Feb 102009

I know that there are plenty of arguments as to why we could never isolate one single song as the first rock and roll song ever. And those arguments are more than welcome…if and only if they lead us to identifying the song.

It was in revisiting the American Graffiti soundtrack (thanks to mikeydread’s first Main Stage post) that got me thinking about this again. The common wisdom when the movie came out, at least as relayed to me by my father, was that Bill Haley & The CometsRock Around the Clock was the first rock and roll song ever.

Since that time I’ve read claim to many others. Following are just some of them:

1916 (because it uses the phrase rockin’ ‘n rollin’)










1949 (by Jimmy Preston, this is Haley’s 1952 cover followed by Rock Around the Clock)

1951 (Ike Turner, this is Haley’s cover from the same year)




Rocket 88 (orginal, I think)

Is it one of these? Another?


  54 Responses to “Once And For All: The First Rock & Roll Song”

  1. “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats is also often cited as a possible first rock and roll song. I’m not ready to make a judgment but it needs to be thrown into the mix.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    I’m strongly of the belief that the first rock ‘n roll song is the first song to have been marketed as a “rock ‘n roll song.” Would that have been “Rock Around the Clock,” or would whatever song Elvis first played on Ed Sullivan (“That’s Alright Mama”?) have been the first rock ‘n roll song. All these ex post facto “citations” are not definititve enough to meet the high standards for our Once and For All series.

  3. Mod, do you really want to shift the discussion from the structure/feel of the music to the advertising of the music? As I say on student papers, “What are your grounds for this point?” So, make your case. I’m sure we’ll all consider your argument fairly.

  4. saturnismine

    Little richard made recordings before Rock Around the clock. What do they sound like?

    rocket 88 sounds like rock and roll to me, much more so than the ex post facto songs, which are examples that stretch pre existing genres and are prescient of rock and roll.

    i don’t really care about marketing, but i don’t dismiss the perception that it implies: i think that bill haley and the comets were probably the first guys who thought they were playing something new, called rock and roll, and they were seen that way, too.

    but again, what do the earliest little richard records sound like?

  5. BigSteve

    Actually Little Richard’s first single Tutti Frutti didn’t come out until late 1955. Rock Around the Clock is from 1954, but to me it sounds more like a swing number. Same for Elvis’ Sun sides. I vote for Maybelline with its slamming snare backbeat as the first rock&roll song, though I’ve got to say Big Mama Thirnton’s original version of Hound Dog has to be one of the grooviest records ever.

  6. BigSteve

    Before saturn jumps on this let me correct this and say Richards first HIT single was in 55. I’ve heard those earlier records, before he signed to Specialty, and they were undistinguished jump blues, if memory serves.

  7. My final vote is for “Rocket 88”.


  8. Hank Fan

    Great topic.

    First of all, there definitely is one specific answer (assuming we can agree on the definition of rock and roll).

    If there are rock and roll songs now, and there was a time when there were no rock and roll songs, then there had to be a first rock and roll song!!! It’s like a philosophical conclusion or something.

    To identify that song, we must first define what is required for a song to qualify as “rock and roll.” Two things I think are important are prominent drums and an electric guitar. A lot of early country & Western Swing songs sound kind of like rock and roll, but the instrumentation is all wrong. They are missing the classic drums/electric guitar/bass small-combo thing.

    Am I right that electric guitar is essential? What about a piano-bass drums combination? Would that work? What other attributes are essential?

    Apart from instrumentation, what stylistic characteristics are necessary for a “rock and roll” song?

    It’s pretty easy to draw the line between blues and other less defined styles, but how do we necessarily know when something is country (pedal steel guitar?) or R&B instead of rock and roll? These lines are not so easy to draw, but we must attempt it!

    All of that said, I don’t have a specfic song in mind just yet, but I will try to come up with one after conducting some further research.

  9. saturnismine

    BigSteve, don’t be afraid.

