Americans dominated popular music from 1955 to 1963, a phenomenon driven primarily by the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the years 1955 to 1958. As is true with almost anything Americans dominate, they fucked it up and almost killed rock ‘n’ roll in the process.
The primary drives of American culture during this period were the five C’s: conformity, consumerism, convenience, comfort and communism. The American economy exploded in the postwar era, and a generation sick of the sacrifices demanded by depression and war wanted more, more, more! More cars! More appliances! More push buttons! More babies! The United States dominated the world in nearly every tangible category you can name, from military might to technicolor movies, a condition that should have created a tremendous sense of security in the populace. This was not to be the case, as unscrupulous politicians from both major parties constantly fanned the flames of communist paranoia, so much so that when a puny satellite measuring less than two feet in diameter started orbiting the earth, the entire country was thrown into a tizzy. Behind the façade, American confidence was a very fragile thing.
The patriotism engendered by the war provided a fertile ground for the ethnocentric paranoia that manifested itself in the notion that there were two kinds of people: those who were “Real Americans” and those who were not, the latter group consisting of “Negroes,” “Indians,” and other undesirables. The definition of a “Real American” constantly morphed over time to include a hodgepodge of nostalgic impulses, pre-existing biases and behavioral expectations from the burgeoning consumer culture. Real Americans had eggs for breakfast and meat and potatoes for dinner. Real Americans kept their lawns up and painted their fences. In a Real American family, the man was the breadwinner, the woman the cook, the cleaning lady and the all-purpose nanny. Real American kids were expected to behave, and those who didn’t were termed “juvenile delinquents.”
And though Real Americans must have been fucking their brains out to produce all those whiny bundles of joy, Real Americans never spoke about sex in polite company. Lucy and Ricky slept separately in twin beds in the early ’50s, as did Rob and Laura in the early ’60s.
While most teens of the 50’s went along with the program and strived to become the good boys and girls their parents wanted them to be, others felt differently. The pressure from a conformist society in denial about sex weighed heavily on those horny adolescents. Born in the waning years of the Great Depression and entering childhood during a global conflict, they were as eager as their parents to experience the joys of plenty. Their basic needs for security and safety fully satisfied, they wanted something more, something different, something their hopelessly square parents couldn’t give them. Like the character of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, they had a hard time expressing exactly what they wanted, so they literally became rebels without a cause: I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want this!
This strange state of consciousness combined with the insatiable sex drive of the teenager made them the perfect audience for a new form of music—music that encouraged non-conformity, validated sexual urges and confusing emotions, and above all, allowed you to dance your blues away, preferably all night long.
This is what the period from 1955-1958 was all about: rebellion for the hell of it, rebellion because it felt good.
“Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley and the Comets, March 1955: The single that changed everything was originally a b-side released in 1954 that had a modest run on the charts. What rescued the song from obscurity was its appearance in the classic juvenile delinquent movie, Blackboard Jungle. The film version begins with an extended drum solo, a call to the ancient rhythmic impulses that merged into the famous stop-time intro that caused teenage blood to boil over and send thousands of adolescents into the aisles to shake their fannies and engage in general mayhem. Compared to the heat generated by some of Ruth Brown’s R&B hits, “Rock Around the Clock” feels rather tame, but to white teenagers of the 1950s, who had probably never heard of Ruth Brown, the punctuated snare shots, the pizzicato guitar solo and the growling sax must have sent their libidos into overload. I think the basic message of the song is as important and as validating as the music: instead of “Johnny, it’s past your bedtime,” you get to “rock, rock, rock ’til the broad daylight!” Take your curfew and shove it up your ass, mom and dad! Haley’s vocal is rather dull and weak on the blue notes, but he does sound like he’s having a good time.
The alleged a-side, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)” is an Atomic Age classic: the singer dreams that the H-bomb has been dropped, leaving himself as the world’s sole penis possessor with thirteen women to take care of him. He doesn’t fuck a single broad before waking up, making him the biggest moron to ever survive the H-bomb.
“Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford, November 1955: The advent of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t change the status quo as much as historical hype might lead you to believe. Rock wasn’t much more than another category of music to add to the already diverse popular music offerings in the 1950s. The charts brimmed with lush pop songs, Latin-influenced instrumentals, mood music, country-western ditties, novelty pieces and eventually, rock ‘n’ roll. In the midst of all this diversity came Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons,” which is simply one of the greatest vocal performances on record in any genre.
The piece grabs you right from the start with its mournful clarinet melting into Ernie’s opening fermata (a note prolonged beyond its expected duration) on the word some. He then picks up the hidden beat with four finger snaps that form the lead-in for the stand-up bass and drums. When Ernie arrives at the chorus, a thin, wavering trumpet enters to add some texture, but all the touches are on the light side—the arrangement is carefully attenuated to focus the listener’s attention on Ernie’s vocal. And a magnificent vocal it is! His expressive variations—the shift to a threatening whisper on the phrase, “better step aside,” the cocky little laugh in the line, “Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line,” and the grand a cappella finale—are the work of a master. Merle Travis’ song is a gritty depiction of life as a coal miner, and Ernie makes us feel the silent desperation burning inside the man. The closing diminuendo of the clarinet is as perfect as perfect gets, a sad punctuation mark emphasizing the dreary truth that our coal miner is forever trapped in a pattern of inhuman absurdity. While most pop songs lapse into melodrama, “Sixteen Tons” honors us with a completely aesthetic experience, achieving what very few popular songs have ever achieved: tragedy with catharsis.
“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Elvis Presley, May 1956: This is my favorite Elvis song of all-time and I was delighted to see it in Dad’s collection! What’s more amazing than Elvis’ performance, though, is the engineering brilliance that created that performance. The story is a beaut: RCA, eager to record a follow-up hit to “Heartbreak Hotel,” flew Elvis to Nashville during a one-day break in his touring schedule. The plane developed engine trouble, powerlessly plummeting through the air several times before the pilot regained control. Needless to say, when Elvis and the boys arrived at the studio, they weren’t in the best of moods. Elvis had no idea what to record (!), so they turned to producer Steve Sholes for suggestions, and he came up with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” After seventeen less-than-satisfying takes, Sholes gave up and sent the band home.
Realizing he wouldn’t get Elvis in the studio for months left Sholes with very few options, so he took parts of two reasonably acceptable takes and spliced them together. Sholes must have been seriously on his game because no one noticed. In a few months, Elvis had his second gold record.
Scotty Moore’s opening lick is truly attention-grabbing, but what I really love about the song is the complexity of the chord structure, sweetened by a brief key shift in the bridge. The melody also features significant movement, and, combined with the truncated lyrical lines, makes for an extremely challenging vocal. You can hear Elvis taking breaths at shorter intervals, and sometimes he inhales with such speed that it sounds like he’s surprised he has to breathe so often. There are dozens of mini-phrases in “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” and Elvis nails every single one. The choppiness you may experience comes from the phrasing challenge, but think about it a minute—aren’t nearly all genuine expressions of passion for another a little choppy? We stutter, we can’t find the right words, our volume oscillates and our tongues get tied. The weird confluence of events preceding the recording session gave us a frazzled Elvis who managed to create an emotional honesty in his performance that is far more satisfying than the experience of listening to a technically brilliant but completely lifeless singer. When I listen to Elvis’ voice here, I hear sincerity, and when someone’s verbally making love to you, that’s really all you want to hear.
The b-side, Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” is a song Elvis could have sung in his sleep. He was a great translator of early R&B.
