Today, we’d like to welcome back out guest blogger John Ross! Host and creator of our favorite music blog “The Round Place In The Middle”.
Most people know the Official Story of Rock and Roll.
A bunch of wild men, led by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al, descended upon American Culture between the Summer of 1955 and the Spring of 1958 like a hurricane blowing through a beach village made of balsa wood. They took over the world and ruled the airwaves.
Then, gradually, the Old Guard, the Establishment, the Man, struck back. God reclaimed Richard. The Devil claimed Jerry Lee. The Mann Act got Chuck. The Army got Elvis. Clear Lake, Iowa got Buddy and Ritchie and the Bopper. Everything went to Hell…or at least back to normal.
Then some fallow years—two, three, six—went by and, voila, out of nowhere, the Beatles and the Brits came along and reintroduced us to all the virtues we had forsaken and saved us from ourselves. Boy do Americans love a story – the more hooey the better. 1960 was the bottom, the pits, the nadir. Well, as we shall hear….Hooey to that.
Truth to tell, though, it did start off a little dubious. Here are the records that made the top of the charts in Billboard, from Jan. 1 through April 18, 1960:
“El Paso” Marty Robbins (2 weeks)
“Running Bear” Johnny Preston (3 weeks)
“Teen Angel” Mark Dinning (2 weeks)
“The Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” Percy Faith & His Orchestra (9 weeks)
It was much the same in Cash Box (which measured sales alone, where Billboard factored in juke box play and radio requests—people still argue about which was the better method but we’ll leave that for another day):
“Why” Frankie Avalon (3 weeks)
“Running Bear” Johnny Preston (3 weeks)
“Teen Angel” Mark Dinning (2 weeks)
“The Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” Percy Faith & His Orchestra (8 weeks)
You get the drift.
Not all these records were terrible, of course (I’m even happy to call “El Paso” a classic). But, for a few months at the beginning of 1960, at least, it was possible to look at the top of the charts and wonder if rock and roll was a thing of the past or had ever really happened at all.
But, as often happens, the spirit of change hadn’t gone away, it was only hiding out, biding its time.
Oddly enough, most of that change was biding in Nashville, long (if not always fairly) regarded as the most conservative, resistant-to-progress recording center in the music business.
Even odder, the part of the change that wasn’t actually in Nashville was pointing that way.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Ballad singing—ballad singing re-imagined —had been as much a part of the original Rock and Roll explosion as Chuck or Richard or Bo Diddley’s beat. Clyde McPhatter and the Platters’ Tony Williams, in particular, had been as welcome in Alan Freed’s radio and dance hall universe as anyone. If ballads got their proper due in the Rock and Roll Narrative, Williams would be to the rest as Chuck Berry is to guitar players—the foundation.
Add in what the Everly Brothers and Elvis had shown they could do in a slower tempo, (not to mention expansive examples like Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” #1 in November, 1958) and there was hardly a lack of precedent for the new cats proving they could match the standard Williams set.
Still, the late months of 1959 and early months of 1960 did make it appear as though the first revolution, in either rocking or torching, might not take hold—might, in fact, turn out to be only the fad so many had assumed (prayed for?) all along.
There was plenty of sense to this thinking. The kind of records that had dominated in the early fifties had never really gone away. Absent Elvis, Rock and Roll had never come close to being King of the Charts anyway. If Rock and Roll (as opposed to the music closely identified with either black rhythm & blues or white rockabilly that had inspired the original “Rock ‘n’ Roll” moniker) was ever going to really be King, ever going to finally sink its teeth into the future and not let go, something had to change. In March of 1960, something changed.
It was not a public drama in the sense of Elvis on television in ’56, or the Beatles on Sullivan in ’64. But the impact was, in its quiet way, just as profound.
The proper beginning was probably March 18, when the Everly Brothers—hardly strangers to rock and roll ballad heaven thanks to “All I Have to Do is Dream” among others—recorded “Cathy’s Clown,” at Nashville’s RCA studios. It was a remarkable record that married the spirit of an Appalachian murder ballad to high school hallway humiliation via the brothers’ usual unworldly harmonies (making two voices sound like the whole world) and cannon-fire drumming from Nashville A-teamer Buddy Harman.
That drumming might as well have been an opening salvo, because the rest of the rock and rollers in town were about to spend the next two weeks mowing down the Old Guard. Any dreams of Frank and Doris seizing back the moment, or Pat Boone being the new age’s golden standard bearer, died in that space.
The new voices arrived, in true rock and roll fashion, all at once, in an impossibly narrow set of geographic, spiritual and cultural spaces. And they arrived—in true rock and roll fashion—over the course of a decade and more, from everywhere….though mostly from the South.
Really it was four people, four singular voices, who had taken four remarkable journeys to the same moment, aware of, but not necessarily immersed in each other’s achievements.
Elvis Presley was King of the World. Or was he? He had been, once. But in March, 1960, he was literally two weeks out of a two-year stint in the Army. Absent indeed. There were no guarantees his audience would be waiting. Wasn’t it mostly made up of fickle young girls anyway?
