According to most historians, rock & roll — both the genre and the cultural movement — was born in 1954, when Elvis Presley recorded his career-making rendition of “That’s All Right.” Even the late great Bon Scott of AC/DC (one of the most underrated lyricists in mainstream rock, but we’ll get to that later) kicks off the first verse of “Let There Be Rock” with the immortal line: “And in the beginning, back in 1955, man didn’t know ‘bout the rock & roll show and all that jive.” Of course, Bon was probably jumping past ’54 for the sake of the rhyme — or maybe he just preferred Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” an equally monumental track released in ’55 — but you get the point: to a whole generation of aspiring rock musicians, Elvis was IT, man. And I’m not disagreeing. It just so happens that the first song to embody rock & roll as a genre actually predates the cultural movement itself…
In 1947, almost a decade before the King’s swinging hips made America foam at the mouth with ecstasy and outrage alike, a good ole boy from Alabama recorded an original 12-bar blues that, in retrospect, sounds as far ahead of its time as any popular record before or since. Everything about Hank Williams’s “Move It On Over” — from its uptempo beat and rollicking electric-guitar solo to Hank’s blithe delivery and tongue-in-cheek lyrics (about a man forced to sleep in a literal doghouse) — the whole song just oozes the style and attitude of rock & roll, totally free from the Middle-American conservatism that most people associate with country music. Hank Williams was the original rockstar: at an early age, he took guitar lessons from a black street-performer and adopted the blues as a template for his songwriting, thereby setting himself apart from other “cowboy singers” of the era; he lived fast and hard, made a lifestyle out of his music, and paid the price for it; his death at the age of 29 — resulting, as you might have guessed, from years of drug and alcohol abuse — foreshadowed the untimely demises of everyone from Elvis to Amy Winehouse. The fact that one of the last songs Hank ever recorded was called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” only adds to his mystique, which, like his music, has lived on through the ages — be it in the first wave of rock & roll or the “outlaw country” movement he posthumously godfathered (more on that later) or any number of film/TV soundtracks (see The Last Picture Show and Moonrise Kingdom for the best examples of how affecting his music can be).
Speaking of mystique and immortal relevance, perhaps no one in the history of humankind had more of either than the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. Released in 1956, “I Walk the Line” might sound more country than rock & roll — its shuffling, freight train-like rhythm is practically tailor-made for the Texas two-step — but it marks the point at which Cash took his first step beyond the country hit-parade and toward the mainstream, where he quickly metamorphosed from hot act into full-blown icon. The latter stage, his “outlaw” period, will play a more pivotal role in this retrospective, but — as with the other artists that I consider to be true greats — it’s important that we stop to note Cash’s beginnings before circling back into his artistic peak later on. It’s also worth noting that, around the time that “I Walk the Line” started climbing the Top 40 charts, Cash was touring on a multi-act bill that included Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis — the alleged godfathers of rock & roll.
As for the King, let’s shift the spotlight to the song that best sums up what the man was all about: “Jailhouse Rock” — the lead single from the 1957 film of the same name — is not only a show-stopping dance number onscreen but also a prime example of early rock & roll at its heaviest. Scotty Moore’s swaggering guitar riffs, punctuated by D.J. Fontana’s gunshot snare, provide the perfect foundation for one of Elvis’s most impassioned vocal performances — a mid-tenor shout that sounds absolutely nothing like the husky croon for which he later came to be known. There’s a reason that those dime-a-dozen impersonators tend toward the “Vegas Elvis” of the 1970s — rhinestone jumpsuit, cape, big sunglasses, mutton chops, etc. — and not the leaner, meaner performer you hear on this tune: the man was simply beyond imitation. I think maybe the single greatest assessment of why his early period matters most comes from the opening lines of True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino but delivered with word-for-word perfection by the ever underrated Christian Slater: “In Jailhouse Rock, he was everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly. Mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie, he couldn’t give a fuck about nothing except rockin and rollin, living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse.” (Side note: “rockabilly” is really just a catchy portmanteau that describes the mixture of R&B and country, a.k.a. “hillbilly” music, that artists like Elvis and Johnny Cash played in the late ‘50s, i.e. it’s the same damn thing as rock & roll). The sense of danger surrounding “Jailhouse Rock” — in the film, Elvis plays a construction worker serving a 10-year manslaughter bit — epitomizes what made this kind of music at once irresistible to American youth and terrifying to their parents, a generational contrast that would persist for decades to come.
