DeLuxe 1093; September, 1947

 

 

The point of no return.

An apt way to start a massive project attempting to trace and explain the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll music, song by song, as we approach seventy years of its existence here in 2017.  But also a fitting lead sentence for trying to choose a starting point for the music itself.

 

Meet Me In A Hurry Behind The Barn
We’ve become a culture fixated on “absolutes” when it comes to delineating history.  In a sense definitive statements comfort us when confronted with something complex and nuanced.  When a question is posed we want answers, not more questions.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?, confounds us so we turn it into a cosmic joke to alleviate the frustration of not having a provable answer.  We’re a species increasingly accustomed to headlines, not stories; to verdicts, not analysis.  When absolutes are deemed impossible we tend to regress into arguments more than gravitate towards discussion.

Case in point: What is the first rock ‘n’ roll record?

The accepted “first” has changed over time, picking up a steadily shifting consensus to best satisfy the constituency most interested in the outcome at that moment.  Most of these efforts though are inherently flawed, tainted by modern perspective and the need to validate a pre-formed opinion, usually of those who are far-removed culturally from the music’s true origins.  But that’s always the problem when you trace backwards, you tend to stop on a point that retains a familiarity to presently accepted wisdom which provides a safe haven for an answer.  In other words, most will casually accept an easily agreed upon lie rather than probing deeper for a more ambiguous truth.

So we’re back to the same question, what is the first rock ‘n’ roll record?

The answer is… another question.

But a better question at that.  Because the fallacy of tracing things backwards results in modern biases affecting the outcome the wiser question to ask is this: In the music’s nascent development stage when do we clearly reach “The Point Of No Return”?  The record when not only the music starts to take on the characteristics of what is to follow, but also the moment when the response to that music makes what is to follow an inevitability rather than an uncertainty.

And so it is that Roy Brown strides into the picture with perhaps the most perfectly appropriate opening line that could’ve possibly been conceived for such an endeavor.

Well I’ve heard the news there’s good rockin’ tonight!

It was at that precise moment that we reached the point of no return when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll.  Nothing would ever be the same again.


Have You Heard The News?
Growing up in New Orleans Roy Brown had dreams of making it as a pop crooner and like so many others from all backgrounds he spent his formative years listening intently to Bing Crosby, by far the most popular pre-rock singer.  Brown honed his clear diction and perfect enunciation designed to convince others, or perhaps just himself, that he was capable of attracting the same audience as der Bingle.  But Roy had also been singing gospel since he was a child, as his mother, the wonderfully named True Love Brown, was a church organist who gave Roy his first chance at performing in public.  After her death when he was just 13 he left gospel behind and by the early 1940’s set out on his own and concentrated on singing mainly pop material around south Texas.

Ahh, but he was colored (as the polite term was then), and as such there was an expectancy from his audiences that he deliver something a bit more in line with their tastes.  So he had his trumpeter, Wilbert Brown (no relation), handle the bluesier and jump material at their shows while Roy was free to sing the plaintive Crosby-influenced ballads he liked so much.  In 1946 he wrote Good Rocking Tonight to add to their repertoire and let Wilbert sing it until one fateful night (and there’s always one fateful night in any good story, isn’t there?) when Wilbert suddenly fell ill just as the band launched into the song.  Faced with no other choice Roy stepped to the mic and sang it, although according to Roy himself “shouted it” would be a more accurate description, shedding his mellow crooning style and instinctively reverting to the gospel fervor he’d known growing up.

The audience went wild.

In essence then he wrote the song twice.  The first, the way he had actually written it to begin with for Wilbert Brown to sing, had it ever been actually cut that way may have sold some and been appreciated, as it was when Wilbert did it in their act, but it wouldn’t have transformed western civilization.  The second, de facto spontaneous re-writing of it on the bandstand came when Roy Brown significantly altered the way it was sung, injecting the flamboyant soulful vocals and it was the audience’s response to it – an immediate and visceral response – that gave birth to something entirely new.

It wasn’t blues, the blues version of it was how it’d been performed by Wilbert.  It wasn’t gospel, for spirituals didn’t talk of such things as drinking and screwing.  It sure wasn’t jazz and definitely wasn’t pop, it wasn’t anything that had a name yet.  Except it did, for the name was in the song.  It was rock ‘n’ roll and therein lies another factor in its importance, the convergence of the specific sound, the immediate reaction and the branding of it all at once.  The musical big bang theory in a nutshell.
 

 
Rock Away All My Blues
But of course at that point, outside of those who were actually at the show itself, or at subsequent performances when he’d reprise the showstopper to equally ecstatic response, the phenomenon hadn’t been unleashed to the world at large.

A full year later, back in New Orleans, Brown saw that Wynonie Harris was in town performing and offered him the song to record.  Though not the quite the huge star he’d become Harris had plenty of records out – a few hits among them – and was well known in the black community, and more importantly he had a style Roy felt was suited for the reworked version of his tune.  Since Roy himself had no recording contract, perhaps thought he never would have one, he figured he should give it to someone who was making records and maybe get some acclaim for himself as the song’s writer in the process.

Wynonie turned it down.

Whether it was just Harris’s outsized ego that caused him to reject it, not wanting to stoop to the level of accepting a song from an unknown admirer, or whether he actually listened and didn’t find it appealing, will likely never be known.  That the three of them – the two singers and the song – would wind up going down in history together is one of rock’s greatest ironies.

Undaunted by the rejection Brown then sang it to Cecil Gant, a pianist/singer of some lingering renown, who was far more impressed than Harris had been and immediately phoned DeLuxe Record head Jules Braun for whom Gant was now recording and had Brown sing it over the phone in the middle of the night.  An elated Braun hearing a surefire hit promptly raced to New Orleans to cut it.

