Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record V: The Philadelphia Factor

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston recording ‘Rocket 88’ in 1951

According to the ten-part documentary mini-series Rock & Roll (1995), co-produced by the BBC and PBS, the titular music started in the American South.  The series begins its narrative with postwar Southern radio stations that played rhythm & blues music, before shifting its focus to the emergence of Little Richard in Georgia and the emergence of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and Elvis Presley in Tennessee.  Rock & Roll doesn’t turn its attention to Northern performers until several more minutes have passed, with the emergence of St. Louis transplant Chuck Berry in Chicago. 

One Southern song that several music historians and enthusiasts credit as the first rock & roll record is “Rocket 88” from 1951.  The song was recorded by another Southern act, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, a Mississippi ensemble, in Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio before he founded the Sun label.  Since Phillips didn’t press his own records at the time, he sold the master to Chess Records in Chicago (the company that would later become Chuck Berry’s label), which, much to the pianist Turner’s ire, rechristened the band after the song’s vocalist as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. 

“Rocket 88” is favored by so many (and self-proclaimed by Phillips) as the earliest rock & roll record because of its then-uncommon intentional use of distorted sound.  The record’s backstory has become well known in music circles: how guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier was damaged on the band’s trip to Phillips’ studio; how Phillips patched it up with paper, which gave the amp a buzzing quality; and how Phillips recorded the song to emphasize that quality.  But in his book Before Elvis, Larry Birnbaum says that “Rocket 88” was proclaimed the first rock & roll record by music aficionados in the mid-1960s because the sound of Kizart’s broken amplifier foreshadowed the then-fashionable fuzzbox (as heard, for example, in the Rolling Stones’s 1965 “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction”), and that this alone shouldn’t determine the title. 

“Rocket 88’s” reputation among several fervent fans as the “first rock & roll record” aids the idea of the music’s provenance below the Mason-Dixon Line.  Like the PBS documentary mini-series, a number of other rock chronicles locate the epicenter of the musical earthquake at Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio, which first waxed “Rocket 88,” Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  But I think that rock & roll, as distinct from rhythm & blues, had its earliest stirrings a little farther north, somewhere above the Yankee-Rebel divide. 

Not only is rock & roll’s most important genesis, I believe, to be found in the northern United States, but in a single state.  And not only in the same state, but — intriguingly — in the same general area, and I don’t mean New York City.   

Jimmy Preston
It’s fascinating to me that the three artists who perhaps did the most to shape nascent rock & roll into a distinct musical genre were all raised (if not born) in roughly the same place: the Philadelphia area.  One county over from Pennsylvania’s largest city is Delaware County, home to many of the metropolis’ outlying communities.  One of these is the city of Chester, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River.  A native son of Chester was Jimmy Preston, born in the municipality in 1913, and later raised in Philly.  An unpretentiously studious-looking man, Preston went on to form a jump-blues ensemble, the Prestonians, in the 1940s. 

In 1949, the latest dance craze among African Americans was “The Hucklebuck,” a twelve-bar blues instrumental by saxophonist and bandleader Paul Williams.  (Interestingly, “The Hucklebuck” was based on a portion of the 1915 composition “Weary Blues” by Artie Matthews, the first published music to feature a boogie-woogie pattern, as Birnbaum says in his video.)  “The Hucklebuck” inspired a number of copycat records (including the Delmore Brothers’ 1949 country song “Blues, Stay Away from Me”), and Jimmy Preston and His Prestonians were able to jump aboard the hucklebucking bandwagon later that year with their first hit, “Hucklebuck Daddy.” 

Preston and his band followed up “Hucklebuck Daddy” that same year with what had to be one of the most startling, most roisterous records to have been released up to that time: “Rock the Joint.”

