There are many candidates for the title of the first rock and roll record
, but it is arguable whether any such thing exists. Like all forms of music, the roots of "rock and roll
" are deep and wide. But it is clear that rock and roll developed during the period between 1916 – when the words "rockin' and rollin'" were first heard together on record – and 1956, by which time "rock and roll" had become an international musical and social phenomenon.
Rock 'n' roll was an evolutionary process – we just looked around and it was here... To name any one record as the first would make any of us look a fool.
Billy Vera, Foreword to "What Was The First Rock'n'Roll Record", Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, 1992.
Origins of Rock and Roll
More precisely, in musical and social terms, rock and roll was born in the USA during the late 1940s and early 1950s. During that time, processes of active cross-fertilisation took place between country and western music
(predominantly played and heard by white people), western swing
, and rhythm and blues
, which itself comprised a variety of genres (including, for example, jump blues
, Chicago blues
, and doo-wop
) and was predominantly played and heard by black people. These processes of exchange and mixing were fuelled by shared experiences in the Second World War
, and by the spread of radio
, and records
. Several records of this period have been most frequently cited by different authorities as "the first rock’n’roll record". These include :
However, there are many other candidates, and many of the threads which together made up rock and roll music can be traced back to much earlier precursor records. The book "What was the first rock'n'roll record" by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes discusses 50 contenders, from Illinois Jacquet's "Blues, Part 2" (1944) to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" (1956), without reaching a definitive conclusion.
Rolling Stone's Decree versus The King
In 2004, debate was sparked between fans of Elvis Presley as well as many in the music business who claimed "That's All Right Mama" was the first rock and roll song, and those who feel the proper claimant should be Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" — both songs celebrating their 50th anniversaries in that year. Rolling Stone Magazine took the controversial step of unilaterally declaring Presley's song the first rock and roll recording.
Presley himself would not have agreed. In his book Race, Rock and Elvis, Michael T. Bertrand quotes him on the subject:
A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let's face it, I can't sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.
Timeline of contenders as "The First Rock and Roll Record"
The timeline below sets out some records relevant to discussion of the "first rock’n’roll record". Some songs are cited as having important lyrical content, others are seen as offering important melodic, harmonic or rhythmic influence. These songs include not only hits from the early 1950s when the music emerged on the national and international scene, but also various other precursors to what would become known as Rock and Roll.
- The first use of the phrase "rocking and rolling" on record seems to have come on Little Wonder # 339, "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" by an unnamed male vocal quartet. This includes the lyrics "We've been rockin' an' rolling in your arms / Rockin' and rolling in your arms / In the arms of Moses." However, the context is clearly religious rather than secular.
- "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)" by Trixie Smith. Although it was played with a backbeat and was one of the first "around the clock" lyrics, this slow minor-key blues was by no means rock and roll in the modern sense. On the other hand, the title underscores the original secular sexual meaning attached to the words rock and roll.
- "It's Tight Like That" by Tampa Red with pianist Georgia Tom (Thomas A. Dorsey) was a highly successful early hokum record, which combined bawdy rural humour with sophisticated musical technique. With his Chicago Five, Tampa Red later went on to pioneer the Chicago small group "Bluebird" sound, while Dorsey became "the father of gospel music".
- "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith was one of the first hit "boogie woogie" recordings, and the first to include classic rock and roll references to "the girl with the red dress on" being told to "not move a peg" until she could "shake that thing" and "mess around". Smith's tune itself derives from Jimmy Blythe's 1925 recording, "Jimmy's Blues".
- "Skippy Whippy" and "Hittin' The Bottle Stomp" by The Mississippi Jook Band were highly rhythmic instrumental recordings by a guitar-piano-tambourine trio, which had they been recorded two decades later with full amplification would have unquestionably been seen as rock and roll.
- "Oh! Red" by The Harlem Hamfats was a hit record made by a small group of jazz and blues musicians assembled by J. Mayo Williams for the specific purpose of making commercially successful dance records. Viewed at the time (and subsequently by jazz fans) as a novelty group, the format became very influential, and the group's recordings included many with sex and drugs references.
- "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", "Crossroad Blues", and other recordings by Robert Johnson, while not particularly successful at the time, directly influenced the development of Chicago blues and, when reissued in the 1960s, also strongly influenced later rock musicians.
- Waves on the ocean, waves in the sea,
- But that gal of mine rolls just right for me
- Rockin' rollin' mama, I love the way you rock and roll
- You ease my troubled mind and pacify my weary soul.
