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THE ROOTS OF ROCK &
SOUL, SONG BY SONG:
REAPING THE HARVEST

 

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.



T H E  E A R L Y  F I F T I E S

Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, “Rocket 88” (Chess, 1951): Ike Turner and his band, The Kings of Rhythm, were crammed in an old Chrysler, along with their instruments and amps, on the 60-mile drive from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Memphis when they came up with this groundbreaking track—widely considered the first rock ’n’ roll song. “We’d bet nickels and dimes on what cars we’d see,” Ike said of the simple impulse behind the record, produced by Sam Phillips a year before he founded Sun Records, the original home of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Sax player Jackie Brenston’s gospel-fueled vocal (which caused Chess to rename the act Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats on the label) is crowded in among distorted blues guitar licks and jazz horn solos over a thumping backbeat with a jump-blues bounce, pushing along a country/folk storyline encompassing booze, bad boys, hot chicks and big cars. All of this energy collides like a wreck on the highway, and it blasted the record straight to the top of the charts. From its black-and-white beginnings, this new musical powder keg was about to explode into Technicolor. Rock ’n’ roll was here to stay.

T-Bone Walker, “Strollin’ With Bones” (Imperial, 1950): This instrumental B-side from seven decades ago sounds like it could’ve been laid down last week. That’s because “Strollin’ With Bone” captures T-Bone Walker in the act of liberating the electric guitar. Where earlier players had used it to strum chords along with a beat, this innovator turns it into a lead axe, playing around with the melody in a stream of notes plucked on a single string. Over a shuffling drumbeat, boogie-woogie piano and a snappy horn section, T-Bone snakes his way from a jaunty opening to a mother of a climax. Beyond his prodigious chops, the man was a wild performer, doing the splits, wiggling his hips, playing his axe behind his neck—providing an acrobatic role model for youngsters like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. The impact of this six-string pioneer was huge; before long, guitar soloing was a key element of blues and jazz, but Walker was also pulling the trigger of the starting gun that got rock ’n’ roll galloping out of the gate.

Big Joe Turner, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Atlantic, 1954): One of Atlantic’s several key contributions to the birth of rock ’n’ roll (co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and staff producer Jerry Wexler even sang backup), “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was written specifically for big-voiced blues singer Joe Turner, one of the label’s early stars. Turner had been partying up the blues for decades; “Everybody was singing slow blues when I was young, and I thought I’d put a beat to it and sing it uptempo,” he explained. But that description pales before the actual sound of this breakthrough track, powered by a backbeat as relentless as a charging herd of elephants and sax bleating like a wise guy talking back to an authority figure, paired with a racy lyric—including the infamous line, “one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”—which got the song banned from some radio stations, sanitized for Big Joe’s TV appearances and rewritten for nearly all of the dozens of cover versions that followed. Right here, Turner put to bed—once and for all—what the “roll” in “rock ’n’ roll” stood for. Never has a song sounded more like its title.

Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, “Money Honey” (Atlantic, 1953): Meanwhile, R&B was getting a hormone injection, as traditional blues, which had dominated black music for nearly 40 years, gave way to a hopped-up new sound. The Drifters’ debut single—written by “Shake, Rattle and Roll” author Jesse Stone—unfurls with gospel intensity and a doo-wop creaminess, sporting a tempo that struts like a Harlem pimp and macho vocals the texture of coarsely ground coffee, further toughened up by the obligatory honking sax. No wonder it became the biggest-selling R&B song of the year. A feisty New York vocal group, the original Drifters were fronted by Clyde McPhatter, but when he got drafted in 1954, they smoothed out their sound and went through a bunch of lineup changes but continued to rack up hits behind writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, some featuring Ben E. King, others Rudy Lewis. Sadly, McPhatter drank himself to death in 1972 before reaching 40.

Ruth Brown, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (Atlantic, 1953):Ruth Brown, the first full-fledged female rock ’n’ roll singer, single-handedly proved that a woman could belt out rock ’n’ roll as hard as anyone. Here, Brown has got the blues; heartbroken and pissed off because her man has turned out to be a mean mistreater (a sentiment as old as the blues itself), she vents to the most convenient, supportive person—her mom. Brown and the musicians spice up this good ol’ blues with finger-poppin’ ingredients like boogie-woogie piano, pumping brass, and an electric guitar slamming out one of those new-fangled rock ’n’ roll licks. Every chick could relate to Brown’s predicament, every guy could get down with the funky groove, and the record shot to #1 R&B. In her day, the two-fisted belter sold so many singles that Atlantic came to be called “the House That Ruth Built.”

Ray Charles, “I’ve Got a Woman” (Atlantic, 1955): This record was once considered out-and-out blasphemy. By taking an old gospel song and turning it into a lusty R&B scorcher, Ray Charles crossed a line that had never before been crossed. This is shirt-tearing, rolling-in-the-aisles, shouting-to-the-Almighty gospel—which Brother Ray marries to a booty-shaking groove. Ray’s awesome band, made up of top-notch jazz players, is cruising like a Cadillac on the expressway, and he starts off purring along with them, but then he unleashes the third line—“She give me money when I’m in need”—testifyin’ about his sweet woman with all the fervor of Rev. Thomas A Dorsey scorching his vocal cords in praise of the Almighty. The record shocked and offended churchgoers and bluesmen alike, but right here Charles was laying down the template for soul music. “I’ve got a Woman,” which became a #1 R&B song, was the first major hit to secularize gospel music for the masses. It’s a landmark #1 for the format in that it was more rhythm than blues. “The sound was astounding,” said Ertegun, who was overseeing the session along with Wexler. “I knew it, Jerry knew it, and I suspect Ray knew it as well. Everything was about to change.”

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