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Senior Year

Senior Year, 1949: The First Sparks of Rock 'n' Roll

by Nate Cavalieri

Senior Year, 1949: The First Sparks of Rock 'n' Roll

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World War II had ended only four years before, but in 1949, America sounded like an entirely different place: the post-war economic engine was revving on all cylinders, and Americans had more leisure time and income than at any other period in the country's history to date. Huge swaths of the black population, having migrated from the South for work during the war effort, were forging regional sounds in urban centers across the U.S.A. And due to an amazing confluence of cultural and social factors, the first fiery sparks of American rock 'n' roll were born.

Of course, it wasn't called rock 'n' roll back then. But the revolutionary brew of American music in '49 was evident in other musical name changes: Billboard's "race" charts were rebranded "Rhythm and Blues," and the magazine also minted a new offshoot of twang-y folk music, "Country and Western." But the biggest revolution was in format. After Columbia introduced the 33-rpm LP in 1948, rival RCA countered with the 7-inch 45 in 1949. Durable and inexpensive to produce, this format was ideal for the crosscurrents of its time; most importantly, they were cheap enough for kids to buy.

With new charts came new stars: Amos Milburn, all but forgotten today, was the most popular R&B act of the year. Born in Texas, Milburn was a larger-than-life persona who enlisted in the Navy at 15 to fight in the Pacific theater. When he returned home to Houston, he wrote novelty songs about boozing that were popular enough to top a Downbeat poll. (Decades later, George Thorogood made a mess of one: "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.") In 1949, he charted for 27 weeks.

While white American pop charts indulged in a schmaltzy cowboy fetish (Vaughn Monroe's "Ghost Riders in the Sky" was the hit of the year), Milburn shared a lesser but ultimately more influential spotlight with a handful of other black Southerners: Louis Jordan, the so-called "King of the Jukebox"; New Orleans pianist Fats Domino, whose "Fat Man" is said to be the first recording ever to use a straight rock 'n' roll-style backbeat from start to finish; and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering gospel singer and electric guitarist who was a primary influence on Elvis Presley.

John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" -- a tune some argue was the first rock 'n' roll song ever recorded -- also grabbed a No. 1 in '49. If few of these caught the ears of that year's senior class, it's just as well: fewer than 30 percent of age-appropriate Americans graduated high school that year. But running between Milburn's Chicken Shack, Hooker's all-night party on Hastings Street and Jordan's Saturday Night Fish Fry, who had time for school, anyway?