So, what is a “Ground breaker” anyway. And is it two words or one? For my purposes, the Dictionary.com definition as a noun works for me; “a person who is an originator, innovator, or pioneer in a particular activity”. In the world of music there are many names that can fall into this category, and the contributions that qualify them are not only varied, but in many cases somewhat unrecognized.
The importance of history is often overlooked by those of us in the present, and I find it no different in music. What is also not dissimilar is the tendency to revise history and make attributions or proclamations where they are not warranted. For example, if we are talking about pop music in general, I’ve touched on the attention paid to the first/best of this or that, such as the very first Rock & Roll song. As for that, I think I debunked one of the prevailing songs given that moniker, “Rocket 88”. If you read my posts on Rock and Roll Parts one through four, I present the argument that there is no one single song or for that matter artist that can be pinpointed as being the first. Having said that every genre has artists, songwriters, producers, songs, and record labels that did something different to change the course of music.
Many of the names I discuss in my blog are indeed groundbreakers, even if I or others did not identify them as such. I have given R&R, Blues and R&B a thorough look with names like Chuck Berry, Ma Rainey, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. Today I will revisit a few names and add some new ones that we can point to as truly ground-breaking. As in the names above some of the choices are rather obvious, however often they are more obscure-but not necessarily of lesser importance.
First let’s get to more of the obvious names in this category as the accomplishments are very well known. Bob Dylan, I think justifiably, has come up a lot in my posts. Also, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Shania Twain from Country Music are known for the popularity of their songs but they all did something that sets them apart from most of their contemporaries. Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell (early in her career) made a mark in folk music because they were fearless in their honest approach to their songs. Across all genres there are many iconic and recognizable names, and for the most part we know and remember them better or sometimes worse for more than just their music.
Some were the first to accomplish something uniquely different in music, even if it was just how they were able to translate and in turn relate to the listener in a new way. While having the first music video (Video Killed the Radio Star) on MTV may be a noteworthy event, it does not necessarily make you a groundbreaker. The exceptionally talented Paul Anka has accomplished much in his career but being the first act to perform on American Bandstand is more of a bit of trivia than anything else. Being recognized as the first is not synonymous with being a groundbreaker. I think it depends on what the ‘first’ represents in a broader context. There are many iconic moments in music history, but I am not sure that Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock or The Beatles playing on a roof top is what made these artists groundbreakers.
I’m going to group names by Genre as much as possible, as I dig into the topic I can see it will take a few posts to even scratch the surface.
I have talked about many of the iconic names in Country Music but during my deeper research into the Genre I wanted to talk about these few in particular. Not to say by any stretch that Black performers and songwriters were the only groundbreakers in Country Music, as I have scattered the names of many of the Pioneers of the genre through my past posts. I mention two names here, and quite specifically because Black musicians had an impact on the Country genre where sometimes credit may be lacking. So I feel it’s worth talking about as the barriers they overcame were enormous.
Apart from the more modern day accolades artists obtain via the Country Music awards etc., the pinnacle for many in the genre was (and still is) an invitation to The Grand Ole Opry. Bailey was one of its pioneers and was its first Black member inducted in 1926, that is until he was summarily fired in 1941. Apparently due to a licencing conflict preventing him from performing his most popular songs on Opry Radio, however some racist comments from Opry leaders seem to indicate there was more to the story. It ended his recording career and though he performed sporadically he lived out his life in relative poverty.
However, DeFord Bailey was not completely forgotten as he was invited back for the last show before the Opry left the Ryman Auditorium, and after that played a few times on what was called the Old Timers Shows. But his status was not reinstated. Some of his songs included a great instrumental rendition of the Country and Folk standard “John Henry“, his self penned “Pan American Blues” and “Dixie Flyer Blues“. Among his many instruments it was really his harmonica playing that set him apart. In some recompense in 2005 he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Just as an aside, after Bailey was the first person fired, he was one among several other interesting comings and goings from the Opry. In 1952, just about ten years later, the next member to be fired was Hank Williams. They had some good reasons for that as he frequently missed shows completely or turned up too drunk to sing. That same year Country music legend Kitty Wells was temporarily banned from the Opry stage for singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels“. Despite this, the song became extremely popular and would pave the way, and acceptance of women singing more liberal lyrics. The beginnings perhaps of the seemingly ongoing effort to see women treated as equals in Country music.
