Sharing the Charts: Pop, R&B and Rock and Roll's Meteoric Rise

Tuesday, May 1: 11 a.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
Little Richard

When the May 12, 1956 issue of Billboard magazine hit newsstands, its pages cataloged a monumental shift in the charts. The issue reported the chart positions for the week ending May 2, 1956, with the usual suspects of the era holding steady positions in the Top 10 of the pop charts: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Platters, among them. More telling, however, was the fact that each of those five artists also had singles in the Top 10 of the R&B charts. The chart positions reflected greater sociological movements in the United States, to wit the burgeoning civil rights movement, and an emerging respect for African American culture and identity as being truly American, but there would be a backlash. 

Presley had signed with RCA Victor in 1956, and his first release under his new label was "Heartbreak Hotel." Producer Steve Sholes had worked to recapture the "Sun sound" for "Heartbreak," enlisting guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, drummer DJ Fontana, guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Kramer and three members of the Jordanaires on backing vocals. On May 2, 1956, the song was at Number One on the Billboard pop chart and Number Six on the R&B chart.

A couple notches below Presley on the pop chart for the week of May 2, 1956, was Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" – a song also covered by Presley – reached Number Three on both the pop and R&B charts. Recorded in 1955, the song injected Perkins' country & western leanings with a rhythm & blues and boogie swagger that made it among the archetypes of the rockabilly genre and an anthem for a rebellious postwar generation.

Alongside Presley and Perkins, Little Richard – the self-described "architect of rock and roll" – was taking his singular presence and explosive music to the stage and studio, with the latter efforts making him a fixture on Billboard's singles charts. Recorded in Cosimo Matassa's legendary J&M studios and released on the Specialty imprint, "Long Tall Sally" followed Richard's "Tutti Frutti" with an even more frenetic pace built around a 12-bar blues progression. The track was led by Richard's playful howling and uptempo boogie piano, and reached Number One on the R&B chart for the week of May 2, 1956, while hitting Number Six on the same week's pop chart. 

Occupying the Number Seven spot on the R&B and pop charts, "Magic Touch" by the Platters – comprising Tony Williams, David Lynch, Herb Reed, Paul Robi and Zola Taylor – delivered the same rich harmonies and soulful, smooth delivery that had made "Only You" and "The Great Pretender" hits to that point. Like the Ink Spots a decade earlier, they were the most popular black group of their time.

Though barely into his teens, Frankie Lymon and his band of doo-wooping Teenagers had penned a vocal group classic with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" Recorded for Gee Records in November 1955, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” is among the key records by which the doo-wop style is defined and remembered. The track became an international sensation, reaching Number One on the English pop chart, but on the week of May 2, 1956, Billboard had it at Number Nine on the pop chart and Number Four on the R&B chart (it enjoyed a run at Number One on the R&B chart). In an era of slowly opening doors, the song made 13-year-old Lymon one of the first black teenage pop stars. His youthful rise to fame served as a prototype for such later stars as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, but less than a year after the wonderful synergy of the charts, the young Lymon was at the center of an adverse reaction.

On July 19, 1957, Lymon appeared on Alan Freed's ABC television program, The Big Beat, where he was filmed dancing with a white girl during his performance. The move caused an uproar, particularly among affiliate networks in the South, and Freed's show was cancelled. Six years later, in 1963, the Billboard R&B chart was cut from the magazine – though the reason was not exclusionary. 

The tide of assimilation rolled forward into the Sixties, as the Billboard R&B charts was eliminated for 14 months between November 30, 1963 and January 23, 1965 owing to the regular crossover of titles between the R&B and pop singles charts. Billboard deemed the lists too similar to print both. Not coincidentally, Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown would emerge during that period as an American music institution. Producing acts that included the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and Martha and the Vandellas, Motown helped bridge the racial divide with music that spoke to all, becoming the "Sound of young America" in the Sixties.

Learn more at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's permanent exhibit: The Roots of Rock and Roll: Blues, Gospel, Country/Folk/Bluegrass and R&B



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