The 1950s marked a radical transformation in American popular music as the nation drifted away from its love affair with big band swing to embrace the unschooled and unruly new sounds of rock 'n' roll.
The sudden flood of records from the margins of the music industry left impressions on the pop soundscape that would eventually reshape long-established listening habits and expectations, as well as conventions of songwriting, performance, and recording. When Elvis Presley claimed, "I don't sound like nobody," a year before he made his first commercial record, he unwittingly articulated the era's musical Zeitgeist.
The central story line of I Don't Sound Like Nobody is change itself. The book's characters include not just performers but engineers, producers, songwriters, label owners, radio personalities, and fans—all of them key players in the decade's musical transformation.
Written in engaging, accessible prose, Albin Zak's I Don't Sound Like Nobody approaches musical and historical issues of the 1950s through the lens of recordings and fashions a compelling story of the birth of a new musical language. The book belongs on the shelf of every modern music aficionado and every scholar of rock 'n' roll.
"In Albin J. Zak III's highly original study, phonograph records are not just the medium for disseminating songs but musical works unto themselves. Fashioned from a mix of copyright law, recording studios and techniques, the talent of musicians and disc jockeys, the ingenuity and avarice of producers, and the appetites of record buyers, the all-powerful marketplace Zak describes is an unruly zone where music of, by, and for the people is made and anointed."
—Richard Crawford, author of America's Musical Life: A History
"Wrestling clarity from the exuberant chaos of early rock 'n' roll, Albin Zak's I Don't Sound Like Nobody redefines our understanding of the record in the shaping of the post–World War II soundscape. Zak tracks the story which extends from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra through Elvis and Buddy Holly to the Beatles and Bob Dylan with excursions into dozens of lesser known, but crucial, players in a game with few established rules. A crucial addition to the bookshelf."
—Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America
"I Don't Sound Like Nobody is a superb account of the transformation of American popular music in the 1950s. Albin Zak insightfully explores what recording actually means in terms of the process of making and consuming music. His discussion of the legal, aesthetic, and industrial ramifications of changes in the recording process over the course of the 1950s will make popular music scholars and record collectors reconsider what they think they know about the period."
—Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records
"Informative, original, and entertaining. Through a narrative that is not only enlightening but also compelling, I Don't Sound Like Nobody probes the sources and mechanisms of change within post-war American popular music, shedding a cultural and historical light on the convergence of musical idioms that created '50s rock and roll."
—Stan Hawkins, author of Settling the Pop Score
"From the birth of the record industry through the legacy of Presley, the development of rock and roll, and the Beatles 'stunning arrival on the world's stage,' Albin Zak takes us on a journey of exceptional scholarship. The breadth of coverage and deep examination of recordings and repertoire reveal the author's reverence and sensitivity to the many dimensions and origins of this complex musical soundscape."
—William Moylan, author of Understanding and Crafting the Mix: The Art of Recording
Jacket design by Paula Newcomb
Jacket photograph © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Albin J. Zak III is Professor of Music at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the editor of The Velvet Underground Companion and the author of The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records, a groundbreaking study of rock music production. Zak is also a record producer, songwriter, singer, and guitarist.
Praise / Awards
"Mr. Zak brings a record hound's passion and expertise to his study . . . For aficionados of American popular music, this is an engrossing work of scholarship full of fresh insights."
—Wall Street Journal
"Students and scholars of popular music will find this an enlightening, thought-provoking book."
—Choice, D Arnold, University of North Texas
"This research should serve as a catalyst for a critical reevaluation of the current narratives of postwar American popular music history and will likely exert an influence on the field for many years to come."
—Travis D. Stimeling, Millikin University, American Music
Winner: American Musicological Society (AMS) 2011 Music in American Culture Award
Winner: Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) 2011 Certificate of Merit for Best Research in Recorded Rock or Popular Music
Sample Audio Tracks
Orioles, "It's Too Soon to Know" (Jubilee)
Channeling the Ink Spots—but not quite—the amateur Orioles, with their shoe store clerk songwriter and manager, Deborah Chessler, had the only R&B-to-pop crossover in the latter half of 1948, an early sign of things to come.
Johnnie Ray, "Cry" (Okeh)
In this 1951 Mitch Miller production of a song written by night watchman, Churchill Kohlman, with a performance one critic called a "lacerating threnody," an unknown Johnnie Ray was transformed overnight into what Down Beat labeled "the phenom of the music-record business of the second half of the century."
Les Paul and Mary Ford, "How High the Moon" (Capitol)
With elaborate and painstaking overdubbing, Les Paul and Mary Ford elevated gimmickry to art as exemplified in this public favorite, which rode the top chart position for nine weeks in 1951.
Peggy Lee, "Lover" (Decca)
Peggy Lee and arranger Gordon Jenkins teamed up for this desperately fevered rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard. Despite her former Capitol records colleague, Ella Mae Morse's, public rebuke ("she must be kidding"), Lee's record sold more than a million copies in the summer of 1952.
Don Howard, "Oh Happy Day" (Essex)
Eighteen-year-old Don Howard, recording in his parents' garage, "kicked off a shocked reaction" in the industry with this decidedly amateur effort that nevertheless impressed many hundreds of thousands of young record buyers in 1952.
Chords, "Sh-Boom" (Cat)
Originally a throw-away B-side for the Chords' cover of Patti Page's "Cross Over the Bridge," this 1954 track by a group of young black singers from the Bronx (accompanied by New York session pros) made a top-ten showing on the pop charts, much to the astonishment of industry insiders, including label head Ahmet Ertegun.
Bill Haley and the Comets, "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" (Decca)
Thanks to its appearance in the film, Blackboard Jungle in 1955, this boisterous track—produced by veteran jazz producer, Milt Gabler—became an emblem of youthful rebellion expressed in the voice of a thirty-year-old country singer who, along with the rest of the band and the country at large, was swept up in a musical groundswell beyond anyone's control.
Platters, "Only You (And You Alone)" (Mercury)
The sweetest of the early rock and roll stars, the Platters, with songwriter Buck Ram providing a living connection to past pop tradition, demonstrated that the new music was not to be defined by its big beat alone.
Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog" (RCA Victor)
Working in a top New York studio operated by one of the industry's premier corporations—home to Toscanini, Ellington, Rubinstein, and Gillespie—this piece of proto-punk racket, which may as well have issued from some indie garage, landed Presley at the top of pop, R&B, and country charts in 1956.
Chuck Berry, "Rock and Roll Music" (Chess)
Rock and roll was an emergent concept in 1957 when Chuck Berry delivered this musicology lesson in the form of a hit single blending multiple styles and song forms epitomizing the new music's essentially eclectic nature.
Shirelles, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (Scepter)
The singers and the songwriter/arranger (Carole King) were all women on this 1960 number-one single, as was the label owner (Florence Greenberg), challenging the rock and roll boys club and ushering into the pop mainstream a massive new wave of young female energy and attitude.