“Be-Bop-a-Lula,” Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, June 1956: Gene was Capitol’s answer to Elvis, and you can hear the vocal similarities especially when Gene drops down to the lower part of his range. However, Gene’s vocal style was far more “out there” than Elvis Presley’s, and drummer Dickie Harrel’s screams are something you would never hear from Scotty Moore or a Jordanaire. The movement from mellow to bash makes for an incredibly sexy build, and Cliff Gallup’s lead solos and “Jumpin'” Jack Neal’s bends on the string bass are to die for. Alas, this would be Gene’s last trip to the American Top 10. He would abandon his homeland for a reasonably successful career on the other side of the pond, survive the auto accident that killed Eddie Cochran, develop a serious drinking problem, attempt to kill Gary Glitter for messing with his babe and die at the ripe old age of 36.
“Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley, July 1956: I realize that “Don’t Be Cruel” was technically the A-side, but I’ll take “Hound Dog” over “Don’t Be Cruel” anytime. What began as a comic relief number became a signature song of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, phase one, especially after Elvis displayed his pelvic flexibility on The Milton Berle Show. On Berle’s show he moved like a guy in the dying stages of an orgasm trying to get that last bit of shot out of his system. When I fuck a guy, that’s exactly how I want him to look when I’m done with him—spent, deliriously happy and ready to rock again! Elvis belts this sucker out in his best drawling growl, encouraged by Scotty Bowman’s sharp fills and D. J. Fontana’s muscular drum rolls. What makes “Hound Dog” all the sweeter is that it sparked a nasty reaction from American Puritans, various members of Congress, and the now seriously uncool Frank Sinatra. Good Boy Elvis dismissed the song as “silly,” but Bad Boy Elvis is the guy on the record, and that’s the guy we’ll remember.
By the way, Elvis’ version is nothing like the Big Mama Thornton original. Big Mama’s take is like Memphis Minnie Meets the Fifties, an ode to female sexual control. Elvis’ version is somewhat closer to the one by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, which is godawful and moves like a stegosaur with hemorrhoids.
As for “Don’t Be Cruel,” it’s a good song and it’s got a nice beat you can dance to, Dick, but so very, very tame in comparison.
“I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash, September 1956: It’s a shame that nice deep voices are relatively rare in popular music, and when I worked my way through the flood of falsetto that greeted me when I started listening to singles from the 60’s, I found myself missing them terribly. Here Johnny not only changes keys in every verse but also drops octaves, most noticeably in the last verse, where his voice seems to fade into the nether reaches of the underworld. I hate to be a girl, but I think it’s so cute that he hums right before each verse to find the key! You combine that vulnerability with a deep voice expressing undying devotion and you’re going to get one horny altrockchick! Okay, let me admit it up front so I don’t have to deal with it later—I would have fucked Johnny Cash but I would have never fucked Lou Christie. There! I’ve said it! Fetish confessed!
“Little Darlin’,” The Diamonds, March 1957: The falsetto “ya-ya-ya-ya” is frequently borrowed for satires of 50’s music, making this an iconic song of sorts. It’s actually a Canadian white boy cover of a Maurice Williams song that he performed with The Gladiolas. Whitewashing remained a common practice throughout the 50’s, with Pat Boone leading the way with his bleached version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” While Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic thinks The Diamonds’ version is the bee’s knees, I find their performance deeply offensive. The Diamonds’ attempt to sound African-American is so over-the-top that it’s the aural equivalent of blackface. Yecch!
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee Lewis, June 1957: The only member of the Million Dollar Quartet I haven’t covered, Jerry Lee Lewis was the voice of the devil whispering in my ear during piano lessons, “Fuck that Schubert lieder. You know you want to boogie, baby!” I gave into Jerry Lee’s pleadings one day and scared the hell out of my piano teacher when I got stuck on a particularly difficult passage and vented my frustration by banging out the left-hand run from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” I even threw in a few slides with the right hand. Damn, that felt good!