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… But your kids are gonna love it.” Immortalized by Marty McFly’s ‘80s-charged rendition (plus that great throwaway joke where “Marvin Berry” calls up his cousin), “Johnny B. Goode” was no less of a sensation when it hit the airwaves in 1958 — an electric-guitar jam at a time when there was basically no such thing. Sure, Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins had used catchy riffs and distinctive tones as blueprints for the rock & roll sound, but Chuck Berry plays like three solos on this motherfucker and they’re all downright masterful. Just the fact that the opening 12-bar run still holds up by today’s standards of energy and technique is a little insane; it’s almost as if Berry did overhear a guitarist from the future or else had access to a DeLorean of his own. Purists will tell you that the main riff was more or less “ripped off” from a 1946 Louis Jordan tune, but with all due respect to Mr. Jordan and his sensational band, the reason that more people remember “Johnny B. Goode” than they do “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” has a hell of a lot more to do with Berry’s singular talents as a performer than it does the riff itself. The man gave us the duckwalk AND the power stance, for fuck’s sake! He reinterpreted what came before him in such a way that the results looked and sounded, despite their familiar ingredients, like nothing people had ever seen or heard before. That’s the difference between originality and innovation — creating something entirely new versus making changes to something established.
All that said, I won’t attempt to deny the fact that rock & roll is, by and large, an imitation game in which the players win or lose depending on how cleverly they borrow, steal, or recycle other people’s ideas (kinda like how I just quoted Alan Turing without citing him). The entire genre was derived (some would go so far as to say stolen) from the blues, leaving a lot of older African-American songwriters unrecognized and underpaid while younger white guys used their styles and/or actual songs to become global superstars with 8-figure incomes. The one silver lining to this sad reality is that a few of these honest-to-God bluesmen went on to achieve fame in their own right — the earliest and best examples being McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters, and Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf. Both were born in Mississippi, the home of blues, where legend has it that Robert Johnson met the Devil at “the Crossroads” — the intersection of Highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale — and sold his soul in exchange for the ability to play slide guitar like it was nobody’s fucking business (which he could and did). Unfortunately, Johnson died in 1938, long before his music became popular in the hands of other musicians. (Not-so-fun fact: he was also the first in a series of musical prodigies — including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse — to die at the age of 27, otherwise known as “the 27 Club”). Muddy and the Wolf belonged to the next generation of Delta players, the rightful heirs to the blues legacy, who picked up where Johnson left off by doing precisely what he and his contemporaries lacked the means to do: they got the hell out of Mississippi.
The Mecca to which both men made their respective pilgrimages was Chicago, where the ever increasing abundance of jazz and R&B nightclubs made it possible for black musicians to earn a living. One particularly savvy Polish immigrant named Leonard Chess noted the extraordinary level of talent on display and so decided to take a gamble on the crossover appeal of African-American music, partnering with his brother Phil to start a record label. Founded in 1950, Chess Records had its first hit with “Rollin’ Stone,” Muddy Waters’s electrified interpretation of a Delta blues from the ‘20s. Muddy followed this breakout with a string of chart-topping classics — all recorded in 1953 and featuring one of the greatest studio bands ever put to tape — that included “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready.” Both songs were written by Willie Dixon, a fellow Mississippian who had all but given up performing in order to work as a staff songwriter, producer, and session musician at Chess. His use of stop-time riffs to create a call-and-response between Muddy and the band eventually became the go-to structure for rock & roll bands trying to sound bluesy (see George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” for one of the most shameless imitations to date). Moreover, Dixon was one of the first great lyricists in rock & roll: pithy lines like “I’m drinkin’ TNT and smokin’ dynamite / I hope some screwball start a fight” exude macho attitude without sacrificing their visceral expressiveness, something that countless songsmiths have since tried and failed to do. All of Dixon’s collaborations with Muddy succeed on these very same musical and lyrical terms, but “I’m Ready” stands out as a perfect showcase for the individual talents of the band members themselves: Little Walter Jacobs — the Charlie Parker of harmonica players — takes the lead here, echoing and elaborating on Muddy’s vocal phrases, while drummer Fred Below propels the song with his alternately loping and staccato backbeat; pianist Otis Spann and guitarist Jimmy Rogers take somewhat of a backseat by comparison while stilling throwing in subtly effective fills and counterpoints throughout. The fact that Little Walter, Spann, and Rogers all went on to enjoy solo careers of their own speaks volumes about the caliber of material that Chess sought to produce. It’s just too bad that their eventual parent-company, Universal Music, saw fit to license “I’m Ready” to Viagra in the late ‘90s, turning a straight-up blues classic about kicking ass and taking names into the theme song for, um, libidinally challenged men the world over.
