Posted by: distributorcap | October 9, 2009

Mr. Sandman Bring Me A Dream

More songs claim the title of the first Rock ‘n Roll song than there are Elvis impersonators.

The first time the words “rocking and rolling” were heard on a recording was in 1916, on a song called ‘The Camp Meeting Jubliee” (artist unknown). Six years later, in 1922 blues singer Trixie Smith released the first titled rock ‘n roll song – “My Man Rocks With Me with One Steady Roll.” In 1934, the Boswell Sisters just used the title “Rock and Roll.”

For the next 20 years, American music was grounded in music styles like Country & Western, big band, gospel, Swing, R&B and crooners like Bing Crosby. Little did they realize some portion of these genres would mix, match, influence and morph into what we know as Rock ‘n Roll. But during this period, a large portion of the most creative music in America was from African-American artists.

In 1951, Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed was credited with coining the term “rock ‘n roll” mostly as a description for R&B. Freed decided to speculate on the success of a retail store, started a radio program called “Moondog Rock’n’Roll Party. Moondog was airing mostly black music to an audience of white teenagers. The cross-over was beginning.

The record industry, looking for a way to expand sales, was keenly aware that the most innovative and best sounding music was being written by African-Americans. But while blacks were the most progressive in their music, it was the whites who had the money during the early 1950’s. In 1952 a white singer, Bill Haley, formed the Comets, which are often considered the country’s first rock’n roll band. They were the first group of this genre to hit the Billboard charts.

In 1952 was a watershed year in American pop culture – the year which was the perfect storm for rock ‘n roll.

Several machines that would revolutionize music were introduced to a wide audience. The solid-body electric guitar (invented by Les Paul) by Gibson and Fender’s Stratocaster guitar began to be sold in music stores. The first juke-boxes that played 45 RPM records were installed in 1951 and had begun to spread to every malt shop in every corner of the USA in 1952.

Television was still a rarity in most American homes, but just a few months after I Love Lucy became a show business phenomenon – everyone ran out to get a TV set. With 24 hours to fill (the networks concentrated mainly on only Primetime) – all you needed was a novel idea – or a radio show to get exposure on this new medium. In 1952, WFIL radio in Philadelphia asked Bob Horn to move his Bandstand program from the radio to WFIL-TV (later WPVI). The show aired Mon-Friday from 230-430p. Horn spun a few records, interviewed whom he could get and played a lot film clips. This was really the first incarnation of MTV – only with grainy, poorly produced black & white clips. It bombed.

When it reappeared as a live show with dancing – within days kids were lining up to be on the show. In 1956, the show became American Bandstand with Dick Clark.

Also in 1952, DJ Alan Freed organized the first rock’n’roll concert, the “Moondog Coronation Ball”. It was also the year in which the first rock’n’roll song to enter the Billboard charts — Bill Haley’s Crazy Man Crazy. The tremendous success of music on TV, a ‘rock’ concert and Bill Haley’s hit proved that there was a broad audience for this kind of new kind of music.

The straw that propped up the camel’s back for rock ‘roll occurred in 1954. All the major record companies switched from the heavy and bulky 78 RPM to the smaller and lighter 45 RPM. The 45 RPM came to represent an era of prosperity, fun and youth. Later that year an unknown Japanese electronic company, TTK, introduced the world’s first transistor radio to mass audiences. This TTK radio was called the Sony. In 1958, TTK changed its name to Sony. (The first transistor was invented by Western Electric, and the first transistor radio was actually invented by an Regency – both American companies)

All the pieces were now in place – the rest is, as they say, history.

The list of serious contenders to the title of first rock’n’roll song (not just a title referencing the act of “rocking”) begins with The Fat Man (1949), cut by Antoine “Fats” Domino, a New Orleans performer, which certainly sounded like a new kind of sound.

Candidates

Pre 1954
“Strange Things Happening Everyday” (1944) – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“Blues, Part 2” (1944) – Illinois Jacquet
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) – Roy Brown
“Rock the Joing” (1949) – Jimmy Preston or (1952) – Bill Haley
“Rocket 88” (1951) – Jackie Brenston (with Ike Turner)

1954-1955
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” (February) – Joe Turner (and later Bill Haley and Elvis Presley)
“Sh-Boom” (March) – Chords (and later the Crewcuts) — more doo-wop
“Rock Around the Clock” (April) – Bill Haley and the Comets – The first #1 rock song and the song that propelled this kind of music into teen mainstream. Bill Haley was the most unlikely “teen idol.” First he was almost 30 years old. Rock Around the Clock sounded more like a novelty number, not a revolutionary anthem. Two 1955 films, Rebel Without A Cause and The Blackboard Jungle established a new role model for teenagers – the rebellious loner (James Dean) and sometimes juvenile delinquent. The song came along just at the right time. Rock Around the Clock was previously recorded in 1953 by Sonny Dae & His Knights.

