Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What is the first rock and roll song?

Spring break here, and time for some less than crucial trivia.

Question: "What is the first rock and roll song?"

I don't say that the following is a perfect answer, or one that entirely meets the spirit of the question. I say only that given the facts, it is the most historically accurate answer:


The term "rock and roll" was invented by black Americans as a slang word for dancing and sex. The musical style that later became known as rock and roll was invented by black musicians by mixing influences from various genres (blues, jazz, country, folk, gospel, r ‘n’ b) in a way that involved only a slight variation on a number of earlier precursor songs from those genres.

Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" was the first recorded song to feature these variations. Recorded in early 1951 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, it featured Turner’s band under a different name with Brenston singing. Brenston received the song writing credits although the tune was probably primarily Turner’s.

However, at the time that song was made, it wasn’t called "rock and roll." As far as the historical record notes, Alan Freed was the first to use the term "rock and roll" to identify the style of music as a genre. Freed promoted the concept for what is considered the first rock and roll concert on August 21, 1952 at the “Moondog Coronation Ball” held at the Cleveland Arena.

Bill Haley, with songs like "Rock Around The Clock," was the first musician to consciously present his music as something called rock and roll, although the songs themselves were relatively pale translations of the more powerful music being made by black musicians. Still, many white people considered rock and roll to be black music and condemned it as such, especially after Elvis Presley's first singles, which is ironic but not surprising given that Presley showed that white people could play excellent music in that style.

Therefore, identifying the first rock and roll song is only partly a question of historical fact. It’s also a question of culture and value. If you say that it's crucial to note the first appearance of the style, even if no one at the time thought they were hearing rock and roll, then "Rocket 88" seems the answer, an answer which has the further value of not denying the centrality of African American culture to rock and roll. But if you answer the question by saying that the issue is the first record that people thought, at the time, was rock and roll, then the answer is Haley’s 1952 release “Rock The Joint,” a minor hit.

Once and for all, that's my answer.


sausages said...

I realize that the term is being used some years earlier, but my money's on "Maybellene" -- once the focus shifts from horns to guitars, that's when (I think) we really have rock n' roll.

baj salchert said...

Then there was a song that was not a rock n' roll song but served as a transition song: "Rock n' Roll Waltz"

douglang said...

"Less than crucial?"
What do you mean by that?

Hi Mark.
First answer:

My vote would go to "Mama's Black Baby Boy" by the the Unique Quartette, recorded in 1893 and included in the 9 CD set American Pop: An Audio History, where it was the lead off track. It sounds like rock'n' roll to me. It was also included in the more recent Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, a terrific double CD set.

I've always thought of all American music as one entity in which English/Irish/Scots/European music was combined with elements from African music. So this is a sincere answer.

douglang said...

Me again Mark.

There's a pretty good book by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, "What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record?"

These guys list 50 songs, starting with "Blues, part one" from Jazz At The Philharmonic," and ending with "Heartbreak Hotel." They have "Rocket 88" at #24. It's a pretty good list that includes a number of country "boogie" recordings that were such a crucial part of the music.

Of the 50 listed, I would support the case for "Rocket 88" and I think you've made an excellent argument for it.

douglang said...

Hi Mark.

I have all the songs and albums in my music library documented in chronological order and in rough categories. The first year for which there is a "rock" category is 1924. This did not come about as the result of some deliberate, thoughtful decision, but because it was the first year in which several old time country recordings and blues recordings appeared. The one song with multiple entries in 1924 is "The Prisoner's Song" by Vernon Dalhart, a song I first heard played by Terry and Jesse Winch's band, The Fast Flying Vestibule. It's a popular song dressed up country. This would be my second nomination for the first rock'n'roll record.
People like to downplay the contributions of country music to the history of rock'n'roll in favor of what they think of as "black" music. (This finger does not point at you, buddy). Fact is, a great deal of early "country" music was created by African-Americans. End of sermon.

sausages said...