One of the shrewdest moves the Chess Brothers made when starting their label was to strike a partnership with Sam Phillips and his Memphis Recording Service, later known as Sun Studio, where Elvis and Johnny Cash made their first records. Years before either artist ever saw the inside of a studio, however, Phillips produced two singles by Howlin’ Wolf, who — on the strength of his songwriting and the full-throated rasp that inspired his nickname — signed a contract with Chess Records and moved to Chicago in 1952. With the help of Willie Dixon and a session band to rival Muddy’s, the Wolf began working on the series of songs that would eventually appear on his first LP, Moanin’ in the Moonlight, released in 1959 but recorded over the course of the entire decade. The album’s centerpiece is “Smokestack Lightning” (originally released as a single in ‘56), a one-chord vamp atop which the 46-year-old singer gets to flex every inch of his vocal prowess; the results range wildly between awe-inspiring and terrifying, often in the same breath. The backing musicians keep things purposefully simple, leaving plenty of space for the Wolf to sing and play harp, but their restraint belies their chops: the rest of Moanin’ in Moonlight and its 1962 follow-up, Howlin’ Wolf, affords everyone a chance to show off — especially guitarist Hubert Sumlin, whose career-spanning work with the Wolf made him something of a messianic figure in the eyes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards (more on Sumlin later). The more you listen to these songs and the people playing them, the harder it is to overlook the impact that Chicago blues had on rock & roll (it’s no coincidence that Chess signed Chuck Berry not longer after Muddy and the Wolf).
Ironically, the song that best exemplifies the Chess sound wasn’t even a hit at the time of its release. In the same year that both Muddy and the Wolf saw their respective singles climb the Billboard Top 20, Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?“ failed to chart at all. It wasn’t until years later, after dozens of rereleases and covers by other bands, that the song became so iconic as to qualify as a standard in its own right, perhaps even more so than the records that outsold it back in ’56. Yet another Mississippi transplant, Bo Diddley (a.k.a. Ellas McDaniel) synthesized the essential ingredients of not only Chicago blues but early rock & roll as a whole — a sped-up version of the 2/4 shuffle from “I Walk the Line,” guitar solos to rival Chuck Berry’s best, Dixonesque lyricism with a dose of Presleyian attitude — into something entirely his own: a one-man hoodoo hootenanny that’s as fearsome as it is funny. He brags to a woman named Arlene about walking forty-seven miles of barbwire and using a cobra snake for a necktie and building his chimney out of a human skull, all with the levity of a kid on a playground (his alleged inspiration for the song) or a teenager at a coed dance. This kind of self-mythologizing is absurd in the best way possible, but the context in which Diddley does it makes “Who Do You Love?” one of the most sexually charged tunes ever recorded. I mean, he’s basically spitting game by talking about snakes — PHALLIC IMAGERY, ANYONE??? — and threatening the object of his affections with the very qualities she’s supposed to find attractive! And then there’s Jody Williams, the guitarist whose distinctive phrasing and tonality made him one of the most sought-after session musicians in Chicago. His lead work here transcends the standard set by his contemporaries in terms of sheer energy and grit; the disavowal of what’s “tasteful” in favor of what’s visceral — even when that equates to a blistering chops workout that all but dominates the song’s instrumentation — made Williams every bit as ballsy a soloist as Diddley was a songwriter and performer. He set the stage for everyone from Mike Bloomfield to Elliott Randall and to this day ranks high among the great unsung heroes of the six-string faith. And even if “Who Do You Love?” had been his sole contribution to the blues canon, I suspect he’d still make the list.