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Author Statement

Larry Birnbaum

Larry Birnbaum
Photo by Joe Mabel

Born in New York City to parents from Vienna, Austria, I was raised in Chicago, where I saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and heard Little Richard on American Bandstand. At the age of twelve I fell in love with classical music; one of my biggest thrills as a teenager was seeing Igor Stravinsky conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Then I discovered the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and other sixties rock bands, and started listening to the blues. Coincidentally, I went on double dates with a daughter of Leonard Chess, the man who founded Chess Records and recorded Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I met Leonard and his son, Marshall, and was very impressed by the gold records on the walls of their house. As soon as I was old enough, I began to frequent Chicago’s South Side and West Side blues clubs, where I would see Muddy, Wolf, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and many others.

I got a job at the Jazz Record Mart, whose dingy basement served as home to both the Delmark record label and the legendary Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams. My next job was at the Jazz Showcase, the only nightclub in Chicago that regularly booked nationally touring jazz artists. Throughout my twenties I would go out several nights a week, to as many as three venues a night, to hear live blues, jazz, folk, country, salsa, reggae—just about any kind of music except rock, which I rediscovered when the Ramones and Sex Pistols came out.

In 1977 I started writing for Down Beat magazine, which I continued to do for more than twenty years; soon I was contributing to the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune. I opened my own record shop, Hot Records, which lasted about a year. In 1985 I moved to New York, where I began to write for publications such as Time Out, Details, Jazziz, Musician, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Latin Beat, New York Latino, Schwann Spectrum, Creem, Rolling Stone, and Living Blues. An article I wrote for the New York Times about polka music won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 1989. I was a regular contributor to Spin and to Newsday for about five years each, and to Pulse!, the magazine of the Tower Records chain, for about ten years. I also wrote liner notes, program notes, artist bios, and the scripts for a German-produced television series on world music, Visions of Music: World Jazz, that was broadcast in Europe and on public television stations in the United States. I still write regularly for Stereophile.

In the late 1980s I edited Ear, a “new music” magazine that covered the classical, jazz, and rock avant-garde. In the early 1990s I hosted a weekly radio program called New York International, featuring music from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and published my own newsletter under the same name. From 1996 to 2001 I edited Global Rhythm, the only American magazine to cover the entire spectrum of world music. Most recently I was the editor of Schirmer Trade Books, an imprint specializing in books about music, where I was responsible for such titles as Max Salazar’s Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York, Leslie Gourse’s Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger, and Serene Dominic’s Burt Bacharach: Song by Song.

During the course of my career I have published thousands of articles, interviewed hundreds of musicians, and attended countless live performances. But I have avoided specializing in any single musical genre. I am considered an expert on jazz, blues, salsa, and world music and have an in-depth knowledge of classical music, country music, and, of course, rock ’n’ roll. My broad musical background has given me insight into the relationships among different styles and enabled me to make connections that might not occur to others.

I have long been curious about the origins of rock music and skeptical about the prevailing ideas on the subject. In 1982, I explored the history of boogie-woogie as part of a ten-thousand-word piece I wrote for the Chicago Reader about my friend Erwin Helfer, a pianist who used to accompany singer Mama Yancey, the widow of boogie-woogie pioneer Jimmy Yancey. In one of the first published articles to address the topic of jump music, I reviewed a dozen reissue albums by the likes of Louis Jordan, Buddy Johnson, Tiny Bradshaw, Joe Liggins, and Amos Milburn for the July 1985 edition of Down Beat and explained how jump music evolved into rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll.

Since I began researching and writing Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll, my enthusiasm for the book has only grown. It’s been a fascinating voyage of discovery, with new material turning up nearly everywhere I look. Over the past decade or so, there has been a surge of publishing activity in the fields of blues, jazz, country, and other genres that fed into the development of rock. The past few years alone have seen the origin of the blues radically reexamined in a number of books, journal articles, and dissertations. The Internet has made it easy to access an enormous wealth of information, although much of it is dubious and requires verification. And I am fortunate enough to live just blocks from the New York Library for the Performing Arts, which houses a comprehensive collection of books, recordings, and periodicals dating back to the nineteenth century.

But while the facts are available to those who pursue them, the conventional mythology about rock’s origins persists. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first commercial recording, for example, Time magazine’s website recently ran a story by Christopher John Farley, under the headline “Elvis Rocks. But He’s Not the First,” that recycled such common misconceptions as that Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” was the first rock ’n’ roll record, that rock was a direct offshoot of the blues, and that Presley hung out in black nightclubs while he was still in high school. I feel strongly that it’s time to set the record straight.

One Comment
  1. Debbie Nathan permalink

    Congratulations! Great that your book is seeing the light after all the work you put into it.

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