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The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 10 – 2

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10. “School Day,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #5 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. Chuck Berry, the lyrical Godfather of American teenage life, perfectly encapsulated the dreariness and excitement of growing up in “School Day.” The drudgery of school includes studying, being hassled by classmates, the regimented lunch routine, and coping with unpleasant teachers. When school’s out, life becomes about juke joints, dancing, romancing, and feeling the music “from head to toe.” Berry constructed the stop and start rhythm to “emphasize the jumps and changes I found in classes in high school compared to the one room and one teacher I had in elementary school.” Also, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” was the perfect rallying cry for the still embryonic cultural movement. Berry had a comeback single in 1964 with “No Particular Place to Go,” a song that almost completely replicates the arrangement of “School Day.”

9. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Frank Sinatra. Songwriters: David Mann, Bob Hilliard; Did Not Chart; 1955. Songwriters David Mann and Bob Hilliard didn’t labor over “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” they penned it late at night after an evening of playing cards. Old acquaintances of Franks Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, they pitched this tale of dire loneliness immediately to Sinatra who made it the title track of this 1955 concept album on lost love. Musicologist Mark Steyn, “Most singers, sometimes even very good ones, don’t do anything but sing big on the ends of lines. Here Sinatra does the opposite, easing off on the word ‘morning’ and somehow touching loneliness with tenderness. He knows exactly how much dramatic weight to give each word. Sinatra’s interpretation here is as great as anything he’s ever done.” Iman Lababedi on the corresponding album, “The original ‘Small Hours’ is an achievement of huge proportions, it is the essence of greatness, it is art as pop heartbreak and it stands 70 years later as something no one else can achieve. Frank was just hitting forty when he recorded ‘Wee Small,’ but it was a young man’s album and song, its dramatic downturn was conflated by youth, the pain so palpable, it couldn’t be real: they were Sinatra’s songs of infatuation, born to end.”

8. “What I’d Say,” Ray Charles. Songwriter: Ray Charles; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Having more time than songs available for a gig, Ray Charles instructed his band, “‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me. And I said the same thing to the girls, I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’ “The people just went crazy, and they loved that little ‘ummmmh, unnnnh.’ Later on, people said it was vulgar, but, hell, let’s face it, everybody knows about the ‘ummmmh, unnnnh.’ That’s how we all got here.” Ray mixed a rhumba beat with his relentless electric piano playing to mix gospel call-and-response with pure human sexuality. (At one point, the record had to be edited to calm the fears of uptight radio programmers). Charles biographer Michael Lydon, “’What’d I Say’ was a monster with footprints bigger than its numbers. Daringly different, wildly sexy, and fabulously danceable, the record riveted listeners. When ‘What’d I Say’ came on the radio, some turned it off in disgust, but millions turned the volume up to blasting and sang ‘Unnnh, unnnh, oooooh, oooooh’ along with Ray and the Raelettes. (It) became the life of a million parties, the spark of as many romances.”

7. “I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash. Songwriter: Johnny Cash; #17 pop/#1 country; 1956. Johnny Cash, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion. People ask me why I always hum whenever I sing this song. It’s to get my pitch.” Cash paired musical simplicity with a burning intensity of “I Walk the Line” and was rewarded with a #1 country hit and a Top Twenty crossover pop hit. Rodney Crowell, “As an adult, I’ve really given it some thought about what music before could this song have derived itself from? I couldn’t find it in Roy Acuff’s music or Jimmie Rodgers because it was a folk format that those songs came from. Yet this song, it was almost like jazz. It was almost like the Southern white man’s version of Charlie Parker, in a way. It was just completely turned around and disassembled, and he’s modulating down. The chords are changing and he’s going up and down. And it–normally with a modulation, you would just start in a lower key and modulate up a half-step or a full step. But he started out by modulating down and then modulating back up. And `I keep a close watch on this heart of mine’ -I mean, that’s very interior kind of – that’s sort of soul searching in a way, if you think about it. And at that time in the ’50s – this was pre-Bob Dylan. And, you know, it’s sort of existential in a way, you know. `I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the ties that bind.’ It’s poetry, you know, and it’s pretty high-level poetry, really, in my humble opinion.”

6. “That’s All Right,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter Arthur Crudup; Did Not Chart; 1954. Blues singer/guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup was born in rural Mississippi and, like many of his contemporaries, relocated to Chicago to begin his recording career. Crudup released singles for several labels, but stopped recording in 1951, due to lack of royalty payments. He eventually spent more years working as a migrant laborer and a bootlegger than he did as a musician. Crudup recorded “That’s All Right” in 1946 to little fanfare, the song was re-released in 1949 as “That’s All Right, Mama.” While the Sun Studio recording of “That’s All Right” started spontaneously, Elvis had long been a fan. Presley, “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” The day “That’s All Right” was released, Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips famously played the record fourteen times on WHBQ radio. While not a national hit, the cultural reverberations of “That’s All Right” are impossible to summarize. Still, here’s one nugget: fifty years after its initial release, it was a #3 hit on the U.K. pop charts.

