Development of rock and roll, part 4, 1950-1952
“When you sit down and think about what rock 'n' roll music really is, then you have to change that question. Played up-tempo, you call it rock 'n' roll; at a regular tempo, you call it rhythm and blues.”
Development of Rock and Roll – part 4 – 1950-1952
Playlist for part 4 linked at the bottom of this post.
It is to be applied to each song as you listen. Answer for me, if you would, “Is this song rock and roll?”
The best part of that is that we might just have different answers along the way! Now, when it comes to THIS list, part one, I doubt many, if any songs could be called “rock and roll”, but damn, a couple of them come close in here, and I want to know from YOU! The first time you hear a song in these lists that causes you to think “This one. This is rock and roll.” Let me know it! Let me know what about it that makes you feel that spirit!
Well, we’re going to have a number of significant historical experiences happening in this section that relate directly to rock and roll and I’m going to list them interspersed throughout, I think.
The first significant event happens on Jan. 3, 1950.
A radio announcer and sound engineer for WREC in Memphis, TN named Sam Phillips opened The Memphis Recording Service. In the early 40s he worked as a DJ and radio engineer for WLAY in Muscle Shoals, AL and brought those sensibilities to WREC when he started working there in 1945. What made the small local station WLAY unique was that they’d play country, southern gospel and ‘race’ records. WREC was a mixed bag of soap operas, news, game shows, and big band music.
Phillips developed an ear for what would be a hot seller, and when he opened his recording service, B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf would all record their earliest works there. Phillips would sell the recordings to record labels who would produce them.
We’re going to be talking about Sam again more than once in this part and perhaps in parts 5 and 6 as well. But now, let’s here some music!
Boogie in the Park – Joe Hill Louis – July 1950 (released Aug 1950)
Joe Hill Louis had worked as a one-man band musician, session musician, and odd jobs since the early 40s. I can find no concrete information on this recording except that it is the ONLY recording that Sam Phillips produced as a record under his own label “Phillips” during this period. Louis had recorded for a number of labels over the years and Phillips was not the first, nor would it be the last. With Phillips, he worked extensively as a background session musician on a number of recordings through the era.
This song is … hard to classify really. It’s enigmatic and I consider it one of the oddest songs to include on these playlists. He’s a one-man band playing guitar, harmonica, stomping on a rudimentary ‘drum set’ while singing. Musically it is a ‘throwback’ to the blues, and sonically a ‘step forward’ for rock and roll. Listening to it, I find it to be equal measures of ‘charming’, ‘agitating’ and just a bit unsettling. Also, the sound is so … IN YOUR FACE. It’s not just the heavy distortion on the guitar, but the relentless crunch of chords. I like my music raw. I mean ‘natural state’ field recordings of delta blues, Appalachian mountain music, Mongolian throat singing, Irish lilting, Australian bush songs, you name it. But this might even be a little too ‘raw’ for me! And maybe that’s the point. What can be more rock and roll than that?
Birmingham Bounce – Hardrock Gunter – early 1950
Although this country-rock crossover didn’t chart for Gunter, it was hot amongst the country musicians and produced over 20 cover versions. The first was Red Foley’s version released that same year and Foley’s version went to number 1 on the country charts and number 14 on the US charts. For Gunter’s original version, the way he delivers ‘baby baby baby” sounds so very much like a staple of rockabilly for long after when rock finally broke big in ’55.
Hot Rod Race – Arkie Shibley – 1950 (released Nov 1950)
This is literally the first big “hot rod” song. Hot rod culture was already a ‘thing’ in southern California where Shibley worked and recorded, and this song touched off a string of ‘hot rod’ songs that would fuse the culture with rock and roll forever. The song was on the charts for several weeks reaching number 5. It might have gone higher but the troubling second verse made east coast station reluctant to play the song.
“Now along about the middle of the night
We were ripping along like white folks might.”
Like Birmingham Bounce, this song was covered extensively, some of the covers charting as well. In many of the earliest covers the problematic lyrics are changed to ‘poor folks’, or ‘rich folks’, or ‘plain folks’. The song also produced a number of ‘sequels’ and ‘answer’ songs. Perhaps most notably “Hot Rod Lincoln”.
Sixty Minute Man – The Dominoes – Dec 1950 (released May 1951)
There are a few that credit this as the ‘first’ rock and roll song, but I say nay. I deny that it is rock and roll. The guitar is right, the drums are right, but the sound is too smooth and the tempo to slow for the sound and content. It’s a novelty song.
But what it DOES do for influencing rock and roll is this: 1) It brings vocal groups back into the mix, paving the way for doo wop. 2) It brings the sex back into it. 3) it has a tinge of gospel in the vocal delivery, and 4) It helps break down chart barriers a bit more, rising to number 1 on the R&B, and number 17 on the US.
It is a catchy number, and one that features fairly prominently in one of the Fallout or more instalments.
Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – March 3 or 5, 1951 (released April 1951)
Well, pull up a chair for this one. I’ve got to try to weave through this story of Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, Willie Kizart, and Sam Phillips. In fact, this should probably be its own post, but hey. The project is long enough. I will TRY to be BRIEF! It’s the story of how success can kill a band.
In the late 40s, Teenaged Ike Turner formed a band in Clarksdale MS called Kings of Rhythm. They quickly got a regular Wednesday night gig at the Clarksdale Harlem Theater and started playing regular gigs all over the Mississippi delta region. At the beginning of March, 1951, the band stopped in on a gig B.B. King was playing in Chambers, MS and either Ike, or the whole band sat in for a song (accounts differ). King recommended them to Sam Phillips up in Me phis and the band drove up there for a recording session.
On the way up the band needed a new song and one of their saxophonists, occasional singer, and new member Jackie Brenston suggested doing a song a out the new Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Ike came up with the sound and the piano parts, Raymond Hall, the band’s other saxophonist was given the solo, and Brenston, Turner, and the rest of the band worked out the lyrics.
Somewhere along the trip (accounts differ as to how) Willie Kizart’s amp became damaged, the cone was torn or had come loose entirely. By the time they got to Phillip’s Memphis Recording Service for the session, they had stuffed wadded up newspaper into the amp as a temporary ‘fix’.
Phillips paid each band member $20 for the recording, and paid Brenston $910 for the song rights. Phillips then licensed the recording to Chess Records out of Chicago to produce the record. Although this seems to horribly exploitive to pay a smallish one-time fee for a song to its composer, this was standard practice from the dawn of the recording industry and would be for many years to come. At the time, $20 per musician for an unknown group was pretty good, and $910 for a song’s rights was above. What’s more, Phillips was also ‘small time’ all things considered, so it was a hefty investment on his part. But there was a bad, bad mistake or two. Turner, nor any other members of the band were neither credited nor paid for the song’s composition. The single wasn’t released as “Kings of Rhythm” but inexplicably as “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats”.
Never the less, the song was an INSTANT bit on the R&B charts, going to number 1 and remaining on the charts for several weeks. It sold a half a million copies. This song also triggered a few ‘answer’ songs and covers. One of the lesser known covers was made later that same year by a fairly unknown western swing band out of Pittsburg called “Bill Haley and his Saddlemen”. It didn’t chart. And that guitar sound? The sound of Kizart’s distorted guitar through a broken amp and other musicians producing distorted sounds as a result of faulty equipment became so sought after that it caused sound engineers to purposely invent distortion pedals starting in 1962 to intentionally capture that sound.
Jackie Brenston thought of himself as a superstar and after Ike Turner refused to make him the permeant lead singer, he left the band taking several members with him. He never had a hit again, became an alcoholic, but the early 1960s, gave up music and became a truck driver. He died of a heart attack in 1979.
Turner rebuilt the Kings of Rhythm. In spite of the crediting and labeling mistake, which Turner blamed on Phillips, Turner continued to work as a session musician for Phillips, and free lance talent scout bringing the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland to record with Phillips.
Phillip’s relationship with Chess Records soured as 1951 wore on, but with the money he made directly from the success of “Rocket 88”, he founded Sun Records on Feb 1, 1952.
This is the song most often cited by most experts as the first true rock and roll song.
Of the song itself, Turner would say: "I don't think that ‘Rocket 88’ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88’ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88’ is the cause of rock and roll existing".
I disagree with both the experts and Mr. Turner. This song is NOT the first rock and roll song, but it IS a rock and roll song! A damn good one at that!
How Many More Years – Howlin’ Wolf – July 1951 (released Aug 1951)
I think of this as a blues track, and I think of Howlin’ Wolf as a blues musician (a beloved one by me, of course!)
This was his first single, recorded with Sam Phillips and leased to Chess. Track went to number 4, and even the B-side went to number 10.
Robert Palmer credits this as the first rock and roll song, and while I disagree, that filthy guitar and making the drums and bass a bit heavier in the mix certainly contributes!
*** Another historical interlude outside of the specific musicians and specific songs ***
So far on this list we’ve run through Birmingham AL, Southern CA, the Mississippi Delta, and a number of things going on in Memphis TN. Let’s check in on Cleveland OH.
On July 11, 1951, Alan Freed, a DJ previously from Akron’s WAKR with a history of playing swing music from white and black musicians alike, began his first broadcast at Cleveland’s WJW. He had previously met Leo Mintz, owner of one of the largest record stores in Cleveland, and Mintz, noticing an strong up tick in sales of R&B records from kids of all different sorts, agreed with Freed to sponsor a show dedicated to the music.
Freed called his show “The Moondog House” and dubbed himself “King of the Moondoggers”. Most DJs of the era, regardless of what music they played, were very subdued in their tone and delivery. Freed was NOT. He was lively, energetic, and adopted a hipster slang on air.
A number of radio stations across the country were already running shows dedicated to this music, but this is what made this one different. The other stations were low power localized stations designed only to reach concentrated urban populations of African American fans. Freed’s station was high powered and regional. His broadcasts were Reaching all throughout Ohio, western PA, western NY state, parts of VA, and Ontario Canada. And he was a firebrand!
History has credited him with coining the phrase “rock and roll” for the genre of music itself that he was playing. Mintz remembers that it was HE who coined the term and told it to Freed. By now, we all know this is simply not true. But what Freed did do was reach a vast and integrated audience with regular late night broadcasts of this music that had been enjoyed by a more limited audience and the in-crowd of musicians for years. He brought it much, much farther, opened up new audiences, and his show was a hit! At the time, the Cleveland market was so known for new trends in music, that tapes of the show would be broadcast on WNJR in NJ to play throughout the NYC area.
Just a side note: Freed’s term “Moondog” and a snippet of his opening music was taken directly from a man named Moondog who was a very avant-garde composer in NYC who was often mistaken for a homeless beggar. In 1954, Freed moved to NYC and WINS. Moondog sued over Freed’s usage of the name and his music. Being such a bizarre character, he might have lost, but Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini both testified to his legitimacy as a serious composer. He was awarded $6,000, and Freed had to stop using the term. He would name his future shows “The Rock and Roll Hour” and variations of that.
Moondog is perhaps the most bizarre and fascinating character to make a ‘cameo’ appearance in rock and roll’s history. I’m going to put several links in the comments. One about Moondog, one of Moondog’s first recording from 1949-1950 from which Freed lifted his intro music, and one of Freed’s OH broadcasts.
We’ll be checking in again on Alan Freed in just two or three songs, and probably again in a future part.
Cry – Johnny Ray – Oct 16, 1951 (released Oct 1951)
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Something like “How is this rock?” Well, it’s not per se. It is a romantic ballad in the new singing style that is far removed from the crooners of the swing era, or even as they transformed into the Rat Pack. It’s also far removed from the growling shouts of the blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf. It brings emotive, but smooth vocals back into the mis, but more importantly …
… Not only did this song make number 1 on Billboards US pop chart, and the B-side make number 2, but this pasty-faced white guy covering an older ballad with the new singing style made number 1 on the R&B chart, and the flipside made number 6. And we’re still a couple of years away from Bill Haley or Elvis.
Taxi Blues – Little Richard – Nov 1951
After meeting with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other musicians, Richard Penniman tried everything to break into music. He did vaudeville shows. He did drag shows. And eventually formed his own band. A local DJ heard him and got him into RCA studios where he signed a year long contract and recorded eight songs with their session musicians. This was the A-side of his first single. He wasn’t quite nineteen years old.
I agree. He has a good voice. Also, compared to the other material coming out at this time over the last few years, it’s a ‘pleasant’ but uninspired jump blues tune. The B-side was a blues ballad and did better with the folks back home in GA, becoming a bit of a local hit. That’s not much, but it was something. Mr. Penniman would continue in music, but stardom might have to wait.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy – Lloyd Price – March 13, 1952 (released April 1952)
This is literally my favorite song of this project thus far. I love just about every song on these lists, but this one just captivates me! Now, I’ve been listening to these songs and many more over and over for this project, I sometimes fear much to the annoyance of my extremely patient love and she’s subjected to it more frequently than a normal person should, but as I’m intently listening, and she’s passively doing other things when this song comes up on the playlist, she fives an instant ‘stink face’ over the raw and captivating power of this tune and starts moving to it like I do.
This is rock and roll, but slow and sultry. And I’m going to try to give some justice to it in this bit here.
Lloyd Price had some formal training in trumpet and piano and sang gospel in his church choir. When he was still in high school, he started working for WBOK radio in New Orleans as a jingle writer. His jingles proved so popular that when Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records came to New Orleans looking for new talent, local song-writer and studio producer Dave Bartholomew contact Price to come in and audition. After rehearsing for quite some time and just not nailing it, Rupe threatened to fly home. A frustrated and hoarse Price gave a deeply emotional performance of this song he had just written and Rupe agreed to record him straight away.
When it came time to record at Bartholomew’s studio, Price had just turned nineteen a few days earlier. Bartholomew brought in his backup band, but the song just wasn’t coming together. Bartholomew blamed the piano playing. Salvador Doucette was just not gripping it. Just then, another musician with a number of singles including a few hits that Bartholomew had co-written and produced with him turned up.
Once Fat Domino took over the piano, the ran through the song but once and Bartholomew said ‘Okay, that’s it” and they started recording.
Man, I tell you, this song though! The drums are perfect, both beat and in the mix. Domino commands those keys, and the horns are not al all playing strict time, but perfectly weaving their own lackadaisical Rhythm. The whole recording sounds causal in a way that makes magic. But that voice! The right mix of sultry and impassioned and he wails out his teen angst over Miss Clawdy! You can tell that voice was forged in church and his delivery is all rock and roll! He’s accenting every syllable in perfect combination with the drum accents, but in the most organic way! Only in New Orleans in this one moment can you make a song this good!
The song went to number one on the R&B charts and stayed on those charts for a whopping 26 weeks. Many clone songs trying to capture that magic began coming out of that scene. And although it didn’t chart on the US pop charts, the song was selling EVERYWHERE to EVERYBODY. Well outside of the usual R&B markets. It sold nearly a million copies and was the biggest record of 1952.
There is no way I can’t lime this song. It’s too damn good. This is one of those songs that I WISH I had had the guts to perform when I was still a part time working musician, but I never would’ve done it justice!
*** Another historical interlude ***
Alan Freed was one of the organizers for what is thought to be the first major rock and roll concert dubbed “The Moondog Coronation Ball”. The show was to feature five R&B/jazz acts to be held at the Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952. The arena held just a little more than 10,000.
