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The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 110 – 101

I got lumps in my throat when I saw her walkin’ down the aisle.

110. “Blue Suede Shoes,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Carl Perkins; #20 pop; 1956. Depending on which story you prefer, Elvis was either pressured to record “Blue Suede Shoes” by RCA Records or he did so as a tribute and to assist Carl Perkins. Perkins released the song first and had the much bigger hit with the record, although many fans think of “Blue Suede Shoes” as an Elvis song today. Elvis picked up the tempo considerably, while giving Scotty Moore two solo spots. Rolling Stone, “Moore is particularly in your face here, offering up a pair of nasty, rollicking solos near the beginning and middle of the track. In the end, Presley’s take on the song helped Perkins out tremendously by giving him a much needed financial boost as he was recovering from injuries sustained in a brutal car accident on March 21st, 1956, that nearly cost him his life.”

109. “Not Fade Away,” The Crickets. Songwriters: Buddy Holly, Norman Petty; Did Not Chart; 1957. Buddy Holly borrowed the Bo Diddley beat for “Not Fade Away,” a non-negotiable demand for reciprocal romantic feelings. Drummer Jerry Allison did his percussion work on cardboard boxed. Allison, “Using the boxes wasn’t an idea I came up with, but maybe the sound I got was what people thought was so unique about my playing. I don’t know. Come to think of it, I think Buddy Knox used the boxes on the hit ‘Party Doll,’ which happened to be recorded at Norman Petty’s studio also. We did a lot of experimenting in that studio.” The Rolling Stones recorded a much more aggressive version for a #3 U.K. hit in 1964 and, a fact I include for the pure weirdness factor, a cover of “Not Fade Away” was the first single released by Rush in 1973, who sounded like a teen garage band with a girl group lead singer.

108. “Smoke Stack Lightnin’,” Howlin’ Wolf. Songwriter: Howlin’ Wolf; #8 R&B; 1956. Mississippi born singer Chester Burnett was a disciple of blues artist Charlie Patton, who had recorded “A Spoonful Blues” in 1929. Burnett’s stage name of Howlin’ Wolf was artistic perfection. He was a physically intimidating presence with a booming, unforgettable voice. Sam Phillips, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’” Wolf served in the Army during WWI, then worked the Delta blues circuit until being discovered by Ike Turner in 1951. His 1956 hit “Smokestack Lightnin’” was a revival/re-write of a blues number Wolf had been performing since the early 1930s (inspired by Patton’s “Moon Going Down”). There’s a scary energy when Wolf moans into the darkness and wonders where his baby had spent last night. Wolf, “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” Authors James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, “’Smokestack Lightning’ is the perfect distillation of what made Howlin’ Wolf such a powerfully unique artist. Built on a driving, hypnotic, one-chord vamp that subtly accelerates like a steam locomotive, Howlin’ Wolf sings an intense field holler vocal, interspersed with falsetto howls and blasts of raw country blues harmonica. The lyrics, a pastiche of traditional blues lines pared to the bone, are dark and cryptic conveying a mood of metaphysical agony.”

107. “That’ll Be the Day,” The Crickets. Songwriters: Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, Norman Petty; #1 pop/#2 R&B; 1957. “That’ll Be the Day” was the first hit for Buddy Holly, although it wasn’t released under his name. He had recorded the song for Decca Records in 1956 and, although it wasn’t released at a single at the time, contractually Holly couldn’t record the song again. Therefore, Norman Petty released “That’ll Be the Day,” the first song John Lennon learned to play on guitar, by the Crickets on the Brunswick label. The title was nicked from a John Wayne film and the hit version wasn’t originally planned for release. Jerry Allison, “We were cutting ‘That’ll Be the Day’ just as a demo to send to New York, just to see if they liked the sound of the group — not for a master record. So we just went in and set up and sort of shucked through the song.” Jerry Allison on the band’s early influences, “I’d spend the night with Buddy, and we’d get up at midnight to go listen to the car radio. We loved Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton.”

106. “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Roy Brown; Did Not Chart; 1954. Louisiana native Roy Brown was singing in clubs in Galveston, Texas, when he recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a jump blues number in the style of Louis Jordan that reached #13 on the R&B charts in 1947. Wynonie Harris cut a version that sounded more like early rock ‘n’ roll in 1948, although vocally Harris sounds somewhat distracted, as though his bartender is not meeting his needs. The Elvis version is, of course, leaner, with Scotty Moore getting the spotlight on two instrumental breaks. Rolling Stone, “It’s Moore’s pair of expressive guitar solos, coming first around the :40 mark and again a minute later, that steal the show. ‘They were completely off the cuff,’ Moore explained of his approach to soloing. ‘You might get a bass riff or something, as a hook for the song, but the solos were strictly ad lib. Even now I’ll go back and I can’t play note for note what I played then. I can get the general feel of it but I can never go back and hit it note for note. It just doesn’t feel right.’” Elvis, for his part, gave proper credit where it was due, “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now . . . for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up. I got it from them.”

