressive blue notes. His riffbased, hard-edged lead guitar playing reflected the
influence of Chuck Berry, and the instrumental lineup of
two electric guitars (lead and rhythm), bass, and drums
became a model for rock groups to follow. Click here to
view a brief video clip of Buddy Holly performing his
1957 hit, “Oh, Boy!”
Holly’s career was tragically cut short (at the age of 22)
by a plane crash that also claimed the lives of other
prominent 50s rockers. The extent of Buddy Holly’s
influence is immeasurable, and many consider him to
be the dominant creative force in early rock ‘n roll. His
songwriting was distinctive and original, and he
pioneered recording studio innovations that became
standard in the 1960s. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the
Buddy Holly
Rolling Stones all point to Holly as a major inspiration
and influence. John Lennon and Paul McCartney (of the
Beatles) studied Holly’s records, assimilating aspects of his songwriting and vocals,
modeling the insect-based name of his band, and copying his four-piece instrumental
lineup. Click here to listen to “That’ll Be the Day,” while following along with the
listening guide below. Notice the strong backbeat in the drums, the supporting vocal
harmonies throughout, and Holly’s trademark vocal hiccups and stutters.
“That’ll Be the Day” (Buddy Holly – recorded 1957)
Alternating 8-bar choruses and verses, with an instrumental bridge based on a 12-bar blues form.
0:00 An unaccompanied solo guitar introduction sets up the song.
1st cycle – three 8-bar phrases:
0:03 Chorus – Well, that’ll be the day…
0:18 Verse – Well, you give me…
0:33 Chorus – Well, that’ll be the day…
Instrumental bridge:
0:49 Holly plays a guitar solo (divided into three 4-bar phrases) over a 12-bar cycle. The riffing pattern
that begins the second phrase (at 0:57) is classic Chuck Berry.
2nd cycle – three 8-bar phrases:
1:11 Chorus – Well, that’ll be the day…
1:26 Verse – Well, when Cupid shot…
1:41 Chorus – Well, that’ll be the day…
Ending refrain
1:57 That’ll be the day… (repeated)
Richie Valens
Although his recording career lasted only eight months – he
died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly – Richie
Valens (1941-1959, born Richard Valenzuela) was a pioneer of
the Spanish-speaking rock ‘n roll movement, and a forefather of
the Chicano rock movement. Born to working-class Mexican
American parents, his records help to create a distinctive rock ‘n
roll sound associated with Los Angeles. Surrounded in his youth
by Mexican and country music, Valens was also inspired by
R&B vocal groups, and early rockers like Little Richard and
Buddy Holly. He was the first Latino to successfully cross over
into mainstream rock, and was an inspiration for Selena, Carlos
Santana and Los Lobos. Valens’ most influential recording was
“La Bamba,” an adaptation of a Mexican folk song from the state
of Veracruz. Recorded in 1958, it’s significant for its blending of
traditional Latin American music with rock, and for becoming a
top 40 hit sung entirely in Spanish. Click here to listen to “La
Bamba,” as recorded by Richie Valens.
The early rock ‘n roll scene began to decline in the late 1950s. That was due in part to
the payola scandal, the success of big record labels in redirecting the teenage market
towards “teen idols” (nonthreatening, squeaky-clean industry-created pop stars), and
the shifting interests (and fortunes) of the icons of early rock. Click here to view a video
clip that illustrates this transitional period.
