Ward's concise and readable attempt to consolidate rock 'n' roll’s messy history comes across as a little too neat, at times.
Even as we talk of living in a “post-rock” era and even though the musical form is no longer ground central of youth culture, rock 'n' roll is still beloved of uncountable millions of listeners around the world. Certainly, this October’s Desert Trip concerts in California should put to rest doubt in the aging musical form’s virility. Despite an average age among the headline performers of 72, the shows (featuring the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, and Roger Waters) nearly sold out: 75,000 people bought passes that started with general admission ticket prices of $199 for a single-day and $399 for the full-weekend. Maybe, some might yet argue, rock 'n' roll belongs to the realm of the aging or well-heeled. Its growth and attendant aging crises have certainly paralleled the lives of its earliest proponents, the baby boom generation, but anyone examining the cultural history of the United States in 20th century must certainly give this cultural force its due.
There have been numerous attempts to capture rock 'n' roll’s history over the past 30 years. Robert Palmer’s Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, the companion to the 1995 PBS multi-part documentary, was a national bestseller. Others include Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (1996), Glenn C. Altschuler’s All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America (2004), and the near-canonical Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (1986). This list doesn’t take into account the numerous textbooks offered by academic publishers for the growing list of college courses on the subject (I teach one). With a genre as fluid as rock 'n' roll, always morphing into new territories, it's hard to declare a definitive narrative. Were it even possible, such could not stand unquestioned for too long.
Ed Ward, the “rock and roll historian” for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air since 1986, prior to that a long-time writer for Creem, and one of the three co-authors of Rock of Ages, has re-entered the conversation with The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One 1920-1963. Given the nature of its title, and with the promise of a second volume covering the next half of the story, it's easy to assume that the author’s intention is to present a definitive version of the rock 'n' roll story.
The period covered here is the same as Ward presented 30 years ago in his contribution to Rock of Ages, and the changes in perspective are subtle. One of the limitations of rock 'n' roll history is that it tends to be highly romanticized and formalized, its origin stories well-established and under-questioned. Ward, in The History of Rock & Roll acknowledges changing perspectives, particularly in giving a broader collection of black performers their due, but can’t let go of some of the old myths, ultimately contributing to their perpetuation. Ward’s advocacy for Hank Ballard and The 5 Royales’ historically under-acknowledged importance should inspire a reassessment of that group’s career and, hopefully, initiate the release of some retrospectives of their work. Ward contributes as well to the ongoing (and justified) diminishing of Bill Haley’s role among the form’s originators and even, if indirectly, alludes to the need to knock Elvis Presley down a peg or two. But he still falls into the common trap among rock 'n' roll histories of paying too much attention and giving too much credit to the “record men” (the producers and label owners) rather than the artists themselves.
While it's convenient to focus on the early labels for organizational purposes, the emphasis has the effect of treating the businessmen and label owners as visionaries, as if this were the primary story. Outside of Sam Phillips, this remains misleading. Yes, they took financial risks; yes, the gambled on little-known artists; yes, their efforts eventually created the system of distribution that brought fame, if not fortune, to many of rock’s early figures: but they didn’t create the art, nor did they live the lives that inspired it. They are not the heroes of the rock 'n' roll story. Their successes were often accidental, their financial rewards were often withheld from the creators, and their failures were often more devastating to the artists.
Look at the wealth of talent among early rockabilly artists forced to abandon the form or the number of black performers forced to share, if not give away, composition credits. Buddy Holly’s tragic death at 24 years old, it should not be forgotten, was a direct result of bad management. Ward acknowledges these flaws, thankfully, but could still spend more time discussing the lives and inspirations of the performers and less on the business side; readers would appreciate it.
The book ostensibly begins in rock’s prehistory, starting in 1920, but Ward skims over those first 30 years, offering few new insights. He even commits some simple errors here, such as referring to the founder of country music’s the Carter Family as “A.C. [sic] Carter.” Further, it's odd that at a time when the sometimes anonymous contributions of black performers is being emphasized, Ward would choose not to bother naming the “black chauffeur” who “was known to go song hunting for them”; this was Lesley Riddle who, more than being a “chauffeur” would travel with A.P. Carter on his song-collecting trips, serving as an intermediary between Carter and the rural black musicians who were often -- and justifiably -- slow to trust a white stranger asking questions. While Carter transcribed the words, it was Riddle who memorized the tunes and melodies to recount them later.
Ward is a well-known NPR commentator on the subject, and his prose reads like it was written for an erudite broadcast. This is mostly a strength, as he packs a lot of information into each sentence. Here he is capturing the diversity of the early 1963 hit parade:
In America, black music was changing rapidly (a fact that didn’t get past these English folks, who still crowded the record stores looking for black American music), and alongside the teen girl group songs, a steady stream of more sophisticated material was coming from both veterans (the Drifters’ magnificent “On Broadway,” a Leiber/Stoller/Mann/Weil top tenner produced by Leiber and Stoller, who’d also been producing Jay and the Americans, who weren’t from Philadelphia, but might as well have been with their “good music” sound, to pay the rent) and newcomers (Irma Thomas’s sophisticated non-hit “Two Winters Gone,” Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” and two versions of “If You Need Me,” by Wilson PIckett and Solomon Burke, both of which charted, but with King Solomon rising higher).
One can almost hear Ward’s smooth radio voice shifting into each parenthetical aside. At times, though, he depends too much upon his readers being able to invoke his spoken inflections, and the prose on the page can become exhausting or tangled, as in this example:
Spier also sent Williams Patton’s friend and rival Son House, the mysterious King Solomon Hill, Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, and Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, whose identities weren’t confirmed until the twenty-first century to Paramount’s studios to make records that would be rediscovered thirty years later by a totally different audience from what they were made for.
Here, Ward crams too much together, confusing the reader with adjectives and phrasal asides that are hard to connect to their referents.
Separating the chapters into year-by-year progressions is a good organizing principle, though Ward’s persistence in cramming in as many important song releases into each chapter can turn some sections into little more than comprehensive lists. The information is important, nonetheless. Particularly worthwhile are his “interlude” chapters that examine the rise of rock 'n' roll in Europe (England and Germany, mostly) during this early period. Ward spends significant time in these later chapters describing the slow, steady rise of the Beatles who, by this volume’s end, are set to break big in America shortly following the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination.
The time devoted to the Beatles, when compared with the shorter attention paid, earlier, to Elvis, makes it clear that Ward holds John, Paul, George, and Ringo in higher esteem to the importance to rock 'n' roll’s evolution than Elvis, and this is a smart position. Ward’s treatment of Elvis does not diminish his importance as a flashpoint, but Ward is right to clarify just how briefly that spark glowed before conforming, under the guidance of Colonel Tom Parker, to the entertainment business at large. Another instance of originality done in by bad management.
In all, Ward presents a concise, readable overview of rock 'n' roll’s complicated history. The question of whether or not his version will become definitive must be left unanswered until we see the second volume. Maybe arguing the question is, in the end, more interesting than answering it.