Anyone interested in America roots music inevitably finds themselves in the 1950s and early rock-and-roll. Lately I’ve been enjoying Peter Guralnick’s fine biography of Elvis Presley, listening at the same time to Elvis’s Sun sessions. These sessions reveal the several strands of roots music — gospel, rhythm & blues, Delta and Piedmont blues, jug bands, boogie-woogie — that evolved into rock; as Elvis was inspired by the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, so were the Beatles (“Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis,” John Lennon said; “If there hadn’t been Elvis, there would not have been the Beatles”) and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan; and the song goes on, as they say.
Elvis’s 1954 cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” is considered by some people as the first rock-and-roll record, but identifying anything as “the first” is a fool’s errand. Others would point to “Rocket 88,” recorded in Memphis in 1951 and released on Chess Records, as the first. The performance is credited to “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats,” but the Delta Cats were really Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm Band. One thing is for sure: both “That’s All Right” and “Rocket 88” rock — they’re as fresh today as they were then. You can hear “Rocket 88” below. That’s Brenston on vocals and sax, Turner on piano, Raymond Hill on tenor sax, Willie Sims on drums, and Willie Kizart on guitar. The producer was the great Sam Phillips.