The History of Rock and Roll in 50 Remarkable Objects Part 1: The 1950s
Ten incredible items which help tell the story of how rock and roll was born and took over the world in the 1950s
The story of how rock and roll was born takes in the history of blues, swing, country, gospel and hillbilly music, combined with new technology and the changing face of American society. Basically, it's a book in itself, and a long one at that. However, we've chosen ten collectibles which help tell at least some of that story - ten remarkable objects which document the birth of the defining music genre of the 20th century.
1950) – Seeburg Jukebox
The rock and roll explosion of the 1950s would not have been possible without the jukebox. They provided the soundtrack for a generation of teenagers - the only place kids could hear the records their parents didn’t want them listening to.
Viewed by older generations as a corrupting influence on the nation’s youth, early rock and roll artists were rarely heard on mainstream radio. But jukeboxes offered songs without censorship for a nickel a pop, in every diner, bowling alley, bar and drive-in across the country.
During the early 50s black R’n’B artists were similarly invisible in the mainstream, performing for mainly black audiences in a period of racial segregation in the U.S. But jukeboxes were colour-blind, and helped bring artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard to white audiences. Similarly, white Rockabilly artists like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins became appreciated by black audiences, and barriers between the two began to slowly break down.
Today jukeboxes from the 40s and 50s are immensely popular with collectors, due to their vintage styling and rarity. The world’s first model to play 45rpm records – which revolutionised the music industry due to their sound quality and smaller size – was the Seeburg ‘M100B’, released in 1950. It could hold 100 records, giving listeners a far greater choice than before and meaning Country and western, rhythm and blues and rock and roll could all live in the same jukebox. Today, these machines can sell for $5,000-$10,000 in top condition. (Image: Jukeboxhistory.info)
1951) Fender Telecaster
“He was the Henry Ford of electric guitars, and the Telecaster was his Model T.” When Leo Fender founded Fender’s Radio Service in 1938, he had no idea that his radio repair business would help change the face of music forever. By 1945 the company had begun to produce electric instruments and amplifiers, and jazz and blues musicians across the U.S began to see the possibilities in this new dynamic sound.
Although by no means the first company to manufacture electric guitars, Fender were the first to mass-produce commercially available solid body guitars. Starting with the single pickup Esquire guitar in 1950, Fender quickly replaced it with the two-pickup Broadcaster later that year. A copyright issue led to a name change, and the Broadcaster officially became the Telecaster in 1951. It has remained in production ever since, inspiring musicians from Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters to Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Keith Richards.
The Fender Telecaster signalled the birth of the commercial electric guitar, placing rock and roll’s main weapon of choice in the hands of a generation of musicians and inspiring countless more to play louder than ever. The earliest Fender Telecasters can sell for around $30,000 - $60,000 at auction, depending on condition and provenance, making them the jewels of any vintage guitar collection. (Image: Heritage Auctions)
1951 - Rocket ‘88’ 78 rpm record
‘Rocket ’88’ is generally accepted as the world’s first true rock and roll record, released in 1951 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. In reality the group were members of Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, and the track was based on the 1947 song "Cadillac Boogie" by Jimmy Liggins. It was recorded by Sam Phillips, who sold the master tape to Chess records and used the money to start his own label Sun Records, which soon pushed rock and roll onto the national stage with Elvis Presley, Carl Perking and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The song features a raw, driving sound which would become the prototype for all future rock and roll standards, and one of the very first examples of a distorted electric guitar – allegedly caused by a faulty amp which was broken whilst the band drove along Highway 61. This love-letter to the classic Oldsmobile ‘Rocket 88’ automobile inspired everyone from Little Richard to Bill Haley, and reached no.1 on the Billboard R&B chart.
The track was released by Chess Records on ’78 in 1951, and re-released in 1953 as a ’45 single. Original ‘78s can fetch up to $800 in good condition. Only a handful of the later ’45 singles are known to exist, and those that appear can sell for over $10,000 in top condition. (Image: Rhombusmag.com)
1951 – The Moondog Coronation Ball poster
The world’s first major rock and roll concert lasted precisely three minutes, featured just one song and ended in disaster. On March 21, 1951 around 20,000 people turned up to the Cleveland Arena for The Moondog Coronation Ball – a concert organized by the radio DJ Alan Freed, the self-styled ‘King of the Moondoggers’ who had helped popularize early R’n’B and rock and roll through his pioneering radio show.
