Rock and roll (rock 'n' roll) originated in the United States in the late 40s and spread to the rest of the world during the following decade. As a musical genre it was a hybrid cross-over of blues and country and became rockabilly, with Sun Records in Memphis, the centre of the movement. In truth Rock’n’roll was a systematic sanitization of black music (R&B) for an appreciative young white audience.
Rock’n’roll had long been an African-American euphemism for sex but when DJ Alan Freed used the term to describe a music genre, the term stuck. The fast beat with double entendres in lyrics only endeared itself further to the hearts of the baby boomers, keen to shed the doldrums of the post war period. As Jazz was to the Flappers, Rock’n’Roll was to the 50s teenagers. The music’s secret was in its rhythm, which was basically a boogie woogie blues rhythm (8 beats to a bar, and are 12-bar blues) with an accentuated back beat, almost always on snare drum. In the earliest forms of rock and roll, which date to the late 1940s, the piano was the lead instrument (Fats Domino "The Fat man" -1949/1950), but by the early fifties, the saxophone had taken over as lead, and eventually this was replaced in turn by the lead guitar.
By the late fifties rock and roll groups consisted of two electric guitars (one lead, one rhythm), an electric bass guitar (which replaced the double bass) , and a drum kit. In most people’s minds Bill Haley’s Rock around the clock was the beginning of the movement, but honours should go to “Crazy Man, Crazy" which first hit the American charts in 1953.
The follow up was a cover version of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," became the first ever rock'n'roll song to enter the British singles charts in December 1954.
"Rock Around the Clock" was recorded in 1954 but did little until it appeared a year later behind the opening credits of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle starring Glenn Ford. The film did not show in Australian cinemas until 1956 and the single was the first released by Festival Records. Needless to say it became the biggest-selling record in Australian history (150,000 copies).
Keen to cash in on Haley’s popularity there was a follow up film showing Bill Haley in concert which included footage of the crowd hysteria that accompanied his live performances. It was this that gave Australian kids the lead and like every other teenager across the Western World, they jived in the aisles and ripped up the seats.
Now inspired to play the music, legions of copyist sprung up everywhere, playing in the suburbs across Australia and thrilling local revellers in the dance halls. The first Australian rock’n’roll record was Frankie Davidson’s “Rock-a Beat’n’ Boogie (a Haley composition) which sold reasonably well although it was generally dismissed as a novelty record.
In the US racial tensions had surfaced with African Americans protesting against segregation, but in Australia that 'race' connection meant nothing. Instead the development of a teenage culture widened the Generation Gap between kids and their parents and young Australians broke their shackles with the Old Country, following the new American heroes of Haley, Presley and Little Richard. Every Australian city developed its own local heroes but that is where they would have remained because distances were too great. Teenagers listened to the jukeboxes in milk bars and were trained to their transistor hoping to catch maverick radio presenters like Stan Rife (Melbourne) and John Laws (Sydney), spinning the latest releases from overseas.
All that changed with Johnny O’Keefe who was inspired by Bill Haley, gave up a retail career to bop. Johnnie O'Keefe and the 'Dee Jays' released a Bill Haley song You Hit the Wrong Note Billy Goat in 1957, which was beginning of Australian home grown Rock’n’roll.
Keen to catch the new trend of teenage entertainment Channel Nine launched an Australian version of American Bandstand in 1958, compared by Brian Henderson and a year later, 1959 ABCs "Six O'Clock Rock" went to air with Johnny O’Keefe, at first a regular contributor before becoming the resident host.
This was based on BBCs “Six Five Special.” More often than not in Australia the actual artists were not always available to appear which gave local talent the opportunity to perform cover versions or mime to the latest hits. Popular Australian acts which whipped up excitement included Lonnie Lee & The Leemen, Dig Richards & The R'Jays, Alan Dale & The Houserockers, Ray Hoff & The Offbeats, Digger Revell & The Denvermen and New Zealand's Johnny Devlin & The Devils.
Col Joye and the Joy Boys was the star feature on Australia's Bandstand TV Show and Johnny O’Keefe’s nemesis.
Col’s style was more country than rocker but did reasonable cover versions before eventually writing his own material with progressively more chart success than Johnny O’Keefe. Lee Gordon was a North American millionaire and music promoter who came to Australia in the early 1954. He set up a circuit of venues across the Big Brown Land using open air stadium previously used for boxing promotions. Initially he had brought big name artists like Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Frankie Lane to sing but in 1957, Gordon’s Big (Bog) Show, included Bill Haley and the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly.
At first he showed no interest in local talent and although Johnny O’Keefe wangled his way into the show the impresario remained ambivalent. Then when Gene Vincent was delayed in transit Gordon was forced to replace him with Johnny O’Keefe, ‘The Wild One” put on the show of his life and won the crowd over and impressed the impresario so much, he became his manager.
From then onwards the Australian packages had the famous and not so famous, side by side. Sharing the bill with Gene Vincent was Little Richard who wowed the audience, but after seeing a sputnik, thought he had a signal from God and relinquished all his worldly goods to take up religion.
Touring dance bands in Australia and New Zealand carried a much bigger repertoire than most and were as likely to need to play the popular standards of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, as they would the latest tunes. This made Australasian musicians very accomplished with many from a jazz background. Some were influenced by R&B and "jump" music of performers like Louis Jordan, whereas others were inspired by American surf guitar maestros Dick Dale and Duane Eddy.
A notable alternative to the mainstream pop fare emerged with 'surf' groups, like The Atlantics and The Denvermen (Sydney), and The Thunderbirds (Melbourne).
Many of these instrumental groups survived into the Beatles era by adding a lead singer, and several evolved into some of the top bands of the next decade. Without doubt the introduction of the electric guitar and availability of US guitars gave macho credence to nerds who today may be found playing with their computers, but then, the nerds thrived on electrifying their instruments and amplifying the sound. The greatest influence in the next phase of Australia rock came from an unlikely source, a specky geek from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, with the unlikely name of, Hank B. Marvin (Brian Robson Rankin).