A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

Episode 7: Wynonie Harris and “Good Rockin’ Tonight”

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A photo of Wynonie Harris

Welcome to episode seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Wynonie Harris and "Good Rockin' Tonight"

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

All the music I talk about here is now in the public domain, and there are a lot of good cheap compilations available. This four-CD set of Wynonie Harris is probably the definitive one. This two-CD set of Roy Brown material has all his big hits, as well as the magnificently disturbing "Butcher Pete Parts 1 & 2", my personal favourite of his. Lucky Millinder isn't as well served by compilations, but this one has all the songs I talk about here, plus a couple I talked about in the Sister Rosetta Tharpe episode.

There is only one biography of Wynonie Harris that I know of -- Rock Mr Blues by Tony Collins -- and that is out of print, though you can pick up expensive second-hand copies here.

Some of the information on Lucky Millinder comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, which I also used for the episode on Rosetta Tharpe.

There are articles on Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Cecil Gant in Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches. This book is considered a classic, and will probably be of interest to anyone who finds this episode and the next few interesting, but a word of caution -- it was written in the 70s, and Tosches is clearly of the Lester Bangs/underground/gonzo school of rock journalism, which in modern terms means he's a bit of an edgelord who'll be needlessly offensive to get a laugh. The quotes from Harris I use here are from an article in Tan magazine, which Tosches quotes.

Before Elvis, a book I've mentioned many times before, covers all the artists I talk about here.

And again, archive.org's collection of digitised 78 records was very useful.

Patreon Admin Note

I have updated the details on my Patreon to better reflect the fact that it backs this podcast as well as my other work, and to offer podcast-related rewards. I'll be doing ebooks for Patreons based on the scripts for the podcasts (the first of those, Savoy Stompers and Kings of Swing should be up in a week or so), and if the Patreon hits $500 a month I'll start doing monthly bonus episodes for backers only. Those episodes won't be needed to follow the story in the main show, but I think they'd be fun to do. To find out more, check out my Patreon.

 

Transcript

There's a comic called Phonogram, and in it there are people called "phonomancers". These are people who aren't musicians, but who can tap into the power of music other people have made, and use it to do magic.
 
I think "phonomancers" is actually a very useful concept for dealing with the real world as well. There are people in the music industry who don't themselves play an instrument or sing or any of the normal musician things, but who manage to get great records made -- records which are their creative work -- by moulding and shaping the work of others. Sometimes they're record producers, sometimes they're managers, sometimes they're DJs or journalists. But there are a lot of people out there who've shaped music enormously without being musicians in the normal sense. Brian Eno, Sam Phillips, Joe Meek, Phil Spector, Malcolm McLaren, Simon Napier-Bell... I'm sure you can add more to the list yourself. People -- almost always men, to be honest -- who have a vision, and a flair for self-publicity, and an idea of how to get musicians to turn that idea into a reality. Men who have the power to take some spotty teenager with a guitar and turn him into a god, at least for the course of a three minute pop song.
 
And there have always been spaces in the music industry for this sort of person. And in the thirties and forties, that place was often in front of the band.
 
Most of the big band leaders we remember now were themselves excellent musicians -- Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, you could put those people up against most others on their instruments. They might not have been the best, but they could hold their own.
 
But plenty of other band leaders were mediocre musicians or couldn't play at all. Glenn Miller was a competent enough trombone player, but no-one listens to the Glenn Miller band and thinks "wow, one of those four trombone players is fantastic!" And other band leaders were much less involved in the music. Kay Kyser -- the most successful bandleader of the period, who had eleven number one records and thirty-five in the top ten -- never played an instrument, didn't write songs, didn't sing. He acted as onstage MC, told jokes, and was the man at the front of the stage. And there were many other bandleaders like that -- people who didn't have any active involvement in the music they were credited with. Bob Crosby, Bing's brother, for example, was a bandleader and would sing on some tracks, but his band performed plenty of instrumentals without him having anything to do with them. 
 
Most non-playing bandleaders would sing, like Bob Crosby, but even then they often did so rarely. And yet some of them had an immense influence on the music world.
 
Because a good bandleader's talent wasn't in playing an instrument or writing songs. It was having an idea for a sound, and getting together the right people who could make that sound, and creating a work environment in which they could make that sound well. It was a management role, or an editorial one. But those roles can be important. And one of the most important people to do that job was Lucky Millinder, who we've talked about a couple of times already in passing.
 
Lucky Millinder is a largely forgotten figure now, but he was one of the most important figures in black music in the 1940s. He was a fascinating figure -- one story about how he got his name is that Al Capone was down ten thousand dollars playing dice, Millinder offered to rub the dice for luck, and Capone ended the night fifty thousand dollars up and called him Lucky from then on.
 
(I think it's more likely that Lucky was short for his birth name, Lucius, but I think the story shows the kind of people Millinder was hanging around with).
 
He didn't play an instrument or read music or sing much. What Millinder could definitely do was recognise talent. He'd worked with Bill Doggett, before Doggett went off to join the Ink Spots' backing band, and the trumpet player on his first hit was Dizzy Gillespie, who Millinder had hired after Gillespie had been sacked from Cab Calloway's band after stabbing Calloway in the leg. He had Rosetta Tharpe as his female singer at the beginning of the forties, and Ruth Brown -- who we'll talk about later -- later on.
 
He'd started out as the leader of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, the house band in the Cotton Club, before moving on to lead, as his own band, one of the main bands in residence at the Savoy, along with occasionally touring the chitlin circuit -- the rather derogatory name for the clubs and theatres that were regular tour stops for almost all major black artists at the time.
 
Slowly, during the 1940s, Millinder transitioned his band from the kind of swing music that had been popular in the thirties, to the jump band style that was becoming more popular. And if you want to point to one band that you can call the first rhythm and blues band, you probably want to look at Millinder's band, who more than any other band of the era were able to combine all the boogie, jump, and jive sounds with a strong blues feeling and get people dancing. Listen, for example, to "Savoy" from 1943:
[Excerpt: "Savoy" by Lucky Millinder]
 
In 1944, after Rosetta Tharpe had left his band, Millinder needed a new second singer, to take the occasional lead as Tharpe had. And he found one -- one who later became the most successful rhythm and blues artist of the late 1940s. Wynonie Harris.
 
Harris was already known as "Mr. Blues" when Millinder first saw him playing in Chicago and invited him to join the band. He was primarily a blues shouter, inspired by people like Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, but he could also perform in a subtler style, close to the jive singing of a Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan.
 
Harris joined the Millinder band and started performing with them in their residency at the Savoy. Shortly after this, the band went into the studio to record "Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?"
 
[excerpt "Who Threw The Whiskey in the Well?"]
 
You'll note that that song has a backbeat. One of the things we talked about right back in episode two was that the combination of the backbeat and the boogie bass is what really makes rock and roll, and we're now getting to the point that that combination was turning up more and more.
 
That was recorded in May 1944, almost straight after the end of the musicians union strike, but it wasn't released straight away. Records, at that time, were released on discs made out of shellac, which is a resin made from insect secretions. Unfortunately, the insects in question were native to Vietnam, which was occupied by Japan, and India, which was going through its own problems at the time, so shellac was strictly rationed. There was a new product, vinylite, being made which seemed promising for making records, but that was also used for lifejackets, which were obviously given a higher priority during a war than making records was. So the record wasn't released until nearly a year after it was recorded. And during that time, Wynonie Harris had become a much more important part of Millinder's band, and was starting to believe that maybe he deserved a bit more credit.
 
Harris, you see, was an absolutely astonishing stage presence. Lots of people who spoke about Elvis Presley in later years said that his performances, hip thrusts and leg shaking and all, were just a watered-down version of what Wynonie Harris had been doing. Harris thought of himself as a big star straight away,
 
This belief was made stronger when "Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well" was finally released. It became a massive hit, and the only money Harris saw from it was a flat $37.50 session fee. Millinder, on the other hand, was getting the royalties. Harris decided that it was his vocal, not anything to do with the rest of the band, that had made the record a success, and that he could make more money on his own.
 
(In case you hadn't realised, yet, Wynonie Harris was never known as the most self-effacing of people, and that confidence gave him a huge amount of success on stage, but didn't win him many friends in his personal life).
 
Harris went solo, and Lucky Millinder replaced him with a trumpet player and singer called Henry Glover. Harris started making records for various small labels.
 
His first record as a solo artist was "Around the Clock Blues", one of the most influential records ever made:
 
[Excerpt "Around the Clock Blues" by Wynonie Harris]
 
If that sounds familiar, maybe it's because you've heard this song by Arthur Crudup that Elvis later covered:
 
[excerpt of "So Glad You're Mine" by Arthur Crudup, showing it's more or less identical]
 
Or maybe you know "Reelin' and Rockin'" by Chuck Berry...
 
[excerpt of "Reelin' and Rockin'" by Chuck Berry, showing it's also more or less identical]
 
And of course there was another song with "Around the Clock" in the title, and we'll get to that pretty soon...
 
The band on "Around the Clock", incidentally, was led by a session drummer called Johnny Otis.
 
That record, in fact, is one of the milestones in the development of rock and roll. And yet it's not the most important record Wynonie Harris made in the late 1940s.
 
Harris recorded for many labels over the next couple of years, including King Records, whose A&R man Ralph Bass we'll also be hearing more about, and Bullet Records, whose founder Jim Bulleit went on to bigger things as well. And just as a brief diversion, we'll take a listen to one of the singles he made around this time, "Dig this Boogie":
 
[excerpt "Dig This Boogie", Wynonie Harris]
 
I played that just because of the pianist on that record -- Herman "Sonny" Blount later became rather better known as Sun Ra, and while he didn't have enough to do with rock music for me to do an episode on him, I had to include him here when I could.
 
Wynonie Harris became a big star within the world of rhythm and blues, and that was in large part because of the extremely sexual performances he put on, and the way he aimed them at women, not at the young girls many other singers would target. As he said himself, the reason he was making fifteen hundred dollars a week when most famous singers were getting fifty or seventy-five dollars a night was
"The crooners star on the Great White Way and get swamped with Coca-Cola-drinking bobby-soxers and other 'jail bait'. I star in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri and get those who have money to buy stronger stuff and my records to play while they drink it. I like to sing to women with meat on their bones and that long green stuff in their pocketbook".
 
And he certainly made enough of that long green stuff, but he spent it just as fast as he made it. When he got a ten thousand dollar royalty cheque, he bought himself two Cadillacs and hired two chauffeurs, and every night at the end of his show they'd both arrive at the venue and he'd pick which one he was riding home in that night.
 
Now, having talked about Wynonie Harris for a little bit, let's pause for a moment and talk about one of his fans. Roy Brown was a big fan of Harris, and was a blues singer himself, in something like the same style. Brown had originally been hired as "a black singer who sounds white", which is odd because he used a lot of melisma in his vocals, which was normally a characteristic of black singing. But other than that, Brown's main vocal influences when he started were people like Bing Crosby and other crooners, rather than blues music. 
 
However, he soon became very fond of jump blues, and started writing songs in the style himself. In particular, one, called "Good Rockin' Tonight", he thought might be popular with other audiences, since it always went down so well in his own shows. Indeed, he thought it might be suitable for Wynonie Harris -- and when Harris came to town, Brown suggested the song to him.
 
And Harris wasn't interested. But after Brown moved back to New Orleans from Galveston, Texas, where he'd been performing -- there was a girl, and a club owner, and these things happen and sometimes you have to move --  Brown took his song to Cecil Gant instead. Gant was another blues singer, and if Harris wasn't up for recording the song, maybe Gant would be. 
 
Cecil Gant was riding high off his biggest hit, "I Wonder", which was a ballad, and he might have seemed a strange choice to record "Good Rockin' Tonight", but while Gant's A-sides were ballads, his B-sides were boogie rockers, and very much in the style of Brown's song -- like this one, the B-side to "I Wonder"
 
[excerpt "Cecil Boogie" by Cecil Gant]
 
But Gant wasn't the best person for Brown to ask to record a song. According to Jim Bulleit, who produced Gant's records, everything Gant recorded was improvised in one take, and he could never remember what it was he'd just done, and could never repeat a song. So Gant wasn't really in the market for other people's songs.
 
But he was so impressed by Brown's singing, as well as his song, that he phoned the head of his record company, at 2:30AM, and got Brown to sing down the phone. After hearing the song, the record company head asked to hear it a second time. And then he told Gant "give him fifty dollars and don't let him out of your sight!"
 
And so Roy Brown ended up recording his song, on Deluxe Records, and having a minor hit with it:
 
[excerpt "Good Rocking Tonight" by Roy Brown]
 
When you listen back to that, now, it doesn't sound all that innovative at all. In fact it wears its influences on its sleeve so much that it namechecks Sweet Lorraine, Sioux City Sue, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Caldonia, all of whom were characters who'd appeared in other popular R&B songs around that time -- we talked about Caldonia, in fact, in the episode about "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and Louis Jordan.
 
It might also sound odd to anyone who's familiar with later cover versions by Elvis Presley, or by Paul McCartney and others who followed the pattern of Elvis' version. Brown only sings the opening line once, before singing "I'm gonna hold my baby as tight as I can". Those other versions restructure the song into a fairly conventional sixteen-bar blues form by adding in a repeat of the first line and a chord change along with it. Roy Brown's original, on the other hand, just holds the first chord, and keeps playing the same riff, for almost the entire verse and chorus -- the chord changes are closer to passing chords than to anything else, and the song ends up having some of the one-chord feel that people like John Lee Hooker had, where the groove is all and harmonic change is thrown out of the window. Even though you'd think, from the melody line, that it was a twelve-bar blues, it's something altogether different.
 
This is something that you need to realise -- the more chords something has, in general, the harder it is to dance to. And there will always, always, be a tension between music that's all about the rhythm, and which is there for you to dance to, and music which is all about the melody line, and which treats harmonic interest as an excuse to write more interesting melodies. You can either be Burt Bacharach or you can be Bo Diddley, and the closer you get to one, the further you get from the other. And on that spectrum, "Good Rockin' Tonight" is absolutely in the Diddley corner.
 
But at the time, this was an absolutely phenomenal record, and it immediately started to take off in the New Orleans market.
 
And then Wynonie Harris realised that maybe he'd made a mistake. Maybe he should have recorded that song after all. And so he did -- cutting his own, almost identical, cover version of Brown's song:
 
[excerpt from "Good Rocking Tonight" by Wynonie Harris]
 
There are a few differences between the two, of course. In particular, Harris introduced those "hoy hoy" vocals we just heard, which weren't part of Roy Brown's original. That's a line which comes from "The Honeydripper", another massively important R&B record.  Harris also included a different instrumental introduction -- playing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" at the start, a song whose melody bears a slight resemblance to Brown's song. 
 
Harris also adds that backbeat again, and it's for that reason that Wynonie Harris' version of the song, not Roy Brown's original, is the one that people call "the first rock and roll record". 
 
Other than those changes, Harris' version is a carbon copy of Roy Brown's version. Except, of course, that Wynonie Harris was one of the biggest stars in R&B, while Roy Brown was an unknown who'd just released his first single. That makes a lot of difference, and Harris had the big hit with the song.
 
And "Good Rocking Tonight", in Harris' version, became one of those records that was *everywhere*. Roy Brown's version of the song made number thirteen on the R&B charts, and two years later it would re-enter the charts and go to number eleven – but Harris' was a world-changing hit, at least in the R&B market.
 
Harris' version, in fact, started off a whole chain of soundalikes and cash-ins, records that were trying to be their own version of "Good Rockin' Tonight". Harris himself recorded a sequel, "All She Wants to Do is Rock", but for the next two years everyone was recording songs with “rock” in the title.  There was Roy Brown's own sequel, "Rockin' at Midnight":
 
[Excerpt "Rockin' at Midnight" by Roy Brown]
 
There was Cecil Gant's "We're Gonna Rock"
 
[Excerpt]
 
There was "Rock the Joint" by Jimmy Preston
 
[Excerpt]
 
From 1948 through about 1951, if you listened to rhythm and blues records at all you couldn't escape this new rock craze. Record after record with "rock" in the title, with a boogie woogie bassline, with a backbeat, and with someone singing about how they were going to rock and roll. 
 
This was, in fact, the real start of the rock and roll music fad. We're still six years away from it coming to the notice of the white mainstream audience, but all the pieces are there together, and while we're still three years away even from the canonical "first rock and roll record", Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88", 1948 is when rock and roll first became a cohesive, unified, whole, something that was recognisable and popular, a proper movement in music rather than odd individuals making their own separate music.
 
Of course, it was still missing some of the ingredients that would later be added. First-wave rock and roll is a music that's based on the piano and horn sections rather than guitars, and it wouldn't be until it merged with hillbilly boogie in the early fifties that the electric guitar started to be an important instrument in it. But... we've talked before and will talk again about how there's no real "first rock and roll record", but if you insist on looking for one then "Good Rocking Tonight" is as good a candidate as any.
 
