The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 90 – 81
There’s been a whole lot of good women shedding tears over a brown eyed, handsome man.
90. “Spedoo,” The Cadillacs. Songwriter: Esther Navarro; #17 pop/#3 R&B; 1955. The Cadillacs were a Harlem based R&B vocal group who crossed over to the pop charts with “Speedo,” a song about chasing women with a sense of purpose and alacrity. Lead singer Earl Carroll on the origins of this fast paced, confident number, “Bobby Phillips, the ham of the group, saw a big bombshell (at a Massachusetts armory) and said, ‘Hey Speedo, there’s your torpedo.’ And the guys just fell out laughing because they used to tease me about my head being pointy. I was a little upset with it so I turned to Bobby and said, ‘My name is Mr. Earl as far as you’re concerned.’ By the time we got to New York, we had lyrics and just about all the music that we needed.” Carroll joined The Coasters in 1961, reformed the Cadillacs in the 1980s, and, later in life, worked a day job as a grade school janitor. Carroll in 1988, “You really felt good about keeping the school clean, and then the teeny-weenies, they love you so much. When they found out I was a rock ’n’ roller – I was on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo with Bill Cosby – the kids couldn’t believe it. Now they call me the star of the school.”
89. “At My Front Door,” The El Dorados. Songwriters: Ewart Abner, John Moore; #17 pop/#1 R&B; 1955. The El Dorados motored into the pop music history from Chicago, scoring their only major hit with the crazy little mama doo wop rocker “At My Front Door.” The upbeat tune must have hidden some of the sexual swagger of the lyrics – it’s unusual to hear a black man during that era proclaiming on a pop hit, “If you got a little mama and ya want to keep her neat/Keep your little mama off my street.” From the website Buttsy’s Moments to Remember, “’At My Front Door’ was a landmark of the genre; it had every ingredient, from a simple, catchy theme to first-rate harmonizing and Pirkle Moses’ finest lead. The song featured Al Duricati’s pounding drum rhythm and a rousing sax solo. The so-called ‘baby talk’ pre-finale by Moses Jr. made the record soar even further, and the lyrics about that ‘crazy little mama’ became legendary.” The El Dorados recorded a back door knocking tune with the same arrangement titled “Bim Bam Boom,” but radio didn’t embrace these lyrics: “She’s six feet two, dressed polka dot blue, she looked like something from the Brookfield zoo.”
88. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Chuck Berry and his Combo. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #5 R&B; 1956. Released as the b-side to “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is Berry at his sly, subversive best. The song notes social inequities and female lust for a “brown eyed handsome man” without mentioning what skin color may be attached and gives a hat tip to Jackie Robinson. Berry was inspired to write the song after performances in southern California where he “didn’t see too many blue eyes.” Buddy Holly had a posthumous #3 U.K. hit with “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” in 1963 and the title lyric was referenced in John Fogerty’s 1985 single “Centerfield.”
87. “I’m Walkin’,” Fats Domino. Songwriters: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew; #4 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. Fats Domino biographer Rick Coleman, “Dave Bartholomew challenged Earl Palmer to come up with a different beat on ‘I’m Walkin’. Following Domino’s unique two-beat piano, the drummer added his own parade rhythms. ‘Fats was a hell of a lot better musician than people give him credit for,’ says Palmer. ‘He had a lot of original thoughts and they were all creative.’ Palmer pumped a bass drum introduction that harked back a generation to the parade beat of Little Jim Mukes with the Eureka Brass Band. Then he started a steaming snare two-beat. Papoose Nelson played a scintillating guitar riff, with a tuba bass pattern accelerating to double-time. He also added a crucial sixth note. Frank Fields blended his bass between the guitar and Domino’s rumbling left hand. After the session, Bartholomew called a couple of kids from out on the street into the studio. He then rewound the tape and played ‘I’m Walkin’’ for them. As if shot with a jolt of electricity, the kids immediately started dancing. ‘The only record I ever really felt that we had a big hit on was ‘I’m Walkin’,’ says Bartholomew. ‘You put the clarinet in ‘I’m Walkin’’—‘Doomp-doomp- doomp deedly-deedly-dee’—and you got traditional jazz. You got Dixieland.”
86. “I Still Miss Someone,” Johnny Cash. Songwriters: Johnny Cash, Roy Cash; Did Not Chart; 1958. “I Still Miss Someone” is a Johnny Cash composition that became a standard without ever being a hit single. (The highest charting version was by Nebraska country artist Don King, who didn’t promote boxing with electrified hair, peaking at #38 in 1981). A beautiful song about loss and inability to move forward, “I Still Miss Someone” has been covered by Fairport Convention, Joan Baez, and Nanci Griffith in the world of folk music and by country artists Martina McBride, Flatt/Scruggs, Robert Earl Keen, and Dolly Parton. This song is definitive proof, if any is needed, that Cash was as talented as a songwriter as he was an interpreter.
