I often wonder whether those in their teens today are willing (or able) to acknowledge the debt they pay to the pioneers of the music they love.
I’m speaking, of course, about Elvis, and Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a couple dozen more. Their impact goes well beyond their big hits, although those seismic tracks obviously played an important part in it all. I’m talking more specifically about the very cool recordings from those early albums that received almost no airplay at all. It’s a crime that virtually no one today has heard these songs that contributed significantly to the major shift in 1950s popular music from gooey ballads to hip-shaking, three-chord, blues-based rock and roll.
Because, let’s face it — without these rebels and their dedication and passion, there may very well have been no Beatles, nor Stevie Wonder, nor Pink Floyd, nor Metallica, nor Michael Jackson, nor Oasis, nor Lady Gaga, nor Bruno Mars, nor anyone else you’ve come to love in the rock music pantheon.
The singers and songwriters who embraced the insatiable rhythms and fun-loving, teen-angst lyrics that helped create what became known as rock and roll played an unquantifiable yet (apart from their big hits) too often neglected part in the development of the popular music scene ever since.
So today, class, we’re going to have a little history lesson that, I hope, will help you all appreciate just how much these trailblazers of the ’50s did for all of us rock music lovers who came along in the decades since.
To be a completist about the evolution of rock music, you really must go back to the 1930s and 1940s, when the best dance music was played by the fabulous swing bands of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and irresistible “jump blues” artists like Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Louis Prima and Cab Calloway. Songs like Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail” are arguably the blueprints for the rock and roll standards that followed.
Many people point to Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” (1954) as the first rock and roll hit, followed closely by Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955) and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1955). These are all vital, iconic tunes that deserve their place in the earliest moments of rock’s recorded history. A convincing case can be made, however, that Fat’s Domino’s “The Fat Man” (1951) or Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” (1953), both million sellers on the R&B charts, were really the debut of rock and roll. Frankly, it’s a grey area; boogie-woogie and jump blues were in the process of evolving into rock, so who’s to say when it truly began?
This column strives to dig deep to highlight lesser known songs by 20 of rock’s pioneers. The million-selling hits still get airplay from time to time, but here at Hack’s Back Pages, I’m offering the opportunity to hear the major artists performing great early rock songs you’ve probably never been exposed to before. Whether you’re a dedicated student of rock or just a casual listener who would like to expand your horizons, I urge you to crank up the Spotify playlist found at the end of this piece. I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.
“Boppin’ the Blues,” Carl Perkins, 1956
Perkins, perhaps the king of rockabilly, came through Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio just as Elvis Presley had, and when Elvis left for RCA and superstardom, Perkins became Phillips’ primary artist. Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” competed for the #1 spot for months in early 1956. A severe auto accident hurt Perkins’ momentum, and he never quite regained it during rockabilly’s heyday, although he was widely revered up to and beyond his death in 1998 (he made a praised guest appearance on Paul McCartney’s 1982 LP, “Tug of War”). “Boppin’ the Blues” reached #7 on the country charts upon its release in 1956, but stiffed at #70 on the pop charts. Me, I love this track as much as his hits.
“She’s Got It,” Little Richard, 1956
Have you ever seen the early rock film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring Jayne Mansfield? If not, put it on your bucket list — it’s a load of fun, filled with performances and recordings of classic early rock and roll tunes. Little Richard’s “She’s Got It” plays in the background in one scene when Mansfield is putting on her makeup in the powder room. It’s a sexy, upbeat number that you’ll have trouble getting out of your head once you’ve heard it.
“Mean Woman Blues,” Elvis Presley, 1957
Claude Demetrius was a staff songwriter for Gladys Music, owner of the publishing rights to Elvis’s records. Demetrius wrote “I Was The One,” the B-side of the breakthrough “Heartbreak Hotel” single, and his biggest success came in 1958 with Presley’s big #2 hit “Hard Headed Woman” from the “Kid Creole” soundtrack LP. Demetrius also penned “Mean Woman Blues,” which ended up as the leadoff track on Presley’s 1957 chart-topping film soundtrack LP “Lovin’ You.” Elvis never sounded better than he did on tracks like this one.
“Birth of the Boogie,” Bill Haley & His Comets, 1955
Everyone knows Haley for “Rock Around the Clock,” actually first released in late 1954 as a B-side and then re-released in May 1955 after its use in the film “The Blackboard Jungle” made it a sensation. In between, Haley and His Comets recorded and released the uptempo original “Birth of the Boogie,” which reached a respectable #17 on the pop charts in April 1955, although it’s mostly overlooked these days.
