The Day The Music Died

Chuck Berry in Brunnsparken, Örebro, Sweden.
Chuck Berry in Brunnsparken, Örebro, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don McLean waxed poetic about the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. However, was that really the reason for the decline of Rock and Roll? Others would say that the reason was Elvis’ induction into the Army or that Little Richard got religion, Chuck Berry got busted, or because Jerry Lee Lewis ditched his career by marrying his thirteen year old second cousin (was this really a big deal in the rural South of that era?). Certainly, Holly and Valens were talented songwriters and performers who showed promise and Jerry Lee Lewis left his mark as a rockabilly showman. No one can argue that both Berry and Little Richard were giant talents with already solid repertoires. Elvis, however, was already in the process of leaving his rockabilly roots and becoming a pop crooner.
In any case by February 1958 spotty record sales were being reported. In January 1959 there were significant concerns about singles sales volume. Also, mainstream white America’s tolerance for real Rock and Roll was being tested. In the 2/24/58 edition of Billboard the question was asked: What’s your yardstick for screening rock and roll tunes? According to P. Chisman, President, WVEC-Radio, Norfolk “Screening rock ‘n’ roll tunes for my station is a very simple matter. First we keep a wastepaper basket handy and as the new releases come in, we just dump them in.” How would the industry react to these trends?
In my last post I gave evidence of R&B’s rising popularity in 1955 when originals could outsell covers and achieve crossover success. Something else was happening in 1955 in another medium that, I believe, would have far-ranging effects on rock and roll; the success of the Mickey Mouse Club. By December, it was no.1 in “Top Ten Multi-Weekly Shows” and had already started issuing singles on the Paramount label. The recording industry could not afford to ignore this growing “tween” market.
There was no shortage of R&B talent during the late fifties and early sixties. Real rhythm and blues music was still being recorded during this period and soul music was also ascending. These circumstances set the scene for the coming British invasion, during which time the Beatles, The Who, Spencer Davis Group,Them and others capitalized on the growth of Soul and Motown while The Stones, John Mayall, Jimmy Page, etc. started the British Blues Boom with covers of classic blues tunes from this period. The R&B charts had always included the likes of T Bone Walker, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. The early sixties actually saw an embarrassment of riches when it came to talented soul singers and blues musicians.
Rock and roll didn’t die. It was murdered (by market forces and demographics). White teens originally sought out R&B records and radio stations because the music was new, unique, and appealing. I call this organic growth. When marketers saw this organic, or grass-roots, growth they sought ways to capture control of the market. Initially they used cover artists like Pat Boone to appeal to a larger demographic. When this tactic was losing strength they turned to R&B – inspired white artists like Elvis. The next step was to manufacture teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and Ricky Nelson. These squeaky clean characters would appeal to parents and tweens as well. It was a perfect merger of TV, film and the music industry. It also kept the moribund Tin Pan Alley on life support. The Disneyfication of rock and roll was now complete (This process would be repeated in the 1990’s).

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