Rocking was a term first 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.
First Rock and Roll Record
There are many candidates for the title of the first Rock and Roll record. Numerous recordings mark the development of rock and roll as a separate musical form. Some songs are cited as having important lyrical content, others are seen as offering important melodic, harmonic or rhythmic influence. These songs include not only hits from the 1950s when the music emerged on the national and international scene, but also earlier precursors.
Wild cards from the 1920s and 1930s that seemed then to have come from nowhere but now clearly foreshadow rock and roll:
* "My Daddy Rocks Me (with One Good Steady Roll)" by Trixie Smith (1922). Although it was played with a backbeat and was one of the first "around the clock" lyrics, this slow minor-key blues was by no means rock and roll in the modern sense. On the other hand, the title certainly underscores the original meaning attached to those two words (both of four letters), rock and roll.
* "Tiger Rag" by the Washboard Rhythm Kings, (1931) virtually out of control performance with screeching vocals, a strange tiger roar, and rocking washboard. This recording is standing in for many performances by spasm bands, jug bands, and skiffle groups that have the same wild, informal feel that early rock and roll had.
Tunes from the 1930s and 1940s that were early indicators of an important change in the music world:
* "Roll 'Em Pete" by Pete Johnson and Joe Turner (1938) driving boogie woogie and a masterful collation of blues verses
* "Flying Home" by Lionel Hampton and his orchestra (1939), tenor sax solo by Illinois Jacquet, recreated and refined live by Arnett Cobb, the model for rock and roll solos ever since, emotional, honking, long, not just an instrumental break but the keystone of the song. (The Benny Goodman Sextet had a popular hit with a subdued "jazz chamber music" version of the same song featuring guitarist Charlie Christian.)
* "Rock Me" by the Lucky Millinder Orchestra with Sister Rosetta Tharpe vocals and guitar, a gospel song done like a city blues
* "I Wonder" by Cecil Gant (1944), an early black ballad performance that became widely popular, the first of the black tenors.
* "Straighten Up and Fly Right" by Nat King Cole (1946), very light on the rocking, but a popular hit with lyrics from African American folk tale, like Bo Diddley, but without the beat
* "Let the Good Times Roll" by Louis Jordan (1946)
* "Oakie Boogie"; by Jack Guthrie (1947)
* "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee"; by Stick McGhee and his Buddies (1949)
* "Ragg Mopp" by Johnny Lee Wills and Deacon Anderson (1949), strange little novelty tune, the lyrics are simply the title spelled out or yelled out, re-released in 1954 by the Ames Brothers.
The hits from the 1950s typically are seen with an early performance much in the rhythm and blues style and a later cover performance more in the rock and roll vein. Often, the first performance was by a black artist and the second by a white artist. These white covers, while at the time sometimes disdained as exploitive and derivative, were a necessary part of the transition of the music. Nor were they all pale imitations, but sometimes earnest remakes by sympathetic performers, and more than a few were recognized as superior recordings to the originals.
* "Good Rocking Tonight" (1949) by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, both black artists; Brown's original version is jump blues while Harris's version is definitely more modern rock and roll. Later heartily covered by Elvis Presley and less heartily by Pat Boone.
* "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino (1949), featuring Fats on wah-wah mouth trumpet, the first of his 35 Top 40 hits.
* "Rock Me to Sleep" written by Benny Carter and Paul Vandervoort II (1950), recorded by Helen Humes backed by the Marshall Royal Orchestra.
* "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (actually Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm) (1951), and Bill Haley and the Saddlemen (1951)
* "Crazy Man, Crazy", (1953) Bill Haley and his Comets, first rock and roll record on Billboard magazine chart. Not a cover, but an original. Haley said he heard the phrase at high-school dances his band was playing.
* "Rock Around the Clock", (1954) by Bill Haley and his Comets, first number 1 rock and roll record
* "Shake, Rattle and Roll", (1954) by Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley and his Comets, and Elvis Presley. Haley's version was the first international hit rock and roll record, actually predating the success of "Rock Around the Clock" by several months, though it was recorded later.
* "That's All Right (Mama)", (1954) by Elvis Presley; this cover of Arthur Crudup's tune was Elvis' first single, and is possibly the song most often cited (albeit inaccurately) as the first rock and roll record.
* "Sh-boom" (1954) by the Chords and the Crewcuts, in this case, the latter was a pale imitation. The song is considered a pioneer of the doo-wop variant.
* "Maybellene", (1955) by Chuck Berry
In 2004, debate was sparked between fans of Elvis who claimed "That's All Right Mama" was the first rock and roll song, with those who feel the proper claimant should be Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock"--both songs celebrating their 50th anniversaries that year. Rolling Stone Magazine took the controversial step of unilaterally declaring Elvis' song the first rock and roll recording, attracting criticism from many quarters.
The Rise Of Rock 'N' Roll
By Dr. Frank Hoffmann
(Professor, Library Science - Sam Houston State University)