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When Record Labels Blasted Through the Barriers in Segregated America

While their motives were more mercenary than musical, American small record label impresarios could hear the barriers falling between the races right before their ears.

America in the 1950s was still very much a segregated nation, not only physically in terms of schools and housing for example, but culturally as well. Whites listened to their music, the popularity of which was measured by the Hit Parade or Top 40 chart as well as the Country/Western charts. Black America, in turn, listened to their music, which was referred to by the white-owned music industry as “race” records and later as Rhythm and Blues or R&B charts. Thanks to trailblazers like Louis Jordan, black music made significant inroads in garnering appeal amongst younger white audiences with the advent of R&B in the 1940s. But despite the success of “crossover” hits, white Americ’mostly stuck to its music and didn’t venture over the cultural divide that ran like railroad tracks separating the inhabitants of Everytown America. 

The borders of musical segregation in mid-century America likely would have, over time, broken down naturally, but the reason it seemed to happen rather abruptly in the mid-’50s is because of some key individuals with special insight. I’m not necessarily speaking of the performers who took center stage in early rock’s vanguard. I’m talking about those who first heard the potential of these early rockers to erase the barrier between black and white music in America and make some serious money in the process. In the end, it was, in many ways, the American entrepreneurial spirit that ultimately made the difference, albeit on a smaller scale than one might have anticipated.

Local business owners who ran mom-and-pop record labels catering to regional audiences were at ground zero as American popular music evolved on two tracks concurrently: blues and jazz-influenced music evolving into R&B on one side and old-time rural mountain and frontier music moving towards modern Country/Western on the other. These were far-sighted small-time businessmen on the front lines who could call their own shots and used their cramped studios as laboratories to cook up the right formula for local record sales. They saw a burgeoning suburban teenage demographic with post-World War II prosperity in their pockets in the form of disposable income. This money could be spent on what the kids valued most, which was fast food, cars, and any number of thrills with the latest music available as the soundtrack.

These label owners ate and drank the music of the streets, bars, skating rinks, and teen dances, and they saw big dollar signs emerging, but only if they could tear down that Berlin Wall of bigotry and classism and get white kids to start buying a whole lot more records from the wrong side of the tracks. They had to dispel somehow the notion in the eyes and ears of white teens and their parents that some American music was written by and for whites and some was not. So, like any practical group of entrepreneurs, they focused on the root of the problem: preconceptions about race and what was acceptable music to listen to. Ultimately, their best solution was to confuse the situation for the buyer and muddy the perception of what the buyer was hearing.

Case in point: an often told, nearly mythical account of a quiet musical supernova occurring deep in the racially divided south in 1954. A white, small-time record label owner is toiling in his cracker box Memphis recording studio with a young truck driver, Elvis Presley. Presley is an unknown, working a dead-end job and trying to do something, anything, with his musical passion. At this point, not even he knows what he’s got to offer the world. But Sam Phillips of Sun Records can sense the young man has got something.

Phillips pairs Elvis with a backup band of local musicians for one night in his studio to see what happens. They’re working for hours, and nothing is clicking. Elvis is in a self-inflicted rut playing white-bread gospel music and though it’s hard to believe now, he’s coming across the mixing board that night as kind of boring. Phillips is frustrated and asks the guys in the studio to take a break. He is about to throw in the towel, and then Elvis, alone on his acoustic guitar while the mics are off, starts fooling around with an old blues number. The rest of the musicians fall in naturally, playing musical grab-ass and not intending for their noodling around to ever make it into the recordings that night.

Phillips, however, isn’t messing around. He’s a guy from hardscrabble beginnings working in the cotton fields and down on his luck, barely making it in the recording business. He responds to what he hears at that moment. He gets it and gets it fast. He is hearing something for the first time that has the power to launch a musical revolution. He stops everything and puts his white-hot focus on recording that number that night, just the impromptu way the song took off when none of the musicians were taking it seriously.

Of course, the rest is history. But sometimes, the real story is lost within the mythical one. Remember, the young Presley did not bring Arthur Crudup’s blues number, That’s All Right, to Phillips’ studio to record that night. At the time, Elvis himself had not appreciated the magic he alone could breathe into that song. He may have enjoyed playing the tune alone with his guitar, but he apparently didn’t think it was his best foot forward with Phillips in terms of making serious, professional music. It was just something, by all accounts, he was fooling around with. Make no mistake, the song originally recorded by black bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in the mid-’40s was a fine recording, but Elvis owned the song that night in July 1954: nobody could have put a more impressive or timely stamp on that particular tune at that moment. It took a very hungry businessman to say, hold everything, stop what you’re doing until I can get this recorded, and don’t change a thing; play it just like you were doing when you were messing around. We’ll get this half-baked song done and down right now on vinyl, period. 

The sound Phillips snared in his tiny studio that evening is what was needed to ignite a wildfire in American popular culture. It was one young man’s heated amalgam of styles that had influenced him musically so far in life. A mash-up of country, gospel, boogie, blues, and you name it, sung with a cocky bravado and a voice styling that was impossible to pin down as black or white. Phillips immediately registered the significance of this: here was a white kid who loved his momma and respected his elders but at the same time could rip up a song as well as any of the black performers in the local clubs and churches across town in Memphis.

Elvis was a golden combination that would blur the lines that divided the audiences of American music for too long. It muddled the strains in popular songs in ways that Phillips knew would create a beautiful confusion for all manner of folks in his regional Tennessee consumer base such that his label’s sales would grow exponentially in the process. He went on to record and mold all of Presley’s early stuff and made a sizable profit off this bottled lightning and all the bewilderment it caused. Eventually, he would have to pass this too-hot artist on to Columbia Records for large-scale distribution but in that magic beginning, it was simply homegrown business acumen that first discovered and launched his majesty, “The King”. 

What occurred at Sun Records was not happenstance. Less than a year later, in Chicago, the owners of another regional record label were in a similar predicament. Two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, Leonard, and Phil Chess, owned a business in trouble. The brothers Chess had successfully sold records in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s featuring the budding sound of electrified blues. Their roster included early pioneers like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf. These men brought their acoustic guitars from the porches of the delta South to be amped up by the new urban black experience of the industrial North.

Chess Records had been selling this brand of blues to regional black audiences almost exclusively. By the mid-1950s, Chess was desperate to reach a wider audience as urban black consumers’ tastes were shifting towards the newer sounds of Soul and R&B. Chess records was in a slump. The brothers needed to find something to sell to a broader audience, or their days were numbered.

One day they were listening to a black guitarist from St. Louis, Chuck Berry, and trying to figure out whether they could make a buck off his sound. Berry was a young performer who had just moved to Chicago, in part because he idolized Muddy Waters. He brought his version of the electric blues to Chess to hopefully make the same magic happen. The Chess brothers were poised to embark into new musical territory in search of much-needed sales; they weren’t sure who could take them there. Just like their counterpart in Memphis, they sensed potential with the young performer, but nothing they heard from Berry’s offerings was showing commercial promise.

That is until Chuck’s band played their version of “Ida Red”, an American folk song of unknown origin made famous in the late 1930s when Bob Wills did a country swing version. That’s when the brothers’ ears were piqued. It’s no surprise that Chess ignored the blues stuff that Chuck Berry and his band of nobodies were selling and focused instead on an anomalous “hillbilly” song. Just like Phillips with Elvis, the brothers landed on that one tune, focusing on its potential, even going so far as to advise the young Berry to change the lyrics and punch it up and bring it back the next day. He did so and Chess recorded the tune under the new title, Maybelline. The song hit #1 on the R&B charts, but much more importantly, peaked at #5 on the Billboard pop charts, the accepted measure of white American popular tastes. Now all of America was listening to and buying Chess records.

Once again, small-time label owners with their livelihood on the line had to develop antennae capable of instinctively detecting subtle indicators of newfound marketability. It’s as if some Darwinian effect was at play: to survive low on the food chain in the musical jungle, they had to evolve sensory abilities others in the business may have lacked. They had to discern from all the noise generated by young musicians desperate for recognition that golden sound that the players themselves were perhaps missing. And thus, careful attention by the Chess owners was spent on that one number as opposed to all the rest Chuck and the band had brought into the mix that day. 

Here again, was a rare chance to breach the continental divide in American popular song: white western swing and black electric blues in this case. Just as Phillips spotted the genius of a white guy countrifying an old blues number, here was a black guy bluesing up an old Country Western number.  Chess Records’ sales from their Chuck Berry sessions would dwarf what they had been making off Muddy Waters and the others because, despite the latter’s amazing talents, they had sold primarily to black audiences. This was a new sound that would break the barrier that had kept the electrified blues greats from selling to America’s white youth in large numbers.

Notice what’s going on here? Both Presley and Berry had the songs already in their repertoire that ultimately broke them into the mainstream, but it wasn’t necessarily what their focus was on, and they didn’t know to emphasize them for their own self-promotion. The label owners knew that if they could get a white guy to sound sort of black or vice versa, then the racial dividing line would disappear, and something amazing would happen. And it did in spades. A white guy singing the blues with a country twang (Elvis) and a black bluesman singing redneck rockabilly music (Berry). In both instances, audiences, on first listen, thought Elvis was black and Chuck Berry was white. Mission accomplished. Because in the end, regardless of what skin color fit the bill on either side of the musical business equation, guys like Phillips and the Chess brothers were only interested in keeping their businesses afloat.

Now it was time to make some money. These guys knew, before either Elvis or Chuck walked into their studio, that the Promised Land was just over that slowly disappearing divide between the two musical Americas, but they got tired of waiting. It was time to mix things up and confuse the situation. They slyly fooled audiences into paying less attention to the color of the performer so that the focus could be on the brilliance of the music. In a way, this was the beginning of a form of desegregation for a whole new generation who didn’t really care what the color of the guy on the radio was as long as he could rock that new sound.

America has a deeply embedded problem with racism. At rock’s emergence, the country’s rigid tendencies toward cultural segregation needed to be breached once more as they had with jazz half a century earlier. Failing to do so would have bottled up the beautiful musical alchemy that happens in this country when its white European musical traditions crash into its powerful black African influences. Over in England, the impresarios of rock ‘n’ roll had their desired effect as well, especially since that country had, at the time, a more homogeneous population and race, at least in the music business, was less an issue. Take, for example, the recollections of the Brit of some renown, Eric Clapton. “In my early teens,” he said, “I wasn’t sure about what was white and what was black: it all seemed two sides to the same coin. I didn’t know Chuck Berry was black. I thought he was another weird-sounding white man (like Elvis). I had no idea that there was a racial thing involved.”

America, despite its myriad flaws, remains a unique laboratory where a drive to break the rules and make a buck while you’re at it often combines to produce satisfying results. Profit motives can surely harm creativity and there are countless examples of that in the history of the entertainment world. But in this case, regional record labels that desperately needed to expand their market and unleash the commercial potential of the beast that was to become rock ‘n’ roll did what they had to so that they could breach the ramparts of race and class.

At the time, there was great power in the desire of American youth from all backgrounds to express themselves in the music they performed and listened to. That momentum was complimented by the always potent entrepreneurial drive of small business owners who wanted to capture and sell that commodity and make their operations more successful in the process. Both the music-consuming youth and the micro labels had unbridled dreams and little patience to let stubborn bigotry get in their way. While their motives were more mercenary than musical, these impresarios could see the lines blurring between the races right before their eyes. Eager to cash in on what they presciently saw as a huge potential for this music, they helped blur those lines further and, in doing so, were instrumental in forming a new American sound that would replace jazz as the musical juggernaut that went on to conquer the cultural globe again. 

By the mid-’50s, nickel-and-dime storefront labels like Sun, Chess, and Specialty Records in Los Angeles were becoming industry forces, landing on the pop charts as much or more as the big labels that were snoozing while a burgeoning teen market went untapped. These nimble indie-label owners already catering to regional niche markets were much more inclined toward cross-pollination. It may have been a short-lived phenomenon as the major labels ultimately swooped in on the gold rush, co-opting the new sound to the point of its temporary demise in the early ’60s.

Still, the whole beautiful episode might never have happened as it did if not for the sleight of hand by the impresarios of rock who made audiences forget who was making the music or even what a particular type of music was supposed to sound like. Was it hillbilly, race, R&B, gospel, jump, swing? Who knows, it’s just great music that kids couldn’t get enough of because it was theirs and not their parent’s thing: racial lines gave way to generational ones instead, and the teen boomer market exploded. 

America’s selfish and mean-spirited tendencies towards unbridled capitalism, (so-called) rugged individualism, and flagrant bigotry can often leave little to be desired regarding its national ethos. However, when the exuberant joy of its musical youth grows so intense it cannot be contained and there is a profit to be made, there is no better national crucible for the combined creative forces of the arts and commerce. Together they forge styles of music, dance, and song that can unite the globe in one happy experience of human expression.   

Work Cited

Milward, John. Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues). Northeastern University Press. June 2013.