Friday, April 19, 2013

The History And Roots Of Rock And Roll (Part Two)

As promised, here is the "condensed" version of Ed Parker's "History And Roots Of Rock And Roll" piece.  

If you like what you see, please let us know ... the full-length piece would take several installments to run ... but if readers would like to see it, we'll see what we can do to persuade Ed to share it with us!  (kk) 

The year 2004 marked what was hailed as the "50th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll" due to the fact it was on July 5, 1954, that Elvis recorded his first record, "That's All Right" for Sun. It was a cover of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's recording from 1946. This article, then, is to feature songs, styles and artists to support my theory that Elvis did not create rock 'n' roll, that rock 'n' roll was not "born" in the 1950's and that Alan Freed did not coin the phrase "rock 'n' roll". None of this is meant to downplay the importance of Alan Freed, Elvis, or any of his musical contemporaries but simply to put it all in proper perspective.

Unfortunately, most of the world's population will forever place rock's beginnings in the 1950's, which simply goes to show that whenever something is said often enough it sadly becomes "fact". Even Rolling Stone devoted an issue to the "50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock 'n' Roll". It traces the beginnings to Elvis, with the headline in big black letters: "Truck Driver Invents Rock". I used to have respect for Rolling Stone but this - not to mention the fact that they put a near-topless Britney Spears and a naked Christina Aguilera on its covers a few years ago - changed all of that. And when RCA released Elvis' #1 hits on CD several years back, the TV promotion for the disc began with a voiceover stating "Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything". Fortunately, I read an article in the July 4, 2004, edition of USA Today in which the writer stated that rock dates back to the '30's. I go back about forty years earlier, but I'm proud that at least it acknowledged some of the pioneers who emerged before Elvis. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this essay, you will acknowledge them, too.

We're going to start by examining the phrase itself: "rock and roll". The phrase "rock and roll" has actually had several meanings:

1. "Rock and roll" was black slang for sex. This is the most popular meaning. The best early example of this is "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)," recorded for Black Swan Records ca. September 1922 by Trixie Smith. Piano: Fletcher Henderson.

2. "Rock and roll" was a spiritual phrase. Released in 1916 on the Little Wonder label, a group of unknowns (later dubbed simply Male Quartette) recorded a cylinder entitled "The Camp Meeting Jubilee". One passage goes this way: "We've been rockin' and rollin' in the arms... Rockin' and rollin' in the arms... Rockin' and rollin' in the arms... in the arms of Moses".

3. "Rock and roll" was a nautical term used by seamen to describe the motions of a ship. This meaning is best exemplified in a recording by pop vocal group The Boswell Sisters. The song, recorded on October 4, 1934, for Columbia Records and simply titled "Rock And Roll," was featured in the film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.

4. "Rock and roll" - now here's where it gets interesting - was used to describe musical rhythm. The first record to use the phrase "rock and roll" to describe musical rhythm was "Rock It For Me" by Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band, recorded for Brunswick on September 21, 1937. Miss Fitzgerald sings: "It's true that once upon a time, the opera was the thing... But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme, so won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll... You can't be tame while the band is playing... It ain't no shame to keep your body swaying... Beat it out in the minor key... Oh, rock it for me." Louis Jordan, a future pioneer in his own right, was a member of this band but was, unfortunately, absent the day "Rock It For Me" was recorded.

All of this proves that Alan Freed did not coin the phrase "rock and roll" nor was he the first to use it to describe musical rhythm; he was simply the most influential of those who had.

Now that we've cleared up the history of the phrase "rock 'n' roll," let's examine some more musical examples. I want to begin this section with a quote from my favorite music writer, Nick Tosches. The following comes from his amazing book, Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n' Roll: The Birth of Rock In The Wild Years Before Elvis. The quote is in response to those who feel that either rock 'n' roll was created by Elvis in the 1950's and to those who feel that rock 'n' roll was created by blacks and then seized and commercialized by whites: "Rock 'n' roll was not created solely by blacks or by whites; and it certainly did not come into being all of a sudden. It evolved, slowly, wrought by blacks and by whites, some of them old and some of them young, in the South and in the West, in the North and in the East. Its makers were driven not so much by any pure creative spirit, but rather by the desire to make money. Nothing can better bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them. Rock 'n' roll flourished because it sold." Makes sense to me.

