Episode 1
Monday June 3, 2013 - 45 minutes
Origins of Rock & Roll

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In our first episode, we dig deep into the archives and talk about the history of early rock & roll. Hit play!

Episode Transcript

Hi, I'm Ben Ruhe, welcome to Magic Transistor's podcast series: Evolutions of Rock & Roll in America. In this episode, we will be listening to what many may consider the first examples of rock & roll music. We'll also delve back as far as the 1920s to shed light on the rich history of music that influenced, shaped, and could even be described as "rock and roll".

Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie - When The Levee Breaks - Columbia Records (78rpm) - 1929

When this recording was released in 1971, it's composition was credited to the members of Led Zeppelin. However, it was originally written and recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, in an uptempo blues song written about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, the original writers of
"When The Levee Breaks", later made famous by Led Zeppelin

Rock and roll, as a musical genre, doesn't form until the early 50s.

Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats - Rocket 88 - Chess Records 7" - 1951

In 1951, Alan Freed, a DJ from Cleveland, Ohio, uses the term "rock and roll" to describe the mix of country, blues, and R&B, which he played on his show. That same year, Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston record "Rocket 88".

Alan Freed, the influential Cleveland DJ who may have coined the term "rock and roll" in 1951
In 1951, Alan Freed uses the term "rock and roll" to describe the mix of country, blues, and R&B he played on his show.

The producer of Rocket 88, Sam Phillips, credits this as being the first rock and roll song. The song is mainly based on an early recording of Jimmy Liggins & His Drops of Joy. "Caddilac Boogie", 1947.

Jimmy Liggins & His Drops Of Joy - Cadillac Boogie - Specialty Records (78 rpm) - 1947

Jimmy Liggins' stage acts were thought to have an impact on guys like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.

Jimmy Liggins' stage acts were thought to have an impact on guys like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.

Here's a song from 1928 by James "Boodle It" Wiggins.

James "Boodle It" Wiggins-Keep A' Knockin'-Paramount Records (78 rpm)-1928

There have also been version of this song recorded by hokum blues singer Lil Johnson. Western swing artists Milton Brown, R&B saxophonist Louis Jourdan, and this man from Macon Georgia.

Little Richard - Keep A Knockin' - Speciality Records 7" - 1957

But this song is a lot later. We're here to talk about early rock and roll.

Billy Ward & The Dominoes - Sixty Minute Man-Federal Records (78 rpm) - 1951
Billy Ward & The Dominoes

While Sam Phillips credits himself as recording the first rock and roll song, the same year "Rocket 88" is released, Billy Ward & The Dominoes releases "Sixty Minute Man", which crosses over from the R&B to the pop charts.

Using the reference to "Dan" and the use of the term "rock and roll" as a euphemism for sex goes pretty far back in music's history.

The term "rock and roll" as a euphemism for sex goes pretty far back in music's history.
Trixie Smith - My Man Rocks Me - Black Swan Records (78 rpm) - 1922
Trixie Smith - My Man Rocks Me. Black Swan Records, 1922

The oldest song using this term "rock and roll" dates back to 1922.

Trixie Smith - My Daddy Rocks Me - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1938

The 1920s also saw the first records labeled "hokum".

Dallas String Band - Hokum Blues - Columbia Records (78 rpm) - 1928

Hokum is played by a lot of jug bands, and some black string bands. Dallas String Band from Texas released a song called "Hokum Blues" in 1928. Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker were both members at one time.

Clarence "Pine Top" Smith - Pine Top's Boogie Woogie - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1928
Clarence "Pine Top" Smith - Pine Top's Boogie Woogie. Vocalion Records, 1928

As the 20s come to a close, the first boogie-woogie records are made. During the prohibition era, places for gambling, drinking, drugs, and dancing were also places to hear a blend of all kinds of music. Here's a great example of early rock and roll.

Montana Taylor - Detroit Rocks - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1929
During prohibition, places for gambling, drinking, drugs, and dancing were also places to hear a blend of all kinds of music.
Montana Taylor, the influential boogie-woogie pianist and writer of "Detroit Rocks"

In 1929, Montana Taylor recorded "Detroit Rocks". That same year, he worked with hokum blues singer Lil Johnson. The same Lil Johnson recorded "Rock That Thing" with guitarist Tampa Red.

Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band - My Daddy Rocks Me - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1929

Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band records a version of "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll" in 1929. Vocals by Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, a vaudevillian, and a female impersonator. I wouldn't say hokum is defined by a musical style, but it is raunchy, and comical in its subject matter.

Tampa Red - Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here, 1929
Hokum isn't defined by a musical style, but it is raunchy.

