I KNOW, IT’S ONLY ROCK & ROLL, but I like it and so do millions of others (although the number of faithful may be dwindling as we age and the Hip-Hop Era endures). The phrase “rock & roll” as it refers to music and dancing has been with us for almost seventy years and appears to have originally been a black American euphemism for sex that goes back even further. Apparently, the word “roll” has been used as a sexual metaphor since the Middle Ages!
Black gospel singers were singing “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham” and “Rock me in the cradle of Thy love” as far back as the 19th century. In these gospel songs, the term “rocking” referred to the spiritual joy and fervor that the faithful experienced at religious events.
Somewhere in the first half of the 20th century, “rocking” and “rolling” were joined together as “rocking and rolling” as a euphemism for the more secular joy that humans experienced during sexual intercourse.
Put your glad rags on, join me hon’—we’ll have some fun when the clock strikes one. We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight.
As a musical reference, rock & roll is usually credited to disc jockey Alan Freed’s coinage in 1951. Freed referred to his radio program as a Rock ‘n N Roll Party, which he also used for package shows in various venues. While Freed’s original audience of listeners was black, the music quickly caught on with young white listeners who wanted something more than their parents’ pop music offered.
Freed’s enthusiastic backing of this new music was followed by other DJs around the country. It is probably safe to assume that these men knew exactly what the racy implications of the term were and that they probably took some delight in spreading it among the Ozzie & Harriet households of white America.
By 1953, the term rock & roll was widely used in certain parts of the culture, although it was mostly unknown in white households.
By 1956, Alan Freed had become a big enough name that his name was used to sell tickets to movies geared toward the teenage market. Rock, Rock, Rock! was one of the first movies to exploit the rock & roll phenomenon and featured Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, LaVern Baker, and Chuck Berry. On this original poster, Freed is billed as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
The original rockers of the Hoy Hoy era
In 1947, Roy Brown wrote and recorded “Good Rocking Tonight” that DeLuxe Records called a “rocking blues” on the label. In Brown’s lyric, “rocking” referred to the secular fervor: “I heard the news, there’s good rocking tonight. I’m gonna hold my baby as tight as I can. Tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty, mighty man.” Brown’s singing and the orchestra were politely constrained, owing a nod to big band jazz. It was a sizable hit in the black market.
In the same year, Wynonie Harris recorded a version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that rocked, featuring prominent saxophone and hands clapping to the beat throughout. It was more obviously in the mold of what we call rhythm & blues now (and a term that wasn’t coined until after Brown and Harris’s hits). This version topped the black charts.
Many historians consider Harris’s version as one of the cornerstones of rock & roll. Any discussion of the origins of the music will lead to a discussion of the definition of that term. Rather than open that Cassandra’s box with my opinion, I want to pass on this perspective from Morgan Wright on his Hoy Hoy website (with a few minor editorial alterations for stylistic consistency with the rest of this article):
“Forget all the myths you hear about 1954, Sun Records, Elvis, Sam Phillips, etc. That’s the story of rockabilly, but rock and roll itself was already here, named, recorded, and given airplay, long before then. Many people have continued to spread the myth, that rock and roll was originally a mix of blues and country music, so often and for so long that it’s almost considered a fact by some people. The truth is, rock and roll is older than rockabilly, which was a blending of rock and roll with country music.
The myth that rock and roll music began at Sun Records in 1954 was believed by the majority of people outside of the black neighborhoods, which means people from remote areas and suburbs, wealthy sections of cities, white regions, etc., who first heard of this music then, and so that’s the most common story you hear.
Basically, the majority of Americans at the time were completely naïve to black culture and never heard of rock and roll until after the Elvis explosion brought black music into their world. But the truth is, rock and roll was originally just another name for rhythm and blues, which started in the late ’40s.
With the sudden emergence in 1954 of the worldwide audience that rock and roll received, the impression has been held in the minds of most people that rock and roll actually began that year. Most people as a whole never have known about the original rockers of the Hoy Hoy era, 1947-1953. That’s why we are here. A brief listen to the selections on this web site will tell the whole story.” (Rock Before Elvis)
Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rocking Tonight” is one of the most important recordings in the history of rock & roll. Unfortunately, by the time of rock & roll’s ascendance, his fifteen minutes of fame were up. The only LP of his known to have been released back then is the 10-inch album MR. BLUES on the French Vogue imprint in 1952.
It’s only rock & roll
When spoken, those three words (“rock and roll”) usually come out of our mouths as one three-syllable word (“rockandroll”). Actually, few people take the time to pronounce the hard sound in the second syllable and say “rockanroll” instead. Spelling it in print is a different matter. and there are several popular variations (each with variations of their own):
rock and roll
rock ‘n’ roll
rock & roll
I have been writing professionally about music and records since 1985 and I have always preferred the third version. I see the ampersand making the connection between the two words obvious — that it’s not “a rock” and “a roll,” or that one is both “rocking” and “rolling” but that it is one thing: a style of music called rock & roll.
I also use an ampersand in group names that consist of two proper names, such as Paul Revere & the Raiders and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. The ampersand makes the link between the two names obvious: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons could be read as referring to two acts I(a solo and a group) instead of one.
My one publisher titled one of my books as Goldmine’s Rock’n Roll 45RPM Record Price Guide, which also combines “45” and “RPM” into one unit. Needless to say, I was not consulted on this use of terminology in the title of my book. If I had my way, it would have been titled the longer but more accurate Goldmine’s Rock & Roll 45 RPM Record and Picture Sleeve Price Guide.
But after all is said and done, there is no “right way”: you can spell it any old way you choose it. As long as it’s got a back-beat you can’t lose it and your readers will get the message that it’s rock & roll music.
HEADER IMAGE: I went looking on the Internet for a black & white photo of black teenagers dancing in the early ’50s, but no matter what I typed into Google, I just got lots of white kids. Then I thought of the 1988 movie Hairspray, which was a cult hit that led to a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards a few years later! Hairspray has become a staple of musical theater around the world and in 2016 NBC-TV broadcast the well-received Hairspray Live!, from which the header image above was taken.
Despite its silly title, the story addresses two systemic social chasms that existed in American culture at the time—the ostracization of dancers from the popular Corny Collins Show by the width of their waistline or the color of their skin. Our overweight but determined heroine Tracy Turnblad bridges both those chasms and wins the affection of the cute guy.