Hi all welcome back for the fifth installment of my early rock and roll, Thursday series- I know it’s a little late, I’ve suddenly had to look for a new home, and as such lost a few evenings to flat hunting. Sorry everyone. This week I’m just going to drop a playlist of songs – all preceding Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Most pre-date or are roughly contemporaneous with Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88. I am not trying to answer which was the first rock and roll song – there isn’t one first rock and roll song, just a handful of songs which sound increasingly like something DJ Alan Freed retroactively named rock and roll. I’m just capping off something I was doing, daily – one song at a time – on my personal Facebook page to distract myself during the COVID lockdown. let’s just jump into it.
Edit: Oh, as I started writing this it became apparent the text would need to be in two parts, I’ll publish the 2nd next Thursday.
First up Tomorrow Night (1948) by Lonnie Johnson makes my list, first because I think it is a beautiful song. Second, it was a country blues song written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley writers who normally catered for the likes of Bing Crosby. It topped the R&B charts and made it as far as #19 on the pop charts. Several rock and rollers would do their own covers of the song, including Elvis Presley, last week’s star LaVern Baker, Episode 1’s star Big Joe Turner…. And in 1992 Bob Dylan. Johnson delivers both vocally in his plaintive, almost country-esque vocal, and exquisite guitar work, while a piano and bass pad the track out – way in the background. Johnson had been a recording artist since the early 1920s, and counted among his early fans Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson.
Strange Things Happening Every Day (1945) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sam Price Trio on the other hand is an old African American spiritual, rocked up. When listening to Sister Rosetta on an electric guitar, backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra circa 1944 there’s no doubt she helped build rock and roll. Check out This Train, or Rock Me, or Rock Daniel and you soon get the idea. In Strange things she is on a dobro, and a little bit more laid back – but I believe it still counts as proto rock – just check out that guitar solo. Tharpe was a guitar virtuoso, Gospel singer who made a name for herself playing at the Cotton Club in 1938. She was on the bill at the Spirituals to Swing concert mentioned in the first rock and roll episode. As a heavily religious Pentecostal church member, a bisexual woman who lived most of her life with her partner Marie Knight, and a true originator of ‘the devil’s music’ there is so much to unpack with Sister Rosetta – more than a paragraph could do justice to.
I don’t know near enough about Hillbilly Boogie – I’m going to tackle two of them at once. Growing up I was told rock and roll was born when R&B met country. This is not exactly correct, country had little to do with rock and roll. Western Swing (typified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, none of his songs in this list) and Hillbilly Boogie had much more to do with rock and roll. True country music had no drums, none of that walking bass line we associate with rock and roll. It was far more genteel. Guitar Boogie (1945) by Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, and Hot Rod Race (1950) by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys, are two examples of the Hillbilly Boogie that would influence the rockabilly players especially. Smith’s instrumental went to #25 in the pop charts… though this would happen on a later 1948 re-release which came about because James Petrillo’s 1948 musicians’ strike, which had record labels looking through their catalogues for anything in lieu of new material. Hot Rod Race makes the list for it’s subject matter, which influenced Chuck Berry’s writing on his first single Maybelline. Maybelline, incidentally also had Wills’ Ida Red all over it, the verses sound very similar.
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Rock and roll owed much to the big Swing Orchestras of the pre war era. Their demise was one major stream for rock and roll.
A musicians strike from 1942 to 1944 (led by James Petrillo, see the ‘Nature Boy’ entry) , combined with the effects of World War Two on music – namely fuel scarcity made transporting big bands around untenable; band members being drafted to fight (not to mention maybe half their audiences)… as well as a sudden scarcity of shellac to make the records with – Shellac is a byproduct from a beetle found only in Vietnam and parts of India – led to the disintegration of the big band, in favor of smaller units who often played heavier to make up for their smaller size.
Louis Jordan was well ahead of the pack. A featured vocalist and saxophonist for one of the greatest big bands ever – Chick Webb’s orchestra – Jordan had tried and failed to execute a coup de tat on Mr Webb. Webb, the drummer and band leader fired Jordan in 1939. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jordan formed a smaller group unlike anything else at the time. Much of his music has a rock and roll leaning to it, even if a lot of it relies heavily on a swing beat rather than the backbeat. When you listen to his ‘Caldonia’ you can’t help but think of singers like Little Richard. As tempting as it is to claim rock and roll was all about guitars so many of the early groups were driven by the horns and a boogie woogie piano – following the formula set down by Louis Jordan.
