A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

Episode 5: Rosetta Tharpe and “This Train”


 Photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe


Welcome to episode five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Sister Rosetta Tharpe and "This Train"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Most of Rosetta Tharpe's music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one, at three CDs for four pounds, is probably the one to get.

Almost all the information about Rosetta Tharpe's life in this episode comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, 

For more on Thomas Dorsey, check out The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts are currently out of print, and the recording quality is poor enough it's really not worth paying the silly money the CDs go for second hand. But if you want to do that, you can find them here.

And Rosetta Tharpe's performance at Wilbraham Road Railway Station can be found on The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966


One of the problems when dealing with the history of rock and roll, as we touched upon the other week in the brief disclaimer episode, is the way it's dominated by men. Indeed, the story of rock and roll is the story of men crowding out women, and white men crowding out black men, and finally of rich white men crowding out poorer white men, until it eventually becomes a dull, conservative genre. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but don't say I didn't warn you when I get to the nineties.
But one black woman is as responsible as anyone for the style of rock and roll, and in particular, for its focus on the guitar.
To find out why, we're going to be making our final trip back to 1938 and Carnegie Hall.
We've talked in earlier episodes about John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts, and at the time I said that I'd talk some more about the ways in which they were important, but also about how they were problematic. (I know that's a word that gets overused these days, but I mean it literally -- they had problems, but weren't all bad. Far from it).
One of the most problematic aspects of them, indeed, is encoded in the name. "From Spirituals to Swing". It gives you a nice, simple, linear narrative -- one that was still being pushed in books I read in the 1980s. You start with the spirituals and you end with swing. It's like those diagrams of the evolution of man, with the crawling monkey on one side and the tall, oddly hairless, white man with his genitals carefully concealed on the other.
The fact is, most of the narrative about "primitive" music -- a narrative that was put forward by very progressive white men like John Hammond or the Lomaxes -- is deeply mistaken. The forms of music made largely by black people could sound less sophisticated in the 1930s, but that wasn't because they were atavistic survivals of more primitive forms, musical coelacanths dredged up from the depths to parade. It was because the people making the music often couldn't afford expensive instruments, and were recorded on cheaper equipment, and all the other myriad ways society makes the lives of black people, and underprivileged people in other ways, just that bit more difficult.
But this was, nonetheless, the narrative that was current in the 1930s. And so the Spirituals to Swing concerts featured a bisexual black woman who basically invented much of what would become rock guitar, an innovator if ever there was one, but portrayed her as somehow less sophisticated than the big band music on the same bill. And they did that because that innovative black woman was playing religious music.
In fact, black gospel music had grown up around the same time as the big bands. Black people had, of course, been singing in churches since their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, but gospel music as we talk about it now was largely the creation of one man -- Thomas Dorsey.
(This is not the same man as the white bandleader Tommy Dorsey who we've mentioned a couple of times earlier).
Dorsey was a blues and jazz musician, who had led the band for Ma Rainey, one of the great early blues singers, and under the name "Georgia Tom" he'd collaborated with Tampa Red on a series of singles. Their song "It's Tight Like That", from 1928, is one of the earliest hokum records, and is largely responsible for a lot of the cliches of the form -- and it sold seven million copies.
[excerpt of "It's Tight Like That"]
That record, in itself, is one of the most important records that has ever been made -- you can trace from that song, through hokum blues, through R&B, and find its influence in basically every record made by a black American, or by anyone who's ever listened to a record made by a black American, since then. If Dorsey had only made that one record, he would have been one of the most important figures in music history.
But some time around 1930, he also started writing a whole new style of music. It combined the themes, and some of the melody, of traditional Christian hymns, with the feel of the blues and jazz music he'd been playing. It's rare that you can talk about a single person inventing a whole field of music, but gospel music as we know it basically *was* invented by Thomas Dorsey. 
Other people had performed gospel music before, of course, but the style was very different from anything we now think of as gospel. Dorsey was the one who pulled all the popular music idioms into it and made it into something that powered and inspired all the popular music since.
He did this because he was so torn between his faith and his work as a blues musician that he had multiple breakdowns -- at one point finding himself on stage with Ma Rainey and completely unable to move his fingers to play the piano. While he continued parallel careers for a while, eventually he settled on making religious music. And the songs he wrote include some of the most well-known songs of all time, like "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".
That's a song he wrote in 1932, after his wife died in childbirth and his newborn son died a couple of days later. He was feeling a grief that most of us could never imagine, a pain that must have been more unbearable than anything anyone should have to suffer, and the pain came out in beauty like this:
[excerpt of Rosetta Tharpe singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"]
That's not "primitive" music. That's not music that is unsophisticated. That's not some form of folk art. That's one man, a man who personally revolutionised music multiple times over, writing about his own personal grief and creating something that stands as great art without having to be patronised or given special consideration.
And the person singing on that recording is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, like Dorsey, is someone who doesn't need to be given special treatment or be thought of as good considering her disadvantages or any of that patronising nonsense. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the great singers of her generation, and one of the great guitar players of all time. And she was making music that was as modern and cutting-edge as anything else made in the 1930s and 40s. She wasn't making music that was a remnant of something that would evolve into swing, no matter what John Hammond thought, she was making important music, and music that would in the long run be seen as far more important than most of the swing bands.
Obviously, one should not judge Hammond too harshly. He was from another time. A primitive.
Sister Rosetta was brought up in, and spent her life singing for, the Church of God in Christ. As many of my listeners are in Europe, as I am myself, it's probably worth explaining what this church is, because while it does have branches outside the US, that's where it's based, and that's where most of its membership is.
The Church of God in Christ is a Pentecostal church, and it's the largest Pentacostal church in the US, and the fifth-largest church full stop. I mention that it's a Pentacostal church, because that's something you need to understand to understand Rosetta Tharpe. Pentacostals believe in something slightly different to what most other Christian denominations believe. 
Before I go any further, I should point out that I am *not* an expert in theology by any means, and that what I'm going to say may well be a mischaracterisation. If you're a Pentacostal and disagree with my characterisation of your religion here, I apologise, and if you let me know I'll at least update the show notes. No disrespect is intended.
While most Christians believe that humanity is always tainted by original sin, Pentacostals believe that it is possible for some people, if they truly believe -- if they're "born again" to use a term that's a little more widespread than just Pentacostalism -- to become truly holy. Those people will have all their past sins forgiven, and will then be sinless on Earth. To do this, you have to be "baptised in the Holy Ghost". This is different from normal baptism, what Pentacostals call "water baptism" -- though most Pentacostals think you should be water baptised anyway, as a precursor to the main event. Rather, this is the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven and entering you, filling you with joy and a sense of sanctity. This can often cause speaking in tongues and other strange behaviours, as people are enthused (a word which, in the original Greek, actually meant a god entering into you), and once this has happened you have the tendency to sin removed from you altogether. 
This is all based on the Acts of the Apostles, specifically Acts 2:4, which describes how at the Pentecost (which is the seventh Sunday after Easter), "All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them".
Unlike many Protestant denominations, which adhere to Calvinist beliefs that nobody can know if they're going to Heaven or Hell, and that only God can ever know this, and that nothing you do can make a difference to your chances, most Pentacostals believe that you can definitely tell whether you're going to Heaven. You're going to Heaven once you're sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and that's an end of it.
At least, it's an end of it so long as you continue with what's called "outward holiness", and so you have to dress conservatively, to avoid swearing, to avoid drinking or gambling or smoking, or dancing suggestively, or wearing makeup. If you do that, once the spirit's entered into you, you're going to remain holy and free from temptation. If you don't do that, well, then the Devil might get you after all.
This is a very real fear for many Pentacostals, who have a belief in a literal heaven and hell. And it's a fear that has inspired a *lot* of the most important musicians in rock and roll. But Pentacostalism isn't just about fear and living right, it's also about that feeling of elation and exhiliration when the holy spirit enters you. And music helps bring that feeling about. 
It's no surprise that a lot of the early rock and rollers went to Pentacostal churches -- at many of them, especially in the South of the US, there's a culture of absolutely wild, unrestrained, passionate music and dancing, to get people into the mood to have the spirit enter them. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably the greatest performer to come out of those churches.
But while most of the performers we'll be looking at started playing secular music, Sister Rosetta never did, or at least very rarely. But she was, nonetheless, an example of something that we'll see a lot in the history of rock -- the pull between the spiritual and the worldly. 
From the very start of her career, Sister Rosetta was slightly different from the other gospel performers. While she lived in Chicago at the same time as Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, she isn't generally considered part of the gospel scene that they were at the centre of -- because she was travelling round the country playing at revival meetings, rather than staying in one place. When her first marriage -- to a fellow evangelist, who apparently abused her -- broke up, she moved on to New York, and there she started playing to audiences that were very different from the churches she was used to.
Where people like Mahalia were playing church music for church people, Rosetta Tharpe was taking the gospel to the sinners. Throughout her career, she played in nightclubs and theatres, playing for any audience that would have her, and playing music that got them excited and dancing, even as she was singing about holiness.
She started playing the Cotton Club in 1938. The Cotton Club was the most famous club in New York, though in 1938 it was on its last days of relevance. It had been located in Harlem until 1936, but after riots in Harlem, it had moved to a more respectable area, and was now on Broadway.
