Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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

The Johnny Otis Show “Willie And The Hand Jive”
(Johnny Otis)
Capitol, 1958
He was a Greek entrepreneur who played black so well that his son could be mistaken for an honest-to-God bluesman by David Byrne. The man born Ioannis Veniotes ran the biggest rock & roll circus on earth, something even the Stones couldn’t make pay in 1970. As a talent scout (an impressive chunk of his artist roster is on this very list), bandleader, disc jockey, and songwriter, he was one of the four or five most important architects of rock & roll culture. So it’s kind of a pity that his most famous song is most remembered for biting Bo Diddley’s signature “shave and a haircut, two bits” beat and riding it to bigger success than Diddley ever had. Otis knew how to play the success game, though, and when he put on a show, you got your money’s worth.

Frank Sinatra “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”
(Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer)
Capitol, 1958
Yes, Sinatra. I could go into an elaborate defense of Old Blue Eyes, and this song in particular, as rock & roll — the man’s fuck-you attitude, the blues roots of the melody, the Springsteeny heart-on-sleeve macho of the lyric, the way it’s influenced barfly personas from Hank Thompson to Tom Waits — but instead I think I’ll just marvel at Bill Miller’s sensitive, nuanced accompaniment on the piano, the bluesy, woozy saxophone punctuation, and Sinatra’s own exhausted, extended outro. He first recorded the song in the 1947, but that was a 45-rpm hepcat version, without the adult weariness he shows here. No matter what he thought about rock & roll — he was.

Ritchie Valens “Donna”
(Ritchie Valens)
Del-Fi, 1958
The thing that always surprises me about Latino rock & roll is how smooth it is. Although I don’t know why that should be a surprise: there’s the “Latin lover” stereotype, of course, but even Latin American folk music has fewer rough edges and blue notes than the Africanized U. S. version. Anyway, Valens is mostly remembered today as a co-fatality of Buddy Holly’s, or maybe for the safe multiculturalism of “La Bamba” — but he was an honest-to-God star in his own right, and his Greatest Hits is no less deep than any of his contemporaries except maybe Elvis. It might be easy at first listen to confuse this with any number of other malt-shop teenybopper ballads, but listen closely: this is the one with the kickin’ tex-mex electric guitar in the background.

Eddie Cochran “Summertime Blues”
(Eddie Cochran/Jerry Capehart)
Liberty, 1958
What “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was to the summer of 1965, and “God Save the Queen” to the summer of 1976, “Summertime Blues” was to the summer of 1958: a calculated teenage-rebellion anthem married to a killer hook and a ferocious rhythmic pulse. I can’t abide the know-nothings who claim to prefer the Who’s version (or even, weirdly, Blue Cheer’s). Roger Daltrey always sounds like a powerful badass, when the whole point of the song is the frustrated powerlessness of the singer; Cochran nailed the nerdy teenage angst. Okay, I can see preferring Entwhistle’s basso — but I find it cute that the original was trying to sound like Johnny Cash and (naturally) failed.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross “Gimme That Wine”
(Jon Hendricks)
Columbia, 1958
The primary exponents of vocalese — a post-bop form of vocal jazz that sounds remarkably like just singing a song; the genre tag is really unnecessary — Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were also part of a hard-to-define and poorly-documented movement that combined hepcat jazz, Broadway blues, the progressive politics of the Greenwich Village folkies, and the more intellectual side of rock & roll. As teenage rock & roll became more divorced from blues, and jazz moved into decidedly less hep quarters, the movement faded away; but while it was there, it produced lovely things like this: a distant relative of “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” it’s a comic r&b number given a high-class production.

The Kingston Trio “Tom Dooley”
Capitol, 1958
Before you laugh: how many groups can say that they are personally responsible for the existence of both Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys? The scrubbed-up folk of Pete Seeger and the Weavers was transformed into pop gold by the Kingston Trio (in those days, Caribbean music was still considered folk), paving the way for the commercial success of Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and some kid from Hibbing. But their harmonies — and especially the way they fragment their harmonies, one guy jumping ahead of the others or dragging behind — was enormously influential to Brian Wilson’s young compositional instinct too. And, of course, their beach-casual striped-shirt image gave the Beach Boys their iconic costume.

Janis Martin “Bang Bang”
(Clavelle Isnard)
RCA, 1958
She was billed by RCA as “The Female Elvis.” She wasn’t — Wanda Jackson was — but she was pretty hot stuff anyway. Her big hit was (natch) “My Boy Elvis,” but it’s this gleeful sexual metaphor (from a young girl who qualified as jailbait in many states) that’s the keeper; “If you want to make a deal/Cock your pistol and rooty-toot shoot” has only one meaning that I can parse, anyway. But the icing is the chorus: there’s so much echo on her voice that it practically counts as call-and-response, and you see where R.E.M. got the idea for their song of the same name. Plus, that huge drum sound; I’m always a sucker for metaphorical snares beating out a martial tattoo.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson “Gangster Of Love”
(Johnny Watson)
King, 1958
Man, Steve Miller can’t catch a break, can he? First I show up his “pompetus of love” shtick, and now I drag out the original Gangster of Love. Don’t get this confused with Guitar Watson’s 70s funk remake of his trademark song, either: this is straight stomping blues, with his wicked guitar squeezing out sparks. It’s a shame that his funk years are better documented on reissues these days; he was one of the original guitar heroes (his instrumental “Space Guitar” has to be heard to be believed), and if you can tell he’s just grinning from ear to ear at his own badass-cowboy pose, that makes it all the more charming.

Chuck Berry “Memphis”
(Chuck Berry)
Chess, 1959
Frequently acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in rock & roll (at least until Dylan), Chuck Berry’s less noted for his stylistic experiments. Most of his well-known hits (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Johnny Be Goode”) are patterned on the same style, but he was also proficient at hot-rod (“Maybellene”), teen-pop (“Almost Grown”), Latin balladry (“Havana Moon”), and — as this buried b-side attests — country. Yes, it’s a country song — specifically, it’s stripped-down western swing — from the loping pace to the Nashville-clever lyrical surprise of Sweet Marie not being who you thought she was. But it’s also a predecessor of slow-burn funk: the hook, as well as the song’s pace, is set by the bass guitar. Man, Chuck Berry could do it all.

Lefty Frizzell “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues”
(Marty Robbins)
Columbia, 1959
I love the way that he pronounces “cigarettes,” as though he was going to say “cigars” but looked at the lyric sheet just in time. I love the rippling honky-tonk piano that cascades throughout the song. I love the swinging rock & roll beat, accented by electric guitar chords that sound just a half-beat away from being ska. I love the general smoky, late-night atmosphere of the song, as though it were itself a slice of the nicotined, caffeinated life described in the lyrics. I love whoever’s adding those keening harmonies on the chorus. Most of all, though, I love Lefty’s voice, rich and buttery and sounding very much like he just set down his cigarette and coffee cup before the session started.

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