Origins of rock and roll  

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"Because they're anti-Negro, that's why"--Alan Freed


"The Cramps's sound was heavily influenced by Sun Records rockabilly and proto-rock'n'roll like Link Wray and Hasil Adkins, 1960s surf music acts such as The Ventures and Dick Dale, 1960s garage rock artists like The Standells, The Gants, The Trashmen, Green Fuz and The Sonics, as well as the post-glam/early punk scene from which they emerged. Production-wise they were influenced by Alex Chilton. Their influences and/or the songs they covered were compiled in the Born Bad series."--Sholem Stein


"You probably do not doubt that the origins of rock and roll are bawdy in nature. You've read Gershon Legman and his fellow travelers to take note. You know why Scheherazade was not killed by the king.

Yet you don't know American record label Federal Records and their 1951 "Sixty Minute Man", on which a male singer boasts of being able to satisfy his girls with fifteen minutes each of "kissin'" "teasin'" and "squeezin'", before "blowin'" his "top." The single reached #1 on the R&B chart in May 1951 and stayed there for a 14 weeks.

"Work with Me, Annie?" (1954) is a equally a mystery. A single that was immediately opposed by the the regulator of the American airwaves but went on to be an enormous hit. The double entendres in the "Annie" lyrics, Hank Ballard's baritone and excited squeals backed by the group's 'ah-oom' were accompanied by a boogie piano, a driving electric guitar and a booming electric bass. "Work With Me, Annie" defined what was to become rock and roll which has always been about wine, women and song.

Rock and roll descends from the dirty blues that gave us "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (1954). In fact rock and roll is so bawdy that I doubt that white boys such as Leiber and Stoller could have written the sexual innuendo in "Hound Dog". They probably heard it in an African-American Vernacular English version in a juke joint (I heard a version not so long ago which went "you ain't looking for a woman, you just looking for a ho"), bowdlerized it and released it in a version palatable to the WASP crowd.

And the need to please the WASP is also the reason for Elvis's "One Night (song)" (1958) and Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" (1934). The latter had its drug reference "I get no kick from cocaine," changed to "I get perfume from Spain" for radio airplay, the earlier was first titled "One Night of Sin." And equally drug related is "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine" (1946) by Harry Gibson.

And then there is Pat Boone. The man who covered Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" (1955), a song which originally had bawdy lyrics full of gay sexual doubles entendres."--Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Rock and roll emerged as a defined musical style in America in the 1950s, though elements of rock and roll can be seen in rhythm and blues records as far back as the 1920s. Early rock and roll combined elements of blues, boogie woogie, jazz and rhythm and blues, and is also influenced by traditional folk music, gospel music, and country and western.

Contents

Origins of the name rock and roll

The first coupling of the words "rock" and "roll" on record came in 1916, in a recording of a spiritual, "The Camp Meeting Jubilee", by an unnamed vocal "quartette" issued by Little Wonder Records. The lyrics include "We've been rocking and rolling in your arms / Rocking and rolling in your arms / In the arms of Moses". In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded "My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)", first featuring the two words in a secular context. Twelve years later, The Boswell Sisters had a hit with "Rock and Roll" (1934).

However, for many years and probably centuries previously, the term "rocking and rolling" had been used as a nautical term to denote the side-to-side and forward-and-backward motion of ships on the ocean. This meaning was used metaphorically in such records as Buddy Jones' "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (1939) - "Waves on the ocean, waves in the sea/ But that gal of mine rolls just right for me/ Rockin' rollin' mama, I love the way you rock and roll".

Rocking was a term also used by gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. A double, ironic, meaning came to popular awareness in 1947 in blues artist Roy Brown's song "Good Rocking Tonight" (also covered the next year by Wynonie Harris in an even wilder version), in which "rocking" was ostensibly about dancing but was in fact a thinly-veiled allusion to sex. Such double-entendres were nothing new in blues music (which was mostly limited in exposure to jukeboxes and clubs) but were new to the radio airwaves. After the success of "Good Rocking Tonight" many other rhythm and blues artists used similar titles through the late 1940s including a song called "Rock and Roll" recorded by Wild Bill Moore in 1949. These songs were relegated to "race music" (the music industry code name for rhythm and blues) outlets and were barely known by mainstream white audiences.

