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“Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Wynonie Harris | Echoes

by John Wenz

There's a lot of debate as to the "first" in music. A line in the muddy sand is drawn with opinions over who had the first rap song or punk album or incorporation of the banjolele into Eurasian grindcore. 

But one of the more contentious is the first rock song. Some want to go with Chuck Berry and "Maybelline." Some cultural appropriators hold out for Elvis and "That's Alright, Mama." The former was 1955, the latter 1954. 

But these choices ignore two early claimants. After all, rock was adapted largely from R&B of the '40s and '50s. Some lay claim to the mind bogglingly awesome "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston, one of the earliest uses of guitar distortion as a driving focus for a song.

The other is Wynonie Harris' version of "Good Rocking Tonight," a number with enormous influence on the early R&B scene, later covered by Presley during his Sun sessions. 

Harris, a North Omaha native, had played locally since the early '30s, when he was in his late teens. After a stint with Lucky Millender, he struck out on his own solo in 1945, gaining popularity for his song "Around the Clock."

In 1948, Roy Brown wrote the song "Good Rocking Tonight" with Harris in mind. At first, Harris was blaise on the idea, never committing to the song until it became a hit in New Orleans clubs. Finally seeiing the light, he recorded the song in 1948, where it became a No. 1 R&B hit, and caused a resurgence in Brown's own career. 

It's not hard to hear early rock shining through — lyrics just slightly on this side of dirty. Guitars to match this ribaldery. Harris' interpretation became a gold standard — and its enduring popularity has led to covers by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone and Montrose … or, in other words, really, really white performers. 

But hey, where would rock be without diluted, sanitized covers of the underground made whiter? That was most early rock 'n' roll! 

But of all the versions out there, even Elvis', Harris' version stands strongest, and shows through some of the vibrant musical lessons North Omaha had to offer.

No big deal — it just created rock 'n' roll.

John Wenz is the Echoes columnist for Hear Nebraska. He will soon be writing this column from Pennsylvania. He can be reached at johnwenz@hearnebraska.org.