31. “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.
32. “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.
33. “Boogie Chillen”
(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.
34. “The Hucklebuck”
(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.
35. “Rock Awhile”
(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.
Though “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.
36. “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.
37. “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 “Pink Cadillac.”
Shibley lived until 1975, but had already largely disappeared from public view within a year of recording this hillbilly hot rod game-changer.
38. “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.
39. “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).
40. “Rocket 88”
(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.