An essential work for rock fans and scholars, Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll explores the origins of rock ’n’ roll from the minstrel era to the emergence of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, offering a far broader and deeper analysis of the early evolution of rock music than other histories have. Dispelling common misconceptions, it examines rock’s roots in hokum songs and big-band boogies as well as ragtime and 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 the influence of celebrity performers like Gene Autry and Ella Fitzgerald along with the contributions of obscure but key precursors like Hardrock Gunter and Sam Theard.
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 blacks. Before Elvis daringly argues a more complicated history of rock’s evolution from a heady mix of swing, boogie-woogie, country music, mainstream pop, and rhythm-and-blues—a mélange styles 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 a style both accessible to the general reader and acceptable to the serious academic, Before Elvis presents a bold argument about rock’s origins that makes it required reading for fans and scholars of rock ’n’ roll history.
For over 35 years, Larry Birnbaum has written for periodicals ranging from Down Beat to the New York Times and edited books and magazines about music.
What they’re saying about Before Elvis…
Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock 'n' Roll is an exemplary work of musical history, combining substantial new research with previously established material for a comprehensive vision of a previously fragmented field. Having a grasp of American music and its sources even predating arrival in America, Birnbaum fulfills his promise of showing how rock ’n’ roll after the rise of Elvis Presley was a natural outgrowth of the diversified society which preceded him. Attentive to commercial realities and the complex lives of musical artists, conversant with the musical motifs and lyric themes of the popular music world in both recorded and live performance, Larry Birnbaum paints a world inhabited by working artists who are fully conscious of their sources, influences and efforts at personal expression, naturally reaching for audiences ever eager for the new twist on a familiar tune. This is a significant work, rich with revelations.
— Howard Mandel, author of Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz
I am jealous of Larry Birnbaum, for he seems to have heard every record ever made. Consequently he is one of those rare people who understands that rock'n'roll did not spring suddenly out of the brain of some fevered disc jockey, and his book is a rollicking ride through the vernacular music of several decades before ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’
— Donald Clarke, editor of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music
This analysis is just one example of the iconoclastic thinking that makes Mr. Birnbaum's book invaluable. His good ear and deep original research help him overturn much of the conventional wisdom about where rock came from….The author ends by lamenting that "the definitive study of rock 'n' roll origins has yet to be written." It seems clear that with the present volume, a damned good start has been made.
—Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal
As the subtitle implies, music journalist Birnbaum approaches the history of rock and roll like an archaeologist. Instead of cave paintings or crudely made tools, Birnbaum has records—lots and lots of records. Unlike most music histories, which tend to focus on performers and their lives, Birnbaum investigates sounds: Where did these rhythms come from? Where did this riff start? The tracing of musical and lyrical memes makes for a consuming, if at times overwhelming, journey through mid-20th-century American pop culture history. Birnbaum’s knowledge of the music of this time period is breathtaking, and will make readers wish the book came with a soundtrack....Still, this corrective to what so many of music fans assume they know about rock and pop history is a necessary one and will introduce readers to artists deserving greater attention. This stunning tour de force of prerock history will inspire fans to learn more about the roots of the music they love.
— Library Journal, Starred Review
This is an incredible deep dive into the history of rock ’n’ roll by way of jazz, country, and blues. Here is how I read the book: I slid my headphones on, dialed up Spotify, and looked up as many of the artists or songs as Birnbaum discussed. Talk about an education!
— Music Tomes
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, 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.
—R.D. Cohen, Choice