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MODERN 20-674; MAY, 1949
 
 

 

The TERM rock and roll – or rock ‘n’ roll or rock & roll, or even if you prefer, though I’ve rarely seen it as such, rockin’ roll – is of course the enduring name of this music we’re covering. The all encompassing genre label that, to some anyway, is the only definition it needs in order to convey precisely what style of music being discussed.

As such the term had to originate somewhere and unlike many who feel it came about in the decade after which we find ourselves today, the actual moment pretty much coincided with the birth of the music it was attached to starting with Roy Brown’s Good Rocking Tonight. But of course the full term – for the sake of continuity as well as to differentiate it from the title of our song today – of “rock ‘n’ roll” wasn’t fully present in that song.

Nor was it found in the next few examples of rock, though it was alluded to without having it specifically spelled out. But they all built on the association – as did references in music magazines, trade ads, etc. as well as word of mouth within the black community who consumed the music firsthand – that would come to brand the music in definitive fashion which culminated with Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock, which in its amended form added the tag We’re Gonna Roll based on the subsequent lyrics in the song so as to leave no doubt as to what all of this noise really was.
 

 
The question though becomes did it really NEED a term with which to call it in order for it to take off commercially and sustain itself through the various stylistic shifts it endured over the years?

I think it’s pretty obvious the answer is YES! Of course it did.

Human beings are simple creatures at heart. If not for the unfair advantage of the opposable thumb they’d be currently ranked somewhere around 68th in the wilderness standings, well behind the gibbon and the box turtle. People like to talk about humanity’s infinite capacity for knowledge as a species but the truth is most of it can be boiled down to sheer memorization brought about by repetitive references.

To whit, for most human beings the alphabet was learned via a sing-songy recitation that depends more on its specific cadences as anything else. Case in point, starting at K recite it backwards quickly.

Ten minutes later when you come up with your answer to that puzzle try this one on for size. There are 45 Presidents Of The United States and at some point you must’ve been in a class that covered each of their eras. Forget about what number each President was, which if you know it probably is due to the previously stated recitation technique, but instead reel off the years, or even the decades in which each one served and add three significant things that happened during their years in office.

Any James Knox Polk fans in our reading audience who want to start there?

Basically what the average person knows about a President – particularly those long ago – has to do with simply repetition-based “factoids” which in some cases, George Washington and cherry trees for instance, aren’t even accurate.

What gets remembered therefore are simple association techniques, like which way to turn things to get the desired result (righty tighty, lefty loosey), or in music learning the treble clef by remembering the acronym Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF). Don’t laugh, the plumber you just paid an ungodly sum to fix your sink recited the first example in his head while he was doing it and everyone from Van Cliburn to John Legend memorized the latter when sitting down at a piano.

So when it comes to connecting a bunch of different songs by different artists using slightly different styles in different eras so as to better house them all for the greater good when it comes to commercial gains and aesthetic impressions the term “rock ‘n’ roll” had to be learned, then reinforced repeatedly in the first few years in order for it to stick.

If it hadn’t done so… well, if it hadn’t done so then this music you all claim to be fans of which has sustained itself for seventy years now would likely be lost in historical limbo just as its immediate predecessor has been. If you doubt that ask yourself where Louis Jordan, Roy Milton, Lucky Millinder and Joe Liggins reside in the music books other than the footnotes.

All of which means it’s nice that after taking such a strong first step to label the music last summer, tenor saxophonist Wild Bill Moore returns again to cement the term with the title of this little ditty, dubbed simply Rock And Roll.

Let there be no doubt heading forward that for those reasons alluded to above this was an Important moment. Bold faced capitalization absolutely required.
 

Whatcha Gonna Say?
It helps of course that Moore was coming off a genuine hit with the aforementioned We’re Gonna Rock, as anything is more likely to catch on if it is widely known. Doubling down on the term only reinforces its potency but at a certain point it runs the risk of being seen as merely a catchphrase for the artist in question, a case of appearing to be self-reverential rather than a wide reaching moniker designed to spread the usage of it on a broad platform.

We’re not AT that stage yet with Rock And Roll, the song title not the genre term, and so this record merely acts as a powerful confirmation of the designation, which thankfully is reinforced by the lyrics which make specific references to further the cause.

THE LYRICS?!?!?!?!

Yes, the lyrics. They’re vital to the overall impact this record had. For a saxophonist whose claim to fame was in conjuring up some of the steamiest and grittiest instrumentals rock had yet seen (both on his own and backing Paul Williams) to have THIS song center around its lyrics (reputedly sung by future actor Scatman Crothers) which continually hammer home the importance of that term makes this all the more crucial in its wider recognition.

Yet those lyrics are merely generic platitudes, never intended to reveal anything of note. Even the activities they’re ostensibly referring to which are broadly sexual in nature don’t impart any secrets or dispense any wisdom.

That’s right, they’re basically opportunistic, the very thing we usually decry here, taking the term that connected with his best record and fitting it into a new record – on a new label no less (as detailed on South Parkway Hop Moore has left Savoy where he made his name and jumped across the country to Modern Records), all of whom were surely hoping to find the quickest and surest route to replicating that success – for shallowly transparent purposes.

At first glance the lyrics don’t really even stick one definition of the term rock and roll. Initially it seems to refer to sex, (no shame in that!), but then inexplicably it adds the bewildering capper You can have my money, you can have my honey, but let me rock and roll.

