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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rock Music - Who Did It First?

Now, rock and roll is a general term that encompasses many different styles of music including rhythm and blues, soul, rockabilly, progressive, and more. The rock music site Happiness Is a Warm Gun reported, "But rock and roll is also more than the defining electric guitar riffs, the narrative ballad, or the four and eight bar song stanzas that riddled early rock. Rock and roll is a feeling, a swagger, and catalyst for change. Rock and roll is a movement, whether it is on the dance floor or a statement of the times, rock and roll can be seen in all facets of American life." ("History Class: The First Rock Song," September 16 2010)

A description of the evolution of rock is always controversial. As the musical form was evolving,  music was moving into a new, distinctive style far from its segregated past. Rock music is said to have combined elements of blues, country music, jazz and gospel.

But, no part of the mixture contributed more to the origin of rock than black music of the times. In 1949, black music, which, until then, had been called "race records," was newly designated "rhythm and blues" in professional publications. The genre quickly gained an increasingly mixed mainstream audience.

Nothing about the style is debated more than one obvious question: What was the first rock and roll recording?

 First Rock Song

Standard answers to this question include Elvis Presley's "That's All Right (Mama)" recorded in July 1954 or Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" recorded on April 12, 1954. Many rock historians disagree and choose Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" recorded on March 5, 1951, or Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" recorded in December, 1949

The Warm Gun site supports none of the above. It states that (the) "movement began on May 1st, 1948 with Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” conquered the charts as well as the title as the first rock and roll song." I tend to agree. Who was Wynonie Harris? I thought you would never ask.

Wynonie Harris

Wynonie Harris was born in Omaha, Nebraska, August 24. 1915. By 1938 Harris was already establishing a good reputation as a blues performer. He was a seasoned dancer, drummer and comedian when he left Omaha for Los Angeles in 1940. In Los Angeles played drums, danced, sang, and even appeared in a movie Hit Parade of 1943. He was heavily influenced by Louis Jordan's music.

Harris had a hit with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra in 1945 with "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well." The song went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for eight weeks. The song remained on the charts for almost five months, also becoming popular with white audiences as it climbed to #7 on the U.S. pop chart.

Later in 1945, Harris embarked on a solo career. He worked regularly with Illlinois Jacquet, Lionel Hampton, and Charles Mingus. Wynonie sang under the description of "Mr Blues" on recordings in his own name and backing from The Johnny Otis Orchestra. (, 2009)

"Good Rocking Tonight" (December 28, 1947) was written by Roy Brown, who first offered his song to Wynonie Harris but Harris turned it down. Maybe he refused the song in its original style. Brown's original version is a jump blues that parodies gospel music, and for the first time fuses the spiritual sense of "rocking" with the secular meanings of dancing and sex..

So, Brown recorded the song and it gained popularity in New Orleans. Then, of course, Brown (not an angelic, humble man) covered it with his own version on King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio, under legendary boss Sid Nathan.

Harris's cover was even more energetic than Brown's original version, featuring black gospel style handclapping. Much more upbeat and rhythmic, Harris's version led to a craze for blues with "rocking" in the title. This may have contributed to the composition's greater success on the national R&B chart.

Brown's original recording hit number 13 of the Billboard R&B chart, but Harris' record became a number one R&B hit and remained on the chart for half a year. Brown's single would re-enter the chart in 1949, peaking at #11. (Joel Whitburn, Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004, 2004) Later, among the many others who covered the song were Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Pat Boone.

Harris followed with more songs such as "Good Morning Judge," "All She Wants to Do Is Rock," and "Bloodshot Eyes," but he could never quite reach the same level of fame again that "Good Rocking Tonight"  had provided for him.

By 1955, it was clear that Harris's fortunes were in reversal. The gas was shut off and work was scarce. Some say that Harris then age forty-one didn't change with the times, so he didn't appeal to a younger audience. Others say he had always been arrogant and difficult to work with. His personal lifestyle must have contributed: Harris had been a heavy smoker and drinker and it had affected his voice. One certainty is that Harris was financially irresponsible, spending his money as fast as he made it. (Jean Sanders, "Wynonie Harris: 'Mr. Blues,' an American Idol of His Day,", 2004)

During the late 1950s, Harris found occasional work singing but had to develop other sources of income. He tried management and promotion to no avail. He began living in a house with his son Wesley. In May 1955 he and Wesley argued. Wesley moved out, and that was the last time they saw each other. The next year he lost the house. In 1958 he and long-time girlfriend Ice Cream separated after losing another house.

His final large-scale performance was at the Apollo, New York in November 1967, where he performed with Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker. On June 14, 1969 he died at the age of fifty-four. 

In 1994, Wynonie Harris was inducted into the W.C. Handy Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.

Living the Life of a Rock Star

This is reportedly the story of the first meeting between Wynonie and Sid Nathan (and a fellow King executive) in a back street hotel in Harlem New York in December 1947: 

"They knocked on the door and were invited in only to find Wynonie Harris lying on the bed in pink underwear accompanied by 3 naked ladies.
"At this point one of the ladies apparently spoke out of turn and was thrown out into the corridor still in her birthday suit!

"Needless to say subsequent negotiations were a little strange to say the least as Sid Nathan thought Wynonie Harris to be a drunken stupid individual. It is rumoured that the only time this ladies man par excellence wasn't involved in hanky panky was when he was either too drunk or suffering from a hangover.

"Nevertheless the hillbilly label boss was smart enough to recognize the growing popularity of black artists and they signed the former Lucky Millinder big band singer and transformed a promising performer into a consistent R&B hit maker."  ("Rock N Roll Heaven," Masters Entertainment Corporation,, 2009)

Listen to Wynonie Harris and "Good Rocking Tonight."

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