Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The History of Rock n Roll

p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: center;" align="center">A HISTORY OF ROCK ‘n ROLL


(This was written to accompany a 2 CD set of tunes I created that trace rock 'n roll from the 1920s to the 21st century. Email me for an original copy of the text that includes the graphics that don't show up here.)


This collection is about showcasing essential pieces of rock ‘n roll music. Like jazz and the blues, rock ‘n roll is a distinctly American form of music, yet one that is now almost universally appreciated. It’s generally conceded that rock started in the early to mid-1950s, with its first “golden age” between about 1955 and 1959. Rockers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly led the way, along with doo-woppers like the Coasters, Flamingos, and the Diamonds. A second great age of rock began around 1964 with the British invasion - first the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones, Peter and Gordon, et al. - and morphed a few years later by the psychedelic/hard rock sounds of folks like the Yardbirds, Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. In between these two great eras came the “girl groups” (the Crystals, Shangri-Las, and Shirelles, etc.), “surf music” (e.g. Dick Dale, Beach Boys, Jan & Dean), the folk sound (including the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, and Peter Paul and Mary), as well as the nascent Motown sound of The Miracles, Four Tops, Supremes, and others – all of which were pretty heavy sounds of their own! So let’s go (not very far) out on a limb and say that rock ‘n roll’s true Golden Age was the years between 1955 and 1969: basically - Elvis to Woodstock.

Certainly, immense quantities of superb rock ‘n roll have come out in the years since 1969. At the same time, rock has gone punk, techno, retro, alternative, speed metal, Christian, ska, hip-hop and whatever else, evolving to fit the times and whims of the public. For the most part, this collection doesn’t go there; its focus is on how rock came to, and went through, the Golden Age as defined above. That’s probably a not-so-subtle way of saying that – again, all props to the post-1969 sounds – the most ground-breaking, most defining and perhaps the best rock ‘n roll came out before 1970. Of course, there’s the theory that all of us tend to think that the best type of music is the type that was popular when we were growing up, and that may have some bearing on this collection’s selections and opinions. Certainly many people might say that The Best music was produced at some other time, and they may go ahead and write their own story of rock and roll!


Be that as it may, the real purpose here is to look at (and listen to!) the history of rock ‘n roll – mostly the olden days. Rock is derived from a variety of earlier forms of music, from Negro chants, shouts, and field songs; gospel music; jazz; blues; country/western; and rhythm & blues. Early rock had clear hillbilly and country/western ties; many of its early stars got their starts in those genres or in gospel music. The first true white rock ‘n rollers, Bill Haley and His Comets, started out as a country/western group, for example, while Elvis Presley’s own country background and love of gospel music are well known. But it is rhythm & blues, or simply R&B, that most directly gave birth to rock. The term rhythm and blues was first used in the 1940s to describe music made by and for blacks in the U.S. and basically, rock ‘n roll was the name given to the same music when performed (and modified) by white artists. Disc jockey Alan Freed took the black slang expression for having sex (rockin’ and rollin’) as a catchy way to refer to white artists’ versions of R&B in the early-1950s. It soon came to mean any guitar-based music with a heavy backbeat, but especially as played by whites, even though the best early rockers (like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino) were almost all black.


Rhythm and blues itself derived mainly from jazz and from blues. There is some disagreement as to jazz’s influence on R&B, and thus R’n R, but the link is solid. In the late-30s and early-40s, jazz performers like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Jordan began playing hard-driving, bluesy “jump” tunes. Hampton in particular developed a particularly gutsy jazz, played in a very animated fashion, which got everyone hand clapping, ass shaking, and dancing all over the place, and making his group a favorite with the R&B and bebop crowds. As for Count Basie, who preceded Hampton by just a few years, his All-American band of 1939-40 had “the best ever” rhythm section, at least according to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. And Jordan, who had more than 50 R&B hit tunes between 1942 and 1951, is cited by rock pioneer Bill Haley as his biggest single influence. The fabulous energy, musicianship, and noise level of guys like Basie, Hampton, and Jordan, when mixed with the guitars, beats, and gravity of the blues, basically created R&B, the twin parents of rock ‘n roll.

In fact, much of the earliest rock ‘n roll was more jazz than blues. Bill Haley and the Comets were among the greatest true early rockers, and their “jump” jazz roots have already been noted. Listening to Fats Domino, the #2 top selling rocker of the ‘50s (after Elvis Presley), one cannot miss the connection to New Orleans’ jazz. While the blues were obviously part of R&B and thus rock ‘n roll in the 1950s, the blues in that decade were mostly a separate art form, almost exclusively played by blacks in places like Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. Blues would stay mostly in the background until the mid-1960s, when British bands took American blues tunes, pumped them up and “popped” them up, and introduced them back to the world of rock. This is the result of several waves of American blues greats like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson visiting Britain in the late-1950s and early-1960s. White British kids were discovering the power of electric blues, even while their American cousins plowed ahead with their (mostly) lighter weight pop-style tunes.


