The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 320 – 311
Well, when I die don’t bury me at all/Just a-hang my bones up on the wall.
320. “Release Me,” Ray Price. Songwriters: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth, Robert Yount; #6 country; 1954. “Release Me” was written in 1949 by Eddie Miller, Dub Williams (using the pseudonym James Pebworth), and Robert Yount. Eddie Miller recorded the track in 1950, but he wasn’t a strong enough vocalist to make it a hit. The song blew up on country radio in 1954 with Kitty Wells taking it to #8 on the charts, Jimmy Heap to #5, and Ray Price to #6. Price is still singing in hardcore honky tonk fashion here, not using the smooth countrypolitan vocal style he would later adopt. In the instrumental break, you get an early version of the Ray Price shuffle. In a strange genre hop, Engelbert Humperdinck scored a #1 U.K. pop hit with his 1967 cover. By that time, a fourth “songwriter” named Robert Harris was added to the credits. This was another pseudonym of James Pebworth, who was attempting to get a bigger slice of the royalty pie.
319. “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” Chuck Willis. Songwriter: Chuck Willis; #24 pop/#9 R&B; 1958. There’s no small amount of irony in the rock-‘n;-roll-is-here-to-stay themed “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” since this New Orleans style romp was released a month before Chuck Willis died of peritonitis. King Curtis plays a swinging tenor sax throughout the record, while former Sister Rosetta Tharpe sideman Sammy Price displays his boogie woogie skills (this number was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and The Band, among others). Rock critic Stuart Mason, “Chuck Willis delivers possibly his most passionate vocal performance on record. Known mostly for his restrained Stroll-tempo hits, Willis is rarely thought of as an R&B shouter, but the saddest thing about this song, the last one he recorded before his early death, is that it shows that he might have benefited from an association with the Muscle Shoals crew that reinvented R&B in the ’60s.”
318. “Sleep Walk,” Santo & Johnny. Songswriters: Santo Farina, Johnny Farina, Ann Fariner; #1 pop/#4 R&B; 1959. Brooklyn natives/Italian brothers Santo Anthony Farina and John Steve Farina were encouraged to play the steel guitar by their father, who spent time in the Army in Oklahoma during WWII. They brought the sound of the steel guitar to pop music with “Sleep Walk,” a title derived from composing the song at two in the morning. Johnny Farina, “When people hear it, you can hear a pin drop. That melodic sound – it’s just a magical bunch of notes put together with certain feeling. We had no idea we were creating such a Mona Lisa.” Rock critic Tom Breihan, “There’s something about the sound of that instrument — how central it is to the song, the murmuring melody that it plays — that pushes it toward something dreamlike. Maybe, in the moment, it was just a pretty song. Or maybe people could hear the quiet ominousness in all that beauty even then.”
317. “Red Hot,” Billy Lee Riley. Songwriter: Billy “The Kid” Emerson; Did Not Chart; 1957. Bob Dylan on the pride of Pocahontas, Arkansas, “He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance. So Billy became what is known in the industry—a condescending term—as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called ‘Red Hot,’ and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.”
316. “Try Me,” James Brown and The Famous Flames. Songwriter: James Brown; #48 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Brown biographer RJ Smith, writing about JB before the Godfather became immersed in the funk, “He called in the Famous Flames and they started working up harmonies, and the song they created was reminiscent of a hit of the time, ‘For Your Precious Love.’ The song was ‘Try Me,’ a catchphrase used by young black men in Georgia, along with some specific body language, to interest young women. The song was quality, it had a patina, professional craftsman had worked on it in the studio.” Rock critic David Guarisco of All Music, “The true highlight of ‘Try Me’ is the gospel-inspired vocal interplay: Brown delivers an impassioned but surprisingly delicate lead vocal while the Famous Flames back him up with smooth harmonies arranged to form a call-and-response style with his lead. The result made an ideal slow-dance number for sock hops and its blend of soul of slickness took it to number one on the R&B charts.”
