The musical form known as rock ’n’ roll, the longtime symbol of rebellious youth, would now be eligible for Social Security if it were a person. Just how old is rock ’n’ roll? That’s an impossible question to answer, as music historians can’t agree on who recorded the “first rock ’n’ roll song.” In fact, there are literally dozens of candidates for that unofficial title. While the music began to dominate American culture in the mid- to late 1950s, some observers believe several songs recorded in the 1940s qualify as the “first” rock song. The debate will never be settled, but here are 10 songs often credited with helping influence and/or establish the new art form. We’ve listed them in reverse chronological order.
10 ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (Elvis Presley, 1956)
Elvis Presley certainly did not invent rock and roll. He openly admitted as much. Rock and roll evolved over several decades, a unique hybrid blending R&B, jazz, country, Delta blues and gospel. But Presley brought this new music to the masses in a way no other artist had done before. More specifically, he took the style popularized by black artists of that era and made it viable for a white audience. Heartbreak Hotel, his first No. 1 hit established him as a star. More than that, it inspired an entire generation of future musicians to pursue this new musical style. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards commented in his autobiography, “That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses and schmaltz, totally different.”
9. ‘Maybellene’ (Chuck Berry, 1955)
Few claim that this is the first rock and roll song, but several of this iconic guitarist’s songs are often described as “one of the first rock and roll songs,” among them Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven (1956) and Johnny B. Goode (1958). In fact, Berry had such a profound influence on early rock history that John Lennon famously quipped, “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” Berry, who died in 2017, certainly gave the new music some classic guitar chops and a brash attitude that would influence many future stars.
8. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (Bill Haley & His Comets, 1954)
While rock historians agree this wasn’t the first true rock and roll song, it was certainly the first popular rock and roll song, bringing the new genre to the masses. It became the first so-called rock and roll record to hit No. 1 on the charts.
7. ‘Rocket 88’ (Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, 1951)
While Brenston sang and got the writing credit for this song, it was actually performed by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm (yes, the same Ike Turner who later partnered with Tina Turner in the 1960s and ’70s). This song has several of the elements that were integral parts of later rock songs, including a distorted guitar. That fuzzy guitar came about entirely by accident; guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier had been damaged and he tried to remedy the situation by stuffing it with newspaper. In an AllMusic.com biography of Brenston, writer Bill Dahl notes, “Determining the first actual rock & roll record is a truly impossible task … (but) Rocket 88 is a seminal piece of rock’s fascinating history with all the prerequisite elements firmly in place: practically indecipherable lyrics about cars, booze, and women; Raymond Hill’s booting tenor sax, and a churning, beat-heavy rhythmic bottom.”
6. ‘Rock Awhile’ (Goree Carter, 1949)
This song’s hard-driving guitar makes it a contender for the first rock song crown. There are obvious similarities here to some of the same types of guitar licks popularized by Chuck Berry and others a few years later.
5. ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ (Wynonie Harris, 1948)
This song is widely credited with helping associate the term “rocking” more with the new musical style, rather than a euphemism for sex. Roy Brown had actually released the song in 1947, but Harris’s cover version hit No. 1 on the R&B charts. Elvis Presley later covered the song.
4. ‘We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll’ (Wild Bill Moore, 1948)
If nothing else, the repetitive lyrics here (“We’re gonna rock, we’re gonna roll, we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna roll”) brand this a strong contender for first rock song. Realizing he might be on to something, Moore released a song a year later titled, Rock and Roll.
3. ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ (Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, 1946)
A Delta blues singer and guitarist, Crudup moved to Chicago in 1940 and struggled to make a living in music. Like many of Crudup’s other songs, That’s All Right, Mama fizzled on the charts. But it stands as a forerunner of the rockabilly style that became popular in the 1950s, and it became the first R&B/blue record released in the new 45 rpm format. Most notably, it later became the first song released by young Elvis Presley in 1954. Variety.com sparked controversy in 2014, when it suggested that Presley “invented” rock and roll with that cover version. If this was, in fact, the first rock song, Crudup’s version deserves the credit. It’s ironic he left such a legacy; despite recording many songs that were covered by other artists, Crudup got cheated out of most of his royalties.
2. ‘Blues, Part 2’ (Illinois Jacquet, 1944)
Jacquet became a pioneer in R&B circles with his energetic tenor saxophone playing. His honking style dominates the Blues, Part 2, a live recording with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Los Angeles. Among the players backing Jacquet on the song: Guitar pioneer Les Paul and Nat King Cole. Jacquet certainly inspired one famous American; he jammed with Bill Clinton at the presidential inaugural ball in 1993.
1. ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 1944)
Nicknamed the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Tharpe was an interesting character, a gospel singer with a big voice who could really play the electric guitar. Among the music legends that cite her as an influence are Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. As for the song itself, it became the first song to cross over from the gospel chart to become a hit on what would become known as the R&B chart.