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The term "rock and roll" was originally a nautical term which has been used by sailors for centuries. It refers to the rock (fore and aft motion) and roll (sideways motion) of a ship. The expression can be found in English literature going back to the 1600's, always referring to boats and ships.*

The term entered black spiritual music in the 1800's, but with a religious meaning, and was first recorded as such on a phonograph in 1916, in a minstrel recording of black gospel on the Little Wonder record label called "The Camp Meeting Jubilee." Scroll to record # 339 on that link and you will hear:

We've been rockin' an' rolling in your arms,

Rockin' and rolling in your arms,

Rockin' and rolling in your arms,

In the arms of Moses.

Before 1947, the only people who talked much about "rocking" were black gospel singers. They were singing, "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham," and "Rock me Jesus," and "Rock me in the cradle of Thy love," and "Rock me Lord," and "Rock Daniel," and "I Call Jesus My Rock" etc., going back to the late 19th century. "Rocking" was a term used by African Americans for the rapture they experienced at certain religious events, and the term also referred to the powerful rhythm found in the music that accompanied that religious experience. For example, this recording from 1928 or this 1934 recording. Pay attention to the 1934 recording, and you will hear him say "I'm going to rock, you gonna rock...I sit there and rock, I sit there and rock, yeah yeah yeah." You should listen to that recording all the way through. It is evident from that recording (and others) that "rocking" was a part of religious experience in black culture of the time, where the ecstatic congregant was overwhelmed by the rhythm of the music and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time, black secular musicians were using the term for either dancing or sex, or both, as in:

"Rock It In Rhythm" Tampa Red 1938

"Rock Me Daddy" Georgia White 1937

"Rockin' In Rhythm" Duke Ellington 1928

"Rock Me In The Groove" Sweet Georgia Brown 1941

"Detroit Rocks" Montana Taylor 1929

"Rock MeMama" Banjo Ikey Robinson 1929

"Rock It For Me" Chick Webb w. Ella Fitzgerald 1938

"Rock That Thing" Lil Johnson 1929

"The Boogie Rocks" Albert Ammons 1944

"Rockin, Rollin Mama" Buddy Jones 1939 (C & W, white artist)

"Rocking & Rolling" Robinson's Knights Of Rest 1930

"Rock, Aunt Dinah, Rock" Coot Grant 1925

"Rock Me Mama" Big Joe Turner 1941

"Rockin' And Swingin'" Don Albert 1936

"I Want To Rock" Cab Calloway 1942

Then, in 1947, Roy Brown did a blues called "Good Rocking Tonight" that was a parody of gospel, where instead of rocking the Lord, he had church people like Deacon Jones and Elder Brown rocking in a secular manner. "Good Rocking Tonight" was the first time the gospel meaning of rocking (of souls) and the secular meaning (dance, sex) were fused together in the same song. The joke was taken from Louis Jordan's "Deacon Jones" of 1943, in which a Deacon was stealing money from the collection plate, getting drunk on the sacramental wine, and having sex with all the female congregants. Brown took the Deacon one step further and had him rocking. Even the opening line, "Have You Heard The News," is a parody of gospel, since the word "gospel" literally means "good news," which Roy Brown would have known because he grew up in church, where preachers are always talking about whether you have heard the news (about Jesus).

The record sold, but Brown's version did not have much of a beat. Even though Brown used both meanings of "rocking" in the lyrics of the song, musically a chasm existed between gospel music and blues music.

Along comes Wynonie Harris. He covered Browns record, also in 1947, but it was to become, based on what followed it, one of the most important recordings in music history. He caught Brown's joke, about these church people "rocking," but to add to the parody he changed the rhythm to an uptempo gospel beat, thereby fusing gospel and blues in a spectacular manner. Rhythm and blues. The difference between Wynonie Harris' version and Brown's is the gospel rhythm on the 2nd and 4th beat of the 4/4 measure, as you hear in Wynonie's hand-clapping. He can be seen as an innovator of a new music, Rhythm and Blues, which was a key element in a music that would sweep the nation and the world, Rock n Roll.

When Wynonie Harris' version of Good Rocking Tonight was cut in December of 1947 and hit the charts in 1948, it started a revolution in the black music community, although Harris wasn't the first to sing blues with a gospel beat, as others like Big Joe Turner had already done, however it was Harris' record that started the fad in the late 40's. The terms rocking, and rock n roll, had begun being used in association with Rhythm and Blues.

