The transcript!

In 1948 a young blues musician named Riley King had the opportunity to perform on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a huge opportunity for him—Sonny Boy Williamson was a big name in blues music. That was a clip of his song “Good Evening Everybody” that you heard in the background there. Riley’s gig on Williamson’s show led to more performance opportunities on the air, eventually landing him a regular radio spot on WDIA—also in Memphis—in a show that was called the “Sepia Swing Club.”

At that time, “sepia music” was another term for “race music,” or blues and rhythm & blues. It was one of many catch-all terms for “black music.” Riley continued working at WDIA as both a singer and a disc jockey—as this was the time that radio stations were shifting their content more and more from live on-air performances to pre-recorded material—and it was in this role that he eventually received the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy.” Beale St. is a famous black neighborhood and community in Memphis that was, and still is, a major hub for blues and rhythm & blues. In fact, in just a few episodes we’ll be talking about a young white kid named Elvis Presley who was absolutely enamored with Beale St. and developed both his musical and clothing styles from his time frequenting Beale St.

But let’s get back to Riley. His nickname was eventually shortened to just “Blues Boy,” and then from there, it was eventually shortened even more to… B.B.

B.B. King became to Memphis what Muddy Waters was for Chicago. Sometime in late 1949/early 1950, B.B. King came into contact with a talent scout from Modern Records named… Ike Turner. See? I told you Ike would turn up some more.

Ike Turner had cut his teeth as a musician while still a teenager, joining a local group in his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi called the Tophatters who played big band arrangements. It was a large ensemble—with over 30 members—and in the late forties, they split into two groups over a disagreement over which direction they should take the band. Half of them became a jazz group called the Dukes of Swing, and the other half, led by Ike Turner, became the Kings of Rhythm. As Ike said, regarding their repertoire: “we wanted to play blues, boogie-woogie, and Roy Brown, Jimmy Liggins, Roy Milton.”

Before we go on with Ike’s story, let’s take a moment to experience some of those musical influences he mentioned in that quote.

We’ve spent a ton of time talking about and experiencing the blues so far in this podcat, but haven’t really visited boogie-woogie yet. As a kid, boogie-woogie was my absolute favorite type of piano music to play. There was one boogie song in particular called the “Bumble-Bee Boogie” became legend in our family. I grew up listening to my older brothers playing it and thinking, “When I can play that song like them, then I’ve made it. I’m a legit pianist.” In fact, one funny memory I have with this song is, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I think, I remember playing this song and an ant was crawling across the keyboard of the piano as I was playing it. It wasn’t a bumble bee, but it was close enough. I just watched the ant the whole time I played the song. Of course, while I was sitting there chuckling, that poor ant was experiencing it’s version of a level 10 earthquake trying to crawl across those piano keys.

Here's some audio of Jack Fina playing the song. I’d thought about using audio of myself or one of my brothers playing the song, but the three of us agreed that we’re all too out-of-practice for that; plus, Jack Fina was the one who adapted it from the original Rimsky-Korsakov “Flight of the Bumblebee” into this boogie version, so it’s fitting that I should use his performance:


Anyway, a great representative artist of boogie-woogie is Sugar Chile Robinson. He was a child piano prodigy and received a lot of attention, appearing on television and even in movies. Here’s some audio from the 1946 film “No Leave, No Love,” which had a scene featuring his piano prowess. He’s eight years old in this scene…


Yeah, that kid played better at 8 years old than I did in college. That’s one thing you learn as a musician: “there’s always somebody better.” Inspiring, right?

I’ll now play clips of those artists Ike had mentioned by name in that quote. These three artists were part of a music scene that developed a genre known as “jump blues.” First I’ll play a clip of Roy Brown’s 1947 release, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”—which, yes, this is before rock would emerge as a genre, let alone before the term would be used as a name for that genre. If you were paying attention last episode, you’ll remember that “rock ‘n’ roll” came from a hokum-esque euphemism for sex. So, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what this song is about:


And now a clip of Roy Milton’s 1948 release, “Hop, Skip, and Jump:”


And finally, a clip of Jimmy Liggins’ 1948 release, “Cadillac Boogie,” and I’ll urge you in advance to remember this Liggins clip ‘cuz we’re gonna be revisiting it in a little bit


You can definitely hear early rock music in those songs, especially the Milton and Liggins clips.