Yet in the end, it IS the blues, not jazz, that are most at the heart of rock ‘n roll. There’s all kinds of blues: Lousiana blues, Piedmont blues, Texas blues, St. Louis and Chicago blues, to name a few. But the granddaddy was the Delta blues of southern Mississippi, “the land where the blues were born”. The word “blues” refers to feeling sad or down, most often because of poverty, being overworked, or because of romantic problems, and was first defined in this way by Washington Irving in 1807. Blues music relates those feelings while helping the singer and listener “lose the blues”, and first gained popularity in the years just before WWI. It was characterized by focusing on the slide guitar and harmonica, by the emphasis put on song lyrics and passionate vocals, and accenting the back beat: on beats “two” and “four” of each line.

This last feature, the accentuated back beat of Mississippi’s black music, turns out not to be so unique after all, and helps trace the music’s roots back even further – to Cuba and then to Africa. The Haitian slave revolt of 1803 led to the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S. But it also caused a mass exodus of plantation owners and their slaves; the vast majority ended up either in Cuba or the southern U.S., on both sides of the Mississippi River. The slaves origins’ were mostly from what is today Nigeria and Dahomey in Africa, where a “two” and “four” beat rhythm dominates. And so it is that in all of the Americas, the blues back beat is native only in Cuba and in the U.S. Delta region.

The earliest known recording of vocal blues was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920, and in the decade that followed, blues became (along with jazz) a national passion. By the late-1920s the first identifiably Delta blues artists like Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Son House were recording top selling tunes. Well, they were top sellers among Southern blacks. The great migration of the ‘30s and ‘40s spread the blues to the West Coast, but even more notably to the cities with manufacturing jobs up north - especially Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. In the Windy City, with the advent of amplifiers, transitional figures like Robert Nighthawk took the Delta blues electric, creating what soon started being called “Chicago blues”. By the late-1940s, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters were leading the way and before long were turning out big hits on Chess Records. At about the same time, John Lee Hooker was making parallel electric blues progress in Detroit and hitting the top of the R&B charts. Together with the jazzy R&Bers, these artists playing electric blues in those two towns set the stage for the next step: rock ‘n roll.


What was the first actual rock ‘n roll song? There are several candidates. Bill Haley and His Comets had the first really universally recognized rock song with Rock Around the Clock from 1955’s hit movie “The Blackboard Jungle”. A year earlier, Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right Mama hit the airwaves, launching his career and – some would say – the whole rock ‘n roll phenomenon. Yet Bill Haley’s 1953 hit, Crazy Man Crazy was actually the first rock hit by a white artist or group. And two years further back, Jackie Brenston, with Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, released what many consider the first true rock ‘n roll song performed by any race: Rocket 88. Going back to 1949, Fats Domino’s The Fat Man gets the nod from some rock historians as the first rock ‘n roll record. Finally, another two years earlier, in 1947, Roy Brown had a monster hit with Good Rockin’ Tonight, which is perhaps the best choice for First Real Rock ‘n Roll Song. The fact is: they’re all great, early rockers and point to the late-1940s and early-1950s as the birth of rock ‘n roll.


And so by 1955, rock ‘n roll was in high gear, with legendary artists such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino blowing away teens with their unique brands of early rock ‘n roll. In the next couple of years, other seminal performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and the Flamingos added to the variety and progression of rock ‘n roll as both a musical form and cultural form. Buddy Holly’s death, along with The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in an Iowa plane crash in 1959, marked “the day the music died”, at least according to Don McLean’s 1971 classic, American Pie. That’s not really true, as American artists, and before long British performers as well, turned out dozens and dozens of great rock standards in the years immediately after 1959, a few examples of which are featured in this collection.

Yet it was in late-1963 that the rock ‘n roll scene really exploded again. The Beatles released their first single (I Want to Hold Your Hand) in December of that year and teens went crazy in a way that they hadn’t since Elvis first hit the scene. The song, historically significant as it is, really wasn’t all that special musically, but for some reason it just struck a chord with teens. In any event, it marked the beginning of the British Invasion, which before long would invigorate American (and world) popular music with high energy, blues based rock ‘n roll. The Beatles, initially discounted as mere bubble-gum lightweights, dominated rock music until they disbanded in 1970, as their music evolved and continually defined rock ‘n roll’s cutting edge during those years. At the same time, the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, The Who and other great British bands helped push the trend towards higher energy, bluesy rock. Great American artists, such as the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Mamas & Papas, and Buffalo Springfield pushed rock forward with more of a folk sound during the same time, while the (generally considered a musical joke) Beach Boys’ tremendous technical advances in the recording studio would help to revolutionize rock music even more.

In the summer of 1967, the Doors’ seven minute long Light My Fire marked another major turning point in rock music. The first extended length song to get widespread airplay, Light My Fire kicked off the age of psychedelic rock music and the whole hippie era. To be sure, other groups had been playing this kind of music for many months before the song’s release, and the San Francisco hippie scene had been active for at least a year before 1967’s “Summer of Love” – but Light My Fire is the tune that did just that: it ignited that whole scene and took it nationwide. Before long, American acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and Steppenwolf joined the Doors to retake the lead from the Brits – or at least give them a run for their money. As some of those groups faded, others like the Steve Miller Band and Santana took their place to keep American music vibrant and progressive. But the British weren’t just slacking off, as the Beatles, Stones, and Who quickly followed what was happening in America, joined by super-rockers Cream, Led Zeppelin, and others. By the late-1960s, rock ‘n roll was humming along on all cylinders with absolutely top-flight acts in both America and Britain putting out what many believe is the best rock ‘n roll music ever.


The 1970s brought gobs of great music by those same groups, but lots of other great acts as well: The Eagles, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac – just to name a very few. And of course this decade brought new variations such as punk rock, funk rock, glam rock, and (gulp!) disco. But in the end, the 1970s was more about refining the music of the ‘60s than about breaking any major new musical ground.

If the ‘70s brought lots of great music, though little that was Earth-shaking, then the ‘80s gave us some really cool tunes, but also a lot of crap. The ‘70s groups were joined by others like Van Halen, the Cars, Talking Heads, and AC/DC, providing the eighties plenty of good tuneage. And there were the Pretenders, R.E.M, and some surprisingly decent girl groups (e.g. the Bangles). There were also great pop performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, the decade’s top selling artists. On the other hand, the ‘80s gave us the likes of Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and the God-awful Thompson Twins.

The eighties also marked the advent of music videos (MTV) and the extensive use of synthesizers in the recording studio, both of which had significant impacts on rock ‘n roll, though not always positive ones. And while rap music first got its start in the very late 1970s, the eighties were definitely its decade, as rap rose from practically unknown in 1980 to become one of the biggest selling music genres worldwide by 1989. Finally, the eighties saw the rise of alternative and grunge rock, which along with rap and its younger sibling, hip hop, would play major roles in the popular music of the ‘90s and beyond. The finer points of grunge and hip hop escaping this author, it will be left to others to extol those musical forms’ merits and discuss their key artists.

The music of the early 21st century is, as it has always been, a hodge-podge of different genres and levels of quality. The Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton are still hanging in there, and putting out good tunes. They’re joined by 90’s superstars Alanis Morrissette, Sheryl Crow, but also their modern equivalent Norah Jones, alt-pop/rockers No Doubt and John Mayer, hip-hop potty mouths Eminem and Nelly, pop eye-candy/sluts Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera, R& B’s Usher, and post-grunge metalists Korn. As a HISTORY of rock ‘n roll, this century’s artists and musical trends, along with those of the ‘90s, are mostly left for others to explore.


A number of cities played crucial roles in the development of rock ‘n roll. London and nearby cities in England were where the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, et al breathed new life into the music in the early and mid-60s. Memphis gave us the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Ike Turner. New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, rock’s maternal grandparent, and also the home of early rockers Roy Brown and Fats Domino. San Francisco was the center of the rock universe in the late-60s, and where groups like Santana, the Greatful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Steve Miller Band took off. Seattle can claim grunge music and most of that genre’s greatest groups, and also the most talented rock guitarist of all time – Jimi Hendrix. Kansas City was jump jazz central; St. Louis had Chuck Berry; Detroit WAS Motown. Los Angeles was home to the Doors and Byrds. New York was where Bob Dylan got it all rolling; later it had the whole Velvet Underground, N.Y.Dolls, Ramones scene, and later still brought rap to the world.

But finally, let’s not forget little ol’ Clarksdale, MS and big, brawny Chicago, IL. Virtually every one of the old blues masters hailed from Clarksdale or thereabouts. From Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House, to Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Elmore James – all were from the area right around Clarksdale. And just about every one of them made their way up to Chicago by the 1940s, to play a role in taking the blues electric – which basically meant creating what would become the essence of the best modern rock ‘n roll.


As you look over and listen to the songs of this collection, your biggest question is likely to be: “where in the hell is ______ ?” (fill in the blank) How can a history of rock ‘n roll possibly omit Ray Charles, or Johnny Cash, or Bob Marley, or Iggy Pop, or the Ramones, or Stevie Wonder? No Dire Straits, Smiths, Supremes, James Brown, or Jethro Tull, for cryin’ out loud? The Allman Brothers, Doobie Brothers, Isley Brothers, and Everly Brothers – all M.I.A.? Well sure – they’re great performers, and they’re not here. That’s partly because there’s not nearly enough room for everyone in a 2-CD set. And it’s partly because this is a subjective collection of artists and songs of what the author likes and considers important in rock ‘n roll. Admittedly not a musician nor any kind of musical expert, he couldn’t tell you a guitar chord from a tab or a bridge; he just knows what he thinks sounds good.

Some songs are here because they were truly groundbreaking, defining tunes, such as Rock Around the Clock, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Light My Fire. Many other songs merely represent a particular time or genre, and are not necessarily unique in their own right. So in the end, this collection doesn’t pretend to be THE end all and be all History of Rock ‘n Roll; it is merely A history of the music, one man’s version of what matters. And so here it is…..



1. 1928 Charlie Patton Revenue

Man Blues

Charlie Patton is as good a place to start in the history of rock ‘n roll as anybody. He was the first real star of the Delta blues, which in turn is the earliest direct “ancestor” of rock ‘n roll. Patton epitomized the bluesmen of his time and those of future decades – he was a big drinkin’, quick tempered man, and a major womanizer. His guitar playing influenced the most important early Delta blues artists, from Son House and Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf, and even in the guitar work performers like Jimi Hendrix. Revenue Man Blues wasn’t his first nor biggest seller, but is nevertheless a snappy sample of the man and his music.

