The First Rock and Roll Song

Jackie Brenston rock and roll musician

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Determining the first rock and roll record is sort of like claiming to have invented sliced bread — it's hard to parse. As with television, the inventors of rock are varied — a lot of brilliant minds working on the same thing mostly independently of each other. And, as with TV, the actual invention of rock was perfected long before the status quo got a hold of it. That's why though some claim Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama" as the first rock and roll record, others claim "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston as the rightful owner of the title.

The "Official" First Rock and Roll Record

For decades, many rock fans claimed "Rock Around The Clock" (1954) by Bill Haley and His Comets as the first rock and roll record, but that was merely the first rock record to enter the national consciousness (i.e., become a hit), unless you count the more restrained doo-wop of the Penguins' "Earth Angel" (1954) (which was actually released after "Rock Around The Clock" but became a hit in much less time).

After a while, rock critics won out over popular opinion, enshrining Elvis' cover of "That's All Right, Mama" (1954) as the originator of the rock and roll genre. However, as rhythm and blues artists of the 50s started to claim their rightful heritage as midwives of rock's birth, other earlier records began to surface in the public's mind: Chief among them Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" (1951), now generally considered the first rock song.

The Debate Over Who Pioneered Rock and Roll Music

However, the discussion does not stop there. Turn the time machine back even further than Brenston's 1951 number and you find Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" (1950), Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" (1948), and Freddie Slack's "House Of Blue Lights" (1946). Some folks have nominated even earlier tunes, but those haven't gained much critical or popular support.

If you don't buy the "Rocket 88" model, there are other pre-Elvis songs that get mentioned often in these lists, such as Arthur Smith's "Guitar Boogie" (the first national hit with electric guitar, 1948), The Dominoes' infamous "Sixty Minute Man" (1951), Lloyd Price's raw R&B smash "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (1952), "Big Mama" Thorton's original version of "Hound Dog" (1953) and the Crows' remarkable "Gee" (1953).

How Do You Determine the First Rock Song?

So what's the song that started rock and roll? Look closely, and the Elvis and Bill Haley songs seem to come closest. Why? Rock and roll is an amalgamation of American popular music, and these two songs cover the most ground. Haley combined jump blues with a western swing in "Clock," while Elvis, Scotty, and Bill blended country picking and hollering with pure blues and an uptempo shuffle. Elvis did not invent rock and roll — no one did — but he gave it the world's largest push, accidentally and offhandedly creating rockabilly as a byproduct of the original experiment.

By comparison, recordings which are as good or better than this performance don't measure up in terms of musical cross-pollination. Most of these songs work in one style — boogie or jump blues usually. The Elvis and Haley discs, for better or worse, sound like new musical forms, although there will always be those who say that this is only because both men are white.

However, hot on Elvis' heels was a young man named Chuck Berry who was about to transform an old country tune called "Ida Red" into a boot-stomping bluesy workout named Maybelline. More proof that good music sees no color, and that rock and roll has always been bigger than any one person — bigger than all of us, in fact.