Rock historians have long debated the First Rock Song question. For years, the consensus had it that Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was this Holy Grail. Haley was supplanted in turn first by Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama," and then when the critics pulled their heads out of their asses and realized that white guys simply covering tunes by black folks did not a new genre make.
The search turned to the true pioneers, the black bluesmen of the late '40s and early '50s. Next up for anointing -- and still the champ -- was Jackie Brenston's 1951 recording of "Rocket '88." Really this was an Ike Turner record; Brenston was a journeyman singer who failed to distinguish himself before hooking up with Ike or after their parting. Turner, the bandleader here, plays a hard-charging electric guitar through an amp that had fallen off their car on the way up to Memphis's Sun Studios from their Clarksdale, Mississippi, home. It was this happy accident -- a cone crushed in the fall revved up the fuzz in Turner's fretwork -- that produced the First Rock Song.
Or did it? The late Robert Palmer, New York Times chief pop critic for 12 years, advanced his own favorite in his 1995 book Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. Here Palmer writes of Houstonian Goree Carter's "Rock Awhile": "The clarion guitar intro differs hardly at all from some of the intros Chuck Berry would unleash on his own records after 1955; the guitar solo crackles through an overdriven amplifier; and the boogie-based rhythm charges right along. The subject matter, too, is appropriate -- the record announces that it's time to 'rock awhile,' and then proceeds to show how it's done. To my way of thinking, Carter's 'Rock Awhile' is a much more appropriate candidate for 'first rock and roll record' than the more frequently cited 'Rocket '88' "
So who was this founder of rock and roll, and why have you never heard of him?
Goree Carter was born on New Year's Eve, 1930, and died two days before New Year's Eve, 1990. In between, he was raised in the Fifth Ward, at 1310 Bayou Street, to be exact. He learned to play guitar by watching older musicians play in nearby Drewstel Park. "Carter was a real quiet- mannered guy," said Pete Mayes. "Now, he'd fight you -- don't get me wrong. He'd fight you in a minute."
"That's what I'm talking about."
After recording some 60 tunes for Houston's Modern, Peacock and Freedom labels, and taking up club residencies at Fifth Ward nightspots Club Matinee and Dreamland, Carter quit music forever in 1954. No one is sure why. Carter offered a clue some 30 years later in Alan Govenar's outstanding Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound. "Then I had a lot [of songs] that I just tore up, and they were good songs. I tore them up because they wouldn't let me cut them. They said I was ahead of myself. So I destroyed them. If I can't perform them, then I'll do like Moses did with the Ten Commandments. Can't live by it, die by it."
His "rediscovery" in the 1980s was frustrating at best. "He talked about starting up again, but he didn't do it," said Mayes. "They were gonna have him play one night at Rockefeller's, but it didn't happen." As Mayes had it in the liner notes to Unsung Hero, an early 1990s rerelease of Carter's material, Carter was "just tired of living" when he died.
So the inventor of rock as we know it retired from music at age 24, the year before the film The Blackboard Jungle etched Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" on the national consciousness, the same year that Elvis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry had their first pop hits. Ahead of himself indeed, this Moses of rock, so far ahead of himself in fact that he retired from the genre he helped create before most Americans even knew it existed.
As were most other young Texan African-American musicians in the 1940s, Carter was under the sway of Dallas-bred T-Bone Walker, who by then was living in Los Angeles. Walker is generally credited with popularizing the electric guitar as a blues instrument, but his style was so elegant that rarely has he been lumped in with the early rockers.
It was Walker's brash apprentices -- men like "Gatemouth" Brown and Carter -- who made the leap into rock and roll. "It's interesting that [Palmer] isolates ['Rock Awhile']," says Govenar. "I [can] see that as being the roots of rock and roll and the redefinition of the guitar In terms of performance style, certainly T-Bone Walker was the most imitated. In terms of actual guitar sounds, I think [Palmer is] right. Meeting the Blues was about a whole generation of musicians, particularly in Houston, who grew up emulating T-Bone Walker and improvising on it. Clearly the whole Duke-Peacock sound, as it developed, and all of the ancillary little labels that developed in Houston, have always been kind of the first rock and roll records."
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And thanks to some revisionist history, rank-and-file America doesn't know much about Houston's contribution to early rock. Governar sees much of the credit that has been heaped on Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton as misplaced. "Houston is seminal particularly to the development of early rock. The whole importance of Texas to the development of early rock has been so generally overlooked. I just can't believe how Delta-centric The New York Times is. I don't get it really. I've had several discussions with Stephen Kinzer, who's like their at-large pop culture critic, and I told him, 'This is totally insane.' They don't want to hear it. If I have to see one more front-page story on what's left over of the blues in Mississippi The fact is that Houston (and Chicago for that matter) is the only place where it's kind of a vital scene. To think that blues is this monochromatic phenomenon that developed and spread out of Mississippi -- you'd think people would get beyond that."
Particularly interesting with regard to Carter are Govenar's recent musicological travels to Senegal. "The music of Senegal is much more aligned with Texas blues. It has this much lighter country sound I was talking to [British blues historian] Paul Oliver, and he told me that many of the last slave importations to Texas were from Senegal."
And there is evidence that Carter's ancestors may have been among those last few unfortunates. Just off the coast of Senegal there is an island to which millions of Africans were taken after being seized. There they were processed and spent their last night on African soil before the terrors of the Middle Passage and the unimaginable horror of a life as chattel. The name of this brutal African answer to Ellis Island? Goree Island.
If as Brownie McGhee once said, "The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll," how fitting it would be to have the man likely named for the place where the blues was well and truly born to finally get his just dues as the father of rock and roll.