Popular Music in the Early 1960s
The initial boom of rock ‘n roll in the mid 1950s prompted
incredible growth in the music industry. By the end of the 50s,
however, many the stars of early rock ‘n roll were giving way in
popularity to a new commercial phenomenon: the “teen idol,”
featuring young celebrity figures who emerged from new youthdirected media markets. Most of the teen idols already had
careers that included television, movies, radio, and, to varying
degrees, musical performance. Annette Funicello, who scored
pop hits as a teenage singer, got her start on a television
program called the Mickey Mouse Club. Along with Funicello,
teen idols in the late 1950s and early 60s included Paul Anka,
Ricky Nelson, and Frankie Avalon, among others. The picture
Annette Funicello & Frankie Avalon
on this page features Funicello and Avalon in a publicity photo
for their beach culture-oriented movies, which included Beach
Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). The
intersection of this new youth market and music prompted many teenagers of the early
1960s to shift their focus away from the (now aging) earlier rock ‘n roll figures. The
somewhat naive teen idol culture would be challenged in the mid 1960s by several
factors, including growing opposition to the Vietnam War,
and the anti-establishment attitudes of the counterculture
Despite this shifting terrain, rock ‘n roll continued to hold
the imagination of many young Americans. In 1960, for
example, one of the most popular developments was the
twist: a song that launched a new a dance style.
Popularized by Chubby Checker (b. 1921), the song is
rooted in horn-driven, R&B-inspired early rock ‘n roll, with
a pounding beat and exciting backup vocals. The thing
that made it a novelty, was that the song described how
to do the moves that launched the twist dance craze.
Although somewhat provocative, the dance didn’t require
difficult steps or acrobatics, and quickly became popular
Chubby Checker
with adults in upscale clubs – the first time that grownups had danced to teenage music in the US. Click here
to listen to “The Twist,” in a video clip that contains dance footage from clubs, movies
and television.
During the 1960s, rock ‘n roll entered the American mainstream in new ways. In the 50s
it was associated with African American culture, and a somewhat transgressive
emerging teen culture. In the 60s, however, it became the
mainstream. One example of this is seen in the television
program American Bandstand, a music-oriented show that
featured live performances by popular musical groups and
a cast of young dancers demonstrating the latest fashions
and dance moves. The show was hosted and produced by
Dick Clark, a former radio DJ that escaped prosecution
during the payola scandal. Airing until 1989, the show
heavily influenced American culture, playing a critical role
in introducing Americans to artists as diverse as the
Jackson 5, Prince, and Aerosmith. It became a prototype
for later shows like American Idol. Click here to view a
video clip that illustrates the importance of American
Bandstand in the mainstreaming of rock ‘n roll.
Dick Clark
During the early 1960s, songwriters in the model of Leiber
and Stoller continued to play an important roll in the development of pop music. Similar
to Tin Pan Alley of an earlier generation, a new association of songwriters emerged in
New York City, creating what would become known as the Brill Building Sound. The Brill
Building became home to a virtual who’s who of professional songwriters who penned
hits for girl groups and teen idols. Neil Diamond and Carole King are just two of the
artists who got their start there, writing teen-oriented songs that often included
sophisticated orchestrations. Along with these reminted notions of professionalism, the
role of the producer gained increased stature. Click here to view a short video clip that
discusses the important role that producers played in early 1960s pop music.
Phil Spector
One of the most powerful and influential producers in rock
music was Phil Spector (b. 1939). His approach to mixing
records – the way he set the levels of instruments and
vocalists in relation to each other, and the way he crafted
the overall sound of a recording – almost instantly became
a point of reference for other producers. Spector’s
approach was called the “wall of sound,” in which the
recorded music had an intensely upfront and unified
sound, as if the band and vocalists were all in the living
room of the person listening to the recording. The wall of
sound mixing approach had an incredible impact on other
producers and musicians – it became the norm in the
transforming world of rock ‘n roll during the early 1960s.
After scoring a Number 1 pop hit at the age of 17 with his
group, the Teddy Bears, Spector left the stage and learned
production skills by apprenticing with Lieber and Stoller.
Sensing where the real emerging power was in the music
business, Spector founded Philles Records, and relocated
to Los Angeles. Although based in LA, he continued to
collaborate with many of the Brill Building songwriters.