    All I asked for was a description of what Little Richard’s earliest records sound like, since I didn’t know. “Undistinguished jump blues” is all I was looking for. Thanks.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Mwall wrote:

    Mod, do you really want to shift the discussion from the structure/feel of the music to the advertising of the music?

    Oh, don’t be such a marketing-phobe, Mwall! I don’t want to shift the discussion away from what we’re trying to determine – once and for all. I’m trying to make sure we keep it on track. Me arguing that some blues song from 1931 is like me claiming that the first man who ever turned me on sexually was Sharon Gless.

  11. saturnismine

    a song could have all the trappings of a rock and roll song as we define it, and have been recorded earlier than any other example. that would make it the first rock and roll song in the pure sense of that phrase’s meaning.

    but i think mod’s point is that if nobody heard it or cared about it, and it was only discovered later, then it wasn’t “first” in the sense that it didn’t “start” the development of the genre, because it did’nt generate any responses.

  12. sammymaudlin

    Hey mwall. I couldn’t find a vid of the “Brenston” Rocket 88 and don’t own one but the one up there is to represent that. I don’t think we could credit Haley as the “Brenston” version came out earlier that year and was an original.

    The song is credited to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats” but it was actually recorded by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm and supposedly was more than “co-written” by Turner but that’s a whole ‘nother thread.

  13. Mod, I didn’t reject your marketing case because you didn’t quite make one. Saturn did a better job: is it rock and roll because of the musical structure only or does it matter if the players believed they were playing something called rock and roll and the audience believed that’s what they were hearing? The former basis would point to Rocket 88, but the latter would point to Haley.

    Just an FYI point of comparison, Ma Rainey in 1916 was the first to state that she was playing something called “the blues” but the style can be said to predate her by a few years at least.

    Does anyone have a copy of the Brenston/Turner version?

  14. Vernon Reid of the Black Rock Co-olition said it was the Big Mamma Thorton Hound Dog. He would know you guys.

    I don’t know what it is.

    What’s the first Punk Album?

  15. BigSteve

    I no longer have a copy of it, but you can hear 30 seconds of Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 on emusic. It doesn’t sound like it’s quite there to me.

    When I got home I dug out Big Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle & Roll (recorded February 15, 1954), and it sure sounds like rock & roll to me.

  16. Mr. Moderator

    Today, if we’re to consider, say, The Smiths as rock ‘n roll, is it possible that we could make the case for Chopin or an even less-rocking musician as the composer of the first rock ‘n roll song?

  17. 2000 Man

    I have to go with Bill Haley because the obscure earlier stuff attracted zero attention from teenagers. I think Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll puts Bill Haley’s to shame, but but the kids weren’t listening to it and Alan Freed wasn’t playing it. It’s not like some nerdy group of middle aged men were the ones that initially made rock n roll popular.

  18. 2000 Man

    Ugh…The Smiths.

    I know a guy that said the first rock n roll song was Sh-Boom by The Crew Cuts. He probably thinks The Smiths are rock n roll.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    I’m backing 2K’s selection for Bill Haley ALL THE WAY! Baby, that’s rock ‘n roll. The earlier stuff is tremendous, but it wasn’t turning on the kids the way Haley’s first two hits did. I hope Mwall has a better idea now of what I’ve been getting at.

  20. Well, Mod, it’s certainly clear that you’re not embracing the “It’s all about the music” perspective, which would require that we consider the issue a technical matter merely.

    That said, I’m not sure that your whole-hearted embrace of the idea that rock and roll, in its foundational moment, is first and foremost a cultural phenomena, and only secondly a musical genre, won’t cause you some problems that I won’t remind you of at a later time. I’ll be storing this one, believe me. For the moment, I’m sure Dr. John is glad to welcome you to the Cultural Studies camp.

  21. Mr. Moderator

    Save this as you like, Mwall. You think Oats isn’t having second thoughts about squirreling away my words on Westerberg?

