Origins of rock and roll

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"History of rock and roll" and similar terms redirect here. For the radio program, see The History of Rock and Roll.

Rock and roll emerged as a defined musical style in the United States in the early to mid-1950s. It derived most directly from the rhythm and blues music of the 1940s, which itself developed from earlier blues, boogie woogie, jazz and swing music, and was also influenced by gospel, country and western, and traditional folk music. Rock and roll in turn provided the main basis for the music that, since the mid-1960s, has been generally known as rock music.

The phrase rocking and rolling originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean, but was used by the early twentieth century, both to describe a spiritual fervor and as a sexual analogy. Various gospel, blues and swing recordings used the phrase before it became used more frequently – but still intermittently – in the late 1930s and 1940s, principally on recordings and in reviews of what became known as rhythm and blues music aimed at a black audience. In 1951, Cleveland-based disc jockey Alan Freed began playing this music style while popularizing the term rock and roll to describe it.[1]

Various recordings that date back to the 1940s have been named as the first rock and roll record, including the frequently cited 1951 song "Rocket 88", although some have felt it is too difficult to name one record. Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" is often cited as the first rock and roll record to achieve significant commercial success and was joined in 1955 by a number of other records that pioneered the genre.

The term "rock and roll"[edit]

The alliterative phrase rocking and rolling was originally used by mariners at least as early as the 17th century, to describe the combined rocking (fore and aft) and rolling (side to side) motion of a ship on the ocean.[2] Examples include an 1821 reference, "... prevent her from rocking and rolling ...",[3] and an 1835 reference to a ship "... rocking and rolling on both beam-ends".[4] As the term referred to movement forwards, backwards and from side to side, it acquired sexual connotations from early on; the sea shanty "Johnny Bowker" (or "Boker"), probably from the early nineteenth century, contains the lines "Oh do, my Johnny Bowker/ Come rock and roll me over".[5][6]

The hymn "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep", with words written in the 1830s by Emma Willard and tune by Joseph Philip Knight,[7][8] was recorded several times around the start of the twentieth century, by the Original Bison City Quartet before 1894,[9] the Standard Quartette in 1895,[10] John W. Myers at about the same time,[11] and Gus Reed in 1908.[12] By that time, the specific phrase "rocking and rolling" was also used by African Americans in spirituals with a religious connotation.[citation needed] The earliest known recording of the phrase in use was on a 1904 Victor phonograph record, "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" by the Haydn Quartet,[13] with the words "We've been rockin' an' rolling in your arms/ Rockin' and rolling in your arms/ Rockin' and rolling in your arms/ In the arms of Moses." Another version was issued on the Little Wonder record label in 1916. "Rocking" was also used to describe the spiritual rapture felt by worshippers at certain religious events, and to refer to the rhythm often found in the accompanying music.[2]

At the same time, the terminology was used in secular contexts, for example to describe the motion of railroad trains. It has been suggested that it was also used by men building railroads, who would sing to keep the pace, swinging their hammers down to drill a hole into the rock, and the men who held the steel spikes would "rock" the spike back and forth to clear rock or "roll", twisting it to improve the "bite" of the drill.[14] "Rocking" and "rolling" were also used, both separately and together, in a sexual context; writers for hundreds of years had used the phrases "They had a roll in the hay" or "I rolled her in the clover".[15]

By the early twentieth century the words were increasingly used together in secular black slang with a double meaning, ostensibly referring to dancing and partying, but often with the subtextual meaning of sex.[16][17]

In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)," first featuring the two words in a secular context.[18] 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 later sense.[19] However, the terms "rocking", and "rocking and rolling", were increasingly used through the 1920s and 1930s, especially but not exclusively by black secular musicians, to refer to either dancing or sex, or both. In 1927, blues singer Blind Blake used the couplet "Now we gonna do the old country rock / First thing we do, swing your partners" in "West Coast Blues", which in turn formed the basis of "Old Country Rock" by William Moore the following year.[20] Also in 1927, traditional country musician Uncle Dave Macon, with his group the Fruit Jar Drinkers, recorded "Sail Away Ladies" with a refrain of "Don't she rock, daddy-o", and "Rock About My Saro Jane".[21] Duke Ellington recorded "Rockin' In Rhythm" in 1928, and Robinson's Knights Of Rest recorded "Rocking and Rolling" in 1930.[2]