Working with handpicked singers, backup instrumentalists,
and engineers, Spector micromanaged every aspect of a record’s sound. His obsession
with detail became legendary, and all of the key
recordings he produced were imprinted with his
musical vision. As a result, Spector became the star of
his records, even though he functioned entirely
behind-the-scenes. He established another important
model for the production of pop records: instead of
flooding the market with as many records as possible,
often of questionable quality (which was the practice of
many indie labels), Philles released a surprisingly
small number of records – often only one per month –
a large percentage of which became Top 40 hits. By
the age of 24 he was a millionaire tycoon. Click here
to view a video clip that discusses the creation of the
“Phil Spector sound” – it also includes live footage of
his two most successful groups: the Crystals and the
Spector recorded most of his hits at Gold Star Studios
in Los Angeles, which was unique at that time for its
custom-designed acoustics and recording equipment.
The loose-knit circle of musicians that played on
Spector’s records became known as the “Wrecking
Crew” – they became the anchor of the LA recording
The Ronettes
scene, and played on thousands of records by other artists. Like the trends occurring at
the Brill Building, Spector’s producing in the early 1960s became associated with
various “girl groups” – fronted by (usually African-American) all-female vocal sections.
By listing his records by the name of the group (and not listing singers by name) he
could interchange his performers at will, to serve his immediate needs. This allowed him
to use the same backup musicians for all of his different groups – a practice
fundamental to maintaining the “Phil Spector sound.”
One of Spector’s early successes occurred with the Ronettes, a girl group that featured
his future wife, Ronnie Spector. The Ronettes’ 1963 recording of “Be My Baby” is a
great example of the wall of sound mixing style – it became an immediate hit on both
the pop and R&B charts, and it’s considered one of the best pop records ever made.
Click here to listen to “Be My Baby,” while following along with the listening guide
below. Included in the instrumental ensemble is a full orchestral string section, multiple
pianos and rhythm instruments, and a backup chorus.
“Be My Baby” (The Ronettes – recorded 1963)
Alternating 16-bar choruses and 8-bar verses
Introduction (4 bars):
0:00 A 2-bar drum solo sets up the groove, and is joined by the rhythm section for 2 more bars. Notice
the heavy reverb on the drums and the exotic color provided by the castanet rolls at 0:04 & 0:06.
1st cycle (16 + 8 bars):
0:08 Verse 1 – (The night we met…) Lead vocals sing the first 8-bar phrase, then the saxes are added
for the second 8-bar phrase at 0:22 (So won’t you say you love me…). This builds to the:
0:37 Chorus – Backup vocals are added, as the lead singer sings the hook: (Be my baby…)
2nd cycle (16 + 8 bars):
0:52 Verse 2 – (I’ll make you happy…) Now with the backup vocals and saxes throughout.
1:22 Chorus – (Be my baby…) as before
3rd cycle (8 + 8 bars):
1:37 Instrumental Verse – The string section plays the melody of the first 8-bar phrase of the verse,
accompanied by the backup vocals.
1:52 Chorus – (Be my baby…) as before
Ending (2 + 8 + 8 bars):
2:07 Intro – The opening 2-bar drum solo is repeated.
2:10 Chorus – As before with the backup vocals, now with the string section adding a counter melody,
and the lead vocals improvising over the top of everything.
2:25 Chorus – The 2:10 texture is repeated, and fades – listen for the rhythmic variations in the drums.
Although Spector and some Brill Building writers had produced girl groups that featured
African American vocalists, the most prominent trends in black music during the early
years of the 1960s were connected to Motown Records. Motown was the brainchild of
producer Berry Gordy. He derived the name “Motown” from a creative re-articulation of
“Motor City,” the nickname of Detroit that references its
role as the automobile capitol of America. A house that
Gordy named “Hitsville,” served as the headquarters for
his operation – it functioned as a recording studio,
rehearsal space, business office, and more. Although
Black Swan Records (back in the 1920s), was the first
black-owned record label in the US, Motown was the
highest-earning African American business in the
country for many decades.
