The term "rock and roll" was originally a nautical term which has been used by seamen for centuries. The term refers to the rock (fore and aft motion) and roll (sideways motion) of a ship. The term entered black gospel music long ago, but with a different meaning, and was first used as such in a recording in 1912, in an early black gospel recording called "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" on the Little Wonder Record label. The artists were listed simply as "Male Quartette."
Keep on rockin' an' roll me in
Rock an' roll me in yo' arms,
Rock an' roll me in yo' arms,
In the arms of Moses,
Now, here is where rock and roll music came from. Before 1947, the only people who talked much about "rocking" were gospel singers. They were rocking their souls in the bosom of Abraham, and singing "Rock me Jesus," and "Rock me in the cradle of Thy love," and "Rock me Lord," and "Rock Daniel," etc. Black secular dance music at that time was boogie woogie. Then, in 1947, Roy Brown did a blues called "Good Rocking Tonight" that was a parody of gospel, only instead of rocking the Lord, he had church people like Deacon Jones and Elder Brown doing a different kind of rocking. The record sold, but Brown's version was not a rocking song at all, it was a slow ballad style thing.
Along comes Wynonie Harris. He caught Brown's joke, about these church people "rocking," and he changed the rhythm to a gospel rhythm, also in 1947 (the record was released at the beginning of 1948). The difference between Wynonie Harris' version and Brown's is the gospel rhythm of rocking on the 2nd and 4th beat of the 4/4 measure, as you hear in Wynonie's rocking hand-clapping, like there had been in uptempo gospel music for decades. For example, this recording from 1928 or this 1934 recording.
He wasn't the first to sing blues with a gospel beat, as others like Big Joe Turner had been doing this for years. And Brown was not the first to use the term "rocking" for sex, as that was being done since at least the 1920's. But it was Harris' record that started the rocking "fad" in blues and R&B in the late 1940's. After Harris' record, there was a massive wave of rocking blues tunes, and every black singer had a rocking blues record out by 1949 or 1950 (there was a record ban for all of 1948, so many of the records that were released in the early part of 1949 were actually recorded during the ban). It was a sweeping fad that changed R&B forever. "Rocking" was in, boogie woogie was out, and between 1948 and 1951 most R&B artists were trying like mad to out-rock each other. This new music had an extremely powerful beat.
Now that the music had arrived, all it needed was a name. R&B was too broad a term, because R&B was a category which included all forms of black music except for jazz and gospel. Anything else was considered R&B, regardless of the actual musical style. It could be a ballad, old-style jump blues, crooners like the Ink Spots, blues shouters, or anything else, it would be classified as R&B. But this rocking music was new and revolutionary, and therefore it needed a new name, so the disc jockeys, led by a Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed, started calling it rock and roll. This was in 1951, and many DJ's followed suit, such as Waxie Maxie in DC, Hunter Hancock in LA, and Porky Chedwick in Pittsburgh. With the music in place, and with the name rock and roll now official, the story has been told. Forget all the myths you hear about 1954, Sun Records, Elvis, Sam Phillips, etc. That's the story of rockabilly, but rock and roll itself was already here, named, recorded, and given airplay, long before then.
In 1952 and '53, rock and roll was becoming more characterized by mellow love ballads by teen-aged vocal groups with bird names like The Crows, Ravens, Orioles, Cardinals, etc., Usually the flip sides of these records were the uptempo dance numbers, which were called the rockers. In various parts of the USA, people were adding their local flavors to it. In the northern cities, the Italian and Puerto Rican communities were playing rock and roll their way. On the West Coast, Chicanos were playing it in Spanish. In the south, country singers were adding rock and roll to their hillbilly boogie, and rockabilly was born. Cajuns in Louisiana were adding rock and roll to their music, and zydeco was born. Overseas, the British were adding rock and roll to their music, and skiffle was born. All this happened in the early 50's, and it all became lumped together into the great melting pot called rock and roll.
With the sudden emergence in 1954 of the world-wide audience that rock and roll received, the impression has been held in the minds of most people that rock and roll actually began that year. Most people as a whole never have known about the original rockers of the Hoy Hoy era, 1947-1953. That's why we are here.
