During the 1950s, a new music genre arose that challenged cultural, gender, racial, geographic, and religious norms in the United States. A cultural storm called Rock and Roll started in the mid-1950s and instantly became synonymous with “sexual music,” causing wildfire controversy to then conservative Americans.
Early Rock and Roll music was a combination of vocals and instrumentals of the pop tradition, rhythm-and-blues vibes of Memphis, and Nashville’s country twang, which were both cities of Tennessee. People referred to the new genre as the first “integrationist music” that merged black and white people’s sounds. Rock and Roll became an overnight hit as no music has ever sprung from such a diverse set of influences.
The Foundation of Rock and Roll
Many southern blacks migrated to northern cities in search of better jobs. This shift helped spread different music styles. In particular, the blues, which is Rock and Roll’s mother genre, finally arrived in North America. During this time, the blues music was popularly known as rhythm and blues or R&B. It mostly appealed to the young audience because of its explicit sexual lyrics and continued to gain more extended airtime in local radios.
Aside from its controversial lyrics, Rock and Roll gave a fresh ringing to the American’s ears. People have been searching for an uplifting beat to cope with the atomic bomb threat, the recent Cold War, and the communist attacks. At this time, social and political tensions also became more assertive, with the U.S. government implementing “equal but separated” ruling among the blacks and whites. Amidst this conflict, the music opened the doors to the inclusivity between different races.
Breaking the Boundaries
Rock and Roll had not only broken down racial discrimination but had changed other boundaries as well. The music revolutionized distinctions between the low and high culture, the masculinity and femininity, and the sacred and the secular.
- Low and High Culture – Low culture is a derogatory title to forms of popular culture that appeals to and is consumed by the masses. In contrast, high culture identifies aesthetic culture consumed by the upper class and highly-educated people. Back then, musicians performing high culture genres, such as classical Beethoven adopted the popular rock and Roll to boost their sales.
- Masculinity and Femininity – What once regarded as music for men, Rock and Roll, have been sung by drag queens who blurred the lines between different genders. Famous singer Little Richard propagated Rock and Roll music by wearing different costumes in his concerts. Other performers like David Bowie and Elton John did the same.
- Sacred and Secular – Mainstream opinions complained about Rock and Roll’s biases toward sexual lyrics. This is even considered as religiously offensive for most church-goers. However, many Christian bands today accustomed their songs to rock and roll music to appeal to young people.
The 45-rpm Single National Hit
For singers to be heard over and over again, they had to record their songs in vinyl. A 45-rpm single is a form of the vinyl record format. It is where the mid-1900s music was stored and played. The 45-rpm is an upgraded vinyl record that was released in March 1949 to improve sound quality.
The song Pledging My Love by Johnny Ace is a crossover of blues ballad and rock and Roll that became the first 45-rpm single to become a national hit. The song was the first R&B music to top the “white” music chart of Billboard Pop. It then opened the door for other artists, especially the blacks, to make rock and roll music.
Ferdinand Washington and Don Robey wrote Pledging My Love in 1954. It was released in December in the same year, soon after Johnny Ace’s death. The singer was believed to be exhausted after his road roadshows, so he accidentally shot himself while drinking and holding a gun.
There have been many versions and covers to the song, but Ace’s rendition made it to the chart. The first peaked at #17 then spent ten weeks being #1. The song was used twice in a 1983 film Christine directed by John Carpenter. The movie was about a 17-year old high school boy who fell in love with his sentient Plymouth Fury car. It was also heard in the films Back to the Future, Bad Lieutenant, and Mean Streets.