In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed would begin playing this type of music for his white audience, and it is Freed who is credited with coining the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the rollicking R&B music that he brought to the airwaves. The term, with its simultaneous allusions to dancing, sex, and the sound of the music itself, stuck even with those who didn't absorb all the meanings.

Originally Freed used the name Moondog for himself and any concerts or promotions he put on. This arose from the fact he used a piece of music called "Moondog Symphony" by the street musician Moondog as his repeated opening music for his radio show. Moondog subsequently sued Freed on grounds that he was stealing his name. Since Freed was no longer allowed to use the term Moondog he needed a new catch phrase. After a night of heavy drinking he and his friends came up with the name "The Rock and Roll Party" since he was already using the phrase "Rock and Roll Session" to describe the music he was playing on his radio show. Since his show was extremely popular the term caught on and the subsequent public used it to describe a certain form of music.

"The first rock and roll record"

According to some, notably music historian Peter Guralnick, the first rock and roll record was "Rocket 88", by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (written by 19-year-old Ike Turner, also the session leader) and recorded by Sam Phillips for his Memphis Recording Service in 1951 (the master tape being sold to and later released by Chess Records). But this may be the result of shameless self-promotion on Phillips' part, as many other records recorded in the same time period or earlier are equal, or better, contenders for this title. Wynonie Harris' 1947 cover of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" is probably the most legitimate claimant for the title of first rock and roll record, as the popularity of this record led to many answer songs, mostly by black artists, with the same rocking beat, during the late 40's and early 50's. (Roy Brown's original had a shuffle blues beat, not quite rocking, but Wynonie Harris changed the rhythm to a rocking gospel beat with hand clapping on the backbeat, which distinguishes it from previous records). Others have pointed to the later broad commercial success with white audiences of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" or "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets as true starting points. Still others point out that performers like Arthur Crudup and Fats Domino were recording blues songs as early as 1946 that are indistinguishable from later rock and roll, and that these blues songs were based on themes, chord changes, and rhythms dating back decades before that. Crudup's That's All Right recorded with an electric guitar in 1946 is similar in style to Elvis's version recorded in 1954.

Rhythm and Blues sax player and band leader Louis Jordan actually broke into the pop charts in the mid-forties with the rocker "Caldonia". In 1947 Jack Guthrie and his group The Oaklahomans had a hit with "Oakie Boogie", basically a mix of boogie woogie with hillbilly and an electric guitar thrown in (a fairly new invention in 1947). Benny Carter, a co-author of "Cow Cow Boogie" (Capitol Records first gold single) back in 1942, wrote the jazz-swing song "Rock Me to Sleep" with Paul Vandervoort II in 1950...

Early rock

first rock and roll record

There is much debate as to what should be considered the first rock & roll record. One leading contender is "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which was, in fact, Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm recording under a different name), recorded by Sam Phillips for Sun Records in 1951. Four years later, Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (1955) became the first rock and roll song to top Billboard magazine's main sales and airplay charts, and opened the door worldwide for this new wave of popular culture. Rolling Stone magazine argued in 2004 that "That's All Right (Mama)" (1954), Elvis Presley's first single for Sun Records in Memphis, was the first rock and roll record. But, at the same time, Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll", later covered by Haley, was already at the top of the Billboard R&B charts.

Turner was one of many forerunners. His 1939 recording, "Roll 'Em Pete", is close to '50s rock and roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also recording shouting, stomping music in the 1930s and 1940s that in some ways contained major elements of mid-1950s rock and roll. She scored hits on the pop charts as far back as 1938 with her gospel songs, such as "This Train" and "Rock Me", and in the 1940s with "Strange Things Happenin' Every Day", "Up Above My Head", and "Down by the Riverside." . Other significant records of the 1940s and early 1950s included Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" and Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" and Amos Milburn's "Chicken Shack Boogie" (all 1947); Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint" and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and Big Joe Turner's "Ooo-Ouch-Stop" (all 1949); and Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon" (1951).

