How Rock and Roll Nearly Died
When asked to reflect on Elvis’ passing, John Lennon famously said, “Elvis died in the army.” When Elvis entered the Army in 1958 rock and roll was viewed as the soundtrack to rebellious youth. Churches organized public burnings of records, riots happened in nearly every town Presley and his fellow rock pioneers went. But when Elvis was discharged in 1960, rock music was in a very different place, and “It’s Now Or Never”, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the subsequent lightweight Hollywood films – were seen as the death knell to many teenagers weaned on the raw power of Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee’s early records. What I want to attempt to do is suggest that it wasn’t Elvis who died in the army but it was rock and roll that (nearly) breathed its last.
The years of 1958-1960 were filled with blows to the head and heart of Rock. In January of ’58, Little Richard enrolled in Bible College, denouncing rock and roll and his large contribution to it. This further supported the idea that rock and roll was the devil’s music, something that preachers and mothers across America had been saying for years. It’s well known that Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash had a real struggle making peace with their Christian upbringing and their leadership in this new revolution. With Little Richard off the scene, by the time Elvis entered the army in March of ’58, the rock world was already unraveling. While Elvis was away, the main contender for his throne was Sun Records’ latest star, Jerry Lee Lewis. With huge singles like “Great Balls of Fire”, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, it was obvious he had the voice, the charisma, and something even Elvis didn’t have: virtuoso musicianship. Unfortunately, while on tour in Germany in May of 1958, it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old cousin. While this may have been something he could have kept quiet in the States, especially in the South during that period of time, the European press had a field day. The tour was cancelled and his career never fully recovered from this public condemnation. Three of rock’s major stars were all out of the public eye before 1958 was even half over!
February 3rd, 1959 has gone down in infamy as the “day the music died”, thanks to Don McLean’s nostalgic hit, “American Pie.” It was the day 22-year-old Buddy Holly died in a tragic plane crash. More than any other early rock and roll star, Buddy was showing how rock and roll could evolve. Holly was one of the first artists to write, arrange and produce his own records. He was already incorporating string ensembles and choirs, combining teenage and adult music into a more sophisticated version of rock and roll. His plane crash caused a major stunt in rock and roll’s growth.
The early days of rock have often been criticized as little more than white singers stealing black music. One of the few black artists during the first wave to have hits with his own recordings was the true “architect of rock and roll”, Chuck Berry. From 1955-1959 he put ten songs in the top 40, and everyone from Gene Vincent to Pat Boone used Chuck’s material to fill their albums and singles. It wasn’t just America listening; nearly every British Invasion band that came out in the mid-60s had a cover or two of Chuck’s. Yet another near fatal blow to rock and roll came in December of ’59, when Berry was sentenced to serve five years in jail. A former employee of his was arrested on a prostitution charge and with a trial fueled by racism, Chuck somehow ended up in jail. Although he was released early in 1963, rock’s first great poet was silenced during this fragile time in its infancy.
Losing this many leaders during the first five years of any movement would surely cause most revolutions to lose steam. The final blow came on April 16, 1960 – just a month after Elvis was released from the army, when 21-year-old Eddie Cochran was in a fatal car crash. Cochran was another visionary, writing his own songs (including “Summertime Blues”, and “Twenty Flight Rock”), while also experimenting with overdubbing, years before the Beatles perfected the craft.
It’s no wonder that in the absence of all of these vital visionaries, the record labels had to create more “reliable” stars like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Annette Funicello. Elvis stated in many interviews during his early days that he believed Rock and Roll was a fad, and that he would have to change with the trends if he wanted to keep his job. So when he was released from the Army he cut an album called “Elvis Is Back!,” and a string of singles that included more variety than any of his early material. These were not the recordings of a dead man, or worse a “has-been” (as Lennon’s quote suggests); this was rock’s greatest interpreter expanding his (and the whole movement’s) vocabulary. Without Buddy, Chuck, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee to give him a run for his money, he settled to compete with chart-toppers like Del Shannon, Chubby Checker, Dion, and Brenda Lee, none of which could be considered leaders in a revolution. Rock lost its momentum for a number of years, nearly suffocating in “beach party” movies and AquaNet, until those four lads from Liverpool showed up.
Although the Beatles went down in history as the saviors of Rock, their early songs (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) were much more clean-cut than the early records of Elvis, Chuck, or Jerry Lee. The early revolutionaries had already laid down the groundwork, so the Beatles were able to attack from a different angle. They put on their best smiles, wore their nicest suits and won America’s heart, before being given free reign by their label and manager to revolutionized the rock world from within. So there you have it, the story of how rock almost died while Elvis was in the army.