Okay, how does my choice of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Crazy Man, Crazy” (1953) as the first rock & roll record look to me after almost two months?
Well, to begin with, I don’t expect any of my blogposts to have settled the issue once and for all. Music fans will continue to dispute at what point the popular music circa the 1950s morphed into what we now think of as rock & roll. And said fans would probably consider the musings of a musical neophyte as last on the list of voices to be heeded. So, I’m well aware that my contemplations on the subject of any possible “first” rock & roll record carry as much weight as a feather in zero gravity.
Still, I’m struck by how the issue of race informed my own estimations of what constitutes rock & roll. And as I said before, race, for better or worse, plays a very important role in the formation of rock & roll because the music was the result of a racially segregated entertainment industry (an entertainment industry that some may still criticize as racially segregated in a less overt way). Moreover, the rock & roll era is still widely seen as the moment when large numbers of white teenagers began listening to backbeat-heavy music by African American artists and by white artists playing music inspired or written by blacks. So, this widespread historical perception — which I have adopted in part — has a built-in racial bias.
In particular, my criterion of the “first” rock & roll record not being a rhythm & blues cover, to reflect the music’s adoption by white audiences, automatically disadvantages a number of would-be candidates by black artists, since R&B was regarded as upbeat music primarily played by and for blacks.
If I wanted to limit my criteria to an (1) upbeat, (2) backbeat-heavy (3) song for teens (or at least non-adult-oriented song) (4) where no single foundational style of music — rhythm & blues, country & western, swing, mainstream pop — stands out from any of the others and (5) played in what is now regarded as a rock arrangement (in other words, without a non-R&B cover being a factor), I could just as easily have chosen Texas singer-guitarist Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” from 1949, four years before “Crazy Man, Crazy.” While “Rock Awhile’s” lyrics aren’t explicitly targeted at teenagers, the 18-year-old Carter singing (in a non-race-specific context) about his “baby” coming home captures a youthful, romantic exuberance that would become a rock & roll mainstay.
More importantly, Carter’s style of electric guitar playing helps to set the stage for the instrument’s importance to rock. As Wikipedia puts it: “Carter's electric guitar style was influenced by Aaron ‘T-Bone’ Walker, but was over-driven and had a rougher edge which presaged the sound of rock and roll a few years later. His single-string runs and two-string ‘blue note’ chords anticipated, and may have influenced, Chuck Berry.” In fact, according to writer Larry Birnbaum, Berry’s acknowledged influence on his own guitar playing is Carl Hogan’s opening riff on Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” (1946).
All of this raises another issue: We can confidently say that Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” (1954), influenced by “Crazy Man, Crazy,” was, in turn, very influential on the development of rock & roll in general because of its enormous popularity. However, while obviously prescient, “Rock Awhile” was not very successful commercially, nor was the song covered by a better-selling act. So, we may presume that the record was not especially influential in its day. In other words, “Rock Awhile” couldn’t have been the spark that lit the rock & roll fuse. The song’s prophetic sound without any apparent progeny supports the idea that the combining of R&B, country, and postwar pop was coming from many different musical quarters — as Jim Dawson puts it in his numerous writings on rock & roll, “something was in the air” — making a “first” record of the genre all the more difficult to pinpoint.
But that’s only one way to reconsider my choice. Another way would be to go in the opposite direction and designate the first rock & roll record as being made by a black artist after “Crazy Man, Crazy,” which is what Michael Campbell comes close to doing in his textbook Rock and Roll: An Introduction (written with James Brody). Because he views rock & roll as an aggregate of several specific musical elements, Campbell doesn’t argue for a single “first” rock & roll record, but rather sees a gradual accumulation of these elements over time. And the person most responsible for shaping rock & roll, Campbell argues, is Chuck Berry, particularly in the guitarist’s shaping of the two-beat rock beat to replace the four-beat shuffle rhythm.
A guitarist with the eclectic St. Louis ensemble the Johnnie Johnson Trio (headed by its namesake, a boogie-woogie pianist), Berry made his way north to Chicago and a contract with Chess Records in 1955. Music historians agree that Berry was an uncommon figure because he was an African American artist who showed a genuine affinity for Euro-American country music, and since he played in a band specializing in boogie-woogie, Berry combined the two styles of music in his own way. In fact, his first record, “Maybellene” (1955), was a reworking of the country record “Ida Red” (1938) by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
In Rock and Roll: An Introduction, here is how Campbell describes the elements that form rock & roll in Berry’s “Maybellene”:
An Aggressive Guitar Sound [:] The song [“Maybellene”] begins with an unaccompanied guitar riff. There are two features of the riff that stand out. One is the edge to the sound — not as distorted as [Willie] Kizart’s guitar in “Rocket 88” [1951; see Part V] but far from mellow. It is a much more aggressive sound than that heard in pop, country, or even most rhythm and blues. The exception, of course, is electric blues; Berry’s sound is closer to the guitar style of electric blues guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters than any other guitar style of the era. This is one important area of influence.
The other is a Berry trademark: the use of double notes. When Berry plays two notes simultaneously, it makes the sound thicker, which in turn gives it more impact. His way of blending the notes (heard here mainly in the guitar solo) is reminiscent of the slide (or bottleneck) guitar styles of blues guitarists.
