11. “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.
12. “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.
13. “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.
14. “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.
15. “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.
16. “Rock Me”
(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.
17. “Junker’s Blues”
(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.”
18. “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.
19. “Flying Home”
(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.
20. “Guitar Boogie”
(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.