Towards the mid 30s, after the new deal, and the repeal of prohibition, artists like Lil Johnson and Tampa Red begin to record again.

Lil Johnson & Her Chicago Swingers-Let's Get Drunk And Truck-Vocalion Records (78 rpm)-1935
Lil Johnson - Let's Get Drunk And Truck. Vocalion Records, 1935

Lil Johnson wasn't the only female hokum blues singer of the time, and certainly wasn't the raunchiest. Lucille Bogan was more direct, and less suggestive. Just listen to her song "Til The Cows Come Home".

Lucille Bogan - Til The Cows Come Home - Okeh Records (78 rpm) - 1933
Hokum blues artist Lucille Bogan

Tampa Red's influential style of guitar can be heard in the music of Muddy Waters and Elmore James, like on this track with Georgia Tom.

Tampa Red & Georgia Tom - (Honey) Tight Like That - Vocalion Records - 1928
Tampa Red's influential style of guitar can be later heard in the music of Muddy Waters and Elmore James.
Lil Johnson - Stavin' Chain (That Rockin' Swing) - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1937

Lil Johnson stopped recording in 1937. Date of her death is unknown. Bob Wills, along with Milton Brown, are the first to add the swing element to western music. This is important when you consider that Bill Haley's first band in the 1940s was The Four Aces of Western Swing.

Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys - Steel Guitar Rag - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1936
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, late 1940s

Bob Wills most notorious song "Ida Red" will become the inspiration for Chuck Berry's first single, "Maybelline".

Here's another example of western swing.

Buddy Jones - Rock & Rollin' Mama - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1939
Hill Billy Records Catalog, featuring Buddy Jones (top right), 1940

Both these songs feature the electric lap steel, a type of guitar mostly heard in Hawaiian music. Later in the podcast, we will have our special guest tell us why the evolution of this instrument is so important to the history of rock and roll music.

This is also around the time we start to see real contenders for early rock and roll songs. "Roll 'em Pete", released in 1938, is an example of this.

Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner - Roll 'Em Pete - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1938
Pete Johnson performing in New York City in 1946. Photographed by William P. Gottlieb

Big Joe Turner and pianist Pete Johnson team up on a number of records. With songs like "Shake, Rattle, and Roll", Big Joe Turner eventually saw great success in the 50s.

Tampa Red - Let Me Play With Your Poodle - Bluebird (78 rpm) - 1942
Kay Kyser And His Orchestra - Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition - 1942
Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition, 1942

During World War II, shellac was rationed, and a recording ban began. Most of the records at this time were either reissues, or releases for the soldiers, called "V Discs".

During World War II, shellac was rationed, and a recording ban began.
Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five - Choo Choo Ch' Boogie - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1946
Louis Jordan in New York City, July 1946. Photographed by William P. Gottlieb

"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" is a big hit for Louis Jordan, and was one of the many songs for which he enjoyed some crossover success. This song was produced by Milt Gabler. He's best known for his production on Bill Haley and The Comets "Rock Around The Clock". Charley Patton's "Going to Move to Alabama" from 1929 uses a melody that becomes commonly used in blues-influenced country music.

Charley Patton - Going To Move To Alabama - Paramount Records (78 rpm) - 1929
Charley Patton, late 1920s

It is also the melody for a popular Hank Williams song, "Move it on Over".

Hank Williams - Move It On Over - MGM Records (78 rpm) - 1947
Hank Williams - Move it on Over, 1947

This melody is heard again in Max C. Freedman's "Rock Around The Clock", the hugely influential number, originally recorded by Sonny Dae & His Knights.

Sonny Dae & His Knights - Rock Around The Clock - Arcade Records 7" - 1954

Rock and roll really begins to take shape in the late 40s.

Rock and roll really begins to take shape in the late 40s.
Wynonie Harris - Lollipop Mama (Mr Jump Blues) - King Records (78 rpm) - 1948
Blues singer Wynonie Harris in a strange newspaper clipping, 1958

The early rock style is closely related to another style of music, based on the fusion of boogie-woogie and swing, known as "jump blues". Louis Jordan, Jimmy Liggins, Wynonie Harris, and even Jackie Brenston, can be called jump blues artists.

Champion Jack Dupree - Junker Blues - Okeh Records (78 rpm) - 1940

Champion Jack Dupree's 1940 song "Junker Blues" inspired two early rock recordings: the most famous of which will be done by Fats Domino in 1949.

Fats Domino - The Fat Man - Imperial Records 7" - 1949
Fats Domino
Jimmy Preston - Rock This Joint - Gotham Records (78 rpm) - 1949

That same year, Jimmy Preston released "Rock This Joint, a song that Bill Haley will go on to cover.

