So, what changed my mind? What knocked Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning” (1940) off its pioneering perch as the very first rock & roll record? Well, the possibility (likelihood?) that it was never released on record in a reasonable time after its recording is not an inconsiderable factor. But I read something after choosing the Williamson song that challenged the idea of rhythm & blues and rock & roll being more-or-less interchangeable entities — as authors Nick Toshes, Jim Dawson, Steve Propes, and (to a lesser extent) Larry Birnbaum treat them. That something was the college textbook Rock and Roll: An Introduction by Michael Campbell with James Brody, a book that did more than the others I had read to quantify — in musical terms — what constituted rock & roll and how it differed from rhythm & blues. In particular, Campbell sees a shift in musical forms from R&B to rock & roll in a change of rhythm styles.
R&B’s fast tempo (although not all R&B songs are fast) was usually reliant on a shuffle rhythm, especially in songs derived from boogie-woogie. (As Birnbaum says in his video, the boogie bass line is foundational to rock & roll.) Campbell describes the shuffle rhythm this way: “A shuffle rhythm divides each beat into two parts; the first part is twice as long as the second” (pp. 41-42). In other words, the shuffle rhythm is based on musical triplets. By contrast, rock & roll’s “primary component” is a rock beat, an eight-beat rhythm: “A song has a rock beat when the fastest regular rhythm moves twice as fast as the beat” (p. 7). And this rhythm is accentuated by a strong, insistent backbeat, which became important in R&B music, but which is not as consistently pronounced as it is in rock & roll.
So, what was the first record to have all of Campbell’s criteria for a rock & roll song? Would that be the first rock & roll record? Well, according to the textbook author (who never explicitly identifies a first record), the rock rhythm didn’t reach full maturation until the mid-1960s. Before then, many songs we now call rock & roll featured at least one instrument carrying the rock beat while the rhythm section — the bass and drums — followed a shuffle or swing rhythm (p. 225). So, to go strictly by Campbell’s definition (which Campbell himself doesn’t even do), true rock & roll wouldn’t begin until ridiculously late in the game, well after the moniker was attached to an established musical genre. So, as helpful as the textbook is in telling us what makes up a rock & roll song musically, we need to use more flexible criteria to single out a first record.
|The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio|
And now, I need to make a digression, one that will probably undermine (even more) my fitness to write about the subject. When I was growing up from the 1960s to ’80s, the term “rock & roll” was the catch-all to describe popular, upbeat, youth-oriented music. “Soul,” “funk,” “folk rock,” “country rock,” “punk,” and “new wave” were all understood to be subgenres of rock & roll. The top artists and groups at the time (the Beatles, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, etc.) described the music they played as “rock & roll.” The Rolling Stones called themselves “the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” and released a song titled “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It)” (1974). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded in 1983. To simply say “rock” was just shorthand for the full phrase; the “…and roll” was implied. So, “rock & roll” was clearly the overarching term.
But while I wasn’t looking, something happened. I now understand that the overarching term of the present day is the single word “rock,” while “rock & roll” only denotes the “first wave” of the music from the mid-1950s to early ’60s. Simply put, “rock & roll” is now the music that descended from Elvis Presley, while “rock” is the music descended from the Beatles. I’m not sure when this happened, but I only learned this in the last few years. So, to be exact, Campbell says that the rock beat reaching its full maturation is when “rock & roll” (in today’s understanding) became “rock.” I’m still getting my sea legs with this new (to me) terminology.
Nevertheless, Campbell’s textbook helpfully distinguishes between rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Here is a table that describes the general qualities between the two musical genres, and why something like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning,” or any other early(ish) blues song, doesn’t fit the rock & roll bill.
Of course, this table isn’t all-encompassing. This isn’t to say that an R&B or rock & roll song must have all of its respective properties or can’t contain those belonging to the other genre. Rock certainly became more than a music for teens by the mid-1960s, and R&B songs like Red Saunders’ “Hambone” (1952) and the Crows’s “Gee” (1953) reflect a youthful innocence. But most R&B songs, even when not nudging the listener about sex (the Dominoes’ “Sixty-Minute Man” , the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat” , etc.), are usually singing about adult behavior that would be frowned upon when undertaken by teens: Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint” (1949) tells of trashing a house, and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (1951) describes people taking “a little nip” of something fermented, possibly while driving. By contrast, while rock & roll undoubtedly gave youth music a palpable erotic jolt, the subject of sex itself was rarely an overt topic of the lyrics. And on those rare occasions when sex is blatantly broached in early rock & roll, it’s usually more in the context of social consequences than mere titillation, as in the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” (1957) and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (1960).
On the subject of “‘rough’ vocals” versus “more polished vocals,” some rhythm & blues songs, especially the work of Johnny Ace and the pre-Capitol Nat “King” Cole, boast satin-smooth song stylings. Meanwhile, the most successful rock & roll singers had at least a little grit in their voices — and in cases such as Little Richard (Penniman) and Wanda Jackson, grit by the truckload.
