The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 120 – 111
Fats finds his thrill.
120. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Elvis Presley. Songwriters: Maurice Mysels, Ira Kosloff; #1 pop/#1 country/#3 R&B; 1956. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” was co-written by Ira Kosloff (who had writing credits for Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Sarah Vaughn) and Maurice Mysels, who was part of a songwriting trio of brothers from Pittsburgh (his primary gig seems to have been real estate). The song was recorded at a rushed session with RCA needing more material and Elvis being busy with concert appearances. After almost twenty unsatisfactory takes, producer Steve Sholes spliced together, quite seamlessly, the best sections of two different efforts. The love ballad from the singer who every young girl dreamed about and every young man wanted to be was one of Presley’s five #1 pop hits during 1956.
119. “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Kokomo Arnold; Did Not Chart; 1954. Kokomo Arnold, legally known as James Arnold, but also professionally known as Gitfiddle Jim, was a Georgia slide guitarist who wrote and recorded “Milk Cow Blues” originally in 1934. The song was brought into the world of Western swing by Johnnie Lee Wills, the younger brother of Bob Wills, with his 1941 cover and was later performed live by Bob Wills. Author Sheila O’Malley on the Elvis version, “They did it a bunch of different ways, messing around with it, and the version they ended up with started with a meandering beginning, Elvis’ voice looping around, with Scotty riffing about in the background. You can almost feel them trying to REACH something, something they could not put into words. Is it country? Kind of. Is it blues? Yeah, sort of. But then, startlingly (and this was extremely new at the time, almost unprecedented outside of blues/jazz recordings), Elvis stops the recording and says, ‘That don’t MOVE me. Let’s get real real GONE, for a change.’ It’s a command: Let’s go deeper, let’s get this thing MOVING. And suddenly, Elvis wails, ‘WELLLLLLL’ and the rhythm picks up, and Elvis launches into another energy entirely, with the music going along with a train-chugging-along-the-tracks feel. It’s fresh, and strange, and schizophrenic – perhaps the best indication of how crazy and grasping those first sessions were.”
118. “Fever,” Little Willie John. Songwriters: Eddie Cooley, Otis Blackwell; #24 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. Little Willie John had to be strong-armed into recording “Fever,” his signature song, and it took all night recording session to get the goods. Author Susan Whitall, “Still four months shy of his 19th birthday, Willie sings with a voice taut with melancholy, and an almost ecstatic lovesickness. His voice catches at one point, as if overwhelmed by the exquisite pain of love. The arrangement gave the two minute and 44 second pop song the complexity and pleasing arrangement of jazz, perfect for a tune that celebrated both romantic longing and fulfillment. While the song is in a minor key, the combination of blues and jazz licks gives it an uptown, urbane feel. Willie, the veteran of so many Count Basie gigs, swings effortlessly with his voice, echoed by a bluesy backup chorus. Even the finger-snapping ends up adding to the charm, giving the recording a cool, late-night vibe.” Peggy Lee took a Pat Boone style version of “Fever” to #8 on the pop charts in 1958.
117. “You Send Me,” Sam Cooke. Songwriter: Sam Cooke; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. “You Send Me” was Sam Cooke’s debut single as a solo act and a massive success, topping both the pop and R&B charts. Art Rupe of Speciality Records wasn’t impressed with the song and a business decision was made to sell the master recording to Richard “Bumps” Blackwell, Cooke’s manager. Bob Keane, the producer and manager of Ritchie Valnes, had no reservations about “You Send Me.” Keane, “I said, ‘Screw the black market. This is a pop record, daddy-o!’” Ultimately, Cooke didn’t soften the sound of soul music as much as he broadened the genre’s appeal. Author Peter Guralnick on a key to Cooke’s success, “He felt that the song was a failure if on the chorus the audience didn’t feel the impulse to sing along.”
116. “Rocket 88,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Songwriter: Ike Turner; #1 R&B; 1951. Jackie Brenston was a saxophone player/occasional lead singer who hooked up with Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings in 1950. The band went to Sun Studios the next year and recorded “Rocket 88,” a song that Sam Phillips has argued was the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Music historian Peter Guralnick, “With Ike standing at the little Wurlitzer, pounding away at the keys, all the while directing everybody else in their parts – he was so full of energy and enthusiasm Sam Phillips thought he might jump out of his skin. With the fuzztone taking the bass part, the horns riffing in unison, and Ike’s storming piano cutting through the churning mix – it was like making an all-out assault on a rhythmic wall. To the end of his life Sam refused to even try to explain it. It was magic, it was alchemy. Most of all, though, it was the mystery of sound, the freshness of an idea that was entering the world for the very first time.”
