This week we’re going way back for a look at the earliest rock and roll acts. I don’t know if it’s possible to pinpoint the first true rock and roll song but we’ll look at some of the candidates.
Many jazz, blues and R&B acts of the late ’40s and early ’50s recorded songs that had all the musical elements but in my opinion an essential ingredient of early rock and roll was (usually Southern) white boys playing black music. This was more than just making black music palatable to white teenagers; the white bands added their own country music spin and created something new and exciting. So for this discussion we’ll exclude black acts like Fats Domino and Little Richard, as well as white hillbilly acts like Arkie Shibley, The Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams. As great as they were, they were grounded in their own genres and didn’t ignite the same kind of hysteria as the rock and roll boys.
Rock The Joint – Bill Haley & The Comets 1952
Many people assume 1954’s Rock Around The Clock was Bill Haley’s first rock and roll record but much of that song (including the guitar solo) was cribbed from their earlier song Rock The Joint. It was a cover of an R&B song first recorded in 1949 by Jimmy Preston. The rocking R&B number blended well with the The Comets’ Western Swing style and sure sounds a lot like rock and roll to me.
I should mention that Bill Haley also recorded a version of Rocket 88 in 1951 that some consider rock and roll but to my ears it sounds a little too Western Swing-ish. You could argue that the steel guitar in Rock The Joint also puts it more in the Western Swing camp but I’m not convinced of that.
It was in 1954 that radio DJ Alan Freed started playing this type of music on his The Rock and Roll Show in New York City, which popularized both the music and the new name for it. So I think 1954 is a good year to look for the first true rock and roll song.
That’s Alright – Elvis Presley 1954
On July 5, 1954 Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were taking a break in the Sun Studios recording room where they were working on Elvis’ first recordings of country and blues covers. Scotty Moore recalled what happened next:
“We were taking a break and, all of sudden, Elvis started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill Black picked up his bass and began acting the fool too, and I started playing with them. Sam had the door to the control room open, and stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ We said, ‘We don’t know’. He said, ‘Well, back up. Try to find a place to start, and do it again’. So we kinda talked it over and figured out a little bit what we were doin’. We ran it again, and of course Sam is listenin’. ‘Bout the third or fourth time through, we just cut it.”
That’s All Right became Elvis’ first single and you can make a pretty good case for it being the first true rock and roll record. It has the musical elements but more importantly it’s Elvis’ vocals and charisma that comes through even in this early recording that laid the foundation for rock and roll.
Rock Island Line – Lonnie Donnegan 1954
At virtually the same time Elvis was recording That’s All Right, an Englishman named Lonnie Donnegan was also covering the black music of America. Lonnie Donnegan was more drawn to the folk style of Leadbelly than the harder edged blues and R&B that inspired the Americans. The result was skiffle, a style typified by washboards, banjoes and upbeat tempos. Rock Island Line was Donnegan’s first of many hits.
Donnegan was every bit as influential in Great Britain as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley were in America. It was in 1957 that John Lennon and Paul McCartney met and formed their own skiffle band, The Quarrymen and that same year a very young Jimmy Page appeared on TV with a skiffle band of his own.
Maybellene – Chuck Berry 1955
It wasn’t all a one way street, however. There was at least one black musician who was heavily influenced by white music: St. Louis-based blues guitarist Chuck Berry. Berry played blues in the black clubs and country in the white clubs. Inevitably the two styles mixed and Berry became hugely popular with both black and white audiences. In early 1955 he recorded his first single, Maybellene, and put the electric guitar front and center.
You could make a case that the earlier songs weren’t quite rock and roll but there’s no mistaking this one, it’s pure rock and roll all the way through.
Those are my candidates for the first rock and roll song. What are yours?