Why are there no electric keyboards in ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll?

Electric and electronic keyboard instruments were first invented at the turn of the 20th century – Thaddeus Cahill’s mighty Telharmonium was probably the first, and by the early 1930s dozens of inventors in America and Europe were putting together organs, pianos and keyboard instruments which could not as easily be categorised. The Ondes Martenot and Trautonium captured the imagination of avant-garde composers, while the Hammond organ and the same company’s Novachord synthesiser soon became mainstays of the entertainment, recording and broadcasting industries.

Around 1950, various strands of American popular music began to blend, mutate and evolve. A mixture of electric blues, country, jazz and boogie-woogie became rock ‘n’ roll, and rapidly became the music of choice for young people across the nation. The instrumentation of this new sound comprised electric guitars, drums, upright bass (soon supplanted by Leo Fender’s electric bass guitar), saxophone and piano. And the strange thing is that the piano wasn’t replaced in rock music for another ten years.

It’s not as if the instruments didn’t exist – Wurlitzer’s electric piano first appeared on the market in 1954, just in time for rock ‘n’ rollers to adopt it. It was portable, easy to amplify and had a funky, futuristic sound. And yet nobody used it until Ray Charles in 1959. Listen to classic rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or rockabilly records and you will hear nothing but acoustic piano and the occasional celesta. Similarly, Hammond organs (which had been around since 1935) didn’t really crop up in rock music until the late 1950s with Lord Rockingham’s XI, Johnny and the Hurricanes and Dave Cortez.

So why did the early rock ‘n’ rollers stick to the acoustic piano? It could be argued that once they had found a winning formula, there was no need to change it – the bass guitar made a practical difference, but not one that the record-buying public were likely to notice. The image of electric keyboard instruments may have been another factor – Hammond organs and Novachords were used in mainstream pop music and even on Nashville country recordings, but they were seen as being a bit staid and “square”, whereas an old upright piano had a certain “street” image harking back to saloons and honky-tonks.

It took the 1960s to give rock music the keyboards it deserved – brightly-coloured transistor organs with reverse-coloured keys and chrome stands; electric pianos that looked like sleek Scandinavian furniture or like heavy-duty guitar amplifiers, and later on, massive synthesisers that resembled the flight-deck of a spaceship. But that’s another story.

5 Responses to “Why are there no electric keyboards in ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll?”

  1. Laser Says:

    As you say the Hammonds looked “staid” and “square”. My Aunt, born 1915 30 years before me and having been in showbiz for a while was a big Hammond fan while I was a combo hound for just the reason you cited. We had that debate for years

    The turn came in late 1958. There were changes in the music. The big talk was about how rock ’n’ roll was becoming more melodic and being taken over by the ballad singers. Also, along with that more melodic, less punchy tone, new instruments came in. The aforementioned Hammond and Wurlies. Also came the rise of the string ensemble.with groups like the Drifters, Shirelles, artists like the Velvets, Gen McDaniels, Ben E King’s solo stuff and Roy Orbison. Frankie Avalon used the harpsichord or something like it (I don’t think it was a Clavinet:)) in his huge late winter/early spring hit VENUS that turned him from a semi-novelty act into a romantic singer. Squares like Perry Como, Burl Ives and Lawrence Welk hit the charts next to Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, Even Johnny Crawford got in on the act with what has to be one of, if not the first bubblegum hits YOUR NOSE IS GONNA GROW in ’62 (Paw! Paw! I’m a bubblegum star!). It was truly an age unto itself lasting 5 years which I dubbed the Satellite Era Between Sputnik/Explorer and the predominance of manned spaceflight

    I turned 13 in ’58 and it was just then that I started to be interested more in music. I found this new rock ’n’ roll to be more interesting and less chaotic.

    When the keyboard string ensemble first arrived on these shores in 1974, I said “Where was this a dozen years ago?”. Though I had heard of synthesizers since 1962, My romance began with Dick Hyman’s THE MINOTAUR. We had a 1955 Hammond s-100 electronic chord organ. This had a two channel keyboard. Flute 8’ and string 8’ and a monophonic device with a widely variable sound that I started experimenting with tone colors, including square and narrow pulse waves (that were not labelled as such but were the result of which tabs you used) in 1958 or early 59.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for your interesting and informative comments, Laser. It’s great to hear opinions from someone who was actually “there”!

  3. David Says:

    Have you considered the role that vehicles played in this? In the 40s and 50s a guitar player could show up at a pub or club lugging a guitar case and a 15W combo amp on the train or bus. The keyboard player would rely on the venue to have a piano. It was much less likely that a musician would own a car - let alone a vehicle suitable to move around the keyboards of the day.

    This always brings to mind the scene in The Commitments where they are transporting granny’s piano on a flat bed truck (the one she’s not going to miss from her front room because she never goes in there) then struggling to get it up the stairs to their rehearsal room. And this was set in Dublin in 1980.

    I suspect that there are a lot more societal reasons that contributed. The post-war austerity in relation to bands and recording studios ability to afford equipment. The relative cost of equipment as a proportion of annual income, and so on.

  4. admin Says:

    That’s something I should have thought of, David, but I didn’t! All the more surprising, since from 1981 until the mid-1990s I myself was a musician who relied on London’s public transport (or lifts from friends). It certainly could be a struggle trying to get on a tube or catch a bus with a Hohner Pianet T in one hand and a Roland Cube 60 amp on a folding luggage trolley…

  5. David Says:

    Like most things, cause and effect can be a very complex web. Across this whole period radios became more affordable, broadcasting became more widespread, recording technologies advanced rapidly. Records moved from lo-fi to hi-fi so you could hear more subtlety in the instrumentation. Innovators in recording started the trend of differentiating records by the use of unusual and unexpected sounds. The Beatles catalogue spanning a very short period of time provides all the illustrations for this discussion.

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