THE FIRST ROCK AND ROLL RECORD
by Comandante Chispas
Somebody once asked Louis Armstrong what jazz was. His response: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”
Ditto rock and roll. Of course to determine the first rock and roll record implies knowing what rock and roll is. We won´t attempt to define it here; however, we can tell you what it is by showing what it is not.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, one song is worth a thousand pictures. In this case, the song is Elvis Presley´s “Heartbreak Hotel” on his fifth appearance on the Dorsey Brothers TV show in 1956. You will notice at the end of the song the Dorsey Brothers orchestra attempted to join in. They were all excellent musicians; equally true, they utterly failed.
You want another example? In 1969, Frank Sinatra recorded “Mrs. Robinson.” Brother … If his rendition doesn´t have the most die hard Sinatra fan cringing in regret, nothing will.
I personally don´t think there was any first rock and roll record. The music grew organically out of many trends, notably boogie woogie, gospel and rhythm and blues. However, in any debate about who and what came first, you will find the following two records mentioned.
#1. “Rocket 88” (1951). Jackie Brenston was the singer/composer. He drank himself into an early grave.
Despite what the label shows, the band belonged to the teenaged Ike Turner, later husband of Tina. Besides heading the Kings of Rhythm, Ike played the piano. If his introduction sounds familiar, it is because the same notes are played on Little Richard´s “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Ike was paid $20 for his effort.
The recording was made by the legendary Sam Phillips, later owner of Sun Records and discoverer of Elvis Presley. Phillips sold “Rocket 88” to Chess Records where it was a hit among Black audiences.
#2. Also 1951, Billy Ward and His Dominoes recorded “60 Minute Man.” The words rock and roll had been knocking around for years; however, this was the first popular recording where the words are unmistakable. Despite the bawdy lyrics, Billy Ward was a Broadway vocal coach who had studied at Julliard -- a “tough disciplinarian. You´d better believe it! You paid a fine if you stepped out of line,” according to the great Jackie Wilson who later joined the Dominoes.
As for the sexually-charged origin of rock and roll, the first song Elvis chose for a national TV audience was “Flip, Flop and Fly.” The song was originally recorded a year earlier by Big Joe Turner, who not without cause has been called “the grandfather of rock and roll.” Well, here is what granddad was singing in 1947: Riding Blues. Pete Johnson is on the piano; I have been unable to identify the terrific bomb-dropping drummer. (The 78 record, #345 on the old RPM label, is extremely rare.)
The two songs mentioned above plus Joe Turner´s recordings were part of the underground -- a parallel universe -- to mainstream America. Here is the list of the number one songs of 1951: Patti Page, Perry Como, Tony Bennett … ´nuff´ said.
In 1990, I chowed down on stone crabs with legendary record producer Jerry Wexler at his home on Siesta Key, Florida. Jerry was present at the beginning of rock and roll. We got into a discussion about "Sixty Minute Man" and the underground “race records” as they were called in the post World War II epoch.
I asked him, “What is the underground music today?”
Jerry looked at the floor. “There isn´t any.”
Maybe, that´s what is wrong.