CA contributor Gilbert Klein is back with another article in The Music In Me series. This one is well worth the lengthy read - Editor
This one is going to be a stretch for both of us, but you trust me, right? What? What have you heard? Whatever. You’ve got time for this, I hope.
Yes, I know of late I’ve posted essays about olden times. I promise my next post will take us to modern times, to Burning Man, in fact. But for this one I’m going to ask you to take a leap of faith with me from the practical, historical and logical to the archaically possible. Today I want to go where experts play, and open up a new category.
I don’t know which bars or tour buses you’ve been hanging out in, but I know people who vigorously debate which was the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Specialists may debate the first rock song or the first rock record; I want to discuss the first rock moment, the very first time that rock music reared its pointy little head. Among debaters, there seem to be six principal contestants for the honor of first rock record, and I’ll put links to all of them at the end of the post. My premise is rooted in a very simple point: if it rocks, it’s rock. It’s a visceral thing, yeah, and you know it when you feel it, but when did it happen for the first time?
My pal Johnny thinks it was “That’s All right, Mama,” by Elvis, and he makes a good point: if a black guy plays R & B, it’s R & B; if a white guy plays it, it’s rock. He asks: is it the singer or the song? I’ll put that link down there, too, because he’s sort of right.
- “That’s All Right, Mama” - Arthur Big Boy Crudup (1946)
- “Good Rockin’ Tonight” - Wynonie Harris (1948)
- “Rock This Joint” – Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians (1949)
- “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five (1949)
- “Rocket 88”- Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951)
- Johnny's Pick: “That’s Alright (Mama)” - Elvis Presley (1954)
Today, most people call it Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.” What? To dispel any confusion, Jackie Brentson played sax in Ike Turner’s band and wrote and sang the song, but it was Turner’s band and he later claimed credit for it. Let’s say it’s more about the song than the credit. As we’ll see, it’s also about the timing.
Written, recorded and released in 1951, “Rocket 88” moves along at a rockin’, boppin’ clip, and what it is also known for is the “fuzzy” sound of the guitar. Good story: You know about Sam Phillips and his Sun Studios in Memphis. Brenston wrote the song in the car on the way to Sun, and when they got there they found the cone of the guitar amp was damaged. Phillips stuffed it with paper, creating a buzzing sound, which was so unique and appealing that it helped make the song an immediate hit, going to the top of the R&B charts. But remember that this music was known as “Race Music” and no mainstream (read: white) radio stations would play that “jungle music.” This meant that no white kids were hearing what was going on in the R&B world, and it would take a teenaged truck driver for an electric supply store named Elvis to let the mainstream culture know what was going on, and leaving further discussion on the subject irrelevant.
But even Ike Turner, never known for an excess of modesty, said:
...Anyway, we recorded "Rocket 88" and you know that's why they say "Rocket 88" was the first rock 'n' roll song (well, they use the language "It's been said about 'Rocket 88'"), but the truth of the matter is, I don't think that "Rocket 88" is rock 'n' roll. I think that "Rocket 88" is R&B, but I think "Rocket 88" is the*cause*of rock and roll existing*... Sam Phillips got Dewey Phillips to play "Rocket 88" on his program*– and this is like the first black record to be played on a white radio station*– and, man, all the white kids broke out to the record shops to buy it. So that's when Sam Phillips got the idea, "Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine", which is the truth. So, that's when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B and so this is the reason I think rock and roll exists*– not that "Rocket 88" was the first one, but that was what caused the first one.
So was rock music about the music or the artist? That’s a famous and important quote from Sam Phillips, but I never knew it was about this record. And history would prove him right, except that this isn’t about the record, it’s about the moment, and we’re still talking about the 1950’s. Early ‘50’s, yes, but still the ‘50’s, and we haven’t taken the leap yet. A couple of records mentioned in this discussion date from the late 1940’s, so obviously something was brewing back then, and those songs were all in 4/4 and sort of rock, and have some of the elements of rock. They were all brewing in that 3-4 year period, but I’m thinking about the first time rock ‘n’ roll was played, and for that we have to take a big jump backwards. And when it happened, it only happened for a moment. Stay with me and we’ll find that moment, and remember: it’s a visceral thing, and if it swings, it’s swing; if it rocks, it’s rock.
