- Published on Amazon.com
I haven't seen the latest (Da Capo) edition of "The Sound Of the City". This edition is the one that I have, so I decided to review it, rather than the newest version. Over the years, this book has been an invaluable souce of information on records, artists, and record labels and companies for me. I have used it extensively to help prepare for my "oldies" radio shows and as an aid in writing for various regional music publications. But as with all history books, there are a few mistakes and misrepresentations here (though a lot fewer than normal).
The subtitle ("the rise of rock & roll") is somewhat misleading, since the book does not end its story of pop-music history in the 50s, but continues on through the 60s, finishing up in the singer-songwriter era of the early 70s (by which time the first generation of rock and rollers was approaching their 30s). If I could, I would have give this book 4 1/2 stars, but since no half-stars are allowed here, I had to go with four. One of the criticisms I have has already been pointed on by Arnold Shaw in his book "The Rockin' 50s". Gillettt wrote that the independent record labels "suffered" when their records were covered by artists with the larger, major labels. But in reality, it was only the original artists who suffered. Since the "indie" labels usually owned the copyrights to the songs that they recorded, they actually made more money when better-known artists recorded their material. And the "indie" label owners sometimes did attempt to get as many cover versions out of their songs as they could. So the label owners didn't really suffer from the practice of covering potential hit songs, only their artists did.
My other misgiving is that Gillett sometimes seemed to assign particular importance to certain records based more on their pop-chart performances than their actual musical impact at the time. For instance, he said on more than one occasion that Bill Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy" became the first rock 'n' roll record to make Billboard's pop chart in the spring of 1953. This makes it sound as if "Crazy Man Crazy" triggered an industry-wide trend toward rock 'n' roll at the time it was released. But in reality, it simply didn't. Billboard magazine first took note of the trend toward rock 'n' roll (as it later came to be known) on its front page in early 1954. The title of the piece was "Teen-Agers Demand 'Music With A Beat', Spur Rhythm & Blues". (In '54, Billboard's writers chose to use the now-dated term "cat music" as a designation for R&B records that had the 'right sound' to appeal to white teenagers.) For most listeners to Top 40 pop radio shows like "Make-Believe Ballroom", "Crazy Man Crazy" was a "fluke record" in '53, a left-field hit that came and went rather quickly. Personally, I wouldn't even consider it rock 'n' roll, but rather a jump-blues song in the style of the contemporaneous Treniers. And indeed, the song is very similar to the Treniers' "Go! Go! Go!". Haley and his band, the Comets, were certainly moving toward their later rock 'n' roll style in '53, but were not quite there yet. For most of the "Make Believe Ballroom" audience (including interestingly enough, Paul Simon), the first rock 'n' roll record they ever heard was the Crows' "Gee" in early '54, a Top 20 hit which coincided with the onset of the new national trend. The Chords' original version of "Sh-Boom" became the first major "consensus hit" of the rock era a few months later. Those two songs were then quickly followed by "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "Hearts of Stone", and "Earth Angel". By early '55, Life magazine had published an article on "the new teen-age music craze" and the term rock 'n' roll (popularized of course by Alan Freed) had replaced "cat music" in both the music trade press and in popular publications. That's how it really started, for those who were there at the time. But Gillett only tells part of the complete story.