This series started as an exploration of David Bowie's early influences ("Gnome" as in The Laughing Gnome) but has drifted some way from its moorings: in recent posts about rock'n'roll's impact on fifties Britain, Bowie has been mentioned only in passing.
But then again - and do correct me if I'm wrong - the country's denizens in that decade did include one David Robert Jones, born in 1947. And according to wikipedia, as with Alan Charles Klein (b.1940) and so many others, Master Jones's musical epiphany occured in the magical year of 1956, even though he was only nine at the time:
His father brought home a collection of American 45s by artists including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to "Tutti Frutti", Bowie would later say, "I had heard God".
Presley's impact on him was likewise emphatic: "I saw a cousin of mine dance to ... 'Hound Dog' and I had never seen her get up and be moved so much by anything. It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that."
In place of his absent father, it was a schoolmate who turned John Winston Lennon (b.1940) onto Little Richard that same year, provoking a kind of religious dilemma for that young worshipper at the shrine of Presley:
When I heard it, it was so great I couldn’t speak. You know how you are torn. I didn’t want to leave Elvis. We all looked at each other, but I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind. How could they be happening in my life, both of them?Luckily, succour is at hand: he is informed that Little Richard is black:
"Thank you, God", I said. There was a difference between them. But I thought about it for days at school, of the labels on the records. One was yellow and one was blue, and I thought of the yellow against the blue.
You can find the full story here.
If, like me, you're already familiar with that quote and the reference to yellow automatically suggested a Sun record, thanks to the magic of the net I can now proclaim: Nohow and Contrariwise. The Little Richard record in question had actually been acquired in the city of verminous windmills as Mike Hill, Lennon's record bearer, explains:
I bought it in April 1956 in Amsterdam. It was a U.S. printed record on the Ronnex label.
I hadn’t heard it until I got to Holland. I think my Dutch friend told me about it but I am a bit hazy about that. It may well have been released in the U.K. before or after April 1956 but wouldn’t have got any air play on the U.K. radio (stuffy BBC only) in those days.
It made a big impact on me and I couldn’t wait to play it for John when we got back and returned to school after the Easter holidays (during which we’d been to Holland). I was sure it would knock him out and it did. Fancy him remembering all those years later his exact words to us when he first heard that record. Just shows what a tremendous life altering impact it had on him. It’s no coincidence that this very same number "Long Tall Sally" opened their first U.S. concert and closed their last one.
Above, a British 78 of Heartbreak Hotel on HMV and a Belgian 78 of Tutti Frutti on Ronnex, both 1956.
As discussed in recent posts, there wasn't much musical excitement on offer in Britain before rock'n'roll, which seemed to the sixteen year old Alan Klein
like an explosion: all of a sudden it just happened and it was great to be there at that time.But instantaneous as this music seemed to British teenagers like Klein and John Lennon, rock'n'roll or something like it had already been simmering away in America for more than a decade - though "simmering" hardly seems the right term for records whose excitement leaps out of the grooves. On a rolling boil, let's say - and getting ready to overflow into the sedate kitchen that was fifties Britain.
There are many candidates for the title of first rock'n'roll record, and reproduced in this post will be a list of fifty (count 'em) possibles in chronological order from 1944 to 1956.
Yes, 1944: important as Rock Around the Clock may have been on both sides of the Atlantic, it was hardly where it all started. An earlier entry in this series (here) mentions Big Jim Dawson's book about Rock Around the Clock and Bill Haley's somewhat reductive summation, in a later song, of the development of popular music:
Strauss discovered waltzing,
The Handy man found the blues,
Then Haley came along with a rockin' song -
Crazy, man, crazy, crazy news!
The music blog on the Guardian newspaper's website has a piece by Owen Adams about Rick Coleman's book Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, which makes a case for The Fat Man (1949) as the first rock'n'roll record:
It was a rollicking update of Junker's Blues, a 1941 song about heroin addiction, but what made it a rocker was Fats's barrelling piano triplets, combined with a solid big beat.(Now ain't this a shameful admission? I have owned this book for some time but still haven't done more than skim through it - more a reflection on my limited attention span than Mr Coleman's skills. I will give it another go and perhaps report back here at a later date; I've certainly enjoyed the bits and pieces I've read.)