I sit at Doug Lang's feet when it comes to stuff like this. I'm not completely convinced on this one, due to the lack of, perhaps, instrumentation, but you can listen for yourself at:


I have also just re-visited "That's All Right, Mama," both the Elvis version from '54 (pre-"Maybellene") and the orig. by Arthur Crudup in '46 and was almost tempted to change my vote, but what I think makes "Maybellene" a stronger contender for "1st" is it's incorporation of a more pronounced rhythm section, specifically in the way of percussion. Rock: Electric guitar, bass, and drums. The fundamental ingredients. All there in "Maybellene." Not as much in "That's All Right." Berry takes it to the next level, I believe, of where it needs to be in order to officially be Rock.

I sit at Doug Lang's feet.

Let there be Rock.

douglang said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

These comments are only enhanced and deepened by the amazing commentary of Mr. Lang, to whom we are indebted for the reach of his knowledge.

"Rocket 88" is amazing for its bold guitar sound, Brenston singing, but not playing the horn, I don't think, on that record. He is second sax, I believe, on others of his records. Still, "Real Gone Rocket", a Brenston record produced a little while later, rocks a bit harder. I'm tempted to offer that as the best of the "Rocket" songs. Not the first, but the best.

Sausages is right in talking about the guitar replacing the horn, but in the Brenston songs it is the guitar that just leaps out of the speakers. Brash & Bold. Even as Brenston shouts, "Play your horn!" to the saxman.

Rod and I might have an attachment to Roy Brown, whose "Boogie at Midnight" is a rocking, rocking tune, although it's the singing and handclapping and saxophone jump that propel it. (Not guitar). In fact, one can't really count jump blues in this discussion, even though most jump blues rock harder than rock. You'd have to amend the old saying, "Between a jump blues and a hard place." Eh?

If "Rocket 88" or "Real Gone Rocket" are the first rock n roll songs, then Johnny Burnette's "The Train Kept a Rollin'" has to be an early turning point, maybe the way that The Stooges seemed to have a before-their-time turning point. You cannot hear that Burnette song (a remake of a jump master, Tiny Bradshaw's song) without dropping your jaw in The Fake Attack. I mean: You do The Fake Attack. Burnette does The Real Attack.

Mark, another question for a future post might be -- what are the great turning points in rock n roll? Brenston is one of them perhaps. Burnette and The Stooges, maybe. Miles Davis and the Jack Johnson Sessions? Not a sermon. Just a thought.


douglang said...

By "sermon" I just meant geezer rambling.

I wanted to say something about Bill Haley, whose place in rock'n'roll history has been reduced (maybe appropriately) to a footnote. I know it's difficult to see a soft, pudgy, balding, middle-aged man with a kiss curl as a crucial figure in that history, but in some ways he surely was. When "The Blackboard Jungle" opened in movie theaters in 1955 with "Rock Around the Clock" on the soundtrack, there were riots. The Rock Around the Clock movie that followed was a huge occasion, equal if not greater in impact than Elvis at that point. An argument for that song as the first rock'n'roll record could be made, given its importance to the impact it had on popular music and culture. My attachment to Haley may be partly sentimental, but listening to the Haley Proper box set, From Western Swing to Rock is really telling, as you hear the band negotiate its way through the novelty aspects of rock'n'roll to something closer to the source music that inspired Haley.

sausages said...

As for Roy Brown, this is the case that my father has made for "Good Rocking Tonight":

"'Good Rockin Tonight' is the hands down winner. The bass-line, the 3 chord progression, the lyric structure, melody line. 1947. Discussion over. Piano, no guitar, but it still wins."

I wonder, though, what the actual song was that Alan Freed had just heard or played that made him use or coin the term "Rock n' Roll." Is it in the Tosches book?

douglang said...

This is a really juicy set of comments. As for sitting at anyone's feet, I can only say how gratified I have always been by the level of passion, the knowledge, and the very thorough understanding that has informed discussions among the people here, along with Mr. Rod Smith and Mr. Tom Orange. Gratified because I've found relatively few people to talk with (and more importantly to listen to) on the subject of music.

