This year marks a historically momentous anniversary: It has been exactly sixty years since the phrase
rock and roll entered into the popular lexicon.
1955 was the year that:
- Bill Haley’s
Rock Around the Clockreached #1 on the Billboard charts
- Chuck Berry debuted on Chess Records with the epochal
- Bo Diddley’s signature syncopated rhythm hit the R&B charts
- Little Richard, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins stormed the nation’s jukeboxes
- Elvis Presley left Sun Records for a then-unheard-of $35,000 buyout from RCA
The popular conception is that rock and roll was born in that year.
But, of course, nothing is created in a vacuum. Before there could be Elvis, Little Richard, or Chuck Berry—before the Class of 55—there is a whole and rich history.
No. That’s not accurate. There are a thousand rich histories, a thousand strands of American music, each with its own separate course of evolution, its own geographical idiosyncrasies, its own heroes and villains.
Rock and roll is the bastard child of every American form that came before it. Its explosion into popular consciousness in the mid-50s is prefigured by a half-century of raw, rebellious, provocative, antagonistic, and downright dirty songs—the kind that would make the genre so revolutionary.
To say that rock and roll was born in 1955 is a convenient way of packaging the impossible. Truly, rock and roll was born over decades, its primordial elements separately gathering in backwoods juke joints, Southern gospel churches, main street county fairs, smoky downtown jazz clubs, and muddy Delta hamlets.
Rock and roll wasn’t suddenly born. It came to be over time. So, from the outset, I admit that we’re not intending to name the first rock and roll song here. To attempt to do so would be an exercise in futility.
Roll and roll is a musical mutt, a point of musical confluence when the dividing lines between country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and boogie ceased to be, and where the resulting amalgamation was something entirely novel.
But in order for that confluence to occur, each of those genres had to produce landmark recordings, songs of seminal importance whose crossover appeal, musical ingenuity, and sheer attitude do more than just hint at rock and roll.
To be sure, those songs tell us that rock and roll existed long before it had a name.
The Big Bang and the Singularity
If Elvis was the Big Bang, some might call Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’
Rocket 88 the singularity. This is the tune most frequently pegged as
the first rock and roll song.
But identifying the first rock and roll song is pointless. This is mere trivia. By its lonesome,
Rocket 88 will tell you as much about the birth of rock and roll as a matchbook will tell you about the discovery of fire.
Like I said, identifying the first rock and roll song is pointless. But compiling candidates for the first rock and roll song—now that is another matter altogether. This is a discussion worthy of great consideration because, ultimately, when you gather together these musical moments from across a broad spectrum of pre-Elvis American music, a picture of rock and roll prior to its infancy becomes quite vivid. That is to say, when you hear it, you won’t be able to miss it. R&B shouters from the early 50s, Country barn-burners from the mid 40s, swinging floor-stompers from the late 30s, even boogie woogie boozers from the late 20s all capture the fire, the abandon, the sexual frankness, and the rollicking primacy that we think of as having magically burst from Elvis Presley’s loins on Ed Sullivan in 1956.
In particular, songs like Wild Bill Moore’s
We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll (1947), Wynonie Harris’s
Good Rocking Tonight (1947), and Goree Carter’s
Rock Awhile (1949) should put that notion firmly to rest.
In a 1992 text by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes called
What Was the First Rock Song?, the authors point out that
[m]any critics have likened the search for a ‘first’ rock ’n’ roll record to the medieval clerical debates on what day the world was created. First of all, what is rock ’n’ roll? Where does rhythm and blues or hillbilly boogie leave off and rock ’n’ roll pick up? When does an R&B vocal cross over into doo-wop, or are they both the same? On a larger scale , where does rock ’n’ roll begin to appear on the long rhythm road stretching from ragtime to the present?
As the authors concede, we simply don’t know the answers to these questions. More succinctly: There are no answers. The only way to perceive these things is through the music itself.
Outside the neat mythology of rock and roll is a fascinating sonic quilt, a patchwork of sounds that defies any simple or single story of origin, and a tapestry that, taken together, tells a history of both American music and of America itself. Below, I’ll do my best to sum up that story in 50 songs.
There are no specific criteria for inclusion here. This is not a matter to be debated. Beyond the candidates here are, admittedly, many thousands of other songs that could have just as easily been included. While some here, like Big Mama Thornton’s
Hound Dog or Muddy Waters’s
Hoochie Coochie Man are of obvious historical importance and must therefore be mentioned, there are other songs here that could be readily traded out for others of equal historical pertinence.
In some cases, the songs used here will be familiar, if not in their included incarnation, then in the countless variations that they would eventually spawn, like Sugar Boy Crawford’s
Jock-A-Mo or Sunny Dae’s
Rock Around the Clock. In other cases, recordings like Lionel Hampton’s
Flying Home or Lloyd Price’s
Lawdy Miss Clawdy are included as musical template-setters. Others still, like Tiny Bradshaw’s
Train Kept ‘A Rollin,’ are just here because I really like them.
What is important—and what ties together all the songs included here—is not just that they predate the emergence of
Rock and Roll, but that they foretell its arrival. In doing so, the records dissected here also tell the story of American life during the Great Depression, hint at the sweeping socioeconomic changes surrounding World War II, anthologize America’s history of racial segregation, and in some cases predict the coming of the Civil Rights era. In addition to coding rock and roll’s DNA, this collection of songs gives us a glimpse into an America now long gone, for better and worse.
Race Records and the Dirty Deed
Before we jump into it, a quick history on the term
rock and roll, just so we understand the power of semantics.
Plain and simple,
rock and roll was parlance for sex among black singers, and persisted in many permutations from the 1920s onward. This usage was something of a conceptual far cry from the original usage of
rock and roll, largely reserved for gospel settings and meant to imply that one was passionately moved by the spirit of the Lord. Though this impassioned movement would remain essential to the meaning, the source of movement had become a very different matter altogether.
It was actually during World War II that the terminology began to reach white audiences. With the onset of hostilities in the Pacific and the deployment of soldiers to Europe, America’s jazz orchestras and swing bands saw their ranks slashed, often by as much as two-thirds of their original rosters. This meant that combos of 11 to 14 musicians were suddenly reduced to sound-tracking nightlife with just five or six players.
By the 1940s, musicians were compensating by amplifying guitars, shouting their vocals, ratcheting up the drums, and wailing on their saxophones. Thus was born the R&B (Rhythm & Blues) combo. Their sound typifies the jumping, swinging, rollicking excitement that we think of as early rock and roll. At the time though, these recordings were called
Race Records, the implication being that black music was inherently its own genre and, as such, was segregated to its own Race Records Billboard chart.
As Race Records grew increasingly popular with black and white audiences alike, early radio pioneers led a charge toward desegregation, both in their programming and in the dance parties they sponsored. Notable among them was Alan Freed, who, by 1954,
was referring to his nightly ‘Moon Dog House Party’ as ‘a rock and roll session with rhythm and blues records.’
By January of the next year, Freed had dubbed his first superstar concert lineup the
Rock and Roll Jubilee Ball. In spite of what the famously egomaniacal Freed might have told you, he did not invent the genre. He was merely among the best and most perceptive at co-opting the hepcat lingo of R&B culture and using it to brand the gathering cultural phenomenon. Regardless, this was the start of rock and roll’s subsequent half-century of cultural dominance.
The songs included in the narrative hereafter tell the story of that which came before this dominance, that which made it possible, and that which suggests that the spirit of rock and roll is far older than the genre itself. A companion Spotify playlist is included at the end of this account for your listening enjoyment. Though you may be tempted to jump around, reading in sequence will help to reveal a rich, chronological, and deeply interconnected series of concurrent histories.
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50 Firsts of Rock and Roll
My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll
Trixie Smith, 1922
By most accounts, Atlanta native Trixie Smith uttered the first lyrical reference to
roll in a secular recording. And there’s little question that she didn’t mean it in a church-going way.
Born in 1895, Smith relocated to New York in 1915 and joined the vaudeville circuit. After winning a blues contest at the Manhattan Casino, Smith earned a recording contract with Black Swan. Her cabaret training translated into this bawdy 1922 recording.
Sonically speaking, Trixie’s performance is not dramatically different from the bevy of recordings from this era that effectively encapsulated vaudeville’s droopy and titillating quirkiness. It is even evocative of more famous songs like the traditional
St. James Infirmary Blues and Cab Calloway’s later smash hit,
Minnie the Moocher (1931).
What distinguishes Smith’s song for our purposes is the refrain, which says:
My man rocks me, with one steady roll
There’s no slippin’ when he wants take hold
I looked at the clock, and the clock struck one
I said now, Daddy, ain’t we got fun
Oh, he was rockin’ me, with one steady roll.
In its time, Smith’s recording was more than just a footnote. By invoking in song the common vernacular usage of rock and roll as euphemism for sex, Trixie Smith (and the song’s author, J. Berni Barbour) planted the seed for its eventual proliferation in popular music.
Smith continued to record and perform into the 1930s, making the transition from stage to screen, and working closely with legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet toward the end of the decade.
In spite of her role in its earliest stages of evolution, Trixie Smith would not live to see the genre that she helped to coin. She died in 1943 at the age of 48.
Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie
Pinetop Smith, 1928
Alabama-born Clarence Smith was better known as Pinetop, a nickname earned by way of his childhood propensity for tree-climbing. A frenetic ragtime style piano pounder, Pinetop waxed the definitive boogie woogie recording, placing his genre on the map before promptly shuffling off this mortal coil.
Born in 1904, Pinetop ventured north of the Mason-Dixon line in 1920, ultimately landing in Pittsburgh and joining a touring vaudeville company. His travels even saw the young singer and pianist backing the influential and imposing barrelhouse blues belter, Ma Rainey.
Just two days before New Year’s Eve, Smith recorded
Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie, a boisterous ivory-banger that placed its titular genre on the map. Indeed, the breathless pace and Pinetop’s own gruff vocal exhortations embody a reckless juke-joint spirit as abandoned and danceable as any recording three decades thence. In fact, the tune’s authorship is often incorrectly attributed to Pinetop Perkins, a Delta contemporary who ultimately re-recorded a hit version of the song in the 1950s.
Pinetop Smith’s crackling performance would also forge the lyrical and sonic palette from which future staples like Ray Charles’s
Mess Around (1957) and
What’d I Say? (1959) would draw. Co-opted for recordings by popsters Tommy Dorsey and Bing Crosby, it was redubbed
Boogie Woogie and in that form would far outsell the original in the post-war era.
As for Pinetop Smith, he found himself on the wrong end of a gun during a dance hall brawl in Chicago, dying at age 24, just one day shy of his next recording session.
It’s Tight Like That
Tampa Red & Georgia Tom, 1928
Thomas Dorsey—not to be confused with the above-mentioned swing giant Tommy--is often referred to as the father of gospel music. The guitarist was recognized as among the first to incorporate the hymnal spirituals of black Southern gospel churches with the cadences of rhythm and blues. Of course, you wouldn’t know he was a man of God from his earliest recordings.
Before becoming the musical director for the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago (a post he would hold from 1932 to the late 70s), before he became a catalyzing spiritual influence on the great Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and before he wrote the definitive 1937 gospel composition,
Peace in the Valley, Dorsey was better known as Georgia Tom.