Jerry Lee’s emphasis on the piano as a percussive instrument was critical to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, for he rescued the most versatile of all musical instruments from the squares and “longhairs,” making the piano a viable alternative to the guitar. I really dislike it when people use the term “thunderous” when talking about Jerry Lee’s style, because thunder is a random, arrhythmic occurrence, and Jerry Lee Lewis is rhythm personified. Let’s just call his style “fucking hot” and move on.
While his contributions on the piano alone would have earned him a place in any hall of fame you care to mention, it was his singing that blatantly confirmed the sexual messages in his music. His phrasing flies over the rhythm, almost like he’s providing a guided commentary on the erotic underpinnings of the sounds he’s creating on his piano. The back-and-forth shifts between melody and spoken word express extreme confidence in both his ability to maintain the rhythm without bass support and his own sexual prowess. When he talks to the imaginary babe during the down-low passages (“All you gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot/Wiggle around just a little bit, that’s when you got it, yeah!”), he is in full seduction mode, getting the likely virgin to loosen up and ride along with those funny sensations building up in her clitoris. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” validated the heavenly union between sex and rock ‘n’ roll, angering Puritans of all stripes.
Had I been alive back then, I would have told them to fuck off but Puritans don’t know how to do that.
My father’s collection also includes “Great Balls of Fire,” but I find Jerry’s vocal on that one a bit too obvious and over-the-top, even for me.
“Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley, October 1957: Sadly, “Jailhouse Rock” proved to be the last single featuring Elvis in full rock-out mode, growling his vocal with consistent intensity over five stop-time structured verses. By comparison, “Hard-Headed Woman” from King Creole is a pale imitation, a choppy song with an arrangement that drowns Elvis’ voice far too often. Here he’s still Bad Boy Elvis, in perfect sync with his character in the film, where he plays a guy sent to the joint for manslaughter. In a few short months he would forever become Good Boy Elvis by entering the U. S. Army. After his release, he would stick to pop songs and ballads and appear in a series of eminently wholesome and forgettable movies that made him rich enough to fly his friends in his private jet to Denver at the drop of a hat to dine at a restaurant that served his favorite peanut butter sandwiches.
“At the Hop,” Danny and The Juniors, December 1957: Danny and the Juniors began life as The Juvenairs, performing primarily as an intermission act at (where else?) sock hops. Members John Medora (sometimes Madara) and David White had written a tune called “Do the Bop,” but by the time they played the song for producer and vocal coach Artie Singer, the Bop fad had faded into history. Singer suggested (some argue it was Dick Clark who made the suggestion, but it hardly matters) they change the title to “At the Hop,” transforming what would have been another one-shot dance-fad number into a song about the teenage experience. Sock hops and mixers had become essential rituals in teenage culture in the 1950s, events where adolescents could show off their moves and both cats and chicks could bridge the chasm between the sexes through the arts of dance and flirtation . . . under the watchful eyes of chaperones.
“At the Hop” not only celebrated this cultural development but helped shift adult perceptions of rock ‘n’ roll from something dangerously rebellious to a form of good, clean fun. The lyrics even argue that rather than serving as the harbinger of revolution, rock ‘n’ roll could serve a supporting role in the general cultural trend towards conformity. The line, “Do the dance sensation that is sweepin’ the nation at the hop” essentially urges teenagers to get with the program and do what all the other teenagers do. Don’t be a square, hit the dance floor! That line also embraces another important feature of American culture in the 1950’s: faddism. The Fifties were a fad factory and one of the most effective ways to validate your credentials as a real American was to jump on the fad bandwagon. The Hula Hoop is the classic example (20 million were sold in the first two months after it hit the shelves), but the 50s also brought us 3-D movie glasses, DA’s and sideburns, drive-in diners with carhops, Pez dispensers and coonskin caps. The era was also an assembly line of dance fads, a trend that continued well into the 60s with The Twist, Watusi and Mashed Potatoes. Fads are extremely effective means of defining cultural norms and a relatively pleasant way to enforce obedience.
