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 4: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie


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"


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.


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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