In 1993, sixty seven years after Bailey, Pride would be the second Black singer to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, right in the middle of a stellar career in Country Music. This man has a fascinating life story which includes playing professional Baseball and serving in the military. Born in Mississippi from a family of cotton farm Sharecroppers, he would launch his Country Music career from Montana of all places. Like DeFord Bailey he endured much just for being Black, but his positive attitude, incredible work ethic and perseverance would propel him to the top of the Genre. He was signed to RCA in 1965 sometime after his start touring live venues, where quite often, once club owners and audiences found out he was Black it made things exceedingly difficult for him. He would get a big assist from his friend Willie Nelson who planted a kiss squarely on Pride’s lips during a performance at a bar in Dallas. You might call it the kiss heard around the world of Country Music as it did a lot to help him gain acceptance. However, in much of the South he still had to use the back entrance or if there was one, the ‘coloured’ entrance to venues and most often stayed at “Blacks only” accommodations. By 1967 he was hitting the top ten with songs like “Just Between You and Me” which also got him his first Grammy nomination. He would later go on to win three as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1971 he released “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and was named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year-for two straight years. He would become the biggest selling artist with RCA since Elvis Presley. I have just a little personal anecdote related to Charlie Pride. I recently had a lovely chat about him with my neighbour, the seven time Juno Award winning Country Music Artist, Larry Mercey. Pride recorded several songs from Mercey including two written with Ed Gowens, “America the Great” (2011) and “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms Of Mine” released in 2017. The latter of the two has all the makings of a Country Classic, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Larry Mercey perform it live. Sadly, Charlie Pride would die from complications due to Covid 19 in December of 2020.
I have made several references to Rodgers, including a mini bio in my post on Country Classics. However, he deserves mention in the context of a groundbreaker. Not to be confused with Jimmie F. Rodgers who was born in Washington in 1933 and died on January 18 of 2021 at age 87, also due to Covid 19 complications. Of no known relation, he was a Pop Country star with such songs as “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine“.
Jimmie Charles Rodgers was born (September 8, 1897) in either Mississippi or Alabama but ended up based out of the New Orleans area where he started as a water boy on the rail lines where his father worked. He spent much of his early and adult life working on railroads in one capacity or another and would gain the nickname of The Singing Brakeman. Like many of that time it was a rare thing to make a living just entertaining, so music was his sideline and a secondary source of income, that is when he could find paying gigs.
After he contracted the lung disease of Tuberculosis at the age of 27, he could no longer work on the railroad. Thankfully, he turned to music full time (as one is wont to do when you can hardly breathe) until his death at age 35 on May 26, 1933, just two days after recording his last album. He had written and performed many songs leading up to his recording career that started with a couple songs in 1927. The bulk of it was only five years (May 1928 to May 1933), in that time frame he recorded just over 100 original songs that he wrote himself or co-wrote. A remarkable 96 of those have been covered by other artists. It’s little wonder why he is considered the Father of Country Music and the first inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Just a sampling of his songs tells a good part of the story behind the beginnings of Country Music.
He recorded very few songs that were not originals but he took traditional songs into the studio such as “Frankie and Johnny” and “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”, changing the words to the later. So it’s clear he was also influenced by the Oldtime and Hillbilly music of the day. While many of these tunes are listed as “Traditional”, which means we don’t really know who wrote them, they were first recorded by groups like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers (hey you can’t make that stuff up) that featured one of the finest fiddlers and vocalist of that time, Riley Puckett. You may not have heard of them but you’re familiar with the songs that they were the first to record such as “Polly Wolly Doo” (Doodle All the Day)”, “My Carolina Home” which would be transformed into “Carolina Moon” recorded by Perry Como, Dean Martin and Connie Francis, and “Pretty Little Window” later recorded by Roy Acuff and Pete Seeger and a total of 70 other versions. I particularly like Jimmie Rodgers rendition of another Riley Puckett recording of (another traditional song) “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep“, which is a lament about a man whose wife leaves him at home with the children because she is out carousing!
Rodgers, like Puckett was among the first to combine the recently introduced (by European immigrants) form of Yodelling into their songs. Rodgers would also add aspects of the Field Holler, Work Songs, and other rhythmic tones from his exposure to his Black co-workers on the railroad. He would be influenced by Minstrel shows which were still popular at that time. As a result his song writing was different from the Country progenitors such as Oldtime and Hillbilly which were the predominant styles from Nashville and The Grand Ole Opry. As I discussed in my post on Bluegrass, that genre was also on a parallel path, but those lyrics were rooted in Gospel and religious music. Rodgers story lines included more rousing images of; drinking, bar rooms, train traveling hobos and perhaps most importantly, the Delta Region. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” co-written with his sister-in-law Elsie Williams is a perfect example.