Still coming out of the Great Depression, swing music was dance music, the music of escape. It was mainly music for teens, and for them, it was rebellion. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw were the rock stars of the day, and like rock music would be twenty years hence, swing music was denounced as a threat to right-thinking, church-going people. You know- Good Americans! By the mid- 1930’s, the Depression was showing the first signs of retreat, and kids wanted to dance.
Benny Goodman had the most popular swing band in America, and Gene Krupa was Goodman’s star drummer. Krupa played Slingerland drums, and Slingerland called Krupa the “King of Swing” until media writers moved that name to Goodman himself, and I’d say Goodman deserved it for some of his innovations. Most people no longer know the names Chick Webb or Fletcher Henderson, but they were giants of their day, the leaders of the biggest, swingin’-est bands in America. Of course, being of the black persuasion, their music was known only in hip pockets outside of Harlem, as the recordings, radio gigs and the major concert venues were still exclusively played by and patronized by white folk. Blacks enjoyed their “jump” music in rural jukes and small clubs in the poor side of town.
As an aside (love the aside…), Benny Goodman was the first major bandleader to integrate his bands, both the big one and his famous quartet, and say hello to Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson! And say hey to Charlie Christian, the first electric guitarist to play in a big band! Yeah, brother Goodman knew a few things.
In 1934, he got a weekly radio gig and needed to get new material for every show, and at John Hammond’s suggestion—and boy, should you look up John Hammond!—Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson to write some of his charts, which he promptly did by copying the charts from his own band. Goodman also hired Henderson’s players to teach his guys how to play them. And that, my friends, is in large measure why Benny Goodman swung so hard- he hired a bunch of black musicians and added a touch of R&B to his swing! These guys knew the rhythms of the juke joints and barrelhouse clubs they came from before joining the larger bands, and Goodman wanted a taste of it. Right on, King of Swing!
Here we quote no less an authority on our subject than Bob Dylan, who said: “I think of Rock ‘n’ Roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues and modern pop.” Thanks for making my point, Bob.
Moving on: By the mid 1950’s, I was about to enter my teenage years, and the dance we all did at the time was called “The Lindy.” I think we’d have been appalled to learn that it was named after that antiquated anti-Semitic fogey, aviator Charles Lindberg. That was the only “fast dance” we did until all hell broke loose in 1960 with “The Twist,” which was followed every few weeks by yet other dance craze like the Frug, the Swim, the Hully Gully and others mercifully lost to time (does anyone remember “the Freddy,” or am I the oldest man on the West Coast?) Yeah, it was crazy, but the Lindy hadn’t changed since our parents had danced “the Lindy Hop” in their teen years. Back then I would have been embarrassed to know that, but a lot of swing had the same beat as a lot of rock, so the dance was the same. But what was different? Ah, here we get to the metaphysical nature of music. What makes it rock? It’s the attitude. Rock is a sensibility, visceral, a sound with a mission, and the mission is to make you move, to take you out of yourself. And it has to be a little bad. Bad as in what makes your parents nervous. That was good.
Like rock, swing was rebellion. I’m guessing the parents of 1930’s Bobby-Soxers were discomfited in the same way that my parents were, but back then I don’t think those parents felt threatened by it. Parents in the 1930’s and ‘40’s might have thought their kids were a little goofy, but no one thought their kids were slipping away from them. Rock did that. Rock threatened our parents, and we loved it. We loved the rock, and the threat may have been subtle, might have been marinating sub rosa, but it was there and we loved the threat as, still unknown to all, almost as one, the Baby Boom generation was waiting to rebel. Yes, we know about the coming rebellion now, but parents only shivered in the shadow of what was coming when a dangerously handsome upstart named Elvis burst onto the scene with his lower-class pompadour, his sideburns and his sultry, lip-curling sneer. Parents thought the dude was dangerous, but no one knew what was coming. Certainly ol’ Elvis didn’t know: after one of his first shows, Elvis had no idea why the girls were screaming until his guitarist pointed out that Presley had been so nervous onstage that his left leg was shaking, and that was what set them off. Soon after, singer Roy Orbison was having a middling career until the day he lost his glasses before he went onstage. Nearly blind without them, his manager told him to wear his sunglasses, and for the first time, the crowd exploded with cheers and shouts. His sunglasses made him look like a rebel, and the kids responded. Yes, it was a simpler time…
Ed Sullivan had the biggest show in America on Sunday nights, and when Elvis showed up with his looks and his “Elvis the Pelvis” contortions, they weren’t ready for the angered, conservative backlash that followed. But the ratings were huge, and for his next performance, Sullivan only showed him from the waist up because he didn’t think America was ready for what Elvis was selling. But the kids knew what Elvis was selling and, eager to buy, teens all across America, and then the world, signed on for the rebellion. It was rebellion that sold rock and it was the attitude that led the rebellion.
