BY JONATHAN VALANIA By day he’s a mild-mannered Philadelphia lawyer, but by night James A. Cosby is a rock philosopher-cum-theoretician mapping out grand unifying theories about the origin mythos of rock n’ roll. Turns out it’s a lot more complicated than ‘the blues had a baby and they called it rock n’ roll’ and there is far more nuance in the grey zone between heaven and hell than is dreamt of in your Birth Of Rock Spotify playlist, Virginia. His 2016 book Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers And Hillbillies: How America Gave Birth To Rock N’ Roll ties together the seemingly disparate socioculturall strands of race and religion and economics — slavery, the dirty South, rural blues, hellfire and brimstone Pentacostals, hillbilly mystics taking up serpents, the transfiguration of gospel choirs, white Post-War prosperity and radio apartheid — into a coherent, illuminating and altogether convincing narrative. No mean feat, that. Because everybody knows heaven has better weather but Hell has all the best bands but few know why, we recently we got Mr. Cosby on the horn to talk shop.
PHAWKER: So what prompted you to write a genealogical history of early rock and roll?
JAMES COSBY: I’ve been writing some academic stuff in law, and then I started writing some essays and reviews for some online music sites and I always just had some questions in my mind about rock music, like ‘when did it start?’ You know, what was the first rock record? Why don’t I know that? Why is that not more well known, like how did it start exactly? And what’s the deal with Elvis, was he a cultural thief or not? Like, what was the deal with this guy? So I just started reading up on it and I was just really amazed at, you know, I found a lot of really amazing information. It sparked something.
PHAWKER: Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” is widely cited as the alpha rock and roll song, but you’re somewhat skeptical that it is actually the first rock and roll song, or that any one song could be definitively ID’d as such.
JAMES COSBY: In the book, I just basically say that’s the consensus number one. But I mean I think there are numerous other songs that could be the number one, and so I thought it was sort of fascinating that it’s so hard to determine. And I didn’t know– I hadn’t heard of “Rocket 88” until I really started researching this. It’s been a while now. But it is interesting, there are some people that would say it wasn’t until Elvis or Bill Hailey. Going back to the late forties, there are songs when you listen to ‘em, it’s like, man that sounds a lot like rock n’ roll. So I would agree it’s “Rocket 88,” but I think it is, it really is really hard to pinpoint a single song.
PHAWKER: Alright, is there a couple other songs that could well be the first rock and roll song that you can just throw out?
JAMES COSBY: Sure. Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” from 1949. Some of the guitar in that, it’s like, you hear it and it seems a precursor to Chuck Berry. And when you hear it, it’s like, it’s just shocking to hear it in the late ‘40s.
PHAWKER: Okay, so tell me a little bit about the process of researching and writing the book. Any interesting road trips or surprise discoveries? I believe you went down to Memphis at some point.
JAMES COSBY: I started off– there are a lot of books out there, obviously, on rock, but I didn’t feel like anybody really tied it all together. Or, at least, not the way I was seeing it. And as far as how did the blues, Memphis, and Elvis, how did it really all come together? It seemed like whenever I read anything about rock history people would say, ‘Well, there was the blues and then all of the sudden there’s Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry,’ and I thought, well there’s gotta be more to this than that, you know? It didn’t just happen out of nowhere. Like how did all these different elements come together? And so, you know, I really wanted to go back further in the history leading up to the 1950’s instead of, you know, a lot of books that just start in the fifties, really. Maybe, maybe they talk about “Rocket 88”. So I did go to Memphis a couple times, just to look around, maybe sort of get a feel for it. The only person I’ve interviewed is Lloyd Price, who was an early rock pioneer. And otherwise, there’s so much already out there, I just needed to start piecing it together.
PHAWKER: So the irony of the title of your book, Devil’s Music, was a pejorative hurled at rebellious teenage music in the ‘50s to discredit it. But in truth — and your book goes a long way towards pointing this out — rock and roll really was birthed in large part by Christianity, or the Christian church more specifically. That, and slavery, and the agrarian society of the South, and Post-War prosperity etc. Would you agree that, you know, so much of this comes out of the Pentecostals and the Evangelicals and the sort of charismatic religious denominations, gospel music, the black church experience.
