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November 29, 2006

The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

So when was rock 'n' roll born anyway?

Perhaps the easiest way to take on the question is to look at the dates of some of the best-known early rock songs. Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" was released in 1954, the same year as "That's All Right Now (Mama)," Elvis Presley's first single. Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" came along in 1955:

Chuck Berry is so impish and sly, isn't he? Could any other man make cardigan sweaters look sexy? And why do some of his lyrics deliver such intense pleasure? Lordy: "As I was a-motivatin' over the hill / Saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville / Cadillac a-rollin' on a open road / Nothin' out-runnin' my V-8 Ford" ... I don't know about you, but I feel a thrill every time I hear them.

But these familiar early-rock songs were preceded by a lot of music that was awfully hard-rocking. Was it rock 'n' roll too? As Wikipedia notes, "The line separating late 1940s rhythm & blues from early rock & roll is not always clear."

I'll say. Some examples: Roy Brown, who released "Good Rocking Tonight" in 1947, and Fats Domino, who was already making recordings in the full Fats mode by 1949.

And no one should overlook the great jump-blues immortal Louis Jordan, who had found his style with songs like "Caldonia" by the early 1940s.

If that music doesn't rock, then my pseudonym isn't Michael Blowhard.

It's fun to realize how much the gals were caught up in the birthin' process too. I linked before to this amazing video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe shaking things up with her hard-rocking, funky gospel. But why not do it again? Not enough people know of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

If that performance doesn't give your spirits a big boost, then you may want to check and make sure you've still got a pulse.

Among the many things I love about that clip is the way Sister Rosetta moves during her guitar solo. Talk about being over, above, behind, and in the beat! Talk about struttin'! It doesn't come as a complete surprise to learn that Sister Rosetta was one of Little Richard's favorite performers, does it?

Hmmm, let's see ... Since there's an obvious continuity from Little Richard to Prince, would we be justified in seeing a line of descent that runs from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Prince? So her influence is still very much with us. Small American-music history lesson: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was already a popular performer in the 1930s. Here's a rare treat: Sister Rosetta Tharpe alone with her guitar.

And then there was Ruth Brown, aka Little Miss Rhythm. To be frank, this whole posting is just an excuse to link to a Ruth Brown performance that I love. And isn't that part of the fun of asking questions like "When did rock and roll really begin?" I'm most definitely of the "it's the adventure, not the arrival" school.

Anyway, here's Ruth Brown singing "Teardrops From My Eyes":

Woo-hoo! Is it just me, or was the happy / knowing, sexed-up snarling that Ruth Brown did suggestive of Elvis? Yet "Teardrops from My Eyes" was originally released in 1950 -- six years before Elvis sang "Hound Dog."

And was anyone else struck by how free the band sounded during its instrumental break? I watched the clip remembering a visit to New Orleans, when my sorry ears were finally opened to how wild traditional Dixieland music can be. The songs may have been short and the structures may have been tight. But, good lord, the crazily inspired noises that spilled out during the breaks! "Free jazz" has got nothing on Dixieland, let alone on some of these small r&b bands.

Ruth Brown -- who, sadly, died a month ago at the age of 78 -- was a huge star in the 1950s. She was widely loved for her slammin' beat and for the way she was able to fuse the upbeat with the lowdown. Ruth Brown had many, many hits, including five that went to #1, and she was openly acknowledged as Atlantic Records' biggest star. She took the '60s off to raise a family, then returned to showbiz in the 1970s. In 1989, I was lucky enough to see her onstage in the musical revue "Black and Blue." Ruth Brown carried herself with a lot of authority, and she sang in a way that gave the whole theater a serious shakin'.

Years ago, I learned a lot from Nick Tosches' "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'N' Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis." The book -- as gonzo and idiosyncratic a work as I've ever read -- delivers a lot of smokin', early-rock-style pleasures in its own right. Here's Nick Tosches' website.

Best, and humming "Rainwater blowin' all under my hood / Knew that was doin' my motor good" ...


posted by Michael at November 29, 2006


I was there!!!

[Pounds floor with cane]

As an young-teen I listened to pop music on the radio a lot in the mid-50s. Most of it was pretty sorry, syrupy stuff (think Perry Como on a bad day, then quadruple the effect).