Neither of its creators did especially well from the rock and roll craze they initiated though. Roy Brown got a reputation for being difficult after he went to the musicians' union to try to get some of the money the record company owed him -- in the 1950s, as today, record companies thought it was unreasonable for musicians and singers to actually want them to pay the money that was written in their contract -- and so after a period of success in the late forties and very early fifties he spent a couple of decades unable to get a hit. He eventually started selling encyclopaedias door to door -- with the unique gimmick that when he was in black neighbourhoods he could offer the people whose doors he was knocking on an autographed photo of himself. He sold a lot of encyclopaedias that way, apparently. He continued making the occasional great R&B record, but he made more money from sales. He died in 1981.
 
Wynonie Harris wasn't even that lucky. He basically stopped having hits by 1953, and he more or less gave up performing by the early sixties. The new bands couldn't play his kind of boogie, and in his last few performances, by all accounts, he cut a sad and pitiful figure. He died in 1969 after more or less drinking himself to death.
 
The music business is never friendly towards originals, especially black originals. But we're now finally into the rock era. We'll be looking over the next few weeks at a few more "first rock and roll songs" as well as at some music that still doesn't quite count as rock but was influential on it, but if you've ever listened to a rock and roll record and enjoyed it, a tiny part of the pleasure you got you owe to Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris.

Episode 6: The Ink Spots — That’s When Your Heartaches Begin

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The Ink Spots: Left to right -- Bill Kenny, Deke Watson, Hoppy Jones, Charlie Fuqua

 

Welcome to episode six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at the Ink Spots and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. Unfortunately, listeners in the US may not be able to access this one -- Mixcloud doesn't allow USians to listen to streams when they have more than four songs in a row by the same artists, due to copyright restrictions (and it isn't set up to realise that in this case, all the music is in the public domain so those restrictions don't apply). I apologise for that, but it's rather out of my hands.

All the Ink Spots' music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one is dirt cheap, has decent sound quality, and has all the essential hits on it.

More than Words Can Say by Marv Goldberg is the definitive Ink Spots biography, but sadly it came out through an academic publisher and is thus grossly overpriced. You can buy it here, should you choose. Goldberg's website is also an invaluable source of information, not just about the Ink Spots but about forties and fifties vocal groups, and R&B.

Inkspots.ca  is a wonderful resource for detail about the band's career.

Before Elvisa book I've mentioned many times before, has a reasonable amount about the Ink Spots in it, as well as about almost all the other pre-1954 artists I'm covering here.

A resource I should have mentioned earlier, but one that's useful for all the pre-1952 music, is archive.org's collection of digitised 78 records. I'm using this a lot.

And finally, Deke Watson's autobiography is currently only available on the Kindle. It's credited there as by "Shirlita Bolton", but that's actually the name of Deke's widow, who owns the rights to the book -- it's definitely Deke's autobiography. It's very short, only seventy-three pages, and it's full of inaccuracies, but it's still the only autobiography any of the real Ink Spots wrote, and it's very cheap.

Clarification

At one point, talking about "top and bottom", I say "they first did it in the studio". I don't mean, there, that the first time they performed in this style was in the studio, but that this was the first time they tried something in the studio that they'd already done live. The way I say it makes it sound more ambiguous than I intended...

Transcript

OK, so we've covered the Carnegie Hall concerts of 1938 and 39 and the performers around them quite exhaustively now -- we had a bit of a diversion into Western Swing, but mostly we've stayed around there.
 
Now, we're still looking at New York in the late 1930s and early forties, but we're moving away from those shows, and we're going to look at the most popular vocal group of the era, and possibly the most important vocal group of all time.
 
We've talked over the last few weeks about almost all the major elements of what we now think of as rock and roll -- the backbeat, the arrangements that focus on a rhythm section, the riffs, the electric guitar and the amplification generally. We've seen, quite clearly, how most of these elements were being pulled together, in different proportions and by different people, in the late 1930s, almost but not quite coalescing into what we now call rock and roll.
 
There's one aspect which might be quite easy to overlook, though, which we've not covered yet, and that's the vocal group. Vocal harmonies have become much less prominent in rock music in the last forty years or so, and so today they might not be thought of as an essential element of the genre, but vocal groups played a massive role in the fifties and sixties, and were a huge element of the stew of genres that made up rock and roll when it started.
 
And the vocal group that had the most influence on the groups that became rock and roll was a band whose basis was not as a vocal group, but in coffee pot groups.
 
Coffee-pot groups were groups of poor black teenagers, who performed on street corners and tried to reproduce the sounds of the lush records they heard on the radio, using... well, using the equipment they had to hand. For string parts, you'd play ukuleles or guitars or banjos, but for the horns you'd play the kazoo. But of course, kazoos were not particularly pleasant instruments, and they certainly didn't sound much like a saxophone or clarinet. But it turned out you could make them sound a lot more impressive than they otherwise would if you blew them into something that resonated. Different sizes of container would resonate differently, and so you could get a pretty fair approximation of a horn section by having a teapot, a small coffee pot, and a large coffee pot, and having three of your band members play kazoos into them. The large coffee pot you could also pass around to the crowd afterward, to collect the money in -- though, as Deek Watson said about his coffee-pot group the Percolating Puppies "all of us had to keep our eyes on the cat who passed the collection for the evening, or else some of the money found its way from the pot to his pocket before dividing time arrived".
 
Other instrumental parts, of course, would be replaced with simple mouth noises. You can make quite an impressive collection of instrumental sounds with just your voice, if you try hard enough. 
 
The Ink Spots formed out of people who'd started their careers in these groups -- Charlie Fuqua (pron. Foo-kway, and yes I have checked) was in one with Jerry Daniels before they became the imaginatively-named duo "Charlie and Jerry", while Deek Watson was in another. Those three, plus Hoppy Jones, performed in a variety of combinations under a variety of names before they settled on calling themselves "King, Jack, and Jester" or sometimes "King, Jack, and Jesters".
 
In the early years of their career, they actually got themselves a radio show on a local station, where they were a fill-in for another band, the Four Mills Brothers. And the Four Mills Brothers were the people who influenced them the most.
 
The Mills Brothers had actually started out not so differently from the coffee pot groups -- they entered a talent contest, and John Mills had lost the kazoo he was going to play. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and imitated a trumpet, and the brothers decided that they were going to start imitating brass instruments with their voices. And they got good at it. Listen to this:
 
[Mills Brothers: "It Don't Mean a Thing"]
 
There is no instrument on there other than a single acoustic guitar, believe it or not. They're imitating trumpets, a tuba, and a trombone with their voices, and they'd listen to instrumental musicians and copy their voicings. This is something  that a lot of vocal groups have continued to do, but no-one has done it better than the Mills Brothers.
 
The Mills Brothers became massively successful, and from 1930 through 1939 they were far and away the biggest black act in the US, making multiple appearances on Bing Crosby's radio show, appearing in films, and touring the world. It was the touring the world that caused their eventual downfall -- they went to play the UK in 1939, and discovered that with World War II imminent, the only ship away from the UK they could get at the end of their tour was one that went to Australia. 
 
Between that massive transport disruption, and then the further disruption caused by the war itself, it took them two years to get back into the US, by which time their popularity had faded somewhat (although they went on to have a massive hit with "Paper Moon" when they got back -- their career was far from over). They carried on having occasional hits into the late sixties, and carried on performing together into the late eighties -- and the last surviving Mills Brother carried on performing until his death in 1999, with one of his sons who carries on the family band to this day. 
 
But they'd lost their place as the top of the entertainment tree, and they'd lost it to people who'd been imitating them -- to the band we last heard of performing as "King, Jack, and Jesters".
 
By the mid 1930s, those four men were in New York and performing as the Riff Brothers, but not getting very far. They were doing a mix of Mills Brothers inspired stuff and more jive music, and were earning decent money but not yet massive successes.
 
In his autobiography, Deek Watson talks about how the Riff Brothers decided to change their name -- there were too many brother and cousin acts for the Riff Brothers to stand out, and the band eventually ended up in their booking agent's office, arguing for hours over what name they should choose and getting nowhere. Finally, as their agent toyed with a pen, a few drops of ink fell out. I'll read the next bit from Watson's book directly:
 
"To me, it seemed like inspiration. 'That's it!' I shouted. 'How about calling us the Ink Spots?'
 
The boys really yelled this time. 'There you go again Deek!' Charlie exclaimed. 'That's right!' agreed Hoppy, 'always wanting us to be something colored. Black Dots, Ink Spots, next thing you know he'll be wanting us to call ourselves the Old Black Joes'
 
They all talked at once. 'Man, you know ain't nobody wants to be no Ink Spot'."
 
Now, Watson in his book does seem to take credit for absolutely every good idea anyone involved in the band had (and for other things which had nothing to do with them, like writing "Your Feet's Too Big", which was written by Fred Fisher and Ada Benson). He also makes up some quite outrageous lies, like that this original lineup of the Ink Spots played at the coronation of King Edward VIII (anyone who knows anything about inter-war British history will know why that is impossible), but this does have the ring of truth about it. When he was in the Percolating Puppies, Watson used to work under the name "four-dice Rastus", and many early reviews of the Ink Spots criticised him for eye-rolling, hand-waving, and other minstrelly behaviours, which many black reviewers of the time considered brought black people into disrepute. It's entirely possible that his bandmates would be irritated by his emphasis on their race.
 
That said, I'm not going to criticise Watson for this, or repeat some of the insulting names he was called by other black people. Everyone has a different response to the experience of oppression, and I'm not, as a white man, going to sit here and moralise or pontificate about how black people "should" have behaved in the 1930s. A lot of much better artists than Deke Watson did a lot more to play along with those stereotypes.
 
Either way, and whatever they thought about it, Charlie Fuqua, Deke Watson, Jerry Daniels and Hoppy Jones became the Ink Spots, and that was the name under which their group would eventually become even more famous than the Mills Brothers.
 
But there was a problem -- Jerry Daniels, their main jive singer, was getting seriously ill from the stress of the band's performing schedule, and eventually ended up hospitalised. He couldn't continue touring with them, and so for a little while the Four Ink Spots were down to three. They had to change, and in changing their lineup, they became the band that would change music. 
 
In 1936 Bill Kenny, a twenty-one year old high tenor singer, won an amateur night contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Moe Gale, the Ink Spots' manager, was the co-owner of the Savoy, and Charles Buchanan, the club's manager, knew his boss' band wanted a new singer and suggested Kenny. Kenny was, by any standards, an extraordinary singer, and his vocals would become the defining characteristic of the Ink Spots' records from that point on. When you think of the Ink Spots, it's Kenny's voice you think of. Or at least, it's Kenny and Hoppy Jones.
 
Because as well as being an utterly astonishing singer, Bill Kenny was an inspired arranger, and he came up with an idea that changed the whole style and sound of the Ink Spots' music, and would later indirectly change all of popular music. The idea he came up with was called "top and bottom".
 
(Note that Deke Watson also claimed credit for this idea in his autobiography, but the story as he tells it there is inconsistent with the known facts, so I'm happy to believe the consensus view that it was Kenny).
 
Up until Bill Kenny joined the band, the Ink Spots had been a jive band, performing songs in the style of Cab Calloway or Fats Waller -- they were performing uptempo comedy numbers, and they were doing it very well indeed:
 
[excerpt of the Ink Spots singing "Your Feet's Too Big"]
 
When Bill Kenny joined the band, they continued doing the same kind of thing for a while -- still concentrating on uptempo numbers, as you can hear in their 1937 recording of "Swing High, Swing Low". 
 
[excerpt of "Swing High Swing Low"]
 
Sometimes in those performances Hoppy Jones would speak-sing a line or two in his bass voice, but it was mostly fairly straightforward vocal group singing. They were still basically doing the Mills Brothers sound. And that was fine, because the Mills Brothers were, after all, the most popular black vocal group ever up to that point. But if they were going to be really big, they needed their own sound, and Bill Kenny came up with it.
 
He refined the idea of Hoppy's spoken vocals and came up with a hit formula, which they would use over and over again. They first did it in the studio with their massive hit "If I Didn't Care", but the one we're going to look at is their 1941 record "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". They started doing ballads, usually introduced by an acoustic guitar playing what would become a familiar figure -- this one:
 
[excerpt of "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"]
 
We'd then get the whole song sung through by Bill Kenny, with the others singing backing vocals:
 
[excerpt of him singing]
 
Then Kenny would join in with the backing vocals, as Hoppy Jones repeated the whole song, speak-singing it in his deep bass voice
 
[excerpt of that]
 
And finally there'd be a final line with Kenny singing lead again.
 
When I say this was a formula, I mean it really was a formula. They'd found a sound and they were going to absolutely stick with it. To give you an example of what I mean, here's the intro to "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)"
 
[intro to that song]
 
Now here's the intro to "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"
 
[intro to that song]
 
And here's the intro to "To Each His Own"
 
[intro to that song]
 
And to "Whispering Grass"
 
[intro to that song]
 
I could go on... if you don't believe that those are different songs, incidentally, check out the Mixcloud with the full versions of all these songs on. 
 
This was such a well-known formula for them that the Glenn Miller band did a dead-on parody of it:
 
[excerpt: "Juke Box Saturday Night"]
 
But the thing is -- all those songs I just played the intros of, they all went top ten, and two of them went to number one. This was a formula that absolutely, undoubtedly, worked. 
 
And when I say "number one" or "top ten", I don't mean on the R&B charts. I mean number one on the pop charts. They did sometimes deviate from the formula slightly -- and when they did, they didn't have hits that were quite so big. The public knew what it liked, and what it liked was a guitar going dun-dun-dun-dun, then Bill Kenny singing a song in a high voice, then Hoppy Jones saying the same words that Bill Kenny had just sung, in a much lower voice. And the Ink Spots were happy to give that to them.
 
That may sound like I'm being dismissive of the Ink Spots' music. I'm not. I absolutely love it. One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Duane Eddy, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, all just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not? 
 
The Ink Spots sold tens of millions of records over the decade or so when they were at their peak -- roughly from 1939, when they started making "top and bottom" records, until the late forties. Their manager Moe Gale was also the manager of most of the bands who played the Savoy, and so could put on package tours combining, say, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and Lucky Millinder's band, all of whom often played on the same bill together. This also meant that, for example, when Deke Watson took ill with pneumonia in 1943, Trevor Bacon from Millinder's band could fill in for him. Or when the Ink Spots needed a new pianist to back them in 1942, Bill Doggett, who had been in Millinder's band, was easily available.
 
But Gale  was taking the majority of the money -- Gale took sixty percent while the Ink Spots got the other forty between them, split four ways. But forty percent of multiple millions of 1940s dollars is still a lot of money, and with a lot of money comes the kind of problems you only get when you've got a big pile of money and think you could get a bigger pile of money if you didn't have to share it.
 
The Ink Spots' period in the spotlight was eventually brought to an end by personality conflicts, lineup changes, legal squabbles, and deaths. Four years after their career took off, in 1942, Charlie Fuqua was drafted, and that began a whole series of lineup shifts, as replacements were brought in to cover his parts for the three years he was away. But then, two years later, in 1944, everything started falling apart.
 
Deke Watson and Bill Kenny never got on very well -- Watson thought of himself as the leader, on the grounds that he was the one who'd put the band together, named it, and been the on-stage leader until Kenny came along. Meanwhile Kenny thought of himself as the leader, on account of being the lead singer and arranger. Hoppy Jones was the peacemaker between the two of them -- he'd worked with Watson for years before Kenny came along, but he also had an assured place in the band because of his spoken bits, so he took it on himself to keep the peace.
 
But Hoppy Jones was growing ill, and started missing more and more dates because of what turned out to be a series of brain haemmorages. Meanwhile, Moe Gale allegedly gave Bill Kenny a pay rise, but not Watson or Jones. Deke Watson quit the band as a result of this and went off to form his own "Ink Spots". Kenny and Hoppy Jones carried on for a month -- but then, tragically, Hoppy Jones collapsed on stage and died. 
 
After this, Deke Watson tried to rejoin the band, but Kenny wouldn't let him.
 
The result was a complicated four-way legal battle. Deke Watson wanted the right to rejoin the band, or failing that to form his own Ink Spots. Bill Kenny wanted to continue touring with his current Ink Spots lineup, Charlie Fuqua wanted to make sure that once the war was over he was allowed back into the band -- unlike Watson he hadn't quit, but he was worried that with Jones and Watson out, Kenny would see no reason to let him back in. And Moe Gale wanted to be able to continue taking sixty percent of what any of them was making. There was a whole flurry of lawsuits and counter-suits.
 
In the end, Bill Kenny more or less won. The courts ruled that no club could book an act called "the Ink Spots" which didn't have Bill Kenny in it, but also that Deke Watson and Charlie Fuqua continued to have a financial interest in the band, that Moe Gale was still everyone's manager, and that Charlie Fuqua would be paid a regular salary as an Ink Spot while he was in the army. The only real loser was Deke Watson. He continued to get some money for his share of the Ink Spots name -- although I've seen some claims that Bill Kenny bought him out totally. But he wasn't allowed to tour as the Ink Spots, or to rejoin the band he'd founded.
 
Fuqua came back, and for a few years a new lineup of Bill Kenny and his brother Herb, Fuqua, and Billy Bowen toured and recorded. Deke Watson, meanwhile,  had been performing with his own Ink Spots before the lawsuits, but once they were settled, and not in his favour, he said he was going to form a new vocal group based on "a completely new idea". 
 
This completely new idea was to have a vocal group made up of four people, which would start their songs off with a guitar going dun-dun-dun-dun, have a bloke sing the song in a high tenor, then have someone recite the same song lyrics, then finish the song off with the high tenor again. And called "the Brown Dots".
 
The Brown Dots actually made a record that would itself go on to be hugely influential -- "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons", written by two of their members. 
 
[excerpt of "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons"]
 
That's been covered by almost everyone who ever sang a ballad, from Nat "King" Cole to Ella Fitzgerald to Sam Cooke to the Righteous Brothers to Rod Stewart. It looked like Deke Watson had found himself a second great band to be with. But then the other band members realised that it was hard to get on with Deke Watson, and left him to form their own band without him. The Four Tunes, their new name, would have several big hits in the 1950s, without Watson.
 
Meanwhile, back in the Ink Spots, Charlie Fuqua returned for a while, but in 1952 he and Bill Kenny decided to part ways. The lawsuit from eight years earlier had said that both of them had an equal share in the band name, but had *also* said that only bands with Bill Kenny in could legally be presented as "the Ink Spots". Rather than reopen that can of worms, they eventually came to an agreement that Kenny and his band could carry on calling themselves "The Ink Spots" and Fuqua would tour as "Charlie Fuqua's New Ink Spots".
 
Except that Fuqua soon ended up breaking this agreement, and just touring and recording as "the Ink Spots" -- he even got Deke Watson back into his band for a while. 
 
There's one recording of that version of the band -- Jimmy Holmes, Charlie Fuqua, Deek Watson, and Harold Jackson -- live at the Apollo before Watson was kicked out again:
 
[excerpt of "Wish You Were Here"]
 
As you can hear, it sort of sounds like the Ink Spots, but not really. Meanwhile Bill Kenny was still making records as the Ink Spots, which still sounded like the old Ink Spots minus Hoppy's bass vocal:
 
[excerpt of "I Don't Stand The Ghost of a Chance With You"]
 
So there was one version of "the Ink Spots" touring with two original members, and another with no original members, but with the bloke who'd sung lead on all their hits and had the memorable voice that everyone wanted to hear when they heard the Ink Spots.
 
That wasn't a situation that was sustainable, so they went to court again -- and most people would have expected the court to make the same ruling it had before, that they owned the band name equally but that Bill Kenny was the only one who could tour as the Ink Spots.
 
Instead, the ruling was one that no-one had expected, and that no-one wanted.
 
You see, it turns out that the Ink Spots weren't a corporation, they were a partnership. And the judge ruled that, when Hoppy Jones had died, ten years earlier, that partnership had been dissolved. Since then, there had been no legitimate group called the Ink Spots, and no-one owned the name. Neither the surviving original members of the band, nor the man whose arrangement ideas and lead vocals had brought the band their success, had any claim over it. Anyone at all could go out and call themselves The Ink Spots and go on tour, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. 
 
And they did. Every surviving member of the band -- not just the three surviving members of the classic lineup, but anyone who had filled in in a later version of the band on guitar or what have you -- went out on tour as "the Ink Spots". At one point there were up to forty different "Ink Spots" groups touring, and many of them were recording too. Usually, at first, these bands would have some claim to authenticity, having at least one person who'd been in a proper version of the Ink Spots -- and indeed a few times in the fifties and sixties Fuqua and Watson would get together again and tour as "Ink Spots", in between bouts of suing each other. But more and more they'd just be any group of four black men, so long as you could get one old enough that he might plausibly have been in the band with Bill Kenny at some point.
 
The last actual Ink Spots member, Huey Long, who had been one of the temporary replacements for Charlie Fuqua in 1945 for nine months, died aged 106 in 2009. The last Ink Spots gig I've been able to find details for took place in 2013.
 
But the Ink Spots' career ending in legal infighting, arguments over credit, and disputes over the band name isn't the only way in which they were a precursor to rock music. Over the next few weeks we'll hear how, along with the jump band sound that was coming to dominate rhythm and blues, a new wave of Ink Spots-inspired vocal groups ended up shaping the new music.
 
And how, in 1953, shortly after the Ink Spots' final split, a young man walked into a recording studio in Memphis that let you make your own single-copy records. He wanted to make a record of himself singing, as a gift for his mother, and he chose one of his favourite songs, "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", as one of the two tracks he would record.
 
But we'll get to Elvis Presley in a few episodes' time...
 
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Episode 5: Rosetta Tharpe and “This Train”

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 Photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

 

Welcome to episode five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Sister Rosetta Tharpe and "This Train"

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Most of Rosetta Tharpe's music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one, at three CDs for four pounds, is probably the one to get.

Almost all the information about Rosetta Tharpe's life in this episode comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, 

For more on Thomas Dorsey, check out The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts are currently out of print, and the recording quality is poor enough it's really not worth paying the silly money the CDs go for second hand. But if you want to do that, you can find them here.

And Rosetta Tharpe's performance at Wilbraham Road Railway Station can be found on The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966

Transcript

One of the problems when dealing with the history of rock and roll, as we touched upon the other week in the brief disclaimer episode, is the way it's dominated by men. Indeed, the story of rock and roll is the story of men crowding out women, and white men crowding out black men, and finally of rich white men crowding out poorer white men, until it eventually becomes a dull, conservative genre. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but don't say I didn't warn you when I get to the nineties.
 
But one black woman is as responsible as anyone for the style of rock and roll, and in particular, for its focus on the guitar.
 
To find out why, we're going to be making our final trip back to 1938 and Carnegie Hall.
 
We've talked in earlier episodes about John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts, and at the time I said that I'd talk some more about the ways in which they were important, but also about how they were problematic. (I know that's a word that gets overused these days, but I mean it literally -- they had problems, but weren't all bad. Far from it).
 
One of the most problematic aspects of them, indeed, is encoded in the name. "From Spirituals to Swing". It gives you a nice, simple, linear narrative -- one that was still being pushed in books I read in the 1980s. You start with the spirituals and you end with swing. It's like those diagrams of the evolution of man, with the crawling monkey on one side and the tall, oddly hairless, white man with his genitals carefully concealed on the other.
 
The fact is, most of the narrative about "primitive" music -- a narrative that was put forward by very progressive white men like John Hammond or the Lomaxes -- is deeply mistaken. The forms of music made largely by black people could sound less sophisticated in the 1930s, but that wasn't because they were atavistic survivals of more primitive forms, musical coelacanths dredged up from the depths to parade. It was because the people making the music often couldn't afford expensive instruments, and were recorded on cheaper equipment, and all the other myriad ways society makes the lives of black people, and underprivileged people in other ways, just that bit more difficult.
 
But this was, nonetheless, the narrative that was current in the 1930s. And so the Spirituals to Swing concerts featured a bisexual black woman who basically invented much of what would become rock guitar, an innovator if ever there was one, but portrayed her as somehow less sophisticated than the big band music on the same bill. And they did that because that innovative black woman was playing religious music.
 
In fact, black gospel music had grown up around the same time as the big bands. Black people had, of course, been singing in churches since their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, but gospel music as we talk about it now was largely the creation of one man -- Thomas Dorsey.
 
(This is not the same man as the white bandleader Tommy Dorsey who we've mentioned a couple of times earlier).
 
Dorsey was a blues and jazz musician, who had led the band for Ma Rainey, one of the great early blues singers, and under the name "Georgia Tom" he'd collaborated with Tampa Red on a series of singles. Their song "It's Tight Like That", from 1928, is one of the earliest hokum records, and is largely responsible for a lot of the cliches of the form -- and it sold seven million copies.
 
[excerpt of "It's Tight Like That"]
 
That record, in itself, is one of the most important records that has ever been made -- you can trace from that song, through hokum blues, through R&B, and find its influence in basically every record made by a black American, or by anyone who's ever listened to a record made by a black American, since then. If Dorsey had only made that one record, he would have been one of the most important figures in music history.
 
But some time around 1930, he also started writing a whole new style of music. It combined the themes, and some of the melody, of traditional Christian hymns, with the feel of the blues and jazz music he'd been playing. It's rare that you can talk about a single person inventing a whole field of music, but gospel music as we know it basically *was* invented by Thomas Dorsey. 
 
Other people had performed gospel music before, of course, but the style was very different from anything we now think of as gospel. Dorsey was the one who pulled all the popular music idioms into it and made it into something that powered and inspired all the popular music since.
 
He did this because he was so torn between his faith and his work as a blues musician that he had multiple breakdowns -- at one point finding himself on stage with Ma Rainey and completely unable to move his fingers to play the piano. While he continued parallel careers for a while, eventually he settled on making religious music. And the songs he wrote include some of the most well-known songs of all time, like "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".
 
That's a song he wrote in 1932, after his wife died in childbirth and his newborn son died a couple of days later. He was feeling a grief that most of us could never imagine, a pain that must have been more unbearable than anything anyone should have to suffer, and the pain came out in beauty like this:
 
[excerpt of Rosetta Tharpe singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"]
 
That's not "primitive" music. That's not music that is unsophisticated. That's not some form of folk art. That's one man, a man who personally revolutionised music multiple times over, writing about his own personal grief and creating something that stands as great art without having to be patronised or given special consideration.
 
And the person singing on that recording is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, like Dorsey, is someone who doesn't need to be given special treatment or be thought of as good considering her disadvantages or any of that patronising nonsense. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the great singers of her generation, and one of the great guitar players of all time. And she was making music that was as modern and cutting-edge as anything else made in the 1930s and 40s. She wasn't making music that was a remnant of something that would evolve into swing, no matter what John Hammond thought, she was making important music, and music that would in the long run be seen as far more important than most of the swing bands.
 
Obviously, one should not judge Hammond too harshly. He was from another time. A primitive.
 
Sister Rosetta was brought up in, and spent her life singing for, the Church of God in Christ. As many of my listeners are in Europe, as I am myself, it's probably worth explaining what this church is, because while it does have branches outside the US, that's where it's based, and that's where most of its membership is.
 
The Church of God in Christ is a Pentecostal church, and it's the largest Pentacostal church in the US, and the fifth-largest church full stop. I mention that it's a Pentacostal church, because that's something you need to understand to understand Rosetta Tharpe. Pentacostals believe in something slightly different to what most other Christian denominations believe. 
 
Before I go any further, I should point out that I am *not* an expert in theology by any means, and that what I'm going to say may well be a mischaracterisation. If you're a Pentacostal and disagree with my characterisation of your religion here, I apologise, and if you let me know I'll at least update the show notes. No disrespect is intended.
 
While most Christians believe that humanity is always tainted by original sin, Pentacostals believe that it is possible for some people, if they truly believe -- if they're "born again" to use a term that's a little more widespread than just Pentacostalism -- to become truly holy. Those people will have all their past sins forgiven, and will then be sinless on Earth. To do this, you have to be "baptised in the Holy Ghost". This is different from normal baptism, what Pentacostals call "water baptism" -- though most Pentacostals think you should be water baptised anyway, as a precursor to the main event. Rather, this is the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven and entering you, filling you with joy and a sense of sanctity. This can often cause speaking in tongues and other strange behaviours, as people are enthused (a word which, in the original Greek, actually meant a god entering into you), and once this has happened you have the tendency to sin removed from you altogether. 
 
This is all based on the Acts of the Apostles, specifically Acts 2:4, which describes how at the Pentecost (which is the seventh Sunday after Easter), "All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them".
 
Unlike many Protestant denominations, which adhere to Calvinist beliefs that nobody can know if they're going to Heaven or Hell, and that only God can ever know this, and that nothing you do can make a difference to your chances, most Pentacostals believe that you can definitely tell whether you're going to Heaven. You're going to Heaven once you're sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and that's an end of it.
 
At least, it's an end of it so long as you continue with what's called "outward holiness", and so you have to dress conservatively, to avoid swearing, to avoid drinking or gambling or smoking, or dancing suggestively, or wearing makeup. If you do that, once the spirit's entered into you, you're going to remain holy and free from temptation. If you don't do that, well, then the Devil might get you after all.
 
This is a very real fear for many Pentacostals, who have a belief in a literal heaven and hell. And it's a fear that has inspired a *lot* of the most important musicians in rock and roll. But Pentacostalism isn't just about fear and living right, it's also about that feeling of elation and exhiliration when the holy spirit enters you. And music helps bring that feeling about. 
 
It's no surprise that a lot of the early rock and rollers went to Pentacostal churches -- at many of them, especially in the South of the US, there's a culture of absolutely wild, unrestrained, passionate music and dancing, to get people into the mood to have the spirit enter them. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably the greatest performer to come out of those churches.
 
But while most of the performers we'll be looking at started playing secular music, Sister Rosetta never did, or at least very rarely. But she was, nonetheless, an example of something that we'll see a lot in the history of rock -- the pull between the spiritual and the worldly. 
 
From the very start of her career, Sister Rosetta was slightly different from the other gospel performers. While she lived in Chicago at the same time as Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, she isn't generally considered part of the gospel scene that they were at the centre of -- because she was travelling round the country playing at revival meetings, rather than staying in one place. When her first marriage -- to a fellow evangelist, who apparently abused her -- broke up, she moved on to New York, and there she started playing to audiences that were very different from the churches she was used to.
 
Where people like Mahalia were playing church music for church people, Rosetta Tharpe was taking the gospel to the sinners. Throughout her career, she played in nightclubs and theatres, playing for any audience that would have her, and playing music that got them excited and dancing, even as she was singing about holiness.
 
She started playing the Cotton Club in 1938. The Cotton Club was the most famous club in New York, though in 1938 it was on its last days of relevance. It had been located in Harlem until 1936, but after riots in Harlem, it had moved to a more respectable area, and was now on Broadway.
 
In the twenties and early thirties, the Cotton Club had been responsible for the success of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, though only Calloway was still playing there regularly by the time Rosetta Tharpe started performing there. It was still, though, the place to be seen -- at least if you were white. The Cotton Club was strictly segregated -- only black people on stage, but only white people in the audience. The black performers were there to be leered at, in the case of the showgirls, or to play up to black stereotypes. Even Duke Ellington, possibly the most sophisticated musician ever to come out of the United States, had been presented as a "jungle musician". The name itself -- the Cotton Club -- was trading on associations with slavery and cotton picking, and the feel of the new venue could probably be summed up by the fact that it had, on its walls, pictures of famous white bandleaders in blackface.
 
So it's not surprising that the performances that Sister Rosetta did at the Cotton Club were very different from the ones she'd been doing when she was travelling the country with her mother performing to church crowds. She was still playing the same music, of course -- in fact, over her career, she mostly stuck to the same quite small repertoire, rerecording the same material in new arrangements and with new emphases as she grew as an artist -- but now she was doing it as part of a parody of the very kind of church service she had grown up in and devoted her life to, with dancers pretending to be "Holy Rollers", mocking her religion even as her music itself was still devoted to it.
 
Originally, she was only taken on at the Cotton Club as a sort of trial, on a two-week engagement -- and apparently she thought the manager was joking when she was offered five hundred dollars a week, not believing she could be making that much money -- and her role was simply to be one of many acts who'd come on and do a song or two between the bigger acts who were given star billing. But she soon became a hit, and she soon got signed to Decca to make records.
 
Her first record was, of course, a song by Thomas Dorsey, originally titled "Hide Me in Thy Bosom" but given the newer title "Rock Me" by Tharpe. Her arrangement largely stuck to Dorsey's original, with one important exception -- where he had written "singing", Tharpe sang "swinging".
 
[excerpt of "Rock Me"]
 
Many people also claimed to hear a double entendre in the lyrics to "Rock Me", and to think the song was about more worldly matters than Dorsey had intended. Whether Tharpe thought that or not, it almost certainly factored into the decision to make it her first single.
 
When she was booked to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, she performed both that song and "That's All", backed by Albert Ammons, one of the boogie woogie players who also appeared on the bill, and in the recording of that we can hear, rather better than in the studio recording, the raw power of Tharpe's performance.
 
[excerpt of "That's All" from Carnegie Hall]
 
The sound quality of these recordings isn't great, of course, but you can clearly hear the enthusiasm in that performance.
 
Tharpe's performances at the Cotton Club drew a great deal of attention, and Time magazine even did a feature on her, and how she “Swings Same Songs in Church and Night Club.” When the Cotton Club shut down she moved on to the Cafe Society, a venue booked by John Hammond, which was an integrated club and which fit her rather better.
 
While she was working there, she came to the attention of Lucky Millinder, the big band leader. Different people have different ideas as to how the two started working together -- Mo Gale, Millinder's manager, was also Chick Webb's manager, and claimed that it was his idea and that he'd seen Tharpe as being an Ella Fitzgerald to Millinder's Chick Webb, but Bill Doggett, the piano player with Millinder's band, said that it was Millinder's idea, not Gale's, to get Tharpe on board.
 
Either way, the combination worked well enough at first, as Tharpe got to sing the same songs she'd been performing earlier -- her gospel repertoire -- but with a big band backing her. She'd also switched to playing an electric guitar rather than an acoustic, and the effect on her guitar playing was extraordinary -- where before she'd had to be a busy accompanist, constantly playing new notes due to the lack of sustain from an acoustic guitar, now she was able to play single-note lead lines and rely on the orchestra to provide the chordal pad.
 
Her remake of "Rock Me" with Millinder's band, from 1941, shows just how much her artistry had improved in just three years:
 
[excerpt of 1941 "Rock Me"]
 
With that record, she more or less invented the guitar style that T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and others would adapt for themselves. That's just how you play electric blues now, but it wasn't how anyone played before Rosetta Tharpe.
 
Soon after she joined Millinder's band they moved to a residency at the Savoy Ballroom, and became one of the most popular bands for dancers in New York -- regulars there included a young man known as Detroit Red, who later changed his name to Malcolm X.  The Savoy Ballroom was closed down not long after -- allegedly for prostitution, but more likely because it allowed white women to dance with black men, and the city of New York wouldn't allow that -- although as Malcolm X said, it wasn't as if they were dragging the white women in there.
 
However, Millinder's band was an odd fit for Rosetta Tharpe, and she was increasingly forced to sing secular numbers along with the gospel music she loved. There were plenty of good things about the band, of course -- she became lifelong friends with its young trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie, for example, and she enjoyed a tour where they were on the same bill as a young vocal group, The Four Ink Spots, but she was a little bit uncomfortable singing songs like "Tall Skinny Papa", which wasn't particularly gospel-like
 
[excerpt "Tall Skinny Papa"]
 
And it's not particularly likely that she was keen on the follow-up, although she didn't sing on that one.
 
[excerpt "Big Fat Mama"]
 
So eventually, she quit the Millinder band, without giving notice, and went back to performing entirely solo, at least at first. 
 
This was in the middle of the musicians' union strike, but when that ended, Tharpe was back in the studio, and in September 1944 she began one of the two most important musical collaborations of her career, when she recorded "Strange Things Happening Every Day", with Sam Price on piano.
 
Sam Price did *not* get along with Tharpe. He insisted on her playing with a capo, because she was playing in an open tuning and wasn't playing in a normal jazz key. He didn't like the idea of combining gospel music with his boogie woogie style (eventually he was persuaded by Tharpe's mother, a gospel star in her own right who was by all accounts a fearsome and intimidating presence, that this was OK), and when the result became a massive hit, he resented that he got a flat fee.
 
But nonetheless, "Strange Things Happening Every Day" marks out the start of yet another new style for Tharpe -- and it's yet another song often credited as "the first rock and roll record".
 
[Excerpt "Strange Things Happening Every Day"]
 
Shortly after this, Tharpe started working with another gospel singer, Marie Knight. Her partnership with Marie Knight may have been a partnership in more than one sense. Knight denied the relationship to the end of her days -- and it's entirely understandable that she would, given that she was a gospel singer who was devoted to a particularly conservative church, and whose career also depended on that church -- but their relationship was regarded as an open secret within the gospel music community, which had a rather more relaxed attitude to homosexuality and bisexuality than the rest of the church. Some of Tharpe's friends have described her as a secret lesbian, but given her multiple marriages to men it seems more likely that she was bi -- although of course we will never know for sure.
 
Either way, Tharpe and Knight were a successful double act for many years, with their voices combining perfectly to provide a gospel vocal sound that was unlike anything ever recorded. They stopped working together in 1950, but remained close enough that Knight was in charge of Tharpe's funeral in 1973,
 
The two of them toured together -- and Tharpe toured later on her own -- in their own bus, which was driven by a white man. This gave them a number of advantages in a deeply segregated and racist country. It was considered acceptable for them to go into some public places where they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed, because they were with a white man -- if a black woman was with a white man, it was just assumed that she was sleeping with him, and unlike a white woman sleeping with a black man, this was considered absolutely acceptable, a sexual double-standard that dated back to slavery. If they needed food and the restaurant in a town was whites-only, they could send the white driver in to get them takeout. And if it came to it, if there was no hotel in town that would take black people, they could sleep on the bus.
 
And segregation was so accepted at the time by so many people that even when Tharpe toured with a white vocal group, the Jordanaires (who would later find more fame backing up some country singer named Elvis something) they just thought her having her own bus was cool, and didn't even make the connection to how necessary it was for her.
 
While Tharpe and Knight made many great records together, probably Tharpe's most important recording was a solo B-side to one of their singles, a 1947 remake of a song she'd first recorded in 1938, "This Train", again featuring Sam Price on piano:
 
[excerpt "This Train"]
 
That's a song that sets out the theology of the Pentacostal church as well as you'll ever hear it. This train is a *clean* train. You want to ride it you better get redeemed. No tobacco chewers or cigar smokers. No crap shooters. If you want to be bound for glory, you need to act holy.
 
There was no-one bigger than Tharpe in her genre. She is probably the first person to ever play rock and roll guitar in stadiums -- and not only that, she played rock and roll guitar in a stadium *at her wedding* -- her third wedding, to be precise, which took place at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays. Twenty thousand people came to see her get married and perform a gospel show afterwards, concluding with fireworks that first exploded in the shape of Tharpe playing her guitar before taking on other shapes like two hearts pierced with Cupid's arrow. Even Tharpe's half-sister had to pay for her ticket to the show. Apparently Tharpe signed the contract for her wedding seven months earlier, and then went out to find herself a husband.
 
Rosetta Tharpe's popularity started to wane in the 1950s, at least in her home country, but she retained a following in Europe. There's fascinating footage of her in 1964 filmed by Granada TV, playing at the abandoned Wilbraham Road railway station in Manchester. If you live in Manchester, as I do, that piece of track, which is now part of the Fallowfield cycle loop was the place where some of the greats of black American music were filmed for what may have been the greatest blues TV programme of all time -- along with Tharpe, there was Muddy Waters, Otis Span, Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all performing in the open air in Manchester in front of an extremely earnest audience of young white British people. Fittingly for an open-air show in Manchester, Tharpe opened her short set with "Didn't It Rain"
 
[Didn't It Rain TV performance excerpt]
 
By that time, Tharpe had become primarily known as a blues musician, even though she was still doing the same thing she'd always been doing, simply because music had moved on and recategorised her. But she'd had an influence on blues, R&B, and rock and roll music that most people didn't even realise. "This Train" was not written by Tharpe, exactly -- it dates back to the 1920s -- but it was definitely her version, and her rewrite, that inspired one of the most important blues records of all time:
 
[Excerpt of "My Babe"]
 
Indeed, only a few months after Rosetta Tharpe's UK performances, Gerry and the Pacemakers, one of the biggest bands of the new Merseybeat sound, who'd had three number one records that year in the UK, were recording their own version of "My Babe". Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in most respects, as far as you could imagine from gospel music, and yet the connection is there, closer than you'd think.
 
Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973, and never really got the recognition she deserved. She was only inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame last year. But if you've ever liked rock guitar, you've got her to thank. Shout, Sister, Shout!
 
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Episode 4: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie

00:0000:00

Louis Jordan smiling and pointing at the camera, with a saxophone on his knee

Welcome to episode four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Louis Jordan and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie"

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Louis Jordan's music is now in the public domain, so there are many different compilations available, of different levels of quality. This four-CD set is very cheap and has most of the classic tracks on. And here's a similarly-priced collection of Chick Webb.

There aren't many books on Louis Jordan as an individual, and most of the information here comes from books on other musicians, but this one is probably worth your while if you want to investigate more.

And for all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum.

Transcript

We've spent a lot of time in 1938 in this podcast, haven't we? First there was Flying Home, first recorded in 1939, but where we had to talk about events from 1938. Then we had "Roll 'Em Pete", recorded in 1938. And "Ida Red", recorded in 1938. 1938 is apparently the real year zero for rock and roll -- whether you come at it from the direction of blues and boogie, or jazz, or country and western music, 1938 ends up being the place where you start. Eighty years ago this year.
 
And 1938 is also the year that one man made his solo debut, and basically put together all the pieces of rock and roll in one place.
 
If you've seen the Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races -- well, OK, if you've not seen A Day At The Races, you really should, because while it's not the best film the Marx Brothers ever made, it's still a good Marx Brothers film, and it'll brighten up your day immensely to watch it, so go and watch that, and then come back and listen to the rest of this. And if you haven't watched all their earlier films, watch those too. Except The Cocoanuts, you can skip that one. Go on. I can wait.
 
OK, now you've definitely seen the Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races, so you'll remember the dance sequence where Ivie Anderson sings "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm", and the amazing dancers in that scene.
 
[Ivy Anderson "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm"]
 
That's a dance called the Lindy Hop -- you might remember that as the dance the "booglie wooglie piggy" did in a song we excerpted in episode two, it was named after Charles Lindbergh, the famous airman and Nazi sympathiser -- and the people dancing it are Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. And they were responsible for a controversy, on the night of Benny Goodman's first Carnegie Hall concert -- the one we talked about in episode one -- that is still talked about in jazz eighty years later.
 
[Chick Webb "Stompin' At The Savoy"]
 
That's "Stompin' at the Savoy" by Chick Webb, one of the most famous swing recordings ever, though it was later recorded by Benny Goodman in an even more fanous version. The Savoy Ballroom was where Whitey's Lindy Hoppers used to dance -- there was an entire corner of the ballroom set off for them, even though the rest of the floor was for the other dancers. The Savoy was where the Lindy Hop was invented, and it was the place to dance, because it was where Chick Webb, the real king of swing played.
 
We've seen a few kings of swing so far -- Benny Goodman was the person most associated with the name, and he had the name longest. A few people called Bob Wills that, too, though he mostly billed himself as the king of Western swing. But Chick Webb was the person who deserved the title more than anyone else. He was a small man, who'd contracted tuberculosis of the spine as a child, and he'd taken up the drums as a kind of therapy. He'd been playing professionally since he was eleven, and by the time he was thirty he was leading what was, bar none, the best swing band in New York for dancing. People called him the King of Swing before Goodman, and his band was an absolute force of nature when it came to getting people to do the Lindy Hop. Benny Goodman admired Webb's band enough that he bought the band's arrangements and used them himself -- all of the Goodman band's biggest crowd-pleasers, at least the ones that weren't arrangements he'd bought off Fletcher Henderson, he bought from Edgar Sampson, the saxophone player who did most of Webb's arrangements. Sampson is the one who wrote "Stompin' at the Savoy", which we just heard.
 
There was a rivalry there -- Goodman's band was bigger in every sense, but Webb's band was more popular with those who knew the real deal when they heard it. And in 1937, the Savoy hosted a cutting contest between Webb's Savoy Orchestra and Goodman's band.
 
A cutting contest was a tradition that came from the world of stride piano players -- the same world that boogie woogie music grew out of. One musician would play his best (and it usually was a "his" -- this was a very macho musical world) and then a second would try to top him -- playing something faster, or more inventive, or more exciting, often a reworking of the song the first one had played -- and then the first would take another turn and try to get better than the second had. They'd keep going, each trying to outdo the other, until a crowd decided that one or the other was the winner.
 
And that 1937 cutting contest was a big event. The Savoy had two bandstands, so they would have one band start as soon as the other one finished, so people could dance all night. Chick Webb's band set up on one stage, Goodman's on another. Four thousand dancers crowded the inside of the ballroom, and despite a police cordon outside to keep trouble down, another five thousand people outside tried to hear what was happening.
 
And Chick Webb's band won, absolutely. Gene Krupa, Goodman's drummer (one of the true greats of jazz drumming himself) later said "I'll never forget that night. Webb cut me to ribbons!"
 
And that just was the most famous of many, many cutting contests that Chick Webb's band won. The only time Chick Webb ever definitely lost a cutting contest was against Duke Ellington, but everyone knew that Chick Webb and Duke Ellington weren't really trying to do the same kind of thing, and anyway, there's no shame at all in losing to Duke Ellington.
 
Count Basie, though, was a different matter. He was trying to do the same kind of thing as Chick Webb, and he was doing it well. And on the night of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert, Webb and Basie were going to engage in their own cutting contest after hours. For all that the Goodman Carnegie Hall show was important -- and it was -- the real jazz fans knew that this after-show party was going to be the place to be. Basie had already played the Carnegie hHall show, guesting with Goodman's band, as had Basie's tenor sax player Lester Young, but here they were going to get to show off what they could do with their own band.
 
Basie's band was on top form at that time, with his new vocalists Jimmy Rushing, a great blues shouter, and Billie Holiday, who was just then becoming a star. Chick Webb had a couple of good vocalists too, though -- his new teenage singer, Ella Fitzgerald, in particular, was already one of the great singers.
 
[Chick Webb – Ella]
 
And everyone was in the audience. Goodman's band, Mildred Bailey, Ivie Anderson (who we heard before in that Marx Brothers clip), Red Norvo the vibraphone player, Duke Ellington. Every musician who mattered in the jazz scene was there to see if Basie could beat Chick Webb.
 
And… there was a dispute about it, one which was never really resolved in Webb's lifetime.
 
Because Webb won -- everyone agreed, when it came to a vote of the audience, Webb's band did win, though it was a fairly close decision. Again, the only band to ever beat Chick Webb was Duke Ellington.
 
But everyone also agreed that Basie's band had got people dancing more. A lot more.
 
What nobody realised at the time was that Whitey's Lindy Hoppers had gone on strike. Chick Webb had misheard a discussion between a couple of the dancers about how good the Basie band was going to be that night, assumed that they were saying Basie was going to be better than him, and got into a huff. Webb said "I don't give a good Goddam what those raggedy Lindy Hoppers think or say. Who needs 'em? As far as I'm concerned they can all go to hell. And their Mammies too."
 
After this provocation, Whitey issued an ultimatum to his Lindy Hoppers. That night, they were only going to dance to Basie, and not to Webb. So even though most of the audience preferred Webb's band, every time they played a song all the best dancers, the ones who had an entire quarter or so of the ballroom to themselves to do their most exciting and visual dances, all sat down, and it looked like the Webb band just weren't exciting the crowd as much as the Basie band.
 
Of course, the Basie band were good that night, as well. When you've got the 1938 Count Basie band, with Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday singing, you're going to get a good show. Oh, and they persuaded Duke Ellington to come up and play a piano solo -- and then all the band joined in with him, unrehearsed and unprompted.
 
But despite all that, Webb's band still beat them in the audience vote.
 
That's how good Webb's band were, and it's also how good his two big stars were. One of those stars, Ella Fitzgerald, we've already mentioned, but the other one was an alto sax player who also took the male lead vocals – we heard him singing with Ella earlier. This sax player did a lot of the frontman job for Webb's band and was so important to the band in those years that, allegedly, some people thought he was Chick Webb. That man was Louis Jordan.
 
[Chick Webb I Can't Dance I Got Ants In My Pants]
 
Louis Jordan was a good sax player, but what he really was was a performer. He was someone who could absolutely sell a song, with wit and humour and a general sense of hipness that could possibly be matched at that time only by Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard, and Jordan was a better musician than either of them. He was charming, and funny, and tuneful, and good looking, and he knew it.
 
He knew it so well, in fact, that shortly after that show, he started making plans -- he thought that he and Ella were the two important ones in the Webb band, and he planned to form his own band, and take her, and much of the rest of the band with him. Webb found out and fired Jordan, and Ella and most of the band remained loyal to Webb.
 
In fact, sadly, Jordan would have had what he wanted sooner rather than later anyway. Chick Webb's disability had been affecting him more, and he was only continuing to perform because he felt he owed it to his musicians -- he would often pass out after a show, literally unable to do anything else. He died, aged thirty-four, in June 1939, and Ella Fitzgerald became the leader of his band, though like many big bands it eventually broke up in the mid-forties.
 
So if Jordan had held on for another few months, he would have had a good chance at being the leader of the Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald band, and history would have been very different. As it was, instead, he formed a much smaller group, the Elks Rendez-vous Band, made up of members of Jesse Stone's band (you'll remember him from episode two, he wrote "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"). And on December 20, 1938 -- ten days before "Roll 'Em Pete" -- Louis Jordan and his Elks Rendez-vous Band went into the studio for the first time, to record "Honey in the Bee Ball" and "Barnacle Bill the Sailor".
 
[excerpt of "Honey in the Bee Ball"]
 
Shortly after that, they changed their name to Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.
 
Before we talk about them more, I want to briefly talk about someone else who worked with Jordan. I want to talk about Milt Gabler. Gabler is someone we'll be seeing a lot of in this story, and he's someone who already had an influence on it, but here's where he becomes important.
 
You see, even before his influence on rock and roll, Gabler had made one important contribution to music. He had started out as the owner of a little record shop, and he had a massive passion for good jazz music -- and so did his customers. And many of those customers had wanted to get hold of old records, now out of print. So in 1935 Gabler started his own record label, and licensed those out of print recordings by people like Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith, becoming the owner of the very first ever reissue record label. His labels pioneered things like putting a full list of all the musicians on a record on the label -- the kind of thing that real music obsessives cared far more about than executives who only wanted to make money.
 
After he had some success with that, he branched out into making new records, on a new label, Commodore. That would have stayed a minor label, but for one thing.
 
In 1939, one of his regular customers, Billie Holiday, had a problem. She'd been performing a new song which she really wanted to record, but her current label, Columbia, wasn't interested. That song was too political even for her producer, John Hammond -- the man who, you will remember from previous episodes, persuaded Benny Goodman to integrate his band and who put on shows that same year sponsored by the Communist Party. But the song was too political, and too inflammatory, even for him. The song, which became Billie Holiday's best-known performance, was "Strange Fruit", and it was about lynching.
 
[insert section of Strange Fruit here].
 
