An essential work for rock fans and scholars, Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n' Roll surveys the origins of rock 'n' roll from the minstrel era to the emergence of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. Unlike other histories of rock, Before Elvis offers a far broader and deeper analysis of the influences on rock music. Dispelling common misconceptions, it examines rock's origins in hokum songs and big-band boogies as well as Delta blues, detailing the embrace by white artists of African-American styles long before rock 'n' roll appeared. This unique study ranges far and wide, highlighting not only the contributions of obscure but key precursors like Hardrock Gunter and Sam Theard but also the influence of celebrity performers like Gene Autry and Ella Fitzgerald.
Too often, rock historians treat the genesis of rock 'n' roll as a bolt from the blue, an overnight revolution provoked by the bland pop music that immediately preceded it and created through the white appropriation of music till then played only by and for black audiences. In Before Elvis, Birnbaum daringly argues a more complicated history of rock's evolution from a heady mix of ragtime, boogie-woogie, swing, country music, mainstream pop, and rhythm-and-blues—a melange that influenced one another along the way, from the absorption of blues and boogies into jazz and pop to the integration of country and Caribbean music into rhythm-and-blues.
Written in an easy style, Before Elvis presents a bold argument about rock's origins and required reading for fans and scholars of rock 'n' roll history.
Larry Birnbaum —
For some 35 years, Larry Birnbaum has written for periodicals ranging from Down Beat to the New York Times and edited books and magazines about music.
Birnbaum, Larry. Before Elvis: the prehistory of rock 'n' roll. Scarecrow, 2013. 463p index afp; ISBN 9780810886384; ISBN 9780810886285 pbk; ISBN 9780810886292 e-book. Reviewed in 2013jun CHOICE.
Birnbaum (a music journalist) has drawn on his encyclopedic knowledge in this history of popular music in much of the 20th century. He expands and updates the coverage in Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker's Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (CH, Jun'87) and Robert Palmer's Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City (1971), and Chuck Mancuso's heavily illustrated Popular Music and the Underground (1996). The author begins by observing that "the nascent sound of rock n' roll could be heard as early as the 1920s in a number of hokum songs, piano boogies, and jazz-band arrangements," and this finally emerged full-blown with Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. After two introductory chapters, Birnbaum moves into detailed discussions of the blues, boogie-woogie, jazz, country music, and rhythm and blues, and concludes with Frankie Laine, Kay Starr, Johnnie Ray, and Pat Boone. Each chapter offers detailed information on the performers, songs, record companies, and much more. Birnbaum also provides some technical information on the songs and arrangements. This rich discussion is accompanied by detailed notes that draw on the latest research.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. -- R. D. Cohen, emeritus, Indiana University Northwest