In the twenties and early thirties, the Cotton Club had been responsible for the success of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, though only Calloway was still playing there regularly by the time Rosetta Tharpe started performing there. It was still, though, the place to be seen -- at least if you were white. The Cotton Club was strictly segregated -- only black people on stage, but only white people in the audience. The black performers were there to be leered at, in the case of the showgirls, or to play up to black stereotypes. Even Duke Ellington, possibly the most sophisticated musician ever to come out of the United States, had been presented as a "jungle musician". The name itself -- the Cotton Club -- was trading on associations with slavery and cotton picking, and the feel of the new venue could probably be summed up by the fact that it had, on its walls, pictures of famous white bandleaders in blackface.
So it's not surprising that the performances that Sister Rosetta did at the Cotton Club were very different from the ones she'd been doing when she was travelling the country with her mother performing to church crowds. She was still playing the same music, of course -- in fact, over her career, she mostly stuck to the same quite small repertoire, rerecording the same material in new arrangements and with new emphases as she grew as an artist -- but now she was doing it as part of a parody of the very kind of church service she had grown up in and devoted her life to, with dancers pretending to be "Holy Rollers", mocking her religion even as her music itself was still devoted to it.
Originally, she was only taken on at the Cotton Club as a sort of trial, on a two-week engagement -- and apparently she thought the manager was joking when she was offered five hundred dollars a week, not believing she could be making that much money -- and her role was simply to be one of many acts who'd come on and do a song or two between the bigger acts who were given star billing. But she soon became a hit, and she soon got signed to Decca to make records.
Her first record was, of course, a song by Thomas Dorsey, originally titled "Hide Me in Thy Bosom" but given the newer title "Rock Me" by Tharpe. Her arrangement largely stuck to Dorsey's original, with one important exception -- where he had written "singing", Tharpe sang "swinging".
[excerpt of "Rock Me"]
Many people also claimed to hear a double entendre in the lyrics to "Rock Me", and to think the song was about more worldly matters than Dorsey had intended. Whether Tharpe thought that or not, it almost certainly factored into the decision to make it her first single.
When she was booked to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, she performed both that song and "That's All", backed by Albert Ammons, one of the boogie woogie players who also appeared on the bill, and in the recording of that we can hear, rather better than in the studio recording, the raw power of Tharpe's performance.
[excerpt of "That's All" from Carnegie Hall]
The sound quality of these recordings isn't great, of course, but you can clearly hear the enthusiasm in that performance.
Tharpe's performances at the Cotton Club drew a great deal of attention, and Time magazine even did a feature on her, and how she “Swings Same Songs in Church and Night Club.” When the Cotton Club shut down she moved on to the Cafe Society, a venue booked by John Hammond, which was an integrated club and which fit her rather better.
While she was working there, she came to the attention of Lucky Millinder, the big band leader. Different people have different ideas as to how the two started working together -- Mo Gale, Millinder's manager, was also Chick Webb's manager, and claimed that it was his idea and that he'd seen Tharpe as being an Ella Fitzgerald to Millinder's Chick Webb, but Bill Doggett, the piano player with Millinder's band, said that it was Millinder's idea, not Gale's, to get Tharpe on board.
Either way, the combination worked well enough at first, as Tharpe got to sing the same songs she'd been performing earlier -- her gospel repertoire -- but with a big band backing her. She'd also switched to playing an electric guitar rather than an acoustic, and the effect on her guitar playing was extraordinary -- where before she'd had to be a busy accompanist, constantly playing new notes due to the lack of sustain from an acoustic guitar, now she was able to play single-note lead lines and rely on the orchestra to provide the chordal pad.
Her remake of "Rock Me" with Millinder's band, from 1941, shows just how much her artistry had improved in just three years:
[excerpt of 1941 "Rock Me"]
With that record, she more or less invented the guitar style that T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and others would adapt for themselves. That's just how you play electric blues now, but it wasn't how anyone played before Rosetta Tharpe.
Soon after she joined Millinder's band they moved to a residency at the Savoy Ballroom, and became one of the most popular bands for dancers in New York -- regulars there included a young man known as Detroit Red, who later changed his name to Malcolm X.  The Savoy Ballroom was closed down not long after -- allegedly for prostitution, but more likely because it allowed white women to dance with black men, and the city of New York wouldn't allow that -- although as Malcolm X said, it wasn't as if they were dragging the white women in there.
However, Millinder's band was an odd fit for Rosetta Tharpe, and she was increasingly forced to sing secular numbers along with the gospel music she loved. There were plenty of good things about the band, of course -- she became lifelong friends with its young trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie, for example, and she enjoyed a tour where they were on the same bill as a young vocal group, The Four Ink Spots, but she was a little bit uncomfortable singing songs like "Tall Skinny Papa", which wasn't particularly gospel-like
[excerpt "Tall Skinny Papa"]
And it's not particularly likely that she was keen on the follow-up, although she didn't sing on that one.
[excerpt "Big Fat Mama"]
So eventually, she quit the Millinder band, without giving notice, and went back to performing entirely solo, at least at first. 
This was in the middle of the musicians' union strike, but when that ended, Tharpe was back in the studio, and in September 1944 she began one of the two most important musical collaborations of her career, when she recorded "Strange Things Happening Every Day", with Sam Price on piano.
Sam Price did *not* get along with Tharpe. He insisted on her playing with a capo, because she was playing in an open tuning and wasn't playing in a normal jazz key. He didn't like the idea of combining gospel music with his boogie woogie style (eventually he was persuaded by Tharpe's mother, a gospel star in her own right who was by all accounts a fearsome and intimidating presence, that this was OK), and when the result became a massive hit, he resented that he got a flat fee.
But nonetheless, "Strange Things Happening Every Day" marks out the start of yet another new style for Tharpe -- and it's yet another song often credited as "the first rock and roll record".
[Excerpt "Strange Things Happening Every Day"]
Shortly after this, Tharpe started working with another gospel singer, Marie Knight. Her partnership with Marie Knight may have been a partnership in more than one sense. Knight denied the relationship to the end of her days -- and it's entirely understandable that she would, given that she was a gospel singer who was devoted to a particularly conservative church, and whose career also depended on that church -- but their relationship was regarded as an open secret within the gospel music community, which had a rather more relaxed attitude to homosexuality and bisexuality than the rest of the church. Some of Tharpe's friends have described her as a secret lesbian, but given her multiple marriages to men it seems more likely that she was bi -- although of course we will never know for sure.
Either way, Tharpe and Knight were a successful double act for many years, with their voices combining perfectly to provide a gospel vocal sound that was unlike anything ever recorded. They stopped working together in 1950, but remained close enough that Knight was in charge of Tharpe's funeral in 1973,
The two of them toured together -- and Tharpe toured later on her own -- in their own bus, which was driven by a white man. This gave them a number of advantages in a deeply segregated and racist country. It was considered acceptable for them to go into some public places where they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed, because they were with a white man -- if a black woman was with a white man, it was just assumed that she was sleeping with him, and unlike a white woman sleeping with a black man, this was considered absolutely acceptable, a sexual double-standard that dated back to slavery. If they needed food and the restaurant in a town was whites-only, they could send the white driver in to get them takeout. And if it came to it, if there was no hotel in town that would take black people, they could sleep on the bus.
And segregation was so accepted at the time by so many people that even when Tharpe toured with a white vocal group, the Jordanaires (who would later find more fame backing up some country singer named Elvis something) they just thought her having her own bus was cool, and didn't even make the connection to how necessary it was for her.
While Tharpe and Knight made many great records together, probably Tharpe's most important recording was a solo B-side to one of their singles, a 1947 remake of a song she'd first recorded in 1938, "This Train", again featuring Sam Price on piano:
[excerpt "This Train"]
That's a song that sets out the theology of the Pentacostal church as well as you'll ever hear it. This train is a *clean* train. You want to ride it you better get redeemed. No tobacco chewers or cigar smokers. No crap shooters. If you want to be bound for glory, you need to act holy.
There was no-one bigger than Tharpe in her genre. She is probably the first person to ever play rock and roll guitar in stadiums -- and not only that, she played rock and roll guitar in a stadium *at her wedding* -- her third wedding, to be precise, which took place at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays. Twenty thousand people came to see her get married and perform a gospel show afterwards, concluding with fireworks that first exploded in the shape of Tharpe playing her guitar before taking on other shapes like two hearts pierced with Cupid's arrow. Even Tharpe's half-sister had to pay for her ticket to the show. Apparently Tharpe signed the contract for her wedding seven months earlier, and then went out to find herself a husband.
Rosetta Tharpe's popularity started to wane in the 1950s, at least in her home country, but she retained a following in Europe. There's fascinating footage of her in 1964 filmed by Granada TV, playing at the abandoned Wilbraham Road railway station in Manchester. If you live in Manchester, as I do, that piece of track, which is now part of the Fallowfield cycle loop was the place where some of the greats of black American music were filmed for what may have been the greatest blues TV programme of all time -- along with Tharpe, there was Muddy Waters, Otis Span, Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all performing in the open air in Manchester in front of an extremely earnest audience of young white British people. Fittingly for an open-air show in Manchester, Tharpe opened her short set with "Didn't It Rain"
[Didn't It Rain TV performance excerpt]
By that time, Tharpe had become primarily known as a blues musician, even though she was still doing the same thing she'd always been doing, simply because music had moved on and recategorised her. But she'd had an influence on blues, R&B, and rock and roll music that most people didn't even realise. "This Train" was not written by Tharpe, exactly -- it dates back to the 1920s -- but it was definitely her version, and her rewrite, that inspired one of the most important blues records of all time:
[Excerpt of "My Babe"]
Indeed, only a few months after Rosetta Tharpe's UK performances, Gerry and the Pacemakers, one of the biggest bands of the new Merseybeat sound, who'd had three number one records that year in the UK, were recording their own version of "My Babe". Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in most respects, as far as you could imagine from gospel music, and yet the connection is there, closer than you'd think.
Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973, and never really got the recognition she deserved. She was only inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame last year. But if you've ever liked rock guitar, you've got her to thank. Shout, Sister, Shout!
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Episode 4: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie


Louis Jordan smiling and pointing at the camera, with a saxophone on his knee

Welcome to episode four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Louis Jordan and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Louis Jordan's music is now in the public domain, so there are many different compilations available, of different levels of quality. This four-CD set is very cheap and has most of the classic tracks on. And here's a similarly-priced collection of Chick Webb.

There aren't many books on Louis Jordan as an individual, and most of the information here comes from books on other musicians, but this one is probably worth your while if you want to investigate more.

And for all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum.


We've spent a lot of time in 1938 in this podcast, haven't we? First there was Flying Home, first recorded in 1939, but where we had to talk about events from 1938. Then we had "Roll 'Em Pete", recorded in 1938. And "Ida Red", recorded in 1938. 1938 is apparently the real year zero for rock and roll -- whether you come at it from the direction of blues and boogie, or jazz, or country and western music, 1938 ends up being the place where you start. Eighty years ago this year.
And 1938 is also the year that one man made his solo debut, and basically put together all the pieces of rock and roll in one place.
If you've seen the Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races -- well, OK, if you've not seen A Day At The Races, you really should, because while it's not the best film the Marx Brothers ever made, it's still a good Marx Brothers film, and it'll brighten up your day immensely to watch it, so go and watch that, and then come back and listen to the rest of this. And if you haven't watched all their earlier films, watch those too. Except The Cocoanuts, you can skip that one. Go on. I can wait.
OK, now you've definitely seen the Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races, so you'll remember the dance sequence where Ivie Anderson sings "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm", and the amazing dancers in that scene.
[Ivy Anderson "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm"]
That's a dance called the Lindy Hop -- you might remember that as the dance the "booglie wooglie piggy" did in a song we excerpted in episode two, it was named after Charles Lindbergh, the famous airman and Nazi sympathiser -- and the people dancing it are Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. And they were responsible for a controversy, on the night of Benny Goodman's first Carnegie Hall concert -- the one we talked about in episode one -- that is still talked about in jazz eighty years later.
[Chick Webb "Stompin' At The Savoy"]
That's "Stompin' at the Savoy" by Chick Webb, one of the most famous swing recordings ever, though it was later recorded by Benny Goodman in an even more fanous version. The Savoy Ballroom was where Whitey's Lindy Hoppers used to dance -- there was an entire corner of the ballroom set off for them, even though the rest of the floor was for the other dancers. The Savoy was where the Lindy Hop was invented, and it was the place to dance, because it was where Chick Webb, the real king of swing played.
We've seen a few kings of swing so far -- Benny Goodman was the person most associated with the name, and he had the name longest. A few people called Bob Wills that, too, though he mostly billed himself as the king of Western swing. But Chick Webb was the person who deserved the title more than anyone else. He was a small man, who'd contracted tuberculosis of the spine as a child, and he'd taken up the drums as a kind of therapy. He'd been playing professionally since he was eleven, and by the time he was thirty he was leading what was, bar none, the best swing band in New York for dancing. People called him the King of Swing before Goodman, and his band was an absolute force of nature when it came to getting people to do the Lindy Hop. Benny Goodman admired Webb's band enough that he bought the band's arrangements and used them himself -- all of the Goodman band's biggest crowd-pleasers, at least the ones that weren't arrangements he'd bought off Fletcher Henderson, he bought from Edgar Sampson, the saxophone player who did most of Webb's arrangements. Sampson is the one who wrote "Stompin' at the Savoy", which we just heard.
There was a rivalry there -- Goodman's band was bigger in every sense, but Webb's band was more popular with those who knew the real deal when they heard it. And in 1937, the Savoy hosted a cutting contest between Webb's Savoy Orchestra and Goodman's band.
A cutting contest was a tradition that came from the world of stride piano players -- the same world that boogie woogie music grew out of. One musician would play his best (and it usually was a "his" -- this was a very macho musical world) and then a second would try to top him -- playing something faster, or more inventive, or more exciting, often a reworking of the song the first one had played -- and then the first would take another turn and try to get better than the second had. They'd keep going, each trying to outdo the other, until a crowd decided that one or the other was the winner.
And that 1937 cutting contest was a big event. The Savoy had two bandstands, so they would have one band start as soon as the other one finished, so people could dance all night. Chick Webb's band set up on one stage, Goodman's on another. Four thousand dancers crowded the inside of the ballroom, and despite a police cordon outside to keep trouble down, another five thousand people outside tried to hear what was happening.
And Chick Webb's band won, absolutely. Gene Krupa, Goodman's drummer (one of the true greats of jazz drumming himself) later said "I'll never forget that night. Webb cut me to ribbons!"
And that just was the most famous of many, many cutting contests that Chick Webb's band won. The only time Chick Webb ever definitely lost a cutting contest was against Duke Ellington, but everyone knew that Chick Webb and Duke Ellington weren't really trying to do the same kind of thing, and anyway, there's no shame at all in losing to Duke Ellington.
Count Basie, though, was a different matter. He was trying to do the same kind of thing as Chick Webb, and he was doing it well. And on the night of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert, Webb and Basie were going to engage in their own cutting contest after hours. For all that the Goodman Carnegie Hall show was important -- and it was -- the real jazz fans knew that this after-show party was going to be the place to be. Basie had already played the Carnegie hHall show, guesting with Goodman's band, as had Basie's tenor sax player Lester Young, but here they were going to get to show off what they could do with their own band.
Basie's band was on top form at that time, with his new vocalists Jimmy Rushing, a great blues shouter, and Billie Holiday, who was just then becoming a star. Chick Webb had a couple of good vocalists too, though -- his new teenage singer, Ella Fitzgerald, in particular, was already one of the great singers.
[Chick Webb – Ella]
And everyone was in the audience. Goodman's band, Mildred Bailey, Ivie Anderson (who we heard before in that Marx Brothers clip), Red Norvo the vibraphone player, Duke Ellington. Every musician who mattered in the jazz scene was there to see if Basie could beat Chick Webb.
And… there was a dispute about it, one which was never really resolved in Webb's lifetime.
Because Webb won -- everyone agreed, when it came to a vote of the audience, Webb's band did win, though it was a fairly close decision. Again, the only band to ever beat Chick Webb was Duke Ellington.
But everyone also agreed that Basie's band had got people dancing more. A lot more.
What nobody realised at the time was that Whitey's Lindy Hoppers had gone on strike. Chick Webb had misheard a discussion between a couple of the dancers about how good the Basie band was going to be that night, assumed that they were saying Basie was going to be better than him, and got into a huff. Webb said "I don't give a good Goddam what those raggedy Lindy Hoppers think or say. Who needs 'em? As far as I'm concerned they can all go to hell. And their Mammies too."
After this provocation, Whitey issued an ultimatum to his Lindy Hoppers. That night, they were only going to dance to Basie, and not to Webb. So even though most of the audience preferred Webb's band, every time they played a song all the best dancers, the ones who had an entire quarter or so of the ballroom to themselves to do their most exciting and visual dances, all sat down, and it looked like the Webb band just weren't exciting the crowd as much as the Basie band.
Of course, the Basie band were good that night, as well. When you've got the 1938 Count Basie band, with Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday singing, you're going to get a good show. Oh, and they persuaded Duke Ellington to come up and play a piano solo -- and then all the band joined in with him, unrehearsed and unprompted.
But despite all that, Webb's band still beat them in the audience vote.
That's how good Webb's band were, and it's also how good his two big stars were. One of those stars, Ella Fitzgerald, we've already mentioned, but the other one was an alto sax player who also took the male lead vocals – we heard him singing with Ella earlier. This sax player did a lot of the frontman job for Webb's band and was so important to the band in those years that, allegedly, some people thought he was Chick Webb. That man was Louis Jordan.
[Chick Webb I Can't Dance I Got Ants In My Pants]
Louis Jordan was a good sax player, but what he really was was a performer. He was someone who could absolutely sell a song, with wit and humour and a general sense of hipness that could possibly be matched at that time only by Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard, and Jordan was a better musician than either of them. He was charming, and funny, and tuneful, and good looking, and he knew it.
He knew it so well, in fact, that shortly after that show, he started making plans -- he thought that he and Ella were the two important ones in the Webb band, and he planned to form his own band, and take her, and much of the rest of the band with him. Webb found out and fired Jordan, and Ella and most of the band remained loyal to Webb.
In fact, sadly, Jordan would have had what he wanted sooner rather than later anyway. Chick Webb's disability had been affecting him more, and he was only continuing to perform because he felt he owed it to his musicians -- he would often pass out after a show, literally unable to do anything else. He died, aged thirty-four, in June 1939, and Ella Fitzgerald became the leader of his band, though like many big bands it eventually broke up in the mid-forties.
So if Jordan had held on for another few months, he would have had a good chance at being the leader of the Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald band, and history would have been very different. As it was, instead, he formed a much smaller group, the Elks Rendez-vous Band, made up of members of Jesse Stone's band (you'll remember him from episode two, he wrote "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"). And on December 20, 1938 -- ten days before "Roll 'Em Pete" -- Louis Jordan and his Elks Rendez-vous Band went into the studio for the first time, to record "Honey in the Bee Ball" and "Barnacle Bill the Sailor".
[excerpt of "Honey in the Bee Ball"]
Shortly after that, they changed their name to Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.
Before we talk about them more, I want to briefly talk about someone else who worked with Jordan. I want to talk about Milt Gabler. Gabler is someone we'll be seeing a lot of in this story, and he's someone who already had an influence on it, but here's where he becomes important.
You see, even before his influence on rock and roll, Gabler had made one important contribution to music. He had started out as the owner of a little record shop, and he had a massive passion for good jazz music -- and so did his customers. And many of those customers had wanted to get hold of old records, now out of print. So in 1935 Gabler started his own record label, and licensed those out of print recordings by people like Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith, becoming the owner of the very first ever reissue record label. His labels pioneered things like putting a full list of all the musicians on a record on the label -- the kind of thing that real music obsessives cared far more about than executives who only wanted to make money.
After he had some success with that, he branched out into making new records, on a new label, Commodore. That would have stayed a minor label, but for one thing.
In 1939, one of his regular customers, Billie Holiday, had a problem. She'd been performing a new song which she really wanted to record, but her current label, Columbia, wasn't interested. That song was too political even for her producer, John Hammond -- the man who, you will remember from previous episodes, persuaded Benny Goodman to integrate his band and who put on shows that same year sponsored by the Communist Party. But the song was too political, and too inflammatory, even for him. The song, which became Billie Holiday's best-known performance, was "Strange Fruit", and it was about lynching.
[insert section of Strange Fruit here].
Billie Holiday could not get her label to put that track out, under any circumstances. But she knew Milt Gabler might do it -- he'd been recording several small group tracks with Lester Young, who was Holiday's colleague and friend in the Basie band. As Gabler was a friend of hers, and as he was politically left-leaning himself, he eventually negotiated a special deal with Columbia, Holiday's label, that he could produce her for one session and put out a single recording by her, on Commodore.
That recording sold over a million copies, and became arguably the most important recording in music history. In December 1999, Time Magazine called it the "song of the century". And in 2017, when the black singer Rebecca Ferguson was invited to play at Donald Trump's inauguration, she agreed on one condition -- that the song she performed could be "Strange Fruit". She was disinvited.
As a result of "Strange Fruit"'s success, Milt Gabler was headhunted away from his own label, and became a staff producer at Decca records in 1941. There he was responsible for producing many of the greatest records of the forties -- not least that famous Lionel Hampton version of "Flying Home" we looked at towards the end of episode one -- and he began a long collaboration with Louis Jordan -- remember him? This is a story about Louis Jordan.
Jordan's new band had a sound unlike anything else of the time -- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown later claimed that Jordan had most of the responsibility for the decline of the big bands, saying "He could play just as good and just as loud with five as 17. And it was cheaper."
And while we've talked before about a whole raft of economic and social reasons for the decline of the big bands, there was a lot of truth in that statement -- while there were sometimes actually as many as seven or eight members of the Tympany Five, the original lineup was just Jordan plus one trumpet, one sax, piano, bass, and drums, and yet their recordings did sound almost as full as many of the bigger bands.
The style they were playing in was a style that later became known as "jump band" music, and it was a style that owed a lot to Lionel Hampton's band, and to Count Basie. This is a style of music that's based on simple chord changes -- usually blues changes. And it's based on the concept of the riff.
We haven't really talked much about the idea of riffs yet in this series, but they're absolutely crucial to almost all popular music from the twentieth century. A riff is, in its conception, fairly straight forward. It's an instrumental phrase that gets repeated over and over. It can act as the backbone to a song, but it can also be the basis for variation and improvisation -- when you "riff on" something, you're coming up with endless variations and permutations of it.
Riffs were important in swing music -- generally they were a sort of back-and-forth in those. You'd have the saxophones play the riff, and then the trumpets and trombones repeat it after them. But swing wasn't just about riffs -- with a big orchestra, you had to have layers and stuff for all the musicians to do.
In jump band music, on the other hand, you strip everything back. The track becomes about the riff, the solos, and the vocal if there is one, and that's it. You play that riff over the simplest possible changes, you play it to a rhythm that will get everyone dancing -- often a boogie rhythm -- and you make everything about the energy of the performance.
Jordan's band did that, and they combined it with Jordan's own unique stage personality. Jordan, remember, had been the male singer in a band whose female singer was Ella Fitzgerald. You don't keep a job like that very long if you're not good.
Now, Jordan wasn't good in the same way as Ella was -- no-one was good in the same way as Ella Fitzgerald -- but what he was very good at was putting personality into his vocals. One thing we haven't talked much about yet in this series is the way that there was a whole tradition of jive singing which dates back at least to the 1920s and Cab Calloway:
[excerpt from "Reefer Man"]
Jive singers weren't usually technically great, but they had personality. They were hip, and they often used made up words of their own. They were clever, and funny, and sophisticated, and they were often singing about the underworld or drug use or prostitution or other such disreputable concepts -- when they weren't just singing nonsense words like Slim Gaillard anyway.
[Excerpt of "Flat Foot Floogie"]
And Louis Jordan was very much in the mould of singers like Gaillard or Calloway or Fats Waller, all of whom we could easily do episodes on here if we were going far enough back into rock's prehistory. But Jordan is the way that that stream became part of the rhythm of rock music.
Most of Jordan's songs were written by Jordan himself, although he's not the credited writer on many of them -- rather, his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, is credited for contractual reasons. Jordan and Moore later split up after multiple separate occasions where she stabbed him, but she retained credit on the songs. So, for example, she's credited on "Caldonia", which is a perfect example of Jordan's comedy jump band style.
[Louis Jordan: Caldonia]
"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," Jordan's biggest hit, was slightly different. From early 1943 -- just after Gabler started producing his records -- Jordan had been having occasional crossover hits on the country charts. These days, his music sounds to us clearly like it's blues or R&B -- in fact he's basically the archetype of a jump blues musician -- but remember how we've talked about Western Swing using so many swing and boogie elements? If you were making boogie music then, you were likely to appeal to the same audience that was listening to Bob Wills, just as much as you were to the audience that was listening to Big Joe Turner.
And because of this crossover success, Jordan started recording occasional songs that were originally aimed at the white country market. "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" was co-written by Gabler, but the other songwriters were pure country and western writers -- Denver Darling, one of the writers, was a hillbilly singer who recorded songs such as "My Little Buckaroo", "I've Just Gotta Be A Cowboy" and "Ding Dong Polka", while the other writer, Vaughn Horton, wrote "Dixie Cannonball" and "Muleskinner Blues".
So "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" was, in conception, a hillbilly boogie, but in Louis Jordan's hands, it was almost the archetypal rhythm and blues song:
[insert section of Choo Choo Ch'Boogie here]
You can hear from that how much it resembles the Bob Wills music we heard last week -- and how the song itself would fit absolutely into the genre of Western Swing. There's only really the lack of a fiddle or steel guitar to distinguish the styles. But you can also hear the horn-driven pulse, and the hip vocals, that characterise rhythm and blues. Those internal rhymes and slangy lyrics -- "take me right back to the track, Jack" -- come straight from the jive school of vocals, even though it's a country and western song.
If there's any truth at all to the claim that rock and roll was the mixing of country and western music with rhythm and blues, this is as good a point as any to say "this is where rock and roll really started". Essentially every musician in the early rock and roll period was, to a greater or lesser extent, copying the style of Louis Jordan's 1940s records. And indeed "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" was later covered by another act Milt Gabler produced -- an act who, more than any other, based their style on Jordan's. But we'll come to Bill Haley and his Comets in a few episodes time.
For now, we want to listen to the way that jump band music sounds. This is not music that sounds like it's a small band. That sounds like a full horn section, but you'll notice that during the sax solo the other horns just punch in a little, rather than playing a full pad under it -- the arrangement is stripped back to the basics, to what's necessary. This is a punchy track, and it's a track that makes you want to dance.
[sax solo excerpt]
And this is music that, because it's so stripped down, relies on vocal personality more than other kinds. This is why Louis Jordan was able to make a success of this -- his jive singing style gives the music all the character that in the larger bands would be conveyed by other instruments.
But also, notice the lyrics -- "the rhythm of the clickety clack". It's that backbeat again, the one we've been talking about. And the lyrics here are all about that rhythm, but also about the rhythm of the steam trains.
That mechanical steam train rhythm is one of the key influences in blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll -- rock and roll started at almost exactly the point that America changed from being a train culture to being a car culture, and over the coming weeks we'll see that transition happen in the music. By the 1960s people would be singing "Nobody cares about the railroads any more" or about "the last of the good old fashioned steam powered trains", but in the 1940s and early fifties the train still meant freedom, still meant escape, and even once that had vanished from people's minds, it was still enshrined in the chug of the backbeat, in the choo choo ch'boogie.
And so next week we'll be talking a lot more about the impact of trains in rock and roll, as we take our final look at the Carnegie Hall concerts of 1938…
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Episode 3: Ida Red


 Photo of Bob Wills in a cowboy hat

Welcome to episode three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Bob Wills and "Ida Red".


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I mention a PhD thesis on the history of the backbeat in the episode. Here's a link to it.