And it was that attitude that attracted me and almost every other teen, and maybe it had happened, and maybe more than once, in some small club somewhere back in the 1920’s or ‘30’s, but had to wait until the mid- and late 1950’s for the world to catch up. But years before Elvis, it was that attitude that came snarling out of the jukes and clubs and one night jumped onto a major spot-lit stage in a major hall where it rocked the house for the first time, and that night was January 16th, 1938, in a very important and unlikely place.
New York City’s Carnegie Hall was America’s most prestigious classical music venue. Remember that old joke: How do I get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice. So venerable an institution it was that it symbolized the concept of serious, lasting music. Serious music, not that populist caterwauling they called jazz. Even the name was profane to the denizens of Carnegie Hall, America’s last bastion against popular, working-class music. Carnegie Hall was an institution unto itself, it would never sink to allowing this profane music inside its hallowed halls. And then Benny Goodman and his band booked a gig there. Yeah, it may have started as a publicity stunt, and Goodman was doubtful, but it resonated loudly, sold out immediately, generated a lot of anticipation and thereafter became widely known as one of the most important music concerts in American history.
The excitement only grew as the date neared, and, not immune to the growing fervor, Goodman made some interesting decisions. For one, he hired Chick Webb to punch up his charts for the show. Is this a good time to mention that Webb was a hunchbacked dwarf with spinal tuberculosis, he was well over four feet tall, he played so hard that his drums had to be nailed to the floor to keep them from flying out into the crowd, and he was said to have ‘the real swingin’-est band in America.” That’s who Benny Goodman hired to punch up the charts for the show. Then Goodman rented out Carnegie Hall for his band to rehearse in and he put them in black tie and tails for the show; Goodman’s tie was white. Yeah, these guys had been playing these songs 200-300 times a year for years, and they knew them. If all he wanted to do was let them practice some slight changes, he could have done that anywhere. Instead, the hall was so legendary and the show so anticipated, that he wanted his band to be comfortable in the hall, to be used to the stage, the clothes, the hall, and the hall’s “lively” acoustics, so they could give it their all. Goodman even cancelled paying gigs so they could give it their all. And they did. They gave it everything they had. Stand by- we’re getting close to the point.
A keen observer of audience reaction, for every Goodman show the closer was “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Listen to any of the versions he recorded of that song, and you’ll see it just simply swings harder than any of the others. It was the closer, the song you walk away from the show remembering. The song you’d talk about tomorrow. Goodman called it his “killer diller.” It swung the hardest. It was a call to dance; if nothing else had moved you to get out there before this, when you heard those drums you were drawn to the dance floor to let it loose. It was like… animal magnetism. Call it what you will, but it was that kind of song. And you won’t believe who wrote it! It’s too good to tease you with, so… here we go… you’re gonna like this… you wanna know who wrote it, right?...here it is… you’re ready? It was written by Louis Prima, and I’ll put a link to his version of it at the end of the post.
But Goodman made it his own, his signature piece, and the song could go for three or more minutes (this one topped at over twelve minutes), and featured several of Goodman’s star players. For me, the real star of the song was Gene Krupa, whose pounding, propulsive beat gave that extra hard knock to the swing. Now, I’m not sayin’ it was the reefer, but he swung it almost to rock that night, almost to rock… maybe almost touching it, there at the end. In earlier versions, the song not only flirts with rock, it goes out with it and gets to third base, if you know what I mean. And then came Carnegie Hall.
