The origins of rock & pop
As rock and pop music is a 20th century phenomenon, the artists and songs have been preserved in many more ways than those of earlier eras. We are not limited to written accounts of the performances or artists’ impressions of the appearance of singers and musicians. Thanks to photography we have plenty of visual records and the development of sound recording has advanced from early phonographs to the sophisticated digital techniques of today. We even have the two combined in film and television recordings.
As a result, the amount of rock and pop memorabilia is huge. Collectors look for LPs and singles - or even just the record covers, concert tickets, programmes and, of course, photographs that capture a moment in time in the constantly evolving music business. Actual artefacts or costumes worn by the great stars like Elton John can command tens of thousands of pounds at auction.
In the first half of the 20th century a singer’s popularity wasn’t judged by chart success or record sales. Record players weren't even generally affordable until the 1920s so popularity was still measured by the sales of sheet music. Although it might have a picture of the singer associated with it on the cover, you had to take it home and sing it yourself.
The arrival of sound recording, radio broadcasts and, later, film musicals meant individual singers' voices reached much wider audiences. The ability to sing live, whether in a small club or with the increasingly popular jazz orchestras and big bands, was still important, but a more intimate style became possible with the new microphones.
For the performers here, singing was all about what they brought to the well known songs, ‘the standards’, by the great composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer or Sammy Kahn. Some were songs that had already established themselves in the standard repertory, others were written especially for them.
Stars like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were adored for the skill they brought to interpreting the lyrical wit and melodic genius of the songs, as well as the character and beauty of their voices.
Ella Fitzgerald was one of the greatest singers of all time. No one could interpret the great standards of the American songwriters – Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Johnny Mercer – like her, approaching each song with an honesty and integrity that made her audience hear them as if for the first time. She was equally famous for her scat singing, using syllables instead of words to improvise like a jazz musician.
Like that of many black performers, her childhood was one of grinding poverty and deprivation. She was 15 and living on the streets when she won a talent contest and was taken up by a member of the accompanying orchestra, Chick Webb. By 20, her record A Tisket, A Tasket brought her national fame. From then until her death in 1996, aged 78, she never lost her popularity with her public nor the admiration of her peers. ‘God gave me a voice,’ she said, ‘something with which to make other people happy.'
This photograph of Gracie Fields in performance at the London Palladium was taken by Harry Hammond. Always known as ‘Our Gracie’, she was one of the greatest female performers Britain ever produced. If anyone succeeded to the mantle of Marie Lloyd, it was Gracie, but her fame extended beyond the music hall and beyond Britain. In the 1930s, she was one of the most popular British film stars and by 1938 she was the world’s highest paid star.
During World War II she left England with her Italian-born husband, but still raised millions in America for war charities and regularly appeared in concerts in England and for troops in every theatre of war. But the charge that she had abandoned Britain stuck and her popularity was in doubt when she starred at the London Palladium in 1948. She told no one what her opening song would be. She came on to polite applause, stood centre stage and sang the opening lines of La Vie en Rose – Take me to your heart again – and the public did.
This photograph brings together two of the most popular singing acts of the 1950s, America’s Nat King Cole and Britain’s Beverley Sisters.
Cole died young in 1966, leaving records that ensured him immortality among the great romantic ballad singers. The frisson comes from the tension between the calm certainty of the voice and the deep emotion held in check. He had the priceless gift of intimacy, making it seem that he was singing individually to every person in the audience.
In contrast, the close-harmony singing of the Beverleys radiated effervescence and joie de vivre. Joy and twins Teddie and Babs really were sisters, the daughters of music hall performers, and were discovered by legendary American band leader, Glenn Miller. In the 1940s and 1950s, they were everywhere, on radio and television, in variety, summer shows and pantomimes. Then they retired into family life. One night they went to Stringfellow’s to hear their own daughters perform. Peter Stringfellow spotted them and persuaded them to sing – it marked the beginning of a comeback which lasted through the 1980s and 1990s.
Rock ’n’ roll developed in North America from a fusion of different types of music from the black and white communities. Rhythm & blues, jazz, black and white gospel, and country & western music all went into the mix in varying amounts depending on the artist. In the 1950s, as teenagers emerged as a distinct social group, rock and roll became their music - the first time that a musical movement was aimed specifically at adolescents. The songs were often about teenage angst, from the Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love to Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. The older generation thought the music over-sexual and anti-social, but the tide was unstoppable.
Harry Hammond managed to photograph Elvis Presley on the only occasion he set foot on British soil. Elvis was on his way home to America in 1960 after serving his two year US Army conscription in Germany, and on the stopover at Prestwick airport he gave this press conference.
