A history of early rock 'n' roll that looks beyond country blues to big band, 'hokum' and 'jump music.'
It is generally accepted that the first jazz recording was made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917. But the identity of the first true rock 'n' roll record is a matter of debate. In "Before Elvis," a study of the "prehistory of rock," Larry Birnbaum makes a compelling case for "Roll 'Em Pete," recorded in 1938 by blues shouter Big Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.
"Roll 'Em Pete" has all the energy, drive and attitude of the classic R&B sides of a decade later—say, Roy Brown's 1947 "There's Good Rockin' Tonight"—not to mention early rock hits from five years after that, like Bill Haley's 1954 "Rock Around The Clock." Mr. Birnbaum calls "Roll 'Em Pete" "a full-fledged rocker in all but instrumentation"—meaning that there is every element associated with rock except for the electric guitar. "Johnson's bass line is a Chuck Berry-like chug," he writes, "and his furious right-hand embellishments anticipate Berry's entire guitar style."
The author allows that Turner's lyrics ("You so beautiful, but you gotta die some day / All I want [is a] little lovin', babe, just before you pass away") are more direct than most 1950s rock lyrics, which were sanitized for teenage audiences. He also thinks that the performances of Turner and Johnson are "too sophisticated for rock 'n' roll: the music has yet to be formularized for mass consumption." But in the larger picture, the music itself had pretty much already arrived at where it was going; young white audiences just took 15 years to find it.
This analysis is just one example of the iconoclastic thinking that makes Mr. Birnbaum's book invaluable. His good ear and deep original research help him overturn much of the conventional wisdom about where rock came from.
The hoariest truism is that rock grew out of country blues (Robert Johnson and Charley Patton) and the early electric blues exemplified by Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. This idea is an invention of the 1960s, when British rockers in particular were looking back to the country bluesmen. Mr. Birnbaum reveals a more direct connection from the big swing bands of the 1930s, whose bluesier side developed into postwar R&B.
One of Mr. Birnbaum's preferred methods is to start with a rock 'n' roll standard, then take it backward in time, to illustrate how ideas developed over the generations. Starting with "The Train Kept A-Rollin' " (aka "Stroll On") by the Yardbirds in 1966, he takes us back to a 1956 rockabilly version by the Johnny Burnette Trio and then to a 1951 version by black bandleader Tiny Bradshaw. From there, he shows us that "The Train Kept A-Rollin' " is itself adapted from "Cow-Cow Boogie," a 1942 hit by the white pianist Freddie Slack's orchestra—a revelation that transports us into the life of Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport, a lesser-known boogie-woogie pianist who didn't write the song but who did, apparently unknowingly, lend his name to it.
Mr. Birnbaum follows the train tracks backward, going ever deeper into the past, whizzing by such iconic figures as the 1920s country-blues legend Papa Charlie Jackson and the pioneering blues composer W.C. Handy. Along the way, he productively looks in on short-lived genres that played a key role in the invention of rock, such as late-'30s "jump music" and the "hokum" songs of the mid-'20s. Jump music was an interim step between big-band swing and R&B. Hokum was a comedy song, often with risqué lyrics, set in a verse-and-refrain format, with close ties to the blues, jazz and country music—"Rock Around the Clock" was essentially a hokum song.
Some of the book's most satisfying sections make a case for artists like trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, songwriter Sam Theard and bandleader Lucky Millinder, who are barely mentioned in histories of jazz. Mr. Birnbaum suggests that Theard's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (a hit record for blues shouter Sticks McGhee in 1947) was a "pivotal" milestone in the development of rock, an archetype for dozens of other bouncy, fast-tempo, boogie-woogie-driven numbers about drinking and dancing.
The author ends by lamenting that "the definitive study of rock 'n' roll origins has yet to be written." It seems clear that with the present volume, a damned good start has been made.