When did rock and roll really begin?
That's not an easily answered question. There are some who take a creationist view, and claim it all started in 1954 with Elvis Presley's first Sun single, "That's All Right." Most critics, however, take an evolutionary view, and insist that rock was rolling well before Presley; for them, records like Jackie Brentson's 1951 hit "Rocket 88" or Roy Brown's 1949 raver "Rockin' at Midnight" would seem more likely starting points.
Wherever the line is drawn, it's clear that rock and roll didn't just turn up on the doorstep one morning, fully formed and ready to raise a ruckus. After all, it's not as if all America switched overnight from "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" to "Hound Dog."
Perhaps it only seems that way because we've forgotten the missing link in the evolution from swing to rock: jump blues. This was the sound that had America hopping from the end of the big band era right up to the rise Elvis. Yet if it weren't for the popularity of the stage show "Five Guys Named Moe," a lot of listeners would barely be aware that the style ever existed.
Louis Jordan, the man whose music serves as the basis for "Five Guys Named Moe," was by far the most popular of the jump blues stars. His biggest hits -- songs like "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)," "Caldonia Boogie," "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry" -- were million-sellers, and his popularity crossed both racial and regional barriers.
But Jordan was hardly the only musician making a living at jump blues. Singers like Roy Brown, Amos Millburn and Joe Liggins were also having hits with the style, as were sax soloists like Jack McVea, Big Jay McNeely, and Bullmoose Jackson. By the early '50s, jump blues combos had all but replaced the big bands in America's dance halls.
Granted, that shift had as much to do with economics as 'D anything else. It's worth remembering that when Jordan left the Chick Webb Orchestra to put together his Tympany Five in 1938, small combos were more the exception than the rule in popular music. Jordan's success proved that a small band could pack the same punch as a big one -- as he once said, "With my little
band, I did everything they did with a big band" -- and that lesson carried a lot of weight in the '40s, when the cost of keeping a full-sized big band on the road became prohibitively expensive.
But jump blues' biggest advantage over the big band sound was rhythmic, because it was there that the pulse of popular music began to change, moving away from the syncopated shuffle of swing and toward the driving backbeat of rock and roll.
Swing rhythm, remember, placed its emphasis on the first and third beats of the bar. Think of the DEE dit-da DEE dit-da DEE dit-da DEE dit-da hi-hat pattern in Glenn Miller's "In the Mood"; counted out, it's a perfect ONE two-and THREE four-and pulse.
Jump blues inverted that groove, placing the emphasis on two and four. Moreover, it made that backbeat more pronounced by having the drummer pound those accents home on the snare drum -- the better to make those blues jump!
A beefed-up backbeat wasn't the style's only defining characteristic, though. Jump blues also made ample use of blues vocals, boogie-woogie piano and honking, wailing saxophone solos. Indeed, some of the most exciting jump blues singles -- Jordan's "Saturday Night Fish Fry," Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight," or Big Jay McNeely's "Deacon's Hop" -- seemed to boast little more than those elements.
That approach wasn't something Louis Jordan invented all by himself, however. In fact, the basic elements of jump blues were in place long before they ever coalesced into a recognizable style. Listen to Pete Johnson and Joe Turner's 1938 recording of "Roll 'Em Pete," and you'll hear boogie piano licks as potent as anything Jerry Lee Lewis played (not to mention a vocal that pointedly presages Turner's rock era smash "Shake, Rattle and Roll").
A similar sound can be found in many of the Count Basie band's early recordings -- particularly on riff-based tunes like "One O'Clock Jump." This is hardly coincidental, since the Basie band came out of the same Kansas City scene that produced Johnson and Turner (indeed, Turner even worked for a while with the Basie band).
But the best example of where big band jazz set the stage for jump blues was probably Lionel Hampton's 1942 recording of "Flying Home." Like most jump blues to follow, it was built around a lean, repetitious melody and a driving beat; moreover, the single framed a screaming saxophone solo by tenor man Illinois Jacquet that seemed to kick the whole band into overdrive (trumpeter Ernie Royal's lip-splitting high notes on the final chorus were mere icing on the cake). And that, by all accounts, was nothing compared to the fireworks live performances of the song produced.
