The origin of rock and roll

The father of rock and roll and the king of rock and roll. (Not pictured: about a hundred black artists.)
The "father of rock and roll" and the "king of rock and roll." (Not pictured: about a hundred black artists.)

What was the origin of rock and roll? Scholars (and by scholars I mean stoner music majors) have debated it for centuries, at least as far back as 1750, when Methaius Palmer observed: “The back beat in the Negro jump music causes one’s body to rock, but the rhythm in the Negro spiritual causes one’s body to roll. This, say I, is the origin of the ‘rock and roll’ and not, as some have claimed, the Polack’s polka.” Indeed. But what exactly was the origin of rock and roll?

First, we need to ask what defines rock and roll. Rock and roll is, and always was, defined primarily by:

  • 4/4 time
  • a strong back beat
  • a strong, rolling rhythm
  • a blues scale melody
  • electric lead guitar

The blues scale arose out of African-American gospel music from the 19th century, and 4/4 time originated in jazz. The back beat was a feature of gospel (in the form of hand-clapping) and of rhythm and blues of the 1940s, which itself grew out of a combination of big band swing and intimate guitar and piano blues.

One thing that rock and roll most usually isn’t is simply syncopated. Syncopation is almost synonymous with swing music. (“Swinging” a tune essentially means adding a syncopated shuffle rhythm to horn jazz, which happened in the late 1930s.) A simple syncopated rhythm (extra impulses between the beats or other changes to the beat) is common to most forms of dance music, probably because it makes the dance moves easier to time. But rock and roll virtually killed partner dancing by 1962. It makes you want to move, but not in intricate choreography. Everything about rock and roll that conservatives of the 1950s feared was true. Rock and roll is not music to dance by; it’s music to make love by.

The direct predecessor of rock and roll was jump blues, which was a variant of rhythm and blues in the 1940s. This was popular with American blacks as dance music, since it was characterized by fast, upbeat, and syncopated rhythm. White audiences at the time preferred jazz, swing, and standards. Jump blues differed from rock and roll mainly in the syncopated rhythm and instrumentation (rhythm guitar rather than horns).

Because much early rock and roll used syncopated rhythm, it’s very difficult to say when the change occurred or what defines a song as one or the other. However, what is hard to get around is the fact that Bill Haley, most famous for “Rock Around the Clock” and a little on the white-bread side, was at the center of the mix of jump blues and electric-guitar-led country music that shifted popular music away from swing and made rock and roll king.

“My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll” (1922)

Probably the dirtiest 1920s song you’ve ever heard, “My Man Rocks Me…” is the blues lament of a woman who undergoes an exhausting around-the-clock lovemaking session. It’s the first recorded use of “rock” and “roll” to refer to sex, altho jazz musicians had been referring to “roll” and “jelly roll” for decades (Jelly Roll Morton was a ladies’ man, not a fat man).

Here it is in a terrific recent version by Regina Maria Pontillo—dirty, but probably no dirtier than the original.

“It’s Tight Like That” (1928)

Jazz thrilled black and white audiences alike in the 1920s, and hot jazz like “It’s Tight Like That” brought together the blues scale and syncopation to lay the foundation for rock and roll.

Here is a 1954 Dixieland jazz version by Chris Barber (I don’t know why the video features a picture of a sleeping dog).

“Rock and Roll” (1934)

The Boswell Sisters wouldn’t have recognized modern rock and roll if it walked up to them and snapped their garters, but they sang about their version of it in a marine-themed swing tune, probably inspired by the hep-cat lingo of the jazz musicians they hung out with, demonstrating that the term had come to be used primarily (or publicly, anyway) to mean dancing rather than sex.

Here it is in its original form.

“Back Beat Boogie” (1939)

In the Boston area in the 1930s, the “Boston beat” featured the whole band accentuating 2 and 4 beats of 4/4 time. Then in 1939, Harry James’s big band boogie woogie tune “Back Beat Boogie” had a proper back beat, with a slap bass helping out the drummer. This is different from simple syncopation in that it emphasizes certain beats themselves rather than added extra impulses between the beats.

Here it is in its original form.

“Freight Train Boogie ” (1946)

The Delmore Brothers used a hard-driving rhythm with a strong back beat in their hillbilly boogie woogie music in the 1940s, clearly influenced by the sound of trains, and heavily syncopated like the rhythm of a train.

Here it is in its original form.

“Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948)

Wynonie Harris covered blues man Roy Brown’s tune with a jump blues arrangement. With its emphasis on horns and syncopation, it’s still not quite rock and roll, but it’s fast approaching it. And it again demonstrates the lingo of “rock and roll” being applied to dancing (with, one imagines, a sly wink).

Here is it is its original form.

“The Fat Man” (1949)

Fat Domino was the titular “fat man,” of course, in this rhythm and blues tune that was likely the first R&B song to rely on the back beat thruout. This was the beat—and the boogie woogie piano triplets—copied by early rock and roll performers. But the rhythm is still old-school R&B: a walking bass line that rolls but never really rocks.

Here it is by Fats later in his career.

Alan Freed’s Moondog House (1951)

Not a song, of course, but an important development in the history of popular music, 29-year-old disc jockey Alan Freed started a rhythm and blues radio show and began referring to some of the music he played as “rock and roll.” Rather than being just a term for dancing, “rock and roll” became a musical style—altho one that had not yet fully matured. And, more important, was no longer just “race music” for Negroes but a full-fledged subculture of black and white performers and fans who cared little about race.