Billie Holiday could not get her label to put that track out, under any circumstances. But she knew Milt Gabler might do it -- he'd been recording several small group tracks with Lester Young, who was Holiday's colleague and friend in the Basie band. As Gabler was a friend of hers, and as he was politically left-leaning himself, he eventually negotiated a special deal with Columbia, Holiday's label, that he could produce her for one session and put out a single recording by her, on Commodore.
 
That recording sold over a million copies, and became arguably the most important recording in music history. In December 1999, Time Magazine called it the "song of the century". And in 2017, when the black singer Rebecca Ferguson was invited to play at Donald Trump's inauguration, she agreed on one condition -- that the song she performed could be "Strange Fruit". She was disinvited.
 
As a result of "Strange Fruit"'s success, Milt Gabler was headhunted away from his own label, and became a staff producer at Decca records in 1941. There he was responsible for producing many of the greatest records of the forties -- not least that famous Lionel Hampton version of "Flying Home" we looked at towards the end of episode one -- and he began a long collaboration with Louis Jordan -- remember him? This is a story about Louis Jordan.
 
Jordan's new band had a sound unlike anything else of the time -- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown later claimed that Jordan had most of the responsibility for the decline of the big bands, saying "He could play just as good and just as loud with five as 17. And it was cheaper."
 
And while we've talked before about a whole raft of economic and social reasons for the decline of the big bands, there was a lot of truth in that statement -- while there were sometimes actually as many as seven or eight members of the Tympany Five, the original lineup was just Jordan plus one trumpet, one sax, piano, bass, and drums, and yet their recordings did sound almost as full as many of the bigger bands.
 
The style they were playing in was a style that later became known as "jump band" music, and it was a style that owed a lot to Lionel Hampton's band, and to Count Basie. This is a style of music that's based on simple chord changes -- usually blues changes. And it's based on the concept of the riff.
 
We haven't really talked much about the idea of riffs yet in this series, but they're absolutely crucial to almost all popular music from the twentieth century. A riff is, in its conception, fairly straight forward. It's an instrumental phrase that gets repeated over and over. It can act as the backbone to a song, but it can also be the basis for variation and improvisation -- when you "riff on" something, you're coming up with endless variations and permutations of it.
 
Riffs were important in swing music -- generally they were a sort of back-and-forth in those. You'd have the saxophones play the riff, and then the trumpets and trombones repeat it after them. But swing wasn't just about riffs -- with a big orchestra, you had to have layers and stuff for all the musicians to do.
 
In jump band music, on the other hand, you strip everything back. The track becomes about the riff, the solos, and the vocal if there is one, and that's it. You play that riff over the simplest possible changes, you play it to a rhythm that will get everyone dancing -- often a boogie rhythm -- and you make everything about the energy of the performance.
 
Jordan's band did that, and they combined it with Jordan's own unique stage personality. Jordan, remember, had been the male singer in a band whose female singer was Ella Fitzgerald. You don't keep a job like that very long if you're not good.
 
Now, Jordan wasn't good in the same way as Ella was -- no-one was good in the same way as Ella Fitzgerald -- but what he was very good at was putting personality into his vocals. One thing we haven't talked much about yet in this series is the way that there was a whole tradition of jive singing which dates back at least to the 1920s and Cab Calloway:
 
[excerpt from "Reefer Man"]
 
Jive singers weren't usually technically great, but they had personality. They were hip, and they often used made up words of their own. They were clever, and funny, and sophisticated, and they were often singing about the underworld or drug use or prostitution or other such disreputable concepts -- when they weren't just singing nonsense words like Slim Gaillard anyway.
 
[Excerpt of "Flat Foot Floogie"]
 
And Louis Jordan was very much in the mould of singers like Gaillard or Calloway or Fats Waller, all of whom we could easily do episodes on here if we were going far enough back into rock's prehistory. But Jordan is the way that that stream became part of the rhythm of rock music.
 
Most of Jordan's songs were written by Jordan himself, although he's not the credited writer on many of them -- rather, his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, is credited for contractual reasons. Jordan and Moore later split up after multiple separate occasions where she stabbed him, but she retained credit on the songs. So, for example, she's credited on "Caldonia", which is a perfect example of Jordan's comedy jump band style.
 
[Louis Jordan: Caldonia]
 
"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," Jordan's biggest hit, was slightly different. From early 1943 -- just after Gabler started producing his records -- Jordan had been having occasional crossover hits on the country charts. These days, his music sounds to us clearly like it's blues or R&B -- in fact he's basically the archetype of a jump blues musician -- but remember how we've talked about Western Swing using so many swing and boogie elements? If you were making boogie music then, you were likely to appeal to the same audience that was listening to Bob Wills, just as much as you were to the audience that was listening to Big Joe Turner.
 
And because of this crossover success, Jordan started recording occasional songs that were originally aimed at the white country market. "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" was co-written by Gabler, but the other songwriters were pure country and western writers -- Denver Darling, one of the writers, was a hillbilly singer who recorded songs such as "My Little Buckaroo", "I've Just Gotta Be A Cowboy" and "Ding Dong Polka", while the other writer, Vaughn Horton, wrote "Dixie Cannonball" and "Muleskinner Blues".
 
So "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" was, in conception, a hillbilly boogie, but in Louis Jordan's hands, it was almost the archetypal rhythm and blues song:
 
[insert section of Choo Choo Ch'Boogie here]
 
You can hear from that how much it resembles the Bob Wills music we heard last week -- and how the song itself would fit absolutely into the genre of Western Swing. There's only really the lack of a fiddle or steel guitar to distinguish the styles. But you can also hear the horn-driven pulse, and the hip vocals, that characterise rhythm and blues. Those internal rhymes and slangy lyrics -- "take me right back to the track, Jack" -- come straight from the jive school of vocals, even though it's a country and western song.
 
If there's any truth at all to the claim that rock and roll was the mixing of country and western music with rhythm and blues, this is as good a point as any to say "this is where rock and roll really started". Essentially every musician in the early rock and roll period was, to a greater or lesser extent, copying the style of Louis Jordan's 1940s records. And indeed "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" was later covered by another act Milt Gabler produced -- an act who, more than any other, based their style on Jordan's. But we'll come to Bill Haley and his Comets in a few episodes time.
 
For now, we want to listen to the way that jump band music sounds. This is not music that sounds like it's a small band. That sounds like a full horn section, but you'll notice that during the sax solo the other horns just punch in a little, rather than playing a full pad under it -- the arrangement is stripped back to the basics, to what's necessary. This is a punchy track, and it's a track that makes you want to dance.
 
[sax solo excerpt]
 
And this is music that, because it's so stripped down, relies on vocal personality more than other kinds. This is why Louis Jordan was able to make a success of this -- his jive singing style gives the music all the character that in the larger bands would be conveyed by other instruments.
 
But also, notice the lyrics -- "the rhythm of the clickety clack". It's that backbeat again, the one we've been talking about. And the lyrics here are all about that rhythm, but also about the rhythm of the steam trains.
 
That mechanical steam train rhythm is one of the key influences in blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll -- rock and roll started at almost exactly the point that America changed from being a train culture to being a car culture, and over the coming weeks we'll see that transition happen in the music. By the 1960s people would be singing "Nobody cares about the railroads any more" or about "the last of the good old fashioned steam powered trains", but in the 1940s and early fifties the train still meant freedom, still meant escape, and even once that had vanished from people's minds, it was still enshrined in the chug of the backbeat, in the choo choo ch'boogie.
 
And so next week we'll be talking a lot more about the impact of trains in rock and roll, as we take our final look at the Carnegie Hall concerts of 1938…
 
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Episode 3: Ida Red

00:0000:00

 Photo of Bob Wills in a cowboy hat

Welcome to episode three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Bob Wills and "Ida Red".

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I mention a PhD thesis on the history of the backbeat in the episode. Here's a link to it.

Bob Wills' music is now in the public domain, so there are many different compilations available, of different levels of quality. This is an expensive but exhaustive one, while this is a cheap one which seems to have most of the important hits on it.

The definitive book on Bob Wills, San Antonio Rose, is available here, though it's a bit pricey.

And for all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum.

Clarification

In the episode I talk about two tracks as being "by Django Reinhardt", but the clips I play happen to be ones featuring violin solos. Those solos are, of course, by Reinhardt's longtime collaborator Stephane Grapelli. I assume most people will know this, but just in case.

Transcript

"Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928! ... We didn't call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don't call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."
 
Bob Wills said that in 1957, and it brings up an interesting question. What's in a name?
 
Genre names are a strange thing, aren't they? In particular, did you ever notice how many of them had the word "and" in them? Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western? There's sort of a reason for that.
 
Rock and roll is a special case, but the other two were names that were coined by Billboard, and they weren't originally meant to be descriptors of a single genre, but of collections of genres -- they were titles for its different charts. Rhythm and blues is a name that was used to replace the earlier name, of "race" records, because that was thought a bit demeaning. It was for the chart of "music made by black people", basically, whatever music those black people were making, so they could be making "rhythm" records, or they could be making "blues" records.
 
Only once you give a collection of things a name, the way people's minds work, they start thinking that because those things share a name they're the same kind of thing. And people start thinking about "rhythm and blues" records as being a particular kind of thing. And then they start making "rhythm and blues" records, and suddenly it is a thing.
 
The same thing goes for country and western. That was, again, two different genres. Country music was the music made by white people who lived in the rural areas, of the Eastern US basically -- people like the Carter Family, for example.
 
[Excerpt of “Keep on the Sunny Side” by the Carter Family]
 
We'll hear more about the Carter family in the future, but that's what country music was. Not country and western, just country. And that was the music made in Appalachia, especially Kentucky and Tennessee, and especially especially Nashville.
 
Western music was a bit different. That was the music being made in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and it tended to use similar instrumentation to country music -- violins and guitars and so on -- but it had different subject matter -- lots of songs about cowboys and outlaws and so on -- and at the time we're talking about, the thirties and forties, it was a little bit slicker than country music.
 
This is odd in retrospect, because not many years later the Western musicians influenced people like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, who made very gritty, raw, unpolished music compared to the country music coming out of Nashville, but the thirties and forties were the heyday of singing cowboy films, with people like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers becoming massive, massive stars, and so there was a lot of Hollywoodisation of the music, lots of crooning and orchestras and so on.
 
Western music was big, big business -- and so was swing music. And so it's perhaps not surprising that there was a new genre that emerged around that time. Western swing.
 
Western swing is, to simplify it ridiculously, swing music made in the West of the USA. But it's music that was made in the west -- largely in places like California --by the same kinds of people who in the east were making country music, and with a lot of the same influences.
 
It took the rhythms of swing music, but played them with the same instrumentation as the country musicians were using, so you'd get hot jazz style performances, but they'd be played on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and stand-up bass. There were a few other instruments that you'd usually get included as well -- the steel guitar, for example. Western swing usually also included a drum kit, which was one of the big ways it differed from country music as it was then. The drum kit was, in the early decades of the twentieth century, primarily a jazz instrument, and it was only because Western swing was a hybrid of jazz and Western music that it got included in those bands -- and for a long time drum kits were banned from country music shows like the Grand Ole Opry, and when they did finally relent and let Western swing bands play there, they made the drummers hide behind a curtain.
 
They would also include other instruments that weren't normally included in country or Western music at the time, like the piano. Less often, you'd have a saxophone or a trumpet, but basically the typical Western swing lineup would be a guitar, a steel guitar, a violin or two, a piano, a bass, and drums.
 
Again, as we saw in the episode about "Flying Home", where we talked about *non*-Western swing, you can see the rock band lineup starting to form. It was a gradual process though.
 
Take Bob Wills, the musician whose drummer had to hide behind a curtain.
 
Wills originally performed as a blackface comedian -- sadly, blackface performances were very, very common in the US in the 1930s (but then, they were common in the UK well into my lifetime. I'm not judging the US in particular here), but he soon became more well known as a fiddle player and occasional singer.
 
In 1929 Wills, the singer Milton Brown, and guitarist Herman Arnspiger, got together to perform a song at a Christmas dance party. They soon added Brown's brother Derwood on guitar and fiddle player John Dunnam, and became the Light Crust Doughboys.
 
 
[clip of the Light Crust Doughboys singing their theme]
 
That might seem like a strange name for a band, and it would be if that had been the name they chose themselves, but it wasn't. Their name was originally The Aladdin Laddies, as they got sponsored by the Aladdin Lamp Company to perform on WBAP radio under that name, but when that sponsorship fell through, they performed for a while as the Wills Fiddle Band, before they found a new sponsor -- Pappy O'Daniel.
 
You may know that name, as the name of the governor of Mississippi in the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and that was... not an *entirely* inaccurate portrayal, though the character in that film definitely wasn't the real man. The real Pappy O'Daniel didn't actually become governor of Mississippi, but he did become the governor of Texas, in the 1940s.
 
But in the late 1920s and early thirties he was the head of advertising for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, who made "Light Crust Flour", and he started to sponsor the show.
 
The band became immensely successful, but they were not particularly well paid -- in fact, O'Daniel insisted that everyone in the band would have to actually work a day job at the mill as well. Bob Wills was a truck driver as well as being a fiddle player, and the others had different jobs in the factory.
 
Pappy O'Daniel at first didn't like this hillbilly music being played on the radio show he was paying for -- in fact he wanted to cancel the show after two weeks. But Wills invited him down to the radio station to be involved in the broadcasts, and O'Daniel became the show's MC, as well as being the band's manager and the writer of their original material. O'Daniel even got his own theme song, "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy".
 
[insert Hillbilly Boys playing "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy"]
 
That's not the Light Crust Doughboys playing the song -- that's the Hillbilly Boys, another band Pappy O'Daniel hired a few years later, when Burrus Mill fired him and he formed his own company, Hillbilly Flour -- but that's the song that the Light Crust Doughboys used to play for O'Daniel, and the singer on that recording, Leon Huff, sang with the Doughboys from 1934 onwards. So you get the idea.
 
In 1932, the Light Crust Doughboys made their first recording, though they did so under the name the Fort Worth Doughboys -- Pappy O'Daniel didn't approve of them doing anything which might take them out of his control, so they didn't use the same name. This is "Nancy"
 
[insert clip of "Nancy"]
 
Now the music the Light Crust Doughboys were playing wasn't yet what we'd call Western Swing but they were definitely as influenced by jazz music as they were by Western music. In fact, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys can be seen as the prototypical example of the singer-guitarist creative tension in rock music, except here it was a tension between the singer and the fiddle player. Milton Brown was, by all accounts, wanting to experiment more with a jazz style, while Bob Wills wanted to stick with a more traditional hillbilly string band sound. That creative tension led them to create a totally new form of music.
 
To see this, we're going to look forward a little bit to 1936, to a slightly different lineup of the band. Take a listen to this, for example -- "Dinah".
 
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Dinah"]
 
And this -- "Limehouse Blues".
 
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Limehouse Blues"]
 
And now listen to this -- Django Reinhardt playing "Dinah"
 
[insert section of Reinhardt playing "Dinah"]
 
And Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"
 
[Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"]
 
Those recordings were made a few years after the Light Crust Doughboys versions, but you can see the similarities. The Light Crust Doughboys were doing the same things as Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt, years before them, even though we would now think of the Light Crust Doughboys as being "a country band", while Grapelli and Reinhardt are absolutely in the jazz category.
 
Now, I said that that's a different lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, and it is. A version of the Light Crust Doughboys continues today, and one member, Smoky Montgomery, who joined the band in 1935, continued with them until his death in 2001. Smoky Montgomery's on those tracks you just heard, but Bob Wills and Milton Brown weren't. They both left, because Pappy O'Daniel was apparently not a very good person to work for.
 
In particular, O'Daniel wouldn't let the Doughboys play any venues where alcohol was served, or play dances generally. O'Daniel was only paying the band members $15 a week, and they could get $40 a night playing gigs, and so Brown left in 1932 to form his own band, the Musical Brownies.
 
The Musical Brownies are now largely forgotten, but they're considered the first band ever to play proper Western Swing, and they introduced a lot of things that defined the genre. In particular, they introduced electric steel guitar to the Western music genre, with the great steel player Bob Dunn.
 
For a while, the Musical Brownies were massively popular, but sadly Brown died in a car crash in 1936.
 
Bob Wills stayed in the Doughboys for a while longer, as the band's leader, as O'Daniel gave him a raise to $38 a week. And he continued to make the kind of music he'd made when Brown was in the band -- both Brown and Wills clearly recognised that what they'd come up with together was something better and more interesting than just jazz or just Western.
 
Wills recruited a new singer, Tommy Duncan, but in 1933 Wills was fired by O'Daniel, partly because of rows over Wills wanting his brother in the band, and partly because Wills' drinking was already starting to affect his professionalism. He formed his own band and took Duncan and bass player Kermit Whalen with him. The Doughboys' steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, soon followed, and they became Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They advertised themselves as "formerly the Light Crust Doughboys" -- although that wasn't entirely true, as they weren't the whole band, though they were the core of it -- and Pappy O'Daniel sued them, unsuccessfully.
 
And the Texas Playboys then became the first Western Swing band to add a drum kit, and become a more obviously rhythm-oriented band.
 
