Rock 'N' Roll Jews

The Jewish contribution to the development of rock music

Print this page Print this page

Moreover, the young rock fans were principally linked to the stars, not by public performances, but by records. Millions, who had never seen Elvis perform, could buy his records. For the average teenager, this was the way to be a fan. Elvis's records, and those of the other rock stars, sounded different from anything that the previous gener­ation had ever listened to. The whine of the electric guitar, the crisp drumming, the echo effects, and, later, more complex mixtures of electric and acoustic instruments all made rock'n'roll a new sound. This was modern music, made in a modern way.

Someone had to write the songs. Someone had to create the sounds. If Elvis didn't compose his own words and music, then he certainly didn't produce his own records. Who were these hidden composers? Who were the behind-the-scenes producers who crafted the new ways of creating music?

Once these questions are asked, then the Jewish names come tumbling out. Names such as Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Jerry Wexler, Jerry Ragovoy, and Phil Spector--these are the real heroes. Rock fans will know songs like "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Save The Last Dance For Me," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin," "Sweets For My Sweet," and many, many more.

For a whole generation, such songs marked the times in which they grew up. The music was part of life and the sounds continue to haunt the memory. Years later the songs are instantly recognizable, often from the first bar, even the first note, of the classic recording. You only have to hear Elvis start to sing unaccompanied "You ain't" to know that "nothing but a hound dog" is to follow.

Yet how many people, who grew up in the Fifties or Six­ties, would be able to name the composers? More to the point, how many young Jewish boys or girls who listened to such music, often with severe parental disapproval, would know that, in a literal sense, they were hearing "Jewish music"?

Dylan, Simon, Reed, & Cohen

The Jewish contribution does not end there. The early history of rock can be divided into two periods of roughly 10 years each. It would be easiest to label these periods the music of the Fifties and that of the Sixties. But, strictly speaking, that would be inaccurate. During the first part of the fifties, the music of the Forties was still going strong. Rock'n'roll did not make its rude entrance until the mid-Fifties. The first period lasted from about 1955 to 1965. This was the period when the Jewish songwriters and pro­ducers made their greatest and most innovative contribu­tions. At first, this contribution was to be found with the sounds of classic rock and rhythm and blues. Then it soft­ened into lighter, poppier songs, as strings were used to complement the electric guitars.

The second period starts with the rise of the Beatles and the Stones. This is the music of the Sixties, although, musically speaking, "Sixties music" did not really get going until about 1964. This was a time of change and protest, which made the Fifties, by contrast, seem nostalgically quiet. Fashions altered dramatically: Boys' hair grew longer in the Sixties while girls' skirts shortened. Freedom and rebellion were in the air. Illegal substances were smoked. Taboos were publicly broken. There were large-scale demonstrations against authority, including, of course, mass political demonstrations against the Vietnam war, against the running of universities, and against racist segregation in the south of the United States.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.