85. “You Can’t Catch Me,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; Did Not Chart; 1956. Chuck Berry sped up the intro that Muddy Waters used on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” for this 1958 non-charting, fast car tribute. Berry referenced his prior hits “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” while writing lyrics and rhythms that would later be appropriated by John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, The Beatles’ “Come Together” was such an obvious reworking of “You Can’t Catch Me” that it resulted in a lawsuit between music publisher Morris Levy and John Lennon. Lennon’s 1975 cover of “You Can’t Catch Me” was recorded as part of the settlement. Again, you can hear the influence that Berry had on Bob Dylan’s lyrical flights of fancy. In 2016, Dylan defined Berry as “the Shakespeare of rock and roll.”
84. “Since I Don’t Have You,” The Skyliners. Songwriters: Joe Rock, Jimmy Beaumont, Lennie Martin; #12 pop/#3 R&B; 1959. The Skyliners were a Pittsburgh based doo wop group who had their biggest hit with their first charting single, The Platters style romance number “Since I Don’t Have You.” Lead singer Jimmy Beaumont, “At the Apollo Theater in New York, everyone was laughing and pointing to each other when we came out. They couldn’t believe we were a white group. They got real quiet during the song, then when we went into the ‘you’s’ the women in the audience were all singing along.” Legend has it that band manager Joe Rock wrote the lyrics, while stopped at Pittsburgh traffic lights, after being devastated by a breakup. Author Don Waller has noted that the prominent use of strings on this record, and on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” had a significant impact on R&B arrangements in the following decade.
83. “Keep a Knockin’,” Little Richard. Songwriter: Little Richard; #8 pop/#2 R&B; 1957. “Keep a Knockin’” was originally recorded as a piano based blues number by James “Boodle It” Wiggins in 1928, who tossed in a kazoo solo. It is believed that Wiggins was from Louisiana and author W.T. Lhamon has described “Knockin’” as an “old blues standard associated with Storyville, the New Orleans brothel district. Indeed, (musicologist) David Evans has pointed out that ‘Knockin’ was a folk song from a prostitute’s point of view; she is with a john in her stall, so cannot let in the knocker, but urges him to try again tomorrow.” Milton Brown and Bob Wills recorded Western swing versions of “Keep a Knockin’” during the 1930s, followed by a primarily instrumental, jump blues cover by Louis Jordan in 1939. Little Richard recorded the most famous version of “Keep a Knockin’,” a wild saxophone driven affair with a drum intro that Led Zep nicked for “Rock and Roll.” Little Richard also took the writing credit, because all is fair in love and war and rock ‘n’ roll.
82. “Just One More,” George Jones. Songwriter: George Jones; #3 country; 1956. Harold “Pappy” Daily was over fifty years old when he started Houston’s Starday Record label. He had worked in the railroad industry until the Great Depression, then sold jukeboxes, opened a record store, and became involved in wholesale distribution. George Jones was the first major artist to sign with Starday (“Pappy” Daily would later be instrumental in the careers of The Big Bopper, Roger Miller, and Gene Pitney). Despite not having any formal training in music, Daily often served as a producer and worked with Jones long after both men left Starday. “Just One More” is a Jones penned/Daily produced drinking song that recalls the hard country traditionalism of Hank Williams. While the theme of drowning sorrows in a bottle would become a familiar one for Jones, this was his first effort in this vein and the vocals are a template for the remainder of his career.
81. “Let the Good Times Roll,” Shirley and Lee. Songwriters: Shirley Goodman, Leonard Lee; #20 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. Shirley Goodman, who had a 1970’s disco hit with “Shame, Shame, Shame,” credited to Shirley & Company, and Leonard Lee were New Orleans natives who released four Top Five R&B hits from 1952 to 1956, but are only remembered for their crossover pop hit “Let the Good Times Roll.” Author Spencer Leigh on Goodman’s untraditional singing, “Nothing can prepare the listener for the first time that he hears Shirley and Lee’s 1956 recording of ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’ Leonard Lee, as usual, sings the majority of the song, but it is Shirley Goodman’s voice, with its bizarre mixture of flat and sharp notes, that makes the record so distinctive. It is an oddly seductive sound.” Whereas Louis Jordan invited his friends to spend some cash and avoid the cops on his 1946 R&B hit “Let the Good Times Roll,” Shirley and Lee were having a much better time behind closed doors.