I find the arguments regarding Roy Brown, Chuck Berry and Johnny Burnette very convincing. I would add Amos Milburn's 1946 "Down the Road Apiece" to that particular list.

My own perspective is somewhat skewed because I was 14 in 1955 when rock just exploded. It is hard to imagine now how revolutionary Little Richard seemed at that time. Now he's like a character from Sesame Street. I remember "Tutti Frutti" coming out of the window of a friend's house and my jaw just dropping.

I think the purpose of my own comments is really to question what rock'n'roll is. I tend to think of it as part of the musical legacy that gives rhythm full priority. "Mama's Black Baby Boy" is right in that tradition, so…

But the more specific argument is more interesting than that, I agree,

douglang said...

One more before I shut up. It's one thing to talk about who's dispensing the medicine, but I think the one who wrote the prescription was Robert Johnson. So, my ultimate vote goes to "Kindhearted Woman Blues" backed with "Terraplane Blues." OK it's country blues, but add a rhythm section and it's totally rock'n'roll. Without the rythm section it's incipient rock'n'roll. Enough out of me. Thanks Mark for getting this going. I hope it never ends.

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Alan Freed. Alan Freed.He's playing the tinkerbell or something in the background while Sam "The Man" Taylor blows MAD tenor jumps on "Oo Wee" (1955). Freakin' Alan Freed. He couldn't hold "The Man's" jock, so he grabbed a tinkerbell.

I have to disagree with Sausages about the Roy Brown song. There's a difference between "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Rockin' at Midnight", and "Boogie at Midnight", the latter being a notch higher in intensity. The others were almost. Close. "Boogie at Midnight" is rock.

As for Bill Haley -- I'm partial to "I'll be True" and "Farewell So Long Goodbye" from a bit earlier I think, maybe '52 or '54.

We're forgetting Fats Domino a betteen here -- Any number of songs, of course, but "I'm Walkin'" is a huge rocker, with Herb Hardesty manning the tenor sax, blowing rambunctious jumps like a truck rolling down a cliff.

I'll stick to Brenston, though, for the sake of this argument, with Burnette offering a twist a few years later.

Doug Lang! AwwwwYEAH.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody. As you can see in my post, I’ve made my choice “Once and for All,” although I appreciate these detailed and provocative responses.

I call the issue “less than crucial” since the notion of a first of anything is as much a function of how something is defined as it is a historical fact. The idea of the first as historical fact is therefore always partly untrue, and also a way of fixing the origins of a given art form in a way that turns the always shifting practice of art into something that can be owned, canonized and hierarchized too easily Asking which is “first” is a lot of fun but probably not the best way to talk about how an art form develops.

Which is a point that Doug implies by suggesting that distinctions between blues/jazz/country/folk/ rock and roll etc are a little spurious: minor distinctions that miss the big picture. It’s possible to distinguish the slight musical variations that determine what becomes rock and roll but only to a certain degree, since most of its unique features appear in these other related genres. I don’t want to forget what Derrida would point out: genres become genres because somebody names them genres, not because their features are ever entirely distinct.

Still, some general distinctions are possible, which is why I myself can’t go back to an 1893 song as a solution to the game. Sometimes I feel like I do a better job of defining early rock and roll not by what it is but by what it isn’t, and here’s what I notice about early rock and roll (keeping in mind that none of these features are absolute):

–A (slight) homogenizing of regional and racial vocals in relation to blues, country, or folk.
–Replacing virtuostic or eccentric instrumentation with bare bones simplicity.
–A (slight) flattening and straightening of the beat: just a bit more straight-forward, sledgehammer energy and a bit less swing than is found in most blues or jazz
–An eventual switch from sax to guitar as the solo instrument of choice (as Les Sausages has pointed out).

Again, I don’t say these are absolutes, but I think they’re definite tendencies, and all of them point right in the direction of audience and airplay: they’re changes that are likely to appeal to a broader range of white teenagers across the whole U.S. than the more regional/racial/virtuoistic genres that surround them.