Bob Wills' music is now in the public domain, so there are many different compilations available, of different levels of quality. This is an expensive but exhaustive one, while this is a cheap one which seems to have most of the important hits on it.

The definitive book on Bob Wills, San Antonio Rose, is available here, though it's a bit pricey.

And for all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum.


In the episode I talk about two tracks as being "by Django Reinhardt", but the clips I play happen to be ones featuring violin solos. Those solos are, of course, by Reinhardt's longtime collaborator Stephane Grapelli. I assume most people will know this, but just in case.


"Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928! ... We didn't call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don't call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."
Bob Wills said that in 1957, and it brings up an interesting question. What's in a name?
Genre names are a strange thing, aren't they? In particular, did you ever notice how many of them had the word "and" in them? Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western? There's sort of a reason for that.
Rock and roll is a special case, but the other two were names that were coined by Billboard, and they weren't originally meant to be descriptors of a single genre, but of collections of genres -- they were titles for its different charts. Rhythm and blues is a name that was used to replace the earlier name, of "race" records, because that was thought a bit demeaning. It was for the chart of "music made by black people", basically, whatever music those black people were making, so they could be making "rhythm" records, or they could be making "blues" records.
Only once you give a collection of things a name, the way people's minds work, they start thinking that because those things share a name they're the same kind of thing. And people start thinking about "rhythm and blues" records as being a particular kind of thing. And then they start making "rhythm and blues" records, and suddenly it is a thing.
The same thing goes for country and western. That was, again, two different genres. Country music was the music made by white people who lived in the rural areas, of the Eastern US basically -- people like the Carter Family, for example.
[Excerpt of “Keep on the Sunny Side” by the Carter Family]
We'll hear more about the Carter family in the future, but that's what country music was. Not country and western, just country. And that was the music made in Appalachia, especially Kentucky and Tennessee, and especially especially Nashville.
Western music was a bit different. That was the music being made in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and it tended to use similar instrumentation to country music -- violins and guitars and so on -- but it had different subject matter -- lots of songs about cowboys and outlaws and so on -- and at the time we're talking about, the thirties and forties, it was a little bit slicker than country music.
This is odd in retrospect, because not many years later the Western musicians influenced people like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, who made very gritty, raw, unpolished music compared to the country music coming out of Nashville, but the thirties and forties were the heyday of singing cowboy films, with people like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers becoming massive, massive stars, and so there was a lot of Hollywoodisation of the music, lots of crooning and orchestras and so on.
Western music was big, big business -- and so was swing music. And so it's perhaps not surprising that there was a new genre that emerged around that time. Western swing.
Western swing is, to simplify it ridiculously, swing music made in the West of the USA. But it's music that was made in the west -- largely in places like California --by the same kinds of people who in the east were making country music, and with a lot of the same influences.
It took the rhythms of swing music, but played them with the same instrumentation as the country musicians were using, so you'd get hot jazz style performances, but they'd be played on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and stand-up bass. There were a few other instruments that you'd usually get included as well -- the steel guitar, for example. Western swing usually also included a drum kit, which was one of the big ways it differed from country music as it was then. The drum kit was, in the early decades of the twentieth century, primarily a jazz instrument, and it was only because Western swing was a hybrid of jazz and Western music that it got included in those bands -- and for a long time drum kits were banned from country music shows like the Grand Ole Opry, and when they did finally relent and let Western swing bands play there, they made the drummers hide behind a curtain.
They would also include other instruments that weren't normally included in country or Western music at the time, like the piano. Less often, you'd have a saxophone or a trumpet, but basically the typical Western swing lineup would be a guitar, a steel guitar, a violin or two, a piano, a bass, and drums.
Again, as we saw in the episode about "Flying Home", where we talked about *non*-Western swing, you can see the rock band lineup starting to form. It was a gradual process though.
Take Bob Wills, the musician whose drummer had to hide behind a curtain.
Wills originally performed as a blackface comedian -- sadly, blackface performances were very, very common in the US in the 1930s (but then, they were common in the UK well into my lifetime. I'm not judging the US in particular here), but he soon became more well known as a fiddle player and occasional singer.
In 1929 Wills, the singer Milton Brown, and guitarist Herman Arnspiger, got together to perform a song at a Christmas dance party. They soon added Brown's brother Derwood on guitar and fiddle player John Dunnam, and became the Light Crust Doughboys.
[clip of the Light Crust Doughboys singing their theme]
That might seem like a strange name for a band, and it would be if that had been the name they chose themselves, but it wasn't. Their name was originally The Aladdin Laddies, as they got sponsored by the Aladdin Lamp Company to perform on WBAP radio under that name, but when that sponsorship fell through, they performed for a while as the Wills Fiddle Band, before they found a new sponsor -- Pappy O'Daniel.
You may know that name, as the name of the governor of Mississippi in the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and that was... not an *entirely* inaccurate portrayal, though the character in that film definitely wasn't the real man. The real Pappy O'Daniel didn't actually become governor of Mississippi, but he did become the governor of Texas, in the 1940s.
But in the late 1920s and early thirties he was the head of advertising for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, who made "Light Crust Flour", and he started to sponsor the show.
The band became immensely successful, but they were not particularly well paid -- in fact, O'Daniel insisted that everyone in the band would have to actually work a day job at the mill as well. Bob Wills was a truck driver as well as being a fiddle player, and the others had different jobs in the factory.
Pappy O'Daniel at first didn't like this hillbilly music being played on the radio show he was paying for -- in fact he wanted to cancel the show after two weeks. But Wills invited him down to the radio station to be involved in the broadcasts, and O'Daniel became the show's MC, as well as being the band's manager and the writer of their original material. O'Daniel even got his own theme song, "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy".
[insert Hillbilly Boys playing "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy"]
That's not the Light Crust Doughboys playing the song -- that's the Hillbilly Boys, another band Pappy O'Daniel hired a few years later, when Burrus Mill fired him and he formed his own company, Hillbilly Flour -- but that's the song that the Light Crust Doughboys used to play for O'Daniel, and the singer on that recording, Leon Huff, sang with the Doughboys from 1934 onwards. So you get the idea.
In 1932, the Light Crust Doughboys made their first recording, though they did so under the name the Fort Worth Doughboys -- Pappy O'Daniel didn't approve of them doing anything which might take them out of his control, so they didn't use the same name. This is "Nancy"
[insert clip of "Nancy"]
Now the music the Light Crust Doughboys were playing wasn't yet what we'd call Western Swing but they were definitely as influenced by jazz music as they were by Western music. In fact, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys can be seen as the prototypical example of the singer-guitarist creative tension in rock music, except here it was a tension between the singer and the fiddle player. Milton Brown was, by all accounts, wanting to experiment more with a jazz style, while Bob Wills wanted to stick with a more traditional hillbilly string band sound. That creative tension led them to create a totally new form of music.
To see this, we're going to look forward a little bit to 1936, to a slightly different lineup of the band. Take a listen to this, for example -- "Dinah".
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Dinah"]
And this -- "Limehouse Blues".
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Limehouse Blues"]
And now listen to this -- Django Reinhardt playing "Dinah"
[insert section of Reinhardt playing "Dinah"]
And Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"
[Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"]
Those recordings were made a few years after the Light Crust Doughboys versions, but you can see the similarities. The Light Crust Doughboys were doing the same things as Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt, years before them, even though we would now think of the Light Crust Doughboys as being "a country band", while Grapelli and Reinhardt are absolutely in the jazz category.
Now, I said that that's a different lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, and it is. A version of the Light Crust Doughboys continues today, and one member, Smoky Montgomery, who joined the band in 1935, continued with them until his death in 2001. Smoky Montgomery's on those tracks you just heard, but Bob Wills and Milton Brown weren't. They both left, because Pappy O'Daniel was apparently not a very good person to work for.
In particular, O'Daniel wouldn't let the Doughboys play any venues where alcohol was served, or play dances generally. O'Daniel was only paying the band members $15 a week, and they could get $40 a night playing gigs, and so Brown left in 1932 to form his own band, the Musical Brownies.
The Musical Brownies are now largely forgotten, but they're considered the first band ever to play proper Western Swing, and they introduced a lot of things that defined the genre. In particular, they introduced electric steel guitar to the Western music genre, with the great steel player Bob Dunn.
For a while, the Musical Brownies were massively popular, but sadly Brown died in a car crash in 1936.
Bob Wills stayed in the Doughboys for a while longer, as the band's leader, as O'Daniel gave him a raise to $38 a week. And he continued to make the kind of music he'd made when Brown was in the band -- both Brown and Wills clearly recognised that what they'd come up with together was something better and more interesting than just jazz or just Western.
Wills recruited a new singer, Tommy Duncan, but in 1933 Wills was fired by O'Daniel, partly because of rows over Wills wanting his brother in the band, and partly because Wills' drinking was already starting to affect his professionalism. He formed his own band and took Duncan and bass player Kermit Whalen with him. The Doughboys' steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, soon followed, and they became Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They advertised themselves as "formerly the Light Crust Doughboys" -- although that wasn't entirely true, as they weren't the whole band, though they were the core of it -- and Pappy O'Daniel sued them, unsuccessfully.
And the Texas Playboys then became the first Western Swing band to add a drum kit, and become a more obviously rhythm-oriented band.
