WHAT EXACTLY IS A ROCK & ROLL ALBUM? To answer that question, we need to answer another: What is rock & roll music? After sixty years, we still don’t have a definition that everyone agrees with! Arguments about its definition and its origin in the early ’50s—no wait, was it the late ’40s?—have been around since at least the mid-’60s!
I am not going to resolve any disputes here. Suffice to say, that most of us believe we know it when we hear it. For the most part, we’re usually correct.
This article is here to clear up some issues in another article on a bloody Jimmy Clanton album!
Older fans (septuagenarian plus) who became teenagers in the mid-’50s have a different perspective and experience than the generations since.
They may have a more open and less demanding interpretation of rock & roll music. And it is that perspective that I’m using as the basis for this essay.
Fortunately, I have no intention of making a ‘meaningful’ argument or try to attempt even a noteworthy contribution to the literature here. I’m just going to gloss over a few things that should be part of the general consensus.
This is the second half of the double-album JIMMY’S HAPPY, JIMMY’S BLUE. Clanton looks like an intelligent, pensive young man. Of course, he may merely be pondering what it’s going to take to get his date to put out. Please note that this that you are reading is not an in-depth article! It’s here to clear up some issues addressed in another article on this bloody Jimmy Clanton album!
What was the first rock & roll record?
In 1992, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes published What Was The First Rock ‘N’ Roll Record? In this book, they listed fifty recordings for consideration as the first rock & roll record, beginning with Blues Part 2 from one of Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic albums from 1944. The last entry was Heartbreak Hotel from 1956.
That’s a spread of twelve years with nothing resembling a final answer, which may be great for a discussion among people who always win at Rock & Roll Trivial Pursuit, but it is utterly impractical for regular use. The 1944 date is way too early, and 1956 is way too late for a working definition.
With Sun 209, Elvis seamlessly merged rhythm & blues and country & western with a pop sensibility into rock & roll.
The easiest line of demarcation to choose is Sun 209, That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky. With these two sides, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black seamlessly merged rhythm & blues and country & western with a pop sensibility into rock & roll—especially Presley’s singing.
Depending on your definition of rock & roll, there are certainly earlier records that you can argue to be the ‘first rock & roll record.’ But there are no later records because with That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky the argument ends!
From 1949 into 1955, Antoine Domino Jr made rhythm & blues records for a mostly black audience who liked their R&B with a New Orleans flavor. Then, in 1955, Pat Boone covered his latest R&B hit Ain’t That A Shame and white radio stations began playing his version. And then white teenagers began buying his record. Lo and behold, Fats Domino had a cross-over hit on the pop charts! Lo and beholder, he was now a rock & roll artist.
Here’s what we all seem to agree on
The original rock & roll music had a reasonably fast rhythm and a back-beat that was easy to dance to.
It’s uptempo music.
It’s dancing music.
It’s fun music.
It’s rock & roll music, any old way you choose it.
In 1957, Chuck Berry recorded Rock And Roll Music with the immortal line, “I’ve got no kick against modern jazz, unless they try to play it too darn fast, and lose the beauty of the melody, until it sounds just like a symphony.” At the time, John Coltrane had just released his first album (above). The highly melodic and structured music didn’t even hint of at what was in store for jazz a few years in the future.
I got no kicks against modern jazz
One very basic, very early definition of the original rock & roll music was that it was simply a derivative of black rhythm & blues aimed at a younger black audience that a young white audience picked up on. In fact, for many observers, ’50s rhythm & blues and ’50s rock & roll are synonymous.
Another basic definition of rock & roll accepts the first definition as a foundation but requires a healthy dose of country & western to be added to the rhythm & blues to make rock & roll. Either way, the records we think of as classic rock & roll were generally made with a pop sensibility that either came naturally to the artist (Elvis and Buddy Holly) or was forced upon the artist by the producer (Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash).