Born in 1899, Georgia Tom journeyed to Chicago in the 1920s, where he teamed with the likewise-transplanted Tampa Red (né Hudson Woodbridge). As a duo—and sometimes as a trio with Frankie
Half-pint Jaxon—Tampa Red and Georgia Tom pioneered the blues subgenre called hokum.
Distinguished by its shuffling rustic rhythms and its humorous sexual double entendre, the hokum championed by the young Georgia Tom brought him into communion with the likes of Ma Rainey, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Memphis Minnie, but did little to hint at his divine musical reinvention soon thereafter.
It’s Tight Like That is a representative tune of its genre, a strumming novelty with country blues tuning and tawdry content. Hokum blues is an elemental genre in modern American music, a farcical style of sex-punning that actually predates jazz, ragtime, and even most forms of country music. Some choice representative titles include Bo Carter’s
Please Warm My Weiner (1930) and Lil Johnson’s
Press My Button (Ring My Bell) (1935).
Descended from the blackface minstrel and medicine shows that toured from town to town as early as the 1830s, hokum might well have reached its peak importance in the considerable body of work produced by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom.
A genre often dismissed in high culture during its time for its connection to deeply racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and downright vulgar portrayals of American life, hokum (and minstrelsy in general) occupies an important part in our musical evolution. The endless cycle of racial appropriation that has defined popular music from Elvis Presley to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice can trace its musical, theatrical, and sociological roots to the minstrel show’s interplay of white business principles, black cultural tropes, and musical ingenuity from both sides of the color barrier.
Selling no fewer than seven million copies,
It’s Tight Like That amply demonstrated the appeal of black music and culture to white record buyers. Moreover, its emergence as a hit would give hokum a degree of survivability beyond vaudeville and the burlesque houses.
Georgia Tom and Tampa Red would split in the late 30s, with the former going on to achieve towering status in gospel and the latter enjoying R&B chart success in the 1940s before descending into alcoholism and dying penniless at the age of 77. Georgia Tom, by contrast, lived to the ripe age of 93 and enjoyed adulation and enshrinement in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame—the first African American to receive the honor.
Every dirty double entendre to hit a record from Big Joe Turner to Snoop Dogg owes a debt to hokum.
Crazy About My Baby
Blind Roosevelt Graves, 1929
Let’s deal with one matter first. Why are so many blues singers blind? Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blind Blake. Blind Boy Fuller. Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry. I could go on…
The first and simplest explanation is that playing the blues was the occupation most accessible to post-slavery/pre-Civil Rights southern black men who lacked the ability to work in the fields.
Onward to Mr. Graves, who was born sightless in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1909. Partnering with his brother Uaroy, also half-blind, Roosevelt cut 15 sides of secular and spiritual music for Paramount in 1929. With country blues records suddenly proving commercially powerful, Paramount paired the Graves brothers with a crack team of studio musicians. The amalgam of guitar, tambourine, piano, and cornet imbues
Crazy About My Baby with a touch of the boogie woogie.
Borrowing heavily from Jim Jackson’s template-setting
Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues (which would itself evolve into Wilbert Harrison’s standard-bearing
Crazy About My Baby outfits Graves’s rural performance with a contemporary arrangement. The result is a convergence of backwoods and downtown (albeit recorded in a makeshift studio in the Hotel Hattiesburg). In many ways, the relatively obscure Graves would be among the first—even if unconsciously so—to merge country and city, creating a hybrid that would one day help define rock and roll.
After recording a few more sides in the 30s—increasingly prototypical rock and roll songs in their own right—the brothers departed music. Roosevelt died in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1962.
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Duke Ellington, 1931
It doesn’t get much more prophetic than this. Swing is not rock and roll, to be sure, but it is an absolutely essential chapter in the genre’s pre-evolution. The great Duke Ellington saw it coming—so says a tune that is not just important for its commercial enormity, but for its philosophical underpinning. Its repeated declaration is a phrase attributed to Ellington’s trumpeter Bubber Miley, then dying of tuberculosis.
Written in collaboration with Irving Mills,
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) suggested that much of the jazz ensemble music which came before it was quickly going out of style. The Washington, D.C.—born Ellington (1899) had already made his reputation at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club by the time of this 1931 recording. But with
It Don’t Mean a Thing, Ellington predicted and blueprinted the next big thing.
This was hardly his intention, according to most accounts. Ellington meant only to emphasize the importance of rhythm in the music of his Harlem Renaissance. The word
swing had not yet been incorporated into the popular lexicon of jazz. This was the moment that would change this.
Moreover, its insistence that rhythm is the very thing that makes the music is a premise that would gain increasing importance in the drum-heavy swing boom a few years on. It would also mark an encompassing departure in American popular music, the beginning of the movement away from classical European musical convention and into something more African in origin. Though Ellington often balked at over-analysis of his own foresight, this composition would clearly become both a recording of consequence and a statement of purpose, not just for the swing movement that would immediately follow, but for the rocking and rolling that descended therefrom.
It should go without saying that when Duke Ellington died at the age of 75, he was largely regarded as one of America’s greatest musical treasures.
Washboard Rhythm Kings, 1932
Damn, this track is nasty. If part of rock and roll’s appeal is its dangerous attitude and inchoate wildness (and I like to think that it is), this 1932 recording has pretty much everything you’re looking for. Based on its title, we know that this tune descended from the Scott Joplin—pioneered ragtime genre. And by the band’s name and the arrangement here, we can also identify the Washboard Rhythm Kings as the kind of jug band that was omnipresent in pre-war blues.
This is where the predictability ends, however. Though they sound like a jug band, the Rhythm Kings were actually skilled jazz musicians who recorded for Victor and Vocalian in a heyday that persisted across the first five years of the Great Depression. It’s hard to say exactly where these guys came from since they were at one time known as the Georgia Washboard Stompers and, at another time, the Alabama Washboard Stompers. In any event, it was their performance on the Dixieland standard
Tiger Rag that produced this immortal recording.
From the skiffling washboard syncopation to the frenetic horn breaks to the shouting vocals to the background hooting,
Tiger Rag sounds like a party you wish you were at. The musicians here play with spectacular looseness, undermining any assumptions you might have about the formality of ensemble playing during the Depression. Straight up, these guys get down; the horns stepping all over each other, blurting out missed notes; the frontline vocals scatting furiously, the background bleeding with riotous encouragement; percussion driving forward like a locomotive and barrelhouse piano making a late solo entry. This was music that rocked, and fairly hard at that.
In structure, attitude, intensity, and flat-out wildness, the Washboard Rhythm King’s
Tiger Rag is everything you’d expect from a prototypical rock and roll record.
Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)
Austin Coleman, with Joe Washington Brown, 1934
This recording is dated to 1934, but in reality it sounds like something much older. And realistically speaking, that’s exactly what it is.
Many of the forms that we’ve discussed so far—blues, gospel, boogie woogie—share common ancestry in the American slave trade. With the mass arrival of African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, so too arrived a rich and varied musical tradition. Among the features which most differentiated it from the traditions of Western classical music were its emphasis on rhythm over structure, on passion over formality, on unbridled vocal exchange over carefully orchestrated choral arrangements.
Many of these features crossed the Atlantic and became what we refer to in retrospect as slave spirituals. A particular tradition called the
ring shout is endemic to the transplanted West African slaves who labored in the West Indies and the American South. During time away from the fields, slave communities would steal into the woods, gather in circles, and perform these sacred, ecstatic, and highly musical rituals, typically for many hours.
These traditions persisted even as the primary religious medium for most American slaves became Christianity. The content of spirituals turned toward the Bible and the context became the church. Chanting also remained an important and therapeutic part of life for cotton sharecroppers, chain-gang inmates, and other post-emancipation laborers. But there are few recordings that capture the frenzied and otherworldly intensity of the ring shout like this 1934 recording from Austin Coleman, accompanied by Joe Washington Brown.
Part of a collection procured by crucial musicologists and field recorders John and Alan Lomax (father and son), this recording is a window into the tradition in as pure a form as is perhaps available to our ears. Indeed, the recording itself not only closely mirrors the likely musical presentation of the form in the days of slavery, but its furious rhythmic pace and insistent chanting tell of its African origins.
Take away its anthropological implications, and this recording, which is attributed to two otherwise unknown musicians, is one of the rawest, most raucous, and most unhinged musical performances this side of the Sex Pistols, let alone early rock and roll. Moreover, its embodiment of the call-and-response traditions of the African ring shout prefigure the very same in the Southern gospel tradition and, thereafter, rock and roll floor-shakers like the Isley Brothers’
Shout (1959) and Ray Charles
What’d I Say (1959).
Baby Please Don’t Go
Big Joe Williams, 1935
The number of Delta blues songs that could have just as easily filled this slot is countless. Robert Johnson’s
Cross Road Blues (1936) and Bukka White’s
Parchman Farm Blues (1940) immediately come to mind. But
Baby Please Don’t Go earns inclusion here because the themes and lyrical tropes upon which it draws are effectively representative of its genre and because the composition itself, once unleashed, never left the vocabulary of popular music.
Big Joe Williams was born in Crawford, Mississippi, in 1903 and earned his way playing the unusual nine-string guitar for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels touring show, and thereafter as a member of the Birmingham Jug Band. He signed with Bluebird Records in 1935 and recorded
Baby Please Don’t Go.
The song’s narrator pleads with his love, begging her to wait for him while he serves out his time on a prison farm. Its lyrical roots are said to extend directly from slave-era oral tradition. And because it was a massive hit for Big Joe, many of these same lyrical conceits became essential to popular blues songwriting thereafter.
As Big Joe Williams emerged to greater fame, he re-recorded the song in the later 30s and 40s, bringing an increasingly contemporary and metropolitan touch to the dusty Delta relic. By the early 50s, Muddy Waters and company added Chicago flair and by the late 50s, B.B. King electrified it.
In 1964, it crossed the Atlantic and earned a young Van Morrison and his Belfast Invasion band, Them, their first hit. Over the ensuing decades, it has remained an absolute requirement for those studying the blues songbook—a fact evidenced by its appearance on recordings by everybody from rockers like Tom Petty and Aerosmith to zydeco king Clifton Chenier and country popster Vince Gill.
To be sure,
Baby Please Don’t Go is not, in its first incarnation, rock and roll. Pure and simple, it is Delta blues. But if you follow this piece of music as it transforms over time, the shared bloodline between blues and rock becomes a vivid thing to behold.
Shave ‘Em Dry
Lucille Bogan, 1935
Soooo…do not listen to this at work…or around children…or in the company of your local clergy.
Shave ‘Em Dry is among the most sexually explicit recordings you’ll ever hear. And maybe it’s just me, but something about this kind of language on a recording that’s older than your grandmother is a little bit shocking. Bogan’s recording is more vulgar and confrontational than Miley Cyrus could ever dare to be.
Born in Mississippi in 1897 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Bogan got her start making vaudeville records for the Okeh label in the early 20s. As the decade wore on, Bogan found that her most popular material was also her dirtiest.
Themes of drinking and sex permeated her music.
