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.