Ray Charles “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
All the traditional historians of rock & roll will tell you that Ray Charles, along with Sam Cooke, more or less invented soul singing. (They downplay James Brown’s contribution because they’re saving him for funk.) Charles’ gospel-inflected, highly emotional singing is certainly fundamental in the development of soul, but anyone raised on Stax tightness or Motown sheen will be surprised by his early sides: they’re big-band numbers, only a half-step away from Count Basie or Buddy Rich. People talk about Ray Charles creating something entirely new, but those people have never heard Joe Williams fronting the Basie Orchestra — which is not to knock Ray Charles; being the bridge from jazz into soul is worth mountains of respect. Anyway. This song was chosen because I’m a sucker for the “I hear her (tok tok tok tok) on my door” line. Gimmicky? Maybe, but it’s also a line straight outta Louis Jordan’s jump blues, and one that would find echoes in rockabilly . . . and the Great Hodgepodge that is American music rocks on.
Don & Dewey “Leavin’ It All Up To You”
(Don Harris/Dewey Terry)
Never heard of ’em? Okay, imagine if the Everly Brothers had been composed of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And then had no success whatever. Their most-anthologized songs are awe-inspiring in their primitive thrash (seek out “Justine” for an example of early black punk rock), but they were also capable of playing it relatively straight, as on this r&b ballad in country time. Key word: relatively. Either Don or Dewey (I can’t really tell the difference) can’t resist the temptation to throw a little curveball into his voice, a juke-joint raggedness that would prevent the song from making it big even on the r&b charts. But as “I’m Leaving It All Up To You,” it went on to become a minor standard in the 60s, with recordings by Freddy Fender, Tom Jones, the Osmonds, and (most chartingly) the equally-forgotten swamp-pop duo Dale & Grace.
Fats Domino “I’m Walkin’”
(Fats Domino/Dave Bartholomew)
I can’t have been the only person, as a callow youth investigating for the first time the roots of this thing called rock & roll, who heard one or two Fats Domino songs and was like, “what the hell? That’s not rock & roll!” It was too mellow, too easygoing, too cheerful for someone whose idea of rock had been defined by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Cut to today, when the news story of airlifting the man out of his house in New Orleans can bring a tear to my eye. He is the Big Man, the greatest and most beloved exponent of Crescent City r&b, a man whose hits worked equally well as a late-period comeback for Louis Armstrong (“Blueberry Hill”) or as one of the focal points for the genesis of ska (“Be My Guest”). This song is as mellow, easygoing, and cheerful as ever, but its hepped-up gospel shuffle makes it easier for the three-chords-and-the-truth crowd to swallow as rock & roll.
Richard Berry & The Pharaohs “Louie, Louie”
Do you realize that there are still people out there who think that the words to this song are unknowable? Or who even think that the Kingsmen get away with swearing every day on oldies radio? One listen to the original shows the canard for what it is: the Kingsmen were just repeating Richard Berry word-for-word, and it’s a just silly little love song, as the Cute One would put it. He wasn’t any relation to Chuck Berry, but this song, oddly enough, is: it’s based on “Havana Moon,” Chuck’s legendary sojourn into Latin-tinged balladry. But Richard, who was a journeyman creative person in the Los Angeles r&b world (he sang, uncredited, on massive hits by Etta James and the Robins), had the pop sense to pick up the tempo a bit and give it a bit of a (noveltyish) stomp. It didn’t work — it was charitable to call it even a regional hit. Then, six years later, some zero-grade garage band out of the Pacific Northwest got hold of it, and rock & roll legend was born.
George Jones “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)”
(George Jones/J. P. Richardson)
George Jones is, on the slight off-chance you don’t already know, probably the greatest country vocalist of all time. The depth and sonorous majesty of his voice gave him an extraordinary run of heartbreak ballads from the late 60s through the early 80s, but he began as a rockabilly-inflected honky-tonker in the 1950s. His most famous song from that era is probably the corny “White Lightning,” but unlike Roy Orbison, he didn’t just have the one decent song before he found himself: as witness this fiddle-based stomp. Aside from the memorable title phrase and a certain rhythm in the lyrics, this song has nothing in common with Little Milton’s 1969 soul-blues hit “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” but it’s a great example of the Possum’s early work: upbeat, cheeky, and already with such assured command of his vocal technique that he can slip into regular speech at the end of a verse without throwing the rhythm of the song off.