Both rock and roll and boogie woogie have four beats (usually broken down into eight eighth-notes/quavers) to a bar, and follow twelve-bar blues chord progression. Rock and roll however has a greater emphasis on the backbeat than boogie woogie. Little Richard combined boogie-woogie piano with a heavy backbeat and over-the-top, shouted, gospel-influenced vocals that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says "blew the lid off the '50s." However, others before Little Richard were combining these elements, including Esquerita, Cecil Gant, Amos Milburn, Piano Red, and Harry Gibson. Little Richard's wild style, with shouts and "woo woos," had itself been used by female gospel singers, including the 1940s' Marion Williams. Roy Brown did a Little Richard style "yaaaaaaww" long before Richard in "Ain't No Rockin no More."

Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm A Man" introduced a new, pounding beat, and unique guitar playing that inspired many artists. Other artists with early rock and roll hits were Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as well as many vocal doo-wop groups. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's website, "While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together." Within the decade crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the previous decade of popular music, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed.

Rockabilly

"Rockabilly" usually (but not exclusively) refers to the type of rock and roll music which was played and recorded in the mid 1950s by white singers such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who drew mainly on the Country roots of the music. Many other popular rock and roll singers of the time, such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, came out of the black rhythm and blues tradition, making the music attractive to white audiences, and are not usually classed as "rockabilly".

In July 1954, Elvis Presley recorded the regional hit "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sam Phillips' Sun studios in Memphis. Two months earlier in May 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Although only a minor hit when first released, when used in the opening sequence of the movie Blackboard Jungle, a year later, it really set the rock and roll boom in motion. The song became one of the biggest hits in history, and frenzied teens flocked to see Haley and the Comets perform it, causing riots in some cities. "Rock Around the Clock" was a breakthrough for both the group and for all of rock and roll music. If everything that came before laid the groundwork, "Clock" introduced the music to a global audience.

Cover versions

Many of the earliest white rock and roll hits were covers or partial re-writes of earlier rhythm and blues or blues songs. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, R&B music had been gaining a stronger beat and a wilder style, with artists such as Fats Domino and Johnny Otis speeding up the tempos and increasing the backbeat to great popularity on the juke joint circuit. Before the efforts of Freed and others, black music was taboo on many white-owned radio outlets. However, savvy artists and producers quickly recognized the potential of rock, and raced to cash in with white versions of this black music. White musicians also fell in love with the music and played it everywhere they could. This, however, is somewhat unfair and a lot of the early rock hits were country based songs too. Many of Presley's early hits were covers, like "That's All Right" (a countryfied arrangement of a blues number, its flip side Blue Moon of Kentucky was also successful), "Baby, Let's Play House", "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Hound Dog". "Heartbreak Hotel", the song that brought Presley to a worldwide audience (and his first ever release that was not a cover) was composed by country writers.

Covering was customary in the music industry at the time; it was made particularly easy by the compulsory license provision of United States copyright law (still in effect ). One of the first successful rock and roll covers was Wynonie Harris's transformation of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" from a jump blues to a showy rocker. The most notable trend, however, was white pop covers of black R&B numbers. Exceptions to this rule included Wynonie Harris covering the Louis Prima rocker "Oh Babe" in 1950, and Amos Milburn covering what may have been the first white rock and roll record, Hardrock Gunter's "Birmingham Bounce," in 1949.

Black performers saw their songs recorded by white performers, an important step in the dissemination of the music, but often at the cost of feeling and authenticity (not to mention revenue). Most famously, Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs, though Boone found "Long Tall Sally" so intense that he couldn't cover it. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well. Little Richard once called Pat Boone from the audience and introduced him as "the man who made me a millionaire."

The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley's incompletely bowdlerized cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" transformed Big Joe Turner's humorous and racy tale of adult love into an energetic teen dance number, while Georgia Gibbs replaced Etta James's tough, sarcastic vocal in "Roll With Me, Henry" (covered as "Dance With Me, Henry") with a perkier vocal more appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the song to which James's song was an answer, Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie."

Blues would continue to inspire rock performers for decades. Delta blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Skip James also proved to be important inspirations for British blues-rockers such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. The reverse, black artists making hits with covers of songs by white songwriters, although less common, did occur. Amos Milburn got a hit with Don Raye's "Down the Road a Piece," Maurice Rocco covered Raye's "Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,", Chuck Berry's first hit single Maybellene was a rewritten version of Bob Wills' Ida Red, and Wynonie Harris covered "Don't Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes At Me" by Hank Penny and "Oh, Babe" by Louis Prima, for the R&B market.


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