Shave ‘Em Dry was of particular note for its lurid lyrical variations, which tended toward an extremely graphic nature as the performance hour got later. Indeed, the title itself means…how shall we put this…it means to grind the gears without greasing them first.
Though the original recording is generally attributed to the equally bawdy Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan recorded two versions in 1935 that capture the song’s true potential for ribald specificity. Such is to say that where hokum blues peddled in innuendo, Bogan’s vocal blues told it exactly as it was.
On the infamous alternate take included here, the explicitness of
Shave ‘Em Dry is not even thinly veiled. Seriously, don’t listen to this song in mixed company. I can’t stress that enough.
After this 1935 recording, little would be heard from Lucille Bogan, who died at age 51 in 1948.
Her blues number is included here for its prescient lyrical boldness. For those who believe that hip hop—or rock ‘n roll before it—represents a vulgarization of American public decorum, give a listen to
Shave ‘Em Dry.
Rock Island Line
Lead Belly, 1937
Like many of the traditionals that solidified into permanent recordings in the pre-war Delta,
Rock Island Line is inspired by real life, and its origin is traceable to those who actually lived it. That is to say that the first known version of
Rock Island Line was actually composed by a member of the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet, whose members were all employed at the Little Rock, Arkansas, freight yard for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Indeed, it doesn’t get much more authentic than that.
The earliest existing recording of the song comes from another recording by aforementioned folklorist John Lomax, who traveled to an Arkansas state prison in 1934 to commit chain-gang chanting to posterity. Lomax was accompanied to the prison by one Huddle Ledbetter, a 12-string guitarist better known as Lead Belly. The 1888-born Louisiana native had, himself, spent multiple stints in prison. In fact, on two separate occasions, the man convicted of homicide in a fight over a woman, earned pardons by gifting songs to sitting governors.
The second time, he did it with the help of Lomax. Subsequently, when the two heard
Rock Island Line, they produced what is by all accounts the seminal modern version of this song. The humorous story of smugglers moving slot machines over the rails under the guise of transporting livestock has been recorded in every decade since, perhaps most importantly by British skiffle-godfather Lonnie Donegan (1954). It was this song that brought Donegan to the attention of young Britons everywhere, launching the early aspirations of the future Beatles, Kinks, and Stones.
In spite of his checkered past and a famously explosive temper, Lead Belly would enjoy considerable recognition during his lifetime, though never a great financial fortune. Through the next several decades, Lead Belly would be the subject of high-profile newsreels and magazine articles for his unusual path to freedom and fame, as well as an eventual fixture in folk circles, where he played alongside other luminaries like Josh White, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie.
Lead Belly passed on in 1949, at age 61, leaving behind a treasure trove of recordings that constitute one of the most generous historical canons available to modern ears.
Sing, Sing, Sing
Benny Goodman, 1937
Bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Accordingly,
Sing, Sing, Sing, is the definitive swing song. It captures the late Depression era brilliantly, suggesting that Americans were determined to weather the hardship by getting rip-roaring drunk and sweating it out on the dance floor.
Benny Goodman was born in Chicago in 1909. His most epic raver was, however, born from the pen of Italian Louisianan Louis Prima. Prima’s 1936 recording came complete with lyrics, hot-stepping rhythm, the singer’s trademark scatting, and the song’s distinctly tribal drumming. All respect to Prima, there was no way to know what Benny Goodman would ultimately do to this song, and what the song would in turn do to the world of music.
Goodman, who presided over what may be the first racially integrated band in history, began working this song into his repertoire in 1937 and, with it, he cajoled increasingly improvisational and unrestrained performances from his musicians. Gathering in length and becoming a necessary climax to every Goodman engagement,
Sing topped 12 minutes in its longest incarnation.
Crowd response to the show-stopper became increasingly intense, with stories abounding of kids dancing wildly in theater aisles. Then, in the summer of 1938, Goodman and his band became the first jazz ensemble to perform at Carnegie Hall. The show was a cultural sensation—one that sparked the nation’s obsession with swing music and launched jazz music headlong into popular consciousness.
Sing, Sing, Sing was the landmark concert’s most electrifying moment, a blueprint for tearing a room to shreds. Goodman’s instrumental take on the Prima tune is a throttling, chaotic, and insistent force, proof that swing music was meant to make you move furiously. Like rock and roll in the decades afterward,
Sing, Sing, Sing is not polite music. It is not meant to be casually heard, or observed from a seat. It is meant to drive its listener into a frenzy, which it did to millions of Americans looking for an escape engaging enough to forget about the Depression.
With its raunchy leading trumpets, a theme that sounds like city traffic, and Gene Krupa’s infinitely influential drum solo,
Sing, Sing, Sing established a standard for raucousness to which rock musicians still aspire.
Rock It for Me
Ella Fitzgerald, 1938
As the Depression Era waned and World War II rumbled into global confrontation, the predilections of rock and roll strolled uptown.
Rock It for Me warrants inclusion not just for Ms. Ella’s utterance of the precise phrase
rock and roll, but because the song explicitly heralds the arrival of
a new kind of rhythm.
Singing vocals on a composition by the great drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, the emergent Ella Fitzgerald sang that she was through with the symphony and that opera was passé. She commands the anonymous addressee of the song,
won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll?
As the song was a #19 hit on the U.S. Billboard charts, it likely marks the first occasion that the words
rock and roll were uttered in that order and heard in dance halls and homes all over America. Sadly, composer Chick Webb would never know just how prophetic his song was. The young bandleader suffered from spinal tuberculosis from an early age, a condition which often led him to quite literally collapse from exhaustion following live performances. In spite of his physician’s advice to the contrary, Webb continued to perform nightly throughout the Depression for fear that the musicians under his employ might otherwise go hungry. It was this drive and dedication that led to his death at just 34 years of age, less than a year after
Rock It for Me scaled the charts.
Beyond his compositional work, Chick Webb’s legacy would be his young protégée. There are few jazz figures as accomplished, prolific, and pivotal as Ella Fitzgerald, who would spend the next 60 years forging and polishing the gold standard for vocal jazz. Fitzgerald lived to the age of 79 before departing us in 1996.
Rock It for Me places Webb, Fitzgerald, and the genre they represent at the scene of conception for rock and roll as a commercially viable genre.
Rock My Soul
Golden Gate Quartet, 1938
The Golden Gate Quartet is largely recognized as the most successful of all Jubilee Gospel artists. The name
jubilee is derived from a group called the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choir of African-American singers formed in 1871 and noted for their formal arrangements of
Negro Spirituals. Jubilee singers were generally associated with historically black universities, serving as something of an African-American parallel to traditional glee clubs.
However, as its popularity spread, the multi-part harmonies and dignified style of jubilee performance began to permeate churches and even secular theaters. The Golden Gate Quartet, forming out of Booker T. Washington College in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1934, quickly seized on the rising popularity of the genre.
In 1935, the quartet was performing in local churches and appearing on the radio with increasing regularity. The Golden Gate Quartet ratcheted up the secular appeal of its music by infusing traditional jubilee with shades of rhythm, blues, and barbershop quartet. The result was an entirely novel, exciting, and aurally pleasing sound that remained immersed in spirituality.
Rock My Soul typifies the shuffling rhythm and mellifluous harmonic layering that made gospel music inherently appealing to secular ears. It is also worth noting that the Quartet drew much of its earlier material from the aforementioned Thomas Dorsey (aka Georgia Tom). To say nothing of its lyrical content,
Rock My Soul has an eccentric syncopation and inherent hookiness that hints at just how important gospel music would be to the birth of rock and roll.
As you might guess, all of the founding members of the Golden Gate Quartet have passed on. Remarkably, though, a rotating cast of musicians has helped to keep the unit active even to present date.
When the Saints Go Marching In
Louis Armstrong, 1938
The exact authorship of
When the Saints Go Marching In is unknown. It likely originated as a gospel hymn, but today is truly among the best-known secular songs in existence. Moreover,
Saints owns a singular status in defining the identity of New Orleans, a city which is arguably the most important musical breeding pool in the United States.
The first-known recording of
When the Saints Go Marching In is also the definitive version, pressed by the already massively influential trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Satchmo’s gravel delivery and the song’s call-and-response verses bring casual celebration to a traditionally religious number. Though not uncommon in the oft-impious city of New Orleans, Armstrong has recalled that his sister expressed disapproval of his distorting a religious hymn for secular purposes. These acts of good-natured subversion are, however, the very tradition upon which rock and roll would be built.
Of course, subversion is a matter of perspective. Armstrong’s version seemed to espouse participation in a party of spiritual proportions. In fact, the song took its imagery from the Book of Revelation. The
number in which the author wished to be included was of the souls spared when the saints marched in to fulfill the prophecy of the Apocalypse. Soooo, yeah, think about that next time you hear it at a crawfish boil.
Armstrong would transpose the dirge-like momentum of the original hymn, rendering instead a joyful celebration of life with loping Big Easy horns, an upbeat Dixieland tempo, and the relaxed informality of a summer night. In fact, the famous
New Orleans Funeral procession is most commonly accompanied by this song, first in its mournful incarnation, and subsequently in all its jubilant glory.
Saints is a standard of jazz, blues, and rock and roll. If you must narrow down the influence of New Orleans on American music at large to a single song, this is probably the one.
Armstrong lived to the age of 69 and passed on in 1971.
Roll ‘em Pete
Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, 1938
To many modern listeners, Big Joe Turner’s
Roll ‘em Pete marked a specific point of transition for rhythm and blues. This 12-bar boogie number incorporates many of the lyrical conventions of traditional blues. But what differentiates Big Joe Turner’s 1938 recording is its emphasis on the backbeat, an innovation that some would argue gives sonic embodiment to the term
rock and roll.
The titular Pete refers to Pete Johnson, the fiery piano masher who accompanies Turner here. Both rose to local success while performing together in Kansas City, a hotbed for their particularly boisterous style of R&B shouting. In fact,
Roll ‘em Pete is something of a template-setter, far predating the Billboard’s R&B classification. Falling under the category of Race Records, and generally lacking any real precedent in popular music,
Roll ‘em Pete began the boogie woogie boom.
The emergence of this burly, confrontational style of play coincided with legendary producer and talent scout John Hammond’s inaugural
From Spirituals to Swing. This audacious concert event, held in Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, marked the first time that a show featuring largely African American artists and music would be held at the venerable theater. This presented Hammond with some practical challenges, as traditional sponsors balked at supporting a racially integrated performance.
Nonetheless, the concert proved a remarkable artistic showcase, providing a live historical narrative of the evolution of spiritual music into secular music and, eventually, into the swing and R&B fevers simultaneously gripping the nation. Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson seized the moment, unleashing the mighty backbeat on America and basically creating the channel for the next great wave.
Turner and Johnson would actually have the pleasure of being a part of said wave. Both lived to see rock and roll attain cultural primacy and even got their due as major architects. In 1949, a solo Pete Johnson would cut
Rocket Boogie 88, the structural forerunner to Jackie Brenston’s important
Rocket 88, while Turner’s subsequent
Shake, Rattle and Roll—later famously covered by Elvis Presley—remains a formative composition of the rock and roll era.