Ray Charles, was a veteran R&B hit maker—some already said Genius—who had crossed over to the Pop Top Ten only once (the year before, with the scorching “What’d I Say,” as far from a ballad as you could get) before leaving the Atlantic label, the safe haven for black singers selling primarily to black audiences, for ABC Records (a subsidiary of ABC television and the Paramount film studio), then looking to become a safe haven for crossovers who were willing to risk not being able to go back.
Brenda Lee was a fifteen-year-old phenom who had been predicted as the Next Big Thing in Nashville since before she signed her first recording contract with Decca. That was in 1956, when she was eleven. She had finally hit big just a few months before with “Sweet Nothin’s,” one of those records that proved Rock and Roll wasn’t quite dead after all. There was no reason to believe she would ever become the Queen of the Heartbreak Ballad, let alone that she would start right away before she was even allowed to date with a chaperone. But she had been carrying one of those ballads around since 1956. The record company didn’t want her to record it because they didn’t think she could be believable.
Roy Orbison was nowhere. He had left Sun Records, a place where he had limited success, and was trying to make it as a songwriter. Stories vary on whether he wanted to pitch his new one to the Everlys or Elvis….or whether he was secretly planning all along to give it a shot with his own new approach, which was a long way from “Ooby Dooby.”
The Dates rolled in….and the change was still out of sight:
March 25, 1960: At RCA Studio B, Nashville, Roy Orbison records “Only the Lonely,” with Fred Foster producing.
March 25, 1960: At Capitol Studios, New York City, Ray Charles records “Georgia On My Mind”, with Sid Feller producing.
March 28, 1960: At Quonset Hut Studio (“Bradley’s Barn”), Nashville, Brenda Lee records “I’m Sorry” with Owen Bradley producing.
April 3, 1960: At RCA Studio B, Nashville, Elvis Presley records “It’s Now or Never” with Chet Atkins and Steve Sholes producing (Elvis co-produced as usual and, as usual, was uncredited).
April 4, 1960: At RCA Studio B, Nashville. Elvis Presley records “Are You Lonesome To-night?” (producing credits same as “It’s Now or Never”)
(NOTE: Some combination of Nashville’s A-Team session men played on all the Nashville recordings, including the Everlys’ “Cathy’s Clown.”)
There was no single “Elvis shakes his hips” or “Beatles on Sullivan” moment afterward that crystallized the impact of these ten days. How could there be? By some arrangement of the Cosmos, four of the greatest, most inventive, vocalists of the 20th century, working independently of each other, recording in three different studios in two different cities, with four different producers, made five records that effectively wiped out the Old Guard.
And they did it using voices they had barely hinted at on any previous records in their collective quarter-century of making them.
If anything quite like it happened before or since, I’ve missed it.
If it has gone mostly unnoticed, it may be because the impact was spread over the course of half a year. Reaching the top between July 18, 1960 (“I’m Sorry”) and January 6, 1961 (“Are You Lonesome To-night,” four of these five records eventually spent a total of fifteen out of twenty-six weeks at #1 in Billboard and twelve out of twenty-four weeks at #1 in Cash Box.
The only record that didn’t reach the top was “Only the Lonely” which peaked at #2 in Billboard on July 25, 1960.
It was held out of the top spot by “I’m Sorry.’
Brenda Lee would go on to be Billboard’s top-charting female vocalist of the 1960s. She, Elvis, the Everlys and Johnny Cash are, to date, the only artists inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame as performers.
Ray Charles would never have to go back. His crossover secured, he would become the second highest charting male vocalist of the decade, trailing only Elvis, whose first comeback was secured in the same moment. Ray would also eventually record enough country music to have a bottomless box set’s worth. That box includes all of his ground-breaking, genre-and-mind-bending Modern Sounds in Country and Western LP, released to massive acclaim in 1962. It would be recorded in that mecca of country and western, New York City. Revolutions only take you so far. He was inducted, along with Elvis, the Everlys and seven others, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986.
Roy Orbison would soar high on the charts for half a decade, usually replicating or refining the style he set with “Only the Lonely.” He was inducted with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s second class in 1987.
Elvis…well you know about him.
Revolutions come in two basic forms: They expand the world or contract it.
The journey American music took from the moment Tony Williams soared to #5 with the Platters’ “Only You” in the summer of 1955 to Elvis Presley sending everyone but himself and Chet Atkins out of RCA Nashville’s Studio B at 4:00 a.m. on April 4, 1960 so he could capture the mood he wanted for “Are You Lonesome To-night?”—the mood required to finally prove rock and roll, in all its forms as the Spirit of the New, was here to stay—made the world sound like a very big place indeed, one with as many unlimited possibilities as those promised by “Johnny B. Goode” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”
If we’ve forgotten, or just never noticed, perhaps it’s time to think again….and promise ourselves to live up to the challenge that’s always waiting for us inside rediscovery of the great voices from any age.
Listen close….and reach higher next time.
Big SMS Thanx to John Ross, for sharing his experience, keen insight and always unique take on music and the world!
If you’d like to read more about John and what he’s got cookin, here’s a link to his wonderful blog.