Of the numerous various-artist compilation CDs that have attempted to anthologize the recordings of the late '40s and early '50s most crucial to planting the seeds for rock & roll, this three-CD, 60-song set is probably the most definitive. Most prior collections along these lines have failed to present a truly comprehensive picture of rock & roll's roots, whether due to both licensing restrictions and/or track selection that fails to recognize the entirety of the wide spectrum of rock & roll's roots. While you'd need at least a ten-CD box set to approach inarguable definitiveness, The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll: 1946-1954 hits about as many of the key bases as possible within three CDs, including pivotal songs by Lionel Hampton, the Delmore Brothers, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Lloyd Price, Howlin' Wolf, the Drifters, Bill Haley, Big Joe Turner, Hank Ballard, and Muddy Waters, to start with just the most well-known artists included here. There are also famous songs by somewhat lesser-known artists that have been cited as proto-rock & roll, like Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight," Jimmy Preston & His Prestonians' "Rock the Joint," Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," Big Mama Thornton's original version of "Hound Dog," Junior Parker's "Mystery Train," Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie," Wild Bill Moore's "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll," Arthur Crudup's original version of "That's All Right," and the Chords' "Sh-Boom."
Also, to its credit, while this compilation is R&B-heavy, it doesn't ignore the major contributions of key white performers like Bill Haley (represented by his first major hit, "Crazy Man Crazy"), Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Hank Snow. Too, its focus goes beyond the standard R&B and electric blues -- cited by many historians as rock & roll's primary fountain of inspiration -- to include proto-doo wop vocal groups like the Ravens and the Clovers; pop (Johnnie Ray's huge hit "Cry"); R&B-influenced '40s jazz (Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan); and even gospel-R&B (Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air"). There's also a smattering of tracks that might be unfamiliar even to rock experts, like Little Richard's pre-"Tutti Frutti" 1953 recording "Little Richard's Boogie"; Pee Wee Crayton's "Texas Hop"; the Larks' R&B hit version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight to the Blind," the same song the Who adapted on Tommy; and Little Willie Littlefield's "K.C. Loving" (the basis for Wilbert Harrison's 1959 chart-topper "Kansas City"). Certainly scholars might have some very minor quibbles with the songs picked to represent a few giants; Fats Domino's seminal "The Fat Man" is passed over in favor of his lesser-known "Please Don't Leave Me," for instance, and Tiny Bradshaw's cut is "I'm Going to Have Myself a Ball" rather than his far more celebrated original version of "The Train Kept a-Rollin'." Too, a few of the most famous pre-1955 rock & roll-type songs are absent, like Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" and John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." It's also true that the liner notes could have been more detailed and offered background on the specific tracks and performers (although original release date, label, and chart info is here). That's all small potatoes compared to the riches supplied by this well-chosen overview. It's essential musical history and, at least as importantly, a roaring good listen. ~ Richie Unterberger