Behind The Beat: This, We Agree, Was The First-Ever Recorded Rock And Roll Song

John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker

What was the first recorded rock and roll song?

Before we can answer that question, we have to go back and figure out the ingredients of rock and roll. We can identify three most important ingredients: gospel, jump and blues.

1. Blues For Raw Emotion And The Dominant Guitar

Let’s start with the blues element, represented here by John Lee Hooker’s 1948 “Boogie Chillen”:

It’s the primal sound, the African sound, with guitar driving the rhythm. It’s the guitar riff that launched a million songs. Without Hooker, you don’t have ZZ Top.

2. Gospel For Uplift And Abandon

The next ingredient is gospel music, music from the black church. Listen to the Golden Gate Quartet from 1938:

3. Jump/Swing For Rhythm And Rebellion

Out of the types of music we’ve heard so far, this sound most like early rock and roll. In fact, some people say the first rock and roll song is Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” from 1949.

This music is also really danceable. It has a great sense of fun in it. And in these lyrics, we hear that spirit of debauchery that’s so essential to rock and roll.

And The First-Ever Rock And Roll Song Is (Drumroll, Please)

There’s still one very important ingredient in rock and roll: a distorted guitar. And that’s why we agree that Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” from 1951 should be considered the first rock and roll song.

It was one of the first songs to use a distorted guitar, and it happened by accident. The guitar amp was damaged on the way to the studio. And when they plugged it in, it made a sound that nobody had ever heard before — distortion. You might call it a buzzy, fuzzy sound.

Distortion is a sound, but it also implies a sense of being out of control. Rock and roll is not safe. And if it is safe, it’s not rock and roll.

What do you consider to be the first recorded rock and roll song? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

1 thought on “Behind The Beat: This, We Agree, Was The First-Ever Recorded Rock And Roll Song


    Though commercially successful singles like Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock
    Around The Clock” (1954), Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1955) and
    Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956) were among the songs that popularized
    the genre and made it a household word, they didn’t invent it.

    To find the birth cry of rock ‘n’ roll, we have to go a little further back.

    And if we define rock ‘n’ roll as the collision of blues, country and
    Tin Pan Alley pop, with a manic spirit and, as Chuck Berry put it, a
    backbeat you can’t lose, then the following are all leading contenders
    for the song that changed popular music forever.

    1. “That’s All Right, Mama” – Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (1946)

    In 1940, Arthur Crudup was reportedly living in a packing crate near
    an L train station in Chicago, playing songs on the street for tips.
    Things got better for him as the decade went on, and he landed a
    recording contract that led to a career as a well-known blues singer and
    songwriter. In 1946, Crudup recorded his song “That’s All Right, Mama.”
    Though it wasn’t a hit at the time, it stands as a convincing
    front-runner for rock ‘n’ roll’s ground zero. With a tight combo of
    guitar, upright bass and drums bashing out accompaniment behind Crudup’s
    raw, powerful voice, it sounds a decade ahead of its time. There’s even
    a wild guitar solo, prefaced by Crudup shouting, “Yeah, man.” Very rock
    ‘n’ roll. And the last thirty seconds of the record pick up steam with
    the kind of unhinged energy that would become an essential element of
    all great rock records.

    Eight years later, a 19-year old Elvis Presley did a cover record of
    it for his first single. Soon, Crudup was being called “the Father of
    Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

    2. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – Wynonie Harris (1948)

    Well, I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight. . .” With an
    opening line that could double as a rallying call for rock ‘n’ roll,
    this song was written and recorded in 1947 by R & B artist Roy
    Brown. Brown had originally offered the tune to raspy-voiced singer
    Wynonie “Mr. Blues” Harris, but Harris turned it down. After Brown had a
    hit with it, Harris reconsidered, cutting a version that upped the
    ante. Bouncing boogie woogie piano, honking tenor sax, drums and
    handclaps accenting the backbeat, and Harris shouting “Hoy, hoy, hoy!” –
    it all adds up to a raucous glimpse into the future.

    Again, a young Elvis Presley was listening. In 1954, he released his
    version of the song. He was also watching. Harris’s stage moves included
    pelvic jabs, lip curls and evangelical wavings of his arms and hands.
    All would become part of Elvis’s stage persona.

    3. “Rock This Joint” – Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians (1949)

    This record has the prerequisite driving beat, boogie bass line and
    blues-based melody, but what really sets it apart is the party
    atmosphere. The whole tune is punctuated by screams, shouts and yelps
    that conjure up young couples dancing and spinning in a smoky nightclub
    “until the law come knockin’ at the door.” Preston was a sax-playing
    band leader who cut some minor hits in the ‘40s, then ditched music in
    the early ‘50s for the church. In the chorus of this song (“We’re gonna
    rock, we’re gonna rock”), you can clearly hear the inspiration for Bill
    Haley’s recording of “Rock Around The Clock” (written by Max Freedman
    and James Myers). In fact, it had been The Comets’ beefed-up arrangement
    of “Rock This Joint” in 1952 that convinced Haley to move away from his
    western swing sound towards rock ‘n’ roll.

    4. “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five (1949)

    I’ve written about Jordan for mental_floss
    before, as I believe he’s one of the most important – and overlooked –
    figures in modern popular music. Two of his favorite subjects for songs
    were eating and partying. This huge hit from 1949 (it was one of the
    first “race” records to cross over to the national charts) combined
    both, with a lively jump rhythm, call-and response chorus and
    double-string electric guitar riffs that Chuck Berry would later admit
    to copping. Milt Gabler, who produced many of Jordan’s best records,
    also went on to work with Bill Haley and The Comets. “All the tricks I
    used with Louis Jordan, I used with Bill Haley,” he said.

    5. “Rocket 88” – Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951)

    In 1951, while driving to Memphis for a recording session, Ike Turner
    and The Kings of Rhythm wrote this song about the fastest car on the
    road – the Hydra Matic Drive V-8 Oldsmobile 88, nicknamed the Rocket 88.
    In the studio, the band cut the song with sax player Jackie Brenston
    singing lead. The record’s main innovation? The guitarist’s amplifier
    had a torn speaker, and producer Sam Phillips (who a few years later,
    would discover Elvis) jerry-rigged it, stuffing some packing paper in
    the speaker cone. The unexpected result was a fuzzy sound that defined
    the song’s raw vibe, and became a blueprint for the guitar tone of
    everyone from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones. Though Ike Turner
    claimed he wrote the song, it was credited to Jackie Brenston. It went
    to #1 on the R & B charts and gave Brenston a brief moment of
    stardom. Oldsmobile presented him with a brand new Rocket 88 in

    March 23, 2012 – 9:01am

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