Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
What was the first rock ‘n roll record? Rocket 88? Rock around the Clock? Do we trace the music back to Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, or to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, or even Sister Rosetta Tharpe? What makes a rock ‘n roll record? Certainly, Rhythm and Blues artists were singing about rocking and rolling long before the mid-fifties, and before radio DJs had played the first rock ‘n roll record or artist, but we can trace the rock ‘n roll sound, and recognize some of the most important players in the development of rock ‘n roll. And in doing so, we also find some of the most important songs in this development.
In the early fifties, Atlantic was a new record label with something to say. The label boasted an impressive team of Jesse Stone writing and arranging, and Big Joe Turner behind the microphone; and in 1954, Atlantic Records released one of the most important tracks to kick off the rock ‘n roll era…. “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Stone’s song brought together rockin’ 12 bar blues, edgy lyrics and a bold performance.
Jesse Stone was born on November 16, 1901, and raised in Kansas City. His music and performance career began at a very early age, as Stone began traveling and performing with his parents in “variety” shows as early as 5 years old. His parents also oversaw his musical training. In 1918, he formed the Blue Serenaders, the group which would eventually kick off Coleman Hawkins’ career. In 1936, Duke Ellington heard Stone’s band performing in Detroit and brought him to New York, where Stone worked as a band leader, songwriter, and arranger. Stone recalled: “Duke was the one who turned me loose. He brought us to New York, got us booked into the Cotton Club. He gave me to Sidney Mills at Mills Music. Sidney signed me to Mills and booked me into theaters[…] It was quite a thing. We’d come from practically nothing out in the Midwest, and all of a sudden things were happening.” Cole Porter also encouraged Stone in his songwriting, and by 1942, Stone had his first big hit. His track “Idaho,” as recorded by Benny Goodman’s band, reached number 4 on the pop charts. That same year, he had another hit with “Sorghum Switch,” recorded by Jimmy Dorsey.
In 1945, Stone and his friend Herb Abramson were working with Al Green at National Records, but dreaming of starting a record label of their own. However, neither had any money to get it off the ground. When Abramson met Ahmet Ertegun everything changed, and Atlantic Records was born.
From the start, Stone was a major player at the label, and the first African American on the payroll. He recalls that in those early days, they first tried to record Jazz records but realized that their audience wanted music they could dance to: “When Atlantic first started, at the end of 1947, we were trying to do jazz. The jazz didn’t sell. We tried to analyze what was wrong. We eventually made a trip down South, Ahmet, Herb and myself. We found out that our music wasn’t right because it wasn’t danceable. The kids were looking for something to dance to. I listened to the stuff that was being done by those ‘thrown-together’ bands in the ‘joins’ down there, and I concluded the only thing missin’ from the stuff we were recording was the rhythm. All we needed was a bass-line. So I designed a bass-pattern, and it sort of became identified with rock ‘n’ roll –doo, da-doo, dum; doo, da-doo, dum – that thing. I’m the guilty person that started that.”
Stone wrote hit after hit; for artists like Ruth Brown, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, the Drifters and the Clovers. In 1954, Stone was asked to write a song for Joe Turner – a fellow Kansas City musician who had also worked with Abramson at National Records, before being signed to Atlantic.
Joe Turner was born in Kansas City on May 18, 1911. Starting his career as a bartender at the age of 14, he earned a reputation as the “singing bartender” – a blues shouter who didn’t need a microphone. Turner’s bold stylings caught the attention of bandleaders like Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk and Count Basie, who all brought Turner on tour at different moments in his career.
In 1938, Turner, alongside the incredible piano talents of Pete Johnson, brought his blues singing to the famed Carnegie Hall concert “From Spirituals to Swing.” That same year, the pair wrote and recorded “Roll ‘em Pete” which has been credited as one of the most important tracks contributing to the development of rock ‘n roll, and was later inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. With both Turner and Stone working in the Kansas City scene in the heyday of the incredible dance bands that came out of that region, the two musicians’ careers certainly crossed paths. And their lives in New York City also intersected through Abramson and National Records.
But in 1954, they came together to create another foundational track of rock ‘n roll. Stone recalled: “In January or February, 1954, Herb Abramson said to me, ‘We got Joe Tuner comin’ in to record and we need an uptempo blues for a change.’ I threw a bunch of phonetic phrases together – ‘shake, rattle, and roll,’ ‘flip, flop, and fly’ – and I came up with thirty or forty verses. Then I picked over them.”