I want to point out, these are the types of songs that I was talking about last episode, that were being pumped out on the airwaves late at night and sold in local record stores, being absorbed by white, middle-class teens who were now discovering this other vein of black music that had stayed more or less within the black community up until this point.

But let’s get back to Ike. When he had first met B.B. King, he was working as a talent scout for the Bihari Bros. at Modern Records, and it was through him that B.B. King would start recording with Modern Records and their subsidiary in L.A., RPM Records.

Later, in 1951, while the Kings of Rhythm were driving between gigs, Ike reconnected with B.B. King during a show he was doing in Chambers, Mississippi. B.B. had been busy since he’d first met Ike. The Bihari Brothers had linked him up with Sam Phillips—a white guy in Memphis whose objective was to provide an affordable recording service for amateur black musicians. Sam founded the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 for this very purpose, and B.B. King was among the first musicians to benefit from it. King’s recordings with Sam Phillips became the material that the Bihari Brothers marketed through their record label.

So with that in mind, B.B. King referred Ike to Sam Phillips to get some recordings of the Kings of Rhythm.

Now, about a year earlier, in 1950, Ike had recruited a saxophonist named Jackie Brenston who also sometimes did vocals for their gigs. And when the Kings of Rhythm went in to record with Sam Phillips, they had to come up with an original song on somewhat short notice. So what they ended up doing was, as Brenston put it, “simply borrowed from another jump blues about an automobile, Jimmy Liggins’ ‘Cadillac Boogie.’” Except, instead of singing about a Cadillac, they decided to sing about the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, which had been introduced earlier that year. So, using 12-bar blues as their harmonic template, they created a song called “Rocket 88.”

And now, if you google “what was the first rock ‘n’ roll song?” the results will say, “Rocket 88.” There are a number of reasons why “Rocket 88” is seen as the first rock song. One of them is the fact that Sam Phillips said so. I know we haven’t really covered Sam Phillips in depth yet, but when we do, you’ll see why his word carries so much weight.

But there are other reasons. Let’s listen to a clip of it so you’ll know what I’m talking about:


One of the big reasons it’s seen as the first rock song is the slightly distorted guitar. Legend has it that this was actually the result of the guitar amp being damaged while in transit on Highway 61 which led to them trying to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amp with newspapers. Whatever the case, it gave the guitar part a sound that would come to define rock music forever after.

Combine that with the driving rhythm, accelerated boogie bass line, and blues-based riffs, and you’ve got a rough template for subsequent early rock songs.

The one thing that’s missing is the backbeat. You might remember I briefly discussed the backbeat with my clone in my overview episode. The backbeat is this emphasis on beats 2 and 4 in rock music that is usually done through hitting the snare drum on those beats—with the bass drum striking on beats 1 and 3. [backbeat in background]

So, in a sense, “Rocket 88” is still something of a liminal song that is proto-rock, but maybe not quite there yet. This is a view held by Ike Turner himself who said, “I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88’ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88’ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88’ is the cause of rock and roll existing.”

And he’s not completely wrong. “Rocket 88” would be a huge influence on Little Richard, whose drummer, Earl Palmer, is often credited as being the one to popularize the backbeat as the official heartbeat of rock ‘n’ roll. But we’ll talk more about that when we do finally talk about Little Richard.

Something else you should know about this song is, even though it was Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm who performed and recorded it, “Rocket 88” is credited to: “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.” The song’s writing and lyric credits are also given to Jackie Brenston, even though Ike contends that it was a group effort and he should’ve shared some of the writing credit for the song. But Jackie was the one who sang on it and, as we’ve discussed before, the 1950s were entering an era in which band leaders were no longer the headliners, but vocalists were. The idea of a “front man” had been born.

So, if you look up the record jacket for the song “Rocket 88,” it shows it as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, with the tag line, “Featuring Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm!” Which, if by “featuring” you mean “a.k.a.,” then yeah, it’s “featuring” the Kings of Rhythm.

Ike blames the writing credit flub-up on Sam Phillips; I’ve read other accounts that blame it on the Bihari Brothers. It would be a point of contention between Ike and Jackie (especially since, according to one source I read, Ike was paid, like, $20 for that recording session while Jackie got to collect $910 from selling the song rights), but in reality this song was where Jackie Brenston would peak, while for Ike, it would be a launchpad.

Thus, despite the song “rocketing” up to the top of the rhythm & blues charts, Jackie disappeared into obscurity while Ike became a staple session musician for both Sam Phillips and the Bihari Brothers—and then of course down the road he would enjoy even more success as one half of the Ike and Tina Revue.

