Looking for “THE HEART OF AMERICAN MUSIC” one needs to look no further than the infectious sounds of Rhythm and Blues music. New musical styles develop as a reaction to what previously transpired musically so in the case of R&B we can hear the traces of New Orleans jazz, gospel, spirituals, jump blues and more.
Originally called RACE MUSIC Jerry Wexler ( check him out) coined the more appropriate term R&B as a marketing tool for BILLBOARD magazine which could then track R&B sales without offending people (politically correct before their time).
At first, R&B was considered “low brow” when compared to “high brow” jazz. In the phrase R&B the rhythm part refers to the backbeat (on the 2 and 4) and the blues part is from the lyrics which usually depicted life as being “blue” or sad.
With its forefather the blues this new rhythm and blues music inspired so many British teenagers who as musicians attempting to emulate their American musical heroes revamped this American music and made it their “own” sound which strangely became popular to American teens. The fact was these Brits just rehashed America’s original music.
In a nutshell rhythm and blues music is the heart of American music. If one truly scratches the surface of rhythm and blues music you can hear jazz, old gospel, and spiritual music. When mixed together with a little kick it becomes rock n roll.
The backbone of good ole RnR music is The BACK BEAT, hitting the snare on the 2 and the 4 sometimes slightly late in a 4/4. As Chuck sang:
Rock`n`roll music just, let me hear some of that rock ‘n’ roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it…
So what is THE BACK BEAT, just look to the drums, aka the “skins”. At one time drum heads were animal skins. Search any time period, in any location, and one will find artifacts of what can be construed as drums, usually made of stretched animal skins. These “drums” were played in ceremonies, both solemn and celebratory, and as a way to communicate (Talking Drums). Bronze cymbals can also be found in ancient greek tombs and later in Turkey where The Turks perfected the process.
Before rock drumming, before jazz, no drum “kits” existed. In the late 1800s, separate percussionists in military and concert bands were assigned to one specific drum or cymbals. As these ensembles typically played in parades, there was plenty of space for a large percussion section to roam about. Indoor concerts, on the other hand, had obvious physical constraints and therefore percussionists often had to do double duty, a drum or two. The drummers performing with The Second Line processions in New Orleans, after the parade would head to the local spot for a drink and to play some tunes.The drummer (one) would have a snare and a bass drum. The bass drum which was “kicked” sometimes had a cymbal attached to its top. A clever solution to this issue, that is to get the drummers feet in on the action occurred in 1909. William F. Ludwig, Sr helped drummers when he pioneered a foot pedal for the bass drum. One drummer could then play multiple parts simultaneously—kind of a big deal at the time. THE CONTRAPTION as the drums were now known was shortened to THE TRAP KIT.
Back to THE CORE of RnR, THE BACK BEAT is the progression of 2&4 accents in Western (American) popular music. It probably starts with Swing Jazz and Big Bands where the drummers emphasized these beats and played 2 & 4 with the High Hat. Next, this style moved over to the snare drum in very early Rock n’ Roll and Blues. Once it was on the snare drum, virtually all styles of American popular music using drums feature snare on 2 & 4. Calling this a “Rock” beat is probably just a historical nod to the early rock n’ roll songs.
So what is this Rock and Roll or better yet HOW DID IT GET IT’S NAME?
Rock and roll, the phrase itself is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. A simple euphemism that appeared in song titles since at least 1914 (Trixie Smith’s “My Man ROCKS Me With One Steady ROLL”)
Disc jockey Alan Freed is widely credited with coining the term “rock and roll” to describe the uptempo black R&B records he played as early as 1951 on Cleveland radio station WJW.
This Rock and Roll music grabs from musical styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues, along with country music. Determining the first actual rock & roll record is a truly impossible task. But you can’t go too far off when citing Jackie Brenston’s 1951 Chess waxing of “Rocket 88”, which has all the prerequisite elements firmly in place: practically indecipherable lyrics about cars, booze, and women, booming tenor sax, and a churning, beat-heavy rhythmic bottom.
See you next time….ROCK’S IN MY HEAD Chapter 5: DRUNKS, THIEVES and SCOUNDRELS. Comments? Jazzbus@gmail.com