Remembering the Atchison Man Who Helped Invent Rock & Roll
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where and when Rock & Roll began. But the small Kansas town of Atchison can boast that one of its own residents played a part in its creation. As part of KPR's occasional series on Kansas history, Commentator Bobbi Athon tells us about a music prodigy who helped lay the foundation for what we know today as rock and roll.
Guest Commentator Bobbie Athon is a lifelong Kansan and the communications director for the Kansas Historical Society. Her essays about important Kansans are part of an occasional history series on Kansas Public Radio.
Fun Factoid: Songwriting credits for "Shake, Rattle and Roll" usually list Charles F. Calhoun, which was Jesse Stone's songwriting name. Learn more by visiting the Kansas Historical Society online at KSHS.org. Or visit the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. It's awesome!
(Broadcast version was reformatted to fit your radio and slightly edited for time.)
Jesse Albert Stone is among the many musicians who helped to shape rock and roll.
While this Kansan’s name may not be well known, his songs like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Money Honey,” led some to call him the architect of rock and roll.
Stone was born in Atchison in 1901 to a family of musicians. His grandparents came to Kansas as Exodusters from the South. His uncle played trombone, his father drums. He joined his uncle’s show, Brown’s Tennessee Minstrels, at the age of four, where he watched talented musicians perform night after night. Inspired by their musical
skills, he decided to learn piano, receiving accolades for his ability to play accompaniment. Stone taught himself theory and harmony; while in high school, he organized a small dance band with other teenaged performers.
“Four of us young musicians joined together to play engagements around Atchison, Kansas,” Stone said. “Coleman Hawkins... actually started with me... I met Coleman through my violin player. He thought it was not a good idea to try to play dance music with a cello... so he got a saxophone... Yeah, he could play it.”
Stone formed the Blues Serenaders around 1926. The group practiced in a pool hall while he prepared them for tour. Stone enjoyed the chance to mentor his players. “If a guy just had the inclination to play, I was willing to coach, teach and develop him.”
Starving and struggling to survive on meager wages, the band accepted a job on a radio show in St. Joseph, Missouri. This new broadcast medium made them famous throughout the region. The Serenaders began a circuit of one-night stops through Kansas — in Atchison, Emporia, Vermillion, Wetmore, and beyond, where they
tested Stone’s compositions with audiences.
“We could do at least 10 or 12 weeks of shows without doing the same thing over,” Stone said. “I would sit down and play and sing, but I would do a lot of Cab Calloway-style jumping and dancing. (I did the splits.) We had the strongest band out in the West.” (Their success drew challenges from other bands. Benny Moten’s orchestra was strong competition at a full house event in Kansas City, but the Serenaders were the victors. While at a St. Louis label, they recorded four tunes, including “Boot to Boot,” a complicated blues song Stone wrote featuring the band’s skilled brass section. The
Serenaders’ streak eventually ended when they were overcome by the Kansas City Blue Devils in a battle of the bands in Sioux City, Iowa.)
Then Stone turned toward composing and arranging. His music took him to Chicago and New York, working with Earl Hines and Cab Calloway. When he formed another band, Duke Ellington helped book him at the Cotton Club.
Atlantic Records hired Stone in the mid-1940s to incorporate the sound of Southern music for the label’s rhythm and blues audience. As arranger and songwriter, he searched for a sound that would sell.
“I designed a bass pattern, and it sort of became identified with rock and roll,” Stone said. (“I didn’t like it until I started to learn that the rhythm content was the important thing.”)
Stone emphasized the beat and simplified the instrumentals when he wrote “Money Honey” in 1953 and the Drifters’ song was an immediate hit on the rhythm and blues chart.
Following a 12-bar blues form, Stone wrote “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” for Big Joe Turner.
A blues artist from Kansas City, Missouri, Turner became a teen idol with his original recording of the song. Bill Haley and the Comets were country music artists before their version of the song hit the pop charts. Elvis Presley’s debut album included a cover of “Money Honey.”
Stone’s rhythmic songs became part of the new sound that appealed to a diverse audience of teenagers. Stone’s songs were eventually recorded by artists like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Joe Williams, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and... the Beatles.