2. 1934 Leadbelly Midnight Special

Huddie William “Leadbelly” Ledbetter is captured here by Alan Lomax as he toured the South during the Depression, recording various blues and folk musicians. Midnight Special was adapted from an early-1920s song Leadbelly heard while in a Texas prison. The song, later covered by numerous artists, including the Spencer Davis Group and Creedance Clearwater Revival, is a bit more folk than blues. As such, it’s connected to the music of Woodie Guthrie and (later) Pete Seeger and the whole folk music scene, while remaining a part of rock’s historic progression.

3. 1936 Robert Johnson Cross Road Blues

They used to call Eric Clapton “God” for his guitar playin’ abilities, yet Clapton reveres Robert Johnson above all other bluesmen – so what does that make Johnson? In the few short years that he dominated and defined the blues (he died in 1938 at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by the husband of a woman he was hustling), Johnson created music that transcended the decades. Tunes such as Love in Vain, Stop Breaking Down, and Sweet Home Chicago have been covered by the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and, of course – Eric Clapton, among many other great performers. The story of Cross Road Blues is that Johnson sold his soul to the devil “at the cross roads”, in exchange for the ability to play blues guitar better than anyone else. As much as any other, this song alone IS the history of rock ‘n roll, covered by the awesome Elmore James and his blazing guitar some 20 years after this original version, and becoming one of the greatest rock standards of all time a decade later when Clapton’s band, Cream, recorded the tune.

4. 1938 Count Basie Jumpin’ at the Woodside

Jazz had pretty much surpassed blues in popularity by the late-30s, although guys like Count Basie were taking jazz in new directions that included blues elements. Already mentioned as having “the best ever rhythm section”, Basie’s career started back in the 1920s. By the late-30s, his style of hard-driving “jump” music set the stage for bebop and dance music that, in turn, added a critical element to creating R&B. Jumpin’ at the Woodside is neither Basie’s first big hit nor his most famous tune, but it’s from the early formative years, and it’s got plenty of “jump”!

5. 1941 Son House Levee Camp


Along with Charley Patton and Willie Brown, Eddie “Son” House was the original deal and a source of great influence on seminal Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson and (later) Muddy Waters. House recorded several tunes in 1930 – and then absolutely nothing for the next 11 years. Alan Lomax captured Levee Camp Moan in 1941, after House’s real heyday – but at least the audio quality is much improved from his earlier recordings. The song shows why he was the consummate Delta blues genius. Little was heard from him again until the mid-1960s when he was “rediscovered”, finally gaining recognition as Father of the Delta Blues.

6. 1942 Lionel Hampton Flying Home

Lionel Hampton is credited with creating the heavy backbeat and passion that typified what would soon be called “rhythm and blues” or R&B, which in turn was the older brother of rock ‘n roll. As part of the Big Band scene, Hampton was closer to the jazz roots than many others highlighted here. Yet his first big hit, Flying Home, featuring saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, demonstrates the energy and “jive” that helped push popular music towards what would soon become rock ‘n roll.

7. 1945 Louis Jordan Caldonia

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five were the most popular group in the decade of the 40s – masters of the jitterbugging, jump jivin’ style of jazz so instrumental in the development of R&B and early rock ‘n roll. Caldonia is one of Jordan’s many number one hits, from the middle years of his reign. Jordan’s influence on Bill Haley has already been noted, while more than ten years later Little Richard’s Lucille clearly shows its debt to this tune.

8. 1947 Roy Brown Good Rockin’ Tonight

This version of Good Rockin’ Tonight was recorded in 1970, more than 20 years after Brown recorded what many believe was the first true rock ‘n roll song. Brown himself confirmed what most thought anyway: the lyrics weren’t about dancing, they were about doing the nasty thing with a girl that had been on his mind! Elvis Presley used to follow Brown’s band around in the early-50s, and later covered this tune, as did Jerry Lee Lewis and – decades later – the Led Zeppelin alumni band, The Honeydrippers.

9. 1948 John Lee Hooker Boogie Chillen

Boogie Chillen was Hooker’s first major hit, going to the top of the R&B charts in 1948. This “king of the stompdown boogie” was a major part of the blues scene in the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially in Detroit, future home of the “Motown sound”. His influence is easily detected in the music of Bo Diddley, and is evident in later groups such as the Yardbirds, Animals, Canned Heat, and the Rolling Stones.

10. 1949 Fats Domino The Fat Man

This is another of the “first rock ‘n roll song” candidates, from the man who went on to become the fifties’ second best selling performer (behind Elvis Presley). Antoine Domino actually got his nickname, Fats, from this, his first hit single. Domino was from New Orleans, and his music displays the jazz based, bon-temps-roulez energy of that town’s music. Here he sings a more modern version (c. 1972) of this pioneer rock tune.

11. 1950? Willy Dixon Hoochie

Coochie Man

Dixon was a key player in the development of Chicago blues and rock ‘n roll. He sang and played bass guitar with Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, and other Chess Records artists. But it was his songwriting that really stands out. I Can’t Quit You Baby, I’m Ready, I Just Wanna Make Love to You, Spoonful, Little Red Rooster, You Shook Me, and this one – Hoochie Coochie Man, are some of his better known tunes, famously covered by rock heavyweights like Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.

12. 1951 Jackie Brenston/Delta Cats Rocket 88

Long before Tina Turner was the Acid Queen of rock, and even before there was an Ike and Tina Tuner Revue, Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm were rocking around St. Louis and Memphis, and backing blues greats Robert Nighthawk, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson. In 1951 Ike’s group, with vocalist Jackie Brenston, recorded a leading candidate for the first genuine rock ‘n roll song, under the name of Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats. Rocket 88 features Ike’s mean piano and an unmistakable influence on later rock classics like Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA and Bill Haley’s Shake Rattle and Roll.

13. 1953 Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

Elvis (the Pelvis) took this song coast to coast in 1956, and it has been subsequently covered by everyone from Tom Jones to Jimi Hendrix to Bryan Adams. But it was originally written for Big Mama Thornton, and she belted it out in fine, early-rock ‘n roll fashion, which kept the tune at #1 for seven weeks at a time when Elvis was just a wanna be. Sadly, Big Mama never really made the big time, other than with this great rock classic.

14. 1954 Muddy Waters I’m Ready

Lots of folks think that Muddy (McKinley Morganfield) WAS the electric blues. Surely, his blues pedigree fits the bill. A native of Clarksdale, Mississippi – Delta blues central, where Muddy was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1941 in 1942. 1943 found him in Chicago’s south side, like so many others who would soon follow the road north from the Delta. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1950s, Muddy Waters was perhaps first among equals in creating Chicago’s electric blues sound which, in turn, was so instrumental in the later development of Classic Rock. Chess Records co-anchor Willie Dixon wrote I’m Ready, which displays Muddy’s awesome vocal abilities, and his band’s equally amazing instrumental talents, at their mid-50s peak.

15. 1954 Elvis Presley That’s Alright Mama5

Elvis is the King of Rock – a title that is deserved, but not. The fact is that he was the first white artist to really take black, R&B music to white America in a big way. He was the 1950s biggest selling artist, with dozens of great hit tunes. And he opened the way for the great rock ‘n roll explosion of the mid-1950s. At the same time, Elvis by all accounts truly loved the black music that he brought to the masses, as well as the black artists to whom he owed such a great musical debt. On the other hand, Elvis was essentially a copycat who only covered other people’s tunes. Here he performs “Big Boy” Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama; later hits included Hound Dog, Carl Perkin’s Blue Suede Shoes, and Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight – hits which, in each case, eclipsed and essentially made the original performers irrelevant. Elvis’s wasn’t a particularly creative artist or a great instrumental talent, and his music in the 1960s and ‘70s became increasingly mediocre and maudlin, as he turned into little more than a caricature of his former self. But in the mid-fifties, Elvis was the right guy at the right time, with the right instincts, mannerisms, and energy. For millions of Americans – that’s enough to make him forever The King.

16. 1955 Bill Haley + The Comets Rock Around the Clock

Bill Haley has been called the most underrated and neglected figure in the history of rock ‘n roll. In 1955, he was 30 years old and had been recording country, R&B, and rock ‘n roll hits for years. His earlier band (Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, whose name hints at their country/western past) recorded the first successful cover of a black R&B tune by a white group with their version of Rocket 88. Crazy Man Crazy in 1953, and Shake, Rattle, and Roll in 1954 were huge hits for The Comets, and historical milestones for rock ‘n roll. Rock Around the Clock, a minor success when first released in 1954, found a place in the classic 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle” and shot up to #1, where it stayed for 8 weeks. Eventually, it sold enough records to make Rock Around the Clock the #2 top selling single of all time, and an absolute rock ‘n roll anthem.

17. 1955 Chuck Berry Maybellene

Chuck Berry has been called the true Father of Rock ‘n Roll or, as John Lennon put it: “If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'”. Coming out of St. Louis, Berry mixed country, swing, blues, and boogie into rousing tunes that went right to the heart of teenage spirit and culture. His guitar licks, distinct rhythms, playful lyrics, and stage antics set the baseline standards from which rock would progress over the years. Elvis got more attention and sold more records, but Berry had the talent. Maybellene was his first huge hit, and a perfect example of what John Lennon was talking about.

18. 1955 Bo Diddley Bo Diddley

While Chuck Berry was rocking out down in St. Louis, Bo Diddley was crafting his own – slightly bluesier – version of rock ‘n roll up in Chicago, backed by more traditional African-style rhythms and featuring a unique guitar sound. While not the top seller that contemporaries Chuck Berry and Little Richard were, Diddley was a key link in the development of rock ‘n roll. Buddy Holly, The Yardbirds, and especially The Rolling Stones borrowed heavily from his rhythms and guitar techniques as they defined and refined what rock ‘n roll is all about.

19. 1955 Sonny Boy Williamson Don’t Start Me to


There were really two Sonny Boy Williamsons; the one featured here is really #2, and he “borrowed” the name to take advantage of the original’s popularity. This Sonny Boy was a blues legend who covered the times from (and played with) Robert Johnson in the ‘30s to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the ‘60s. In between, he authored classics like One Way Out (covered so wonderfully by the Allman Brothers in the ‘70s) and Good Mornin’ Little School Girl, and blew harp to back up guys like Elmore James. Don’t Start Me to Talkin’ was from the 1950s, when Williamson and so many of the other Chicago bluesmen were at their best.

