More Origins – Sam Philips, Leonard Chess, and the early labels

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Remember what I said in the first rock and roll lesson about it being all about cars and girls? The first is why Hot Rod Race and Rocket 88 are important. Rocket 88 is also the first hit appearance by a bloke named Ike Turner. The history books (not to mention Ike’s ex-wife Tina Turner) tell us that Ike was a right bastard. He was, however, instrumental in a number of hits, primarily with Tina.

As Muddy Waters sang, The blues, they had a baby, and they called it rock and roll. We’ve already looked at the proto-rock and roll of the late 40s and early 50s. By the time the 50s really got going, there was the blues-based stuff coming out of Chicago and country-based stuff coming out of Memphis – cities we’re already well familiar with from the birth of Jazz.

Note: Not all of the tracks on the playlist get mention here, but give them all a listen because versions of them show up later in rock history. Start listening here with Boogie in the Park.

Hank Ballard and the MidnightersImportant goodies here are the Dominoes’ Sixty Minute Man and Hank Ballard’s Work With Me Annie because, to be blunt, they’re among the first popular songs to be about sex without masking the matter or making any apologies for it. The Dominoes (whose vocalist Clyde McPhatter later founded the Drifters) and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded for the Syd Nathan’s King label out of Cincinnati. James Brown recorded for King or one of its subsidiaries from 1956 until 1971. (I’ve done a little bouncing around the internet for info on Mr. Nathan. With a name like that, he was probably tribe. This is supported by the notation that he’s buried in Judah Touro, a Reform cemetery in Cincinnati.

The first records released in what became the King group of labels were country and hillbilly records popular with transplants from Appalachia and R&B records sold to blacks who’d moved up from the South. The label was racially integrated, but this seems to be because there were two markets for music product and Nathan was willing to sell to both. I’ve included a couple of Bull Moose Jackson tracks as examples of early hits on the King label. Good Blues Tonight is an interesting take on Wynonie Harris’ 1948 Good Rockin’ Tonight. Big Ten Inch Record will come up again when we look at the hard rock of the 1970s and how much that was influenced by old blues.

Sam Philips had a similar idea to Nathan’s. As I’ve mentioned before, the pop industry has a habit of taking songs by black artists and having white artists perform them. This probably started early in the jazz era, but Sam Philips, the founder of Sun Records (and also the guy who recorded Rocket 88) is also credited with the line “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Theory is, he found that man in Elvis Presley. Alas, a couple of years after signing Elvis, he sold the contract to RCA for 35 grand, and never did so well again. Elvis recorded for RCA for over 20 years, until his death in 1977. And while RCA may not have made a billion off of Elvis while Elvis was alive, over the last 55 years, they might very well have done so.

Sun Records of Memphis Tennessee calls itself the place “Where Rock and Roll was Born,” and there’s something to be said for that. Elvis got his start there. So did Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. Orbison left early on because songs like Ooby Dooby weren’t what he wanted to base his career on.

With those names, Philips should have done much better for himself, but lacked, it seems, a certain business acumen.

Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog and Junior Parker’s Mystery Train are the original hits performed by black artists that were later early hits for Elvis Presley. Big Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle and Roll was later a hit for Bill Haley.

Another Sun artist, Little Milton, left for Chess records. Based in Chicago, the Chess group (Chess, Checker, Cadet, Argo and one or two others) specialised in blues, R&B and early rock and roll. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley all recorded for Chess. Dixon also wrote a lot of the hits for other Chess artists including Muddy’s You Shook Me and Howlin’ Wolf’s Little Red Rooster.

The Chess brothers were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago in the late 1920s, and like Nathan, had no trouble making and selling records of all kinds to all audiences willing to buy. That said, Chess, as you might gather from the bit above, was the home of the blues in the early 50s. Bo Diddley, however, was one of the main progenitors of rock and roll. In recent years, many have referred to ‘the Bo Diddley beat’ that he made popular in songs such as Hey Bo Diddley and that has been used to great effect in rock and roll ever since. One could also argue that Say Man is one of the first hip-hop songs. Its use of the dozens predates the insults traded by rap artists in the 1980s by three decades.

Specialty Records, founded in 1946 out of Los Angeles wasn’t a large label, but a few more cornerstones of rock and roll are found there. Among other folks, Little Richard recorded his first hits there (before his first retirement from rock and roll in 1958 or so).

Founded by Arthur Rupe, another nice Jewish boy (this time from the suburbs of Pittsburgh), Specialty’s releases reflected Rupe’s love for R&B and gospel. Jimmy Liggins recorded Drunk and Cadillac Boogie in the late 40s and you can hear that jump style that Louis Jordan and Louis Prima popularized. Liggins’ brother Joe Liggins also had hits in the late 40s, notably with The Honeydripper. Larry Williams and Lloyd Price had hits for Specialty that were later recorded by the early British Invasion bands including Lawdy Miss Clawdy by the Beatles. I’ve included Price’s #1 hit version of Stagger Lee as one of literally hundreds of versions of this story of gambling, sex, and murder. (Published in 1911, the earliest recorded version is from 1923.)

(Sidenote: Hound Dog was a Leiber/Stoller composition – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two young white (and Jewish) guys, Leiber from Long Island, Stoller from LA who wrote a number of hits in the 50s. When the label they started was bought by Atlantic Records, the two were hired to continue writing. Hits they had there include Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, The Coasters’ Charlie Brown, and the Drifters’ On Broadway.)