About this Recording
8.120801 - BIRTH OF ROCK AND ROLL (THE) (1945-1954)

The Birth of Rock’n’Roll
Original Recordings 1945-1954

A popular argument among music historians of recent years involves identifying the first rock’n’roll record. Although this CD doesn’t purport to solve that question, it will serve the purpose of giving these ongoing discussions a single source from which to choose some of the favoured candidates.

There are several problems with this dialogue. First is the fact that most of the records included in this collection are by black artists, and as most will agree, rock’n’roll was a melting pot of a variety of musical styles, including R&B, jump, blues, country, boogie woogie, and gospel. However, for the sake of argument, this collection focuses on songs that most frequently come up during the aforementioned debates.

The second thing that needs to be addressed is that rock’n’roll was not ‘created’ nor did it spontaneously appear on the music scene because of any one of these records.

Rock’n’roll, like other musical genres, was the result of a process that had been bubbling and boiling for years before Elvis Presley burst onto the scene in 1954. The musical process that led to rock’n’roll developed simultaneously all over the United States in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There are records on this set that were recorded in such diverse cities as New York, New Orleans, Memphis, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, aCD as a pot and the songs on it ingredients for a stew. Each song contributed something important to the development of rock’n’roll. Without any one, the stew would taste differently, but it would still be a stew and would be perfectly edible. One song might have made the stew spicier, but it was not the only ingredient.

Culinary metaphors aside, we have chosen to include a variety of R&B and doo-wop selections in this anthology; each of which had a major influence on the development of rock’n’roll. Wynonie Harris (1915-1969) not only inspired Elvis Presley’s Sun version of Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, but also added essential elements to rock’n’roll, including a heavy backbeat and jump vocals, which led directly to Joe Turner’s transition from blues singer to rock pioneer.

Along with the Orioles, the Ravens was probably the most important of the black vocal ensembles with bird names that started in the late 1940s. Jimmy Ricks’ magnificent bass lead on the remake of the Broadway standard Ol’ Man River helped inspire countless vocal groups as well as early rock vocalists and ’60s groups such as the Temptations.

Louis Jordan’s recordings with his Tympany Five not only exhibited exuberant singing by its leader, but the boogie beat, jump rhythms, and horn ensembles had a marked influence on not only ’40s R&B, but jazz and bebop as well. Jordan (1908-1975) and others who performed in this style often played in clubs that featured bebop performers. Songs such as Jordan’s Caldonia were included in the repertoires of progressive bands like Woody Herman’s ‘1st herd’. Jordan wrote the song to be incorporated into a musical short and magnanimously credited his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, with the composition.

The Orioles’ ballad, It’s Too Soon to Know, was one of a flock of bird group songs that was covered by white pop singers in the 1950s. Pat Boone, whose chief addition to our metaphorical stew was water, had a top ten hit with it ten years after the Orioles’ version hit No.2 on the R&B charts in 1948.

Granville ‘Stick’ McGhee (1917-1961) was blues great Brownie McGhee’s younger brother. Brownie was afflicted with polio as a youngster and he got around his hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee through the use of a cart, which was pushed along by a stick controlled by Granville, thus earning Stick his nickname. Although Stick’s influence pales in comparison to his famous sibling, he did create a rollicking paean to pagan boozing with Drinkin’ Wine Spo- Dee-O-Dee, which became a favourite of another musical heathen, Jerry Lee Lewis.

One of the most consistent hitmakers of the early rock’n’roll era was Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino (born 1928), who is also one of its few survivors. From the first pounding piano notes of The Fat Man, Domino dominated the New Orleans R&B scene in the 1950s and became surprisingly accessible to white record buyers, thanks to songs such as “Ain’t That A Shame”, which was also successfully bowdlerized by Pat Boone.

Three of the most important themes of rock’n’roll’s early years were sex, drinking, and driving souped up automobiles. Jackie Brenston’s Rocket ‘88’ combined all three of these elements. It was named for a powerful eight-cylinder Oldsmobile and was a durable hit for Chess Records in 1951. Later that year, a hillbilly yodeler from Chester, Pennsylvania named Bill Haley covered it. If for no other reason than converting Haley to R&B, Brenston deserves immortality. But Rocket ‘88’ packed a wallop, springboarding Chicago’s Chess Records to fame as a major influence in blues and R&B in the 1950s.