Everyone's opinion differs when the subject turns to deciding what the first rock 'n' roll record actually was. It's not cut and dried like jazz, for example, in that the first jazz recording is "Livery Stable Blues," recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white group, in February 1917; the first composition with a boogie woogie bass line is said to be "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" from 1916, composed by pianist George W. Thomas; the first country boogie record is credited to Johnny Barfield's "Boogie Woogie" from 1939, which ultimately lead to 1940's hillbilly boogie and 1950's rockabilly, which were really one and the same. History cites Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," recorded on August 10, 1920, as the first vocal blues record, despite the fact that Morton Harvey, a white artist, recorded a version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" in 1914 (it was Mamie's recording of "Crazy Blues" that opened the floodgates to the blues recording boom of the 1920's, however). The first black vocal group to make records was the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, who recorded six single-sided discs in the fall of 1902, while fiddler Don Richardson's version of "Arkansas Traveler" from 1916 is the first commercially-issued country record (it wasn't until 1923 with the commercial success of Fiddlin' John Carson that the country music industry was kicked into high gear, and even more so in 1927 with the discovery of both The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.)

Rock 'n' roll, on the other hand, embraces all of these styles, and one can thus pinpoint rock 'n' roll's first platter being from either 1902 or 1952, depending upon one's point of view. All of which leads to my opinion that rock 'n' roll's evolution began decades before the 1950's.

When Elvis recorded his version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right," they didn't know how to promote Elvis or the record. Was he black or white? Was the record country, blues, or pop? Here we're going to feature some songs that also defy category on the hillbilly side of things, long before anyone ever heard of Elvis Presley.

1. "I Ain't Got Nobody" by Emmett Miller, recorded on June 12, 1928. This is the same tune that was later recorded by both Louis Prima and David Lee Roth. Emmett Miller, a white man who performed in black face, made his recording debut in 1924. He was a pop singer with hillbilly overtones supported by some of the hottest jazz artists who were billed as his Georgia Crackers. "I Ain't Got Nobody" features Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Eddie Lang on guitar, among others (Gene Krupa and Jack Teagarden are featured on his 1929 sides). Many of Emmett's records feature drunken hillbilly dialect straight out of the minstrel-vaudeville circuit. Like Elvis Presley thirty years later, his music defies category, although he is remembered today, when he's remembered at all, as a country singer. Amazingly, Miller's 1928 recording of "Brother Bill" not only predates the comic routines later done by Bo Diddley and Jerome Green, but also contains imagery that would later appear in the Bo Diddley classic "Who Do You Love?".  (Listen closely around the 40-second mark)

2. "Freight Train Boogie" by The Delmore Brothers, recorded on February 12, 1946, for King Records. Electric guitar: Jethro Burns, one half of the country comedy duo Homer and Jethro. This is easily the best example of hillbilly boogie. Take away the harmonica and you have the same style that Elvis was recording almost ten years later at Sun Records with Scotty Moore and Bill Black - a style that Elvis is said to have discovered "by accident".

3. "Move It On Over" by Hank Williams, recorded on April 21, 1947, for M-G-M Records. Of course, this was later covered by George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, thus becoming a "classic rock" staple in the process. Personally, I feel that if black music gained the popularity that it had in the 1940's, Hank Williams would have been promoted as a rock 'n' roll singer. 

Black and white musicians influenced each other and it was not unusual for both black and white artists to cover the same material (R&B shouter Wynonie Harris, for example, covered country artist Hank Penny's "Bloodshot Eyes"; both versions were released on the King label. We also can't forget that Fats Domino covered "Jambalaya (On The Bayou," a Hank Williams tune). The color line, then, was seen largely by the record companies and not so much by the musicians themselves.