“Shake Rattle and Roll” is a classic 12-bar blues song; set up in a verse-chorus form. The chorus shares the title lyrics, repeating the phrase “shake rattle and roll” with Turner’s iconic vocal shouting. It has a laid back, but up-tempo groove, which gives it that “dance-ability” that Abramson was looking for.
The lyrics in the verses are a great example of hokum blues – a type of blues music that had been around for at least a century and which employed clever euphemisms and sexual innuendos (“make some noise with the pots and pans,” “over the hills and way down underneath,” “one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store”). Stone credits his drummer for the famed “one eye cat” line: “I got the line about about ‘a one-eye cat peepin in a sea food store’ from my drummer, Baby Lovett. He was always comin’ out with lines like that.” While Turner has been quoted with singing the lyrics “exactly as Stone had written them,” it is likely that he did improvise some phrases, especially the last verse (“I get over the hill and way down underneath”).
It’s possible the title lyrics were also influenced by Turner himself. In their book, What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record?, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes explain that several sources indicate that Turner was likely singing some version of a blues song with the words “shake, rattle and roll” during World War II. For instance, they cite a performance at the Cafe Society in New York in 1943, which lists “Shake, Rattle and Roll” as a song title on Joe Turner’s set list; over a decade before Stone’s version was recorded. However, Turner was known for his ability to improvise blues songs all night, and lyrics about “shaking”, “rattling” and “rolling” all were standard phrases in this repertoire. So Stone possibly had heard Turner singing something along these lines, and in his own brainstorms, the phrase came to mind with a certain level of comfort and familiarity for Turner’s voice. Turner, himself, certainly credits Stone for the whole concept of the song.
When it comes to recorded rock history, Stone’s song writing and Turner’s performance created the perfect rhythm and blues track to cross over into the pop market, the phenomenon which we credit for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. The music is danceable, and lyrics are appropriately sexual, coded just enough to slip by radio censorship to be heard by a larger mainstream audience.
These crossover tracks and the emergence of rock ‘n roll coincides with the changing cultural and musical landscape of the mid-fifties. The music industry itself was changing, moving away from the model of songwriters and sheet music publishing, and recognizing the importance of recorded tracks. Before rock ‘n roll, the music industry was largely focused on three main markets for American Popular Music: mainstream popular music, country and western, and rhythm and blues. These markets were largely divided along lines of economics and race, more so than even what the music sounded like. Certainly, the rhythm and blues charts boasted a wide range of sounds from electric blues, doowop, and sweet soul to the more up-tempo blues tracks which would provide the foundation for rock ‘n roll. The mainstream popular music also had a diverse variety of sounds, but there were some consistent qualities we repeatedly find in this music. These songs tend towards more carefully polished, often orchestrated tracks, which were careful to be made appropriate for the whole family. If we consider the large number of homes with one family-centered radio, and then, later, the same scenario with television sets, we can understand that family-friendly emphasis.
While popular music had strict standards to appeal to the widest possible audience of all ages, rhythm and blues tracks were largely aimed at adult audiences. This music remained regional longer than mainstream pop, and when it did make it to national audiences on the radio, it often held the late night spots, after the children were asleep.
Thus, a song like Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” with its fairly overt adult references were aimed very clearly at a different audience than prime-time mainstream radio.
However, the mid-fifties saw a changing world, one which would bring songs like “Shake Rattle and Roll” to a much wider audience. The Civil Rights movement led to an increased awareness of music and culture across racial boundaries, and the rise of youth culture, with their increased access to spending money and radios (especially car radios) meant there was a whole new audience eager to consume popular music. However, they wanted their own music that shared their generation’s values. Thus, in the mid-fifties, an increasing number of teenagers turned to rhythm and blues records as an exciting and often rebellious musical world – one that was very different from family-friendly pop songs of their parents’ generation.
The upbeat rhythm and blues records were danceable and the lyrics appealed to their more “adult” interests. And there was also a rebelliousness for many middle-class white teenagers, listening to Black created music in this era with heighted racial tensions. As wider audiences discovered rhythm and blues records, songs like “Shake Rattle and Roll” began to cross over from the rhythm and blues charts onto the pop charts. New radio shows emerged to match this growing audience. Many of the earliest rock ‘n roll records were covers which attempted to change the focus of the phrase to dance references – “rocking” and “rolling” as the experience of dancing.
Bill Haley’s version of “Shake Rattle and Roll” is a clear example of these efforts. First of all, his version speeds up the tempo, making it even more dance friendly. He also cleans up the lyrics to emphasize a more innocent take on the song’s meaning. For instance, he changes the first verse lyrics about making noise with the pots and pans and emphasizes a less sexual interpretation ( “Get out of that kitchen / and rattle those pots and pans / well, roll my breakfast / ‘Cause I’m a hungry man”). Most of Turner’s most obvious innuendos get removed or changed, except perhaps the most obvious of them all…the one eyed cat. Somehow that line managed to get past both Haley, and his producer Mit Gabler.
