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Reviews & Interviews

This interview with David Barnett was done  for the Cleveland public radio station WCPN.

This interview was done for The Steve Fast Show on WJBC radio, Bloomington, IL.

This interview with Michael Jacobi and Rachael Shelton was done for Raising the Standards on KSCO radio, Santa Cruz, CA.

This interview with Steve Paul was done for the Voice of America (


A history of early rock ’n’ roll that looks beyond country blues to big band, ‘hokum’ and ‘jump music.’


May 18-19, 2013

Before Elvis
By Larry Birnbaum
Scarecrow, 463 pages, $40


It is generally accepted that the first jazz recording was made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917. But the identity of the first true rock ’n’ roll record is a matter of debate. In “Before Elvis,” a study of the “prehistory of rock,” Larry Birnbaum makes a compelling case for “Roll ’Em Pete,” recorded in 1938 by blues shouter Big Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.

“Roll ’Em Pete” has all the energy, drive and attitude of the classic R&B sides of a decade later—say, Roy Brown’s 1947 “There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight”—not to mention early rock hits from five years after that, like Bill Haley’s 1954 “Rock Around The Clock.” Mr. Birnbaum calls “Roll ’Em Pete” “a full-fledged rocker in all but instrumentation”—meaning that there is every element associated with rock except for the electric guitar. “Johnson’s bass line is a Chuck Berry-like chug,” he writes, “and his furious right-hand embellishments anticipate Berry’s entire guitar style.”

The author allows that Turner’s lyrics (“You so beautiful, but you gotta die some day / All I want [is a] little lovin’, babe, just before you pass away”) are more direct than most 1950s rock lyrics, which were sanitized for teenage audiences. He also thinks that the performances of Turner and Johnson are “too sophisticated for rock ’n’ roll: the music has yet to be formularized for mass consumption.” But in the larger picture, the music itself had pretty much already arrived at where it was going; young white audiences just took 15 years to find it.

This analysis is just one example of the iconoclastic thinking that makes Mr. Birnbaum’s book invaluable. His good ear and deep original research help him overturn much of the conventional wisdom about where rock came from.

The hoariest truism is that rock grew out of country blues (Robert Johnson and Charley Patton) and the early electric blues exemplified by Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. This idea is an invention of the 1960s, when British rockers in particular were looking back to the country bluesmen. Mr. Birnbaum reveals a more direct connection from the big swing bands of the 1930s, whose bluesier side developed into postwar R&B.

One of Mr. Birnbaum’s preferred methods is to start with a rock ’n’ roll standard, then take it backward in time, to illustrate how ideas developed over the generations. Starting with “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” (aka “Stroll On”) by the Yardbirds in 1966, he takes us back to a 1956 rockabilly version by the Johnny Burnette Trio and then to a 1951 version by black bandleader Tiny Bradshaw. From there, he shows us that “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” is itself adapted from “Cow-Cow Boogie,” a 1942 hit by the white pianist Freddie Slack’s orchestra—a revelation that transports us into the life of Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, a lesser-known boogie-woogie pianist who didn’t write the song but who did, apparently unknowingly, lend his name to it.

Mr. Birnbaum follows the train tracks backward, going ever deeper into the past, whizzing by such iconic figures as the 1920s country-blues legend Papa Charlie Jackson and the pioneering blues composer W.C. Handy. Along the way, he productively looks in on short-lived genres that played a key role in the invention of rock, such as late-’30s “jump music” and the “hokum” songs of the mid-’20s. Jump music was an interim step between big-band swing and R&B. Hokum was a comedy song, often with risqué lyrics, set in a verse-and-refrain format, with close ties to the blues, jazz and country music—“Rock Around the Clock” was essentially a hokum song.

Some of the book’s most satisfying sections make a case for artists like trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page, songwriter Sam Theard and bandleader Lucky Millinder, who are barely mentioned in histories of jazz. Mr. Birnbaum suggests that Theard’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” (a hit record for blues shouter Sticks McGhee in 1947) was a “pivotal” milestone in the development of rock, an archetype for dozens of other bouncy, fast-tempo, boogie-woogie-driven numbers about drinking and dancing.

The author ends by lamenting that “the definitive study of rock ’n’ roll origins has yet to be written.” It seems clear that with the present volume, a damned good start has been made.

—Mr. Friedwald is the author of
“A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers.”


Previews, Reviews, and Collection Development   Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction | First Look at New Books, January 18, 2013 Birnbaum, Larry. Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Scarecrow. 2012. 474p. ISBN 9780810886384. $85. MUSIC

As the subtitle implies, music journalist Birnbaum approaches the history of rock and roll like an archaeologist. Instead of cave paintings or crudely made tools, Birnbaum has records—lots and lots of records. Unlike most music histories, which tend to focus on performers and their lives, Birnbaum investigates sounds: Where did these rhythms come from? Where did this riff start? The tracing of musical and lyrical memes makes for a consuming, if at times overwhelming, journey through mid-20th-century American pop culture history. Birnbaum’s knowledge of the music of this time period is breathtaking, and will make readers wish the book came with a soundtrack. The obscurity of so many of the records Birnbaum recalls, though, and his audience’s inability to hear them, makes the reading experience feel somewhat incomplete.

Verdict Still, this corrective to what so many of music fans assume they know about rock and pop history is a necessary one and will introduce readers to artists deserving greater attention. This stunning tour de force of prerock history will inspire fans to learn more about the roots of the music they love.—Brett Rohlwing, Washington Park Branch, Milwaukee P.L.  


Larry Birnbaum Explores The Prehistory of Rock February 1, 2013


’ve always been interested in the roots of different genres and sub-genres and the connections between different artists and types of song. My interest was piqued as soon as I read about Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Larry Birnbaum. This is an incredible deep dive into the history of rock ’n’ roll by way of jazz, country, and blues. Here is how I read the book: I slid my headphones on, dialed up Spotify, and looked up as many of the artists or songs a Birnbaum discussed. Talk about an education!

Music Tomes: To say Before Elvis is an extensive study of the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll would be a huge understatement. What gave you the idea to attack such a subject?