In 1932, the phrase "rock and roll" was heard in the Hal Roach film Asleep in the Feet.[citation needed] In 1934, the Boswell Sisters had a pop hit with "Rock and Roll" from the film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round,[22][23] where the term was used to describe the motion of a ship at sea.[24] In 1935, Henry "Red" Allen recorded "Get Rhythm in Your Feet and Music in Your Soul" which included the lyric, "If Satan starts to hound you, commence to rock and roll / Get rhythm in your feet ..." The lyrics were written by the prolific composer J. Russel Robinson with Bill Livingston. Allen's recording was a "race" record on the Vocalion label, but the tune was quickly covered by white musicians, notably Benny Goodman with singer Helen Ward.[citation needed]

Other notable recordings using the words, both released in 1938, were "Rock It For Me" by Chick Webb, a swing number with Ella Fitzgerald on vocals featuring the lyrics "... Won't you satisfy my soul, With the rock and roll?"; and "Rock Me" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel song originally written by Thomas Dorsey as "Hide Me In Thy Bosom". Tharpe performed the song in the style of a city blues, with secular lyrics, ecstatic vocals and electric guitar.[25] She changed Dorsey's "singing" to "swinging," and the way she rolled the "R" in "rock me" led to the phrase being taken as a double entendre, interpretable as religious or sexual.[26]

The following year, Western swing musician Buddy Jones recorded "Rockin' Rollin' Mama", which drew on the term's original meaning – "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". In August 1939, Irene Castle devised a new dance called "The Castle Rock and Roll", described as "an easy swing step", which she performed at the Dancing Masters of America convention at the Hotel Astor.[27] The Marx Brothers' 1941 film The Big Store featured actress Virginia O'Brien singing a song starting out as a traditional lullaby which soon changes into a rocking boogie-woogie with lines like "Rock, rock, rock it, baby ..."'. Although the song was only a short comedy number, it contains references which, by then, would have been understood by a wide general audience.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an early use of the word "rock" in describing a style of music was in a review in Metronome magazine on July 21, 1938, which stated that "Harry James' "Lullaby in Rhythm" really rocks."[28] In 1939, a review of "Ciribiribin" and "Yodelin' Jive" by the Andrews Sisters with Bing Crosby, in the journal The Musician, stated that the songs "... rock and roll with unleashed enthusiasm tempered to strict four-four time".[29]

By the early 1940s, the term "rock and roll" was also being used in record reviews by Billboard journalist and columnist Maurie Orodenker. In the May 30, 1942, issue, for instance, he described Sister Rosetta Tharpe's vocals, on a re-recording of "Rock Me" with Lucky Millinder's band, as "rock-and-roll spiritual singing",[30] and on October 3, 1942, he described Count Basie's "It's Sand, Man!" as "an instrumental screamer.. [which].. displays its rock and roll capacities when tackling the righteous rhythms."[31] In the April 25, 1945 edition, Orodenker described Erskine Hawkins' version of "Caldonia" as "right rhythmic rock and roll music", a phrase precisely repeated in his 1946 review of "Sugar Lump" by Joe Liggins.[32][33]

A double, ironic, meaning came to popular awareness in 1947 in blues artist Roy Brown's song "Good Rocking Tonight", covered in 1948 by Wynonie Harris in a wilder version, in which "rocking" was ostensibly about dancing but was in fact a thinly-veiled allusion to sex. Such double-entendres were well established in blues music but were new to the radio airwaves. After the success of "Good Rocking Tonight" many other R&B artists used similar titles through the late 1940s. At least two different songs with the title "Rock and Roll" were recorded in the late 1940s: by Paul Bascomb in 1947, and Wild Bill Moore in 1948.[34] In May 1948, Savoy Records advertised "Robbie-Dobey Boogie" by Brownie McGhee with the tagline "It jumps, it's made, it rocks, it rolls."[35] Another record where the phrase was repeated throughout the song was "Rock and Roll Blues", recorded in 1949 by Erline "Rock and Roll" Harris.[36]

These songs were generally classed as "race music" or, from the late 1940s, "rhythm and blues", and were barely known by mainstream white audiences.[37] However, in 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed began broadcasting rhythm, blues, and country music for a multi-racial audience. Freed, familiar with the music of earlier decades, used the phrase rock and roll to describe the music he aired over station WJW (850 AM); its use is also credited to Freed's sponsor, record store owner Leo Mintz, who encouraged Freed to play the music on the radio.[1][38] Originally Freed used the name "Moondog" for himself and any concerts or promotions he put on, because he used as his regular theme music a piece called "Moondog Symphony" by the street musician Louis "Moondog" Hardin. Hardin subsequently sued Freed on grounds that he was stealing his name and, since Freed was no longer allowed to use the term Moondog, he needed a new catchphrase. After a night of heavy drinking he and his friends came up with the name The Rock and Roll Party since he was already using the phrase Rock and Roll Session to describe the music he was playing.[citation needed] As his show became extremely popular, the term caught on and became widely used to describe the style of music.