However, despite Ike’s connections with the Bihari Brothers and Modern Records, Sam didn’t license the song through them. Instead, he went through Chess Records in Chicago. This connection between Sam Phillips and Chess Records is important. It was around this time that Sam Phillips also recorded another relatively obscure blues artist named Howlin’ Wolf and likewise released those recordings through Chess Records, which would begin Wolf’s relationship with the Chess brothers. A few years later, Wolf would then connect the Chess Brothers with a young black songwriter named Chuck Berry, who was taking what had been started with “Rocket 88” and fusing it with country music to really create the definitive sound of rock.

But I want to pause in that thread of our narrative and jump over to New Orleans and talk about a guy named Antoine.

Antoine Domino, Jr. was born the youngest of 8 kids to a Catholic, French Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana Creole was his first language.

And because I can’t help myself, I’m going to play audio from a YouTube video of someone speaking Louisiana Creole, just for kicks. This video is from Louisiana Public Broadcasting (which are also the only three words I understood in this clip):


Antoine was performing piano in bars by the time he was fourteen years old. In 1947, when he was about 19, he came to the attention of a local bandleader named Billy Diamond, who recruited Antoine to play with his band, the Solid Senders—one of my favorite band names, by the way—at the Hideaway Club in New Orleans. Diamon nicknamed Antoine “Fats” because the kid reminded him of pianists Fats Waller, Fats Pichon, and, well, the kid also had a large appetite.

Just two years later, in 1949, Fats Domino signed on with Imperial Records. The story behind Domino’s first release would encapsulate a lot of his career.

With the assistance of Dave Bartholomew—one of the producers at Imperial—he wrote a song called “The Fat Man.” This song is actually based on another song called “Junker Blues” that is about drug addicts. I’ll share some of the lyrics with you:

Some people say I use a needle
And some say I sniff cocaine
But that's the best old feelin' in the world
That I'd ever seen

This song definitely falls in that category of “less acceptable” music that we talked about last episode, right? So, Fats Domino’s spin-off sings about this instead:

They call, they call me the fat man
'Cause I weight two hundred pounds
All the girls they love me
'Cause I know my way around

I was standin', I was standin' on the corner
Of Rampart and Canal
I was watchin', watchin'
Watchin' all these creole gals

I'm goin', I'm goin' goin' away
And I'm goin', goin' to stay
'Cause women and a bad life
They're carrying this soul away

It’s still a little racy, right? He’s still singing about “knowing his way around” with the ladies, which gives the song a bit of a hokum element, but it’s nevertheless a toned down version lyrically, and a sped up version, musically, of Junker Blues.

Releasing a more “acceptable,” sped-up version of a blues song did really well for Domino. That first record had sold a million copies by 1951.

From here, Domino would continue to cultivate the more “cleaned up” version of a black rhythm & blues musician. He maintained a clean-cut image, always wore a suit—and of course it helped that the dude looks like a teddy bear. Like, seriously, the next time you look at a picture of Fats Domino, picture him with little bear ears and a fuzzy fur coat. Maybe give him a Care Bear Belly Badge. And this “safe” image extended to his music, which—while maintaining tempos faster than what we heard in Dupree’s Junker Blues—would also remain in a safe middle ground, outlined by his signature sound of repeating block chords over a lilting, compound meter.

Paul Friedlander, in his book “Rock and Roll: A Social History,” points out that the success enjoyed by Domino’s song, “The Fat Man,” is the first rock ‘n’ roll record to achieve this level of sales. Although, I should point out, “The Fat Man” was primarily a hit on rhythm & blues charts. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that he would crossover to mainstream pop charts with his song “Ain’t That a Shame.” Domino’s version made it to the Top Ten on Billboard’s pop singles chart, but then Pat Boone came along and released a cover of the song, and his version would reach number 1.

Pat Boone’s name will be coming up in a similar context quite a bit over the next several episodes, so be ready for that.

I’ll play clips of “Ain’t That a Shame,” first the Fats Domino version and then the Pat Boone version:


So, you’ll notice that the Pat Boone version has a much stricter adherence to a tight beat. There’s a little more swing to Domino’s version—it’s definitely more bluesy. This was generally how things went with Boone’s covers, though: they were usually a more “marchy” version of rhythm & blues, as if John Phillip Sousa was the one making his arrangements. Considering the direction rock music would go, it’s sometimes a little baffling for us in the 21st century to even see Pat Boone as an early rock artist, and a lot of people don’t even label him as such: they label him as a mainstream pop artist who covered rock songs, which is probably a more accurate description of Boone’s style. Nevertheless, at the time when Rock was young and still developing, Boone was—and still is by many—considered an early rock artist.

Ironically enough, however, it would be when Fats Domino would do a cover of a song that had been a Glenn Miller hit in 1940 that would help him rise even higher on the Billboard charts. In 1956, he released “Blueberry Hill,” and I will play clips of both versions of this song as well: first the Glenn Miller version, and then the Fats Domino version:


There are some very obvious differences between the two versions. For one thing, the two artists were not really contemporaries like Domino and Boone were. They were also functioning in two totally different music genres: big band for Miller and rock ‘n’ roll for Domino.

The instrumentation is of course different as well. But both versions are in compound meter (in which each beat is broken down into three smaller beats…)

[clips with counting VO]

You’ll also notice that Domino’s version has an element that is quintessentially rock: the backbeat.

[clip of beat with counting VO]

It also has that loping bass line that is a mutation of boogie-woogie. Like, if this bass line were a Pokémon, the boogie-woogie version would be the “basic,” and then that bass line in “Blueberry Hill” would be, you know, 1st Generation evolution. By the time we get to Flea and Les Claypool, it’ll be, like, 12th Generation evolution… I don’t even know if that’s a thing in Pokémon. This was a weird analogy for me to pick—especially since I don’t know anything about Pokémon…

So! Pivoting back to something I do know: Fats Domino would continue to have hit singles throughout the rest of the decade. I’ll play clips of some of those. First a clip of “I’m Walkin”


That’s definitely one of his more energetic songs. Another song about walking is “I Want to Walk You Home,” but this one is a lot slower and features his usual bass line with block chord accompaniment:


And now here’s a clip of “Valley of Tears”


This one likewise features that prototypical bass line while featuring gospel-esque backup singers.

You’ll notice every one of these songs is in compound meter. That’s a carryover from the blues that definitely formed the core of Domino’s style. We’ll actually be revisiting this when we talk about reggae. It’s speculated that some of the forms of music from which reggae sprang were actually Jamaican artists’ attempts to duplicate Domino’s triplet rhythms which then evolved into chunking.

But that’s still a long ways off. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we get to reggae.

Fats Domino would appear in a couple of films in 1956: Shake, Rattle & Rock! And The Girl Can’t Help It. We’ll be doing in-depth analysis of both those films, along with several others, in an episode that will focus purely on the films of this decade that served as rock music showcases. They’re a big part of the story of rock being catapulted into the public awareness.

But this now brings us to a part of Domino’s story that is very rock ‘n’ roll: riots.

On November 2, 1956, he was doing a show in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Part way into the act, a riot broke out and the police ended up using tear gas on the crowd. Fats Domino channeled some hidden acrobatic skills he probably didn’t know he had and jumped out a window in an effort avoid being caught in the craziness. He and a few of his bandmates came out of the experience with some injuries, but nothing major.

And this wasn’t a one-time thing. He had four major riots break out at his shows during his career. Four!

So…you just heard his music. It’s not exactly something you would mosh to. Why would anyone riot as a result of this music? It must be that rock ‘n’ roll influence. After all, that’s what happened with Blackboard Jungle, isn’t it? Rock is making people riot!

I’m going to read some quotes from Domino’s biographer, Rick Coleman, who said the riots were “partly because of integration. But also the fact that they had alcohol at these shows. So they were mixing alcohol, plus dancing, plus the races together for the first time in a lot of these places.”

This stigma hovered around Fats Domino’s shows badly enough that in 1957 he was banned from performing at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC.

Nevertheless, despite the risk of riot, live shows and touring were Domino’s bread and butter. It’s like how in that Ruth Brown quote I read last episode in which she talked about how touring was the biggest way for black artists to make money since there was so much red tape and other obstacles for them in the recording industry. According to Ebony magazine, Fats Domino was on the road 340 days a year. But he was making up to $2500 per evening, grossing over $500,000 a year. According to, that’s over five million dollars in today’s money. In that same Ebony article, Fats Domino told readers that he owned 50 suits, 100 pairs of shoes, and a $1500 horseshoe stick pin.

So, he was doing all right. But he was certainly putting in the hours for that kind of money.

However, that’s where we’ll leave Domino’s story for now. We’re going to start working our way back up to Chicago.

Show notes coming soon!