Hangtown’s Musical Roots

By From page B3 | October 09, 2013

Elvis changes the musical landscape

This article  parallels the story about Hangtown’s Musical Roots.


Three busy years — 1954, 1955 and 1956 — saw the birth of a sound that would dominate popular music for the last half of the 20th century and beyond.

The ground-breaking talent of Elvis Presley is often credited with the birth of rock and roll. Another school of thought sees Presley as a talented role player with serendipitous timing in a larger drama, the rise of vocal music in the mid 20th century.

Both theories acknowledge that rock and roll entered the main stream on Presley’s back, and that Memphis DJ and producer Sam Phillips deserves credit for recognizing a white kid that could sing like a black one at a time when Little Richard and Chuck Berry were tearing up the race charts and starting to cross over into the white audience.

Presley was a handsome but nervous kid with great pipes and a deep knowledge of country music. He was also steeped in the race music of the day, spirituals, blues, and rhythm and blues.

“That’s alright,” an improvised late night toss-off with the soulful feel Phillips was looking for launched Presley’s career. Phillips put an up-tempo version of the bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B-side and released it in 1954.

The single failed to chart nationally, but paved the way for a series of increasingly broader exposures on the new medium of television and also the old one, movies, both of which favored the strikingly good-looking Presley, whether he could act or not.

Presley’s meteoric rise can also be framed as one in a series of steps in the decade-long advancement of vocal pop, a musical trend that dates back to the war years, long before “The King” was crowned.

Advances in audio technology, some developed to track submarines, expanded frequency ranges and vastly improved the quality of human voice recordings in the early 1950s.

Emotive big band singers like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day pushed the big bands into the background and fueled the rise of vocals as the dominant element in popular music by conveying emotions through song.

A new breed of mainstream crooners laid their hearts on the line. Listeners felt Frankie Lane’s sweat, Guy Mitchell’s joy, Johnny Ray’s angst and Peggy Lee’s fever.

A new audience — teen-aged girls — deemed “bobby soxers,” screamed their approval.

In rural areas, country and western, the traditional mix of singing cowboys and western swing, spawned “honky-tonk,” a hybrid of country music with vocal elements borrowed from the blues. Ernest Tubb’s 1941 “Walking the Floor Over You” is cited as the prototype.

The genre included Ray Park’s 1956 single “You’re Gonna’ Have to Bawl That’s All.” Honky-tonk contrasted with the lush, heavily produced “Nashville sound” which dominated country music through the 1950s.

Post-war American families had better radios. Many also owned phonographs, and eagerly purchased records by Tubb and his successor Hank Williams as country music crossed over into the main stream, where it competed with Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher and others.

Vocal harmony groups also played an important role in the still-segregated musical zeitgeist. Clean-cut white collegiate acts like The Hi-Lo’s, The Crew Cuts, The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen and The Four Lads sounded great and also looked good on the new medium of television.

Their doo-wop counterparts, The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots and The Platters, with processed hair and matching suits, delivered stellar harmonies. Their effortless, slow-sync choreography presented no threat to the moral fiber of white America, and were welcomed into the living room courtesy of Ed Sullivan and Jack Parr.

The harmonists were often labeled rock and roll, and ultimately helped unlock America’s front door for Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley to barge in a few years later, traumatizing parents and household pets.

But the kids loved it. And they bought records.

Hollywood got into the act, signing good-looking singers and spitting out fluffy musicals as fast as the studios could slap them together. Presley’s first movie, “Love Me Tender,” was filmed and released within a few months in 1956, fueling the rock and roll tsunami which altered the cultural landscape in the 1960s.

Mike Roberts

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