- "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by The Andrews Sisters contains numerous proto-rock and roll elements. This is the group's best-known example; however, they also recorded other proto-rock recordings such as "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.Notable is that both of these songs were written by the same man, namely, Don Raye.
- "Down the Road a Piece" by the Will Bradley Orchestra, a smooth rocking boogie number, was recorded in August of this year with drummer "Eight Beat Mack" Ray McKinley sharing the vocals with the song's writer, Don Raye. The song would go on to become a rock and roll standard, recorded by hundreds of rock artists, among them being Amos Milburn, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Foghat, and Bruce Springsteen. But the 1940 original by Will Bradley holds up as the first truly rocking version of the song, despite being recorded 15 years before rock and roll became popular.
- "New Early In The Morning" and "Jivin' The Blues" by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, both examples of the very influential and popular rhythmic small group Chicago blues recordings on Lester Melrose's Bluebird label, and among the first on which drums (by Fred Williams) were prominently recorded.
- "Rock Me" by the Lucky Millinder Orchestra featuring Sister Rosetta Tharpe on ecstatic vocals and electric guitar, a gospel song performed in the style of a city blues.
- "Flying Home" by Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra, tenor sax solo by Illinois Jacquet, recreated and refined live by Arnett Cobb, a model for rock and roll solos ever since: emotional, honking, long, not just an instrumental break but the keystone of the song. The Benny Goodman Sextet had a popular hit in 1939 with a subdued "jazz chamber music" version of the same song featuring guitarist Charlie Christian. In 1944, Jacquet recorded an even more "honking" solo on "Blues, Part 2", billed as by "Jazz at the Philharmonic".
- "The Joint is Really Jumpin' at Carnegie Hall" performed by Judy Garland and Jose Iturbi in the film Thousands Cheer is notable not only for its boogie-woogie arrangement but for the lyric "when they start to rock" which uses the word "rock" in a purely musical sense (as opposed to its more common use at this time as a double entendre for sex). But Garland was far from being the first to use the term "rocking" in a musical sense in a movie. She was beaten to it by 5 years, because in 1938, Gertrude Niesen sang the song "Rockin' The Town" in the movie, Start Cheering, and The Boswell Sisters five years before in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round with "Rock and Roll" (although it should be noted the Boswell song is strictly about the rocking and rolling of ocean waves and has no musical or sexual reference.
- "Straighten Up and Fly Right" by the Nat King Cole Trio, very light on the rocking, but a popular hit with lyrics from an African American folk tale, sounding similar to Bo Diddley but without the big beat.
- "I Wonder" by Cecil Gant, an early black ballad performance that became widely popular, the first of the black tenors.
- "The Honeydripper" by Joe Liggins, which synthesized boogie-woogie piano, jazz, and even the riff from the folk chestnut "Shortnin' Bread" into an exciting dance performance that topped the R&B "race" charts for 18 weeks.
- "Move It On Over" by Hank Williams, which used the same melody as Jim Jackson's 1927 "Kansas City Blues" and which was itself used in "Rock Around The Clock".
- "Oakie Boogie" by Jack Guthrie, a Western swing country boogie.
- "Good Rocking Tonight", in separate versions by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, both black artists. Brown's original version is a jump blues that parodies gospel music, and for the first time fuses the spiritual sense of "rocking" with the secular meanings of dancing and sex. Harris' version is much more up-beat and rhythmic, closer to rock and roll, and led to a craze for blues with "rocking" in the title. Later spiritedly covered by Elvis Presley and less spiritedly by Pat Boone.
- "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll" by Wild Bill Moore, the first commercially successful "honking" sax record, with the title as a background chant.
- "I Can't Be Satisfied" by Muddy Waters, recorded in 1947 and first released in 1948, which contains all the elements of what would soon become rock n' roll: a bass/snare/electric guitar combo playing blues with a heavy backbeat. The single was a big hit in the Chicago area. Recorded by local record company Aristocrat, it was one of the last singles on the label before it changed its name to Chess Records, which became one of the most important players in the early development of rock n' roll and electric blues music.
- "Chicken Shack Boogie" by Amos Milburn, a piano-led boogie with references to out-of-hours drinking and cavorting, which became a huge hit.
- "Guitar Boogie" by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, originally recorded in 1945. The first boogie woogie played on the electric guitar, and much imitated by later guitarists.
- "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Stick McGhee and his Buddies, an early "party" song later recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis.
- "Rock And Roll" by Wild Bill Moore, actually recorded the previous year. A rocking boogie where Moore repeats throughout the song "Were going to rock and roll, we're going to roll and rock" and ends the song with the line, "Look out mamma going to do the rock and roll.
