True rock and roll pioneers must be celebrated

Spencer Buckner

When a rock ’n’ roll veteran dies, America mourns them. October was no exception. Only 22 days after the death of rock icon Tom Petty, genre pioneer and pianist Fats Domino passed away. While Petty’s life story, music and cause of death flooded the media for weeks after his death, Domino’s passing went much more quietly.

Sure, Petty’s peak popularity was 20 to 40 years later than Domino’s, but without pioneers like Domino, we wouldn’t have had Tom Petty at all. Why are the creators of what was the biggest musical genre in America less celebrated than their successors? Likely because society never gave them enough credit in the first place.

Who is the King of Rock? For most Americans, the only answer is Elvis Presley — after all, that’s his reverential nickname. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, perhaps the most visibly elitist and exclusionary entity in the genre, has gone as far as crediting Elvis with the invention of rock by “modernizing” blues and R&B. But what does that really mean? 

Presley’s rise to rock ’n’ roll royalty was largely accomplished by outright stealing the work of African-American blues musicians who came before him. His first single, “That’s All Right (Mama),” was a loyal cover of a song by Arthur Crudup, an African-American musician — a musician who battled Presley over legally deserved royalties and only received them after his own death. What the Hall of Fame calls “modernizing” is artistic and cultural theft, a practice that producers and record labels capitalized on in rock’s formative years.

When placed in historical context, the music industry’s newfound drive to bend and exploit African-American music was nothing more than a novel continuation of structural racism. In an era where radio stations were often segregated and where white audiences shunned black artists, music executives knew they could make a fortune using white artists to cover undeniably classic R&B hits.

Pat Boone became the second-biggest charting artist in the 1950s behind Presley by similarly almost exclusively re-recording R&B songs — songs such as Domino’s classic “Ain’t That a Shame.” The rise of stars like Boone and Presley was fostered by a pervasive racism in the music industry, one which still fools Americans into believing that musical mimickers were the real innovators.

Fats Domino is a unique exception to this phenomena. After Boone’s cover of “Ain’t That a Shame” reached No. 1 on the charts, it was Domino’s career that took off. With over 65 million records sold and 11 top 10 hits, Domino’s legacy as a pioneer was met with near-equal success. Commercial success aside, the media still remained aloof in mourning Domino’s death. It raises the question: If Elvis died in 2017, would the media have treated him the same way?

Rock ’n’ roll’s immense impact on American musical culture cannot be understated. While marginalized during their pioneering of the genre, it’s long overdue that the African-American musical innovators of the 1950s and beyond receive the respect they deserve for their innumerable contributions to music. Elvis has worn the crown of rock ’n’ roll’s king for far too long. Let’s honor the kings and queens who really invented the genre.

Buckner is a Plan II and government freshman from Austin.