A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

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 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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