The music genre that becamhttp://www.rockhall.com/e “Rock & Roll” is based around a new musical instrument that was invented in the late 1920’s. The instrument was destined to become the most powerful musical device in the world. The new invention was actually a variation of a stringed instrument that had been around for hundreds of years known as the guitar. The new guitar had a simple attachment added to it, an electronic pick up or microphone, that brought it into the age of electricity which had been ushered in by Thomas Edison. The new guitar, with little fanfare, was designated simply as an “Electric” Guitar. By 1932, Gibson Guitars, Kay, and Rickenbacker Guitar manufacturers had added the new instrument to their line up.
We already know that “Rock & Roll” exploded onto the scene in the early 1950’s and the world has never been the same. Pioneers like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and hundreds of others embraced the new sound with a style of performance that created the soundtrack for future generations. It also put to rest the music of their parents generation. Big Bands and the age of the “crooners” were soon out of work as a 3 piece band featuring an electric guitar could raise the roof and blow Count Basie and a 32 piece ensemble right off of the stage (i.e. see Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc.). The electric guitar based music quickly became the sound track for the modern age.
However, it took more than just an electric guitar to make history. An electric guitar without amplification is simply a guitar. Today, Fender amplifiers, Marshall, Vox, Mesa Boogie, and other earth quaking guitar amplifiers are well know for their role in Rock & Roll history. Every great guitarist associates his sound with a particular amplifier. However, it might surprise you to learn that the amplifier that started the rock & roll explosion was not a Fender or a Marshall. It was a car. It was a Ford. That’s right, it was a 1936 Ford automobile (amplifier?) that single hand-idly started the rumblings of what was to grow into Rock & Roll.
In 1938, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson passed away, actually probably poisoned, after becoming known as perhaps the best and most exciting acoustic Blues performer in the Memphis-Mississippi-Arkansas region. Johnson, purportedly, had sold his soul to the Devil at the “Crossroads” to become the greatest guitarists of all time.
But it wasn’t Johnson who would change history. It was an ensemble of fellow musicians led by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin Wolf who were often seen traveling and performing with Johnson who would make a new discovery that would change music forever.
Around 1939, Wolf and Sonny Boy, were performing on street corners in small towns and at fish frys, Juke joints, and cotton plantations throughout the Delta area. Getting a crowd to gather around and being heard above street and crowd noise was always a problem. In addition, they needed a gimmick. Something that would set them apart from other performers seeking the same audience.
They found it. They amplified their performance. Electric guitar and harmonica played through a microphone. What made it so powerful? Not only were they the first, what they were doing was impossible. Not only were there few amplifiers around, most areas, even towns, did not have electricity available. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Arkansas would launch the Arkansas Rural Electrification Program designed to get power out to the rural areas. Mississippi was later than that.
So how did the first Electric guitar band get their start. Wolf and Sonny Boy discovered that they could patch or wire their microphone and guitar into the car radio of their 1936 Ford. They created a battery powered portable PA system based around the tube radio built into the car.
Within a year, Sonny Boy Williamson became the first black artist featured on a white radio station. He became a star in the region performing at noontime each day on the KFFA “King Biscuit” radio program, influencing and inspiring thousands of young blacks to follow in his footsteps. His sponsor, King Biscuit Flour, put Sonny Boy’s image on their corn meal sack making him a local celebrity.
In 1948, Sonny Boy joined Howlin Wolf in West Memphis, Arkansas, at KWEM Radio Station, which was broadcasting to the greater Memphis area. In West Memphis, Wolf had assembled a powerful band playing a new kind of blues, based around two electric guitars. At KWEM, Sonny Boy discovered B.B. King and a young Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash would be inspired by listening to their performances over the air. In fact, Presley and Cash would soon be broadcasting on KWEM and where they would be discovered by Sam Phillips at SUN Records in Memphis. Not surprising since Phillips had already discovered and recorded hit records on Howlin Wolf after hearing him perform his new electric music on KWEM.
Suddenly, Rock & Roll had been born. In Howlin Wolf, Sam Phillips announced that he had recorded, “the Soul of Man”. But what he had recorded was the first Rock & Roll band. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Had it not been for Howlin Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson and their 1936 Ford tube guitar amplifier we might still be listening to Perry Como.