I know what you're thinking. The 1950's: who cares? The moldiest oldies of all, stuff even grandparents don't listen to anymore, music made largely by people who died long ago. Why bother with it?
Most people acknowledge the importance of the 1950's rock 'n' roll artists. Most will concede that everything that has come since, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to the Replacements to Nirvana to New Pornographers somehow traces its roots, in circuitous ways or direct ones, back to the initial roster of names who combined blues, country, and r&b in the 1950's. But precious few actually play a Chuck Berry or Everly Brothers album anymore.
A pity; not only were these recordings pretty amazing when they came out, essentially changing the face of American popular culture forever more, but they still sound great today, conjuring up an era that was partly space-age, partly Cold War paranoid, fairly segregated, partly prosperous, retrospectively kitschy, and subtly confident. A time capsule of a time and place now greatly changed.
This is a two-part series; part one is an introduction, part two will look at the more undersung heroes of the 1950's.
Some important/influential rock 'n' roll songs/artists of the 1950's were:
1. Elvis Presley: Heartbreak Hotel Elvis Presley, who would have turned 70 this month had he lived, is arguably the single most important performer in rock history. He is also one of the cultural icons the U.S. has ever produced, and as such, Presley's musical contributions are often overshadowed by his legend. Which is a pity; despite an uneven career that saw him go from rock pioneer to formulaic movie hack to popmeister to rock star again to the bloated characature he ultimately became in his final years, he amassed a body of work that rivals anyone's and pretty much created the template for rock stardom. "Heartbreak Hotel" was Presley's first single for RCA records, released in March, 1956. Written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton, it was based upon a newspaper article Durden had seen that quoted a suicide note that included the line "I walk a lonely street". On it, Presley establishes the sound that would sustain him until he was drafted into the army; his expressive, dramatic croon, Scotty Moore's ringing guitar, Floyd Cramer's tinkling ivories, the walking bass. The song has blues progressions, but a country delivery. "Heartbreak Hotel" peaked at #1, shifting Presley's career into high gear right from the outset. Presley placed 163 singles on the charts between 1953 and his death in 1977, a pace nobody is likely to ever replicate.
2. Gene Vincent: Be Bop A Lula Gene Vincent's "Be Bop A Lula" sounds not dissimilar to an Elvis Presley number, especially on the heels of "Heartbreak Hotel". His Blue Caps provided him with an instrumental assault similar to Presley's Jordannaires, highlighted by the stellar guitar of Cliff Gallup. Vincent's own croon bore a remarkable similarity to Presley's, and RCA rival Capital records promoted Vincent as a Presley rival. "Be Bop A Lula" went top-10 in 1956, and helped establish Vincent as one of the premiere rockabilly performers in the land. Unfortunately, Vincent was unable to keep up the career momentum Presley had. He charted a total of six singles, the last in 1958. In 1960, while on tour in England, Vincent's tourmate Eddie Cochrane was killed in an auto accident, which had an effect on Vincent; his music grew tame and punchless. By 1963, Capitol had dropped him. His last moment as a footnote to rock history came in 1969 when he played at John Lennon's Live Peace in Toronto festival. In 1971, he died, after long running health problems coupled with excessive drinking, finally did him in.
3. Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley Diddley only charted 11 singles in his lifetime, but his legend looms large; his songs have been covered hundreds of times; the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead (among dozens of bands) borrowed some of his sound for in creating their own. His patented beat, instantly recognizable when it starts up, is as much a part of the musical lexicon as a Chuck Berry guitar riff. Diddley studied classical violin until a fateful day when he heard John Lee Hooker's primitive boogie blues for the first time; he then switched to r&b, developing his "freight train sound" with the help of maraca player and bandmate Jerome Green. Labelmate at Chess with rival Berry, Diddley's first single, "Bo Diddley"/"I'm A Man" remains one of the greatest ever released; "Bo Diddley" boasted a tribal-sounding polyrhythmic beat and nicely raunchy lyrics; it is one of the most covered songs of all time. Diddley's own guitar playing, with its odd phase shifting sound, is some of the best laid to wax in the 1950's. By 1962, his hits had dried up, but he remained an important live performer; in 1979, he toured with The Clash.