The Texas Playboys were the first massively, massively successful Western swing band, and their style was one that involved taking elements from everywhere and putting them together. They had the drums and horns that a jazz band would have, the guitars and fiddles that country or Western bands would have, the steel guitar that a Hawaiian band would have, and that meant they could play all of those styles of music if they wanted to. And they did. They mixed jazz, and Western, and blues, and pop, and came up with something different from all of them.
 
This was music for dancing, and as music for dancing it had a lot of aspects that would later make their way into rock and roll. In particular it had that backbeat we talked about in episode two, although here it was swung less -- when you listen to them play with a heavy backbeat but with the fiddle as the main instrument, you can hear the influence of polka music, which was a big influence on all the Western swing musicians, and through them on rock and roll. Polka music is performed in 2/4 time, and there's a very, *very* strong connection between the polka beat and the backbeat.
 
(I won't go into that too much more here -- I already talked about the backbeat quite a bit in episode two -- but while researching these episodes I found a hugely informative but very detailed look at the development of the rock backbeat -- someone's PhD thesis from twenty years ago, four hundred pages just on that topic, which I'll link on the webpage if you want a much more detailed explanation)
 
Now by looking at the lineup of the Texas Playboys, we can see how the rock band lineup evolved. In 1938 the Texas Playboys had a singer, two guitars (one doubling on fiddle), three fiddlers, a banjo player, steel guitar, bass, drums, piano, trumpet, trombone, and two saxes. A *huge* band, and one at least as swing as it was Western. But around that time, Wills started to use electric guitars -- electric guitars only really became "a thing" in 1938 musically, and a lot of people started using them at the same time, like Benny Goodman's band as we heard about in the first episode. Wills' band was one of the first to use them, and Western musicians generally were more likely to use them, as they were already using amplified *steel* guitars.
 
We talked in episode two about how the big bands died between 1942 and 1944, and Wills was able to make his band considerably smaller with the aid of amplification, so by 1944 he'd got rid of most of his horn section apart from a single trumpet, having his electric guitars play what would previously have been horn lines.
 
So by 1944 the band would consist of two fiddles, two basses, two electric guitars, steel guitar, drums, and a trumpet. A smaller band, an electrified band, and one which, other than the fiddles and the trumpet, was much closer to the kind of lineups that you would get in the 50s and 60s. A smaller, tighter, band.
 
Now, Wills' band quickly became the most popular band in its genre, and he became widely known as "the king of Western Swing", but Wills' music was more than just swing. He was pulling together elements from country, from the blues, from jazz, from anything that could make him popular.
 
And, sadly, that would sometimes include plagiarism.
 
Now, the question of black influence on white music is a fraught one, and one that will come up a lot in the course of this history. And a lot of the time people will get things wrong. There were, of course, white people who made their living by taking black people's music and watering it down. There were also, though, plenty of more complicated examples, and examples of mutual influence.
 
There was a constant bouncing of ideas back and forth between country, western, blues, jazz, swing... all of these genres were coded as belonging to one or other race, but all of them had musicians who were listening to one another. This is not to say that racism was not a factor in who was successful -- of course it was, and this episode is, after all, about someone who started out as a blackface performer, race was a massive factor, and sadly still is -- but the general culture among musicians at the time was that good musicians of whatever genre respected good musicians of any other genre, and there were songs that everyone, or almost everyone, played, in their own styles, simply because a good song was a good song and at that time there wasn't the same tight association of performer and song that there is now -- you'd sometimes have five or six people in the charts with hit versions of the same song. You'd have a country version and a blues version and a swing version of a song, not because anyone was stealing anyone else's music, but because it was just accepted that everyone would record a hit song in their own style.
 
And certainly, in the case of Bob Wills, he was admired by -- and admired -- musicians across racial boundaries. The white jazz guitarist Les Paul -- of whom we'll almost certainly be hearing more -- used to tell a story. Paul was so amazed by Bob Wills' music that in 1938 he travelled from Waukesha Wisconsin, where he was visiting his mother, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear Wills' band play, after his mother made him listen to Bob Wills on the radio. Paul was himself a famous guitarist at the time, and he got drawn on stage to jam with the band.
 
And then, in an interval, a black man in the audience -- presumably this must have been an integrated audience, which would have been *very* unusual in 1938 in Oklahoma, but this is how Les Paul told the story, and other parts of it check out so we should probably take his word for it absent better evidence -- came up and asked for Les Paul's autograph. He told Paul that he played guitar, and Paul said for the young man to show him what he could do. The young man did, and Paul said “Jesus, you *are* good. You want to come up and sit in with us?”
 
And he did -- that was the first time that Les Paul met his friend Charlie Christian, shortly before Christian got the offer from Benny Goodman. Hanging out and jamming at a Bob Wills gig.
 
So we can, for the most part, safely put Bob Wills into the mutual respect and influence category. He was someone who had the respect of his peers, and was part of a chain of influences crossing racial and stylistic boundaries.
 
It gets more difficult when you get to someone like Pat Boone, a few years later, who would record soundalike versions of black musicians' hits specifically to sell to people who wouldn't buy music by black people and act as a spoiler for their records. That's ethically very, very dodgy, plus Boone was a terrible musician.
 
But what I think we can all agree on is that just outright stealing a black musician's song, crediting it to a white musician, and making it a massive hit is just wrong. And sadly that happened with Bob Wills' band at least once.
 
Now, Leon McAuliffe, the Texas Playboys' steel guitar player, is the credited composer of "Steel Guitar Rag", which is the instrumental which really made the steel guitar a permanent fixture in country and western music. Without this instrumental, country music would be totally different.
 
[insert a section of "Steel Guitar Rag" by Bob Wills]
 
That's from 1936. Now, in 1927, the guitarist Sylvester Weaver made a pioneering recording, which is now often called the first recorded country blues, the first recorded blues instrumental, and the first slide guitar recording (as I've said before, there is never a first, but Weaver's recording is definitely important). That track is called "Guitar Rag" and... well...
 
[insert "Guitar Rag" by Sylvester Weaver].
 
Leon McAuliffe always claimed he'd never heard Sylvester Weaver's song, and came up with Steel Guitar Rag independently. Do you believe him?
 
So, the Texas Playboys were not averse to a bit of plagiarism. But the song we're going to talk about for the rest of the episode is one that would end up plagiarised itself, very famously.
 
"Ida Red" is an old folk song, first recorded in 1924. In fact, structurally it's a hokum song. As is often the case with this kind of song, it's part of a massive family tree of other songs -- there are blues and country songs with the same melody, songs with different melodies but mentions of Ida Red, songs which contain different lines from the song... many folk songs aren't so much songs in themselves as they are labels you can put on a whole family. There's no one song "Ida Red", there's a whole bunch of songs which are, to a greater or lesser extent, Ida Red. "Ida Red" is just a name you can slap on that family, something you can point to.
 
Most versions of "Ida Red" had the same chorus -- "Ida Red, Ida Red, I'm plum fool about Ida Red" -- but different lyrics, often joking improvised ones. Here's the first version of "Ida Red" to be recorded -- oddly, this version doesn't even have the chorus, but it does have the chorus melody played on the fiddle. This is Fiddlin' Powers and Family, singing about Ida Red who weighs three hundred and forty pounds, in 1924:
 
[insert Fiddlin Powers version of "Ida Red"]
 
Wills' version is very differently structured. It has totally different lyrics -- it has the familiar chorus, but the verses are totally different and have nothing to do with the character of Ida Red -- "Light's in the parlour, fire's in the grate/Clock on the mantle says it's a'gettin' late/Curtains on the window, snowy white/The parlour's pleasant on Sunday night"
 
[insert Bob Wills version of "Ida Red"]
 
Those lyrics -- and all the other lyrics in Wills' version except the chorus, were taken from an 1878 parlour song called "Sunday Night" by George Frederick Root, a Civil War era songwriter who is now best known as the writer of the melody we now know as "Jesus Loves the Little Children". They're cut down to fit into the fast-patter do-si-do style of the song, but they're still definitely the same lyrics as Root's.
 
"Ida Red" was one of many massive hits for Wills and the Texas Playboys, who continued to be hugely successful through the 1940s, at one point becoming a bigger live draw than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, although the band's success started to decline when Tommy Duncan quit in 1948 over Wills' drinking -- Wills would often miss shows because of his binge drinking, and Duncan was the one who had to deal with the angry fans. Wills replaced Duncan with various other singers, but never found anyone who would have the same success with him.
 
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had a couple of hits in the very early 1950s -- one of them, indeed, was a sequel to Ida Red -- "Ida Red Likes The Boogie", a novelty boogie song of the type we discussed last week. (And think back to what I said then about the boogie fad persisting much longer than it should have. "Ida Red Likes The Boogie" was recorded in 1949 and went top ten in 1950, yet those boogie novelty songs I talked about last week were from 1940).
 
[insert "Ida Red Likes The Boogie"]
 
But even as his kind of music was getting more into fashion under the name rock and roll, Wills himself became less popular. The band were still a popular live attraction through most of the 1950s, but they never again reached the heights of the 30s and 40s, and Wills' deteriorating health and the band's lack of success made them split up in 1965.
 
But before they'd split, Wills' music had had a lasting influence on rock and roll, and not just on the people you might expect. Remember how I talked about plagiarism? Well, in 1955, a musician went into Chess studios with a slight rewrite of "Ida Red" that he called "Ida May". Leonard Chess persuaded him to change the name because otherwise it would be too obvious where he stole the tune... and we will talk about "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry in a few weeks' time.
 
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Episode 2a: A Disclaimer

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Transcript

 

This is not a full episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs. The full episode will also turn up in your podcatcher. But I thought I should do a separate episode as a disclaimer. I'm placing this one here because in the next epsiode proper I talk about "the king of Western swing" and I don't refer to Spade Cooley, and I thought I should explain why.

 

You see, there were two people who were generally called “the King of Western Swing”, both had a good claim for it. One of them was Bob Wills, and I’m going to talk about him in the episode. The other was Spade Cooley, and Cooley was a domestic abuser who eventually murdered his wife.

 

Now, this is a history of rock and roll, and so I am going to have to deal with a lot of abusers, sex criminals, and even a few murderers. You simply can’t tell the history of rock and roll without talking about Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Jimmy Page… I could go on. But suffice to say that I think the assumption one should make when talking about rock music history is that any man discussed in it is a monster unless proved otherwise.

 

I’m going to have to talk about those men’s work, and how it affected other things, because it’s so influential. And I admire a lot of that work. But I never, ever, want to give the impression that I think the work in any way mitigates their monstrosity, or do that thing that so many people do of excusing them because “it was a different time”.

 

But in order for this to be a history of rock music, and not a prurient history of misogynistic crime, I’m probably not going to mention every awful thing these people do. I’m going to deal with it on a case by case basis, and I *will* make wrong calls. If I don’t mention something when I get to one of those men, and you think it needed mentioning, by all means tell me about it in comments. But please don’t take that lack of mention as being endorsement of those people.

 

However, in the case of Spade Cooley, he needed mentioning here, because I’m talking about Western swing in the next episode. But Cooley’s overall influence on rock and roll is basically zero, so in that episode, I’m going to pretend he never existed. If you want to hear about him, check out a podcast called Cocaine and Rhinestones. The episode there is horrifying, but it puts him in his proper context. But I thought I should make this disclaimer now and have it count for every episode of the podcast going forward. Thank you.

Episode 2: Roll ‘Em Pete

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Big Joe Turner singing, with a bass player behind him

 

Here's the second episode, on "Roll 'Em Pete" by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. One erratum before we continue -- in the episode, I say that "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" follows a particular formula common in hokum songs. That's not actually true for the original version -- it *is* true for Bill Haley's cover version, and Elvis' and the versions after them, but in Joe Turner's version the part we now know as the chorus didn't come in until near the end. Sorry about the mistake.

Resources

As always, I've put together a Mixcloud mix of all the songs talked about in this episode, which you can stream here. That mix has "In the Mood" and "the Booglie Wooglie Piggy" by Glenn Miller, "Roll 'Em Pete" and "It's All Right Baby" by Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Joe Turner, "I Need A Little Sugar in my Bowl" by Bessie Smith, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith, and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll by Bill Haley

For all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum, which goes into these subjects in far more detail than I can.

Lionel Hampton's autobiography is out of print, but you can find second hand copies very cheap.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts have been released on CD, but sadly that's also out of print -- this is the definitive version, but hopefully at some point they'll get a rerelease at a reasonable price.

 

Transcript

"It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it" -- in Chuck Berry's classic song "Rock and Roll Music", that's the only line that actually talks about what the music is. The backbeat is, to all intents and purposes , the thing that differentiates early rock and roll from the music that preceded it. And like all of early rock and roll, it's something that had predecessors in rock's pre-history.
 
If you don't know what a backbeat is... well, in the days of swing, and even on a lot of very early rock and roll records, the typical beat you'd have is one called a shuffle, which sounds like you'd expect from the name, it's a sort of tit-tit-tit-tit [demonstrates] kind of sound, and you'd generally stress the first beat in the bar. [demonstrates] ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.
 
The shuffle rhythm was *the* swing rhythm -- so much so that often you'll see "shuffle rhythm" and "swing time" used interchangeably. Listen, for example, to the introduction to "In the Mood" by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the biggest-selling swing record of all time [plays section of song].
 
That's a shuffle. That's swing music, and that rhythm was the basis of almost all pre-war popular music, one way or the other. It's a good, strong, sound -- there's a reason why it was popular -- but... it's a little bit polite. A little bit tame.
 
A backbeat, on the other hand, gives you a straight, simple, pulse. You stress the second and fourth beats in a bar -- boom BAP boom BAP boom BAP boom BAP. It's a simpler rhythm, but a more exciting one. That's the rhythm that made rock and roll.
 
Players in blues and jazz music had been using that rhythm, off and on, since the 1920s. Lionel Hampton, in his autobiography, talking about his earliest work as a drummer before switching to vibraphone, says "I had a different style on drums. I was already playing with a heavy afterbeat, getting that rock-and-roll beat that wouldn't even get popular until the 1950s. I wanted people to dance, have a good time, clap their hands, and they would do it to my drumming."
 
And that's what a backbeat does -- it gives people somewhere to clap their hands, a very clear signal, you clap on TWO and FOUR.
 
But while Hampton was playing like that, he was never recorded doing that, and nor were any other drummers at the time. In fact, the first recording in the prehistory of rock generally credited as having a backbeat doesn't even have a drummer on it at all. Rather, it features just a vocalist, Big Joe Turner, and a piano player, Pete Johnson. The song, which was recorded in December 1938, is called "Roll 'Em Pete".
 
Now, before we go any further, I want to say something about that "generally credited". There are two problems with it -- the first is that "Roll 'Em Pete", at least in the version recorded under that name, doesn't have a particularly pronounced backbeat at all, and the second is that there *were* other records being made, long before 1938, which do. But that's the way of these things, as we'll see over and over again. The first anything is messy.
 
But "Roll 'Em Pete" is still a hugely important record, in ways that are more important than whether it has a backbeat on it. So let's have a look at it.
 
Pete Johnson was a boogie-woogie player -- yet another of the musical streams which fed into early rock and roll. Boogie woogie was a style of piano playing that became popular in the 1930s, where the left hand would play a strong bassline -- you almost certainly know the generic boogie bassline style, which goes like this [demonstrates] -- while the right hand would play decorative melodic stuff over it. That bassline and melody combination was the most popular style of playing for a time, and it became the cornerstone of rock piano playing, as well as of country music and much else. The bassline would have eight notes in a typical bar, and "eight to the bar" was another term some used for boogie woogie at the time.
 
But boogie woogie was, for the most part, based on that shuffle rhythm. Listen to "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith, the first real boogie record, from 1928, and you'll hear a rhythm which isn't so different to that Glenn Miller record from a decade or so later. "Roll 'Em Pete" changed that.
 
Pete Johnson was considered one of the greatest exponents of the boogie-woogie style, and in 1938 when John Hammond was putting together his "Spirituals to Swing" concerts, it was natural that Hammond would choose Johnson to perform. These concerts -- one in 1938 and one in 1939 -- were probably the most important concerts in popular music history. That's not an exaggeration, by any means, it's just a fact.
 
At the beginning of 1938, Hammond had promoted a concert by the Benny Goodman band at Carnegie, and that concert itself had been an impressive event -- it was the first time an integrated band had played Carnegie Hall, and the first time that popular music had been treated as seriously as classical music.
 
For a follow-up, at Christmas 1938, Hammond wanted to present only black musicians, but to an integrated audience. He wanted, in fact, to present a history of black music, from "primitive" folk forms to big band swing. This was, to say the least, a controversial choice, and in the end the event was sponsored by The New Masses, a magazine published by the Communist Party USA.
 
And the lineup for that show was pretty much a who's who of black American music at the time. Hammond had wanted to get Robert Johnson, but he discovered that Johnson had recently died -- Johnson's place was taken by a then-obscure folk musician called Big Bill Broonzy, who became popular largely on the basis of that appearance. Sonny Terry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, the Count Basie Orchestra, and more all appeared, and the show was successful enough that the next year there was a follow-up, with many of the same musicians, which also featured the Benny Goodman Sextet.
 