Larry Birnbaum: After I left my job as editor of Schirmer Trade Books, I wanted to write a book of my own; until then I’d written mostly magazine and newspaper articles. I came across a review of thirteen jump-blues reissue LPs that I’d written for the July 1985 issue of Down Beat magazine — including records by artists such as Lionel Hampton, Freddie Slack, Helen Humes, Slim Gaillard and Dave Bartholomew—and that was the seed from which Before Elvis grew. The topic hadn’t been explored in much depth, and I thought it would have sales appeal.

MT: Is the book you finished the book you started?

LB: Not really. I learned a lot from my research and discovered quite a few artists I hadn’t been familiar with. Sometimes I was led to conclusions that were completely different from the ideas I’d started with; for example, I originally thought that the blues had come to the United States from Africa and that the boogie-woogie had developed in lumber and turpentine camps in Texas and Louisiana, but my research led me to believe otherwise.

MT: What surprised you the most as you dug through the history?

LB: Maybe it was the importance of the twelve-bar verse-and-refrain hokum song, although that dawned on me slowly over a period of time.

MT: How did such a simplistic view of the birth of Rock come about and why are so many people comfortable with it?

LB: Unlike jazz, rock ’n’ roll was not taken seriously by critics or scholars at its inception, and by the time it was taken seriously, the notion had taken hold that rock had suddenly burst upon the scene when white artists like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley began singing rhythm-and-blues songs. After the British Invasion, guitar-band rock was linked to the blues, but rock critics had little use for jazz and failed to see the relationship between jazz and rock. It was considered sufficient to relate rock to R&B and not necessary to look into where R&B had come from.

MT: Do you remember the first time you made a deeper connection between what you were hearing and what came before it?LB: I really don’t. I heard rock ’n’ roll as a kid but didn’t think about where it came from until later. It was impossible to miss the connection between 1960s rock and the blues, so I guess I formed some of the same misconceptions that other people did. I discovered jump music in the 1980s, when I interviewed the jump-revival band Roomful of Blues for Down Beat, and that connected rock ’n’ roll to swing.

MT: What are you currently working on?

LB: I’m currently trying to promote the book. I’d like to get a teaching job and then write a history of salsa music in New York.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

LB: Country Music U.S.A., by Bill Malone; Long Lost Blues, by Peter Muir; A Power Stronger Than Itself, by George Lewis; Cuba and Its Music, by Ned Sublette; The Swing Era, by Gunther Schuller; and The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke.

Eric Banister

logo2Birnbaum, Larry.  Before Elvis: the prehistory of rock ’n’ roll.  Scarecrow, 2013.  463p index afp; ISBN 9780810886384, $85.00; ISBN 9780810886285 pbk, $40.00; ISBN 9780810886292 e-book, $39.99. Reviewed in 2013jun CHOICE.

Birnbaum (a music journalist) has drawn on his encyclopedic knowledge in this history of popular music in much of the 20th century. He expands and updates the coverage in Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker’s Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (CH, Jun ’87) and Robert Palmer’s Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (1971), and Chuck Mancuso’s heavily illustrated Popular Music and the Underground (1996). The author begins by observing that “the nascent sound of rock ’n’ roll could be heard as early as the 1920s in a number of hokum songs, piano boogies, and jazz-band arrangements,” and this finally emerged full-blown with Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. After two introductory chapters, Birnbaum moves into detailed discussions of the blues, boogie-woogie, jazz, country music, and rhythm and blues, and concludes with Frankie Laine, Kay Starr, Johnnie Ray, and Pat Boone. Each chapter offers detailed information on the performers, songs, record companies, and much more. Birnbaum also provides some technical information on the songs and arrangements. This rich discussion is accompanied by detailed notes that draw on the latest research. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. — R. D. Cohen, emeritus, Indiana University Northwest


Book Reviews

Larry Birnbaum: Before Elvis – The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll

By C. MICHAEL BAILEY, Published: September 7, 2013

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll 
Larry Birnbaum 
474 pages 
ISBN: 978-0810886285 
Scarecrow Press 

“Rock ’n’ Roll is just the blues sped up.”

That statement might have satisfied a generation of listeners who barely scratched beneath the surface of the genre, looking for its source. And it may have been propagated by a generation of wide-eyed romantics the same way the myth of Robert Johnson was. But it, in no way, satisfied writer Larry Birnbaum, who has penned the definitive history of American music leading up to rock. Believe this: Birnbaum is the music geek Wotan. He has listened to every recording since Edison cylinders were popular.

Rather than being shaped from solely the blues, Birnbaum makes the convincing argument that this is too narrow a view and that the whole of the American music vernacular: jazz, blues, country, vaudeville, hokum, rhythm & blues and every other form percolating up to the early 1950s is responsible for what has become the most enduring musical form to date. Birnbaum does this with stultifying detail alternating with almost poetic ruminations that begin in the late 19th century (and often well before) extending to what is relevant today. He details the histories of the progenitors, laying out the map of how each flows into the delta that is rock ’n’ roll

Forget the old argument of what was the first rock ’n’ roll record. Birnbaum reasons, like any decent historian, that it is beside the point. The music was an evolution. What Birnbaum does, appropriately, is point out the major harmonic and rhythmic themes in songs that eventually coalesced into what we understand as rock ’n’ roll. Having said that, Birnbaum mentions two songs in particular when speaking Ur-rock ’n’ roll: Cow Cow Davenport’s proto-boogie-woogie 1928 Vocalion/Brunswick “Cow-Cow Blues” and the jump blues “Train Kept A Rollin'” first recorded by Tiny Bradshaw for King Records in 1951 and then by rockabilly antecedent Johnny Burnette for Coral Records in 1956. The history of the song after that is well known.

Birnbaum sites the boogie-woogie piano beat, particularly the walking bass of the left hand, the 12-bar blues, and the chugging momentum of the electric guitar, specifically that of Chuck Berry, as being the basic elements of what would become rock. But this is just the most simplified foundation. Expertly, the author weaves together an account from numberless sources, explained in laymans’ terms that goes a long way in sparking an interest in these earlier styles that makes YouTube most valuable in discovering the charms of the musics that brought us to where we are today.