Johnson and Turner also remained friends for life, fittingly performing together for a final time at the 1967
Spirituals to Swing affair, just two months before Johnson’s death by stroke at 62. Turner was 74 when he passed on in 1987.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 1942
Narrowing it down to a single Sister Rosetta Tharpe song is nearly impossible. Tharpe’s influence is absolutely momentous. She was the first crossover gospel star and, as such, the boldest innovator of spiritual music in the secular context. Tharpe has been alternately referred to as the
Original Soul Sister and as the
Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Both are fair assessments for this band-fronting, ax-wielding, gospel giant. That’s right. She played guitar. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe touched off the pop-gospel era in 1938 with the moving
This Train. But for our purposes, it seems more appropriate to instead include
Rock Me, produced from the same sessions and backed by the Lucky Millinder Orchestra.
Both were instant hits and catapulted the charismatic and virtuosic performer into stardom. On
Rock Me, her soulful wail verges on occasional growling, an effect that blurs the line between piety and sensuality. Naturally, more traditional church-going types were none too thrilled about said blurring.
By contrast, Philadelphia Billboard magazine reviewer Maurie Orodonker was particularly thrilled about it—so says a 1942 column in which he called the song
rock-and-roll spiritual singing. This, and not Alan Freed’s utterance on radio in the mid-50s, probably marks the first instance in which the phrase is used to describe the emergent sound.
As to Tharpe’s more direct connection, she is said not only to have been largely worshipped by the likes of a prepubescent Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, but also to have given Little Richard his first opportunity to perform in front of an audience and, subsequently, to become the first to pay him for his services.
Tharpe remained active until her death in 1973.
Champion Jack Dupree, 1940
So far, you’ll have to agree that I’ve kept my promise. In an account of rock and roll’s anthropological history, sex is omnipresent. But what of rock and roll’s other vice? We were untold decades away from hearing the indelible phrase
sex, drugs, rock and roll, but these lifestyle tendencies were already inextricably linked.
Blues singer Champion Jack Dupree drives the point home pretty roundly in his 1940 recording,
Junker’s Blues. Nobody is entirely certain when Dupree was born, but it probably happened in New Orleans some time between 1908 and 1910. Orphaned at two, the part Congolese, part Cherokee barrelhouse piano player traveled for much of his young life, playing with the likes of Georgia Tom in Chicago and Leroy Carr in Indianapolis. He earned the nickname Champion Jack for moonlighting as a boxer and even winning Golden Gloves across more than 100 bouts.
Given his athletic disposition, Dupree was not himself a junkie. But his 1940 recording of a song taught to him by his mentor, Willie Hall, celebrated the joys of chemical indulgence, making explicit reference to reefer, cocaine, and heroin.
Junker’s Blues not only openly promotes the seedier predilections germane to the musical subculture around Champion Jack, but, more importantly, its slow-smoking electric guitar solo, cool sax fills, and laid-back piano boogie foretell this subculture’s popular emergence.
Following the landmark recording, Dupree’s career was put on hold while he served as a World War II Navy cook. Two years of Dupree’s service were spent in a Japanese prison camp. Upon his release, he returned to performing, before ultimately relocating to Europe and living out his years there, the last of which was 1992.
Junker’s Blues became a pillar of rock and roll, resurfacing as the musical and lyrical basis for Fats Domino’s first charting hit, 1949’s
The Fat Man and Lloyd Price’s 1953 standard,
Lawdy Miss Clawdy.
Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar
Will Bradley, 1940
A true sign that boogie woogie blues had entered into the popular mainstream: by the 1940s the rolling, rapid-fire style of play was increasingly co-opted by white musicians. Swing orchestras and vocal combos noted the increasingly uptempo predilections of their audiences and responded in kind. The Will Bradley Orchestra was a perfect case in point. Bandleader and trombonist Will Bradley (né Schwictenberg) was born in Newton, New Jersey, in 1912 and made his name on New York’s swing scene.
Though Bradley cut his teeth on many a ballad, it is this jaunty cut that earns him a place in our discussion. The title is an explicit reference to the eight-bar blues boogie that drove the song itself. Though decidedly more restrained in approach than the more authentic boogie woogie of originators like Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, or Albert Ammons, recordings like Bradley’s were part of the pattern of racial co-opting upon which rock and roll is founded.
With pianist Freddie Slack on keys and Ray McKinley on drums, Bradley and company borrowed liberally from the slang-heavy lingo of black swing culture to produce a nonetheless convincing dance floor filler. To be certain, Bradley’s song and sound very much embody the willfully optimistic outlook of Americans at the onset of World War II.
Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar is a blueprint complete with lyrical instructions for the sound that would dominate U.S.O. performances and jukebox playlists among American servicemen soon thereafter.
Indeed, as the U.S. entered the war at the close of 1941, the Will Bradley Orchestra’s
Beat Me Daddy registered as the 10th biggest hit of the year. In their massive hit cover version and their subsequent smash,
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy the Andrews Sisters closely emulated Bradley, captured the sound and spirit of the times, and unleashed boogie-based R&B on its widest (and whitest) audiences yet.
As for the Bradley Orchestra, Freddie Slack will make another important appearance on this list. Bradley himself would actually find long and gainful employment as Johnny Carson’s trombonist on The Tonight Show.
Lionel Hampton and Illinois Jacquet, 1942
So, we know that at this juncture, the boogie woogie combo has become a dominant force both on the Popular and Race Records charts. The only ingredient that’s missing at this point is R&B’s trademark honking saxophone solo.
Enter Louisiana-born tenor Illinois Jacquet. As more Americans enlisted for service during World War II, bands began to shrink in size. This was so for master vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, formerly of the racially integrated Benny Goodman Orchestra.
The Kentucky-born Hampton led his own smaller combos in the early 40s, but actually began performing the landmark
Flying Home with the Benny Goodman Sextet as early as 1939 (in an incarnation that included a young and phenomenal guitarist named Charlie Christian). The smaller band sizes led to increasingly amplified soloing and increased emphasis on volume.
Ironically, the most important performance of
Flying Home was actually backed by a Big Band arrangement. Regardless, what distinguishes this 1942 version (which was unfortunately not available on YouTube but is included in our Spotify playlist) is the fiery 19-year-old Illinois Jacquet’s wicked sax lines, which turn the casually strolling jazz number into something slightly raunchy.
Jacquet’s honk and wail are archetypal of the sound that would become increasingly pronounced and aggressive in the years ahead. R&B shouters would spend the next two decades emulating what is arguably the first rock and roll sax solo.
Both Jacquet and Hampton would live to see the proliferation of their work—and then some, with the former dying at 81 in 2002 and the latter, passing on at 94 years old in 2002.
Arthur Smith, 1945
A large part of our focus to this juncture has been on the various strains of early 20th century music that derive from black spiritual traditions. But country music would also play an absolutely essential role in forming the hybrid that was rock and roll. From Western swing and Texas jump to Appalachian folk and bluegrass, various country sub-genres were destined to be preludes to the sounds and subjects of rock and roll.
To be sure, racial co-opting was not a one-way street. The most commercially successful boogie and blues musicians maintained well-appointed country standard repertoires. Likewise, boogie woogie bled freely into country music. Arthur Smith’s 1945 recording,
Guitar Boogie marks the point at which the two become indistinguishable.
The South Carolina—born Smith had largely performed in Dixieland jazz combos before trading the cornet in for a guitar. Basing his performance on Tommy Dorsey’s
Boogie Woogie (1940) (which we learned earlier traces its roots to Pinetop Smith’s
Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie), Arthur Smith essentially created the genre called Hillbilly Boogie.
Hillbilly Boogie would represent a transition in the world of country music—a move toward more uptempo material, greater emphasis on rhythm, and the rising profile of the guitar. It also formed a bridge between more traditional forms of country and such proto--rock and roll offshoots as Honky Tonk and Rockabilly.
Smith’s recording would do little upon initial release, but upon re-release in 1948, it enjoyed immediate success. The song eventually surpassed $3 million in sales, becoming the first instrumental tune to achieve Top Ten Country status, before eventually even seeping onto the mainstream Pop charts.
Smith’s lightning-quick picking makes
Guitar Boogie among the first truly virtuosic guitar performances in popular music, a decade before we knew Chuck Berry’s name.
Smith would go on to host the first popular country music—based show on television, as well as composing the original
Feudin’ Banjos (1955) (later more famously known as
Duelin’ Banjos). Smith lived to be 93 years old, passing just last April, 2014.
Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers, 1945
In 1945, soldiers were returning from World War II and looking for good times. For 18 straight weeks that year, Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers provided the best time around. Their 1945 jump blues number (complete with requisite honking sax solo) topped the Race Record charts for that span of time and eventually became a #13 hit on the Billboard Pop charts.
The Honeydripper the very first monster hit in the R&B mold. Oklahoma-born Joe Liggins originally served as the pianist for a number of larger combos when he composed
The Honeydripper. When his bandleader refused to perform the number, Liggins assembled his own four-piece combo and created the prototypical R&B outfit around the landmark composition. Since the song could stretch out for as long as 15 wild minutes in live performance, the original 1945 single release would actually feature
The Honeydripper, Pt. 1 on the A-side and
Pt. 2 on the flip.
The single went on to sell two million copies and most assuredly would have moved more had record stores not run out of stock. Market demand, in fact, would be satisfied by an immediate flurry of also-successful cover versions.
Liggins would continue to perform until his death in 1987, at 72 years of age.
Helen Humes, 1945
Be-Baba-Leba places the unassuming Helen Humes on the cutting edge of popular music in the post-war era. Though the Kentucky-born singer never actively courted famed, it seemed to find her throughout her life, beginning with her stint as the immediate replacement to Billie Holliday in Count Basie’s Orchestra.
Starting there in 1938, Humes became inextricably linked to the pre-evolution of rock and roll. Her participation in John Hammond’s second annual
Spirituals to Swing event at Carnegie Hall in 1939 and her lead vocals on Basie’s balladry would make her an important side player.
Be-Baba-Leba would reveal Humes to be a forceful frontwoman and a daring songwriter to boot. Leaving Basie’s band in 1942 to escape the physical toll of life on tour (and according to some sources, because her affair with Basie had enraged the bandleader’s wife), Humes would eventually relocate to Los Angeles and release this, her biggest hit in 1945.
Her raunchy vocals and scatting lyrics elevated the jump blues tune to something vaguely scandalous. Backed by the omnipresent Bill Doggett and his octet, Humes presides over a clattering arrangement replete with honking sax solos (courtesy of Wild Bill Moore) and suggestive instrumental intercourse. By the song’s end, the band has reached a ramshackle crescendo that sounds suspiciously like rock and roll.
Humes would tour and perform only intermittently over the course of her life, enjoying critical praise up to her death at age 68, in 1981. And if the lyrics of
Be-Baba-Leba, both sensical and nonsensical, sound familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of Little Richard’s
Ain’t That Just Like a Woman
Louis Jordan & His Typmany Five, 1946
Speaking of songs that you thought were totally original but actually aren’t, here’s the riff upon which Chuck Berry based his career.
Louis Jordan was a categorically groundbreaking musician, a brilliant songwriter, a formidable frontman, a wild sax-man, and a genuine superstar of stage, screen, and record. He actually got his start working in the same incarnation of the Chick Webb band that birthed Ella Fitzgerald’s career.
