In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. William Ellis of Saint Michael’s College reveals the connection between American rock and roll pioneer Sam Phillips and the roots of reggae.
William Ellis is an assistant professor of fine arts at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where he specializes in traditional and popular music of the American South including blues, gospel, soul, and early rock & roll. He plays guitar professionally and is also preparing his dissertation on Reverend Gary Davis for publication.He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Memphis.
Dr. William Ellis – Sam Phillips and Early Reggae
The next time you hear Bob Marley, take time to think of the man who discovered Elvis and a bluesman who toured with a trained chicken. When discussing the roots of reggae, a rarely mentioned source is Memphis, Tennessee, where Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips helped spark the birth of rock and roll through his recordings of a young Elvis Presley.
Only a few years prior, Phillips had documented the blues talent of the region, from Howlin’ Wolf to BB King. One such artist was Rosco Gordon, a self-taught pianist who had toured with a tip-collecting white bantam rooster named Butch, and whose shuffle-like take on boogie woogie placed a pronounced accent on the clipped upbeat. Phillips dubbed it “Rosco’s rhythm,” and the style sent Gordon’s 1952 record “Booted” to the top of the rhythm and blues charts. A second hit cut in the same mold, “No More Doggin” proved just as popular.
Sound system deejays in Jamaica, who spun America R&B records at dances, were fans as well.So when the rock steady/reggae precursor of ska emerged, the rhythms of Jamaican mento music found compatibility with, among other things, Rosco’s rhythm.
As a result, his imprint can be felt on a number of early ska recordings including two 1959 hits that essentially ushered in the genre: “Easy Snappin’,” by fellow self-taught pianist, Theophilus Beckford, in a debut production by the Sam Phillips of Jamaican music, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd; and also “Boogie in My Bones,” an 11-week No. 1 by Cuban born Jamaican singer Laurel Aitken, who gave a young Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame his first hit. Fittingly, one of the last albums Gordon made before his death in 2002 was “Let’s Get It On,” produced by none other than Coxsone Dodd.