Development of the musical style[edit]

Rock and roll music emerged from the wide variety of musical genres that existed in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, among different ethnic and social groups. Each genre developed over time through changing fashion and innovation, and each one exchanged ideas and stylistic elements with all the others. The greatest contribution came from the musical traditions of America's black population, with an ancient heritage of oral storytelling through music of African origin, usually with strong rhythmic elements, with frequent use of "blue notes" and often using a "call and response" vocal pattern. African music was modified through the experience of slavery, and through contact with white musical styles such as the folk ballad, and instruments, such as the Spanish guitar. New styles of secular music emerged among black Americans in the early twentieth century, in the form of blues, ragtime, jazz, and gospel music.[16][39] According to the writer Robert Palmer:[39]

"Rock 'n' roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social and musical interactions between blacks and whites in the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle. Bedrock black church music influenced blues, rural blues influenced white folk song and the black popular music of the Northern ghettos, blues and black pop influenced jazz, and so on. But the single most important process was the influence of black music on white."

By the 1930s, African American musicians, such as Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, were developing swing music, essentially jazz played for dancing, and in some areas such as New York City processes of social integration were taking place. According to Palmer, by the mid-1930s, elements of rock and roll could be found in every type of American folk and blues music. Some jazz bands, such as Count Basie's, increasingly played rhythmic music that was heavily based on blues riffs. In Chicago, blues performers formed into small groups, such as the Harlem Hamfats, and explored the use of amplification. In the Midwest, jump bands developed instrumental blues based on riffs, with saxophone solos and shouted vocals. In Nashville and elsewhere, country music played by white musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers incorporated blues styles, and in some cases was recorded with (uncredited) black musicians. In Texas and Oklahoma, Western swing bands, such as Bob Wills, combined elements of big band, blues and country music into a new style of dance music. As musicians from different areas and cultures heard each other's music, so styles merged and innovations spread.[39] Increasingly, processes of active cross-fertilisation took place between the music played and heard by white people and that predominantly played and heard by black people. These processes of exchange and mixing were fuelled by the spread of radio, 78 rpm and later records and jukeboxes, and the expansion of the commercial popular music business. The music also benefited from the development of new amplification and electronic recording techniques from the 1930s onwards, including the invention of the electric guitar, first recorded as a virtuoso instrument by Charlie Christian.[16]

Louis Jordan in 1946

In 1938, promoter and record producer John H. Hammond staged the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert in New York City, to highlight black musical styles. It featured pianist Pete Johnson and singer Big Joe Turner, whose recording of "Roll 'Em Pete" helped spark a craze across American society for "boogie woogie" music, mostly played by black musicians. In both musical and social terms, this helped pave the way for rock and roll music. Economic changes also made the earlier big bands unwieldy; Louis Jordan left Chick Webb's orchestra the same year to form his own small group, the Tympany Five. Mixing of genres continued through the shared experiences of the Second World War, and afterwards a new style of music emerged, featuring "honking" saxophone solos, increasing use of the electric guitar, and strongly accented boogie rhythms. This "jump blues" encompassed both novelty records, such as those by Jordan, and more heavily rhythmic recordings such as those by Lionel Hampton. Increasingly, the term "rocking" was used in the records themselves, and by the late 1940s was frequently used to describe the music of performers such as Wynonie Harris whose records reached the top of the newly christened "rhythm and blues" charts.[16][39]

In 1947, blues singer Roy Brown recorded "Good Rocking Tonight", a song that parodied church music by appropriating its references, including the word "rocking" and the gospel call "Have you heard the news?", relating them to very worldly lyrics about dancing, drinking and sex. The song became much more successful the following year when recorded by Wynonie Harris, whose version changed the steady blues rhythm to an uptempo gospel beat, and it was re-recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954 as his second single. A craze began in the rhythm and blues market for songs about "rocking", including "We're Gonna Rock" by Wild Bill Moore, the first commercially successful "honking" sax record, with the words "We're gonna rock, we're gonna roll" as a background chant. One of the most popular was "Rock the Joint", first recorded by Jimmy Preston in May 1949, and a R&B top 10 hit that year. Preston's version is often considered a prototype rock and roll song, and it was covered in 1952 by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. Marshall Lytle, Haley's bass player, claimed that this was one of the songs that inspired Alan Freed to coin the phrase "rock and roll" to refer to the music he played.[2]