Country legend Gene Autry is best known to many as the singer (and co-writer) of “Here Comes Santa Claus” or the first to record “Frosty the Snowman”. However, he kicked off his remarkable career by covering several songs by Rodgers, most notably “Blue Yodel #4 (California Blues)”, “Blue Yodel #5” and “Blue Yodel # 8” which is better known as “Muleskinner Blues”.
Rodgers helped set the tone for how a Country and Western song would sound, and his style influenced many future Country Music greats such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Bob Wills. Perhaps not the lyrics, but certainly Rodger’s music style also impacted Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. While I have not come across anything on his shaping the music of Hank Williams, the more I listen to them both the more I hear quite a bit of Rodgers in there. Williams has stated his biggest influence was Roy Acuff (mentioned above) who was on a slightly delayed but corresponding line to Rodger’s. He would not come into prominence until five years after Rodger’s death. Acuff’s 1938 rendition of “Wabash Cannonball” reportedly sold 10 million copies making him the biggest seller in the genre at the time. Acuff would go on to form the heart of Nashville’s music publishing business with singer and songwriter Fred Rose.
I have talked in prior posts about the early influencers such as Maybelle and Sara Carter, Patsy Montana, and Kitty Wells, followed by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. However, I don’t recall mentioning Comedian Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon (Oct. 25, 1912, to March 4, 1996) who is best known for the character she created, Minnie Pearl. Pearl was from the fictional town of Grinders Switch and came to prominence in the 1940’s with her flamboyant style, a flowered hat with its $1.98 price tag still attached and her signature “Howww-DEE-eee“. While she did some recordings, primarily as a novelty song singer (with Grandpa Jones) her unique comedy act with the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw did just as much for the genre as anyone. Her museum sits next to Roy Acuff’s in Opryland. Her brave battle to overcome Breast Cancer and help raise funds created the legacy of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center and affiliated Research Institute.
Cindy Walker was one of the most prolific songwriters in music, and during her 1997 induction ceremony into the Hall of Fame, fellow writing legend Harlan Howard referred to her as “the greatest living songwriter of Country Music”. I mentioned Walker in a prior post as the author of the song “You Don’t Know Me” by Eddy Arnold (1955) and made famous by Ray Charles in 1962. You may not have heard of this writer of over 650 songs but every single songwriter, at least in Country Music knows who she is.
Willie Nelson released a tribute album just before her death in March of 2003 at age 87. The 13 tracks on the album titled You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, including the Eddy Arnold song it also contains hits originally written for Webb Pierce and Bob Wills, for whom she wrote about 50 songs. Of the many hundreds of her songs that were recorded over 60 of them have been covered, like Walker’s own version of “You Don’t Know Me” and over 240 more versions. Also, Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” that’s been recorded over 70 times.
It’s difficult if you are a songwriter to get your songs noticed and for a young woman writing Country songs, particularly in the 1940’s the odds are really stacked against you. However, the 22 year old Walker who had been writing songs for sometime took a big chance while accompanying her father on a business trip to Los Angeles when she spontaneously asked him to stop the car as they drove past Bing Crosby Enterprises. She walked in the building and with some persistence, persuaded Bing’s brother Larry to hear a song she had written specifically for Crosby. With her mother accompanying her on piano she sang “The Lone Star Trail“, Bing Crosby would have a top ten hit with the song.
Bob Wills released “Blues for Dixie” in 1947, and while I’m sensitive to concerns about references to Dixie, as a piece of art it speaks of a time and place. Asleep at the Wheel featuring Lyle Lovett did a great cover in 1993. More of her memorable songs include “Anna Marie” originally by Jim Reeves-though I’m a bit of a Hank Locklin fan so his version is my favorite. Another Reeves song was “Distant Drums” that has been covered over 50 times. She also wrote; “Sugar Moon”, “In the Misty Moonlight” and “Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me”.
This is a genre that I have given quite a lot of attention, and for good reason. There is no other genre that has had more influence than the Blues. While some musical qualities may be shared with the development of Country and Folk songs, it’s origins from Western Africa and the Caribbean to the African American slave experience makes it truly unique. The bending of notes, the nonconformist use of musical scales, traditional field songs and the lyrics expressing the hardships of daily life all contribute to setting this genre apart from all others. Add creative vocal stylings and new guitar playing methods such as Fingerstyle and Ragtime and you are hard pressed to find a more ground-breaking kind of music.