The bill for the show was a mix of black and white artists including Paul Williams, Tiny Grimes, The Dominoes, Varietta Dillard and The Rockin' Highlanders. Such a line-up was unusual in an era of strict racial segregation, but sadly no-one got to hear them play. Whilst the organizers had printed 20,000 tickets, the arena only held around half that amount. When thousands of ticket-holders were denied entry, they stormed the arena and all-out chaos ensued (along with around three minutes of frantic dancing). After Paul Williams’ first song, the concert was shut down by local fire marshals due to safety issues and the crowd of eager teens was sent home. An original 1951 poster for the world’s first (and possibly shortest) rock and roll concert – billed as “The Most Terrible Ball of them All!” – can set you back up to $1,000 in good condition. (Image: Gotta Have Rock and Roll)
1954 – ‘That’s All Right’ 78 rpm record
Sam Phillips may have recorded the world’s first rock and roll single in 1951, but in 1954 he was still in search of its first true star. He found what he was looking for on July 5 when Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black came in for a recording session at his Sun Studios. In between takes, with the session going nowhere fast, Presley picked up his guitar and gave an up-tempo rendition of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s blues number ‘That’s All Right’. The band joined in, Phillips heard it and dollar signs lit up in his eyes.
Phillips had been searching for a white artist with a black feel – someone who could take the blues and R’n’B he had grown up with and perform it for a white mainstream audience with the same energy. Presley was his man, and when local DJ Dewey Phillips played the song on his show ‘Red, Hot & Blue’ a flurry of telephone calls jammed the switchboard. He played it a further 13 times the same night, dragged Elvis to the studio for an interview and a star was born in Memphis.
Presley went on to record a further 18 songs on the Sun label before signing to RCA, and many fans believe these tracks to be amongst his finest, most vital recordings – capturing an energy that was lost as his fame grew and waistline grew. An original 78 rpm copy of ‘That’s All Right’, backed by the B-side ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, could set you back up to $1,000 in good condition. (Image: CollectorsFrenzy.com)
1955 – Chuck Berry concert poster
Chuck Berry has been described as “the single most important black artist in rock and roll”. He was the first black artist to combine the blues with white country music, becoming known as the ‘black hillbilly’ and attracting curious white audiences to his shows in the mid 1950s.
When he approached Chess Records in 1955 it was his own version of the country standard ‘Ida Red’ that caught the label’s attention. Berry recorded it with his own lyrics, called it ‘Maybelline’, and sold over a million copies in the U.S, topping the R’n’B charts for 11 weeks.
Chuck Berry influenced generations of guitarists, and set the tone for how a rock and roll singer should perform. He was a truly unifying force in music, bringing white and black fans together like no other act before him. His injection of showmanship and guitar solos into the blues set a template that almost every rock star has followed since.
Berry’s songs were written to appeal directly to teenagers, capturing the energetic spirit of rock and roll like few other artists before him. By the end of the 50s he had scored numerous hit records and appeared in two feature films, but a scandal with an underage waitress in his St Louis nightclub landed him in jail in 1961 and he was never the same again. However, more than five decades later he continues to perform live, and remains a vital link to the birth of rock and roll.
In October 1955 Berry appeared on the bill of a show in Chattanooga, Tennessee along with Buddy Johnson, The Nutmegs, Arthur Prysock, Ella Johnson and Queenie Owens. Not only was it the first poster to advertise Berry as the “creator of Maybelline”, it is believed to be the first poster to use the term ‘”Rock and Roll” to describe a concert. In recent years original copies of this highly rare and important poster have sold for more than $3,000 at auction.
1955 - Blackboard Jungle movie poster
In 1954 Bill Haley and his Comets recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as a B-Side to their single ‘Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)’. The release made the charts, but to little success, and the song was quickly forgotten by most. A year later it appeared in the opening credits of ‘Blackboard Jungle’, a gritty school drama focussing on delinquent teens starring Glen Ford, and it started riots around the world.