315. “Mary Lou,” Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Songwriters: Young Jessie; Sam Ling; Jacqueline Magill; Ronnie Hawkins; #26 pop/#7 R&B; 1959. Ronnie Hawkins, a cousin of Dale Hawkins of “Susie Q” fame, was a native of Huntsville, Arkansas who had his only U.S. Top 40 hit with the gold digging number “Mary Lou.” “Mary Lou” had originally been recorded as an R&B number by Young Jesse in 1955, but the simple arrangement by Hawkins gave the song a darker tone. His longest lasting claim to fame was forming his backing unit The Hawks (which included Turkey Scratch, Arkansas native Levon Helm), who later evolved into The Band.
314. “Take These Chains from My Heart,” Hank Williams. Songwriters: Fred Rose, Hy Heath; #1 country; 1953. “Take These Chains from My Heart” was written by Fred Rose and Hy Heath. Heath had a background in vaudeville/minstrel performing and also wrote “Mule Train,” a #1 pop hit for Frankie Laine in 1949. “Take These Chains from My Heart” is performed from the perspective of a man in a loveless marriage, yet his wife will not grant his freedom. Although not a Williams composition, it mimics his ability to discuss serious themes with simple language. “Chains” was Hank’s second and final posthumous #1 hit, following “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to the top slot. Ray Charles took “Chains” to the pop Top Ten in 1963 and Lee Roy Parnell scored a #17 country hit with his 1994 cover.
313. “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” Nat King Cole. Songwriters: Roy Turk, Fred Ahlert; #8 pop; 1952. New York songwriters Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert wrote a string of pop hits during the 1920s and 1930s, with the most enduring being the jazz standard “Mean to Me” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” which was a Top Ten single for four different artists. Nat King Cole moved away from his soft piano sound for a big band arrangement from trumpeter Billy May on his version. The song describes classic pop romance – lovers walking arm in arm, harmonizing, and reciting poems. The sharply punctuated horns are reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s work during this era. Author Steven Cerra on the synergy, “Cole moved the world with his soft, romantic love songs, May got millions of fans jumping to his explosively punch orchestrations. But of course, Cole had his roots in Jazz, and at the same time May, had a sentimental streak a mile wide. And both were artists whose supreme, multi-faceted musicianship was not confined to stylistic boundaries.”
312. “My Babe,” Little Walter and His Jukes. Songwriter: Willie Dixon; #1 R&B; 1955. “My Babe” is a simple blues shuffle, penned by Willie Dixon based on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s take on the gospel number “My Train.” Little Walter wasn’t in love with what was a surefire hit. Songwriter Willie Dixon, “I felt Little Walter had the feeling for this ‘My Babe’ song. He was the type of fellow who wanted to brag about some chick, somebody he loved, something he was doing or getting away with. He fought it for two long years and I wasn’t going to give the song to nobody but him. He said many times he just didn’t like it but, by 1955, the Chess people had gained confidence enough in me that they felt if I wanted him to do it, it must be his type of thing. The minute he did it, BOOM! she went right to the top of the charts.” Dixon may have another reason for saying Walter rejected the song for two years. “My Babe,” a spiritual turned R&B hit, was released just after Ray Charles reshaped the gospel number “It Must Be Jesus” into “I Got a Woman.”
311. “Rockin’ Bones,” Ronnie Dawson. Songwriters: Jack Rhodes, Don Carter, Dub Nails; Did Not Chart; 1959. Ronnie Dawson, “The Blonde Bomber” from Waxahachie, Texas, lyrically wanted his rockin’ bones to be nailed on a wall after his death, a sentiment that inspired a 1981 cover version by The Cramps. Rock critic Stewart Mason, “Dawson’s original is a terrific, well nigh perfect rockabilly single, with a clever arrangement based on a sort of clicking percussion breakdown that mimics the sound of a dancing skeleton. Dawson, sounding not as young as he did on the yelping adolescent fantasy ‘Action Packed’ but not what anyone would call mature, delivers the best performance of his career in this two-minute slice of pure rockabilly action.”