I know, it’s only rock & roll (or is it only rock and roll?)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

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.

AlanFreed RockRockRock poster 500

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)


WynonieHarris MrBlues 10inch Vogue France 600

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.


Hairspray NBC CornyCollins 1000

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.


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