Originally posted spring 2007.
Hello and welcome to my newest installment of trying to prove I have better taste in music than you do. I’ve already done the Sixties and the Seventies, but instead of taking the next logical step and doing the Eighties, I’ve doubled back and am presenting the Fifties.
Not, I need to make clear, a comprehensive overview of the music of the Fifties. There’s no Miles Davis Quintet, John Cage, or Doris Day here. I’m concentrating on rock & roll, partly because that’s what I know best and partly because it makes for a tighter, more cohesive list. And I’m not Counting Down, either: this is a playlist, in rough chronological order (organized by year, but within each year going for the most logical flow I can, which may not be very logical to anyone but me). I’ve also futher limited the list to songs, which means singing, or at least a vocal line. So no Speedy West, Duane Eddy or Link Wray either. And I’m only counting American music; which you might think would only be natural, but you’d be surprised how many rabid Cliff Richards fans are still out there.
Finally, what I call rock & roll is not necessarily what everyone calls rock & roll. But relax; sit back and enjoy the ride. I know what I’m doing.
Percy Mayfield “Please Send Me Someone To Love”
You couldn’t say this is the first time a pop song conflated personal and romantic pain with the pain of racial intolerance; its forebears include not only Billie Holiday’s magnificent tone poem “Strange Fruit” and Andy Razaf’s gently melancholic standard “(Why Must I Be So) Black And Blue,” but cabaret goddess Florence Mills’ 1925 signature song “I’m A Little Blackbird (Looking For A Bluebird)” and even vaudville star Bert Williams’ Eeyoresque “Nobody” from the turn of the century. But there’s a new dignity here, a tempered passion that is as different in kind from Billie’s raw emotion as from Bert’s shuffling resignation. In another decade, we’d learn to call it soul, and Sam Cooke would deliver full-grown what is here only a planted seed. But the passion and the glory of music like “A Change Is Gonna Come” would be imposible, even unthinkable, without this first step.
Tiny Bradshaw “Well Oh Well”
They say this was one of the first times that the R&B charts started to be thrown off by a huge influx of white listeners, who dug the hell out of the song. It’s a regular old jump blues, maybe swinging a little harder than average, but where Bradshaw, who had been a local bandleader on the dance circuit for two decades before this, really delivers is on the vocals. He’s not crooning or scatting or moaning or yodeling: he’s rock & roll growling and roaring, using the untrained urgency of electric blues to deliver a full-throttle, hard-ass stomper. You’re still supposed to dance to it, sure, but just try to jitterbug. Uh-uh. You’ll be shakin’ it, even if you don’t mean to. Which is what rock & roll is all about: what the black guys are doing gets under the white guys’ skin, and suddenly the white guys can’t get enough of it either. By the end of the decade, Billboard, flummoxed, removed the R&B chart because too many white artists were showing up on it.
Hank Williams “Hey Good Lookin’”
Hank Williams resides at the heart of American music the way only three or four other people ever have; its streams flow through him into every possible crevice and subgenre. (Plus, we like our heroes young and dead; it makes it easier to idolize them.) This song, a jaunty honky-tonk number without any of the latent pathos in “Honky Tonkin’” or overt pathos in “Lost Highway,” still resounds with the fragility of earthly love. Partly because he’d be dead in the backseat of his Cadillac a year later, but part of it is in the wounded croon of his voice, as it stretches out the end of each line into a ghostly moan, and part of it is in the burred smear of the steel guitar, and part of it is in the apparent good-time frivolity of the lyrics. My mom used to sing it when I was a kid, which is usually the gold standard for puerility — but it’s the verse she didn’t sing, the unexpected declaration of fidelity in “I’m writin’ your name down on every page,” that hits me the hardest today.
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats “Rocket 88”
Famously considered the First Rock & Roll Record by many. I guess if you’re the kind of person who needs to believe in the First Rock & Roll Record (rather than in a gradual coalescing of various elements which have been in American vernacular music from the beginning, prompted by the evolution of technology and popular taste), it’ll do as well as any other. The guitar amp probably got rained on, which is why it fuzzes so much; Ike Turner (who’s only tickling the ivories here) would go on to intelligently explore the many gradations of fuzz and wham in the next two decades, but it’s somehow fitting that the natural world, weather and entropy, should produce that sound. It’s even more mythic than Dave Davies’ knitting needles and razor blades.
John Lee Hooker “I’m In The Mood”
(John Lee Hooker/Bernard Bessman)
Rhino’s terrific Rhapsodies In Black box set ends with Louis Armstrong singing “I’m In The Mood For Love” in 1935 — a perfect symbol of the domestication of early hot jazz into Tin Pan Alley pop, and the end of the Harlem Renaissance. The King Snake’s megahit appropriates and references that song (and probably that performance), but sets it to his grinding, trancelike boogie. The result is one of his mellowest, least-ominous songs, practically a ballad. Hooker even multi-tracked his vocals; you couldn’t get more cutting-edge pop in 1951. It’s this sophistication of the most elemental Delta blues that is another way into the mythic origins of rock & roll — sophisticated being another word for “white” in the popular imagination (though not, don’t forget, in the real world).
Ella Mae Morse “The Blacksmith Blues”
Virtually forgotten today, Ella Mae Morse was the hippest white girl in the world in the 1940s, with a string of jive hits including the massively influential “Milk Cow Boogie” and the eternally cool “House of Blue Lights.” She moved effortlessly between the worlds of country, jazz, and hepcat pop, and even Capitol Records’ expensive polish couldn’t tame her expressive, leering voice. This song, an average entry in the quasi-novelty pop market of the day (it adapts Longfellow for the swing generation), is raised above the herd by her easygoing scatting and lie-down cool sense of rhythm. And that fake anvil beat. (A portent of industrial music to come?)
Lloyd Price “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
One of the great rock standards, it’s still played by bar bands with pretensions to rootsiness, and is one of the hundred or so unofficial anthems of New Orleans. Lloyd Price owned the first half of the fifties the way Fats Domino owned the second half; both of them were produced by Dave Bartholomew, had massive r&b hits which were later co-opted by white singers for even greater commercial success, and faded in popularity as harder-driving soul began to take over their friendly New Orleans stomp. But the dirty little secret that nobody who subscribes to the official History of Rock party line will tell you, is that Lloyd rocked harder than Fats.
Charles Brown “Hard Times”
Somehow it never seems right to be listening to Charles Brown in the comfort of your own home. For the proper effect, you ought to be in a smoky, mostly-empty bar, nursing something that’s not taking the place of whatever you’re drinking to forget, and when you look at the clock, it’s later than you think it is. Sure, it’s a cliché now, and was when Tom Waits started building his persona around it, but when Charles Brown introduced his distinctively urban, ice-cool blues into the lexicon of popular American music, it was something startlingly new, a blues form that was as gently lacerating as the most emo white torch songs had ever been. But ever since the sixties, people don’t like to associate the blues with sophistication, so he’s been too much ignored.
The Treniers “Poontang”
(Cliff Trenier/Claude Trenier)
Oh, it’s pretty much exactly what you think it is. Of course, to clean it up for radio, they add “poon is a hug/tang is a kiss” to the chorus. Uh, sure it is, guys. The saxophone player knows better; he shrieks and sobs like a lust-crazed Ornette Coleman, and the relish with which the entire band shouts “Pooon-tang!” gives the game away. They were nominally a swing band led by the Trenier twins, but their frenzied pace and good-humored lasciviousness made them the original raunch & roll outfit, the horns-n-rhythm forebears to the Fugs, Ted Nugent, 2 Live Crew, and Snoop Dogg.
Slim Whitman “Indian Love Call”
(Rudolf Friml/Oscar Harbach/Oscar Hammerstein II)
The haunting, wordless falsetto floating over ambient chords wasn’t invented by Thom Yorke, kids. Or even Bryan Ferry. Never mind the fact that the song (which has sweet f-all to do with actual Native culture) comes from a 1924 operetta by a Czech expat who sniffed at the negroid vulgarity of George Gershwin — Whitman utterly transforms it with his signature keening vocals, scoring an unlikely kitsch-pop hit. He was a pop-country star who was more at home in Hollywood than Nashville, but his memory shouldn’t be entirely given over to the Greatest Generation nostalgia-mongers; British sophisti-pop owes him a bigger debt than it realizes.
T-Bone Walker “Vida Lee”
T-Bone achieved immortality by being the first bluesman to successfully go electric, setting the stage for thousands of axe-shredders and ultimately resulting in that stupid graffitti about a wimpy British wannabe being God. But he never really lived up to the reputation of the blues, being a great all-round entertainer instead of playing a limited role of strict authenticity. This song is even about his wife, which was totally square even back then. But his sense of urban sophistication (which would be upstaged by the more raucous Chicago blues) paved the way for rock & roll balladeers like Johnny Ace, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Costello.
Ruth Brown “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean”
(Herb Lance/Charlie Singleton/John Wallace)
Every mention of Ruth Brown is contractually obligated to mention that Atlantic Records used to be known as “the house that Ruth built,” which is useful not only as a bit of historical trivia but to point out how enormously popular she was, and how utterly she’s been forgotten even by the music nerds who worship at the shrine of Aretha Franklin. Aretha wouldn’t have existed without Ruth, and not only because they both recorded for the same label (which Ruth helped establish), but because Ruth’s hoarse, sexy voice, different both from blues shouters and jazz phrasers, began the tradition of soul singing which would find its apotheosis in 1967 and “Respect.”