W.C. Handy is rightfully called “The Father of the Blues” as he was the first to formally write the notes on a page, paving the way for other composers and musicians with sheet music could share and learn to play with the consistency required when in the recording studio. We know in the early days of recording, Blues music got off to a bit of a slow start. I have mentioned what I believe is the first recording of a Blues song in my post on Record setting Records and Artists: R&B Charts. Written by African American Perry Bradford, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues“. From 1920 it was was made possible by another groundbreaker, Okeh Records in New York, the first label to record a Black singer. Mamie Smith was not known as a Blues singer; she was a Vaudeville performer and sang in more of the ‘show’ style. But the writer Perry Bradford persuaded Smith and the Studio to give his song a try and it was a huge hit, selling about 75,000 copies. So, in the 1920’s, now with written music, additional instrumentation, and studio engineering (that would in fact advance most genres) the Blues would begin to flourish in the American South and in many countries around the world.
To attempt any length of list of groundbreakers in this genre one runs the risk of leaving out many names. But I feel confident that I have painted a fair representation of the Blues genre and its pioneering artists in many of my past posts. There were a relatively small number of records that followed in the early twenties and by the mid twenties there were more record labels willing to record Black artists to sing in several styles, not just the Blues. In the years to follow there were several field recordings of singing on the plantations, workhouses and prisons, songs that were often generations old.
To give another example of groundbreaking in Blues music, Ethnomusicologist John Lomax would be the first to record Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1933. While there, Lomax recorded several songs. Working together they wrote a tune based on a traditional melody, “Irene (Goodnight Irene)“. There are over 200 recorded versions of this song. After his release from prison, Lomax hired him as a driver and would also become his manager for a short time. The scholarly Lomax knew nothing about the actual recording business and with the help of Tex Ritter, Lead Belly got his first contract with ARC Records. Sales of his records were slow, but he went on to have a 15 year career and is considered to be one of the key Pioneers of the Blues. For more on the Blues check out my posts on The Delta Blues.
The R&B of today is not very much like the music from the 1940’s, but it is a genre that was constantly changing right from the start. We know that Blues music began long before it was actually recorded, and Rhythm and Blues evolved from these traditional sounds. For a bit more of background on R&B you can check out this post: Classic R&B songs. Like the Blues genre I’ve talked about many singer songwriters, but I will give a bit of an overview and drop a few names in as well. To put it simply R&B can be described as having a more upbeat tempo and a bit more rhythm than your average traditional Blues song. The genesis can be attributed in large part to urbanization.
By the 1940’s many more styles were starting to come into prominence such as Jump Blues, Swing, Be-Bop and Boogie Woogie. Gospel recordings also became more popular and a pioneer I’ve mentioned several times, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, would be the bridge between Gospel and R&B and indeed Rock & Roll with her blazing electric guitar. There were so many great artists and influences, not to mention the differences between what was happening in LA versus Chicago versus New York.
Apart from the geography and as mentioned urbanization, there was also more than one faction if you will. The clubs at this time where many Blacks played were still very much segregated in the US, so there were elements to R&B that were not heard in so called ‘mainstream’ music venues. However, there were many clubs that booked Black artists, yet still frequented by a 100% White audience.
What R&B pioneer Wynonie Harris sang in a Harlem Club with an 85 to 100% Black audience was not the same as what he would play in a Manhattan Club. While his ribald humour and risque lyrics sold him records and got plenty of spins on JukeBoxes he never would have played “Keep on Churnin'” or “Lollipop Mama” to a largely White audience. He could get away with the hit song he sang while with Lucky Millinder’s band, as “Who Threw Whiskey in the Well” resonated with more ‘conservative’ White listeners. The song had charted #1 in 1945 on Black Music charts such as Harlem Hit Parade, a precursor to the first R&B charts that started in 1949.
Roy Brown was a contemporary of Harris and a talented one at that, but his music was much more mainstream. He wrote the great song “Good Rockin Tonight” in 1947 and offered it to Harris, but before Harris could decide if he wanted it, that same night Cecil Gant got Brown to sign with DeLuxe Records and he recorded it himself. In 1947 it peaked at #13 on the same charts as referenced above. Harris decided to cover it and his 1948 version hit #1. Harris would make the song more lively and give it an improvisational feel. A quote from The Paul McCartney Project calls it “more energetic…featuring Black Gospel style hand clapping”. Harris’s version is often cited as one of the important precursors of Rock & Roll. Elvis Presley would record and release the song (just his second single) in 1954. Though Elvis was influenced by the Harris version of the song, Sam Phillips would opt for copying the more conservative original arrangement by Brown.
