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5 Candidates for the First Rock 'n' Roll Song

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It’s a question that music historians have been fighting over for decades: What was the first rock ‘n’ roll song?

Gold record image via Shutterstock

Though commercially successful singles like Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” (1954), Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1955) and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956) were among the songs that popularized the genre and made it a household word, they didn’t invent it.

To find the birth cry of rock ‘n’ roll, we have to go a little further back.

And if we define rock ‘n’ roll as the collision of blues, country and Tin Pan Alley pop, with a manic spirit and, as Chuck Berry put it, a backbeat you can’t lose, then the following are all leading contenders for the song that changed popular music forever.

1. “That’s All Right, Mama” – Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (1946)

In 1940, Arthur Crudup was reportedly living in a packing crate near an L train station in Chicago, playing songs on the street for tips. Things got better for him as the decade went on, and he landed a recording contract that led to a career as a well-known blues singer and songwriter. In 1946, Crudup recorded his song “That’s All Right, Mama.” Though it wasn’t a hit at the time, it stands as a convincing front-runner for rock ‘n’ roll’s ground zero. With a tight combo of guitar, upright bass and drums bashing out accompaniment behind Crudup’s raw, powerful voice, it sounds a decade ahead of its time. There’s even a wild guitar solo, prefaced by Crudup shouting, “Yeah, man.” Very rock ‘n’ roll. And the last thirty seconds of the record pick up steam with the kind of unhinged energy that would become an essential element of all great rock records.

Eight years later, a 19-year old Elvis Presley did a cover record of it for his first single. Soon, Crudup was being called “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxHQUvCkV20

2. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – Wynonie Harris (1948)

Well, I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight. . .” With an opening line that could double as a rallying call for rock ‘n’ roll, this song was written and recorded in 1947 by R & B artist Roy Brown. Brown had originally offered the tune to raspy-voiced singer Wynonie “Mr. Blues” Harris, but Harris turned it down. After Brown had a hit with it, Harris reconsidered, cutting a version that upped the ante. Bouncing boogie woogie piano, honking tenor sax, drums and handclaps accenting the backbeat, and Harris shouting “Hoy, hoy, hoy!” – it all adds up to a raucous glimpse into the future.

Again, a young Elvis Presley was listening. In 1954, he released his version of the song. He was also watching. Harris’s stage moves included pelvic jabs, lip curls and evangelical wavings of his arms and hands. All would become part of Elvis’s stage persona.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVYPJisZYU8

3. “Rock This Joint” – Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians (1949)

This record has the prerequisite driving beat, boogie bass line and blues-based melody, but what really sets it apart is the party atmosphere. The whole tune is punctuated by screams, shouts and yelps that conjure up young couples dancing and spinning in a smoky nightclub “until the law come knockin’ at the door.” Preston was a sax-playing band leader who cut some minor hits in the ‘40s, then ditched music in the early ‘50s for the church. In the chorus of this song (“We’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock”), you can clearly hear the inspiration for Bill Haley’s recording of “Rock Around The Clock” (written by Max Freedman and James Myers). In fact, it had been The Comets’ beefed-up arrangement of “Rock This Joint” in 1952 that convinced Haley to move away from his western swing sound towards rock ‘n’ roll.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqI130TS1vM

4. “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five (1949)

I’ve written about Jordan for mental_floss before, as I believe he’s one of the most important – and overlooked - figures in modern popular music. Two of his favorite subjects for songs were eating and partying. This huge hit from 1949 (it was one of the first “race” records to cross over to the national charts) combined both, with a lively jump rhythm, call-and response chorus and double-string electric guitar riffs that Chuck Berry would later admit to copping. Milt Gabler, who produced many of Jordan’s best records, also went on to work with Bill Haley and The Comets. “All the tricks I used with Louis Jordan, I used with Bill Haley,” he said.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2XDlNHzRCI

5. “Rocket 88” - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951)

In 1951, while driving to Memphis for a recording session, Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm wrote this song about the fastest car on the road - the Hydra Matic Drive V-8 Oldsmobile 88, nicknamed the Rocket 88. In the studio, the band cut the song with sax player Jackie Brenston singing lead. The record’s main innovation? The guitarist’s amplifier had a torn speaker, and producer Sam Phillips (who a few years later, would discover Elvis) jerry-rigged it, stuffing some packing paper in the speaker cone. The unexpected result was a fuzzy sound that defined the song’s raw vibe, and became a blueprint for the guitar tone of everyone from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones. Though Ike Turner claimed he wrote the song, it was credited to Jackie Brenston. It went to #1 on the R & B charts and gave Brenston a brief moment of stardom. Oldsmobile presented him with a brand new Rocket 88 in appreciation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcFIj8OuIEI

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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