Little Junior’s Blue Flames “Mystery Train”
(Junior Parker/Sam Phillips)
Mostly known today from compilations of “Songs Elvis Made Famous,” Junior Parker was one of the first stars of Sam Phillips’ brand-new Sun Records. He was marketed as a blues singer because he was black, but (as this song shows) he wasn’t limited by blues forms or traditions. The railroad metaphor was much more common in traditional country music (Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash both debuted with songs about train travel), and the chugging, late-night sound of the song crossed all kinds of racial boundaries long before Elvis gave it the official (White) Rock ’n’ Roll Stamp of Approval.
Webb Pierce “There Stands The Glass”
(Audrey Greisham/Russ Hull/Mary Jean Shultz)
Honky-tonk is rock & roll in a country mode, just like jump blues is rock & roll in a jazz mode, or electric blues is rock & roll in a blues mode. Or, if you prefer, they all contributed to what rock & roll eventually became. Anyway, Webb Pierce is one of the all-time greatest honky-tonk heroes, with a voice as smooth as Scotch and a lyrical focus on the three great themes of honky-tonk music: cheating women, alcoholism, and escaping. “There Stands The Glass” is his signature song, a massive hit that, as much as anything else, announced that great honky-tonk wasn’t going to die along with Hank Williams. It took another ten years and countrypolitan for that.
Otis Blackwell “Daddy Rolling Stone”
I know the Who cover is probably the version that most people are familiar with, but I first heard it on a Johnny Thunders solo album with Steve Marriott helping out on vocals, and it’s that hyped-up New York version that stuck in my head, until I heard this. Blackwell was one of the first great rock & roll songwriters (his credits include “Great Balls of Fire,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return To Sender,” and “Fever”), but he recorded only sporadically. This minor hit, a greasy, slow-burn funk in its original incarnation, was cut before its time; you can’t convince me the Rolling Stones circa Beggars Banquet didn’t know it by heart.
Guitar Slim “The Things That I Used To Do”
One of the all-conquering blues standards, this recording anticipates B. B. King’s domestication of Chicago blues into supper-club easy-listening music. (Okay, the yuppie appropriation of B. B. King’s domestication of Chicago blues as supper-club easy-listening music. Whatever.) Which you’d think would be a bad thing; but Guitar Slim is a wily enough guitarist and singer that the song never completes the slide into cornball routine, though it dances sentimentally on the brink. Which, at the time, only contributed to the mainstreaming of the blues — and that, of course, is the birth of rock & roll.
Professor Longhair “Tipitina”
(Henry Roeland Byrd)
Don’t let the year fool you: Fess was the first, the progenitor, the All-Father from whose loins the loose, messy, joyous entirety of New Orleans funk ’n’ soul was spawned. He just got committed to wax later than his descendents, is all. Maybe this song was recognizeable as boogie-woogie in some earlier life, but by this point it’s gotten so easygoing Crescent City dragged out, so mulatto chopped and screwed, that it’s something not only indisputably New Orleanian, but discernably funk. Check those drums: they wouldn’t be out of place on a 1969 Meters track. And then there’s the good Professor’s lyrics: if New Orleans ever secedes from the Union, “Tipitina oola dolla walla shanu-na nigh-yay” should be on the currency.
Big Joe Turner “Shake, Rattle And Roll”
(Charles E. Calhoun)
When fat, bald, middle-aged Bill Haley covered this song (and made it significantly worse by censoring the “wear those dresses, the sun come shining through” line), rock & roll officially hit pop radio and started scaring the bejeezus out of people who had scared the bejeezus out of their own parents with jazz thirty years earlier. But never mind that old cultural myth: it’s Turner’s original version that’s listenable sixty-odd years after the fact. It’s not particularly more rock & roll than what the Kansas City shouter had been doing for years; maybe the boogie-woogie is stripped down a little more, but it’s just a basic rhythm & blues number. Yeah, and The Godfather is just a basic gangster picture.
The Medallions “The Letter”
Maybe the weirdest doo-wop song ever. The Medallions were led by Vernon Green, a small, sickly man whose fey spoken-word ramblings (after only two half-hearted lines of singing) sound as though his only experience of romance is via pop radio — and then he just slips into nonsense. “Sweet words of pismatology”? “The pompetus of love”? (Oddly, it makes me have more respect for Steve Miller; okay, so he didn’t come up with those brilliant lines, but he’s fully in the blues tradition of borrowing bits to stick in your own songs.) Green really said “puppetuse,” but never mind. The pop misreading is, as usual, better. Greil Marcus knows.
Muddy Waters “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”
No hip-hop boasting track has ever out-badassed Muddy Waters. Indisputably the greatest of the Chicago bluesmen, he’d been on top of his game for over a decade and had nothing to prove by the time he waxed this cut. And he still brings it with all the ferocity of a wounded lion, hollering “everybody knows I am” like he was going to hear any backchat. (Incidentally, when I first heard this song as a callow twenty-year old, I thought he was saying “everybody go to hell.” I still like that version.) And anyone who knows anything about anything knows exactly what a Hoochie Coochie Man is — but because he makes up his own words, he tops the charts without even trying, in the century’s most deeply repressed decade.
The Chordettes “Mr. Sandman”
The old Walt Kelly joke (no doubt borrowed from some vaudeville act or other) comes to mind: “You is puttin’ too many bums in the song!” The ancient pedigree of the joke is appropriate, as the Chordettes weren’t exactly cutting-edge: they got their start entering local barbershop quartet competitions. Their harmonies are borrowed from World War II favorites the Andrews Sisters, and namechecking Liberace in the lyrics was never hip, not in any year. But. But for all of that, they were the first of the new wave of girl groups that would achieve pop transcendence in the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las and the Supremes during the mid-60s. Not rock & roll? Check the drum line: slap some echo on there, and it’s straight outa rockabilly.
Elvis Presley “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”
Speaking of which. Nobody can accuse Elvis of ripping off a black artist here: Bill Monroe’s version of bluegrass was notoriously lily-white. (Except that banjos are an African import, and — but never mind.) Of course, his version of the song (like all the rest of the best music of the decade) is hopped up on r&b, Scotty Moore’s guitar solo whining and bleeding like Chet Atkins in a chicken shack. This was famously the flip-side to Elvis’s first single, Big Bill Broonzy’s “That’s Alright Mama,” and encyclopedias have been written about the symbolism of having a blues song on A and a country song on B and making them both sound the same — but Big Bill was already rock & roll. Elvis’s greatest achievement was with the B-side.
The Chords “Sh-Boom”
(James Edwards/Claude Feaster/Carl Feaster/James Keyes/Floyd McRae)
Doo wop’s infamous nonsense vocal lines have their roots in jazz scatting and the hepcat jive of cats like Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard, but no vocal group had really integrated them into the lyrical structure of the song until the Chords, a very minor group out of the Bronx, had an unexpected hit with this rave-up B-side to a Patti Page cover. “Doo-wah doo-lang-lang a-dip a-dip a-dip woah-oah” is one of the most joyous sounds in 1950s music, a nonverbal expression of the lovers’ paradise promised in the part of the lyrics that make literal sense.
Tommy Collins “You Better Not Do That”
So you’ve heard of the Bakersfield sound, right? Uptempo country with electrified instruments, modernizing the sound of western swing for a rock & roll era? Buck Owens? Merle Haggard? Right. Well, Tommy Collins did it first. And he wasn’t rockabilly either; although this novelty-ish hit was clearly aimed at the teen market, the fiddle and his Oklahoma drawl stamp it clearly as mainstream country. But the guitar sounds like Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, and the lyrics are about the triumph of a teenage seductress over the morals and manners of a good ol’ boy from the sticks; the increasing distress in his voice as he begs her not to do that is a sly upending of the usual (male) lasciviousness of early rock & roll.
The Penguins “Earth Angel”
(Jesse Belvin/Gaynel Hodge/Curtis Williams)
Probably the most famous doo-wop ballad, and the song that immediately comes to mind most often when people say doo-wop. Which is funny, because there’s almost no doo-wopping in it: the background vocals mostly ahh and ohh, with one descending doo-doo-doo-doo at the end of every verse. Cleve Duncan’s lead is fragile, tremulous, and oddly voiced by modern standards — it almost sounds like a black parody of white crooners. Which it’s possible to read the entire song as: calling a girl Earth Angel is already over-the-top, and you really have to be a teenager, or have a teenager’s mixture of callowness and earnestness, to find the whole song romantic instead of funny. So: straight classic at the time, camp classic sixty years later.
Joe Williams & The Count Basie Orchestra “Every Day I Have The Blues”
When Count Basie emerged in the 1930s, he brought a revolution with him: his Kansas City swing blew louder and rocked harder than the New Orleans/New York synthesis that jazz had previously followed. Like fellow K.C. denizens Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, he’s one of the godfathers of rock & roll — his previous vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, had recorded several classics of 40s rock. But it’s Joe Williams, Basie’s 50s vocalist, and his signature cover of Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have The Blues,” that really deserves to be known by rock fans. Williams’ hoarse, precise baritone, swimming upstream against one of Basie’s most searing charts, is the loveliest secret of the decade.
