1948 Wurlitzer jukebox
Debates take place among music enthusiasts and historians as to what recording should be credited as the first ever rock & roll record. Coming up with a definitive answer to that question, with multiple factors involved, presents a nearly impossible task. In my nearly 30 years of working in radio broadcasting, where understanding the music you played was of importance, this is a matter that I have discussed in depth several times. Therefore, here is my opinion on that topic based on a reasonable degree of research and thought.
Let's get this straight: Elvis Presley’s Sun Records release That's Alright Mama was not the first rock & roll record. That single, Elvis' first hit, was released in 1954; therefore, it's not old enough to be given serious consideration. To clarify, for a recording to be in contention for the title "first rock & roll record," it would have to have come out in the late 1940's or the very early 1950's. And, based on recordings of the era that seem to be viable contenders, the world's first rock record was put out by an African-American artist or artists. Furthermore, given the technology of the time, the first rock record would have been sold as a 78 RPM single. All of the records that I will be discussing in this blog post were originally marketed as 78's.
It is safe to say that the earliest rock records evolved from rhythm & blues (R & B). In its formative years, R & B had been known by names such as race music, Negro music and jump blues. Over the years, there have been many popular and influential R & B gems. However, in the quest to identify the first rock record, historians must consider only those releases that can arguably be classified as rock & roll. It is not good enough to take the lazy approach and label an innovative early R & B record as the first rock & roll release. Instead, it is necessary to focus on that first record that was different, evolutionary and vital enough to usher in a distinctive new form of music that would be called rock & roll. From amongst the few records that meet that criteria, original release dates are crucial: The earliest released record--that was actual rock & roll--should be considered the first rock & roll record. The first two entries in this post deserve critical consideration.
In 1947, Roy Brown wrote and recorded Good Rockin' Tonight. The jazzy swing blues number was a modest hit for Brown. Then, in early 1948, King Records released a cover by jump blues star Wynonie Harris. Harris' recording shot to the top of the Juke Box hit charts. A strong argument can be made, due to this rendition's “rock sound,” its backbeat, the title, and the early release date, that Good Rockin' Tonight by Wynonie Harris was the first rock & roll record. This tune became a standard and cover versions were later released by popular mainstream artists including Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Carl Perkins. Click on Wynonie Harris' album cover to hear his hit record.
A release that many historians list as, perhaps, the first rock record came out in 1951. Although Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm played the music at the recording session, Turner did not receive artist credit for his hit single Rocket 88. Chess Record's label listed the track as by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. That erroneous label was misleading and it somewhat muddled historical facts. Truth be known, Brenston was the vocalist on the single, but he was primarily a sax player in Turner's band. Click below to hear Rocket 88.
Another title, sometimes mentioned as the first rock & roll record, was Sh-boom. Realistically, this 1954 Cat Records release by The Chords is more likely to be the first doo-wop record vs. the first rock record. Members of The Chords were discovered when they were seen singing together in the NYC subway. As was typical of that time, an all white group, the Crew-Cuts from Canada, covered Sh-boom and that rendition became the bigger hit. Historically, the original recording has best stood the test of time. Click below to hear The Chords sing their doo-wop classic.
It is my view that the first rock & roll record was either Good Rockin’ Tonight or Rocket 88. However, rest assured that historians will, endlessly I suspect, continue to argue this point since there is no obvious answer and the facts are largely dependent on non-specific definitions and opinions.
There is an important piece of rock history that is not in dispute: In July 1955, for the first time, both Billboard and Cashbox magazines placed a rock & roll record at #1 on their charts. The Decca Records release was by a seemingly unlikely candidate--Bill Haley was a yodeling, hard-drinking, 30-year-old white guy who started out as a western swing musician. Haley's band, by way of their recording Rock Around The Clock, brought this new youth oriented rock & roll music to the forefront of American culture. From that point forward, things would never be the same again. Click on Bill Haley and His Comets' album cover to view a live performance of the band's greatest hit.