In his epilogue, Birnbaum sums up his lengthy treatise with some of the finest rock writing penned to date:

“Paralleling the development of jazz, rock music has grown so distant from its original sound that modern rock hardly seems to belong to the same genre as vintage rock ’n’ roll. Only the backbeat and amplified guitar-bass-and-drums instrumentation have endured, and even those elements are not always present. Today’s rock musicians and fans may have little or no familiarity with old-school rock ’n’ roll—regrettably, since reconnecting with the music’s roots might help restore its vigor. Moreover, the recognition that rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues grew mainly out of jazz and hokum rather than blues, country, pop, or gospel puts a new perspective on musical history. If rock drew its most characteristic song structure from hokum, that subgenre can no longer be regarded as a mere footnote. And if rhythm-and-blues derives primarily from jazz, then swing should be reevaluated as the root form of rock and not just bebop.

“Swing gave rise to both modern jazz and rhythm-and-blues, and rhythm-and-blues, largely through its appropriation of white country and pop artists, gave birth to rock ’n’ roll. Neither rural nor urban blues—aside from the blues inherent in jazz, which passed into rhythm-and-blues—had much to do with rock music until the 1960s; swing and R&B had more influence on rural and urban blues than rural and urban blues had on swing or R&B [a position supported by Elijah Wald in his Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad Press, 2004)]. Hokum made its way into R&B and rock ’n’ roll through blues, swing, and country music, providing the archetypal structure for some, though by no means all, of the most emblematic rock songs….”

The author goes on to conclude things with:

“Rock ’n’ Roll is quintessentially American music, drawing on a wider variety of sources than has previously been acknowledged—not only the blues, country, and pop, but jazz, hokum, boogie-woogie, mambo, calypso, and more….rock possesses an intrinsic richness born of its diverse formative elements. The rediscovery of these constituents may enhance how rock ‘n’ roll is perceived and perhaps how it will evolve in years to come.”

…and that, gentle reader, is some fine music writing.


Fri, 30 Aug 2013 | Published in The Book Report

By: Ralph Greco

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘N’ Roll
 By Larry Birnbaum
 (Scarecrow Press)

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘N’ Roll is an encyclopedic romp through the recent, but mostly the yesterday (pre-1960’s) of where the music we know as rock and roll came from. Author Larry Birnbaum has delved deep here, deeper than I dare say anyone else ever truly has and unearthed some truths, dispelled some rumors and shed the spotlight on lots of music and musicians I am sure even the most ardent rock fan has never heard of.

But one should search these names and songs; there is a wealth of stuff to learn and listen to. The piano trio Ammons, Lewis and Johnson; archivist and recording engineer John Hammond, Eric Clapton are all listed here as are their contributions. We learn how “Rocket 88,” pretty much a great tune, is not by any stretch the first rock song (we even find how the label rock and roll came to be used and how far back it goes). We get a good dose of where country fits in as well as big band jazz (enjoying a much bigger role in the rock story then you’d ever imagine), meet some “Mystery Women” and learn many origins of tunes, bands and even trends.

I know there have been plenty before it and many more to come, but I’d be hard pressed to find a book as extensive on such a rich subject as Larry Birnbaum’s Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘N’ Roll.


Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’N’ Roll


 So, you think you know all there is to know about rock and roll. Nope, not even close. Let Larry Birnbaum set you straight. His 400-page plus book Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’N’ Roll is the definitive word on where our beloved rock music came from, who made it, and how many of those rumors we thought were true aren’t.

Some of the myths exposed include: Elvis was by far not “the first white man to sing like a black.” Here’s another one: “Rocket ’88” was not the first rock and rock song recorded. And jazz, swing and even Caribbean music influenced early rock as much as the blues, country and gosepl. Plus, we get insights into all the wonderful musicians whose names have been lost to history.

Speaking of which…Ever hear of the names Ammons, Lewis and Johnson? How about the song “Saxa-Woogie?” Want to know about the many “Mystery Women”? How about the origins of “Train Kept A Rollin’”? And how do all the western swing bands fit into the mix?

Birnbaum presents Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’N’ Roll less like a tired, old history book and more like a living breathing jumpin’ and jivin’ story. Yes, there are lots of facts, but in general, this book is a fun read. In other words, nobody’s going to test you on what you learn here, so just sit back and enjoy the lesson.

Learn about Lloyd Price’s career. Read about how specific techniques like the walking bass line became so popular. Discover those under-the-radar guitar slingers. There really isn’t any part of the rock and roll story that Birnbaum doesn’t get to and that’s really what I like most about this book. The author feels his readers need to know it all, and he’s researched it well.

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’N’ Roll will take you some time to get through, but it’s well worth the effort if you want to dig deeper and learn more about the history of the music we all love and worship.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.


book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 September 2013

Larry Birnbaum,

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll

(Scarecrow Press, 2013)

Not long ago, a friend of mine said that rock pretty much sprung complete from Elvis, like the alien coming out of John Hurt’s chest. I told her, no, she was wrong, the first rock record was Jacky Brenston’s 1950 hit, “Rocket 88.” Both of us were repeating conventional wisdom, and it turns out we were both wrong. In Before Elvis, Larry Birnbaum devotes 380 pages with another 70 pages of footnotes and bibliography to correcting our conventional wisdom.

It’s quite a trip, one that I loved taking.

As his subtitle suggests, in these pages, Birnbaum isn’t really interested in the history of rock itself. What he is fascinated by is all of the strains of musical influence that went into the making of the genre. He wants to find out the real story behind rock. What he proves conclusively is that pretty much every history of rock is superficial in its treatment of where the music came from. Did rock come from a blend of the blues and country? Was it influenced by jazz? Did it grow out of rockabilly? The answer to all of these questions is yes, but that’s not the whole story. Much more is involved.

Birnbaum, who appears to have listened to every record ever made, is a great guide through the much more that is involved. On the way, he traces the story back to the very beginnings of the 20th century and corrects a lot of preconceptions along the way. What he discovers is that pretty much nothing is what it seems to be; everything in music history is much more complicated than we thought, not to mention a lot more fun. He also resurrects the reputation of dozens of forgotten pioneers of various genres.

