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The Origins
of Rock'n'Roll


Which was the first rock recording?

You decide:
Click on the orange button to hear excepts from some of the recordings discussed.

Rock'n'roll has many roots - gospel, blues, country - dating back to the nineteenth century and before but the emergence of the rock'n'roll really began with the social and economic changes stemming from the Second World War. Before the War, white popular music was dominated by big band jazz. War service had already broken up many of the bands when, in 1942 and 43, American musicians staged a strike against the recording companies. The lasting effect of the strike was the virtual end of the big bands in favour of solo performers, vocal backings and small groups.

The 1940s saw a great mass migration of African-Americans from the south to the north - the African-American population of Chicago, for example, increased by 77% during the decade. Naturally, they brought their music - gospel and r&b (rhythm and blues) - with them. (The term "r&b" was coined as a politically correct alternative to "race". It originally included all forms of African-American music other than jazz and gospel, encompassing everything from blues, through boogie-woogie to crooners like the Ink Spots and Mill Brothers. The term is now usually used in a much narrower sense.)

The word "rock" has long been used in gospel songs (Rock My Soul, Rock Me Lord, Rock Daniel and so on). The word was also occasionally used, from at least as early as the 1920s, as slang for sex. In 1947, Roy Brown did a blues called Good Rockin' Tonight in which he played on the double meaning to parody gospel songs. A few months later, Wynonie Harris took the Roy Brown blues and performed it with a gospel beat. The record started a fad with dozens of r&b performers recording songs including the word "rock".

One of the after-effects of the musicians strike was to encourage the establishment of groups using vocal and guitar, rather than full instrumental, backing. Although it would be another five years before "doo-wop" achieved real commercial success, numerous young groups like the Orioles were performing by the late 1940s.

Throughout this period, the most popular dance music among African-Americans remained boogie-woogie - a style of music which can be traced back to the 19th century.

By far the most popular r&b performer of the 1940s was Louis Jordan. Between 1943 and 1950, he had 18 number one records on the r&b charts and held that position for a total of 113 weeks - more than a quarter of the time. Jordan was a singer/saxophonist with a small band, the Tympany Five, which played lively dance music called "jump blues" or "jumpin' jive". Jordan's music supplied a good deal of the slang and spirit of early rock'n'roll as well as influencing its development through such performers as Jimmy Preston and, later, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry.

Louis Jordan's place as the top-selling r&b artist was taken over in the 1950s by Fats Domino who had no less than 59 singles in the r&b charts - 37 of them reaching the pop Top 40 as well. Domino's combination of blues vocals and boogie-woogie piano owes much to Henry Roeland "Professor Longhair" Byrd whose combination of blues shouting with boogie-woogie and Carribean rhythms greatly influenced many New Orleans musicians, although he never had great record success.

The one performer more responsible than any other for creating an urban, electric music from its rural Southern roots was Muddy Waters. In 1943, Waters moved from Mississippi to Chicago where, after a period playing with such blues greats as Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson, he set about creating his own style. The resulting combination of amplified vocals and guitar with drums, piano and harmonica prefigured many of the great rock'n'roll bands to come.

But African-American music wasn't the only influence on rock'n'roll. Country and Western music, which had originally derived from the Celtic music of the early white settlers of the Appalachian Mountains, was absorbing other influences, especially boogie-woogie.

Les Paul was an inventor and jazz and country music guitarist. He invented the eight-track tape recorder, the process of over-dubbing and the solid-body Gibson electric guitar which became the staple instrument of rock guitarists. With his wife Mary Ford, he had two number one hit records: How High the Moon in 1951 and Vaya Con Dios in 1953.

One of the recordings with the strongest claims to the title of the first rock'n'roll record is Rocket 88. This was recorded by Ike Turner and His Rhythm Kings in Sam Phillips' studio in Memphis. Jackie Brenston was the singer and saxophonist on the record and Phillips gave him both the performing and songwriting credit on the record label. Ike Turner (who was later to marry and form a rock duet with Tina), claimed that it was his band and that he wrote the song. Whoever should get the credit, Sam Phillips (a very credible authority since he "discovered" Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison) nominates this as the first rock'n'roll record.

With r&b records starting to enter to the mainstream, and mainstream artists like Johnnie Ray getting an r&b "soul" feeling in their music, there was a move to get Congress to ban them on the grounds of "obscenity", although commercial and racist interests underlay much of the outcry. The Dominoes 60 Minute Man, which was the first r&b recording to become a hit on the pop Top 40 (reaching number 17), was a prime target.

