Elvis Rocks. But He's Not the First

  • Share
  • Read Later
In 1951, Ike Turner walked into Sam Phillips' studio in Memphis, Tenn. and, along with his band, helped create a sound that still echoes through history like thunder across the sky. The original song they recorded, Rocket 88, may well have been the first rock 'n' roll record, and in the years that followed, innumerable music reference sources, from The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll ("frequently cited as the first rock & roll record") to the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum ("widely considered the first rock and roll record"), have backed up that title.

But that's not what some folks think in Memphis. This month the city is celebrating what officials bill as the "50th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll," pegging it not to Rocket 88 but to one made three years later: Elvis Presley's July 5th, 1954 recording of That's All Right, a cover of a song previously released by its composer, bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, in 1946. This is certainly not all right.

It's not news that some white blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop musicians have been more readily embraced by mainstream audiences and the popular press than their black counterparts. Eminem once rapped about his record sales on his song White America, "let's do the math, if I was black, I would've sold half." (Eminem's arithmetic doesn't work for everybody: Outkast has sold a ton of records and won Grammys to boot. Hey Ya!) It's also not news that some of the black musicians that helped lay the foundation for rock were poorly compensated for their breakthrough work. Crudup's 1946 version of That's All Right wasn't a hit and he eventually returned to an occupation where his efforts were better rewarded — farm work. Turner's Rocket 88 was a No. 1 smash but Turner later claimed in his autobiography, Takin' Back My Name, that he was only paid $20 for his contributions.

Yes, performers were getting royally screwed in the music industry well before the Age of Filesharing. But what's important to recognize is that, when it comes to American popular music, new genres are usually not just the creation of individuals, but the result of the work of many people, sometimes working together, sometimes separately. Individual artists make breakthroughs that push fields forward — for example, W.C. Handy, who called himself the "Father of the Blues", was one of the first to use "blue notes" (flatted thirds and sevenths) in a published composition, and Bob Dylan, when he plugged in his instruments at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, helped create a fresh, electrified form of folk-rock. But neither Handy nor Dylan created their fields; a lot of other artists helped shape their genres as well. It takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village, usually, to launch a musical style.

Turner is probably best known for his collaborations (most famously with wife Tina) and his clashes (again, with Tina, as portrayed in the 1993 movie that was made about their stormy marriage and breakup, What's Love Got to Do With It). Rocket 88 was a product of Turner's collaborative side. The song explored the major sonic themes that Presley would revisit years later on That's All Right and then some — Rocket 88 was brash and it was sexy; it took elements of the blues, hammered them with rhythm and attitude and electric guitar, and reimagined black music into something new. If the blues seemed to give voice to old wisdom, this new music seemed full of youthful notions. If the blues was about squeezing cathartic joy out of the bad times, this new music was about letting the good times roll. If the blues was about earthly troubles, the rock that Turner's crew created seemed to shout that the sky was now the limit. And if anyone had ever thought before that black music was just for black people, Rocket 88 undercut that tall tale — the beat was too big, the lyrics too inviting, the melody too winning, the volume too loud, for the song to be taken as anything but an invitation for all who heard it, black or white or brown or whatever, to join the party.

Turner wasn't the lead vocalist on Rocket 88 — his saxophone player, Jackie Brenston was — and the record was released under Brenston's name. Exactly who wrote the song, Brenston or Turner along with the band, is a matter of dispute (Turner has said his name was left off because he had another record coming out). The only thing that's certain is that it took many people to create the song, including the canny, visionary producer Phillips.

The man Phillips would discover in the wake of Rocket 88, Elvis Presley, was one of a long line of people that helped shaped rock. Memphis Minnie, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and many others also played important roles. One of Presley's most significant contributions was this: he was able to make more of a commercial impact in rock than the black performers who pioneered the field. In fact, before he signed Presley, Phillips famously declared that "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." He found Presley, and the money followed. Just think of how much cash Phillips could have made off of Bill Clinton.

Presley was talented, yes, but he was influenced by the black musicians who came before him, and those trailblazers should not have their milestones taken away. Black performers were performing Presley's style of music long before it was Presley's style. Big Bill Broonzy, a blues guitarist who launched his career in the 1920s and who has been acknowledged by such rock greats as Eric Clapton as a major influence, once said of Presley, "He's singing the same thing I'm singing now. And he knows it. 'Cause really, the melody and the tune and the way we used to call it 'rocking the blues' years ago when I was a kid...that's what he's doing now ... rock and roll is a steal from the old, original blues." The blues, however, didn't pay as well as rock. Broonzy, late in his career, took a job as janitor at Iowa State College at Ames to make ends meet. You can bet Clapton, once he made it big, never had to unplug toilets between gigs.

Presley was not unaware of black music. In fact, he was a fan. "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doing now, man, for more years than I know," Elvis told reporters in 1956. "I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw." (One could reasonably argue that Crudup's original That's All Right, which rocks at least as hard as Presley's follow-up take, is actually the first rock song) Ike Turner has said that when he performed in the black sections of Memphis in 1952 Presley would attend his concerts. In an interview with London's Daily Telegraph in 2001, Turner recalled that at the time he thought Presley "was just a white boy that would come over to black clubs. He would come in and stand behind the piano and watch me play. I never knew he was no musician."

But Elvis was a not only a musician, he was a significant one, and one that would go on to become one of the most popular artists of the 20th century. But to date the birth of rock to his work is to deny those that came before him, not just Turner, but other black performers as well. Presley admitted his music had roots in the black community — so why isn't an artist from the black community being celebrated on rock's birthday? Why is Presley's name the only one on the cake? Presley had the courage to cross the color line to create his music — it's a tragedy that the folks pushing this year's so-called 50th anniversary of Rock lack the fortitude to cross the line again and acknowledge the music's original originators. Presley deserves a place in rock history. Just not at the very beginning.