His favorite device is to take a familiar song, usually a rock classic, and trace the journey it took to become the classic we deem it to be today. “The Train Kept A-Rolling,” which we think of as a Yardbirds signature song, was written by Sonny Boy Williamson decades earlier, so the Yardbirds might have picked it up when they accompanied Williamson on one of his British tours in the early ’60s. That’s the conventional wisdom. However, the British band Yardbird Jeff Beck had been in and recently left — Screaming Lord Hutch & the Savages — had recorded it a few months before the Yardbirds. Wouldn’t Beck be aware of what his old band was up to? Lord Sutch might or might not have been aware that a Connecticut band called Bob Vidone and the Rhythm Rockers had cut the song in 1959, but his version is, according to Birnbaum, remarkably similar. In fact, in both versions a two-note horn phrase punctuates the lines in the first verse, and that particular touch is not found in any other version of the song. What is quite possible is that all of the bands heard and stole from the Johnny Burnette Trio’s record of the song from 1956, which in itself came from Tiny Bradshaw’s 1951 recording. Why is this stuff relevant? Because it demonstrates in one song the contributions of blues, jazz, rockabilly, early pre-psychedelic and country to rock ‘n’ roll.

Birnbaum’s book is chock-full of material like this. He covers the blues, country, minstrel music, doo wop, big band jump, early rhythm and blues, jive and an overlooked genre that he considers of premium importance, hokum music. All of these, he proves, led to rock.

Before Elvis is a fascinating book that should be both in every academic library and on every music lover’s shelves. Where else are you going to find out what Harry “the Hipster” Gibson contributed to rock ‘n’ roll?


November 2013

“Birnbaum, spurred into researching and writing this book by what he saw as a glaring shortage of literature about rock’s pioneers, has pulled off quite an achievement…”

—Frank-John Hadley


Before Elvis

The Prehistory of Rock’n’Roll

by Larry Birnbaum


Scarecrow Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2013

How do you write a review for a book that is so well documented for a topic so general? The author, born to parents from Austria but raised in New York City, has written about music for publications such as Downbeat, Spin, Pulse and the Village Voice for the past 35 years and was editor for, among others, the world music magazine Global Rhythm and for the new-music magazine Ear.

The purpose of this book is to prove, beyond any doubt, that rock’n’roll evolved out of the vibrant black jazz scene of the 1930’s, and not from country and blues as we have been led to believe by the mass media and music industry for the past half a century.

Byte. (p. 235, last paragraph)

By the early 1950’s, if not sooner, country artists were recording in an idiom recognizable as rockabilly or rock’n’roll, terms that would not be used to categorize the music until a few years later. While rock’n’roll was first performed by black artists under the rubric of rhythm-and-blues, early white rock’n’roll was not simply a countrified version of R&B but an inventive adaptation that incorporated hillbilly-boogie innovations such as the transfer of the boogie-woogie bass line to the treble register. Swept up in the wave of youthful enthusiasm that accompanied rock’n’roll’s breakthrough into the popular mainstream, Bill Halley and Elvis Presley were hailed as musical pioneers, but they were following a well-worn stylistic path.

The first rock song?

Roll ‘Em Pete. Pete Johnson (1938)

Byte. (p.112, paragraph 1)

Predating Good Rockin’ Tonight by nearly ten years, Roll ‘Em Pete may well be regarded as the first rock’n’roll record, Although earlier songs contain elements of rock’n’roll, Roll ‘Em Pete is a full-fledged rocker in all but instrumentation – similar in melody and structure to Big Joe Turner‘s 1950’s hits … but faster and more intense. Johnson’s bass line is a simple Chuck Berry-like chug, and his furious right-hand embellishments anticipate Berry’s entire guitar style. Some of Turner’s verses are the stuff that rock is made of, such as the opening, “I’ve got a gal, lives up on the hill / Well this woman tried to quit me, Lord, but I love her still.”

Good Rockin’ Tonight. Wynonie Harris (1948)

Modestly, Larry Birnbaum signs off at the very end, stating: The definitive study of rock music has yet to be written… although (t)his study contains 36 pages just to cite all the worded sources for Before Elvis – The Prehistory of Rock’n’Roll, covering a time frame of recorded music from the 1890’s to the 1950’s with references for American pioneer and African slave music from the 18th century up to the present (2012) for artists active during the 30’s and 40’s that are still with us – and current popular acts inspired by rhythms from the past.

Byte. (p.87, paragraph 3)

No one imagines that the twelve bar structure of the blues originated in Africa – in his book In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali, Banning Eyre describes how even highly accomplished and versatile Malian musicians struggle to follow blues chord changes – but in its use of blues-like notes and scales, some African music sounds amazingly similar to the blues. Even so, the Mali-to-Mississippi theory of blues origins is problematic, to say the least.

Larry Birnbaum‘s life work is an awe-inspiring journey from wax cylinder recordings, negro work songs and african slave spirituals through to early 20th century shellac records and music that has not been transferred onto the modern CD format. The author has done more than just listen to music in his spare time or review albums for his job, going back in time to find exact sources for parts of phrases, lyrics and song structures, instrumental rhythms and beats and harmony development for popular hits, both influential for current trends and forgotten.

Byte. (p.47, paragraph 4)

The Weary Blues published separately by H. Alf Kelly in 1916 is not the same tune as the traditional jazz classic of that title published in 1915 by Artie Matthews, nor is Ship Wreck Blues the same tune as the Shipwrecked Blues, recorded by Clara Smith in 1931. Neither Ship Wreck Blues nor String Beans Blues seems to have been published outside of A Bunch of Blues.

…and then the author goes on to explain the origins of String Beans Blues

Larry Birnbaum puts a strong emphasis on the history of songs that have been quintessential for what is widely considered the rock revolution of the 20th Century.

Byte. (p. 57, paragraph 1, a conclusion)

As for Cow-Cow Blues, it’s the impetus that set the entire sequence of musical events in motion. The strands of ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie that found their way into Cow Cow Blues date back still further, to the late nineteenth century at least, but there the trail goes cold, and documentation gives way to speculation.

