FROM GOSPEL TO ROCKABILLY
Rock and Roll has had several musical influences. The four legends in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET all explored these many different styles of music.
The members of the quartet were all Christians and very familiar with songs such as “Peace in the Valley” and “Down By The Riverside” that were sung in church when they were young. In fact, Johnny Cash began his career singing gospel music.
According to Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research, gospel music “refers to African-American Protestant vocal music that celebrates Christian doctrine in
emotive, often dramatic ways.” It often combined the hymns of white worship services with Negro Spirituals.
The PBS series The Blues claimed that blues music “evolved out of African-American work songs, field hollers, spirituals, and country string ballads more than a century ago. The blues is the foundation of virtually every major American music form born in the 20th century, including jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip hop.”
One of the main ideas of this musical style is that if you listen to the blues, you can beat the blues.
Howlin’ Wolf, an influential African-American blues singer of the time, said that Elvis “started from the blues…he made his pull from the blues.” In fact Elvis Presley’s early Sun Record recordings had a blues song on one side and a country song on the other.
Country music began in the 1920s and became popular in the 1940s. It came out of folk music and usually had a simple chord progression, with lyrics presenting a strong storyline and a memorable chorus. The instruments used in country music were portable instruments, such as guitars, fiddles, mandolins, bass, jugs, harmonicas, and washboards, rather than full orchestras, organs or swing bands.
Sometimes called the white man’s blues, country music came from the south and was often referred to as hillbilly music.
While early country music was music of the white people, race music was country music of the African-Americans. Both styles of music used the banjo, which came from the African-Americans.
Rockabilly was the precursor to rock and roll. It combined the blues with the beat of swing and R & B and elements of country/hillbilly music. Carl Perkins, often referred to as the King of Rockabilly, played hillbilly songs but jazzed them up to give them a faster jive, a better beat to dance to. The vocals could range from high falsettos to low bass and could include stutters and hiccups. This style of music and singing was different from what had been playing on the radio in the 1950s. The excitement of this sound was just what teenagers loved to listen and dance to. Of the 100 greatest rockabilly songs, the MDQ recorded 15. Eventually, rockabilly music evolved into good old Rock and Roll.
Whatever style of music the Million Dollar Quartet sang, it was popular. Of Billboard’s Top 100 songs of 1956 the MDQ had 7: five from Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” and “Love Me Tender”) and one each from Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash (“Blue Suede Shoes” and “Walk the Line,” respectively).
Photo Credit: Original Broadway cast member Eddie Clendening as Elvis Presley in Million Dollar Quartet. (Photo by Joan Marcus)