Elvis is an icon, and could be called the ‘creator’ of rock ’n’ roll. Hailed as the ‘white singer with the black voice’, his fusion of white country and black blues music ushered in a whole new sound which came to dominate the popular music world. Preachers denounced his hip-swinging movements as obscene, but they were drowned out amongst the frenzied screams of teenage girls, and had almost no impact on Elvis’s vast popularity. Although he died, aged 42, in 1977, his records continue to sell. It is estimated that total sales worldwide exceed 1 billion units. Numbers can’t tell the whole story though. Just go and listen to some of his countless hits: ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Love Me Tender’ amongst them - and hear just why he goes on selling.
Bill Haley & The Comets
Bill Haley was born in 1925 in Michigan, America. His father played the banjo and his English mother taught piano. He was a shy child, self-conscious about his appearance, perhaps because he was blind in one eye. He began singing country songs but then started to cover rhythm and blues numbers ‘Rocket 88’ made in 1951 was the first black rhythm and blues song recorded by a white artist. This was followed in 1952 by ‘Rock the Joint’ which sold over 75,000 copies. In 1954, Haley and his band The Comets recorded ‘Rock around the Clock’. It made no particular impact until it was featured in the movie soundtrack for Blackboard Jungle, a film about juvenile delinquency. It shot to number one and ushered in a new music phenomenon.
This image was taken at a concert at the Dominion Cinema during a 1957 tour to England. Haley was met at Waterloo by thousands of screaming fans, a most un-British response for that time, which completely overwhelmed the police. Haley himself was a chubby, unpretentious man who always sported his trademark ‘kiss-curl’.
Chubby Checker doing the Twist
This photograph shows Chubby Checker performing the dance craze that he initiated with his 1960 hit record The Twist. Everyone was doing it. The papers were full of pictures of celebrities twistin’ the night away - Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Margot Fonteyn, the Duchess of Windsor.
Checker followed up the Twist with several other novelty dance records, notably the Fly and the Pony. Other singers promoted the Mashed Potato and the Watusi. But the Twist caught on because it needed no training. It was simply a matter of, as the title implied, twisting the hips, the feet moving on the floor as if grinding out a cigarette stub. And you didn’t even have to have a partner. From now on, it was acceptable just to dance alone to the beat.
By 1966, interest in dance novelties had waned but the Twist and Chubby Checker were assured of their place in public folklore.
The brothers Don and Phil Everly were taught guitar and harmony singing by their father. By the ages of six and eight they were seasoned performers, singing with their mother on their father's radio show, and live on stage wearing matching sparkly cowboy suits. They first hit the big time as the Everly Brothers (without the rest of the family) was with Bye Bye Love in 1957, quickly followed by Wake up Little Susie. Their music, with its acoustic style guitar and close harmonies, was far more like country than the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis or Bill Haley, but it had a backbeat which gave it a modern edge. The content of the songs was aimed specifically at the teenage market, another distinctive feature of the new rock ‘n’ roll music. This photograph shows them in 1962 with Joe Mauldin of Buddy Holly’s old band, The Crickets.
Born in Georgia in the United States, ‘Little’ Richard Penniman was one of 11 children. His parents were strict Seventh Day Adventists and Richard grew up singing gospel music. At 14 he ran away and joined a travelling medicine fair and then a minstrel show before being spotted by a record producer. As a black artist, Little Richard’s first successful singles did not make it into the white charts - but white artists like Elvis who covered his songs did. Then Little Richard recorded Long Tall Sally and this broke all the rules by reaching the top of the American charts.
Little Richard was a wild performer. For Tutti Frutti and Lucille he would stand and pound away at the piano - sometimes with a foot as well as both hands - while singing at fantastic speed with his characteristic high yelps. Here Harry Hammond, the photographer got the shot that no one else could, showing him without his stage ‘face’ on. He always appeared in a snazzy suit, with eyeliner and hair brushed and oiled into a gleaming quiff.
The Brit Pack
In Britain in the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll was almost as great a phenomenon as it had been in America. Radio stations and imported records kept British youth up to date, and ensured a rapturous audience when a star like Bill Haley came to visit. By the late 50s and early 60s, local ‘skiffle’ bands were springing up all over the country. Skiffle was a rough fusion of blues, country, folk and rock ’n’ roll played on acoustic instruments. From Glasgow to London, British bands were producing their own sound.
However it was when The Quarreymen (later The Beatles), a skiffle band in Liverpool created a definably British sound within the new music, that the British rock ’n’ roll phenomenon began to roll. The new sound was exported back to the United States, and in its wake developed the great 60s bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd.