4. Larry Williams: Bony Maronie New Orleans native Larry Williams recorded for Specialty records, and got his big break when Little Richard decided to give up rock 'n' roll in 1957 for the ministry. Williams' first single, "Just Because" was recorded with Richard's backing band, and set the pace for Williams' subsequent output, which was brash and rocking in a style not dissimilar to Richard's. "Bony Maronie", featuring Williams' rowdy vocals and a great sax solo, peaked at #14 in 1957; while not his biggest hit, it remains his best known. Williams actually recorded many titles that are well known today, largely thanks to John Lennon, who recorded "Slow Down", "Bad Boy", and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" with the Beatles, and "Just Because" and "Bony Maronie" solo; the Rolling Stones recorded "She Said Yeah". In 1959, Williams was busted for selling narcotics, which got him kicked off his label; he became a journeyman, recording for a variety of labels in the 1960's, but never regained his early momentum. In 1980, Williams was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head; his death was ruled a suicide, although speculation that it had been a homicide over a bad drug deal persists to this day.
5. The Everly Brothers: Bye Bye Love It may be hard for a young person to work up much enthusiasm for the Everly Brothers these days. Unlike the 1950's rockers, The Everlys weren't known for muscle; their music in the 1950's consisted of polite 2-part harmony songs that were extremely melodic, plus a handful of lightweight rockers. That said, their influence is immense, having informed the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and a myriad of country rock artists of the 1960's and 1970's. Don and Phil Everly recorded for Cadence records, after an early attempt at a country career failed on Columbia. "Bye Bye Love" from 1957 was their first hit. On it, the brothers harmonize over a Bo Diddley beat played on acoustic guitars, with an electric lead and other rock instrumentation included more for texture than propulsion. This set off an impressive string of hits, most of which are still familiar, that lasted through 1962, making them one of the few 50's acts to survive into the 60's. After their chart success had dimmed, they continued to make interesting records; their Roots LP was one of the key early country-rock releases in history. They had an acrimonious split in 1973, but resumed recording together in 1983, and had a minor hit with "On The WIngs Of A Nightingale", written for them by paul McCartney, in 1984.
6. Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Balls of Fire Jerry Lee Lewis, "The Killer", pretty much is the original wildman of rock 'n' roll, a flamboyant piano pounder with a lust for life, getting into remarkable amounts of trouble every inch of the way, Lewis has somehow managed to survive to old age, turning 70 this year. Whereas Elvis Presley went out of his way to be personable and polite in his interviews in an effort to win over those offended by his hip gyrations, Lewis really didn't give a damn what people thought of him, and came across as a genuine threat; a long haired Southerner whose songs dripped with sexual imagery delivered with a reckless abandon that remains some of the grittiest, rawest rock 'n' roll ever recorded. He joined Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins at Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1956, already twice-divorced at the age of 21. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" was his raunchy debut from 1957; the leer in his voice is palpable even 50 years later. His next big hit was the intense "Great Balls of Fire" in 1958, which featured only Lewis' barrelhouse piano with bass and drums and an even wilder vocal; despite its spare instrumentation, it is one of the most powerful rock 'n' roll songs of the 1950's. Lewis' stardom was derailed by his own recklessness; just as he seemed poised to steal away Elvis' mantle, he married his 13-year-old cousin, which essentially got him blackballed from airplay. He made a comeback in the late 60's, and had repeated success on the country charts through the 1970's; he also continued to get into all kinds of trouble with booze, women, the I.R.S., and drugs. His career dried up again in the early 1980's, although he has occasionally reappeared since then.
7. Bill Haley: Shake, Rattle, and Roll Bill Haley is another perfomer who is often underestimated 50 years later; remembered best for his 1954 classic "Rock Around The Clock", the first rock 'n' roll single to reach #1 (in 1955), and "See You Later Alligator", which remains a catchphrase to this day, he was a truly important figure, bridging a stripped down swing with rockabilly, creating a very unique sound that still carries a lot of punch today. Many of his lesser known hits are of a similar caliber or even superior to his biggest; "Shake Rattle and Roll", from 1954, predates the Billboard charts and was a standout in a career that had begun with a version of Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats' proto-rock "Rocket 88" in 1951. "Shake Rattle and Roll", a standard covered by everyone from Count Basie to Big Joe Turner, has a swing rhythm, a great shouting chorus, a dirty-sounding sax solo, and some slashing guitar. Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis subsequently covered it. Haley, unfortunately, was a good deal older than his competitors; he turned 30 while "Rock around the Clock" was on the charts, and by the late 1950's he was already seen as a throwback to an earlier era. He continued to perform and record through the 60's, and was always a fascinating, intelligent interview, but never regained his stature; trouble with the I.R.S. sapped a lot out of him, too. In 1974, the success of the TV show Happy Days returned "Rock Around The Clock" to the charts, but Haley retired in 1975, spending his last few years battling severe psychological problems; he died in 1981.
