The year was 1956 and a young generation – teenagers – was starting to get the music they’d always craved: rock ‘n roll. Their parents had been listening and dancing to the likes of the Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, the Andrew Sisters and now after the war, Patti Page and the Ames Brothers. But teenagers couldn’t care less about That Doggy In The Window or whether Poppa Loved Mambo. They wanted their own music. And Chuck Berry, Elvis and company had what they wanted.
(There were those teens, mostly girls, who fell for easy-listening Johnny Mathis. But that’s another story.)
Chuck Berry the messenger
Chuck Berry (pictured) had a message for the oldsters. And the message was rock ‘n roll was here to stay. So, Berry cleverly crafted a song, with the punch-in-the-nose-title, Roll Over Beethoven. “And while you’re at it, Ludwig Van, you can tell Tchaikovsky for me.”
Rock writers, singers and musicians had been experimenting to find the right sound that was music to teen ears. The doo-woppers borrowed songs from the Great American Song Book, songs like Blue Moon and White Christmas, and gave them a doo-wopp flavour – But that didn’t grab teens the way Sweet Little 16 and Teddy Bear did. SMASH! Million sellers.
But Rockers were always experimenting to grab the attention of teen ears and earn their dollars. There was rockabilly from the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Brenda Lee Rocked Around The Xmas Tree.
Writers like Carole King and Neil Sedaka at the Brill Building and Lieber and Stoller sensed teens wanted a softer sound. So, they created sounds like It Might As Well Rain Until September and Calendar Girl.
Motown was Black-produced music aimed at White ears – the Black Detroit answer to the Brill Building. Motown writers covered all the bases. And while Tears Of A Clown, a Motown hit for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, only hinted at Pagliacci, it was a hint that rock had room for the music of the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
The experiments never end
Jackie Wilson was an r&b tenor with a four-octave vocal range. Lyricist Johnny Lehmann took the melody of Mon Coeur S’ouvre À Ta Voix (My Heart Opens Itself To Your Voice) from the opera, Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens, and crafted it into Night.
Who got the bright idea of taking that melody and turning it into a popular song isn’t known, but it was inspired. Wilson and his soaring voice made Night a hit #4 on the Billboard Charts in 1960.
By the way, Wilson’s soaring tenor puts Maria Callas’ tinny vocalizing to shame.
Wilson then went on to record an Lp, The World’s Greatest Melodies,
where he sang his way through a dozen more classical melodies to prove his mastery of the idiom.
Not to be out done, The King took his soaring baritone and went classical with It’s Now Or Never, a popular rendition of O Sole Mio. Elvis proves that baritones can sing opera – as long as they’re blessed with the pipes The King had.
Last but not least, Della Reese. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson discovered, Reese who went on to secular singing in 1953 with Jubilee Records. She had her first million seller in 1957 with And That Reminds Me.
Reese moved on to RCA where she recorded Don’t You Know adapted from Puccini’s La Bohème in 1959. It was #2 on the pop charts and amazingly the R&B charts. The song sold over one million copies and won Reese a gold record.
Like a river flows, and so it goes, rockers experimented constantly and adapted musical genres. And rock fans listened and bought in the millions. The most unlikely genre, classical music didn’t go quietly into the dark night. With a little rejigging, it was embraced by rockers.
So, roll over Chuck Berry. Tell Little Richard the news.