But Rock Around the Clock hit like a nuclear explosion. So different! So exciting!

Yes, there was (semi- ?) underground R&B long before. And as Michael points out, much of it was great stuff. However, it was Rock Around the Clock that was the big hit that mainstreamed the genre. Once we heard it, then we began to pay attention to Berry and the others.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 29, 2006 3:07 PM

It's possible you've not heard them, so may I recommend the 1932 tracks by Billy Banks and the Rhythmmakers? Especially "I would do anything for you". Particularly take 2. Rhythm section: Fats Waller, Eddie Condon on banjo, Jack Bland on guitar, Zutty Singleton and Pops Foster. Front line: Red Allen, Jimmy Lord on clarinet, Pee Wee Russell on tenor sax. Mr Banks sings.

Mercy, mercy.

Posted by: dearieme on November 29, 2006 3:50 PM

I love Nick Tosches' writing! He understands the dark undercurrents of our old pop idols like no other writer. Fans of his work should read "The Devil and Sonny Liston" which depicts a pulpy existence that was actual physical reality. On the other hand, fans of classic pop tunes should listen to Elvis Costello's covers of some of those great songs, entitled Kojack Variety. Those tunes are dang good!

Posted by: David Brown on November 29, 2006 6:27 PM

The best of American jazz and pop from, say, 1910-1970 is going to live forever. Like late 18th/early 19th century German classical, I think it will be a touchstone for centuries. The joy and creative energy just explodes off the screen when you watch this stuff.

Posted by: MQ on November 29, 2006 8:23 PM

YouTube reminds me of the video Amélie made for the man with glass bones--the same kind of mix of artistic, amusing, sensational--and it included Sister Rosetta Tharpe, too.

Posted by: Ken Hirsch on November 29, 2006 11:32 PM

Many people pinpoint Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" as the first rock 'n roll record.

Posted by: non on November 29, 2006 11:34 PM

I see from the Rosetta Tharpe comment section that Bob Dylan gave her a hat-tip on his radio show recently. Bob's Theme Time radio shows can be downloaded here. They make great drive-time listening. (Make sure you click on the "Archive" versions if you want them divided into tracks; otherwise it's just an hour-long file.)

I recommend Drinking, Jail, and The Devil to start off with. He gives the nod to Tharpe's Youtube video on episode 17, Friends And Neighbors, saying "it'll blow your mind". Who'd've guessed Bob was Youtube hip? But then again he's hip to everything ain't he.

Theme Time set lists are here, Theme Time forums are here.

Speaking of His Bobness, have you seen this? Have mercy!

Posted by: Brian on November 30, 2006 8:46 AM

I saw Berry perform in a tiny club (not even 100 people) just two years ago. He performs there about four times a year--he performs nearly an hour. It's totally amazing what a good guitar player he still is. No duck-walking anymore. But I heard "Johnny B. Good" and "No Particular Place to Go" (among many others) from The Man himself. He also did some real hard-core blues with his daughter singing lead. It's still good!

Posted by: annette on November 30, 2006 12:42 PM

Don't forget Ike Turner and his Rocket 88 (1951).

Posted by: Mitch on November 30, 2006 2:35 PM

I'm just a whipper snapper who entered his fifth decade this year, but one guy who found several years ago that I love to listen to is Big Joe Turner. "Roll 'em Hawk", "Corrine Corrina", "Honey Hush", "I Hear You Knockin'" and the original "Shake Rattle & Roll" are songs that will knock your socks off.

Big Joe needs to be remembered as an American cultural icon. When you listen to Big Joe, you can't get over the idea that this guy played a huge unsung role in pushing R&B forward until it resulted in the birth of Rock and Roll.

Posted by: Neal Meyer on November 30, 2006 11:12 PM

Joe Turner is arguably the principal link between swing (he was an integral part of the Kansas City jump blues scene in the thirties and forties, and was even Count Basie's vocalist for a time) and early rock 'n' roll. Now flip, flop and fly!

Posted by: Vincent on December 9, 2006 9:20 PM

I think Muddy Waters said, "Blues had a baby and called it Rock'n'Roll."

All I know is that the music is gooooooood.

Posted by: Timmer on December 9, 2006 11:30 PM

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