Monday, April 21, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record IV: The DNA of R&B

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.

The Crows

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. 

rhythm & blues
rock & roll
music for adults
music for teens
“rough” vocals
more polished vocals
suggestive or adult lyrics
teen-friendly lyrics
often openly black content
race-neutral content
shuffle rhythm
rock rhythm

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” [1951], the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat” [1951], 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. 
Ella Mae Morse

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” [1962] 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.)

LaVern Baker
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.

Alan Freed
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.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Also for Easter Sunday: Some reasons why I’m not a Christian.

For Easter Sunday: the choral work “Thy Cross We Worship” by Russian composer Pyotr Goncharov (1888-1970)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Short Piece About Mickey Rooney

The recent passing of Mickey Rooney brings to mind his performance as lyricist Lorenz Hart (as in Rodgers and Hart) in the musical bio-pic Words and Music (1948), whose “Manhattan” sequence I’m embedding above. In most audiovisual media, short height on a man is a joke, a gag, a punchline — something to let the audience know when an adult male character isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. 

But Words and Music portrayed Hart’s unhappiness about his short height (Wikipedia says he “stood just under five-feet tall”) as a serious issue — one of the few Hollywood movies to do so. To me, Rooney’s appearance in Words and Music looks like MGM trying to figure out what to do with its former #1 box-office star, now that he had clearly aged into a short-statured (5’2”) — and therefore less marketable — adult, one who could no longer play the juvenile roles, like Andy Hardy, on which he made his name.  (For example, Words and Music includes the last big-screen duet between Rooney and Judy Garland.)

However, the real root of the real Hart’s depression (and alcoholism) was his being gay in a homophobic world, which was something that Hollywood at the time couldn’t acknowledge. So, one of the few times that Hollywood treats short height as a serious issue, it’s as a stand-in for something censored.  As an adult male who stands 4’8”, I get the idea that serving as the surrogate for a prohibited subject is the only reason that Words and Music presented the issue of short stature so seriously in the first place.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record III: My First Pick

It was the oldest recording I ever heard that sounded like rock & roll.  That’s what it basically boiled down to.  Having no expertise in music, I couldn’t really explain the reasons it came over my speakers that way.  It just did. 

It was probably the drums.  The sticks hammered the skins in a heavy, aggressive manner, pounding out the backbeat in a way the listener couldn’t ignore.  This wasn’t the blend-into-the-background beat that typified the Western music of the early 20th century (and before). From the opening cymbal crash, this was a drum-pummeling that you could hear over the accompanying piano and harmonica all through the song.  This was a loud shuffle rhythm that urged you to dance.  This was the grab-your-attention-and-never-let-go sound that would become the hallmark of rock & roll as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and others came to national attention in the 1950s (a moment conventionally thought of as the musical genre’s beginning, a notion that — as my previous posts in this series say — more recent music critics are contesting, with some pushing rock’s inception as far back as the 1920s).  This was a sound slightly ahead of its time.

While a similar kind of wild drumming had been heard before by big-band drummers like Mickey Scrima (who pounded the time for Harry James and His Orchestra’s 1939 record “Back Beat Boogie”) and rhythm demon Gene Krupa, this sound came from a small ensemble that more closely approximated the rock & roll bands to come.  Yes, the most conspicuous instrument to carry the melody was a piano, not a guitar, but the musicians still had the same kind of tight-knit, compact sound.

In short, I had a hard time believing that the song had been recorded all the way back on May 17, 1940. 

I’m talking about harmonica-player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s rhythm & blues number “New Early in the Morning” (a more upbeat do-over of his bluesier “Early in the Morning”).  I discovered this standout track lurking on the first side of the CD set The First Rock-and-Roll Record.  By that time, I had already consulted a number of sources pondering the identity of the CD’s title, and I had only come across a brief mention of the song on the Wikipedia page “Origins of Rock and Roll,” where the recording is given all the prominence of Where’s Waldo. 

Why hadn’t I encountered this not-so-proto proto-rock & roll performance earlier in my explorations?  Why hadn’t Nick Toshes profiled Sonny Boy Williamson, the way the writer did so many other rock heralds, in his revisionist volume Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll?  Why did Jim Dawson and Steve Propes start the timeline for their book What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record? four years after Williamson’s sure-fire short-lister?  The first song that the authors consider is a saxophone solo in a jazz concert, and when you think of rock & roll, the saxophone isn’t the first instrument to come to mind.  

I was actually able to track down Jim Dawson’s e-mail address, and I wrote him to ask why “New Early in the Morning” wasn’t regularly considered a contender for the first rock & roll record.  He wrote back (which was nice of him) saying that a number of tunes predating the book’s first entry had been brought to his attention since publication, and that he would forward my question to Propes.  (I haven’t heard from either of them since, but it was still good of Dawson to get back to me.) 