Cliff Richard was born Harry Roger Webb in India in 1940 but the family moved to England when he was seven. At the age of 17 he was living in England in a council house in Enfield and like most boys of his age, worshipped the American Rock n’ Roll stars, particularly Elvis. He lost his status as a school prefect after going to a forbidden Bill Haley concert. In 1958 Harry changed his name to Cliff Richard and started a band The Drifters who played in pubs and clubs. By the end of that year, their single Move It had reached number two in the charts and Cliff was on his way to stardom. As well as singing, he appeared in films, pantomime and as Heathcliffe in his own musical production of Wuthering Heights. He has had a hit in the charts every decade since the 50s, remarkable in a business which is notoriously fickle. Also remarkable is his lifestyle which is the opposite of ‘rock and roll’. Cliff is a committed Christian, does not believe in sex before marriage, follows a strict diet, and exercises daily.
Marty Wilde with wife and baby daughter Kim
Teen-idol Marty Wilde had 14 chart hits between 1958 and 1962 including ‘Teenager in Love’ and ‘Rubber Ball’ (both covers of American songs). He even had a girls’ magazine, Marty, named after him.
As with so many British singers, Wilde (actually called Reginald Smith) started off in a skiffle group, the Hound Dogs. He left the band to go solo under the management of impresario Larry Parnes who renamed him Marty Wilde. Parnes was also responsible for turning one Ronald Wycherley into Billy Fury - ‘bad boy’ names were the thing. Wilde’s success owed much to his sex appeal, including an Elvis style hip grind.
In 1959, thousands of teenage hearts were broken when Wilde married Joyce Baker, one of the Vernons’ Girls singing group, and his popularity plummeted. He was overshadowed by Cliff Richard and the Beatles, but his daughter, Kim was to become a pop star, after her recording of one of her father’s songs ‘Kids from America’ went into the charts in 1981. She later abandoned her successful singing career to become an equally successful garden designer.
Adam Faith filming in Shepherds Bush Market
In 1955 15 year old Terry Nelhams started a skiffle band called The Worried Men, who played regularly at 21’s Coffee Bar in Soho, the club which had hosted early performances by Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. He released a few solo singles with no great success until, as Adam Faith, he recorded What do you Want in 1959. By the early 1960s he was one of the three top British pop stars along with Cliff Richard and Billy Fury until The Beatles knocked them all off their perch.
In the late 1960s, Faith’s music career was slowing down so he switched to acting, appearing as a cheeky cockney in the 1970s TV series Budgie. Over the next 30 years he continued to act intermittently while managing other artists, producing records and being a financial entrepreneur.
This photograph was taken by Harry Hammond during a shoot in 1963, when Ringo had just joined the band. That year The Beatles made their second ever single and their first ever album both called Please Please Me. The album stayed at number one in the charts for 29 weeks.
From never having recorded an album in January, by November the band were appearing at a Royal Command performance performing Twist and Shout. John Lennon brought the house down by saying to the audience ‘People in the cheaper seats clap your hands, the rest of you just rattle your jewellery’.
By 1963 they were setting the trend in clothes, haircuts and music all over Europe. By 1964 they had conquered America and were on their way to being the most successful and influential band of the 20th century.
Pete Townshend's Gibson Les Paul guitar broken on stage
The Who was one of the greatest and most progressive bands of the 1960s and 1970s. As with the first rock ’n’ roll bands, its songs were about teenage angst, but with a more realistic, and darker humour than its romantic predecessors with songs like My Generation, I’m a Boy and Pictures of Lily. The Who’s musical style was as radical as its subject matter with Townshend’s power chords and Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming. In 1969, the band created the first rock opera, Tommy, followed by Quadrophenia in 1973, both of which were subsequently made into films.
Townshend’s guitar smashing habit became an integral part of the band’s act, a form of ‘auto-destructive art’ (works of art which destroy themselves after a set time). However the practice allegedly originated by accident. In 1964 the band was doing a weekly set at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, where the ceiling was so low that Townshend took the top of the instrument’s head off while swinging it - he then trashed the whole thing and the crowds loved it so much it became a weekly event.
The dictionary definition of a diva is, quite simply, ‘a distinguished female singer’. It was first used to describe the great opera singers in the 1880s, but the word has taken on additional nuances over time. Just as 'prima donna', literally the 'first woman' or lead female in a production, has come to mean someone who behaves temperamentally (probably because so many of the 'first ladies' let that title go to their heads), diva is not as straightforward as the dictionary would have us believe.
