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(Credit: Luana De Marco)

Music

Is this the first ever rock 'n' roll recording?

@SamWKemp

Tracing the history of rock ‘n’ roll is no easy task. Think of the genre as an iceberg. The music that defined popular taste in the 1950s was merely the tip of that iceberg. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like were working within an inherited form of music that had been maturing, slowly but surely, since the start of the 1900s.

That means that many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll records were either written before recording technology became ubiquitous or were recorded on shatter-prone shellac and simply haven’t survived.

The knock-on effect of all this is that when we say the “first” rock ‘n’ roll record what we often mean is the earliest surviving rock ‘n’ roll record; those are two very different things. Nevertheless, it’s generally agreed that the earliest incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll is ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which was recorded in 1951 at Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee, where Elvis would later make his name.

Previously, the term “rock ‘n’ roll” wasn’t used in the same way that it is now. It was most likely either a dance or a sexual euphemism among African-Americans in the early 20th century. However, one thing we can be sure of is that the term was definitely not coined by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, contrary to popular belief. We know that because the term appears in Trixie Smith’s 1922 song ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll)’ and was already a popular expression when the recording was made.

On release, ‘Rocket 88’ was hailed for its up-to-the-minute appeal. Many noted how Brenston had managed to blend elements of blues and R&B, electrify them and then transform them into something entirely new. For many, the record symbolised a new kind of musical expression, one that would undoubtedly prove popular with the youth of the day. But, according to Brenston himself, the song wasn’t original at all. The group had simply taken a 1949 blues tune by Jimmy Liggins called ‘Cadillac Boogie’ and sped it up a bit.

But even that recording is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. According to blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, the 1929 boogie-woogie track ‘Crazy About My Baby’ by Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother contains all of the elements of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll two decades earlier than ‘Cadillac Boogie’.

It should, therefore, be considered the first rock ‘n’ roll recording. The single is in the “blues in B flat” format that defined the output of ’50s rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Similarly, ‘Crazy About My Baby’ differs from blues because it was clearly meant to be danced to.

So, ‘what differentiates it from boogie-woogie?’ I hear you ask. Well, unlike boogie-woogie greats like Fats Domino, Graves and co. put the guitar front and centre, a spot traditionally reserved for the piano. Combine that with high-speed guitar riffs and danceable backbeat, and you’ve got yourself the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll tune.