So as much as we want (and tend) to romanticize the progenitors of the music we love, every rock & roll fan has to acknowledge that one of the primary goals of making rock & roll music was to get played on pop radio stations, to sell records to a youthful audience, and to make it to the toppermost of the poppermost!
This Sun publicity photo was taken in late July 1954. It gives the world Elvis as wannabe cowboy singer with filigreed vest pockets, bow-tie, and bad haircut! By this time, country radio stations in Tennessee were refusing to play either side of Sun 209 because it was too black (not the word they used).
Before Elvis, there was nothing
For an example of the needs of art and commerce being met simultaneously, we can use Sun 209 again. Elvis and Scotty and Bill and Sam were searching for a sound and a style that would make them unique and therefore more market-friendly. They tried various approaches, notably Elvis as country crooner. 1
The trio played with Bill Monroe‘s country hit Blue Moon Of Kentucky. Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys recorded the song in 1946 as a slow, genteel waltz in 3/4 time. Elvis and his Blue Moon Boys recorded it at a faster clip in 4/4 time! 2
Where Monroe’s vocal was restrained and polite, Presley’s vocal was playful and insistent. When the trio had their first good take on tape, Sam Phillips famously remarked, “Fine, man! Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now!” 3
Elvis took a country & western song, juiced it up rhythmically, and sang it black and his producer called it pop.
Elvis took a country & western song, juiced it up rhythmically, and sang it black instead of white and his producer called that combination “pop.”
In the middle of 1954, rock & roll really wasn’t that big of a deal in Memphis or anywhere else. Blackboard Jungle and Rock Around The Clock were a year in the future. Had it been different—had rock & roll been a meaningful force in the market—Sam might have said, “Hell, that’s different. That’s rock & roll now!”
So however much we rock aficionados want to differentiate rock & roll from pop music, the desire to make real pop music for the AM radio-driven market was a part of rock & roll from the get-go!
The 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle starred Glenn Ford as a teacher in an inner-city school overrun by juvenile delinquents. The cast included Sidney “Sir” Poitier, Jameel “Corporal Klinger” Farah, Anne “Honey West” Francis, Paul “Bob Carol Ted Alice” Mazursky, and scene-stealer Vic “Sgt. Saunders” Morrow.
We’re gonna rock till broad daylight
In 1953-55, Bill Haley & His Comets placed eight sides in the national Top 40. While historians write all kinds of things about this music, it was basically Haley’s take on the kind of R&B that had been popular since the end of the war. In fact, Billboard reviewed each single as a rhythm & blues record.
A lot of the more popular post-war R&B had a sense of humor that could be hip and sly, especially for the time. But to listeners from 1965 on, these records tend to sound like novelty recordings. Like so many things that start out hip, they become square while no one’s looking.
In the summer of 1955, all hell broke loose with Blackboard Jungle and its theme song Rock Around The Clock.
Like it or not, much of Haley’s music sounded like Haley the man looked: unassuming, non-aggressive, paternal. I am not saying that Haley didn’t make good records—he did! It’s just that they can sound . . . goofy. The novelty sound and feel are true for many of Haley’s records throughout his career, including such important hits as Shake, Rattle And Roll (1954) and Dim Dim The Lights (1955). 4
Then all hell broke loose in the summer of 1955 with Blackboard Jungle, a movie about juvenile delinquency in American high schools. It used Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock as its theme song, and screenings of the film were often accompanied by dancing in the seats, in the aisles, and even on the stage!
In some cases, the dancing turned into fistfights and vandalism and to many adults, rock & roll became one and the same with juvenile delinquency!
Whether played at the movie theater, on a car radio, or on somebody’s record-player, the song became an international rallying cry for disaffected (fun-seeking?) teenagers.
It took Decca six months to release ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (DL 8225) and capitalize on the notoriety of Blackboard Jungle. This was a compilation LP that collected both sides of Haley’s first six Decca singles. But what were the people in Decca’s art department smoking when they designed this cover? It looks more like a Burl Ives Christmas album than something that a 16-year old rock & roller would buy!