“That’s All Right Mama” (July) – Elvis Presley. His first single.
“I Got a Woman” (November) – Ray Charles – widely considered the first soul song (Gospel and R&B).
“Bo Diddley” (Mar 1955) – Bo Diddley
“Maybelline” (May 1955) – Chuck Berry
“Tutti Fruitti” (Sep 1955) – Little Richard
“Blue Suede Shoes (Dec 1955) – Carl Perkins and later by Elvis.

In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine declared Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama” as the first rock ‘n roll song. Many would argue with that.

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Responses

  1. One could argue about what, or who, was first, but it seems that music genres were starting to cross-pollinate in the early 50s, country, western swing, rock-a-billy, rhythm music, blues, jazz. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll and that baby just won't quit. Starting with the blues, then jazz, then everything else: contemporary music, America's great gift to the world.

  2. Lists for "the best" and "the first" are largely subjective unless it's something like "the first flight of the 747," or "the first steps of man on the moon (that we know of)", so it's really a fun parlor game.I know a lot about music (mostly R&B, soul and Jazz and rock and roll from the Beatles on) but believe it or not, I'm no Elvis expert. If Rolling Stone declared “That’s All Right Mama” as the first rock and roll song, then they're probably correct.But, I think you safely can go back earlier to Jackie Brenston's “Rocket 88” and I'll really go out on a limb by mentioning Wild Bill Moore's "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll," which (maybe someone can help me out here) was recorded in 1945 or 1947. But, I just can't remember.I really need to get up to speed on Elvis. He was and remains such a seminal figure and early-on, he was not only quite beautiful, but a great singer.

  3. That was cool. Love the way you weaved in technology changes. It's blues not rock, but Lightnin' Hopkins' "Loneeome Dog Blues" sure sounds like a foreshadowing of Jimi Hendrix. Not sure the year.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gr_l2gMuVE

  4. Had to have that tiny transistor radio that they just got in at the hardware store maybe in 62. Cost 25 bucks or something like that. Old man damn near shit but it was my own money-paper route money added up.Radio was red-shirt pocket size-heavy and used a 9volt battery plus it worked very well.Fun read!

  5. Good post, DCap. One quibble, though. Back in the day when American Bandstand was born, the networks had no intention of filling 24 hours of programming. You could expect the test pattern in the wee small hours.And they didn't just focus on primetime, they had the morning shows like Today and the soaps and the game shows.As for early rock, Bill Haley is just copying Louis Jordan for the most part, and songs like Caldonia or Brother, Beware have the same kind of sound in the 1940's. Another candidate is when Elmore James started playing the guitar WAY too loud on Dust My Broom, first recorded in 1952, though the most famous version is from 1959.

  6. I love it when you do the music history.. it brings back many memories of my childhood and teen years…lol I remember the late 50's and early 60's music quite well.. that's what I grew up with.. well as well as my memory lets me…lol That's why I like your history, it helps me to remember the old songs and the tunes of the days…Thanks D'Cap for the memories.

  7. You know, I've been thinking about getting one of those transistor radios…

  8. Hmm…I think "Blue Suede Shoes" was the first true Rock n' Roll song.But that song and "That's All Right, Mama" were more rockabilly in today's terms.

  9. Rock and roll is the devil's music and you're all going to hell.

  10. Love all things music! First, the term "rock and roll" coined by Alan Freed was actually a slang term for sex by blacks.Second, you left out two extremely important figures in the development of rock and roll. Hank Williams and Buddy Holly. Williams incorporated blues and black gospel inspired music into his country brilliance. Following this Buddy Holly incorporated Williams's music and really brought the three chord rhythm to the masses.Without these two, there would be no Dylan, Springsteen, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, etc.The beautiful thing about rock and roll is that so many brought so many different aspects of music to form the soundtrack of our lives.

  11. Nice history writeup. That movie Blackboard Jungle that you mentioned, was a great slice of the mid-'50s. I saw it on TV a few years ago. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier were the 2 rival teenagers. Vic Morrow kept using the word "black" as an insult — "yeah, come on, black boy."I really like a lot of that '50s music — the blues and doo-wop more than the rockabilly and country.

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