The Origin of Rock and Roll

Rock and Roll, Rock n’ Roll, or just plain Rock wasn’t really new when it started to gain popularity in the early 50s. The basics of the beat had been around for years, known as Rhythm and Blues. Boogie Woogie, a form of Rhythm an Blues that was popular in the late 30s and early 40s is considered Rock’s closest relative.

Technically, Rock and Roll and Boogie Woogie are nearly the same. Both are 8 to the bar, 12-bar blues, but Rock has a greater emphasis on the back beat than Boogie Woogie. Add a drummer’s snare to the backbeat of a Boogie Woogie record from the 30s or ’40s, and it becomes Rock and Roll.

Rocking was a term commonly used in black spirituals of the American South with a religious meaning similar to rapture (ex Rock my Soul). Over time, it picked up a slang meaning similar to dancing, but hinting of sex. At first, its use was confined mostly to Rhythm and Blues. This was a mostly black audience and, at the time, was called Race music.

In the segregated times of the 1920s and 30s, it was rare for a black performer to be accepted by a white audience. The same Race music though, was accepted when it was played by whites and was accepted as an African American flavor of Jazz.

Then in the early 50s, a Cleveland disk jockey named Alan Freed began playing this type of music on the radio and built a strong multi-racial audience. He is generally regarded as the one responsible for popularizing the term Rock and Roll and went on to organize rock and roll shows attended by both whites and blacks, further helping to introduce African-American musical styles to a wider audience.

Freed didn’t invent the name, but he’s credited with popularizing it. There are numerous examples of the term being used in songs going back to the 20s. In 1922, Trixie Smith had a song titled “My Man Rocks Me with One Steady Roll”. In 1948, both Wild Bill Moore and Paul Bascomb recorded different songs titled “Rock And Roll”. In 1949, Erline Harris recorded “Rock And Roll Blues”.

Since Rock was really an evolutionary step, the first Rock and Roll song is open to interpretation. Some of Fats Domino’s songs from the 40s are very close, for example “The Oakie Bookie”, and recordings made by Big Band leader Benny Goodman with electric guitarist Charlie Christian are noted.

Rolling Stone magazine’ opinion from a 2005 article names Elvis Presley’s first single for Sun Records, “That’s All Right (Mama)” (1954), as the first. Other musicologists favor Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (1951), “Honey Hush” by Big Joe Turner (1953), or “Sh-Boom” by The Chords (1954).