what exactly was a “rock & roll album” in those days?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 15 min­utes.

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!


Elvis Sun photo 1954 copy 300x420 1

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.


Got that?

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!


BlackboardJungle poster 1000

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 BLUEThe album that was the reason for writing this article.

Ace DLP-100, a double-album.

By a rock & roll singer.

From 1960.

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!




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