The year 1950 sounds just about right for the introduction of rock and roll into the American vocabularly, right? The ’50’s conjures up some of the great names in pop music history. Chuck Berry. Buddy Holly. Bill Haley and the Comets. Elvis Presley. Betty Grable.
That’s right. Betty Grable. The Divine Ms. G, along with Victor Mature, have the honors of introducing the term rock and roll to a widespread US audience.
Oh sure, the term rock and roll existed long before that, in both a musical and non-musical context. It’s not hard to find 18th century references to rough seas causing some merchant ship to rock-and-roll in the bounding waves.
Ships weren’t the only things bounding, though. Gospel music might move a congregation to rock and roll in the pews.
But when did rock and roll come to the forefront, to mean the music with a backbeat that we (almost) all grew up with?
The FirstMention happened on April 12, 1950 when a Pennsylvania newspaper, The Progress, ran an ad touting Betty Grable as <<ready for this?>> “…the first lady of rock and roll”.
The film Wabash Avenue, featuring the zingiest, swingiest music, was — oddly enough — set in an 1890’s dance hall. But nonetheless, Betty took that avenue and rocked it to fame, thus offering up a FirstMention of rock as a musical verb as well as a noun.
And though not terribly germane to the origins of rock and roll, I can’t resist putting up this great poster from the film.
Another celebrity that pops up even earlier, is comedian Jack Benny (another name almost synonymous with the history of rock and roll, eh?). His 1934 hit film Trans-Atlantic Merry-Go-Round featured a song called Rock and Roll, though I suspect this was more the bounding-waves variety of rockin’ and rollin’.
Lastly, there were a number of 1940’s blues recordings named Rock and Roll, including a 1948 recording by “Manhattan Paul” Bascomb, and 1949 number by Doles Dickens.
But Betty Grable remains the uncontested first lady of rock and roll.
Our FirstMention research is carried out in many sources, including historical newspaper archives, online family history records, state archives, and old books.
Addendum: A reader of FirstMention.com has alerted us to a possible earlier FirstMention. Tommy Brown’s recording, Atlanta Boogie, includes the lyrics:
Well, the whole town’s rockin’ just about the break of day
Well, when the bar starts jumpin’ you can hear the cats all say
Well, let’s rock’n’roll, well, let’s rock’n’roll
Yes, let’s rock’n’roll, well, let’s rock’n’roll
Yes, let’s rock’n’roll till the break of day
Rock ‘n roll till the break of day! Can’t get any more classic than that. The recording appears to date from 1949.