Friday, March 21, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record II: Before Elvis

In my first blogpost on the subject of the elusive “first rock & roll record,” I discussed the idea of rhythm & blues and rock & roll being more or less the same thing.  I continue that topic here.

The above video is by writer Larry Birnbaum, summarizing his book Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll.  Meticulously researched, Before Elvis sees the evolution of rock & roll as so gradual that it doesn’t put forward a “first” record.  Like Nick Tosches’ Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ RollBirnbaum’s Before Elvis also advances the view of rhythm & blues as a form of rock & roll, bolstering the idea that the musical form did not begin with Bill Haley’s platter of “Rock Around the Clock” and with Elvis Presley, as casual conventional wisdom (and Rolling Stone) says.  And this video handily touches upon some of the (many) songs that music historians submit as worthy of the title. 

Among the other more notable musical candidates for the mantle of first rock & roll record are:

• The first recorded mention of the phrase “rock and roll(ing),” referring to a kind of African American religious rapture when praying, on a 1904 wax cylinder of the minstrel showpiece “Camp Meeting Jubilee” by the Haydn Quartet, working under the name the Edison Quartet.

• The first record to use the words “rock” and “roll” together in a secular (and sexual) context, Trixie Smith’s 1922 classic blues number “My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)”:

• The jazz ensemble the Washboard Rhythm Kings’s frantic 1932 rendition of the jazz standard “Tiger Rag”:

• Father-and-son music collectors John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 field recording of a rapturous religious ring shout in a Louisiana church, “Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah),” with vocals by Austin Coleman and Joe Washington Brown:

• Blues shouter Big Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson’s 1938 song “Roll ’Em, Pete,” which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest recorded examples of a backbeat”:

• The 1945 country & western tune “Guitar Boogie” by Arthur Smith, the first boogie-woogie record played on the electric guitar (re-released in 1948):

• Singer-pianist Amos Milburn’s explosive “Chicken Shack Boogie” (1948):

• Texas singer-guitarist Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” (1949), whose hard-driving electric guitar style foreshadows that of Chuck Berry in the 1950s:

• Saxophonist Jimmy Preston’s anarchic “Rock the Joint” (1949), recorded with his band, the Prestonians (the song was later covered by Bill Haley and his country & western group the Saddlemen in 1952):

• Guitarist Les Paul and vocalist Mary Ford’s electrical and multi-tracked version of the songbook standard “How High the Moon” (1951):

Big Joe Turner’s influential, palm-pounding 1954 blues shout “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”:

• Although Birnbaum never sides with any particular song to be the “first” rock & roll record (he briefly puts forward “Roll ’Em, Pete” as a possibility before quickly withdrawing it), Before Elvis still nominates Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo” (1954), “with its habanera bass line and Caribbean lilt,” as another recording that should be considered a contender:

Other titles and a more complete history of rock & roll’s ancestry can be found in this informative and enlightening (and lengthy) Wikipedia article.

Birnbaum’s view that rock & roll did not grow out of African American blues is a minority opinion among music scholars.  The majority of music historians say that rock & roll’s basic form sprang from the heavily African-influenced music (because some of its characteristics were passed down by black slaves) of the Delta blues: musical form, plainspoken lyrics, blue notes, etc.  However, Birnbaum believes that the Delta blues weren’t isolated from American culture, and owe at least as much of their music, lyrics, and style to white popular culture and European influences.  So, even though boogie-woogie and hokum represent two examples of the musical form known as the twelve-bar blues — so called because of the its popularizing by W.C. Handy, “the father of the blues” — the form was actually given its shape, Birnbaum argues, by citified minstrel-show performers and songwriters, not by backwoods bluesmen.  

Left to right: Jimmy Preston, Amos Milburn, Goree Carter

For my next post, I’ll talk about the platter that I initially chose as the “first rock & roll record” before I changed my mind.

Excerpts of recordings from 1927 to 1949 that some music buffs have considered contestants for the accolade of rock & roll’s first record

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