Teenagers danced in the aisles of movie theatres, Teddy boys in England ripped up seats, and the first seeds of the teenage revolution were sown. For the first time, young people rebelled against the older generation en masse – driven in part by the energy of this new style of music. Rock Around the Clock topped the charts around the world and became the U.K’s first million-selling single, bringing rock and roll to an international audience for the first time.
Original copies of the film’s poster can be found for relatively little – often less than $100 in good condition. Blackboard Jungle may not be significant to collectors of movie history, but for many music fans it’s ‘ground zero’ for the teenage rock and roll revolution that followed. (Image: Heritage Auctions)
1956 – Million Dollar Quartet photograph
On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins was booked into Sun Studios to cut some new material after his success with the original version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Label boss Sam Phillips wanted to add something to the sound of the record, so he called in his latest signing Jerry Lee Lewis – still a relative unknown – to play piano during the session. They were joined by Johnny Cash, fresh from a couple of hits on the country charts, who wanted to check out Perkins’ new material, and the trio quickly became a quartet as former Sun artist Elvis Presley popped in to say hi with his then-girlfriend Marilyn Evans.
The afternoon soon turned into a relaxed jam session, later described as “an old fashioned barrel-house session with barber shop harmonies”, as the four musicians played some of their favourite songs including numerous traditional country and gospel numbers. Sensing an opportunity for some great publicity, Phillips called the local Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper which sent a photographer to capture the scene. The image ran the next day, with the title ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’, and became one of the most famous photographs in rock and roll history. To this day confusion remains over who actually took the photo, as claims by photographer Jim Reid contradict the publication credit given to ‘George Pierce’.
The original recordings were discovered years later in 1969, when producer Shelby Singleton bought the Sun back catalogue and began searching through 10,000 hours of tape. Those three reels, along with the iconic photograph, perfectly capture four young musicians simply fooling around in the studio – never knowing that years later the weight of rock and roll history would sit on their shoulders.
1958 – Elvis Presley’s hair
In March 1958, Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S Army and went from being a menace to society to a housewife’s choice. The dangerous rebel who had corrupted a generation with his wild hip movements had turned 21, and was now serving Uncle Sam via the draft. On March 21, known to his fans as ‘Black Monday’, he reported to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas amidst an army of reporters. His manager Colonel Tom Parker had decided to play the whole thing as a two-year P.R stunt, and photographers were ready to capture his army haircut – the symbolic moment when the King and his quiff were tamed by the Establishment.
After two years of service in Germany, Elvis returned to the civilian life in March 1960. Although he would go on to sell more records than ever before, the original rock and roll rebel that had set the nation’s loins alight was long gone. Today, collectors can still mourn ‘Black Monday’ with a piece of Elvis’ hair captured during that very Army haircut – with single strands selling for over £1,000 at auction. (Image: Elvispresleymusic.com.au)
1959 – Buddy Holly’s glasses
Buddy Holly’s popular career may only have lasted around a year and a half, but his influence spans generations. Described as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”, Holly was one of the first artists to write, produce and perform his own compositions – whilst his band The Crickets set the template for modern groups with a set up of two guitars, bass and drums.
He directly inspired teenagers including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards to pick up guitars, and helped cross racial divides by bringing rockabilly to black audiences and blues-based rock and roll to white audiences at the same time. But his fame was sadly short-lived, and just 16 months after he had scored his first national hit with ‘That'll Be the Day’ Holly was killed in a plane crash that also claimed the lives of Richie Valens and the Big Bopper.
The tragedy is known as ‘The Day the Music Died’, but in reality Holly’s music has lived on through the bands and artists he inspired. He is also remembered in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas with the Buddy Holly Centre, which houses a museum of his memorabilia. And in 1998, the museum acquired the trademark black-framed glasses Holly was wearing when he died. After being recovered from the crash site in 1959, the glasses spent 22 years in a sheriff’s office in Iowa before being finally returned to his widow – who sold them to the museum in 1998 for $80,000. (Image: Shawn Nagy / Buddyhollyandthecrickets.com)
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