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THE ROOTS OF ROCK & SOUL, SONG BY SONG: THE LATE ’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  L A T E  F I F T I E S


Fats Domino, “I’m Walkin’” (Imperial, 1957): With every roll of his fingers over the keyboard, Fats Domino oozed New Orleans joy and lust—never more so than on this hit, in which Fats’ rollicking piano locks together with the rhythm section in a swinging double-time groove that is Crescent City at its sweatiest, topped off by a sax solo as party-hearty as a crowd of tanked-up Mardi Gras revelers on Bourbon Street. Records like “I’m Walkin’” played a big part in laying down the sonic foundation of rock ’n’ roll, and Fats’ amiable personality—framed by a smile as wide as the Mississippi River—made him the most appealing, least threatening first-generation rock ’n’ roll star. Which makes it surprising that in 1955, a Connecticut concert featuring Domino was cancelled due to fears of rioting. This ridiculous development probably had more to do with Connecticut than Fats; soon afterward, the state banned all rock concerts.

Sam Cooke, “You Send Me” (Keen, 1957): The plan was to remake gospel star Sam Cooke as a secular singer, but Art Rupe, who owned Specialty Records, objected so strongly to producer Bumps Blackwell’s use of white female backing vocalists for a session that he released Cooke from his contract. Blackwell took the tapes to Del-Fi’s Bob Keane, whose first success had been with Ritchie Valens, and he smelled another winner, releasing “You Send Me” on his new Keen label. The feathery ballad was still grittier than the white pop of the time, though more refined than R&B up to that point, confusing major-label talent scouts. “I got it,” Keane pointed out, “because the majors had turned it down. I said, ‘Screw the black market—this is a pop record, daddy-o!’” It went #1 R&B and Pop.

Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (Sun, 1957:) When it came to letting it all hang out, Little Richard had some fierce competition in Jerry Lee Lewis, aka The Killer, who breathed in rock ’n’ roll and shot it out his fingertips. And if a song didn’t set the piano on fire, he’d do it anyway—literally. On this song—first recorded by Big Maybelle in 1955—you can practically see Jerry Lee’s leer as he instructs his woman, “All you got to do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot/Wiggle around just a little bit,” and attacks his piano with the ferocity of a gangland hit, brutalizing the ivories with his elbows, feet, knees, and backside. After Lewis did a wild-eyed performance of “Shakin’” on Steve Allen’s TV show, and Dick Clark chose it as the first song played on American Bandstand when the show went national, it wound up selling north of 6 million copies. Listening to it now, it’s easy to see why Jerry Lee was every parent’s nightmare. When he married his 13-year-old cousin, he scared the world silly—and toppled a career that many thought would equal Elvis’.

Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (Chess, 1958): As much as any of the creators of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry provided this enduring idiom with its basic components, all the things we take for granted a half century later, simply because they’re so fundamental. He homed in on the beat; Keith Richards has dubbed him “rhythm supreme.” He created the guitar riff on which all succeeding ones are based. He even came up with rock’s basic instrumentation: guitar, piano, bass and drums. But Berry is also primarily responsible for the intangible ingredient that separates rock ’n’ roll from all other art forms—swagger. To watch this strapping figure brandishing his Gibson like a machine gun as he duck-walks across the stage is to know what rock ’n’ roll looks like. By the time he came up with this driving, myth-making roust, the writer/artist had his formula down—a guitar riff “like a-ringin’ a bell,” a galloping groove, and an unfolding storyline involving a girl, a set of wheels, and raging hormones. The lyric was based on a Muddy Waters line he couldn’t get out of his head, “Going down in Louisiana, way down behind the sun,” combined with his father’s recollections of New Orleans, “and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through.”

John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” (Atlantic, 1959): While playing with Miles Davis in the trailblazing band that recorded the modal classic Kind of Blue, Coltrane entered his “sheets of sound” period, launching heady, extended solos, whose length at one point prompted Miles to confront him. “It took that long to get it all in,” Coltrane explained. Fresh from Miles’ band, Trane was signed by Atlantic’s Nesuhi Ertegun, who encouraged further explorations from the innovative musician. For his Atlantic debut, Trane recorded seven originals using several Kind of Blue players—including the title song, a metaphysical ballad—and launched himself into the ozone of improvisation. From the watershed Giant Steps until his death in 1967, the tenor sax shaman engaged in a furious, and virtually unprecedented, stretch of envelope shredding. His influence extended into rock, from The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” to The Grateful Dead’s archetypal jams.

Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Anna, 1959): With its shredded vocal howling over a Ray Charles-inspired boogie-woogie arrangement, “Money” was at once a working man’s lament and a blast of inner-city defiance. For co-writer Berry Gordy, though, it was the sound of money—literally. The very first record cut at Gordy’s Hitsville USA, “Money” went #2 R&B, providing him with setup funds for his Tamla/Motown label. Strong gave up performing to hook up with Norman Whitfield—together, they wrote and produced a brace of Motown classics—but “Money” was the record that foreshadowed a sweeping change that would transform mainstream music in the 1960s and beyond.

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