1940s musicians laid the cornerstone for rock ‘n’ roll

“Rhythm and blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll,” Little Richard quipped at the Concert For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995. In this edition of Discoveries, we cast a spotlight on a baker’s dozen of Fabulous ’40s artists who facilitated that birth.

Louis Jordan Choo Choo ChboogieLouis Jordan
STATS: In terms of national R&B chart success, the Brindley, Ark.-born singer and alto saxophonist ranks No. 1 for the years 1942-1949, with an amazing 50 charted hits, including 18 crossover smashes. His 18 No. 1s between 1942 and 1950 sat atop the charts for an astounding 113 weeks.
INFLUENCE: At the tail end of the big-band era, Jordan excelled with a small combo of musicians, his Tympani Five, infusing his own blend of jazz, boogie woogie and blues with comedic stylings and amusing lyrics. Jordan also made proficient use of promotional “soundies,” an early version of the music video, which further enhanced his popularity. Ever wonder where Chuck Berry got his famous “Johnny B. Goode” riff? Listen to guitarist Carl Hogan’s intro on Jordan’s 1946 No. 1 hit, “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.”
KEY SIDES: “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” and “Buzz Me.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: A good starting point is Geffen’s “Number Ones,” which compiled 18 of Jordan’s R&B chart-toppers from 1942-50 in one package. The single disc overviews “The Best Of Louis Jordan” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” offer a few more tracks for your buck and present a nice overview of Jordan’s output. If you really want a sense of the man and his music, pick up JSP’s 131-track, 5-CD set spanning 1938-1950. With sound equal or superior to the MCA discs, it’s a steal at $25.
BEWARE: Idem has a DVD featuring 35 of Jordan’s classic soundies, but disappointingly, the audio and video are not in sync! Save your money until someone does this one right!

The Ink Spots When The Swallows Come Back to CapistranoThe Ink Spots
STATS: Between 1939 and 1950, this Indianapolis quartet — Bill Kenny, Deek Watson, Charlie Fuqua, Hoppy Jones, et. al. — placed 50 songs on the national pop and/or R&B charts with 20 Top 5 hits and six No. 1s.
INFLUENCE: Despite a handful of personnel changes, the group’s signature sounds — the introductory four-bar chord progression from guitarist Charlie Fuqua, Kenny’s soaring tenor lead, Watson’s vaudeville-era comedic flairs and Jones’ “honey chile” bass recitations — were wildly popular and influential.
KEY SIDES: “If I Didn’t Care,” “The Gypsy,” “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” (with Ella Fitzgerald).
FINDING THE MUSIC: MCA’s two-disc “The Anthology,” issued on CD in 1998, is the ideal starting point. Want more? Jasmine’s “The Golden Age of The Ink Spots: The Best of Everything” delivers 101 tracks on four full-length CDs for less than $30.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington. Publicity photo.

Dinah Washington
STATS: If Louis Jordan was the king of the jukeboxes, the Tuscaloosa, Ala.,-born Ruth Jones was the queen. Her long association with Mercury Records produced 45 R&B-charted hits between 1948 and 1961, including 16 Top 15 placements between 1948 and 1950.
INFLUENCE: Dinah had the attitude, the ego and seven husbands to boot, but she could also back it up with a mixture of jazz, blues, pop and R&B. Her hits ranged from overtly sexual (“Long John Blues” and “I Know How To Do It,” cut with Lionel Hampton for Keynote in 1943), to torch (“Am I Asking Too Much” and “Time Out For Tears”) to, in her later years, crossover pop classics (“What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” and “September In The Rain”).
KEY SIDES FROM THE 1940s: “Evil Gal Blues,” “I Know How To Do It,” “Baby, Get Lost,” “Am I Asking Too Much” and “Long John Blues”.
FINDING THE MUSIC: For some, it’s a bit pricey, but “The Fabulous Miss D: The Keynote, Decca and Mercury Singles 1943-1953” delivers 106 seminal tracks on four CDs: the ultimate early years compilation for about $75.  For $20, the two-disc “postage stamp” set, “First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story,” offers 46 tracks with emphasis on her early to mid-’50s R&B and later pop hits.

Bull Moose Jackson I Want A Bowlegged WomanBull Moose Jackson
STATS: The Cleveland-born singer-sax man, who began his career in Lucky Millinder’s band in 1943, amassed 11 R&B hits for King Records between 1946 and 1949, including a pair of chart-toppers.
INFLUENCE: With his own band, The Buffalo Bearcats, Jackson could handle everything from romantic ballads, like the million-selling “I Love You, Yes I Do,” to the ribald “Big Ten-Inch Record,” later recorded by Aerosmith.
KEY SIDES: “I Love You, Yes I Do,” “I Want A Bowlegged Woman,” “Big Ten-Inch Record,” “I Can’t Go On Without You” and “Why Don’t You Haul Off And Love Me.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Collectables’ “The Very Best Of,” and the import discs “Bad Man Jackson, That’s Me” and “A Proper Introduction To Bull Moose Jackson” all offer listeners a couple of dozen great sides including lesser known classics like “Oh John,” “Big Fat Mamas Are Back In Style” and “Nosey Joe.”

