By: Erik Greene
Crossing Over: The Origin of Soul and the Term “Rock & Roll”
"I rock ‘em, roll ‘em, all night long," bragged the Dominoes' bass singer, Bill Brown. The year was 1951, and the raunchy lyrics were from Sixty Minute Man, a song whose popularity would be reincarnated years later in the movie Bull Durham. At the time, Brown didn't realize he was making history in two ways.
First of all, his "rock ‘em, roll ‘em" reference would give title to a new style of music taking shape on the American horizon. Secondly, after spending 14 weeks at #1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart, Sixty Minute Man would peak at #17 on the mainstream Pop chart, making it the first crossover single in American music history.
The phenomenon would pick up steam as white teenagers continued to tap into the predominately-Negro world of R&B. In 1953, The Orioles' Crying in the Chapel just missed the coveted Pop Top Ten by stalling at #11. Despite being banned by the FCC for suggestive lyrics in 1954, Hank Ballard's Work with Me Annie sold a million singles without radio airplay, as did the sequels Annie Had a Baby and Annie's Aunt Fannie. Yes, America-times were a-changin'!
One artist who recognized the change in trends early on was Sam Cooke. A popular lead singer with the gospel Soul Stirrers, Cooke saw that younger listeners were rapidly abandoning Gospel for more liberated forms of music. By 1955, Chuck Berry and Little Richard had successfully targeted the teenage Rock & Roll market and scored hits with Maybellene and Tutti Fruitti respectively. Looking to capitalize in the same respect, Cooke made the transition from Gospel to Pop with the release of You Send Me in 1957.
"It was a huge risk on Sam's part," Cooke's youngest brother David remarked. "Pop music was seen as the devil's music by people in the church. If he failed in Pop after losing his Gospel fan base, he wouldn't have had anywhere to turn. His career could've began and ended at the same time."
By singing with clear diction and utilizing white background singers, Cooke intentionally created a sound that wouldn't be categorized as ethnic, but one that would be more conducive to a mainstream audience. He figured if he were to target two markets, his chance of success would double as well.
Casey Kasem, who would eventually become a nationally-recognized radio host in his own right, was a DJ on Detroit's WJBK in the fall of 1957. Kasem is credited as being the first jock to play You Send Me on a traditionally Rock & Roll station. The rest, as they say, is history. With Cooke's gospel roots bubbling below the surface, You Send Me rose to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts, creating a whole new sound the world called Soul.
The genre-mixing, "Top 40" format many radio stations adopted in the 1980's has been blurred even more by the popularity of Rap and Hip Hop. Nevertheless, credit should be given to those brave pioneers-artists and disc jockeys alike-who blazed the trail during one of the greatest eras in American music history. It's only because they dared to venture outside their comfort zone that popular music as universally accepted as it is today.