Adams praises the writer's "well-researched chronicle of rock'n'roll versus segregationism":
It was Fats more than any artist, he argues, who broke down the barriers between black and white teenagers - quite literally, the segregation rope down the centre of dancefloors would be ripped down by the exuberance of the mingling dancers.It's worth reading the whole review on the Guardian website, here, partly for the entertainment value of some of the 26 comments from readers which follow. One contributor takes issue with a reference to Alan Freed coining "the deliberately subversive phrase" rock'n'roll in 1954, eventually forcing the reviewer to intervene:
Alan Freed brought in the use of the phrase as a musical definition rather than merely a sexual, party or religious euphemism (a triple entendre?), which was used in older blues songs and the rhythm 'n' blues of Freed's day... Freed knew what he was doing, it seems - he was deliberately being subversive.
Another contributor refers to a second book by Jim Dawson, cowritten with Steve Propes, What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record? and handily provides a list ("every one a coconut!") of the songs suggested in the book.
Unfortunately the book itself is out of print, and secondhand copies appear to be pricey, but here's that list, and if you have access to spotify, click here for a complete playlist of the tracks in the same order. I've done my best to add the original recording in each case and the best transfer on spotify.
Note that sixteen other contenders precede The Fat Man, although I'm listening to it right now and it still sounds plenty good, whether it actually started the revolution or was merely caught up in the kettling (ooh, bit political - though if you don't know about recent protests about education cuts in the UK it won't mean anything).
For listeners in America and elsewhere, there are youtube links to most of the songs - again, I've tried to go for the original recordings, to the best of my knowledge, rather than rerecordings or clips of live performance:
1 Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues, Part 2 (1944)
2 Joe Liggins: The Honeydripper (1945)
3 Helen Humes: Be-Baba-Leba (1945)
4 Freddie Slack : House Of Blue Lights (1946)
Slack-related sides and discussion here
5 Big Boy Crudup: That's All Right (1946)
6 Jack McVea: Open The Door, Richard (1946)
7 Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night (1948)
8 Wynonie Harris: Good Rockin' Tonight (1948)
9 Bill Moore: We're Gonna Rock,We're Gonna Roll (1948)
10 Orioles: It's Too Soon To Know (1948)
11 John Lee Hooker: Boogie Chillen (1948)
12 Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks: Guitar Boogie (1948)
13 Stick McGhee: Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee (1949)
[the hit version but technically a remake; original here]
14 Jimmy Preston: Rock The Joint (1949)
15 Louis Jordan: Saturday Night Fish Fry (1949)
16 Professor Longhair: Mardi Gras In New Orleans (1949)
17 Fats Domino: The Fat Man (1950)
18 Muddy Waters: Rollin' and Tumblin' (1950)
19 Hardrock Gunter: Birmingham Bounce (1950)
20 Hank Snow: I'm Movin' On (1950)
21 Ruth Brown: Teardrops From My Eyes (1950)
studio recording unavailable; live video here
22 Arkie Shibley: Hot Rod Race (1950)
23 Les Paul and Mary Ford: How High The Moon (1951)
24 Jackie Brenston with His Delta Cats: Rocket 88 (1951)
25 Dominoes: Sixty Minute Man (1951)
26 Johnnie Ray with the Four Lads: Cry (1951)
27 Clovers: One Mint Julep (1952)
28 Bill Haley and the Saddlemen: Rock The Joint (1952)
29 Dominoes: Have Mercy Baby (1952)
30 Lloyd Price: Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1952)
discussed here with link to Lloyd Price interview
31 Hank Williams: Kaw-Liga (1953)
32 Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton: Hound Dog (1953)
33 Big Joe Turner: Honey Hush (1953)
34 Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters: Money Honey (1953)
McPhatter as musical pioneer/influence on Ben E King here
35 Crows: Gee (1953)
36 Big Joe Turner: Shake, Rattle, and Roll (1954)
37 Royals/Midnighters: Work With Me, Annie (1954)
38 Chords: Sh-Boom (1954)
39 Bill Haley and His Comets: (We're Going To)Rock Around The Clock) (1954)
Jim Dawson's book about record here; Haley's UK tour here
40 Robins: Riot In Cell Block #9 (1954)
41 Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill: That's All Right (1954)
42 Penguins: Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine) (1954)
43 LaVern Baker and the Gliders: Tweedle Dee (1954)
44 Johnny Ace: Pledging My Love (1954)
45 Ray Charles: I've Got A Woman (1954)
discussed in post about beginnings of soul, here
46 Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley (1955)
47 Chuck Berry: Maybellene (1955)
48 Little Richard: Tutti Frutti (1955)
49 Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes (1956)
50 Elvis Presley: Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
Oh, and while I have your attention, I'd like to add a clip below of the Ravens' (top) cover of It's Too Soon to Know.
