Friday, May 11, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part VI.

Little Richard “Long Tall Sally”
(Richard Wayne Penniman/Robert Blackwell/Enotris Johnson)
Specialty, 1956
“I’m a teacher too. I taught Paul McCartney to go woooo!” is probably the best line a guest voice on The Simpsons has ever had. But Little Richard is far more than just the black guy Sir Paul stole his rock & roll vocal style from — he’s one of the great lyricists of early rock & roll, with a cast of bizarre, seedy characters whose lives seem to revolve around partying and sex. Long Tall Sally (aka Bald-Headed Sally in a verse) is one of those dazzling creations, a rock & roll queen who can hold her own with Lucille (you don’t do your mama’s will), Rudy (the Tutti Frutti girl), and Miss Molly. And Little Richard’s original howling, piano-pounding persona (he’s had several since, like Prince) makes him just about the only real person who could go toe-to-toe with his fictional creations and sing about it later.

Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys “Crazy Arms”
(Ralph Mooney/Chuck Seals)
Columbia, 1956
One of the mainstays of country music for the better part of a century (his career began in the 1940s, and as of this writing he’s touring with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson), Ray Price is also one of its stealth geniuses, a man who subtly opened up the parameters of country, allowing for both greater sophistication and a tougher, more rhythmic sensibility. “Crazy Arms” is where his characteristic 4/4 shuffle, as typified by the prominent walking bassline, was perfected: it’s a rock & roll backbeat, but with a pure honky-tonk soul. He would later incorporate jazz and even blues into his remarkably pure country style, and it was his credentials that gave a bunch of hippies in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band their free pass to the hardcore country audience.

The Five Satins “In The Still Of The Night”
(Fred Paris)
Standard, 1956
One of the perennial, um, standards of the rock & roll era, “In The Still Of The Night” could have been written in the 1930s, or the 1890s, or the 1990s. But the gently rolling rhythm, the pop-soul arrangement, and the “shoo-doop, shoo-be-doo” that have become inseparable from the song could only have come from the 1950s — maybe even only from 1956. Doo wop would get more energetic as the decade went on, until it became something else entirely with the Drifters and Temptations. But for that magic year, it flourished as the only possible ballad form that could unite both teenagers and parents in a haze of fond romanticism.

Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps “Race With The Devil”
(Gene Vincent/Tex Davis)
Capitol, 1956
This is hot-rod music, an urban rockabilly with so much deep, flanged echo on Vincent’s voice that it becomes another rhythmic element. The lyrics present a B-movie yarn about a drag race with the Father of Lies, except that you take it as seriously as Robert Johnson because the dark, needly music is so convincing. Gene Vincent was a confirmed turbomaniac; his famous stiff-legged dance moves were (equally famously) due to a motorcycle accident before he turned to rock & roll. And his most famous song, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” is notable mostly for giving square adults the absurd idea that rock & roll had anything at all to do with bebop.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You”
(Jalacy Hawkins)
Okeh, 1956
He coulda been a contender. An operatic contender, that is: one of the stories told about Jay Hawkins in the long slow years of being swallowed up by pop-culture oblivion is that he never intended to be a rock & roller, much less the voodoo-camp icon that brought him immortality; he wanted to be an art singer, like Paul Robeson, like Enrico Caruso. That’s the story, anyway. He had the voice for it, if not the training: in between the gibbers and snorts you can hear a back-of-the-room resonance which was played for horrorshow laughs on his noveltyish singles. Which, by the way, didn’t bring him fame and fortune either; the song was forgotten until Nina Simone dusted it off and introduced it to a generation of rock & rollers in the 1960s. Screamin’ Jay didn’t even salvage the fake skull scepter.

Dave Bartholomew “The Monkey”
(Dave Bartholomew/Pearl King)
Imperial, 1957
For all of Elvis Costello’s faults (the way his grasp exceeds his reach, the clever-dickness of his lyrics, the “highly mannered” way he sings), he’s probably introduced more music nerds to great forgotten music of previous generations than anyone this side of Dave Godin. Take this song. Dave Bartholomew’s minimal jive track, with its socially-conscious proto-rapping (even the guitar line, repeated endlessly, mesmerizingly, seems to presage the way samples would later be used to structure a track rhythmically), would only have been known to die-hard New Orleans junkies if Costello hadn’t recorded an answer song on The Delivery Man — and made sure every reviewer reported on the existence of the original. Bartholomew is one of the giants of New Orleans r&b, a producer, songwriter and trumpeter who (among other things) first brought Fats Domino into the spotlight. Allen Toussaint inherited his mantle in the 60s, and the Big Easy rolled on.