The Texas Playboys were the first massively, massively successful Western swing band, and their style was one that involved taking elements from everywhere and putting them together. They had the drums and horns that a jazz band would have, the guitars and fiddles that country or Western bands would have, the steel guitar that a Hawaiian band would have, and that meant they could play all of those styles of music if they wanted to. And they did. They mixed jazz, and Western, and blues, and pop, and came up with something different from all of them.
This was music for dancing, and as music for dancing it had a lot of aspects that would later make their way into rock and roll. In particular it had that backbeat we talked about in episode two, although here it was swung less -- when you listen to them play with a heavy backbeat but with the fiddle as the main instrument, you can hear the influence of polka music, which was a big influence on all the Western swing musicians, and through them on rock and roll. Polka music is performed in 2/4 time, and there's a very, *very* strong connection between the polka beat and the backbeat.
(I won't go into that too much more here -- I already talked about the backbeat quite a bit in episode two -- but while researching these episodes I found a hugely informative but very detailed look at the development of the rock backbeat -- someone's PhD thesis from twenty years ago, four hundred pages just on that topic, which I'll link on the webpage if you want a much more detailed explanation)
Now by looking at the lineup of the Texas Playboys, we can see how the rock band lineup evolved. In 1938 the Texas Playboys had a singer, two guitars (one doubling on fiddle), three fiddlers, a banjo player, steel guitar, bass, drums, piano, trumpet, trombone, and two saxes. A *huge* band, and one at least as swing as it was Western. But around that time, Wills started to use electric guitars -- electric guitars only really became "a thing" in 1938 musically, and a lot of people started using them at the same time, like Benny Goodman's band as we heard about in the first episode. Wills' band was one of the first to use them, and Western musicians generally were more likely to use them, as they were already using amplified *steel* guitars.
We talked in episode two about how the big bands died between 1942 and 1944, and Wills was able to make his band considerably smaller with the aid of amplification, so by 1944 he'd got rid of most of his horn section apart from a single trumpet, having his electric guitars play what would previously have been horn lines.
So by 1944 the band would consist of two fiddles, two basses, two electric guitars, steel guitar, drums, and a trumpet. A smaller band, an electrified band, and one which, other than the fiddles and the trumpet, was much closer to the kind of lineups that you would get in the 50s and 60s. A smaller, tighter, band.
Now, Wills' band quickly became the most popular band in its genre, and he became widely known as "the king of Western Swing", but Wills' music was more than just swing. He was pulling together elements from country, from the blues, from jazz, from anything that could make him popular.
And, sadly, that would sometimes include plagiarism.
Now, the question of black influence on white music is a fraught one, and one that will come up a lot in the course of this history. And a lot of the time people will get things wrong. There were, of course, white people who made their living by taking black people's music and watering it down. There were also, though, plenty of more complicated examples, and examples of mutual influence.
There was a constant bouncing of ideas back and forth between country, western, blues, jazz, swing... all of these genres were coded as belonging to one or other race, but all of them had musicians who were listening to one another. This is not to say that racism was not a factor in who was successful -- of course it was, and this episode is, after all, about someone who started out as a blackface performer, race was a massive factor, and sadly still is -- but the general culture among musicians at the time was that good musicians of whatever genre respected good musicians of any other genre, and there were songs that everyone, or almost everyone, played, in their own styles, simply because a good song was a good song and at that time there wasn't the same tight association of performer and song that there is now -- you'd sometimes have five or six people in the charts with hit versions of the same song. You'd have a country version and a blues version and a swing version of a song, not because anyone was stealing anyone else's music, but because it was just accepted that everyone would record a hit song in their own style.
And certainly, in the case of Bob Wills, he was admired by -- and admired -- musicians across racial boundaries. The white jazz guitarist Les Paul -- of whom we'll almost certainly be hearing more -- used to tell a story. Paul was so amazed by Bob Wills' music that in 1938 he travelled from Waukesha Wisconsin, where he was visiting his mother, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear Wills' band play, after his mother made him listen to Bob Wills on the radio. Paul was himself a famous guitarist at the time, and he got drawn on stage to jam with the band.
And then, in an interval, a black man in the audience -- presumably this must have been an integrated audience, which would have been *very* unusual in 1938 in Oklahoma, but this is how Les Paul told the story, and other parts of it check out so we should probably take his word for it absent better evidence -- came up and asked for Les Paul's autograph. He told Paul that he played guitar, and Paul said for the young man to show him what he could do. The young man did, and Paul said “Jesus, you *are* good. You want to come up and sit in with us?”
And he did -- that was the first time that Les Paul met his friend Charlie Christian, shortly before Christian got the offer from Benny Goodman. Hanging out and jamming at a Bob Wills gig.
So we can, for the most part, safely put Bob Wills into the mutual respect and influence category. He was someone who had the respect of his peers, and was part of a chain of influences crossing racial and stylistic boundaries.
It gets more difficult when you get to someone like Pat Boone, a few years later, who would record soundalike versions of black musicians' hits specifically to sell to people who wouldn't buy music by black people and act as a spoiler for their records. That's ethically very, very dodgy, plus Boone was a terrible musician.
But what I think we can all agree on is that just outright stealing a black musician's song, crediting it to a white musician, and making it a massive hit is just wrong. And sadly that happened with Bob Wills' band at least once.
Now, Leon McAuliffe, the Texas Playboys' steel guitar player, is the credited composer of "Steel Guitar Rag", which is the instrumental which really made the steel guitar a permanent fixture in country and western music. Without this instrumental, country music would be totally different.
[insert a section of "Steel Guitar Rag" by Bob Wills]
That's from 1936. Now, in 1927, the guitarist Sylvester Weaver made a pioneering recording, which is now often called the first recorded country blues, the first recorded blues instrumental, and the first slide guitar recording (as I've said before, there is never a first, but Weaver's recording is definitely important). That track is called "Guitar Rag" and... well...
[insert "Guitar Rag" by Sylvester Weaver].
Leon McAuliffe always claimed he'd never heard Sylvester Weaver's song, and came up with Steel Guitar Rag independently. Do you believe him?
So, the Texas Playboys were not averse to a bit of plagiarism. But the song we're going to talk about for the rest of the episode is one that would end up plagiarised itself, very famously.
"Ida Red" is an old folk song, first recorded in 1924. In fact, structurally it's a hokum song. As is often the case with this kind of song, it's part of a massive family tree of other songs -- there are blues and country songs with the same melody, songs with different melodies but mentions of Ida Red, songs which contain different lines from the song... many folk songs aren't so much songs in themselves as they are labels you can put on a whole family. There's no one song "Ida Red", there's a whole bunch of songs which are, to a greater or lesser extent, Ida Red. "Ida Red" is just a name you can slap on that family, something you can point to.
Most versions of "Ida Red" had the same chorus -- "Ida Red, Ida Red, I'm plum fool about Ida Red" -- but different lyrics, often joking improvised ones. Here's the first version of "Ida Red" to be recorded -- oddly, this version doesn't even have the chorus, but it does have the chorus melody played on the fiddle. This is Fiddlin' Powers and Family, singing about Ida Red who weighs three hundred and forty pounds, in 1924:
[insert Fiddlin Powers version of "Ida Red"]
Wills' version is very differently structured. It has totally different lyrics -- it has the familiar chorus, but the verses are totally different and have nothing to do with the character of Ida Red -- "Light's in the parlour, fire's in the grate/Clock on the mantle says it's a'gettin' late/Curtains on the window, snowy white/The parlour's pleasant on Sunday night"
[insert Bob Wills version of "Ida Red"]
Those lyrics -- and all the other lyrics in Wills' version except the chorus, were taken from an 1878 parlour song called "Sunday Night" by George Frederick Root, a Civil War era songwriter who is now best known as the writer of the melody we now know as "Jesus Loves the Little Children". They're cut down to fit into the fast-patter do-si-do style of the song, but they're still definitely the same lyrics as Root's.
"Ida Red" was one of many massive hits for Wills and the Texas Playboys, who continued to be hugely successful through the 1940s, at one point becoming a bigger live draw than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, although the band's success started to decline when Tommy Duncan quit in 1948 over Wills' drinking -- Wills would often miss shows because of his binge drinking, and Duncan was the one who had to deal with the angry fans. Wills replaced Duncan with various other singers, but never found anyone who would have the same success with him.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had a couple of hits in the very early 1950s -- one of them, indeed, was a sequel to Ida Red -- "Ida Red Likes The Boogie", a novelty boogie song of the type we discussed last week. (And think back to what I said then about the boogie fad persisting much longer than it should have. "Ida Red Likes The Boogie" was recorded in 1949 and went top ten in 1950, yet those boogie novelty songs I talked about last week were from 1940).
[insert "Ida Red Likes The Boogie"]
But even as his kind of music was getting more into fashion under the name rock and roll, Wills himself became less popular. The band were still a popular live attraction through most of the 1950s, but they never again reached the heights of the 30s and 40s, and Wills' deteriorating health and the band's lack of success made them split up in 1965.
But before they'd split, Wills' music had had a lasting influence on rock and roll, and not just on the people you might expect. Remember how I talked about plagiarism? Well, in 1955, a musician went into Chess studios with a slight rewrite of "Ida Red" that he called "Ida May". Leonard Chess persuaded him to change the name because otherwise it would be too obvious where he stole the tune... and we will talk about "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry in a few weeks' time.
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Episode 2: Roll ‘Em Pete


Big Joe Turner singing, with a bass player behind him


Here's the second episode, on "Roll 'Em Pete" by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. One erratum before we continue -- in the episode, I say that "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" follows a particular formula common in hokum songs. That's not actually true for the original version -- it *is* true for Bill Haley's cover version, and Elvis' and the versions after them, but in Joe Turner's version the part we now know as the chorus didn't come in until near the end. Sorry about the mistake.


