Styles & Forms | Rock’n’Roll | Pop

Although he did not coin the term ‘rock’n’roll’ – which was an African-American slang term for sex – New York disk jockey Alan Freed did popularize it when he attached it to a teen-oriented form of music that evolved from a fusion of rockabilly, R&B and, to a lesser extent, gospel and boogie-woogie.

In its early forms, rock’n’roll was often so similar to R&B (known as ‘race music’ until Billboard journalist Jerry Wexler provided it with a more appropriate name) in terms of structure and feel that it is not easy to discern which of the categories certain records fell into or even to ascertain what was, in fact, the first true rock’n’roll record.

Jackie Brenston’s 1951 classic, ‘Rocket 88’, which he cut as a member of Ike Turner and The Kings Of Rhythm, is one of the most popular choices in this regard, but there are many, many other contenders, ranging from 1948 recordings such as Wynonie Harris’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ and Wild Bill Moore’s ‘We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll’ to Jimmy Preston’s ‘Rock The Joint’ in 1949 and Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’ in 1950. Waters’ assertion that ‘the blues had a baby and they called it rock’n’roll’ was only part of the story; other musical genres also played a major role in the evolutionary process.

A Hybrid Sound That Would Shake The World

‘Rocket 88’ was produced by the legendary Sam Phillips a year before he formed Sun Records, the small independent label which, along with his tiny Memphis Recording Service studio, soon became synonymous with the birth of rock’n’roll. Having opened up his facility to a number of R&B and blues performers, including Rosco Gordon and Howlin’ Wolf, Phillips then began working with local country acts while searching for a white artist who could bring black music to the masses by conveying the true feel and passion of the blues. As it turned out, that artist was Elvis Presley, who, through a process of trial and error, under guidance from Phillips, and in collaboration with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, utilized his innate talent, steeped in country, gospel and the blues, to contrive a hybrid sound that would shake the world. In 13 months at Sun, from July 1954 to August 1955, Presley released five singles, each of which featured an R&B standard on one side and a souped-up country track on the other. While the latter category helped to define rockabilly, the former held the key to rock’n’roll. When white Southerners heard the first of these R&B cuts, Elvis’s feverish, yearning cover of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’, many of them assumed they were listening to a black singer; by the time of the second, a heavily suggestive version of ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, they knew not only that he was white, but that it was time to lock up their daughters....

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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