Who created rock ‘n’ roll? Sam Phillips, the owner of the legendary Sun Records who first recorded Elvis Presley, claimed he did. But history is written by the winners and the outspoken. In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about Peter Guralnick’s biography Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and about the larger racial, commercial and economic factors, and the other players, that also shaped the music we call rock n roll.
Still, it raises an interesting question. Phillips had had success in 1951 with a song called “Rocket 88” (the title refers to a model of automobile), performed by Ike Turner’s band and sung by Jackie Brenston, who became the headliner (much to Turner’s annoyance). The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called “Rocket 88” the first rock-and-roll song. (I guess some song has to be the first.) But “Rocket 88” was performed by a black group. Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?
The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.
On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent. And sponsors avoided mixed-race shows, since they were advertising on national networks and did not want to alienate viewers in certain regions of the country. Nat King Cole’s television show, which went on the air in 1956, could never get regular sponsors. Cole had to quit after a year. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” he said.