When examining 1950s R&B, you are never far from the border it shares with rock & roll. While the moment when R&B morphed into rock cannot be pinpointed, our example this month debuted as an R&B hit in 1959, but an almost identical cover became one of the all-time classic rock & roll hits one year later. The Chubby Checker recording of “The Twist” is without a doubt one of the most iconic tracks of the 20th century, but the song that launched a thousand hips was originally a hit for R&B artist Hank Ballard & the Midnighters.
Ballard’s first hit was the sexually suggestive “Get It” with the Royals in 1953. It’s a swinging track that features a rollicking “Shortnin’ Bread��� lick (1–6–5–6) as the bass line, and made it to #6 on the Billboard R&B charts, despite being somewhat shunned for its lyrics. The band became the Midnighters in 1954 and went on to have a string of hits: “Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” all banned from airplay by the FCC for being too dirty. But in 1959, the band scored a hit with “The Twist,” ranking #16 on the U.S. R&B charts, followed by another hit with “Let’s Go, Let’s Go” in 1960.
“The Twist” is a simple 12-bar blues form, and Ballard’s version is somewhat typical of the swing/jump-style R&B of the ’40s and ’50s. Listening to the rhythm section, you can clearly hear the struggle between the drums’ triplet-based swing feel against the almost-even eighths of the guitar part. The rhythmic tension is a delicious earmark of a time when the parameters of rock & roll were not fully defined, and as the earliest “rock musicians” were actually jazz and blues players, the cross-rhythmic performance is understandable—they were figuring out rock & roll as they went along. The bass line is a standard quarter-note walk using the aforementioned “Shortnin’ Bread” pattern for the bulk of it (Ex. 1). While supplying essentially neutral quarter-notes, the bass player does add little swing-based inflections to the line, giving it an unmistakable jump underpinning.
In 1960, Dick Clark wanted to feature this new hit on his TV program, American Bandstand, but Hank Ballard was supposedly not available according to some accounts, so Clark went in search of a local artist to cover the song. Considering Ballard’s reputation for singing “naughty” lyrics, it’s easy to imagine Dick Clark being concerned about tarnishing Bandstand’s squeaky-clean image. In Chubby Checker, he found an African-American singer who could not only mimic Ballard’s nasal tenor, but also presented a clean-cut, “non-threatening” image. Recorded in Philadelphia, the Checker version of “The Twist” took a simpler yet more aggressive approach that completely stripped away any hint of swing, and featured an in-your-face drum mix that has driven the eponymous dance craze for 56 years. In Ex. 2, the bass line sticks to the all-encompassing quarter-note approach, but loses any similarity to jazz walking bass when played to a straight rock beat. The doubled root–5 pattern gives it a primal insistence that creates a distinct musical boundary—this is rock & roll!
On the surface, both recordings sound remarkably similar, but digging into the nuances of the rhythm bed offers a glimpse of the thin line that separates the two genres. R&B did not end with the birth of rock & roll; it ran parallel as a primarily African-American idiom, and was the source of many rock & roll hits. While in most cases, an R&B hit was given to a white artist to market a “safer” version to the kiddies, this month’s example is a case of swapping one African-American artist for another, albeit with the same effect. It would be an oversimplification to say that R&B is “black music” and rock & roll is “white,” as rock was a venue for many African-American artists. The label had more to do with the intended market, which at the time was white teenagers. As we move into the 1960s, both genres became more distinct—rock & roll went more in the direction of straight eighth-note feels and teenage themes, while R&B dovetailed with gospel to develop into “soul music.” While pigeonholing musical genres tends to limit one’s perspective of the art form, for better or worse, it makes sense for the purpose of commercializing it. I say, call it rock, call it soul, call it the blues—it’s all R&B Gold!
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com