by Nicole Clayton
In the 1950s, a new form of music exploded onto the scene, exciting a growing teenage audience while simultaneously shocking their parents and scandalizing the communities. Teenagers fell in love with this new sound, listening to it on transistor radios and buying it in record stores. Parents called it noise. Preacher’s called it “the devil’s music.” A New York Disc Jockey named Al Freed dubbed it “Rock and Roll,” and it was here to stay.
Blue Suede Shoes celebrates the birth of rock and roll, and how some kids with guitars ended up changing the soundtrack of America. From its beginnings in southern juke joints with artists like Big Mama Thornton and Lloyd Price, to Sun Records and the King himself, Elvis Presley, to the Godfather of soul, James Brown, Blue Suede Shoes will explore how rock and roll became the drumbeat underneath a changing nation.
This massive musical movement was ushered in with Chuck Berry’s impressive duck walk and Elvis Presley’s scream-inducing hip swing, which scandalized the country on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Add to that some of the most explosive, expressive, and downright addictive lyrics and riffs ever heard in popular music.
Who can forget, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time?” That song by Broadway greats, Leiber and Stoller, was actually first recorded by the grandmother of Rock and Roll, Big Mama Thornton, who took it all the way to #1 on the R&B charts. But it was Elvis Presley who took it to #1 on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts, simultaneously. It remains Elvis’ best-selling song to this day, and represents the quintessential rock and roll song – a little bit of everything.
The show’s Lead Developer, Rebecca Hopkins, describes the inspiration behind this eclectic production of story and song, “Two words: Elvis Presley. I spent three years exploring rock and roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The one consistent influence for those artists was “The King.” I was excited to get into Elvis’ music, but I also wanted to look at the space his music lived in. Why was he such an inspiration to others, and who inspired him? That really led me on a fantastic journey.”
To say that rock and roll was born in 1955, is to try pinpoint the impossible. It may have exploded into popular consciousness in the mid-fifties, but it began long before. It was Duke Ellington who first noted, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” in 1931. Little did he know how prophetic that statement was. Swing meant rhythm, and Ellington was pointing out the importance of rhythm to the Harlem Renaissance.
The truth is, the ‘50s mark the time when the imaginary line between country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, boogie, and gospel blurred. But these early rock pioneers were blurring more than musical lines. They were blurring social and racial lines!
With electrifying hits like “Hound Dog,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Johnny B. Goode,” rock and roll had clearly made its permanent stamp on society. It sparked a change in the heart of practically every American teenager with access to a radio or TV. Suddenly, black and white artists were found at the same place on the radio dial. “Race records” became “Rhythm and Blues,” and black and white teenagers found themselves dancing and singing along to both white and black artists on stage! There was even a reported instance during a Fats Domino performance, which began with fans segregated by a balcony in the hall, and ended with teens leaping onto the main dance floor fueled by pure passion for the music they were hearing. America’s teens danced together.
Hopkin’s continues, “You always think of the ‘60s rock and roll as the soundtrack of the cultural revolution. What became clear to me was that it was music of the ‘50s that helped to make the ‘60s possible. Rock and roll of the ‘50s broke down social barriers everywhere. It really is no coincidence that the teenagers who learned to dance together in the ‘50s were the same people who fought for social change when they came of age in the ‘60s.”
Since the beginning, rock and roll has been a dividing and unifying force. With its mix of R&B, country western, do-wop, boogie and jazz, this new sound created a wondrous pandemonium that defined the 20th century and continues to ignite the 21st. Blue Suede Shoes celebrates the birth of rock, and may it forever roll!