I was going to say that everyone was jazzed for this concert, but everyone hates a pun, so let’s say that everyone—the promoter, the critics, the band, Goodman and the fans—everyone knew this was special, but Goodman was still worried about the show. Who was coming and how would they react to the hall and the new charts? The band started with the popular “Don’t Be That Way” and the reaction was tepid, but once they jumped to the swingin’ “One O’Clock Jump,” Goodman knew it was on. There were teens there! Maybe for the first time in Carnegie Hall. They’d been waiting for this and they responded immediately and resoundingly, and he and the band knew they were on a winning streak and they had but to play it out. And play it out they did. Making a joyful sound, they put it all out, and that band swung mightily that night, and the audience swung with them! You can hear it at the end of the post, but first a little guidance, if you will.
They start the song in full swing mode, and then they kick back. They were the masters of swing, but they were playing with something new that night, and they toyed with it, thrust it forward, withdrew, set up a restful vibe and then exploded the shit out of it! Some heavy swing, some cool jams, a brief calm, and then the storm.
Late in the song, Goodman gave pianist Jess Stacy an unexpected solo and he experimented with a soft, thoughtful improvisation that has been studied and admired ever since, and I give him full props for the jam. But it put the house into a restful mode, and what would come after was as explosive as a social revolution, and when they came back, they came back with a roar! They came back out of the quiet, easy-listening reverie of the past two minutes, and they stormed the house with a blast of raging, syncopated explosions that rang throughout the hall and jack-hammered into the nervous systems of everyone in their seats, shot down to their feet and, unable to control themselves, they jumped into the aisles and danced with abandon. Jump music in Carnegie Hall! Inconceivable!
People stood at their seats, clapping, nodding and bopping and the aisles were crammed with teens in jitterbug heaven, and Gene Krupa propelled it all with power scattershot rat-a-tat blasts with the rasping horns driving behind him and on top of him and Goodman’s clarinet was shrieking and weaving those plaintive high notes into it all and on top of it all and the mix was a coordinated sonic attack- a frenzy that had not been heard before in that hall, nor almost certainly on the planet because the sound that night was too big to come from a smaller stage, a lesser band or a smaller gig; it was so big that no small combo could have reached it, and if it did, no one’s heard about it that I know of. And it lasted less than thirty seconds!
Those fevered few seconds drove the fans into a mindless frenzy, rocked and shocked them and shook them all up and drove them dancing into the aisles and took them somewhere where no one had ever gone before. Benny Goodman and his band were masters of swing, but this was past that. What had started in rural jukes on dirt roads and small clubs uptown, then moved into the bones of middle class working folk had now stormed the gates of the last of the highbrow holdouts, and then Goodman’s band took it somewhere else. It was like that first line of cocaine, an instant, happy jolt, and it sent them somewhere new and it was the first time that rock ‘n’ roll stuck its pointy little head out into the open and it was… it was… Goddam!
No one ever told me that rock had to be in 4/4 time, and I think I know something about music but I wouldn’t want to try to calculate what time that blast was in. And it wouldn’t matter at all because at that moment, friends, that band fucking rocked! And if it rocks, it’s rock! Ipso fucking facto! Benny Goodman had upped his swing and turned it into rock!
Rock ‘n’ Roll, ladies and gentlemen! Rock ‘n’ Roll! Appearing Tonight! For One Night Only!
And it was there, and it was then. And now that it was there, it was here, and it would take only a few more years for everyone to know it. You listen, you decide.
Now, if you want to go back to “what was the first rock ’n’ roll record,” and if you’re with me on all this so far, then I have a surprise for you. The concert was recorded, but not for release, and only two sets of acetates were ever made. One of them was given to Goodman, whose sister-in-law was surprised when, twelve years later, while looking through a closet in Goodman’s home, she found the acetates of the Carnegie Hall show, and they were made into records. I found a quote by Bruce Eder, who called it "the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz's 'coming out' party to the world of 'respectable' music,” and yet no records of it had been made. The acetates of the concert were released as an LP in 1950, so they still beat “Rocket 88” by a year. The LP was not only the first double LP, it was also the first album in America to sell a million units. For the record (sorry…), the acetates were re-mastered and released as CDs in 1998, and they have not been out of print since, making this concert one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Swing on, Benny Goodman!
Here’s what to listen for in versions 1) or 4):
00:00: The song starts out with drums, pure jungle music before the band joins in and settles into a hard swing.
3:45: they stop- you thought it was over, but they start again, first by bringing it down a notch to take you unawares, then they vary the swing, and Harry James kills it on the trumpet and Goodman shows why he’s a star, then:
9:32/5:53: Unexpectedly Goodman throws an unplanned solo to Jess Stacy, who goes into a soft, dream-like reverie. It’s good, it’s highly respected, but it’s dreamy and it doesn’t rock. However, all through Stacy’s languid solo you can hear Krupa in the background pushing, pushing, on the toms, like he’s waiting for this unexpected slow shit to end so he can get back to work. Like an impatient, nervous tic, he starts pushing harder to let the dude know this has to stop, and he keeps pushing on the toms because he knows what’s coming, and it’s his show then. And after two meditative minutes of that, it sounds to me like Krupa had had enough. I mean, this solo wasn’t expected, so it wasn’t rehearsed, and it sounds to me like he just shut that shit down with a big booming bang! on his bass drum, saying, ‘that’s it, brother, that’s enough. Now it’s my turn.’ You ask me, it sounds a little rude. The pressure had been building—you can hear it!—and then, poised and ready, Krupa waits for the applause to die down, then sets up in some shuffle to wake everyone up, then four taps on the cowbell to tell the band they’re awake out there, get ready to go to work, a punch to the crash cymbal and… Boom!
10:48/7:30: It’s coming in thirty seconds! This is where Krupa pushes Stacy to pick up the pace, which he does, but it’s not enough. This is the end of the piano solo and the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, so listen and imagine what it was like to hear it for the first time anywhere on the planet. Like… Boom! Dream time was over! Krupa’s drums exploded and the horns drove, drove, drove on those two notes, with Goodman’s clarinet weaving a plaintive wail over, under and between the horns and the drums drove it all into a controlled chaos and for less than thirty seconds swing jumped to rock and people rushed out of their seats and started dancing in the aisles! In Carnegie Hall! If the song was in 4/4, what the hell was this? 12/4? 16/4? X²/4? I don’t know- I only know it moves something inside me and I call it rock! What about you? When you hear it, what does it do to you? I’ve seen and heard some of the best rock ‘n’ roll in my life, and this is it! And that was it! It was over. That song was the closer, the killer diller: Good night, everyone! Good night! Thanks for coming and drive safely! Good night!
- The whole song:
- First some piano, then those few seconds I made such a big deal about:
- Here’s the full band in a shorter, earlier version not from that night. And yes, that’s Harry James on trumpet: Link
- Not the whole song, but it has footage of that night: Link
In the months that followed, Benny Goodman’s success cost him some of his star players. Gone soon would be Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson. The next King of Swing wasn’t just in the wings, he was already there. Just in from Kansas City and anxious to show the Big Apple what they were up to out there in K.C., some of Count Basie’s band were in the audience that night, and afterward they rushed uptown to the Savoy in Harlem to join their band-mates as they were engaged—for their first New York gig—in a Battle of the Bands with Chick Webb’s band that night. Webb’s unit got the nod, but mostly by locals, so it’s still debated. Chick Webb died the next year. Basie, Ellington and others were on deck. Goodman put another unit together and sort of had a revival, but it was never the same, and anyway change was on the way. But that’s another story.
Okay, We’re done. It’s a lot, I know. I hope you agree with me. But even if not, I hope you think it was a decent ride. I’ll make the next one shorter.
Six contestants for First Rock Record usually are:
- “That’s All Right, Mama” - Arthur Big Boy Crudup (1946) (YouTube Link)
- “Good Rockin’ Tonight” - Wynonie Harris (1948) (YouTube Link)
- “Rock This Joint” – Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians (1949) (YouTube Link)
- “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five (1949) (YouTube Link)
- “Rocket 88”- Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951) (YouTube Link)
- Johnny's Pick: “That’s Alright (Mama)” - Elvis Presley (1954) (YouTube Link)
Louis Prima doing “Sing, Sing, Sing (with a swing)”: (YouTube Link)
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.