Rock 'N' Roll Jews

The Jewish contribution to the development of rock music

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Reprinted with permission from Rock 'N' Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).

There is a hidden story about the central Jewish contribution [to rock music] waiting to be told. This is not a story of uncovering forgotten Jewish ancestors. There will be no revelations that Elvis or Little Richard had Jewish great-great-grandmothers. Even if such ancestry could be found, it would hardly be signifi­cant. After all, rock'n'roll was not created by forgotten, long dead, great-great-grandmothers.rock musician

Jews Behind the Scenes

Nor will the story of the overlooked Jewish contribu­tion depend upon a trawl through rock's minor celebri­ties. In fact, the blank sheet could be partially filled with a respectable collection of reasonably well-known names. There could be Marc Bolan, Manfred Mann and Peter Green, who was Fleetwood Mac's original, and arguably most talented, guitarist. We could then move forward to take in the Beastie Boys and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds. And so on. But the resulting compilation would not be a premier division list. It would lack the founding per­formers--the Elvises, the Jerry Lees, the Chucks, not to mention the John, Paul, George, and Ringos.

However, searching for Jewish band-members from the early days to the present would not be the way to docu­ment the immense Jewish contribution to rock. In fact, if one concentrated upon the public performers, one would almost entirely miss the core of the Jewish contribution. At least in rock's early days, that contribution lay behind the scenes, largely hidden from the public gaze.

Of course, managers and impresarios operate behind the scenes. In the world of show business, there have been Jewish managers aplenty. In fact, the very word "rock­'n'roll" itself was the creation of rock's earliest and most famous promoter, Alan Freed. It is said that he even tried to copyright the term. However, a history of rock's Jewish contribution which concentrated on management would tend to confirm the blank sheet of paper. The contribution would not be a creative one, but one which facilitates the creativity of others, who would be the real heroes of rock's story. Indeed, even Freed's claim to have linguistically invented "rock'n'roll" has been disputed.

The Creative Element

There is, however, a contribution which is both behind-the-scenes and also highly creative. When thinking of clas­sic rock'n'roll, it is easy just to think of the performers--to imagine Elvis in his gold suit, or Jerry Lee, pounding the piano with his hair flopping forward. What can be forgot­ten is that these performers often did not write their own songs.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.