The Arkansas-born Jordan was nicknamed the
King of the Jukebox and, from the late 30s to the early 50s, was one of the most popular performers in America.
Like a few other artists represented on this list, Jordan leaves us with so influential a body of work that it is a bit painful to narrow it down to just one song. Indeed, as the frontman for the Tympany Five, Jordan would produce a torrent of jump blues originals distinctive for their spirited performances, instrumental prowess, and frequently humorous lyrics.
Ain’t That Just Like a Woman became a #1 hit on the Race charts and reached #17 on the Pop charts. It earns inclusion here because its lead-in electric guitar riff would become the basis for Chuck Berry’s elemental fretwork a decade later.
It also bears noting that it’s a smoking hot R&B number whose elevation of the electric guitar marks yet another step closer to the sound we know of as rock and roll. In spite of his critical role in shaping rock and roll, Jordan’s own popularity would decline just as that era truly touched off.
That said, Jordan did remain musically active until his death in 1975 at age 66.
That’s All Right
Big Boy Crudup, 1946
This is the third song in a row to be included for its immediate influence on the Class of 55. Little Richard borrowed
Tutti Frutti from Helen Humes and Chuck Berry owes a debt to Louis Jordan for
Johnny B. Goode. With
That’s All Right, Big Boy Crudup authored the song that launched one Elvis Presley. More on that in a minute.
Arthur Crudup was, in most regards, a relatively minor Delta blues singer and guitarist. Playing in the country Delta style, Crudup earned a meager living performing and recording around Clarksdale, the small Mississippi city frequently noted as the third point in the geographical Blues Triangle that also includes New Orleans and Memphis.
That’s All Right was one of a handful of similar compositions, all registering as modest regional hits and all blurring the ever-less-meaningful line between hillbilly music and the blues. Crudup’s tune borrowed lyrically from the work of others before him, particularly the 1926
Black Snake Moan by seminal Delta singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. However,
That’s All Right updates the Delta fossil with clanging uptempo guitar playing.
That song’s limited chart success is largely beside the point. There are two facts of greater historical importance than its chart performance. First, upon its re-release in 1948 under the name
That’s All Right, Mama, the song became the very first released by a black artist to appear on a new format called the
Of even greater consequence is the fact that a hyped-up, rockabilly take on Crudup’s song would mark the recorded debut of one Elvis Presley in 1954. Sadly, Crudup would live most of his life in relative poverty, finding more work as a bootlegger than a musician in his later years. He would also battle bitterly to earn royalties from Presley’s recording.
Big Boy Crudup passed on at age 68 in 1974.
Blue Moon of Kentucky
Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, 1946
If you’ve read the entry above, you know that Elvis Presley’s first single was Big Boy Crudup’s
That’s All Right, Mama. The B-side to Presley’s debut was almost as important, demonstrating that the young singer was as unmatched a talent in country as he was in the blues. The back of his first 45 featured
Blue Moon of Kentucky. Contrary to the Crudup recording, the original in this case remains more earth-shattering even than Presley’s version.
Kentucky-born Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass. The bandleader presided over the advent of country music’s most exciting, virtuosic, and creative sub-genre, a form distinguished by breakneck instrumental interplay and high, yelping vocals. Its pacing and intensity make bluegrass an essential stop on the way to rock and roll. The first highlight on this stop is
Blue Moon of Kentucky, the genre’s definitive anthem.
Starting in the late 1920s, a young Bill Monroe began his experimentation with different instrumental arrangements, leading a traditional old-timey string combo composed of his brothers. Here, the mandolin player developed his trademark falsetto harmonies, a signature of the genre he would eventually spearhead.
Though various incarnations of his
Blue Grass Boys existed starting in the early 1940s, it was the 1945 addition of virtuosic banjoist Earl Scruggs, along with guitarist Lester Flatt (who would thereafter form a lifelong partnership as Flatt & Scruggs), that would help kick the intensity of Monroe’s music up ten gears.
Blue Moon of Kentucky is a stately country waltz that represents the bluegrass genre less in its pacing than in its instrumental arrangement and lonesome harmonies. By 1947,
Blue Moon had become a massive national hit, the one most responsible for placing bluegrass in the popular consciousness and a necessary weapon in every bluegrass and country band’s arsenal going forward.
In 1954, Elvis reinvented the tune with Mr. Monroe’s explicit blessing. With Presley’s trademark hiccup and his trio’s (w/ Scotty Moore and Bill Black) uptempo arrangement,
Blue Moon of Kentucky would actually outperform
That’s All Right on the local Southern charts. Monroe would take a cue from Elvis, later re-recording the tune in the rock and roll time signature.
Monroe remained an active and powerful force in music until his death at 84, in 1996.
House of Blue Lights
Freddie Slack & Ella Mae Morse, 1946
Behind the scenes of the mounting boogie boom, a songwriter named Don Raye composed a number of the era’s most defining hits, including the aforementioned
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and
Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar. Raye also wrote
House of Blue Lights in 1946 and gave it to his old friend (via their mutual involvement in the Will Bradley Orchestra), Freddie Slack.
The Wisconsin-born piano player worked in tandem with a comely singer and starlet named Ella Mae Morse. As Race Records by black artists were increasingly penetrating the Pop charts, Slack and Morse did exactly the reverse. The white singer and piano player were frequently convincing enough with their hipster patois and eight-bar boogies that their records actually made an impact on the Race charts.
Their most important hit came in 1946 with a tune that extols the virtues of a rocking chicken shack on the black side of the tracks. In addition to lyrics that reference
eight bar beats and
House of Blue Lights marks the first chronological instance in which I’ve ever heard anybody use the word
House of Blue Lights was a substantial hit, reaching #8 on the Pop Billboard chart that year. It also reflected a far more reverential take on black music and culture than that which white artists were producing just a decade prior. The inherently degrading racial caricatures of the blackface and minstrel eras were supplanted by a genuine adulation for and desire to emulate the exciting distinctions of black music.
Slack and Morse co-opt the lingo and genre of black artists, but they do so out of the same genuine respect and affinity with which white rock and rollers like Elvis and Jerry Lee would perform in just a few years. Indeed, the latter would create his own cover of
House of Blue Lights.
Slack was only 55 when he died in 1965. Morse faded into relative obscurity as the rock and roll era waxed, though she lived to the age of 75, dying in 1999.
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
Stick McGhee & His Buddies, 1946
Granville McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1917. He earned the nickname Stick because he was often seen around town as a child using a stick to push a wagon containing his polio-stricken older brother. While said older brother went on to become the legendary blues singer Brownie McGhee, Stick is mostly known for just this song.
Stick’s career as a recording musician didn’t truly begin until after his service in WWII, but his most important tune comes directly from his time overseas. While at war, McGhee began performing a profanity-laced song adapted from various oral traditions for his fellow GIs.
Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee celebrated the intoxicating effects of a fruity, multi-spirited concoction common at black parties, particularly in the South.
In fact, the song would lend itself to the term
spodi, which is often applied to said beverage even today. (Stick may also be responsible for coining the similarly intended phrase
jungle juice, via a song of that title several years later.)
When Stick returned from the battlefront in 1946, he and Brownie recorded a decidedly rough-hewn party platter with minimal instrumentation. The song was not at first a hit, but its prototypical rock and roll syncopation and its thematic familiarity began to gain it some attention in New Orleans.
As the song gradually became a regional hit in the Crescent City, it caught the attention of Atlantic Records. When the fledgling label re-released a version with full R&B regalia in 1949, it rose to #2 on the R&B charts and helped Atlantic stay in business during its first lean year.
For his role in keeping Atlantic afloat, McGhee has said that he was paid $75 and a couple of hot dogs. Still, given the label’s seminal impact on the future history of recorded music, the oft-thereafter-covered
Drinkin’ Wine is a recording of landmark importance.
Sadly, Stick McGhee saw little personal success and ultimately left the music business out of frustration, dying from lung cancer at just 44 years of age.
Freight Train Boogie
Delmore Brothers, 1946
In 1945, Arthur Smith’s
Guitar Boogie essentially invented the genre of hillbilly boogie. In the years to immediately follow, brothers Alton and Rabon Delmore would perfect it.
Born into deep poverty in Limestone County, Alabama, in 1908 and 1916, respectively, the Delmore Brothers specialized in gorgeously bucolic two-part harmonies. Alongside the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Monroe Brothers, they were among the leading stars on the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1930s.
By the mid-40s, the Delmore Brothers had split from the Opry and from the most lucrative period of their careers. But the advent of hillbilly boogie would have an immediate impact on the Delmore Brothers. Always predisposed to the blues and Appalachian folk music that surrounded them as children, the Delmore Brothers patched their distinctive harmonies onto the chugging rhythm innovated by Smith.
Freight Train Boogie is perhaps the best example of their work, at least for our purposes. Like many country songs before it (and like the broader boogie genre),
Freight Train Boogie simulates the sound of life by the rails.
The automobile would soon become a defining feature of American life. But in the pre-war era, the rails represented work, progress, and the only way out of an infinity of tiny towns. Its whistle, its clanking, and its mythology permeated life for many Americans.
Freight Train Boogie captures all of this, while chugging with novel intensity and invoking railway folk legend (and real person, at some point in history), Casey Jones.
Freight Train Boogie would not return the Delmore Brothers to their prior commercial stature, it would earn them an important spot on our timeline.
Rabon and Alton died in 1952 and 1964, respectively, but their influence permeated the rock and roll era as duos like the Everly Brothers and, thereafter, Simon and Garfunkel, aspired to their rich, warm harmonies.
Nat King Cole, 1946
Alabama-born and Chicago-raised, Nat King Cole began his career as a jazz musician, playing piano in combos with his brothers. But it was his rich baritone voice and debonair stage presence that ultimately made him a pop star.
Indeed, starting with radio and eventually moving to television, Cole’s healthy sales numbers would virtually define Capitol Records in its earliest days. In fact, legend has it that Cole’s sales helped to finance the construction of the iconic cylindrical Capitol building in L.A.
Though Cole was a pop singer more in the vein of the era’s famous crooners, he distinguished himself by frequently performing as part of a trio (as opposed to a big band). The result was the prototypical jazz trio—a forerunner to power trios like that of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black.
Though Cole would produce a number of mega-hits during this time that could arguably qualify as rock and roll template setters, perhaps none so effectively captures the genre’s swing, its coolness, or its highway-rambling tendencies as
In the post-war era, few things would come to symbolize American freedom like the automobile and the open road. Indeed, the highway is often the only home a touring rocker knows. Nat King Cole’s constantly covered
Route 66—conceived by songwriter Bobby Troup during (you guessed it) a cross-country road trip—captures the sensation and romance of life on the road with a cocktail-hour boogie, a sly little electric guitar solo, and Cole’s own irresistibly suave vocal charm.
In spite of the enormous imprint left by Nat King Cole, the inveterate cigarette smoker died of lung cancer in 1965 at the young age of 45. By that time,
Route 66 had already become a rock and roll standard, recorded most importantly by Chuck Berry and, on their debut record, the Rolling Stones.