    Honestly, all the musical points you guys are trying to make are worthy and admirable, but at what point are we robbing earlier genres of their significance by trying to claim them as our own? Especially as we bemoan Exploitive Black Rock History Month, why should we decide – long after the fact – that what might have been a highpoint of blues or R&B was actually the beginning of rock ‘n roll? Christianity, for instance, requires the birth of Christ. We acknowledge the influence of Old Testament figures like Moses, but does anyone try to make the case that Moses was the first Christian? I’m having a little fun, but I’m also trying to add discipline to this discussion. If we’re to determine, once and for all, what the first rock ‘n roll song was, shouldn’t we set some clear boundaries?

    It’s also for this reason that, as much as the rocker in me likes the idea of choosing an acknowledged rock song like “Maybelline” over “Rock Around the Clock,” as BigSteve suggested owing to Berry’s more archetypal rock ‘n roll structure, that I think we have to be fair in considering what was thought of, at the time, as a rock ‘n roll song. We can’t decide when they really got it right. If, for instance, “Sh-Boom” was considered rock ‘n roll AND it predated the other rock ‘n roll songs, maybe – god forbid – 2000 Man’s friend was right!

  22. Hank Fan

    It’s really two questions. Assuming “rock and roll” is something more than a cultural phenomenon (i.e., an actual musical sytle), then we could identify the first recording to fall within the definition of the style. It may also be impossible, however, to determine the first recording to be a part of the cultural phenomenon of rock and roll, since cultural phenomenons often do not have a precise starting point.

    But enough blabbling already.

    My vote is Wynonie Harris “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from 1948.

  23. Mod, I believe your point is that Christianity requires people who believe in the birth of Christ. If the dude is born and nobody gives a damn, then who gives a damn that he was born. That’s okay with me. And hardcore relies on the belief of people in hardcore. It’s a culture that way. Also true.

  24. Mr. Moderator

    No, Mwall, don’t get relig-o-phobic on me now. Christianity exists whether we believe in it or not. It is rooted in the birth of this Christ figure, whether we believe it or not. If you don’t want to set any limits on this particular discussion, then make a good case for doing so. Don’t try to put me in a box or bring Dr. John into it.

    At this point, fully confident in my distaste for this subject an inability to contribute anything productive to the discussion, I’ll have to remove myself from the discussion. Unless Mwall feels it’s necessary to keep attacking me. Even then, though, you’ll sense my Silent Storm of support gathering behind 2K and his nomination of Bill Haley’s hits.

  25. dbuskirk

    The first rock and roll song hasn’t been written yet. When it’s ready, its gonna blow all your minds.

    No one’s got a copy of “Rocket 88”? If some needs it. I have it. It’s on that three-disc Sun Records comp Rhino put out.

  26. BigSteve

    Black people invented rock & roll. Period. During this month of all months it would be a Rock Crime to claim that a lightweight poser like Bill Haley deserves credit for the first rock & roll record because he knew how to market it and ‘the kids’ bought it.

  27. I’m not attacking you, Mod. I’m appreciating your move to the cultural side. The question is, does a thing occur when it occurs or when it is acknowledged as occurring? Or is the acknowledgment of it occurring the same as it occurring? Christianity exists whether you or I believe in it or not, but does it exist if nobody believes in it? I LIKE the idea that rock and roll doesn’t exist until people know they’re grooving to rock and roll. I’m just a little surprised that you like the idea too.

  28. 2000 Man

    I think saying Black people get full credit for “inventing” Rock N Roll is more than a little off the mark. Those really tasty guitars on a lot of early Rock N Roll records are white guys that played country music. I also disagree with people that say, “Rock N Roll comes from The South.” It comes from the North, too. Rock N Roll without Doo Wop or those white country players could have just stayed the blues.

