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Elvis Death Day was Thursday, and once again many inhabitants of the planet paused to acknowledge and celebrate The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
On Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley keeled over while sitting on the ... er, throne in his rec room at Graceland. For millions of Americans over 40 (you know who you are), the day Elvis died ranks just below Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination and Sept. 11, 2001 when people ask the question: “Where were you when ...”
Here in the 21st century, Elvis is accepted as a phenom of our culture and a world-wide icon. Only 42 on that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, the Big E lived a life short in duration but long in groundbreaking musical achievement and cultural impact.
And even in death, Elvis continues to financially support thousands.
He was The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and only the most argumentative among us (led by Little Richard) will dispute that title.
However, it’s just factually bogus when some in the media deem July 5, 1954, as “The Day Rock ‘n’ Roll Began.” Some spin doctors insist the timeline of rock ‘n’ roll began that day, because that’s when a young, lean Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records studio in Memphis and recorded a song called That’s All Right, Mama.
In the process of sanctifying July 5, 1954 as rock’s birth date, these history revisionists also proclaim That’s All Right, Mama as the “First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song.” In effect, they christen Elvis as the creator of the music genre that has dominated pop culture since Eisenhower was at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Well, no offense to The King, but baaa-loney! Rock ‘n’ roll music existed long before Elvis paid Sun Records owner Sam Phillips to let him cut a record as a birthday gift for his mommy.
Heck, even Elvis consistently dismissed the notion he created rock ‘n’ roll or that anything he recorded was the “First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song.”
Elvis never forgot rock ‘n’ roll — the infectious mix of blues, R&B, country, gospel and a little bit of swing — was something he learned listening to “colored music,” as it was known in the 1940s and ’50s. It wasn’t by chance Elvis chose to record That’s All Right, Mama, a blues song written by black performer Arthur Crudup.
So, what was the first rock ‘n’ roll song?
The late Mr. Phillips said it was a 1951 recording of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Rocket 88 was the first hit produced by Sun Records, and because Phillips is a seminal figure in rock history, many accepted his pronouncement.
But Phillips was a master of self-promotion and didn’t always shoot straight. In fact, “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats” was a name Phillips made up and slapped on the label of Rocket 88. The song was actually written by Ike Turner (of Tina-battering infamy) and was recorded by Turner’s band, The Kings of Rhythm, in which Brenston was a sax player and singer.
Rocket 88 has become accepted by some as the first rock recording for the same reason The DeFranco Family sold millions of records in the early 1970s — there’s a sucker born every minute.
The “First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song” may actually have emerged in the late 1940s, when black performers like Fats Domino, Jimmy Preston, Roy Brown and Wild Bill Moore added a heavy “back beat” to an eight-to-the-bar boogie woogie rhythm. When played in 3/4 time, with the back beat on the second and fourth counts, rock ‘n’ roll emerged.
Trying to identify the “First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song” is fruitless, as futile as confirming the name of the first human to play rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s reasonable to believe the seeds of rock were planted innocuously some time in the first half of the 20th century.
Chances are, the originators of rock ‘n’ roll music were an anonymous group of black sharecroppers playing tunes on a porch in the Mississippi Delta. Perhaps it was a black pianist banging out hoochie coochie music in a bordello in New Orleans or an African-American trio playing for tips on some street corner.
One thing is certain: Elvis brought rock ‘n’ roll into the white mainstream, which ignited the genre’s success and made the Big E the legitimate King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
But Elvis did not invent rock ‘n’ roll, nor did he record the “First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song.”
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