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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.