A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who invented the term "rock 'n' roll"?

February 28, 1986

Dear Cecil:

With all the recent furor over the location of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, we all need to know: when, where, and by whom was the term "rock 'n' roll music" invented?

Cecil replies:

Depends what you mean by "invent." The term was first used to describe a particular kind of music by Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland disc jockey who was among the first to introduce black rhythm-and-blues music to a white audience. But the roots of the term go back much earlier.

In the 1920s the words "rock" and "roll," used separately or together, were employed by black people to mean partying, carrying on, and/or having sex. According to rock historian Nick Tosches, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded a tune in 1922 called "My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)" for Black Swan Records. "Daddy," suffice it to say, wasn't trying to rock little Trixie to sleep. This song inspired such variations as "Rock That Thing" by Lil Johnson and "Rock Me Mama" by Ikey Robinson.

By the 1930s the term had begun to be associated with the idea of music with a good beat to it. In 1931 Duke Ellington did "Rockin' in Rhythm" for Victor. The Boswell Sisters did a song called "Rock and Roll" in the 1934 United Artists flick Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round. In 1939 Buddy Jones recorded "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (String), in which he soulfully shouted, "I love the way you rock and roll!" But rockin' and rollin' didn't really catch on until 1948, when Wynonie Harris released "Good Rockin' Tonight" (King). An earlier version by Roy Brown (Deluxe, 1947) had bombed, but Wynonie's cover became a number one hit. That was the beginning of a flood of tunes that worked "rock" into the title, such as Bill Haley's "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" (1952), which contained the deathless words "Rock, rock, rock, everybody/Roll, roll, roll, everybody."

In 1952 Alan Freed visited a Cleveland record store and learned that R&B records were being snapped up by white teenagers. Sensing the makings of something big, he changed the name of his popular music show on radio station WJW from "Record Rendezvous" to "Moon Dog's Rock 'n' Roll House Party" and began playing R&B tunes. Freed apparently used the term "rock 'n' roll" to describe the music because he thought the racial connotation of "rhythm and blues" might turn off the white audience. In any case, the term stuck.

Freed was the original high-energy, shout-along-with-the-record AM screamer, and his show, along with rock 'n' roll music, attracted a huge following. A rock 'n' roll show Freed promoted at Cleveland Stadium had to be canceled when the place was mobbed by thousands of fans. By 1954 Freed had moved to a late-night show on WINS in New York City, where he duplicated his earlier success.

On April 12, 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock," a teen anthem generally credited with making rock 'n' roll a worldwide phenomenon. Initially the tune did poorly, but when it was chosen as the theme for the film Blackboard Jungle, it became a monster smash in just about every country where the movie played, selling 22 million copies in all. Meanwhile, down in Memphis, a redneck by the name of Elvis Aron Presley … but the rest you know.

A correction

Dear Cecil:

Bill Haley did not record "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" in 1952. "Rock-Around-the-Clock" was the first song he recorded for Decca Records (now MCA) in 1954. (I was there.) He also recorded the other song for Decca, but a year later. According to Alan Freed, the first time he used the term "rock 'n' roll" was when he first played RATC on his radio show at NYC station WINS.

Haley's recording of RATC is still selling over a million copies a year worldwide, and has sold more than 40 million copies to date. It has been recorded over 500 times by other artists such as Chubby Checker, Mae West, Pat Boone, and several of the Beatles. Total sales have passed the one hundred million mark, making it the best-selling song of all time. Anyhoo, thanks for the plug on my song.

Cecil replies:

I stand corrected — "Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie" was recorded in 1955. Possibly I was thinking of "Rock the Joint," a 1952 Bill Haley release with the line, "We're gonna rock this joint tonight."

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