A Tale of Two Singers, or How Rock ‘n’ Roll Happened

Rock is one of the broadest musical genres popu-lar today. It first arose from blues, country, gospel and many other styles in the early ’50s, and any wane in its popularity has occurred because of the new genres of music, hip-hop, electronic, modern country, pop and everything in between, which have their roots in classic rock. But how did rock grow out of the eclectic mix of nearly every different variety of music from the first half of the twentieth century? Much of it comes down to two musicians, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Both men are singers, songwriters and guitarists. Both sprang to fame in the ’50s through innovation, showmanship and sheer charisma. Yet in most of their writings these two never even mention each other. Perhaps it would make the most sense to look at them each separately.

Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is pretty well-known, generally speaking. He grew up in Mis-sissippi and Memphis, Tenn., picking at a guitar from time to time and occasionally singing, though never x in public.

Early on, he had a couple of opportunities to make it, but didn’t. He failed an audition for a local singing group for not understanding harmony, and a profession-al band in Memphis rejected him; the director said that Presley should probably go back to being a truck driver.

Still, the teenager had heart and a deep love for the blues; he spent most of his free time hanging around with the blues musicians of Beale Street. Sun Records, a label that primarily produced black blues and gospel musicians, was on the edge of the race gap. For either cultural progres-sion or sheer profit, the company needed a white singer with a passion for black music and culture to breach the racism of the South and allow blues-oriented music to be-come mainstream. As it turned out, Presley was that per-son. The vocal style that found itself rejected everywhere else fit in perfectly with the blues. Presley began to record recent blues hits in his own energetic style, starting by turning a 1946 ballad of despair by Arthur Crudup called “That’s All Right” into a vibrant song of acceptance. The recording of Presley’s version of the song saw airtime on a local show, and Elvis was on his way up. The rest, of course, is history. Presley signed to RCA. His trio opened for Bill Haley & His Comets on their tour after releasing “Rock Around the Clock” and released their first record, “Elvis Presley,” in 1956. From there, Elvis was made.

Chuck Berry, on the other hand, rose to fame fairly easily – that is, when he wasn’t in prison for something. His musical life began at 21, after being released from prison for robbing three stores and stealing a car at gunpoint. He had dabbled at guitar and singing the blues while he was a kid and was inspired by the showy stage presence and catchy licks of blues-man T-Bone Walker. He then began to play with the trio run by pianist Johnny Johnson.

As he started playing more, Berry began to blend country-based styles and songs with the blues that his city, St. Louis, M.O., knew quite well. He garnered more and more attention, and the appreciation of the whites in the area with the country-like material. In 1955, his song “Maybelline” made #1 on the charts for R&B, and after the success of his 1956 song, “Roll Over Beethoven,” he toured as one of the top acts of 1956. After that, with the exception of his time in jail for various crimes, Berry’s career skyrocketed.

Presley and Berry had some notable similarities. They were both skilled guitarists and singers, they both blended country and blues and they both were able to overcome the concept that certain types of music were inappropriate for whites and blacks, through talent, versatility and charisma. They both had ostentatious and showy styles, and they both forged rock ‘n’ roll through the combination of all of these factors. Both were pivotal to the development of the genre. Which was more influential? It is hard to tell. To fans of mu-sic, Presley will always reign as the King of Rock, but to musicians, for hits like “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry was the true inventor of the rock style.

Contact Alan Dowling at [email protected]