I also left a comment on Before Elvis author Larry Birbaum’s YouTube video, the video that summarizes his book.  I stuck my neck out and suggested that “New Early in the Morning” be considered the first rock & roll record.  Birnbaum responded (which was kind of him, too), saying that he thought Big Joe Turner and Jim Johnson’s “Roll ’Em, Pete” of 1938 had an even stronger backbeat than the Williamson track, so he disagreed with me.  And I had to disagree with him: the most prominent (only?) instrument on the original recording of “Roll ’Em, Pete” is a piano.  While the tune does indeed have a brisk beat, no percussion is sounding it out on the disc (although later recordings would readily remedy this).  So, the original 1938 pressing of “Roll ’Em, Pete” doesn’t sound as much like rock & roll to me as “New Early in the Morning” does. 

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (1914-1948)

These exchanges cemented in my mind that Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning” with its vigorous drums — played by one Fred Williams — deserved the renown of being named the very first rock & roll record.

However, after an extensive search on line, I was unable to find a release date or catalogue number for a 1940-41 78 r.p.m. record (the format of the day) by Sonny Boy Williamson titled “New Early in the Morning.”   (For example, a search of the Library of Congress’ 78 collection yielded no results.)  From what I’ve been able to gather on the Internet, the song can only be found on recent compilation CDs.  So, for all I know, “New Early in the Morning” was never released on 78 r.p.m. in a timely manner after its recording.  That might be why “New Early in the Morning” isn’t widely considered “the first rock & roll record”: there may have never been a record in the first place.

Be that as it may, I eventually changed my mind.  After doing some more reading, and a little contemplating, I was persuaded that a different record did more to qualify for the title.  However, this worthier platter is one of the more obvious candidates for the distinction, one of the titles most frequently cited as “the first rock & roll record.”  Because of its routine nomination for the honor, I’m not sure that this more deserving disc cries out for a blogpost.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West Side Cuento, Segunda Parte

I’d like to return for a moment to my post about the prospective West Side Story movie remake by Steven Spielberg, and how I would like to see such a film have the musical’s Puerto Rican/Nuyorican characters sing and speak to each other in Spanish.  To help illustrate my point in my previous post, I embedded the above video from the 2009 Broadway revival, which did indeed mix Spanish and English, just as I hope Spielberg’s film (should it come about) will do.

The scene from the video features the musical’s well-known song “A Boy Like That,” sung in Spanish as “Un Hombre Asi.”  The scene depicts Tony (Matt Cavanaugh) and Maria (Josephina Scaglione), the Romeo and Juliet figures, and Maria’s friend Anita (Karen Olivo), the love of Maria’s brother, Bernardo, whom Tony — in the heat of the moment — killed in a knife fight the night before. 

The mix of languages in this scene, Spanish and English, makes palpable Maria’s entrapment between two conflicting worlds.  When Anita sings “Un Hombre Asi” to Maria, the viewer more forcefully grasps that Anita is appealing to Maria’s sense of family and community.  This feeling is much stronger than it was in all of the strictly Anglophone productions of West Side Story that I’ve seen.

And when Maria finally pushes back against Anita, and shouts — in English — “You should know better” to her, the moment strikes like a thunderclap: Maria has assertively chosen a place with the English-speaking Tony (“There’s a place for us”), not necessarily a place apart from her Nuyorican community, but one that allows a different, more inclusive identity. 

It becomes clear to us that Anita senses Maria growing away from a demarcated Nuyorican identity.  As she sinks onto the bed with her hand covering her face, the audience tangibly gets the sense that Anita — having just lost Bernardo — is now losing Maria, too.  Then, Maria continues to assert her new identity by singing to Anita in English.  The song that she sings, “I Have a Love,” has perhaps the most beautiful verses in all of West Side Story, so this is one Puerto Rican-sung number in the musical that ought to retain its English lyrics.  Finally, when Anita joins Maria in singing the song’s final verse in English, the gesture forcefully communicates that Maria has changed Anita’s mind, more forcefully than it would have had the scene been played entirely in English.  Moments like this illustrate the expressive power that comes when using a mix of multiple languages in a single work. 

With all of the newfound strengths in this two-tongued approach, I was very dismayed to learn that the creators of this bilingual production of West Side Story — which used Spanish only very sparingly to begin with — cut back drastically on the use of the language later in the musical’s run.  According to Playbill, most of “A Boy Like That’s” original English dialogue and lyrics were reinstated, and “I Feel Pretty,” initially sung in the revival as “Mi Siento Hermosa” (another Spanish-language video that I embedded), reverted to English in its entirety.  Considering “Un Hombre Asi’s” emotional impact, I can’t see how returning to a (virtually) monolingual rendition of the musical was a change for the better.  I’m left to imagine that the creators of the 2009 revival were hit with mucho negative feedback from viewers (out-of-towners?) who just didn’t like to be linguistically challenged by a Broadway musical (on the other hand, the change might have been prompted by nothing more ominous than disappointing ticket sales). 

Whatever the reason, this now makes it more unlikely that a prospective remake of West Side Story will follow the 2009 revival’s polyglot daring.  I can keep my fingers crossed, but the chances of Spielberg making a bilingual film of the musical were slim to begin with.  And news of the 2009 revival’s reversion to English-only adds to the improbability.  But I hope that a bilingual audiovisual version of West Side Story, by Spielberg or by someone else, is made one day.  Maybe, like Tony and Maria, there’s a place for that as well.