Who's gonna tell 'em that's not Rock 'n' Roll?
( Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Fat Dominos, the Godmother and Godfather of Rock 'n' Roll)
For the past few years, I have found myself exploring history through the lenses of the entertainment industry, more specifically music. I went from listening to early 30s sounds like swing and jazz to grunge and 90s R&B. This dive into the inevitable evolution of music made me more appreciative of contemporary music. However, one thing I seemed unable to shake off my shoulder was how loosely the term Rock 'n’ Roll was being thrown around. I asked myself, what the heck is Rock 'n' Roll?
Upon hearing the term I would immediately picture a long-haired metalhead doing the sign of the horns and headbanging to the beat of the ferocious drums followed by him playing an invisible guitar with his hands.
Turns out that this metalhead persona has little to nothing to do with Rock 'n’ Roll.
Or does it?
The birth and evolution of Rock 'n' Roll.
Rock 'n’ Roll is a music style that was birthed between the late 40s and early 50s in the U.S. It has often been described as a merging between rhythm and blues, country and gospel. The most renown face of this genre is no others than the coined king of Rock 'n' Roll himself, Elvis Presley. This is not entirely accurate as he was neither its inventor nor the most talented, but he did manage to bring to mainstream this segregated sound that was associated with the African American community, its creators. Mr Presley, with his great looks and audacious dance moves (which were unheard of at the time), managed to attract America’s youth by crowds, who became the predominant target of this new music genre. Due to the segregation that the US was subject to, music was not something that black musicians would easily find recognition in, but Elvis, as was remarked in a BBC documentary, managed to bridge this divide because he appeared as a ‘’white man with a black voice’’. Needless to say, he did a great favour to the world of music, especially for the black folks, who without him would’ve never received the attention they deserved.
“I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door, so I could walk down the road, you understand?” - Little Richard (1970s)
( In order: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard)
When we look at Presley’s main influences, we see a lot African American music, most specifically the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the godmother of Rock 'n' Roll. If you listen to her song High above my head you can clearly observe her unique guitar picking and style which lead to her being one of the most impactful musicians for the next generation of Rock 'n' Roll stars. Little Richard himself saw her as his greatest influence and Chuck Berry, the most exceptional Rock 'n' Roll songwriter, defined his whole career as ‘’one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”. The neglected recognition of Tharpe’s contribution to Rock 'n' Roll can be explained by the simple fact that she was a woman, a black woman who sang predominately religious themes, which resulted in her being categorised in the gospel music scene.
From its dawn, we can see how Rock 'n' Roll was birthed in contentious ground. It wasn’t only different from anything that had been heard before, it was exciting. It spoke to the growing teenage population of the States, who seemed to be longing for freedom and rebellion. This resulted in the negative connotations associated to this style of music; many calling it ‘’of the devil’’ and the direct cause of the increasing corruption of the American youth at the time.
As the 50s came to an end, so did Rock 'n' Roll, with Elvis joining the army, Richard finding his faith and hence playing gospel. This, however, did not stop the inevitable spread of this sound to the next generation of musicians who taking inspiration, sometimes downright stealing songs from the previous generation, created a new sound and a new movement. With the following years, Rock 'n’ Roll spread and evolved into different genre like country rock, disco, hard rock and heavy metal. Rock became the all-encompassing term to define many types of music genre that we all love. Without Rock 'n' Roll, we wouldn’t have had artists in the likeness of The Beatles, AC/DC, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix just to name a few.
Now I hope that after this glance through the history of Rock 'n’ Roll you will be able to appreciate the fundamental importance of this style that has completely revolutionized music for us. So next time you hear someone shouting Rock 'n' Roll and doing the horn sign, I hope your mind will bring you back in time, I hope that the image of a black female gospel artist will come to your mind followed by the many African American artists who made Rock 'n’ Roll, Rock 'n' Roll.