Finally, while Turner’s version has three verses (full of sexual innuendo) before we get to the chorus, and many more verses throughout, Haley’s version jumps straight to the chorus of “Shake Rattle and Roll” after every verse. In this arrangement, the emphasis of these title lyrics can be interpreted as much more dance-centered than they could in the original.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” is also a clear example of how we get the term “rock ‘n roll” Although there are many roots to the term, the popularization of the phrase is credited to radio DJ Alan Freed. Freed’s radio show, The Moondog Show, premiered in 1951, and he employed the term “rock ‘n roll” records to refer to the rhythm and blues records he was playing for teenage audiences at the time. The term comes from lyrics in many of these songs which reference ideas of “rockin’ and rolling” as euphemisms for more adult activities. We can find examples of these lyrics in songs as early as Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Rock Me”, and the Dominoes “Sixty Minute Man” and peaking in the mid-fifties with songs like Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
Turner recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll” for Atlantic Records in New York on February 15, 1954. Written by Stone, the song is credited to “Charles Calhoun” – a pseudonym which Stone used so that he could be a part of both ASCAP and BMI. Stone explained: “I was trying to belong to both of the performing societies, ASCAP and BMI. I had just bought a home in Hempstead. The guy who had built the house, his name was Charles Calhoun. I had the contract for the house in my hands when Ahmet was saying’ “You gotta pick up another name to put on these tune.”…I looked down and there it was: Charles Calhoun.” The song was produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. According to Turner, the pair also provided the backing vocals for the chorus: “We didn’t have no singers to back me up so we had the cats in the studio, [Atlantic owners] Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and them, they was backing me up, singing.” Wexler had been brought into Atlantic Records by Ertegun in June of 1953, after Abramson was drafted into the army in February earlier that year. Wexler’s contributions to the incredible hits that came out of Atlantic cannot be overstated.
On this song, one of his earliest hits with Atlantic, the team brought in Mickey Baker on guitar, Lloyd Trotman on bass, and Connie Kay on drums. The song’s iconic brass part was performed by: Wilbur DeParis on trombone, Sam Taylor on tenor sax, and Haywood Henry on baritone sax.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” was released in April of 1954. Turner’s version hit number 1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts and even crossed over to reach 22 on the Pop charts. Historians and fans alike have argued for decades over the distinction of the first “rock ‘n roll” record, and while narrowing a massive cultural and musical movement down to one single record is an impossible task, it is equally unwise to understate the importance of Stone’s song and Joe Turner’s performance in charting the future of rock ‘n roll.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” was a groundbreaking track of its time, bringing rhythm and blues to larger audiences. And other musicians and record labels took notice. On June 7, the same week that Turner’s version was dominating the Rhythm and Blues charts, Decca’s rising star, Bill Haley recorded his cover version. The Bill Haley and His Comets version would hit number 7 on the Billboard singles chart and held a place in the Top 40 for 27 weeks. Elvis Presely recorded his own version – first under Sun Record and then in 1956 as a single under RCA. The Sun version was not released until the nineties, but its existence shows the profound influence of rhythm and blues in the rock ‘n roll star’s earliest recordings. These important early versions of Stone’s song also reveal the diverse sounds of rock ‘n roll as it was emerging in the mid-fifties. All three took the music in different directions sonically, creating a wider awareness for the incredible music coming out of the rhythm and blues charts leading up to this time.
Finally, “Shake Rattle and Roll” epitomizes the incredible contributions of Jesse Stone to creating the sounds we now call rock ‘n roll. His influence as a songwriter and arranger have earned him a place in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in the category of the Ahmet Ertegun Award, recognizing his ability to craft incredible and iconic songs which would cross the color line and bring audiences together. On Stone’s 95th Birthday, Ertegun read a letter from Jerry Wexler which outlined these incredible contributions: “From your vast experience with jazz, blues, country–in fact, every facet of American root music–you became one of the architects of the new urban music of black folk, the music that came to be known as rhythm and blues. You wrote the tunes and the arrangements; you assembled the players; you ran the rehearsals; you conducted in the studio. And it was your own continuing evolution that helped pave the way for the next great cultural tidal wave–rock ‘n’ roll.” Ertegun has also famously been quoted as saying “Jesse Stone did more to develop the basic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else.” In 2010, Stone was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame by legendary songwriter Carole King.