The term "rock and roll" was originally a nautical term which has been used by sailors for centuries. It refers to the rock (fore and aft motion) and roll (sideways motion) of a ship. The expression can be found in English literature going back to the 1600's, always referring to boats and ships.* The term entered black spiritual music in the 1800's, but with a religious meaning, and was first recorded on phonograph records around 1900 in a popular song called "Camp Meeting Jubilee" by several artists. Here is a 1916 version on the Little Wonder record label. Scroll down to record # 339 on that link and you will hear:
We've been rockin' an' rolling
in your arms,
Rockin' and rolling in your arms,
Rockin' and rolling in your arms,
In the arms of Moses.
Now, here is where rock and roll music came from. Before 1947, the only people who talked much about "rocking" were black gospel singers. They were singing, "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham," and "Rock me Jesus," and "Rock me in the cradle of Thy love," and "Rock me Lord," and "Rock Daniel," and "I Call Jesus My Rock" etc., going back to the late 19th century. "Rocking" was a term used by African Americans for the rapture they experienced at certain religious events, and the term also referred to the powerful rhythm found in the music that accompanied that religious experience. For example, this recording from 1928 or this 1934 recording. Pay attention to the 1934 recording, and you will hear him say "I'm going to rock, you gonna rock...I sit there and rock, I sit there and rock, yeah yeah yeah." You should listen to that recording all the way through. It is evident from that recording (and others) that "rocking" was a part of religious experience in black culture of the time, where the ecstatic congregant was overwhelmed by the rhythm of the music and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, black secular musicians were
using the term for either dancing or sex, or both, as in:
"Rock It In Rhythm" Tampa Red 1938
"Rock Me Daddy" Georgia White 1937
"Rockin' In Rhythm" Duke Ellington 1928
"Rock Me In The Groove" Sweet Georgia Brown 1941
"Detroit Rocks" Montana Taylor 1929
"Rock MeMama" Banjo Ikey Robinson 1929
"Rock It For Me" Chick Webb w. Ella Fitzgerald 1938
"Rock That Thing" Lil Johnson 1929
"The Boogie Rocks" Albert Ammons 1944
"Rockin, Rollin Mama" Buddy Jones 1939 (C & W, white artist)
"Rocking & Rolling" Robinson's Knights Of Rest 1930
"Rock, Aunt Dinah, Rock" Coot Grant 1925
"Rock Me Mama" Big Joe Turner 1941
"Rockin' And Swingin'" Don Albert 1936
"I Want To Rock" Cab Calloway 1942
Then, in 1947, Roy Brown did a blues called "Good Rocking Tonight" that was a parody of gospel, where instead of rocking the Lord, he had church people like Deacon Jones and Elder Brown rocking in a secular manner. "Good Rocking Tonight" was the first time the gospel meaning of rocking (of souls) and the secular meaning (dance, sex) were fused together in the same song. The joke was taken from Louis Jordan's "Deacon Jones" of 1943, in which a Deacon was stealing money from the collection plate, getting drunk on the sacramental wine, and having sex with all the female congregants. Brown took the Deacon one step further and had him rocking. Even the opening line, "Have You Heard The News," is a parody of gospel, since the word "gospel" literally means "good news," which Roy Brown would have known because he grew up in church, where preachers are always talking about whether you have heard the news (about Jesus).
The record sold, but Brown's version did not have much of a rocking beat. Even though Brown used both meanings of "rocking" in the lyrics of the song, at this point there was still a wide chasm between gospel music and blues.
Along comes Wynonie Harris. He covered Browns record, also in 1947, but it was to become, based on what followed it, one of the most important recordings in music history. He caught Brown's joke, about these church people "rocking," but to add to the parody he changed the rhythm to an uptempo gospel beat, thereby fusing gospel and blues in a spectacular manner. The difference between Wynonie Harris' version and Brown's is the gospel rhythm of rocking on the 2nd and 4th beat of the 4/4 measure, as you hear in Wynonie's rocking hand-clapping, like there had been in uptempo gospel music for decades, as seen above.
When Wynonie Harris' version of Good Rocking Tonight was cut in December of 1947 and hit the charts in 1948, it started a revolution. Although Harris wasn't the first to sing blues with a gospel beat, as others like Big Joe Turner had been doing this for years, it was Harris' record that started the "rocking" fad in blues and R&B in the late 40's. After Harris' record, there was a massive wave of rocking blues tunes, and every black singer had a rocking blues record out by 1949** or 1950. It was a sweeping fad that changed R&B forever. "Rocking" was in, boogie woogie was out, and most R&B artists were trying like mad to out-rock each other. This new music had an extremely powerful beat.
Now that the music had arrived, all it needed was a name. R&B (coined in 1949) was too broad a term, because R&B was a category which included all forms of black music except for jazz and gospel. Anything else was considered R&B, regardless of the actual musical style. It could be a ballad, old-style jump blues, crooners like the Ink Spots, blues shouters, or anything else, it would be classified as R&B. But this rocking music was new and revolutionary, and therefore it needed a new name, so the disc jockeys, led by a Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed, started calling it rock and roll. This was in 1951, and many DJ's followed suit, such as Waxie Maxie in DC, Hunter Hancock in LA, and Porky Chedwick in Pittsburgh. By 1953 the new term was becoming widely used, and also was being used to market the music to a wider audience beyond the R&B market. Many white people who remember the early 50's think that 1954 was the year that rock and roll started. But no, that's just the year they first became aware of it, in crossover tunes like "Sh-Boom" by the Chord Cats, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Big Joe Turner, "Earth Angel" by the Penguins, "Gee" by the Crows, (recorded in 1953), "Rock Around The Clockt" by Bill Haley and the Comets, and some of the first Doo Wop tunes to cross over from R & B. It's also the year Elvis first recorded rock and roll, although these Sun records only gave him local fame, and he didn't actually get famous until RCA picked him up in 1955. Black people who remember the early 50's tell a different story.
In 1952 and '53, rock and roll was becoming more characterized by mellow love ballads by teen-aged vocal groups with bird names like The Crows, Ravens, Orioles, Cardinals, etc. Usually the flip sides of these records were the uptempo dance numbers, which were called the rockers. In various parts of the USA, people were adding their local flavors to it. In the northern cities, the Italian and Puerto Rican communities were playing rock and roll their way. On the West Coast, Chicanos were playing it in Spanish. In the south, country singers were adding rock and roll to their hillbilly boogie, and rockabilly was born. Cajuns in Louisiana were adding rock and roll to their music, and zydeco was born. Overseas, the British were adding rock and roll to their music, and skiffle was born. All this happened in the early 50's, and it all became lumped together into the great melting pot called rock and roll. The first time rock and roll appeared on national television was on May 2, 1954, when the Treniers appeared on the Colgate Comedy Hour when Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were hosting. This is long before Elvis was on television.
With the music in place, on radio and television, and with the name rock and roll now official, the story has been told. Forget all the myths you hear about 1954, Sun Records, Elvis, Sam Phillips, etc. That's the story of rockabilly, but rock and roll itself was already here, named, recorded, and given airplay, long before then. Many people have continued to spread the myth, that rock and roll was originally a mix of blues and country music, so often and for so long that it's almost considered a fact by some people. The truth is, rock and roll is older than rockabilly, which was a blending of rock and roll with country music. The myth that rock and roll music began at Sun Records in 1954 was believed by the majority of people outside of the black neighborhoods, which means people from remote areas and suburbs, wealthy sections of cities, white regions, etc., who first heard of this music then, and so that's the most common story you hear. Basically, the majority of Americans at the time were completely naive to black culture, and never heard of rock and roll until after the Elvis explosion brought black music into their world. But the truth is, rock and roll was originally just another name for rhythm and blues, which started in the late 40's. With the sudden emergence in 1954 of the world-wide audience that rock and roll received, the impression has been held in the minds of most people that rock and roll actually began that year. Most people as a whole never have known about the original rockers of the Hoy Hoy era, 1947-1953. That's why we are here. A brief listen to the selections on this web site will tell the whole story.
When you read most books on the origin of rock and roll, they describe an explosion that hit around 1954 or '55. All of a sudden, Elvis, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others were playing perfectly developed rock and roll, as if it came out of nowhere. Some portray it as a magical moment in a recording studio, with musicians goofing around during a break and playing some unrehearsed jam, and somehow accidentally inventing a whole new type of music. Ridiculous. The more sober authors say, though also in error, that it was a mixture of country music and R&B (an accurate description of rockabilly, which was not the original form of rock and roll). When these books describe the "roots" of rock and roll, they usually start with the blues of the 1930's or earlier, artists like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, and make references to Chicago blues artists like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, and then jump right up to 1954, completely skipping over the hard rocking sax-based R&B of the period 1948 to 1953. There are several reasons for this:
1. On the radio in the late 40's, R&B was taboo, although there were some pioneering DJ's who broke the rules and played it anyway. The first R&B to be heard on the radio in NYC, for example, was in the later part of 1952, and even then it was only heard after midnight. Some large cities had R&B programs before this, but in general, there was almost no R&B on the radio in the early days. Without radio, the only place that R&B was widely known was in black neighborhoods before 1952, but by then, the music had changed around and R&B was mostly changing over to the doo wop vocal groups, popular among teenagers, which means the earlier-style R&B never became widely known.
