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Rock ’n’ Roll at Carnegie Hall

For much of its history, Carnegie Hall has served as a venue for popular music. Rock ’n’ roll first came to the Hall on May 6, 1955, when Bill Haley and His Comets took part in a variety concert alongside an astonishing lineup that included Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Les Paul, and Buddy Rich.

On October 30 of the same year, an entire program was devoted to rock ’n’ roll and R&B for the first time in the Hall’s history, when artists who included Bo Diddley, Earl Gaines, and Etta James performed. Since 1955, many of the biggest names in rock have played Carnegie Hall. During a remarkable period of just over six weeks in the fall of 1971, for example, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Doors (without Jim Morrison), and The Allman Brothers Band all performed at the Hall.

Carnegie Hall has hosted many other rock-’n’-roll milestones. The Beatles famously performed two sold-out shows at the Hall on February 12, 1964, as part of their grueling two-week US tour. Rock and classical music came together on May 26, 1971, when progressive-rock eminences Emerson, Lake and Palmer performed arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Bartók’s Allegro barbaro. Chicago sold out a full week of shows at the Hall between April 5 and 11, 1971 (the performances were recorded and released as a four-LP boxed set). On March 11, 2009, at a tribute concert for R.E.M., the band came on stage to perform “E-Bow the Letter” with Patti Smith, marking the last time they performed together before a live audience. Spinal Tap—arguably the greatest rock band of all time—made its one-and-only Carnegie Hall appearance on June 4, 2001, as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival. Although the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, never performed at Carnegie Hall, the Presley name entered the Hall’s concert database in 2012, when Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, performed in Zankel Hall on November 17 of that year.

The Rolling Stones

On June 20, 1964—four months after The Beatles made their much-heralded Carnegie Hall debut—their bad-boy British Invasion counterparts, The Rolling Stones, took the stage at the Hall before a packed audience made up mostly of teenage girls. The band’s two shows that day reached a state of near-pandemonium, with girls “swinging their arms and shrieking and standing on their chairs and gyrating,” according to Meet the Rolling Stones, a fanzine dedicated to the band’s 1964 tour.

The Carnegie Hall concerts marked the final engagement of The Rolling Stones’ first American tour and their only appearance at the storied venue. (Their debut studio album, The Rolling Stones, had only just been released in the US.) The tour commenced on June 5, and included several television appearances (including The Red Skelton Hour and The Dean Martin Show) as well as performances in San Bernardino, California; San Antonio, Texas; Excelsior, Minnesota; Omaha, Nebraska; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The band had yet to score a major hit in the US, and several additional engagements were cancelled; nevertheless, both shows at Carnegie Hall were sold out. The band’s setlist included songs such as “Route 66,” “Not Fade Away” (the first Rolling Stones song to make the Billboard charts), “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “High Heel Sneakers,” and “I’m All Right.”

Guitarist Keith Richards later said of the tour, “America was still very much into Frankie Avalon. There wasn’t any thought of long-haired kids; we were just entertainment-business freaks, with long hair, just like a circus show.” Regardless, while it may not have felt like a triumph, the tour proved to be a success, giving The Rolling Stones their first foothold in a country they would come to dominate in the ensuing years. “America was a joke when we arrived,” drummer Charlie Watts stated in the book According to the Rolling Stones, “but by the time we left we had an audience, and by the time we came back we had made a hit record. It was uphill, but the audience grew every time.”

 

Additional Highlights

Here are just some of the rock and pop artists who have made their Carnegie Hall debuts—either as headliners or as part of a mixed lineup—since Bill Haley and His Comets took the stage in 1955.

Bob Dylan (November 4, 1961*)
Chuck Berry (June 17, 1965*)
The Byrds (September 26, 1969*)
Led Zeppelin (October 17, 1969)
Steppenwolf (December 6, 1969)
James Taylor (June 12, 1970*)
Jethro Tull (November 4, 1970*)
Neil Young (December 4, 1970*)
The Moody Blues (December 14, 1970)
The Beach Boys (February 24, 1971*)
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue (April 1, 1971)
Elton John (June 10, 1971*)
David Bowie and The Spiders from Mars (September 28, 1972)
Bill Withers (October 6, 1972*)
The Doobie Brothers (May 18, 1973*)
Renaissance (June 20, 1975*)
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (October 4, 1984)
Bruce Springsteen (December 7, 1987*)
Sting (March 10, 1991*)
David Byrne (February 28, 1995*)
Jefferson Starship (September 18, 1999)
Björk (November 6, 2005*)
Cowboy Junkies (February 1, 2006*)
U2 (October 4, 2009)
Living Colour (March 2, 2010*)
Indigo Girls (October 23, 2010*)
The Flaming Lips (March 3, 2011*)
JAY-Z (February 6, 2012*)

*First of multiple Carnegie Hall appearances

Photography and concert artifacts courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives; Presley by Stephanie Berger; Springsteen by Steve J. Sherman; Björk by Pete Checchia; Indigo Girls by Julien Jourdes.

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