    Rock N Roll isn’t just a type of music, it’s also a cultural phenomenon. People thought it was just a fad that kids had that would go away, but cheap electric guitars and horny girls that liked boys that could play guitars gave it unexpected legs.

    It needed those white kids. White kids had the money and free time to waste on music and dancing. It doesn’t turn into Rock N Roll until white people join in and add their parts.

  29. Mr. Moderator

    Mwall, I see what you’re saying now. I did a lot of thinking last week, when we celebrated The Day the Music Died. It may have turned me around on this issue. Seriously, the whole p. 66 in the NY Times thing spoke volumes about all the importance that we tend to heap on events after the fact.

    2K, you are much more articulate on this subject than I am today. Thanks!

  30. general slocum

    Yes, well, go to a major rap show these days and check out the crowd. FUBU is neither. Steve’s point is taken. All those white guys playing those licks back in the day were vilified, as was Elvis, as was…, with the accusation that they were playing “negro music.” So clearly it was perceived that way back in the day.

    Bill Haley & Co. were one of the first groups to come along who not only didn’t take that “wrong side of the tracks” cred as easy fuel for rock fires, but eschewed it strategically to let their records into many more homes than, say Gene Vincent.

    The inanity of threads like this, to me, is that there was no first rock song, recognized as such, at the time. Someone already mentioned the idea that many of the people with the ‘first rock records’ were convinced they were playing blues, or country, or whatever. Let poor old Louis Jordan bask in his goofball jumpness. Don’t foist revolution on him.

    The level of meaningfulness in this thread is well matched by the answer of “Bill Haley.” Accept it, if only to then go all record geek on your friends and tell them how the *real* rock and roll was going on in a tiny town they never heard of when their great grandparents were getting it on. It’s all true.

  31. Mr. Moderator

    It’s looking good for Bill Haley!

  32. hrrundivbakshi

    Well, like my previous post suggests, I think this is a fool’s errand. But 2000Man’s note, paraphrased here:

    “Rock N Roll without Doo Wop or those white country players could have just stayed the blues…It needed those white kids. White kids had the money and free time to waste on music and dancing. It doesn’t turn into Rock N Roll until white people join in and add their parts.”

    …made me realize that, as usual, Bon Scott had it right when he explained:

    “The white man had the schmaltz, the black man had the blues. Nobody knew what they were gonna do, but Tchaikovsky had the news…”

    Everything else is just dickin’ around, counting the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

  33. dbuskirk

    Let me throw one more legend in the pile, it obviously began when Elvis, Scottie, and Billy was horsing around with an machine-like tightness of a Bill Monroe tune and pretending that Bill just walking back from a black bordello when a fleeting bolt of rhythm struck him. Elvis (whose family was so poor they sometimes attended black churches) started singing it like Wynonnie Harris and the whole thing went into the Stratosphere. Next they did a blues tune, Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” with some hillbilly flourishes, pressed the songs back to back on a 45 and you’ve got yourself a real cultural A-Bomb.

    Hearing the stories of Dewey Phillips playing it over and over the second he got it, someone dragging Elvis out of movie theater so all of Memphis could get a look at him, if there was a rock and roll moment that seems like it was it.

    Everyone who heard it wanted to buy it, sell it or kill the people who were playing it. That’s what happens when you drag a culture that hears everything in waltzes, marches and oomp-pahs into the rhythms of the boogie-woogie. There’s an extra beat in there they’d never heard before, now white people didn’t know how to walk, talk, or move across a room. I don’t know if we’ve ever recovered.

  34. “I know a guy that said the first rock n roll song was Sh-Boom by The Crew Cuts.”

    He should listen to the original version of that song by the Chords. I used to hate that song until I heard the original. The Crew Cuts version manages to drain the soul out of that song, yet that’s the only version that you hear on oldies radio. They were released in 1954.

    Actually, it’s kind of like Irma Thomas and the Stones version of Time Is On My Side in that once you hear the original, the cover sounds a bit embarrassing.