JAMES COSBY: When I was trying to come up with a title for the book, I was trying to think, there’s so many factors like you’re saying. And so I was trying to think, how do I summarize all these people, the Pentecostal church, musicians, and bluesman, and so the devil’s music, so the term for early rock is also the term for the bluesman. So that’s sort of what I was thinking, that rock and roll really did sort of turn things upside down. And, you know, the blues, that was considered devil’s music, because they weren’t part of the black gospel music, they were very secular and, you know, sang about secular topics, sex and whatever else. And so it’s just ironic to me rock and roll is so mainstream now. Like, it’s shocking to me that there was a time when people really did think it was the devil’s music.
PHAWKER: So much of that early rock and roll seems really tame in 2019 — to 2019 ears. I mean it’s hard to understand no how offended people were when Ray Charles started taking gospel motifs and turning them into R&B — people really thought he was doing something really satanic. Look how conflicted Little Richard was — he wound up renouncing rock n’ roll and going back to gospel for a time. I think it’s hard for modern secular whites to relate to, but, like, the profound sense of guilt that some of these guys felt by leaving gospel music and doing rock and roll that was, in some ways, a tribute to where it came from.
JAMES COSBY: Right.
PHAWKER: So you dedicate the book to all the the African-Americans that came from The Delta in song and spirit, and something called the Kent Bangers. You lost me on that one: who is or what is Kent Bangers?
JAMES COSBY: It’s sort of an in-joke. I’m originally from Kent, Washington, and it’s sort of a reference to my group of friends that I grew up with that were all, you know, very much into rock and roll. The term came up in a song by a heavy metal group that came out of Kent, Washington called Metal Church, and they referenced ‘The Kent Bangers,’ and so I just always thought that was a cool reference.
PHAWKER: That’s a good name for a band — a British garage band. Let’s talk about Elvis, you think the importance or the power and the glory of Elvis has been overstated?
JAMES COSBY: Yeah, he’s such a– yeah, he still remains, like, the most complicated legacy of anybody ever, it seems like. But, you know, what I think I wanted to get in the book is, you know– something that got me started on this is I was reading up on sort of Elvis’s history with race, and I just started to realize that everything was in place in Memphis before Elvis came along. You know, like you had Sun Studios, you know, you already started to get this crossover racially, there’s amazing black radio, like WDIA– this was all before Elvis. And WDIA was famous as the first black music radio station, and B.B. King and Rufus Thomas were deejays. And then from there you get to Dewey Phillips who’s this amazing white guy who was a deejay in Memphis at the same time who really crossed the race line, like, really an underappreciated figure in this.
PHAWKER: That’s all true, but isn’t that the story of every Great Man in history about being the at the right place at the right time?
JAMES COSBY: Right, right. No, that’s true. I mean, I think Elvis takes it to a whole other level. Huge social dynamics were changing — it was literally the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, and there was this sacred/secular line with rock music being considered obscene at the time. You know, so many things happening all at once and Elvis was literally timing-wise and geographically just at exactly the right place. He was both incredibly talented and incredibly fortunate to be at that exact place at that exact time. And you can’t underestimate that, I think also, that he had, I think because he was white, he just had this different attitude towards music. And in a sense that I think he already knew like, he already knew he was gonna be accepted, like if he crossed the race line he was probably gonna be accepted by America. And Marlon Brando and James Dean are already on the big screen being rebels, you know? These young white guys being [anti-establishment], Elvis really was heavily influenced by their attitude. It’s complicated, he was incredibly talented — but black guys were not gonna cross that race line first, you know, you’re not gonna see a black guy on the silver screen telling off the cops, you know?
PHAWKER: Right, a handsome charismatic white guy could get away with being a threat to society, but certainly not a handsome, charismatic black man in 1950s America. I mean it’s all rather tame now, but at the time he was, you know, Elvis Presley shaking his hips was the coming of the decline of Western civilization –it also seems like from another planet now, right? Where do you think rock and roll stands now, do you think it’s spent as a cultural force? Or does it continue to be relevant or groundbreaking?
JAMES COSBY: I mean, I think it’s, yeah, I mean I think rock as we knew it, like classic rock, blues-based guitar, is over as, you know, the huge force that it was. And, you know, there’s still a lot of really great rock bands out there but they really are these small, niche acts, and they don’t necessarily pack arenas and unite people the same way.
PHAWKER: Yeah. Okay, last question here. If the Martians landed on your front lawn today and said, you know, what is rock and roll, what song would you play for them?
