Black History Month & Music: Part 11 of 12

“In Elvis Presley, the complex issues of race, class, age, region and commerce intersected. The collision that transpired ostensibly suggested (strongly) that the popular music establishment discriminated against African American performers. Sam Phillips’s famous search for a white man who could perform with the same feeling as the black vocalists he recorded merely exposed the racial intolerance and segregated circumstances inherent in the music industry after World War II. The Sun Records producer realized that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success.”

-From Michael T. Bertrand’s Race, Rock and Elvis

This is not a post to bring further attention to a white guy during black history month. Not even close. The point here is to fully consider the reality of how Rock and Roll got started in the middle of some of the most ridiculous racial prejudice in history.

Elvis Presley played an important role in the progression of Rock and Roll (and popular music in general).

Bertrand continues in his book:

“In discussing the circumscribed environment from which rock ‘n’ roll emerged during the 1950s, Carl Perkins suggested that popular music may have challenged the South’s racial institutions. As he recalled:

‘There was an integration problem in this part of America, a pretty severe problem back then. But there was no [segregation] in music. When you walked up to an old ’54 or ’55 model Wurlitzer jukebox, it [didn’t say] “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins, white, “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino, black. No. There was no difference. Kids danced to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis…Chuck Berry said to me one time, he said, “You know Carl, we might be doing as much with our music as our leaders are in Washington to bring down the barriers.” He was right.’

Perkins and Berry presented an intriguing appraisal of race relations in the South after World War II. The two musicians, one white, the other black, suggested that popular music may have helped alter the age-old conventions and customs associated with regional racial intolerance. They also equated the undertakings of rock ‘n’ roll artists and audiences to the deeds of politicians and statesmen. Popular culture and music, they implied, are as relevant and reliable in gauging past social tendencies and trends as legislation, executive orders, or judicial decisions.”

Have many white artists profited from the influences and works of many black artists? Absolutely. Is it right? No. But during the middle of the twentieth century, in a country where racial tensions were extremely high, the fact that anything positive came out as a result of the mess is some sort of miracle.

The following is a 10-minute video on Elvis’s impact, from the 2001 PBS documentary “American Roots Music.”

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Black History Month & Music: Part 9 of 12

“It can be argued that Leonard Chess, along with a handful of the musicians he signed and promoted and coddled and f*cked over and enriched, invented the very idea of Rock & Roll…He was a harbinger, the first of a legion of white men who would cross the racial divide in search of riches, adventure, authenticity.”

-From Rich Cohen’s Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll

Chicago’s Chess Records gave us Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Eddie Boyd, Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry, among others. Its place in the Rock & Roll continuum is of extreme importance.

Frankly, they could have stopped with Muddy Waters and been considered very important.

Muddy Waters has a ridiculous resume in terms of influencing what came after him. Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax recorded him (for the first time) in 1941 in Mississippi, giving him the confidence to play his music for others. He helped found the Chicago style of blues. The Rolling Stones named their band after his 1950-song “Rollin’ Stone.” The magazine Rolling Stone also borrowed the title for its name.

But then brothers Leonard and Phil Chess helped share a jewel with the world.

Chuck Berry.

No better way to elucidate his impact than through the words of other music legends. The following quotes are from Chuck Berry’s official website.

“[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.” – Jerry Lee Lewis

“You are most certainly the inspiration for all of today’s rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Your music is timeless.” – Smokey Robinson

“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

And from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s website,

“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. It was his particular genius to graft country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis in his very first single, “Maybellene.”

For a good, big-picture history lesson (not the little details) about Chess Records, check out the movie Cadillac Records.

Below is an image of 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, the former home of Chess Records. (photo credit Jim Watkins)

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