A great advance in American civil liberties, as well as a revolution in music, took place as a result of the introduction of a genre officially titled "rock and roll" in 1951. The introducer was Alan Freed, a disc jockey in Cleveland, who used the term to undermine the segregation of popular music into black and white. African-American popular music of the day was known as rhythm and blues, and while it was managing to find its way in to pockets of white audiences at salt and pepper clubs as they were called, it was considered taboo to play R&B on white radio stations. Johnny Cash said it aptly: "There were a lot of white people listening to 'race music' behind closed doors."

The radio stations and the record industry maintained that there would be white performers for white audiences. The only way a song composed and performed by blacks could reach a wider audience was for it to be remade by a white group.

Freed was able to get around the prohibition against African-American music on his radio station by coining a name that was new and therefore all-encompassing. He wouldn't fight to play the forbidden rhythm and blues; instead, he would treat his audiences to what he called rock and roll.

Many DJ's followed suit, such as Waxie Maxie in DC, Hunter Hancock in LA, and Porky Chedwick in Pittsburgh. By 1953 the new term was becoming widely used.

1954 was the year that these crossover tunes like "Sh-Boom" by the Chord Cats, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Big Joe Turner, "Earth Angel" by the Penguins, "Gee" by the Crows, (recorded in 1953), "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, and some of the first Doo Wop tunes crossed over. This is also the year Elvis Presley recorded his first record, That's Alright Mama,a blues tune (not an R&B). However Elvis infused strong hillbilly country roots music, his own R&B influences, as well as his strong gospel influences into the song. The genre fusion some have described as an entirely new music that was also called Rock n Roll. In fact this is why Rolling Stone magazine described Elvis's recording of That's Alright Mama as the 1st Rock and Roll song. Some scholars claim that his genre fusion (which along with the crossover R&B, was also called Rock n Roll) was the music that started the the massive and global music revolution. In fact although some white artists had already recorded in the "R&B" genre, which had been renamed Rock n Roll to crossover to white audience, it is Elvis's music, with a very distinct genre fusion, that countless Rock n Roll artists such as Lennon, Dylan, Mick Jagger and so many more claim was their catalyst for getting into music. Many top music scholars call this genre fusion an entirely different Rock n Roll, and of course it was.

In the early 50s rock and roll was becoming more characterized by mellow love ballads by teen-aged vocal groups with bird names like The Crows, Ravens, Orioles, Cardinals, etc. Usually the flip sides of these records were the uptempo dance numbers, which were called the rockers. In various parts of the USA, people were adding their local flavors to it. In the northern cities, the Italianand Puerto Rican communities were playing rock and roll their way. On the West Coast, Chicanos were playing it in Spanish. In the south, country singers were adding rock and roll (or R&B, remember rock and roll was a new name given to R&B to try to bridge the racial divide) to their hillbilly country music, and rockabilly was born. Rockabilly is considered a form of Rock n Roll. It is worth noting that Elvis Presley played Rockabilly well before his 1st recording in 1954, and is considered a pioneer of the genre. He had been titled the Hillbilly Cat in parts of the South.

Cajuns in Louisiana were adding rock and roll (R&B) to their music, and zydeco was born. All this happened in the early to mid-50's, and it all became lumped together into the great melting pot called rock and roll.

But the truth is, the genre given the name rock and roll was originally just another name for rhythm and blues, which started in the late 40's with artists of the Hoy Hoy era, 1947-1953. Also note that when it was renamed in 1951 and was sung by white artists like Bill Haley, the original black sound was not celebrated, but rather removed to make it acceptable in a racially divided country.Also note that when rhythm and blues started merging with country music in the gradual formation of Rockabilly in the late 40 and early 50s..a very different Rock n Roll music was evolving. Also, one can't forget that the leading historians and scholars define Elvis's genre mix as a new music entirely, a revolutionary music because it was essentially an equal fusion of hillbilly country and R&B, and it honored and maintained the black sound unlike all other white artists. He fused authentic R&B (not a whited-washed version) and hillbilly country, and his huge gospel influence (known to be his number one musical influence) so that his music was a triple whammy...three genres equally represented and fully honored and celebrated. He clearly inspired virtually every rock n roll artists to follow, according to all of them! So we must consider that all these origins, and essentially different shapes of Rock n Roll are valid, and important to our cultural heritage.

That's why we are here. To tell the whole story.

