Rock Primer 101

With the recent passing of Jerry Wexler, it seems right to come back to my earlier discussions of Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll history. Wexler, who died at the age of 91 on August 15, was one of the producing greats, having co-founded Atlantic Records, coined the term “rhythm & blues” in reference to what were then called “race records,” and produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin over the years. Before I get into my own discussion, here as a bit of homage, is Wexler’s own list of what he considered his 20 best produced songs:

1. Professor Longhair, “Tipitina” (1953)
2. Ray Charles, “I Got a Woman” (1954)
3. Big Joe Turner, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954)
4. LaVern Baker, “Tweedlee Dee” (1954)
5. Champion Jack Dupree, “Junker’s Blues” (1958)
6. The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby” (1959)
7. Ray Charles, “What I’d Say” (1959)
8. Solomon Burke, “If You Need Me” (1963)
9. Booker T. & the MG’s, “Green Onions” (1962)
10. Wilson Pickett, “In the Midnight Hour” (1965)
11. Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)
12. Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man” (1969)
13. Dr. John, “Iko Iko” (1972)
14. Doug Sahm, “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone” (1973)
15. Willie Nelson, “Bloody Mary Morning” (1974)
16. The Sanford/Townsend Band, “Smoke From a Distant Fire” (1977)
17. James Booker, “Winin’ Boy Blues” (1978)
18. Etta James, “Take It to the Limit” (1978)
19. Dire Straits, “Lady Writer” (1979)
20. Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979)

That’s pretty damn impressive. And the early items on the list are at the heart of today’s discussion about the roots of rock. In a previous post, I mentioned that maybe I should dig into Elvis’s roots a bit, rather than just showing an Elvis video.  I also mentioned that some people would say he “stole” from his roots and influences.  It’s an overplayed argument at this point that rock ‘n roll was stolen from African-American artists.  The influences that came together into the amorphous thing that became rock are vast and cross-cultural at best.  That’s not to ignore the essential role that African-American music played in the development of Rock, just to say it’s not such a simple who stole from whom equation.  More importantly, I don’t think the issue is one of stealing to begin with.  The argument is that white musicians stole black music, but surely we’re beyond such racial essentialism by now, aren’t we?  Artists “steal from” artists–that’s true in any medium; I think the more accurate term is “are influenced by.”  As Woody Guthrie once said, “I think he stole that from me, but I steal from everybody.”  Find me a musician, a writer, a painter who doesn’t “steal.”  It’s this ridiculous notion of the individual artist, creating in a vacuum, except for those white musicians.  Don’t get me wrong here; this isn’t to say there wasn’t a serious problem.  The heart of the problem was that white musicians got rich off their music and were acknowledged and black musicians weren’t.  It was a business problem. Most of the influential african-american musicians died in relative poverty.  Black musicians weren’t given credit or copyrights that would have allowed them control of their music and any financial interests in the music.  And, yes, this is a historical issue that should not be overlooked.  My point, though, is that rock as a musical idiom is not inherently black and stolen by whites; rock is inherently cross-cultural.  What happens when Howlin’ Wolf meets Hank Williams?  Well, somethin’ new.

Anyway, I’m not trying to get onto a soap box here.  I just wanted to give my perspective on a now over-played argument.  Let’s just listen to the music, ok?  So, here is my top 20 most influential musicians in the development  of rock ‘n roll.  Some of them well-known, some of them a little lesser so.  Here goes.

20. Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.  Listen to Choo-choo Ch’Boogie and tell me you don’t hear the early strains of rock.  Louis’ music was lively and funny; because of its humor it’s often overlooked, but it’s great stuff with a kickin’ band behind him. It was swing with a new beat emerging.

19. Hank Williams. As much as rock clearly emerged from its blues and then rhythm & blues roots, it’s just as much the result of the blues intersecting with the twang of people like Williams. And no one had that heartbreaking twang more than Williams.

18. Les Paul. He’s on this list as a musician but also as an inventor.  Essential in the development of the electric guitar,his other innovations include overdubbing, delay effects, tape delay, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. And yes he was primarily a jazz guitarist, but listen to some of this stuff–it’s the first wave of the guitar rock solo.  Besides, he was the first to recognize Hendrix as a guitar genius, before he’d made any kind of name for himself and was still opening for the likes of John Hammond.

17. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.  Here’s one that the issue of royalties hit really hard.  The writer of such classic tunes as “That’s All Right Mama,” “My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine,” Crudup stopped recording in the 1950s and wound up as a laborer to supplement what little royalties he was able to receive.

16.  T-Bone Walker.  One of my all-time favorites, the smooth singer and even smoother guitar player.  Interestingly, Chuck Berry who has said that he fashioned himself on white musicians and wanted to play “white” actually “borrowed” quite a few of T-Bone guitar licks, almost note for note.  Jazz, blues, and just a little bit of that somethin’ new. Listen to Walker’s collected and you’ll be amazed how many Chuck Berry riffs you can pick out.

15.  Wynonie Harris. Raucous and risque, no one does it quite like Wynonie. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is a classic, but his list is extensive.  All of it fun.

14. Doo-Wop.  OK, I’m cheating here.  I’m lumping a genre together, which is really unfair but I never really claimed to be fair did I?  How about all those bird groups, like the Ravens, the Orioles, the Penguins?  Great stuff.  I admit I didn’t really have an ear for it until I heard Frank Zappa’s versions of doo-wop and then I got more interested.  Now I love it.

13. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.  I know, he’s the father of bluegrass not rock ‘n roll.  In fact, he pretty much despised the long-haired liberal music of rock.  But his influence is there nonetheless.  Sure, there’s the obvious influence like writing songs that became Elvis classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  But I would suggest that his sense of orchestration and composition affected songwriting and instrumental dynamics across the board.  That high lonesome sound of his singing was critical as well.

12. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Gospel, rhythm & blues, and rock ‘n roll all come together in this unbelievably powerful gospel singer.  Hypnotizing.

11.  Sticks and Brownie McGee.  “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”  Their influence is wide, but I think this song alone puts them on this list.

10.  Woody Guthrie. I know this one may seem out of place, but he belongs on the list if for nothing other than his influence on Bob Dylan. But the influence is much wider as he opened the door for a generation of musicians to believe that their music could and should be socially relevant. Now, if you read an earlier post about NRBQ you may know that I’m a bit ambivalent about whether this is a good thing or not for rock musicians. But its impact can’t be denied.

9.  Tiny Bradshaw.  The swingenest of the swingin’ bands.  Like Wynonie, this is good, raucous fun.  As my favorite DJ Pete Lee of KFAI says, “I can’t imagine a world without Tiny Bradshaw.”  “Well Oh Well”, “Breaking Up the House”, and “Soft” as well as what would become a rock staple, “Train Kept a Runnin’.”  All classics. And I’ll put Red Prysock in here as well, one of the honkinest of the honkin tenor saxophonists who started out with Tiny Bradshaw but left because he didn’t want to wear a kilt on stage as Bradshaw required of all his band members.  Prysock went off and blew that saxophone on his own.

8. The Producers. As with the doo-wop list above, I’ll lump a few together: Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Leonard and Phil Chess, and Sam Phillips. Yes, some of them were partly to blame of the rip-off of black musicians as they maintained many of the copyrights, but their vision at picking out the great musicians, developing them and pushing the music further is unmistakable.

7. Howlin’ Wolf.  Come on, it don’t get no better than this.  Howlin’ gave the blues it’s dark energy that surely was the cornerstone of the music that emerged. I wouldn’t even know where to start to list all his great and influential music.

6. Big Mama Thornton. Probably shows up on a list like this for her song “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Houndog” but that’s just the beginning. Her powerful voice and strong r&b rhythm make her one of the best.

5. Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner. Pete Johnson was a jazz and boogie woogie piano like no one else. He spent much of his time collaborating with Joe Turner, the Kansas City bluesman and shouter. Johnson’s “Rocket 88 Boogie” (possibly “stolen” from an earlier Jelly Roll Morton song) is often considered one of the first rock ‘n roll songs and went on to influence Jackie Brenston’s and Ike Turner’s later “Rocket 88.” Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” was also one of the early classic rock songs.

4. Fats Domino. R&B meets Cajun with a rollicking good rhythm and boogie woogie piano that’s unmistakable. My list is really geared toward music that isn’t quite rock yet, but of course Fats is on the cusp from the very beginning.

3. B. B. King. A guitarist with a sound distinctly his own. B.B. revolutionized the electric guitar and was named as one of Rolling Stones top 100 guitarists of all time. His cousin Bukka White was equally influential, if less popular, in his early renditions of the Delta Blues into powerful rhythmic expressions.

2. Junior Parker. He started out as a harmonica player was Sonny Boy Williamson, with whom he worked before moving on to work for Howlin’ Wolf in 1949. Around 1950 he was a member of Memphis’s ad hoc group, the Beale Streeters, with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and B.B. King. But it was in 1951 with his formation of the Blue Flames that he made his mark. He is most known for “Mystery Train” (another Presley hit of course) but his songs have been covered by countless others over the years.

1. Muddy Waters. I’ve moved through this list somewhat randomly, but with at least a bit of chronology to it. I have not been moving from least to most important or least to most favorite of mine, yet here I am with a fine sense of serendipity to find at the end a natural, as one of the most important musicians I believe of the 20th century and, well, just one of my damn favorites. Listen to “Folksinger” just for starters. Then listen to “Hoochie Coochie Man” and tell me you don’t hear the very soul of rock ‘n roll at its finest. This was not intended as “Who’s best” list, yet here it is: Muddy is the best.

Yes, I know it’s mostly an arbitrary list. Many who didn’t make it. I will say that some didn’t make it because they had clearly made the cross-over into actual rock rather than “roots” of rock. Bo Diddley of course with his infamous Shave-and-a-haircut bo diddley rhythm that became a staple of music ever after it (incidentally, Diddley was one of the worst hurt by copyright scams, dying in virtual poverty in Gainesville Florida. David Lindley has a great version of “Hey Bo Diddley” in which he changes the lyrics to “Pay Bo Diddley”). No Ray Charles? Yes, it seems wrong, but he also seems more well known so I guess I stuck at least a little more to the margins. Many arbitrary decisions along the way. But it’s just a list, right? Plenty of good listening in here folks, so give it a listen. See what you like and see what else you uncover along the way.  That is the point of such a game, anyway, the discover of more and more good music.

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