The First Rock and Roll Record

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Various Artists: The First Rock and Roll Record

The title is misleading: there was no first rock’n’roll record. A style that grew organically from the American South out of hillbilly country, gospel and blues, rock’n’roll may be the dominant musical form of the second half of the 20th century, but its roots are hazy. Attempting to pinpoint its moment of conception is to enter a cultural minefield that pulls up questions of race and exploitation, since it took a white man (Elvis Presley) to make popular a style black men (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, countless others) had been bashing out for years. Besides, if the archaeological journey of this excellent three-disc compilation is to be trusted, rock’n’roll goes much farther back than most of us imagined.

Shared wisdom has it that Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel is the record that started rock’n’roll in 1956. That’s the last of 82 tracks on this collection. Rockologists point towards 1951’s Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, an ode to a car put together by the young Ike Turner and recorded at Sam Phillips’s studio in Memphis. That’s track number 57. Ageing teddy boys hail Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock as the moment it all began.

That comes in at number 70. What happened before is documented here: opposing forces of religious fever and sexual desire found expression in the most basic forms of music as far back as 1916.

It’s incredible that some of these recordings even exist. The very first is a hiss-laden campfire singalong, a gospel testimonial, in which men and women harmonise to the words, “We’ve been rocking and rolling in your arms, in the arms of Moses,” before a woman lays down the importance of resisting the Devil while the congregation makes spooky noises in the background. There’s no sexual desire expressed here, or at least you hope not, but there is the same wild and seductive spirit you recognise in Little Richard, the Rolling Stones and the White Stripes.

The sex comes in soon after. Trixie Smith’s My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) may date from 1922, but the Georgia-born vaudeville star Smith can match Rihanna for innuendo. “I looked at the clock and the clock said six/ I said, ‘Daddy, y’know I like those tricks,’ ” sings Smith, having already made her daddy roll with her since one o’clock and showing no sign of wanting to stop. She finally gives him a well-earned rest four hours later.

The slide-guitar pioneer Tampa Red’s It’s Tight Like That, a classic slice of blues hokum, follows a similar line while adding the essential rock’n’roll ingredient of strutting arrogance: “I wear my britches above my knees/ Strut my jelly with who I please.” It takes guts to boast about strutting your jelly, but then rock’n’roll was always about taking pride in the most unlikely things.

Of course, a scholarly discussion on whether all of this early blues, hillbilly music and gospel can really count as rock’n’roll is another thing. Quite a few of the songs seem to be here for their titles alone:Rock and Roll by the Boswell Sisters is a close harmony tune about being on a ship at sea, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Rock it for Me is glamorous big-band jazz that just happens to mention a style of music that didn’t yet exist. And if Judy Garland is a rock’n’roller (she’s included here for The Joint is Really Jumping Down at Carnegie Hall), then The Wizard of Oz is Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite movie. Nonetheless, all of this is irresistible, and it shows that musical revolutions that appear to happen overnight are actually decades in the making.

By the second half of the second disc and all of the third we’re getting towards something we can recognise as rock’n’roll. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s That’s All Right (Mama) was released in 1946; it would take another eight years for this primitive blues to make it to a white audience in the form of Elvis Presley’s first single. In the same year the white singer Ella Mae Morse released The House of Blue Lights, a tune that combines hipster jive talk (“Hey daddy-o, I’m not so crude to drop my mood on a square from way back” is Morse’s poetic way of telling a guy to get lost) with the hitherto black form of R&B. The colour lines of music were blurring at a segregated time in American history. That is the social phenomenon that made rock’n’roll.

Perhaps it’s best to forget about what is and isn’t rock’n’roll and just soak in the effervescent spirit that really binds this disparate music together. It’s a pleasure to revisit such classics as Fats Domino’s The Fat Man, the New Orleans piano stomp that tapped into a century of Crescent City music, or Lloyd Prices’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, a key inspiration on the Beatles. It’s great to discover Hot Rod Race by Arkie Shibley & His Mountain Dew Boys, the western swing tune that alerted America to the problem of juvenile delinquents racing cars. It’s all part of a collection that taps into what Bobby Gillespie calls “psychic jailbreak”, music with a sense of freedom that makes life seem that much brighter.

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