In an effort to recognize the profound influence of African-American music and culture on Rock and Roll, scholars and educators sometimes fail to acknowledge that a wider set of influences inform the character of the music, no matter the magnitude of the African-American borrowings. Not to say that it’s easy to trace the many strands of influence that inform Rock and Roll, but the massive contributions from African-American Blues, Gospel, and R&B are not the end of the story. Jelly Roll Morton, in conversation with ethnomusicologist and song collector Alan Lomax in 1938, famously said that the New Orleans Jazz with which he was associated has a “Spanish tinge.” Morton was pointing to something in the music that was defining but less frequently discussed than other of the music’s characteristics. Morton described a New Orleans, the so-called “cradle of jazz,” that felt keenly the Latin influences that came through town, influences that played a major role not just in the development of Jazz, of course, but in the development of Rock and Roll.
As a kind of case study, the work of Doc Pomus, Brill Building writer (with Mort Shuman) of songs including the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Elvis Presley’s “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” reflects a Latin flavor entering Pop music. Growing up in a New York City, a place deeply affected by Latin dance crazes like the Tango and the Mambo, Pomus was touched by the grooves and rhythms of the Latin music. The percussion driving “Save the Last Dance for Me” tells the story of that New York City backdrop and how it affected the character of the music. Pomus was a man of his time and place. As a writer, he pulled from the world around him, which was certainly a mixed-race environment.
The lessons in this chapter, most coming in phase two of the project, will focus on a few such case studies, but they’ll also explore the lives and careers of a few artists who have helped to keep the Latin sound alive in Rock and Roll. Richie Valens, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Carlos Santana, and others will emerge as the protagonists of this often undertold story.