I’ve got 1955 on my mind this week, mostly because I’m getting ready to teach the Montgomery bus boycotts.
In the popular consciousness of most Americans, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the boycotts are the “start” of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a little simplistic, historically speaking. It ignores the deep roots and activities of the Black Freedom Struggle that preceded Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. It also ignores the key support structures–like the Women’s Political Council–that made the boycotts possible and, ultimately, successful.
At the same time, the boycotts are clearly a watershed moment in our history. Simply put, everything would be different after 1955. I don’t want to suggest that the history of popular music is as important as the history of our struggles for justice, but, if you think about, popular music was on the verge of its own watershed then, too.
Late in 1955 Sam Philips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA. The next year he’d become a national sensation. Elvis changed the course of music. Part of the story of rock and roll is the gradual assimilation of regional musical styles into an increasingly “national” sound. Another part of it is the growing integration of “white” and “black” musical styles. Elvis was emblematic of both those dynamics. Both were happening without him, to be sure. (Each had a lot to do with the commercialization of music in the 50s.) But both were also catapulted forward when he hit the scene.
That’s how I like to think about 1955 in music–rock and roll on the verge of a major change. Like the history of the boycotts, though, that’s also a bit short-sighted. When you look at 1955 in music, you see all the dynamics typically associated with the “Elvis era” already at play. African American musical styles weren’t as formidable on the Billboard charts, but foundational sounds of what we call rock and roll were already changing the musical world.
Here are some of songs of 1955, both the chart-toppers and world changers.
5. “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford)
This was the number one song the day Rosa Park was arrested. It sounds like a Disney movie to me, catchy and well-produced. I think it says a lot about this moment in popular music that a country guy tops the charts with a snappy tune about coal miners.
4. “Rock Around the Clock” (Bill Haley And His Comets)
A former country singer, Haley signed with Decca records and, along with other white musicians, recorded this 12-bar blues song that jumps and swings with the best of the era. As the original theme song to the show “Happy Days” it always feels like the anthem of the 1950s to me.
3. “Flip, Slop, and Fly” (Big Joe Turner)
There are numerous “bridges” between the world of blues, jazz, and rock and roll. Big Joe Turner might be the biggest. This “jump blues” hit, release in February 1955 from the Atlantic label, is proof of that.
2. “Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard)
Little Richard perfected his performance of “Tutti Frutti” as a young man on the “Chittlin Circuit.” A song about gay sex, it was cleaned up for his 1955 recording, but hidden in its history are the roots of rock and roll–Southern, campy, bluesy, and queer. The song was released in December, making his unique style and sound part of the national sound for generations to come. It’s a powerful song.
1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)
Chuck Berry’s first hit single is often called “the first rock and roll song.” When I hear that first little guitar intro, well, it’s sounds like he’s getting ready to let loose a beast. The song, one of the greatest R&B songs ever, is a take off of a country fiddle tune named “Ida Red.” What Berry made it into was a whole new world.