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Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

I don't remember if we've ever debated the question: Which was the first rock and roll record? Any thoughts?

Rock Around The Clock?
That's Alright?
Rocket 88?

Something else?

Check out these contenders.

Is rock and roll a distinct musical style, or are we really talking about the start of a cultural phenomenon when we talk about the first "rock and roll" record?

What are the essential musical elements that make a song rock and roll? Must there be an electric guitar? Drum kit?

How do we measure when the rock and roll cultural phenomenon began?

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

This is a very interesting question, but I guess there is not one answer to it (as often I would say).

That would be great if we could say "THIS is the first rnr record", but I don't think it would make so much sense.

There is a great Wikipedia article on the subject, very well documented IMO.

Personnally think that rock'n' roll appeared circa 1954-55, when black and white styles of music blended into one. That is really when people stared calling this music "rock and roll" even if the term pre-existed.
The first rnr artists IMO were white people, probably Elvis and Bill Haley. Rock'n roll, as a style was aimed at the white audience. Before that you had rhythm and blues and country boogie
Thelist you gave us gives us examples of the rock n roll roots(although like any list, it has its ommissions like Hank's "Move It On Over") but nobody (or very few people) called that rock'n roll at the time.
I guess rnr was born when there was a consensus around it, and when a rnr "market" (so a specific mass audience) appeared. It became one of the first multi-racial music style.

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

What's more important is who popularized R&R first...

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

I am more interested in who recorded the first rock and roll song as a matter of musical style, though its true that my question might be less important.

It leads to the question whether rock and roll is more of a musical style or a cultural phenomenon.

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

Yeah, I understand your question, and that is a very interesting one.

If I was a rock'n'roll history teacher (what a great job it would be!), this is how I'd put things:

Basically, rock'n'roll comes from boogie-woogie, an up-tempo version of the blues made popular by barrelhouse piano players and first recorded in the second half of the '20s by great and obscure players like Pinetop Smith or Cow Cow Davenport.

Then, in the late thirties, people started adding drum kits, horns, electric gtrs and singers to make it more suitable for dance halls : that led to Western swing, country boogie (Moon Mullican) and Rhythm & Blues.
These styles are very close to rock'n'roll : just listen to any Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner or Roy Brown hit, or to "Move It On Over" by Hank (same melody as Rock Around The Clock).

But rock'n'roll, I mean 50's rnr has slightly different features: the drums/bass/guitar (or piano) association, the emphasis on the backbeat.
Those elements came to light after the war, and there are multiple influences: Chicago blues combos such as Muddy Water's or Howlin' Wolf used drums and electric guitar (but the bass gtr was absent, only introduced by Willie Dixon in Chess productions).
I don't have time to check, but that gtr/bs/dms thing must come from country music.
This would be a very interesting research subject (tracking the real distinctive features of rnr)

As for the cultural phenomenon, I guess the indisputable winner would be Haley's "Rock Around The Clock", a smash hit. That's the song that started the whole thing, much more than "That's all right mama".

So, this is a first playlist:

- "Choo Choo'Ch boogie" by Louis Jordan (1946):

(Wikipedia quote) Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (recorded in January 1946) and "Let the Good Times Roll" (as well as 1945's "Caldonia") were hugely influential in style and content, and popular across both black and white audiences. Their producer Milt Gabler went on to produce Bill Haley's hits, and Jordan's guitarist Carl Hogan, on such songs as "Ain't That Just Like A Woman" (also 1946), was a direct influence on Chuck Berry's guitar style.

- Hank Williams "Move It On Over" (1947) : its white counterpart

You'll notice that both songs had a very strong influence on Bill Haley's style.

- Now, there's "Rocket 88" (1951), which is a rhythm & blues/boogie record with a strong backbeat (but there is no bass gtr in that song).
Musically, it is a r&b record like many others (Albert Ammons) but it was recorded at Sun studios by Sam Philips. So it has a very high symbolical value. Memphis was the place. Definitely. And Sam Philips the man. Presley was much cooler than Haley (who was from the North).

