Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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

Mose Allison “Young Man Blues”
(Mose Allison)
Prestige, 1957
Yeah, you probably have the Live At Leeds version in your head already (“ain’t got sweeeeeeet...”). One of the measures of Pete Townshend’s genius is that he could hear the understated menace and generational anger in Allison’s mellow little post-bop ditty and adapt it for the hard-rock era. Influenced by Bud Powell and the King Cole Trio, Allison was a laid-back pianist and a thin, reedy vocalist, but a smart, subversive lyricist, one of the few jazzbos who qualified as a songwriter instead of merely a composer. And this isn’t only rock & roll by mod proxy, either — the sophisticated stop-start roll of the music anticipates the Pixies with their quiet/loud dynamics. Of course, trust the Who to make it all loud.

Nat King Cole “Send For Me”
(Ollie Jones)
Capitol, 1956
No, really. No, listen. Have you heard the song? The conventional wisdom is that Cole abandoned rhythmic music when he went pop in the late 40s (though his early trio sides are acknowledged proto-rock in their minimalist swing), and while it’s true that his 50s material is by and large string-drenched pap (though his rich, velvety voice was always worth soaking in), he paused in his treacly descent just long enough to issue this stunning, breezy r&b confection. Anchored by his easygoing piano and textured by a breathy saxophone, it’s a clear predecessor to Sam Cooke’s best work — and even, on the production end, to Pet Sounds. I hadn’t even heard the song before I began research for this list; but now it’s one of my very favorites.

The Everly Brothers “Bye Bye Love”
(Boudleaux Bryant/Felice Bryant)
Cadence, 1957
Another Townshed connection: the Everly’s hard, percussive strums on their acoustic guitars were apparently the inspiration for his power chords. And they were something new under the sun — a country brother act that (unlike the Delmores, the Louvins, or the Stanleys), embraced the teen-oriented rock & roll present and pop future. It helped that they practically were teenagers; no one with more years under their belt could so cheerfully, even blithely, sing about giving up on women entirely. You can tell they don’t mean it, even if they think they do, and where the older duos would have imbued the song with a dignified pathos, the Everlys sound relieved to be rid of the pressures of a relationship and ready to start playing the field again.

Slim Harpo “(I’m A) King Bee”
(Slim Harpo)
Excello, 1957
Say, whaddya know? There’s Slim Harpo. (Quick, name the next line.) He wanted to call himself Lightning Slim, but someone else already had the name, so his wife suggested Harpo. Because he played the harmonica, goes the official version; but also, one suspects, because of the silent Marx brother’s famous randiness. This, his biggest and most influential hit, is nothing more than an extended metaphor for sex. So are two-thirds of all blues songs, of course, but few of them as direct and unsubtle as this one ever made it as big. Slim’s minimal funkiness and leering voice proved hugely influential on a young London art-school student named Michael P. Jagger, who even took up the harmonica in imitation (but didn’t play it nearly as well).

Sam Cooke “You Send Me”
(Sam Cooke)
Keen, 1957
Ah, here it is: the time bomb that shook the foundations of pop music and left them forever changed. Not that it’s easy to tell from today’s perspective, especially if you’re not already soaked in the music of the period. And it’s not necessarily the song itself that made such an impact, though it’s got all the pop necessities: irresistably hummable melody, (slow-) danceable rhythm, compactly novel lyrical idea. (“What? Where does she send him?” “No, daddyo, you’re not digging it.”) It’s the voice. Gritty, yet smooth, slipping under notes and swallowing them up, weaving and bobbing like a young Cassius Clay. It’s not to much to say that, aside from the odd Josh Groban or so, there hasn’t been a popular male singer for thirty years whose vocal style didn’t owe something to Sam Cooke.

Dale Hawkins “Susie Q”
(Dale Hawkins/Eleanor Broadwater/Stan Lewis)
Checker, 1957
At an academic pop-music conference four years ago, there was a paper read called “The Cowbell As Universal Party-Down Signifier.” Blue Öyster Cult, one imagines, featured prominently (no doubt with a passing reference to a Will Ferrell sketch). But I hope space was left for Dale Hawkins. Another rockabilly artist defined by a single hit, Hawkins might better be described as the original swamp-rocker: a Louisiana boy with a huge drum sound and his buddy James Burton on electric guitar, he’s pretty much single-handedly responsible for Creedence Clearwater Revival (who at least had the decency to acknowledge it; a nine-minute version of “Susie Q” is on their debut album). The song has origins in 1930s dance-jazz; Louis Armstrong’s sometime wife Lil Hardin was the first to record a version.

Huey “Piano” Smith & The Clowns “Don’t You Just Know It”
(Huey Smith/Johnny Vincent)
Ace, 1958
I’m not usually the kind of person who sings out loud at random, but every now and then this nonsense chorus just pops out. “Ha ha ha ha (Ha ha ha ha)/Heyyy-yo (Heyyy-yo)/Booga booga booga booga (Booga booga booga booga/Ah ah ah ah (Ah ah ah ah)” and so forth. It’s one of the greatest call-and-response themes of all time, rivalling Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and it turned Huey Smith into yet another New Orleans r&b legend. Not as genially cool as Fats Domino or as relentlessly funky as Professor Longhair, Smith carved out a party-hearty niche that relied on the traded vocals of his backup group the Clowns (presaging a certain Family Stone) and was ultimately responsible for the spread of those heppest of diseases, the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.

The Collins Kids “Hoy Hoy”
(Little Johnny Jones)
Columbia, 1958
Look at that picture. Just look at it. What is that kid, ten? And his demure older sister, she’s what, sixteen? How on earth do those little squirts produce such an ungodly racket? Proof positive that rock & roll was a much a generational shift as a cultural one — it’s like it was encoded in their genes or something — Larry and Lonnie Collins (they both sang, but he played the solos) were one of the firiest, fastest, jumpingest rockabilly acts on the planet for a good while. Oddly enough, their tender years, instead of being scandalous, made rock & roll “safe” for both the country crowd and the TV-watching public for whom Lonnie was Ricky Nelson’s girlfriend. But give a listen to this: if it’s not statutory something, I’ll eat my hat. (Note: I don’t own a hat.)

Esquerita “Rockin’ The Joint”
(Eskew Reeder, Jr.)
Capitol, 1958
Capitol wanted their own Little Richard, but better ( just as Gene Vincent was their own Elvis, but better), so they signed Esquerita. His hair was even bigger than Little Richard’s, his mouth even wider, his songs even more furiously-rocking and lascivous, his stage manner even more flamboyant, his sexuality even gayer, his sales — well, no. His sales tanked hard, and he was quickly forgotten as a camp novelty, except among die-hard rock & roll collectors. (You can’t see sexual orientation on a 45.) But see, here’s the thing — Little Richard stole his act at the beginning of his own career. Well, maybe not stole exactly, but cleaned up and refined and presented as his own. Rock & roll ain’t just white pretending to be black, kids. It’s also straight pretending to be gay.

Wynn Stewart “Come On”
(Wynn Stewart)
Jackpot, 1958
Mainstream country is the least forgiving genre: even major hitmakers are quickly forgotten if they don’t continue to top the charts for over a decade. Wynn Stewart was one of the greatest country singers and songwriters of the 1950s, on par with Ray Price or Hank Thompson, and he was one of the first Bakersfield artists — in fact, Buck Owens could be said to owe him his entire career. But apart from a heaven-tinged ballad or two, he’s been almost entirely written out of the music’s history. This song, one of his best, is a rockabilly-inflected jump tune, a slightly salacious ditty (though nothing compared to even the RCA-tamed Elvis) that strikes a happy medium between Buck Owens and Buddy Holly. And the wordless vocal whine that opens the song and repeats throughout reminds me of the brazen murmuring Ella Mae Morse used to open her funkiest jive tunes.

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