This book is a definitive expose of the evolution of recorded music. It clocks in at a lugubrious 357 pages with an additional 21 pages that include knockout bibliography and Index sections. Murphy has done his research well, never skimping or missing a beat with an incredible knack of narrative prose that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat.
It takes a few days to assimilate all the interwoven plots and subplots that give this history a feel of a scripted storyline that fiction writers utilize to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. Murphy takes the reader back in time to the earliest moments of Gardner Hubbard’s development of the telegraph, which led to Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the recording of the spoken word. Edison’s discovery was pure genius at work, without a road map, just an indelible intellect and a strong work ethic.
But it was Alexander Graham Bell and his team that vastly improved Edison’s “talking machine.” They named it the Graphophone, complete with waxy cylinders, a floating stylus and stethoscope tubes for listening. This marked the birth of the record Industry. The year was 1880.
Murphy brings the reader front and center into World War II and the birth of Sinatra-mania. It began in earnest in 1943 when Sinatra’s first solo recording sold a million copies. With the help of a wealthy benefactor (Columbia Records), Sinatra bought his way out of his contract with bandleader Harry James for $25,000. As the war raged on, Sinatra was classified as 4-F - his registrant was not acceptable for military service (due to a perforated ear drum). At the time, a well-known journalist observed that Sinatra was the most hated man of WWII much more than Hitler!
According to the author institutional racism was particularly demeaning, even cruel. Many black musicians avoided conscription, claiming psychosis, drug addiction and other assorted maladies. It evolved from the mindset that a more militant branch of jazz emerged called Be-Bop. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt all embraced this musical militancy. Gillespie stated, “The enemy by that period was not the Germans, it was above all the white Americans who kicked us in the butt every day, physically and morally.”
By 1947 record sales went from 275 million to 400 million. In April 1948 Ted Wallerstein created the 33 1/3 rpm 12 inch long record, the LP! From that point forward, the author leads the reader through a roller coaster ride through several seminal events that led to the creation of rock & roll. Memphis was the connection to Beale Street and the birth of Sun Records and the enduring myth of the King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley and a triad of equally talented pioneers including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.
An entire chapter was devoted to the Beatles and Brian Epstein. They changed everything…forever. Rock music ascended to the top of the heap causing the careers of most of the Brill Building songwriters, producers and performers to disappear, so long to Doc Pomus; hello to John Lennon. The Beatles were the Tsunami and no one could stop their advance. The British Invasion was brutal but the music was incredible. Everything else in the rock & roll pantheon was a response to that initial wave of talented Brits including the Stones, Manfred Mann, the Hollies and the Dave Clark 5.
In the mid-sixties musicians found their muse both lyrically and musically. Bob Dylan led the way and helped expand the voice of folk music to include thoughtful protest about human liberties and the Vietnam War. This was a long chapter.
The author includes a treatise on Rap music and its ascendance in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang. They hit the big-time with “Rappers Delight” and it help forever change the face of popular music. It was profane, sometimes violent but it was real. Rap spoke of truth and justice in a way that brought people together regardless of race, color or creed. Behind it all was gobs of money.
Gareth Murphy is credible in his assertion about the power of music, “In the big city, cut off from the elements, records have become our folklore, our spiritual medicine, our last sacred connection to the godhead.