Big Maybelle “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”
(Robert Lee McCoy/Charlie Singleton)
Atlanta hip-hop legends Goodie Mob borrowed the title phrase for their first album without Cee-Lo Green, which is both ironic and appropriate: Cee-Lo’s rough, cracked singing voice owes a clear debt to the r&b shouters of the 50s, of which Maybelle led the female contingent. But also — the verses are rapped. Okay, spoken. But her flow, given the laid-back rhythm of the song (only charging into life in the rough, cracked choruses) isn’t half-bad. Her playful seductiveness pulls you in, only to be jolted hard when the growling, hollered chorus takes a proto-feminist stance: fuck you, buddy, I can get any man I want. Bessie Smith and PJ Harvey would be proud.
Sonny Boy Williamson “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’”
(Sonny Boy Williamson)
He fit in well at the Chess label alongside such badasses as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley; he’d taken another bluesman’s name (it was the other one who anticipated the Chicago sound with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”) and lived to tell the tale. His quavering tenor, though, didn’t sound as badass as the others, and he was never as popular. But this song, his biggest hit, is as fierce as anything cut for Chess: his savage harmonica and Otis Rush’s pounding piano make his threat of gossip (or of snitching) sound positively murderous.
Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues”
It’s not often that a song from the point of view of a cold-blooded psychopath is almost universally recognized as a beloved icon of popular culture. I don’t mean the famous “shot a man in Reno” line either; it’s the ambiguity of “those people keep a-movin’/and that’s what tortures me” that always gets me. Is he tortured by the train moving away, or by the fact that there are still living, breathing people out there? The steady, unhurried boom-chick of the Tennessee Two adds to the creepiness with its minimalism, only the ghost of a smile in Johnny’s voice as he reaches for those low notes at the end of each verse making it clear that this is just gallows humor, folks. The guys actually in Folsom Prison understood.
Clifton Chenier “Ay, ’Tète Fille”
(Clifton Chenier/Roy Byrd)
Zydeco is to cajun music what rockabilly is to country music: the revved-up, rock & roll version of a traditional form. And Clifton Chenier is zydeco’s Elvis: the man who did more than anyone to develop and perfect the form. Or rather, he’s Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all in one, embodying both the currents of the past and the flashy instrumental prowess of the future. This, his first single cut in the obscure depths of Louisiana regionalism, is a Cajun French translation of Professor Longhair’s “Hey, Little Girl,” though some family resemblance to Little Richard’s “Lucille” might also be noted. Even an accordion can rock & roll.
Tony Allen & The Champs “Nite Owl”
Sure, I’ll cop to being a sucker for doo-wop that doesn’t exactly play it straight; first the deeply weird “The Letter” and now this. My point, if I have one, is that doo-wop is bigger, deeper, and stranger than, say, the American Graffitti soundtrack would suggest. Frank Zappa wasn’t a fan for nothing. All of which is to say, doo-wop is rock & roll. This song, with its unconvincing bird imitations and G-rated noir atmosphere (even the title is only a genus away from an Edward Hopper painting), is apparently autobiographical: “night owl” was a nickname Tony Allen’s dad gave him, presumably because of his nocturnal activities. What’d I say? Rock & roll.
Tennessee Ernie Ford “Sixteen Tons”
Yes, Tennessee Ernie recorded a lot of songs that rocked more explicitly (not to mention harder) than this. No, the clarinet that gives the song its most memorable instrumental line isn’t exactly a rock & roll standby. But pay attention beyond the Golden Oldies memory (that is, if you ever even heard this song as a Golden Oldie; these days you never know), and it’s something Woody Guthrie would have recorded if he’d had the pop instincts, not to mention the vocal chops. It’s pinko commie liberal, is what it is — and only gets away with being against capitalism because of country music’s blue-collar ethos. Yeah, country; I don’t hear it either, but where else is a guy with Tennessee in his name gonna get played?
Smiley Lewis “I Hear You Knockin’”
In 1970, Dave Edmunds (British retro-rocker, best known for being pals with Nick Lowe) had his biggest hit with a cover of this song. Fifteen years previously, actress and musical dilettante Gale Storm had her biggest hit with a cover of this song. Smiley Lewis’s original never charted, but it’s the definitive one. A cheerful New Orleans piano thumper, affable even when he’s laying down the sort of dis that gets remembered for years (he got his nickname for a reason), Smiley never broke through to national recognition the way his compatriots Fats, Huey, and Fess did — but his easygoing contribution to the Crescent City’s second-line mythology is incontrovertible.
LaVern Baker & The Gliders “Tweedlee Dee”
That descending “hoump-bee-oump-boump-boump” at the end of the chorus is one of those vocal lines that stays with you, and you hear echoes of it everywhere, especially in good-time blues songs of the 60s and 70s. But only LaVern Baker ever growled it as if it meant something — and something dirty, at that. She’s another of the great forgotten female rock & rollers, ignored because she worked the r&b side of the street (ahem) and made music you can dance to. There’s a polyrhythmic Cuban undertone to this song that makes it particularly easy to shimmy to — but it’s LaVern’s sly, full-blooded vocals that make it immortal.
Johnny Ace “Pledging My Love”
(Ferdinand Washington/Don Robey)
The first no-two-ways-about-it ballad on the list, with dream-pop signifiers like the celeste tweeing it up scandalously (at least for those who think rock & roll ain’t rock & roll without a snarling guitar), and the Late Great one playing it close to the vest in the vocal department. It was obviously a precursor to Sam Cooke’s early hits (and thus to all of smooth soul), but never mind that. It was also one of the first records where young white audiences definitively preferred the black original to the white cover, forever changing the face of pop music — but never mind that, either. It was the coda to a remarkable career cut even more remarkably short: it’s a man’s epitaph, and that’s what matters.
Nappy Brown “Don’t Be Angry”
(Napoleon Brown/Rose Marie McCoy/Fred Mendelsohn)
The story goes that when a Jewish label executive heard Nappy Brown’s stuttering vocal delivery, he got all excited: “a colored guy singing Yiddish!” Of course, Nappy (incidentally, I refuse to go for the obvious Don Imus joke; his given name was Napoleon, okay?) was just milking a memorable gimmick — one Roger Daltry would pick up on “My Generation” — and if generations of listeners came away from the song believing it was addressed to a woman named Lily, that was fine too. If that label executive had been Italian, or Creole, he might have gotten just as excited — the slow welding of many diverse cultures into the monolith of American music throws off some strange sparks.
The Louvin Brothers “Knoxville Girl”
In The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus spends some time examining the uniquely American prediliction for affectlessness. The flat, incurious tone in which horrors are related can be seen in a huge amount of American literature and in nearly all American folk music. The murder ballad from the point of view of the murderer is, of course, nearly as old as civilization; but the Louvin Brothers’ unnervingly straight reading of “Knoxville Girl,” delivered in crisp close harmony, is one of those transcendent moments when it seems that we stare straight into the heart of precivilized humanity. Or if you don’t buy that, just say that Nick Cave would be a very different person without this song.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry “Ain’t Got No Home”
I haven’t actually come across it, but I’m sure someone somewhere is vocal about hating this song. I’m equally sure that in their disparagement, they use the damning word “novelty.” Well, fuck them. Not only are novelty songs part of the glorious rock & roll tradition, they’re only one expression of the most fundamentally American version of entertainment, from vaudeville to Eminem. Anyway. If you haven’t heard the song, it’s a terrific little swamp-shuffle repeated three times in different voices. When the Band covered it, they had to use technology to cheat because even collectively they didn’t have Frogman Henry’s range.
Moon Mullican “Seven Nights To Rock”
(Henry Glover/Louis Innis/Buck Trail)
Reasons to love Moon Mullican: 1) He called himself Moon Mullican. If that’s not a nod towards one of the greatest low-rent comic strips of all time, I don’t know what it is. 2) He aided and abetted the transition from western swing to rockabilly (they call that intervening step “hillbilly boogie” now) as a bandleader, singer, and songwriter. 3) He was never photographed without that ten-gallon hat on his head, like he was a movie cowboy or something, except of course he was just a pudgy middle-aged Texan. 4) This song, one of his last, is like Bill Haley done right. 5) He called himself Moon Mullican. Dude.
Howlin’ Wolf “Smokestack Lightnin’”
(Chester Arthur Burnett)
The blues has given the world many unforgettable images, from railroad men that drink up your blood like wine to chopping down a mountain with the edge of one’s hand, but one of the best, most evocative phrases in the music has to be the Wolf’s “smokestack lightning.” He said it was a reference to the sparks that used to fly up out of coal-burning trains, but I can’t be the only person reminded of the Old Testament visions of Ezekiel and Elijah. (“But God was not in the storm.”) His voice is the perfect embodiment of such apocalyptic dread, massive and serrated and tar-black. The loose, unstructured progress of the song adds to its uncanny prophetic atmosphere: this song should be played at the end of the world.