What exactly is a rock & roll album?
By the time that Elvis was saddled with the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” in mid-1956, rock & roll had settled into a potent brew of rhythm & blues and country & western with some pop and gospel thrown in. As to what constituted a rock & roll album, I would hope we would all agree that an album of non-stop shake-rattle-and-rolling was a rock & roll album. 5
But very few albums prior to 1964 were like this: from the beginning, rock & rollers included slow dance songs, country weepers, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts, and novelty numbers on their records.
The slow songs were usually sung in a bluesy, rhythmic manner (or an imitation of that approach). This differentiated them from the bland and soulless pop music that dominated America radio stations.
These were not the kind of slow songs that parents had danced close to when they were young! Some of these slow songs were so rhythmic, so forceful, that a term was coined to define them: rock-a-ballad. 6
Any Way You Want Me (That’s How I Will Be) is one of the definitive Elvis rock-a-ballads. While it was certainly strong enough to be an A-side, it was understandably coupled with the wimpier Love Me Tender. RCA Victor did compile an EP around the song, recycling three Sun sides to fill out the album.
Can slow songs make a rock & roll album?
Yes, an album of slow songs can be a rock & roll album! As an example, let’s assemble twelve Elvis ballads from the ’50s into a hypothetical LP. I’ve chosen songs that were not big hits so there wouldn’t be any instant familiarity for most readers:
I’m Counting On You
Playing For Keeps
How’s The World Treating You
First In Line
Tell Me Why
That’s When Your Heartaches Begin
Have I Told You Lately That I Love You
Is It So Strange
Don’t Leave Me Now
I Need You So
Don’t Ask Me Why
As Long As I Have You
An album with these tracks would be an album of slow-dance music—of make-out music. And no one would mistake this for an album that could be categorized with Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or Vaughn Monroe.
Yet despite there being no rocking and no rolling, the very visceralness (sic) of the music would ensure that this would still be a rock & roll album! The rhythmic phrasing, the commitment to the feel of the song, the passionate insistence of the singer are all qualities that we simply do not associate with pop vocal music.
So, when discussing LPs of the first ten years of rock & roll (say, 1954-1963), just about anything can be a rock & roll album if it has that rock & roll sound and, more importantly, that rock & roll feeling! 7
When I started wheeling and dealing records, I was surprised at how many older collectors had LPs like these in their rock & roll collections. I sold several NM copies of both albums for $50. Today, few collectors consider Ernie or Kay to be anything other than pop singers making music with a beat and a bit of rhythm for (white) parents. Consequently, there is almost no market for these records on the Internet.
Pop singers and ersatz rock & roll
Pop singers tried their hand at some kind of rocking and rolling before there was rock & roll! White singers tackling black music goes back decades, including Bing Crosby’s brilliantly adapting Louis Armstrong’s jazz singing into popular music, especially his phrasing and syncopation (“aaack-SENNN-tchoo-ate-the-positive”).
In the ’50s, the two most popular and successful white artists making rock & roll records were the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone. They were purveyors of vanilla-ized (sic) versions of chocolate songs, making the music palatable for the refined (read protected) sensibilities of white audiences. Still, most of the teens who bought their records considered them to be rock & roll, so they play an important part in the development and popularization of rock & roll in the mid-’50s.
The legacies of these and similar artists have not been treated kindly by later generations of rock & roll fans, especially critics and historians. Rock-writers, critics, and even fans aren’t as nasty about these guys in the 21st century as they were in the ’60s years ago, but few of them pay more than nominal attention to their records.
Unfortunately, many capable singers were haphazardly bundled into this category by disciples of the early Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone School of Rock Criticism. For decades, these artists had a difficult time escaping this pigeon-holing.
One such artist was James “Jimmy” Clanton of New Orleans, Louisiana.
The album that changed everything was 1963’s WITH THE BEATLES! Aside from the eight original compositions that everyone raved about, it included the Fab Four’s versions of several earlier songs, including two ’50s rockers and three early ’60s sides. By 1966, rock & roll music was evolving to such a degree that it would become known simply as rock music to differentiate it from that which had come before.