As always, I've put together a Mixcloud mix of all the songs talked about in this episode, which you can stream here. That mix has "In the Mood" and "the Booglie Wooglie Piggy" by Glenn Miller, "Roll 'Em Pete" and "It's All Right Baby" by Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Joe Turner, "I Need A Little Sugar in my Bowl" by Bessie Smith, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith, and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll by Bill Haley

For all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum, which goes into these subjects in far more detail than I can.

Lionel Hampton's autobiography is out of print, but you can find second hand copies very cheap.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts have been released on CD, but sadly that's also out of print -- this is the definitive version, but hopefully at some point they'll get a rerelease at a reasonable price.



"It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it" -- in Chuck Berry's classic song "Rock and Roll Music", that's the only line that actually talks about what the music is. The backbeat is, to all intents and purposes , the thing that differentiates early rock and roll from the music that preceded it. And like all of early rock and roll, it's something that had predecessors in rock's pre-history.
If you don't know what a backbeat is... well, in the days of swing, and even on a lot of very early rock and roll records, the typical beat you'd have is one called a shuffle, which sounds like you'd expect from the name, it's a sort of tit-tit-tit-tit [demonstrates] kind of sound, and you'd generally stress the first beat in the bar. [demonstrates] ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.
The shuffle rhythm was *the* swing rhythm -- so much so that often you'll see "shuffle rhythm" and "swing time" used interchangeably. Listen, for example, to the introduction to "In the Mood" by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the biggest-selling swing record of all time [plays section of song].
That's a shuffle. That's swing music, and that rhythm was the basis of almost all pre-war popular music, one way or the other. It's a good, strong, sound -- there's a reason why it was popular -- but... it's a little bit polite. A little bit tame.
A backbeat, on the other hand, gives you a straight, simple, pulse. You stress the second and fourth beats in a bar -- boom BAP boom BAP boom BAP boom BAP. It's a simpler rhythm, but a more exciting one. That's the rhythm that made rock and roll.
Players in blues and jazz music had been using that rhythm, off and on, since the 1920s. Lionel Hampton, in his autobiography, talking about his earliest work as a drummer before switching to vibraphone, says "I had a different style on drums. I was already playing with a heavy afterbeat, getting that rock-and-roll beat that wouldn't even get popular until the 1950s. I wanted people to dance, have a good time, clap their hands, and they would do it to my drumming."
And that's what a backbeat does -- it gives people somewhere to clap their hands, a very clear signal, you clap on TWO and FOUR.
But while Hampton was playing like that, he was never recorded doing that, and nor were any other drummers at the time. In fact, the first recording in the prehistory of rock generally credited as having a backbeat doesn't even have a drummer on it at all. Rather, it features just a vocalist, Big Joe Turner, and a piano player, Pete Johnson. The song, which was recorded in December 1938, is called "Roll 'Em Pete".
Now, before we go any further, I want to say something about that "generally credited". There are two problems with it -- the first is that "Roll 'Em Pete", at least in the version recorded under that name, doesn't have a particularly pronounced backbeat at all, and the second is that there *were* other records being made, long before 1938, which do. But that's the way of these things, as we'll see over and over again. The first anything is messy.
But "Roll 'Em Pete" is still a hugely important record, in ways that are more important than whether it has a backbeat on it. So let's have a look at it.
Pete Johnson was a boogie-woogie player -- yet another of the musical streams which fed into early rock and roll. Boogie woogie was a style of piano playing that became popular in the 1930s, where the left hand would play a strong bassline -- you almost certainly know the generic boogie bassline style, which goes like this [demonstrates] -- while the right hand would play decorative melodic stuff over it. That bassline and melody combination was the most popular style of playing for a time, and it became the cornerstone of rock piano playing, as well as of country music and much else. The bassline would have eight notes in a typical bar, and "eight to the bar" was another term some used for boogie woogie at the time.
But boogie woogie was, for the most part, based on that shuffle rhythm. Listen to "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith, the first real boogie record, from 1928, and you'll hear a rhythm which isn't so different to that Glenn Miller record from a decade or so later. "Roll 'Em Pete" changed that.
Pete Johnson was considered one of the greatest exponents of the boogie-woogie style, and in 1938 when John Hammond was putting together his "Spirituals to Swing" concerts, it was natural that Hammond would choose Johnson to perform. These concerts -- one in 1938 and one in 1939 -- were probably the most important concerts in popular music history. That's not an exaggeration, by any means, it's just a fact.
At the beginning of 1938, Hammond had promoted a concert by the Benny Goodman band at Carnegie, and that concert itself had been an impressive event -- it was the first time an integrated band had played Carnegie Hall, and the first time that popular music had been treated as seriously as classical music.
For a follow-up, at Christmas 1938, Hammond wanted to present only black musicians, but to an integrated audience. He wanted, in fact, to present a history of black music, from "primitive" folk forms to big band swing. This was, to say the least, a controversial choice, and in the end the event was sponsored by The New Masses, a magazine published by the Communist Party USA.
And the lineup for that show was pretty much a who's who of black American music at the time. Hammond had wanted to get Robert Johnson, but he discovered that Johnson had recently died -- Johnson's place was taken by a then-obscure folk musician called Big Bill Broonzy, who became popular largely on the basis of that appearance. Sonny Terry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, the Count Basie Orchestra, and more all appeared, and the show was successful enough that the next year there was a follow-up, with many of the same musicians, which also featured the Benny Goodman Sextet.
For this show, as well as playing on his own, Pete Johnson was backing a blues shouter called Big Joe Turner. And "shouter" was the word for what Turner did. If you don't know about blues shouters, that's unsurprising -- it's a style of music that went out of fashion with the big bands. But a blues shouter was a singer -- usually a man -- who could sing loudly and powerfully enough that he could be heard over a band, without amplification. In the early twentieth century, microphones were unknown at first, and singers had to be able to be heard over the musicians simply by the force of their voices. Some singers used megaphones as a crude form of amplification, but many more simply had to belt out their vocals as loud as they could.
Even after microphones were introduced, they were unreliable and amplification wasn't very powerful. And at the same time bands were getting bigger and louder -- blues shouters like Big Joe Turner could compete with that power, and get a crowd excited by the sheer volume of their voice, even over bands like Count Basie's.
But for the Carnegie Hall show, Turner and Pete Johnson were playing together, just the two of them. And while they were in New York, they had a recording session, and recorded a track that some say is the first rock and roll record ever.
"Roll 'Em Pete" has the first recorded example -- as far as anyone has been able to discover -- of a boogie song which uses a backbeat rather than a shuffle beat. All the musical elements of early rock and roll are there in Pete Johnson's piano part -- in particular, listen to the phrasing in his right-hand part. Those melody lines he's playing, if you transfer them to guitar, are basically the whole of Chuck Berry's guitar style, but you can also hear Jerry Lee Lewis in there.
Now you might be listening to the track and saying to yourself "I don't really hear that much of a difference with the earlier song -- are you sure it's got more of a backbeat?"
If you are, I don't blame you -- but there's a version of this song with a much clearer backbeat, and that's the live recording of Turner and Johnson performing the song at Carnegie Hall the week earlier -- that performance is titled "It's Alright Baby" rather than "Roll 'Em Pete" on the official recordings, but it's the same song. There, Turner is clapping along on the backbeat, and you can hear the claps clearly.
Now this isn't a clearcut differentiation -- you can play music in such a way that you can have a shuffle beat going up against a backbeat, and that's a lot of what's going on in boogie music of this period, and the two rhythms rubbing up against each other is a lot of what drives early rock and roll. Talking about a "first backbeat record" is almost as ridiculous as talking about a "first rock and roll record" or a "first soul record". And the more I've listened to this song and the other music of its time, the less convinced I am that this specific song has something altogether new. But still, it's a great example of boogie, of blues, and of the music that would become rock and roll, and it's one you can clearly point to and say "that has all the elements that will later go into rock and roll music. Perhaps not in exactly the same proportions, perhaps not in a way that's massively different from its predecessors, but like "Flying Home", which we talked about last time, it's as good a place to start as any.
And this is, have no doubt about it, a record of important performers.
Before we go into why, we'll talk briefly about the song, and particularly about the lyrics -- or, more precisely, the way that they aren't really coherent lyrics at all. This is something we'll be seeing a lot of in the future -- a blues tradition called "floating lyrics". A song like "Roll 'Em Pete", you see, isn't really a song in the conventional sense. There's a melodic structure there, and over that melodic structure the singer would improvise. And when blues singers improvised, they'd tend to pull out lyrics from a set of pre-existing phrases that they knew worked. "Well, I got a gal, she lives up on the hill/Well, this woman's tryin' to quit me, Lord, but I love her still" is the opening line, and that is one of those floating lyrics -- though sometimes, depending on the singer, the women says she loves me but I don't believe she will, or doesn't love me but her sister will.
Most of Turner's songs were made up of these floating lyrics, and this is something we'll see happening more in the early years of rock and roll, as we look at those. The whole idea of floating lyrics, sadly, makes authorship claims for songs somewhat difficult, and rock and roll, like blues and country before it, was essentially a folk artform to start with. We'll see several examples of people taking credit as "songwriters" for things that are put together from a bunch of pre-existing elements, striking it lucky, and becoming millionaires as a result.
Turner and Johnson could stretch "Roll 'Em Pete" out to an hour sometimes, with Turner just singing new lyrics as needed, and no recording can really capture what they were doing in live performance -- and this is the problem with much of the prehistory of rock and roll, as so much of it was created by musicians who were live performers first and recording artists a distant second, if at all.
