The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Ed Ward's history of rock, 1920-1963

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Ed Ward's 'History of Rock & Roll, Volume One'
Ed Ward's 'History of Rock & Roll, Volume One: 1920-1963' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Ed Ward's new book is titled The History of Rock & Roll, Volume One: 1920-1963, but it primarily focuses on the incredibly fertile period from the early '50s to the early '60s. It's incredible, when you think about it: over a time span of fewer years than The Current has been on the air, music went from a time before Elvis Presley had ever set foot in Sun Studios to the heyday of Motown and the start of the British Invasion.

Even with 380 pages devoted to about a decade's worth of detailed history, this book by Ward — best known as the longtime rock historian on NPR's Fresh Air — still feels like a whirlwind tour. Ward aims to capture the flurry of activity happening simultaneously in each year of his history, so legendary names go flying by.

In just a single paragraph on page 171, Ward mentions concurrent hits by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Platters, the Del-Vikings, and several more. The book makes you wish you had a playlist with every single song mentioned: you could read a page, stop and listen to the 20 songs discussed on that page, and then tackle the next page.

It's of course a fascinating story, and Ward tend to lean more heavily towards providing facts than analysis. You won't finish this book with a new theory of how, for example, race and class intertwined with technology to spur the rock revolution — but you'll have plenty of new insights into particular phenomena like the American Bandstand craze.

You'll also learn a lot of fascinating facts. Don't try to read this book while you're sitting next to someone trying to get some work done (sorry, Andrea) — you'll keep wanting to interrupt them to share an amazing thing you've just discovered about rock and roll history. A few of my favorites:

- Before he hit it big, Little Richard would often play gay bars, where his signature song was a particular favorite. The pre-sanitized lyrics: "A-wop-bopa-lubop-a-good-god-damn! Tutti frutti, good booty!"

- When Carl Perkins first walked into his local record store to buy a copy of his own "Blue Suede Shoes," he was confused because he'd never seen a 45 before. "That ain't my record," he told the clerk. "My record's a great big one with a little bitty hole in it." He had to buy a new variable-speed record player just to listen to his own hit.

- Mid-1950s rock and roll hits started being referred to as "oldies" in...1959. That's when the first compilation record in the long-running Oldies But Goodies series was released, and it became a big seller with 20-somethings who were nostalgic for their teen years.

- When the payola scandal struck the radio world, one short-lived solution had the FCC requiring every DJ to stop at the top of each hour and disclose the name of every label that had provided a free record that would be played in the next 60 minutes.

- We have Mantovani to thank for the British Invasion. Yes, Mantovani. When the England-based recording artist sold a slew of records on our side of the Atlantic in the mid-1950s, his label had the idea that maybe taking American records and releasing them in England would be similarly profitable. Thus, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and more were brought over as imports — inspiring the British bands who would storm our airwaves a few years later.

The stories go on and on...but the book has to end somewhere, and Ward chooses to end this volume in 1963. Why that year? Ward points to a couple of epochal events in the final months of 1963, one of which felt like "the end of the world" and the other which opened up a whole new world. The first event was the Kennedy assassination. The second was the American release — on Dec. 26, 1963 — of the debut single by a punny little band from Liverpool.

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