In July 2004, America celebrated the “fiftieth anniverary of rock ‘n’ roll,” for it was fifty years earlier, on July 5, 1954, that Elvis Presley recorded his first record, “That’s All Right” for Sun Records. I was inspired to feature songs, styles and artists to support my theory that Elvis did not create rock ‘n’ roll, that rock ‘n’ roll was not “born” in the 1950s and that Alan Freed did not coin the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll”. None of this is meant to downplay the importance of Alan Freed, Elvis, or any of his musical contemporaries but to simply put it all into proper perspective.
Unfortunately, most of the world’s population will forever place rock’s beginnings in the 1950s, which simply goes to show that whenever something is said often enough it sadly becomes “fact”. Even Rolling Stone magazine devoted an issue to the “50 moments that changed the history of rock ‘n’ roll”. It beginnings with Elvis, with the headline in big black letters: “Truck Driver Invents Rock”. I used to have respect for ‘Rolling Stone’ but this – not to mention the fact that they put a near-topless Britney Spears and a naked Christina Aguilera on its covers a few years ago – changed all of that. And when RCA released Elvis’ #1 hits on CD a couple of years back, the TV promotion for the disc began with a voiceover stating “before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything”. Fortunately, I read an article in the July 4, 2004 edition of ‘USA Today’ in which the writer stated that rock dates back to the ’30s. I go back about forty years earlier, but I’m proud that at least it acknowledged some of the pioneers who emerged before Elvis. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this essay, you will acknowledge them, too.
We’re going to start this series by examing the phrase itself: “rock and roll”. The phrase “rock and roll” actually had several meanings. What follows are the individual meanings and the songs that capture those meanings:
- “Rock and roll” was black slang for sex. This is the most popular meaning. The best early example of this is the 1922 recording by Trixie Smith (no relation to Bessie, Clara or the other Smiths who recorded during this period) entitled “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”. The song was recorded for the first black-owned record label, Black Swan. Features Fletcher Henderson on piano.
- “Rock and roll” was a spiritual phrase. Around 1910, a group calling themselves simply Male Quartette recorded a cylinder for Little Wonder entitled “The Camp Meeting Jubilee”. One passage goes this way: “Rockin’ and rollin’ in your arms… Rockin’ and rollin’ in your arms… Rockin’ and rollin’ in your arms… in the arms of Moses”.
- “Rock and roll” was a nautical term used by seamen to describe the motions of a ship. This meaning is best exemplified in a 1934 recording by pop vocal group The Boswell Sisters. The song, simply titled “Rock And Roll,” was recorded for Columbia Records on October 4, 1934 – long before The Velvet Underground or Led Zeppelin recorded songs of the same name. “Rock And Roll” as by The Boswell Sisters was featured in the film ‘Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round’ and, although I’ve never seen it, I hear it’s horrible.
- “Rock and roll” – here’s where it gets interesting – was used to describe musical rhythm. The first record to use the phrase “rock and roll” to describe musical rhythm was “Rock It For Me” by Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band, recorded for Brunswick Records on September 21, 1937. Miss Fitzgerald sings: “It’s true that once upon a time, the opera was the thing… But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme, so won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll… You can’t be tame while the band is playing… It ain’t no shame to keep your body swaying… Beat it out in the minor key… Oh, rock it for me.” Louis Jordan, a future pioneer in his own right, was a member of this band but was absent the day “Rock It For Me” was recorded.
All of this proves that Alan Freed did not coin the phrase “rock and roll” nor was he the first to use it to describe musical rhythm; he was simply the most influential of those who had. More to come.