Wednesday, May 16, 2007

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


Frankie Ford “Sea Cruise”
(Huey Smith)
Ace, 1959
Hey, where have I heard those horn charts before? (No, really. The first time I heard this, I had to stop and root through my iPod to figure it out.) The Clash borrowed them for their cover of “Wrong ’Em Boyo,” which is appropriate, since the rocksteady of the original was anticipated by this song’s bouncy rhythm. It’s pure ska (maybe it’s even dub, with all those foghorn sound effects, not to mention the fact that Frankie Ford quasi-ethically dubbed his voice onto Huey “Piano” Smith’s track). But at the same time, it’s surf music — that climbing melody sounds like every early Beach Boys hit — and then too it’s just prime New Orleans r&b, danceable and fun and oo-wee, baby, oo-wee.


Charlie Rich “Big Man”
(Charlie Rich/Dale Fox)
Sun, 1959
When Sun lost Elvis to RCA, the Army, the movies, and sentimental glop, they scrambled to replace him. To all appearances, Charlie Rich was the perfect fit. His emotional baritone sounded a lot like Elvis’s, but he had better phrasing; he was drop-dead gorgeous, but more distinguished; and he could write killer songs, and play terrific jazz-inspired piano, and — and — but no. He had a couple of minor hits, and then hopped from label to label all through the 60s, playing a sophisticated and unique version of country-soul-jazz that found no takers even as country and soul and jazz were all exploding into radical new forms. Then finally, his hair white from the strain, he broke through with “Behind Closed Doors” in 1973. But back at Sun, as a brash young Turk, he was already crossing boundaries and fusing black gospel with old-time religion (and maybe inspiring Randy Newman along the way) — the Big Man of the title is God himself.


Jimmy Reed “Baby What You Want Me To Do”
(Jimmy Reed)
Vee-Jay, 1959
The slinkiest, drag-funkiest of the classic bluesmen, Jimmy Reed is probably the person most responsbile for the Rolling Stones’ perfected 1968-1972 sound. (I mean, aside from Jimmy Miller and the band themselves.) But to say he inspired a bunch of white toffs is to say nothing at all; he was also one of the great songwriters of the blues; and I do mean songwriters, not just someone who threw some (possibly original) lyrics on an ancient AAB. Like a rural juke-joint hero, he played guitar and harmonica at once — like an urban sophisticate, he dressed sharp and played sharper. This song is remarkable for its slowed-down drive, a moderate tempo that pulls you along, a way of creating suspense even when the lyric is just a not-quite-sure-about-love song.


Jackie Wilson “Lonely Teardrops”
(Tyran Carlo/Berry Gordy, Jr.)
Brunswick, 1959
The man who started Motown. Or rather, who gave Berry Gordy enough hits that he started Motown. But the label’s signature glossy funk hadn’t yet been developed; Wilson is, if not exactly raw, at least unvarnished, switching easily between the modified walking blues of the verses and the high-octane gospel swoop of the chorus. He was called Mr. Excitement for a reason: his voice sounds like it might burst if it stays on a note for too long, running up and down the scale and breaking into whoops and secular hallelujahs over the female chorus. Soul had arrived, indeed, and Jackie Wilson would see that it invaded the bustling, automotive Detroit in all its pomp and splendor. This song is not unlike the great orgy of classic American car design at the end of the materialistic 50s, all chrome swoops and flashy tails and incandescent lights.


Nina Simone “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
(James Cox)
Colpix, 1959
Where do you file Nina Simone? Is she jazz, folk, soul, funk, singer/songwriter, what? (Well anyway, she’s not rock & roll, I hear you shout.) She’s maybe the primary reason I don’t believe in filing music. Or at least an excellent excuse. Check it: the song is an ancient vaudeville lament, given life and dignity by Bessie Smith in the year of our Lord 1929 — the year of the Depression. It was covered by jazz-blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon, who gave it a postwar kick. Then Nina Simone got her hands on it, and turned it from a wry smile at fair-weather friendship to a growling condemnation of the slow movement of civil rights. It’s blues, but with soul. And jazz chops. See what I mean about categories? (And then, yeah, I hear some guy named Derek and his backing band played it. Whatever.)


