Before Rock and Roll – A Playlist (part two)

Hi all, sorry for the delay. For part one, which includes the Spotify playlist itself, Click Here

Hi all, let’s put that playlist to bed. Apologies for missing the Thursday timeline two weeks running – if the worst thing to happen to me from COVID is having to suddenly find a new home I’ll consider myself lucky… but that said, I’ve been waylaid a little this week by having to look for a new home – ad all te joys which come with that.

The playlist itself can be found here

Oh, and anyone who has enjoyed this rock and roll bonus series, I will do some more at some time. I feel there is a story to tell, of which I have only scratched the surface in these short tales

Birmingham Bounce (1950) by Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles. I am not just including this track as I think Sidney Gunter had the best stage name ever – which he arguably did – but because it was somewhat ahead of it’s time, pointing towards elements of rockabilly. Some writers will tell you the record was important because it was the first Western Swing song to sing about rocking out on the dance floor – I don’t know nearly enough to challenge, or confirm this. Others will point to how Gunter’s sound was making steps towards rockabilly. To my ears I’m hearing something like this – the musical timbre seems very much of the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the same time there is that prominent boogie woogie piano, and a noticeable back beat. Maybe it was more on it’s way to the Northern band rock and roll of Bill Haley?

Birmingham Bounce would not chart for Hardrock Gunter. Decca Records offered to buy the masters, and take the song to the world. Gunter’s songwriting partner did not want to sell his portion of the royalties, as he had promised the money to his church when it hit the big time. A disappointed Decca called in Red Foley to cut his own copycat single, which – as they had done to many a small label R&B record – killed Gunter’s version dead in the water.

Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee–O-Dee (1949) by Stick McGhee and his Buddies. Yet another song put forward as ‘the first rock and roll song’. I have included it to the playlist for a number of reasons. 1. It is a great little 8 bar blues track with rock and roll sensibilities. 2. It was an early hit for Atlantic Records, the then tiny label which would go on to have some of the biggest records of the 1950s and 60s. They may have been the house Ruth Brown built, but ‘Spo-dee-o-dee’ had great crossover appeal – going to #1 on the R&B charts and #26 on the pop charts. 3. The song foreshadowed the gibberish lyrics of many early rock and roll hits (Little Richards ‘Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’ of Tutti Frutti. The Chords ‘Day dong da ding-dong, A-lang-da-lang-da-lang, Ah, whoa, whoa, bip, Ah bi-ba-do-da-dip, whoa’ of Sh-Boom. Nappy Brown’s ‘So li li li la li li li la li li li la don’t be angry’ of Don’t Be Angry). He was hardly the first – but still. Of course wine spo-dee-o-dee was a real thing – it is when you mix wine, or sherry with bourbon. 4. How about I just really like the song, and wanted to share it with you all?

The Fat Man (1950) by Fats Domino. Champion Jack Dupree’s Junkers Blues (1942) probably should be the song I’m sharing here, as it lit a fire under a bunch of New Orleans piano professors, who stole the melody for rock and roll (or rock adjacent) songs. Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and Fats Domino’s The Fat Man all bear the mark of the song – but of course junkers blues was still very much a blues song. The Fat Man launched one of the all time great rock and roll innovators. It has always seemed to me New Orleans rock and roll, with its melting pot of influences, seems so sizzle a little more. The rolling, barrel house piano, the tricillo rhythm which pervades it. Again I share as I really like this song.

Have Mercy Baby (1952) by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. The Dominoes were a R&B vocal group put together by a Julliard trained pianist and arranger named Billy Ward. Though Ward himself got top billing in the band, and the lion’s share of the money, the voices of a couple of really great singers propelled the group to fame. In their first single, Sixty Minute Man (1950) bass singer Bill Brown was in the lead. With Have Mercy Baby it was very much lead tenor Clyde McPhatter’s song. The song is a landmark because it was one of the first songs to capture an exuberant gospel vocal performance within an R&B format. Earlier vocal groups like The Orioles had caught something of the mournful side of Gospel singing with tracks like it’s Too Soon to Know back in 1947. In both acts, in very different ways, their lead vocalists were doing something pop singers didn’t. Most pop singers were stylists who would recite a song – not sans emotion- but if they were actors you might admire their craft, well aware of their craft on display. Rock singers in the mold of Clyde McPhatter lived, ate and breathed the song. They inhabited it and the song inhabited them. If they were actors they would be a Robert De Niro – a method actor being that role.

McPhatter would tire of getting paid a stipend, while making Ward rich, and would head off to form the first version of The Drifters, before becoming a soloist in his own right. He was the first person inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – even if he had, sadly, drunk himself to death before the honour could be conveyed to him. All multiple inductees are said to have joined the Clyde McPhatter Club.

It’s Too Soon to Know (1947) by The Orioles. In 1941 a vocal group called The Ink Spots sparked a revolution in the world of vocal music. Having seized upon an opportunity (the preeminent vocal group before them, a ‘coffee pot group’* called The Mills Brothers became trapped overseas for the duration of World War Two) they revolutionized vocal harmony singing. Though formulaic, they set the standard for much of the 1940s. The acoustic intro. The plaintive ‘Irish tenor’ vocal sings a verse. The bass singer copies that verse, only lower. The tenor revisits the hook, taking the song home. Throughout the 1940s a group of ‘bird groups’ so named as they mostly took their names from birds. Some followed the high – low vocal. Others, like The Ravens, put the bass singer front and centre. The Orioles put their lead tenor out front, and were a kind of missing link between The Ink Spots and the Doo Wop bands which followed.

*coffee pot groups used to imitate big band instruments using their voices, often through coffee pots and kazoos, to back the lead vocalist. The coffee pot would be passed through the bar for tips at the end of the show.

Speaking of Doo Wop. I’ve previously mentioned The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’, which should have been the first rock and roll record to go to number one on the pop charts, but for a white copycat record. Gee (1953) by The Crows had no such problem – though it was a slow burner, released almost a year before Sh-Boom, then finally seeing chart success just after The Chords had. It gets a little pitchy at the end of the track, but does share a number of similarities to Sh-Boom. Perhaps of note, The Crows eschew the honking sax solo for a guitar solo – likely played by Tiny Grimes, a jazz player and session ace whose ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ (1947) is yet another contender for first rock and roll song. Grimes also gifted the world Screaming Jay Hawkins – Hawkins having got his first big break singing for Tiny.

Teardrops From My Eyes (1950) by Ruth Brown. Atlantic records were a small label, making interesting ‘race records’ – and then there was Ruth Brown. Atlantic records, musical powerhouse it is to this day, is the House that Ruth Built. Teardrops from my Eyes was a huge, runaway hit for Ruth – hitting #1 on the R&B charts and staying there for 11 weeks. The song set Brown up as the reigning queen of R&B, and as an influence for future female rock and roll singers.

It’s All Right Baby (1938) by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I have already written the first music blog on this song here. I just figured it would be nice to end this where I started.


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