I liked how Larry Birnbaum managed to turn from one artist biography to the next during the course of the book, although it took me about a quarter of the book to understand the author’s style of writing and get into the swing of things. Having recently finished the book, I can hardly wait to read it again and make a better sense of artists and songs presented at the beginning, that Birnbaum puts an accent on further in the novel. It is quite interesting how the author manages to basically turn a history book into a story with a plot. Following the Chapters through the decades, the artists and the genres might be boring for those used to encyclopedic dictionaries, such as the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (1993) or The Guiness Who’s Who of… a wide range of musical genres (1994)… but every page has its purpose in explaining the development of American music through the first half of the 20th century.

Byte. (p. 190, last paragraph)

I must point out, writes the folklorist Norm Cohen, that hillbilly music had important antecedents other than traditional Anglo-Irish-American folk music – namely the commercial musical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: minstrel shows, vaudeville, ragtime, blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, sentimental balladry, and hymnody and gospel music, both black and white.

Byte. (p. 191, first paragraph)

The country music historian Bill C. Malone notes that the square dance caller’s: do-si-do came from the French dance instructor’s dos-a-dos and that the first southern hymnal was published entirely in German. He adds that some popular ballads and fiddle tunes were brought to the United States by professional British entertainers after the American Revolution and that “by the end of the eighteenth century … puppet shows, circuses, animal acts, medicine shows, equestrian shows, and … formal dramatic and musical concert troupes traveled from town to town along the Atlantic seaboard”.

Apart from the popular artists and bands of yesteryear that are still promoted today through genre-specific oldies music compilations or cover songs, Larry Birnbaum offers us a huge X-Ray of a full catalogue of unsung heroes, buried by the history written from an angle that has everyone believing that rock’n’roll music developed strictly from blues and country music.

The author digs into hokum, swing, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, doo-wop and jump blues, among many other genres, to uncover the true roots of rock’n’roll.

Going through the book, we understand that rhythm and blues turned into rock’n’roll quite a while before white kids got into it, and when they did, the black music took a turn for soul, that further developed into disco and rap, while the commercial rock music, although diluted, basically by the record labels, experimented its’ way into a few more rebel peaks, represented by psychedelic music in the ’60’s, punk music in the 70’s, heavy metal in the 80’s and grunge in the 90’s.

Another of the authors controversial conclusions is that if Elvis Presley was a deep down pop-country ballad man made to sing up-beat songs by the team managing his brand, no one had greater impact on the sound of rock’n’roll than Little Richard.

A downside to the book is the rush in the end, getting through too many artists and side genres much too fast, for the dense rate of information supplied to the reader during the first three quarters of the book… the artists and genres treated in this manner were however not decisive for the Rock foundation, but rather additional layers of elements that added to the diversity of beats that kept rock’n’roll from turning into a passing fad.

By 2014 standards, if you get through this one, you don’t need to read another book on the subject – and I’m sure that as years go by, chances will get smaller for anyone else to do a better job on the subject, unless all of the recorded music of the first half of the 20th century will be available on iTunes

A must for all those who want to understand the 20th century music phenomenon, a must for those who want to learn more about the rock music roots and for those audiophiles who want to have a well-documented viewpoint on how all those jazz cats fit into the larger scheme of things, Before Elvis – The Prehistory of Rock’n’Roll by Larry Birnbaum is a work of art and, I believe, possibly the definitive study of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock music many consumers or music producers are looking for.

by RiCo (Richard Constantinidi), for


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Book Review: Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Imagine that you’ve just sauntered into a dimly-lit if friendly- vibed barroom. You’ve positioned yourself at a barstool and settled in to enjoy a leisurely drink to cap off a long day. A guy next to you offers a cordial hello, and you respond in kind. You like your space, but you’re not averse to a bit of idle chit-chat, and so the two of you engage in some good-natured discussion.

As is your wont (see, you’re more like me than you in this scenario, so stay with me), the subject soon turns to music. Specifically, music history. More specifically, the whole where-did-stuff-originate debate. Your uh-oh meter budges just a bit from its zero position, and you silently hope this doesn’t turn into some huge discussion. You just came in for a quiet drink, after all, right?

You know a good bit about pop music history, but you’re no walking encyclopedia. Nor, as it happens, do you care to be one. But this guy, he knows it all. And while on some level – several levels, really – you admire the heck out of the sort of person (the British call these characters “anoraks”) who can quote matrix numbers for obscure 45rpm singles, you have your limits of tolerance. He can make his point and back it up with facts, but then he should, well, y’know, shut up. Or at least let you have a moment to digest all the data he’s dumped on you.

The thing is, you find yourself agreeing with him on all points. How could it be otherwise? He truly does know his stuff. But there’s something fatiguing, almost tiresome about the manner in which he piles it on. Piles. It. On. So at the conclusion of your discussion – it does end, eventually – you come away a bit unsure about what to make of the whole thing. This guy is a true scholar, and you have absolutely no reason to dispute even the tiniest of his points. And even though you were essentially on the same side in this non-argument, you found the whole episode exhausting.

Now let’s return to the real world.

The promotional one-sheet accompanying Larry Birnbaum‘s Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll characterizes the book as “[a]n essential work for rock fans and scholars.” I have no disagreement as to its suitability for the latter, but do wonder about its appeal to the former. The depth and breadth of Birnbaum’s research and knowledge is stunning – and that’s putting it mildly. Pick any song you like from rock’n’roll’s earliest days; pick a song that you consider a sort of template for much of what came after. Birnbaum’s here to tell you ( and show you, and show you, and show you) that, as the old book says, there’s nothing new under the sun. His scholarship gets into “coon songs” (yes, they were/are called that) and minstrelsy, and he traces that song – you know, the one you’re sure was written in 1952 – back to 1823. Or something. And backward beyond ’23, it gets a little murky. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, but only ever-so-slightly.

It’s all nearly too much to take. The amount of information he serves up is so massive, the delivery so relentless, that you may find yourself as I did, having to put the book down and let out a big, theatrical sigh after a few pages. I’ve had Before Elvis on my nightstand for more than four months now, and while I admire it to a great degree, I simply can’t easily bring myself to get through it. Were it laid out in a more encyclopedic fashion – rather than a seemingly unceasing narrative stuffed to the max with information – it might be a five-star reference book, essential for anyone who ever seeks to divine the source(s) of rock’n’roll’s obscure, oft-undocumented past.

