Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Rock and Roll Hierarchy: The Myth of Elvis
They may call Elvis Presley the King of Rock n’ Roll, but Robert Barry Francos says it’s time to look at the true royal family.
Chuck Berry Photo Credits: Chuck Berry Live at The Heat, NYC 3/1/80 (c) Robert Barry Francos
After having heard Elvis Presley being called the king of rock n’ roll for my whole conscious life, the possibility of seeing Chuck Berry in the 1980s was very exciting to me. I have come to believe that while Elvis’ pre-army music could be hard-hitting, he was overrated. What made him so big, from my perspective, was he bridged ‘white’ pop music and what was then commonly known as race music, or rhythm & blues.
In the pre-Elvis 1950s, if black artists wanted their music to be played on mainstream radio or television, they had to not only sell away their rights, they would have to let a white musician play it, with all the slang and soul eradicated.
Elvis, on the other hand, was a white musician who whitewashed the sound of a song. This made the possibility of soulfulness of the black artists more acceptable to the mass 1950s white audience, presenting it in a way imaginable to opening the door to more competent musicians who could actually play their instruments and write their own songs. Elvis famously yearned to be Dean Martin and Bobby Darin. He didn’t necessarily want to be a rock n’ roller; he wanted to be a pop crooner.
Even before the popularity of Elvis, he was not the first sincere white ‘bridge’ bringing the soulful music of rhythm and blues to a mainstream white audience; some pioneers include songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, disc jockeys Zenas ‘Daddy’ Sears (Atlanta), ‘John R.’ Richbourg (Nashville), Hunter Hancock (Los Angeles), Dewey Phillips (Memphis) and Alan ‘Moondoog’ Freed (Cleveland, then New York), and record producers and label owners, such as Leonard Chess (Chess Records, Chicago) and Sam Phillips (Sun Records, Memphis).
I see rock n’ roll having a whole different hierarchy of royalty. The true king of rock n’ roll is Chuck Berry. It was Berry that brought an almost grown rock n’ roll sound to the fore. While based on basic I-IV-V R&B and blues chord structures (‘Johnny B. Goode’ is one example) with a mixture of pop and even some country, Berry was also intelligent in his use of manipulating and playing with language (“As I was motor-vatin’ over a hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille”), witty in his phrasing (“Roll over Beethoven / And tell Tchaikovsky the news”), and steamrolling. He expressed the sheer joyousness of the music for the music’s sake: “Hail, hail, rock and roll / Deliver me from the days of old / Long live rock and roll / The beat of the drum is loud and bold / Rock rock rock and roll / The feeling is there body and soul.” And I agree with his sentiment that “It’s gotta be rock and roll music / If you wanna dance with me.”
The ‘queen,’ or diva of rock n’ roll is Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. This is not meant in any reference to Richard’s varying sexual preferences, but rather that he brought a ‘fem’ edge of flamboyance: glitter and bouffant hair, the make-up and the whooping, and a strong flavor of sexual tension that was different than any previous rock n’ roll headliner. In one “whooooo,” he could convey more overt sexuality than Elvis did with any hip wiggle. He brought to rock n’ roll a sense of camp and grandness.
The evil brother of the king (next-in-line) is Jerry Lee Lewis. His stylings are similar to Little Richard’s, both being heavily influenced by a combination of R&B, gospel, and boogie, but Jerry Lee’s message was devious, less subtle, and a whole lot hornier. While Little Richard was the sex object from the yin perspective, saying, “take me” (“You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in / Come back tomorrow night and try again”), Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed The Killer, was pure yang, the seducer and predator (“C’mon baby, don’t be shy…/ You leave me/breathless-a”). Both also used the piano along with their own physicality as raucous instruments of tension, frustration, and longing. Marshall McLuhan probably made a notation somewhere about the piano being a different kind of extension of these two artists.
The crown prince is Buddy Holly (both during and post-Crickets). He managed to merge mainstream pop with country and swing, codifying his sound with emotion and meaning that most whites could never achieve. It also explains Buddy’s successful gig before the infamously demanding audience at the Apollo Theater in New York. His message was one of innocence mixed with longing and, well, a Lubbock-fed Texas twang. His phrasing, both musically and lyrically, was unique (‘Well All Right,’ ‘True Love’s Ways’), sounding simple while actually being built upon innovative, complex, and intricate rhythms. To take a slogan out of context, on the sexual battlefield, Buddy wanted to make love, not war in the musical arena.
Elvis, being a bridge, albeit an important and groundbreaking one, even while pre-dating Holly’s rise (and literal fall), actually brought the least to the table, except for his voice. Unlike everyone mentioned above, he did not write his own music, and his guitar playing was nothing more than rudimentary. I tend to think the importance of the big ‘E’ as the messenger, spreading the gospel of rock n’ roll to the masses, sort of like the role Paul was to Jesus. What he brought was important, but he was not the innovator.
Just compare his ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to the original, by Carl Perkins. It doesn’t stand up, and who knows what would have happened if Perkins wasn’t sidelined by an accident.
Okay, begin the hate mail.