They Came Before Rock: A Black Shout of Liberation Called R&B

February 22, 2024

“What they call rock ‘n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans” – Fats Domino, 1957



Anyone who’s ever so much as picked up a guitar has found themselves involved in the following arguments at least once:


1: When did punk die? (answer: consistently but toootally coincidentally the same year the person answering the question stopped actively seeking out new music)
2: Who invented rock n roll?


Names get tossed around like Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Bill Haley, and the elephant in every room: Elvis (elvisphant?). But by 1954 when most of their claims to fame are staked, the movement had already been fully under way for over a decade as a Black movement called rhythm and blues. All any of them really did was figure out how to market it to white teenagers.


You can play the game and point to Chuck Berry as the artist around whom the sound truly crystalized. He’d been kicking around as a side-man for years by the time his 1955 singles wove all the threads together into one electrifying sound. By ’55, the concept of rock n roll was well established, but you can hear a tectonic shift in the music before and after him. Before ’55, guitar was a key part of rock. After “Maybeline” and Bo Diddley’s self-titled anthem dropped, guitar was The Event. The guitar theatrics unleashed by Berry and Bo Diddley both in 1955 placed the guitar front and center as the dominant instrument of the movement.


1955 might be the year rock n roll became a guitar-centered movement, but you can point to Ike Turner’s iconic 1951 single “Rocket 88” as the moment rock began. Credited to saxophonist and vocalist Jackie Brenston, the song features all the hallmarks. A driving feel, backbeat, distorted guitar, lyrics about sex and cars, prominent use of the word “rock.” The legend is that the guitarist’s amp fell out of the car en route to the session. When they set it up, the band decided they liked the distorted sound of the damaged amp and tracked the song as is instead of swapping out for another amp. This was the first time a guitar was intentionally distorted on a record as an artistic choice rather than just because of the limitations of the equipment. It was the first time someone had the option for a recording to be distorted or not, and went “nahhh, the distortion’s the thing.” It’s a solid argument, but what Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats were playing, they identified as R&B.


“We recorded ‘Rocket 88’ and you know that’s why they say ‘Rocket 88’ was the first rock ‘n’ roll song, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88’ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88’ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88’ is the cause of rock and roll existing,” – Ike Turner


You can push the starting line back further to 1949 when you get both Fats Domino’s debut single “The Fat Man” and Goree Carter’s criminally under-heard “Rock Awhile.” Both singles capture the raw howl of liberation at the soul of the best rock. Carter’s single leads off with a guitar lick that would become co opted into a genre staple a decade later. There’s a radical kind of joy and playfulness mixed with the drive. Why does the sax solo riff on Jingle Bells for a second? Fuck it, why not? That’s why. That right there is the heart and soul of rock a solid 5 years before Elvis took up the sound.


Even Jackie Brenston himself conceded that “Rocket 88” was effectively a sped up take on a 1947 single by jump blues and R&B artist Jimmy Liggins. Liggins’ “Cadillac Boogie” fits few of rock’s hallmarks, but only needed a couple lyric tweaks and an unconstrained tempo and feel to form the template. That same year Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris both had hits with the song “Good Rocking Tonight” which would go on to become a standard of the future genre.


It’s a cruel irony how much these revolutionary early rock songs can now sound tame in comparison with what came after. The raw fury that jumps out of the tape on Bad Brains’ debut still translates and probably always will, but the wave after wave of co-option has dulled the edges of rock’s progenitors. A song like “Cadillac Boogie” might now be hard to hear as an inflection point of a dawning revolution, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one.


Throughout the 40’s songwriters and bandleaders in the R&B scene embraced the fluid tradition of blues, borrowing licks and lyrics from each other with implicit permission. “Good Rocking Tonight” itself borrows from Jimmy Liggin’s brother Joe Liggin’s 1945 single “The Honedripper,” which lifts its melody from “Shortnin’ Bread.” The term rock n roll was used regularly during the decade to describe a feel of a song, rather than a genre. Saying something had a rock and roll feel at the time meant it had a hard feel and a good groove. But it was already an established term long before any of its supposed inventors had gotten around to inventing anything.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer gospel singer whose guitar work remains unparalleled earned the distinction of being the first artist described by the press as “rock and roll” in a review of her 1942 single “Rock Me.” Though she never achieved the commercial success of her many followers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s name continued to be spoken of with awe by the artists she influenced. In response to his 1986 induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck Berry was quoted saying “My whole career has been one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.”


It wasn’t until the music industry saw and began to exploit the artistic goldmine in the R&B scene that ownership and invention became a part of the equation. Prior to the success of Alan Freed’s Moondog House radio show, R&B had been largely a live and improv-centric movement. What residuals existed for R&B recordings were few, and the strict racist structures of the industry kept them firmly in white pockets. If Alan Freed can be credited with inventing anything, it’s the rock n roll royalty lawsuit.

Once it became clear that record sales could also be a major source of revenue in addition to the live event, Freed stepped in and began demanding songwriting credits in exchange for airplay. Chuck Berry was shocked to discover his debut single was co-credited to Freed, whose sole musical accomplishment amounted to playing trombone in highschool, and a man named Russ Fratto to whom Berry’s label owed money. Berry didn’t win back his authorship rights until 1986. Of the dozens of artists who unwillingly shared songwriting credit with Freed, Chuck Berry is one of the few who ever got justice.


The ensuing pay-to-play scandal brought down Freed’s empire by the start of the 60’s, but at that point the damage was done. What had begun as a collective expression of Black liberation flowing through the R&B scene, was now fully gentrified without changing a note.


The question of who invented rock n roll isn’t a real question, because no single person invented rock n roll, certainly not Alan Freed, Elvis, Sam Phillips, or Bill Haley. They came after it already existed. It’s more a question of how it was summoned into being by Black innovators in the R&B scene throughout the 30s and 40s. Of the dozens of artists whose records point to the sound that became rock n roll, only a minuscule fraction were ever recorded. The recording standards of the time wore down the raw edges of a sound that had been primarily intended as a live experience. A luminary like guitar virtuoso Charlie Christian is cited almost universally as a major influence of every rock guitarist in his wake, but few recordings of his work were ever made.


What we can see and hear of early rock today is barely the tip of the iceberg. For every artist who got the chance to have their work recorded, a hundred more didn’t. For every artist whose raw 7 inch singles got digitized and repressed in the modern era, a hundred more didn’t. Rock was created by the thousands of Black innovators who turned their amps up one more notch, who pushed the tempo a few more beats per minute, who shouted their vocals like it was the end of days long before anyone at Columbia or Sun or Chess Records realized they could make a buck by turning a mic on it. It was a collective shout of Black liberation through music long before it was a genre. That shout still echoes through everything that came after.