Motown acted as an important point of entry into the
music business for many African American artists. A few
of the extraordinary singers associated with the label
include Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, Diana
Ross, and Michael Jackson. The “house band” of
Hitsville, who played on almost all of Motown’s
recordings, were known as the Funk Brothers. This
stellar group of musicians were featured in a 2002
documentary titled Standing in the Shadow of Motown.
Berry Gordy with Martin Luther King
Gordy had multiple songwriting teams that would
compete with each other, often recording a song with
different groups in order to refine and craft the best hit. In 1971, Gordy moved Motown
to Los Angeles, where it remained an independent company for over two decades,
before being purchased and then absorbed into various international multi-media
conglomerates. Along with other African American artists like Ray Charles and James
Brown, Motown’s success represented a new direction in popular music, that eventually
became known as “soul music.” Click here to view a video clip that discusses Motown’s
crossover success – it also includes live footage of several Motown groups, including a
very young Michael Jackson as the lead singer of the Jackson 5.
Gordy surrounded himself with the best talent in all areas of the record-making process,
and he was determined to keep Motown an entirely African American-run business, from
the star performers down to the office secretaries. Gordy’s success was the result of a
carefully crafted plan to connect new trends in African American music with the larger
American mainstream. The music was designed to appeal to the broadest listening
public, while never losing its black identity. Although Gordy consciously avoided political
references in Motown’s music, he was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement,
and was aware of the role that his music could play in helping to break down racial
barriers in the US. In fact, more Motown records were sold to white listeners, than black.
While Phil Spector was primarily interested in
the records themselves, Gordy chose and
developed his artists to be charismatic live
performers. This commitment engendered
loyalty from his artists, providing Motown with
a stable roster of groups and songwriters,
which in turn allowed many of those individuals
to eventually launch solo careers. Gordy’s
strategy for success included providing his
performers with training in vocal technique,
diction, etiquette and dance, with strict codes
The Supremes (with Diana Ross on the right)
of conduct and dress. Click here to view an
excerpt of a Temptations promotional video, as
they perform “My Girl.” Notice the polish of their stage presentation: flashy tailored suits,
and elegant choreography that amplifies the message of the lyrics.
The Supremes were Motown’s premier act, and with twelve Number 1 hits, they were
the most successful US vocal group. Featuring the charismatic singer Diana Ross, the
Supremes rivaled the Beatles’ popularity in the mid-1960s, and paved the way for
African-American soul singers to achieve continued mainstream success. “You Can’t
Hurry Love” was written in 1966 by the Motown production team of Holland-DozierHolland. This song illustrates the brilliance of great songwriting, where a sophisticated
formal structure, hidden beneath a pop-friendly surface, subtlety and effectively
reinforces the meaning of the lyrics. The song is about the importance of waiting, and
the form keeps us guessing (waiting) to understand the relationships between the
different sections. Sometimes, we even have to wait for the release provided by the first
line of the (B section) chorus. Click here to listen to “You Can’t Hurry Love,” while
following along with the listening guide below.
“You Can’t Hurry Love” (The Supremes – recorded 1966)
Innovative three-part form: 4-bar A section, 8-bar B & C sections
Introduction (3 bars):
0:00 Bass and tambourine set up the groove – the third bar is announced by a horn punch, as the drums
add back beats.
A section (4 bars):
0:07 (I need love…) At first, the function of this section is unclear – is it a short verse, or an introduction?
B section (4 + 4 bars):
0:17 (You can’t hurry love…) Because the changes (chord progression) are the same as the A section,
it further confuses the function of that first section. With the horns and guitar providing punchy
reinforcement to the backbeat, this feels like a release – a chorus.
0:27 (You can’t hurry love…) Notice how on the repeat of this section, the energy level is raised by the
more active background vocals.
C section (8 bars):
0:37 (But how many heartaches…) With a distinctly different melody and changes, this feels like it might
be a bridge section. Notice how the lead vocals reach into a higher range to increase the tension.
B section (4 + 4 bars):
0:57 ((You can’t…) No…) When the B section returns (instead of the A), followed again by the C section,
we realize we’re in a verse-chorus pattern, but with the chorus (B) before the verse (C).