8. Chuck Berry: Maybelline Elvis' only real rival for most important rock 'n' roll performer of the 1950's is Chuck Berry, and in many respects Berry is even more key. Unlike Presley, Berry was a gifted songwriter, and as a guitarist he virtually invented the language of rock guitar still in common currency today. Keith Richards owes everything to Chuck Berry. Berry, from East St. Louis, had begun his career as something of a novelty act; he played the blues (although he never was truly a bluesman; r&b was his strong suit), but he'd throw in rockabilly rhythms and sing in a goofy, hiccupy style as a spoof of the white performers across the river. This evolved into more elaborate crowd-pleasing moves like his famed duckwalk. Unwittingly at the time, Berry's marriage of r&b, blues, and rockabilly was the magic formula that created rock 'n' roll. "Maybelline", a #5 hit in 1955, put Berry in the spotlight nearly a year before Elivs hit the big time with "Heartbreak Hotel". Disarmingly simple, "Maybelline" benefits from Berry's rapidfire delivery of the lyrics, its distorted guitar, and its galloping rhythm. Berry was unstoppable through 1959, when he was imprisoned on dubious charges with racial overtones. While he enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960's, after the British Invasion bands championed him, and managed a token hit in 1972 with "My Ding A Ling", he never really was the same again. Still, he performed live well into his 70's; his enduring legacy seems assured.
9. Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats: Rocket 88 Brenston is a name not too many people know, beyond musicologists. However, "Rocket 88", from 1951, is frequently cited as the very first true rock 'n' roll record ever. Featuring a lineup that included Chuck Berry's hometown rival Ike Turner (who wrote the song, even though Brenston wound up with the credit) on piano, which he pounds, the single was recorded at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios and Phillips' own production decision is what transforms the song from a jump blues number to rock 'n' roll. Guitarist Willie Kizart's amp fell off the roof of a car, smashing the speaker cone; when plugged in, it made the guitar sound like a saxophone. Phillips decided to use the amp, and Kizart's distorted guitar became a rhythm track. The song was actually recorded by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, with soxophonist Brenston supplying vocals; however, when Phillips shipped the record off to Chess, who released it, the credit had changed to Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, with Brenston instead of Turner listed as songwriter. While "Rocket 88" was a smash, Brenston never was able to keep any momentum going. By 1962 he had retired and was driving a truck for a living; he died in 1979. Ike Turner, despite this considerable setback, enjoyed major success with wife Tina in the 60's and 70's before fading into obscurity himself.
10. Buddy Holly: Not Fade Away Like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly is an instantly familiar name who few listen to these days; even at his peak, his popularity never came close to his subsequent influence on some of the biggest names in rock history. His recording career is confusing; his first hit, "That'll Be The Day" on Coral records, from 1957, didn't bear his name, credited instead to the Crickets. This was part of an elaborate ruse to keep Decca records in the dark, as Decca had dropped him the previous year, and contractually prevented him from re-recording anything he had recorded for them, including the unreleased "That'll Be The Day". When Decca discovered who the singer was, they agreed to cancel the contract, and Coral executive managed to land Holly two contracts, one with Coral as a member of the Crickets, and one solo with Brunswick records. In this sense, Holly had two musical identities, as group member and solo performer. There's not a whole lot of difference in the music or musician lineups between the two careers, although the solo stuff tended to be slightly more pop oriented than the group material.
11. Roy Orbison: Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel) Roy Orbison was one of the last major stars to emerge from the 1950's. Orbison mixed a basic rockabilly sensibility with his remarkable, melodramatic, operatic, quavery voice, which resembled nobody else's (Chris Isaak made a career out of a similar sound in the 80's-90's). Orbison originally recorded at Sun, along with Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis, and had a mino hit "Oooby Dooby" in 1956; however, it was his only charting single until 1960. A fairly fuitless stint at RCA failed to ignite his career, and it wasn't until "Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)" was released on Monument that he finally attained stardom. "Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)" set the template from which he would draw for most of his career; largely a brooding, lonesome ballad with a softcore rockabilly underpinning, it peaked at #2, and was the first of 15 top-40 singles for Orbison from 1960-1965. Orbison managed to land a spot on a U.K. tour supporting the Beatles in 1963, and seemed poised to be the only major performer from the 1950's besides Presley to maintain a successful career into the mid-60's. However, an ill-advised switch to MGM wound up backfiring badly; MGM failed to give him the sympathetic production Monument had provided, and the hits dried up in 1966. Orbison enjoyed a brief comeback in the 1980's as member of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, and a Jeff-Lynne produced solo album included his 1989 comeback/swansong hit "You Got It"; unfortunately, Orbison didn't get to see it make the top-10; he died in 1988.
