The Pioneers

The lessons in this chapter focus on four artists commonly associated with the Birth of Rock and Roll: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. The absence from the History of Rock and Roll of any one of these musicians would change the character of that history. Of course, the same could be said of a handful of others, including Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, and a few others. The aim here, however, is not to suggest that one artist is more important than another so much as it is to look into the lives and music of some key figures in order to better understand common features. In so doing, students can get a better sense for where Rock and Roll, as an impulse and a movement, came from.

Early Rock and Roll and the men who made it have roots in the music of the American South. Each one of this chapter's central characters has a connection that points in that direction. Most, including Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, were raised in the church. Most had direct and meaningful contact with Country music. All had direct and meaningful contact with black music. But what binds the four as musicians, as performers? Certainly it's the energy of their presentation on stage. In some cases it's a vocal style that pushes the limits of the voice. But, overall, it's the stripped back, post-R&B feel of what they're doing on their recordings. Horn sections are somewhat rare. Each one of these performers came on the scene with relatively small ensembles. And these smaller combos resulted in what many have called a more "raw" sound.

But if the lessons that are coming here focus on the music's defining features and the background of its makers, they also look at the backdrop to it all: America at mid-century. The meaning of Rock and Roll had much to do with what it was up against: a racially divided country just out of a war and engaged in another, the Cold War, that played on the fears of the population. Rock and Roll's power came in part through the need of its audience for release. If the performers came on with an abandon, the audience was there to match it. They fed one another. And, along the way, the nation itself was changed.