I mean for all this to be a positive recommendation, but one of the most targeted and qualified kind. You have been warned.

— Leave a comment


Before Elvis: The Pre-history of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Larry Birnbaum

February 20, 2014 by Raul da Gama Leave a Comment

Unlike many books of historic value, the writing is far from being stilted. In fact the prose is rather elegant and racy as well. Moreover, Mr. Birnbaum has a conversational style and it is possible to imagine a scenario where the reader is in a large audience listening to the writer speaking.

It is not really difficult to debunk the theory that Elvis Presley was the inventor of Rock and Roll. Nor is it that difficult to do the same for Bill Haley and the Comets. It is one thing to debunk theories based upon popular myth and spoken history, but that is not what history is all about. Anecdotal evidence is not the stuff of history nor is it in the historicity of things spoken on radio by presenters who often performed nothing but paid publicity. But it is quite another thing to prove the facts so compelling a fashion so as to re-write history; or in the case of Larry Birnbaum’s Before Elvis Presley: The Pre-history of Rock ‘n’ Roll to do what is now popularly accepted as writing the prequel to the history of Rock and Roll is an important endeavour. It might also turn out to be horribly unpopular because of the huge industry that is Elvis Presley. For a decade and more; even before he hit Beale Street, Elvis Presley was ever the white dude; the quintessential country and western singer who fancied himself as a balladeer, who was channelled by Sam Phillips into singing the music of African Americans and Gospel singers from Holy Rollin’ churches and who actually post-dated rock and roll by at least five—if not more—years. However, it is not merely about that either. Then there were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and later a slew of British artists that came to be called the “British Invasion”. So it pays to set the record straight; to draw a more convincing line creating the book of genesis of Rock and Roll. And if anyone is in a position to do so it is Mr. Birnbaum, who seems to have listened to and curated an astronomical number of recordings and songs, matching dates of these recordings with street dates, musicians with sessions; and then changing perspective from the micro view, and working towards developing a macro perspective from where a definitive chronology has been developed.

Before Elvis is considerably well-researched and meticulously written. Details abound not so much because the writer wishes to immortalise himself, but because they are there to correct what has gone wrong and continues to go wrong because most writers of books are too lazy to research extensively, or borrow from sources that are too iffy for a serious work. Here is an early look at what happens when Mr. Birnbaum puts pen to paper: “Two R&B records (Mr. Birnbaum has already established that R&B is a pre-cursor to any music that even remotely resembled rock and roll) titled “Rock Around The Clock” had previously been released, Hal “Cornbread” Singer’s in 1950 and Wally Mercer’s in 1952. Mercer’s is an entirely different song, but Singer’s “Rock Around The Clock,” co-written by Singer by Singer and Sam Thread, resembles Myers and Freedman’s and contains the line “One for the money, two for the show, three make ready, four let’s go.” Haley performed “Rock Around The Clock” in 1953, but because Dave Miller disliked James Myers, he would not allow Haley to record it on Essex.” The idea here is to show how, by page 9, the page from where the quote is taken, the transcendence from country to callow copies of R&B hits is already established from listening to and analysing the recordings; then going to authentic sources (this incident came from John Swenson’s 1982 biography of Bill Haley. Prior to page 9, it is all about the early work of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, both of whom were strictly country music practitioners and only vaguely hinted at Rock and Roll—not considered a “white man’s” music because its only precedence was the erstwhile slave or sharecropper, who brought in the changes from the blues, then jazz and gospel, when jazz was considered too evil. This soon evolved into R&B, which was the root of Rock and Roll.

Here is Mr. Birnbaum again: “The words “rock” and “roll” appeared in the titles or lyrics of blues, jazz and gospel songs throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The married couple Coot Grant and Kid Wilson recorded the vaudeville-style “Rock, Aunt Dinah, Rock” in 1925, the Four Harmony Kings recorded the spiritual “Rolling and Rocker Dem in His Arms” in 1926, and Sadie McKinney recoded the flowery, mournful “Rock Away” in 1927.” This goes on for several more sentences, with dates of further recordings that Mr. Birnbaum has heard while discussing his own proto-history model for what is to come later in the book. While most writers—especially those writing about jazz—like to suggest that music—in that case, jazz—is an agglomeration of musical influences including blues, gospel, folk and classical musics, which is nothing but a suggestion that jazz music came from a mixture of all musics and which is fallacious, it is true that the antecedents of Rock and Roll descended from the Blues. As more and more white musicians picked it up and as it spread through many white record labels and radio stations, the lines between the blues and gospel, as well as from country music blurred and rock became more defined. This is often attributed to Elvis Presley, but in reality the movement started much before that with Chuck Berry and several others. Mr. Birnbaum is at pains to point this out as well and as is his manner, he backs this up with considerable proof from the right sources. During the time of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, and later Jerry Lee Lewis, much was made of a kind of “big bang” theory which gave rise to Rock and Roll. The reality was quite different. And it took the British rock and roll bands that came across the pond, especially the Beatles in 1963 to really insist that they merely borrowed idioms and metaphors from blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sleepy John Estes. The Rolling Stones did the same when they mentioned that their main inspiration for the music came from Chuck Berry.

All these matters are substantially cleared up as Mr. Birnbaum sets out to prove his thesis. Unlike many books of historic value, the writing is far from being stilted. In fact the prose is rather elegant and racy as well. Moreover, Mr. Birnbaum has a conversational style and it is possible to imagine a scenario where the reader is in a large audience listening to the writer speaking. The reader is further enthralled by the substantive writing with which it is easy to become engaged; even enthralled and enraptured. This is also because to the aficionado and the serious student of American ethnomusicology the touchstones in terms of the music are all there. Larry Birnbaum brings it all alive with his writing that combines the mention of anthemic music and a tone and manner that mirrors a fine detective novel. It is clear from his writing that Mr. Birnbaum not only has a passion for the music, but is also a serious student of it. This is a big help for not only the writer, who can go to great lengths to make his thesis known and to prove it, but also benefits the reader who might be on the fringe, such as readers of a work that might also be interested in cultural anthropology. While this is not a book about that subject, the fact that it is written about a music that is so all encompassing it also penetrates that realm.