The Treniers were a family of performers whose act combined acrobatic dancing, stunts and comedy, all performed to music. At first, their music was blues and humorous ballads but they jumped on the "rock" bandwagon of the late 40s. In 1950, the Treniers were playing in Wildwood, New Jersey. Across the road a country music band, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, were playing.

Bill Haley came in to watch the Treniers and ask what their style of music was called. The result was Bill Haley's cover versions of Jimmy Preston's Rock the Joint and Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88. The records sold well enough to convince Haley to change his musical direction and rename his band the Comets. Whatever its artistic merits or claims to originality, Haley's combination of r&b and country music was neither r&b nor country but undoubtedly rock'n'roll. Bill Haley's next record, Crazy, Man, Crazy became the first rock'n'roll record to reach the Top 40.

One of the r&b artists whose songs Bill Haley covered was "Big Joe" Turner. Turner had started as a singing barman in 1929. With his famous, long-time accompanist boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, his music had inspired many of the pioneers of rock, particularly Wynonie Harris.

Shake, Rattle and Roll, like several other "Big Joe" Turner songs, was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller whose contribution to rock'n'roll included Hound Dog, Love Potion No. 9, Kansas City, Ruby Baby, On Broadway, Stand by Me, Chapel of Love, many of Elvis Presley's early hits including Jailhouse Rock, You're So Square and Treat Me Nice and almost all of the songs recorded by the Drifters and the Coasters (who were originally called the Robins).

The success of records like Bill Haley's drew attention to the r&b groups. One of these, the Royals, who soon after changed their name to the Midnighters, caused a major controversy with their recording of Work with Me, Annie which was accused of being obscene. The Midnighters fanned the flames of the controversy by following it up with Annie Had a Baby. The response of the major record companies was to get white groups to record sanitised cover versions of the r&b hits. (The lead singer of the Midnighters, Hank Ballard, later wrote The Twist and Let's Twist Again, which became enormous hits for Chubby Checker.)

Bill Haley's follow-up to Crazy, Man, Crazy was a cover of Sonny Dae's Rock around the Clock which sold only moderately but his next record, a cover of Joe Turner's Shake, Rattle & Roll reached the Top 10. In 1955, Rock around the Clock was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Blackboard Jungle about juvenile delinquency. As a result, the song became something of an anthem for rebellious youth and reached number one.

In 1955 and 1956, Bill Haley had 12 Top 40 hits but the chubby, balding country singer didn't fit the image of a teen idol. That role, of course, was soon to be filled by Elvis Presley. The influence of gospel, r&b and country music on Elvis are well known but the particular influence of Johnny Burnette is less often mentioned. Johnny and Elvis both went to school in Memphis. Although they attended another school, Johnny and his brother Dorsey (who were older than Elvis) would gather with a group of young musicians, including Paul Burlinson, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, near Humes School, which Elvis attended, for casual jam sessions. Elvis occasionally joined in. After leaving school, Johnny became an electrician and formed the Johnny Burnette Trio (with Dorsey and Paul Burlinson). When Elvis left school, he became a truck driver for the same electrical company that Dorsey worked for. Elvis wanted to join the trio but was turned down and, so, recruited the other musicians from the Burnette's jam sessions, Scotty Moore and Bill Black to form his own trio. Listening to some early Johnny Burnette recordings makes you realise how strong his influence was on the young Elvis.

In the eighteen months between Elvis' first record and Heartbreak Hotel, his first nationwide hit, there were a number developments in the evolution of rock:

  • Doo-wop, which had originated with groups like the Orioles about five years earlier, came to commercial prominence, with the Penguins Earth Angel being the first big doo-wop hit on the pop charts.
  • Chuck Berry, who had been performing as a blues singer for about five years, tried to write and sing a country song and "accidentally invented rock'n'roll" (so he claims).
  • Little Richard had his first hit record Tutti Frutti. Little Richard claims to be the "architect" and "real king" of rock'n'roll (but comparing his music with fellow Georgian Tommy Brown's earlier records makes his claim to being original seem questionable.)
  • Ray Charles developed his own unique style which is sometimes said to be the origin of soul music.
  • Buddy Holly made his first recordings although he did not yet have a hit. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first major rock group to introduce the three guitar and drums band which became the standard rock'n'roll lineup and Buddy was the first major rock'n'roll performer to write most of his own songs.
  • And Johnny Ace, while playing Russian roulette backstage during a performance, began the tradition of rock stars dying young. (In a strange twist of fate, one of Elvis Presley's last recording before his death was the Johnny Ace's signature tune Pledging My Love.)


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