Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Blurry Beginnings of Rock And Roll

First I want to thank everyone who voted in my last poll. The results were unanimous -- everyone wants to hear stories about the songs on MusicMaster Oldies. Now I just have to figure out the best way to do that, so I'm starting a new poll to let you help me decide.

When and where did Rock And Roll get started? Who invented it? What was the very first Rock And Roll song ever recorded?

If you asked this question in a room full of people, many of them would tell you that Elvis Presley was the King of Rock And Roll. But Elvis didn't cut his first record until 1954.

Those who have studied the roots of rock might tell you that Robert Johnson had a clear influence on rock guitarists. But his incredible 1936 recordings are clearly pre-war blues that nobody would mistake for Rock And Roll.

It's pretty clear that Rock And Roll was an extension of early Rhythm And Blues music. The death of racism in America, starting with the Civil War, took a big step forward in 1954 when Congress eliminated the "separate but equal" doctrine in a move toward desegregation. This happened during a time when records began to appear featuring white artists doing their own take on R&B. At the same time, black artists were starting to sell their records to white kids, often against the protests of their parents!

When the kids who grew up on Country and Western started picking up on the R&B craze, they blended the two into a new form which we call Rockabilly. That word is a blend of "rock" as in Rock And Roll, and "hillbilly" music, as it was originally known.

Religion played an important part in the emergence of Rock And Roll. One might say is was the "glue" that bound the different styles together. Gospel music, after all, had an influence on both white and black performers. It was something they both had in common. The harmony of a gospel choir fit well into the emerging style of Rock And Roll. It also influenced the string of "singing harmony" music that took us from Barbershop Quartet to Doo Wop and beyond.

All these earlier musical forms already had names, and none of them was exactly like the Rock And Roll we think of when we listen to the music of the 1950's and 1960's. When did someone coin the phrase "Rock And Roll" and apply it to a new and emerging style of music? Someone might tell you that Alan Freed invented the term when he used it on his radio program on WJW-AM in Cleveland, Ohio back in 1951. But he certainly didn't invent the phrase.

Several earlier recordings featured the words "rock" and "roll" in some form, such as Rock And Rolling by Bob Robinson, or Rock And Rolling Mamma by Buddy Jones, or Cherry Red by Joe Turner, all from 1939. Three different songs with the title Rock And Roll were recorded in the late 1940's by Paul Bascomb (1947), Wild Bill Moore (1948), and Doles Dickens (1949). The phrase was heard often in the lyrics of R&B records in the 1940's. You'll hear it very frequently in Rock And Roll Blues by Erline "Rock and Roll" Harris from 1949.

The phrase Rock And Roll appeared in an advertisement for a motion picture called Wabash Avenue starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature in 1950. In fact, Betty Grable was cited in that ad as "The First Lady of Rock and Roll" with Wabash Avenue being "the roaring street she rocked to fame." The word "rock" had been used long before all this meaning to "shake up, disturb or incite." Black gospel singers in the South used the word "rockin'" in reference to spiritual rapture. All the way back in 1916, the term "rocking and rolling" can be heard in a spiritual record called The Camp Meeting Jubilee by an unnamed male Quartette.

In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded Rock It For Me, which included the lyric, "So won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll." The verb "roll" was a medieval metaphor for having sex, which is evident in the phrases "They had a roll in the hay" or "I rolled her in the clover," both found in literature going back hundreds of years. "Rocking and rolling", was black slang for dancing or sex in the early 1900's. It was first used in 1922 on My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll by Trixie Smith. This double entendre, referring to dancing or sex, is very clear in Good Rockin' Tonight by Roy Brown from 1948.

The words "rocking" and "rolling" were also used together on record as early as 1934 to describe the motion of a ship, such as in Rock And Roll by The Boswell Sisters. That song was featured in the 1934 movie Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round. The words were also used to refer to the motion of a train in songs like Rockin' Rollin' Mama by Buddy Jones in 1939, or Rockin And Rollin by Tommy Scott in 1951. Speaking of trains, the origins of the term "rocking and rolling" can be traced back to steel driving men working on the railroads in the Reconstruction South who sang songs in step with the rhythm of their hammer swings. The song Shake Rattle And Roll inadvertently ties in with this idea because "Shaker" was a guy who held the steel spikes, and they would "rock" the spike back and forth to get past rocks in the soil, and also "roll" (twist) the spike to improve the drilling action.

As for the first Rock And Roll record, there are a lot of contenders for that honor. You can hear them all on MusicMaster Oldies, so it might be more fun to just listen for them and judge for yourself. One that is a clear candidate is Roll 'Em Pete by Big Joe Turner from 1939. This Train and Rock Me by Sister Rosetta Tharpe from 1938 are great examples of gospel crossing over into Rock And Roll. Others you'll want to listen for are Good Rocking Tonight by Roy Brown from 1947, Move It On Over by Hank Williams from 1947, Chicken Shack Boogie by Amos Milburn from 1947, Rock The Joint by Jimmy Preston from 1947, The Fat Man by Fats Domino from 1949, and Wisconsin's own Les Paul and Mary Ford doing How High The Moon from 1951.

The true Rock And Roll sound really started to emerge with the release of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats. That record was actually Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm recording under a different name! It was recorded in 1951 by the legendary Sam Phillips at his Sun Records studios in Memphis. The first Rock And Roll song to hit the Billboard charts was probably Crazy Man Crazy by Bill Haley And His Comets. He quickly followed that up with Rock Around The Clock, which became the first Rock And Roll record to hit number one on the Billboard charts in July 1955, even though it was recorded a year earlier. Pay particular attention to That's All Right (Mama), the very first single recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954, also done in the Sun Records studios under the direction of Sam Phillips. Many people call that the first true Rock And Roll record, even though Shake Rattle And Roll by Big Joe Turner was already at the top of the Billboard R&B charts at that time. A short time later, Bill Haley had a hit with his "white cover" of that song, a typical practice during this period.

Like boogie woogie music, early rock and roll used a twelve-bar blues chord progression with four beats to a bar, with somewhat greater emphasis on the backbeat. In 1955, however, Bo Diddley introduced a new pounding beat and unique guitar playing style with Bo Diddley backed by I'm A Man.

The Rock And Roll art form was clearly advanced by Little Richard who mixed gospel with R&B using a New Orleans sound, heavy backbeat, pounding piano and wailing vocals. Listen for this on his songs, Tutti Frutti (1955), Long Tall Sally (1956), and Good Golly Miss Molly (1958).

Chuck Berry is another superstar of early Rock And Roll who refined and developed the style and made it more distinctive with his unique guitar intros and lead guitar breaks, which became a major influence on rock musicians even to this day. His lyrics were more focused on the teenage lifestyle and easily crossed over the black vs white boundaries. Listen for his hit records such as Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock And Roll Music (1957), and Johnny B Goode (1958).

Of course, you're also going to hear the "anti-Rock And Roll" songs that continued to play alongside Rock And Roll throughout the 1950's, and to a lesser degree during 1960's. We're talking about folks like Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, and the others like them who had dominated popular music before being pushed out of the way by kids who preferred the upbeat intensity of Rock And Roll.

Here are a couple of fun samples for you!

Ella Fitzgerald is often credited as the first person to sing "rock and roll" on a record, but Mildred Bailey's version of Rock It For Me probably came out first. Both were released in 1937, and it's not clear which is the earlier release. Here's Mildred Bailey's version:

And, here's Ella's version:

And here's Alan Freed proudly recalling his contribution to the world of Rock And Roll music:

And finally, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner):

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