One Mint Julep (1951) by The Clovers. I don’t know anywhere near enough about this group, but I love this song. Vocal R&B groups play a big role in early rock and roll, especially in what came to be known as doo wop. The first vocal groups sounded like the Ink Spots, and the various ‘bird groups’ they inspired (the Ravens, The Orioles, The Wrens…). Generally they were of a certain mold – a high tenor, a bass singer who often parroted the tenors first verse but in a much lower voice, a couple of others singing oohs and ahhs behind them. The Clovers wanted to be the Ink Spots, but Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegan had bigger plans for them – a newer, less maudlin sound based on Billy Ward and the Dominoes. There is an urban legend The Clovers rebelled against Ertegan’s demands for more of that newfangled vocal music by wasting his studio time recording an a-Capella parody of the jazz standard ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ called ‘Rotten C**ks**kers Ball’ – which a disappointed Ertegan buried. The song surfaced in the 80s – although it turns out it was the kind of thing often made for music industry insiders ears only… limited run Christmas gifts.
This song however is a good example of a vocal group moving towards a rock and roll sound, sax solo and all…. And an early drinking song.
Rock the Joint (1949) by Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians is the kind of song most of us probably think of when looking for a first rock and roll song. It’s got that walking bassline we all know. It’s got a backbeat. There is the honking saxophone first popularized by Illinois Jacquet in the early 1940s. It has a big gang vocal chanting ‘we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock this joint” – Alan Freed may have coined it rock and roll, but there were a slew of songs, well before his time, to sing of rocking (Tiny Grimes’ Rock the House, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock three examples). This is the song that convinced former Indiana state yodeling champion and then country singer Bill Haley he needed to try this new thing the kids were doing. To my ear several tracks from around 1948-49 are undeniably rock and roll – but where I think 70s rock critics fixed on Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 is that rock music to them was only something you played on guitar. I disagree.
Good Rockin’ Tonight (1947) by Wynonie Harris. One of the songs put forwards when arguing for a first rock and roll song. Wynonie Harris was a blues shouter who had come to prominence in 1944, after he joined Lucky Millinder’s orchestra – one of the swing era big bands who were managing to stay relevant in a more jump blues and boogie inflected 1940s. Millinder’s band had a decent sized hit in 1944 with ‘Who put the whiskey in the well?’ – a jump blues piece with a boogie bassline and strong backbeat, which still ends up sounding a million miles away from rock and roll to my ears. Feeling aggrieved band leader Millinder (who did not play an instrument himself) got the credit for the disc, Harris struck out on his own. Wynonie Harris, mercurial as he was, has always seemed a bit of an ass to me. On the upside you’d hear he was electrifying on stage, gyrating his hips a decade before anyone had heard of Elvis. On the downside, the man owned two Cadillacs, employing two chauffers. At the end of the night he would decide which driver would take him home – and which driver had been sitting outside all night for naught. Yeah I’m sure both got paid, but I can’t be the only one who feels this was a little capricious – especially if one particular chauffer was the perpetual bridesmaid?
In 1947 a fan of Harris, and decent vocalist in his own right named Roy Brown brought Harris a song called Good Rockin’ Tonight. Though it was exactly the kind of song Harris did, he passed – till he heard Brown’s own version on the jukeboxes. When trying to sell the song to another jump blues singer called Cecil Gant, Gant passed too but immediately called his record company head (at 2.30 in the morning) to say ‘hey, you have to listen to this’. Brown was soon in the studio himself, laying down a version of the song. Harris quickly knocked together a cover, adding the ‘O when the saints’ intro, a couple of ‘’hoy, hoy, hoy”s at the end – and, most importantly, a back beat. The back beat is exactly why some say his version, not Roy Brown’s, is the first true rock and roll song.
Ok, I’ll do write ups for the second half next week. Spotify playlist below.