Larry Williams “Short Fat Fannie”
“Short Fat Fannie is on the loose!” Mick Jagger howls at one point during the epic American-roots record Exile On Main St (the Rolling Stones remain the only acceptable British substitute for the homegrown brand, in my estimation). Which is even more of a deeply-layered reference than you might think: sure, he’s referring to Larry Williams’ funky r&b hit, but that song itself was a catalog of other rock & roll hits, with lyrical references to songs by Little Richard (four times), Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Elvis Presley, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, Carl Perkins, Buddy Knox, LaVern Baker (twice), and Fats Domino. And the whistling that opens the song could be taken as a nod to Professor Longhair. Williams was (perhaps inevitably) another graduate of the New Orleans school of rock & roll, and had been groomed by his label to be the next Little Richard. He was too oddball for that; but he did manage his own little corner of rock & roll immortality.
Warren Smith “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”
(Lilly May/Hayden Thompson)
Why should I lie? This song was the impetus for this list. If you don’t know it, you need to know it. Period. I first heard it sung by Bob Dylan, on a 2001 tribute to Sun Records. Old Bobby knew what he was doing when he picked it, too: it’s a rockabilly ballad, an easy shuffle of a type that wouldn’t really gain favor in the popular imagination until the heyday of country-rock more than a decade later. It’s loosely based on bluesman Bill Gaither’s 1936 “Who’s Been Here Since I Been Gone,” but with updated honky-tonk references, including the red Cadillac of the title. It’s oddly structured for rock & roll, too: instead of verses, a chorus, and a middle eight, it just has an A part and a B part, the favored form of the classic Broadway composers. It wasn’t terribly successful — Smith’s more noveltyish “Ubangi Stomp” was a bigger hit with the sock-hoppers — but its easy electric strum and sharp eye for detail has easily outlasted the decades.
The Chantels “Maybe”
And the great drama-queen tradition of pop begins, continued in Ronnie Spector, Lulu, the Shangri-Las, Cher, and so forth, on to the Christina Aguileras and Beyoncé Knowleses of today. The girl-group mythology of eccentric producers and Brill Building songwriters is so entrenched in rock-history consciousness that the Chantels are too often overlooked. Not only were they just about the first black girl group to have any notable success, they were classically-trained vocalists, as comfortable with Gregorian chant as with doo-wop conventions, and their lead singer, Arlene Smith, wrote their songs. You can hear her familiarity with diva posturing in her soaring, emotional voice, and the odd acoustics of the song are due to its being recorded not in a studio, but inside a church. Their second single, it soared up the charts and changed the face of pop music for the next decade. They had only been recording for a year; the oldest of them was seventeen.
G. L. Crockett “Look Out Mabel”
(G. L. Crockett/Mel London)
One of the great mystery men of rock music, Crockett left behind only three singles and a single blurry photo, which shows a sleepy-eyed fat man with a pompadour. Oh, and he’s black. Which wouldn’t be odd, except this is a rockabilly song. And not in any “if you squint you can kind of hear it” sense, either: it’s straight-up guitar rock, based more in country than in blues, with a honky-tonk piano player Jerry Lee Lewising away in the background. To deepen the weirdness: it was recorded for the Chess label, which (famously) was the home of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, et cetera. Oh yeah, and that’s Earl Hooker playing guitar. Hooker (I used a picture of him instead) was one of the all-time great blues guitarists, with a wiry, snapping sound that used feedback and scraping along the strings just as much as power chords and vibrato; his double-necked guitar and his reluctance to sing on record are both stuff of legend; this forgotten song deserves to be just as legendary.
Mickey & Sylvia “Love Is Strange”
(Mickey Baker/Sylvia Robinson/Ethel Smith)
And now we turn to a song which was just as progressive and startling, guitar-wise, but which hasn’t been forgotten in the least (thanks, Dirty Dancing). Mickey Baker was one of the great studio guitarists of the rock & roll era, and his rhumba-inflected duet with sweet-voiced siren Sylvia Robinson was as much of a showcase for his sharp-toned finger-flashing as for her sultry “come here, lover boy!” The dexterity with which he switches between playing barres around the rhythm and running his sparkling solo work remain postively breathtaking today. Or if you don’t care for that guitar-hero crap, it’s still got several great pop moments thanks to Sylvia’s multifarious vocal talents and that slinky, sensuous Caribbean rhythm. Even reggae has roots in rock & roll.