The Appalachian Roots of Rock and Roll
Rock and roll has always been a primal, unschooled, uncouth musical form. Its iconic imagery – Elvis in his two-tone jacket and baggy trousers, pivoting his hips, a guitar whipping around his waist; Jerry Lee, mop of hair flopping in time as he pummels a piano in a demonic frenzy – communicates, almost more than the sounds of that earlier era, which may now sound tame to our ears, the wildness at its core. This wildness is often attributed to the influence deep southern blues on the white rock and roll singers mentioned above, but two characters whose creations helped define the wild identity of rock and roll at its inception have Southern Appalachian roots. Born (probably) a year apart and growing up only 40 miles from one another, Roy Hall and Stick McGhee were responsible for two seminal moments in the development of rock and roll music: arguably the first “rock and roll” recording — McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” — and Hall’s co-writing of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Details of the early life of Granville “Stick” (or “Sticks” as he was credited on many recordings) are sketchy, but according to bios of his more famous older brother, bluesman Walter “Brownie” McGhee, McGhee was born in Knoxville in 1917 or 1918, or in Kingsport in 1923. Most sources agree that Stick grew up on a small, family farm near Kingsport, and it was there that he earned his horrifically literal nickname by pushing his then polio-stricken older brother around town in a cart with a stick. His father, George Duffield “Duff” McGhee was a farmer who played guitar and sang, and his sons often went along with him when he performed at churches, barns, and bars. Guitarist Brownie left home in the early 1930’s to pursue the life of an itinerant musician, hooking up most famously with harmonica player Sonny Terry, becoming a famous blues duo, performing and recording regularly up into the early 1980’s.
After a stint in the army during World War II, Stick joined his brother in New York City in the mid-1940’s, performing in various Harlem nightclubs. “Drinkin’ Wine” was first recorded on the independent Harlem Records label in 1947. That first, pre-rock and roll version features Stick on guitar and vocal and Brownie on guitar and helping out vocally on the chorus. The recording was not a hit, but the tune caught the ears of Ahmet Ertegun, whose struggling new jazz and blues label, Atlantic, was looking for a song that could be a popular hit. The story goes that he solicited the already successful Brownie to do a cover version of the record, which put him in touch with the song’s original writer and vocalist, brother Stick.
On the 1947 version, the instruments are two acoustic guitars, the vocal delivery straightforward; the overall feel is upbeat, almost rushed. The1949 re-recording for Atlantic again features Stick on vocals and Brownie on guitar, but from the starting notes this is clearly a whole new thing. Maybe it’s the sounds of the city they’ve begun got call home, or the influence of playing louder in the rough and ready nightclubs of Harlem, but this time the song distinctly rocks – the piano pumps, the drums drive, the guitar is gritty and higher in the mix. The tempo is slower this time, but stronger: this is not just a record to drink and dance to, but one that contains that essential element that separates rock and roll from jump blues and its other predecessors — a rhythm that more obviously parallels the movements of sex. Stick’s vocal delivery is similar to that of contemporary blues shouter Wynonie Harris (whose 1948 recording of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is another contender for “first rock and roll record”), especially in the choruses. The lyrics are slightly different — New Orleans is now the scene of the tune’s debauchery, which only serves to emphasize hedonism that’s the song’s central message:
Drinking that mess, their delight
When they gets drunk, start fighting all night
Knocking down windows and tearin’ out doors
Drinkin’ half a gallon and callin’ for more
Drinkin’ wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin’ wine (bop baa)
Pass that bottle to me
Drink that slop!
That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Ah, drink it! Sneaky Pete!
Now down on Rampart street at Willy’s Den
He wasn’t selling but a little gin
One cat wanted a bottle of wine
He hit that cat for a dollar and a dime
Stick McGhee continued to record for Atlantic through the early 1950’s, and also cut sides for Cincinnati’s King and Essex labels in the last part of the decade. Either because of the success of “Drinkin’ Wine” or due to his natural proclivities, most of his best work has drinking as its central theme, with titles like “Jungle Juice” and “Whiskey, Women and Loaded Dice.” His career was cut short by lung cancer in 1961; he died and was buried in the Bronx. The success of “Drinkin’ Wine” and its influence cannot be overestimated. It provided the fledgling Atlantic Records with its first big hit, and artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin could very well have been ignored entirely without the success of “Drinkin’ Wine” placing Ertegun in a position to keep taking chances on great music that often defied boundaries and created new genres. The tune itself became a standard of the early rock and roll repertoire, recorded by all of McGhee’s major contemporaries: Lionel Hampton, Wynonie Harris, the Johnny Burnette Trio It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Electric Flag, Jerry Lee Lewis and Kid Rock — the reigning “wild man” of rock (and rap).
