What Is Rock & Roll?

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Every year, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announces its list of nominees, a few of my friends always want to know why a pop artist such as Madonna or ABBA or hip hop artists like N.W.A or Tupac are nominated. They say, “Janet Jackson is R&B and pop, so she should be inducted into those Halls not the Rock & Roll one.” In the past, I have attempted to answer these questions with a historical view, or go on a self-serving treatise about how the term “rock & roll” was a term for the music of the Fifties that is basically useless today. And, all it does is leave all parties unsatisfied why those artists matter as much as Pink Floyd, the Stones and Aerosmith.

So, for the better part of the past six weeks, I have researched this topic in an attempt to assimilate this whole concept into a coherent essay. Unfortunately, each time I attempted this feat, something along the lines of a writer’s block crept in. Only, it’s not a writer’s block but more of a thinker’s block. For weeks on end, I have been turning to my music collection, be it vinyl, CD or mp3, and streaming in an effort to put this thing altogether into words. Along the way, I have absorbed disparate music from the likes of David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Motown, Cheap Trick, Queen, Parliament/Funkadelic, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and so many others. Then, this morning, I streamed Eddie Kendricks’ greatest hits, some Chaka Khan and Fugees, then watched a concert film of The Who and started to watch a Bowie film on Hulu when I decided enough was enough. I HAD to write.

3.1 sly-family-stone

Back in the early-Eighties, some important players in the music industry decided they wanted to create a Hall of Fame to honor many of the artists from the beginning so they would never be forgotten. It was a noble thought and idea, but I remember immediately upon learning this that the Hall could end up being controversial in who gets into it after the Fifties giants are inducted. Look, unlike jazz, the blues and country, the basics of rock & roll have evolved, mutated and changed into something completely unrecognizable by my parents standards for whom much of the early rock & roll sounds were geared.

When did rock & roll begin? Honestly, no one really knows. The term “rock & roll” was a common euphemism for sex in the black community of the early half of the twentieth century. Seriously, music historians have discovered recordings from as far back as the first decade of the twentieth century in which rock & roll was used in the titles of the songs. But, the phrase was never attached to a type of music until the Fifties. DJ Alan Freed, one of the first white DJs to embrace, promote AND play this music, is the man that is credited with attaching “roll & roll” to the music he was playing.

3.1 alan freed

Now, for a little history, Fifties-era America was NOT a shining beacon of gracious racial integration, not that it’s much better today, so this new music, which was initially coming from the black communities across the nation, was labeled as “Rhythm & Blues” or by the more troubling label “Race Records.” And, labels would slap the “Rock & Roll” anointment upon cover versions of these “race records” by cleanly-scrubbed white artists like Pat Boone. God bless her, but my mom, for whatever reason, had left me copies of “Tutti Frutti” by both Little Richard and Pat Boone. Of course, I immediately knew that Little Richard would have scared the white folks of my mom’s hometown, and that Pat Boone would sound more acceptable. Those two records taught me more about America than anything I learned in history classes. At the dawn of rock & roll, the public was being trained that white musicians were playing rock & roll and black artists were doing R&B. Yet, for all the differences I heard in those two records, the one that stuck out the most to me was that the Boone version lacked the whole “roll,” or rhythm, that the original Little Richard version contained. Immediately, at the age of 16, my mom’s record collection taught me an important lesson: you cannot have rock & roll without the “roll.”

3.1 cat stevens

This thing called rock & roll was more than simply the rock side of things, which predominantly white musicians focused and developed beginning in the mid-Sixties, while mainly black artists continued to keep that roll going in their contributions to modern music. Now, that’s not to say that the two never met or interacted with each other. No, those was continual cross-pollination happening all the time. Additionally, artists would spring up attempting to bridge the two sides in the form of Sly & the Family Stone or Prince & the Revolution or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While others purposefully developed sounds that belied their skin color. For example, the hard rock Eighties band Living Colour were an all-black band and the Beastie Boys were all-white hip hop crew. The Average White Band were doing funk, while KC & the Sunshine Band was creating disco. And on the flip side, The Chambers Brothers and Love were rocking every bit as hard as white bands during those eras. You see, this is not a race thing, it’s a music thing.

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Personally, when I was a teenager, I too that that only the rock portion of rock & roll was worth listening to. But, Mom’s records taught me a little, as did reading books about music. Recently, I mentioned that I bought The Book of Rock Lists, which I attribute me influencing my current definition of rock & roll. Still, I will leave it to the words of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame itself:

“The more immediate roots of rock and roll lay in the so-called “race” music, or rhythm and blues, and “hillbilly” music, or country & western, of the Forties and Fifties. Other significant influences include blues, jazz, gospel, boogie-woogie, folk and bluegrass…

Over the past five decades, rock and roll has evolved in many directions. Numerous styles of music — from soul to hip-hop, from heavy metal to punk, from progressive rock to electronic — have fallen under the rock and roll umbrella.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes these different types of music and looks forward to seeing how rock and roll will continue to reinvent itself in the future.”

So, this is why I have no problem with artists like Whitney Houston getting in the Hall. Actually, I wish the Hall would loosen their stupid induction requirements, or at least set it up to be similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame, so more artists would be inducted, all of which might alleviate this whole feeling of metal artists or prog rockers feeling ripped off because the Hall might induct Dionne Warwick or Kate Bush or Devo instead of them. And, actually, I think it’s more of a fan issue than it is a musician’s, though there are musicians with this attitude (Gene Simmons, I’m looking at you!).

But, that’s what is so cool about music. All of this stuff speaks to each of us individually. For me, there are days when Tom Petty knows exactly what I am battling. Then, there are others when it’s Earth, Wind & Fire to do the trick, or it could be The Flying Burrito Brothers. Or Fishbone. Or ABBA. Or Pat Benatar.

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Whoever your favorite musical artist is, they will always maintain their rightful place in the most important Hall of Fame, your heart. Personally, I follow the words of the prophet Billy Joel in his great classic “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”: “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk/It’s still rock and roll to me.”

Author: ifmyalbumscouldtalk

I am just a long-time music fan who used to be a high school science teacher and a varsity coach of several high school athletic teams. Before that, I worked as a medical technologist at three hospitals in their labs, mainly as a microbiologist. I am retired/disabled (Failed Back Surgery Syndrome), and this is my attempt to remain a human. Additionally, I am a serious vinyl aficionado, with a CD addiction and a love of reading about rock history. Finally, I am a fan of Prince, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty, R.E.M., Hall & Oates, Springsteen, Paul Weller & his bands and Power Pop music.

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