Elvis' first single crowns rock's 50th anniversary
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley stepped into Sun Studio in Memphis to record That's All Right, his first single. The event has been declared the birth date of rock 'n' roll by a host of commercial celebrators, from BMG, which controls his catalog, and Elvis Presley Enterprises to the Hard Rock Cafe and the Memphis Convention & Visitors' Bureau.
Rock's genesis has long been debated by critics, historians and pioneers themselves. But arguments that rock emerged from a marathon and not a moment, and that the July 5 birth date might be illegitimate, haven't stopped the golden anniversary hoopla.
Sun Studio plans to mark the 50th anniversary of rock on Monday with the largest-ever radio simulcast of a single. The storied Memphis studio will broadcast That's All Right from the control room to stations across the world via a live satellite feed. To observe the midlife milestone, BMG has released two DVD box sets and the CDs Elvis at Sun and 50 Years of Rock From Memphis. Other events and products are in the pipeline to salute rock's noisy arrival a half-century ago.
"Obviously, it's a pretty nuanced thing to stick a needle in the timeline and say it's the moment rock 'n' roll was birthed," says Alan Light, editor of music magazine Tracks. "There's never a definitive answer, partly because there's no simple, universal definition of rock to begin with. Is it an element of sound, an attitude, a chord progression? In terms of the popularization of rock 'n' roll, you can probably make a more cohesive argument for that Elvis session than anything else. If it's not the actual birth moment, it's certainly a moment that opened rock to a mass — read: mixed-race — audience."
To regard Presley as the only flashpoint of rock's origins tends to whitewash history and marginalize black figures, he says. Ignoring the rock elements of earlier records by Louis Jordan, "Big Boy" Crudup (the originator of That's All Right), Jackie Brenston and Big Joe Turner "means discounting the contributions and accomplishments of the black artists who preceded and inspired Elvis," Light says. Yet Presley, who was synthesizing styles rather than imitating hitmakers, galvanized a generation and "shouldn't take the blame for bigger cultural limitations."
Rock took shape, not in a single spontaneous blast, but through an evolutionary process of mutations.
"It's impossible to pin the birth of rock on one day or even one year," says Pete Howard, publisher of Ice magazine. "One could make a strong argument for the late '40s as well as the early '50s. It was a long, gradual process.
"July 5, 1954, is probably the best single date to settle on, even though it's like trying to pick the date live music began," he says. "We do it just for fun, because people love lists and anniversaries. If Elvis were alive, he'd probably argue for Wynonie Harris' Good Rockin' Tonight or Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88. But why not (that date)? Elvis took R&B and country and gospel and fused them into rock. And the arrival of rock is rivaled only by TV and movies for cultural impact on the 20th century."
Tardy or overstated, Presley's bequest to rock was substantial. That's All Right might also have been a civil rights catalyst.
When Presley recorded the song, "it wasn't just a gang of visionaries assembled together," says Dave Marsh, author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. "It wasn't even just the intermingling of 'black' and 'white' music; that had been going on for generations. Mainly, Elvis, Sam Phillips and the band decided — quite consciously, it seems to me — that they needed to bring forward the truth of that process, rather than pretending that things were separate-but-equal in music.
"Race-mingling has always been very dangerous in America, so it took courage to do what (they) did. But calling it the birth of rock 'n' roll shortchanges it. It was the birth of a new cultural integrity, in which the relations between black people and white people could be expressed more honestly, thus beautifully, than ever before."
related story: a few others could claim first: