Tuesday, March 21, 2006:

The Roots Canal (guest blog): How Rock Really Began

Roy Brown — Good Rockin’ Tonight
Wynonie Harris — Good Rockin’ Tonight
Roy Brown — Rockin’ at Midnight
In my last post, I promised you the first rock song. Yes, I know, that’s a pretty bold claim. But hey, I’m not afraid to go out on a limb.

In fact, Jim Dawson wrote a whole book on the subject called “What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record?” where he listed 50 different candidates — apparently without choosing any one of them. I say “apparently” because I didn’t shell out the 60 bucks for a used copy of this out-of-print book. I did find a list of his 50 songs (I have 44 of them in my iTunes library) but I still don’t know what Jim wrote about them. (He emailed me that he’s hoping to bring out a new edition soon.)

Personally, I don’t think it’s such a tough call. I subscribe to Morgan Wright's point of view. Once you hear it, it becomes blindingly obvious: Rock’n’roll began at the exact moment when Wynonie Harris added a back beat to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

These three versions of the same song tell the whole story. First, listen to Roy Brown’s original jump blues from 1947. Brown was an unknown who actually offered the song to Harris, an established star, before he recorded it himself, but Wynonie turned it down until Brown’s version hit the charts. Roy had a strong, silky voice with a touch of quaver and phrasing that uncannily anticipates Elvis. You might even think he was an Elvis impersonator until you realize he started seven years earlier — which actually makes Elvis a Roy Brown impersonator!

When Wynonie covered “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that December (it was released in 1948), he did something that changed the history of music. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was a satire of church people who weren’t just “rocking” (i.e., swaying to the music in church) but also “rocking” (i.e., dancing, and worse). Wynonie ratcheted up the satire a notch by adding a church rhythm, clapping hands on the back beat as they do in gospel. Listen to the back beat kick in, about 15 seconds into the song. That’s the sound of rock’n’roll being born.

“Good Rockin’ Tonight” was a mega-hit that sparked a wave of rockin’ R&B songs distinguished by a heavy back beat — hand-clapping at first, but before long laid down by the drummer. (You can still hear hand-clapping on the back beat as late as 1956 on Elvis’ “All Shook Up.”) The years from 1948 to about 1954 were the heyday of what could be called “adult rock’n’roll,” a wild, sexy music with a screaming saxophone, boogie-woogie piano, Texas-style blues guitar, an infectious rhythm emphasizing the back beat, and bluesy lyrics that could get pretty raunchy at times. White kids started listening to it from the very beginning, a few disc jockeys picked up on the new music, and Alan Freed named it “rock and roll” around 1951. It was already starting to go out of style on the R&B charts (in favor of doo-wop harmony groups) when white teenagers claimed it as their own and cleaned it up in the mid-1950s.

Rock’n’roll was already fully formed by the end of 1948. That December, Roy Brown re-recorded the same song with just a few words changed under the name “Rockin’ at Midnight.” Same tune, almost the same lyrics, and with the same hand-clapping on the back beat that Wynonie Harris had introduced.

But something really interesting happens about 45 seconds from the end. All of a sudden, Brown starts repeating the phrase “We’re gonna rock” over and over again with a hard-driving rock’n’roll rhythm behind him. Wild Bill Moore had only just recorded the original version of “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll” in November, and Jimmy Preston wouldn’t even cut the original “Rock the Joint” (which is what Roy comes closest to, except he sings “We’re gonna rock this house” instead of “rock this joint”) until the following year.

That was it. Rock'n'roll was here to stay.

On Hoy Hoy, Morgan Wright nominates Roy Brown as the true founding father of rock'n'roll:
While others were rocking their boogies and jumping their blues, Roy Brown was writing songs and cutting records that were so far ahead of their time, it's as if he jumped into a time machine and left the 1940's, attended a Led Zeppelin concert, got dazed and confused, and went back to the 1940's, all shook up, and with a mission. Roy Brown took all the pieces of the puzzle and put them together into the first full-blown rock and roll.
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” made history one more time in 1954, as the second record released by a guy named Elvis. Here’s the bonus track:
Elvis Presley — Good Rockin’ Tonight

[Good Rocking Tonight: The Best of Roy Brown]
[Bloodshot Eyes: The Best of Wynonie Harris]
[Artist of the Century: Elvis Presley]
(that was Rev Frost really excited to read this excellent post)

I know I'm pretty late to the party here; but I'm witcha all the way on this one. While it oeversimplifies things a bit to say it, Roy and Wynonie did start rock ' roll. I tend to favor Roy, as he was a New Orleans cat and a real innovator; but WH's cover of "Good Rockin'" took that devil's music to church, as you astutely point out. And, hey, I grew up in Memphis, where "Rocket 88" was later recorded and that Evlis guy started out. In the last few years, attempting to gain more tourism street cred, Memphis has started calling itself 'The Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll'. Nope. Sorry, no cee-gar. Where it's at is in those 1948 grooves for all to hear. Thanks for telling the truth.

I'm looking up some of the "How Rock Began" songs - tanx for sharing

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