Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe I find that what passes for contemporary rock ‘n’ roll and indeed film, just doesn’t resonate with me. Consequently, I find myself constantly digging deeper back into the past – particularly when it comes to music and film. Of late, I have found myself listening to a lot of old American blues and r ‘n’ b artists from the 1940s – an era which I contend to be the birth of rock n roll – and not the 1950s as most pundits agree on.
As many erudite Rockbrat readers may know, ‘Rocket 88’, by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (who were actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) is often considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll song. This was released in April 1951 and went to number one for half a dozen weeks. I contend however, that rock ‘n’ roll had its infancy in the previous decade, with 1945-1949 being particularly fertile years for the genre.
Yet back to ‘Rocket 88’ (penned about an Oldsmobile ‘88’). Brenston was Ike Turner’s saxophonist. The band was actually 19-year-old Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band, with Brenston singing the lead vocal. The reason this song is often credited with the mantle of the first rock n roll song is due to its guitar sound, with the song featuring one of the first examples of distortion, or fuzz guitar ever recorded, played by the band’s guitarist Willie Kizart.
There are different accounts of how the guitar sound came about. One version is that Kizart’s amplifier was damaged on Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee to record the song. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound. Apparently, Sam Phillips liked the sound and used it. Others contend that the amplifier “had fallen from the top of the car”, or that the amplifier was in the trunk of the car and that rain may have caused the damage. I think a similar story exists with Link Wray and he discovered the fuzz sound.
For others, Bill Haley and The Comets are considered rock pioneers – and Bill, who cut his teeth as a country performer, recorded a country and western-styled version of “Rocket 88”, not long after the release of the original. Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was released in what, 1954 so Bill may not be able to lay claim to have penned the first rock n roll song, although he was certainly there or thereabouts, and may have been the first white guy to put rock n roll on the map in a big way (although others also claim that title could have gone to Alan Freed (did someone say payola?). Freed was a rock n roll evangelist/opportunist who made rock n roll palatable for a white audience, but like Bill, he certainly didn’t create the genre. In 1953, Haley had chart success with “Crazy Man, Crazy” the first rock song to be televised nationally when it was used on the soundtrack for a 1953 television play starring James Dean. So that was a first for Bill.
Yet I contend that rock n roll as a genre was created in the 1940s by black artists playing rhythm n blues. There were a litany of blues / r ‘n’ b artists releasing songs in the mid 40s who could claim to be originators of the first rock ‘n’ roll song. What is undeniable is that there is a definite swing and or a boogie-woogie element to many of these tunes from the 40s. While Bing was crooning to white picket fence America – the black guys were singing about sex – rocking and a rolling and boogie-woogie.
Many also consider Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama” as the first rock n roll song. Elvis Presley’s version was recorded in July 1954, yet if you apply the 1940s rule – history shows that the tune was written by Arthur Crudup, and was originally recorded by him in Chicago on September 6, 1946, as “That’s All Right”. He in turn used some of the lyrics for the tune from verses he pulled from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song. Sadly, but not surprisingly, and in an all too familiar tale, and after legal battles extending into the 1970s, Crudup was reportedly never paid royalties. An out-of-court settlement was supposed to pay Crudup an estimated $60,000 in back royalties, but never materialized.
Hang on a sec though. Forget about the 40’s, if you listen to some tunes from the 1920s, you can also hear elements of what would become rock n roll. Check out Pine Top Smith’s “Boogie Woogie” from 1928 or Kansas Joe McCoy’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’ from 1928 (yes the same tune immortalized by Zeppelin). This tune is 90 years old. Still sounds better than anything today.
Yet back to the 1940s. Check out Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson from 1944 with ‘Boogie Woogie Dream’, or Louis Jordan’s ‘Caldonia’ from 1946. How about Albinia Jones’s ‘Hole In The Wall’ from 1948. Man this could be the contender for the title here – She’s singing about a speakeasy, and uses lyrics such as “Gonna rock ‘n’ roll at the hole in the wall tonight’ and ‘hip to the jive’. Big Bill Broonzy is another blues name you could throw into the mix too.
I challenge you to check out some of these great tunes from the 1940s and tell me, is this not the birth of rock n roll ?