Bo Diddley “Who Do You Love”
(Ellas McDaniel)
Chess, 1957
It’s not the many, many cover versions — each one more overblown and self-indulgent than the last until, in 1968, Quicksilver Messenger Service devoted almost an entire LP to the song — that makes this my Bo Diddley song of choice. Those goddamn hippies even got the rhythm wrong, reverting to the clichéd “shave and a haircut, two bits” just because Bo Diddley had used it once or twice on his earlier songs. No, no — it’s the lyrics. A necktie made out of rattlesnake hide, a house of human skulls; Rob Zombie wishes he could be this freaky. And it’s okay, yeah, Diddley’s primitive stomp, which has been both overhyped and understimated. (He was in touch with the ancient African jungle roots of rock & roll!/He was a one-note showman, not a real bluesman at all! No, you idiots, he was just a great rock & roller.) His one-chord cigar-box guitar swipes and his booming baritone complete the picture: Bo Diddley is one bad motherfucker, and he better be who you love, ’cause otherwise he be adding a new skull to his house.

Ivory Joe Hunter “Since I Met You Baby”
(Joe Hunter)
Atlantic, 1957
His name actually was Ivory Joe, since the day of his christening: of course he had to be a piano player. He worked with Charles Brown at the beginning of both their careers, and his softly swinging nightclub blues style, an easy pill for the adult-pop market to swallow, was similar to Brown’s. But he also crossed over to the country/western market (years before a certain Genius did so), and you can hear a country phrasing in his voice on this remarkably gentle, yearning pop hit. There are strings, and white-pop background singers going “ahh,” and lush Glenn Miller-inspired charts, but it’s (astonishingly) not treacle: both Hunter’s trickling piano runs and a strong foundation in blues changes and meter keeps it firmly on the right side of sentimental. And that slow, sensual sax solo. There aren’t many blues songs that celebrate the joy of newfound love; what made Ivory Joe great was his ability to reconcile those seeming incompatibilities.

The 5 Royales “Think”
(Lowman Pauling)
King, 1957
The asses at Wikipedia write it up as a James Brown song, with a bare mention that it was written by a member of the “5” Royales (no, I don’t know what’s up with the quote marks). But have you heard the James Brown version? It’s markedly inferior to the original, with its sliding, stinging guitar weaving in and out of the lyrics like Steve Cropper on a really good day. Without that guitar performing a subtle commentary on the self-righteous lyrics, the song seems only half-complete. (And Brown — I hate to admit — oversings it.) Yet another example of doo wop being more than teenage street-corner nonsense: these guys were as bluesy and rock & roll as anyone, but because they sang in harmony, they get relegated to the doo wop ghetto alongside glib pop groups like the Platters and the Del-Vikings. Life isn’t fair.

Buddy Holly & The Crickets “Peggy Sue”
(Buddy Holly/Jerry Allison/Norman Petty)
Coral, 1957
I didn’t want to include this song. It’s already been praised and discussed and canonized enough; I wanted to dig deeper into the Holly catalog, maybe “Oh Boy” or “Not Fade Away” or “Rave On” or “Maybe Baby” or — but then I listened to this again, just to give it a fair chance, and hell. It’s the pinnacle of 1950s pop, with those endless multitracked drum fills (the origin of Keith Moon), Holly’s perfectly chirpy, nerdy delivery, the rough edges of rockabilly smoothed out and given new texture in the studio process (the origin of Brian Wilson and George Martin), and then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way into a song where there hasn’t been any electric guitar, an electric guitar solo that’s not really a solo at all, just tejano chords chopped back and forth like he’s in a primitive garage band (the origins of the Beatles, the Kingsmen, and thousands more). It’s the intellectualization of rock & roll, it’s canny studio enginners capturing lightning in a bottle — it’s art rock. And it’s a three-minute pop single heard round the world. There were giants in those days.