Freed first started playing the music in 1951, and by 1953 the phrase "rock and roll" was becoming used much more widely to market the music beyond its initial black audience. The practitioners of the music were young black artists, appealing to the post-war community's need for excitement, dancing and increasing social freedoms, but the music also became very attractive to white teenagers. As well as "rocking" rhythm and blues songs, such as the massively successful and influential "Rocket 88" recorded by Ike Turner and his band but credited to singer Jackie Brenston, the term was used to encompass other forms of black music. In particular, vocal harmony group recordings in the style that later became known as "doo-wop", such as "Gee" by the Crows, and "Earth Angel" by the Penguins, became huge commercial successes, often for the new small independent record companies becoming established. These included Modern, Imperial, Specialty, Atlantic, King and Chess.

Although some of the rhythm and blues musicians who had been successful in earlier years – such as Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, and Fats Domino who had his first R&B hit in 1950 – were able to make the transition into new markets, much of the initial breakthrough into the wider pop music market came from white musicians, such as Haley, Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, re-recording earlier rhythm and blues hits, often making use of technological improvements in recording and innovations such as double tracking, developed by the large mainstream record companies, as well as the invention of the 45-rpm record and the rapid growth of its use in jukeboxes. At the same time, younger black musicians such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley took advantage of the gradual breakdown of ethnic barriers in America to become equally popular and help launch the rock and roll era. By the time of Haley's first hits in 1953, and those of Berry, Little Richard and then Presley the next year, rock and roll was firmly established.[2][16]

Key recordings[edit]




Early 1950s[edit]

Views on the first rock and roll record[edit]

The identity of the first rock and roll record is one of the most enduring subjects of debate among rock historians.[89] Various recordings dating back to the 1940s have been cited as the first rock and roll record.[90] Numerous sources have considered the first to be "Rocket 88", which was recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band, but credited to his saxophonist and the song's vocalist Jackie Brenston.[91] According to The Boston Globe '​s Joan Anderman, most rock historians cite it as the first,[92] while The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll and the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said that it is "frequently cited" and "widely considered the first", respectively.[91] People in the music industry have also called it the first, among several others.[93] "Rocket 88" is cited for its forceful backbeat and unrefined, distorted electric guitar.[94] By contrast, writer and musician Michael Campbell wrote that, "from our perspective," it was not the first rock and roll record because it had a shuffle beat rather than the rock rhythm originally characteristic in Chuck Berry's and Little Richard's songs, although he added that "Rocket 88" had basic characteristics of rock music such as the emphasis on guitar and distortion.[95] Its characterization as a rock and roll or rhythm and blues song continues to be debated. Nigel Williamson questions whether it was really an R&B song "with an unusually fast, bottom-heavy eight-to-the bar boogie rhythm and a great lyric about cars, booze and women".[96] Writer Robert Palmer felt that Goree Carter's 1949 song "Rock Awhile" is a "much more appropriate candidate" than "the more frequently cited" "Rocket 88", because of the presence of loud electric guitar on the former song.[74] Palmer wrote that "Rocket 88" is credited for its raucous saxophone, boogie-woogie beat, fuzzy amplified guitar, and lyrics that celebrate the automobile.[97]

Others have taken the view that the first was Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight", or Wynonie Harris' 1948 version; the song received greater exposure when Elvis Presley covered it in 1954.[98] Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 1944 song "Strange Things Happening Every Day" has also been viewed as among the first.[65] Most rock historians have cited Bill Haley's 1953 song "Crazy Man, Crazy" as the first rock and roll record to reach the Billboard charts.[99] Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was the first rock and roll record to achieve significant commercial success and was joined in 1955 by a number of other records that pioneered the genre.[90] Along with "Rock Around the Clock", rock critics have also pointed to Presley's "That's All Right" from 1954 as the first rock and roll record.[100]