Dion & The Belmonts “A Teenager In Love”
(Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
Laurie, 1959
It’s not that I wanted to point out how young and winsome and, well, beatupable the young Dion DiMucci sounds here. (But seriously, this is the tough guy that would sing about Runaround Sue and call himself the Wanderer?) And it’s not that I wanted to point out how doo-wop was being co-opted and homogenized by white — mostly Italian (you know, ethnic but not too ethnic) — groups, and watered down for the sock-hop market. It’s not even that I wanted to point out how much the lyrics encapsulate a certain self-pitying romanticism inherent in American adolescence. It’s that I wanted to point out that this was Doc Pomus’s first great song. Give it up for Doc Pomus.


The Shirelles “Dedicated To The One I Love”
(Ralph Bass/Lowman Pauling)
Scepter, 1959
The first mega-successful girl group, and the one on which all subsequent stars of the form would be patterned, they were still unknown failures in 1959, when their cover of the “5” Royales’ “Dedicated” stiffed in the charts. (An overweight teenager named Cass Elliott heard it, though, and that’s how the Mamas & Papas had one of their fluffiest pop hits. But back to the Shirelles.) Their producer, Luther Dixon, gave them the glossiest string backing regional-label money could buy, and had the song start out with one of the most thrilling cries in all of pop music. (Modern scavanger-pop artists Johnny Boy play with it to gorgeous effect in their “Johnny Boy Theme.”) But no go; it tanked, and the Shirelles wouldn’t become legends until they got a Goffin/King song and started exploiting teenage sexuality.


Brook Benton & Dinah Washington “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)”
(Brook Benton/Clyde Otis/Jules Stein)
Mercury, 1959
Dinah Washington is an acknowledged jazz legend, of course. Why then should it surprise anyone that she had her biggest success on the rhythm & blues charts? Brook Benton isn’t even close to being a jazz singer; although as a soul singer, he was pretty advanced for 1959, coming on like a less whiny Marvin Gaye. Together, they created pop magic that dominated the close of the 50s but falls through the historical cracks today because it doesn’t fit easily into Ken Burns’ vision of jazz or Rhino Records’ vision of soul. Today it reads (especially those swooping strings) like a more easygoing version of Philly soul from the 70s; they trade quips and try to crack each other up while playing around with pitch and meter in a very jazzy, soulful kinda way.


Wanda Jackson “Riot In Cell Block #9”
(Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
Capitol, 1959
The First Lady of Rockabilly, the great Atomic Yodeler herself, ladies and gentlemen, Wanda Jackson. She only spent two years as a rocker, but in that time she made most of the male rockers look like pussies. Listen to her lewd twang, and then she breaks out her gutbucket snarl; listen to to the shrieks and screams of the femmey chorus behind her; listen to the sheer velocity and wham! of this thing, and know: you’ve just been rocked. And this wasn’t a one-off deal, either: this is maybe one of her tamer efforts, a cover of an L.A. doo-wop song (but juiced up with prison-dyke innuendo because of who’s singing it) that plays as her version of “Jailhouse Rock.” She could also sing straight country, and make your mama weep while doing it; but it’s as the first of the riot grrls that she’ll always be remembered.


The Isley Brothers “Shout!”
(Rudolph Isley/Ronald Isley/O’Kelly Isley, Jr.)
RCA, 1959
It’s gospel gone feral; it’s the most primitive, joyous, rocking, funky, soulful, extravagant, howling, swooning, stomping, jubilant, gorgeous sound on earth. It’s the Isley Brothers, and it’s not even their freaking peak; they’re just getting warmed up. It’s a call-and-response chant, a field holler amphetamined by God and the devil into something that can get even white folks to dance. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson — who? This is soul, brothers and sisters, this is the new generation, this is what will come tumbling out of the chicken shacks and chitlin halls in the next decade, this is Otis and Wilson and Tina and Aretha and James and Sly — this is the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the future.

1 comment:

Naomi said...

Very well written. Now, about Charlie Rich. Stress wasn't what made his hair turn grey, (it began turning when he was 23) but stress did affect his drinking habit and his reliance on prescription pain relievers following an injury in the 70's. It is also a fact that Charlie was painfully shy and suffered from lack of self-esteem. Hard to imagine from someone so naturally gifted and, as you so aptly wrote "drop-dead gorgeous, ah-h-h, that he was.