Have you heard the news? You can come clean and get real!
Only moments before, he had arrived to the flashing, lighted marquee of the palace of entertainment venues, known as the Million Dollar Theater. His fantasy had become reality as he stood alone, wiping the sweat from his brow on the stage under the proscenium flanked with columns. The orchestra began to play where other greats had performed—Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Artie Shaw and Lionel Hampton. Now the stage lights were on him, his hands clammy and his heart pounding, and he was scared. There were ghosts screaming in his head: “Go back to New Orleans. Go back into your shell. This is all made up. What do you think you are doing?”
But he wanted to be seen and heard like the white man, so he began singing forcefully and with volume. The stunned audience roared with excitement, clapped, and stood to their feet. It had happened. In 1945, right there in the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, 21-year-old Roy Brown, a shouting gospel singer from New Orleans, had crossed racial lines, singing “There Is No You,” a song by his favorite singer, Bing Crosby. Brown sang it like a white man, as he had heard Crosby do, and won the singing contest.
For Roy Brown, his life had been in a constant state of stage-like fright. Yet, he’d heard the message of the spirituals in the sugar cane fields and in the church, influenced by his mama’s extraordinary piano playing and shouting the gospel in song. But when the lights were off, he was frightened, alone, and desperate—scared no one will really want to know him. But for now, the lights were up and he had won. He could be heard and finally known! Or could he?
When you draw up a short list of the rhythm & blues pioneers who exerted a primary influence on the development of rock ’n’ roll, respectfully place singer Roy Brown’s name near its very top. Arguably, Brown’s 1947 DeLuxe Records waxing of “Good Rocking Tonight” in its jump blues style is considered by some music historians and fans as the first rock ’n’ roll recording. Brown fused the shouting gospel sound with an up-tempo jump blues into a completely new genre of music. His lyrics were celebratory in nature, full of braggadocio and swagger. “Good Rocking Tonight” was recorded with multiple horns, intense shouting vocals, earmarked by driving rhythm, and the honking of the tenor sax, a sound that was the precursor to rock ’n’ roll.
In 1948, after first rejecting the song, R&B artist Wynonie Harris recorded “Good Rocking Tonight.” His version, under the slightly more relaxed (and better known) title “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” surprisingly climbed to the peak of the R&B charts. Subsequently, the song has been covered by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more artists, from white-pop practitioner Pat Boone to proto-metal-rockers Montrose. In addition, Brown’s melismatical pleading, gospel-steeped delivery directly influenced the vocal styles of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, James Brown and Little Richard. Among the plethora of important singers who also sang “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was Paul McCartney. Clearly, Roy Brown was an innovator, and from 1948 to 1951, an R&B star whose wild output directly presaged rock’s rise.
In the early 1950s, popular music belonged to the realm of wholesome white performers. For a culture that was recovering from the atrocities of WWII, the music was designed to be pure, innocent, and inoffensive as possible. Gradually to the chagrin of their post-war parents, songs by black artists such as Roy Brown and his “Good Rocking Tonight” began showing up on jukeboxes where white kids congregated. All the fears and myths related to black sexuality and the integration of the races were having a powerful effect on the sentiment of the day. In the minds of white America, rock ’n’ roll was going to destroy everything that was American. In its humble beginnings, rock was hated by the general white public and considered the devil’s music. The division even caused riots and banning of the music across America. In rock’s ascension to mainstream success, what was needed was the reversal of the Roy Brown effect—“a white boy who sings like a black man” to make it more palatable to a pre-Civil Rights America.
Colonel Tom Parker, the mastermind manager of Elvis, once said, “I believe the white kids want to hear rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m gonna have a white boy do it.” In other words, if you’re gonna hear “Good Rocking Tonight,” I’m going to have Elvis Presley sing it. Roy Brown once recalled that Elvis, this “cracker punk” kid sneaked on the stage in one of Brown’s shows in Tupelo, Miss. Elvis was singing and playing along while no one was paying attention. A few months later, in 1954, Elvis recorded on Sun Records, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in rockabilly style.
