“Shake, Rattle and Roll” is a twelve bar blues-form song, written in 1954 by Jesse Stone under his assumed songwriting name, Charles E. Calhoun. It was originally recorded by Big Joe Turner.
It was most successfully released by Bill Haley & His Comets. The song as sung by Big Joe Turner is ranked #127 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Stone played around with various phrases before coming up with “shake, rattle and roll”. However, the phrase had been used in earlier songs. In 1919, Al Bernard recorded a song about gambling with dice with the same title, clearly evoking the action of shooting dice from a cup. The phrase is also heard in “Roll The Bones” by the Excelsior Quartette in 1922.
The song, in its original incarnation, is highly sexual. Haley reworked the most overtly sexual lyrics in the song for the sake of airplay, replacing “You wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through. I can’t believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you” with “You wearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so nice. You look so warm but your heart is as cold as ice.”
Perhaps its most salacious lyric, which was absent from the later Bill Haley rendition, is “I’ve been holdin’ it in, way down underneath / You make me roll my eyes, baby, make me grit my teeth”. [It may actually be “Over the hill, way down underneath.] On the recording, Turner slurred the lyric “holdin’ it in”, since this line may have been considered too risqué for publication.
The chorus used “shake, rattle and roll” to refer to boisterous intercourse, in the same way that the words “rock and roll” were first used by numerous rhythm and blues singers, starting with Trixie Smith’s “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) in 1922, and continuing on prominently through the 1940s and 1950s.
Stone stated that the line about “a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store” was suggested to him by Atlantic session drummer Sam “Baby” Lovett, which is also a sly sexual reference, the “one-eyed cat” being the male organ and the more traditional “seafood” reference being the female organ. Haley’s producer, Milt Gabler, has explained that he would “clean up” lyrics because, “I didn’t want any censor with the radio station to bar the record from being played on the air. With NBC a lot of race records wouldn’t get played because of the lyrics. So I had to watch that closely”.
Comparing the two versions illustrates the differences between blues and rock ‘n’ roll. A simple, stark instrumental backing is heard on the Turner version. Where Turner’s version uses a walking bass line, the Comets version features an energetic slap bass. A subdued horn arrangement in the Turner recording can be contrasted with a honking sax riff that answers each line of verse in Haley’s version, and the entire band shouts “Go!” as part of the vocal backing.
Although musical revisionists and American media tried to paint Turner as a victim of the music industry due to Haley’s covering of the song, in fact Haley’s success helped Turner immensely although Turner was a well-established performer long before “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. Listeners who heard Haley’s version sought out Turner’s. The two men became close friends, and performed on tour together in Australia in 1957. In 1966, at a time when Turner’s career was at a low ebb, Haley arranged for his Comets to back the elder musician for a series of recordings in Mexico, although apparently Haley and Turner did not record a duet version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll”.