  35. hrrundivbakshi

    I believe there’s an old volume of Thrifty Music with the Chords’ version of “Sh-Boom” on it. Might have been on RTH Chess.

  36. hrrundivbakshi

    The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”:


  37. dbuskirk

    “He should listen to the original version of that song by the Chords. I used to hate that song until I heard the original. “

    I thought that “‘Sh-Boom’ by the Crew Cuts” was part of the joke. John Waters does a pretty funny Crew-Cuts parody in otherwise mediocre CRY BABY.

  38. The definitive version of “Sh-Boom” is by Ben Gazzara in the film Roadhouse, okay?!

  39. I stand corrected, and am embarrassed by my oversight.

  40. BigSteve

    2k, don’t be such a yankee. Rock & roll, like all good music, comes from the South. The Mod is only backing Haley because he’s from the Philly area.

  41. And while you are checking out hvb’s link to the Chords’ Sh-Boom check out the other videos it leads you to.

    This one’s from 1980 and is a cappella. Looks like all 4 could be originals based on their apparent age and the performance is great


    And this ones undated but even later as all are considerably older but it is also a performance than any aging rocker would give their left amp to match.


  42. sammymaudlin

    Fools errand? Indeed. Inanity? Absolutely. Who better to take on this fool’s errand than the fightin’ Townsmen of Rock Town Hall? I’m confident that we are rapidly approaching a conclusion to this question, once and for all.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that Bill Haley is the guy that cobbled all the disparate elements together both musically and attitudinally.

    So what remains then is, which song of his was the first to do so?

    In 1951 he released his version of Rocket 88 (the original of which, I think, I posted at the end of the post). This was released just months after the Brenston release. So can you call Haley’s version the first rock ‘n roll song? Seeing as how the Brenston version kinda sorta ROCKS more and was an original?

    In 1952 he released his cover of Rock The Joint. So, same question as above.

    In 1953 he released an original tune Crazy, Man Crazy that many consider to be the first “rock and roll song” to chart.

    You can hear it here- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtNJo6-4XPE

    Later that year he changed his band’s name from the Saddlemen to the Comets and released Rock Around The Clock, a tune that was written for him.

    So it seems like we’ve narrowed down our choices to the above songs, both original and Haley versions.

  43. BigSteve

    Poking around for info on the Chords I found this claim on wikipedia:

    “Gee, released in June 1953 by The Crows, is credited with the honor of being the first Rock n’ Roll hit by a rock and roll group.”

    I’m not buying it, but check out the song by way of this peek into the world of jukebox geekdom:


  44. BigSteve

    Hvb’s quote of Bon Scott reminded me of what Townes van Zandt said (I think it was him): “There’s only two kinds of music, the blues and zippedeedoodah.”

  45. This thread is called “Once and For All,” so I can’t leave it without providing what for me is the final answer.

    Now, I don’t say that this is a perfect answer, or one that entirely meets the spirit of the question. I say only that given the facts, it is the most objectively correct answer:

    “What is the first rock and roll song?”


    The term “rock and roll” was invented by black Americans as a slang word for sex. The musical style that later became known as rock and roll was invented by black musicians, in songs like Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” and Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as a very slight variation on a number of earlier precursor songs. However, at the time those songs were made, they weren’t called “rock and roll.” As far as the historical record notes, Alan Freed was the first to use the term “rock and roll” to identify the style of music as a genre, and Bill Haley, with songs like “Rock Around The Clock,” was the first musician to consciously present his music as something called rock and roll, although the songs themselves were fairly pale translations of the style. Still, many white people considered rock and roll to be black music, especially after Elvis Presley’s first singles, which is quite ironic given that Presley showed that white people could play excellent music in that style.