Older white audiences were more and more mystified by the emotional impact and energy of the musical style. In the early days of rock ’n’ roll, the influence of black music was considered profane “body music,” referring to the characteristic exuberance in the worship style of “gospel shout music.” No doubt, the combining influence of jump blues and gospel shout music which mutated into rock ’n’ roll made the music malleable and entertaining. Gradually, through the 1950s, it was transforming the social, cultural and artistic landscape of America.
Brown was one of the first real rock and modern-day solo artists that successfully blended his gospel roots with the jump blues style. In the mid-’50’s, his popularity peaked and fortunes declined coinciding with his successful lawsuit of unpaid royalties. This has led some to believe he was blacklisted by the music industry. Also, his subsequent retirement from music was due to financial misfortunes with the IRS which included doing time for tax evasion. Therefore, Brown was unable to cash in on the musical idiom he helped to create. He is a critical link between the post-war orchestral, big band sound, R&B and rock’s initial rise is still unknown and underappreciated by the masses. After 20 years, his shameful, glaring exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to be corrected.
Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash) once said, “It is very important to get up close and personal with your idol!” And America has certainly gotten up close and personal with our rock idols, placing each star on a pedestal of veneration. Unashamedly, we exalt, embrace and emulate our idols. Idolatry has become an accepted part of the musical landscape. Early on in the 1950s, as rock ’n’ roll and the teen culture emerged, so did the concept of teen idols. Even now, year after year, it is commonplace vocabulary as we seek the best young singer in the country on the show American Idol.
There needs to be a revolutionary paradigm shift in the creative process. We need to “come clean and get real” about what happened to us. We have yielded to these destructive patterns—exalting, embracing and flaunting human talent into god-like figures. Our vanity has turned us toward darker and darker places of greed and self-indulgence. Somehow, our performance-oriented culture has thwarted and distorted our perspectives even about God. Our perverted distortions have evolved into wrong thinking. In order to please God, we must “do perfect to be perfect.” So, just like Roy Brown, with our performance anxiety searing in our guts, we stand alone on the stage of life, wondering if we can ever be good enough for God, much less each other, no matter how exemplary our performance. Scored in our restless hearts is oppressive fear, terrified about what will happen tomorrow.
Now, here is the rest of the Roy Brown story. Through the late ’50s and ’60s, Brown worked door-to-door as an encyclopedia salesman, autographing his photo on the page where it appeared. In an attempt to rejuvenate his career, Brown made several national appearances–a notable one being a cameo slot at the Monterey Jazz Fest—and recorded an album in 1973 for ABC/Bluesway to rebuild his momentum. But it came too late. In 1978, although it only sold less than a 1,000 copies, on his own label, Faith, Brown recorded the album, The Cheapest Price in Town. Not to read too much into the name of his label, but something had evolved in Brown’s outlook about life. After headlining at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April 1981, he died a month later on May 25 at the age of 56. Before his death he commented that he had come to a peaceful, satisfied mind “and like the man said, ‘I drive a new Monte Carlo, my wife a Chevron,’ I’m very happy!” Truly, this unrecognized “Father of Rock and Roll,” cutting records way before their time, would declare emphatically, “Have you heard the news . . . there’s good rockin’ tonight!” and that life had been good.
On this side of heaven, let us tear down our idols and pursue what really matters. There is “Good News Tonight and Forever!” Let God’s everlasting Love, flowing out of eternity, direct our steps. As we are fearlessly drawn into His Presence, the God who spoke the universe into existence declares, “I am your strength and your song. I want to share My Joy and Peace with you. Join Me in singing My song!”
Celebrate Recovery is that safe-place where people can remove the mask of denial and be open and honest. If you are interested in finally dealing with the pain of your past, there are people who will stand with you as the truth becomes a way of life. In Celebrate Recovery, where anonymity and confidentiality are basic requirements, one can address life’s hurts, habits and hang-ups utilizing biblical truths. One can find change in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the one and only Higher Power. There are now three Celebrate Recovery meetings in Murfreesboro, one every Monday at North Boulevard Church of Christ, 1112 Rutherford Blvd. at 7 p.m.; one every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Belle Aire Baptist Church, 1307 Rutherford Blvd.; and another every Thursday at 7 p.m. at New Vision Baptist Church, 1750 Thompson Lane. For more information about the ministry call Tom Christy at (615) 896-6288.