- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

Many rock enthusiasts view the period between Elvis Presley’s first hip shake and the arrival of the Beatles as one long, sputtering interruption. The late 1950s saw one rock ‘n’ roll casualty after another — sometimes literal casualties, as in the cases of plane- and car-crash victims Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, respectively. If first-generation rockers weren’t dying tragically, they were joining the Army, like Mr. Presley. Or crossing state lines with underage girls, like Chuck Berry. Or marrying their 13-year-old cousins, like Jerry Lee Lewis. Or finding God, like Little Richard.

And if it wasn’t rock performers falling from grace, it was influential industry figures such as Alan Freed, the radio deejay who in 1958 was charged with inciting a riot at a Boston rock concert and, in 1962, pleaded guilty to charges of commercial bribery in a damaging payola scandal.

It was a time of “very mushy” pop music, said Paul Simon; of “empty pleasantries,” said Bob Dylan.

Then came the British invaders, along with the native Mr. Dylan, who swept away the bubble-gum complacency of an ailing American art form and ushered in the era where rock music would be taken seriously not just by a mass market of teenagers, but by the intelligentsia.

Not so simple, say a pair of books that came out last month — Ken Emerson’s “Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era” and Peter Guralnick’s “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.”

Although the books center around different musical milieus, their chronologies imply a common argument: The interval between the rise of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles represented not an interruption, but, rather, continuity in what Mr. Guralnick calls “an explosion of American vernacular music in all directions” that lasted throughout the 20th century.

In soul legend Sam Cooke’s crossover from gospel to pop, with classics such as “Wonderful World,” “You Send Me” and “Having a Party,” Mr. Guralnick sees an important consolidation of American soul music that began with Ray Charles’ revolutionary stylistic hybrid of rhythm and blues and gospel, “I Got a Woman.”

“This is who Elvis aspired to be,” Mr. Guralnick, author of an acclaimed two-part Presley biography, says of Mr. Cooke.

Why then isn’t Mr. Cooke, one of the first black artists to tend to his own business dealings, as famous today as he deserves to be? Partly, Mr. Guralnick says, because his song catalog was divided between companies — RCA and ABKCO — that have only recently reconciled. And partly because he died prematurely, in 1964, before the rock era, when soul singers like Otis Redding would be claimed, somewhat patronizingly, by rockists as one of their own.

Mr. Emerson focuses not on a singular avatar, but on a scene that took its name from a legendary building at 1619 Broadway in New York City that served as a sort of nerve center of the music publishing business in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Brill Building songwriters, producers and arrangers — among them Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King — helped transform rock music, broadly speaking, from a scruffy invention into a superb craft, Mr. Emerson argues. “They smoothed the rough edges of black R&B performers to help them appeal to a white audience, and they roughed up white performers just enough to create a tousled titillation.”

Mr. Emerson, the author previously of “Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture,” cites, in particular, Mr. Goffin and Miss King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” first made famous by the girl group the Shirelles. With its faintly scandalous lyrical subject — fear of premarital pregnancy — it “set the stage for a new kind of honesty and dramatic realism in popular music,” he says in a phone interview.

Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller’s work with R&B singers the Drifters, he adds, “gave a new kind of sophistication and orchestral luster to rhythm and blues” — prefiguring the Beatles’ and Moody Blues’ use of string arrangements in rock songs.

Far from emerging ex nihilo from Liverpool pubs or London blues clubs, second-generation rockers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones idolized the American pop artists who immediately preceded their trans-Atlantic siege. The Fab Four covered Goffin-King’s “Chains” on their debut record, for example, and the Stones assayed Mr. Cooke’s “Good Times” in 1965.

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, too, owed much to the streamlined method behind many Brill Building hits. “Motown was developed in emulation of the [Brill Building] assembly process,” Mr. Emerson says. “Berry Gordy got that idea not just from Detroit’s automobile industry, but from the teamwork of the publishing companies in New York.”

The Beatles are often said to be the first self-contained unit to write, arrange and perform its own songs. While this may have been true of bands at the time, this view shortchanges original hit makers such as Mr. Charles and Mr. Cooke. Mr. Emerson argues that the Brill Building scene also presaged autonomous creativity in pop music. “Almost inevitably,” he writes, “many of these songwriters developed into arrangers and producers, if only in self-defense: to preserve their music as they intended it to sound and to sell.”

He credits the Brill Building scene, consisting as it did of songwriters coming from a Jewish Brookyln milieu, with a social conscience that sometimes registered in its songs. There was the Crystals’ “Uptown,” for example, and its undercurrent of racial frustration.

And even if it lacked topical relevance and catered almost exclusively to teenagers, Mr. Emerson said the Brill Building era was typified by an openness not just to European classical forms but to an Afro-Caribbean flair imported by New York’s then-rapidly escalating Puerto Rican population.

“This music was multicultural before there was the word,” he says.

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