When you read most books on the origin of rock and roll, they describe an explosion that hit around 1954. All of a sudden, Elvis, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others were playing perfectly developed rock and roll, as if it came out of nowhere. Some portray it as a magical moment in a recording studio, with musicians goofing around during a break and playing some unrehearsed jam, and somehow accidentally inventing a whole new type of music. The more sober authors say, though also in error, that it was a mixture of country music and R&B (an accurate description of rockabilly, which was not the original form of rock and roll). When these books describe the "roots" of rock and roll, they usually start with the blues of the 1930's or earlier, artists like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, and make references to 1940's Chicago blues artists like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, and then jump right up to 1954, completely skipping over the hard rocking sax-based R&B of the period 1949 to 1953. There are several reasons for this:
1. On the radio in the late 40's and early 50's, R&B was taboo, although there were some pioneering DJ's who broke the rules and played it anyway. The first R&B to be heard on the radio in NYC, for example, was in the later part of 1952, and even then it was only heard after midnight. Some large cities had R&B programs before this, but in general, there was almost no R&B on the radio in the early days. Without radio, the only place that R&B was widely known was in black neighborhoods before 1952, but by then, the music had changed around and R&B was mostly changing over to the doo wop vocal groups, popular among teenagers, which means the earlier-style R&B never became widely known.
2. By the time R&B was becoming widely heard on radio stations, the 78 RPM format had just recently been replaced by the new 45 RPM records. Radio stations had just bought all new records and dumped out the old ones, since the 78's were heavy and cumbersome, and broke easily. Unfortunately, all the early R&B was recorded on these 78's, so when R&B started being played on the radio, these 78's were already in the dumpster. Later on, when "golden oldies" were being played, that meant old 45's, since the 78's had long since been discarded. So, these Hoy Hoy era 78's were never played much on the radio.
In addition, there is the story of the juke box. In
1950 and 1951, most of the juke boxes in wealthier neighborhoods were being upgraded to
play the 45's, while most R&B records were still being issued only on 78. Thus, Hoy
Hoy era R&B was caught in the trap of being among the last records issues on a doomed
format, and most of this music was lost to the newer world of the 45 RPM listener. (This
story is also somewhat true for hillbilly or "country" music).
3. When rock and roll became fully entrenched after
rockabilly arrived, and even more so with the British invasion of the early 60's, it
became a guitar-based music, and these guitarists naturally looked towards other
guitarists as the pioneers of the music. Thus, Eric Clapton would listen to B. B. King
records, Keith Richards would listen to Muddy Waters, etc. and espouse these artists as
their inspiration. Record companies then became interested in reissuing the older stuff,
so long as it had a guitarist in the lead. But R&B before 1953 was saxophone-based,
with very little guitar at all. Since the sax was virtually dropped from rock and roll
after about 1956, most of the early stars remained forgotten. This is also true about the
piano, which was probably the instrument that rock and roll was first played on.
4. In the mid-50's, when rock and roll was popular, each major record company had a few megastars they were trying to sell. RCA had Elvis, Decca had Bill Haley and Buddy Holly, Capitol had Gene Vincent, etc. It was not in the best interest of these record companies to re-issue the recordings they already had of the earlier rock artists, since that would take away from the momentum of their "product," which was their new artists. Thus, for example, even though RCA was sitting on a gold mine of early rocking R&B recordings by artists including Piano Red and Big Boy Crudup, their attention was directed towards promoting Elvis.
It was also obviously not in their best interests
to mention or promote the music of the earlier artists on the small independent labels,
which did not have the resources to compete with the major labels. Thus, the R&B
artists of 1949 to 1953 faded into oblivion. The mid-50's teenagers thought of these
artists as being old blues singers whose records weren't worth listening to. The only
popular R&B artist from the 1949-53 era who also made it big in mainstream rock and
roll after 1954 was Fats Domino, who had smash hits going back as far as 1949 [Little
Richard had records as early as 1951 but they weren't big sellers and he wasn't famous
until Tutti Frutti in 1956. Chuck Berry was a popular local performer in St. Louis during
the Hoy Hoy era, but he never recorded before 1955 when he became famous with Maybelline.
Ike Turner was also a successful R&B artist during the Hoy Hoy era, with hit records
going back to 1951, but his mid-50's records were always promoted to the R&B (black)
audience, so he is not usually mentioned in rock and roll (white) books, an unfortunate
error on their parts].
5. In 1954, the name "rock and roll" became commonly applied to the music, which was now being marketed to white teenagers, who identified themselves with that new moniker. There was little incentive for these young fans to listen to earlier music with some other name. The common name for the earlier music was R&B, and the racial connotation of that name kept most rock and roll fans from exploring the earlier records, though it was the same type of music. Besides, these records had been geared towards adults, and the kids just weren't ready for them. The exceptions to this rule were the few black artists who somehow had their records promoted as rock and roll records, rather than R&B records. These artists were Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the vocal groups. The black artists whose records were promoted as R&B did not sell much to white teenagers. For example, Ike Turner had been selling rock and roll records since 1951, but his name is never even mentioned in "roots of rock" books, simply because his music had been promoted as R&B. The music itself, however, was the same. Ike Turner has his own website.