Many books when describing the "roots" of rock and roll, fail to express the importance of the merging of white country and R&B (which had happened only partially prior to Elvis Presley, who is known to authentically have "married them" equally, which is why his first recording of That's Alright Mama would not be aired on radio stations. White deejays said it was black music...and they would be [quote]"run out of town", and black deejays stated it was white country music. Elvis merged the genres so that it created a captivating equal blend. It has been said that he legitimized both authentic R&B, not the crossover diluted version named Rock n Roll, as well as hillbilly country music, by honoring their authentic sounds, and by merging them truly equally. It is the reason Buddy Holly said: "None of us would have made it without Elvis". And why Little Richard said "a messiah comes around every few thousand years, and Elvis was it this time." Also "Sam Phillips greatest accomplishment was to get Elvis's records played on the radio." --Scott Prosterman, Berkeley

Many Rock n Roll books focus primarily on the R&B which is ridiculous and counterproductive. And they often start with the blues of the 1930's or earlier, artists like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, and make references to Chicago blues artists like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, and then jump right up to 1954, completely skipping over the sax-based R&B period of 1948 to 1953. There are several reasons for the skip:

1. On the radio in the late 40's, R&B was taboo, although there were some pioneering DJ's who broke the rules and played it anyway. The first R&B to be heard on the radio in NYC, for example, was in the later part of 1952, and even then it was only heard after midnight. Some large cities had R&B programs before this, but in general, there was almost no R&B on the radio in the early days. Without radio, the only place that R&B was widely known was in black neighborhoods before 1952, but by then, the music had changed around and R&B was mostly changing over to the doo wop vocal groups, popular among teenagers, which means the earlier-style R&B never became widely known. Elvis Presley can be credited for breaking the R&B taboo when he honored the black sound in his music (equally with hillbilly country--the first white artist not to remove all traces of the black sound to appeal to white audiences). In fact it has been said that he waged war on segregated stations. And won! Presley should truly be credited for his maintaining of a black sound when he sang songs with black roots (in fact precisely 1/6 of his #1 hit songs were songs derived of black roots origin). He was genuinely honoring and celebrating the black sound in that music. He was entirely capable of singing in a solely white genre/style [as did Bill Haley and other white artists] as evidenced in his many country and pop recordings.

2. By the time R&B was becoming heard on radio stations, the 78 RPM format had just recently been replaced by the new 45 RPM records. Radio stations had just bought all new records and dumped out the old ones, since the 78's were heavy and cumbersome, and broke easily. By 1951 and 1952, the only demo records being shipped to radio DJ's were the new 45's. Unfortunately, all the early R&B had been recorded on the old 78's, so when R&B started being played on the radio, these 78's were already in the dumpster. Later on, when "golden oldies" were being played, that meant old 45's, since the 78's had long since been discarded. So, these Hoy Hoy era 78's were never played much on the radio.

In addition, there is the story of the juke box. In 1950 and 1951, most of the juke boxes in wealthier neighborhoods were being upgraded to play the 45's, while most R&B records were still being issued mainly on 78. The 45 RPM format was introduced in 1949 on RCA Victor, and other labels converted in the early 50's, but many labels continued to produce 78's as late as 1959, especially for the R&B market. This is because most black people did not have the disposable income to go out and buy new record players that played 45's, and juke box operators typically didn't convert the juke boxes in black neighborhoods right away either. (This story is also true for hillbilly or "country" music, since country music fans were also typically poor). Thus, Hoy Hoy era R&B was caught in the trap of being among the last records issues on a doomed format, and most of this music was lost to the newer world of the 45 RPM listener. Another note on Elvis Presley: on the 1 out of 6 songs he sang with black origins (R&B and Blues) he always fused it with hillbilly country and gospel creating his own unique genre/sound. On the rare occasion he sang in a straight black genre he was considered excellent by black artists. Just as he is said to have legitimized black music by honoring a black sound when he sang black roots music, while combining it with hillbilly country, when he sang in a pure black genre it was an even more powerful statement to white America.

As B.B. King stated: "And he loved the Blues. It was a pity he didn't do more." Still he did do some, and being the #1 cultural icon in America and the world, this only helped the plight for black artists. Elvis is also known for mentioning and talking about black artists, and expressing his love for black music at every opportunity.

3. When rock and roll swept the globe in the mid 1950s, and even more so with the British invasion of the early 60's, it became a guitar-based music, and these guitarists naturally looked towards other guitarists as the pioneers of the music. Thus, Eric Clapton would listen to B. B. King records, Keith Richards would listen to Muddy Waters, etc. and espouse these artists as their inspiration. And let's face it, the giants of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley first, and Chuck Berry a distant second, both held guitars (Berry an excellent guitarist, and Elvis was described as "a fabulous rhythm guitarist" by Johnny Cash who often watched Elvis perform in his early career. He stated that he hated it when Billy and Scottie came in and "covered him up".

Record companies became interested in reissuing the older stuff, so long as it had a guitarist in the lead. But rock and roll before 1954 was saxophone-based, with very little guitar at all. Since the sax was virtually dropped from rock and roll after about 1956, most of the early stars remained forgotten. This is also true about the piano, which was probably the instrument that early rock and roll (R&B) was first played on. Elvis Presley continued to play the piano in much of his music, in all genres.

