“My man rocks me with one steady roll.” – Trixie Smith, 1922
Rock and roll is as old as mankind and the first rock ‘n’ roll record was Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88’ recorded at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee. One of these two things is untrue, and it’s not that rock and roll is as old as mankind. Rock ‘n’ roll was little more than a euphemism among the Black population in early 20th Century America. There are some that think it was also a dance, but for some the difference between sex and dancing is as thin as the line between love and hate. Nor is it true that Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ invented the term…but more of that later.
Nearly 90 years ago in September 1922 in New York City 27 year old Trixie Smith along with the Jazz Masters went into the studio to cut a couple of sides. Who made up the Jazz Masters have been lost down the crack in the shellac, all except one – Fletcher Henderson a name ubiquitous within jazz circles and whose band Louis Armstrong joined in 1924. One of the sides Trixie and the boys cut was ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll); as clear evidence as you can get for the link between rock and roll, and sex…
My daddy rocks me with one steady roll.
There’s no slippin’ when he once takes hold.
I looked at the clock and the clock struck one.
I said “Now Daddy, ain’t we got fun.”
He kept rockin’ with one steady roll.
Now hold those lyrics in your head because we’ll return to them soon enough. Four years after Trixie was rockin’ and rollin’ a man got around to it too; Blind Blake, whose Christian name may or may not have been Arthur, was the first to use the word ‘rock’ in a song. His earliest record for the Paramount label in August 1926 had ‘West Coast Blues’ on one side of it.
It opens with the lines…
Now we gonna do the old country rock.
First thing we do, swing your partners.
It’s a lot less sexy than Trixie and certainly seems to relate to some kind of dance, which is possibly evidence for the whole thing being a mix of both sex and dancing. Later in the song he even does a little advertising, “Good to the last drop. Just like Maxwell House Coffee, yes.” When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the manufacturer of Maxwell House in 1907, had a cup of their coffee, saying “It’s good to the last drop”; probably the only time a US President has been an advertising copy writer. There again it may also take us back towards the sex angle!
Three years later, in 1929, a twenty-five year old by the name of Tampa Red, who seems to have hailed from Florida, but grew up in Georgia and was a bit of a whizz on the kazoo, as well as piano and guitar decided to do a little rocking of his own. Tampa recorded such risqué songs as ‘It’s Tight Like That’ and ‘Jelly Whippin’ Blues’ but he also fronted the Hokum Jug Band. One weekend in April 1929 Tampa and his band recorded several tunes including ‘She is Hot’ which sounds like the perfect rock ‘n’ roll title and they also covered Trixie’s ‘’My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll)’. Now, Tampa being a man doing a song about his Daddy rocking him with one steady roll obviously poses some questions, but on this occasion it wasn’t Tampa singing – it was instead the cross-dressing Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon.
Frankie put his own slant on Trixie’s lyrics…
My Man rocks me with one steady roll.
It makes no difference if he’s hot or cold.
When I looked at the clock, clock struck one.
I said honey oh let’s have some fun.
But you rock me with one steady roll.
Frankie also goes in for some no holds barred, nor blushes spared, heavy breathing just in case anyone was in any doubt about what his song was all about. While the content, the words and the feel may all have some of the feel of rock ‘n’ roll about them the music for all this and the songs that went before did not. They were all very much in the blues idiom.
Rolling forward through the jazz age, the big bands, and generally the fuller sounds that became popular with black musicians and their audiences we get to 1945 and a man named Wynonie Harris. Harris had sung with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra, one of the swingiest, rockiest of the black big bands. In 1941, before Harris had joined them Millinder, who was a regular at the Apollo and the Savoy in Harlem, released ‘Big Fat Mama’ (“with meat shaking on her bones”) which was one of a number of his songs that pointed the way towards rock ‘n’ roll.
Harris took what he had learned with Millinder and distilled it into something all together more rock ‘n’ roll in the way it sounded. In July 1945, along with a band put together by Johnny Otis, Wynonie recorded ‘Around the Clock parts one and two’; compare their lyrics with Tampa’s…
Sometimes I think I will, sometimes I think I won’t.
Sometimes I believe I do, and then again I believe I won’t.
Well I looked at the clock, the clock struck one.
She said come on Daddy let’s have some fun.
Yes we were rolling, yes we rolled a long time.
Musically there was little rock ‘n’ roll about ‘Around The Clock’ but come 1957 and the great Chuck Berry recorded ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’. As we all know he, “looked at his watch and it was 9.21”. The fact is that what had gone before all led to that moment. So much music, black or white, was all about influences, acknowledged and otherwise, and the development of rock ‘n’ roll, as a concept, goes way back. As a sound it definitely had it’s origins in the jump music and R & B of the 1940s.
There are also those that think Alan Freed ‘invented’ rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no question that Freed was a key player in the development of the music. On 11 July 1951, Freed started broadcasting on Cleveland’s WJW, calling his show The Moondog House. He played jump and R & B records and began calling it rock ‘n’ roll music; he also started promoting live shows featuring the artists he played like Tiny Grimes and Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams. Given the reach that his radio show gave him, even more so when he switched to WINS in New York City, it’s unsurprising that Freed has been so closely associated with the music, and its naming. But mentions of rocking and rolling were not the sole preserve of the black blues singers or the DJs that played the music. In 1934 the Boswell Sisters, a middle class, close harmony group from New Orleans released ‘Rock and Roll’, but theirs is a song of the high seas – “the rolling rocking rhythm of the sea”.
“So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll” – Teddy Grace, August 1937
In 1939, Western Swing star Buddy Jones released ‘Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama’. Two years earlier Teddy Grace recorded ‘Rock it For Me’, a couple of months later Chick Webb’s Orchestra with their singer Ella Fitzgerald did it too, like others they used the term in their own way, “So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll” Even Hollywood got in on the act when Betty Grable’s film, Wabash Avenue was promoted by calling her, ‘The First lady of rock and roll’. The point of it all? It was very much in the zeitgeist; it just needed Freed to bring it altogether.
So, how come many think that Jackie Brenston made the first rock ‘n’ roll record? Well for a start, Sam Phillips was fond of telling people that it was. But it’s just another record from the hundreds, thousands even, which came out in the post war years that had the feel of proto rock about them. Interestingly Wynonie Harris’ ‘Around the Clock’ while having the lyrical heritage does not sound much like a rock ‘n’ roll record – there are many others of his that definitely do. ‘Good Rocking Tonight’ from 1946 and so did ‘Lollipop Mama’ from 1948, with its fast walking bass line. There are hundreds of records that a case could be made for naming them as ‘The First Rock ‘n’ Roll record’. Here’s a list of ten records that could claim the title…in no particular order, other than the date they were recorded!
Rock, Daniel – Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra with Rosetta Tharpe (June 1941)
Be-Babba Leba – Helen Humes (August 1945)
My Gals A Jockey – Big Joe Turner (January 1946)
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie – Louis Jordan (July 1946)
The House of Blue lights – Ella Me Morse with Freddie Slack and his Orchestra (February 1946)
Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got – Julia Lee and her Boyfriends (September 1946)
He’s A Real Gone guy – Nellie Lutcher (July 1947)
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee – Sticks McGhee and his Buddies (February 1949)
Rock the Joint –Jimmy Preston & His Prestonians (May 1949)
Teardrops From My Eyes – Ruth Brown (October 1950)