Friday, March 14, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record

For most of last year, I ruminated on one question: What was the first rock & roll record?

Now, I wasn’t expecting to find a definitive answer.  I just thought it was a good framework to help me reacquaint myself with some old music I hadn’t listened to for a while.  A decade or two ago, I used to listen to a couple of late-night radio shows that played rhythm & blues music of the 1940s and ’50s.  I really enjoyed the music, but not so much that I sought out any of the old songs to buy.  Simply listening to the radio shows on a regular basis satisfied my appetite for the music.  As the years went by, I became interested in other things, and other kinds of musics, and my fondness for rhythm & blues went into hibernation.

Last year, however, a chance encounter with some historical materials pondering the identity of the “first” rock & roll record reintroduced me to some rhythm & blues music that I hadn’t listened to for a long time.  The gist of the various materials — books, CDs, Web articles — was that the music we now think of as “rhythm & blues” at some point morphed into the music we now call “rock & roll,” and many of the sources asked themselves: At what point did this happen?  One element in this inquiry was that the phrase “rock and roll” predates the music and was introduced into song well before the emergence of the four-man electric-guitar ensemble.  And some of the materials arrived at their own, often divergent answers.  So, using some books on the topic as guides, I thought that asking this question myself would give me a good excuse to delve back into rhythm & blues, and its history, and to see if I could come up with an answer of my own.

I (finally) started buying many of the songs mentioned in the books, including an anthology CD titled The First Rock-and-Roll Record, which contained a good deal of them.  After marinating myself in the music for months, I thought that I had, in fact, come up with an answer, with my own contender for the title of “first rock & roll record,” and I started to draft a blogpost about it.  However, my writing on the subject never seemed to take off — perhaps having to do with my inexperience scribing about music — and draft after draft turned into one false start after another.  Before long, after reading more books and other materials on the subject, I began to question my answer.  And I never got around to finishing my writings. 

So, below I’m printing an essay that I began writing last summer in an effort to put forward my own nominee for “first rock & roll record.”  It was supposed to be the first in a number of posts on the subject, withholding the identity of my candidate until the very end.  I have since changed my mind, but I thought that this post — which I hope to follow up with newer ones — will demonstrate my mind’s evolution on the issue:
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five

“Rock ’n’ roll was an evolutionary process — we just looked around and it was here.... To name any one record as the first would make any of us look a fool.” —Billy Vera 

I’m about to make myself look like a fool. 

Usually, when broaching the subject, or even the idea, of a “first rock & roll record” — or “rock and roll” or “rock ’n’ roll” — it’s both easy and open minded to say that there isn’t one.  The formation of the musical genre was just too complex, and its history is lost in the sepulchers of time, never to be revived.  The answer will likely never, ever be found.  But — good golly, Miss Molly — it sure is fun to try to find out!  It sure is a good excuse to play a lot of music that (for the most part) is fun to listen to, and to discover how the various musical genres combined and blended to turn into the sound that took the world by storm!

The above quote by bandleader and music historian Billy Vera is from his foreword in the book What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?, co-authored by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes.  Their answer?  In the time-honored tradition I just mentioned, they don’t have one.  Still, Dawson and Propes — and their readers — have a grand old time combing the histories of and the stories behind 50 would-be contenders for the title, from Illinois Jacquet’s volcanic saxophone solo during the first “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert in 1944 to Elvis Presley’s haunting “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956.  All 50 songs are nominated; each gets its own chapter; but none goes home with the trophy.   Understandable, but also a little unsatisfying.

This isn’t to say that Dawson and Propes’s non-answer is a cop-out.  The two authors are obviously very knowledgeable about the early years of rock & roll and beyond, and they amply demonstrate an unyielding affection for the music.  But the absence of even a provisional winner — unless one considers “Heartbreak Hotel” the victor by virtue of it being the ultimate song in the book — doesn’t clearly explain how all these musical strands tie together.  I thought I’d offer an alternative.

But if such conversant authors as Dawson and Propes were unable to offer the title of the first rock & roll record, how am I qualified to offer one instead?  Well ... I’m not, actually.  Although I’ve been listening to the rhythm & blues music of the 1940s and ’50s for decades, I’ve only very recently started to study the music’s history and its connection to big-name rockers like Elvis.  So, I’m a total novice at this.  Why, then, should I even attempt to designate a “first rock & roll record” at all?

I started this essay intending only to write about a handful of contenders for the crown, without declaring a winner at all, à la Dawson and Propes.  But after I came up with my short list of record titles, one jumped out at me as a stronger candidate than any of the others.  After more reading and more contemplation, I couldn’t think of a reason (other than my own lack of expertise on the topic) why that particular record didn’t deserve the accolade — or, at the very (very) least, my disquisition of nomination.  After all, other titles have been proclaimed the first rock & roll record by various authorities.  What have I got to lose — other than any pretense of musical knowledge?

Illinois Jacquet

“The first rock ’n’ roll record?  My big question is: by what criteria?”  —Billy Vera, foreword, What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?
An excellent question, Mr. Vera!  When I say “rock & roll,” what am I talking about?  One reason why defining the term is so tricky is because this musical genre has absorbed the influences of so many others.  The Beatles are (justifiably) seen as the world’s pre-eminent rock band.  But their offerings range from the upbeat pop gem “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963) to the reflective strings of “Yesterday” (1965) to the orchestral psychedelia of “A Day in the Life” (1967) to the Indian instrumentation of “The Inner Light” (1968) to the Stockhausen-like blending of spoken voices and mostly non-melodious, non-percussive sounds of “Revolution No. 9” (1968).  These tracks all tend to be classified as rock & roll, but what do they all have in common?  One answer is: not much, other than the name of the band on the label. 

