THE BIRTH OF ROCK AND ROLL (1945-1954) (Naxos: 8.120801)
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The Birth of Rock'n'Roll
Original Recordings 1945-1954
A popular argument among music historians ofrecent years involves identifying the firstrock'n'roll record. Although this CD doesn'tpurport to solve that question, it will serve thepurpose of giving these ongoing discussions asingle source from which to choose some of thefavoured candidates.
There are several problems with thisdialogue. First is the fact that most of the recordsincluded in this collection are by black artists,and as most will agree, rock'n'roll was a meltingpot of a variety of musical styles, including R&B,jump, blues, country, boogie woogie, andgospel. However, for the sake of argument, thiscollection focuses on songs that most frequentlycome up during the aforementioned debates.
The second thing that needs to be addressedis that rock'n'roll was not 'created' nor did itspontaneously appear on the music scenebecause of any one of these records.
Rock'n'roll, like other musical genres, wasthe result of a process that had been bubblingand boiling for years before Elvis Presley burstonto the scene in 1954. The musical processthat led to rock'n'roll developed simultaneouslyall over the United States in the late '40s andearly '50s. There are records on this set thatwere recorded in such diverse cities as NewYork, New Orleans, Memphis, Los Angeles,Cincinnati, aCD as a pot and the songs on itingredients for a stew. Each song contributedsomething important to the development ofrock'n'roll. Without any one, the stew wouldtaste differently, but it would still be a stew andwould be perfectly edible. One song might havemade the stew spicier, but it was not the onlyingredient.
Culinary metaphors aside, we have chosento include a variety of R&B and doo-wopselections in this anthology; each of which had amajor influence on the development ofrock'n'roll. Wynonie Harris (1915-1969) notonly inspired Elvis Presley's Sun version ofHarris' Good Rockin' Tonight, but also addedessential elements to rock'n'roll, including aheavy backbeat and jump vocals, which leddirectly to Joe Turner's transition from bluessinger to rock pioneer.
Along with the Orioles, the Ravens wasprobably the most important of the black vocalensembles with bird names that started in thelate 1940s. Jimmy Ricks' magnificent bass leadon the remake of the Broadway standard Ol'Man River helped inspire countless vocalgroups as well as early rock vocalists and '60sgroups such as the Temptations.
Louis Jordan's recordings with his TympanyFive not only exhibited exuberant singing by itsleader, but the boogie beat, jump rhythms, andhorn ensembles had a marked influence on notonly '40s R&B, but jazz and bebop as well.
Jordan (1908-1975) and others who performedin this style often played in clubs that featuredbebop performers. Songs such as Jordan'sCaldonia were included in the repertoires ofprogressive bands like Woody Herman's'1st herd'. Jordan wrote the song to be incorporatedinto a musical short and magnanimouslycredited his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, with thecomposition.
The Orioles' ballad, It's Too Soon toKnow, was one of a flock of bird group songsthat was covered by white pop singers in the1950s. Pat Boone, whose chief addition to ourmetaphorical stew was water, had a top ten hitwith it ten years after the Orioles' version hitNo.2 on the R&B charts in 1948.
Granville 'Stick' McGhee (1917-1961) wasblues great Brownie McGhee's younger brother.
Brownie was afflicted with polio as a youngsterand he got around his hometown of Kingsport,Tennessee through the use of a cart, which waspushed along by a stick controlled by Granville,thus earning Stick his nickname. AlthoughStick's influence pales in comparison to hisfamous sibling, he did create a rollicking paeanto pagan boozing with Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, which became a favourite ofanother musical heathen, Jerry Lee Lewis.
One of the most consistent hitmakers of theearly rock'n'roll era was Antoine 'Fats' Domino(born 1928), who is also one of its fewsurvivors. From the first pounding piano notesof The Fat Man, Domino dominated the NewOrleans R&B scene in the 1950s and becamesurprisingly accessible to white record buyers,thanks to songs such as \Ain't That A Shame",which was also successfully bowdlerized by PatBoone.
Three of the most important themes ofrock'n'roll's early years were sex, drinking, anddriving souped up automobiles. JackieBrenston's Rocket '88' combined all three ofthese elements. It was named for a powerfuleight-cylinder Oldsmobile and was a durable hitfor Chess Records in 1951. Later that year, ahillbilly yodeler from Chester, Pennsylvanianamed Bill Haley covered it. If for no otherreason than converting Haley to R&B, Brenstondeserves immortality. But Rocket '88' packed awallop, springboarding Chicago's Chess Recordsto fame as a major influence in blues and R&Bin the 1950s.
The Dominoes, led by a Juilliard-trainedvocal coach named Billy Ward, bridged the gapbetween gospel and R&B. The suggestive SixtyMinute Man was lasciviously sung by basssinger Bill Brown. Although the phrase'rock'n'roll' had been in frequent use in jazz andblues for decades, the Dominoes' use of itinspired Alan Freed (a devoted Dominoes fan) toaffix it to the music. The song made apronounced impact on the white-dominatedpop charts, and was so distinctive, that even PatBoone wouldn't touch it. (The image of Boonesinging the song is unimaginable...)Ruth Brown (born Ruth Weston in 1928)recorded for Atlantic Records beginning in 1949when the label was struggling to gain a footholdin the R&B marketplace. With Ruth Brownscoring with hits such as 5-10-15 Hours,Atlantic started to be known as 'the house thatRuth built'. Brown's singing was alternatelyseductive and raucous, and she proved thatrock'n'roll was not going to be an exclusivelymale musical club.
With the help of Atlantic Records mavenAhmet Ertegun, the Washington DC quintetknown as the Clovers became the mostsuccessful R&B group of the '50s. Their wittyOne Mint Julep warned of the effects of aparticularly intoxicating beverage, whoseconsumption led to a one-night stand and finally,a shotgun wedding.
Willie Mae Thornton (1926-1984) wasnicknamed 'Big Mama' for obvious reasons. Shewas large, tall, and coarse in manner, just asanyone named Big Mama should be. HoundDog was one of the first creations ofrock'n'roll's most spectacularly successfulsongwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,who went on to create a fistful of early rockclassics, including nearly everything the Coastersmade famous. Hound Dog, of course, becamean even bigger hit for a young upstart fromTupelo, Mississippi who shall remain nameless.
Originally called the Royals, the Midnightersfeatured lead singer Hank Ballard (1927-2003), aClyde McPhatter-influenced singer who wouldlater create a sensation with his composition'The Twist'. The lyrics for Work With MeAnnie made no bones about its subject matter,and were the object of much controversy andrevilement by Eisenhower-era parents, intent onsaving their children from the scourge of R&Brecords.
Similarly, the lyrics to Shake, Rattle & Roll,performed by Big Joe Turner (1911-1985), alsocreated a wave of protest. As a result, by thetime Bill Haley's cover version was issued, thebed and see-through dresses had beenairbrushed out of the lyrics.
(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clockwas one of the first records to become a hit afterbeing featured in a motion picture, in this case,1955's Blackboard Jungle. Although the song'slyrics (written by Tin Pan Alley hacks JimmyDeKnight and Max C. Freedman) were lessexplicit than most, the song's association withthe high school delinquent storyline in the filmcaused it to be the focus of more parental drumbeatingabout the degradation of our youths'morals. The chunky