So far I've covered the different meanings of the phrase "rock 'n' roll" and songs that highlight those meanings; I have also shown that white artists embraced black styles decades before Elvis emerged on the scene and that rockabilly clearly existed in the 1940's, but that it was called hillbilly boogie. It's important to know that Sun Records owner Sam Phillips recorded Elvis more for his frustration with the limited acceptance of black music and not so much for the desire to make a million dollars. Here we're going to feature some blues/R&B recordings that, in my opinion, best capture the rock 'n' roll sounds of the 1950's, but, of course, all of the tracks are from the pre-1950's era. 

Here's what I came up with:

1. "Anticipatin' Blues" by The Southern Negro Quartette. The first doo-wop groups to emerge are said to have been The Ravens and The Orioles in the 1940's, but, since that's fairly common knowledge, we must seek an example from an earlier era. The closest example of doo-wop from the pre-1940's period is easily "Anticipatin' Blues" by The Southern Negro Quartette from June 1921. It's an early slice of R&B, and with its hollers and shouts that whoop and glide like a roller coaster, all done a cappella, one can easily hear it being sung on a street corner in Brooklyn, New York, circa 1954.

2. "Hastings Street" by ragtime guitarist Blind Blake and boogie pianist Charlie Spand, recorded on August 17, 1929, for Paramount Records. Here, the rock 'n' roll beat is undeniable. Its intro is identical to that of Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" recorded a little over twenty years later. According to the folks that put together the 2-CD compilation Rock Before Elvis, Before Little Richard, Before Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or Bill Haley (honest, that's the title), "Hastings Street" is the first rock 'n' roll record.

3. "Strange Things Happening Every Day" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, recorded for Decca Records on September 22, 1944. Gospel boogie is a rare thing indeed, but here is an example, and probably the best one, too. Jerry Lee Lewis: "I tell you, man, that woman could sing some rock 'n' roll! First time I ever heard her, in Natchez, Mississippi, I was eight or nine, and she was singing religious music, but she was hitting that guitar, man, she's shakin', and she is singing rock 'n' roll. I said, 'Whoo-ooo!'" 

4. "T-Bone Boogie" by T-Bone Walker with Marl Young and His Orchestra, recorded possibly May, 1945 for Rhumboogie Records. Here we have Chuck Berry licks a full ten years before Chuck Berry emerged on the scene.

5. "Ain't That Just Like A Woman" by Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, recorded for Decca Records on January 23, 1946. Speaking of Chuck Berry, the guitar intro to "Ain't That Just Like A Woman" was copied note-for-note by Berry twelve years later for his intro to "Johnny B. Goode". The guitar is played by Jordan's guitarist, Carl Hogan, an early idol of Berry's.

6. "That's All Right" by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, recorded for Bluebird Records on September 6, 1946. Here's the original version of what would become Elvis' first record (Sam, frustrated with the limited acceptance of black music, finally heard what he was looking for.) The flip side of Elvis' record was a cover of Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," bringing together musically and physically (i.e. both sides of the same record) black music and white in a very powerful fashion - and at exactly the right time in history.

7. "Good Rockin' Tonight" by Wynonie Harris, recorded on December 28, 1947, for King Records. By June 1948, the song was a #1 R&B hit, and paved the way for countless songs having the word "rocking" or "rock" in their title, and they all rocked musically, too! It was Wynonie whom Elvis was imitating when he curled his lip and shook his hips. 

And there you have it. Music, of course, is subjective and everyone has their own view of rock 'n' roll history. 

Personally, I feel that what was new in 1950's America wasn't rock 'n' roll as much as youth culture, giving black music - which was always around - its largest audience to date when more and more kids, with an emphasis on white kids, discovered it. I submit my opinions to you so that you can draw your own conclusions.

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