(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on May 25, 2020.)
The passing of Little Richard earlier this month was a good occasion for me to take an easy stroll down the memory lane of music to the beginning of Rock ’n’ Roll. I dove deep into my music vault to find his first big hit, “Tutti Frutti,” released September 1955, but I was able to find only “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Sitting back and listening, I was not disappointed—wild, loud, electrifying exuberance and energy.
Sixty-five years ago, Richard Penniman, known as Little Richard, was there at the dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll. He joined the other originators and shapers, including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley and groups like the Platters (Only You, The Great Pretender), the Penguins (Earth Angel), the El Dorados (At My Front Door), and the Spaniels (Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite).
Speaking of Little Richard, rock historian Richie Unterberger said, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R & B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.” Richard would succeed in having ten Top-40 hits before he turned to God and gospel music in 1959.
In that transformative year of 1955, I was just a young lad of seven; however, I was lucky enough to have a sister six years older who played this new sound of rock ’n’ roll on the family radio and on her portable phonograph. Sister Diana and girlfriend Arlene sat on the floor in the corner of our living room, clad in slacks or skirts and bobby socks, and swooned to Elvis’ big hits in 1956: “Heartbreak Hotel”; “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”; “Don’t Be Cruel” with flip side “Hound Dog”; and “Love Me Tender.”
In addition to this music, two movies were released in 1955 which helped to articulate, shape, and propel the raucous and rebellious teenage culture. In March, “The Blackboard Jungle” was released, starring Glenn Ford as a high school history teacher in an inner-city school and Sidney Poitier as a rebellious and musically talented student. Bill Haley and the Comets had released their song, “Rock Around the Clock,” the year before, without great success. However, when the group sang it at the beginning of the movie, teenagers in theaters across the country danced in the aisles. Sixty-five years ago this month, it entered the Top 40 charts, rose to No. 1, and remained there for eight weeks, becoming an iconic song of the birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.
The second significant movie was “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring a young, hard-edged, 1950s –cool James Dean. The film focused on the decay of youth morality, parenting, and generational conflict. Dean died in a car accident one month before its release. Like Sylvester Stallone’s hooded look in “Rocky” twenty years later, James Dean’s look and sense of alienation came to permeate youth culture.
Rock ’n’ Roll and youth culture blasted off in the mid-1950s with Little Richard and these other artists and songs that I remember in particular: In July 1955, Fats Domino released “Ain’t That a Shame,” which hit No. 10 and remained on the charts for 13 weeks. Fats went on to have 37 top-40 hits, 1955-1963.
In August 1955, Chuck Berry released “Maybellene,” which rose to No. 5 and stayed on the charts for 11 weeks. He followed it with “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956, and “School Day” and “Rock and Roll Music” in 1957.
First recording for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1954, 19-year old Elvis Presley signed with RCA Records in November 1955. His first big hit on the Pop Chart, “Heartbreak Hotel,” entered the Top-40 in March 1956. It rose to No. 1 and remained there for eight weeks. In that year alone, Elvis had five No. 1 hits, including “Don’t be Cruel”/”Hound Dog.” With 11 weeks at the top spot, this hit tied the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1, a record which held for decades until Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (14 weeks at No. 1).
The emerging rock ’n’ roll culture brought on a wave of criticism and condemnation from worried pastors, parents, and commentators who branded it “devil’s music.” After all, the up-tempo songs and the dancing at times could exude such sensuality and sexuality.
Some hoped that it was just a passing flash. In “Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll,” authors Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker state that some people thought it “was nothing but a momentary craze, something the teens would grow out of, like the Davy Crockett fad that had swept the nation in 1955.”
But it would be neither tamed nor terminated. As Danny and the Juniors sang in early 1958: “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/It will never die/ It was meant to be that way/Though I don’t know why/I don’t care what people say/Rock ‘n roll is here to stay.”
Kot, Greg. “Rock and Roll.”
Accessed May 19, 2020.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stones
History of Rock & Roll. NY: Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Weiner, Tim, “Little Richard, Flamboyant Wild Man of Rock ’n’ Roll, Dies at 87.”
The New York Times, May 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/09/arts/music/little-richard-dead.html. Accessed May 10, 2020.
Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. NY: Billboard Books, 1992.