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers

When I was a young music aficionado growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, I remember very few African American artists who played upbeat popular music described by magazines, disc jockeys, and record outlets as rock & roll.  Virtually the only black recording artists whose music was regularly called “rock & roll” were those who became widely known ’round about the time that Elvis Presley hit it big: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Frankie Lymon. (The only other major exception that I can think of is Jimi Hendrix in the ’60s.) Most other black artists were said to play other kinds of music: rhythm & blues, doo-wop, Motown, soul, funk, and disco — subgenres of rock & roll, yes, but rarely labeled simply as “rock & roll.” 

I didn’t pay much attention to this kind of musical categorizing at the time, but I see now that these divisions ingrained in my mind — and, it seems to me, the minds of many others — the idea that “rock & roll” as such was a music by white artists for white audiences.  Consequently, when we talk about the history of rock & roll, we largely think of the history of Caucasian musicians and performers.  I suspect that this kind of thinking gave rise to the widespread idea that rock & roll came into being in the mid- to late ’50s when white artists like Elvis and Pat Boone started singing black rhythm & blues, an idea that recent music critics have contested. 

A different, more inclusive critical perspective is that what many of us think of as the African American rhythm & blues of the pre-rock years is itself a form of rock & roll.

Alan Freed
Disc jockey Alan Freed is often credited with using the term “rock & roll” to describe the hard-driving records he played by black artists on his Cleveland radio show Moondog’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party in 1951.  At a time when music listenership was racially segregated as a rule, where record-spinning radio announcers played music by artists of their own race to listeners of their own race, Freed was one of the very few white DJs to play platters by black artists (rather than covers of black songs by white artists).  Some say that Freed used this bit of nomenclature to avoid any stigma Caucasian audiences might associate with the phrase “rhythm & blues” — so that labeling this racially inclusive music as “rock & roll” ironically had arguably racist motives.  Still, at least in Freed’s use of the term to his audience in the early ’50s, “rock & roll” was “rhythm & blues.”

As Nick Tosches puts it in his book Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll: “Rock ’n’ roll emerged in the middle of a war, when the world was mad.”  The war in question is World War II.  Tosches views the rise of the musical genre when the big-band sound of the 1930s gave way (for economic reasons) to a more aggressive sound by smaller ensembles, in particular Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.  In a time when the music-industry trade publication Billboard magazine segregated the bestselling music into white pop charts and black “race” records, Jordan in 1942 started regularly crossing over from the black charts to the white charts with his rambunctious rhythms backed by a strong shuffle beat.  As Tosches tells it, this adrenalizing style of music caught on simultaneously with the wartime incorporation of a number of smaller labels independent from the larger record companies.  Where the major labels mostly disdained this new kind of music, the small independent — or “mongrel” — labels rushed to fill the void, both making the music accessible to audiences and giving it an against-the-mainstream, underdog identity.

Wynonie Harris
Since much of the music was meant for dancing, singers would often exhort their listeners to “rock” or “rock and roll,” a synonym for dancing, but also with sexual connotations — a double entendre.   And Tosches recounts how the words “rocking” and “rolling” were sometimes used to advertise the records of these singers as early as 1947.  To Tosches, the marketing of this music with those words qualifies the upbeat tunes of the 1940s as rock & roll.  And the word “rock” is especially bonded with the rhythm & blues music released in the wake of Wynonie Harris’ phenomenally successful rhythm & blues record “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948), which spawned multitudes of copycat songs with “rock” or “rockin’” in the titles and/or lyrics. 

But in an severe, purist view, Tosches regards rock & roll as a spent force by the end of 1954, the year that Elvis made his first commercial recordings and Bill Haley cut “Rock Around the Clock.”  Nevertheless, Tosches’ book recalls that the words “rock(ing)” and “roll(ing)” were first associated with what we think of as rhythm & blues — a good five years or so before Alan Freed started his radio show.  (On a final note about Freed, whether or not he was the first to affix the phrase “rock & roll” to the music he played, this extremely popular DJ of the 1950s — who also branched out into concert promotion and film appearances — unquestionably did the most to popularize this term among white audiences and make it stick.)

Although Tosches regards the upbeat music of the late ’50s and beyond as something other than rock & roll, his book doesn’t helpfully quantify how the pulse-pounding music of the pre-Elvis years is appreciably different from what came later.  He uses adjectives like “audacious,” “wild,” and “hot” to describe his favorite rhythm & blues tunes, but he doesn’t explain what exactly gave the music this quality or how that of, say, the Beatles is lacking in it.  So, if we’re going to look for elements that define a prospective “first rock & roll record,” we’ll need to look beyond Tosches book (which never attempts to name a “first,” in any case).  But Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll reminds us just how fluid this musical category is and just how subjective setting boundaries for it can be.

In my next post, I’ll examine another definition of rock & roll in my lead-up to unveiling what I consider to be the first real rock & roll record.

*          *          *

Such was my thinking last summer, at any rate.  For my next posts, I’ll talk about some of the music I encountered in my investigation, the song that I chose as my own “first rock & roll record,” and what changed my mind.

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