The Origin of Rock and Roll

Big Joe TurnerMuch ado is made whenever certain people discover something that was already known and obvious to others. How I wish that I could exploit this phenomenon. After all, we all learned that Columbus “discovered” America. Oh well, at least, until then the Tainos didn’t realize that they were actually Indians.

Therefore, it is not surprising that we are now told that Bill Haley is important because his song “Crazy, Man, Crazy” was the first rock and roll song to cross over to the pop charts (in the “most played by juke boxes” and “most played by jockeys” categories). Bill Haley “discovered” rock and roll by first imitating Jackie Brentston’s (really Ike Turner’s) song Rocket 88. He then wrote lyrics using vernacular common to blacks in the twenties and thirties and set it to a beat and blues progression basic to anyone vaguely familiar with jump blues (which had been popular since the forties). His next feat was to neuter the lyrics to big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll*, and then to record “Rock Around the Clock.” There isn’t really much difference musically between all three songs, as played by Haley’s Comets and the songs didn’t represent any advancement over extant Rhythm and Blues, but, somehow they were supposed to be defining moments in rock and roll history. Perhaps, in 2037 we will be enlightened with the knowledge that Vanilla Ice, and not DJ Kool Herc, was the originator of rap music.

I bring up Haley not because I dislike his recordings. His session guitar player was actually very good. However, he is sometimes used to bolster the myth that country music was a large influence on rock and roll, that Rockabilly was the true beginning of rock and roll. It takes but a brief listen to confirm that Haley was not really playing rockabilly so much as he was trying to emulate R&B artists like Joe Turner.

It is also a well-known fact that country music was largely influenced by African-American music. If you removed the African-American influence of banjos, guitars (which had been viewed by some Europeans as instruments of the devil) blue notes, Ragtime syncopation (literally, ragged time, as white critics viewed it), and the jazz improvisation that influenced Bluegrass and Western Swing you would be left with an odd mixture of Irish fiddle tunes and German Hymns. Were blues musicians likewise influenced by country music? Certainly, but, this influence was much more subtle and didn’t result in any major innovations of the blues idiom.

Black musicians were rocking and rolling in both secular and sacred music since the dawn of recorded music itself and probably before then. A favorite gospel tune of mine is Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Rock Me”. Rockabilly, as such, does not come into being until after promoter Sam Phillips finds, as the story goes, a white man who can sing like a black man, Elvis Presley. However, Elvis doesn’t really make much noise, as we shall see, until he is signed by RCA in 1956, thereafter benefitting from the distribution muscle of a major label. Remember, all of the R&B labels of the time such as, Atlantic, Specialty, and Chess, were small independents.

I did a search of Billboard Magazine, a Bible of the music industry, to see if rock and roll was indeed born in 1956 when Elvis ascended his throne and rockabilly emerged as a sub-genre. Keep in mind that the big hits of rockabilly were Elvis’ remake of “That’s All Right Mama”, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept A’ Rollin’.” If you’re keeping score, Elvis’ remake of Arthur Crudup’s blues song (That’s All Right Mama) didn’t chart, Perkin’s song didn’t chart until Elvis remade it in 1956 and no one has heard of Burnette’s song unless they are Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin fanatics.

My search turned up evidence that the R&B charts from the early to mid-1950’s contained artists and songs easily identified with rock and roll, either Doo Wop vocal groups or the piano/sax/vocal or guitar-based rock and roll we are familiar with.  The Country & Western (or Country & Hillbilly depending on the year) charts turn up only one instance (Presley) in one month before 1956 of a song that could be related to rock and roll.

For example, Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” charted in 1949 on the R&B charts and he had five Gold records before 1955. Why is he not the “King” of rock and roll? After all, Presley did not write his own material and could only strum “campfire chords” on guitar but Domino wrote many of his own tunes and was accomplished in the New Orleans piano style. Domino also did not have to appropriate the vocal style of another cultural group.

Here are some of the findings of my research – July 1951 Billboard R&B charts: “60 Minute Man” (a banned song that established a rock and roll tradition of controversial lyrics), The Dominoes, “Rocket 88”, Jackie Brenston, “Don’t You Know I Love You”, The Clovers,” Chains of Love”, Ike Turner – All songs with the distinctive marks of Rock and Roll. C&W charts: “Kentucky Waltz”, Eddie Arnold, “Cold, Cold Heart”, Hank Williams,” Peace in the Valley”, R. Foley – All traditional Country tunes, not Rockabilly.

December 1952 Billboard R&B charts: Chuck Willis, Lloyd Price, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, The Clovers, Ruth Brown – all names associated with Rock and Roll. C&W charts: Hank Williams, Slim Whitman, and Ray Price – names firmly tied to traditional style Country.

December 1953 Billboard R&B charts: The Dominoes, Clyde McPhatter, Fats Domino, Joe Turner, The Clovers – Again, Doo-Wop and Rock and Roll. C&W: more of the same.

Billboard July 3, 1954: R&B charts contain, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner, “Sh-Boom” by the Chords, “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” by the Spaniels as well as songs by The Drifters, The Clovers, and Clyde McPhatter. The Country and Western charts contains songs by Slim Whitman, Hank Snow, Homer and Jethro (enough said).

Billboard Jan 1955: R&B charts most resemble what anyone today would call Rock and Roll: Doo Wop such as “Earth Angel” by the Penguins and “Sincerely” by the Moonglows. Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”. C&W charts are dominated by traditional country singers like Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Eddie Arnold, etc.

By Sept. 24, 1955 Elvis’ “Mystery Train” is the only record on the C&W charts (at number 11) that could be considered Rock and Roll, while Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” was no. 7 on “Most Played in Juke Boxes (Pop)” and the R&B charts contained the Platters’ “Only You”, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” Bo Diddley’s eponymous hit, and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”. By the way, Bill Haley’s recording of “Rock Around the Clock” was even generously included as R&B..

These results were representative (not cherry picked) and were condensed to preserve the brevity required of a blog post

On page 126 of the 11/12/55 issue of Billboard an article proclaims that “The year 1955 was the year that Rhythm and Blues virtually took over the pop field. The trend continues strong and despite covers from pop artists, more and more original versions of tunes by R&B artists are making it in all markets.” The article mentions artists Fats Domino, Ray Charles, The Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Big Joe Turner, Etta James and the “most promising newer artist” Chuck Berry.

The year 1955 ends up in the December 10th issue  with The Platters, The Cadillacs’ (“Speedo”), the Drifters, the El Dorados, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Laverne Baker and Fats Domino on the R&B charts and no mention of Rockabilly or even Elvis Presley (even in the C&W and “Folk Talent” sections). Surely, If Country music had such a great influence on Rock and Roll and Rockabilly was so important to the music’s development we should see evidence of this before 1956 when major labels started to push Rock and Roll toward decline. (More about this in my next article).

*Actually, his producer bowlderdized the lyrics.


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