Jerry Lee Lewis “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”
(Roy Hall/Dave Williams)
The number of Louisianans on this list is undoubtedly disproportionate; but even if I didn’t have a New Orleans fixation this gentleman would demand inclusion. Maybe the greatest white rocker ever — and one of the greatest country singers of all time, too, though his contribution to rock & roll tends to overshadow that. His elastic baritone borrows from vocalists as diverse as Hank Williams and Al Jolson, but is unmistakably his own; his piano playing is so dense as to be almost two separate instruments. And all in service of the Almighty Dance Party: “wiggle round just a little bit … yeah” is topped only by the percussive “whose barn what barn my barn” in the Annals of Rock & Roll Exemporization.
The Cadets “Stranded In The Jungle”
(James Johnston/Ernestine Smith)
Again with the novelty haters. Inviariably, punk rock fans call this the worst song ever recorded by the New York Dolls. The scorn of punk fans is understandable; after all, the song does tell a ridiculous fantasy story by means of a series of musical suites — that’s right, it’s the first-ever rock opera, a less sophomoric “A Quick One While He’s Away.” It also features blackface vocals (study minstrelsy some time: black performers frequently wore blackface in order to conform to white notions of blackness), most notably in “great googa-mooga,” but even the narrator sounds like Amos or Andy (I forget which). You’d think punk fans would at least embrace the outrageous tastelessness of it all, but I guess that only counts if you’re white, suburban, and play guitars ironically. Or are R. Kelly.
Carl Perkins “Dixie Fried”
And sometimes a well-timed cover can rescue a superb track from oblivion. (Not that very many people know the cover; James Luther Dickinson’s 1972 Dixie Fried is the definition of a cult record.) But here Perkins atones for the glib inescapability of “Blue Sude Shoes” — this comic squib of a song is cheerfully violent in the best rock & roll tradition (the title refers equally to chicken, being wasted, and the electric chair). And the racial lines that converged on rock & roll are entirely blurred here: the razor-totin’ stereotypes in the lyrics are black, but the nervous jump of the music is shitkicker white. Like “Frankie and Johnny” or “Stagger Lee” fifty years earlier, it’s an equal-opportunity American myth.
Little Willie John “Fever”
It’s a shame that most modern listeners only know the song via a godawful Madonna cover; or if they know it was a cover, as Peggy Lee’s signature song. While Miss Lee’s minimalist torch version is skin-crawlingly sexy, it cheeses out on the lyrics, trading Little Willie’s smoldering entendres for shout-outs to Shakespeare. Little Willie John was (as his name implies) a minor when he had his first success, but he was more of a Stevie Wonder than a Michael Jackson: fully in command of his bluesy nightclub style, he could just as easily have been twenty-nine; or fifty-nine. And hey — there’s Otis Blackwell again.
Roy Orbison “Ooby Dooby”
(Wade Moore/Dick Penner)
Just imagine for a second that Roy Orbison had boarded that plane with the Big Bopper and those two other fellows. Fantasies of his seizing the controls and changing rock & roll history aside — this would be an even more legendary song. As it is, his early rockabilly sides are (probably deservedly) overshadowed by the high-drama popera of his early-60s hits, when he discovered his falsetto and sunglasses at the same time. But as a callow teenager swimming in echo under Sam Phillips, he still managed to invest one of the dumbest lyrics in rock & roll history (and it’s got some stiff competition) with a quivery, yearning pathos that introduced teenage heartbreak and the teenage dancefloor as the close friends they are.
James Brown & The Famous Flames “Please, Please, Please”
(James Brown/Johnny Terry)
Philip Gourevitch’s 2002 New Yorker profile of the Godfather opened with the lyrics James Brown actually sang in “Please, Please, Please.” In bald print, they’re whiny, repetitive, incoherent, and trite. That was the point, of course: even at that young age, Brown’s musical personality was strong enough to wrestle deep meaning and passion from the unlikeliest material, and transform it from drivel to something approaching the sublime. Its other point was that he was a master of going off-message, of throwing new notes and words and emotions into a song. It is the essence, the starting-point, the promise and the fulfillment, all at once, of soul music.
Charlie Feathers “Can’t Hardly Stand It”
(Charlie Feathers/Jody Chastain)
In the grand tradition of creepy American loners, Charlie Feathers stands alone. Rockabilly was established as an amphetamined, stripped-down version of western swing; he slowed rockabilly down, made it even more minimalist, and created desert noir. He may be the ultimate Quentin Tarantino soundtrack artist: obscure enough to be a revelation to the average Tarantino fan, but the hardcore music geeks already have the Revenant compilation. Er, not to mention the highly cinematic use of space and echo in this song, which was used memorably in one of the Kill Bills. Before there was Ennio Morricone, there was Charlie Feathers, hiccupping and sobbing like he was contemplating murder.
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
(Frankie Lymon/Jimmy Merchant/Herman Santiago)
Was it Van Morrison or Brian Eno who compared discovering American r&b on shortwave radio in postwar Europe to receiving transmissions from outer space? And yet Americans weren’t any better prepared to handle it, either: both Robert Quine and Brian Wilson were electrified by the sax solo here, and how its sweaty r&b skronk didn’t seem to fit the rest of the song, which legend has it was adapted from actual love poetry written by an acquaintance’s girlfriend. Both Quine and Wilson would go on to make beautiful noise in entirely separate categories; but what’s called to mind most emphatically, listening today, is the Jackson Five. Frankie Lymon’s young, clear voice bounds like a gazelle, just as young Michael’s would do twenty years later. He was smart, though, and faded away gracefully.
Etta James “Tough Lover”
She was in at the birth of rock & roll, cutting one of the first response records to the Midnighters’ seminal “Work With Me Annie.” And she’ s still out there today, tearin’ it up and knockin’ ’ em out. In between, she’ s done everything from hitting #1 on the pop charts and touring with Otis Redding to kicking a nasty heroin habit. But this is the peak of her early material, a slice of tearing, frenzied, jittery funk, complete with Little Richard howls and a backing combo racing to keep up with her. Tina Turner, the ultimate raw soulstress, could have based her entire career on this song. And her opening vocal, halfway between a moan and a snarl, is an exact duplicate of the way Orange Juice’s 1983 jangle-pop hit “Felicity” opens. Coincidence? Or something more?
Johnny Burnette & The Rock & Roll Trio “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”
(Tiny Bradshaw/Howard Kay/Lois Mann)
I don’t care what you say: this is Hard Rock. Hell, it’s practically Heavy Metal. Burnette attacks his guitar like it’s going to kill his mama, and the piercing, distorted licks he wrenches out of it come off like Neil Young at his most savage. Rockabilly didn’t get much more intense than this, at least not until the Cramps. Tiny Bradshaw’s original jump blues tune, an ordinary celebration of good times and fast livin’, is steamrollered by the daemonic fury of these adolescent rednecks, and the first faint echoes of what would become Led Zeppelin (the Yardbirds loved to cover this song) can be heard in its wake.
Little Richard “Long Tall Sally”
(Richard Wayne Penniman/Robert Blackwell/Enotris Johnson)
“I’m a teacher too. I taught Paul McCartney to go woooo!” is probably the best line a guest voice on The Simpsons has ever had. But Little Richard is far more than just the black guy Sir Paul stole his rock & roll vocal style from — he’s one of the great lyricists of early rock & roll, with a cast of bizarre, seedy characters whose lives seem to revolve around partying and sex. Long Tall Sally (aka Bald-Headed Sally in a verse) is one of those dazzling creations, a rock & roll queen who can hold her own with Lucille (you don’t do your mama’s will), Rudy (the Tutti Frutti girl), and Miss Molly. And Little Richard’s original howling, piano-pounding persona (he’s had several since, like Prince) makes him just about the only real person who could go toe-to-toe with his fictional creations and sing about it later.
Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys “Crazy Arms”
(Ralph Mooney/Chuck Seals)
One of the mainstays of country music for the better part of a century (his career began in the 1940s, and as of this writing he’s touring with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson), Ray Price is also one of its stealth geniuses, a man who subtly opened up the parameters of country, allowing for both greater sophistication and a tougher, more rhythmic sensibility. “Crazy Arms” is where his characteristic 4/4 shuffle, as typified by the prominent walking bassline, was perfected: it’s a rock & roll backbeat, but with a pure honky-tonk soul. He would later incorporate jazz and even blues into his remarkably pure country style, and it was his credentials that gave a bunch of hippies in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band their free pass to the hardcore country audience.
The Five Satins “In The Still Of The Night”
One of the perennial, um, standards of the rock & roll era, “In The Still Of The Night” could have been written in the 1930s, or the 1890s, or the 1990s. But the gently rolling rhythm, the pop-soul arrangement, and the “shoo-doop, shoo-be-doo” that have become inseparable from the song could only have come from the 1950s — maybe even only from 1956. Doo wop would get more energetic as the decade went on, until it became something else entirely with the Drifters and Temptations. But for that magic year, it flourished as the only possible ballad form that could unite both teenagers and parents in a haze of fond romanticism.
Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps “Race With The Devil”
(Gene Vincent/Tex Davis)
This is hot-rod music, an urban rockabilly with so much deep, flanged echo on Vincent’s voice that it becomes another rhythmic element. The lyrics present a B-movie yarn about a drag race with the Father of Lies, except that you take it as seriously as Robert Johnson because the dark, needly music is so convincing. Gene Vincent was a confirmed turbomaniac; his famous stiff-legged dance moves were (equally famously) due to a motorcycle accident before he turned to rock & roll. And his most famous song, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” is notable mostly for giving square adults the absurd idea that rock & roll had anything at all to do with bebop.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You”
He coulda been a contender. An operatic contender, that is: one of the stories told about Jay Hawkins in the long slow years of being swallowed up by pop-culture oblivion is that he never intended to be a rock & roller, much less the voodoo-camp icon that brought him immortality; he wanted to be an art singer, like Paul Robeson, like Enrico Caruso. That’s the story, anyway. He had the voice for it, if not the training: in between the gibbers and snorts you can hear a back-of-the-room resonance which was played for horrorshow laughs on his noveltyish singles. Which, by the way, didn’t bring him fame and fortune either; the song was forgotten until Nina Simone dusted it off and introduced it to a generation of rock & rollers in the 1960s. Screamin’ Jay didn’t even salvage the fake skull scepter.
Dave Bartholomew “The Monkey”
(Dave Bartholomew/Pearl King)
For all of Elvis Costello’s faults (the way his grasp exceeds his reach, the clever-dickness of his lyrics, the “highly mannered” way he sings), he’s probably introduced more music nerds to great forgotten music of previous generations than anyone this side of Dave Godin. Take this song. Dave Bartholomew’s minimal jive track, with its socially-conscious proto-rapping (even the guitar line, repeated endlessly, mesmerizingly, seems to presage the way samples would later be used to structure a track rhythmically), would only have been known to die-hard New Orleans junkies if Costello hadn’t recorded an answer song on The Delivery Man — and made sure every reviewer reported on the existence of the original. Bartholomew is one of the giants of New Orleans r&b, a producer, songwriter and trumpeter who (among other things) first brought Fats Domino into the spotlight. Allen Toussaint inherited his mantle in the 60s, and the Big Easy rolled on.
Bo Diddley “Who Do You Love”
It’s not the many, many cover versions — each one more overblown and self-indulgent than the last until, in 1968, Quicksilver Messenger Service devoted almost an entire LP to the song — that makes this my Bo Diddley song of choice. Those goddamn hippies even got the rhythm wrong, reverting to the clichéd “shave and a haircut, two bits” just because Bo Diddley had used it once or twice on his earlier songs. No, no — it’s the lyrics. A necktie made out of rattlesnake hide, a house of human skulls; Rob Zombie wishes he could be this freaky. And it’s okay, yeah, Diddley’s primitive stomp, which has been both overhyped and understimated. (He was in touch with the ancient African jungle roots of rock & roll!/He was a one-note showman, not a real bluesman at all! No, you idiots, he was just a great rock & roller.) His one-chord cigar-box guitar swipes and his booming baritone complete the picture: Bo Diddley is one bad motherfucker, and he better be who you love, ’cause otherwise he be adding a new skull to his house.
Ivory Joe Hunter “Since I Met You Baby”
His name actually was Ivory Joe, since the day of his christening: of course he had to be a piano player. He worked with Charles Brown at the beginning of both their careers, and his softly swinging nightclub blues style, an easy pill for the adult-pop market to swallow, was similar to Brown’s. But he also crossed over to the country/western market (years before a certain Genius did so), and you can hear a country phrasing in his voice on this remarkably gentle, yearning pop hit. There are strings, and white-pop background singers going “ahh,” and lush Glenn Miller-inspired charts, but it’s (astonishingly) not treacle: both Hunter’s trickling piano runs and a strong foundation in blues changes and meter keeps it firmly on the right side of sentimental. And that slow, sensual sax solo. There aren’t many blues songs that celebrate the joy of newfound love; what made Ivory Joe great was his ability to reconcile those seeming incompatibilities.
The “5” Royales “Think”
The asses at Wikipedia write it up as a James Brown song, with a bare mention that it was written by a member of the “5” Royales (no, I don’t know what’s up with the quote marks). But have you heard the James Brown version? It’s markedly inferior to the original, with its sliding, stinging guitar weaving in and out of the lyrics like Steve Cropper on a really good day. Without that guitar performing a subtle commentary on the self-righteous lyrics, the song seems only half-complete. (And Brown — I hate to admit — oversings it.) Yet another example of doo wop being more than teenage street-corner nonsense: these guys were as bluesy and rock & roll as anyone, but because they sang in harmony, they get relegated to the doo wop ghetto alongside glib pop groups like the Platters and the Del-Vikings. Life isn’t fair.
Buddy Holly & The Crickets “Peggy Sue”
(Buddy Holly/Jerry Allison/Norman Petty)
I didn’t want to include this song. It’s already been praised and discussed and canonized enough; I wanted to dig deeper into the Holly catalog, maybe “Oh Boy” or “Not Fade Away” or “Rave On” or “Maybe Baby” or — but then I listened to this again, just to give it a fair chance, and hell. It’s the pinnacle of 1950s pop, with those endless multitracked drum fills (the origin of Keith Moon), Holly’s perfectly chirpy, nerdy delivery, the rough edges of rockabilly smoothed out and given new texture in the studio process (the origin of Brian Wilson and George Martin), and then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way into a song where there hasn’t been any electric guitar, an electric guitar solo that’s not really a solo at all, just tejano chords chopped back and forth like he’s in a primitive garage band (the origins of the Beatles, the Kingsmen, and thousands more). It’s the intellectualization of rock & roll, it’s canny studio enginners capturing lightning in a bottle — it’s art rock. And it’s a three-minute pop single heard round the world. There were giants in those days.
Ray Charles “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
All the traditional historians of rock & roll will tell you that Ray Charles, along with Sam Cooke, more or less invented soul singing. (They downplay James Brown’s contribution because they’re saving him for funk.) Charles’ gospel-inflected, highly emotional singing is certainly fundamental in the development of soul, but anyone raised on Stax tightness or Motown sheen will be surprised by his early sides: they’re big-band numbers, only a half-step away from Count Basie or Buddy Rich. People talk about Ray Charles creating something entirely new, but those people have never heard Joe Williams fronting the Basie Orchestra — which is not to knock Ray Charles; being the bridge from jazz into soul is worth mountains of respect. Anyway. This song was chosen because I’m a sucker for the “I hear her (tok tok tok tok) on my door” line. Gimmicky? Maybe, but it’s also a line straight outta Louis Jordan’s jump blues, and one that would find echoes in rockabilly . . . and the Great Hodgepodge that is American music rocks on.
Don & Dewey “Leavin’ It All Up To You”
(Don Harris/Dewey Terry)
Never heard of ’em? Okay, imagine if the Everly Brothers had been composed of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And then had no success whatever. Their most-anthologized songs are awe-inspiring in their primitive thrash (seek out “Justine” for an example of early black punk rock), but they were also capable of playing it relatively straight, as on this r&b ballad in country time. Key word: relatively. Either Don or Dewey (I can’t really tell the difference) can’t resist the temptation to throw a little curveball into his voice, a juke-joint raggedness that would prevent the song from making it big even on the r&b charts. But as “I’m Leaving It All Up To You,” it went on to become a minor standard in the 60s, with recordings by Freddy Fender, Tom Jones, the Osmonds, and (most chartingly) the equally-forgotten swamp-pop duo Dale & Grace.
Fats Domino “I’m Walkin’”
(Fats Domino/Dave Bartholomew)
I can’t have been the only person, as a callow youth investigating for the first time the roots of this thing called rock & roll, who heard one or two Fats Domino songs and was like, “what the hell? That’s not rock & roll!” It was too mellow, too easygoing, too cheerful for someone whose idea of rock had been defined by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Cut to today, when the news story of airlifting the man out of his house in New Orleans can bring a tear to my eye. He is the Big Man, the greatest and most beloved exponent of Crescent City r&b, a man whose hits worked equally well as a late-period comeback for Louis Armstrong (“Blueberry Hill”) or as one of the focal points for the genesis of ska (“Be My Guest”). This song is as mellow, easygoing, and cheerful as ever, but its hepped-up gospel shuffle makes it easier for the three-chords-and-the-truth crowd to swallow as rock & roll.
Richard Berry & The Pharaohs “Louie, Louie”
Do you realize that there are still people out there who think that the words to this song are unknowable? Or who even think that the Kingsmen get away with swearing every day on oldies radio? One listen to the original shows the canard for what it is: the Kingsmen were just repeating Richard Berry word-for-word, and it’s a just silly little love song, as the Cute One would put it. He wasn’t any relation to Chuck Berry, but this song, oddly enough, is: it’s based on “Havana Moon,” Chuck’s legendary sojourn into Latin-tinged balladry. But Richard, who was a journeyman creative person in the Los Angeles r&b world (he sang, uncredited, on massive hits by Etta James and the Robins), had the pop sense to pick up the tempo a bit and give it a bit of a (noveltyish) stomp. It didn’t work — it was charitable to call it even a regional hit. Then, six years later, some zero-grade garage band out of the Pacific Northwest got hold of it, and rock & roll legend was born.