Joe Liggins
STATS: The older and more successful of the Oklahoma-born Liggins brothers, Joe and his Honeydrippers claimed 14 national R&B hits between 1945 and 1951. The band’s two No. 1 R&B hits, “The Honeydripper” and “Pink Champagne,” topped lists for a total of 31 weeks and earned crossover success in the pop market.
INFLUENCE: Like Bull Moose Jackson, Liggins was hardly a matinee idol — balding, bespectacled and heavy-set in his 30s — yet the California-based pianist and composer was innovative, developing a popular, jumping big-band sound with a smaller combo. His recordings were widely covered, and he remained an active recording and performing artist into the 1980s.
KEY SIDES: “The Honeydripper,” “Pink Champagne,” “Tanya,” “Got A Right To Cry” and “Little Joe’s Boogie”.
FINDING THE MUSIC: Proper’s two-CD set, “The Shuffle Boogie King,” brings together 50 of Joe’s finest for an affordable price. The 1992 single-disc overview, “Legends of Specialty,” is still in print and a good starting point in exploring Liggins’ legacy.

Ivory Joe Hunter It's A SinIvory Joe Hunter
STATS: While Ivory Joe’s probably best remembered for his mid-’50s Atlantic sides, he managed an impressive run of 15 R&B top 15 hits from 1945 to 1950 for various labels, including Exclusive, Pacific, King, 4-Star  and MGM. That success included three No. 1s, which placed him within the top 15 artists for R&B and “race” chart success in the 1940s.
INFLUENCE: A native of Kirbyville, Texas, who moved to the West Coast in 1942, Hunter could play boogie woogie, blues, jazz, R&B and country as well as rock ’n’ roll with the best of them. The pianist worked with a diverse group of musicians, including Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Oscar Pettiford and Johnny Hodges, and, at various times, owned his own record labels.
KEY PRE-1951 SIDES: “I Almost Lost My Mind,” “Guess Who,” “I Need You So,” “It’s A Sin” and “Pretty Mama Blues.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Ivory Joe recorded prolifically in the ’40s and ’50s, and while I own the four French imports in the Classics series covering everything Hunter cut from 1945-1951, Acrobat’s 2006 CD, “Ivory Joe Hunter: Jukebox Hits 1945-1950,” is an inexpensive way to obtain the bulk of the artist’s earliest chart placements. And if you don’t already own them, by all means check out Razor & Tie’s 1994 disc, “Since I Met You Baby,” which spotlights later classics, like “A Tear Fell,” “Empty Arms,” “It May Sound Silly” and the title track.

Amos Milburn Bad Bad WhiskeyAmos Milburn
STATS: By the time 19-year-old Amos Milburn signed with Aladdin Records in 1946, the Houston-born pianist and singer was a U.S. Navy veteran who had racked up an impressive 13 battle stars. In the R&B field, his stats were equally remarkable, with 13 of his 19 charted hits coming between 1948 and 1950 alone. Four No. 1 records and seven discs that spent 10 or more weeks on the bestseller lists made Milburn a star and earned the Mesner Brothers’ Aladdin firm a considerable amount of cash.
INFLUENCE: A major influence on Fats Domino, Floyd Dixon and others, Milburn sang of good times and the party life  — “Chicken Shack Boogie,” “Roomin’ House Boogie,” “Bad Bad Whiskey” — as well as love and romance (“Bewildered” and “Rapture In Bloom.”) He stomped out classic boogie woogie with equal prowess. Want a viable candidate for the first rock ’n’ roll record? Play Amos’ 1946 cut of “Down The Road Apiece!”
KEY SIDES: “Chicken Shack Boogie,” “Bewildered,” “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” “Bad, Bad Whiskey” and “Down The Road Apiece.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: If you’ve never seen Amos on film, do yourself a favor and check out the master on YouTube. In 1994, I purchased Mosaic’s now out-of-print “Complete Aladdin Recordings” and never regretted it. Copies show up on eBay in the $200 range from time to time.  Still, there’s no lack of Milburn product out there, but choose wisely. Bear Family’s “Rocks” gathers 31 up-tempo sides, but several of the other sets I’ve encountered are just plain skimpy. If I was starting a Milburn collection, I’d probably spring for the 66-track Capitol triple-CD, “Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie Woogie” for $35.

