The 1950s was a time of significant change in the United States. McDonald’s and Holiday Inn pioneered business models that are still prominent today. Margaret Sanger and Gregory Goodwin Pincus managed the development of the birth control pill. The transistor radio was developed. For a decade that is so often considered staid or boring, considerable creative efforts were underway. At the same time, separate public facilities for black and white, and businesses that served “whites only,” were still common.
General economic prosperity, improved recording techniques, and increasingly portable electronics were giving young white listeners access to music they had never heard before. When Chuck Berry recorded his first hit song, Maybellene, in 1954 (the same year both Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets recorded Shake, Rattle and Roll), the timing couldn’t have been better. Maybellene reached number five on the Billboard pop chart, making it the most successful recording by a black artist in a predominantly white market at that time. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and a long list of others have cited Chuck Berry as a significant influence and one of the defining artists of rock and roll.
David Halberstam’s 1994 bestseller The Fifties does a fine job of describing those amazing years. In it, Halberstam wrote:
“This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it. This was the new, wealthier America. Elvis Presley began to make it in 1955, after ten years of rare broad-based middle-class prosperity. Among the principal beneficiaries of that prosperity were the teenagers. They had almost no memory of a Depression and the great war that followed it.”
A hypothetical I find fascinating is: Was rock and roll, or something very much like it, inevitable in 1950s America? Given the historic cultural forces that drove development of both country music and rhythm and blues, combined with the economic prosperity and technological advances of the post-War years – and the dichotomy of a sustained period of economic prosperity for white America while much of black America looked on from a position of inequality – it seems that some rebellious form of music with racial overtones was bound to see light. It took entrepreneurial types like Chuck Berry and Sam Phillips, who both saw the commercial potential of bringing “race music” to a young, white audience, to tip the scales.
One could ask the same question of Steve Jobs and Apple. Jobs didn’t invent the desktop computer or the portable music player, but advanced existing technology in a way that captured the imagination of a public hungry for personal and professional untethering offered by the computing power and portability of digital technology.
Is there a lesson in this for creative types? Are we destined to ride along on the tides of larger socioeconomic forces? I prefer to think the burden – and the opportunity – rests with all of us to consider our roles in the big picture and make the best contributions we can. Maybe rock and roll was inevitable, with or without Chuck Berry. But the fact remains that he was the one who advanced the state of the art. Just as someone, tens of thousands of years ago, carved the first musical instruments out of animal bones; it seems humanity has always had the drive to complement the human voice with man-made instruments. As my wife commented, maybe human expression through creativity is what is inevitable. If that’s true, and I certainly believe it is, then there is a part to play for each of us.