On July 8, 1954, Elvis Presley’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” first hit the airwaves in Memphis, Tennessee. While the full weight of Elvis wasn’t felt across America for another two years, you can draw a clear line in the middle of ’54. After this is a music world with Elvis, whose pull was as strong as a deadly tornado, while before it is a vast landscape untouched by ferocious winds. It’s a place where sounds could sprout and grow on their own terms. It’s a time of innocence and wildness – really anything could happen.
What we’ve heard during the first three episodes of Hall of Songs is a whole range of sounds, from plaintive and searing country by way of Hank Williams to gashouse rhythm and blues by way of Billy Ward and His Dominoes, and from rousing blues by way of Big Mama Thornton to doo-wop by way of the Crows. This is practically everything in the Anglo West outside of jazz and the traditional pop laid down by the likes of Nat King Cole, Patti Page, and Tony Bennett, but it exists in pockets. There’s rhythm and blues in the Deep South, Blues in Chicago, country music in between, and something a bit more polished on either coast. Soon everything will converge, and to many, it does so through Elvis.
That makes this period, the years between 1951 and 54, intimately special. All of the songs we hear in the Hall of Songs nominee pool are held dear by the youth and by Black Americans, by the non-traditional musical tastemakers. They’re not pop hits because they’re not pop, or in other words, pop hasn’t shifted to these genres. That will happen with Bill Haley and especially with Elvis, and then there’ll be some pushback in the very late 1950s and early 1960s, just before the Beatles kick down the doors for good. But before all that push and pull there’s this small slice of music history, where pioneers like Les Paul and Lloyd Price advance music forward so that the more immortalized giants like Elvis can really thrive.
Once we get to 1954, everything begins to change. The sound that is generally accepted as early rock ‘n’ roll clarifies. The sound that is generally accepted as soul is born and quickly steps into its own lane. The truth is that these sounds are a lot closer than one thinks, that what we consider rock ‘n’ roll is actually a great combination of white and Black, of gee-tar and piani. But we’ve been told that this and that are different, and once 1954 hits, this and that truly start to become this and that.
But that’s for future conversations. For now, we can appreciate the experimentation and the raw sounds of hiccupping guitars, bouncy boogie-woogie piano lines, and suggestive vocals not yet ready for prime time.
The music of the very early 1950s is as much enlightening as it is exciting. It’s been a pleasure to fall in love with songs like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Night Train.” Once Elvis hits, things won’t ever be the same, but this small sample here proves that rock ‘n’ roll was always about underdogs, the overlooked, the underappreciated, and the viscerally adept.