Goree Carter & His Hepcats - Rock A While - Freedom Records (78 rpm) - 1949

In 1949, Goree Carter records only a handful of songs. His slightly distorted amplified guitar and blues style of playing will eventually become the basis of all later rock music.

Goree Carter
Goree Carter's distorted guitar and blues style of playing will eventually become the basis of all later rock music.
T-Bone Walker - Two Bones And A Pick - T-Bone Blues - Atlantic Records - 1960

Guitar will be a critical element for rock and roll's development. We're fortunate enough to have a guest here who can tell us more about this. Joining us is Ron Bienstock. Ron is an intellectual property rights lawyer in New York and New Jersey. He represents music instrument companies around the world. He's a frequent lecturer and teaches entertainment law, and is an adjunct professor at New York University. He's also been a music business commentator for NPR, CNN, and Air America. Ron was voted one of the top 100 most influential people in the music business by BAM Magazine.

T-Bone Walker - T-Bone Boogie - Rhumboogie Records (78 rpm) - 1945
T-Bone Walker
Pete Johnson - Rocket 88 Boogie - Swing Time Records - 1949

Ben: So, you're very knowledgable about equipment and technology?

Ron: As a musician since 1972, I am one of those geeks that could memorize everybody's gear from everybody's band. It's an affliction, but I live with it.

Ben: Thanks for joining us. We're hoping you could add to this conversation concerning rock and roll and it's origins.

Ron: Alright, sure. Part of what I wanted to bring up is the evolution of the modern electric guitar in the same period as rock and roll began. Clearly piano is the dominant chordal instrument - it's louder than guitar - just by the very nature of the inside harp, if you will, the soundboard. And clearly louder than bass, louder than other things that become incredibly important to rock and roll. But the electric guitar, in its origins, moves quickly from what was originally referred to "the frying pan" - people refer to that often as being the first electric guitar, which is really a lap steel, to a hawaiian - again, not played the same way. Everybody in that era referred to it as a Spanish guitar, what we now refer to as something more held by a strap, played on your knee, whatever, you might see it in terms of the modern construction of electric guitar. It had been around for centuries at that point.

Rickenbacker A-22 "Fry Pan" Lap Steel Guitar

Ben: Aside from the electric guitar, can you point to the evolution of other instruments that played a key role?

Ron: The only other comment I wanted to make was for the same period, the development of electric bass, which takes a much more torturous climb to be heard, because as a bass player, I can tell you how hard and how heavy you've got to go with an acoustic to be heard amongst an orchestra, and there were no amplification systems at the time.

Ben: Ron, what would you point to as the earliest recording that featured the electric bass?

Ron: It's hard to say which is the first actual electric recorded, but once it takes off, and makes its move into rock and roll, it is, it becomes the predominant methodology for playing.

Ben: So, the evolution of technology plays a key role in the shaping of rock and roll music. If we were to talk about early influential artists, who would you say, besides Chuck Berry of course, comes to mind?

Instrument inventor Paul Tutmarc with some of the earliest electric guitars
The evolution of technology plays a key role in the shaping of rock and roll music.

Ron: It's interesting - that's a great question. I don't know, for me, there's so many. It's T-Bone Walker, who was, if you look at Hendrix, and you look at T-Bone Walker, you're going to say that Hendrix, the modern Voodoo Child, you know, version of all this, took a lot of what he had heard or seen pictures of T-Bone Walker playing.

Ben: What are your thoughts on Billy Ward and the Dominoes, with songs such as "60 Minute Man", introducing the gospel sound to rock music at the time?

Ron: You're hitting it right on the head - there's so many people coming from so many different areas, that may have been, you know, even gospel driven, and now have taken gospel piano, and have put that in to, you know, putting "blue notes" from blues and gospel into a fundamental presentation. A lot of gospel is just so upbeat, and so rock, in so many ways.

A lot of gospel is just so upbeat, and so rock, in so many ways.

Ben: Do you feel that The Ink Spots had a lot to do with the gospel influence, maybe even influenced Billy Ward?

Ron: Absolutely, and many others.

The Ink Spots

Ben: What, in your opinion, makes the boogie-woogie piano style so unique, Ron?

Ron: The bass was driving so much of it. Boogie-woogie establishes a line - it's no longer impromptu jazz, it becomes "follow this" - and what you're playing has got to kind of fit over what this is, on your left hand. And it has a tremendous impact on it.

Ben: Who would you name as an important or highly influential producer in the early rock and roll era?