For this show, as well as playing on his own, Pete Johnson was backing a blues shouter called Big Joe Turner. And "shouter" was the word for what Turner did. If you don't know about blues shouters, that's unsurprising -- it's a style of music that went out of fashion with the big bands. But a blues shouter was a singer -- usually a man -- who could sing loudly and powerfully enough that he could be heard over a band, without amplification. In the early twentieth century, microphones were unknown at first, and singers had to be able to be heard over the musicians simply by the force of their voices. Some singers used megaphones as a crude form of amplification, but many more simply had to belt out their vocals as loud as they could.
 
Even after microphones were introduced, they were unreliable and amplification wasn't very powerful. And at the same time bands were getting bigger and louder -- blues shouters like Big Joe Turner could compete with that power, and get a crowd excited by the sheer volume of their voice, even over bands like Count Basie's.
 
But for the Carnegie Hall show, Turner and Pete Johnson were playing together, just the two of them. And while they were in New York, they had a recording session, and recorded a track that some say is the first rock and roll record ever.
 
"Roll 'Em Pete" has the first recorded example -- as far as anyone has been able to discover -- of a boogie song which uses a backbeat rather than a shuffle beat. All the musical elements of early rock and roll are there in Pete Johnson's piano part -- in particular, listen to the phrasing in his right-hand part. Those melody lines he's playing, if you transfer them to guitar, are basically the whole of Chuck Berry's guitar style, but you can also hear Jerry Lee Lewis in there.
 
Now you might be listening to the track and saying to yourself "I don't really hear that much of a difference with the earlier song -- are you sure it's got more of a backbeat?"
 
If you are, I don't blame you -- but there's a version of this song with a much clearer backbeat, and that's the live recording of Turner and Johnson performing the song at Carnegie Hall the week earlier -- that performance is titled "It's Alright Baby" rather than "Roll 'Em Pete" on the official recordings, but it's the same song. There, Turner is clapping along on the backbeat, and you can hear the claps clearly.
 
Now this isn't a clearcut differentiation -- you can play music in such a way that you can have a shuffle beat going up against a backbeat, and that's a lot of what's going on in boogie music of this period, and the two rhythms rubbing up against each other is a lot of what drives early rock and roll. Talking about a "first backbeat record" is almost as ridiculous as talking about a "first rock and roll record" or a "first soul record". And the more I've listened to this song and the other music of its time, the less convinced I am that this specific song has something altogether new. But still, it's a great example of boogie, of blues, and of the music that would become rock and roll, and it's one you can clearly point to and say "that has all the elements that will later go into rock and roll music. Perhaps not in exactly the same proportions, perhaps not in a way that's massively different from its predecessors, but like "Flying Home", which we talked about last time, it's as good a place to start as any.
 
And this is, have no doubt about it, a record of important performers.
 
Before we go into why, we'll talk briefly about the song, and particularly about the lyrics -- or, more precisely, the way that they aren't really coherent lyrics at all. This is something we'll be seeing a lot of in the future -- a blues tradition called "floating lyrics". A song like "Roll 'Em Pete", you see, isn't really a song in the conventional sense. There's a melodic structure there, and over that melodic structure the singer would improvise. And when blues singers improvised, they'd tend to pull out lyrics from a set of pre-existing phrases that they knew worked. "Well, I got a gal, she lives up on the hill/Well, this woman's tryin' to quit me, Lord, but I love her still" is the opening line, and that is one of those floating lyrics -- though sometimes, depending on the singer, the women says she loves me but I don't believe she will, or doesn't love me but her sister will.
 
Most of Turner's songs were made up of these floating lyrics, and this is something we'll see happening more in the early years of rock and roll, as we look at those. The whole idea of floating lyrics, sadly, makes authorship claims for songs somewhat difficult, and rock and roll, like blues and country before it, was essentially a folk artform to start with. We'll see several examples of people taking credit as "songwriters" for things that are put together from a bunch of pre-existing elements, striking it lucky, and becoming millionaires as a result.
 
Turner and Johnson could stretch "Roll 'Em Pete" out to an hour sometimes, with Turner just singing new lyrics as needed, and no recording can really capture what they were doing in live performance -- and this is the problem with much of the prehistory of rock and roll, as so much of it was created by musicians who were live performers first and recording artists a distant second, if at all.
 
But those live performances mattered. In 1938, when Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons made their appearances in the Spirituals to Swing shows, boogie woogie was something of a minority form -- it was something that had had a brief popularity a decade earlier and which was largely forgotten. That show changed that, and suddenly boogie woogie was the biggest thing in music -- every big band started playing boogie woogie music, adapted to the big band style. The Andrews Sisters sang about "the boogie woogie bugle boy of company B" and wanted you to "beat me daddy, eight to the bar" (and then, presumably feeling dirty after that, wanted you to "scrub me mama to a boogie beat"). Tommy Dorsey recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" (renamed as "TD's Boogie Woogie"), and you got... well, things like this.
 
[play excerpt of "The Booglie Wooglie Piggy" by Glenn Miller]
 
That's the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the biggest band of the forties, with Tex Beneke singing about a booglie wooglie piggy. They don't write them like that any more.
 
Most of this music, as you can hear, was still using that swing beat, but it was clearly boogie woogie music, and that became the biggest style of music in late-period big band music, the music that was popular in the early 1940s. Even in songs that aren't directly about being boogie-woogie -- like, say, Glenn Miller's "Chatanooga Choo Choo" -- you still get that boogie rhythm, and nods to the generic boogie bassline and you get lines like "when you hear that whistle blowing eight to the bar, then you know that Tennessee is not very far".
 
And that influence had a bigger impact than it might otherwise have done, and became something bigger than just a fad, because between 1941 and 1943 a whole host of events conspired to change the music industry forever.
 
Most importantly, of course, the Second World War reached America, and that caused a lot of problems for the big band industry -- men who would otherwise have been playing in those bands were being drafted, as were men who would otherwise have been going out dancing to those bands.
 
But there were two smaller events that, if anything, made even more impact. The first of these was the ASCAP boycott.
 
The American Society of Composers and Publishers was -- and still is -- an organisation that represented most of the most important songwriters and music publishers in the USA, the people who had been writing the most successful songs. They collected royalties for live performances and radio plays, and distributed them to the composers and publishers who made up their membership. And they only dealt with the respectable Tin Pan Alley composers, but that covered enough songs -- in the early forties they had a repertoire of one and a quarter million songs, including all the most popular songs that the big bands were playing.
 
And then for ten months in 1941, they banned all the radio stations in the USA from playing any of their songs, over a royalty dispute.
 
This should have been catastrophic for the radio stations, and would have been if there hadn't been another organisation, BMI, set up as a rival to ASCAP a couple of years earlier. BMI dealt with only the low-class music -- the blues, and country songs, and gospel songs, and hillbilly music, and boogie. The stuff ASCAP didn't think was important.
 
Except that now all that music became *very* important, because that was all you could play on the radio. Well, that and public domain songs, but pretty soon everyone was bored of hearing "I Dream of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair".  And so there was suddenly a much bigger audience for all the hillbilly and blues performers, all of whom had incorporated the boogie style into their own styles.
 
And then, just as the music industry was getting back on its feet after that, there was what is still the biggest entertainment strike in US history -- the musicians' union strike of 1942-44. This time, the strike didn't affect anyone playing on the radio -- so long as it was a live performance. But because of a dispute over royalties, no instrumentalist was allowed to record for the major record labels for two years.
 
This had several effects, all of them profound.
 
Firstly, the big bands all recorded a *lot* of music to stockpile in the last weeks before the strike, and this meant that the styles that were current in July 1942 effectively stayed current -- at least as far as the record-buying public was concerned. For two years, the only big band music that could be released was from that stockpile, so the music recorded during the boogie fad stayed around longer than it otherwise might have, and remained a major part of the culture.
 
Secondly, the ban only affected the major labels. Guess who was on the minor labels, the ones that could keep making music and putting it out? That's right, those blues and hillbilly musicians, and those boogie piano players. The same ones whose songs had just spent a year being the only ones the famous bands could play, and now after being given that free publicity by the famous bands, they had no competition from them.
 
Third -- and this is a real negative effect of the strike, one which is an immense historical tragedy for music lovers -- there was a new form of jazz being invented in New York between 1942 and 1944 by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, people who played in the big bands but were also doing something new in their side gigs. That form later became known as be-bop, or just bop, and is some of the most important music of the twentieth century, but we have no recordings of its birth
 
And fourth -- the strike didn't affect singers. So Tommy Dorsey's band couldn't record anything, but Dorsey's old vocalist, Frank Sinatra, could, backed by a vocal group instead of instrumentalists. And so could lots of other singers.
 
The end result of all this was that, at the end of 1944, swing was effectively dead, as was the tradition of instrumentalists being the stars in American music. From that time on, the stars would stop being trombone players like Glenn Miller or clarinetists like Benny Goodman -- or piano players like Pete Johnson. Instead they were singers, like Frank Sinatra -- and like Joe Turner. The swing musicians either went into bebop, and thus more or less vanish from this story (though their own story is always worth following up), or they went into playing the new forms of music that had sprung up, in particular one form which was inspired by swing bands like Lionel Hampton's and Count Basie's, but also by the boogie music that had influenced them, and by the blues. That form was called rhythm and blues, and Joe Turner became one of its biggest stars.
 
Seventeen years after "Roll 'Em Pete", Joe Turner recorded another song, which became his most well-known contribution to popular music. That song was written by the songwriter Jesse Stone -- though he was using the name "Charles Calhoun", because he was a member of ASCAP under his real name, and this was a BMI song if ever there was one -- but you can hear that there's a very, very clear line to "Roll 'Em Pete". The main difference here is that the backbeat is now stressed, almost to the point of parody, because "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is a rock and roll song.
 
We'll be hearing more about Jesse Stone in a few songs' time, but for now we'll just talk about this song. That's Connie Kay, the drummer from the Modern Jazz Quartet, you can hear there doing that "whap, whap" snare drum playing. It's safe to say that's not the subtlest piece of drumming he ever did, but it may well be the most influential.
 
"Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is definitely the *same kind of thing* as "Roll 'Em Pete", isn't it? The piano playing is similar, Turner's blues shouting is the same kind of thing, the vocal melody is similar, both are structured around twelve-bar blueses, and both songs are made up largely of floating lyrics. But "Shake Rattle and Roll" is rock and roll, and it was covered by both Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, the two biggest white rock and roll singers of the time, and Turner would perform it on shows promoted by Alan Freed, the man who claimed to have coined the term "rock and roll".
 
So what makes the difference? Well, firstly that backbeat from Connie Kay, that gives it a much bigger forward momentum. But there's a few other things as well -- influences from other genres that fed into rock and roll.
 
There's the obvious one, of the saxophone. That's from rhythm and blues, and it's something that rhythm and blues got from swing. Remember Ilinois Jacquet's solo on "Flying Home" from last episode? That's a very clear progenitor for this.
 
But there's also the influence of another type of song -- one most people who talk about the origins of rock and roll don't even think of as being a separate type of music, as it just gets rolled up into "blues".
 
The hokum song is a type of music with a long history, which can trace its origins through vaudeville back to minstrel songs. It was originally for comedy performances more than anything else, but later a whole subgenre of them started being just songs about sex. Some of the more euphemistic of them are songs like "Fishing Pole Blues", which has lines like "want to go fishing in my fishing hole/If you want to fish with me you'd better have a great big pole", or songs called things like "Banana in my Fruit Basket", I Want a Hot-Dog in my Roll", "It's Tight Like That" and "Warm My Weiner".
 
There were less euphemistic songs, too, called things like "Bull Dyke Blues", but I won't look at those in any more detail here as I don't want this podcast to get put in an "adults only" section. Suffice to say, there was plenty of very, very obscene music as well as the comedy songs and the more euphemistic material.
 
And the other thing about hokum songs is that they stuck to a fairly straightforward formula. There weren't the complicated structures of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the time, there was a simple pattern of a verse which had different lyrics every time and a chorus which was always the same, and the two would alternate. The chorus would usually be a twelve-bar blues, and more often than not so would the verse, though sometimes it would be an eight-bar blues instead.
 
And this is the pattern that you would get in rock and roll songs throughout the fifties. It's the pattern of "Tutti Frutti", of "Maybelline", of "Rock Around the Clock", and of "Shake Rattle and Roll". And "Shake Rattle and Roll", while it's not the dirtiest song in history or anything, is certainly fairly blatant about its subject matter.
 
(Hilariously, Bill Haley's cover version is famously "cleaned up" -- they took out lines like "the way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through" and "I believe to my soul you're the devil in nylon hose" in case they were too dirty. But they left in "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea-food store"...)
 
So that's what rock and roll was, in its early stages -- a blues shouter, singing over a boogie-inspired piano part, with a backbeat on the snare drum, a structure and lyrics patterned after the hokum song, and horns coming out of swing music. And there is a very, very clear line to that from "Roll 'Em Pete", and the boogie-woogie revival of 1938, and the "Spirituals to Swing" concerts.
 
But wait... isn't the cliche that rock and roll comes from R&B mixed with country music? Where's all the country music in this?
 
Well, that cliche is slightly wrong. Rock doesn't have much influence from the country music, but it has a lot of influence from Western music. And for that, we'll have to wait until next episode.
 
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Episode 1: Flying Home

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Photo of Charlie Christian

Welcome to the first episode proper of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs! As this is the first real episode, you may notice a couple of flaws in the production -- those will hopefully get ironed out in the coming weeks. In the meantime, sit back and listen to the story of "Flying Home" by the Benny Goodman Sextet!

Resources

As always, I've put together a Mixcloud mix of all the songs talked about in this episode, which you can stream here. That mix has "Rhapsody in Blue" by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, "Memories of You" by Louis Armstrong, "Sing Sing Sing" by Benny Goodman, "Flying Home" by Benny Goodman, and "Flying Home" by Lionel Hampton.

For all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum, which goes into these subjects in far more detail than I can.

Lionel Hampton's autobiography is out of print, but you can find second hand copies very cheap.

This is the MP3 compilation I mention of many different versions of "Flying Home", and it has the Benny Goodman Sextet version on it as you'd hope. However, it doesn't have the classic Lionel Hampton version -- you can find that on the four-CD box set The Lionel Hampton Story, which is definitely worth getting.

There are various issues of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall show -- here's a decent one.

 

Transcript

We have to start somewhere, of course, and there's no demarcation line for what is and isn't rock and roll, so we're starting well before rock and roll itself, in 1939.
 
We're starting, in fact, with swing.
 
Swing was a form of music that had its roots in 1920s jazz. It's hard to remember now, but when Dixieland jazz was first popularised, in the early 1920s, the reaction to it from "polite society" was essentially the same as to every other black musical form -- it was going to be the end of the world, it was evil "jungle music", it was causing our children to engage in acts of lewdness and intoxication, it was inciting violence... it was, in short, everything that was later said about rock and roll, about hip-hop, and... you get the idea. This might sound ridiculous to modern ears, as we don't normally think of the cornet, the trombone, and the banjo as the most lascivious of instruments, but back in the 1920s this kind of music was considered seriously arousing.
 
And so, as with all of the moral panics around black music, some white people made the music more appetising for other white people, by taking the rough edges off, cleaning it up, and putting it into a suit. In this case, this was done by the aptly-named Paul Whiteman.
 
Whiteman was a violin player and conductor, and he became known as "the king of jazz" for being the bandleader of an all-white band of musicians. Where most jazz bands consisted of eight to ten musicians, all improvising based on head arrangements and interacting with each other, Whiteman's band was thirty-five musicians, playing from pre-written charts. It was polite, clean, and massively popular.
 
Whiteman's band wasn't bad, by any means -- at various times he had musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti playing for him -- and as you can hear in this performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" they could play some quite exciting jazz. But they were playing something fundamentally different -- something tamer, more arranged, and with the individual players subsumed into the unit.
 
Whiteman still called the music he made jazz, but when other people started playing with similarly big bands, the music became known as "swing". And so from Whiteman, we move to Goodman.
 
Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing", was the leader of the most popular of the pre-war swing bands, as well as being an excellent clarinet player. His band hired arranger Fletcher Henderson (a black musician who led his own excellent band, and who had provided arrangements for Whiteman) to provide their arrangements, and managed to create music that had a lot of the excitement of less-formalised jazz. It was still highly arranged, but it allowed for soloists to show off slightly more than many of the other bands of the time.
 
This is partly because Goodman himself was a soloist. While Whiteman was a bandleader first and foremost -- someone whose talent was in organising a group of other people, a manager rather than a musician (though he was a perfectly serviceable player) -- Goodman was a serious player, someone who would later premiere pieces by Bartók; Poulenc, Aaron Copland and others, and who had, before becoming a band leader, been one of the most in-demand players on small group jazz sessions. Goodman's band was still a big band, but it allowed the soloists far more freedom than many of his competitors did -- and many of Goodman's band members became well known enough individually to go off and form their own big bands.
 
And because Goodman's band had a lot of great soloists in, as well as the thirty-plus-person big band he ran, he also had a number of smaller groups which were made up of musicians from the big band. These would play sets during the same shows as the big band, allowing the best soloists to show off while also giving most of the band a rest. Their performances would be proper jazz, rather than swing -- they would be three, or four, or six musicians, improvising together the way the old Dixieland players had.
 