While most of the details of Stick McGhee’s life have been lost to history, the life story of another rock and roll pioneer with regional roots is so chock-full of details that it is difficult to separate the truth from the (often self-created) legend. James Faye “Roy” Hall was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia in 1922, just 40 miles north of the McGhee family farm in Kingsport, TN. He took the name Roy Hall in the mid-1940’s when he joined the Hall Brothers, an unrelated touring outfit who’d lost a brother named Roy prior to James Faye joining the group, and kept the name as his professional moniker for most of his career. Hall was an experienced pianist, and an alcoholic, by his late teens. Some sources claim that Roy was tutored in his piano and drinking skills by a black itinerant pianist, and Hall himself cited albino boogie-woogie pianist Piano Red (aka Willie Perryman, aka Doctor Feelgood) as a major influence. But in some of Roy’s later interviews he revealed that his first piano lessons were given him by his mother, who played piano at home and in church, and expected young James Faye to do the same.
Roy lead a Hank Williams-style country group, the Cohutta Mountain Boys, who recorded a few sides for the Detroit-based Fortune label, including the Hall-penned “Dirty Boogie” in 1949. After experiencing some jukebox and live success in the Midwest, and connecting with country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford for a short while, serving as his backing band, Roy and the band relocated to Nashville. From 1952-54, Hall scraped by playing backing gigs and working as a booking agent (in this capacity he supposedly booked both Elvis Presley, who he described as “no damn good,” and Jerry Lee Lewis at a juke joint called The Musician’s Hideaway), before hooking up with country singer Webb Pierce, serving as his pianist and road manager off and on into the 1970s. Pierce was also able to procure several solo deals for Hall, including a deal with Decca in 1955, where he recorded the first version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
The single was not a hit, and neither were subsequent versions by Big Maybelle or The Commodores (the 1950s version — not Lionel Ritchie’s band). It was only after Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records producer Jack Clement radically rearranged the song in 1957 that it became the hit, and Lewis signature song, that we all identify it as today. Jerry Lee’s propulsive piano gave the song a furious boogie-woogie beat, and his salacious delivery of the streamlined lyrics left no one doubting exactly what kind of shaking was going on.
Well I said come over baby
we got chicken in the barn
Come over baby well, we got the bull by the horns
We ain’t fakin’
Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on
Hall initially claimed sole writing credit for “Whole Lotta Shakin'” saying later that he’d written the tune while on vacation (in Europe, no less) under the pseudonym “Sunny David.” Songwriter Dave Williams (a Kentuckian with Native American and African-American roots) also claimed credit for the tune, and another source states that Williams and Hall wrote the tune together, on a hunting trip to the Everglades. Legally, Williams eventually established sole writing credit, but the song is often still attributed to “Dave Williams and Sunny David” and Hall’s story (or stories) are given substantial authority by many music historians, especially based on the fact that Lewis’s performances of the song, and relationship with Hall, pre-dated the Decca sessions, and he credited it to Hall. Either way, Hall never earned much from Jerry Lee Lewis’s smash hit 1957 version, or any of the song’s numerous cover versions: his ex-wife was awarded all of his royalties from “Whole Lotta Shakin'” by court order in 1958.
Roy Hall continued to write and record on his own, and with Pierce, through the end of the 1960s. In the late 1970s he was rediscovered by a new generation of rock and roll and rockabilly fans, and after almost a decade of retirement found himself on stage and recording once again, before passing away in 1983.
Stick McGhee and Roy Hall found their small shares of success, and their places in rock and roll history, far away from their southern Appalachian homes. One the son of an guitar-toting African-American farmer, the other a middle-class white boy from coal-mining country, tutored at the piano bench by his pious mother, both unsuspecting architects of the wildest form of twentieth-century music.