28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

There’s nearly nothing as contentious as the origins of rock and roll. It’s on par with did Jesus exist? Who killed Kennedy? and If a tree falls in the forest, did it ever make a sound?

We all know the icons: Little Richard. Elvis. Bill Haley. And the incomparable Chuck Berry, who tragically passed away last March.

If you’re black, you’ve always known that rock and roll has African origins. I remember my parents saying “all music comes from black people, now eat your dinner,” as a kid. Of course, that is not entirely true, and it may have been an attempt by my parents to give us something to be proud of during a time and place when and where there was little to be thankful for in my own community. What is absolutely true, though, is that much of the popular music today draws its history from blacks and black communities. If that sounds like a boast…it is. Let us look at some origins.

One of the few parts of Rock and Roll that isn’t black is in the roots of those two words. Rock is derived from the Old English roccain, related to the Old Nordic rykkja meaning, “to pull, tear, move.” The earliest recorded use of the term in literature can be found in the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” from 1805. Roll is derived from the Latin rotula meaning, “small wheel.” The phrase “rocking and rolling,” a metaphor used by seamen to describe the motion of a ship, dates from the 17th century. Similar metaphors slipped into popular discourse, but one in particular became the inspiration for the genre’s moniker. By the 1920s, “rocking and rolling” became a popular double entendre referring to either dancing or sex. Trixie Smith’s 1922 blues ballad, “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)” may be the first use of the phrase in song.

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Wild Bill Moore

And even then, there’s much contention about who had the very first rock record. Some say Wild Bill Moore, with “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll,” in 1948.

There are other proponents of the theory that the very first rock record was a song called “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a track released on wax paper by Arthur Collins. So, we may never truly know.

When Billboard began charting songs in 1940, they had not heard of Rock and Roll. Ultimately, the company would chart every artist from then on. And the world would never be the same. But rock is what put the company on the map, as it would soon learn. Back in those days, industry execs and others in the music world knew exactly what type of music was black and which was white: black people most overwhelmingly bought records from black artists, while whites did the opposite. African American artists were requested by patrons of black record stores, and distributed along African American airwaves from black radio stations. Even jukebox choices were lined with all black music and played in all-black venues. Segregation was so strong that people of color didn’t even want to support the white artists. In this way, they silently rebelled against the system that had been developed to rebel against their skin color.

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Of course, in those early days, a few black artists broke the mold, like the Ink Spots, that had 12 top ten hits between 1939-1947, possibly due to, or in spite of, being marketed to white audiences. Their’s was R&B infused with an early-doo wop sound, with what some might say had undertones of Rock and Roll in its infancy.

Enter one, Sam Phillips. Sam was the genius to rebrand what had colloquially been called R&B (at that time, just about all black music was known as rhythm and blues, despite its actual genre). Phillips was the first white man to use the phrase “Rock and Roll” to market it to white kids in 1954. A marketing strategy for the ages. Before the name caught on, Phillips is reported to have said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” In saying this, he clearly had never heard of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who wasn’t necessarily appropriating culture, but had just spent his entire life around blacks in Harlem and had gained his “jive speak” and animated piano play through the nature of how he grew up.

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Everyone wanted to listen to the music, but black artists sounded black. During a time when few African American artists graced the covers of records, and performed live to black audiences, it would have been near impossible to hide the fact that they were black in the presence of a white audience. Like, 99.9% of a chance they’d be found out. Unless the entire group was light-skinned enough to pass. Phillips was also the visionary behind the discovery of Elvis Presley, who, as luck would have it, was the largest star to make Rock and Roll public for the white masses. So… pretty busy guy.

 

That said, none of this would have been possible without a long list of people too long to really mention in one piece. There are simply too many artists to thank for Rock, even before it became what it is today. When the genre was still trying to figure itself out, while it was merging, coalescing into one thing, from multiple influences from every side of the musical spectrum. It was B.B. King. It was Ike Turner. It was Ray Charles. It was Louis Jordan, “The King of the Jukebox.” It was, and is, one thing the black community can be profoundly proud of. This case is secured as an example of black excellence. Rock and Roll, baby!

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Author

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.