Despite its obvious nod to conformity, I would also argue that “At the Hop” subtly encouraged revolution by expanding the definition of “normal” to encompass the pseudo-sexual expression manifested in dance. More than any other song in the decade, “At the Hop” made rock ‘n’ roll normal and safe for kids—and by redefining “normal” to include previously unacceptable behaviors, it reminded people that the boundaries of “normal” are fluid, not static—a notion that would be fully exploited in the second half of the 60’s.
Danny and the Juniors initiated these cultural changes by . . . being Danny and the Juniors. The one feature I love most in this song is Danny Rapp’s unadulterated Philly accent. You don’t hear any of the vocal gyrations and drama of Elvis, Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. You hear the guy you know from sixth-period Algebra performing with his buddies at the high school talent show! You don’t have to be “kooky” to do rock ‘n’ roll! Anyone can do it—even you!
The desirability of pursuing a career in rock ‘n’ roll is intensified by boogie-woogie piano and solid group collaboration throughout the song, from the opening four-part harmonic build to the increasingly complex call-and-response vocals. When Danny opens the vocal on the third instead of the root in the last verse to shake things up a little bit, it feels like the group is infused with a fresh burst of energy that they maintain right to the hard stop on the final “at the hop!” There are few songs in rock ‘n’ roll history as joyful as “At the Hop,” and if this song doesn’t make you smile, you may need several sessions with a shrink or a call girl to clean out your psychological intestines.
Even with the title change, the song spent several months hanging around the bottom of the charts until Dick booked them for a slot on American Bandstand. After the televised publicity, the song rocketed to the top and became one of the biggest hits of 1958. Dick also demanded half the royalties for the song, giving credence to the belief that the title change was his idea and reminding us that Dick Clark didn’t become the most influential person in the music business by being a nice guy.
“Get a Job,” The Silhouettes, January 1958: Written by the four Silhouettes, the arrangement for which Howard Biggs was given credit was actually the group’s creation as well. Biggs wanted to replace the “dip dip” opening with a musical introduction, a suggestion that has to rank as one of the dumbest ever made. The layering and variation of the doo-wop syllables that establish the foundation create a fascinating backdrop, but my favorite parts come at the ends of the bridges when the meager instrumentation fades and all we hear is a soaring solo voice over pounding drums and handclaps, soon to be joined right on cue by full harmonic power. Outfuckingstanding! And the sax solo between the two bridges ain’t chicken liver either.
“Do You Want to Dance?” Bobby Freeman, May 1958: Bongo drums were all the rage during the ’50s and early ’60s, popular with beatniks, college geeks and pop fans alike. Bobby Freeman’s song is as much an ode to bongos as a dance song, and if anyone could write a song about bongos, it would have to be a guy from San Francisco, the beat generation mecca where Latin-tinged jazz became all the rage during Orlando Cepeda’s rookie season with the Giants. On “Do You Want to Dance” we get bongos at the start, bongos throughout the verses, bongos re-starting the song after a brief pause, and bongos punctuating the finish. I find the slapping sound intensely irritating after about 45 seconds, and I’ve never cared for any of the many cover versions of this song (though I do like the genuine enthusiasm in Bobby’s vocal). Bobby would later perform at the Condor Club where another San Francisco legend and one of my personal heroines, Carol Doda, first shook her fully-exposed, fabulous set of tits for legions of adoring fans.
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, June 1958: Duane Eddy did as much as anyone to bring the guitar into prominence and inspire budding guitarists to attempt to duplicate the unusual sounds he wheedled out of his ax. Here the low-string riff is enhanced by an echo chamber, spiced with spots of vibrato from Duane’s whammy bar and supported by a strong, pounding beat. Duane plays the same pattern over and over again, masking the repetition by moving up a half step every twelve bars. Apparently the producers felt the song needed more variation and added a blow-with-all-your-might sax solo in the final mix. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that it’s a patch—the sax player never fully connects with the original groove and is so loud that the star of the show fades from earshot. I want a “naked” version of “Rebel Rouser!”