Well, the ceiling is fallin’, I’m high as a kite
Keep on drinkin’, we’re gonna ball tonight


We’re gonna blow down the walls and tear up the floor
Until the law comes knockin’ at the door

With lyrics like these, Preston and the gang ear-splittingly shout about a music party that (at least in the hopes of one celebrant) demolishes its enclosure and puts its partiers at odds with the local constabulary.  As Jim Dawson and Steve Propes describe “Rock the Joint’s” recording in What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?: “When Preston and his band got the song into a studio, they turned it into a raucous, hand-clapping, sax-screaming, rockin’ piece of excitement that sounded like nothing they, nor anyone else, had recorded before….  Jimmy Preston and His Prestonians did indeed rock the joint” (p. 53).

With its strong boogie bass line, clap-timed backbeat, and sheer explosion of wild noise (not to mention the R word in its title), “Rock the Joint” clearly presaged the rock & roll to come.  But in its jump-band orchestration, sax-centered arrangement, and adult-oriented lyrics (who wants to exhort teenagers to “keep on drinking” or to get on the wrong side of the law?), the record was very much in a rhythm & blues tradition.  Unfortunately, Preston produced only a few other modest hits and, by the mid-1950s, had traded his saxophone for a career as a clergyman.  But by that time, another son of Chester, Pennsylvania, had made something of a name for himself in the music biz. 

Country musician Bill Haley in 1946
Born in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1925 and raised in the neighboring town of Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, Bill Haley settled in Chester as a disc jockey and sometime country & western musician with his band the Saddlemen.  In 1951, the boss of a start-up record label in Philadelphia wanted to do a country cover of a recently released rhythm & blues record (a common practice of the time, as I exampled with Link Davis’ cover of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in part IV).  What was the song he wanted covered?  A tune titled “Rocket 88.”  Yes, the same “Rocket 88” that many regard as the first rock & roll record.  He was put in touch with Bill Haley, a seasoned “hillbilly” performer at 26, and the Saddlemen.

Recording for a more conservative country listenership, Haley removed the line about taking “a little nip [of something alcoholic]” and replaced it with more innocuous lyrics.  As other country musicians had done before them, Haley and the Saddlemen drew from country-music conventions like western swing and the “hillbilly boogie” to make their version of “Rocket 88.”  Haley’s rendition of the song wasn’t the first record to bring together a confluence of country and R&B, but it did so in a very intriguing way.

With its slippery steel guitar, loping rhythm, and a hint of twang in Haley’s voice, the Saddlemen’s cover of “Rocket 88” was grounded firmly in a traditional country-music style.  However, unlike the typical country record, Haley’s quick-paced “Rocket 88” featured solos from an electric guitar (played by session musician Robert Scaltrito) and an especially heavy backbeat slapped out on the acoustic double bass. While it may not have been anything startling, Haley’s “Rocket 88” didn’t sound like your average country record from 1951.  But something was also going on one county over, in Philadelphia. 
Charlie Gracie

In the histories written of rock & roll that I’ve read, I haven’t seen the name of Charlie Gracie mentioned very often or his career chronicled in much detail.  But in 1951, this 15-year-old Italian-American Philly native was putting together a sound very close to rockabilly, a term that hadn’t been coined yet.  That year, on a small, independent label, he recorded his first single: “Boogie Woogie Blues” (or as the title was misspelled on the label, “Boogie Boogie Blues”).

Gracie’s song, an original composition — fascinatingly — already contains some of the hallmarks of rock & roll, especially his style of guitar playing.  Most record-making popular-music guitarists at this time concentrated on accentuating a single string, or picking, with any simultaneous plucking or striking of additional strings kept at a lower volume than the primary one being picked.  This describes the playing style of guitarists like T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Les Paul. 

However, Gracie picks his primary strings while at the same time striking other strings that are equally loud, especially in his guitar intro.  And for his solo, Gracie features a strumming attack that highlights the main melody on the highest articulated string.  His style has more in common with a strummed Dixieland-jazz banjo than with electric-guitar playing on popular records.  Gracie’s guitar seems to foretell the multi-stringed sound of Chuck Berry’s famous song introductions, first recorded in 1955, and the sound of rockabilly, such as the solos in “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” both released on records five years after “Boogie Woogie Blues.” 