George Jones “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)”
(George Jones/J. P. Richardson)
George Jones is, on the slight off-chance you don’t already know, probably the greatest country vocalist of all time. The depth and sonorous majesty of his voice gave him an extraordinary run of heartbreak ballads from the late 60s through the early 80s, but he began as a rockabilly-inflected honky-tonker in the 1950s. His most famous song from that era is probably the corny “White Lightning,” but unlike Roy Orbison, he didn’t just have the one decent song before he found himself: as witness this fiddle-based stomp. Aside from the memorable title phrase and a certain rhythm in the lyrics, this song has nothing in common with Little Milton’s 1969 soul-blues hit “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” but it’s a great example of the Possum’s early work: upbeat, cheeky, and already with such assured command of his vocal technique that he can slip into regular speech at the end of a verse without throwing the rhythm of the song off.
Larry Williams “Short Fat Fannie”
“Short Fat Fannie is on the loose!” Mick Jagger howls at one point during the epic American-roots record Exile On Main St (the Rolling Stones remain the only acceptable British substitute for the homegrown brand, in my estimation). Which is even more of a deeply-layered reference than you might think: sure, he’s referring to Larry Williams’ funky r&b hit, but that song itself was a catalog of other rock & roll hits, with lyrical references to songs by Little Richard (four times), Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Elvis Presley, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, Carl Perkins, Buddy Knox, LaVern Baker (twice), and Fats Domino. And the whistling that opens the song could be taken as a nod to Professor Longhair. Williams was (perhaps inevitably) another graduate of the New Orleans school of rock & roll, and had been groomed by his label to be the next Little Richard. He was too oddball for that; but he did manage his own little corner of rock & roll immortality.
Warren Smith “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”
(Lilly May/Hayden Thompson)
Why should I lie? This song was the impetus for this list. If you don’t know it, you need to know it. Period. I first heard it sung by Bob Dylan, on a 2001 tribute to Sun Records. Old Bobby knew what he was doing when he picked it, too: it’s a rockabilly ballad, an easy shuffle of a type that wouldn’t really gain favor in the popular imagination until the heyday of country-rock more than a decade later. It’s loosely based on bluesman Bill Gaither’s 1936 “Who’s Been Here Since I Been Gone,” but with updated honky-tonk references, including the red Cadillac of the title. It’s oddly structured for rock & roll, too: instead of verses, a chorus, and a middle eight, it just has an A part and a B part, the favored form of the classic Broadway composers. It wasn’t terribly successful — Smith’s more noveltyish “Ubangi Stomp” was a bigger hit with the sock-hoppers — but its easy electric strum and sharp eye for detail has easily outlasted the decades.
The Chantels “Maybe”
And the great drama-queen tradition of pop begins, continued in Ronnie Spector, Lulu, the Shangri-Las, Cher, and so forth, on to the Christina Aguileras and Beyoncé Knowleses of today. The girl-group mythology of eccentric producers and Brill Building songwriters is so entrenched in rock-history consciousness that the Chantels are too often overlooked. Not only were they just about the first black girl group to have any notable success, they were classically-trained vocalists, as comfortable with Gregorian chant as with doo-wop conventions, and their lead singer, Arlene Smith, wrote their songs. You can hear her familiarity with diva posturing in her soaring, emotional voice, and the odd acoustics of the song are due to its being recorded not in a studio, but inside a church. Their second single, it soared up the charts and changed the face of pop music for the next decade. They had only been recording for a year; the oldest of them was seventeen.
G. L. Crockett “Look Out Mabel”
(G. L. Crockett/Mel London)
One of the great mystery men of rock music, Crockett left behind only three singles and a single blurry photo, which shows a sleepy-eyed fat man with a pompadour. Oh, and he’s black. Which wouldn’t be odd, except this is a rockabilly song. And not in any “if you squint you can kind of hear it” sense, either: it’s straight-up guitar rock, based more in country than in blues, with a honky-tonk piano player Jerry Lee Lewising away in the background. To deepen the weirdness: it was recorded for the Chess label, which (famously) was the home of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, et cetera. Oh yeah, and that’s Earl Hooker playing guitar. Hooker (I used a picture of him instead) was one of the all-time great blues guitarists, with a wiry, snapping sound that used feedback and scraping along the strings just as much as power chords and vibrato; his double-necked guitar and his reluctance to sing on record are both stuff of legend; this forgotten song deserves to be just as legendary.
Mickey & Sylvia “Love Is Strange”
(Mickey Baker/Sylvia Robinson/Ethel Smith)
And now we turn to a song which was just as progressive and startling, guitar-wise, but which hasn’t been forgotten in the least (thanks, Dirty Dancing). Mickey Baker was one of the great studio guitarists of the rock & roll era, and his rhumba-inflected duet with sweet-voiced siren Sylvia Robinson was as much of a showcase for his sharp-toned finger-flashing as for her sultry “come here, lover boy!” The dexterity with which he switches between playing barres around the rhythm and running his sparkling solo work remain postively breathtaking today. Or if you don’t care for that guitar-hero crap, it’s still got several great pop moments thanks to Sylvia’s multifarious vocal talents and that slinky, sensuous Caribbean rhythm. Even reggae has roots in rock & roll.
Mose Allison “Young Man Blues”
Yeah, you probably have the Live At Leeds version in your head already (“ain’t got sweeeeeeet…”). One of the measures of Pete Townshend’s genius is that he could hear the understated menace and generational anger in Allison’s mellow little post-bop ditty and adapt it for the hard-rock era. Influenced by Bud Powell and the King Cole Trio, Allison was a laid-back pianist and a thin, reedy vocalist, but a smart, subversive lyricist, one of the few jazzbos who qualified as a songwriter instead of merely a composer. And this isn’t only rock & roll by mod proxy, either — the sophisticated stop-start roll of the music anticipates the Pixies with their quiet/loud dynamics. Of course, trust the Who to make it all loud.
Nat King Cole “Send For Me”
No, really. No, listen. Have you heard the song? The conventional wisdom is that Cole abandoned rhythmic music when he went pop in the late 40s (though his early trio sides are acknowledged proto-rock in their minimalist swing), and while it’s true that his 50s material is by and large string-drenched pap (though his rich, velvety voice was always worth soaking in), he paused in his treacly descent just long enough to issue this stunning, breezy r&b confection. Anchored by his easygoing piano and textured by a breathy saxophone, it’s a clear predecessor to Sam Cooke’s best work — and even, on the production end, to Pet Sounds. I hadn’t even heard the song before I began research for this list; but now it’s one of my very favorites.
The Everly Brothers “Bye Bye Love”
(Boudleaux Bryant/Felice Bryant)
Another Townshend connection: the Everly’s hard, percussive strums on their acoustic guitars were apparently the inspiration for his power chords. And they were something new under the sun — a country brother act that (unlike the Delmores, the Louvins, or the Stanleys), embraced the teen-oriented rock & roll present and pop future. It helped that they practically were teenagers; no one with more years under their belt could so cheerfully, even blithely, sing about giving up on women entirely. You can tell they don’t mean it, even if they think they do, and where the older duos would have imbued the song with a dignified pathos, the Everlys sound relieved to be rid of the pressures of a relationship and ready to start playing the field again.
Slim Harpo “(I’m A) King Bee”
Say, whaddya know? There’s Slim Harpo. (Quick, name the next line.) He wanted to call himself Lightning Slim, but someone else already had the name, so his wife suggested Harpo. Because he played the harmonica, goes the official version; but also, one suspects, because of the silent Marx brother’s famous randiness. This, his biggest and most influential hit, is nothing more than an extended metaphor for sex. So are two-thirds of all blues songs, of course, but few of them as direct and unsubtle as this one ever made it as big. Slim’s minimal funkiness and leering voice proved hugely influential on a young London art-school student named Michael P. Jagger, who even took up the harmonica in imitation (but didn’t play it nearly as well).
Sam Cooke “You Send Me”
Ah, here it is: the time bomb that shook the foundations of pop music and left them forever changed. Not that it’s easy to tell from today’s perspective, especially if you’re not already soaked in the music of the period. And it’s not necessarily the song itself that made such an impact, though it’s got all the pop necessities: irresistably hummable melody, (slow-) danceable rhythm, compactly novel lyrical idea. (“What? Where does she send him?” “No, daddyo, you’re not digging it.”) It’s the voice. Gritty, yet smooth, slipping under notes and swallowing them up, weaving and bobbing like a young Cassius Clay. It’s not too much to say that, aside from the odd Josh Groban or so, there hasn’t been a popular male singer for thirty years whose vocal style didn’t owe something to Sam Cooke.
Dale Hawkins “Susie Q”
(Dale Hawkins/Eleanor Broadwater/Stan Lewis)
At an academic pop-music conference four years ago, there was a paper read called “The Cowbell As Universal Party-Down Signifier.” Blue Öyster Cult, one imagines, featured prominently (no doubt with a passing reference to a Will Ferrell sketch). But I hope space was left for Dale Hawkins. Another rockabilly artist defined by a single hit, Hawkins might better be described as the original swamp-rocker: a Louisiana boy with a huge drum sound and his buddy James Burton on electric guitar, he’s pretty much single-handedly responsible for Creedence Clearwater Revival (who at least had the decency to acknowledge it; a nine-minute version of “Susie Q” is on their debut album). The song has origins in 1930s dance-jazz; Louis Armstrong’s sometime wife Lil Hardin was the first to record a version.