Another aspect of the music that is exceptionally dealt with is the importance of the blues and its impact not only on jazz, but also on rock and roll. By drawing a connection, Mr. Birnbaum suggests that the blues may be at the heart of all American music. This may not be such a far-fetched idea after all. Many critics—especially the late Amiri Baraka—have made that suggestion late in the 1960s when the so-called avant-garde of music followed the Bebop movement. Even the great jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler called his music the New Blues and his late recordings have been claimed by the jazz aficionado as well as the rock and fan alike. Dwelling, as he does, on the genealogy from the blues to rock makes for fascinating reading. The historicity of these sections in the book adds credence to the fact that American music may have been built on the foundation of African American and African Caribbean music. This is a radical theory, but again, with so much proof in terms of recorded evidence it may be hard to argue against it. Finally, Mr. Birnbaum sets up the next big adventure and that is how this would follow from here into the realm of Rap and Hip Hop. But that is quite another story.


Volume 45, No. 1; Spring, 2014


Popular Music

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. By Larry Birnbaum. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013. 463pp (paperback). Notes, Index. ISBN 978-0-8108-8628-5

The introduction to Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll assertively outlines the premise of the entire book. Instead of regurgitating the traditional account of the genre’s development – rock and roll springing to life during the mid-1950s as a galvanic collision of R&B/blues and country, with a taste of gospel tossed in for good measure – author Larry Birnbaum argues that many additional factors were dropped into the musical stew, including minstrel songs, ragtime, hokum, boogie-woogie, jazz, big band, Caribbean strains, doowop, even straight pop. The rest of the well researched and impressively hefty tome details numerous examples of each genre as the author persuasively states his case.

Each chapter is devoted to a different strain of pre-rock history, the first one mentioning the most obvious suspects: Elvis Presley, Bill Haley & His Comets, Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan (likely rock and roll’s most important godfather of all), and commonly cited “first rock and roll records” such as Jackie Brenston’s 1951 R&B chart-topper “Rocket ’88” (a reworking of Jimmy Liggins & His Drops of Joy’s 1947 jumper “Cadillac Boogie”), the Chords’ nonsensical 1954 hit, “Sh-Boom,” and the Crows’ swinging “Gee” from the same year. In reality, it is impossible to nominate a single recording as the solitary epicenter of rock and roll, but seldom have so many different tributaries been so painstakingly traced in one authoritative book.

No matter how voluminous a record collection a reader my have at hand, there are so many platters referred to in this text that some will surely be maddeningly unfamiliar. The narrative doesn’t even arrive at the customary starting point for rock and roll’s rise until chapter seven, when Birnbaum delves deeply into postwar rhythm and blues with its wild saxophone honkers, extroverted guitarists, and lusty jump blues shouters. Most of his arguments sensibly illuminate rock and roll’s extended family tree, with the possible exception of the bland pop vocalists given too much credit for making an actual contribution in the final chapter: The Fontane Sisters, Crew-Cuts, Georgia Gibbs, and the dreaded Pat Boone did more to subvert rock and roll with their pitiful bowdlerized covers than play any positive role in its fruition.

One would need—at the minimum—a dozen-CD boxed set to fully comprehend the depth of Birnbaum’s reportage. His uncommonly accurate writing reveals a mere handful of factual groaners. Two egregious ones: future Motown songwriter/producers R. Dean Taylor and Deke Richards didn’t write Dinah Washington’s 1948 smash “Am I Asking Too Much” as he claims, since they were respectively eight and three years old a the time (Helen Miller and Fay Whitman were the actual composers). And New Orleans guitarist Earl King didn’t co-write the Spiders’ 1955 R&B hit, “Witchcraft,” with Imperial label producer Dave Bartholomew; the reference was to Dave’s wife Pearl King, who received half-credit for arcane publishing reasons.

Before Elvis just may be the best overview of rock and roll’s tangled history since Charlie Gillett’s groundbreaking The Sound of the City in 1970. There is a rich reservoir of information here even if you already have a firm handle on how the music all began. If you are researching the subject for the first time, you are in for quite a rocking ride.

Reviewed by Bill Dahl




Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock NRoll. By Larry Birnbaum. Lanham,

Toronto, Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2013. x + 463 pp. ISBN 978-0-8108-8628-5


In Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock NRoll, Larry Birnbaum aims to broaden the

widely held view of rock nroll as rooted solely in blues and R&B traditions, and

also dispel the myth that rock represented a sharp break with past styles and a

leap into uncharted territory(p. 21). An historically accurate portrait of rocks

prehistoryas it developed in the 1920s1950s, he argues, would account for the

influence of swing, jazz, jump, jive, boogie woogie, hokum and even blackface

minstrelsy. These subgenres were so deeply entrenched into mainstream music

that the first wave of rock nroll had all but ended by the time young whites discovered

the music and claimed it as their own(p. ix). Hallmarks of older styles

that are readily discernable in 1950s rock music include the snappy rhythms of

swing, the bawdy humour and basic structure of the verse and refrain hokum

song (Birnbaum singles out this style as a particularly strong influence), and the

left hand bass patterns of boogie woogie piano. The author equally emphasises the

importance of jives novelty element and nonsense lyrics (Sam Theards 1937 recording

of Spo-Dee-O-Deewas an important progenitor) and the bluesy strains of

1930s big band acts, which evolved into postwar R&B. The upshot is that rock n

roll was not nearly as unprecedented as some critics and historians have considered

it to be.

Birnbaums study is a comprehensive survey of popular music styles and performers

active in the decades leading up to the 1950s. This insiders guide through

pre-rock history leaves little doubt as to the authors extensive knowledge on the subject,

and his study includes countless songs and artists both familiar and forgotten,

from luminaries like Cab Calloway and T-Bone Walker to stars who once shone

brightly but have since faded with time, like Louis Prima and Clyde McPhatter. In

between his discussions of artists and band line-ups, Birnbaum traces song lineages

at the hands of different acts, each of which reflected an artists personal stylistic preferences.