1:07 (How long must I wait…) Another surprise – although the melody remains the same on the repeat
of this section, the lyrics are different – something unusual for a chorus.
C section (8 bars):
1:17 (No, I can’t bear…) The C section repeats with different lyrics, which is to be expected in a verse.
B section (4 + 4 bars):
1:37 ((You can’t…) No…) At the arrival of this and the previous B sections, notice how the lead vocalist
doesn’t sing “You can’t hurry love,” and instead comes in a second later with “No, you just have to
wait,” making the listener literally have to wait for the release provided by the chorus.
1:47 (You can’t hurry love…)
Instrumental break (1 bar): This brief instrumental break sets up the surprise closing section.
A section (4 + 4 bars):
2:00 (No, love, love, don’t come easy…) The A section now returns with a vengeance, and at first is
doubled as the extended line of lyrics flows directly into the repeat.
2:09 (…for that soft voice…)
A/B section (4 bars):
2:19 (I keep waitin’…) In a brilliant compositional turn, the A section is once again repeated, with minimal
activity from the lead vocalist, who keeps “waitin’,” while the instrumental ensemble hints at the B
section melody. This ambiguity makes the release of the final B section all the more powerful.
B section (4 + 4 bars):
2:27 (You can’t hurry love…) A full reprise of the B section, as originally stated.
2:39 (You can’t hurry love…) With the repeat, the record quickly fades out.
The Beach Boys
While Motown represented a trend in popular
music that centered African American culture and
performers, other quite different directions were
simultaneously occurring. The marketing of teen
idols helped to create the teen beach culture of
the 1960s, and was for the most part, directly
connected to a vision of mainstream American
culture that was overwhelmingly white. The Beach
Boys, formed in 1961 in the Los Angeles area,
and led in large part by the artistic vision of Brian
The Beach Boys
Wilson (b.1942), capitalized on this beachoriented image of teen culture. Click here to view
a video clip that examines the origins and development of the Beach Boys, as they
became the most celebrated American rock group in the early 1960s.
Wilson, who was deeply influenced by Phil Spector, functioned as performer, producer,
and songwriter for the group. His artistic vision for the Beach Boys featured
sophisticated harmonies, intricate vocal arrangements, and innovative studio production
techniques. Building on the achievements of rockers like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly,
Wilson established a model for the concept of the self-sustaining rock group:
demonstrate mastery of the basic rock styles, create original material that builds on and
extends those styles, and then branch out beyond those traditional forms to create
something truly unique. One of the defining characteristics of the Beach Boys was their
remarkable vocal harmonies. This quintessential Beach Boys vocal sound is heard on
their 1963 classic, “Surfin’ USA.” The song is a tribute to Chuck Berry, as it’s based on
his hit, “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the chord changes are almost identical, and the melody
is so similar, that it eventually resulted in a lawsuit that forced Wilson to list Berry as a
cowriter. Click here to listen to “Surfin’ USA.”
By the mid-1960s, Wilson moved beyond being a teen idol – he began aggressively
experimenting as a songwriter and producer, pushing cutting edge recording studio
technology to its creative limits. His crowing achievement is an album called Pet
Sounds, released in 1966. Using overdubbing and various
other studio techniques, the album captures a spectrum of
sounds unheard of in rock music prior to its release. Many
scholars have drawn connections between Pet Sounds and the
Beatles’ landmark 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts
Club Band.
“Good Vibrations” is one of the most innovative records in early
rock music, and is a masterpiece of studio production.
