For those of us born too late to experience the birth of rock & roll firsthand, an unlikely parallel might be drawn to the Internet. It has been written that no one planned the Internet; it just happened. And the same could be said of rock & roll. No one planned rock & roll, and it overtook the musical culture of America and then the world, with a sudden impact that revolutionized popular music as surely as the Internet is revolutionizing telecommunications.
It has often been said that rock & roll was the result of cross-breeding between rhythm & blues and country & western music. That's a large part of the equation, of course, but hardly the entire picture. Gospel music, swing jazz, jump blues combos, country swing bands, Tin Pan Alley publishers -- they were just some of the other key building blocks of the music.
Few would dispute that rock & roll owes most of its origins to the musical traditions of America's black population. From Africa, blacks brought a strong oral musical tradition of music for storytelling, recreation, and work. Continued and modified in the United States under incredibly harsh conditions, these elements would provide the backbone of blues music. As segregated as American society has been, there has been constant personal interchange and cultural exchange between races throughout the nation's history. The white southern population of the United States had its own musical conventions: Anglo-Saxon folk songs, Appalachian music, and religious music for the church. African-Americans absorbed influences from whites in their use of stringed instruments and harmonies. The development of jazz around the turn of the 20th century introduced larger bands and stronger rhythmic elements.
Just as technological developments affected the pace and complexity of life in the early 20th century, so did it accelerate the growth of popular music. The phonograph record enabled artists to reach and influence an exponentially larger audience of listeners and fellow musicians. Huge numbers of blacks from the south migrated to urban communities, where music and dancing took place in considerably more crowded and hectic environments. And to be heard in these venues, musicians eventually had no choice but to use electronic amplification and, eventually, electric instruments.
As early as the 1930s, strong intimations of rock & roll can be found in rhythmic, increasingly riff-driven swing jazz music, as well as blues-influenced country recordings by the Delmore Brothers, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, the Maddox Brothers, and others. Charlie Christian pioneered the use of the electric guitar in the early 1940s, at the same time as jazz musicians like Lionel Hampton were putting out riff-heavy hits like "Flyin' Home." As the '40s progressed, jazz musicians like Illinois Jacquet, Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Jay McShann, and others upped the R&B quotient with honking saxes, "shouter" vocals, and pounding boogie-woogie piano.
Big bands became increasingly less economically viable after the second World War, and smaller combos became more in vogue. They still had to play just as loudly as ever, though, and riffs, electric guitars, "shouting" R&B vocals, and prominent beats were usually the ticket. So it was that jump blues came into style, paced by Louis Jordan and singers like Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw, and Roy Brown
Jump blues itself wasn't far removed from rock & roll, and there were several other major changes afoot as the '50s began. The Delmore Brothers recorded frenetic country-boogie that anticipated the spirit of rockabilly. Vocal groups like the Orioles took the smooth popular stylings of black harmony ensembles like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots and added a more pronounced R&B and gospel feel. After Delta musicians like Muddy Waters amplified their guitars and added rhythm sections, a fullbodied electric blues band sound was born in Chicago, Memphis, and other urban centers. Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and others pioneered the keyboard-and-horn driven grooves of New Orleans R&B. Les Paul took electric guitar wattage to new heights with his innovative multi-track recordings.
There were also major rumblings in the music industry and American society itself. Independent companies like Atlantic, King, Sun, Specialty, Chess, and numerous others recorded R&B and hillbilly music, catering to audiences that the major labels deemed too specialized and uncouth to service. Young white listeners began tuning in radio stations that played music for these supposed minority tastes. And the increasingly affluent economy meant that these young listeners had more time and money than ever to spend on records.
These disparate strands began to collide and merge as the '50s progressed. There are a great number of opinions as to what could be called the first "rock & roll" record; indeed, an entire book (the fine What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record?) has been written on the subject. Certainly, early sides by Jackie Brenston ("Rocket 88"), Bill Haley, Lloyd Price, Hank Ballard, Fats Domino, and others have strong claims. Whatever it was, and whenever it became a style, by 1954 there were several records in the Top 30 that couldn't, from a latter-day vantage point, be called anything but rock & roll: Bill Haley's primitive rockabilly ("Shake, Rattle, and Roll"), the joyous doo wop of the Crows and the Chords ("Gee" and "Sh-Boom"), the saucy R&B of Hank Ballard ("Work With Me Annie"). The music needed a name, and several theories have been advanced as to how the term "rock & roll" came about. Influential Cleveland and New York DJ Alan Freed's claim to have originated the phrase is probably the most widely circulated, though rocking and rolling had long been a euphemism, especially in the black community, for dancing, partying, and more private pleasures.
In 1955, Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" became the first number one rock & roll hit; Little Richard and Chuck Berry had their first national smashes that year with "Tutti Frutti" and "Maybellene," songs which put electric guitar leads, honking saxes, whooping vocals, and lyrics about cars and girls to the forefront in a glorious package. In early 1956, Elvis Presley's number one hit "Heartbreak Hotel" ended any doubt (or hope by the more conservative factions of the music business) that rock & roll would fade.
An emerging regional sensation, Elvis pioneered rockabilly on his legendary recordings for Sun records in 1954 and 1955 by marrying the feels of the blues and country boogie with his hard-driving rhythms and frenetic vocals. His jump to a major label -- and assimilation of slightly more pop-oriented values into his recordings that didn't diminish his genius in the slightest (at least at first) -- made rock & roll an international phenomenon. His massive success, and the success of the countless rock & rollers who followed, was the end of the line in the evolution of the forces that gave birth to rock music -- and the beginning, of course, of much more.
15 Most Essential Recordings Leading to the Birth of Rock & Roll:
The Delmore Brothers, The Best of the Delmore Brothers (Starday). Country boogie with a reckless feel, close harmonies, and pounding backbeat, separated from rockabilly only by the level of electric instruments and a rhythm section. This collection of their late 1940s sides continues much of their most raucous work.
Bill Haley & His Comets, Rock the Joint! (Schoolkids). A collection of his early 1950s singles, prior to his breakthrough to mass success with "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock." The earliest white rock & roll ever recorded, combining country swing, electric guitars, saxophones, and R&B rhythms to come up with something different altogether.
Louis Jordan, The Best of Louis Jordan (MCA). A crucial bridge from swing jazz to jump blues, and a major influence upon Chuck Berry
The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Vol. 1 (Arhoolie). Another hillbilly band that anticipated elements of rockabilly with their rumbling boogie and slap-back bass. This has 27 of their songs from 1946-51.
Various Artists, Hillbilly Music Vol.1...Thank God! (Capitol). A double album of rowdy hillbilly music from the late '40s to the mid-'50s, featuring such country giants as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Travis, Buck Owens, and the Louvin Brothers. No other compilation illustrates the white country roots of rock & roll as well.
Various Artists, Atlantic R&B: 1947-1952 (Atlantic). The Atlantic label was arguably the greatest and most influential record company specializing in rhythm & blues in rock & roll's formative years. This is the first volume of a seven-part series, also available as part of a box set.
Various Artists, Atlantic R&B: 1952-1955 (Atlantic). More classic performances from the early Atlantic roster, edging closer to rock & roll from its more blues- and R&B-based beginnings.
Various Artists, Blues Masters Volume 5: Jump Blues Classics (Rhino). The best jump blues compilation, with classics by Big Jay McNeely, Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw, Big Joe Turner, and others. A second volume in the Blues Masters series (More Jump Blues Classics) is of equally high quality.
Various Artists, Blues Masters Volume 6: Blues Originals (Rhino). Many of these songs helped form the backbone of the rock repertoire. Often popularized to a larger audience by white performers from Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones down, here is where you'll find the original versions of classics like "That's All Right," "Back Door Man," "Love in Vain," and a lot of others.
Various Artists, A History of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Vol.1 (Rhino). The first part of this three-volume series features key performances from the early and mid-1950s by artists who laid the foundations for the New Orleans sound, such as Lloyd Price and Guitar Slim.
Billy Ward, Sixty Minute Men: The Best of Billy Ward & His Dominoes (Rhino). One of the first great black harmony groups of rhythm & blues, featuring lead vocals by two singers who would go on to become early rock & roll stars in their own right, Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson
Muddy Waters, The Best of Muddy Waters (Chess). The cream of the prolific output of the man who did more than any other performer to shape the course of modern electric blues, one of the primary currents feeding into the rock of both the past and present.
Various Artists, A Sun Blues Collection (Rhino). Excellent single-disc survey of the electrified country blues that the Sun label specialized in before moving to rockabilly, with great early and mid-'50s sides by Rufus Thomas, B.B.King, James Cotton, and others.
Various Artists, A Sun Country Collection (Rhino). The other side of the Sun equation has the country roots of the Southern rockabilly sound, with country hillbilly-verging-on-rockabilly by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, Charlie Feathers ,and more obscure performers.
Elvis Presley, The Complete Sun Sessions (RCA). The full-fledged birth of rockabilly on Elvis' legendary 1954-55 recordings, which in the eyes of some critics have never been surpassed in the entire history of rock & roll.
What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record?, by Jim Dawson & Steve Propes (1992, Faber & Faber)
Unsung Heroes of Rock'n'Roll, by Nick Tosches (1984, Charles Scribner's Sons)
The Sound of the City, by Charlie Gillett (1983, Pantheon)
by Richie Unterberger