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Over the years of this blog, I’ve periodically written about the early history of Rock and Roll. You can see my previous entries by searching for “Roots of Rock.” Today’s post gives some insights on where the term “Rock and Roll” came from in the first place.
The earliest uses of the term weren’t related to music. Rather, it described the motion of a ship. Ships logs from the 17th century describe the rocking and rolling of the ship – rocking from fore to aft, and rolling from side to side. In the late 1800s, several comedy songs used the term “Rock and Roll,” but they did not refer to the genre of music that we know today as Rock and Roll. The term also was used in African-American spirituals – again, not as a reference to a style of music, but with a religious connotation.
By the early 20th century, the term began to have a sexual connotation. In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll). Again, no reference here to the musical genre of Rock and Roll. More blues songs followed by artists like Duke Ellington (Rockin’ In Rhythm) and Robinson’s Knights of Rest (Rocking and Rolling), recorded in 1928 and 1930 respectively. In the 30s, there were several songs that used the words “rock and roll” in their lyrics. These songs were jazz and swing songs. Ella Fitzgerald was the vocalist on Rock It For Me, which included the lyric “…Won’t you satisfy my soul, with the rock and roll?” In 1939, a swing dance step became popular, called “The Castle Rock and Roll.”
As a music style, an early use of the word “rock” dated to 1938, when a review in Metronome magazine stated that the Harry James song Lullaby In Rhythm “really rocks.” The following year, a review of songs by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in The Musician stated that the songs “…rock and roll with enthusiasm…” By the 40s, music reviews of blues, jazz and swing songs often referred to “rock and roll.”
Today, the experts debate what the first rock and roll record was. Some say that it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happen Every Day in 1944. Others say it was Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight in 1947. Several songs referred to “rock and roll” in the late 40s, including Rock and Roll by Paul Bascomb in 1947 and another song titled Rock and Roll by Wild Bill Moore in 1948. In 1949, Ernie “Rock and Roll” Harris released Rock and Roll Blues. Probably the most commonly chosen “first rock and roll record” was Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in 1951. It was produced by Sam Phillips, who later started Sun Records and discovered Elvis Presley.
The term was brought into the mainstream thanks to Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed. In 1951, he started to broadcast blues music to multi-racial audiences, and he referred to the music as Rock and Roll. All of the earlier Rhythm & Blues artists were African Americans. By the mid-50s, white artists like Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were covering these R&B songs. And young black artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and Little Richard were producing songs that were embraced by both white and black audiences. Rock and Roll was here to stay!
Rocket 88 was written by Ike Turner. Turner would later team with his wife Tina, and Ike & Tina Turner would become one of the most successful R&B acts of the 60s and early 70s. Here is Ike Turner performing the song with his band the Kings of Rhythm in 2002. Enjoy the flashback!