“Ooh! My Head,” Ritchie Valens, 1959
Talk about tragic. Valens, an American with Venezuelan roots, had taken a Mexican folk song, given it a rock ‘n roll beat, and came up with “La Bamba,” a milestone hit in rock history. He was on tour with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and others when their plane crashed in February 1959. He wasn’t yet 18 years old. His only album, “Ritchie Valens,” was released a month later and included a dozen examples of his huge potential, perhaps most notably “Ooh! My Head,” which has been cited as the inspiration for “Boogie With Stu,” one of the tracks on Led Zeppelin’s 1975 LP “Physical Graffiti.”
“Crazy Arms,” Jerry Lee Lewis, 1956
Before “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” put him on the map in 1957, a young Jerry Lee Lewis chose “Crazy Arms,” a traditional country song by Ray Price that had just reached #1 on the country charts, gave it a funky Texas shuffle arrangement, and made it his first single. It stiffed badly. Listening to it now, it’s a natural for Lewis, a fine example of his earthy rock piano/vocal, but perhaps it came too hard on the heels of Price’s honky-tonk original. It’s been recorded by dozens of artists, mostly as a pure country tune, but Lewis’s version strikes me as the most vibrant.
“(Ain’t That) Good News,” Sam Cooke, 1960
Hailed by many as one of the top R&B singers of all time, Cooke got his start in gospel, and had hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and even the standard “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons” before he branched out into more rock/soul material in the ’60s. “Twistin’ the Night Away” was featured in the “Animal House” film soundtrack, and Cooke’s take on the Willie Dixon blues song “Little Red Rooster” remains the definitive version. But take a listen to “(Ain’t That) Good News,” written in 1960 and eventually a #11 hit on the 1964 pop charts before Cooke’s untimely shooting death that year at the hands of a motel night manager.
“If You Can’t Rock Me,” Ricky Nelson, 1957
Nelson, son of the radio-the-TV stars Ozzie and Harriet, was bit by the rock and roll bug early and, with his father’s help, secured a record contract that resulted in 15 Top Ten hits between his 1957 debut and 1963. His first LP, “Ricky,” was popular enough to knock the latest Elvis LP from the #1 spot and earned him rave reviews as a smooth interpreter of rock songs “in every way that Pat Boone was not,” as one critic put it. “If You Can’t Rock Me,” a deep album track from the debut LP, is a perfect example of his fine vocal delivery.
“Hello Little Boy,” Ruth Brown, 1957
Brown, “The Queen of R&B” from 1950-1960, never did better than the mid-20s on the pop charts, but she racked up more than 20 Top Ten hits on the R&B charts during that ten-year spell. Some of them, like “Lucky Lips” and “This Girl’s Gone Rockin’,” may be familiar to you, but my favorite is a relatively obscure track from 1954 called “Hello Little Boy,” a frenetic, double-time rock prototype that, if released ten years later, would’ve put her at the top of the pop charts for sure. Whew, what a workout!
“You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care),” Buddy Holly, 1958
A product of West Texas, Holly was essentially a country-western artist who switched to rock and roll after he and his band, The Crickets, opened for Elvis Presley three times in 1955 and became devotees. He managed only three Top Ten hits (the #1 “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy”) before he perished along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in the infamous plane crash in February 1959 (“the day the music died,” as Don McLean put it in “American Pie” a dozen years later). He was barely 23. Holly’s influence was enormous (The Beatles’ name was a play on Holly’s Crickets), and Linda Ronstadt and others had hits decades later with their revival versions of his songs. “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)” is a beauty that has been covered by artists like Bryan Ferry and Joni Mitchell.
“Domino,” Roy Orbison, 1959
Orbison began recording in 1955 but didn’t really hit his stride until 1960 when he was paired with top-flight Nashville musicians and producers who encouraged the stylistic inclinations that made his hits (“Only the Lonely, Running Scared,” “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Oh Pretty Woman”) so distinctive. Despite his tendency toward dark romantic ballads, Orbison knew his way around a great rock and roll song like “Domino,” as you shall see.
“I Found a Million Dollar Baby,” Bobby Darin, 1958
Before classics like “Mack the Knife,” “Dream Lover” and “Beyond the Sea” made him a successful pop vocalist star in 1959-1960, Darin showed he was plenty comfortable with rawer rock and roll material like “I Found a Million Dollar Baby,” which went nowhere on the charts but, in retrospect, gives a great deal of credibility to his overall reputation and his rock credentials. Although he had a million-dollar voice, he wasn’t always regarded as a true rock and roll guy, but gutsy songs like this one offer a very convincing case.
