I recently posed that query to friends and colleagues via my Facebook page. Given rock ‘n’ roll’s muddied history - debate continues, some 50 years later, as to which song was the field’s first — I had hopes of an intelligent dialogue that would include others besides Presley and Bill Haley, of “Rock Around the Clock” fame. Within moments of initiating the conversation, my somewhat tempered hopes were not only realized, but surpassed. Sure, Elvis and Haley were early front runners — there was even a thumbs up for the flamboyant Little Richard — but the ability to think beyond the rock ‘n’ roll stereotype provided an eclectic array of answers.
While Elvis’ cultural impact and string of hit songs made him an easy choice for Jason Troyer, “The King” wasn’t alone. “Les Paul, because he revolutionized music as we know it with the electric guitar, and various other techniques that allow rock ‘n’ roll to be what it is today,” the Kent State University student explained.
A smile creased my face as I read Troyer’s remarks. Les Paul, the man credited with creating the solid-body electric guitar and innovator of overdubbing — a method of recording one instrument or vocal atop another — had made the cut. Interesting.
Ken Burke, author of several music-themed books, including The Blue Moon Boys: The Story of Elvis Presley’s Band, offered a convincing argument for his candidates, a pair of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. “If we are talking (pre-World War II) era, Big Joe Turner; post-war era, Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino. Elvis may have been ‘The King’, but he wasn’t the father of the genre.
“ … ‘Fats’ Domino was the first of his crowd to enjoy a major hit record,” Burke continued. “His 1949 recording of ‘The Fat Man’ was hard-pounding boogie that (was a hit on the rhythm and blues) charts. This began an unparalleled string of hit records that constantly garnered mainstream airplay and opened the door for other piano-pounding rockers, including Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Sheree Homer, author of Catch That Rockabilly Fever, concurred. “I agree that ‘The Fat Man’ was probably the first rock ‘n’ roll record,” she stated.
With recordings of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Honey Hush” predating those by 1950s rock ‘n’ rollers Haley and the Johnny Burnette Trio, respectively, the case could be made for Big Joe Turner as rock music’s father, as Burke later explained. “Along with his pianist, Pete Johnson, Big Joe Turner helped pioneer the boogie-woogie craze, which led to R&B, which, eventually, mutated into the wonderful entity known as rock ‘n’ roll. Turner was commercially successful in all three phases of his early career, and his influence on all the early rockers was pervasive. Bill Haley, Presley and many others covered his songs.”
While Burke’s extensive knowledge of music lent itself to develop an informed opinion, others, such as Mary Barbee, an administrator for the Indiana State Armory Board, took an indirect, yet deliberative, approach to the topic. “Everyone knows rock ‘n’ roll branched out from rhythm and blues, so I would say you would have to listen to a lot of rhythm and blues to see how it evolved close to the ’50s, and figure out which song exploded onto the mainstream ‘white’ scene first? I guess that would be ‘Rock Around the Clock’?”
Not entirely satisfied with her response, Barbee donned her detective’s cap and investigated further. A comparison of Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ original version of “Rocket 88” — thought, by many, to be the very first rock ‘n’ roll tune — and the rendition recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets gave Mary her answer. “I think it’s how the Brenston version is boogie woogie. I can hear the slipping away from the big band music from the ’40s into a new sound. I’m not sure if that’s a good way to describe it. The Bill Haley version is a country boogie version, with more reliance on stringed instruments and steel guitar. It, too, brings a new sound, branched away from western swing. Listening to old records, I liked big band music over western swing; that’s probably why I like the Brenston version better. Both versions are good, just different.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll’s strong ties to R&B remained a constant throughout the conversation. “Louis Jordan, because he’s the link between rhythm and blues and Bill Haley,” Fred Turgis, webmaster for the roots music-heavy site, Jumpin’ from 6 to 6, noted, “but Bill would be a very, very, very close second.”
Louis Jordan received another nod from Jay McDowell, former bassist for popular country music group BR5-49, and multimedia curator at Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum. “(He was) combining country and western with rhythm and blues and selling it to white people. Chuck Berry stole more than a few licks from (Jordan’s guitarist) Carl Hogan.”
The repeated mentions of Jordan and Haley inspired an educated debate about the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.
“ … (N)one of those guys would have even had a career without Big Joe Turner, who popularized the genre in which Louis Jordan worked,” Ken Burke argued. “I admire Bill Haley’s early recordings, but his work is very derivative … his evolution took a long time.”
“It’s a long, long evolution,” Turgis agreed. “You can find (a) trace of rock ‘n’ roll in western swing, like Bob Wills’ heavy rhythm section or Bob Dunn’s distorted steel guitar. And, of course, there’s Big Joe, and other bluesmen who were important for the guitar, too. The hardest thing is to find the one guy — or girl — who melted all these elements together.”
When it comes to the origin of rock ‘n’ roll — that instant when music before Sun Records or “Rocket 88” ceased to matter, as if a switch had been flipped, shining a spotlight on this “new” sound — there’s no simple answer. Rock ‘n’ roll is more than one central singer, a lead guitarist and a rhythm section. It’s an image, an attitude, and that indescribable, heart-skipping feeling you have when you hear that one particular song. Steve Roca, a historian and music aficionado from Michigan, elaborated. “My heart choice would be Bill Haley, officially the original ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but I have to go with Les Paul and Chuck Berry,” he began. “Les, because he added electricity — literally, which allowed for a distinct move from the various swing combos that grew out of the demise of big band (music). And Chuck Berry, he and Haley had a lot of similarities — age, and each having adopted an iconic look from the ’30s: Bill, the Kewpie doll curl, and Chuck, the Groucho Marx duck walk.
“But,” Roca continued, “Bill remained a combo man and member of the Comets. He shared the spotlight; everyone got solos, even the accordion (player). Chuck, on the other hand, recognized and took advantage of the ‘new’. He and the electric guitar were the stars, front and center, and it didn’t really matter who was playing to back him up.
“But,” Roca went on, “here’s the biggie, at least for me. Haley, and a lot of others, wrote lyrics that were different and new, but also general: ‘We’re gonna rock around the clock’. But Berry — his lyrics are incredible. Compare ‘Rock Around the Clock’ to ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’’. It’s the difference between general commentary and specific reference, desires and, most important (sic), relatable sentiments. The lyrics to ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ are amazing, and can be related to, even today. ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ — they capture the imagination at the same time you’re relating to it. “And, look, each generation rejects the previous one. Look at any decade or generational change, especially regarding music and fashion. The electric guitar, combined with songs that actually spoke to teenagers and the post-war mood — yeah, it’s Les and Chuck for me.”
So, boys and girls, what have we learned from this social media experiment? Well, I’ve discovered that, with a “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, a “King of Western Swing” and a “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, all listed within my unscientific survey, rock music’s royalty is both numerous and far reaching. Rock ‘n’ Roll’s tangled roots of rhythm and blues, swing, country, jazz, gospel and who knows what else run deep. I’ve learned that ‘Fats’ Domino is the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. So is Bill Haley…and Big Joe Turner… and Chuck Berry… and Les Paul. It’s an impossible task to smack a label across the forehead of just one, declaring him to be “The Man”, when they — and many of the others cited — have contributed so much to the creation and endurance of rock ‘n’ roll, for which my ears are extremely grateful.
Who says that logging onto Facebook is a waste of time?
Published: July 4, 2012