Tell Tchaikovsky the news…

The birth of rock’n’roll and the shape of things to come


Bill Haley & His Comets in 1956
Bill Haley & His Comets in 1956

“I will drive you mad”. So said Sidney Adams Turner, as Mary Jane Andrews claimed in a London court on 3 September, 1955. Sixty years to the day, it is difficult to fathom what the fuss was all about, when you consider what Turner did next. He cranked up the volume of his record player and proceeded to play Shake, Rattle and Roll by Bill Haley & His Comets continuously for two and a half hours.

The American music magazine Billboard reported the incident a week later in its 10 September edition. Rather condescendingly it said that “Rock and roll, which has been slow to catch on with the traditionally reserved natives, suffered a severe setback”. The news article went on to describe the scene that had ensued mid-afternoon—windows flying open, screaming women and crying children, and men “shouting for peace and quiet”.

Turner had to pay for his transgression. The judge who heard Andrews’s complaint found the young man guilty of creating an “abominable” noise and fined him £3 and 10 shillings. It was one of the early instances of the unhip becoming painfully aware of the rock ’n’ roll phenomenon.

The Billboard pop charts for that week featured the more famous Bill Haley number Rock Around the Clock at number 3. But the winds of change blowing across the mainstream music industry were not that apparent yet. Claiming the top spot on the pop charts was The Yellow Rose of Texas by conductor (and A&R head of Columbia Records in the US) Mitch Miller. Bringing up the rear on the Top Ten Billboard list was The Bible Tells Me So by Don Cornell.

The version of Shake, Rattle and Roll that had so offended Mary Jane Andrews was not the original. That distinction went to the American R&B singer and blues shouter Big Joe Turner. If Andrews had heard Big Joe Turner sing the song and paid attention to the lyrics, she would have probablly had a heart attack.

It was a more laidback performance, and it lacked the thumping slap bass, in-your-face horns and driving percussion that made Haley’s performance one of the defining rock ’n’ roll songs from its early days. The real sting lay in its lyrics, which Haley had sanitised to maximise his chances of chart success. Out went the sexual references in lines such as “you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through”. But more obscure innuendo was retained—the now classic line, “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store”.

Haley’s version of Shake, Rattle and Roll was also an example of a music industry practice that was to become commonplace. White artists (and producers) had cottoned on to the rock ’n’ roll craze gripping white teenagers. Soon blander white versions of black R&B hits were crowding the pop charts. Peeved by white artists “stealing” their songs, R&B singer LaVern Baker even made an unsuccessful bid in 1955 to urge the US Congress to change existing copyright laws to prohibit white artists from singing R&B covers.

One person who was surely relieved was Pat Boone. A clean-cut pop idol whom even parents would have liked, Boone made it something of a habit, appropriating black hits, recording “clean” versions of Fats Domino’s Ain’t That a Shame, and Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally.

Fats Domino’s version was originally titled, Ain’t it a Shame and Boone actually wanted to change it to the more grammatically correct Isn’t That a Shame. For whatever its worth, thanks to Boone, the song is now forever known as Ain’t That a Shame.

It is also said that Boone’s success with Tutti Frutti prompted Little Richard to write Long Tall Sally, a song that was so fast that Boone would have difficulties deciphering the lyrics. Evidently, Boone’s tenacity had been underestimated, and he did record the tune and took it to number 8 on the charts. Even as late as 1997, Boone was still at it, recording a jazzy record of heavy metal and hard rock covers of tunes by the likes of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Judas Priest.

Race has always played a big role in American life, and whatever the intentions of white artists and producers, rock ’n’ roll, even more than jazz, brought black popular culture into middle-class white homes. And to counter claims of “stealing” other people’s tunes, it could be argued that it was also responsible for the original artists receiving more radio play than they could have ever hoped. A case in point is Shake, Rattle and Roll. Both Haley and Turner’s versions sold more than one million copies (Elvis would record his version in 1956), making them one of the earliest rock ’n’ roll super hits.

Hiss, Crackle and Pop is a weekly blog on American roots and pop music on vinyl.

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