4 Musicians Who Rocked Before Elvis

2 minute read

For many, rock ‘n’ roll was born in the 1950s, when musical trailblazers including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley took the world by storm with their groundbreaking fusion of blues, country, and big band music.

But though white musicians such as Presley, Haley, and Buddy Holly tend to receive the lion’s share of the credit for making rock music mainstream, the art form traces its most significant roots to African American musicians.

Long before rock ‘n’ roll even had a name, African American artists in all genres – from gospel to swing – were pioneering their own rebellious sonic techniques. Here are four musicians who were bad before “Johnny B. Goode,” and reigned long before “The King.”

Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae Thornton earned the nickname “Big Mama” for her impressive stature and booming, boisterous voice. Despite having no formal training, she began her musical career in the late 1940s – quickly establishing herself as a powerful singer and, later, a skilled harmonica player.

Thornton scored a number one single on the R&B charts with the song, “Hound Dog,” which, three years later, became an even bigger hit for Elvis Presley.

Known for performing in men’s work shirts and slacks while incorporating then-raunchy lyrics into her songs, Thornton laid the groundwork for future rock stars to explore gender identity and sexuality through their art.

Louis Jordan

Called “The King of the Jukebox,” Louis Jordan was a charismatic swing bandleader who enjoyed sustained popularity throughout the 1940s.

Jordan helped popularize jump blues (an upbeat mix of blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie), one of the most influential genres in the creation of rock ‘n’ roll. His band also incorporated electric guitars long before they became the norm, and his lyrics were often suggestive and laden with double entendres.

One of Jordan’s most famous songs, “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” is arguably among the earliest examples of rock ‘n’ roll, employing a distorted, electric guitar and making copious use of the word “rockin’.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe started her musical career at an early age, touring with her mother in an evangelical singing troupe. By the end of the 1930s, she was one of America’s first commercially successful gospel artists.

In 1944, Tharpe recorded a version of the African American spiritual, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” with blues pianist Sammy Price. Although this deviation into a more secular, rollicking sound was met with heavy criticism from her most religious fans, her powerful voice and lively electric guitar playing captivated mainstream audiences – and set the stage for the duck walks of Chuck Berry and gyrations of Elvis years later.

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup

Though his own recordings never catapulted him to superstardom, Arthur Crudup’s legacy has lived on through the numerous cover versions of his songs by some of the biggest names in rock music.

A blues vocalist with a simple, rhythmic twanging guitar style, Crudup found moderate success in the ‘40s and ‘50s, while undertaking various agricultural jobs necessary to supplement his income (allegedly due to unfair royalty splits).

His most famous song, “That’s All Right” has been covered by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin, among others. But the most iconic version of the song was recorded by Elvis Presley, who once said, “If I had any ambition, it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup.”