The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.
But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?
And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.
You can find Part 1 of this series here.
The Class of 1987
WHO THEY ARE: An early doo-wop group. You probably know “Yakety Yak,” if you know nothing else.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They’re here because they were hugely important to doo-wop, certainly, which means a lot of the r&b-inflected nominees (especially those that made their bones with a live band) owe them a little something in terms of their existence.
AND…?: I mean, they were pretty important to doo-wop, but here we have our first major stumbling block w/r/t “rock and roll” 3. Whatever role you might think doo-wop played in the formation of rock and roll, it’s very clearly the case that they were not a rock and roll band. Interestingly, these guys are inducted in the “regular artists” part of the ceremony, and not as an “early influencer,” which actually creates most of the problem here. An early, non rock and roll influence? Maybe. But not as a rock and roll act. And besides: they weren’t even that good.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I’m going to have to give out my first “no” here. Mostly because I’m willing to go along with a somewhat-fluid definition in the interest of not just barring the doors, but there have to be limits, and pre-rock and roll doo-wop is definitely one of them. See further on for more examples of this rule.
WHO HE IS: One of rock and roll music’s first tragic figures 4.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, in addition to being said to have invented string bending 5, a lot of what you think of as “rockabilly” playing finds its origins in Cochran’s playing. He also had an interesting effect on the image of a rock musician 6 – he appeared to be a clean-cut, sweater-wearing young gentleman, and he acted like James Dean. If nothing else, at least David Byrne paid attention to the result.
AND…?: Despite him being a pretty good player and a reasonably good singer, most of the better reasons to allow for his inductions are meta-musical. Nevertheless, I’d say he’s got a place in there as much as anybody.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: He’s probably the only person in the entire museum who’s there because of a specific rhythm 7, even if there are lots of other musical things that he contributed to the nascent rock and roll genre.
WHY HE’S HERE: The full effect of his influence wouldn’t really be felt until the hip-hop folks started adopting not only his musical approach, but also his lyrical bent – largely braggadocious, often to the point of something like parody. Since hip hop is sort of (falteringly) included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he is perhaps that rarest of beasts: the guy whose induction makes more sense now than it did at the time.
AND…?: He was pretty cool, I guess. I mean, his thing has been imprinted so hard on the dna of rock music that it’s almost impossible to hear in anything like isolation, and that probably hurts the ability of the records to age particularly well. They still sound pretty good, and he made a couple of records in the late fifties with Chuck Berry that are worth seeking out, even now.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: It would be nearly impossible to make an argument for him not being inducted, really.
WHO SHE IS: The Queen of Soul. Also, she’s the lady that owns the chicken shack in The Blues Brothers.
WHY SHE’S HERE: She proved to have an unusually powerful, unusually agile voice (especially considering the aforementioned unusual power), and she was an early adopter of using her musical platform to forward her political beliefs (i.e. the civil and women’s rights movements), both of which made her a pretty noteworthy influence on a bunch of other inductees
AND…?: I mean, you’ll find no real argument here, other than the standard caveat about it not actually being rock and roll music.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The Prince of Motown
WHY HE’S HERE: Marvin Gaye was an early adopter of the “concept album” 8, and was also an early example of splitting off from the then-industry-standard practice of being associated with a production company, demanding (and receiving) an enormous amount of creative control over his own career and musical direction. Both of these things would go on to be staples of rock acts since then.
AND…?: He was great, he had lots of impact beyond his immediate circle, people still take things from his music to this day.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: “Hey, what if we took Jerry Lee Lewis, but filed off anything interesting or cool about his music and presented it as being a similar thing?”
WHY HE’S HERE: Because people like “Rock Around the Clock,” I guess? Maybe they’re all Happy Days fans 9.
AND…?: That’s pretty much it, really. I don’t know what to tell you.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: It gives me pleasure to say: no.
WHO HE IS: The King of the Blues!
WHY HE’S HERE: He helped pioneer a brand of guitar-wizardry that was hugely influential on a bunch of future nominees.
AND…?: Most of his direct contributions are in ways that I find personally very irritating, and I have no real truck with his music as such, but there’s no denying that he was hugely popular and hugely influential.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, but he’d probably be more accurately-included as an influence, rather than as a performer, as he never actually performed rock and roll music.
WHO HE IS: He was eventually the singer of The Drifters 10, which is where most of his essential work was done. Here, however, we’re just talking about his solo stuff I guess.
WHY HE’S HERE: I honestly couldn’t tell you. He had hits on his own, but he’s mostly famous for his colossally-mismanaged career. I suppose it’s worth noting that multiple-inductees to the HoF itself are informally said to be in the “Clyde McPhatter Club”, which I suppose is something.
AND…?: And uh…well…he had a nice voice? He sang songs that people bought the records of I guess?
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.
WHO HE IS: A former child star and famous scion who had an unfathomable number of hits in the fifties and sixties.
WHY HE’S HERE: I suppose he has the honor of having the first Billboard #1 single (“Poor Little Fool”), which is something.
AND…?: He’s sort of the Buddy Holly equivalent of Bill Haley’s poor-man’s Jerry Lee Lewis routine.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I’m going to say “no,” but honestly, the dude had like seven billion radio hits (basically none of which have survived) and all that, so I guess if I’m waffling on any of these, it’s probably this one.
WHO HE IS: A sunglasses-adherent and sticky-voiced crooner. He is also, for those of you keeping track at home, the first of the Traveling Wilburys to be inducted.
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a justifiably-praised voice, and, while a lot of his meta-musical influence is more deeply felt in country music 11, he can’t be said to have been lacking for popularity or impact.
AND…?: “Ooby Dooby” is a pretty good song. His ballads get most of the love, which is probably fair – he was way better-suited for them, and thus his best work is kind of not something that strikes me very often. I hadn’t listened to him seriously for many years before embarking on this project.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The third of the “million dollar quartet” to be inducted.
WHY HE’S HERE: He’s sort of the prime mover for “rockabilly,” a thing that continues to exist intermittently, and was a huge part of the early days of rock and roll. He also wrote “Blue Suede Shoes.”
AND…?: I have no issue with Carl Perkins. I like most of his records the least of the million-dollar quartet 12, but they’re still fine, and he still had plenty of influence and all that.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The lead singer of The Miracles, and the public face of Motown Records for most of its thirty or so years of existence.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, theoretically he could be inducted because Motown Records had an enormous impact on popular music, even if none of it was exactly rock-derived. But hey, I had little quibble with Marvin Gaye getting in, and he was on Motown, so I suppose that ship has also sailed. All of that said, I could see his contributions getting him some kind of special consideration or something as a businessman 13, but his music is pretty much beneath consideration – boring, overly-smoothed and soulless.
AND…?: If his music had any actual influence on subsequent rock bands, then it was in ways that are actively detrimental, and I think that’s probably a case for his non-induction.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not as a performer, no.
Big Joe Turner
WHO HE IS: A jump-blues (i.e. the best kind of blues) guy.
WHY HE’S HERE: Once again: I don’t know. Big Joe Turner was hugely important in the proto-development of rock and roll. His vocal style is basically ground zero for rock-style singing, and he definitely was a pioneer in the “scream into the microphone” school of vocalization. But he never recorded a note of rock and roll music, and the sides he recorded that influenced rock music were decades before anyone was even considering it.
AND…?: I mean, he was great, and his records are great, and the blues in general would be way better if they had followed Joe Turner’s lead, but that’s sort of beside my point here.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: It is rightful that he should have been inducted as an early influence, not as a performer of rock and roll music, which he was not.
WHO HE IS: The guy who invented the Chicago blues (i.e. the worst kind of blues)
WHY HE’S HERE: There becomes a weird sort of recursive questioning process as we move through here. At this point, for example, I just said a few hundred words ago that BB King was a reasonable induction, and a great deal of what came out of BB King’s amplifier has deep roots in Muddy Waters’ work. I suppose for helping birth the style of blues that most directly influenced rock music, he has a pretty compelling argument for inclusion, but as with BB King and Joe Turner, I would still argue against his induction as a performer.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes, but once again in the wrong category.
WHO HE IS: He’s the guy whose song makes the slime in Ghostbusters 2 move around.
WHY HE’S HERE: I mean, I guess because Clyde McPhatter 14 is also here? I don’t know, man. I just work here.
AND…?: He was a good-enough singer, and he made fine music, but I can’t really imagine what he’s doing here.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not
WHO HE IS: A vocal jazz guy, who relied heavily on comedy and his own personal charisma to get over.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was wildly popular, and made a sort of young-people-oriented music just before the rock and roll people got started in earnest (the late forties, mainly). He also wrote the song “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” which is a thing my mom used to say all the time that I thought she made up. Turns out she didn’t. Louis Jordan did.
AND…?: He’s credited with having a huge influence on the early rock and roll and R&B sound, a thing that I have been hearing/reading for, oh, two decades or so, and which I still defy anyone to explain to me in a way that makes any meaningful sense. He was, however, enormously popular, and unquestionably provided direct influence to a bunch of people that did influence rock and roll.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: He is included in the “influences” section, which means his induction is more a matter of historical argument than practical argument. I guess it’s fine – as I said, he directly influenced a bunch of influential people, although that kind of twice-removed stuff is a little harder to make a case for.
WHO HE IS: A more electrically-oriented jump-blues (still the best kind of blues) guy
WHY HE’S HERE: See, this is sort of the thing I’m droning on about here: T-Bone Walker was an exact contemporary of Big Joe Turner. He’s down here in the influencers section, and Big Joe Turner is up there in the performers. They should both be in the Hall of Fame, but they should both be influences. Hell, T-Bone Walker’s music was much more like rock and roll music than Big Joe Turner’s. This seems completely arbitrary, and it is maddening.
AND…?: I like T-Bone Walker very much, thank you.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: Sort of the country-music analogue of Robert Johnson, only he was considerably more famous in his lifetime.
WHY HE’S HERE: A bunch of the early rock and roll people (and periodic inductees that are going to pop up throughout) owe a great deal to country music, and Hank Williams did more to perfect and advance the genre than anyone else. He wrote a handful of the greatest songs ever written, he had a voice like an angel, and he performed like a firecracker. It’s hard to ask for more. His influence would have been felt in pure terms of his greatness
AND…?: He recorded several dozen songs 15, and almost none of them are duds. He is that rare creature in popular music who is wildly praised, and not even a little bit overrated.
Berry Gordy Jr.
WHO HE IS: The founder of Motown Records (see above)
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he founded Motown Records (see above)
AND…?: He’s in the Ahmet Ertegun (non-performer) category for, as Ertugun himself did, founding an extremely influential record label.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.
- also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. ↩
- although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” ↩
- one of the things that is definitely going to happen over the course of this series is some serious wrestling with what, exactly, the parameters of “rock and roll” are for the purposes of possible induction into the Hall of Fame. From a vantage point of the second installment here, and my perusal of the list of nominees itself to see where this is all going, it’s not got a lot of rules, but perhaps there is some kind of consistency. ↩
- he died at 20, in a cab in London. The numerical majority of his songs were released after his death, although any of the songs you’d probably know came out during his lifetime. ↩
- he would keep one of his guitar strings wound less than usual so he could “bend” it up a whole note. He probably didn’t invent it, but people say he did anyway. ↩
- this is kind of a difficult area to decide how much to factor in. On the one hand, the music is the music no matter how the people that make it dress. On the other hand, the rock and roll hall of fame is a highly-commercialized enterprise, and as a result, the commercial aspects of things are important to its existence, so within the framework of establishing the viability of an induction into this particular institution, let’s say that it matters. ↩
- if you’re fancy you could call it a “clave” and point out that this particular thing is from Africa. If you’re somewhat less fancy, you could think of it as the rhythm to “Hush Little Baby”. But since you’re reading this, you would probably be better served by knowing that it’s the beat for “I Want Candy”. ↩
- although not the inventor – that’s actually Frank Sinatra, of all people. Although Gaye did give the world its first spite-based concept album with Here, My Dear, an album meant specifically to be terrible as a contract-fulfilling gesture – his ex-wife was due the money from that album, so he made one that wouldn’t sell. ↩
- the thing that you’re thinking of as the Happy Days theme song used to be the song that played over the end credits, and was moved to the opening after season 2, before that it was “Rock Around the Clock.” ↩
- Who were inducted in 1988, and thus will be included and evaluated in part 3. ↩
- he more-or-less invented the “Nashville Sound” ↩
- although, to be fair, he didn’t ever hit the lows of the other three ↩
- he actually broke up The Miracles specifically to focus on being a Motown Records executive. ↩
- the two were in Billy Ward and his Dominoes together, and have basically congruent careers and approaches. ↩
- unlike Robert Johnson, the exact number isn’t one that I have available to my memory right away. It might be something like 100. ↩