By the author of
This week’s blog started as the outline to a “History of Rock and Roll” class I teach as part of my job as Rock Ensemble instructor at The Center for Creative Youth. Over the years I’ve filled it out a little more and I thought it would be fun to share it here to start some conversations (and perhaps some friendly debates) regarding what is (or isn’t) Rock and Roll. Comment and criticism as quite welcome.
For fun (at the bottom) I have included a simple, “Evolution of the Blues” chord chart, as most of the songs mentioned either feature a 12 Bar Blues pattern or at least were born out of the form. There are also Youtube links for all of the songs mentioned in my top eight.
Note: I was born in 1971 so I have no personal connection with the birth of Rock and Roll. All my knowledge is secondhand so I am very open to feedback.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST ROCK AND ROLL SONG?
So what is the first Rock and Roll song? Unfortunately it is really impossible to say. There are too many vague and arbitrary factors to consider most of all, what one considers the essential features of Rock and Roll to be, not to mention: Release Date, Billboard Charting, Lyrical Content, Sales, Intent, Radio Play, the list goes on and on. But there are a few essential contenders. I’m going to list them in order by year, with a few “rules” for what I think qualifies them as Rock and Roll songs as opposed to R&B, Pop or Country Western songs.
CONTENDERS FOR FIRST ROCK AND ROLL SONG: Chronological
- Rocket 88: Ike Turner 1951
- Even though this song sounds like an R&B tune the lyrics make it more of a rock and roll song to my ear. Also the slightly “dirty” guitar helps.
- Crazy Man Crazy: Bill Haley and the Comets 1953
- This still sounds like a “swing” song to me.
- Gee: The Crows 1953
- This is a great song but doesn’t have a rock and roll edge.
- Sh-Boom: The Chords 1954
- This is a great song but it also doesn’t have a rock and roll edge. It also uses a chord progression as cliché as the 12-bar blues, that is the, I vi IV V. Fantastic song though, awesome saxophone solo.
- That’s All Right Mama: Elvis Presley 1954
- This sounds like a country song to me. No drums. Elvis was being called “The King of Western Bop,” or “The Hillbilly Cat” at this time, yet to be crowned, “The King of Rock”.
- Rock Around the Clock: Bill Haley and the Comets 1954
- Though this is pretty clean, the form is 12-bar blues and the lyric is uninventive (“seventh heaven” eh), it is still a great “Rock and Roll” song. It also goes to #1 on the Pop charts. It also has a great intro and ending.
- Maybellene: Chuck Berry 1955
- Catchy chorus, static, one chord verse, great guitar sound, piano “hidden” in the mix, fantastic lyric. This is pretty late in the game but I think it solidifies all the disparate “rock and roll” elements that all the other songs had bits of.
- Tutti Frutti: Little Richard: Recorded Sept. 14, 1955. Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart at the end of November 1955, and rose to # 2 early in 1956. It also reached # 17 on the Billboard pop chart.
- GREAT SONG but too much like a 12 bar-blues in the fact that it repeats the same line twice, the “call” as it were, and then gives a “response.”
Note: Here are two cuts were not on my original list, they were submitted by readers, they are real contenders:
9. That's All Right (original version): Arthur Crudup 1946 (Dig the breaks!)
10. Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley 1955 (recorded in 1954)
From this chart you would seemingly think I would have to give it up to “Rock Around the Clock” but I just can’t. There is something too clean about that record, too polished for Rock and Roll, a little too much of the swing influence is still present.
In my mind there is one man who brought all the essential Rock and Roll elements together: The rhythm (solid back beat), a little bit of swing, a compelling lyric, raw and rough around the edges, the driving guitar, fun, excitement and a fabulous vocal delivery…and that man is Chuck Berry. “Maybellene” is my choice for THE FIRST ROCK AND ROLL SONG! What's yours?
A FEW EXTRA CONSIDERATIONS
It is important to keep in mind there were, and still are, many different Billboard charts. Among the most important for our purposes are: R&B, Pop and Country & Western.
Also of note is that there are many songs before 1951 that actually use the term (lyric) “Rock and Roll” but they are not what I (or most of us) would call “Rock and Roll” songs.
1. Roy Brown writes and records "Good Rockin' Tonight" 1947
2. Wild Bill Moore "We're Gonna Rock We're Gonna Roll" 1948
3. Scatman Crothers: "I Want To Rock And Roll" 1949
ONE MORE TIME LINE
The Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed starts a radio program, “Moondog Rock'n'Roll Party”, that broadcasts black music to an audience of white teenagers.
Ike Turner's Rocket 88, is released.
Gunter Lee Carr records the songs “We're Gonna Rock “.
“Crazy Man, Crazy” Bill Haley and the Comets: Pop #12: This still sounds like a “swing” song to me.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” Big Joe Turner (Written by Jessie Stone a.k.a. Charles Calhoun) #1 on R&B, #22 Pop 1954. ATLANTIC RECORDS, Ahmet Ertegun. GREAT SONG but too much like a 12 bar-blues in the fact that it repeats the same line twice, the “call” as it were, and then gives a “response”.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” Bill Haley and the Comets: Pop #7
“Sh-Boom” The Chords R&B #2, Pop #5.
“Sh-Boom” The Crew Cuts, Pop #1 (This version is VERY “white bread”)
This is the year everything really came together for Rock and Roll. Elvis, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, The Robins, Big Joe Turner.
“Rock Around the Clock” Bill Haley and the Comets: Pop #1. Considered by many to be the first, real, rock and roll record to hit #1 on the Pop charts.
To give you an example/reminder of what “Pop” music actually was in 1955 the song that knocked “Rock Around the Clock” off the charts, after eight weeks, was the Mitch Mitchell Singers version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.
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