The latest in the excellent Boulevard Vintage series contains 50 tracks over two CDs – all from the first six months of 1956. A companion volume devoted to the rest of the year is due later in 2007. 1956 was a pivotal year – not just for R&B, but for popular music as a whole. The phenomenal success of Elvis Presley helped drag black artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and the Coasters squarely into the pop mainstream. The ‘rock & roll’ moniker, legendarily attributed to DJ Alan Freed, became an umbrella term that covered artists as diverse as white country boys like Elvis and Johnny Cash, James Dean inspired rebels like Gene Vincent, R&B veterans like Joe Turner, New Orleans rockers like Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis, vocal groups like the Coasters and the Cadillacs, and young bucks with attitude like Chuck Berry. It was probably the only time that popular music wasn’t divided along racial lines, but all-encompassing. The moment was brief – probably lasting little more than 18 months to two years. By 1958, white teens were listening to a new generation of more wholesome entertainers like the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson, whilst most of the black R&B stars were left with their original audience. There were acts who crossed over, like Chuck Berry, the Coasters and others, but in effect the old demarcation lines had been redrawn.
The R&B Years 1956 Volume 1 concentrates purely on the black rock & roll, R&B and blues artists. It’s a surprisingly eclectic set, reflecting the huge changes taking place in pop. There are traditional R&B stompers by the likes of Billy Gayles and Ann Cole which could date from any time in the early fifties, or even the forties. There is a healthy dose of material from some of the giants of electric blues such as Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed. There are crossover pop tunes like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, “Down In Mexico” and “Eddie My Love”, some genuine classic rock & roll from Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and some proto-soul from James Brown and Ray Charles. There is virtually no generic filler, and the tracks are well-sequenced. If I had any argument with the song selection, it would be that doowop is a little under-represented.
As ever with this series, the sound quality is very good. Session notes are absent, but there is the usual informative short essay by Roy Bainton. I wonder how long they’ll continue to use the same cover art, though. Was anybody still wearing zoot suits in 1956?