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THE ROOTS OF ROCK & SOUL, SONG BY SONG: THE MID-’50S

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.



T H E  M I D - F I F T I E S

Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley” (Checker, 1955): On his self-titled debut, Diddley introduced what he called “that freight train sound,” brought to life by his belching tremolo-heavy guitar lines, the tribal drums, Jerome Green’s maracas, imitating the tail end of an agitated rattlesnake, and that irresistible groove—bomp, da-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp—the Bo Diddley beat. A hot-rod update on the rustic rhythm variously alluded to as “hambone” or “shave and a haircut, four bits,” Bo’s beat made even kids with two left feet feel like they were Fred Astaire when his records got played at sock hops. It spread like wildfire, showing up on hits by Buddy Holly, Johnny Otis, Duane Eddy and other ’50s rockers. Later adopters included The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who, The Pretty Things (who took their name from one of his songs) and Bruce Springsteen. Bo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, a year behind Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. “I play drum licks on the guitar,” Bo Diddley said of his contribution to musical evolution.

The Platters, “The Great Pretender” (Mercury, 1955): Heirs to the smooth crooning style of The Ink Spots and The Mills Brothers, The Platters were kings of the ’50s ballad. Tony Williams had tonsillitis when he sang the lead vocal to this smash, bringing additional rawness to his convincing delivery of the woebegone lyric. Reinforced by a chinking piano and a greased-up sax, the rest of the group surrounds Williams like a choreographed posse, shifting between deep, virile ahhhs and falsetto ooh-ooh-oohs for a sound as big as the Manhattan skyline. After battling Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” up the charts, “Pretender” became the first single by a black group to hit #1 Pop. For bigots, this was an abomination—and half of a one-two punch that would see the crumbling of segregated society: The month the song was released, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, and the Civil Rights Movement began.

Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” (RCA, 1956): Elvis epitomized everything that was dangerous about rock ’n’ roll. He dripped sexuality. The way he moved was so provocative, Ed Sullivan showed him only from the waist up. Girls screamed so loudly and so long (when they weren’t fainting, that is), you could hardly hear the music. But when you did, it was something new—a potent mix of R&B and hillbilly music delivered by a white boy polite and handsome enough to be invited into America’s living rooms. When RCA signed Presley, they expected more songs like his rockabilly hits from Sun Records. Instead, for his first RCA single, Presley recorded this gloomy, downtempo number, his vocal shimmering with echo so that it sounded like he was singing from the haunted hotel’s deserted lobby. The ominous thump of Bill Black’s bass seems to shake the ground under Elvis’ feet, and Scotty Moore’s jittery guitar flaps like a bat in the gloom. But this lusty lament, which Sun founder Sam Phillips dismissed as “a morbid mess,” went on to become Elvis’ first #1 hit and million-selling single, while providing the soundtrack for countless games of spin the bottle. Elvis didn’t see what all the fuss was about, noting that “the colored folk been singing it and playing it just the way I’m doin’ now, for more years than I know. Nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up.”

Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti” (Specialty, 1956): No way were parents letting their kids get anywhere near Little Richard. His frenetic passion could not be contained. From “Tutti Frutti’s” opening scat, “Awopbopalubopalopbamboom,” to its rolling, pounding piano and scatting sax, to Richard’s gospel-fueled, schoolgirl-high “whoos”—every second of this song is a frenzied amphetamine rush. And Richard still had to tone down the raunchiness to record it. To that end, producer Bumps Blackwell had aspiring songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie, who was hanging around the studio, clean up the filthy lyrics. “Fifteen minutes before the session was to end, the chick comes in and puts these little trite lyrics in front of me,” said Blackwell. But poetry was not the point; prudence was, and passages like “Got a girl named Sue/She knows just what to do” got the job done. “I’d been singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ for years, but it never struck me as a song you’d record,” Richard admitted. How wrong he was. The second this cut comes on, you’re swept up in this maniac’s slipstream, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You” (Okeh/Columbia, 1956): Former boxer Jalacy J. Hawkins got loaded on muscatel before cutting “I Put a Spell on You,” and it took a healthy swig of J&B for him to recreate his maniacal studio performance. It did the trick, inspiring a sustained burst of demented barks, shrieks, and growls (he would’ve made a convincing horror-movie ghoul), over a lurching beat with the heft of gravediggers’ spades in rocky soil. Hawkins’ performance was too convincing for the faint of heart: Radio play on the bizarre record caused such a widespread freak-out that the craziest bits had to be edited out. In his stage act, Screamin’ Jay—as he nicknamed himself—crawled out of a coffin, a stage prop suggested by Legendary DJ Alan Freed. At first Hawkins resisted, but then Freed peeled off three $100 bills; “I said, ‘Show me the coffin,’” the singer quipped. Although it got banned from radio practically everywhere, Hawkins sold more than a million copies of this cannibalistic howler. And just like that, the underground music scene was born.

James Brown With the Famous Flames, “Please, Please, Please” (Federal, 1956): After his first brush with the law, which had landed him in a juvenile detention center, and a brief fling with The Ever-Ready Gospel Singers, James Brown landed a gig with The Famous Flames, who played the Georgia-South Carolina circuit. According to fellow soul great Etta James, Brown’s first single was inspired by his idol, Little Richard. “He used to carry around an old tattered napkin with him, because Little Richard had written the words, ‘please, please, please’ on it, and James was determined to make a song out of it,” she recalled. And that he did. When the group finally got around to demoing the tune two years later, talent scout Ralph Bass took it to Syd Nathan at Cincinnati’s King Records, who deemed it “a piece of shit” but nonetheless put it out on his Federal imprint. The gospel-fervent record, with a vocal as raw and throbbing as a newly skinned knee, went to #6 on the R&B charts and became the 23-year-old dynamo’s signature song. Ten years later, Brown would fashion the proto-funk rave-up “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and amid the sociopolitical turbulence of 1968, he’d memorably proclaim, “Say It Loud (I‘m Black and I’m Proud),” rapping his sermon while the frantic, endlessly sampled funk brought home the rallying cry of a new day.

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