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.
Elvis Presley, photography by Harry Hammond, Prestwick airport, Scotland, mid 20th century. Museum no. S.13974-2009
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, photography by Harry Hammond, Dominion Theatre, London, 1956. Museum no. S.7514-2009
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, photography by Harry Hammond, 1961. Museum no. S.9773-2009
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.
Everly Brothers, photography by Harry Hammond, 1961-63. Museum no. S.10884-2009
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.
Little Richard, photography by Harry Hammond, 1962. Museum no. S.14540-2009
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.