“Hey Sexy,” The Coasters, 1958
Originally known as an LA-based vocal group called The Robins, only two members were willing to move from coast to coast and sign with New York-based Atlantic Records, consequently calling themselves The Coasters. The group had a half-dozen Top Ten hits in the 1957-1959 period (“Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy”), and their songs and smooth style were emulated by the doo-wop groups of the era. Less known is the wonderful “Hey Sexy,” which showed up as a deep track on their debut LP, “The Coasters.”
“Teenage Heaven,” Eddie Cochran, 1959
When it comes to teenage angst and frustration, no one came up with better stuff than Eddie Cochran, who, like too many of the folks on this list, died way too young (age 21, in a car crash in England). He had only two Top 20 hits — “Sittin’ in the Balcony” and the iconic “Summertime Blues”– but he also gets a huge credit for writing “Twenty-Flight Rock” (a song John Lennon admired, which Paul McCartney played as an audition of sorts that convinced Lennon to add him to his band). Among the great rock tunes in Cochran’s repertoire worth exploring are “Somethin’ Else,” “C’Mon Everybody” and the wonderful “Teenage Heaven,” which features a smokin’ sax solo.
“You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover,” Bo Diddley, 1959
Elias McDaniel, known better as Bo Diddley, originated the signature “five-accent hambone rhythm” that went on to influence Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Clash, among others. He had no Top 40 pop hits, but his songs — “Bo Diddley,” “I’m a Man,” “Who Do You Love,” “Road Runner” — were covered by everyone from Chicago and The Doors to Fleetwood Mac and George Thorogood. In 1962, he reached #48 with “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover,” a song he’d written and recorded in 1959, which I find among his greatest tracks.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” Chuck Berry, 1956
Finding a “crossover” act — a black man who could merge R&B with country and make it suitable for white audiences — was the goal of Chess Records mogul Leonard Chess, and he found it in Chuck Berry, who became a sensation in 1955-1958 with huge, important songs like “Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode.” He wrote and recorded more than a hundred vintage rock and roll songs including lesser known beauties like “Too Much Monkey Business” and the autobiographical “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (originally “brown-skinned” but deemed too provocative for its time).
“Race With the Devil,” Gene Vincent, 1956
Vincent Eugene Craddock hailed from Norfolk, Virginia, and he burst forth in the rock and roll arena in 1956 with his monumental “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” which peaked at #7 on the pop charts and has only grown in stature ever since. (It’s the only song recorded by both Lennon and McCartney on their solo records.). Sadly, he couldn’t seem to follow it up with any more hits, and his career petered out, but not before releasing dozens of great rockabilly tracks like “Five Feet of Lovin’ and “Race With the Devil,” which had inexplicably stiffed at #70 on the charts.
“Hey, Doll Baby,” The Everly Brothers, 1958
Everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Hall & Oates have emulated these brothers from Kentucky who mesmerized audiences and radio listeners with their amazing harmonies during their peak period (1957-1962), when they had more than a dozen Top Ten hits, including three #1s (“Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do is Dream” and “Cathy’s Clown”). They were influenced by country styles but ended up singing mostly rock ‘n’ roll and ballads, and their 1958 debut LP included rock songs like “Bye Bye Love,” Little Richard’s “Keep a-Knockin'” and the simple rocker “Hey, Doll Baby.”
“All By Myself,” Fats Domino, 1955
Hard on the heels of the pivotal hit “Ain’t That a Shame” in August 1955 (#10 on the pop charts and #1 on R&B charts) came Domino’s “All By Myself” (obviously in NO way related to the schmaltzy 1975 Eric Carmen hit). The snappy Domino tune also went to #1 on the R&B charts but for some reason never even charted in the pop world. Go figure. I really love this track and its irresistible 12-bar-blues structure, and the fine sax solo in the middle break. Antoine “Fats” Domino, a New Orleans native, died last year at 89, a true rock and roll giant.
“Etcetera,” Jackie Wilson, 1958
You could almost call “Etcetera” a progenitor to rap music with its half-spoken introduction. Wilson had a phenomenal four-octave voice capable of singing R&B, rock, pop, doo-wop and easy listening genres. His dozen Top 20 pop hits — from 1958’s “Lonely Teardrops” to 1967’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” — showcase a rare talent that won him inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in only its second year. “Etcetera” is an example of the fun R&B/rock merger he was so good at.