 

Wynonie Harris Good Rockin TonightWynonie Harris
STATS: Born in Omaha, Neb., the hard-drinking Los Angeles-based blues shouter notched an impressive 16 Top 10 R&B hits between 1945 and 1952, including the definitive version of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a disc that spent 25 weeks on Billboard’s chart in 1948.
INFLUENCE: Recording for Decca, Apollo and King in his heyday, “Mr. Blues” recorded with the bands of Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Millinder, Johnny Otis, Todd Rhodes and Joe Morris, and he set a standard for fine, jumping rhythm tunes that influenced artists from Bull Moose Jackson to Elvis Presley.
KEY SIDES: “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?,” “All She Wants To Do Is Rock,” “Good Morning Judge” and “Grandma Plays The Numbers.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Rhino’s initial Harris offering, 1994’s 18-track “Bloodshot Eyes,” has been followed by competent compilations from See For Miles, Collectables, Ace and Rev-Ola, all running 20 to 30 tracks.  Harris devotees should seek out the four-CD box “Rockin’ The Blues,” issued by the UK’s Proper Records in 2001.  For less than $20, fans get a 52-page illustrated booklet and all 81 of Harris’ released 1944-50 works.

Roy Brown Good Rockin TonightRoy Brown
STATS: In terms of Billboard R&B chart success through the ’40s, Roy Brown, the man who wrote and first recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” checks in right behind Harris. Between 1948 and 1951, Brown’s name appeared on the bestseller lists 15 times as he chalked up a dozen top 10s for the DeLuxe label.
INFLUENCE: The New Orleans-born singer-songwriter was not only a major influence for Elvis, Wynonie Harris and B.B. King. He was one of the originators of the successful Crescent City rhythm-and-blues sound that gave rise to rock ’n’ roll. Roy Brown was a pioneer who infused the feel of his gospel music upbringing with jump blues.
KEY SIDES: “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “’Long About Midnight,” “Rockin’ At Midnight,” “Hard Luck Blues” and “Butcher Pete.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: On CD, Rhino led the way with 1994’s 18-cut “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in its King Master Series. Ace followed with the 22-tune “Mighty Mighty Man!,” and Collectables joined the fun with “Rockin’ At Midnight: The Very Best Of,” a 25-song set released in 2004. For $25, JSP’s four-CD set, “Roy Brown and New Orleans R&B,” delivers 50 Brown tracks on two discs; the other two discs are divided between fellow New Orleans stalwarts Dave Bartholomew and Professor Longhair. For more vintage Brown, check out Ace’s “King & DeLuxe Acetate Series” and the “Chronological Classics” series.

The Ravens
STATS: This New York City vocal quartet featured Jimmy Ricks’ deep bass and Maithe Marshall’s floating tenor along with baritone Warren “Birdland” Suttles and tenor Leonard “Zeke” Puzey. The Ravens racked up 10 R&B chart hits between 1948 and 1950, including the crossover “Write Me A Letter” and the influential “Ol’ Man River.”
INFLUENCE: The influence of The Ravens on the vocal groups of the early 1950s far exceeds the group’s moderate chart success. As the first group to feature a bass lead on its recordings, the first established “bird group” and the first quartet to add choreography to its stage presentation, The Ravens truly earned the moniker “The Greatest Group Of Them All.”
KEY SIDES: “Ol’ Man River,” “September Song,” “Count Every Star,” “Would You Believe Me” and “Wagon Wheels.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Issued in 2003, Savoy Jazz’s three-CD set, “Their Complete National Recordings 1947-1950,” is a must. Dipper’s “Early Years,” culled from 1946-1950 Hub, National and King sides; “Dreams, Pleas & Blues,” comprising 21 unfairly neglected Columbia/Okeh masters from 1950-51; and Plaza’s “Rock Me All Night Long,” featuring 27 of the group’s 1951-54 releases are also essential purchases for vocal group harmony aficionados. If you’re not already familiar with them, give a listen to “Please Believe Me,” “You Foolish Thing” and “Lilacs In The Rain”.

