Tonight, the 29th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held at New York's Barclays Center. In the music world, the event is a big deal. Legends will be out in force and a new slate of inductees will be honored with rousing performances and moving speeches. The Grammys may high-five the music of the previous year, but the Rock Hall celebrates rock and soul's past. Which raises an interesting question: Is the Rock Hall going back far enough? And what's stopping it from doing so? [Pictured above: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland]
In today's Wall Street Journal (Lesiure & Arts section), I write about the Rock Hall's selection process and why so many R&B greats like Big Jay McNeely [above] are consistently overlooked (go here or please buy the paper). In fact, you might be shocked to learn how few early rock musicians have been inducted while artists who had virtually nothing to do with the music were ushered in years ago. For example, Louis Armstrong was inducted as an early influence in 1990, even though he had virtually nothing to do with R&B or rock and roll. By contrast, Lionel Hampton, who was instrumental in popularizing R&B in the late 1940s and early '50s—and starred in Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957—is nowhere to be found. The same goes for Wynonie Harris, who had one of rock's first hits in 1948 (Good Rockin' Tonight) and singers Roy Brown and Billy Wright, who awed Little Richard. Don't look for the Mills Brothers either. They only paved the way for doo-wop and influenced the Four Freshmen, who in turn inspired the Beach Boys, Four Seasons and many other rock harmony groups.
To be fair to the Rock Hall, someone's feelings are always going to be hurt. After all, you can't back up the rock truck and dump everyone in at once. And to the Rock Hall's credit, a pretty thorough nominating and induction process is in place to ensure that the voting is democratic. A list of eligible performers is circulated to 40 nominating-committee members each July, followed by a meeting in September, where each person at the table is asked for three choices. Then the list is whittled down to the top 15, which is circulated in October to 700 music experts, who are asked to pick five. These are your new inductees.
The problem is there's no mechanism in place to ensure that R&B legends are part of the final list. A subcommittee is supposed to look after R&B's legacy, but this year not a single R&B legend was offered up, despite a field crowded with choices. As a result, members of the full nominating committee have no choice but to move forward on the artists in front of them.
The nominating board's omission of R&B legends is especially egregious, since the Rock Hall has been working hard to amass artists' archives and position itself as home to a serious library for rock scholars. Rock history doesn't start in 1955 nor is it exclusively about electric guitars and who had the most hits. As I note in my article, rock's origins are pretty specific and date back to the late 1940s, when small, independent record labels set up shop in cities like Los Angeles to record black dance music, which jazz had abandoned after World War II. With the rise of jump-boogie—a danceable form of blues that typically showcased the saxophone—R&B acts became more flamboyant to engage and energize young audiences. That's where rock began.
One of the earliest artists to turn up the heat and play R&B for white teen audiences was Big Jay McNeely. In 1951, he was photographed in action by Bob Willoughby at Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium. Look at the picture above and try to tell me that what you see didn't influence the stagecraft and showmanship of Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and other rockers who followed.
The Rock Hall works hard to be fair and to honor the music and legends. But they need to work harder to be fair. Clearly, a tweak or two is needed to the nominating process to ensure that rock's founders are given a slot each year. Even if that means another position is added to the standing five slots for inductees, the move would be worthwhile to educate fans and get in sync with the Rock Hall's efforts to embrace research and history. Big Jay McNeely is a participant and eyewitness to rock history. He's also still performing at age 86—mostly in Europe, since he has been virtually forgotten here. For the good of rock and roll, he should be embraced, interviewed on camera by the Rock Hall and honored.
As Mike Stoller said last week, "Rock and roll grew out of black popular music, and Big Jay was important. He excited the passions of teens—black and white—and they responded to what he was doing." I'll second that emotion. [Pictured above: Big Jay McNeely with Johnnie Ray]
JazzWax tracks: For a starter collection of Big Jay McNeely's early singles, try Nervous here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Big Jay's Jay's Frantic from 1950...
Here's Big Jay's hit ballad There Is Something on Your Mind, with Little Sonny Warner on vocal...
And here's Big Jay in 2012 in Australia (watch how he gets the audience going)...