- A variation on the Bill Moore song was "Rock and Roll Blues" by Erline 'Rock and Roll' Harris, a female singer, with the lyrics "I'll turn out the lights, we'll rock and roll all night
- "We're Gonna Rock this Joint Tonight", also known as "Rock the Joint", first recorded by Jimmy Preston, is often considered a prototype rock and roll song. It was covered in 1951 by Jimmy Cavallo and in 1952 by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen; Marshall Lytle, bass player for the Comets, claims this was one of the songs that inspired Alan Freed to coin the phrase "rock and roll" to refer to the music he played.
- "Saturday Night Fish Fry" by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five was a large and influential hit. The song tells of a New Orleans fish fry that ends with a police raid and has the repeated refrain "It was rocking".
- "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino, featuring Fats on wah-wah mouth trumpet, the first of his 35 Top 40 hits. The insistent back beat of the rhythm section dominates. The song is based on "Junker's Blues", by Willie "Drive'em Down" Hall.
- "Rock Awhile" by Goree Carter recorded on the Freedom label in Houston, Texas. Carter had Chuck Berry licks in this song before Berry appeared on the scene. Actually, the guitar licks in question originated years earlier, by T-Bone Walker.
- "Rag Mop" by Johnnie Lee Wills and Deacon Anderson is a novelty tune; the lyrics are simply the title spelled out. The song is best known from its 1950 hit recording by the Ames Brothers.
- "Rock Me to Sleep," written by Benny Carter and Paul Vandervoort II and recorded by Helen Humes backed by the Marshall Royal Orchestra.
- "Birmingham Bounce" by Hardrock Gunter, one of the first references to "rockin'" on the dance floor.
- "Hot Rod Race" performed by Arkie Shibley and His Mountain Dew Boys, highlighting the role of fast cars in teen culture.
- "Sixty Minute Man" by the Dominoes (recorded on December 30, 1950). This was the first (and most explicit) big R&B hit to cross over to the pop charts, and the group itself (featuring Clyde McPhatter) appeared at many of Alan Freed's early shows.
- "How High The Moon" by Les Paul and Mary Ford (recorded on January 4, 1951), the first big hit record to use electronic "gimmicks" like overdubbing, and one of the first with an electric guitar solo.
- "Rocket 88" (recorded on March 5, 1951) by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (actually Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm), and covered later in the year by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. Both versions of this song have been declared the definitive first rock and roll record by differing authorities. Brenston's was highly influential for its sound and lyrical content, and was a big hit, setting Sun Records on the road to success. Haley's version was one of the first white covers of an R&B hit, and set the course of his future career..
- "Boogie Woogie Blues" Recorded in New York in mid-May 1951 by Charlie Graci. Later he would add an "e" to his name and, in 1957, his original version of Butterfly would sell more than two million copies.
- "Crazy Man, Crazy" by Bill Haley and his Comets (recorded in April 1953) was the first of his recordings to make the Billboard pop chart. Not a cover, but an original. Haley said he heard the phrase at high-school dances his band was playing.
- "Shake, Rattle and Roll" by Big Joe Turner (recorded on February 15, 1954), covered later by Bill Haley and his Comets. Turner's version topped the Billboard R&B chart in June 1954. Haley's version, which was substantially different in lyric and arrangement, was the first international hit rock and roll record, actually predating the success of "Rock Around the Clock" by several months though it was recorded later. Elvis Presley's later 1956 version combined Haley's arrangement with Turner's lyrics, but was not a substantial hit..
- "Sh-Boom" by the Chords (recorded on March 15, 1954), and The Crew-cuts. In this case, the latter was a pale imitation. The song is considered a pioneer of the doo-wop variant..
- "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets (recorded on April 12, 1954) was the first number one rock and roll record. This song is often credited with propelling rock into the mainstream, at least the teen mainstream. At first it had lack-luster sales but, following the success of two other Haley recordings, the aforementioned "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Dim, Dim The Lights", was later included in the movie Blackboard Jungle about a raucous high-school, which exposed it to a wider audience..
- "That's All Right (Mama)" by Elvis Presley (recorded in July 1954); this cover of Arthur Crudup's tune was Elvis' first single. Its b-side was a rocking version of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", itself recognized by various rock singers as an influence on the music..
Further readingDawson, Jim
; & Propes, Steve (1992). What was the first rock ’n’ roll record?
. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-12939-0.
- Article by The Guardian newspaper on the topic
- http://www.hoyhoy.com/index.htm the definitive pre-rock web site