Johnny Moore’s Three 
Blazers/Charles Brown
STATS: To the uninitiated, this may seem an odd choice, but between 1946 and 1949, the Los Angeles-based Three Blazers — guitarist Moore, bassist Eddie Williams and singer-pianist Brown — hit the bestseller list 14 times. After striking out on his own in 1948, Brown amassed seven R&B Top 15 hits in the decade’s final year alone, including “Trouble Blues,” which topped the charts for 15 weeks.
INFLUENCE: Influenced by the jazz piano styling and soft tones of Nat “King” Cole, the classically-trained Texas native offered listeners an alternative to the blues shouters and jumping combos of the era: slow, mellow, and precise. A young Ray Charles was one of Brown’s devotees.
KEY SIDES: “Driftin’ Blues,” “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Trouble Blues,” “Get Yourself Another Fool” and “Black Night.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: The Three Blazers’ 1940s hits were recorded for a handful of labels, including Philo, Exclusive, Modern and RCA Victor, while Brown, who recorded prolifically into the late 1990s, recorded most of his classic solo sides for Aladdin and King. Translation: this adds up to a lot of CDs! “The Best of Charles Brown: Driftin’ Blues” gathers the latter tunes, but it also includes the signature title track from his Blazers days.  One of the best Blazers-Brown cross-licensed efforts is still the 17-track Route 66 LP, “Let’s Have A Ball,” which was issued in 1999.

Joe Turner
STATS: Despite the fact that only two of the Kansas City blues shouter’s 20 R&B charted hits came before 1951, Turner’s influence on blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll goes beyond the reaches of the trade journals. He began his recording career in the 1930s, partnering with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson. He also worked with Art Tatum and Sammy Price.
INFLUENCE: Tabbed by talent scout John H. Hammond to appear in the “From Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, Turner’s recording and performing career spanned seven decades, running the gamut from blues and jazz to rock ’n’ roll. Upon Turner’s death, the British Music magazine NME heralded Big Joe as “the grandfather of rock and roll.”  Legendary songwriter Doc Pomus said it all:  “Rock and roll would have never happened without him.”
KEY PRE-1951 SIDES: “Roll ’Em Pete,” “Rocks In My Bed,” “Cherry Red,” “Careless Love” and “My Gal’s A Jockey.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Dozens of pre-Atlantic discs have been issued about Turner in the U.S. and overseas. JSP’s five-disc set, “All The Classic Hits 1938-1952,” covers the singer’s countless sessions for a variety of labels. For a general overview of Joe’s work from the ’30s into the ’80s, Rhino’s “Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology” fills the bill nicely.

The Orioles
STATS: Where The Ravens’ style relied equally on pop and R&B, Baltimore’s Earlington “Sonny” Til and Orioles Alexander Sharp, George Nelson, Johnny Reed and Tommy Gaither are often considered the first pure rhythm-and-blues vocal group. No one was hotter in 1948 and 1949 than The Orioles, the period when the group scored eight of its 11 nationally-charted R&B hits including the No. 1s “It’s Too Soon To Know” and “Tell Me So.”
INFLUENCE: Sonny Til could make the girls swoon. Alex Sharp possessed a floating falsetto tenor that influenced dozens of young singers. And baritone George Nelson’s on-stage pivot to the lead microphone to deliver a gravelly second lead set the stage for many powerhouse acts of the 1950s, including the Five Keys.
KEY SIDES: “It’s Too Soon To Know,” “Tell Me So,” “Forgive And Forget,” “A Kiss And A Rose” and (from 1953) “Crying In The Chapel.”
FINDING THE MUSIC: Issued a dozen years ago, Bear Family’s six-CD box, “The Jubilee Recordings,” is complete and unsurpassed.  For those looking to spend a little less, Collectables’ offers “For Collectors Only,” a three-CD set of 60 greats for a fair price, and “Crying In The Chapel,” a 20-track overview.

HONORABLE MENTION
While exploring the evolution of rock ’n’ roll through rhythm and blues, jazz and vocal group harmony in the 1940s, one must also consider the efforts of Julia Lee, Roy Milton, Paul Williams, Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker, The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Golden Gate Quartet, Lionel Hampton, The Mills Brothers, The King Cole Trio, and the talents of the great artists-producers-songwriters-A&R men Johnny Otis and Dave Bartholomew.  Alas, so much music and so little space!

4 thoughts on “1940s musicians laid the cornerstone for rock ‘n’ roll

  1. I have nothing but the utmost love and respect for these artists.Even though I was born many years after their impact,I am glad my parents and other relatives exposed me to this wonderful music. These artists rock !!!

  2. A good and useful analysis. Extra points for tracing the Nat Cole lineage through Charles Brown to Ray Charles. Chuck Berry also echoed Brown’s phrasing on the ballad sides.

  3. Couldn’t find a thing about Nellie Lutcher on your list. Very important female break-through vocslist/piano player.

    Ray Charles (Maxim Trio), Jimmy Witherspoon, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson & Big Jay McNeely and several trios made impressive starts during this period. Not to mention the Robins and Little Esther.

  4. I would add Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She could play her electric guitar while moving her torso like nobody’s business…and influenced many a rock and roller in the process.

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