Good Rocking Tonight
Wynonie Harris, 1947
If there’s is a landmark year—a point of transition at which evolution begins to move furiously and inexorably toward the Big Bang of 1955—it would be 1947. This is the point at which all the things that closely resembled ingredients of rock and roll took hold and manifested as something utterly indistinguishable from the genre yet to be coined.
Nothing embodies this truth better than the two versions of
Good Rocking Tonight that battled it out on the Race Record charts in 1947. New Orleanian Roy Brown recorded the original
Good Rocking Tonight, a song that makes lyrical reference to
rocking as both a style of music and a euphemism for sex. The song’s lyrics also reference a litany of characters from prior Race Record hits, like Sioux City Sue, Caledonia, and Deacon Jones, suggesting that the author viewed this song as the culmination of a mounting musical movement.
Indeed, it was. After Brown’s version became a minor hit, the charismatic
Mr. Blues, Wynonie Harris, battened on and recorded his own version. This is the one which we include here for several reasons, not the least of which is that it topped the Race charts for the majority of that year, while Brown’s version plateaued at #13.
More importantly, the Omaha-born Wynonie Harris added a particular flair and aggression to his take, supercharging Brown’s version with edgier singing and a subversive use of gospel-style hand claps.
Good Rocking Tonight is the prototypical rock and roll song, a fact well-illustrated by Presley’s 1954 Sun Records release and the countless cover versions that have followed.
Harris and Brown separately enjoyed widespread success during the coming rock and roll era, though each died young, the former at 53 in 1969 and the latter at 55 in 1981.
We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll
Wild Bill Moore, 1947
Wild Bill Moore, already present in this account for his sax-honking on Helen Humes’s
Be-Baba-Leba, was born in Houston in 1918. He got his start on alto sax and played in a variety of traditional jazz combos before he, like so many other young saxophonists, heard Illinois Jacquet’s solo on 1942’s
Flying Home. This prompted him to pick up the tenor sax and veer toward R&B with a full head of steam.
Teaming with the equally influential baritone saxist, Paul
Hucklebuck Williams, Moore recorded a low-fi rocker that makes explicit lyrical reference to its intent. It may be the first song to effectively declare itself as rock and roll while simultaneously rocking and rolling.
The thundering barrelhouse piano, the hoarsely chanted refrain, and especially the dueling brass made
We’re Gonna Rock a distinctively authentic piece of black music. In his book, Jim Dawson argues that the honking squall of the R&B saxophone was a way of reclaiming co-opted black music in ways that were simply too unrestrained, informal, and musically adventurous to be replicated.
If so, Wild Bill Moore and Paul Williams authored a powerfully primal recording, one that would be among Alan Freed’s first selections when his radio show made its debut just a few years later. Moore remained musically active throughout his life, mostly as a jazz musician but also lending the iconically moody saxophone parts to Marvin Gaye’s
Mercy, Mercy Me (1971).
Moore died in 1983 at age 65. Paul Williams was 87 when he passed away in 2002.
Move It On Over
Hank Williams, 1947
Hank Williams is to country music what Elvis Presley is to rock and roll—its first and still its most iconic superstar.
The Alabama-born Williams learned his craft from a black street performer named Rufus Payne, a background that would forge his organic picking, hillbilly hiccup, and streetwise authenticity. The latter quality was only magnified by the fact that he was also a raging alcoholic.
In 1947, after minor success on a small time label, Hank Williams signed with MGM Records and made his major label debut with
Move It On Over. The song became a #4 hit and established Williams as the most exciting and important performer then or, arguably, at any time in the Grand Ole Opry’s history.
Country music and rock and roll have commingled liberally throughout their respective histories, and continue to do so today. Hank Williams’s
Move It On Over is arguably the first recording to truly blur that line. Among his other distinguishing features, it is Williams’s sense of humor that elevates the story of a man (autobiographical, no doubt) who is literally relegated to the doghouse for coming home late and loaded.
The song’s role in rock history is assured both for launching the shockingly short but incalculably important career of Mr. Williams, and for inspiring a thousand covers. It bears noting that
Move It On Over is far more a rock than a country standard today.
Hank Williams would never live to see it. He drank himself to death on New Year’s Day, 1953, just 29 years old.
John Lee Hooker, 1948
Blues legend John Lee Hooker was born in the Mississippi Delta, but the musical revolution he spear-headed might well be called the
urbanization of the blues.
Born in 1917 and learning his craft under the mentorship of his stepfather, the bluesman William Moore, Hooker ran away from home at age 14 and found work as a musician on the famous Beale Street in Memphis. Drifting in search of work during World War II, Hooker found his way to Detroit and to the purchase of his first electric guitar.
Both the vibrant metropolitan music scene around him and the resonant power of his new instrument inspired Hooker’s first major recording. With 1948’s
Boogie Chillen, Hooker adapted a primitive, droning style of play, learned from his stepfather, into an electric guitar boogie. Uttering improvised lyrics about getting down on Detroit’s happening Hastings Street, Hooker produced a recording unlike anything that had come before it.
By affixing his electric riffing and stomp-boxing to a style most closely resembling Mississippi’s hill country blues, Hooker became an immediate sensation. His was the first electric tune to reach the top of the Race Record chart and—in Hooker’s own mind—was intended to signal the start of something new.
The one-man-band performance and the raw, stripped-down arrangement offered something stark and startling to listeners, so much so that legendary R&B DJ Gene Nobles, of Nashville’s powerful WLAC radio signal, played the song 10 times in a row upon first hearing it.
The riffage at the heart of
Boogie Chillen made it a table-setter for the electric innovations that were yet to come, and initiated a brilliant career. Hooker would tour and perform constantly right up until his death in 2001, at age 83.
Paul Williams, 1949
This is the second entry on our list for Mr. Paul Williams, the saxophone player who dueled with Wild Bill Moore in 1947. Though
The Hucklebuck is among the lighter tunes included on our list, its impact would be decidedly heavy.
Tennessee-born jump-blues sax player Paul Williams is often cited alongside Illinois Jacquet as one of the first to play tenor sax in the honking style that came to define R&B.
This strolling, 12-bar blues number was the biggest R&B hit of 1949, itself a landmark year for R&B. A #1 on the charts and a half-million seller,
The Hucklebuck would actually spawn its own dance craze—one of the first Race Records to do so on a mainstream level. Its permeation of popular music would make both Williams’s style of play, and its associated dance, staple ingredients of crossover rhythm and blues.
Based on the Charlie Parker composition,
Now’s the Time, the casual pacing of
The Hucklebuck is undercut by Williams’s bleating sax fills. If the song itself doesn’t immediately sound like rock and roll, everything immediately thereafter which did sound like rock and roll owed Williams a debt.
The Hucklebuck became a hit for artists as varied as Tommy Dorsey and Chubby Checker.
As proof of his formative stature, Williams was a headliner at Alan Freed’s groundbreaking 1952
Moondog Coronation Ball. This would arguably make Williams the first rock and roll headliner in history.
Goree Carter, 1949
Goree Carter’s career was brief, but his best-known recording is as prescient as anything from his time.
Born in Houston in 1930, Carter was deeply influenced by electric bluesman T-Bone Walker and attempted to emulate the flamboyant guitarist’s showmanship. Contrary to T-Bone’s more traditional blues style, Carter played with a harder and faster edge that prefigures the style of future rock and roll ax-men like Chuck Berry.
Indeed, Chuck Berry’s famous riff—already pegged to a 1946 Louis Jordan song earlier in this account—makes another appearance in Carter’s
Rock Awhile. In fact, it is this riff that makes
Rock Awhile a standout in an R&B scene bursting with new music, providing the lead-in to the song and resurfacing again halfway through, pointing to the dominance the guitar (as opposed to the saxophone) would play for a future generation of rock and rollers.
Rock Awhile registered as a mid-level hit on the Race charts, Carter departed the business soon thereafter. By the time of his death at 59 years of age in 1990, he had been out of music for nearly 40 years.
Rock the Joint
Jimmy Preston, 1949
The release of
Rock the Joint in June of 1949 coincided with a fairly important change in the way that records were categorized. From 1945 to 1949, records produced largely by black artists were catalogued and ranked as Race Records. In the summer of 1949, at the behest of young music journalist and future groundbreaking Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, Billboard established the more politically correct Rhythm and Blues charts.
The newly dubbed Rhythm and Blues charts were suddenly flush with honking saxophones and ever more incendiary jump blues tunes. Philadelphian Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians, excited by Wynonie Harris’s
Good Rocking Tonight and Paul Williams’s
Hucklebuck, sought to top both in intensity and rawness. Mission accomplished.
Though the Prestonians had peddled largely in pale Louis Jordan knockoffs up to that point,
Rock the Joint was truly original for its reckless abandon and its solidification of rock and roll’s defining attitude. Its squealing, wailing, and eventual descent into decadent hooting and hollering are the essence of rock and roll’s loose, chaotic indulgence.
Preston would bail on the musical profession just three years later, but the pioneering rock and roller Bill Haley would make the recording his own that very year, kicking off a nascent rockabilly craze in the act.
Preston lived to the age of 71, dying in 1984.
Hot Rod Race
Arkie Shibley & His Mountain Dew Boys, 1950
By 1950, America had placed World War II well in its rear-view mirror. The wartime manufacturing industry transformed into a domestic consumer-based production economy, centering around the automobile. Aesthetically, philosophically, and economically, cars were redefining American culture, most profoundly among the nation’s youth.
For America’s teens, fast cars represented the ultimate freedom from the dullness of rural and suburban life. So, too, did the increasingly exciting music emanating from their dashboard radios. This underscores the historical importance of Arkie Shibley’s 1950 smash hit,
Hot Rod Race.
Born Jesse Lee Shibley in Arkansas in 1914, Arkie earned his nickname in association with his home state when he traveled to Washington for regular work as a country radio show host. Merging hillbilly boogie with a
talking blues style of phrasing often associated with folkies like Woody Guthrie, Shibley produced the very first hit record to narrate a car race and, more generally, rhapsodize the hot rod culture.
Hot Rod Race would peak in early 1951 at #5 on the Country charts, but its impact would far exceed its chart position. In the very year that it peaked, the Country charts were populated simultaneously with no fewer than three cover versions of Shibley’s tune. Shibley himself recorded an additional four, very similar sequels.
His song also inspired the oft-covered answer song
Hot Rod Lincoln (first by Charlie Ryan in 1955, and most memorably by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in 1972), and pretty much every future rock and roll era song celebrating car culture, from Chuck Berry’s
Maybelline to the Beach Boys’
Fun, Fun, Fun to Bruce Springsteen’s
Shibley lived until 1975, but had already largely disappeared from public view within a year of recording this hillbilly hot rod game-changer.
Sixty Minute Man
Billy Ward & His Dominoes, 1951
By the early 1950s, the smooth harmonies of black vocal groups like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers had transformed into something a bit more confrontational. Enter Savannah-born piano player Billy Ward and his Dominoes.
Adapting the harmonies of their more reserved predecessors into a style meant to capitalize on the rising cachet of Rhythm and Blues, Ward recruited a collection of talented young vocalists which included an uncommonly soulful tenor named Clyde McPhatter.
Though McPhatter was the lead vocalist, it was actually the booming bass of Bill Brown that would shoot the Dominoes to success.
