I’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.
Keep up with Larry at beforeelvis.com