Developed over eight months of multiple recording sessions in
1966, resulting in over 90 hours of tape that was edited down
to a four-minute song, “Good Vibrations” cost the modern day
equivalent of $500,000 to produce. It became a model for
treating the recording studio as a creative instrument, and it
revolutionized record making in the late 1960s. With a core
ensemble drawn from Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, the
Brian Wilson
instrumentation also includes organ, flutes, cello, colorful
percussion instruments and the theremin, the electronic
instrument that created the whirring, sirenlike sound of the “good vibrations” in the
chorus sections of the song. The Beach Boys members don’t play any instruments on
this recording – they only sing. This is a masterful composition with memorable melodic
hooks, sophisticated chord changes, and a broad timbral palette. The formal structure is
also unique – after setting up a predictable verse-chorus form with the initial ABAB
pattern, the C section seems at first like a bridge, except instead of bridging back to the
opening material, it moves us into an entirely new D section, before tying back into
variations on the B section to end the song, fading out while the music seems to be
developing into yet a new section. The lyrics are full of colorful images that
communicate sensuous experiences, previewing a more psychedelic direction for rock
music in the years that followed. Click here to listen to “Good Vibrations,” while
following along with the listening guide below.
“Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys – recorded 1966)
Completely original formal structure, beginning with alternating 16-bar verses and choruses, then leading
into a complex series of sections and transitions, which eventually end with variations on the chorus.
Verse 1 (8 + 8 bars – minor key):
0:00 (I love the colorful clothes…) The song starts with a seductive sighing gesture from the lead vocals,
then is accompanied by delicate pulsing organ chords and an intriguing bass line.
0:13 (I hear the sound…) In the repeat of this section, a sparse rhythmic composite of drums and
percussion are joined by background flutes. The sense of mystery in the A section is amplified
by the minor tonality.
Chorus (16 bars – major key):
0:25 (I’m pickin’ up good vibrations…) Listen for the timbral change at 0:25, which reveals a studio tape
splice. The major tonality helps to create an upbeat optimism. The low voice carries the melody,
and the sonic texture is now dominated by chugging bowed repeated notes in the cello, with the
theremin melody whirring on top. At 0:31, vocal harmonies of “ooo bop bop” are layered in, and at
0:38 another higher vocal harmony layer of “good, good, good…” is added, creating a dense
polyphonic texture that’s rare in pop music. In this section, we clearly hear the influence on
Wilson, of Phil Spector’s wall of sound production.
Verse 2 (8 + 8 bars ):
0:51 (Close my eyes…) A skillful editing transition dramatically shifts back to the quieter verse, with a
new set of lyrics. The instrumental development is the same as in the first verse.
Chorus (16 bars):
1:16 (I’m pickin’ up good vibrations…) same as first chorus
C section (12 + 8 bars):
1:41 Notice the tape splice at the beginning of this section. A 12-bar instrumental passage is dominated
by a reverb-heavy honky-tonk piano and regular sleigh bell hits, with background humming.
2:01 The line “I don’t know why…” opens an 8-bar phrase that densifies with vocal lines.
Instrumental transition (4 bars):
2:14 With another tape splice, the song moves into completely new territory. The organ establishes a
new major tonality, and is accompanied only by maracas.
D section (5 x 4 bars):
2:21 (Gotta keep those lovin’ good…) Five 4-bar phrases: First, solo voice is added to the established
texture; at 2:28, solo voice is replaced by vocal harmonies, and bass is added; at 2:36, a high
harmonica line is added, as the vocal harmonies fade; at 2:43, the harmonica now become the
focus; as the previous phrase repeats once again, a rich vocal harmony on “ Aah,” (at 2:54) is cut
with electronically manipulated reverb, and leads to:
Variations on the chorus (8 + 2 + 8 + 4 bars):
2:57 (Good, good, good, good vibrations…) This complex closing section with shifting tonal centers
begins with an 8-bar full-group texture that references the chorus. The voices drop out, leaving
the chugging cello with the rhythm section for two bars at 3:10.
3:13 Accompanied only by bass and percussion, an 8-bar phrase of complex vocal polyphony unfolds.
3:26 Referencing the chorus once again, with the focus on the theremin and the chugging cello, the
song quickly fades to an end after four bars.