“Chantilly Lace,” Big Bopper, August 1958: J. P. Richardson was a popular local DJ when he capitalized on the latest dance fad (The Bop) and changed his over-the-air name to The Big Bopper. During 1958 and early 1959 he would also establish himself as a successful songwriter, penning a #1 country hit for George Jones and a #1 pop hit for Johnny Preston, “Running Bear,” one of the painfully common death songs popular for a few years in the early 60’s.
Thankfully, my father’s collection does not include “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
He also had a hand in the creation of his signature song, “Chantilly Lace.” The idea to create a song reflecting only one side of a phone conversation was an inspired choice that enabled the Bopper to slip a ton of innuendo past the delicate ears of the Puritans. The Bopper plays his role in the masquerade to perfection. His timing is exquisite, especially after he moans the line “But, baby, I ain’t got no money, honey.” He holds that silence long enough for the girl on the line to say something like, “The thing I want won’t cost you a dime” leading him to respond with his heartiest laugh and most emphatic “You KNOW what I LIKE!” I adore his voice on the chorus, sung with the gorgeous baritone confidence of a man who knows exactly what he wants.
Speaking of fabulous tits, Jayne Mansfield (another one of my heroines) released an answer song to Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” a kittenish, sexually submissive, and thoroughly risqué piece called “That Makes It.” The song makes a playful attempt to reproduce what Chantilly Lace is actually saying to the Bopper on the other end of the line. It’s worth the price of admission for one vocal passage that consists entirely of moans and squeals of delight that ends with “Ooh, that’s so kinky!” While I vehemently disagree with Jayne’s wish for “a man who’s cool, who really knows how to rule/the way he keeps ’em in line/makes ’em feel so fine,” this was a pre-liberation song and the thought of female domination probably never crossed her mind—despite millions of drooling admirers who would have sacrificed their dicks and first-borns for a shot at Jayne Mansfield.
“La Bamba/Donna” Ritchie Valens, November 1958: I first learned “La Bamba” in seventh-grade Spanish class, and later I found out that my Aunt Pug learned it in her seventh-grade Spanish class, too. I had no idea that Ritchie Valens would be part of the educational curriculum in California schools for almost three decades! “Donna,” a slow-dance number Ritchie had written about a lost love, turned out to be the bigger hit, but “La Bamba” is the one that achieved iconic status.
Ritchie was reluctant to re-jigger a Huapango folk song to fit a syncopated 4/4 backbeat, but with a great band behind him (including the versatile Carol Kay and Little Richard’s drummer Earl Palmer), he delivered a multi-faceted once-in-a-lifetime performance. His lead guitar solo is one of the best in early rock and he nails his lead vocal, easily riding the strong dance beat and trilling his r’s like a native (he was one of many Mexican kids who grew up on an English-only diet).
On February 3, 1959, Ritchie, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly would all lose their lives in a plane crash, an event Don McLean would later christen “The Day the Music Died.” The tragedy was really another nail in the coffin for early rock, as by this time it was already suffering from degenerative disease. Jerry Lee Lewis had fallen out of favor after marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Little Richard had shifted to preaching and gospel songs and Elvis was wearing khaki. Chuck Berry would be indicted for violating the Mann Act in December 1959, and the most promising rocker of them all, Eddie Cochran, would die in an automobile accident in 1960. Combined with the earlier loss of James Dean, that gorgeous symbol of alienation and rebellion, it’s no wonder that the populace bought into the notion that rock ‘n’ roll was a passing fad similar to the hula hoop and, to borrow a phrase from David Bowie, that teenagers would “grow up and out of it.” In the end, the strong conformist leanings of American culture reasserted themselves, much to the delight of record company moguls who were never really comfortable with the rebellious trappings of rock ‘n ‘roll.
We now move on to the lean years of 1959-1963, our next stop on the journey through my dad’s 45’s.