20. 1956 Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes

Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes was the first song to really make it in all three pop markets: R&B, country, and rock ‘n roll, and should have given him his big break. Perkins released this song in early 1956, about the same time that his former Sun recording mate Elvis Presley put out his own version of the tune. Carl’s record had better success than Elvis’, and he was scheduled to appear on national TV and bust into the big time when he was severely injured in a car crash. So it was Elvis who got national TV exposure singing this song instead – adding to his popularity and, unfortunately, pushing Perkins into the background where he – mostly – stayed the rest of his career.

21. 1959 Elmore James Dust My Broom

Elmore James may best be known for the role his music played in the 1980 musical/comedy “The Blues Brothers”. Because he died at a fairly young age in 1963, James missed out on the fame that came to other blues legends in the ‘60s. Like the others, he started playing in Mississippi in the ‘30s and moved up to Chicago shortly thereafter. Over the years, James played with (or in competition against) folks like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf. More than anything else, he’s known as the best slide guitarist of the 1950s Chicago blues scene – which is saying quite a lot. Dust My Broom is James’ signature song, and shows how he was to influence future generations of blues rockers.

22. 1959 Skyliners Since I Don’t Have You

Since I Don’t Have You has been called one of the great “torch” songs; it certainly has few equals among fifties doo-wop tunes, and is here as a wonderful example of the genre. The group itself is a bit unusual – 4 white guys and a gal from Pittsburgh, in a field dominated by black groups. The Skyliners didn’t get much attention after this song, but they deserve to be remembered for it alone.

23. 1962 Blues Incorporated Got My Mojo Workin’

1962 was a quietly formative year. While America and Britain were listening to (mostly) unremarkable music between the two rock Golden Ages, deeper things were going on under the surface. It was the year of the “girl groups”, many of whom were supported by Phil Spector’s impressive “wall of sound” techniques. At the same time, Bob Dylan, Motown, and the Beach Boys were all refining what would soon become major American music forms. In England, Blues Incorporated, the original British electric blues band, released their first album. The group was basically a nursery for, and a who’s who of, British rock royalty. Co-founders Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis were playing electric blues together in British clubs as early as 1954. In the sixties the group included, at least for a time, future Rolling Stones Mick Jagger (shown at right), Charlie Watts, and Mick Taylor, Cream’s Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, while directly impacting the music and careers of John Mayall, Eric Clapton and virtually every blues rock group in 1960s Britain. Got My Mojo Working appeared on that first 1962 record, and became Blues Inc.’s signature song. This is a somewhat later version, but gives a glimpse into what the Godfathers of British rock ‘n roll were puttin’ down to inspire the 1960s British electric blues explosion. At the same time, the vocals let us know what Sonny Boy Williamson meant when he said in the early-60s: “Those English boys want to play the blues so bad. And they play it SO bad.”

24. 1963 Beach Boys Surfin’ USA

Surfin’ USA isn’t anything special, musically. It appears here, however, as testament to the brief popularity of the uniquely American “surf” sound of the early to mid-60s. Actually, when hardcore surfers first heard tunes like this, they almost puked. They had listened for years to funky jazz and blues – decidedly heavier stuff than what the bubblegum-sounding Beach Boys and other “surf” groups were laying down. The music paralleled a tremendous increase in surfing’s appeal and The Beach Boys went on to become an American icon, as well as the source of powerful musical innovation.

25. 1963 Peter, Paul + Mary Blowin’ In

the Wind While guys like the Beach Boys were focused on surfin’ and chicks, other artists pondered more serious matters like civil rights and war. The “folkies”, building on earlier traditions of Woodie Guthrie, the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio, were increasingly active in places like New York’s Greenwich Village. A young Bob Dylan came there in the early-sixties, soon to be the poet laureate of a generation. Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded Dylan’s civil rights Blowin’ In the Wind and made it into practically a national anthem.

26. 1963 Caravelles You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry

Here’s just a little something. A wonderful tune with a lovely sound from one of rock’s many One Hit Wonders, a British girl group: the Caravelles. You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry was a very popular number from the Dusty Springfield, just-before-the-Beatles era – but then the song just disappeared from the face of the Earth. It marks no great musical milestone, but is here simply because it’s beautiful, and because you probably would never hear it otherwise.

27. 1963 Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand

The Beatles launched rock ‘n roll’s second great age with the release in America of I Want to Hold Your Hand in late-1963. They followed that with their first visit to the U.S. a few months later, and it was Elvis Presley-style 1955 pandemonium all over again. Over just the next six years, they recorded some 15 albums, each one of which was packed with fabulous tunes, almost all of which were original compositions. The comparison to Elvis Presley must be made: Elvis was the King, but his talents were but a fraction of the Beatles’. And the Rolling Stones, “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” were better hard rockers and have been around much longer, it’s true, but they also weren’t nearly as talented or musically creative as the Beatles. The Beatles were, simply, the greatest and most innovative group in the history of rock ‘n roll. From their earliest infectious She Loves You, to snappy love ballads like the greatly underrated You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, to psychedelic tunes ala I Am the Walrus, to what Frank Sinatra called the best love song ever, Something, and late period rockers like Get Back, the group displayed their complete mastery of virtually every type of rock and pop. As performers, fashion and philosophy trend setters, lyricists, and melody composers – the Beatles absolutely dominated the years 1964-1970 and preordained to an immense degree all that followed in subsequent years.

