Once you hear it, it becomes blindingly obvious: Rock’n’roll began at the exact moment when Wynonie Harris added a back beat to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
These three versions of the same song tell the whole story. First, listen to Roy Brown’s original jump blues from 1947. Brown was an unknown who actually offered the song to Harris, an established star, before he recorded it himself, but Wynonie turned it down until Brown’s version hit the charts. Roy had a strong, silky voice with a touch of quaver and phrasing that uncannily anticipates Elvis. You might even think he was an Elvis impersonator until you realize he started seven years earlier — which actually makes Elvis a Roy Brown impersonator!
When Wynonie covered “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that December (it was released in 1948), he did something that changed the history of music. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was a satire of church people who weren’t just “rocking” (i.e., swaying to the music in church) but also “rocking” (i.e., dancing, and worse). Wynonie ratcheted up the satire a notch by adding a church rhythm, clapping hands on the back beat as they do in gospel. Listen to the back beat kick in, about 15 seconds into the song. That’s the sound of rock’n’roll being born.
Rock’n’roll was already fully formed by the end of 1948. That December, Roy Brown re-recorded the same song with just a few words changed under the name “Rockin’ at Midnight.” Same tune, almost the same lyrics, and with the same hand-clapping on the back beat that Wynonie Harris had introduced.
But something really interesting happens about 45 seconds from the end. All of a sudden, Brown starts repeating the phrase “We’re gonna rock” over and over again with a hard-driving rock’n’roll rhythm behind him. Wild Bill Moore had only just recorded the original version of “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll” in November, and Jimmy Preston wouldn’t even cut the original “Rock the Joint” (which is what Roy comes closest to, except he sings “We’re gonna rock this house” instead of “rock this joint”) until the following year.
That was it. Rock'n'roll was here to stay.
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