Okay, if it IS about sex then why on earth is he giving up his presumed sexual partner in the bargain?

If it’s about dancing – and with the references to You jump right back and do the boogie too/You move right up and do the Susie Q that would appear to be the case as well – it STILL doesn’t make sense for him to ditch his partner since dancing as a solo activity wasn’t popularized until the 1960’s.

The truth is the lyrics are but simplistic plaudits for anything that sprang to mind yet containing a broader meaning that both encompasses the likelihood of sex but also speaks to the overall sensation brought on by all of this, including dancing but really just the overall enjoyment of life itself which – clearly – is conveyed by the music.
 

Rock All Night
Ahh yes, the music! That OTHER component in a record, and one usually far more highlighted than lyrics for guys like Moore who is usually itching to start honking away on his sax.

Dismiss the lyrics as being nothing but meaningless placeholders at your own risk all you want, but the music that saturates the record will counter your objections to its deeper purpose at every turn.

Taking the two most prominent rock staples to date, the growing importance of the backbeat and the raunchy tenor sax solos as its cornerstones, Rock And Roll makes no bones about its implications.

The horns that kick it off provide little indication of what’s to follow but as soon as the beat arrives via synchronized handclaps which mesh with the call and response vocals that kick in at the same time the atmosphere becomes unmistakable. Like so many rock records we’ve heard to date, and even more to follow, this is a party on the upswing, the anticipatory questions the vocals ask are going to be answered, not so much by words but rather by the enthusiasm of the musicians.

On cue the pace picks up, the piano adds to the rhythm and then not quite a minute in comes Moore’s first solo, modest at first but quickly picking up steam while the other horns unobtrusively add to the textures, not – as we’ve heard far too often on records with less certain objectives – interfere with the mood by playing anything unsuited for rock. Here they’re all on the same page, heading forward at the same rate of speed with the same destination in mind.

When Moore starts wailing away the handclaps are taken over by the drums, playing forcefully without any frills, just keeping up that backbeat which never quits, never slacks off, never lets you lose the groove. They give way to the handclaps again when the vocals return, bringing back the communal atmosphere that’s such a vital part of rock music, but by this point in this particular rock song we know what’s going to follow soon enough and we wait for it with eager anticipation.

The horns subsequently join forces, the drums jump in to add the requisite muscle and Moore… well, for the first time Moore lets us down, just a bit. While the massed horns are precise in their playing, a trombone adding the capper to the proceedings, much like on Big Jay McNeely’s The Deacon’s Hop, the fact that Moore doesn’t add much to the mayhem and send this over the top as he was more than capable of, but rather waits and waits… and then waits some more… before finally delivering a whimsical line to close the instrumental interlude out with a sly passage, obviously intending to be more humorous in the context of the earlier raunchiness than it comes off as being, means we’re reliant on the capping vocal line to close it out more properly.

That it does and for the most part it delivers what we’re after without ever surpassing it. But the whole point of this song didn’t ever appear to be in taking things to a new level, setting the bar ever higher, but rather merely acting as a fairly thorough recap of all that’s come before it.

We might’ve liked even more rules of decorum to be tossed aside in the quest for musical pandemonium but for the goals it had in mind it works just fine.
 

 

I Want To Rock And Roll
Based strictly on the anticipation for this record – the history of Wild Bill Moore, particularly the vibrancy of We’re Gonna Rock, and the obviously bold and unambiguous statement of the title Rock And Roll itself – you may feel slightly let down by this. Bothered that it wasn’t the most aggressively forward looking track in the rock canon to this point. Understandable maybe, but entirely unfair.

So this isn’t very ambitious in nature, more of a reaffirmation of all rock had been up to now rather than a new plateau in the movement. Maybe the lyrics are rather simplistic by nature. Maybe it was even intended to be somewhat exploitative by piquing the interest of the audience with its title and its message cloaked in the trappings of the rock motif.

But wait just a minute… isn’t THAT proof enough that all of this was making serious headway? The fact that the term rock and roll itself coupled with the generic lyrical odes to unbridled fun and excitement sung a top a driving musical beat with rousing sax interludes were all things that were now acknowledged as being aesthetically and commercially appealing enough to place an entire record’s fortunes on?

Isn’t that what the goal has been for rock music as a whole all these months (21 in all to date in case you’re keeping tally)? To serve as the calling card of a cultural revolution which can’t merely be shunted aside as a noisy illiterate sound… Something whose growing popularity is no longer able to be callously dismissed as merely a passing fad… To be seen as an important generational movement not to be looked down upon and ridiculed… Ultimately to become a musical style that was far too successful – and far too different – to be simply absorbed into a pre-existing genre, then smoothed out and watered down for even wider mass consumption. Wasn’t that the aim after all? To make the grade under its own rules of acceptance?
 

 
The true sign that rock ‘n’ roll has arrived and is in this game for the long haul is when it doesn’t NEED any specific preconditions to be counted. Where the power of the music is seen by the reaction it gets from the rapidly expanding audience every time out, something that undoubtedly is confirmed by this song’s very name and the nature of the music and message it imparts.

It may not be the best rock song even in just the spring of 1949 but it doesn’t have to be anymore because there are so many other great rock songs out there already. Rock had arrived long before this and by now it was already fully established. This record was just to let the simpletons who had been slow to catch on know what they were missing.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Wild Bill Moore for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Doles Dickens (July, 1949)