4. In the mid-50's, when rock and roll had swept the globe, each major record company had a few megastars they were trying to sell. RCA had Elvis of course, Decca had Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, Capitol had Gene Vincent, etc. Thus, for example, even though RCA Victor was sitting on a gold mine of R&B recordings by artists including Piano Red, Big Boy Crudup, Mr. Sad Head, the Du Droppers, Big Maceo, etc., the money was in the stars of the day such as Elvis. In fact it is hard to fathom the enormity of his fame. Elvis has graced the stamp of over 51 countries around the world, more so than any individual in the history of the world. So massive was his appeal. And this was without the benefit of massive advertising campaigns, or the internet.

In the mid-50's, Rock and roll was the rage, and while R&B music was much more embraced in mainstream white America, white teenagers likely saw the early R&B artists of the late 40s and early 50s as being old-fashioned blues singers whose records weren't worth listening to. The only popular R&B artist from the late 40's who also made it big in mainstream rock and roll in the mid-50's was Fats Domino (a man Elvis constantly made reference to, always to the surprise of interviewers--remember these were times of segregation), his first hit recorded in 1949; Little Richard had records as early as 1951 but they were unsuccessful, until his recording of Tutti Frutti in 1956. Chuck Berry was a popular local performer in East St. Louis during the Hoy Hoy era but he never recorded before 1955 when he became famous with Maybelline. Ike Turner was also a successful R&B artist during the Hoy Hoy era, with hit records going back to 1951, but his mid-50's records were always promoted to the R&B (black) audience, so his music was never classified in the "crossover R&B to white" music (named Rock n Roll)

5. By 1954 or 1955, just after Elvis's first recording, his music was definitively called Rock n Roll, in fact he was later given the title "the King" of Rock n Roll.

"'He's the new rage! He sings hillbilly in R&B time. Can you figure that out? And he's causing a great commotion wherever he goes, with girls screaming and fainting and chasing after him throughout the South." said a Louisiana reporter in 1954

Those that had jumped on the Rock n Roll band wagon got notoriety while most that had not seemed to get left behind. Besides, R&B records had been geared towards adults, with adult lyrics, and the kids just weren't ready for fact the crossover R&B (given the name Rockn Roll) almost always had the lyrics rewritten by white record producers. Little Richard's Tutti Frutti lyrics ""Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy" was replaced with Tutti Frutti, all rooty." (all rooty was hipster for "all right")

The few black artists who had their records promoted as rock and roll records, rather than R&B records, enjoyed the greatest success by far. These artists were Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the vocal groups. The black artists whose records were promoted as R&B did not sell much to white in fact the original plan of record producers and deejays renaming (and often rewriting) the music so it appealed to whites panned out as planned. For example, Ike Turner is not mentioned alongside Little Richard or Chuck Berry or even in Rock n roll books, even though they were singing the same music, simply because his music had been promoted as R&B, not Rock n Roll.

In the end it is one big crazy ride. Ultimately Elvis was titled The King, and one should never ignore his unique genre blend that literally shook up the world. It was probably the best thing that ever happened. If only the divide that he bridged could be a reality in the world we live in.

A famous Elvis quote:

"No Sweets, No Elvis" (Elvis telling the Houston Asterdome people to shove it when they said he could not perform his concert there with black backup singers)

More famous Elvis quotes:

"Elvis is the great that ever was, is, or ever will be." -Chuck Berry

"Elvis is God-given. There is no other explanation."-Little Richard

"Elvis and I are the only true American originals." -James Brown

"I don't respect nobody but Elvis Presley." -Muhammad Ali

"Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis." Lennon

""Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution - the 60's comes from it." -Leonard Bernstein, NY Philharmonic

"Elvis was a great man. He did more for civil rights than people know. To call him a racist is an insult to us all." --the great Ernest Withers, Hall of Fame inductee, renowned for recording the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movements through Photography.

"If any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one....His music was the most liberating event of our era ... it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.

-Greil Marcus From his book, Mystery Train, 1975.


* In 1934 the Boswell Sisters made a record called, "Rock And Roll," which refers to the nautical usage of the term. This was a tin pan alley song about ships and the sea by a pop singing group.

** There was a recording ban for all of 1948, so many of the records that were released at the beginning of 1949 were actually recorded secretly in 1948. One of these 1948 recordings released in Jan of '49 was Brown's "Rocking At Midnight," which was his answer to Harris' cover of his "Good Rocking Tonight." Note how Brown changed the tempo by adding the gospel hand-clapping, as Harris had done.

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