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THE ROOTS OF ROCK & SOUL, SONG BY SONG: THE 1940S

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.



T H E  F O R T I E S


Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra,
“Take the ‘A’ Train” (Victor, 1941): In a remarkable career stretching from the 1930s to his death in 1967, Billy Strayhorn brought an altogether new dimension of sophistication to jazz, as he seamlessly fused the African-American and European musical traditions. Working as composer, arranger and sometime pianist for Duke Ellington, Strayhorn composed numerous standards of the genre, from songs like “Lush Life,” “Lotus Blossom” and “Chelsea Bridge” to such landmark long-form works as “Such Sweet Thunder” and “The Far East Suite.” Strayhorn wrote Ellington’s signature song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” after Ellington offered him a job and gave him money to travel from Pittsburgh to New York City; Duke also sent directions to his place in Harlem, which began, “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn patterned the song on the brassy uptown sound of trailblazing big band arranger Fletcher Henderson. The precocious youngster made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique, becoming an essential component of the Duke Ellington Band within a few months of his arrival. Through their years together, their partnership was so seamless that it was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the other’s began.

Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, “Caldonia” (Decca, 1945): By the end of World War II, the livewire sounds that ignited rock ’n’ roll were really starting to crackle. This Louis Jordan jump-blues classic is packed with sonic signposts pointing to what lay just ahead: the yakety sax of Billy Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” the boogie-woogie piano of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” the squeal-accented vocals of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Then there’s the affectionate putdown that would become a staple of early rock ’n’ roll lyrics: “Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard?” This record’s just naturally sexy and funny; no wonder it got the attention of mainstream America. Along with Nat “King” Cole, Jordan was one of the first artists to cross over from the “race” charts to the ‚Ä®pop charts.

The Orioles, “It’s Too Soon to Know” (Natural, 1948): With this #1 R&B hit, The Orioles (from Baltimore, like their baseball namesake) singlehandedly created the rock ’n’ roll ballad—a sound lapped up by black and white teenagers alike. At first, Sonny Til’s lead vocal sounds like something off a polite, starch-collared big band ballad, but it starts warming up at the end of the first verse, as it’s thickened by Mills Brothers-style harmonies with more than a hint of gospel fervor. Before long, the lead-vocal chores are being passed from one Oriole to the next in what would become a doo-wop custom, while the song curves and glows as if the group were a bunch of glassblowers collectively creating a funky-chic sculpture in a sedate china shop. With this sleek but revolutionary move, The Orioles cleared the path for doo-wop groups in particular and African-American artists in general.

Mahalia Jackson, “I Will Move on Up a Little Higher” (Apollo, 1948): Draw one line on our roadmap from Bessie Smith and another from Thomas A. Dorsey; your two lines will intersect right at Mahalia Jackson, “the Queen of Gospel.” Blessed with a voice powerful enough to part seas and move mountains, Jackson connected deeply and emotionally to the material she sang. On “I Will Move on Up a Little Higher,” she conveys the dual message of its author, Rev. William Brewster, who mated the notion of “a Christian climbing the ladder to Heaven” with the African-American community’s fight for equal rights. Mahalia “knew what to do with it,” said Brewster. “She could throw the verse out there.” Could she ever. Selling eight million copies—the most of any gospel record ever—Jackson’s smash brought the sound of the Spirit out of the church and into the mainstream, investing it with a deeper blues feel, and in the process inspiring every impassioned female singer who followed to let it all hang out.

Bill Moore, “We’re Gonna Rock” (Savoy, 1948): Rock ’n’ roll began earning its name with this sizzling number, banged out by Texas-born musician “Wild” Bill Moore. This guy and his band have one thing on their minds, shouting out the title phrase over and over—that’s the entire lyric—apart from “Wild” Bill croaking out that this party’s gonna keep going “all night all night all night long.” While he honks away on his sax like an impatient driver in a traffic jam, the piano player shifts into overdrive—it’s as if the entire evolution from ragtime to stride to wild-eyed boogie-woogie is going down in two-and-a-half minutes. Rock ’n’ roll is still a few years off, yet there’s little separating this number from the heart of what’s to come.

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