The Beatles and the British Invasion
It’s so easy to forget that the foundation of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Dave Clark 5, the Hollies, and the rest of the British Invasion was ’50s rock & roll and early ’60s rhythm & blues! Throughout the growth of the genre and expansion of the term rock & roll in the ’60s to embrace anything and everything, rockers always remembered their roots.
Between 1966 and ’69, rock & roll music co-opted so many other types of music that it earned or required a new term, rock music. This is the term that the past few generations of fans generally use when referring to their music. (Before their music became hip-hop.) Many younger fans who dig rock music look at genuine rock & roll condescendingly. But that’s another story.
I had a conversation with the 19-year-old who informed me that the first rock & roll album was Led Zeppelin’s first album from 1969. I asked, “What about Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry? What about the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan?” She responded, “That was just pop music.” 8
What was the first rock & roll LP album?
I had intended to answer this question in this article with a few paragraphs but decided to do some research before committing myself to an answer. I ended up with another article instead: “what was the first-ever rock & roll album?”
So I will eventually have a series of a dozen or so articles addressing early rock & roll albums and early multi-records sets. When they are completed, I will attach a list of the articles in their recommended order of reading (with hyperlinks, of course) to each of those dozen or so articles.
This is the other half of JIMMY’S HAPPY, JIMMY’S BLUE. Clanton looks like the quintessential boy-next-door on a first date with nothing on his mind except charming the pants off the parents he just met whose daughter he intends to make out with later. Appropriately, it is the other side of the photo on the second half of this album. 9
About that bloody Jimmy Clanton album
Right. There’s that Jimmy Clanton album that I mentioned above, JIMMY’S HAPPY, JIMMY’S BLUE. The album that was the reason for writing this article.
Ace DLP-100, a double-album.
By a rock & roll singer.
Read all about it in “what was the first rock & roll double-album of the ’50s or ’60s?”
FEATURED IMAGE: On July 1, 1956, Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen Show, a popular and influential variety show on NBC-TV. Allen had a negative take on rock & roll and required that Presley and his band to wear tuxedos. Legend also has him ‘forcing’ Presley to sing Hound Dog to a hound dog. As part of The Legend, Elvis supposedly hated Allen’s ideas but buckled down and did what needed to be done to get the exposure the Allen show offered him. For more, refer to the video of the performance below.
1 That master of hyperbole, John Lennon said, “Before Elvis there was nothing. If there hadn’t been Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles.”
2 Legend has the three musicians goofing around with the Monroe track as a way to relax and Sam heard them and coaxed them into finessing their approach and putting it on tape. Since this is so damn fine a story, it sounds apocryphal. Since the number of sessions and hours logged in at Sun and Bill’s house are unknown, the choice to believe this story or not is up to you . . .
3 Sam’s remark went unnoticed by Presley and Parker and RCA Victor for decades until it turned up on a bootleg album in the ’70s.
4 It’s not just modern sensibilities that hear Haley as somewhat silly: his career as a major Top 40 hit-maker in the US was over by 1957. While he remained a star in Europe for years, by the end of the ’50s his music was considered dated by most American teens.
5 And most rock & roll music (vs. rhythm & blues music) was made by white artists for a white teenaged audience.
6 The earliest use of the term rock-a-ballad that I found was in the June 30, 1958, issue of Billboard, in which ten new singles are described as such.
7 Remind me to write an article making some kind of argument for later Elvis albums such as THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (1790), LOVE LETTERS FROM ELVIS (1971), and ELVIS NOW (1972) being—or not being—rock & roll albums.
8 To her response, I sagely said, “Ahhh . . .” and achieved satori and was enlightened.
9 Jimmy Clanton is still happy and active and has a website.
Watch the show: Elvis doesn’t appear to be performing under duress. In fact, he appears to be enjoying himself, perhaps knowing he has beaten Allen at his own game!