And importantly, Goodman was one of the first band leaders to lead an integrated band during the segregation era. His small groups started with a trio of Goodman himself (white and Jewish) on clarinet, white drummer Gene Krupa, and black pianist Teddy Wilson. 
 
This integration, like the recruitment of Fletcher Henderson for the arrangements, was the idea of John Hammond, Goodman's brother-in-law. Hammond was an immensely privileged and wealthy man -- his mother was a Vanderbilt, and his uncle on his father's side was the US Ambassador to Spain -- who had decided to use his immense wealth in the service of two goals. The first of those was racial integration, and the second of them was to promote what would now be called "roots" or Americana music -- pre-bop jazz, folk, blues, and gospel. Hammond is someone we'll be hearing a lot more of as this story continues, but at this point he was a DJ, music journalist, and record producer, who used his wealth to get records made and aired that otherwise wouldn't have been made. 
 
Goodman certainly believed in racial equality, by all accounts, but it was Hammond who introduced him to Fletcher Henderson, and Hammond who persuaded him to include black musicians in his band.
 
Goodman wasn't the first white bandleader in America to hire black musicians -- there had been three in the 1920s -- but when he hired Teddy Wilson, no-one had led an integrated group for seven years, and Goodman was hiring him at a time when Goodman was arguably the most popular musician in the USA.
 
And this was a far more radical thing than it seems in retrospect, because Goodman was pushing in two radically different directions -- on the one hand, he was one of the first people to push for mainstream acceptance of jazz music in the classical music world, which would suggest trying to be as conservative as possible, but on the other he was pushing for integration of musicians. Lionel Hampton later quoted him as saying "we need both the black keys and the white keys to play music", which is the sort of facile comparison well-meaning white liberals make now, in 2018, so Goodman saying it eighty years ago is a genuinely progressive statement for the times.
 
Lionel Hampton was another black musician, who joined the trio and turned it into a quartet, He was a virtuoso vibraphonist who more or less defined how that instrument was incorporated into jazz. He appears to have been the first person to use the vibraphone on a jazz record, on a recording by Louis Armstrong of the song "Memories of You" from 1930. Before that, the vibraphone had only ever been used as a novelty instrument -- it was mostly used for radio intermission signals, playing a couple of chimes.
 
In fact, the vibraphone was so new as an instrument that its name had never been settled -- "vibraphone" was just one of a number of trademarks used by different companies making the instrument. The instrument Hampton played was put out under another brand name -- Vibraharp -- and that was what he called it for the rest of his life.
 
Hampton had trained as a drummer before becoming a vibraphone player, and was often billed as "the fastest drummer in the world", but he had a unique melodic sensibility which allowed him to become the premiere soloist on this new instrument. Indeed, to this day Hampton is probably the most respected musician ever to play the vibes.
 
By 1938 Goodman actually reached the point where he was able to bring an integrated band, featuring Count Basie, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton, plus other black musicians along with white musicians such as Goodman and Krupa, on to the stage of Carnegie Hall, at the time the US' most prestigious music venue. Like many of Goodman's biggest moments, this was the work of Hammond, who after the success of Goodman's show put together a series of other concerts at Carnegie, the "Spirituals to Swing" concerts, which are some of the most important concerts ever in bringing black American music to a white audience. We'll almost certainly talk about those in the future.
 
But getting back to the Goodman show, that Carnegie Hall concert is still one of the greatest live jazz albums ever recorded, and shows that it was entirely possible to create truly exciting music using the swing band template. One particularly impressive performance was the twelve-minute long version of "Sing Sing Sing". Obviously we won't hear that in full here, but here's a brief excerpt of that staggering performance.
 
You can hear the full performance, along with all the other songs excerpted in this podcast, at the Mixcloud page linked in the blog post associated with this podcast).
 
For US cultural context, it would be another nine years before Jackie Robinson was able to break the colour bar in baseball, to give some idea of how extraordinary this actually was. In fact Lionel Hampton would often later claim that it was Goodman hiring him and Wilson (and, later, other black musicians) that paved the way for Robinson's more well-known achievement.
 
The original Benny Goodman Quartet were an extraordinary set of musicians, but by 1939 both Wilson and Krupa had departed for other bands. There would be reunions over the years, but the classic lineup of the quartet had stopped performing together.  Various other pianists (notably Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson) sat in with the Goodman small groups, but he also realised the need to make up for the loss of two such exceptional musicians by incorporating more, and so the Benny Goodman Sextets were formed.
 
Those sextets featured a rotating lineup of musicians, sometimes including the great jazz trumpeter Cootie Williams, but revolved around three soloists -- Goodman himself on clarinet, Hampton on vibraphone, and a new musician, the guitarist Charlie Christian -- a musician who would only have a very short career, but who would come to be better known than any of them.
 
Christian is sometimes erroneously called the first electric guitarist, or the first person to play electric guitar on record, or even the inventor of the electric guitar. He was none of those things, but he was a pioneer in the instrument, and the first person to really bring it to prominence as a solo instrument. The electric guitar allowed a fundamentally different style of guitar playing -- before, the guitar had only really worked either as a solo instrument, as accompaniment for a single vocalist, or at best as a barely-audible rhythm instrument drowned out by the louder pianos and horns of jazz bands. Now the guitar could play single melody lines as loudly as any trumpet or saxophone, and could be used as a solo instrument in an ensemble in the same way as those instruments. This changed the whole approach to the guitar in popular music.
 
While Goodman claimed responsibility for the head arrangements the small groups used, a lot of people think that Christian was responsible for these, too, and certainly the sextet's music has a much more exhilirating feel than the early quartet or trio work.
 
The first song the new Goodman Quintet recorded, on October 2 1939 -- exactly seventy-nine years ago on the date this podcast comes out, if its release goes to plan -- was a pieve called "Flying Home".
 
"Flying Home" is a great example of the early work of the sextet, and quickly became in many ways their signature song. The story of its writing is that the band were on a plane from LA to Atlantic City -- the first time many of the band members had flown at all -- and Hampton started humming the riff to himself. Goodman asked "what's that you're singing", and Hampton said "I don't know, we can call it 'Flying Home' I guess".
 
Goodman and Hampton were credited as the writers, although John Hammond later claimed that he'd heard Christian improvising the riff before it was picked up by the other two men.
 
Before we start looking at the record, I want to address one problem you find with out-of-copyright jazz recordings, and that's that if you're trying to get hold of, or talk about, the right version of a track. Many of the musicians involved recorded multiple versions of songs, those tracks get released on multiple compilations, and tracks get released under different names. For example I have one compilation album -- one which says it's just sixteen different versions of "Flying Home" -- which has the Benny Goodman Sextet recording of the track *and* a "Charlie Christian" recording. Except, of course, the Charlie Christian recording is exactly the same one as the Benny Goodman one, although on that compilation it's taken from a different source as there are different amounts of tape hiss...
 
So it may be that at some point here I identify a recording wrongly -- particularly one of the many, many, Lionel Hampton recordings of the song. I am not pretending to be authoritative here, and I may get things wrong, though I'm trying as best I can to get them right.
 
But what I do know is what the Benny Goodman Sextet version of this song sounded like, and we can hear that now.
 
It's hard to emphasise just how strange this record must have sounded then, nearly eighty years ago, when you consider that electronic amplification was a new thing, that only one electric guitar had ever been recorded before the Sextet sessions, and that the record contained two separate electronically amplified instruments -- Christian's guitar and Hampton's vibraphone. 
 
Other than the vibraphone and clarinet, though, this small group was almost the prototypical rock band -- piano, electric guitar, double bass and drums would be the hallmark instruments of the genre a full twenty years after this record -- and the record seems to anticipate many aspects of the rock genre in many details, especially when Charlie Christian starts his soloing -- his playing now sounds fairly tame, but at the time it was astonishingly advanced both in technique (he was a huge influence on bop, which wouldn't come along for many more years) and in just the sound of it -- no-one else was making music that was amplified in that way, with that timbre.
 
The song, in this version, starts with a simple stride piano intro played by Fletcher Henderson, with Artie Bernstein on the bass and Nick Fatool on the drums. This intro is basically just setting out the harmonic structure, of the verses before the introduction of the main riff. It does a common thing where you have the chords at the top end stay as close to being the same as they can while you have a descending bass -- and the bass includes a few notes that aren't in the same key that the melody is in when it comes in, setting up a little bit of harmonic tension.
 
Once it does come in, the riff sounds *really odd*. This is a vibraphone, a clarinet, and an electric guitar, all playing the same riff in unison. That's a sound that had never been recorded before
 
We then have a very straightforward swing-style clarinet solo by Goodman. I like Goodman's clarinet style a great deal -- he is, in fact, one of the musicians who shaped my sense of melodic structure -- but there's nothing particularly notable about this solo, which could be on any record from about 1925 through about 1945. After another run through of the riff, we get Charlie Christian's solo, which is where things get interesting.
 
Punctuated by bursts from the clarinet and vibraphone, this longer solo (which includes a whole section that effectively acts as a middle eight for the song) is unlike pretty much anything ever played on guitar in the studio before. Christian's short bursts of single-note guitar line are, to all intents and purposes, rockabilly -- it's the same kind of guitar playing we'll hear from Scotty Moore sixteen years later. It doesn't sound like anything revolutionary now, but remember, up to this point the guitar had essentially only been a rhythm instrument in jazz, with a very small handful of exceptions like Django Reinhardt. You simply couldn't play single-note lead lines on the guitar and have it heard over saxes or trumpets until the advent of electification.
 
After Christian's solo, we have one from Lionel Hampton. This solo is just a typical example of Hampton's playing -- he was a stunning jazz vibraphone player, and at the time was on top of his game -- but it's not as astonishing as the one from Christian.
 
And then at the end, we get a whole new riff coming in. This kind of riff had been common in Goodman's work before -- you can hear something similar in his hit version of "King Porter Stomp", for example -- but it would become the hallmark of the jump band style a few years later. This call and response, repetitive riffing, would be the sound that would dominate dance music in the next decades.
 
The song would go on to have a long life after this recording. A couple of years later, Lionel Hampton left Goodman's band to form his own big band, and "Flyin' Home" became their signature song. That band would be one of the first bands to perform a new type of music -- "jump band" music -- which was rooted in swing but had more emphasis on riffs and amplified instruments. That jump band music is the same music that later became known as rhythm and blues, and musicians such as Louis Jordan were clearly inspired by Hampton's band. We'll be looking in future episodes of this podcast at the way in which jump bands became one of the biggest influences on rock and roll.
 
Hampton recorded the song multiple times, starting in 1940, but the most famous example is the version he recorded in 1942 for Decca (with "instrumental foxtrot" on the label. That version features Ilinois Jacquet on saxophone, and like the Benny Goodman version, it would introduce a whole new sound to people.
 
This time, it's Jacquet's tenor sax playing, which has a honk and skronk to it that was unlike anything people had heard before. There are predecessors to it of course -- as I said earlier, there's no "earliest example" of anything in music -- but this saxophone solo became the one that defined a whole new genre, a genre called rhythm and blues. Jacquet's solo was so exceptional that when he left the band, every tenor sax player who replaced him would copy his solo note-for-note rather than improvising their own versions as would usually be the case. 
 
There's another person involved in that recording of "Flying Home" who probably needs mentioning here -- Milt Gabler, the producer. Like John Hammond, he's someone we'll be hearing a lot more about in future episodes.
 
Hampton himself remained a respected and popular musician for many more decades. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the big bands lost a lot of their popularity, and Hampton started playing yet another style of music -- he became one of the greats of bebop music, and played in small groups much like the Goodman ones, just playing more harmonically and melodically complex variations of what he had played earlier. But he was also recognised by the rock musicians as a pioneer -- you can see him in the 1957 Alan Freed film "Mr. Rock and Roll", playing his vibraphone as the only jazz musician in a film which otherwise features Little Richard, Clyde McPhatter, and other rock and R&B stars of the time.
 
Charlie Christian, on the other hand, never even lived to see the influence he had. Even though he was one of the most influential musicians on both jazz and rock music -- Chuck Berry later said that Christian was one of the biggest influences on his guitar playing (though he wrongly said that Christian played with Tommy Dorsey's band, a rival to Goodman's) while Christian was responsible for the name "bebop" being given to the form of music he helped create in jam sessions after his regular work -- he was already suffering from tuberculosis in 1939, when "Flying Home" was recorded. And on March the second, 1941, aged only twenty-five, Charlie Christian died. He was buried in an unmarked grave, which was later concreted over. A memorial was placed for him fifty-three years later, but it was later discovered to be in the wrong place.
 
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Episode 0: Introduction

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Welcome to A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs! Episode 1, the first episode proper, is coming next week, but for now here's an introduction, laying out my plans for the series. As I say in the tag at the end of every episode, please, if you like this episode, tell someone about it -- word of mouth is important, especially with these early episodes.
 
Resources Mentioned in the Podcast
My book, California Dreaming: The LA Pop Music Scene and the 60s, available here.
 
Transcript
Rock and roll as a cultural force is, it is safe to say, dead.
 
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and nor does it mean that good rock and roll music isn't being made any more. Rather, rock, like jazz, has become a niche musical interest. It's a large niche, and it will be so long as there are people around who grew up in the last half of the last century, but the cultural influence it once had has declined precipitously in the last decade or so. These days, various flavours of hip-hop, electronic dance music, manufactured pop, and half a dozen genres that a middle-aged man like myself couldn't even name are having the cultural and commercial impact that in previous decades was mostly made by guitar bands.
 
And this means that for the first time, it's possible to assess rock music (or rock and roll -- the two terms are not quite interchangeable, but this is not the place for a discussion of the terminology, which will come later) in a historical context. In fact this may be the best time for it, when it's still interesting to a wide audience, and still fresh in the memory, but it's not still an ongoing story that will necessarily change. Almost all of the original generation of rock and roll musicians are now dead (the only prominent exceptions at the moment being Jerry Lee Lewis, Don Everly, and Little Richard, although numerous lesser-known musicians from the time are still working occasionally), but their legacy is still having an impact.
 
So in this podcast series I will look at the history of rock and roll music, starting with a few pre-rock songs that clearly influenced the burgeoning rock and roll genre, and ending up in 1999 -- it makes sense to cut the story off there, in multiple ways. I'll talk about the musicians, and about the music. About how the musicians influenced each other, and about the cultural forces that shaped them. In early episodes, you'll hear me talk about the impact the Communist Party, a series of strikes, and a future governor of Texas would all have on rock and roll's prehistory. But more importantly you'll hear me talk about the songs and the singers, the instrumentalists and the record producers.
 
I shall be using a somewhat expansive definition of rock or rock and roll here, including genres like soul and disco, because those genres grew up alongside rock, were prominent at the same time as it, and both influenced and were influenced by the rock music of the time. I'm sure we'll look, when the time comes, at the way the words "rock and roll" were slowly redefined, from originally meaning a form of music made almost entirely by black people to later pretty much explicitly excluding all black musicians from their definition.
 
But the most important thing I'll be doing is looking at the history of rock in terms of the music. I'll be looking at the records, and at the songs. How they were made and by whom.
 
I've chosen five hundred songs in total, roughly a hundred per decade from the fifties through the nineties. Some of these songs are obvious choices, which have been written about many times before, but which need to be dealt with in any history of rock music. Others are more obscure tracks which nonetheless point to interesting things about how the music world was developing at the time they were recorded. I say "I've chosen", but this is going to be a project that takes nearly ten years, and no doubt my list will change. I'll be interested to see what suggestions listeners have, once I get them.
 
Each podcast will be accompanied by a blog post, with a transcript of the episode (actually the script from which I'm working -- I won't be transcribing any of my mistakes) and links to sources, along with any notes -- for example, I've already noticed a mistake in episode two which I'll put in that episode's notes. I'll also be compiling an accompanying mixcloud post for each podcast. Those mixclouds will have the full versions of every song I excerpt in these podcasts, and I encourage you to listen to them.
 
The podcasts are planned to be about twenty-five minutes on average, with the occasional shorter one, like this, as a bit of housecleaning.
 
I'll also, every two years, be publishing a book based on these scripts, which will eventually become a five-volume work.
 
Anyone who backs me on patreon, at patreon.com/andrewhickey -- that's a n d r e w h i c k e y -- will get free access to those books, as well as backing my blog and my other podcast.
 
Those of you who have read my earlier work California Dreaming: The LA Pop Music Scene and the 60s will be familiar with this narrative technique I'm using here, and this series is in many ways an expansion of that book's approach, but it's important to note that the two works aren't looking at precisely the same thing -- that book was dealing with a particular scene, and with people who all knew each other, in a limited geographic and temporal space. Here, on the other hand, the threads we'll be following are more cultural than social -- there isn't a direct connection between Little Richard and Talking Heads, for example, but hopefully over the course of this series we will find a narrative thread that still connects them.
 
Obviously, just as there's no definitive end to the time when rock had cultural prominence, there's no definitive beginning either. The quest for a "first rock and roll record" is a futile one -- rock and roll didn't spring fully formed into existence in Sam Phillips' studio in 1951 (when he recorded "Rocket 88") or 1954 (when he recorded "That's All Right") -- music evolved, and so we'll look at R&B and country, at Merseybeat and punk, and try to find the throughlines. But to start with, we want to take a trip back to the swing era...