Fats Domino: The Fat Man (1950)
Fats Domino was without a doubt the most popular exponent of the classic New Orleans R&B sound, and sold more records than anyone in this field during the 1950s. His calm, boogie-woogie piano& easy-going, warm vocals provided the foundation for a number of national hits that would follow this song.
‘The Fat Man’, co-written by Fats Domino & Dave Bartholomew is a considered to be one of the defining songs of the early a rhythm & blues song movement and is one of the first known rock & roll records. The song had a limited release on the Christmas of 1949, but reached national prominence in 1950.
The song leans heavily on the traditional New Orleans Dixieland sound and is actually a variation of Drive’em Down’s ‘Junker’s Blues’. Domino shines both on vocals and on piano, with the culmination of his efforts resulting in one of the greatest early rock & roll songs of all time (a must listen).
Muddy Waters: Rollin’ Stone (1950)
A 50’s Chicago blues scene without Muddy Waters would be unimaginable (as would rock & roll in general). A product of the Mississippi Delta, he and his band; the Headhunters, became known for their tight and aggressive blues sound that would blow away their competition live.
Waters’ recording of ‘Rollin’ Stone’ differs in that it features just him solo, accompanied by his electric guitar, playing the famous stomp riff. It’s a brooding & somewhat slow-tempo blues song draws from the Delta blues sound and leans heavily on Muddy Waters growling vocals and electric guitar work.
Unlike most of his early recordings Rollin Stone’ is distinct in its use of ‘empty’ space, as well as the howling and droning qualities of the true, deep-Southern blue.
The song has been honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and has greatly influenced the blues-inspired rock bands that followed in the 60’s and 70’s including the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and the Rolling Stones (who took their name from the song). No exploration of 50’s music is complete without this track.
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats: Rocket 88 (1951)
Ike Turner carved a niche for himself as a noted blues pianist and as the creator of what many consider to be the first true rock & roll record, ‘Rocket ‘88’. Sam Phillips’ recorded the song with Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm Band in Memphis, before shipping it off to Chess Records, credited as Jackie Brenston (Turner’s Saxaphonist/Singer) & His Delta Cats. ‘Rocket 88’ is raw and up-tempo number which draws on from both swing music and jump blues and featured one of the first ever recorded uses of distortion or ‘fuzz guitar’.
Jackie Brenston’s seminal track was the second-biggest rhythm and blues single of 1951 and contained many of the elements which would go on to provide the template for the rock and roll songs that followed.
Sam Phillip’s made enough money from the track to allow him to set up Sun Records where he went on to record the likes of B.B. King and Elvis Presley.
B.B. King: Three O’Clock Blues (1951)
This slow twelve-bar blues live recording was B.B. King’s first hit and one of the most important songs of the 50’s blues movement. While it was recorded in 1951, it wasn’t until 1952 that B.B. King’s version of the song rose to prominence, eventually becoming one of the top-selling R&B records of that year.
King’s recording of ‘Three O’Clock Blues’ took place at an improvised studio at a Memphis YMCA. While this resulted in a lower audio quality than many of the tracks produced by Sam Phillips, the live component is probably the songs greatest strength as it adds a sense of urgency and unpredictability that was absent from King’s earlier tracks.
This is the song that put B.B. King on the map and its mix of gospel-inspired vocals and rich blues guitar would go on to inform much of his later music.
Howlin’ Wolf: How Many More Years (1951)
It’s safe to say that in the history of the blues, there has never been a lead singer quite like Howlin’ Wolf. While other blues artists may have possessed greater lyrical capabilities or technical expertise, none could match the imposing six foot three bluesman in his ability to rock a house down.
Even though his 1956 track, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ can arguably be said to have a greater impact on the shape of rock & roll, Howlin’ Wolf’s signature his booming vocals and aggressive howl are still beautifully on display in this track (as is his undeniable charisma).
While some critics have labelled Wolf’s style as somewhat derivative; he drew heavily from the likes of bluesman Charley Patton and country singer Jimmie Rodgers (a childhood idol of his), I feel that the impact that Howlin’ Wolf had on the blues and rock & roll in general, is undeniable. This is evident in vocal delivery of the likes of Joe Cocker. ‘How Many Years’ is a charging blues track that has easily stood the test of time.
Nat King Cole: Penthouse Serenade (1952)
A restrained, elegant and reflective album ‘Penthouse Serenade’ saw Nat King Cole perform instrumentally at the piano proving once again that he hadn’t lost his touch. While King Cole had disbanded his trio of guitarist John Collins, bassist Charlie Harris, and drummer Bunny Shawker, they returned for this album with great effect.
In stark contrast to the blues musicians who were also gaining prominence at the time, Nat King Cole created a series of delicate and intimate pop standards like ‘Laura’, ‘Somebody Loves Me’ or ‘Too Young’.
This album provides a flip side and stark contrast to the howling blues of the early 50’s and would be the perfect soundtrack for a romantic dinner or quiet night reminiscing. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Nat King Cole, you could do much worse than starting with ‘Penthouse Serenade’.
Listen to: ‘Laura’, ‘It Could Happen to You’, ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’.
Lloyd Price: Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1952)
As with many of the tracks already mentioned in this post, Lloyd Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ can arguably be considered one of the first rock & roll records. At the very least Price can confidently assert that his efforts played a big part in getting the ball rolling.
Lloyd Price’s heart-breaking vocal wail provides the basis for this immortal eight-bar R&B classic (adapted from Junker Blues), which dominated the charts in 1952. The other stand-out elements of this track has to be the rollicking piano track supplied by a moonlighting Fats Domino and the heavy New Orleans back-beat drumming.
The song was the first hit from New Orleans to be accepted into rock & roll and established Price as a teen idol. It is a perfect example of what made much of the music of the early 50’s a joy to behold, and went on to be covered by the likes of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker and Elvis Presley. This track is one of the first port of calls for for someone looking to immerse themselves in the music of the early 50’s.
The Orioles: Crying in the Chapel (1953)
The Orioles stood out as they were the first African American vocal group to sing music directly for an African American audience. Song’s like ‘Crying in the Chapel’ provided the early groundwork for Doo Wop R&B vocal groups that would follow; fusing traditional pop songs with smooth harmonies and gospel sensibilities.
‘Crying in the Chapel’, their biggest hit, comfortably fits into this mould. Lead vocalist Sonny Til is spectacular on this track; his earnest and melancholy delivery would inform many vocalists who followed, including Elvis Presley who would also go on to have a hit with this song twelve years later.
Towards the end of the year, the group would have another hit with ‘In the Mission of St. Augustine’, but this would turn out to be their last; the group beginning to splinter the following year.
Dean Martin: That’s Amore (1953)
While this song wasn’t penned by Dean Martin, to this day it remains (and will always remain) closely identified with him, becoming a signature hit for the singer in 1953. The song first appeared in the soundtrack of a film that Martin was starring in alongside Jerry Lewis and went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Martin is at his carefree best here, offering listeners an elegant and sentimental love song, which unlike most of his other recordings during the 50’s would go on to stand the test of time (Volare aside).
Martin’s refined crooning was not predicted to carry him through the 50’s and 60’s in light of the continued ascendancy of rock & roll, however as he had done before, he continued to defy the critics time and time again.
Nat King Cole: Sings for Two in Love (1954) & Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (1955)
As with Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’, Nat King Cole’s ‘Sings for Two in Love’ is significant, not so much for the tracks themselves (which were admittedly fantastic on both albums) but rather for the impact that these records would have on much.
These albums pioneered the idea of a concept album; Nat King Cole created a set of twelve romantic ballads which charted the various ups and downs of falling in and out of love, which Sinatra took this a step further producing one of the best albums of his career with ‘In the Wee Small Hours’.
It’s more concentrated and focussed than Sinatra’s (or Cole’s) earlier attempts at producing a concept album and is arguably the first true record of this nature. It’s an unusually blue and melancholy album for him, possibly spurred on by his broken relationship with Ava Gardner that preceded it.
On this record Sinatra’s deliver is ravished and heartfelt; the overall picture created is one of a lonely and broken man, failing to come to grips with a relationship that was doomed to fail. While both albums are excellent, Sinatra’s edged ahead due to the strength of its concept.
Listen to: ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’, ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’, ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ (Frank Sinatra) & ‘Love Is Here to Stay’, Almost Like Being in Love’, ‘Autumn Leaves’ (Nat King Cole)
Bill Haley & His Comets: Shake, Rattle & Roll (1954)
It’s been argued that ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ came out too early for its own; a time when music fans were only just beginning to purchase their rock & roll single, meaning this album like many others in its time just did not sell. However, it is the albums singles, specifically ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll and ‘Rock Around the Clock’, two of the most important songs in the development of rock & roll as we know it today.
While the other songs on the album aren’t in the same league as the first two singles, they come together to create an eight track classic which is without a doubt one hell of a dance record (with ‘Mambo Rock’ the only real low-light on the album).
Bruce Eder sums up the impact of this rock classic by reminding us that you have to imagine a time when these eight songs were the most exciting tracks that you could buy at once by any band, anywhere in the world (as there admittedly weren’t any alternatives to choose from).
Listen to: ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’, and ‘Happy Baby’
Little Richard: Tutti Frutti (1955)
Little Richard was one of early rock & rolls greats. He merged a fiery up-tempo gospel sound with southern R&B. Where Richard stood out though was the sheer electricity of his vocals, which infused each song that he made with an overjoyed force of personality.
Richard’s charisma is wonderfully on display in ‘Tutti Frutti’, which was as Cub Koda puts it, “the first rock & roll record where America got to hear an African-American gospel singer with the brakes off.”
A mainstream America; which had just started to become comfortable with R&B crooning, was not prepared for the culture shock that greeted Richard’s wailing on this track. America had simply seen nothing like Little Richard before.
While the potency of this song has been diminished by overuse and covers by the like of Elvis Presley, one cannot deny the impact that this song had on the decade, and the decade that would follow.
Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues (1955)
Johnny Cash was one of the most influential figures in country music, but he was more than just a country music star. Through the combination of his deep and distinctive baritone, and the rebelliousness and emotional honesty of his songs, he pioneered a subgenre of music that transcended simple labelling.
Folsom Prison Blues falls somewhere between folk, country and rock & roll, and is remarkable in its ability to paint a sympathetic picture for the lonely and ‘cold-hearted’ prisoners who were condemned to life in that famous prison.
Cash’s lyrics voiced the frustrations of societies disenfranchised; contrasting the tortured and unrepentant prisoner with the more fortunate members of society who occupied his songs ‘fancy dining cars’.
This song cemented Cash as the ‘outlaw’ of country music and even though it has been covered numerous times by the likes of Bob Dylan and others, the ‘man in Black’s’ original rendition will always be its finest.
Chuck Berry: Maybellene (1955)
Of all the early rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of popular music than Chuck Berry. Without him there would be no Beatles, Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones, no standard ‘Berry guitar intro’, and the rhythms of rockabilly would not have been brought to the mainstream in the now commonplace 4/4 rock beat.
Berry was led to Chess Records by none other than Muddy Waters, who saw Berry as a bluesman much like himself. However, it was the country-influenced tune ‘Ida Red’, which had undergone a transformation under Berry (a heavier beat and loud electric guitar), that would eventually announce him to the world.
Changes to the tracks name and lyrics followed and ‘Maybellene’ was born. A pure novelty number, the song didn’t quite sound like anything else on offer at the time, infusing rock & roll and hillbilly elements with berry’s exquisite guitar and vocal work.
The song was Berry’s first hit and was the first step the development of the career of a musician who is early rocks greatest songwriter and one if its best guitarists and performers.