Diva now implies someone 'larger than life', someone exceptionally glamorous, to the point of being over the top. There is also an implication of surviving a hard life, or having succeeded against tremendous odds, even a sense of being a victim, and it therefore also carries a hint of a sadness underlying the glitz and glamour. There can be no argument that the performers gathered here are all distinguished female singers, but they fit the bill as divas in many of the other ways too.
Born Frances Gumm in 1922, Judy Garland was only two and a half when she began performing on stage with her family. At six, she was outshining her two older sisters who, with her, made up The Gumm Sisters. Her voice was huge for her size and filled with a maturity and melancholy far beyond her years. She was quickly snapped up by MGM and became one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Both in films and in her later cabaret career, Garland sang the Gershwins' songs with impeccable style. She is inextricably associated with some of their biggest hits including, I got Rhythm and Embraceable You.
The stresses of Hollywood stardom eventually overcame Garland and after a series of breakdowns (partly fuelled by the drug addiction dating from her childhood, when the studio pumped her with pills to keep her to its grinding work schedules,) the studio cancelled her contract. She then set out to rebuild her career on television and on stage. This photograph by Harry Hammond shows her in the 1950s, when she was wowing audiences worldwide in cabaret and with her stage show.
Born of mixed race parentage on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927, Eartha Kitt never knew her white father, who had named her for the good harvest that year. She was given away by her mother when the man she was marrying objected to Eartha’s paleness, but when she was eight an aunt in Harlem, New York, took her in.
She began her showbusiness career as a singer and dancer with the Katherine Dunham Troupe, but while performing in Paris, she was signed up as a cabaret singer by a nightclub owner. Her feline beauty, captured so well here by Harry Hammond and the sultry voice, somewhere between a purr and a growl, quickly won her fame and admirers. She went on to make a career not only as a singer, but as a respected actress too. As an American paper reported, ‘Now in her fifth decade of making men nervous, Eartha Kitt still electrifies audiences with her one-of-a-kind persona, peppering her flirty set with gold-digging songs about champagne, stretch limos, and pearls’.
Shirley Bassey was born in 1937, the youngest of seven children, in the deprived docks area of Cardiff called Tiger Bay. Her mother was English and her father Nigerian at a time when racism was still very strong. They separated when she was three. At 15, she was working in a sausage factory and singing in working men’s clubs in the evenings. She was spotted by a London talent scout in 1953, but returned from her first big job, touring with the American show Hot From Harlem, pregnant. A mother at 17, she returned to London and to her singing. Her massive voice, and the oceans of emotion she poured into every song, scored her hit after hit, including no fewer than three James Bond themes.
But while her career went from strength to strength, her personal life was far from smooth. Her first marriage to her manager, Kenneth Hume, was short-lived, and their daughter drowned aged 21. Hume later committed suicide. But after more than 50 years in show business, an unbelievably youthful Bassey is still performing, wearing her trademark ‘waterfalls of diamonds’.
After some success in the early 1960s with country music trio The Springfields, with her brother Tom, Dusty Springfield hit the big time when she went solo and made her way to the heart of Swinging London. Her almost caricatured appearance - thick, thick mascara and a stack of peroxided hair - seemed to be worn to mask the shy, self-critical girl within. But everything was revealed in her voice, which she used to communicate a world of fragile emotion. She could tackle the rawness of rhythm and blues, the smooth sophistication of a Broadway standard, or the simplicity of classic pop. Hits including You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (which went to number four in the US) and Son of a Preacher Man cemented her reputation as 'the first white woman of soul'.
But the constant search for perfection drove her into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. She fought back, and a 1987 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, and her soundtrack for the film Scandal a year later re-established her career. In 1998 she received the OBE, but lost her battle with cancer the following year.
Doris Day at Philips Records reception at Claridges
Despite a private life full of incident - her German parents divorced when she was eight, a car crash at 14 almost ended her promising dancing career, four marriages (the first ending in violence, the second lasting only eight months), the death of her older brother when she was 34, and a work schedule that took her close to collapse - Doris Day always maintained the sweet, girl-next-door image that made her one of the most popular stars of the 1950s. Shimmeringly blonde and pretty, with an unmistakably husky voice, it was perhaps the combination of the innocent appearance and the seductively throaty singing voice which made her so appealing. Her screen persona of an intelligent, wholesome woman of unfailing optimism and understated strength of character, came to epitomise the ideal American woman of the 1950s.
Her many films include Calamity Jane (this promotional stunt by Philips Records is a nod to the hit song The Deadwood Stage) and Pillow Talk, but she was also a superb live performer with a huge catalogue of recordings over a 20 year recording career.