Hailed by many as a pioneer of R&B he was called “The King of the JukeBox”. At heart he was a Saxophonist and a great vocalist but also played a mean clarinet and piano. He was one of the most prominent Band Leaders in the 1940’s. Jordan, similarly to Roy Brown was more mainstream but his music evolved from the late 1930’s into the 50’s. So did his popularity, and the hit’s did not stop coming, in ten years (between 1942 and 1951) he had 18 #1 songs, and over two dozen top 10’s. With his 1943 song “Ration Blues” (co-written with Antonio Cosey, and Collenane Clark) he was the first artist to have a “crossover” hit that migrated from #1 on the Black music charts to #11 on Billboard’s mainstream chart and #1 on the Country chart. The song resonated with many as it talked about the recently introduced rationing of sugar (among other commodities) during the Second World War.
Milt Gabler, who is credited with producing “Rock Around the Clock” for Bill Haley and the Comets employed many of the techniques he learned while working with Jordan. His approach helped turn it into the most successful early R&R record. One could not help but mention Jordans name when writing about the groundbreaking developments of popular music.
Of some historical significance, but not really due to Jordan directly was the intro to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode“. It was taken from guitarist Carl Hogan’s opening riff in the 1946 song by Jordan “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman“.
For more on him in my posts you can search my blog for “Jordan” and come up with many more references.
That is a great segue into a Part 2 where I can explore some names in Rock & Roll, Folk, and more.
Trivia on the song “You Ain’t Talking to Me”
While researching this topic I ran across this song written by African Canadian/American Composer Shelton Brooks, who along with his White counterpart Matt Marshall had a hit titled “You Ain’t Talking to Me” recorded by Vaudevillian star Eddie Morton in 1909 on Columbia Records. I talked about Brooks in a prior post as he also wrote the lyrics and composed the music for the million selling hit by Sophie Tucker, “Some of These Days“, first recorded in 1911 on a cylinder, but it was the rerecording in 1927 on a 78 rpm record that generated the sales.
What cropped up in my reading was a reference to another song titled “You Ain’t Talking to Me” which was released in 1927 and is presented as an original song. I’m thinking it’s not unusual at all for songs to have the same title. This one was recorded by a Carolinian singer named Charlie Poole who was active primarily from 1925 to the beginning of the first Great Depression in 1930. He had several hit songs with his group The Carolina Ramblers.
Anyway, in 1930 poor Charlie apparently began drinking heavily. He and many other musicians and entertainers (among others) were live witnesses to the demise of their otherwise bright financial futures. Paying gigs were drying up just as the Dust Bowl was destroying farming in both the US and Canadian West. There was little money to go around, and most people stopped buying records. Not unusual for many of that time, Charlie, thanks in part to Prohibition (1920-1933) would die from bootleg alcohol poisoning in 1931. Not to be forgotten however, Poole and the Ramblers songs gained a resurgence during the 1960’s Folk Revival and came to the attention of one Bob Dylan. This is where the some of my ‘familiar’ enters the picture, I had read that Dylan intended to quote from a Charlie Poole song in his Nobel Prize speech in 2017. However, deliberately, or not, he missed the mark as he quoted the updated lyrics from a version written by Jim Krause.
Now to get to the point, the song Dylan mis-quoted (intentionally or otherwise) was the above-mentioned 1927 version of “You Ain’t Talking to Me”, recorded by Charlie Poole and The Carolina Ramblers. The song writing credits name both Charlie Poole, and his bandmate Norman Woodlief. Now here is the kicker, the words and music are from the 1909 Brooks and Marshall song! I figure if you’re going to steal a song at least maybe change the title! The chorus and melody are identical, and the lyrics (only slightly changed) were taken from the last two stanzas of the 1909 original. Yet literally every source I’ve seen only credits Poole and Woodlief, even my beloved Secondhandsongs.com seems to have missed this as Poole and Woodlief are the only ones mentioned as writers. Now copyright issues are long since dead and gone for this song, however, there is a long standing rule that the original song writers must always be credited. Even though it took over two years for my last submission to be added to the database, I may brave an attempt to correct this oversight. Just to set the ‘record’ straight (pun intended).
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