But those live performances mattered. In 1938, when Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons made their appearances in the Spirituals to Swing shows, boogie woogie was something of a minority form -- it was something that had had a brief popularity a decade earlier and which was largely forgotten. That show changed that, and suddenly boogie woogie was the biggest thing in music -- every big band started playing boogie woogie music, adapted to the big band style. The Andrews Sisters sang about "the boogie woogie bugle boy of company B" and wanted you to "beat me daddy, eight to the bar" (and then, presumably feeling dirty after that, wanted you to "scrub me mama to a boogie beat"). Tommy Dorsey recorded "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" (renamed as "TD's Boogie Woogie"), and you got... well, things like this.
[play excerpt of "The Booglie Wooglie Piggy" by Glenn Miller]
That's the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the biggest band of the forties, with Tex Beneke singing about a booglie wooglie piggy. They don't write them like that any more.
Most of this music, as you can hear, was still using that swing beat, but it was clearly boogie woogie music, and that became the biggest style of music in late-period big band music, the music that was popular in the early 1940s. Even in songs that aren't directly about being boogie-woogie -- like, say, Glenn Miller's "Chatanooga Choo Choo" -- you still get that boogie rhythm, and nods to the generic boogie bassline and you get lines like "when you hear that whistle blowing eight to the bar, then you know that Tennessee is not very far".
And that influence had a bigger impact than it might otherwise have done, and became something bigger than just a fad, because between 1941 and 1943 a whole host of events conspired to change the music industry forever.
Most importantly, of course, the Second World War reached America, and that caused a lot of problems for the big band industry -- men who would otherwise have been playing in those bands were being drafted, as were men who would otherwise have been going out dancing to those bands.
But there were two smaller events that, if anything, made even more impact. The first of these was the ASCAP boycott.
The American Society of Composers and Publishers was -- and still is -- an organisation that represented most of the most important songwriters and music publishers in the USA, the people who had been writing the most successful songs. They collected royalties for live performances and radio plays, and distributed them to the composers and publishers who made up their membership. And they only dealt with the respectable Tin Pan Alley composers, but that covered enough songs -- in the early forties they had a repertoire of one and a quarter million songs, including all the most popular songs that the big bands were playing.
And then for ten months in 1941, they banned all the radio stations in the USA from playing any of their songs, over a royalty dispute.
This should have been catastrophic for the radio stations, and would have been if there hadn't been another organisation, BMI, set up as a rival to ASCAP a couple of years earlier. BMI dealt with only the low-class music -- the blues, and country songs, and gospel songs, and hillbilly music, and boogie. The stuff ASCAP didn't think was important.
Except that now all that music became *very* important, because that was all you could play on the radio. Well, that and public domain songs, but pretty soon everyone was bored of hearing "I Dream of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair".  And so there was suddenly a much bigger audience for all the hillbilly and blues performers, all of whom had incorporated the boogie style into their own styles.
And then, just as the music industry was getting back on its feet after that, there was what is still the biggest entertainment strike in US history -- the musicians' union strike of 1942-44. This time, the strike didn't affect anyone playing on the radio -- so long as it was a live performance. But because of a dispute over royalties, no instrumentalist was allowed to record for the major record labels for two years.
This had several effects, all of them profound.
Firstly, the big bands all recorded a *lot* of music to stockpile in the last weeks before the strike, and this meant that the styles that were current in July 1942 effectively stayed current -- at least as far as the record-buying public was concerned. For two years, the only big band music that could be released was from that stockpile, so the music recorded during the boogie fad stayed around longer than it otherwise might have, and remained a major part of the culture.
Secondly, the ban only affected the major labels. Guess who was on the minor labels, the ones that could keep making music and putting it out? That's right, those blues and hillbilly musicians, and those boogie piano players. The same ones whose songs had just spent a year being the only ones the famous bands could play, and now after being given that free publicity by the famous bands, they had no competition from them.
Third -- and this is a real negative effect of the strike, one which is an immense historical tragedy for music lovers -- there was a new form of jazz being invented in New York between 1942 and 1944 by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, people who played in the big bands but were also doing something new in their side gigs. That form later became known as be-bop, or just bop, and is some of the most important music of the twentieth century, but we have no recordings of its birth
And fourth -- the strike didn't affect singers. So Tommy Dorsey's band couldn't record anything, but Dorsey's old vocalist, Frank Sinatra, could, backed by a vocal group instead of instrumentalists. And so could lots of other singers.
The end result of all this was that, at the end of 1944, swing was effectively dead, as was the tradition of instrumentalists being the stars in American music. From that time on, the stars would stop being trombone players like Glenn Miller or clarinetists like Benny Goodman -- or piano players like Pete Johnson. Instead they were singers, like Frank Sinatra -- and like Joe Turner. The swing musicians either went into bebop, and thus more or less vanish from this story (though their own story is always worth following up), or they went into playing the new forms of music that had sprung up, in particular one form which was inspired by swing bands like Lionel Hampton's and Count Basie's, but also by the boogie music that had influenced them, and by the blues. That form was called rhythm and blues, and Joe Turner became one of its biggest stars.
Seventeen years after "Roll 'Em Pete", Joe Turner recorded another song, which became his most well-known contribution to popular music. That song was written by the songwriter Jesse Stone -- though he was using the name "Charles Calhoun", because he was a member of ASCAP under his real name, and this was a BMI song if ever there was one -- but you can hear that there's a very, very clear line to "Roll 'Em Pete". The main difference here is that the backbeat is now stressed, almost to the point of parody, because "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is a rock and roll song.
We'll be hearing more about Jesse Stone in a few songs' time, but for now we'll just talk about this song. That's Connie Kay, the drummer from the Modern Jazz Quartet, you can hear there doing that "whap, whap" snare drum playing. It's safe to say that's not the subtlest piece of drumming he ever did, but it may well be the most influential.
"Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is definitely the *same kind of thing* as "Roll 'Em Pete", isn't it? The piano playing is similar, Turner's blues shouting is the same kind of thing, the vocal melody is similar, both are structured around twelve-bar blueses, and both songs are made up largely of floating lyrics. But "Shake Rattle and Roll" is rock and roll, and it was covered by both Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, the two biggest white rock and roll singers of the time, and Turner would perform it on shows promoted by Alan Freed, the man who claimed to have coined the term "rock and roll".
So what makes the difference? Well, firstly that backbeat from Connie Kay, that gives it a much bigger forward momentum. But there's a few other things as well -- influences from other genres that fed into rock and roll.
There's the obvious one, of the saxophone. That's from rhythm and blues, and it's something that rhythm and blues got from swing. Remember Ilinois Jacquet's solo on "Flying Home" from last episode? That's a very clear progenitor for this.
But there's also the influence of another type of song -- one most people who talk about the origins of rock and roll don't even think of as being a separate type of music, as it just gets rolled up into "blues".
The hokum song is a type of music with a long history, which can trace its origins through vaudeville back to minstrel songs. It was originally for comedy performances more than anything else, but later a whole subgenre of them started being just songs about sex. Some of the more euphemistic of them are songs like "Fishing Pole Blues", which has lines like "want to go fishing in my fishing hole/If you want to fish with me you'd better have a great big pole", or songs called things like "Banana in my Fruit Basket", I Want a Hot-Dog in my Roll", "It's Tight Like That" and "Warm My Weiner".
There were less euphemistic songs, too, called things like "Bull Dyke Blues", but I won't look at those in any more detail here as I don't want this podcast to get put in an "adults only" section. Suffice to say, there was plenty of very, very obscene music as well as the comedy songs and the more euphemistic material.
And the other thing about hokum songs is that they stuck to a fairly straightforward formula. There weren't the complicated structures of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the time, there was a simple pattern of a verse which had different lyrics every time and a chorus which was always the same, and the two would alternate. The chorus would usually be a twelve-bar blues, and more often than not so would the verse, though sometimes it would be an eight-bar blues instead.
And this is the pattern that you would get in rock and roll songs throughout the fifties. It's the pattern of "Tutti Frutti", of "Maybelline", of "Rock Around the Clock", and of "Shake Rattle and Roll". And "Shake Rattle and Roll", while it's not the dirtiest song in history or anything, is certainly fairly blatant about its subject matter.
(Hilariously, Bill Haley's cover version is famously "cleaned up" -- they took out lines like "the way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through" and "I believe to my soul you're the devil in nylon hose" in case they were too dirty. But they left in "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea-food store"...)
So that's what rock and roll was, in its early stages -- a blues shouter, singing over a boogie-inspired piano part, with a backbeat on the snare drum, a structure and lyrics patterned after the hokum song, and horns coming out of swing music. And there is a very, very clear line to that from "Roll 'Em Pete", and the boogie-woogie revival of 1938, and the "Spirituals to Swing" concerts.
But wait... isn't the cliche that rock and roll comes from R&B mixed with country music? Where's all the country music in this?
Well, that cliche is slightly wrong. Rock doesn't have much influence from the country music, but it has a lot of influence from Western music. And for that, we'll have to wait until next episode.
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