JAMES COSBY: Oh, man. Uh, I’d say “Johnny B. Goode.”
JAMES COSBY: Because it’s just electrifying. It’s also, it really is– in that opening guitar, you really do hear the hillbilly and the R&B in it.
PHAWKER: Chuck Berry’s never really gotten the full due he deserved as a writer. People are like these are very catchy songs that everyone knows, and they’re iconic, and they’re incorporated in so much rock and roll, all that is true. But he barely had a high school education, and he invented a whole new telegraphic way of writing songs — as poetry, really, not just rhymes. What he captures in those verses is very, very, vivid. I mean, there’s like, there’s whole novels in those songs.
JAMES COSBY: And he really connected with black teens and white teens, he was really in touch with what was going on, and he really did establish a whole mentality for rock and roll as a youth movement — the excitement of it.
PHAWKER: And then the powers that be went after him because he was a threat, you know, he was a successful black man and was just sort of throwing it up in their faces, and you know, went after them with that whole Mann Act thing. I mean, I think the same could be said about sending Elvis into the Army, he was never the same after that. He went in this like smoldering vision of carnality and came out a pretty boy movie star making largely inane music.
JAMES COSBY: I think that was the plan all along. He always saw himself as a pop star, as did his manager Colonel Parker, and then rock and roll came along, so he became a rocker, he really embraced it. In the late fifties, nobody really thought rock and roll was gonna last more than a couple years. Elvis was already a big fan of all the big pop stars from Dean Martin to Frank Sinatra. And so that was sort of their plan, too, it’s like, they wanted to stay in the mainstream, so when rock and roll turned out to be a fad, he would still be relevant. And so going into the Army would get them in the good graces of the mainstream, and he wanted to come out and be a movie star and do musicals. I think we’re still kinda unravelling his legacy and what it means. There was just a documentary last year where people are still trying to sort out ‘Was Elvis a good thing, a bad thing as far as race?’
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about that: was Elvis a good thing or a bad thing as far as race goes? Was he just simply appropriating black music — essentially stealing it — and profiting from it, or was he opening a window on it, was he leading the world back to black music ultimately?
JAMES COSBY: There’s a lot of layers to it, and I think when it comes to race Elvis was really progressive. He had a lot of very strong personal connections with black people. When I went to Memphis, like across the board there, every person you see, every person you talk to was like, that ‘He was the real deal, like he really cared about black culture.’ The flipside of that I think is that he benefited so much from black culture that, you know, he sort of reflects institutionalized racism.
PHAWKER: Yeah. The institutionalized racism part of this is that a black man couldn’t have had the same success with that sound, that look, those moves, etc., it had to be a white man. But at least he was a better messenger than goddamn Pat Boone, who took all the sex and danger out of any of the black music that he was covering. To tie this back to your book, you mentioned towards the end Public Enemy teaming up with Anthrax to do a version “Bring the Noize,” but famously in another PE song “Fight The Power,” there’s Chuck D saying ‘Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, straight up, the racist was simple and plain,’ and then Flava Flav comes in with ‘motherfuck him and John Wayne.’ Did you, in your studies of Elvis, did you find any indication that he was, you know, not just a product and beneficiary of institutionalized racism, but that he was racist?
JAMES COSBY: No, and I actually talk about it a lot early on in Elvis’ story, black people like B.B. King and Rufus Thomas and on and on, people that knew him really well back in Memphis, even when they didn’t necessarily get along other guys at Sun Studios, they were like, ‘Elvis was different’ like he really did cross over that line.
PHAWKER: It wasn’t a cynical move, he really loved that music, he was really moved by that music.
JAMES COSBY: Yeah, right, absolutely.
PHAWKER: I think that’s a good place to leave it. This was your first book, are you working on a follow-up?
JAMES COSBY: I am, I’m working on a second one right now, I’m hoping to start shopping around in the next few months. It sorta picks up right when this one left off, like in 1960 and it’s just looking at modern rock and sorta again trying to combine the music and the sociology of it and just trying to get some clarity about modern rock — the ‘60s into the’90s, basically.
PHAWKER: Do you have a working title for it?
JAMES COSBY: Yeah, it’s basically The Triumph of Rock Music: A Story Of Rebellion, Mental Health and Jesus, 1960-1997— well, I’ll just leave it at that, The Triumph of Rock Music.
Artwork by JON LANGFORD