Ron: I think you've got to give a lot of credit to Sam Philips, who was able to capture on to tape performances that in terms of mix gave you, yeah the vocal has always been predominant, but it gave you guitar, it gave you some bass, it gave you some drums. And were able to give you a feel for a band.

Sun Studio in Memphis, opened by legendary producer Sam Phillips in 1950

Ben: What are some of your favorite early rock and roll songs?

Ron: I still love "Rock Around The Clock". I think the solo is spectacular. And I still love "Rocket 88", I just love, even at your Jerry Lee Lewis piano, and your Little Richard piano part's that just have so much energy. You know, it's the vibe, it's the rock vibe - it has energy, it has something behind it.

It's the rock vibe - it has energy, it has something behind it.
Bill Haley & The Comets - Rock Around The Clock - Decca Records 7" - 1954
Little Richard - Long Tall Sally - Speciality Records 7" - 1956
Little Richard

Ben: Ron, thanks for calling in. We really appreciate you on the air today. Any final thoughts you'd like to share with us before you go?

Ron: The amount of work that Magic Transistor has done to bring these records and these recordings to the listening audience around the world is remarkable, because very few people have spent this kind of time. And to link these things together, when people often find that there are no links to link them together, is just so difficult.

Bill Haley & His Saddlemen - Rocket 88 - Essex Records 7" - 1951

That about wraps up this program. It was written and produced by Ryan Aull and Ben Ruhe for Magic Transistor. Thank you for your support.

Episode Playlist

Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks - Led Zeppelin IV - Atlantic Records - 1971
Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie - When The Levee Breaks - Columbia Records (78rpm) - 1929
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats - Rocket 88 - Chess Records 7" - 1951
Jimmy Liggins & His Drops Of Joy - Cadillac Boogie - Specialty Records (78 rpm) - 1947
James "Boodle It" Wiggins-Keep A' Knockin'-Paramount Records (78 rpm)-1928
Little Richard - Keep A Knockin' - Speciality Records 7" - 1957
Billy Ward & The Dominoes - Sixty Minute Man-Federal Records (78 rpm) - 1951
Trixie Smith - My Man Rocks Me - Black Swan Records (78 rpm) - 1922
Trixie Smith - My Daddy Rocks Me - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1938
Dallas String Band - Hokum Blues - Columbia Records (78 rpm) - 1928
Clarence "Pine Top" Smith - Pine Top's Boogie Woogie - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1928
Montana Taylor - Detroit Rocks - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1929
Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band - My Daddy Rocks Me - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1929
Lil Johnson & Her Chicago Swingers-Let's Get Drunk And Truck-Vocalion Records (78 rpm)-1935
Lucille Bogan - Til The Cows Come Home - Okeh Records (78 rpm) - 1933
Tampa Red & Georgia Tom - (Honey) Tight Like That - Vocalion Records - 1928
Lil Johnson - Stavin' Chain (That Rockin' Swing) - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1937
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys - Steel Guitar Rag - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1936
Buddy Jones - Rock & Rollin' Mama - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1939
Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner - Roll 'Em Pete - Vocalion Records (78 rpm) - 1938
Tampa Red - Let Me Play With Your Poodle - Bluebird (78 rpm) - 1942
Kay Kyser And His Orchestra - Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition - 1942
Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five - Choo Choo Ch' Boogie - Decca Records (78 rpm) - 1946
Charley Patton - Going To Move To Alabama - Paramount Records (78 rpm) - 1929
Hank Williams - Move It On Over - MGM Records (78 rpm) - 1947
Sonny Dae & His Knights - Rock Around The Clock - Arcade Records 7" - 1954
Wynonie Harris - Lollipop Mama (Mr Jump Blues) - King Records (78 rpm) - 1948
Champion Jack Dupree - Junker Blues - Okeh Records (78 rpm) - 1940
Fats Domino - The Fat Man - Imperial Records 7" - 1949
Jimmy Preston - Rock This Joint - Gotham Records (78 rpm) - 1949
Goree Carter & His Hepcats - Rock A While - Freedom Records (78 rpm) - 1949
T-Bone Walker - Two Bones And A Pick - T-Bone Blues - Atlantic Records - 1960
T-Bone Walker - T-Bone Boogie - Rhumboogie Records (78 rpm) - 1945
Pete Johnson - Rocket 88 Boogie - Swing Time Records - 1949
Bill Haley & The Comets - Rock Around The Clock - Decca Records 7" - 1954
Little Richard - Long Tall Sally - Speciality Records 7" - 1956
Bill Haley & His Saddlemen - Rocket 88 - Essex Records 7" - 1951

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