By Spencer. Bear with me here. When you see that headline, you’re probably not expecting to see black-and-white pictures of a few guys your grandparents used to listen to. But as in all things musical, the origins of what you know and love today started way before the sounds you recognize. To borrow a metaphor popular with great minds ranging from Isaac Newton to Oasis, greatness is achieved by standing on the shoulders of giants. And while The Beatles may mark the point in time where rock truly entered the album era—and by that, I mean the era in which music was no longer consumed predominantly as popular singles but was now thought of as a collection of songs intended to represent a coherent artistic statement greater than the sum of its parts—we often forget that The Beatles had the benefit of the creative and technical innovations of a few artists who were slowly walking us in the direction of the album concept at least a generation earlier. This is a look at the decidedly non-rock artists who forged the modern rock album.
Bing Crosby: It’s one of those historical curiosities that a performer as hugely popular as Bing Crosby once was is now largely forgotten. Sure, you hear “White Christmas” every December—but that’s about it. And this was a guy who, by a mile, was the best-selling musical artist of the 1930s and 1940s, and who was also a major movie star, appearing with Bob Hope in the famous Road pictures and winning an Oscar in 1944 for Going My Way. So why is he so unappreciated now? Blame the cool factor. In giving way to superstars like Sinatra and Elvis, Crosby’s image became forever linked to the older generation; he became the safe choice for fathers and grandfathers, and when they faded, so did he.
But before all that, Bing Crosby was one of the first great innovators in recording. In the mid-40s, radio shows were broadcast live—with performers often having to do the same show a second time for the West Coast audience. Crosby saw the potential of a new technology, magnetic tape recording, as a way for artists to pre-record shows. He used his clout to push radio stations to adopt the new technology (going on strike for seven months when they initially refused). And he partnered with German engineers to improve upon the technology. Aside from giving performers more control over their schedules, he saw the potential for pre-recording to improve quality: vocal mistakes or weaker songs could be edited out, jokes that didn’t work with the audience could be cut (or boosted by laugh tracks, which he also helped invent), and multiple takes could ensure the best final product possible. Along with Bob Hope and guitar pioneer Les Paul, his efforts were instrumental in the development of multitrack recording—allowing each instrument to be recorded in a separate environment to achieve much higher sound quality and a more controlled mix. Taking the next logical step from these technologies, Crosby also invested heavily in the development of videotape, so you could credit him as a major player in the creation of modern television too.
This was game-changing. Recording artists could now strive for a level of sound perfection that had previously been unimaginable. And more importantly, they now had the means to experiment. So while Bing Crosby may have been music for grandfathers, you could also call him the grandfather of rock music—a genre whose songwriting innovations would have never been possible without him.
Frank Sinatra: Bing Crosby once said that Frank Sinatra was “the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime—but why did it have to be my lifetime?” Crosby’s star faded with the rise of Sinatra, but it was a passing of the torch in more ways than one; Sinatra put Crosby’s technological innovations to good use and, in doing so, sparked recording artists everywhere to rethink the album format. Though he’d been a major music and movie star since the early 40s, by 1952, Sinatra was in a huge career slump following a very public affair with Ava Gardner, a divorce from his longtime wife, and problems with debt, depression, and alcoholism. But in 1953, following his upset Oscar win for From Here To Eternity, he went into the studio to begin his recording comeback. Signing a new contract with Columbia Records, he first recorded two short 10″ albums, Songs For Young Lovers and Swing Easy, each a collection of songs oriented around a common musical vibe (if not quite an all-out theme).
Then, in 1955, he released In The Wee Small Hours—Sinatra’s first longform album, but more importantly, the first true prototype of what we now call a concept album. It was conceived by Sinatra as not just a collection of songs but a unified artistic statement of its own. The songs shared a common melancholy mood, touching on topics like lost love, solitude, insecurity, and introspection, with a sound tailor-made for late night listening. Even the album cover gets in on the action, showing Sinatra, painted in blues and greens, smoking a cigarette against an empty cityscape beneath the street lights. It labeled the album as “mood music,” meant not for everyday enjoyment but as the soundtrack for a particular kind of night. One critic called it “perhaps the definitive musical evocation of loneliness.”
Sinatra didn’t stop there, going on to record several more theme albums (Songs For Swinging Lovers, Come Fly With Me, Only The Lonely, September Of My Years) in the 50s and 60s. Not content to be a mere vocalist, Sinatra thrived in the studio as a producer and arranger. He took a firsthand role in charting out the tempo, phrasing, pauses, and builds of his musicians. And he insisted upon recording his vocal tracks in the middle of a full orchestra so he could draw directly upon the mood for his own performance. Before Sinatra, records were released primarily as singles—or, with the advent of longer-form LPs, as collections of popular songs you might have heard as singles. Sinatra taught musicians everywhere to see the album not just as a means of commercial delivery but as a chance to make art at a higher level. And others were ready to accept that challenge.
Miles Davis: You could argue there’s been no bigger musical innovator than Miles Davis. His work has contributed to the shape of jazz, rock, fusion, even hip-hop. In the 40s, he was a major player on the rising “cool jazz” scene; in the 50s, he helped forge the new “hard bop” sound that took over jazz music; and in the 60s and 70s, he experimented with the blend of jazz and rock that came to be called “fusion.” And throughout it all, he put together several great theme albums that, following the model established by Sinatra, aimed for a cohesive sonic mood greater than the sum of its parts.
You need look no further than his 1959 masterpiece, Kind Of Blue—the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed jazz album of all time. Recorded on multitrack tape over the course of just two days in the studio, Kind Of Blue was a major milestone—pun only partially intended—in jazz composition, abandoning traditional chord progressions and rigidly-charted scores in favor of modal improvisation. The songs weren’t written in advance so much as sketched—an outline with the colors to be filled in during the actual recording. This allowed Davis and his sextet the freedom to roam: up and down scales, exploring the spaces of a single sustained chord, or shifting effortlessly between keys. Davis called it a “return to melody” and praised the “infinite possibilities” that this style of composition granted its musicians. But with all that freedom came an obvious need to set some sort of parameters for the performance, so Davis and pianist Bill Evans built their recording sessions around a definitive mood that became the album title. Kind Of Blue isn’t as lonely-sounding as In The Wee Small Hours; “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” are more playful, and “Blue In Green” and “All Blues” have a sexiness that transcends sadness. But it’s another perfect night album, and you’ll never find a more listenable work of jazz.
Davis followed this in 1960 with a completely different kind of theme album, the Spanish orchestral work, Sketches Of Spain. Blending jazz with elements of classical and world music, he virtually abandoned the improvisation and intimacy of Kind Of Blue and yet achieved something almost as bold. Lush and grand in scope, it showcases just how diverse a talent Davis could be. And in 1970, Davis would actually make one of the great modern rock albums with Bitches Brew, an ambitious double LP of psychedelic jazz, acid, and funk, layered over with electronic organs and sounding like a drug-induced mind trip through the entire world of music. Together, Davis’s contributions to the album format were instrumental (so to speak) in shaping the decade of rock, even as it was happening. You might even consider him an accomplice in the creation of the new genre that would, ironically, unseat jazz as the dominant force in music.
Buddy Holly: At the same time that Davis was bringing jazz to its creative pinnacle, a Texas songwriter named Buddy Holly was taking things in an entirely different direction. Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers had their commercial breakouts in 1956 and 1957, taking what was then considered country-and-western music and fusing it with the harder, more danceable beats of rhythm-and-blues to create something called rock-and-roll. Following a similar path, Holly debuted in 1957 with “That’ll Be The Day,” a self-penned single recorded with his band, The Crickets (a name that Lennon and McCartney openly ripped off when they coined “The Beatles”). Holly charted several more singles that year and, after an international tour, went back into the studio. And there, in a fit of creativity that was cut short by his untimely death in a 1959 helicopter crash, he innovated the recording techniques that would lay the foundations of modern rock.
For starters, Holly is often credited with cementing the basic format of what we now consider a rock band: a vocalist, two guitars, a bass, and drums. He also broke ground by writing his own songs—a sharp break from artists like Sinatra and Elvis who relied on professional songwriters and popular standards for their material. (After a few albums doing mostly covers, The Beatles would of course make songwriting a virtual requirement for any serious rock artist). Holly was also a burgeoning genius in the art of studio production, where he recorded not just his own band but also the likes of Waylon Jennings and Benny Goodman. He experimented with full orchestration but he also stripped things down by going acoustic. And he was among the first to use the studio as an instrument unto itself, working with producer Norman Petty to pioneer the techniques of reverberation—which gave recordings new depth—and overdubbing, which allowed artists the ability to build a song (and later an album) instrument by instrument and track by track.
Once the basic skeleton of the song was recorded, the artist was completely free to tinker with other sounds and instruments, layering them onto the song or discarding anything that didn’t work. It didn’t need to be planned out all in advance anymore, and songs that started out as more conventional compositions could take strange new turns through a continuing process of reinvention. The freedom this would grant to future experimental artists cannot be overstated; without it, Lennon and McCartney could never have enjoyed the room to play around that ultimately led to Rubber Soul and Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Indeed, The Beatles cited Buddy Holly as a major influence throughout their career.
And given the flair for experimentation Holly was already showing, along with the six-year head start he had on them, it’s fair to ask whether The Beatles would have even become The Beatles had he not died. Imagine a world in which Buddy Holly beats the Fab Four to the punch and establishes himself as the dominant creative force in music before they could make the transition away from bubble-gum pop songs. Would they have even taken off? Or would they have been prematurely dismissed as just another boy band? How different would our musical landscape—our entire popular culture—look today? Oooh-wee-oooh, indeed.
Enjoy S&N Mix 20 for a tour through the artists who helped to shape the rock album as we know it.
- Bing Crosby – Pennies From Heaven
- Bing Crosby – You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby
- Bing Crosby – It’s Been A Long, Long Time
- Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
- Frank Sinatra – Can’t We Be Friends?
- Frank Sinatra – What Is This Thing Called Love
- Miles Davis – So What
- Miles Davis – Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio)
- Miles Davis – John McLaughlin
- Buddy Holly – That’ll Be The Day
- Buddy Holly – Everyday
- Buddy Holly – Words Of Love
- Buddy Holly – True Love Ways