Okay, okay, calm down: yes, I know it's quite correct that the Orioles' original should be included in the above list, and it's also quite undertstandable that a list about rock'n'roll in general and not the subgenre of doo wop in particular should feature only a few doo wop sides. I'm not about to make the kind of point that could inflame the more pedantic members of the Guardian's readership.
All I want to say that I heard the Ravens' recording first (Ravens-dedicated post, with more clips, here), and while their take on the song may be more gently jazzy than thumpingly rocky, and the singing doesn't exactly resound with gospel echoes, reaching back to the Inkspots rather than forwards to the Dominoes or the Cadillacs, it is still a beautiful performance.
I even have the memory of a slow dance (in the daytime, in a living room in the West Midlands) to associate with it. So if you'd care to join me, perhaps superimposing your own memories of similarly dear, dead days barely within recall ...
The Atomic Mr Haley
1955 charts (Rock Around the Clock and Bill Haley's Last Words)
Ralph, William and Jake (Haley's UK tour)
Shake Rattle and Roll and Big Joe Turner
Ray Charles' I've Got a Woman in discussion of beginnings of soul
House of Blue Lights is discussed in detail on Jonathan Bogart's website Don't Stay Up Too Late, here, along with many other key recordings of the 1940s. He sees the record as
a summation of all the churning, striving pop of the past and an assured leap into an unknown future — as well as an act of cultural appropriation which may be politically problematic but is indisputably breathtaking.Read the whole piece. He concludes:
People call it the first rhythm & blues record by white performers. It’s more than that; it’s one of the first records recognizable as pop by the standards of — well, not today, but anyway by standards that people alive today are accustomed to thinking of pop in. It exists in the same universe as Elvis Presley; which is something that not even most black artists could pull off in 1946.The song was, however, subsequently picked up by black musicians such as Chuck Berry. Those who have seen Taylor Hackford's film may remember a moment where Berry and pianist Johnny Johnson play an impromptu version of House of Blue Lights, which seems to serve as an affirmation of their decades-old bond: afterwards, Berry says something like: "I know every vein in this man's body."
The evolution of rock'n'roll saxophone is discussed by Neil Sharpe and John Lull in an article on the saxontheweb site which cites the Jazz at the Philharmonic recording (number 1 on the above list) as the point where wailin' sax really took up, although there had been a test flight two years earlier:
May 26, 1942 was the turning point.
During a recording session for Decca records, tenor sax player Illinois Jacquet stepped forward and ignited a spark that would fuel a revolution, with his seminal 64 bar, wailing solo on Lionel Hampton’s Flying Home. While that solo lit the fuse, it was Illinois Jacquet’s “incredible, screaming” performance at the “Jazz At The Philharmonic Concert” in 1944 - especially “Blues Part II” - that creatively set afire a breakthrough generation of saxophonists who helped to invent a surging, gritty, raucous, sax driven music that came to be called “Rock n’ Roll.”
Read the whole article, which is well written and clear, even for non-musos like me, here. And taking us back to the Fats Domino biography which triggered this piece, he quotes Billy Boy Arnold, who toured with Domino:
Things broke wide open in the 1950’s, as sax driven rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues hits swept the charts, not only acting as a sound board for teenage problems and experiences, but also helping to trigger social change. As Billy Boy Arnold wrote, "I was on tour with Fats Domino and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. The white people wanted to see Fats Domino, and they weren't going to stand for that segregation ... See, in the 50's ... people stopped Jim Crow at theaters and things. The audience did that on their own. They would come down and break down the barriers ... They started integrating. The music did that."
Postscript: saxontheweb's forum now has a thread about the first rock'n'roll record, here.