Trouble was, due to a printing error and widespread counterfeiting of tickets, about 20,000 fans showed up. The crowd, reported to have been interracial, packed the place beyond capacity and only about a half an hour into the event after the second act began their set, the police filtered in and citing fears of a riot and the crowd being far beyond the capacity allowed for the local fire codes, stopped the show and reluctantly, the audience filed out. Freed had to issue an apology the following evening during his broadcast.
20,000 fans clamoring to get into this concert is a pretty strong indication to me that rock and roll was already a phenomenon.
Rock a Beatin’ Boogie – Esquire Boys with Kay Karol – Sept 22, 1952 (released Oct 1952)
Bill Haley had written this tune, and he offered it to his guitar player Danny Cedrone for his side band Esquire Boys. It didn’t chart, but you hear those guitar chops! That’s the sound the early rock phenomenon will be built on. The rockabilly senses that will go on to fuel Bill Haley’s success, and further influence Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins.
Meanwhile, Bill Haley renamed his band The Comets and slowly moved away from western swing. In Nov. They would release a rocked up cover of an old Tommy Dorsey tune from ’38 called “Stop Beatin’ Around the Mulberry Bush”. It wouldn’t chart on billboard’s pop, but it would sneak onto the R&B charts at number 66.
(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean – Ruth Brown – Dec 1952 (released 1953)
Ruth Brown was already bringing a background in gospel into her singing, but brought in pop stylings as well. Her earlier singles did well on the R&B charts, but this song went to number 1 on the R&B and to number 23 on the pop charts. She toured extensively in the south playing to mixed (though segregated) audiences and was so popular it was said that in the south, she was more well known than Coca-Cola!
Hound Dog – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton – Aug 12 1952 (released Feb 1953)
In 1950, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met and quickly discovered they shared a passion for blues and R&B. They managed to write some good tunes for some notable blues musicians when Johnny Otis tapped them to write a song for Willie Mae Thornton, a new artist who in ’48 started singing this new ‘jumpy blues sound coming out of LA with a lot of horns’, just signed to Peacock Records out of Houston TX and had two failed singles with them.
Leiber recalled meeting her: "We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see.” These two white kids were determined to write a song that suited her personality and struggled with the concept. It had to be gritty, but still be playable on the radio. Once they hit their stride, they banged out the lyrics in fifteen minutes, headed to Otis’s place, and pounded out the tune on his piano without even stopping to sit down first.
During the sessions, they were a constant nuisance and likely annoyed Thornton and Otis to no end. Thornton was first singing it like a slow blues, and the boys finally convinced her to take it up tempo. They also had a problem with the drummer. Stoller recalled: “We were worried because the drummer wasn't getting the feel that Johnny had created in rehearsal. "Johnny," Jerry said, "can't you play drums on the record? No one can nail that groove like you." "Who's gonna run the session?" he asked. Silence. "You two?" he asked. "The kids are gonna run a recording session?" "Sure," I said. "The kids wrote it. Let the kids do it." Johnny smiled and said, 'Why not?'"
I think the kids were right. Otis’s drumming was masterful! It’s mostly all toms and very little snare or cymbals, and just LISTEN to that dark sound it gives! I think it captures the emotion perfectly!
Thornton, although taking the number up tempo, was still trying to croon it and when the kids objected she angrily retorted 'White boy, don't you be tellin' me how to sing the blues.' Leiber sang the song to her with a growl and she got it at once. The released recording is take two, it is NOT like the jump blues of the day, it is devoid of horns. There’s no piano. It is guitar, bass, drums, and Thornton’s fluid, yet growling vocal delivery.
It was on the R&B charts for fourteen weeks. Seven weeks at number one. Peacock had to enlist additional pressing plants to keep up with the demand and the record ended up selling half a million to three quarters of a million copies. It was a hit in every major market on the R&B scene.
It is a masterpiece.
Well, that’s it for this installment, and rock and roll is becoming increasingly more popular. Part five will be 1953-1954 and there’s going to be BIG recordings made, so STAY TUNED!
Here is the playlist for part 4: