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Bang Your Head with Brendan: Rock History Edition

By Brendan Tenan
Welcome to another edition of Bang Your Head with Brendan. Instead of offering up
reviews of the latest albums rock and metal has to offer, I thought I would take the opportunity
this week to look at the history of rock n roll. I was hoping to have this column prepared earlier,
but the last month just flew by and I didnt have the chance to finish it in time for February.
While the month we use to celebrate black history in America has come and gone
already, I have lately found myself still thinking about the many contributions from early
African-American singers and musicians.
Perhaps Im wrong, but it seems to me that not enough people realize that rock n roll
originally was a uniquely African American style of music, evolving out of the blues and early
R&B. From its earliest incarnations, black singers and musicians have played a very important
role in pushing the genres development forward. Some of them have become celebrated icons,
while others have been overshadowed by those who came after them and faded into obscurity as
a result. So, as a way of showing my respect and appreciation to them, I have created a list of my
ten favorite African American blues and early rock n roll singers and musicians.
10. Elmore James: Among the earliest blues musicians to utilize amplification, James was
also known as King of the Slide Guitar. His guitars tone and his own voice were as unique
and recognizable in his day as B.B. Kings or Howlin Wolfs. His slide guitar style influenced
many notable slide musicians, including John Mayall and The Allman Brothers. Such songs as
The Sky is Crying and Bleeding Heart have been covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix
and Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughn. He even received a shout out from The Beatles during
John Lennons slide guitar solo on the song For You Blue.
9. Robert Johnson: This man, quite simply, is the King of the Delta Blues. One of the
earliest bluesman to have his music recorded. Legend has it Johnson sold his soul to the devil in
order to live a life as a musician. His songs have become blues standards, and have been covered
by everyone from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton, arguably Johnsons most famous
admirer. Some of his most famous songs include Sweet Home Chicago, Kind Hearted
Woman Blues, Hellhound on my Trail, and his most famous song, Cross Road Blues,
which was popularized by Clapton and his band, Cream.
8. Bo Diddley: Creator of one of the most famous and iconic early rock n roll riffs. Bo
Diddley is one of the men responsible for the musical evolution from the blues to rock n roll.
His signature, driving riffs from the trademark rectangular guitar he invented led to a more
aggressive sound that had rarely been heard from guitar players before him. His style, tone, and
rhythm was an influence to everyone from Elvis to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Classic Bo
Diddley songs include Im a Man and Bo Diddley.
7. T-Bone Walker: Walker was one of the earliest guitar players to have a flare for
showmanship. Long before Jimi Hendrix burst onto the scene in the mid 60s, T-Bone was
playing blistering guitar solos with the guitar behind his head and picking the strings with his
teeth. In addition to being a terrific showman, Walker was a tremendous songwriter as well. His
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biggest hit, Stormy Monday, is said to have given a young B.B. King the inspiration to pick up
a guitar for the first time, and has been covered by a number of artists ranging from Clapton to
the Allman Brothers Band.
6. Muddy Waters: How important is Muddy Waters to the history of rock? One of his
songs was later used as the name for a popular British band that made their way to America in
the mid-60s. You may have heard of them: The Rolling Stones. That alone is enough to cement
ones legacy in rock history, but Waters is responsible for more than that. Considered by many to
be the father of modern Chicago blues, Waters helped set a new sonic template by taking the
old Delta blues style and electrifying it, with just a touch of distortion mixed in for good
measure. His songs and style seem simple at first, but he created a sound all his own. Waters
catalogue features a mix of rollicking masculine songs (Im Your Hoochie Coochie Man, Im
Ready) and early rock n roll classics (Mannish Boy, Forty Days and Forty Nights).
5. B.B. King: What can I say that hasnt already been said about the legendary B.B.
King? His single, bent-note soloing style has inspired everyone from The Beatles and Clapton to
Slash and Joe Perry from Aerosmith. His powerful, vibrating baritone voice has been able to
conjure up so many vivid emotions and images in the lyrics he sings on classics like The Thrill
is Gone and How Blue Can You Get. His trusty guitar, Lucille, has become an extension of
his own singing voice as hes successfully blended blues, jazz, swing, and pop into his own
sound. One of the biggest thrills for me during my time at Saint Rose was getting to see him
perform at the Massry Centers 5th Anniversary Gala last spring, as well as meeting him and
talking to him briefly after the show. For a man approaching 90 years old, B.B. King still has it.
4. Howlin Wolf: Ill admit that Ive only really become aware of the great Howlin Wolf
in the last two to three years. But in that short time, hes quickly become one of my all-time
favorite blues artists. His trademark, raspy howl was unlike anything audiences had ever heard
before. His friendly rivalry with Muddy Waters helped ignite the Chicago blues scene in the
early 50s, as the two men presented powerful but different interpretations of the blues and early
rock. While Muddy was usually a little more polished in his sound, Wolf had a musical style that
was rougher around the edges and was described as fearsome at times by audiences, because of
both the power of his music and Wolfs imposing height and physique (6 feet 3 inches tall, and
close to 300 pounds). Wolfs music has lived on long after his death almost forty years ago.
Songs such as Smokestack Lightnin, Back Door Man, The Red Rooster, and Spoonful
have become established blues-rock standards.
3. Jimi Hendrix: While he obviously wasnt one of the early blues or rock pioneers,
theres no denying that Jimi Hendrix is one of the most important contributors to the sounds and
styles that have become standards in rock music. Considered by many to be the greatest guitar
player of all time, Hendrix opened the scope of the electric guitars sound wide open by utilizing
amps that were over driven and distorted and wah-wah pedals. He was instrumental in
developing the use of feedback from his amps. While he wasnt the first to utilize feedback and
distortion, Hendrix took what had originally been gimmicks and turned them into a way to
express his art and emotions. Theres one thing that often gets overlooked when talking about
Jimi Hendrix: he was a great singer and songwriter. For all of his hard charging, distorted
anthems like Purple Haze and Fire, Hendrix also wrote beautiful, slower songs like Little
Wing and moody masterpieces like Hey Joe. He was even able to take other artists classic
songs, like Bob Dylans All Along the Watchtower and make it uniquely his own. Jimi
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Hendrix made an incredible amount of contributions to rock n roll in his short career, and the
genre as a whole is better for it.
2. Chuck Berry: With all due respect to his contemporaries, Chuck Berry is arguably the
founding father of rock n roll. Another showman on the guitar, Berry took the sounds of rhythm
and blues from his era and helped mold it into a new musical style. He developed a new style of
picking the strings that made songs sound faster than they really were, giving them more urgency
and excitement. His lyrics about the life of American teens and consumerism in the early 50s,
along with expertly crafted guitar solos and showmanship, helped propel this new genre into the
mainstream. Roll Over Beethoven, No Particular Place to Go, and Johnny B. Goode still
carry the same level of excitement as they did when Berry first wrote them over fifty years ago.
His influence can be seen and heard virtually everywhere, from the earliest of the British
Invasion bands to American garage bands like the Amboy Dukes and MC5. And, of course, who
will ever forget that classic prom scene from Back to the Future?
1. Little Richard: It was a tossup for quite a while between Chuck Berry and Little
Richard to determine who I would rank as number one and number two. Ultimately I gave the
ever so slight edge to Little Richard, who I consider to be among the first wild man lead
singers in rock music. He is also a virtuoso piano player, and inspired the likes of Jerry Lee
Lewis and John Lord from Deep Purple. However, it is arguably his voice and rhythmic patterns
in his lyrics that have had the greatest influence. His trademark shrieks, yells, and wooos have
influenced generations of singers. Paul McCartney himself has freely admitted that he learned
how to utilize his screams in songs like Oh Darlin and Hey Jude from what Little Richard
did in Tutti Frutti and Good Golly Miss Molly. Even Lemmy Kilmister has said that Little
Richards distinctive voice and refusal to try to sound polished or put on any airs greatly
influenced him when developing his own voice as a singer. With a roster of admirers ranging
from a former Beatle to the founding member of Motorhead, how can anyone deny the
importance of Little Richards contributions to the genre?
Obviously there are countless more artists who played an integral part in developing rock
n roll. These are merely ten of my favorites, and I think its a good place to start for anyone
looking to explore the early history of rock and the blues. Ill be back next time with a column
dedicated to some new music releases. Until then, do yourselves a favor and check out these
great artists. Without them, we wouldnt have rock n roll as we know and love it today.