Various Artists - The First Rock and Roll Record

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2011-11-14

Stretching across three CDs and 82 tracks, this compilation, ostensibly based around a quest to identify the first ever rock 'n' roll record, is not for the faint-hearted. However, it is frequently a lot of fun, especially if you come to it with the knowledge that this highly emotive topic for many musicologists and historians will almost certainly never be settled.

Many name 1952's 'Rocket 88' by Jackie Brenston (cited by no less an authority than Elvis producer Sam Phillips of Sun Studios) as the beginning of the genre. However, without getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty of snare drum beats and boogie-woogie rhythms (mostly because I know nothing about that stuff), it's fair to say there's a lot of dissent out there. Which is where this lovingly put-together and annotated collection comes in, taking in myriad music styles and genres, including R&B, showtunes, blues, country, jazz and gospel.

Some stuff here needs little introduction to anyone vaguely acquainted with early rock 'n' roll, especially towards the end of the compilation, where Little Richard rubs shoulders with Bill Haley & His Comets, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. The whole thing wraps up with Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel', the record which provided a sonic boom for popular music in the western world. It still sounds hair-raisingly potent today. Anyone looking to expand their knowledge, meanwhile, really needs to check out Big Mama Thornton's slower, angrier (better?) version of 'Hound Dog', Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 'Strange Things Happening Everyday' and the aforementioned 'Rocket 88'.

There are other inclusions, however, which seem pretty eccentric. How likely is it that the easy listening sounds of Judy Garland, The Andrews Sisters and Nat King Cole spawned rock 'n' roll's raw groove? Not very, I would say, but they each find a place here, perhaps demonstrating that even the mainstream pop of the 40s and 50s was edging towards a grittier sound. Then there are the tracks which, while having little musical relation to the compilation's concept, give you a vivid feel for the times and culture which birthed this new musical phenomenon. The collection opens with 'The Camp Meeting Jubilee', a 1916 recording made by unknown hands of a fervent prayer meeting. To hear these distant, wobbly voices praising, testifying and generally making crazy noises is wonderfully spine-tingling.

It's these little moments of discovery which make this exhaustive and at times exhausting collection worth wading though, such the realisation that Trixie Smith, on the mannered-sounding 'My Man Rocks Me', is actually rhapsodising about getting it nine-hours straight from an obliging chap with an enormous johnson, or hearing Les Paul and Mary Ford's joyful 'How High the Moon', sounding impossibly slick and studio-savvy for 50s pop. It may not give you a definitive answer to this long-standing question but by drawing you into the fascinating worlds of early 20th century music, The First Rock and Roll Record achieves something much more significant and lasting.

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