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