In the annals of recorded music few phone calls would have such far reaching impact.


 
 

Tonight She’ll Know I’m A Mighty Mighty Man
So that’s the backstory, now what about the actual record?

Well to start with there’s the title staring you in the face.  Yeah, there’d been rocks thrown in song titles before but this one celebrates the entire central concept of rock ‘n’ roll in no uncertain terms.  It’s a call to arms that launches the movement with an enduring rallying cry it hasn’t stopped shouting since.  An open invitation to the masses to join in.

The horns that kick it off are shrill – and their construction still harkens back to the accepted standards of the time, with trumpet, trombone and alto sax most prominent in the arrangement – but Brown had little say in this matter.  He was assigned a group to back him in the studio and it was they who fit his composition to their pre-existing aesthetic concepts.  This aspect is an unfortunate drawback and decades later will probably have many questioning the record’s authenticity if you will, holding it back from the type of bedlam inducing histrionics it called for and was receiving in live venues when backed by his own stellar crew.

But then comes Brown’s voice, somewhat mannered in his diction, nervous perhaps, but undeniably exuberant.

For a generation who’d been served reliably steady platters of restraint in their singers the sound of someone wailing so brazenly outside of a revival meeting was a revelation.  That he was doing so not on a Sunday morning to worship a spiritual god but rather on a Saturday night to celebrate earthly pursuits of dance, drink and devilment (okay, sex), was shocking.  His exaggerated interjections – the “welllllls” and “oh yeahs” he tosses in – were just as alarming.  He sounded as if he was losing control of his emotions.  Turn on the radio in 1947 and “losing control of your emotions” aren’t words that would spring to mind when listening to pop singers who prided themselves on retaining tight control of every breath they uttered.  By the time Brown drops down in volume to slyly announce, Hoy sister, hoy sister, ain’t you glad?, he seems to be sharing a mysterious secret with only you.  That sense of communal knowing between artists and audiences would serve as a constant ally in rock’s ensuing travels over the years and Brown nailed that aspect right out of the gate.

The piano and Roy conspire to keep Good Rocking Tonight surging forward during the verses and if the horns try sabotaging that during the bridge then the subsequent cruder sounding break at least restores a sense of raunchiness to the proceedings.  But it’s Roy – his voice shifting textures to paint the detailed picture his lyrics conjured up – who carries this on his sturdy shoulders.  The scene he sets, the characters he introduces, the sense of mystery that surrounds them at this hole in the wall party he describes are remarkably vivid and compelling… these are people you can visualize, eavesdropping on their muted conversations as you pass by, sure you’re about to hear them reveal even more salacious details of the neighborhood you’re now immersed in.

The world that’s offered up here was strikingly different than anything the popular music of the day had ever presented, yet it was one that most in the listening audience at the time were eminently familiar with, though they probably never expected to hear it depicted like this in a commercial recording.  For an audience today it’s a chance to peek in at a colorful slice of life that otherwise would have been lost to the passing of time.  No movies ever delved into this world, few books captured its textures, even its participants simply took these scenes for granted, probably never thinking of the need to capture and preserve it to show how vibrant everyday black life was at a time when the surrounding world looked down upon you, that is if they ever noticed at all.

Yet here was Roy Brown boldly celebrating and calling attention to it all!
 

They’ll Be There, Shouting Like Mad
The record promptly took off in New Orleans becoming a local sensation.  The first time Brown himself heard it on a jukebox he didn’t recognize it, commenting to someone he was with that the record sounded pretty good, then looking to see who sang it and being shocked to find it was he himself that he was hearing.  He then spent all of his money playing it on the jukebox over and over again, presumably until the place closed and they threw him out into the streets.

Make no mistake about it Good Rocking Tonight was a hit but it’s important to remember that when this came out as summer wound down in 1947  there were only a meager five spots on the Billboard “race” charts, apparently the official musical trade magazine thinking that was all that could possibly be worth noting, so as a result the record didn’t chart nationally until mid-1948 when the revolution this song started had gradually picked up momentum.  But in spite of this lack of official recognition at the time the record was a strong seller, especially throughout the south and on to the west coast and quickly drew notice from other artists, many of whom felt the winds of musical change blowing and set sail in its wake themselves.

Brown’s career took off as well and he was as responsible as anyone for rock’s early direction, cutting a string of genre defining songs that established, then gradually refined, the basic style of rock ‘n’ roll:  The passionate and increasingly unrestrained leads, the growing prominence of the beat, the lyrical odes to wild celebration of the music, as well as of love, life and lust, and more than anything the freedom songs like this represented, and he delivered all of that while conveying a sense of social and cultural camaraderie that reflected the audience’s own experiences back at them and allowed them to share in its glory.

It’s impossible to overstate that connection between audience and song which would become rock’s defining characteristic.  A year or two down the line, when artists had refined the components that went into this and shed its excess dross that seems to hamper this to an extent in retrospect, the record itself might seem straightjacketed and even a bit outdated.  But it’s important to keep in mind the context.  It wasn’t arriving in THAT world, one built upon records like this, but rather was arriving in a world without anything like it at all.  At that time, in September 1947, it sounded transformative.  Magical.

It sounded like tomorrow.

For the audience that heard it, embraced it and championed it, tomorrow was now a place that they – for the first time – would control.

Here’s where it all came together, the musical ingredients and the cultural reaction.  The point of no return.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Roy Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Wynonie Harris (February, 1948)