Fifty years ago, a Cleveland deejay named Alan Freed hosted a radio program called the Moondog Rock and Roll Party. Freed believed that white audiences only needed to hear R&B — or ‘race music’ as it was pejoratively labeled — in order to like it. With talent scouts, a recording studio, concerts and the radio program, the ‘Moondogger’ barraged his audience with quickly written, quickly cut tunes that bounced along on springing backbeats, braying saxophones, and slapping bass lines. This new music, which he called rock and roll, delighted savvy Clevelanders, all the men and women and boys and girls who’d grown tired of the antiseptic onslaught of the American hit parade.
Constantly on the prowl for new talent, Freed discovered a singing outfit named the Crazy Sounds in one of the city’s clubs in 1952. The group’s four members — Bobby Lester, Harvey Fuqua, Alexander Graves, and Prentiss Barnes — performed doo-wop, a style of a cappella singing that first flourished after the second war. Using their voices to simulate musical instruments — like the violin, the cello, and winds — doo-wop singers had quickly become popular with record producers, who realized that a full, nearly symphonic sound created with human voices eliminated the need for using — and spending money — on backup players.
Freed, however, reversed the practice. After changing the Crazy Sounds’ name to the Moonglows, he pulled them into his studio and flanked them with R&B musicians. And this combination — of doo-wop vocals and blues chops — as simple as it was, nevertheless played a critical role in transforming American popular music and its audience. Cushioned by the sweet — and non-confrontational — sound of the Moonglows’ singing, that is, the jumpy rhythms of the electric guitar, the saxophone, and the upright bass now began to penetrate the once resistant, increasingly receptive ears of thousands, tempering and preparing them for the harder rocking music which materialized a few years later.
For rock history buffs, The Best of the Moonglows, a recently released greatest hits package from MCA, offers a quick and relatively inexpensive survey of the group’s pioneering sound. The musical breakthrough, however, is often hard to detect because the majority of songs are sweet, sentimental, and sticky. On a characteristic number like “Sincerely”, for instance, front man Bobby Lester floats his purring voice above a jazz guitar and a somnambular snare drum, as the others, singing at different registers, harmonize seamlessly. More of the same appears in numbers like “Most of All”, “When I’m with You”, and “Sweeter than Words”, as well.
But though ‘easy listening’ ballads dominate the Moonglows’ songbook, a handful of tracks actually almost swagger and strut. Consider “Over and Over Again”. On it, as Lester addresses a girlfriend about the intricacies of love, Fuqua, Graves, and Barnes build up a swaying rhythm with non-verbal notes. Simultaneously, a drum establishes a harder and faster counter-beat as a tenor sax introduces a melody that falls as Lester’s rises, and vice versa. These contrasting parts invest the song with degrees of diversity and a dance-friendly momentum the others lack.
And though this track — as well as tunes like “The Ten Commandments of Love” and “(I’m Afraid The) Masquerade Is Over” — is excessively languid, it shares the same structural and stylistic blueprint that distinguishes rock from other musical forms. In a basic and embryonic manner, that is, it blends the beat into the beautiful, with sounds, rhythms and instruments which initially rose to prominence in both jazz and blues.
But do these ‘hard’ examples have the same bite that characterizes the music of, say, the Rolling Stones or Lou Reed or Patty Smith or Aerosmith or the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Not at all. Like the image their name conveys, the Moonglows’ sound is hopelessly — and perhaps fatally — creamy and romantic.
It would take someone as rough and raw as Chuck Berry, with his distorted guitar and stray cat voice, to force violence — modern pop’s most definitive trait — into the new music. And then, and only then, did the rock and roll era truly begin.