105. “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; Did Not Chart; 1957. “Reelin’ and Rockin’” was the b-side to the 1958 #2 pop hit “Sweet Little Sixteen” and a live version of the song peaked at #27 in 1973, following “My Ding-A-Ling” onto the charts and being Berry’s last Top 40 hit. As was the case with many of Berry’s early singles, Chess studio musicians Willie Dixon and Fred Below served as the rhythm section. Chuck captures the all night, dance party mood of “Rock Around the Clock” on this stop/start boogie woogie record. Johnnie Johnson would later recall that “Reelin’ and Rockin’” was “the first song where (business executive) Leonard Chess had me rip the keys. What rippin’ the keys meant was that you dragged your hands up the keys while you were playin’ like Jerry Lee Lewis.”

104. “There Goes My Baby,” The Drifters. Songwriters: Benjamin Nelson, Lover Patterson, George Treadwell; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Jerry Wexler wanted a streamlined production sound for The Drifters, but Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had other ideas. The producers used a Brazilian drumbeat, performed with an out-of-tune timpani, then added a string section to juxtapose against Ben E. King’s powerful baritone voice. Author Ken Emerson, “No one had ever been so audacious as to wed the Italian bastardization of a Brazilian samba to an ersatz Russian string orchestration on a rhythm-and-blues record by and African-American quartet.” Leiber quoting Jerry Wexler’s reaction, “It’s dog meat. You’ve wasted our money on an overpriced production that sounds like a radio caught between two stations. It’s a goddamn awful mess!” Leiber and Stoller had evolved from blues aficionados to early catalysts of the Wall of Sound.

103. “In the Still of the Nite,” The Five Satins. Songwriter: Fred Parris; #24 pop/#3 R&B; 1956. Author Jim Beviglia, “Arguably the greatest song in the history of doo-wop was written while its composer had a brief leave from the military and was recorded in the basement of a church in New Haven, Connecticut, and the guy who played the saxophone solo was a parishioner there. You couldn’t make this stuff up, as they say. Yet there is no doubt that ‘In the Still of the Night’ (or ‘Nite’ as it was also labelled) cast a long shadow over one of the predominant genres of music at around the time of the birth of rock and roll. The two-verse-and-a-bridge song, released in 1956, captures the wonder and awe of romance with stunning efficiency. Of course, describing a song like ‘In the Still of the Night’ doesn’t do it any justice. With this one, it’s best to hold your significant other with all your might, look up at the moonlit sky, and sway along to the Five Satins immortal contribution to the doo-wop canon.”

102. “Little Queenie,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #80 pop; 1959. Chuck moved into sexual fantasy mode on this 1959 #80 pop hit, where a teenager who looks like a model causes a lump in his throat and his knees to wiggle. The internal strategy session line, “Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’” was later referenced by Marc Bolan on T. Rex’s “Get It On,” (known in the States as “Bang a Gong (Get It On)).” “Little Queenie” was often covered by The Beatles during their Hamburg era and Jerry Lee Lewis released his version as a single in 1959, an odd or contrarian selection given his well-documented problems with underage girls.

101. “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” The Johnny Burnette Trio. Songwriters: Tiny Bradshaw, Lois Mann (Syd Nathan); Did Not Chart; 1956. Rockabilly pioneer Johnny Burnette was a Memphis native who formed his band in 1952, then relocated to New York in his search for fame. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” was originally released by R&B artist Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, but Burnette reworked the song into a raging rocker, with a highly charged, distorted guitar sound unlike anything else during its era. (Whether the guitar playing was done by trio guitarist Paul Burlison or Nashville session ace Grady Martin has been a subject of historical controversy). In addition to the instrumental sound, one can’t forget the lead singer’s contribution. Author Billy Poore, “Johnny Burnette’s burnin’ hot, gut-wrenchin’ vocals and screams, all sounded so natural in his great Memphis drawl.” The Burnette version of “Train” has had a multi-generational legacy, being the model for the 1965 Yardbirds cover and the 1974 Aerosmith remake.

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