Hard to believe I grew up when Dinosaurs roamed the earth and there was no Rock and Roll. Actually, I made up the part about the Dinosaurs.
Like every generation before me, the first music I heard was my parents’ music. For me, that was the end of the big band era and the birth of the great solo pop artists…and great they were. In the early fifties the charts were dominated by acts such as: Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Les Paul and Mary Ford and Rosemary Clooney. Nat “King” Cole and The Mills Brothers were among the first Black artists to hit the charts but their song selection was definitely pop.
While we enjoyed this music, we also didn’t have much choice. Local radio stations played Pop or Country. It was only at our local record store, Miracle Music, that we discovered another genre that led us into an underground cult. Alongside the Pop and Country sections was a small but growing section labeled “Rhythm and Blues”. In some sections of the country this was stilled called, “Race Music”. Here we discovered artists like: B.B.King, Fats Domino, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Lloyd Price and The Drifters. In 1953 legendary artist, musician and producer, Johnny Otis (who discovered Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Jackie Wilson among others) co-wrote and produced “Hound Dog” for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. It would be a hit for Elvis three years later. We also discovered “Shake, Rattle & Roll” by Big Joe Turner before it became a hit for Bill Haley and The Comets.
We bought these records as fast as they came out, listened to them over and over, danced to them and sang along….as best a white kid could!
In 1953, “Love You So” by a little known group, The Crows, had limited success on the R&B charts. Six months later in 1954, the “B” side, “Gee” took off and became a ground-breaking record. It hit the R&B charts at #3 and crossed over to the Pop charts and peaked at #14…the first crossover from an R&B group. Incredibly,the “B” side of another virtually unknown group, The Chords, followed and topped “Gee”. “Sh-Boom” climbed all the way to #9 before being knocked off the Pop charts by a white group. The record companies realized something was happening. This was not our parents music. It was our generations’ and they wanted in. RCA quickly signed a Canadian group, The Crewcuts, and their truly awful, soul-less cover of “Sh-Boom” hit #1. It was the first Rock song to achieve that position.
As bad as the Crewcuts record was it set a terrible precedent. Many stations across the country still wouldn’t play records by Black artists. While we were listening to great records by Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, those stations got Pat Boone with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Little Richard classics “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”. It wasn’t until 1956 when Elvis Presley and Rock exploded that these talented Black artists finally started hitting the charts consistently and the truly awful cover records faded into obscurity where they belonged. Elvis took elements of R&B and Country and married them into this new Rock and Roll phenomenon. Little Richard later credited Elvis for opening the door to Black music.
For me and my generation it was a truly exciting time. We witnessed history. We were there for the birth of Rock and Roll and it all started with the discovery of that “Race Music” and those incredible artists it spawned. Ironically, it was all introduced to a white audience by two unknown groups that never had another hit. The Crows and The Chords don’t get much mention in the history of Rock but for those who lived it, we’ll never forget. For me it opened up a whole new world of music that I knew I wanted to be a part of.