Since race isn’t an innocent issue, terms like “race-neutral” have been criticized by some as referring to things that are, in actuality, Eurocentric. Still, the lyrics of R&B songs often describe an expressly African American milieu, from the early tunes of Louis Jordan (such as 1940’s “Juneteenth Jamboree”) to the work of Ray Charles (1953’s “Mess Around”). And even when R&B was sung by the occasional white artist, the song still seemed to be about black subject matter. For example, in What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?, Dawson and Propes say of the melanin-challenged Ella Mae Morse’s jive-jargoned “The House of Blue Lights” (1946): “The scene was obviously a chicken shack on the black side of the tracks…” (p. 16). By contrast, the lyrics of most rock & roll songs could be applied to any racial context and, for the most part, seemed to go out of their way to avoid any racial specificity. (A hint-heavy song like the Crystals’ “Uptown”  would be an exception.) To cite just one instance, rock & roller Chuck Berry is reported to have changed the phrase “that little country boy” in “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) from “that little colored boy.” If Berry were recording for an R&B audience, no one (Berry himself, the record producer, etc.) would have likely felt that the change was needed.
|The Allen Brothers|
In fact, race is the abiding issue when discussing rock & roll. The genre sprang from a racially segregated music industry (which, of course, was the product of a racially segregated society), where platters by African American artists were often marketed as niche “race records” on specialty labels. In his book Before Elvis, Birnbaum tells of a white country-music duo, the black-sounding (but not especially forward-thinking) Allen Brothers, who angrily walked out on their label, Columbia, in 1927 when the company (apparently by mistake) issued one of their records on its “race” subsidiary instead of its “hillbilly” one. (This would not be the last time that a white singer was mistaken for black, as Buddy Holly might attest.)
The practice of different artists recording, or “covering,” the same song at roughly the same time began in an era when the tune itself was more important than any particular record of it, and the gramophone industry was built around many different artists waxing different versions of the same song. Despite such innocent beginnings, the practice, by the post-World War Two era, had devolved into white artists recording bowdlerized, smooth-edged versions of the latest R&B hits and releasing them as soon as possible, in direct competition with the original. Since the white singers usually worked for major labels with sophisticated distribution systems, while the R&B singers often worked for smaller labels with smaller distribution, the sanitized, less expressive covers frequently outsold the originals. As reported by Dawson and Propes, this reached a point where, for its cover by a white artist, the major Mercury label filched virtually every element — except the singer’s soulful voice — from LaVern Baker’s R&B classic “Tweedle Dee” (1954) on the then-fledgling Atlantic label, going so far as recording the same song arrangement played by the same session musicians.
Because rock & roll germinated from this segregated, plundering environment, some music critics have charged that the genre is little more than R&B with a white face. Fats Domino once told an interviewer in 1956: “What you call [white] rock and roll is what we’ve been playing in New Orleans [i.e. black R&B] for 15 years” (quoted in Campbell, p. 78). But Campbell addresses the issue of rock & roll as white rhythm & blues:
The success of white rock-and-roll acts vis-à-vis black rhythm-and-blues acts, especially with respect to [white] cover versions of R&B hits, may suggest that the difference between rock and roll and rhythm and blues was a matter of race. In the middle of the fifties, this may have been true to some extent. However, by the end of the decade, there was also a musical difference. The most compelling evidence of this is the music of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Both are black, and … they were the musicians most responsible for formulating rock rhythm. Berry played the more important role because he not only presented the new beat but also showed how it should be played on the most important rock instrument, the electric guitar.
Their music demonstrates that the musical difference between rhythm and blues and rock and roll has to do mainly with rhythm, not race. A simple exercise bears this out: mix [Penniman’s] “Lucille” and [Berry’s] “Johnny B. Goode” into a playlist of fifties rhythm-and-blues songs…. The two songs should clearly stand apart from the rhythm-and-blues songs because of their beat. And because of this difference, we consider [Penniman and Berry] to be rock-and-roll musicians, rather than rhythm-and-blues musicians. (pp. 117-18)
Ironically, rock & roll came about because of the record industry’s racial segregation. White covers of black songs included “hillbilly” (as country & western music was then called) versions of R&B songs, with the urban original performed in a distinctly rural fashion. Below is “Have You Heard the News” (1950), country-swing saxophonist Link Davis’ good-ole-boy rendition of the quintessential bad-boy song “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
And covering songs went both ways. Black R&B artists gave their own rough-hewn spin to traditionally white numbers. Below is R&B saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson’s 1949 iteration of country singer Wayne Raney’s hit “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?”
It was from this musical cross-pollination of R&B, country, and mainstream postwar pop — colliding in their efforts to record songs of one genre in the style of another for distinct markets — that rock & roll would take root and flower.
So, the distinctions between rhythm & blues and rock & roll tell me (pace Tosches) that the latter couldn’t have started as far back as the 1940s or earlier. It must have begun in the mid-1950s, when teens adopted the music as their own, a music in contradistinction to the more polished and polite pop of their parents’ generation, the first music marketed directly and almost exclusively to a youth audience.
Wait! But what about Alan Freed? Starting in 1951, several years before teens claimed the music, the D.J. called the kind of records he played “rock & roll.” At one time, he even titled his radio program Moondog’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party. Furthermore, the phrase “rock & roll” is heard in many hard-driving, backbeat-heavy dance records of the 1940s and early ’50s: Tommy Brown’s “Atlanta Boogie” and Albinia Jones’s “Hole in the Wall,” both released back in 1949, to name only two. What about those books by Toshes, Dawson, and Propes, those books that I mentioned in earlier posts, those books that fervently argue otherwise? All that must blow my theory out of the water, right?
Not necessarily. The music that Freed played, and its immediate predecessors, may have been rock & roll music’s first incarnation, but the term got taken over — hijacked, if you like — by a different sound, the sound that Campbell describes. The main kind of music talked about by Toshes, Birnbaum, Dawson, and Propes is what we now think of as rhythm & blues. R&B was perhaps the greatest influence on, and most direct precursor of, rock & roll, especially in its backbeat. And those books, seeing R&B’s DNA in rock & roll, and looking over the history of the term — and perhaps hoping to rescue a pre-rock musical backstory too often neglected — stretch the meaning back to the Alan Freed years and beyond. But R&B is music of a different character.
In my next post, I’ll reveal what I believe is the first rock & roll record. And my focus will be, strangely enough, on three men, working separately from each other, but from the same unlikely state.