A storm coming together of the blaring horns of swing music, the development of the electric guitar by the late great Les Paul, electric blues out of Chicago, country boogie woogie, independent record labels like Atlantic, Chess (Leonard and Phil Chess – nice Jewish Boys), and Sam Phillips’ Sun Records (home of Jerry Lee Lewis and first label of Elvis Presley before Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA). Specialty Records another early big one. This stuff all comes in the 50s.

There are arguments to be made, however, that the origins of rock and roll date back at least to the 30s. I’ve chosen fourteen songs from the Wikipedia early rock and roll page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_rock_and_roll) as examples of nascent rock music.

The songs that were the first rock and roll hits came in the early 50s, but, as noted, there were sounds coming from all over that contributed to the rock and roll sound. And the earliest influences, by some accounts, were recorded in the 20s. The thing to keep in mind, as the article states, is that every opinion is based on the person’s own criteria – there’s no real standard.

Wynonie Harris’ version of Good Rockin’ Tonight, Louis Jordan’s Caldonia, Jimmy Preston’s Rock This Joint are all early moves from swing and R&B to what rock and roll would sound like when polished by people like Sam Philips (founder of Sun Records – we’ll get to him in the next Rock lesson).

It’s hard to discuss early rock and roll without noting that the term often refers to both dancing and sex (which, some have noted, is also true of the term ‘jazz’), but the phrase also has a gospel sense. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Rock Me is a spiritual:

You hold me in the bosom / Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of our love / Only feed me till I want no more
Then you take me to your blessed home above

(Much later, Jackson Browne’s Rock Me On The Water had a similar usage.)

While Wynonie Harris’ version of Good Rockin’ Tonight definitely has the non-spiritual sense to it, in several stanzas he uses the phrase ‘heard the news’ which is a traditional reference to the gospels.

This weaving together of the sacred and the profane finds its way into many different corners of the rock landscape. Doo Wop and R&B always had the church choir influence – this is where many rock/R&B/soul singers learned to harmonize. Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston all had gospel backgrounds.

Country blues (also known as folk blues) music has a slightly different feel than the blues we’ve covered in the jazz lessons. It tends to be performed with solo acoustic guitar (and occasionally harmonica). I’ve included Jim Johnson’s Kansas City Blues because you can trace his style down through Hank Williams (the first, not to be confused with country star Hank Williams Jr. and Hank III, his son and grandson) and in one direction to Bob Dylan and the late 50s/early 60s folk scene and on to the boogie of ZZ Top and others in the ‘southern fried rock’ bands of the 70s (April Wine, .38 Special, etc.).

Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith’s Pinetop Boogie Woogie has a stride piano base, and mostly has for lyrics instructions to the band to do various things. This format can be heard much later in Ray Bryant’s Madison Time (with which I’m pretty sure you’re familiar) and a whole lot of James Brown (“Can I hit it and quit it?” from Sex Machine, for example).

The Washboard Rhythm Kings’ version of Tiger Rag is notable for being thoroughly unhinged. Note that the music of the jug band tradition (that of turning household objects into cheap musical instruments) would influence musicians in the small folk clubs of the early 60s. In Palo Alto, there was Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions who would soon change their name to the Warlocks and finally to the Grateful Dead.

And here’s an earlier, equally off the hook version of Tiger Rag: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWSnT62X8uA

And a much more recent version, I think from a Les Paul tribute concert featuring Jeff Beck and Imelda May: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy3P7Ry94cQ

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s relatively small body of recorded work was mostly unrecognized while he was alive. He died in 1938, and might be the first member of the 27 club, about which more later. Johnson’s complete recordings comprise only 42 recordings (including alternate takes) and fit on two CDs. However, the 1961 reissue, Columbia’s King of the Delta Blues Singers influenced a whole load of musicians including B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant. (Yeah, four of those are white English boys. In a few months I’ll do a lesson on the American Invasion of Britain that predates the British Invasion.)

On these solo blues recordings you can hear what became the twin-guitar approach of four-person rock and roll bands. On I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Johnson alternates between playing chords and more rapid individual notes. In most folk/folk blues you generally just get the chords.

It’s not just Johnson’s guitar technique that was influential. The songs themselves were covered by groups across the rock and roll spectrum and have become blues and rock standards.

The rhythms of Bob Willis’ Ida Red would find their way into Chuck Berry’s late 50s hits for Specialty including Maybelline.

To illustrate how swing threads its way into rock and roll, I’ve added two versions of Louis Jordan’s fantastic Caldonia. The first is a piano-based boogie woogie, the second featuring electric guitar. I’ve also included the full version of his 1949 Saturday Night Fish Fry which includes the chorus:

 It was rocking / It was rocking
You never seen such scufflin’ and shufflin’
Til the break of dawn

(I think this is an editing together of both sides of the original 78. Not sure.) Of course, using the word rocking in the refrain helps identify it as an early rock record (and was noted as such by Chuck Berry), but that phrase “til the break of dawn” would later haunt more cut-rate hip-hop songs than you can shake a tail feather at.

Arthur Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right Mamma was later covered by Elvis Presley for his first single, though Rock Me Mama was originally Crudup’s bigger hit.

You met Nat “King” Cole, in the last jazz lesson. His rendition of Bobby Troup’s Route 66 was a hit in 1946 and was later covered by numerous rock bands including the Rolling Stones (in 1963, I think) and the Replacements (in 1987). Another argument made about rock and roll is that it has two subjects: cars and girls. What made the car part of the argument possible was the post-war expansion of the US highway system. A single highway from Chicago to Los Angeles was well worth singing about.

And finally, we’ve got Jimmy Preston’s Rock This Joint (1949). Like Good Rockin’ Tonight, it has that repeating reference to secular rocking. One story is that this was the track that led Cleveland DJ Alan Freed to apply the term rock and roll to rhythm and blues music as early as 1951. A lot of late 40s R&B which would have been termed race music for the purposes of record charts would also have been unheard by most white audiences until Freed started playing it on his radio show. Of this, more in the next report.

Oh, and there’s one other thing. Teenagers. With America’s post-war affluence and growing middle class, due in part to the GI bill, strong unions, and a very strong economy, young people for the first time had a disposable income and corporations of many kinds were keen to exploit it. This will be a recurring theme as rock and roll becomes a commodity.

Next up: The Labels