The 1992 book What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes[46] discusses 50 contenders, from Illinois Jacquet's "Blues, Part 2" (1944) to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" (1956), without reaching a definitive conclusion. In their introduction, the authors claim that since the modern definition of rock 'n' roll was set by disc jockey Alan Freed's use of the term in his groundbreaking The Rock and Roll Show on New York's WINS in late 1954, as well as at his Rock and Roll Jubilee Balls at St. Nicholas Arena in January 1955, they chose to judge their candidates according to the music Freed spotlighted: R&B combos, black vocal groups, honking saxophonists, blues belters, and several white artists playing in the authentic R&B style (Bill Haley, Elvis Presley). The artists who appeared at Freed's earliest shows included orchestra leader Buddy Johnson, the Clovers, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, the Moonglows, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, and the Harptones. That, say Dawson and Propes, was the first music being called rock 'n' roll during that short time when the term caught on all over America. Because the honking tenor saxophone was the driving force at those shows and on many of the records Freed was playing, the authors began their list with a 1944 squealing and squawking live performance by Illinois Jacquet with Jazz at the Philharmonic in Los Angeles in mid-1944. That record, "Blues, Part 2," was released as Stinson 6024 and is still in print as a CD on the Verve label. Several notable jazz greats accompanied Jacquet on "Blues" including Paul Leslie and Slim Nadine (the monikers employed by Les Paul and Nat "King" Cole, respectively, in order to appear at the JATP concert incognito).

In 2004, Elvis Presley's "That's All Right Mama" and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" both celebrated their 50th anniversaries. Rolling Stone Magazine felt that Presley's song was the first rock and roll recording.[101] At the time Presley recorded the song, Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll", later covered by Haley, was already at the top of the Billboard R&B charts.[102] The Guardian felt that while there were rock'n'roll records before Presley's, his recording was the moment when all the strands came together in "perfect embodiment".[103] Presley himself is quoted as saying: "A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along."[104]

Also formative in the sound of rock and roll were Little Richard and Chuck Berry.[105] From the early 1950s,[106] Little Richard combined gospel with New Orleans R&B, heavy backbeat,[107] pounding piano and wailing vocals.[108] Ray Charles referred to Little Richard as being the artist that started a new kind of music, which was a funky style of rock'n'roll that he was performing onstage for a few years before appearing on record in 1955 as "Tutti Frutti."[109][110][111] Chuck Berry, with "Maybellene" (recorded on May 21, 1955, and which reached # 1 on the R&B chart and # 5 on the US pop chart), "Roll over Beethoven" (1956), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957) and "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), refined and developed the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, focusing on teen life and introducing guitar intros and lead breaks that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.[111] Early rock and roll used the twelve-bar blues chord progression and shared with boogie woogie the four beats (usually broken down into eight eighth-notes/quavers) to a bar. Rock and roll however has a greater emphasis on the backbeat than boogie woogie.[112] Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley", with its B-side "I'm A Man", introduced a new beat and unique guitar style that inspired many artists without either side using the 12-bar pattern – they instead played variations on a single chord each.[113] His more insistent, driving rhythms, hard-edged electric guitar sound, African rhythms, and signature clave beat (a simple, five-accent rhythm), have remained cornerstones of rock and pop.[114][115][116]

Others point out that performers like Arthur Crudup and Fats Domino were recording blues songs as early as 1946 that are indistinguishable from later rock and roll, and that these blues songs were based on themes, chord changes, and rhythms dating back decades before that.[91][not in citation given] Wynonie Harris' 1947 cover of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" is also a claimant for the title of first rock and roll record, as the popularity of this record led to many answer songs, mostly by black artists, with the same rocking beat, during the late 40s and early 50s.[2] Big Joe Turner's 1939 recording "Roll 'Em Pete" is close to '50s rock and roll.[117] Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also recording shouting, stomping music in the 1930s and 1940s, such as "Strange Things Happening Every Day" (1944), that in some ways contained major elements of mid-1950s rock and roll.[65] Pushing the date back even earlier, blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow has stated that "Crazy About My Baby" by Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother, recorded in 1929, "could be considered the first rock 'n' roll recording".[47]

By contrast, musician and writer Billy Vera argued that because rock and roll was "an evolutionary process", to name "any one record as the first would make any of us look a fool."[118] Writer Nick Tosches similarly felt that, "It is impossible to discern the first modern rock record, just as it is impossible to discern where blue becomes indigo in the spectrum."[5] Music writer Rob Bowman remarked that the long-debated question is useless and cannot be answered because "criteria vary depending upon who is making the selection."[119]


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