Remember the troubled times of rock ‘n’ roll’s early days

Jan 19, 2019
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Chuck Berry performing in New York City in 1981. Source: Getty Images

If rock ‘n’ roll could have been talked out of existence, it would never have had a chance. Pundits and Bible-bashers came out of the woodwork to prophesy its disappearance and warn about its pernicious effect on modern youth.

The teenage culture that emerged simultaneously with rock ‘n’ roll made their own rules and were no longer to be seen and not heard. They were now a new species who would turn the music business on its head.

From the moment it began, rock ‘n’ roll was rubbish in the eyes of the public, no matter how its performers, from Elvis Presley to Bill Haley, or the promoters, most notably Alan Freed, protested to the contrary. Still, it must be admitted from the garishness of Elvis’ clothes to the outlandish make-up of Little Richard, the early days saw their share of bad taste and misbehaviour.

Sometimes the rockers would not play by the rules, like in 1955 the first time Ed Sullivan decided to have rock ‘n’ roll on his television show. Bo Diddley was booked for the Sunday evening show and Sullivan wanted to him to perform ‘Sixteen Tons’, but the singer had other ideas. At rehearsals they patiently went over the song and had the lyrics printed up on large cue cards for the near-sighted bespectacled singer. Come the live broadcast, Diddley hoisted his guitar, strummed a few chords, and played his own personal anthem ‘Bo Diddley’.

“Man, maybe that was ‘Sixteen Tons’ written on those cards, but all I saw was Bo Diddley,” he was later quoted as saying. He was the first of many rock stars to earn the ire of Ed Sullivan and be barred from future shows.

Sometimes just recording a song could be a thorny matter. Eager to follow up on Jerry Lee Lewis’ first big hit ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, Sam Phillips got him back into the studio in 1957 with ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, a number Phillips was sure to be a smash hit. What he didn’t count on was Jerry Lee’s sudden backward flip into religious fervour. Sam and Jerry Lee argued about rock ‘n’ roll and the Bible, which produced this quote from Lewis: “I have the Devil in me, if I didn’t I’d be a Christian”. Fortunately the Devil won out and the record was chart-topper.

Satan however, would not be so easily thwarted; the man with the Devil in him managed to undo a lot of the careful image-making with one move in May 1958. Jerry Lee Lewis arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport with two women, his sister Frankie Jean and his cousin Myra Gale Brown. Although his management tried to usher the women away from the press conference a reporter asked who the young girl was. Lewis answered “This is my wife Myra”, and sure enough they’d been married the previous December.

When Jerry Lee told the reporters that she was 15, Myra stated “Back home you can get married at 10”. When this news reached the United States, a Memphis reporter found out the girl was not yet 14 and she was Jerry Lee’s third wife, and that his second marriage had not been legally dissolved. Undaunted Jerry Lee Lewis went on to do three tour dates but only playing 10-minute sessions before the Rank Organization cancelled the tour and practically ended the rocker’s career.

The moral watchdogs who claimed rock ‘n’ roll was dangerous and degenerate had no further to look than Little Richard for proof, though oddly enough they never did. Although his homosexuality was all but an open secret he was loved by millions and his wild shrieking records remain classics often imitated, but never equaled.

On a concert tour of Australia in October 1957, Little Richard was on a plane from Melbourne to Sydney when he saw the red hot engines against the night sky and thought they were Angels carrying him to safety. During his Sydney concert he saw the Russian Sputnik fly across the sky and declared it was a sign from God.

On October 22, 1957 on a ferry on Sydney Harbour, he threw $8,000-worth of jewellery into the water announcing he was quitting show business for divinity school. He kept his word and received a degree from The Seventh Day Adventists.

The 1950s seemed to have ended with a rock ‘n’ roll crime wave. The Alan Freed and radio payola scandal was heating up in Washington. Freed, an American DJ, internationally known for promoting the mix of blues, country, rhythm and blues music on the radio in the United States and Europe under the name of rock and roll. He was not unfamiliar with controversy and his career ended abruptly when it was revealed he’d accepted payments from record companies to play specific records (poayola), a practice that was highly controversial at the time.

In 1959, four members of The Platters were arrested in a hotel room in Cincinnati with three white 19-year-old white women and one black woman in various stages of undress. Although no one was convicted, their professional reputation was damaged and radio stations across the United States started removing their records from playlists, which meant the group needed to rely on bookings from Europe.

Though he has received many accolades for helping create rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s, Chuck Berry was also the one to set the bar high when it came to depravity. In December 1959, he was arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for sex. He went to jail. He was also jailed in the late-’70s for tax evasion, and in 1990 he was busted in a drug raid on his estate (a raid that uncovered just how perverted the rock star really was).

The birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s caused public anxiety with the fear its evil would threaten the well-being of society. By the late-’50s it seemed as though it would disappear and mothers and fathers started breathing sighs of relief, but in reality things were only just getting started…

Do you remember the outrage surrounding rock ‘n’ roll music? Did you listen to rock ‘n’ roll?

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