March 8, 2017
Friends of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air music commentator Ed Ward bugged him for years to turn his radio interviews into a book. He finally did. Flatiron Books published The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One, 1920-1963 in November.
Ward’s love of the subject shows in a single sentence of his introduction when he writes “…rock & roll is a big world and contains many fascinating histories…”
Isn’t that the truth.
We recently caught up with Ward, who spoke to us by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. He talked about the musicians who influenced rock and roll, important moments in rock’s development and the moment he fell in love with rock.
SoundExchange: When and why did you decide to write the book? I’m wondering if you saw something missing in what’s already been written and what that was.
Ward: I was under a lot of pressure from people who wanted me to make a book out of my Fresh Air pieces.
I suggested a social history of rock and roll, but I didn’t depend so much on the great man theory. There are too many rock and roll books that begin with Elvis walking into 706 Union [Sun Records] and asking to make a tape, and that’s way after the fact. Very little has been written about the 1940s and 1950s, and I thought that needed to be done. But I really wanted to do the whole story, right up until about 2000, when Napster came out.
SoundExchange: On a more personal level, when did you become a fan of rock and roll? Who or what reeled you in?
Ward: It was approximately October 1957. There was a new kid at school… we sort of bonded and he asked me over to his house after school one day. My friend said “we should listen to some of the records that [his brother] was listening to.”
I remember hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” and being terrified. I had no idea who would want to make a record like that, but some of the other stuff really attracted me. I guess the first record I bought was “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers and the second one was “At The Hop” by Danny and the Juniors. That got me to listen to New York radio stations, and I started hearing stuff on the radio that really appealed to me, and that was October 1957.
SoundExchange: You trace the beginning of rock and roll all the way back to 1920. But you make it clear that the roots of American music can be traced back to African American field hollers. That really underscores the role of African Americans in the history of rock and roll. Can you talk briefly the importance of African Americans in rock history?
Ward: Field hollers, as I noted, are an ingredient in the mix. Some of those vocal techniques can be heard in gospel music and certainly in soul music, not to mention the kind of whooping you hear in some country blues from the ‘30s and some of the things Howlin’ Wolf did. The important thing is to realize that the final product is made up of tons of things that came before.
SoundExchange: You also write on page 100 that “if we had to pick a moment when rock and roll was born as a major movement in American popular music (and we don’t), May 1955 would be a good candidate.” Talk about some of the differences in music prior to May 1955 and music after that date that led you to pick that as a watershed moment in rock history.
Ward: It was the “Tutti Frutti” recording session by Little Richard for Specialty Records. He had been recording blues for RCA, but he wasn’t a real good blues singer. He was a great gospel singer, but he was not about to perform gospel (at the recording session). During lunch at the Dew Drop Inn, Richard saw a piano, he jumped up on stage and performed a dirty song that he performed at gay bars. The musicians said “that’s more like it.”
They went back to the studio and Richard rewrote the lyrics with Dorothy Labostrie. One of things you hear is Earl Palmer completely changing his drum style to a much more metronomic style. That is what gave birth to rock and roll. Before that, there was all this swing in the rhythm section, which is natural because swing was the universal language of popular music in America.
But the metronomic thing continues as a separate entity, and there’s not much difference between what Earl Palmer was doing and what the drummer for ELO did 20 years later.
SoundExchange: That’s similar to the story you tell about Elvis who did an original version of “That’s All Right (Mama)” during a break at Sun Records, and Sam Phillips fell in love with it.
Ward: There’s a lot of accidents along the way, and I like them.
SoundExchange: Talk about Alan Freed. You write that he was the first person to consistently use the term rock and roll, and he did that beginning in 1951. Did the term stick immediately? And did people understand what the term defined?
Ward: It was sort of a code word for rhythm and blues, but you couldn’t sell rhythm and blues to white teenagers. By giving certain rhythm and blues records the cache of being part of this new thing – rock and roll – and by giving white teenagers permission to enjoy it, I think that was Freed’s major accomplishment.
He wasn’t the only white deejay playing black music. There was Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles, but he was different. He was looking strictly at the black community whereas Freed had been made aware that white teenagers were buying black records. Freed’s classical music show wasn’t really doing anything, so he got permission to change it around and it was very successful right off the bat because suddenly the teenagers, through word of mouth, learned about Freed and what he was playing. He was mixing it up, and teenagers really appreciated that.
SoundExchange: What’s an example of someone music fans don’t always know, but who had a crucial role in rock and roll during the period your book covers?
Ward: I always point to the 5 Royales, a black vocal group stemming from gospel. But also they sang secular lyrics and played a blazing, red-hot guitar and sang in a style only Ray Charles was doing. They helped invent soul and they also sang old-style harmony music. There’s a period in there, from 1956 to 1958, where just about every recording they made was just amazing, and even today most people have never heard of them.
I’ve always admired Art Rupe, who owned Specialty Records. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and he decided to move to Los Angeles to be closer to black gospel music. He was a white Jewish guy, but something in black gospel music spoke to him.
Not only did he record gospel, he recorded a lot of the blues that was happening on Central Avenue. He became crucial to the rise of rhythm and blues in Los Angeles, which is one of the main places it was happening.
His ears were open enough that he hired people like Bumps Blackwell, who discovered people like Little Richard.
SoundExchange: The book ends with the Beatles about to explode on the music scene. How is volume two coming along?
Ward: I’m anxious to get going because the story I’m telling in volume one has just switched modes. The exciting thing that’s happening is that both The Beatles and The Beach Boys show the audience becoming the producer of the product, by which I mean… more and more kids are picking up guitars and learning songs.
The period of pure consumption is over, and you can start making your own culture. It wasn’t like “hey kids, here’s the next star.” That was already falling apart when The Beatles and The Beach Boys were getting started because teenagers didn’t like what was being forced on them.
Some answers have been edited to shorten the responses.