28. 1964 Martha + the Vandellas Dancin’ in the


This group represents two different musical segments: Motown and girl groups. The Supremes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and Temptations all sold more records for Motown, James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, while Aretha Franklin was Lady Soul. On the girl group side, the Shirelles, Crystals, Ronettes, and Shangri-Las were at least as popular as Martha + the Vandellas. Dancin’ in the Streets is such a cool, happy, lively tune – that’s why it gets the nod here.

29. 1964 Four Tops Baby I Need Your Lovin’

Here’s one more sample of Detroit’s best. Performing together since the early 1950s, the smooth, melodious Four Tops pumped out top sellers for Motown throughout the mid- to late-60s. Baby I Need Your Lovin’ was one of their biggest hits, and a good way to appreciate why so many people loved the “Motown sound”.

30. 1965 Rolling Stones Satisfaction

The Rolling Stones spent the sixties living in the Beatles’ shadow, although they were (and are) a magnificent, virtually unparalleled blues/rock band in their own right. More heavily influenced by American blues masters like Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley than were the Beatles, they were the edgier, harder rocking bad boys of British rock ‘n roll. The Stones had many top hits in the sixties, and again in the seventies, and in the eighties, while continuing to record and perform live into the 21st century. Satisfaction was their first monster hit, and holds a unique place in rock history: for years after its 1965 release, Satisfaction was consistently voted the greatest rock ‘n roll song of all time by American radio listeners.

32. 1965 Bob Dylan Like a Rolling Stone

Bob Dylan may have been the greatest songwriter in the history of rock ‘n roll. Originally a folk singer, he penned many of the sixties’ most memorable tunes, and almost single-handedly created the folk rock genre. It was Dylan who “turned the Beatles on” early in their career; additionally, he had an incalculable influence on groups such as the Byrds, Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, and The Band, as well as every other folk rock performer since the early-60s. Like a Rolling Stone was a truly groundbreaking tune: it was the first popular song to break the unspoken 3-minute barrier. Perhaps more importantly, it telegraphed a clear break with the acoustic folk past, and movement into the electric future.

33. 1966 Beach Boys I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

Giving the Beach Boys even one slot in this collection is a questionable move – but putting TWO of their songs in it??? Let me explain…. Musical genius and group leader Brian Wilson was the driving force behind the album Pet Sounds, which was voted the best rock ‘n roll album of ALL TIME in several prestigious polls. The Beatles fell in love with Pet Sounds, and it was the inspiration for their Sgt. Pepper album (which also tops several Best Album polls on its own). Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones took the most unusual step in 1966 of placing an ad in the British music papers urging everybody to buy the Beach Boys’ album! I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times is representative of the album’s beautiful, complex melodies and multiple layers of sounds.

34. 1967 Byrds My Back Pages

Sometimes referred to as America’s answer to the Beatles, the Byrds were more properly known as a wonderful hybrid of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. They had the general look and sound, early on, of British mop-tops. But they featured Dylan’s songs and the songs of other folkies, to create a marvelous folk-based rock sound that featured great guitars and glorious vocal harmonies. The Byrds were the best pre-psychedelic band in America, and even played a key role in the development of that music with one of the first psychedelic tunes ever recorded: Eight Miles High. This song, My Back Pages, is a Dylan composition – a little less well known than some of their other hits, but as good as any of them.

35. 1967 Doors Light My Fire

As mentioned earlier, the Doors ushered in the psychedelic rock music era with this 7-minute long tune that blew everyone away in the summer of 1967. Light My Fire marked the start of the California age of rock, with the L.A. based Doors and Byrds, and San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Blue Cheer, and the Greatful Dead redefining rock ‘n roll – along with honorary San Franciscan Jimi Hendrix. It joined just a few other songs as key turning points in the history of rock: Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, Elvis’ That’s All Right Mama, the Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand, and now - the Door’s Light My Fire.

36. 1967 Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze

With the possible exception of Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Hendrix was probably the most talented person in the history of rock ‘n roll. As a guitarist, there were no exceptions – he was the best ever. When he first played London in 1966, he immediately became Eric Clapton’s guitar hero (no small feat!), with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page both among his biggest fans and imitators as well. Having paid his dues over the years backing up artists like Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, Jimi literally exploded on the world scene in post-Light My Fire 1967 with his totally psychedelic “Are You Experienced?” album. Purple Haze was from this amazing debut album, and is probably his best known tune.

37. 1967 Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s

Club Band

Called the Beatles’ most historically important album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, also stands out as the first “concept” album – a collection of related songs based on a particular theme. Heavily influenced by the Beach Boys’ trippy “Pet Sounds”, and released a few short months after Light My Fire, “Sgt. Pepper” quickly took its place as a cornerstone in the psychedelic movement and confirmed the Beatles’ uncanny ability to stay up with and ahead of the musical times. The album’s title song, featured here, bears Paul McCartney’s lighter, more whimsical touch – but is just one of the disparate styles found on the album.