Huey “Piano” Smith & The Clowns “Don’t You Just Know It”
(Huey Smith/Johnny Vincent)
I’m not usually the kind of person who sings out loud at random, but every now and then this nonsense chorus just pops out. “Ha ha ha ha (Ha ha ha ha)/Heyyy-yo (Heyyy-yo)/Booga booga booga booga (Booga booga booga booga)/Ah ah ah ah (Ah ah ah ah)” and so forth. It’s one of the greatest call-and-response themes of all time, rivalling Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and it turned Huey Smith into yet another New Orleans r&b legend. Not as genially cool as Fats Domino or as relentlessly funky as Professor Longhair, Smith carved out a party-hearty niche that relied on the traded vocals of his backup group the Clowns (presaging a certain Family Stone) and was ultimately responsible for the spread of those heppest of diseases, the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.
The Collins Kids “Hoy Hoy”
(Little Johnny Jones)
Look at that picture. Just look at it. What is that kid, ten? And his demure older sister, she’s what, sixteen? How on earth do those little squirts produce such an ungodly racket? Proof positive that rock & roll was a much a generational shift as a cultural one — it’s like it was encoded in their genes or something — Larry and Lonnie Collins (they both sang, but he played the solos) were one of the firiest, fastest, jumpingest rockabilly acts on the planet for a good while. Oddly enough, their tender years, instead of being scandalous, made rock & roll “safe” for both the country crowd and the TV-watching public for whom Lonnie was Ricky Nelson’s girlfriend. But give a listen to this: if it’s not statutory something, I’ll eat my hat. (Note: I don’t own a hat.)
Esquerita “Rockin’ The Joint”
(Eskew Reeder, Jr.)
Capitol wanted their own Little Richard, but better ( just as Gene Vincent was their own Elvis, but better), so they signed Esquerita. His hair was even bigger than Little Richard’s, his mouth even wider, his songs even more furiously-rocking and lascivous, his stage manner even more flamboyant, his sexuality even gayer, his sales — well, no. His sales tanked hard, and he was quickly forgotten as a camp novelty, except among die-hard rock & roll collectors. (You can’t see sexual orientation on a 45.) But see, here’s the thing — Little Richard stole his act at the beginning of his own career. Well, maybe not stole exactly, but cleaned up and refined and presented as his own. Rock & roll ain’t just white pretending to be black, kids. It’s also straight pretending to be gay.
Wynn Stewart “Come On”
Mainstream country is the least forgiving genre: even major hitmakers are quickly forgotten if they don’t continue to top the charts for over a decade. Wynn Stewart was one of the greatest country singers and songwriters of the 1950s, on par with Ray Price or Hank Thompson, and he was one of the first Bakersfield artists — in fact, Buck Owens could be said to owe him his entire career. But apart from a heaven-tinged ballad or two, he’s been almost entirely written out of the music’s history. This song, one of his best, is a rockabilly-inflected jump tune, a slightly salacious ditty (though nothing compared to even the RCA-tamed Elvis) that strikes a happy medium between Buck Owens and Buddy Holly. And the wordless vocal whine that opens the song and repeats throughout reminds me of the brazen murmuring Ella Mae Morse used to open her funkiest jive tunes.
The Johnny Otis Show “Willie And The Hand Jive”
He was a Greek entrepreneur who played black so well that his son could be mistaken for an honest-to-God bluesman by David Byrne. The man born Ioannis Veniotes ran the biggest rock & roll circus on earth, something even the Stones couldn’t make pay in 1970. As a talent scout (an impressive chunk of his artist roster is on this very list), bandleader, disc jockey, and songwriter, he was one of the four or five most important architects of rock & roll culture. So it’s kind of a pity that his most famous song is most remembered for biting Bo Diddley’s signature “shave and a haircut, two bits” beat and riding it to bigger success than Diddley ever had. Otis knew how to play the success game, though, and when he put on a show, you got your money’s worth.
Frank Sinatra “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”
(Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer)
Yes, Sinatra. I could go into an elaborate defense of Old Blue Eyes, and this song in particular, as rock & roll — the man’s fuck-you attitude, the blues roots of the melody, the Springsteeny heart-on-sleeve macho of the lyric, the way it’s influenced barfly personas from Hank Thompson to Tom Waits — but instead I think I’ll just marvel at Bill Miller’s sensitive, nuanced accompaniment on the piano, the bluesy, woozy saxophone punctuation, and Sinatra’s own exhausted, extended outro. He first recorded the song in 1947, but that was a 45-rpm hepcat version, without the adult weariness he shows here. No matter what he thought about rock & roll — he was.
Ritchie Valens “Donna”
The thing that always surprises me about Latino rock & roll is how smooth it is. Although I don’t know why that should be a surprise: there’s the “Latin lover” stereotype, of course, but even Latin American folk music has fewer rough edges and blue notes than the Africanized U. S. version. Anyway, Valens is mostly remembered today as a co-fatality of Buddy Holly’s, or maybe for the safe multiculturalism of “La Bamba” — but he was an honest-to-God star in his own right, and his Greatest Hits is no less deep than any of his contemporaries except maybe Elvis. It might be easy at first listen to confuse this with any number of other malt-shop teenybopper ballads, but listen closely: this is the one with the kickin’ tex-mex electric guitar in the background.
Eddie Cochran “Summertime Blues”
(Eddie Cochran/Jerry Capehart)
What “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was to the summer of 1965, and “God Save the Queen” to the summer of 1976, “Summertime Blues” was to the summer of 1958: a calculated teenage-rebellion anthem married to a killer hook and a ferocious rhythmic pulse. I can’t abide the know-nothings who claim to prefer the Who’s version (or even, weirdly, Blue Cheer’s). Roger Daltrey always sounds like a powerful badass, when the whole point of the song is the frustrated powerlessness of the singer; Cochran nailed the nerdy teenage angst. Okay, I can see preferring Entwhistle’s basso — but I find it cute that the original was trying to sound like Johnny Cash and (naturally) failed.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross “Gimme That Wine”
The primary exponents of vocalese — a post-bop form of vocal jazz that sounds remarkably like just singing a song; the genre tag is really unnecessary — Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were also part of a hard-to-define and poorly-documented movement that combined hepcat jazz, Broadway blues, the progressive politics of the Greenwich Village folkies, and the more intellectual side of rock & roll. As teenage rock & roll became more divorced from blues, and jazz moved into decidedly less hep quarters, the movement faded away; but while it was there, it produced lovely things like this: a distant relative of “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” it’s a comic r&b number given a high-class production.
The Kingston Trio “Tom Dooley”
Before you laugh: how many groups can say that they are personally responsible for the existence of both Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys? The scrubbed-up folk of Pete Seeger and the Weavers was transformed into pop gold by the Kingston Trio (in those days, Caribbean music was still considered folk), paving the way for the commercial success of Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and some kid from Hibbing. But their harmonies — and especially the way they fragment their harmonies, one guy jumping ahead of the others or dragging behind — was enormously influential to Brian Wilson’s young compositional instinct too. And, of course, their beach-casual striped-shirt image gave the Beach Boys their iconic costume.
Janis Martin “Bang Bang”
She was billed by RCA as “The Female Elvis.” She wasn’t — Wanda Jackson was — but she was pretty hot stuff anyway. Her big hit was (natch) “My Boy Elvis,” but it’s this gleeful sexual metaphor (from a young girl who qualified as jailbait in many states) that’s the keeper; “If you want to make a deal/Cock your pistol and rooty-toot shoot” has only one meaning that I can parse, anyway. But the icing is the chorus: there’s so much echo on her voice that it practically counts as call-and-response, and you see where R.E.M. got the idea for their song of the same name. Plus, that huge drum sound; I’m always a sucker for metaphorical snares beating out a martial tattoo.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson “Gangster Of Love”
Man, Steve Miller can’t catch a break, can he? First I show up his “pompetus of love” shtick, and now I drag out the original Gangster of Love. Don’t get this confused with Guitar Watson’s 70s funk remake of his trademark song, either: this is straight stomping blues, with his wicked guitar squeezing out sparks. It’s a shame that his funk years are better documented on reissues these days; he was one of the original guitar heroes (his instrumental “Space Guitar” has to be heard to be believed), and if you can tell he’s just grinning from ear to ear at his own badass-cowboy pose, that makes it all the more charming.
Chuck Berry “Memphis”
Frequently acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in rock & roll (at least until Dylan), Chuck Berry’s less noted for his stylistic experiments. Most of his well-known hits (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Johnny Be Goode”) are patterned on the same style, but he was also proficient at hot-rod (“Maybellene”), teen-pop (“Almost Grown”), Latin balladry (“Havana Moon”), and — as this buried b-side attests — country. Yes, it’s a country song — specifically, it’s stripped-down western swing — from the loping pace to the Nashville-clever lyrical surprise of Sweet Marie not being who you thought she was. But it’s also a predecessor of slow-burn funk: the hook, as well as the song’s pace, is set by the bass guitar. Man, Chuck Berry could do it all.