115. “Drown in My Own Tears,” Ray Charles. Songwriter: Henry Glover; #1 R&B; 1956. Henry Glover wrote a string of R&B hits during the 1950s, then crossed over to pop music the following decade with writing credits on Joe Dee & the Starlighters’ “Peppermint Twist” and The Rivieras’ “California Sun.” “Drown in My Own Tears” was first recorded by gospel/pop singer Lulu Reed and was a #5 R&B hit in 1952, despite featuring vocals that could tear the bark off a tree. Charles was several years from being a pop star in 1956, but “Drown in My Own Tears” features the deeply soulful singing, gospel musical flourishes, and the prominent backing vocals that he would take to superstardom. Paul Janeway of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, “I remember first hearing this song when I was young. I just heard the heartbreak and sadness. It changes you when you hear a song like this.”
114. “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino. Songwriters: Vincent Rose, Al Lewis, Larry Stock; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. “Blueberry Hill,” now so firmly recognized as Fats Domino’s signature song, was a big band number from the 1940s. The Glenn Miller Orchestra took the song to #2 on the pop charts in 1940 with Ray Eberle providing antiseptic vocals. Louis Armstrong recorded “Blueberry Hill” as a gentle ballad in 1949, while Fats completely restructured the arrangement in his trademark New Orleans style. Stewart Mason of the AllMusic website, “Domino delivers the (actually kind of square) lyrics with his trademark twinkle and inimitable phrasing. The man is a master of suggesting volumes with nothing more than a sly pause in the middle of a line, giving this version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ the undeniable frisson that earlier versions almost entirely lacked: there’s no question what kind of thrill Domino and his sweetie enjoyed.” Carl Perkins, “In the white honky-tonks where I was playin’, they were punchin’ ‘Blueberry Hill.’ And white cats were dancin’ to Fats Domino.” Author Rick Coleman, “His version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ made #23 on the Billboard Country & Western top 50 Best Sellers for 1956, even though — likely to avoid incensing racists — it never appeared on any other country chart, making Fats the only black artist to make the c&w charts during the early civil rights era and foreshadowing the country crossover of Ray Charles by six years.”
113. “La Bamba,” Ritchie Valens. Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by Ritchie Valens; #22 pop; 1958. “La Bamba” is a traditional Mexican folk song, which may have actually originated in Angola, that Valens heard as a child and took to pop radio. Carol Kaye, who became one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles during the 1960s, played rhythm guitar. “La Bamba” made Valens the father of “Chicano Rock” and Los Lobos, a band from east Los Angeles that drew inspiration from Valens, took the song to #1 on the pop charts in 1987. “La Bamba” film director Luis Valdez, “If there is one song that represents the Americas, it is this one song. Ritchie took it to a whole new level and to a whole new audience: They were teenagers. They weren’t hearing Mexican folk music. They were hearing rock and roll.”
112. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” The Stanley Brothers. Songwriter: Traditional; Did Not Chart; 1951. Brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley were Virginia natives who formed their band, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, after World War II. Heavily influenced by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers paired a bluegrass instrumentation sound with Appalachian music. The sibling duo were never major country stars, they charted once with 1960’s “How Far to Little Rock,” but are revered pioneers in their field. Regarding the song, it took over seventy-five years for the despondent “Man of Constant Sorrow” to become a country hit. It was first published circa 1913 by Kentucky fiddle player Dick Burnett, who couldn’t recall later in life if he had written the song or learned it from someone else. Originally known as “Farewell Song,” Indianapolis musician Emry Arthur retitled the composition for his 1928 release. The Stanley Brothers learned the song from their father and their version traveled into the world of folk music in the 1950s and 1960s. A fictional group known as The Soggy Bottom Boys, using the Stanley Brothers arrangement, scored a #35 hit with “Man of Constant Sorrow” in 2002, after the song was popularized in the Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
111. “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” Otis Rush. Songwriter: Willie Dixon; #6 R&B; 1956. Otis Rush has a love like a bad drug habit on “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” one that he knows that he can’t walk away from, but hopes to put down for awhile. Willie Dixon reportedly wrote the song based upon Otis Rush’s real life romantic drama. Author Dave Rubin, “Otis Rush was the most dramatic electric guitarist to come out of Chicago in the fifties. Like a saxophone player, he would take a deep breath drawn from his rural roots and then exhale a welter of twisting phrases through his instrument. He sang with a fervor that whispered and screamed the agony and ecstasy of the human experience.” An inferior version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was included on the first Led Zeppelin album and it was the closing track on the Rolling Stones’ highly regarded 2016 covers album “Blue and Lonesome.” Neither Robert Plant nor Mick Jagger could take this song away from Otis for pure blues feeling.