    Therefore, the answer to the question of the first rock and roll song is really a question of culture and value. If you say that it’s crucial to note the first appearance of the style, even if no one at the time thought they were hearing rock and roll, then “Rocket 88” seems like the answer, an answer which has the further value of not denying the centrality of black culture to rock and roll. But if you answer the question by saying that the issue is the first record that people thought, at the time, was rock and roll, then the answer is “Rock Around The Clock”

    And that’s my final word on the subject.

  46. Except that I now withdraw the claim about “Rock Around the Clock” and replace it with one of Saturn’s selections above.

    Saturn, I think the answer depends on which song came closest after any public claim that the music was CALLED “rock and roll” Exactly when did someone first call it that?

  47. BigSteve

    I can’t believe we’ve been ignoring Pat Boone’s contributions to early rock history.

    And stay tuned for my next thread — “The Bee Gees Invented Disco!”

  48. sammymaudlin

    The voting has begun.

  49. BigSteve

    Since we can no longer add our own choices, there should be a ‘none of the above’ option.

  50. You can voice your own choice right here though, Steve.

  51. BigSteve

    I already said that my vote was for Chuck Berry’s Maybellene, later amended to add Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle & Roll, if we were going to allow entries from the period when Rock & Roll Dare Not Speak Its Name.

    I can’t relate to a poll where four of the seven choices are Bill Haley, since I do not ascribe to the ‘it doesn’t exist unless and until white people do it’ theory of history. And frankly I’m shocked that the RTH consensus leant in the direction of sociology and away from the music.

  52. alexmagic

    I’m way late chiming in on this one and feel like I’m restating what some people have already said, so I won’t be offended if people want to skip on by.

    Bill Haley seems to have had the specific intent to make a certain kind of music, building on older songs. “Rock Around The Clock” was apparently written for him, but recorded by others first. The way he did it, though, is what made it sound like a charged up take on “Move It On Over”, and the pattern with his songs seems to have been re-working existing songs that weren’t necessarily rock – if only, in some cases, because no one had thought to call it that yet, as people have been arguing – into something else. So in that sense, the idea that Haley was the first person out there consciously trying to create “rock ‘n roll music” is pretty interesting.

    But that still doesn’t mean his songs were the first rock songs. In a way it seems like early rock, pulling from different genres like it did, almost has to be defined more by what it wasn’t than what it was. That is, could you argue that the first rock song must have been the first rock song because it couldn’t have been classified as anything else?

    “Rocket 88” is a rock song to me, because I don’t know what else I’d call it. It sounds like what 50s rock would sound like, it was apparently – in what would be the rock tradition – inspired by other, earlier pre-rock songs, and hell, it’s about cars. If that’s not rock, what is it? And I don’t think Haley’s version is sufficiently different from the Brenston/Ike Turner version that I’d classify them as two different genres of music.

    Two songs earlier than Rocket 88 that have me wondering what I’d call them, if not rock: Dan and hank fan mentioned Wynonie Harris, and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” really does sound like what would be called rock in the ‘50s, though maybe not quite at the right speed yet. The Harris version sounds different than the one that came out before it, and I like the Saints Go Marching In fake-out at the beginning, almost as if it was heralding a musical change.

    A few years later you have the Dominos’ “Sixty Minute Man”. I honestly had no idea that came out in 1950, I would have guessed later in the ‘50s. It sounds to me like the rock/doo-wop songs that would turn up later in the decade. I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on where they’d classify a song like that for the purposes of this discussion.

    I’m voting for the original Rocket 88, but looking back at what Bill Haley’s role in rock was definitely interesting. Even if he didn’t invent rock, that’s still not a bad legacy for a guy who none of us even mentioned in that “Five Best Rock Artist of the 1950s” thread here back in July.

  53. sammymaudlin

    Hey BigSteve. A belated apology for not getting back to you sooner on your dissatisfaction with the poll options. I had to run it up the ladder.

    I’m sorry to say that the Providers of Triskelion have ruled that these shall be the only options. To offer any others we would be risking punishment via the obedience collar.

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