12. Duane Eddy: Rebel Rouser The word "twang" to describe a guitar sound is pretty much synonymous with Duane Eddy, whose instrumental rockers earned him 26 charting singles from 1958-1963. Eddy was a softer-core version of Link Wray, whose guitar instrumentals took on far greater menace than Eddy's mix of Chet Atkins and contry/western. However, he was immensely more popular than Wray, and his albums were among the first rock albums (besides Presley's) to sell well enough to crack the top-10. Eddy's career owes a lot to Phoenix-based disc jockey Lee Hazlewood (later known for his work with Nancy Sinatra), who became his producer and encouraged him to make use of the lower strings on the guitar and play up that twang. "Rebel Rouser" is a remarkable piece of playing and production; one of the earliest production masterpieces of the rock era. Eddy gives the low strings a real workout, ratcheting up the key every 12 bars, which is run through a dense echo; the band jumps in robustly, and the song gathers momentum. Production-wise, a restless sax was overdubbed, as were war whoops by the Sharps, a black vocal group. "Rebel Rouser" reached #6 in 1958, his biggest hit. Eddy's subsequent hits were mostly in a similar vein, and when the British Invasion landed, he was out of fashion. He's kept working, and had a minor comeback in the mid-1980's. The Shadows owe a considerable debt to him, as does George Harrison.
13. Link Wray: Rumble Link Wray's chief competitor as instrumental guitar hero was the maverick guitarist Link Wray, whose "Rumble" became the theme song for juvenile delinquents around the country in 1958, so much so that it was banned from radio airplay in many markets as a potential incitement to violence, despite the fact that it's a vocal-less guitar-bass-and-drums track. To be sure, the menace of this cut is palpable; Wray's distorted guitar scrapes through speakers he had intentionally punched holes in, for pure raunch factor. Rather than keeping a fast rhythm, like Duane Eddy, his guitar is slow and deliberate, dragging out chords. It is the very birth of the power chord itself; the primary guitar trick in heavy metal. Leather-clad, wearing shades, Wray himself looked like a menace, and was resistant to record company efforts to clean him up. This ultimately got him dropped from several lables, although he enjoyed success into the 60's releasing records on his own independant label. After a brief semi-retirement, Wray re-emerged in the early 1970's a rockabilly/roots-rock performer, still with the dark menace, and toured with Robert Gordon. "Rumble" remains one of the essential tracks in rock history. Wray died in 2005.
14. Little Richard: Tutti Frutti Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman), with his enormous pompadour, his raucous New Orleans style R&B, and his screaming vocals was one of the most distinctive stars of the 1950's, and ranks up there with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley as one of rock's original architects. "Tutti Frutti", from 1956, was as original and exciting as anything from his competitors; a stomping, fast tempo rocker with Richard's trademark "whoo" (mimicked repeatedly by Paul McCartney) and vibrant piano accompanied by a hard rocking rhythm section and sax, it established Richard as a star right out of the gate. However, as was the custom of the day, a white artist was enlisted to cover the song to make it safe for teens, and Pat Boone's sanitized version outdid Richard's on the charts. Nontheless, there was no question in any real rock 'n' roller's mind who had the best version, and Richard had some big smashes, "Long Tall Sally", "Rip It Up", "Ready Teddy", "Slippin' And Slidin"; song for song, he can hold his own with Berry himself. There's no telling how far he could have climbed if he hadn't abruptly retired in 1957 to pursue a career as a minister. He's fallen off the wagon a few times since; in the 60's and 70's he cut some good rock singles, although none sold well. He's also recorded gospel. Now 70, according to most bios, he seldom (but occasionally) makes public appearances.
15. Ricky Nelson: Be Bop Baby Ricky Nelson was a strange anomaly in rock history. As a kid who grew up on TV, in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, he developed into the biggest teen idol in the land, more popular than Elvis in some quarters. When he took up a music career in 1957, after hearing the rock 'n' roll explosion of 1956, he was assured of wide exposure, and got it; he repeatedly reached the top-10 into the 1960's. Unlike rival teen idol Pat Boone, Nelson actually could rock; he wasn't a crooner. For his records, he hired guitarists James Burton and Joe Maphis, who supplied real rockabilly grit, and Nelson was commited. So while many of his hits lean towards syrupy teen idol pop, many of them are also very good rockabilly-pop numbers; what they lack in raunch, they make up for in playing and execution. Nelson's vocals avoided Boone's clying croon, and borrowed hints from Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. "Be Bop Baby" was his first hit, from 1957, and established his essential approach; if not the greatest rock 'n' roll ever, it is still pretty good, and essential for rockabilly musicologists (an admittedly small demographic). Following the cancellation of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett in 1966, Nelson was a has-been, and knew it; he used his washed-up status as a theme for his major 1972 comeback single "Garden Party". His career extended into the 1980's, and is an uneven body of country music; he died in a plane crash in 1985.