Sixty Minute Man is the next evolutionary step in the development of R&B from its slippery electric guitar to its gospel hand claps to its unabashed sexual boastfulness.
For all its ribald content, however,
Sixty Minute Man is actually a rather well-manicured recording. The vocal harmonies are impeccable, the performances are restrained, and the refrain is infectious.
In other words, this was an R&B record made for chart success, which is exactly what it got. In spite of the fact that its vulgarity earned it a ban from many a more conservative radio station,
Sixty Minute Man was a #1 hit on the R&B charts for a remarkable 14 weeks. It also crossed over onto the Pop chart, where it peaked at #17. The Dominoes’ innuendo-laden gem was a hit with black and white listeners alike, the biggest crossover R&B hit to that juncture.
This would also make it a major milestone on the way to rock and roll’s hybridization of popular music. The Dominoes continued to enjoy success through the 1950s, even as the lineup experienced constant shuffling. McPhatter left to become the lead vocalist for an early lineup of the legendary Drifters. He was replaced by a young Jackie Wilson who—like McPhatter before him—would become a key artist in the rock and roll era.
The Dominoes existed in various incarnations through the 1960s before tumbling out of existence.
Train Kept A-Rollin
Tiny Bradshaw, 1951
Ohio-born vocalist and bandleader Tiny Bradshaw enjoyed fairly consistent chart success while fronting various swing orchestras and R&B combos in the late 40s and 50s. Yet, his most important contribution to the evolution of rock and roll was a barely-charting 1951 jump and jive track called
Train Kept A-Rollin.
Although Bradshaw was best known to audiences of the time for cool swingers like
Well Oh Well, it was this hot blues-based boogie that resonated with history. Based loosely on the phrasing of Cow Cow Davenport’s
Cow Cow Blues (1928),
Train Kept A-Rollin has a decidedly downtown feel to it. There is a slick, contemporary sheen to the band’s delivery, even as Bradshaw rasps rhyming hipsterisms.
Train also features a fairly wailing little sax solo and a clacking railroad drumbeat.
But as I said, its impact was not immediate. Instead, its influence would flower over the course of the next several decades, revealing that Tiny Bradshaw’s minor recording had somehow ingrained itself in rock and roll’s DNA.
In 1956, the Johnny Burnette Trio would cut a version of
Train that subtracted the horns and added what would become one of the most emulated guitar riffs in history. Burnette transformed the jump blues original (itself adapted from a 12-bar blues boogie) into a smoking hot rockabilly raver, so unhinged in its delivery that one might even call it proto-punk.
Bradshaw, always in relatively poor health, would decline dramatically through a series of strokes in the mid-50s, before succumbing at age 51 in 1958.
Though Bradshaw’s recording of
Train Kept A-Rollin is not well known, Burnette’s deconstructive take found its way into the repertoire of British blues enthusiasts, The Yardbirds, who brought it with them when they folded into Led Zeppelin. From Zeppelin’s live arsenal into Aerosmith’s, where it remains even to present date,
Train Kept A-Rollin keeps on a-rollin’ (terrible pun intended).
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, 1951
As should be quite obvious now that we are 40 songs deep into our discussion, it is dubious to claim that any one recording could qualify as
the first rock and roll song. But history loves a tidy story. Thus,
Rocket 88 is the most popular candidate—a song ordained by its own producer as the moment when R&B transformed into rock and roll.
Don’t let the name of this band fool you. This was actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. Before he was better known and widely reviled for first discovering then abusing Tina Turner, Ike was the founder and piano player for the Kings. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, Turner and his band got their start playing jump blues in local juke-joints.
Legend has it that the band’s guitar amp fell off the back of their pickup truck as they traveled to Memphis to cut this, their first record. The bass cone busted on the amp, so the guitarist stuffed a piece of crumpled up paper into the gap. Sun producer Sam Phillips liked the resultant rattling, and this became the first instance of guitar distortion and, for many, represented a readily definable starting point for that which we call rock and roll. Turner has disputed this exact version of events, but does note that it was a broken amp that invented distortion.
Sam Phillips released the song through Chess Records, who attributed the song to the man responsible for providing lead vocals. Thus, Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats were credited with the #1 R&B hit. Regardless of whose name was on the tune (which is mutually derived from Jimmy Liggins’s 1947
Cadillac Boogie and Pete Johnson’s 1949
Rocket 88 Boogie), its distorted guitar leads, honking saxophone, raucous delivery, and cars-and-girls content conveniently embody rock and roll to its amp-rattling core.
Rocket 88 would go on to sell half a million copies and stack up as the second-biggest R&B record of 1951. Turner has said that he was paid $20 for his role in producing the song that Sam Phillips consequently dubbed the first rock and roll record.
Turner would go on to have a defining role in the evolution of rock and roll, particularly through his partnership with future protégée and wife, Tina.
Brenston drank himself to death in 1979 at the age of 49, whereas Turner lived to be 76 before dying of a cocaine overdose in 2007.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Lloyd Price, 1952
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Lloyd Price is the fact that, contrary to every single other artist represented with an entry on this list, he is still alive. The same is true of two other rock and roll giants who are present on 1952’s
Lawdy Miss Clawdy.
Born in a suburb of New Orleans in 1933, Price worked for a local radio station in his teens, providing his soulful singing to its advertisement jingles. Borrowing a catchphrase from the DJ who employed him, Price began performing concise variations of
Lawdy Miss Clawdy on the air. It was received well by listeners, so Price expanded it into a full-length song and made it a regular part of his radio appearances.
The song brought Price to the attention of the soon-to-be groundbreaking New Orleans label, Specialty. The tune itself was notably derivative of Fats Domino’s
The Fat Man, and Champion Jack Dupree’s
Junker’s Blues, but the arrangement, accompaniment, and approach would make this the next stage in the Crescent City’s rising rock and roll profile. Presided over by producer Dave Bartholomew (arguably as determinant an architect as there is in the trademark sound of Rampart Street), Price was paired with a band of future all-stars.
Particularly, Fats Domino’s rolling piano lead-in, Earl Palmer’s backbeat drumming, and Price’s own yelping plaint would make this the most significant recording yet for all involved.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy would land on the top slot of the R&B Billboard charts, ultimately spending half of 1952 occupying its upper reaches. Though the record never crossed over onto the Pop charts, it sold over a million copies, moving quickly with black and white audiences alike.
Imitators were legion, with nearly everything that came out of New Orleans over the next several years closely resembling the approach refined on
Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Bartholomew and Domino, both still alive today (94 and 87, respectively), would collaborate on a number of the most definitive records to come out of New Orleans during the rock and roll era.
Lloyd Price would chart a number of important hits over the coming decades, including the definitive rock and roll era take (and an approach deeply similar to that which drives
Lawdy Miss Clawdy) on blues murder saga
Stagger Lee (aka
Stag-o-Lee) in 1959.
In addition to continuing to tour and perform, Price has seen ongoing success as an entrepreneur, working at one point in housing development and even collaborating with boxing promoter Don King and legendary prizefighter Muhammad Ali.
Price was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and remains active today at age 82.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy has been either
borrowed or covered by everybody from Little Richard and the Beatles to Conway Twitty and the Replacements.
The Crows, 1953
Lest you should get the impression that rock and roll evolved entirely out of Southern rural tradition, the Crows should dispel this misconception. As blues, boogie, and country were emerging from the backwoods, street-corner vocal harmonies colored Northern cityscapes. The melodic scatting and four-part harmonies of doo-wop—basic ingredients to the rock and roll lyrical recipe—were born on the streets of cities like New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
The Crows were amateur Harlem sidewalk singers when they won an Apollo Theater talent show and earned a contract with a tiny start-up label called Rama. In 1953, they recorded a small clutch of songs in their familiar doo-wop style, but with the backing of an electric jump blues band. The group actually wrote
Gee in a matter of minutes during the session, a fact that would ultimately make it the very first original doo-wop song to become a crossover hit.
Over the course of its first year, the record actually did very little, slowly climbing local playlists in Philly and New York. It wasn’t until 1954 that it began to pick up national steam, eventually topping out at #2 on the R&B charts and lurching all the way to the #14 spot on the Pop charts.
This, in essence, makes
Gee the very first original hit by a true rock and roll group. Such is to say that The Crows were not interlopers from a jazz background. They weren’t crack study aces assembled by a savvy music businessman. They were young, amateur musicians recording on an independent label without pretension.
Gee is a decidedly innocent recording on its surface, evoking an idyllic
aww shucks take on the 1950s that totally obscures the enormity of its impact.
The Crows saw little chart success after
Gee, but theirs was the first trickle in a coming flood of crossover doo-wop hits and rock and roll vocal combos.
(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean
Ruth Brown, 1953
Atlantic Records—the leading brand name in R&B during its most fruitful decades—is sometimes referred to as
the house that Ruth built.
Portsmouth, Virginia—born Ruth Brown is the inspiration for this attribution. Also revered as the
Queen of R&B, Brown fronted a series of bold, brassy, uptown rhythm & blues tunes during the 50s, dominating the charts before, during, and after rock and roll’s initial explosion into popular consciousness.
With a blues belter’s voice and an affinity for Dinah Washington, Brown’s music helped to take the female blues singer into the next era. Brown’s material moved increasingly toward a slick, tight, uptempo take on R&B that is perhaps best encapsulated by
(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.
The song strolls along with a honking hucklebuck, tightly coiled electric guitar licks and late, loping horn parts. In reality though, it is Brown’s soulful squeal that distinguishes
Brown exhibits a light touch on a nonetheless impassioned delivery that would make this her third consecutive #1 on the R&B charts. By this early stage in her career, Brown’s music was absolutely omnipresent throughout the South, helping to mold countless future soul sisters like Aretha Franklin, Tina Tuner, and Mavis Staples.
Brown’s popularity would fade in the 60s, but she would enjoy a resurgence starting in the mid-70s, eventually earning a Tony for her work on stage and a Grammy for her musical contributions in the same medium.
Brown lived to the age of 78, passing on in 2006.
Sugar Boy Crawford and his Cane Cutters, 1953
The city of New Orleans has appropriately bubbled up throughout this historical trek, with many of the songs noted here taking on the distinctively festive, boozy, horn-heavy sound of that city.
But there is a separate and equally consequential strand of music that comes from the city’s tradition of revelry. While the music of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price put a Crescent City spin on R&B and jump blues,
Jock-A-Mo renders hit material out of a chant descended from Mardi Gras Indians.
The song tells the story of two clashing tribes of Mardi Gras clans and details the threat of one tribe’s spy boy to set the other tribe’s flag on fire. The history of the so-called Mardi Gras Indians—members of the city’s population who dress in colorful native American regalia to celebrate the annual festival—is its own story and one I urge you to research when you have some time.
But for our purposes, Sugar Boy Crawford and His Cane Cutters offer a landmark recording in which the musical predilections of these ecstatic revelers are captured in the bounce and sway of a single recording. Sugar Boy’s version was released for Chess Records and was not a national hit. It would, however, become a standard in New Orleans—among a handful of songs that remain emblematic of Mardi Gras and the city as a whole.
When it was re-recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965 as
Iko, Iko, it would become a hit and the subject of a dispute over authorship. Sadly, the Dixie Cups would eventually be awarded sole status as writers of the song, with Crawford only earning a small cut from live performances.
