A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

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

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A photo of Wynonie Harris

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patreon Admin Note

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

 

Transcript

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

Episode 4: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

Transcript

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

00:0000:00

 Photo of Bob Wills in a cowboy hat

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Clarification

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

Transcript

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

00:0000:00

Big Joe Turner singing, with a bass player behind him

 

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

 

Transcript

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

00:0000:00

Photo of Charlie Christian

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

 

Transcript

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