This approach is particularly profitable in his discussions of such tracks as

The Train Kept A-Rollin, Roll Em Peteand Hound Dog, which were covered by

multiple artists and which served as flexible moulds that accommodated a wide range

of styles. Studying these songsgenealogies makes sense, considering Birnbaums

focus on the evolution of sounds rather than on musical culture and personalities

per se, but in his quest to thoroughly document rock nrolls stylistic roots, the author

overloads his text with information, from the names of short-lived labels to nowforgotten

session players and their undistinguished biographies. Compiling all of

this data in a single volume is useful, but all too often the reader is hard pressed to

distinguish the tastemakers from the also-rans and, while the author gives a clear

sense of how many stylistic developments were happening concurrently, paring

down this mountain of information to include the most relevant data to support his

points would have produced a more tightly knit historical narrative.

Other shortcomings include the books dry prose, which trudges along and

reads at times like an encyclopaedia. This is surprising considering Birnbaums pedigree

as a rock journalist who wrote for Down Beat, Spin and the Village Voice. Also

disconcerting is the authors tendency to supply a list of artists who covered the

same song as validation for his points about stylistic provenance, when a brief musical

analysis of a certain track or musical passage would have allowed him to dig deeper

into the material and offer more compelling evidence for his arguments. Here

too, including musical examples would have helped illustrate how certain passages

or licks in older songs cropped up in countless rock nroll singles, such as the

famous repeating triplets in Chuck Berrys opening guitar solo to Johnny

B. Goode. These quibbles aside, Birnbaums book is a good addition to the benchmark

literature on the subject, including Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of

Rock and Roll, edited by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker, Rock and Roll:

An Unruly History by Robert Palmer, and I Dont Sound Like Nobody: Remaking

Music in 1950s America by Albin Zak III.

Lincoln Ballard

Independent scholar, San Diego, CA, USA


Palmer, R. 1995. Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (New York, Harmony)

Ward E., Stokes G., and Tucker K. (eds.) 1986. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll

(New York, Summit)

Zak, A. 2010. I Dont Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America (Ann Arbor, MI, University of

Michigan Press)

Stereophile logo




Robert Baird

Before Elvis

By Robert Baird • Posted: Jul 17, 2014


Even casual music fans know the story: rock ‘n’ roll as “invented” by Elvis Presley and was just African American blues music set to a faster beat and in some cases with less salacious lyrics.

Yet as in most things musical, it’s not quite that simple. Many writers such as Nick Tosches (Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll) and Robert Palmer (Rock & Roll: An Unruly History) have over the years attempted to explain the origins of one of America’s greatest home grown art forms. But Stereophile Contributing Editor Larry Birnbaum has found previous accounts to be lacking and so has devoted years of his life to producing an exhaustive account, Before Elvis, The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll, (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2013), that documents all the streams that led up to the first big rock ‘n’ roll hit: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” in 1955.

“Until now, rock ‘n’ roll has largely been viewed as a bolt from the blue, an overnight revolution provoked by the bland pop that preceded it and created through the white appropriation of music that had previously been played only by and for blacks,” Birnbaum writes in his introduction. “The connection between rural blues and early rock ‘n’ roll is oblique, mediated by jazz and country music.”

In the 380 pages that follow, Birnbaum meticulously traces the cross pollinations and tangled webs that have informed and inspired a music that many, even today, view as simplistic, subversive or as Frank Sinatra so memorably put it, the music of “cretinous goons.” Organized as chapter long discussions of the roles played by the various musical flavors that mixed and influenced each other on the way to becoming rock ‘n’ roll, Before Elvis runs through detailed yet very readable discourses on the blues, hokum, boogie woogie, jazz, big band jump jazz, country music forms like western swing and hillbilly boogie and finally an R&B chapter that details saxophone honkers and blues shouters, and culminates in a great sub chapter on New Orleans R&B. Particularly fascinating is the way Birnbaum traces the common origins of a number of famous rock ‘n’ roll standards like “The Train Kept A–Rollin’,” “Cow–Cow Boogie” and “Johnny B. Goode,” following them through all of their recorded versions, and concluding that in some ways, they are all the same tune.

This not light reading by any stretch, this study could have benefited from more flavorful scene setting and fleshing out of the personalities involved. Music, as opposed to say references to the socio–political climate at the time this music was being made, is the strict focus here and the resulting mass of names, dates and song titles here may frighten off the less musically obsessed. But for those interested in the multi–hued origins of this most essential American music, this volume is a welcome and important leap forward in tracing the capillaries and veins leading to rock ‘n’ roll’s heart.


Customer Reviews

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Most Helpful First | Newest First

5.0 out of 5 stars

Like Old Rock? Maybe wonder where it started? Spend a few bucks in whatever format you like…you will enjoy it forever., February 11, 2014


Jerry Briggs (Venice, Florida) – See all my reviews


Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Paperback)

This is a scholarly and detailed example of great research by the author. His position is simply that rock did NOT start the day Elvis walked into a Sun studio. He backs it up with such an outstanding essay of over 400 pages that you leave it understanding both his appreciation for music and mentally thanking him for showing us the light of how it really began.

Elvis, it turns out, was, like all of us, a representative of our predecessors. He does in no way cut down Elvis. He uses the name to attract attention to his book. I think serious admirers of roots music, rock music, jazz, be-bop, country, hokum, blues, and all American sounds, should take a look and buy this book.

I will keep it as a reference for life. It will never leave my library. I can hardly see how this guy had time, in his own life, to research and listen to so many fine old songs that he references on each page. His histories of many groups and people are eye-openers. I can only hope he takes it farther in further editions. We need a be-bop specialty book, a country development book, a roots only blues thing. This guy could do it. He amazes, and if you are a music nerd like me, you will never regret purchasing this volume.

Thank you, Larry Birnbaum, wherever you are, and whoever you are. Magnificent!

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful

5.0 out of 5 stars

A Masterpiece !, June 10, 2013


Francis G. Dumaurier “Your French Connection” (New York City) – See all my reviews


Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Hardcover)

Extremely well researched, this is the definitive work on this unique slice of true american culture which has impacted the entire world at lightning speed since World War II.

Filled with a trove of precious and precise details, this book is amazingly easy to read and is a must for everybody and anybody who has any interest in the knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of Rock’n’Roll.

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