That kind of excitement may have been exceptional for swing, but jump blues made it standard operating procedure. It wasn't just the way the music encouraged dancing and clapping from the paying customers; the players themselves regularly went to extremes to get an audience going. Big Jay McNeely, for instance, would stroll through the audience in mid-solo, drop down on his knees, even play while flat on his back. And with each bit of honking, sweating theater, the crowds would cheer louder and louder.
Even though rhythmic excitement defined jump blues, what ultimately put the style over was humor and jive -- and that was clearly where Louis Jordan cornered the market. Some of his biggest hits, like "Caldonia" and "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," were built around punch-line choruses, while others, like the 1942 single "What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You Gonna Get Drunk Again)," were little more than comedy routines set to music.
Perhaps the most famous jump blues joke song was "Open the Door, Richard." Although Jordan had a big hit with the song in '47, the tune wasn't his; it was originally recorded by a Lionel Hampton alumnus named Jack McVea. McVea took the idea from a comedy sketch by black vaudevillian Dusty Fletcher; in the original routing, Fletcher is trying to get into the house while "Richard" is trying to make time with a lady friend.
McVea's version cleaned up the concept, but kept the comedy as much a part of the song as the backbeat and the chorus. It was a winning combination -- not only did Jordan successfully cover the tune, but so did the Three Flames, Count Basie and even the Pied Pipers.
Ironically, jump blues was itself eventually overtaken by imitators. Jordan, who had his greatest success with Decca, wound up leaving the label in 1953 when the company shifted its emphasis to Bill Haley, whose songbook owed quite a lot to Jordan's (though Haley added a country-style twang to the sound). A few years later, Chuck Berry -- himself an avowed disciple of Jordan's work -- put another nail in the older style's coffin by making electric guitar the lead instrument of choice.
But by the time Berry was in his prime, most jump blues performers had already forsaken the style for the more contemporary sound of R&B.; And, apart from occasional revivals, like "Five Guys Named Moe," or rocker Robert Plant's Honeydrippers project, jump blues has been little more than a memory ever since.
You can hear examples of jump blues on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800 -- (410) 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, (410) 836-5028 in Harford County, (410) 848-0338 in Carroll County. After the greeting, punch in 6106.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Dec. 8 through Jan. 2. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.; Dec. 12 and Dec. 26 at 7:30 p.m. No performance Christmas Eve. (Audio-described performances Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.; sign-interpreted performances Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 2 p.m.)
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407
Finding jump blues in the record store isn't as easy as it once was, but here's a look at what's out there:
* Louis Jordan, "The Best of Louis Jordan" (MCA 4079). This is where you'll find Jordan's Decca hits -- but not all of them. Although this collection has decent range and includes "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," "Caldonia" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry," it inexplicably skips his first smash, the double-sided hit "G.I. Blues" and "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)."
* Louis Jordan, "One Guy Named Louis" (Capitol 96804). After leaving Decca in 1953, Jordan went to Aladdin and cut 21 sides. They're not his best, but they're not bad -- and they're all here, including the lively "Fatback and Corn Liquor."
* Louis Jordan, "No Moe! The Greatest Hits" (Mercury 314 512 523). By the mid '50s, Jordan had moved to Mercury and switched to a more R&B-oriented; sound. He had a couple hits, including "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" (included here), but this album tends more to remakes of earlier material.
* Louis Jordan, "Just Say Moe!" (Rhino 71144). Probably the best overall Jordan compilation, this set spans his career from the 1942 single "What's the Use of Getting Sober" to a version of "I Believe in Music" cut shortly before his death in 1973. It's kind of short on hits, but long on perspective.
* Various artists, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (New World 261). Hard-to-find but worth the effort, this is less an album than a history lesson. Not only do you get well-researched liner notes, but there are musical examples showing how jazz evolved into jump blues, and then into R&B.; And though the sound quality isn't always the best, the music is rarely less than superb.
* Various artists, "Blues Masters, Volume 5: Jump Blues Classics" (Rhino 71125). An excellent assortment of boogie-based, sax-crazed stompers, this 14-song (18 on CD) collection includes such classics as Red Prysock's "Hand Clappin'," Big Jay McNeely's "Deacon's Hop" and Roy Brown's "Rockin' at Midnight."
* Various artists, "Blues Masters, Volume 14: More Jump Blues Classics" (Rhino 71133). As it says, this is "More" -- this time with a heavier emphasis on piano boogie, and a track listing that includes Joe Liggins' "Pink Champagne," Piano Red's "Jump Man Jump" and Floyd Dixon's "Hey Bartender."