They say it’s nigh-on impossible to pinpoint the origins of rock ‘n’ roll but a new BBC4 series traces its evolution, beginning in 1949 with Fats Domino. The three-part series includes plenty of familiar tunes yet director/producers Matthew O’Casey and John Williams haven’t forgotten about the hits that history has misplaced.
Here they share their favourites…
Maybe by The Chantels
“The girl group phenomenon emerged on the East Coast in the early 60s took rock ‘n’ roll uptown,” explains Williams. “Teenage songsmiths like Gerry Goffin and Carole King turned out hits from nondescript office building 1650 Broadway for the mostly black girl groups, who reshaped rock n roll with sophistication and sass. But one track much overlooked is Maybe by The Chantels. In 1958, it paved the way for the female groups that followed. There’s a doe-eyed naivety in the lyric, and an idealistic purity in the sound, but it’s the power and maturity of Arlene Smiths teenage voice that sounded a clarion call from every transistor radio.” Whereas the early mavericks were men singing about the girls, Maybe was the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll finding its female voice.
Money by Barrett Strong
Another song often overlooked in terms of its importance is Money by Barrett Strong. “This was the first hit for Berry Gordy from his studio at Hitsville USA on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit,” says Williams. “It was released on the Anna record label (named after Gordy’s sister) early in 1960. The story goes that Strong was sitting in the studio messing around with the piano part from What’d I Say by Ray Charles. The danceable aggression in the rhythm and blues riff that he derived, combined with the complete lack of irony in Strong’s delivery, give Money its unflappable confidence. It’s a track built on rock ‘n’ roll’s raw materials and marks the beginning of Motown with its apt slogan – “The sound of young America”.
The Fat Man by Fats Domino
Fats Domino recorded his first hit as far back as 1949, establishing his driving rhythm and simple lines that he put over with effortless charm. “People have put him down as merely an entertainer and musically simplistic, but he was a catalyst in birthing rock ‘n’ roll and bringing black and white audiences together,” says Matthew O’Casey. “Ironically, there were more riots at Fats’ gigs than any other performer’s. He caused huge excitement at shows and, during the uproar and dancing, the rope lines that divided black and white would blur and kids would riot.”
Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner
Rocket 88 is from 1951, three years pre-Elvis and four years pre-Rock Around the Clock, but has a fuzztone guitar, the first in rock n roll – supposedly from the guitar amp falling off the car on the way to the session. “That guitar drives the song home,” says O’Casey. “It’s an early car song in a country where car ownership doubled in the 50s, teen licences increased and the drive-in culture boomed. Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and many others would pick up on what Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner perfected: the car song.”
Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama’s version of Hound Dog is entirely different to Elvis’ version. “It’s slower but its a beautiful groove and her energy and soul puts the hairs up on the back of your neck,” explains O’Casey. “The archive performance we have in the series of her doing it is remarkable. She was a big, tall, force of a woman and delivers it as a powerful, funny song about a freeloader, a gigolo who’s ‘snooping round my door…. you can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more’. Elvis’ version is maybe the biggest selling single of the 50s but with the changed line ‘you ain’t never caught a rabbit‘, it’s just a song about a dog.”
That’s Alright Mama by Arthur Big Boy Cruddup
Like Big Mama, Arthur Big Boy Cruddup is little known for his contribution to rock ‘n’ roll but his song will be familiar. “His version is different to Elvis and has this beat with a skip to the hi-hat that gives it a different spark,” says O’Casey. “But what Elvis does that’s interesting is turn this song of rejection into a young cool statement of acceptance by just turning Cruddup’s melodic downturn on ‘Ma-ma’ to a lingering upturn on ‘Ma-ma’, changing the emotion of the song in that one line of the chorus.”