16: Johnny Cash: I Walk The Line Johnny Cash, whose career spanned into the 2000's, ultimately proved himself to be the longest lasting of all the 1950's rockers, managing a top-40 on the Modern Rock charts with "Hurt" in 2003, just prior to his death. Cash began playing guitar while in the Air Force in 1954, and recorded his first sides at Sun records, "I Walk The Line" was his first #1, a massive hit spending six weeks in the top slot. A slow rocker with a twang to the guitar, and Cash's rich, deep, resolute vocals, it remains a fairly familiar song today; his other early Sun sides are in a similar vein. In 1958, he switched to Columbia records, which saw his sound drift from his early Sun sound to a more conventional country. However, Cash was never conventional; his willingness to cover such artists as Bob Dylan in the 60's was rare in country music. Marrying June Carter of the Carter Family also moved him to explore Appalachian music. He never really was a "rock" performer again until Rick Rubin engineered his comeback in 1994, although on the strength of his early Sun singles alone, he earns his place among rock 'n' roll heroes of the 1950's.
17. Lloyd Price: Lawdy Miss Clawdy "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" is another rock 'n' roll classic from the pre-Elvis era; recorded in 1952, was an enormous r&b hit, and on musical terms it comes awfully close to rock 'n' roll. It's a slow-tempo New Orleans r&b number with Price's bluesy wail, a great sax break, tinkling ivories, and a rhythm section that works up a good head. It was a great start to a career, and four more hits followed. Then, Price was abruptly drafted and shipped off to the Korean War. When he left the military, the musical climate had changed, and Price left his early New Orleans sound in pursuit of a more rock 'n' roll/r&b sound, utilizing horn sections and guitars. This second phase of his career was more successful than the first, yielding enduring hits like "Just Because" and "Stagger Lee"
18. Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes Rounding out the remarkable talent roster at Sun records, which included Presley, lewis, cash, and Orbison, was Carl Perkins, considered the first great popularizer of rockabilly. The son of sharecroppers, Perkins landed at Sun in 1954, and had a huge hit in 1956 with the instantly familiar "Blue Suede Shoes", which has become an institution itself. On its release, Perkins was the biggest rock star in the land; this moment alone in the spotlight lasted weeks until Elvis Presley appeared on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. He subsequently was overshadowed by Presley, and his work overshadowed by "Blue Sude Shoes", but he nontheless recorded some of the best songs of the era, inclding "Matchbox", "Honey Don't", "Everybody's Tryin' To Be My Baby", and "Your True Love", among others. Perkins left Sun for Columbia when Johnny Cash did, but his career fizzled there. He had a few comeback attempts of varying success over the years, but never regained his glory; he died in 1998.
19. Eddie Cochrane: Twenty Flight Rock Who knows where Eddie Cochrane would have gone, had he not been killed in a car crash in 1960. He occupied a very interesting niche between Carl Perkins and Link Wray; he played a rockabilly with a fat, power-chord laden, distorted guitar sound that he had all to himself. "Twenty Flight Rock" is all that and more, and has a very special place in rock history: it was the song paul McCartney played for John lennon in 1957 to convince him to let him join the Quarrymen, forever altering the face of rock music. Cochrane's "Summertime Blues" is his signature song, one of the songs pointing towards heavy metal in the distant future. "C'Mon Everybody" was his other greatest hit, and gave him a top-10 in England in 1959.
20. Fats Domino: Ain't That A Shame Yet another New orleans R&B performer who left an indelible mark on rock history, Fats Domino (Antoine Domino Jr.) specialized in a pounding piano-heavy r&b with some blues overtones, and jaunty rhythms that propelled his music into rock 'n' roll territory. The best selling black performer of the 1950's, his career is also the oldest, his first release was "The Fat Man" in 1949. "Ain't That A Shame", from 1955, is a stately rocker and standard now, featuring a rollicking rhythm, and Domino's dsitict vocals. Other huge hits followed, including "Blueberry Hill" and "I'm Walking,", all on the cusp of r&b and rock. By 1963, he was pretty much out of fashion, and a change of labels to ABC, which also lured Ray Charles from Atlantic, didn't restore his fortunes. Still, remained a popular live act for decades since, a fixture in New Orleans, until he breifly went missing (and was rescued) during hurricane Katrina.