Freed later was sued for over the “Moondog” name and theme song and was forced to drop it. And his show was ended when he was fined as part of the payola scandal in 1958.

Here is Freed sounding off in “Rock and Roll Boogie.” It’s clear from this clip that Freed sometimes used “rock and roll” to refer to any rhythm and blues music he was promoting. He wasn’t any more precise than anyone else at the time.

“Rocket 88” (1951)

Ike Turner wrote it and gave it to his Rhythm Kings saxophonist Jackie Brenston to sing. His guitar amp had been damaged, and Sam Philips of Sun Records liked the fuzzy sound. The result was something that deviated from rhythm and blues in the peculiar way it rocked and rolled. It was apparently peculiar enough that the band credited it to “Jackie Brenston and His Rhythm Cats” instead of “Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings.” Many feel that this was the first rock and roll song and recording.

A few months later, country musician Bill Haley and the Saddlemen (soon to become Bill Haley and His Comets) covered the song for white audiences and gave it his trademark twanging guitar sound.

These two things: distortion and twang (mixed with that all-important back beat) would define and divide rock and roll for the next 20 years. The Bill Haley twanging guitar—used even more successfully by Chuck Berry—became rockabilly. And the fuzz guitar became hard rock, which eventually won out (The Stray Cats notwithstanding). Many feel that this was the first rock and roll recording.

Here is Turner’s version.

Here is Haley’s version.

“Rock the Joint” (1952)

If “Rocket 88” wasn’t clear enough, Bill Haley followed up with “Rock the Joint,” a nonsensical dance song borrowed from Big Joe Turner and rearranged to exchange the boogie woogie for something that’s no longer jump blues and—perhaps—not quite rock and roll. Turner’s version is a jump blues with boogie woogie piano and Big Joe’s “shout blues” vocal style that would be copied by rock and rollers forever and which would make parents say “that isn’t singing; that’s just yelling.”

Here is Big Joe Turner’s 1949 version.

Here is Bill Haley’s version. For my money, this is the first rock and roll recording. But hey, did the guy who put the tip on the Great Pyramid “build” it?

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (1954)

Just as Big Joe Turner provided the source for “Rock the Joint,” so he did again for “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” a few years later. Again, Turner’s version was jump blues with boogie woogie piano, while Bill Haley converted it to what is as close to rock and roll as you can get without—perhaps—quite crossing that line. Haley and Turner became quite good friends, and sometimes performed together in the 1960s.

Here is Big Joe Turner’s early 1954 version.

Here is Bill Haley’s slightly later 1954 version. If this isn’t rock and roll, I don’t know what is.

“Rock Around the Clock” (1954)

By 1954, the idea of rocking and rolling as dancing let even a mainstream white musician with country roots like Bill Haley sing about rocking around the clock without shocking the conscious of too many people (crazy religious record burnings notwithstanding). With the tune appropriated from Hank Williams’ 1947 country blues “Move it on Over” sped up and augmented somewhat, this is undeniably rock and roll music, from its beat and its rhythm to its instrumentation and its vocal. For many people who saw 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and the next generation that encountered it as the theme to Happy Days, rock and roll starts here.

“That’s All Right” (1954)

This was a more enthusiastic interpretation (as many of Elvis’s songs were) of an upbeat electric blues tune by (in this case) Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Elvis’s version has the countriest of country music openings and was also syncopated like a train’s shuffle beat; it’s classified as rock and roll instead of electrified country blues mainly because of its performer. The arrangement is virtually identical to Big Boy’s 1949 version and was recorded and released a couple of months after “Rock and Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Still, in 2004, Rolling Stone considered this the first rock and roll recording.

Here is Big Boy’s 1949 version.

Here is Elvis’s 1954 version.

“Tutti Frutti” (1955)

Little Richard applied his Pentecostal gospel upbringing (and flamboyant personality) to jump blues and broke into white homes with this bit of bizarre nonsense (thanks to a rewrite of the filthy original lyrics) with an insanely catchy melody. It was a song so powerful that it even thrilled teenagers who heard Pat Boone’s white-bread-and-mayonnaise version.

Here is Little Richard’s version. And no, I don’t know why anyone would imagine that this song is a good choice to learn English from. (The real lyric is “all rooty,” which was slang for “all right” and replaced “good booty.”)

Here is Boone’s version, which he did reluctantly because he didn’t understand the song.

“Maybellene” (1955)

Chuck Berry became inspired by the fiddle tune “Ida Red”—which had recently been rearranged as (the terrible) “Ida Red Likes to Boogie”—and wrote himself a similar song in 4/4 time (instead of 2/4), with much different lyrics, and played it with rhythm and blues instrumentation with the twanging guitar popularized by Bill Haley to create his first hit, a classic of early rock and roll that popularized the rockabilly sound.

Other notables

Also released in 1955 were Bo Diddley’s electric blues with a country twist called “Bo Diddley” and Carl Perkins’s rockabilly “Blue Suede Shoes.”

1956 saw Gene Vincent’s stripped-bare “Be-Bob-A-Lula,” Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Hound Dog,” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up,” and Bill Haley’s “See You Later Alligator.”

Bill Haley’s music soon became repetitive and even retro, trying to rock tunes like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and even nursery rhymes. He had no more hits after 1957, and at 32, was already being edged out by younger, more electrifying performers—especially Elvis, but also the many black performers that his music opened the way for.

Of course, rock and roll didn’t end stop developing in 1956. The bobby-soxers were still dancing at that point. But when Elvis and Little Richard took the simple syncopation out of the mix, the girls stopped dancing and starting screaming.

Now that’s rock and roll.

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