Houston Music

The Nickel: A Musical History of the Fifth Ward, Part 3

[Note: Part 1 of The Nickel is here, and Part 2 is here.]

Almost as forgotten as Hersal Thomas, Goree Carter was a Fifth Ward guitarist who was credited by late New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer with being the creator of the very first rock and roll record. This was his obscure 1949 single "Rock Awhile," of which Palmer wrote:

"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'..."

"88" was released almost two full years after "Rock Awhile."

Sig Byrd probably didn't know it in 1955, but Carter, then 24 and already the creator of some 60 singles on the Modern, Freedom and Peacock labels, had already quit music for good. Thirty years later, he would explain his early retirement to Dallas folklorist Alan Govenar:

"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."

Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet were the Abraham and Moses of rock and roll saxophone, and they learned everything they knew in the band of Fifth Ward's Milt Larkin. Cobb's live refinements of Jacquet's solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flyin' Home" are almost universally recognized as the twin blueprints for all that followed.

Some even say that "Flyin' Home," not "Rock Ahile," "Rocket 88" or any other song, is the true Holy Grail of rock and roll. (Sadly, though it toured widely and was renowned as a worthy revival to Count Basie's band, Larkin's group - which also sported sax legends Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Wild Bill Davis -- never recorded.) Above is a lovely version of Cobb ladling out his boss tone on "When My Dreamboat Comes Home." Below is Jacquet with Milt Buckner and Jo Jones on the jaunty "One O'Clock Jump."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax