Dancing music in the C20: rock ‘n’ roll (1947-52)

History 24

Charley Patton’s Going to Move to Alabama (1929), Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 (1951) and Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock (1954) are just a few of the many cited contenders for “the first rock ‘n’ roll record”. And Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s rhythm & blues-era single That’s All Right (recorded ’46, released ’49) could be considered one candidate, given that its 1954 Elvis rendition broke rock ‘n’ roll. But Dancing music in the C20 is backing Wynonie Harris and Good Rockin’ Tonight for this honour.

Wynonie Harris – Good Rockin’ Tonight

Good Rockin’ Tonight was another photo-RnR anthem that The Pelvis had his eye on – his rendition followed his That’s All Right debut. Everyone from Link Wray to Diamond Head would later tackle the tune, which, despite being written for Wynonie in 1947, was only recorded by him following its chart success as a jump blues/swing number by its author, Roy Brown.

In attempting to summarise what had changed between Roy Brown’s original Good Rockin’ Tonight and Wynonie Harris’ version a year later, let’s list some adjectives commonly associated with the Harris Rockin’:

  • Raucous
  • Propulsive
  • Honking
  • Sexually suggestive
  • Intimidating leer
  • Hard
  • Dirty
  • Earthy
  • “Sense of Saturday night camaraderie and mayhem”

In short, Harris ramped up the energy, danger and lasciviousness of the song, and this – arguably rather than the heavily-touted and currently missing hillbilly component – is what made rock ‘n’ roll rock ‘n’roll.


Harris had a reputation as a bone fide IRL hell raiser. As Mike Greenblatt of Goldmine magazine commented:

“This hard-core blues shouter enjoyed the kind of lifestyle that mirrored the rough and tumble ribald tunes Harris belted out both live and on record. Harris was a lean, mean, love machine; a hard drinker, carousing womanizer and good-looking Dapper Dan who had been dancing, singing and playing guitar and drums since the mid-1930s.”

He was a bone fide pop star too – Harris lived in a big house and owned a cadillac, replete with chauffeur. However, Greenblatt notes that Harris’ fortunes took a tumble for the worse from 1954 onwards, when Elvis arrived and sent RnR stratospheric. This was now demon music – the stuff of hellfire and sins – and while Presley was marketable enough to get away with it, the black proto rock ‘n’ rollers suffered in the wake of his ascent.

Perhaps even more than Elvis, the musical direction of rock ‘n’ roll would be distorted more by the arrival of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the mid-1950s, and their aggressive lead electric guitars, inviting a whole new world of rock music.

In this proto-RnR though, rock music and its heavy metal descendants were still a bad and distant thought, and this was still very much dance music. Essentially a leaner, meaner jump blues, it’s no great surprise that one of the defining tunes of this period was by Louis Jordan, the superstar who haunted our last two columns (on rhythm and blues and jump blues respectively).

Louis Jordan – Saturday Night Fish Fry

The 1953 movie Dance Hall Racket gives some indications of what dancing looked like in this pre-Elvis period:

Post-Presley, RnR dancing would mutate into unrepentant, competitive dance craze with a new, acrobatic form of the lindy hop, as this 1956 clip of a German dance contest proves: