Welcome back – if you are wondering why I’m doing a rock playlist, scroll down. It explains it all. If you’ve already read that post, go get yourself a cold beverage so that you can spill it as you, like Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, recoil in horror from the crapola to which you are soon going to be subjected.
Let’s start with early rock. These are the pioneers and showmen who put down the first electric riffs and figured out the music of youth. One thing that will quickly come through is that rock is an American art form, and maybe even a Southern American art form. Yes, others, particularly those from other English-speaking lands, will later adopt rock, and some will achieve iconic status on Mt. Olympus, but at the base, they’re playing American music. And therefore, this list of early rock songs is full of people from the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Chuck Berry, Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode. Don’t you love this? I violate the “one song, one band” thing in the first entry. There is a pretty compelling argument that all rock ‘n’ roll flows from Chuck Berry forward. His guitar riffs are still being ripped off (Johnny B. Goode in particular), and his carousing about the stage defined the role of guitar hero well before that was a term. When Chuck died, the legions of guitarists who followed him lined up in homage to the early master of the art form. (And women everywhere were able to sleep easier, too.) Maybellene is one of the very first rock ‘n’ roll songs and embodies everything truly great about the genre: the beat, the cars, the girls. And Johnny B. Goode was not ripped off from Marty McFly. Just listen to that guitar! That piano! And fun lyrics, too! Look at those guitar moves! Hoo-boy!
Buddy Holly, That’ll Be The Day. Out of West Texas came a four-eyed skinny white kid who wrote some of rock’s best early music, and influenced tons of others. His band’s name, The Crickets, inspired other bands to name themselves after insects (although cleverly misspelling the word). He was tragically killed in a plane crash at a very young age, but he left behind some bouncy, poppy rock gems that still sound great. This is one of his best.
Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog. Hoo-boy, here is the King. The legend is currently being tarnished, with people accusing him of being a cultural appropriator: a white dude out of Mississippi playing black music to a white audience. Which explains why Hound Dog was written by two white Jewish guys, right? I really don’t care what he did. All I know is that he went to Sun Records in Memphis, was put on the shelf for a year or two, and finally was picked up by Sam Phillips. The rest is history. An amazing voice, great moves on stage, movie star good lucks, a genuine small town dude, and a tragic modern-day Greek tragedy, Elvis was HUGE. He still is: go to Memphis and see for yourself. I picked these two tracks because they both rock and they were both massive hits that reverberated through the culture. In fact, I’ve seen bands cover these songs recently. And the University of Miami even adopted Jailhouse Rock as their football team’s theme song.
Carl Perkins, Blue Suede Shoes. Another Memphis/Sun Records track that blew people away. Perhaps the first rockabilly song ever, it has country and blues mixed. Is there a better start than “One for the money/two for the show/three to get ready/now go, man go!”? This song rips.
Little Richard, Tutti Frutti. "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bom-bom!" Little Richard had to make the list. Along with Jerry Lee Lewis, these guys defined the role of rock ‘n’ roll piano front man. This song is loud, has an unbelievable beat, and was performed by one of rock’s true genius’s, the screaming nutbag from Georgia known as Little Richard. I wish I could have seen him live.
Eddie Cochran, Summertime Blues. It’s true that I prefer Blue Cheer’s cover of this song, but Eddie wrote it, played it and rocked it. It’s a classic summertime track that has been covered by tons of big-name artists, and is still performed by cover bands throughout the land. It’s about a teen’s struggle with everything: parents, The Man and even his congressman! EC did it in rockabilly fashion, and it’s an all-time great American summertime song.
Jerrie Lee Lewis, Great Balls of Fire. Another rocker who wasn’t a particularly nice dude, but who was a wild man on stage and blew minds. In fact, his antics would STILL blow minds 70 years later. Another song from Sun Records, this one is just incredible. Pounding on the keys, great guitar, intensity and spirit. Wow!
Ray Charles, What’d I Say. Ray was MASSIVE. One of the original crossover talents, this guy’s skills just couldn’t be kept inside the R and B charts. If you can put this song on and not dance your tushy off, you are dead. Simple lyrics, American to its core, great piano, call ‘n response vocals … what more do you want?
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley. You want rock guitar and beat? This is it. And the damn song is so good that he named it after HIMSELF! Just think what this would sound like with modern production techniques? They would have to peal you off of the ceiling. I love rock ‘n’ roll, and this song is rock to its core. RIP Bo.
Fats Domino, Ain’t It A Shame. Pat Boone covered this song. Pat Boone! How crossover is that? It’s a fabulous song with heartbreak lyrics, and it pushed Fats to the top of the charts, not an easy thing to do for a black guy in 1955.
Del Shannon, Runaway. Helping to define teen angst everywhere, this track is fantastic. I don’t really know what else Del Shannon did, but man, did he knock the ball over the wall with this one. Catchy, using a falsetto voice for the “la la la’s”, and allowing teens everywhere to feel his lovesick pain, this is one great tune. The organ is also very cool and a forebear for things that came later.
Isley Brothers, Shout. If there is an overlooked band in the land, it has to be the Isley’s. Eric Isley schooled Jimi Hendrix on how to play the guitar, and this song is still played at nearly every wedding, mitzvah, and cross-generational social gathering in the US. We all know what to do from the scene in Animal House, but how good is this song? Break it down bit by bit, and it’s amazing. Call and response vocals? Got ‘em. Fast to slow to fast again? Check. Danceable? Eminently. Part of the social fabric of the entire country? Yes again. And the original is the best version, bar none.
Everly Brothers, Wake Up Little Susie. I’m not a huge Everly Brothers fan, but it’s hard to underestimate the influence these guys had over their contemporaries. Big on vocal harmonies, singing songs about girls, and with a pop sensibility ahead of their time, they laid down the folk-rock cornerstone that would come to define later musicians who sit at the pinnacle of the rock pantheon.
Wilbert Harrison, Kansas City. Every time I go to a blues bar featuring a cover band, I request this song. And every time, the band willingly plays it as it is already built into their repertoire. I remember being in New Orleans at some bar, and the band was just coming back from a break. The lead singer said, “guess what we’re gonna play?” and The Kid shouted “Kansas City!” It was one of my best moments ever because they just tore into it and we danced and shouted along with the lyrics. “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” Wilbert Harrison – from North Carolina – was just badass with this tune.
Link Wray, Rumble. If you want to hear what rock guitar would ultimately become, this is your starting point. I was introduced to Link Wray my freshman year in college – yup, two years ago – and listened to him and Robert Gordon just light up the rockabilly night. But this song! Wow. A menacing guitar growling along with vibrato and feedback and soul and depth and danger. Hide your daughters!
Bill Haley and the Comets, Rock Around The Clock. Overexposed during the lengthy run of the Happy Days TV show, this is one of early rock’s legendary tunes. There is a reason they picked this one to play at the start of that show. It is tuneful, features a peppy and danceable track, and has easy to sing lyrics that stick in your head after one listen.
Danny and the Juniors, At The Hop. I never went to a sock-hop dance, but it was just a high school dance without shoes. This song is a tribute to that scene, but it’s more than that. It’s early rock at its best, transitioning from big band era popular music to rock. Doo wop!
Big Bopper, Chantilly Lace Have you ever flirted on the telephone (or maybe done more than that)? That’s this tune in a nutshell. The Big Bopper was an early rock star on the rocket ship to fame and this was his calling card. He died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, a terrible “three fer” that was the day the music died. Rock it out with this.
Bobby Freeman, Do You Want to Dance The Kid loves to dance. This is a theme song to that love. Who the heck is Bobby Freeman? I don’t know much about him, but this song has been covered and covered and covered. The Beach Boys, Bette Midler, John Lennon, T. Rex, Neil Young, Ash, Dave Edmunds and … wait for it … The Ramones! They all knew a great rock song when they heard it, and this is a great rock song.
Champs, Tequila. Songs about alcohol are always popular, but this one took it to another level. Lyrics? Just sing “tequila!” at the right time, and you’re in. But the big horns, rhythm guitar hooks, and danceable riff makes it a classic. You can still hear it all over the place, particularly on Cinco de Mayo when Americans honor the Mexican nation by trivializing it and getting rip-snorting drunk. I celebrate Cinco de Mayo differently.
Crests, 16 Candles. Haha, when this song was written, the age of consent was probably about 14 nationwide. It’s actually kind of creepy now to listen to a song from an older guy celebrating his girlfriend’s 16th birthday – older dudes always preyed on younger girls when I was growing up, and here’s their theme song. So why include it? Because rock was, in the very beginning, aimed at teenagers. And I had to put in a slow song one of these times, and this is probably the best of the bunch.
Dion, Runaround Sue and The Wanderer. Dion gets two songs? Yup. Why? Because they are amazing. One song about a tom cat’s kitten and one about a male slut, these babies foresaw the era of free love and all the troubles that would bring. But they’re also poppy, make you want to sing and shout, and they’ll get you dancing. Believe it or not, I’ve seen Dion live on few different occasions (other than Chuck Berry, the only performer on this list that I got see bring it), and he was a great performer to boot. Yup, Dion gets two songs.
Muddy Waters, I Just Want To Make Love To You. This one is kind of unusual to put here. I like Muddy Waters, but he’s one of those blues guys that helped in the gestation period of early rock. In other words, he’s not considered a rock ‘n’ roller himself. But this track has all of what makes rock great: lusty lyrics, blues-based guitar, snappy delivery. Foghat would later cover this tune to greater acclaim, but the original bears witness to what rock would become once it became dangerous.
The Coasters, Yakety Yak. Being hassled by your parents, the first “The Man” you’ll encounter in your lifetime, is a teenage lament shared by all. This song captures that experience with wit and humor, and adds a beat to which you can dance. Perfecto!
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Why Do Fools Fall In Love. Frankie Lymon had about 5 wives at once or something, but he also could croon like a bird and was an inspiration to the Motown/soul music that would explode across the land in the 60s. This is their best song. Go do some research and tell me I'm wrong.
James Brown, Please Please Please. I know, this isn’t my favorite song by JB either. And we’ll be back to see him more when we get to the 60s. But this is the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and he deserves multiple places for recognition. Of course he is from the South, and of course he had a background in gospel, JB turned out to be one of the most influential performers of the entire rock era. And while not my favorite track, this one is pretty stinkin’ good. Enjoy.
Jackie Brenston, Rocket 88. This song was recorded in 1951. If it isn’t the first rock song, what is? Listen to that boogie woogie piano, the great horns, and he’s singing about his car! I remember telling someone that songs about girls and cars are about as rock ‘n’ roll bedrock as you can get. This song is soooo groovin’! If you walked into a bar and the band was blowing this one out, you would quickly order a double, grab a place to dump your coat, and head straight to the dance floor where you would camp for about 4 hours.
Richie Valens, La Bamba. I love this song. I once asked a Spanish-speaking colleague (who didn’t like rock) what it meant, and she scoffed and said it was nonsense. Perfect! All I know is that it has a great beat, wonderful clean guitar licks, and is the first crossover track for Hispanic rockers of which I am aware. Los Lobos would later cover it and make a ton of money from that effort. This original is packed with rock spirit.
Go ahead: rip me because I just covered 10 years in about 25 songs. That’s stupid and ridiculous, right? We are agreed. And it’s even more whacko given that I’ve been watching some shows featuring early rockers recently, and here is what strikes me: they were crazy good performers, they knew their audience and how to make them go bonkers, and they all fed off of the amazing post-war energy that was consuming America’s youth. Still, it’s hard to believe that adult contemporaries thought that this music was the work of the devil and evil incarnate (wait until they see what the 60s had in store!), but it was quite a leap from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, that’s for sure.
Let me just say this: There’s a lot to like in this list and much of it transcends the years. We’ll start digging in to the next phases of rock genres in the next post. Let’s be thankful for these pioneers, many of whom are deceased. While a number of them were scoundrels in their personal lives, their music hit a spot that resonated with young people around the globe, and whose reverberations continue to this day. God bless ‘em. And God bless America, which gave the world this amazing musical form.
Check back soon for the next post in this series. And to see a couple of live music reviews, starting with Interpol at the Anthem in DC.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.