2. By the time R&B was becoming heard on radio stations, the 78 RPM format had just recently been replaced by the new 45 RPM records. Radio stations had just bought all new records and dumped out the old ones, since the 78's were heavy and cumbersome, and broke easily. By 1951 and 1952, the only demo records being shipped to radio DJ's were the new 45's. Unfortunately, all the early R&B had been recorded on the old 78's, so when R&B started being played on the radio, these 78's were already in the dumpster. Later on, when "golden oldies" were being played, that meant old 45's, since the 78's had long since been discarded. So, these Hoy Hoy era 78's were never played much on the radio.
In addition, there is the story of the juke box. In
1950 and 1951, most of the juke boxes in wealthier neighborhoods were being upgraded to
play the 45's, while most R&B records were still being issued mainly on 78. The 45 RPM
format was introduced in 1949 on RCA Victor, and other labels converted in the early 50's,
but many labels continued to produce 78's as late as 1959, especially for the R&B
market. This is because most black people did not have the disposable income to go out and
buy new record players that played 45's, and juke box operators typically didn't convert
the juke boxes in black neighborhoods right away either. (This story is also true for
hillbilly or "country" music, since country music fans were also typically
poor). Thus, Hoy Hoy era R&B was caught in the trap of being among the last records
issues on a doomed format, and most of this music was lost to the newer world of the 45
3. When rock and roll became fully entrenched after
rockabilly arrived, and even more so with the British invasion of the early 60's, it
became a guitar-based music, and these guitarists naturally looked towards other
guitarists as the pioneers of the music. Thus, Eric Clapton would listen to B. B. King
records, Keith Richards would listen to Muddy Waters, etc. and espouse these artists as
their inspiration. Record companies then became interested in reissuing the older stuff,
so long as it had a guitarist in the lead. But rock and roll before 1954 was
saxophone-based, with very little guitar at all. Since the sax was virtually dropped from
rock and roll after about 1956, most of the early stars remained forgotten. This is also
true about the piano, which was probably the instrument that rock and roll was first
4. In the mid-50's, when rock and roll was popular, each major record company had a few megastars they were trying to sell. RCA had Elvis, Decca had Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, Capitol had Gene Vincent, etc. It was not in the best interest of these big record companies to re-issue the recordings they already had of the earlier rock artists, since that would take away from the momentum of their "product," which was their new artists. Thus, for example, even though RCA Victor was sitting on a gold mine of early rocking R&B recordings by artists including Piano Red, Big Boy Crudup, Mr. Sad Head, the Du Droppers, Big Maceo, etc., their attention was directed towards promoting Elvis.
It was also obviously not in their best interests
to mention or promote the music of the earlier artists on the small independent labels,
which did not have the resources to compete with the major labels. Thus, the R&B
artists of the late 40's and early 50's faded into oblivion. The mid-50's white teenagers
thought of these artists as being old-fashioned blues singers whose records weren't worth
listening to. The only popular R&B artist from the late 40's who also made it big in
mainstream rock and roll in the mid-50's was Fats Domino, who had smash hits going way
back, the first of which was recorded in 1949 [Little Richard had records as early as 1951
but they weren't big sellers and he wasn't famous until Tutti Frutti in 1956. Chuck Berry
was a popular local performer in East St. Louis during the Hoy Hoy era, but he never
recorded before 1955 when he became famous with Maybelline. Ike Turner was also a
successful R&B artist during the Hoy Hoy era, with hit records going back to 1951, but
his mid-50's records were always promoted to the R&B (black) audience, so he is not
usually mentioned in rock and roll (white) books, an unfortunate error on their parts].
5. By 1954 or 1955, the name "rock and roll" had become the common name of the music, which was now being marketed to white teenagers, who identified themselves with that new moniker. There was little incentive for these young fans to listen to earlier music with some other name. The common name for the earlier music was R&B, and the racial connotation of that name kept most rock and roll fans from exploring the earlier records, though it was the same type of music. Besides, these records had been geared towards adults, with adult lyrics, and the kids just weren't ready for them. The exceptions to this rule were the few black artists who somehow had their records promoted as rock and roll records, rather than R&B records. These artists were Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the vocal groups. The black artists whose records were promoted as R&B did not sell much to white teenagers. For example, Ike Turner had been selling rock and roll records since 1951, but his name is never even mentioned in "roots of rock" books, simply because his music had been promoted as R&B. The music itself, however, was the same. Ike Turner has his own website.
Another good reference on the origin of rock and roll is Wikipedia
* In 1934 the Boswell Sisters made a record called, "Rock And Roll," which uses the nautical definition of the term. This was a tin pan alley song about ships and the sea by a pop singing group, and has nothing to do with rock and roll music.
** There was a recording ban for all of 1948, so many of the records that were released at the beginning of 1949 were actually recorded secretly in 1948. One of these 1948 recordings released in Jan of '49 was Brown's "Rocking At Midnight," which was his answer to Harris' cover of his "Good Rocking Tonight." Note how Brown changed the tempo by adding the gospel hand-clapping, as Harris had done.