It’s purely an academic matter, but people have put probably too much effort into pinning down the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. Did it start with Elvis’s hips? Bill Haley’s number one record? Alan Freed had applied this slang term for sex as a genre name before either of those events, so the scene must have been underway. Rock scholars (oxymoronic as that may sound) often credit Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” or Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” with being the first true rock ‘n’ roll record.
Of course, rock doesn’t have a definitive starting point any more than jazz or the blues does. The music evolved out of a particular milieu, when artists pulled together a variety of influences to make something that would gradually become—at least loosely—a categorical sound. The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll: 1946-1954 presents the time period when this new music neared the end of its gestation, and it does so quite effectively. To capture the key songs from a nearly decade-long period obviously poses a problem if you’re limited to three discs, but the compilers of this collection seem to have come pretty close.
The collections starts with 1946 more for historical reasons than for musical ones. Any musical mark would be arbitrary, so the compilers, led by Andy McKaie, start at the end of World War II as a steady culture point. Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra start with “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop”, a song that has a definite rock ‘n’ roll feel and foreshadows the rockabilly to come (particularly Gene Vincent). This first disc focuses on boogie beats and shuffle tunes. The highlight of the album comes when Hank Williams performs “Move It On Over” with such gut and soul that you can rest assured that all the cover versions you’ve heard are butcher jobs.
Disc two contains just as high-quality of music, with plenty of songs that reached the top slot on either the R&B or country and western charts. However, this middle section of the set also reveals the collection’s one flaw: too many of the tracks seem important to a particular genre of music, but don’t feel like rock ‘n’ roll. The most obvious examples are the country tracks, especially Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On”. Snow struggled to keep country tied to its roots and explicitly fought against the failures that he heard in pop music over the second half of the century. To include his track (as well as Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Shotgun Boogie”) suggests a reach for the top music of the era, rather than a grasp of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. The disc recovers with some key pieces of rock ‘n’ roll history, including “Cry” by Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads and Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, a hit that would spend seven weeks at #1 but would ultimately be overshadowed by a hairy Memphis boy’s version.
The third disc really starts to sound like what we tend to think of as rock ‘n’ roll and it includes tracks by Little Richard, the Orioles, Bill Haley, and the Robins (whose “Riot in Cell Block #9” steals the show while it points the way to more types of pop than are worth mentioning). A few essential blues artists appear on this CD. Guitar Slim and Muddy Waters are represented by their most memorable and influential tracks, “Things I Used to Do” and “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”, respectively. B.B. King’s “You Upset Me” shows up here, which is an interesting choice considering some of his other, more important cuts.
A quick look at the tracklist will probably make you wish for better liner notes. Some greater musical context (as opposed to that of the business side) would be helpful in helping listeners connect this music to the tunes with which they’re more familiar. It could also explain some of the song selection. The pieces contained in this collection set the groundwork for various strands of rock music, but it would be hard to know that merely from a cursory listen. For example, the roots of doo-wop, blues rock, and pop all appear on this album, but they blend together. The blending, in a sense, is a strength of the set because it reinforces the idea of a primordial rock ‘n’ roll groove, but had the compilers of The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll done more to explain this context, they could have had a powerful testament on their hands.
As it is, the album closes strongly in 1954, the year Freed started using the term “rock and roll”, and one year before “Rock Around the Clock” went to the top of the charts, signalling rock ‘n’ roll’s primacy in the marketplace. It’s hardly fair to list that song as the first rock hit, though, as this collection reveals the firm groundwork laid well before then.