Lefty Frizzell “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues”
I love the way that he pronounces “cigarettes,” as though he was going to say “cigars” but looked at the lyric sheet just in time. I love the rippling honky-tonk piano that cascades throughout the song. I love the swinging rock & roll beat, accented by electric guitar chords that sound just a half-beat away from being ska. I love the general smoky, late-night atmosphere of the song, as though it were itself a slice of the nicotined, caffeinated life described in the lyrics. I love whoever’s adding those keening harmonies on the chorus. Most of all, though, I love Lefty’s voice, rich and buttery and sounding very much like he just set down his cigarette and coffee cup before the session started.
Frankie Ford “Sea Cruise”
Hey, where have I heard those horn charts before? (No, really. The first time I heard this, I had to stop and root through my iPod to figure it out.) The Clash borrowed them for their cover of “Wrong ’Em Boyo,” which is appropriate, since the rocksteady of the original was anticipated by this song’s bouncy rhythm. It’s pure ska (maybe it’s even dub, with all those foghorn sound effects, not to mention the fact that Frankie Ford quasi-ethically dubbed his voice onto Huey “Piano” Smith’s track). But at the same time, it’s surf music — that climbing melody sounds like every early Beach Boys hit — and then too it’s just prime New Orleans r&b, danceable and fun and oo-wee, baby, oo-wee.
Charlie Rich “Big Man”
(Charlie Rich/Dale Fox)
When Sun lost Elvis to RCA, the Army, the movies, and sentimental glop, they scrambled to replace him. To all appearances, Charlie Rich was the perfect fit. His emotional baritone sounded a lot like Elvis’s, but he had better phrasing; he was drop-dead gorgeous, but more distinguished; and he could write killer songs, and play terrific jazz-inspired piano, and — and — but no. He had a couple of minor hits, and then hopped from label to label all through the 60s, playing a sophisticated and unique version of country-soul-jazz that found no takers even as country and soul and jazz were all exploding into radical new forms. Then finally, his hair white from the strain, he broke through with “Behind Closed Doors” in 1973. But back at Sun, as a brash young Turk, he was already crossing boundaries and fusing black gospel with old-time religion (and maybe inspiring Randy Newman along the way) — the Big Man of the title is God himself.
Jimmy Reed “Baby What You Want Me To Do”
The slinkiest, drag-funkiest of the classic bluesmen, Jimmy Reed is probably the person most responsbile for the Rolling Stones’ perfected 1968-1972 sound. (I mean, aside from Jimmy Miller and the band themselves.) But to say he inspired a bunch of white toffs is to say nothing at all; he was also one of the great songwriters of the blues; and I do mean songwriters, not just someone who threw some (possibly original) lyrics on an ancient AAB. Like a rural juke-joint hero, he played guitar and harmonica at once — like an urban sophisticate, he dressed sharp and played sharper. This song is remarkable for its slowed-down drive, a moderate tempo that pulls you along, a way of creating suspense even when the lyric is just a not-quite-sure-about-love song.
Jackie Wilson “Lonely Teardrops”
(Tyran Carlo/Berry Gordy, Jr.)
The man who started Motown. Or rather, who gave Berry Gordy enough hits that he started Motown. But the label’s signature glossy funk hadn’t yet been developed; Wilson is, if not exactly raw, at least unvarnished, switching easily between the modified walking blues of the verses and the high-octane gospel swoop of the chorus. He was called Mr. Excitement for a reason: his voice sounds like it might burst if it stays on a note for too long, running up and down the scale and breaking into whoops and secular hallelujahs over the female chorus. Soul had arrived, indeed, and Jackie Wilson would see that it invaded the bustling, automotive Detroit in all its pomp and splendor. This song is not unlike the great orgy of classic American car design at the end of the materialistic 50s, all chrome swoops and flashy tails and incandescent lights.
Nina Simone “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
Where do you file Nina Simone? Is she jazz, folk, soul, funk, singer/songwriter, what? (Well anyway, she’s not rock & roll, I hear you shout.) She’s maybe the primary reason I don’t believe in filing music. Or at least an excellent excuse. Check it: the song is an ancient vaudeville lament, given life and dignity by Bessie Smith in the year of our Lord 1929 — the year of the Depression. It was covered by jazz-blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon, who gave it a postwar kick. Then Nina Simone got her hands on it, and turned it from a wry smile at fair-weather friendship to a growling condemnation of the slow movement of civil rights. It’s blues, but with soul. And jazz chops. See what I mean about categories? (And then, yeah, I hear some guy named Derek and his backing band played it. Whatever.)
Dion & The Belmonts “A Teenager In Love”
(Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
It’s not that I wanted to point out how young and winsome and, well, beatupable the young Dion DiMucci sounds here. (But seriously, this is the tough guy that would sing about Runaround Sue and call himself the Wanderer?) And it’s not that I wanted to point out how doo-wop was being co-opted and homogenized by white — mostly Italian (you know, ethnic but not too ethnic) — groups, and watered down for the sock-hop market. It’s not even that I wanted to point out how much the lyrics encapsulate a certain self-pitying romanticism inherent in American adolescence. It’s that I wanted to point out that this was Doc Pomus’s first great song. Give it up for Doc Pomus.
The Shirelles “Dedicated To The One I Love”
(Ralph Bass/Lowman Pauling)
The first mega-successful girl group, and the one on which all subsequent stars of the form would be patterned, they were still unknown failures in 1959, when their cover of the “5” Royales’ “Dedicated” stiffed in the charts. (An overweight teenager named Cass Elliott heard it, though, and that’s how the Mamas & Papas had one of their fluffiest pop hits. But back to the Shirelles.) Their producer, Luther Dixon, gave them the glossiest string backing regional-label money could buy, and had the song start out with one of the most thrilling cries in all of pop music. (Modern scavanger-pop artists Johnny Boy play with it to gorgeous effect in their “Johnny Boy Theme.”) But no go; it tanked, and the Shirelles wouldn’t become legends until they got a Goffin/King song and started exploiting teenage sexuality.
Brook Benton & Dinah Washington “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)”
(Brook Benton/Clyde Otis/Jules Stein)
Dinah Washington is an acknowledged jazz legend, of course. Why then should it surprise anyone that she had her biggest success on the rhythm & blues charts? Brook Benton isn’t even close to being a jazz singer; although as a soul singer, he was pretty advanced for 1959, coming on like a less whiny Marvin Gaye. Together, they created pop magic that dominated the close of the 50s but falls through the historical cracks today because it doesn’t fit easily into Ken Burns’ vision of jazz or Rhino Records’ vision of soul. Today it reads (especially those swooping strings) like a more easygoing version of Philly soul from the 70s; they trade quips and try to crack each other up while playing around with pitch and meter in a very jazzy, soulful kinda way.
Wanda Jackson “Riot In Cell Block #9”
(Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
The First Lady of Rockabilly, the great Atomic Yodeler herself, ladies and gentlemen, Wanda Jackson. She only spent two years as a rocker, but in that time she made most of the male rockers look like pussies. Listen to her lewd twang, and then she breaks out her gutbucket snarl; listen to to the shrieks and screams of the femmey chorus behind her; listen to the sheer velocity and wham! of this thing, and know: you’ve just been rocked. And this wasn’t a one-off deal, either: this is maybe one of her tamer efforts, a cover of an L.A. doo-wop song (but juiced up with prison-dyke innuendo because of who’s singing it) that plays as her version of “Jailhouse Rock.” She could also sing straight country, and make your mama weep while doing it; but it’s as the first of the riot grrls that she’ll always be remembered.
The Isley Brothers “Shout!”
(Rudolph Isley/Ronald Isley/O’Kelly Isley, Jr.)
It’s gospel gone feral; it’s the most primitive, joyous, rocking, funky, soulful, extravagant, howling, swooning, stomping, jubilant, gorgeous sound on earth. It’s the Isley Brothers, and it’s not even their freaking peak; they’re just getting warmed up. It’s a call-and-response chant, a field holler amphetamined by God and the devil into something that can get even white folks to dance. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson — who? This is soul, brothers and sisters, this is the new generation, this is what will come tumbling out of the chicken shacks and chitlin halls in the next decade, this is Otis and Wilson and Tina and Aretha and James and Sly — this is the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the future.
Halfway through this list, I realized that one of the songs I had wanted to include when I first conceived the list had somehow gotten left out. (I blame the accounting department. Disciplinary action will be taken.) So here it is: think of it as a bonus track to a killer playlist.
Chet Baker “Let’s Get Lost”
(Frank Loesser/Jimmy McHugh)
Pacific Jazz, 1955
Only tangentially connected to rock & roll (it was a huge influence on Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello; its airy pop structure predicted the non-blues forms that rock artists would soon develop), this song is one of the highlights of all of 50s music, period. Baker’s intimate, androgynous voice represented a way to bring 30s-style crooning into the postwar era, and would be imitated by David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, among others; and his laid-back trumpet style was to the pop crossover market what Miles Davis was to the hardcore jazz market. But more than anything, Baker is one of the definitive junkie-artists. Only Charlie Parker and Johnny Thunders squandered as much staggering talent in a downward spiral of heroin addiction. Baker survived longer than either; but he never again matched the world-beating heights of his early career.