The First Rock and Roll Song

Let’s have a debate. There is no definitive answer as to the first recorded Rock and Roll song, because it depends on where one draws the line between Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll. It is also impossible to know how long prior to the first recorded Rock and Roll song something was happening in some club or juke joint that we might define as Rock and Roll, but never made it to record. However, a minimum date can be set.

The reason we can have a minimum date is because my contention is that the electric guitar must feature as a prominent instrument for the song to be defined as Rock and Roll. This eliminates Boogie Woogie and Stride piano music that goes back to the early 20s. An argument could be made that if you added electric guitar, drums and bass to Boogie Woogie you would have Rock and Roll, but, there was no electric guitar, so, ergo, no Rock and Roll. Deal with it.

Count Basie and other Kansas City bands were playing a swing jazz that had all of the elements of Rock and Roll, probably by the late 20s. The beat was there, but the music was piano and horn based and far more musically complex than Rock and Roll. One of the primary characteristics of early Rock and Roll is that it could be played by relatively unsophisticated and untrained musicians.

Check out the bass figures the Count is playing here, in Count Basie’s Boogie Woogie. Slow this down, or speed it up and add a vocalist and you have Rock and Roll. But as recorded, it’s not.

Count Basie Boogie Woogie – Count Basie 1937

Or this candidate from Big Bill Broonzy in 1938 – Truckin Little Woman

The Rock and Roll beat certainly existed in the rural blues, as well, but without electric guitars, bass and drums this music remains defined as Blues. OK, so where is the line between Blues, and Rock and Roll? Mississippi Fred MacDowell famously claimed “I do not play no Rock and Roll” and then proceeded to play some of the rockingest Blues around. So, the difference is in the ear of the beholder.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell declares he don’t play no Rock and Roll

For example, here is Charlie Patton in 1929 with all of the elements of Rock and Roll, but it’s not Rock and Roll, it’s Blues. But any Rock and Roll musician could easily turn it into a Rock and Roll song.

Going to Move to Alabama – Charlie Patton 1929

So, to qualify for first Rock and Roll song, we have two criteria:

  1. Simpler than jazz.
  2. Features electric guitars, bass and drums.

The consensus is that 1951’s Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston, is the first Rock and Roll song, but I disagree strongly . Rocket 88 is piano and horn based, even if it does have a distorted guitar on it. Ike Turner, who played the guitar, says it’s Rhythm and Blues and not Rock and Roll. Besides, my candidate comes from 1946, five years earlier. Listen, and you decide.

Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston 1951

There are Swing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues candidates for earliest Rock and Roll song that are better than Rocket 88. In December 1947, Wynonie Harris sang Good Rocking Tonight. Substitute the piano and horns and you have a definite Rock and Roll song. It even has the word “Rocking” in it.

Good Rocking Tonight – Wynonie Harris 1947

Another Swing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues song that is a Rock and Roll song with the wrong instrumentation, is We’re Gonna Rock by Wild Bill Moore. It even contains the lyrics “We’re gonna rock, We’re gonna roll.” But it’s still piano and horn based Swing Jazz.

We Gonna Rock – Wild Bill Moore 1947

That can also be said for the rockin’ Swing Jazz of Louis Jordan. In fact, 1949’s Saturday Night Fish Fry even had audible and slightly overdriven guitar, but it’s there for accent and not the primary instrument.

Saturday Night Fish Fry – Louis Jordan 1949

So, let’s go to my candidate: Fanfare please.

The Rock and Roll is strong in this one. It actually became a Rock and Roll hit 8 years after the original 1946 recording. Elvis made a hit of it in 1954, and it is still considered part of the Rock and Roll standard repertoire.

The evidence:

  1. The first recorded version is straight electric guitar, bass and drums.
  2. It has the boom, chick, boom rock beat.
  3. It has an electric guitar solo and a relatively untrained guitarist can play it.
  4. It’s full of hooks and easy to follow. It’s Rock and Roll.

Here it is: That’s Alright Mama by Big Arthur Crudup 1946

And the Elvis version 1954

In fact, I would suggest that the 1946 Crudup version rocks better than the 1954 Elvis version which lopes along more like a Country Western song.

So, there it is. Positively and definitively, the first Rock and Roll song. Of course, I am always willing to entertain alternative candidates, so feel free to post them and state your case.

Next, we’ll debate when Rock and Roll lost the Roll and turned to Rock music.