In the documentary Charlie Gracie: Fabulous! (2006), the film’s subject, approaching the age of 70 but still musically spry, describes the development of his guitar-playing style:

The reason why my guitar style might be a little different than other people is: I always worked alone [in the 1950s] as a single artist, and I needed not only to play the guitar, but I needed a backbeat while playing the guitar.  I had … [to] play and slap [the body of the guitar] so it’d sound like two instruments instead of one.  And that’s my style of playing.
In “Boogie Woogie Blues,” Gracie seems to be treating his guitar strings in a similar manner to his slapped guitar body: by playing them all at once, rather than the traditional single string, he makes the sound fuller, more like several instruments are playing at once, instead of only one guitar.

Also, Gracie’s singing style is very akin to Elvis Presley’s.  Obviously, Gracie’s voice doesn’t have the depth and richness of Presley’s, but he sings in that “hiccup” manner — seeming to aspirate each syllable (most pronounced in Elvis’ “One-Sided Love Affair” [1956]) — that the King of Rock & Roll would make so famous throughout his career.  However, Presley wouldn’t start cutting records professionally for another three years.  Non-expert that I am, I can’t think of an earlier vocalist who sang this way.  “Boogie Woogie Blues” didn’t sell that many copies, so the record is unlikely to have been an influence on Elvis.  Therefore, the Gracie record’s prefiguring of rockabilly, both in terms of singing and guitar playing, seems especially remarkable.  If “Boogie Woogie Blues” were arranged with a drummer loudly pounding out a strong backbeat, it might have walked away with the honorific of “the first rock & roll record,” but the sound isn’t all the way there yet. 
Bill Haley and the Saddlemen

After “Rocket 88,” Bill Haley and the Saddlemen continued waxing records for the same label, Essex, but more in their original country style.  Looking for a B side to their 1952 hillbilly single “Icy Heart” (one of Haley’s twangier tracks), the band decided on a countrified arrangement of an R&B song that they would play during their live gigs to get the audience on their feet and dancing.  What was the song?  None other than the hit by Haley’s fellow Chester musician, Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint.”  (Although both lived for a while in the same relatively small town, there’s no evidence that Haley and Preston knew each other personally.) 

For their version, Haley and the group followed the tradition of scrubbing the lyrics and making them more country-friendly.  Out went the city dances of the Preston record, while Haley inserted ones more familiar to a rural audience.  Also, the Saddlemen — who primarily saw what they played as dance music — changed the beat from a shuffle to 2/4 time to quicken the pace and make the tune more danceable.  And the hard-driving beat of the song was whacked out on the acoustic double bass by Saddleman Marshall Lytle.  Once again, an electric guitarist was brought in to punch up the sound, session musician Danny Cedrone.  And for the vocals this time around, Haley would drop his country twang entirely.

The song’s slipping and sliding steel guitar, played by Saddleman Billy Williamson, and the new lyrics’ country references are what mark Haley’s “Rock the Joint” as a specifically “hillbilly” song.  But the rest of it?  None of the record’s ingredients are especially novel: as I said before, country artists frequently covered rhythm & blues numbers.  Electric guitars had been used before on country songs, but mostly to pick boogie-woogie riffs in the fashionable “hillbilly boogie” songs of the era or to otherwise support the main melody.  Seldom did they sound so conspicuous.  And Philadelphian Danny Cedrone, the session musician that played the electric-guitar solo, performed with his own jazz band, not a country group. 

Other country covers of R&B usually played up the performers’ hillbilly conventions in order to put their own rural stamp on the song and meet the audience’s expectations.  Haley’s “Rock the Joint,” intentionally or not, jettisoned a number of the characteristics that audiences would have expected from an R&B cover by a country act and replaced them with ingredients drawn from rhythm & blues and jazz.  The result was a record that wasn’t entirely country — but not R&B, jazz, or mainstream pop either.  The sound was different.  Consequently, when the record’s intended A side, the Hank Williams-inspired “Icy Hart,” was passed over for its B side, Haley knew that the band had to ditch its identity as a country ensemble and adopt a new one to fit this emergent sound. 