Crawford would largely disappear from public view, particularly after a 1963 beating by police officers that left him physically hobbled for years. Crawford did live to the age of 77, dying in 2012.
In one form or another,
Jock-A-Mo would never leave the public eye. The song would not only become a staple of Grateful Dead set lists and a constant presence on the charts via hit versions by the likes of the Belle Stars (1982) and Cindy Lauper (1986), but it remains even to this day as omnipresent in New Orleans as booze and beignets.
Crazy Man Crazy
Bill Haley & His Comets, 1953
Of course, Michigan-born Bill Haley is among the most familiar first-generation rock and rollers, largely for the immortal
(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock. And we’ll get to that. But his contribution to the early evolution of rock and roll stretches back a few years before his was a household name.
Born in 1925, Haley began his career as a well-regarded country yodeler, fronting various bands before ultimately forming Bill Haley and His Saddlemen. Though they largely played in the Western swing style, the band gradually began to incorporate elements of R&B into a country-rock hybrid called rockabilly. The use of slap-back bass for percussion and Haley’s hip, swinging delivery made the Saddlemen early pioneers in the genre. But when Haley heard Jackie Brenston’s
Rocket 88, he launched his band headlong into rock and roll.
Their recordings were still imbued with a rockabilly undercurrent, but as the band evolved into Bill Haley & His Comets (aka Bill Haley & the Comets), they continued to kick the momentum, electricity and, intensity of their music into higher gear. Borrowing a popular phrase uttered by members of his own audience, Haley authored
Crazy Man, Crazy.
Crazy Man, Crazy throws the drums up front, rips smoking guitar licks throughout, and blows the joint up with a chorus of hepped up shouters. The whole thing feels like a party.
It was the first Pop-charting rock and roll hit by a white group, hitting #12 that summer. It was nudged forward by its appearance on a CBS television special featuring an emerging James Dean. This would make it the first rock and roll song to appear on American television and it would earn the Comets their eventual invitation to record
Rock Around the Clock.
Bill Haley would become a major force in the coming decade, carving out an enormous piece of Billboard real estate and selling over 25 million records worldwide. He lived to the age of 55, dying in 1981.
Big Mama Thornton, 1953
Topping out at 350 pounds, Willie Mae
Big Mama Thornton cut an impressive figure on the blues landscape. Born in Alabama in 1926, Thornton’s first and biggest hit would also be the first independent production for songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The latter two gentlemen were already on their way to becoming among the most important songwriters of the rock and roll era (thanks to Wilbert Harrison’s 1952 taken on their
Kansas City), but over the course of its life cycle,
Hound Dog would be their single most consequential work.
Influenced by the likes of Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton honed her chops as a gospel-turned-blues belter with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. But as blues transformed into R&B in the late 1940s, Thornton embraced the genre’s more aggressive and sexually confrontational predilections. Thornton came to meet Leiber and Stoller while working with star R&B drummer and bandleader, Johnny Otis.
In their very first session as leading producers, the already-successful songwriters encouraged Thornton to raunch up the vocals, which she did with inimitable authority. Behind her, a band of ace musicians is anchored by the reliable Mr. Otis on drums and the smoking-hot Pete Lewis on the tune’s resonant guitar solo.
A blues tune with a backbeat, but absent a saxophone,
Hound Dog sounded like something altogether different from R&B or traditional blues. By the time Thornton’s recording descends into chaotic canine howling and yelping, a new sound has been born.
Hound Dog became a #1 R&B hit, topping the charts for seven weeks and selling somewhere just under a million copies in 1953. Thornton was paid a pittance for her work, as were Leiber and Stoller. While the former was never compensated, and died with little to her name but alcoholism at age 57 in 1984, Leiber and Stoller would ultimately make out like bandits when Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956.
Hound Dog would become a 10-million unit seller for Presley, pulling off the then-unprecedented feat of simultaneously topping the pop, country, and R&B charts that year. It remains Presley’s single best-selling song to date and among the most representative songs of the rock and roll genre.
Riot in Cell Block #9
The Robins, 1954
Not to belabor the point, but Leiber and Stoller were pretty damn important songwriters as R&B continued to mutate into that which we now call rock and roll. Driven by disappointment over their personal compensation for Big Mama Thornton’s
Hound Dog (and preceding their contentment over compensation for Presley’s version), Leiber and Stoller formed their own Spark label.
It was from this position of independence that they launched one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships of the era. One of their first major hits would be this hard-as-nails prison break drama,
Riot in Cell Block #9.
The Robins were already a fairly successful doo-wop combo from the mid-1940s onward. But the Leiber and Stoller vehicle fixed them with a song that claimed to have none of doo-wop’s harmonic elegance. In the style to which the songwriters would frequently turn in the future,
Riot aspires to a rawness that would be rock and roll’s future calling card. The vocals are coarse, the sax wails like an alarm, the drums rap like a Tommy Gun.
The song proclaims that
there’s a riot goin’ on and it feels like they’re telling the truth. The Robins would score an R&B #1 with this tune in 1954, producing as hard-rocking a track as the charts had yet seen. Soon after the song’s success, Leiber and Stoller would poach two members from the Robins’ ranks to form The Coasters.
Leiber and Stoller would thereafter help to write the book on rock and roll as songsmiths for The Drifters (
There Goes My Baby,
Spanish Harlem), Ben E. King (
Stand By Me), and most importantly, said Coasters (
Smokey Joe’s Cafe, etc, etc, etc). Leiber passed on at 78 in 2011. Mike Stoller is still with us at 82.
Hoochie Coochie Man
Muddy Waters, 1954
The end of World War II saw a massive migration, as black laborers from the South journeyed northward in search of better-paying work. It was thus that over the following decade, the heart of blues country moved from the Mississippi Delta to the mean streets of downtown Chicago.
The rustic mystique of pre-war blues was replaced by something harder, nastier, more in-your-face. Muddy Waters is the most important link between these two traditions. As the blues moved north, so did the man who was born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena County, Mississippi.
As Muddy Waters, he would become one of the preeminent popular musicians of the 20th century. His deep resonating voice, his commanding physical presence, and his muscular accompaniment would make Waters’s catalogue of work instrumental, not just in bridging the gap between South and North, Mississippi and Chicago, acoustic and electric, but ultimately in beginning the process of making blues indistinguishable from rock and roll. Like a few other artists on this list, pinning Waters’s importance in rock and roll to one song is difficult, to say the least.
Though Muddy had already picked up the electric guitar a few years prior, his performance on the Willie Dixon—penned vehicle would mark his first with a full band behind him.
Hoochie Coochie Man—with its stop-time rhythms, hoodoo theme, and heavy electrification—is the defining song of the Chicago blues genre. It would also become the biggest hit yet for Muddy Waters, reaching #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart and remaining in play for 13 weeks.
It could be argued that of all Muddy Waters’s recordings, this remains the most iconic and perhaps the most frequently covered. Again, this is saying a lot, considering that this guy pretty much inspired every single blues rock artist of the mid and late 60s, on either side of the Atlantic. But couched in the stop-time rhythm of
Hoochie Coochie Man is an immediate predecessor to the famous Bo Diddley beat that would thereafter launch a billion riffs.
Waters would of course continue on to monumental success, perhaps unmatched in the blues milieu by anybody but B.B. King, before succumbing to heart failure in 83 at age 70. He would leave a massive legacy behind him.
Work with Me Annie
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, 1954
Hank Ballard was born in Detroit in 1927, but bounced between the Motor City and the Deep South of Alabama during his formative years. His exposure to two vibrant but utterly different musical cultures would imbue the young singer with a unique pedigree. He put this background to use in the early 1950s as a purveyor of some of the era’s most risqué R&B tunes.
First as the leader of a doo-wop combo called the Royals, and thereafter as frontman for the more R&B-leaning Midnighters, Ballard carved out a small niche as a singer with a particular flair for sexually overt storytelling. Their first hit, 1954’s
Work with Me Annie, encouraged the song’s addressee to
get it while the gettin’ is good, so good, so good, so good, so good.
Ballard’s on-the-nose lyrics and suggestive yelping earned the song a ban from the airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission, but couldn’t stop it from selling enough copies to reach all the way up to #1 on the R&B Billboard charts and #22 on the Pop charts. Its simple but scintillating electric guitar solo and shuffling harmony are also prototypical of the fare that would soon emanate from every radio. In the wake of this first success, Ballard returned to his familiar friend with the self-explanatory
Annie Had a Baby and
Annie’s Aunt Fanny—which also were banned by the FCC.
Work with Me Annie inspired countless answer songs, most notably Etta James’s
Roll with Me, Henry (The Wallflower). In addition to producing a song which is rightfully seen as among the most necessary immediate precursors to rock and roll, Hank Ballard would return in 1959 with
The Twist. His original composition only reached #87 on the Pop charts, but the following year, Chubby Checker’s untouchable cover topped the chart, and in 1962, became the only song in history to ever do so a second time.
Though he last recorded in 1969, Hank Ballard had intermittently emerged from his private life to perform live prior to his death in 2003 at age 75.
Rock Around the Clock
Sonny Dae and His Knights, 1954
In 1953, a guy named James Myers wrote a 12-bar blues rocker that merged the cadences of Hank Williams’s
Move It On Over with a familiar nursery rhyme. In doing so, he authored what would ultimately become the first rock and roll #1 in history. Its path there would have a few twists and turns, though. The first twist was via a Richmond, Virginia—based novelty combo led by Italian-American Sonny Dae.
Sonny Dae and His Knights were a decidedly small time act, most notable at that time for their regular appearances on the Old Dominion Barn Dance radio show—a far cry from the Grand Ole Opry. Though Myers did work closely with a client named Bill Haley, a conflict with the bandleader’s record label prevented the two from collaborating on
Rock Around the Clock.
Thus, Myers trucked Sonny Dae and His Knights into a studio in Philadelphia to cut this comparatively nastier version of
Rock Around the Clock. (Note: This is the only song in our account that was unavailable for inclusion in the Spotify playlist here below).
Sonny Dae’s take is tight, lean, and just a few shades more menacing than the version that would change the world. A minimal jump blues boogie with rumbling piano leads and a cymbal-riding clatter, this original version barely notched on the R&B charts.
It did, however, inform Bill Haley’s recording a year later. Though recorded in 1954 and released as a B-Side with minimal initial impact, Bill Haley & His Comets’
(We’re Gonna) Rock around the Clock was selected to accompany the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, the following year. This
teenage problem film—exploring the burgeoning youth culture and its rock and roll soundtrack—made Haley’s song a #1 hit on the Pop charts, the first rock and roll song to accomplish this feat.
(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock held the top spot on the charts for seven weeks and ranked as Billboard’s second-biggest song in 1955. This seems like a perfect place to leave you, because Bill Haley’s occupation of the top pop spot announced rock and roll’s future dominance.
At the end of 1955, Bill Haley’s smash hit was the only rock and roll song in the Billboard’s Top 30. By the end of 1956, Elvis Presley would own five of the top 15 slots.
You know the rest.
1. Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record? (Faber & Faber, 1992). (Note: A second edition was published by Wow Wow Publishing in Kindle format in 2012.)