5. “Dust My Blues,” Elmore James and His “Broom Dusters.” Songwriter: Robert Johnson; Did Not Chart; 1955. The signature song of Elmore James, “Dust My Broom”/”Dust My Blues” has a complicated history. Robert Johnson recorded “I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Blues” in his traditional Delta style in 1936. Elmore James performed the song while he was still living in the Mississippi Delta during the late 1930s and recorded a version that made the R&B charts in 1951 with Sonny Boy Williamson II on harmonica. The complications come from James recording the song four additional times with the most famous versions sounding dissimilar, and much more exciting, than the original hit recording. For our purposes, we are referencing the 1955 version on Flair Records where James’ guitar licks ring out like an automated whip. Author Jas Obrecht, “The best-known version of ‘Dust My Broom,’ by Elmore James, begins with the world’s most recognizable slide guitar riff. Performed with the guitar tuned to an open-D or open-E chord, this riff delivers propulsive full-octave glides to the guitar’s 12th fret. Since the mid 1960s, mastering this lick and the song’s subsequent solo as played by Elmore James has been a rite of passage for up-and-coming blues guitarists. Sonically, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the song’s lyrical message, which in its later incarnations concerns a man’s dissatisfaction with his woman. Perfect fodder for the blues.”

4. “Roll over Beethoven,” Chuck Berry and his Combo. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #29 pop/#2 R&B; 1956. Chuck Berry was raised in a middle class, African American community in St. Louis. His father was a carpenter and his college educated mother was a school principal. The Berry family piano was most often occupied by older sisters Thelma and Lucy, who took lessons in classical music. There was little time for Chuck to engage in his self-taught, rudimentary skills. On “Roll over Beethovern,” Berry was somewhat teasing his sisters with his glow worm wiggling wink at the masters of classical music, whose shelf spaced had been replaced by his electric guitar. Louis Jordan, Carl Perkins, and Bo Diddley are indirectly referenced, but, in the bigger picture, this was Berry defining the mood of the new youth culture. He was too old to be a part of that culture, but documenting their lifestyle in exquisite detail was his greatest achievement. Author Bruce Pegg on the opening guitar lick (lifted from the guitar playing of Carl Hogan on Louis Jordan’s 1946 release “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”), “Chuck Berry saw fit to graft onto ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ an incendiary intro, a blistering guitar riff that became the rock and roll equivalent of viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and seeing Michelangelo’s autograph on the sole of God’s foot.”

3. “Tutti-Frutti,” Little Richard. Songwriters: Little Richard, Dorothy, LaBostrie; #21 pop/#2 R&B; 1956. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!,” announced Little Richard, creating one of the most memorable phrases in rock ‘n’ roll history, before describing his affection for Sue (“who knows just what to do”) and Daisy (“she almost drives me crazy”). Legend has it that the original lyrics were much more sexual: “Tutti fruitti/Good booty/If it’s tight, it’s all right/And if it’s greasy/It makes it easy.” Rolling Stone, “’Tutti-Frutti’ may have been modified from ‘explicit’ to ‘suggestive,’ but Richard’s lustfully tumbling onomatopoeia still voiced a carnal glee far beyond the reach of any dictionary words – when he lands on the last two syllables you can practically hear the bodies slapping against each other.” Little Richard, “My greatest achievement would have to be ‘Tutti Frutti.’ It took me out of the kitchen – I was a dishwasher at the Greyhound bus station, making $10 a week working 12 hours a day, and ‘Tutti Frutti’ was a blessin’ and a lesson. I thank God for ‘Tutti Frutti.’” Drummer Earl Palmer, “The only reason I started playing what they come to call a ‘Rock and Roll’ beat was came from trying to match Richard’s right hand – with Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t so very well go against that. I did at first – on ‘Tutti Frutti’ you can hear me playing a shuffle. Listening to it now, it’s easy to hear I should have been playing that rock beat.” In 2007, Mojo magazine published a list of “100 Records That Changed the World,” signifying “the most influential and inspirational recordings ever made.” “Tutti Fruitti” was #1 on their list.

2. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #8 pop/#2 R&B; 1958. Depending on your source, “Johnny B. Goode” was (a) penned as a tribute pianist Johnnie Johnson or (b) it was Berry writing his own rag to riches bio or (c) it was a combination of the two. The “Goode” is a reference to Berry’s childhood home, which was located at 2520 Goode Avenue. Half a century after “Johnny B. Goode” was released, “Rolling Stone” magazine named the 1958 #8 pop hit as “The Greatest Guitar Song of All Time.” Cub Koda, “’Johnny B. Goode’ is the Horatio Alger story of rock & roll, a message so basic that the song has become the inspiration for every kid who ever wanted to be in a rock & roll band or become a rock & roll star.” Robert Christgau, “The definitive guitar anthem.” Marty McFly, “Your kids are going to love it.” Many, many others, “Go, Johnny, go!”

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