Larry Birnbaum,
Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock 'n' Roll
(Scarecrow Press, 2013)

Not long ago, a friend of mine said that rock pretty much sprung complete from Elvis, like the alien coming out of John Hurt's chest. I told her, no, she was wrong, the first rock record was Jacky Brenston's 1950 hit, "Rocket 88." Both of us were repeating conventional wisdom, and it turns out we were both wrong. In Before Elvis, Larry Birnbaum devotes 380 pages with another 70 pages of footnotes and bibliography to correcting our conventional wisdom.

It's quite a trip, one that I loved taking.

As his subtitle suggests, in these pages, Birnbaum isn't really interested in the history of rock itself. What he is fascinated by is all of the strains of musical influence that went into the making of the genre. He wants to find out the real story behind rock. What he proves conclusively is that pretty much every history of rock is superficial in its treatment of where the music came from. Did rock come from a blend of the blues and country? Was it influenced by jazz? Did it grow out of rockabilly? The answer to all of these questions is yes, but that's not the whole story. Much more is involved.

Birnbaum, who appears to have listened to every record ever made, is a great guide through the much more that is involved. On the way, he traces the story back to the very beginnings of the 20th century and corrects a lot of preconceptions along the way. What he discovers is that pretty much nothing is what it seems to be; everything in music history is much more complicated than we thought, not to mention a lot more fun. He also resurrects the reputation of dozens of forgotten pioneers of various genres.

His favorite device is to take a familiar song, usually a rock classic, and trace the journey it took to become the classic we deem it to be today. "The Train Kept A-Rolling," which we think of as a Yardbirds signature song, was written by Sonny Boy Williamson decades earlier, so the Yardbirds might have picked it up when they accompanied Williamson on one of his British tours in the early '60s. That's the conventional wisdom. However, the British band Yardbird Jeff Beck had been in and recently left -- Screaming Lord Hutch & the Savages -- had recorded it a few months before the Yardbirds. Wouldn't Beck be aware of what his old band was up to? Lord Sutch might or might not have been aware that a Connecticut band called Bob Vidone and the Rhythm Rockers had cut the song in 1959, but his version is, according to Birnbaum, remarkably similar. In fact, in both versions a two-note horn phrase punctuates the lines in the first verse, and that particular touch is not found in any other version of the song. What is quite possible is that all of the bands heard and stole from the Johnny Burnette Trio's record of the song from 1956, which in itself came from Tiny Bradshaw's 1951 recording. Why is this stuff relevant? Because it demonstrates in one song the contributions of blues, jazz, rockabilly, early pre-psychedelic and country to rock 'n' roll.

Birnbaum's book is chock-full of material like this. He covers the blues, country, minstrel music, doo wop, big band jump, early rhythm and blues, jive and an overlooked genre that he considers of premium importance, hokum music. All of these, he proves, led to rock.

Before Elvis is a fascinating book that should be both in every academic library and on every music lover's shelves. Where else are you going to find out what Harry "the Hipster" Gibson contributed to rock 'n' roll?

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 September 2013

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