A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

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


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"


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.



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"
There was "Rock the Joint" by Jimmy Preston
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 2: Roll ‘Em Pete


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.


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.



"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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