A Full Rhythm Section [:] Almost immediately, the other instruments enter: piano, [upright] string bass, drums, maracas…. Maracas aside, this is, with Berry, the instrumentation of the fifties electric blues band: full rhythm section but with no saxophone. And as in the electric blues band, the electric guitar is the most prominent instrument. That the recording would feature blues-band instrumentation is not surprising: Berry brought pianist Johnny [sic] Johnson, his longtime associate, with him from St. Louis; bassist Willie Dixon, who wrote Waters’ “(I’m Your’) Hoochie Coochie Man,” and drummer Fred Bellow were Chess house musicians during the fifties.
A Souped-Up Honky-Tonk Beat [:] “Maybellene” features Berry’s two-beat rhythm used in honky tonk. Except for the guitar solo, where the band shifts into a four-beat swing rhythm, the song features a two-beat rhythm. The difference between Berry’s version of a two-beat rhythm and the one in general use is mainly in the backbeat, which is far stronger than in a pop or country two beat. With both Berry and the drummer emphasizing it, it is more prominent than the beat. It stands out more in the two-beat sections than it does in the swing beat sections because it is in opposition to the beat, rather than in addition to the beat. The heavy backbeat would be one component of Berry’s revolutionary rock beat.
Verse/Chorus Blues Form [:] The title-phrase refrain frames several episodes in Berry’s humorous account of a car chase. The refrain is a straightforward 12-bar blues. The verses are also twelve bars in length, but the accompaniment stays on one chord throughout. Almost all of Berry’s fifties hits use some kind of blues form.
Teen-Themed Lyrics [:] The refrain of “Maybellene” seems to set up a story about lost love. However, the verses are strictly car talk. We learn much more about the two cars — a Coupe de Ville Cadillac and a V8 Ford — than we do about their drivers, and we never do find out what happens when Berry finally catches Maybellene. [pp. 110-11]
In Campbell’s view, Berry began shaping the rock beat with “Maybellene,” — often thereafter with his backing musicians still playing in a four-beat shuffle rhythm — but he continued to refine this new beat through such records as “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956) and “Rock & Roll Music” (1957) before finally perfecting it with “Johnny B. Goode” (1958).
In the long nights at the Cosmopolitan Club [where the Johnnie Johnson Trio played], Berry must have heard hours and hours of Johnny [sic] Johnson’s boogie-woogie [piano]. What Berry did was transfer boogie-woogie left-hand patterns, similar to the ones heard in [Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson’s] “Roll ’Em, Pete” , to the guitar. The repetitive boogie-woogie patterns became, in Berry’s adaptation, the first authentic rock-based rhythm guitar style; even in medium-tempo songs, he typically divides the beat into two equal parts. In “Roll Over, Beethoven,” this pattern is very much in the background. In “Rock-and-Roll Music,” it is more prominent, but there is no lead guitar.
Finally, in “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry … puts the whole package together: great solo breaks, plus the boogie pattern prominent under both lead guitar and vocal lines. This recording brings together some of the essential features of rock style: backbeat; the eight-beat rhythm, completely purged of any swing influence; strong rhythm guitar; and assertive lead guitar. It was this sound, above all, that would inspire the next generation of rockers. [p. 112]
So, would Campbell consider “Johnny B. Goode” to be the true first rock & roll record? Again, Campbell doesn’t designate a first rock & roll record because he sees the music developing in several quarters. Another contributor to the shaping of rock rhythm, in Campbell’s view, was pianist-screamer Little Richard. After a series of unremarkable discs for other labels, Little Richard broke out in a big way with his first platter for Specialty Records, the wild, chaotic “Tutti Fruitti” (1955), a reworking of a bawdy nightclub foot-stomper, commanded by the singer’s raucous, falsetto-whooping voice. Little Richard’s subsequent records, such as “Long Tall Sally” (1956) and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (1958), followed in the same anarchic roller-coaster ride. As Campbell describes the style:
The [subtle] changes in Little Richard’s music [over the years] are due mainly to the musicians behind him. Unlike Chuck Berry’s backup band, they quickly adapted to Little Richard’s new rhythm. In his first hits, such as “Tutti Fruitti,” the band plays in a rhythm-and-blues style: walking bass, heavy backbeat on the drums, and so on. However, in some later hits, such as “Lucille” (1957), the entire band is thinking and playing rock rhythm. Bass, guitar, and sax play a repetitive riff in a low register, while Little Richard hammers away [on his piano], and the drummer taps out a rock beat and a strong backbeat. The contrast with Berry’s songs from the same year is clear: Berry is single-handedly trying to establish a new beat; in songs like “Lucille,” the entire band is on the same page as Little Richard. [p. 116]
The arguments against my choice of “Crazy Man, Crazy” by Bill Haley and the Comets as the first rock & roll record go on and on, like an all-night jam session. So, when it comes to disputes regarding the identity of the “first” rock & roll record, the caterwauling among the music critics will continue. I have no illusions about putting an end to the discussion. And I have just undermined my own argument for “Crazy Man, Crazy” by presenting some other possibilities. But my hunt for a deserving candidate has been a fun look back to an intriguing moment for American popular music that’s too often overlooked by our current listening culture’s preoccupation with post-Beatles “rock,” music which is often over-produced in the mixing booth.
Looking back, I’m struck by how the emergence of rock & roll was marked by a burst of energy and desperation that was instantly seized by a young audience discontented, often in an inchoate way, with the adult society around them. When it broke out, rock & roll’s most recognizable feature — the unignorable drum beat throughout the songs — acted as a kind of propulsive agitator against the everyday, a pulsating spur that goaded its young audience to seize the moment. It’s no wonder that rock music fueled the counterculture of the 1960s that protested the Vietnam War.