So it’s also crucial to remember what Doug points out: that the musical changes we’re talking about were caught up in an immediately noticeable change in American culture: that jaw drop moment Doug mentions when first hearing Little Richard. Can we really talk about the genre of rock and roll by making it just a matter of (often difficult to determine) stylistic variation, or is this huge cultural change part of what makes rock and roll what it is?

Although the Turner/Brenston song wasn’t a hit, it seems to me that it represents a gathering of both the stylistic changes and the cultural implications: the song feels like it knows it’s doing something just a little bit new, whereas these other earlier songs are wrapped up entirely in other, older genre contexts. And by the time of Haley, the feeling that this is not part of these older genres has become definite. With “Rocket 88,” social change is in the air. By Haley and (definitively Presley) the change has become the air.

douglang said...

What a brilliant summary. The listing of characteristics made me understand better the musical objections (as opposed to the endless "social" objections) to rock'n'roll in the 1950s, especially the third line about the flattening of the beat and the move away from the "swing" element to some degree. Of course one kind of knew that, but the precision of the language really did it.

By the way, Mark, I liked the fact that you took my dumbass "what do you mean by that" joke and gave a very convincing answer. I know you knew I was joking, which made it all the more… juicy.

It would be fun to do an electric guitar mix starting at the end of the 1930s and through to "Maybellene."

And, yes, Baj Salchert, I remember Teresa Brewer and "The Rock and Roll Waltz" -- I listened to it not so long ago.

Ron said...

I'm still voting for "Crossroad Blues" by Robert Johnson.

VF: spowe

Rock N. Roll said...

The original "Rock the Joint" by Jimmy Preston is way rockin'er than Bill Haley's cover, and it's from 1949.
Also, take a listen to Roy Milton's "Milton's Boogie" sometime. That has a Rock and Roll sound and it's from 1945.

cybergrace said...

Great article and discussion, thank you! I wanted to highlight the amazing guitarist Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes. In 1938 he took up the electric 4-string tenor guitar (he said he only had enough money for four strings!) and played on NYC's 57th Street, then with the Art Tatum Trio, his own band and others.

Then, with Paul Williams, he co-headlined the first Moondog Coronation Ball, promoted by Alan Freed in Cleveland, Ohio on March 21, 1952, often claimed as the first rock and roll concert.

Some consider Tiny Grimes as the inventor of Rock and Roll, and 'Tiny's Boogie', recorded at WOR studios in NYC on August 14, 1946, is the very first Rock and Roll recording.

Others say Tiny Grimes might have played the guitar in the Crows remarkable "Gee"--cited by some as being the first rock 'n' roll song.

Remember Tiny Grimes, early (earliest?) rock guitarist.

Anonymous said...

Your quote seems incorrect. The first use of the phrase "rock and roll was from ships at sea. If you do a little more research you will find this to be the case. You are correct as it applies to music. Arthur Crudup, spelling? Big Mama Thornton, and others used the term and the actual music later attributed to whites guys in the 40s. There are black artists who also mention it in a sexual way even earlier. You ain't nothing but a hound dog is but one example in the 40s. Tiny Grimes, a wonderful jazz musician might be early but Charlie Parker who composed Now's the time August 14th 45 would actually be first (later called the hucklebuck). Al

Joseph Scott said...

I'd suggest listening to these (among others):

"Rock The Joint" Chris Powell 1949
"Rock That Boogie" Jimmy Smith 1949
"Hole In The Wall" Albennie Jones with Sam Price and his Rockin' Rhythm 1949
"Rock The Joint" Jimmy Preston 1949 (#6 R&B)
"Boogie At Midnight" Roy Brown 1949 (#3 R&B)
"Butcher Pete" Roy Brown 1949
"Little Red Hen" Johnny Otis 1949
"Rockin' All Day" Jimmy McCracklin 1949
"Doby's Boogie" Freddie Mitchell 1949
"Jump And Shout" Erline "Rock And Roll" Harris 1949

OrangePatrol said...

Bill Haley's cover of Preston's Rhythm & Blues single of Rock the Joint was the very first to put it all together and IS the 1st Rock-n-Roll record. Without a doubt no discussion. Just my humble opinion.