What is Rock and Roll? Is it a definitive sound or a feeling without a fixed musical address? Was there a big bang from where it all started or was it a slow moving osmosis? Why these questions you may ask, well I was listening to radio national today and on their Counterpoint program they were discussing the songs that shook the world and focusing on the origins of rock and roll.
I'm not sure there is a definitive record that can be claimed as the first rock and roll record although I'm the first to admit my knowledge of music isn't wide enough to confirm this hypothesis. To me the foundations of rock and roll are rhythm and blues music with that strong backbeat and the funkiness of the rhythm, that sound that makes you tap your feet. In the late 40's and early 50's rhythm and blues made that vital crossover to white audiences, especially ironically in the segregated south. Young white musicians who had grown up listening predominantly to country and western music and who had probably performed initially in this traditional style now incorporated rhythm and blues into their music. So their country sound was now infused with a backbeat that danced and a stronger sometimes pounding rhythm. So rock and roll was a true musical hybrid but to say it was just a symbiosis of rhythm and blues and country and western to me is probably to simple. In the deep south young white teenagers were certainly listening to the blues, but gospel music was also a strong musical tradition and in some cases gospel music was their first introduction to music. So gospel music had a huge influence on that first generation of rock and roll artists it added that emotional depth to their performance and gave rock and roll a deeper and more intense sound.
It's the same with Country music, there were variants of that sound that added spice to rock and roll especially music like western swing made popular by the likes of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, Wills especially was a huge influence to the likes of Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. You can also add jazz into the mix with it's propensity for taking the blues form and adding a fast tempo. I remember when I was young my next door neighbour played me a song by Woody Herman I think it was Woodchoppers Ball and he proclaimed it as a precursor to rock and roll. I also remember hearing Will Bradley's Beat Me Daddy Eight to The Bar and thinking it very similar to rock and roll with boogie woogie style piano and uptempo stomp .So rock and roll had all these elements but it became more than just a musical phenomenon there was something else that transformed it into a cultural phenomenon. Rock and Roll as a term had been used since around 1940 but I've been reading a book about the Chitlern Circuit and I think the term may have been used even further back to describe shows where the big bands played a hard and fast style of music that really connected with the audience and was a style of music that got people up and dancing, and it was especially popular in the deep south.
I don't think there is one record that signifies the beginning of rock and roll Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cuts recorded Rocket 88 in March 1951 and it has that rollicking shuffle beat with boogie woogie piano fills and a honking sax break, before that there were the likes of Wynonie Harris who recorded Good Rockin tonight in 1948 which had that rolling beat, perhaps a little slower in tempo but definitely one of the songs that formed the building blocks towards rock and roll.