Charlie Gracie
That same year, 1952, Charlie Gracie released another record, another original composition, that was as much of a step back as a step forward.  His song was named “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” — not the first time a record used the phrase as a title, but still intriguingly prescient.  And in the tradition of white artists removing any salacious connotations, “rockin’ an’ rollin’” in Gracie’s lyrics merely means traveling, by some unspecified form of locomotion, so that the singer can see his “baby.” 

This time, Gracie’s song had a louder shuffle rhythm played in an overt — but not attention-hogging — way on a drum set.  A similarly conspicuous acoustic double bass also sounds out the rhythm, while a piano follows the boogie bass line.  And Gracie’s electric guitar solo is single-string this time.  But the song is slower in its pace, and it doesn’t have any of the hard-driving energy that we usually associate with rock & roll.  Also, in what I can only guess is an attempt to capture a mainstream music audience, Gracie’s voice is backed up by bland Ray Coniff-style vocalists who make the Jordanaires sound downright ghetto.  But even if “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” didn’t exactly rock & roll, the song still brought together some more of the elements that would mark the musical genre.
Bill Haley and His Comets in 1953

By 1953, Haley had adopted a new name for his group: the Comets, after a common mispronunciation of Halley’s (rhymes with “ally”) Comet.  However, the band still consisted of the same country-seasoned musicians, the only exception being the addition of a full-time drummer.  The success of the Sadlemen’s beat-heavy “Rock the Joint” persuaded Haley to add a drummer to the group.  Although drums had been played on hillbilly records before (such as Hardrock Gunther’s 1950 “Birmingham Bounce”), they were still an anomaly, and the Grand Ole Opry, that Mecca for country-music performers, forbade them at the time.  By including a drummer in the Comets’ line-up, Haley was choosing an artistic identity separate from the country & western that inspired him to become a musician in the first place, a musical style that he clearly loved.  And Haley himself appeared uncertain about the right ingredients for this embryonic R&B-meets-C&W sound. 

In his book Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution, Jim Dawson says that Haley had already noticed the power and importance of the syllable “rock” to the songs “Rocket 88” and “Rock the Joint,” and that he continued to experiment with it.  The B side of the group’s last record as the Saddlemen was “Rocking Chair on the Moon” (1952), and the B side to their first as the Comets was “Real Rock Drive” (1953).  But like the latter record’s A side, “Stop Beatin’ ’Round the Mulberry Bush,” these songs — despite the noticeable beat and conspicuous use of the boogie bass line — were still very much in a country idiom.  Perhaps still dreaming of country-music stardom, the twang had returned to Haley’s voice.  Although a drummer had been added, the skin-pounding was lost among the other instruments, and the percussion was still dependent on Lytle’s acoustic double bass.  Also the Comets had retained the Saddlemen’s steel-guitar player, Billy Williamson, whose ambling strings gave a bucolic atmosphere to everything they played.

Haley’s breakthrough came when the lyrics of his next song left the country milieu all together.  Although jazz musicians had their own hipster slang dating back at least to the turn of the 2oth century — and codified in 1939 by Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary — the lingo had started to catch on with white American youths by the 1950s.  Haley made a note of the white teenagers using expressions like “groovy” and “real gone” at the high-school concerts the Comets played.  Haley and Comets bassist Lytle cobbled the sayings together into a song. 

To record it, Essex brought in the non-country session musicians Art Ryerson on lead guitar and Billy Gussak on drums.  Now, all of the elements were in place: impactful drums, a featured electric guitar, an insistent rhythm, a self-authored song with teen-targeted lyrics (i.e., not an R&B cover), and this time, the steel guitar lost its hillbilly flavor.  The song was about the band’s music, and the lyrics may have reflected Haley’s own uncertainty of how to characterize or what to call whatever it was that the Comets’ played.  But through all of this — a full year before Elvis Presley recorded professionally, two years before Chuck Berry, and three years before the music style was given an official name — the first rock & roll record came to life.

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