The first few years of the Rock and Roll story, during which such artists as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis exploded onto the scene, were enormously important to the musical revolution that would follow. But that doesn’t mean that Rock and Roll’s takeover would be either simple or immediate. At least in the beginning, Presley and the others recorded for independent labels, companies that worked in the shadows of the major labels. The music was coming from the margins of the music industry. In fact, Rock and Roll wouldn’t dominate the mainstream and become popular music’s favorite child until the music made it onto major labels, into the movies, onto television, and across the airwaves. The independent labels were very important to the emergence of Rock and Roll, but to achieve takeover, the music needed to be everywhere. This chapter looks at the various ways in which Rock and Roll moved into a place of dominance.
At times, Rock and Roll’s move into the mainstream meant that the music’s power was, to “purists,” compromised. Little Richard’s hits were covered by Pat Boone. The African-American face of Rock and Roll looked whiter. The so-called “teen idols” would make Rock and Roll safe, at least in the eyes of some detractors. But this is what it took for Rock and Roll to become the world’s favorite music.
Importantly, the backdrop to all of this “mainstreaming” was a climate of anxiety around the American teenager. The teenager — newly emerged as a distinct demographic in the public mind since World War II — was a relative unknown, and, as such, deemed in need of control. Comics books were regulated. Schools established dress codes. Delinquency was battled on several fronts. And, in the middle of that struggle, there was Rock and Roll, the new youth music, getting bigger by the day.