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by Ed Ward

THE HISTORY OF ROCK & ROLL, VOLUME 1: 1920-1963 by Ed Ward

From the 1920s, when the music of rambling medicine shows mingled with the songs of vaudeville and minstrel acts to create the very early sounds of country and rhythm and blues, to the rise of the first independent record labels post-World War II, and concluding in December 1963, just as an immense change in the airwaves took hold and the Beatles prepared for their first American tour, The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1 shines a light on the far corners of the genre to reveal the stories behind the hugely influential artists who changed the musical landscape forever.

In this first volume of a two-part series, Ward shares his endless depth of knowledge and, through engrossing storytelling, hops seamlessly from Memphis to Chicago, Detroit, England, New York, and everywhere in between. He covers the trajectories of the big name acts like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles, while also filling in gaps of knowledge and celebrating forgotten heroes such as the Burnette brothers, the “5” Royales, and Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’s assistant, who played an integral part in launching Elvis’s career.

For all music lovers and rock & roll fans, Ward spins story after story of some of the most unforgettable and groundbreaking moments in rock history, introducing us along the way to the musicians, DJs, record executives, and producers who were at the forefront of the genre and had a hand in creating the music we all know and love today.

Ed Ward is the rock and roll historian on NPR’s Fresh Air and one of the founders of SXSW. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other music magazines. He is also the coauthor of Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. He lives in Austin, TX.

Praise for The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1:

*A December Indie Next Pick!*

“An excellent introduction to early rock’s cast of characters and the music that rocked the world… Ward’s delightful book is chock-full of everything there is to know about the history of rock.” —Publishers Weekly

“Ward’s ambitious opus succeeds in chronicling the first half of the history of rock & roll.... Ward manages to make a coherent narrative—not an insignificant feat—out of this sprawling milieu.” —Booklist

“Expansive, deeply researched without being pedantic, Ed Ward tells the story of rock and roll as it unfolded in all its glory. A book not only for the cognoscenti but the casual devotee who would like a moment-by-moment timeline of how the music evolved, transcended, and became a force unto itself. A definitive text.” —Lenny Kaye, guitarist, producer of Nuggets, and author of You Call It Madness

“Ed Ward tells the complex, unruly history of rock and roll like few other writers can. He deftly separates sacred myths from the often brutal realities while connecting the various styles, races, cities and scenes into a coherent national saga. Mr. Ward writes with rare wisdom, insight and humor but most of all, a passionate love for this still powerful music.” —Dave Alvin, Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter and cofounder with his brother Phil of the Blasters

Kirkus starred review:

A dean of rock journalism delivers the first volume of a magnum opus on a subject that never ceases to fascinate.

When does the rock ’n’ roll genre properly begin? Clearly well before Elvis Presley took the stage. By Fresh Air correspondent Ward’s account, it began in the 1920s, its outlines traced in the parallel development of blues, ragtime, swing, and country. In that genealogy, players such as Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills become ancestors just as surely as are Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner, while the blues and vaudeville join hands to produce phenomena such as Mamie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. All contribute to an authentically American idiom. Ward (Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, 2016, etc.) complicates the story by weaving in notes on the sometimes-uneasy meeting of races that the genres forced. In that exchange, Johnny Ray, “a gay white singer who wore hearing aids and broke down crying during his act,” became an unlikely R&B hero, and white kids flocked to “race” record shops to find the originals pilfered by clean-scrubbed collegiate quartets in the mold of Pat Boone. So it was with the canonical “Earth Angel.” Even though the original, by the Penguins, was “primitive and seemingly uncopyable,” a white group inauspiciously named the Crew-Cuts turned in—in one of Ward’s favorite words—an “anodyne” version of the song that sold reasonably well but never won over jukebox-crowding teenagers. Turning the back pages of history to look at the likes of Johnny Horton and Etta James and turning up plenty of surprises and fresh insights as he does, the author ends this installment on more or less familiar ground with the rise of the British Invasion, which would take an increasingly denatured American rock onto new ground—and provides the author a springboard for the next volume.

A spry study that should inspire listening with newly informed ears to old tunes, from “Bulldozer Blues” to “Teenager in Love” and beyond.


Book Review: The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963

The Austin Chronicle, Music

Reviewed by Tim Stegall, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016

Many a rock history's been written. Rolling Stone made three attempts, the third of which, 1986's Rock of Ages, was co-authored by this book's very scribe. This one's different.

Ed Ward's more qualified than most to write a sweeping, definitive social history of rock & roll. An on-and-off local of long standing with a rightful claim to being one of rock criticism's pioneers via his Sixties/Seventies work with Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem (revisit "Tombstone Blues," Sept. 16), he doesn't begin his timeline with 19-year-old Memphis truck driver Elvis Presley walking into Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service to cut a private, one-off record as a birthday gift to his mother. Rather, he reaches back to the mid-19th century, tracing rock's origins to the near simultaneous births of the blues and what would become country music out of Southern immigrants' remembrances of the folk music of their native lands.

Moving on to the advent of the recording industry as Thomas Edison's phonograph entrenches by the Twenties, Ward documents independent record labels building stars from blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. Country pioneers including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills color their sounds with blue notes, then electric guitars and drums invade both genres, introducing volume and energy. Once 1953 arrives, the author takes the timeline year by year, avoiding a star-driven approach and magnanimously spreading the credit as rock & roll develops, Charlie Feathers given the same weight as Chuck Berry.

The once mythic assumption of the form dying with Buddy Holly in an Iowa plane crash is also eradicated, massive R&B hits and teen instrumentals keeping the momentum alive while Britain brews something quite heady and about to be sprung on the world as Vol. 1 cuts off in 1963. Huge in scope, this is Ed Ward's masterpiece.