Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Hoagy's Creation Myth

One of my aims in writing Electric Shock was to question everything that we thought we knew about popular music . If I could help to puncture some legends and overturn some certainties along the way, so much the better.

When I was a kid, everyone knew that rock'n'roll began with Elvis Presley - or was it Chuck Berry? Anyway, it was definitely in 1956 - or maybe 1955. It was inconvenient that Bill Haley recorded 'Rock Around the Clock' in 1954, of course, almost three months before Elvis Presley cut his first single for Sun Records. So the story kept changing. As the children of the rock age delved further into the pre-history of rock'n'roll, the birth date of the music shifted ever earlier. Bill Haley, after all, was making boogie-tinged country records in 1951, which was also the year when Frank Sinatra taped 'Castle Rock', sounding like a man enduring a particularly traumatic blackmail suit.

And it was also 1951 when Sam Phillips, the future mentor of Elvis Presley, recorded 'Rocket 88', by Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner - which duly became the favoured candidate for 'first rock'n'roll record' during the 1970s and 1980s. 

It's a remarkable piece of music, rollicking, flamboyant, utterly self-assured: everything rock'n'roll should be. But the first? Nothing like it. As I discovered during my research, Billboard magazine was writing about 'right rhythmic rock and roll' back in 1945, which was when the likes of Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordan were in their prime. More of that, however, on another occasion.

For now, let me leave you with a record that - like a strange ancestor of Chuck Berry's 'Roll Over Beethoven' - offers an alternative creation myth for all that 'swing, boogie-woogie and jive'. It's the product of a rare collaboration between two of the hippest white Americans of the pre-rock'n'roll era, lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Hoagy Carmichael. 

You can track Hoagy's influence down through Bob Dylan and the Band, the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson: everyone, indeed, who taps into the spirit of America with a combination of deadly conviction and iconoclastic good humour. And it's the latter that wins out on this 1943 recording, which sees Hoagy masquerading as a classical genius of the 19th century (on celeste) and 'a little colored boy' (we're definitely in the pre-civil rights era), alongside Spike Jones on percussion and Art Bernstein on bass. Rock'n'roll might not have been invented yet, but Hoagy can already see its distant shadow on the horizon . . .

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