NPR's rock historian Ed Ward talks new book chronicling the birth of rock 'n' roll

Ed Ward credits Little Richard with being there for the rock n' roll's birthday.

Ed Ward credits Little Richard with being there for the rock n' roll's birthday.

Recently, for fun and exercise (and because some maniac had uploaded it all), I listened to a playlist of Billboard’s Top 100 hits of 1956.

It’s quite an education. What a bunch of smarm: What do you mean Les Baxter’s “The Poor People of Paris” was real and not a parody? Wait, Pat Boone really was that bad? If you ever feel like losing faith in humanity, you can always listen to Gale Storm slaughtering Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”At least Lymon’s original did better on that list than Storm’s (his was number 28, hers number 67).

In that company -- and, by extension, in the culture that spawned it -- Lymon, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnnie Ray, Fats Domino, the Platters, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard were not merely a relief but an insurrection. Hearing them in context made it easier to understand the longstanding rock-historical tendency to view rock as modern music’s Big Bang -- a rupture that brought forth a flood.

It’s not quite that simple, though -- and that’s where Ed Ward’s invaluable new The History of Rock & Roll, Volume One: 1920-1963 comes in. Note those dates: Ward’s book begins not with the brigade that Elvis led commercially, or even the post-WWII R&B (notably the great jump-blues singer and bandleader Louis Jordan, one of the most popular performers of the 1940s) and country that spawned him, but with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues." That million-seller single kicked off a craze for blues, and opened the doors for the kinds of musical and racial crossover that would make early rock and roll a target for racist authorities.

Ward’s contextualization makes the book’s first five chapters hum, as he chases the zigzagging line that led to rock. He starts with the field singing of slaves and goes through jazz, blues, and country music, highlighting the ways in which those styles’ continued intermingling led to the same kind of mixing among their audiences.

Ward -- who's perhaps best know for his decades of appearances on National Public Radio's Fresh Air -- doesn’t upend the Big Bang so much as smartly augment it, arguing for rock 'n' roll’s pre-history having accrued as much weight, in the wake of decades worth of reissues, as what followed. And his year-by-year dissection of rock 'n' roll’s activity is swift and decisive, if occasionally too list-like. And even if you’re familiar with the basic rock-historical outline up to the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S., Ward’s chronological approach and cocked-eyebrow mien makes connections even a hardcore fan might miss.


Ward spoke with City Pages two days after the presidential election from a temporary home in Austin, Texas, while his house, which had been flooded during a vacation, was being fixed up.

City Pages: Why is another rock 'n' roll history necessary now, since so many already exist?

Ed Ward: Most of them are personality-driven rather than socially driven. This is intended to be a social history, showing the interrelationship between the business and the people who use the business both as owners and -- I guess what you’d call today -- providers of content. I don’t think this approach has been out there much. They’re important, but there’s more info on stars than there are on the people who actually were there. You know, groups come and go, but the guy with the record company -- with luck -- stays the same.

CP: Groups come and go, but you don’t see very often how the members of those groups move through history. Harvey Fuqua, for example, is in the Moonglows, then duets with Etta James, and then goes to work with Motown. But in most rock 'n' roll histories, you’re not necessarily going to follow his trail the way you do in this one.

EW: Right. That’s why it’s important to have it all between two covers. And speaking of recurring characters, this is just a footnote that didn’t get in the book, but I meticulously went through Billboard every week from about 1945 until the end of 1963. Somewhere in about ‘62, I started seeing singles by a guy named Ronnie Dio. I figure he was 16 or something. It made me stop and go look him up --he was a lot older than I thought. What were those records like? One can only imagine.

CP: Was there nothing on YouTube?

EW: You know, I don’t use that tool much. Quite frankly, I don’t listen to much music. I can see that satisfying a minor curiosity, but I wouldn’t go there unless it was related to the project. I’ve got enough on my hands in the course of day of writing on this beast [laughs].

CP: When you began the project, did you know it would start with “Crazy Blues”?

EW: No, but I knew I was going to have to start somewhere. And I figured “Crazy Blues” was the perfect place to start, because it was the first record to use the word “blues” in the title, though the term was already in wide use in black vaudeville with Gertrude [Ma] Rainey and her husband, the Blues Destroyers.

But this record came out, sold an immense number of copies almost immediately, and that indicated, or would have if anybody was doing research in those days, that it wasn’t just a quote-unquote “colored” audience that was buying this. Obviously, somebody else was interested too. So it was a crossover hit. It also meant the word “blues” was something that was considered good marketing -- which is another phrase they didn’t use in those days. So more blues records came out, and some of them actually were blues. That’s as good a place as any to start.

It’s not a biography. A biography you can start by saying “So-and-so was born,” and if you need to talk about his ancestors a bit. But this -- yeah, I believe there’s a birthdate, but there’s a great, long gestation before it happened.

CP: What was the birthdate?

EW: For me the birthdate was the afternoon that Little Richard had his first session for Specialty in New Orleans, and did nothing all morning long -- they just didn’t get anything they liked. And then after lunch, they came back to the Dew Drop Inn to -- I guess they got back to Cosmio [Matassa]’s studio, and he did “Tutti Frutti” after rewriting it with Dorothy LaBostrie. I think maybe Earl Palmer was pissed off that he was spending so much time on this no-hope guy, and he started this metronomic beat. That, to me, is the birth of rock 'n' roll.

It’s also the reason that Earl Palmer subsequently became the most-recorded drummer in American history. That no-swing 1-2-3-4 approach was what was the mystery ingredient. You listen to even a record like “Hound Dog” or the early Sun sides by Elvis -- they all had swing to them. You know, there’s nothing wrong with swing. But in terms of metronomic drumming, which is what you’re going to see all through the '60s and '70s and '80s, that, I think, is a characteristic of rock 'n' roll.

CP: Because you’re doing this strictly chronologically, you’re able to pinpoint these things.

EW: I know how the story comes out, you know [laughs]. 

CP: But going in, did you already know that Earl Palmer’s drumming on “Tutti Frutti” was the beginning?

EW: I think I was searching for a place where something changed. Certainly, that record more than Elvis’ stuff was where something definitively changed. Once “Tutti Frutti” came out, he was a bona fide rock 'n' roll star, selling only to teenagers, and selling to white and black in approximately equal proportions. But again, nobody was documenting this by sales figures.

CP: You don’t utilize YouTube, but did you make playlists for the chapters?

EW: No, I didn’t. I don’t use streaming services. I’ve got too many fucking physical CDs [laughs]. I don’t really need one of those genetic “If you like this, you’ll like that” kind of things. My brain’s not wired that way, sorry. I’ve got friends who’ve been reading the book and doing something with Spotify. They’re doing that mainly to understand what I’m talking about.

CP: Some of the most joyous chapters in the book are when the Stones and the Beatles are getting going. I imagine one reason is that you had a wealth of documentation at your fingertips.

EW: That’s going to be the problem for the second book -- some of this stuff is so well documented I don’t really need to talk about it. I’m really going to be superficial about the Beatles, and I’m going to assume that I can refer to Revolver and not have to explain that it’s a Beatles record.

One of the things that got me going on this is that I knew someone who was teaching a rock 'n' roll history class and made the offhand observation, “Well, you know, Keith Richards took the Chuck Berry riff and turned it into a career.”

Deafening silence -- nobody knew what he was talking about. So I figure that there is a much bigger need than for me to go through and analyze stuff track by track. Being a critic as little as possible, in fact -- although I can’t help it. When I get to progressive rock and shit, I’m going to be a little more scathing.

CP: What time period will Volume 2 look at?

EW: That will be January 1964 though sometime in 2000. The book is going to end with Napster. Napster destroyed everything that I’ve been writing about up until that point. There’s a long piece to be written -- and not in the second volume -- about exactly what was destroyed, and the good and the bad of that.

CP: Obviously, we are in a fraught place right now in America with regard to race. One of the key tenets of rock 'n' roll history has always been that it’s an interracial music. This is something your book really hammers home.

EW: Right -- and that will also come into play in Volume 2, when it becomes segregated again.

CP: It seems like that narrative of rock 'n' roll as a social parable doesn’t hold as much weight as it used to for all kinds of reasons. Do we need to relearn the whole thing from the ground up? And I don’t just mean rock and roll.

EW: Oh yeah. We need to relearn everything that has been a concern of mine since I was in junior high school, and wondering if I could run away from home so I could go down and join the Mississippi Summer -- the voter registration drive in 1963. I was such a hardcore folkie, I was seeing all this stuff thrown at me by people I respected -- Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez.

Yeah, we need to relearn all that stuff. I’m not sure it’s possible anymore because back then, even what was being taught to elementary school kids in Mississippi was more progressive than what elementary school kids get today. There’s been a 30-year campaign to destroy American education, which has succeeded extraordinarily well.