The “Nashville Sound,” and the “Bakersfield Sound”
Although country music record sales were devastated by the rise
of rock ‘n roll, country music continued to evolve. The 1950s
witnessed the emergence of what historians call the “Nashville
sound,” a recording, production, and performance style connected
to the country music industry that developed in Nashville,
Tennessee. The “Nashville sound” – also referred to as
“countrypolitan” – shifted country music away from the honky-tonk
and blues elements that had been prominent in earlier decades,
and instead moved it towards crooner-oriented arrangements with
pop-style vocals. Featuring sentimental ballads with broad
crossover appeal, yet clearly pointing to the music’s rural roots,
these were records directed at an adult market. When Elvis
Presley witnessed a resurgence in the 1960s, many of his records
were clearly influenced by the Nashville sound. One of the bestknown countrypolitan vocalists was Patsy Cline (1932-1963). Her
1967 hit record “Crazy” features sophisticated background vocals,
cocktail-style jazz piano playing, and slick production quality. Click
here to listen to Patsy Cline singing “Crazy,” which was a Top 10
crossover hit on both the country and pop charts.
Patsy Cline
By the early 1960s, the Nashville sound begin to be
challenged by a new trend emerging in Southern California,
that would provide an alternative to the sophisticated
countrypolitan sound. Referred to today as the “Bakersfield
sound,” a community of country musicians in Bakersfield
sought to recenter the rebel “outlaw” image that was more
prevalent in earlier “cowboy” country music. This updated
version of the cowboy sound would provide the basis for
“outlaw country,” a back-to-basics style that hearkened back
to the straightforward, emotionally direct approach of Hank
Williams. Early “outlaws” included Willie Nelson, Waylon
Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard.
Merle Haggard (1937-2016) lived the outlaw image – in his
late teens he served time in San Quentin Prison for burglary
– and his music stood in direct opposition to the slick sounds
coming out of Nashville. With his band, the Strangers, he
turned out 38 Number 1 hits on the country charts between
the 1960s and 80s. His songs often chronicled the lives and
Merle Haggard
attitudes of everyday people struggling to get by – the central
character being a hard-working, beer-drinking, patriotic white
male worker. This voice is certainly heard in his 1969 hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” written
as a tribute to his late father. As a critique of the hippie counterculture, the song became
an anthem for politically conservative America – it topped the country charts for a
month, and became Haggard’s biggest hit. Click here to listen to Merle Haggard’s “Okie
From Muskogee.”
Questions to ponder:
• What strategies did radio DJs use to popularize rock ‘n roll?
• Who are the baby boomers? How did baby boomer culture change corporate
marketing strategies in the 1950s?
• What distinguished the R&B music of Fats Domino and Little Richard from their rock
‘n roll music? How were their performance styles and stage personas different?
• How did Elvis Presley’s performance style relate to black R&B culture? How did he
help to create the new musical style called rockabilly?
• What elements of Chuck Berry’s music allowed it to achieve immediate crossover
success? In what ways was Chuck Berry an important architect of rock ‘n roll?
• How did Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley help to break down the racial barriers that
existed in American popular music?
• What are some of the differences between hollow body and solid body electric
• What is a cover? What are some of the considerations – musical, ethical, and legal –
that come into play when making a cover? What role did covers have in helping to
popularize rock ‘n roll?
• What is the role of a music producer? How did that role transform in the late 1950s
and early 1960s, and what musicians played a part in that transformation?
• In what ways was Buddy Holly a dominant creative force in rock ‘n roll?
• What were Ritchie Valens’ achievements?
• What role did teen idols and American Bandstand play in shaping teen popular
• How did Phil Spector change and expand the role of the producer? How was the
approach to pop songwriting of Spector different from other 1950s rockers?
• In the early 1960s, how was Motown unique in the record industry? Describe the
Motown formula, and their strategy for success.
• How was Brian Wilson’s musical vision unique? What were some of his
achievements and innovations? Describe Wilson’s “rock group” model.
• What were some of the musical characteristics the differentiated the Nashville sound
from the Bakersfield sound in 1960s country music?

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