I'd love to spend time listening to a lot of music and come back with a few more songs, and a more accurate definition of the rock'n'roll song.

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

Oddly enough, Paul, I received Dawson and Propes’ book that you link to as a gift this past Christmas. It’s an entertaining book, and well worth checking out, though it could use some editing.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that their premise, pretty much stated, is that the question posed by their title, “What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record?,” is a non-starter. There wasn’t really a first. Each of the records they list is a kind of snapshot of an evolutionary process which they trace from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties.

Dave Marsh has a good line in his foreword to the book, pointing out that the LAST record they list is an appropriate stopping point for tracking this evolutionary process: “After ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ there was no need to wonder about a beginning because there was nobody left for whom rock ‘n’ roll had not begun.” Hyperbole, probably, but the point is taken.

nicolas, you admirably trace the details of this process in his post above, although I think it’s oversimplifying—slightly—to say that rock ‘n’ roll comes from boogie woogie. You’re not wrong about that, really, but, as a genre, rock ‘n’ roll, even in its earliest years, admitted so many different styles that I’d be uncomfortable with claiming that any of them is the main line of descent.

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...


You are right, saying that boogie was rnr grandfather was some kind of a shortcut but from a strictly musical point of view, primary rock'n'roll was very derivative from boogie woogie : the same 12-bar , 3 chords structure, the up-tempo beat, etc... Boogie had a strong influence on blues and country

Then , there were many other influences, and their number grew to almost infinity as rock was growing up.

of course, even in the beginning, there were other influences : country, pop, big bands, New Orleans music (so the Carribeans, France, Spain, etc.), even hawaiian music, naive American music too (a lot of researchers have discovered that, given the strong links between afro and native Americans in the South, Indian music was a big influence on the blues) and so on...

this is taken from Wikipedia :

Origins of the style
(Main article: Origins of rock and roll)

The immediate origins of rock and roll lie in the late 1940s and early 1950s through a mixing together of various popular musical genres of the time. These included blues, country music, R&B, folk music, and gospel music.

However, elements of rock and roll can be heard in many "hillbilly" and "race" music records of the 1920s and 1930s. Often music was usually relegated to "race music" outlets (music industry code for rhythm and blues stations) and was rarely heard by mainstream white audiences. A few black rhythm and blues musicians, notably Louis Jordan, the Mills Brothers, and The Ink Spots, achieved crossover success; in some cases (such as Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") this success was achieved with songs written by white songwriters. The Western swing genre in the 1930s, generally played by white musicians, also drew heavily on the blues and in turn directly influenced rockabilly and rock and roll, as can be heard, for example, on Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" (1957).

Going back even further, rock and roll can trace one lineage to the old Five Points, Manhattan district of mid-19th century New York City, the scene of the first fusion of heavily rhythmic African shuffles and sand dances with melody-driven European genres, particularly the Irish jig .

The following is a table underlining some (but not all) of the main influences on Rock and roll. What should be noted is that prior to rock and roll, music was categorized based on race, nationality, location, style, instrumentation, vocal techniques, and even religion. However, with the immense popularity and commercial success of Elvis Presley in 1956, Rock and roll became cornerstone of the music industry in America. No more was music defined and categorized as it had been. Rather, it became inclusive of almost every genre of music that had gained a certain amount of popularity.

Country Influences :

Western Swing
Honky Tonk

Rhythm & Blues Influences :

Traditional Blues
Boogie Woogie
Negro Spirituals

Other :

Traditional Folk
Pop Music
Big Bands

Re: Music History Questions - First Rock Record...

Great comments guys. I will have to check out the book. I just used the link because of the good list of songs.

I know this is a fool's errand, but logic tells me that there had to be a first rock and roll recording and I aim to find it!!

The tricky part is defining what makes a recording "rock and roll." Is is exclusively determined by the music, or is there an element of self-identification (i.e., it's not rock unless it calls itself rock)?

Some Wynonie Harris tracks from the 1940's sound exactly like rock in terms of the vocals and the rythym (Good Rockin' Tonight), but they are all horns. I think electric guitar and drums are an essential element of the first rock and roll song.