Early Rock 'n Roll wasn't all Rebellion, Professor says in New Book

Is there room for Pat Boone in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

If rock music historians, rather than critics, picked the inductees, a case could be made for Boone, said Richard Aquila, a Penn State Behrend professor emeritus of history and American studies.

The musician Little Richard performs in concert.“Boone refers to himself not as the father of rock ‘n’ roll, but as the midwife,” said Aquila, whose new book, “Let’s Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze,” was published by Rowman & Littlefield. “His versions of Little Richard’s songs may not be as good as Little Richard’s originals, but Little Richard couldn’t get played on mainstream radio stations back in the ‘50s, due to racism and other reasons. And after the kids listened to Boone’s music, they tended to go on and want the real thing.”

Boone spent much of his early career covering rhythm-and-blues songs, including Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” Boone’s versions, however, were influenced by pop styles and standards that were tamer and more familiar to white audiences at the time.

While many music critics now consider this artistic theft, at worst, or cultural appropriation, at best, some black artists at the time appreciated Boone’s work, said Aquila, who interviewed Boone, Bo Diddley, Dion and other early rock ‘n’ roll artists for “Rock & Roll America,” a public history series that was syndicated by NPR between 1998 and 2000.

At a concert, for example, Domino once introduced Boone to the audience. Pointing to one of his diamond rings, he said that Boone’s version of “Ain’t That a Shame” had paid for it.

“I wrote this book as a historian, not as a music critic,” Aquila said. “If I were writing this from the perspective of a music critic, my viewpoint would be very different. I might say that Pat Boone’s songs don’t appeal to my musical tastes, but as a historian, my argument is Pat Boone’s music tells you just as much about the 1950s as Elvis Presley’s.”

Record sales back up Boone’s claims that cover songs eventually boosted sales of the originals, Aquila said. While pop versions of rhythm-and-blues tunes initiallyOtis Redding performs with his band. outsold the originals, by the mid-1950s, original versions began to dominate the charts.

The rise of mass media and technology in the 1950s also helped transform rock ‘n’ roll into a major cultural phenomenon, according to Aquila. Magnetic tape recorders, just one musical innovation of the era, were developed in Germany during World War II and then used by entrepreneurs in America to forge a new recording industry.

“This technology allowed singers to record anywhere,” Aquila said. “Sam Phillips, in Memphis, for a few hundred dollars, builds his own studio and records Elvis. Buddy Holly could record in Clovis, N.M. It really made rock ‘n’ roll more of a national grassroots music.”

One major misconception about rock’s early days is that the music exclusively represented a rebellion against traditional values and culture, Aquila said. Though rebellion was a key element of early rock ‘n’ roll, the music also represented many traditional values and attitudes, including patriotism and the importance of family.

“The whole culture of the United States during that time period was influenced by the Cold War, and the music plugs into this Cold War culture,” Aquila said, “but you also find other traditional values of that time, whether it’s religion, family and gender, or any other value. It’s all there in rock ‘n’ roll music.”