The Dominoes, led by a Juilliard-trained vocal coach named Billy Ward, bridged the gap between gospel and R&B. The suggestive Sixty Minute Man was lasciviously sung by bass singer Bill Brown. Although the phrase ‘rock’n’roll’ had been in frequent use in jazz and blues for decades, the Dominoes’ use of it inspired Alan Freed (a devoted Dominoes fan) to affix it to the music. The song made a pronounced impact on the white-dominated pop charts, and was so distinctive, that even Pat Boone wouldn’t touch it. (The image of Boone singing the song is unimaginable…)

Ruth Brown (born Ruth Weston in 1928) recorded for Atlantic Records beginning in 1949 when the label was struggling to gain a foothold in the R&B marketplace. With Ruth Brown scoring with hits such as 5-10-15 Hours, Atlantic started to be known as ‘the house that Ruth built’. Brown’s singing was alternately seductive and raucous, and she proved that rock’n’roll was not going to be an exclusively male musical club.

With the help of Atlantic Records maven Ahmet Ertegun, the Washington DC quintet known as the Clovers became the most successful R&B group of the ’50s. Their witty One Mint Julep warned of the effects of a particularly intoxicating beverage, whose consumption led to a one-night stand and finally, a shotgun wedding.

Willie Mae Thornton (1926-1984) was nicknamed ‘Big Mama’ for obvious reasons. She was large, tall, and coarse in manner, just as anyone named Big Mama should be. Hound Dog was one of the first creations of rock’n’roll’s most spectacularly successful songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who went on to create a fistful of early rock classics, including nearly everything the Coasters made famous. Hound Dog, of course, became an even bigger hit for a young upstart from Tupelo, Mississippi who shall remain nameless.

Originally called the Royals, the Midnighters featured lead singer Hank Ballard (1927-2003), a Clyde McPhatter-influenced singer who would later create a sensation with his composition ‘The Twist’. The lyrics for Work With Me Annie made no bones about its subject matter, and were the object of much controversy and revilement by Eisenhower-era parents, intent on saving their children from the scourge of R&B records.

Similarly, the lyrics to Shake, Rattle & Roll, performed by Big Joe Turner (1911-1985), also created a wave of protest. As a result, by the time Bill Haley’s cover version was issued, the bed and see-through dresses had been airbrushed out of the lyrics.

(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock was one of the first records to become a hit after being featured in a motion picture, in this case, 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. Although the song’s lyrics (written by Tin Pan Alley hacks Jimmy DeKnight and Max C. Freedman) were less explicit than most, the song’s association with the high school delinquent storyline in the film caused it to be the focus of more parental drumbeating about the degradation of our youths’ morals. The chunky, spit-curled Bill Haley, with his plaid jackets, was hardly the rebellious rock icon he was made out to be, as British fans were quick to notice when Haley toured there, thus shortening his stratospheric rise.

Some thought the nonsensical lyrics to the Chords’ Sh-Boom referred to the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Still, the record’s effects were somewhat less devastating, restricted to the effects it had on white teenagers. For many, it was their first introduction to R&B and steered them toward similar songs, such as the Crows’ “Gee”. A cover version of Sh-Boom by the squeakier Crew-Cuts did even better than the Chords’ version, reaching No.1 on the pop charts.

The Moonglows, a quintet from Louisville, Kentucky, were originally called The Crazy Sounds but were given the more evocative name by disc jockey Alan Freed. Sincerely, featuring Harvey Fuqua, was their first hit, released in 1954.

The Charms’ Hearts of Stone was one of many doo-wop records that translated well into pop (Fontane Sisters) as well as country (Red Foley), and topped the R&B heap for ten weeks during 1954.

Of course, Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was one of the first white artists to assimilate the sounds of R&B with country, gospel, and pop; the lynchpin in the transformation of rock’n’ roll into a viable and durable musical genre. His cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right (Mama) hit Memphis radio audiences like a lightning bolt. Presley, a record buyer himself, used many of his early sessions to focus on his favorite R&B platters, including Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight.

The late Ray Charles (1930-2004) was not only a rock’n’roll pioneer, but may have been more influential than anyone else represented on this CD, including Elvis. I Got a Woman’s jaunty gospel bounce screamed for a call-andresponse choir and did more to bring him out of his Nat King Cole funk than any other song in his early career with Atlantic.

So if you’re looking for an answer to the question, “What was the first rock and roll record?” – we hope you’re more confused than ever by the equally qualified selections on this CD. We hope you’re like the one-eyed cat peepin’ in the seafood store.

Cary Ginell
(Ginell is the author of four books on American music. He is a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award)

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