38. 1968 Aretha Franklin Think

Like so many other soul singers, Aretha Franklin started out singing gospel music in the 1950s. Her early pop attempts weren’t too successful, but in the second half of the 60’s she hooked up with the top-flight Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, a match made in music heaven. Her true soul style and awesome pipes (think of Janis Joplin, but without the booze and smokes-caused hoarseness) soon earned her the title Queen of Soul. Think was a hit single in 1968, and again in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers”.

39. 1968 Cream Crossroads

Cream’s live cover of Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues is perhaps the defining rock ‘n roll masterpiece. The song taps into rock’s 1930s roots, acknowledges guitar great Elmore James’ electric adaptations, and then takes the whole package to an incredibly higher level. This is Eric Clapton, and electric blues/rock, at their very finest.

40. 1971 Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

Crossroads was a really tough act to top, although tons of great electric rock would follow in the years after 1968. Led Zeppelin was the band playing the most consistently high-quality hard, blues-based rock over the next half dozen or so years. The group had quite a few better songs than this one, but Stairway to Heaven was THE commercial monster hit for the Zeppelin, and perhaps the decade’s defining rock ‘n roll single.

41. 1974 Eagles Already Gone

The seventies’ biggest selling album was the Eagles’ best of collection: “Their Greatest Hits”. It and the group’s “Hotel California” album, also from the 70s, are among the top ten selling albums of all time. The band itself melded country, folk, and rock to create a unique sound that – obviously - appealed to all different kinds of listeners. Already Gone is one of their most popular tunes: heavy on the country AND the rock, it perfectly captures the band’s “California sound” (although most of the band members weren’t from California).

42. 1979 Sugarhill Gang Rapper’s Delight

Rap is an unfortunate development in the history of popular music. Early rap songs were pleasant enough – an East coast mix of urban beats, nifty rhymes, and record scratching. But the genre soon turned towards embracing and promoting greed, violence, and misogyny. And even when rap songs didn’t focus on those negatives, they still moved music away from beautiful melodies and instrumental virtuosity and, often as not, towards childish, boastful rhyming. Rapper’s Delight is cited as the first, or certainly one of the first, rap records. Since this collection isn’t much interested in rap, and since the full song goes over 14 minutes, this short 30 second sound bite will have to suffice.

43. 1982 Michael Jackson Billie Jean

Originally gaining fame with The Jackson Five in the early 70s, Michael turned out to be an extraordinarily talented performer, even if he wasn’t a true rocker. By the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was the most popular musical artist in the world. He combined snappy tunes with a pleasant singing voice and – helping to popularize the new format of music videos – virtually untouchable dance moves. Even though it is “pop”, Billie Jean is a great tune from Michael’s peak years, before he (sadly) destroyed his face and came to be widely regarded as a freakish pedophile.

44. 1983 ZZ Top Legs

The “Little Ol’ Band from Texas” established itself in the early 70s as a popular hard-rockin’ blues party band with a number of big hit singles and albums. In 1983 they modified their old formula by being one of the first to effectively use synthesizers to amp up their music on the album “Eliminator”. Legs is from that album, and also has the distinction of being in one of the greatest music videos ever made in the early days of MTV, when the channel was actually about the music.

45. 1985 Madonna Material Girl

Like Michael Jackson, Madonna was a pop artist and like him, her music and persona fit well into the new world of music videos. There were much better musicians at the time, but Madonna was pretty special, and she’s here to represent a particular segment of the music market (a hugely popular segment) that was also pretty fun to listen to. She was called the “material girl”, and so is the song.

46. 1991 Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit

Seattle’s grunge rock was around before Nirvana, with groups like Green River and Soundgarden building on the earlier punk rock sounds, mixed with Black Sabbath-type heaviness in the late-1980s. Hey – might as well mention the Godfather of Grunge here: Neil Young! Anyhoo, it was Nirvana and especially Smells Like Teen Spirit and the other numbers on their 1991 album, “Nevermind”, that took grunge nationwide and made it the white boys’ preferred music form for years to come.

47. 1995 Dr. Dre/Ice Cube Natural Born Killaz

As mentioned earlier, rap music morphed into hip-hop, and that most unfortunate, hugely popular “music” – gansta rap. Gansta is all about being filthy rich, beating up or killing people, pimpin’ ho’s, and just generally being as profane and ugly as possible. There’s little actual music involved – no great guitarists, piano playin’, or sax blowin’; no singers with beautiful voices. Gangsta rappers and their multitude of apologists say the disgusting lyrics merely reflect the harsh realities of the inner city, but that’s a crock. For decades blacks had it much worse than they do today; all around the globe today, 90% of the world’s people live worse than the poorest minorities in the USA. And yet none of them have felt compelled to express themselves with the kind of ugly negativism that “the ganstas” have given us. Here’s a couple of NWA’s (Niggers With Attitude) alumni sharing a little of their gansta love with us, as a sample of why we’re not going to miss this kind of crap when it’s gone.

48. 1999 Carlos Santana Smooth

In direct contrast to the “gangstas”, Carlos Santana is a musical virtuoso whose songs celebrate life, beauty and love. After 30 years as a rock ‘n roll superstar, Santana blew everyone away with his incredibly successful 1999 album “Supernatural”. The last song on this collection then, Smooth, is from that album and testifies to the timelessness of good music – especially good rock ‘n roll.

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