The question of who invented Rock & Roll elicits lots of answers…Chuck Berry, DJ Alan Freed, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Record Producer Sam Phillips, and many more.
The correct answer is…none of the above.
In 1937, Etta James sang in her recording of “Rock It For Me”…”Won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll?” That is just one example eliminating DJ Alan Freed as being the inventor of the term Rock & Roll. But to his credit, he did apply the term to mid-fifties recordings, and played “forbidden music” by black artists.
There’s no doubt that Big Band Swing was part of the development of Rock & Roll, and if you watch old films of that era, the dancing is a lot like teens did to early rock and roll songs. Of course the main building blocks of Rock & Roll are rhythm & blues and country (which had it’s own “swing” music).
Among other candidates, “Rocket 88” from 1951 is sometimes mentioned as the first Rock & Roll record. For that to be true, you’d have to eliminate a lot of 1940’s songs. “Guitar Boogie” by Arthur Smith is from 1945. It has a classic rock and roll riff so often played on electric guitar and piano. It fits right in with Rock & Roll from the 1950’s, but came nearly a decade earlier. “That’s All Right” was recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946 (Elvis did it eight years later). “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was done by Wynonie Harris in 1947, and two years later was done by the man who wrote it, Roy Brown, as “Rockin’ At Midnight”…same song, slightly different lyrics.
Those are Rock & Roll songs, and that’s only a sample of songs from the 1940’s that are rock & roll. There is no one “first” rock & roll record, because rock & roll isn’t limited to a single definition that can be applied to one song and eliminate others. It’s a style, and not a certain guitar sound, drum sound, or beat.
In 1950, Arkie Shibley performed “Hot Rod Race”. The guitar part is similar to “Guitar Boogie”, and the lyrics are not really sung, but spoken in rhythm (first rap song?!). It’s about two cars racing: “me and that Mercury stayed side by side.”, and “honked his horn and he flew outside.” In 1955, Chuck Berry in “Maybellene” sang about a two car chase: “…rollin’ side by side.” and “I tooted my horn for the passing lane.” I only heard “Hot Rod Race” fairly recently, and it instantly reminded me of “Maybellene”…which actually came 5 years later.
Full disclosure, I first heard many of these very early Rock & Roll recordings a few years ago. Friend and music collector extraordinaire, Bill Lundun, brought me up to speed. And here’s a tip. Check out the original version of “I Hear You Knocking” by Smiley Lewis. It’s from 1955 and has a perfect rhythmic groove. It was #2 on the R&B chart.
Rock & Roll is mostly thought of as starting in the span of 1954 to 1955, because that’s when many of the great early rock artists…like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley & His Comets, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, and more… recorded songs that are still loved today. Those artists started a movement of music that brought Rock & Roll to the forefront, and they were helped along by DJ’s like Alan Freed and free-thinking producers like Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
It’s not the first rock & roll record, but “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, should get a lot of credit for breaking Rock & Roll on the national stage. In 1955, the song played during the opening of the movie “Blackboard Jungle”, which includes rebellious teens. Teens loved the song, and wanted more. There were a lot of artists poised to fill that need.
No one person or one record started Rock & Roll, it was an evolution, not a “big bang”.