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The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 20 – 11

I don’t want no other love, baby, it’s just you I’m thinking of.

20. “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Songwriters: Gene Vincent, Donald Graves, Bill “Sheriff Tex” Davis; #9 pop; 1956. Virginia native Eugene Vincent Craddock enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and may have been a career military man if not for shattering his left leg in a motorcycle accident in 1955. He quickly thereafter formed his band, the Blue Caps, and landed a contract with Capitol Records. In trying to find a young artist to compete with Elvis, Capitol Records struck gold with “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” which peaked at #7 on the pop charts, #5 on the country charts, and is one of the songs that defines the early rock ‘n’ roll sound/attitude. Author Bob Spitz, “Gene Vincent, with his group, the Blue Caps, staged an all-out assault on America’s teenagers by playing a brand of down-and-dirty white rhythm & blues that was rougher and more suggestive than that of their predecessors.” Author Susan VanHecke, “Presley’s band – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana – had given their boss a hard time when they’d first heard ‘Be-Bop-A-Lulu’ on the radio; they jumped all over him, positive he recorded it behind their backs.”

19. “Color of the Blues,” George Jones. Songwriters: George Jones, Lawton Williams; #7 country; 1958. The career trajectory of George Jones was waylaid by the rock ‘n’ roll era to the point that he even released a few rockabilly singles in 1956 using the pseudonym Thumper Jones. By 1958, the Starday label founded by Pappy Daily had been absorbed into Mercury Records, allowing better recording technology. Jones, “When I got to Mercury I got my first halfway decent sounds.” “Color of the Blues,” a co-write by Jones and Tennessee country artist Lawton Williams, is a country heartbreak standard that has been covered by Loretta Lynn, Elvis Costello, John Prine, and Skeeter Davis, among others. A more poetic lyric than generally heard in the genre, this is an early example of Jones perfecting his heart wrenching ballad singing. The Possum liked the song so much that he cut new versions for both United Artists and Musicor during the 1960s.

18. “Why Do Falls Fall in Love,” Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Songwriters: Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. Frankie Lymon was only thirteen years old when he sang one of rock music’s most timeless songs about the beguiling nature of romance. Author Richard Williams, “For many young listeners in the Britain of 1956, Why Do Fools Fall in Love? was the first record that sounded as if it had been made by teenagers for teenagers: it was a blast of doo-wop straight from the streets of Harlem, sung with irresistible energy by the juvenile delinquents who had written it.” From The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, “’Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ was a defining moment in doo-wop history. The song has attained the status of a vocal-group classic, owing to Lymon’s agile, ingenuous and utterly charming performance.” George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic, “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers made such a splash it’s hard to communicate. Frankie was a little younger than I was, but we were all more or less the same age. When Frankie hit, we were fourteen and we saw immediately where it all might lead – to being cool, to getting girls, to being at the center of the school’s social life.”

17. “I Got a Woman,” Ray Charles and His Band. Songwriters: Ray Charles, Rendald Richard; #1 R&B; 1954. Just like Hank Williams repurposed the gospel song “He Set Me Free” by the Chuck Wagon Gang for “I Saw the Light,” Ray Charles rewrote a 1954 release titled “He Must Be Jesus” by The Southern Tones for “I Got a Woman,” his first #1 R&B hit. From the “It’s All About Ray” website, “Ray and his bandmate Renald Richard stole the beat and the melody from ‘It Must Be Jesus’ wholesale, and much of its general feel and arrangement, but upped the freewheeling wildness of it, completely jettisoning any spiritual feel the original had and pointedly giving it a winking, raucous feel. It may have shocked some religious folks, but ‘I Got A Woman,’ sped up and with its proto-rock ‘n’ roll backing, introduced a whole new type of thing in American music: a kind of compelling secular southern R&B-cum-rock. Ray revels in his delicious hedonism.” “I Got a Woman,” from a recording session sometimes referred to as “the birth of soul,” became relevant again over fifty years after its original release, providing the primary musical hook to Kanye West’s #1 2005 hit “Gold Digger.”

16. “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry (with credits also given//taken by Alan Freed and Russ Fratto); #5 pop/#1 R&B; 1955. Chuck Berry’s first hit wasn’t based in the world of rhythm and blues, but came from the unlikely influence of Western swing. Berry used the 1938 recording of “Ida Red” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys to develop this motorvatin’ number about an unfaithful girlfriend. Pianist Johnnie Johnson on retitling the song, “Nobody could think of a name. We looked up on the windowsill, and there was a mascara box up there with Maybellene written on it. And Leonard Chess said, ‘Why don’t we name the damn thing ‘Maybellene’?” (Note – the cosmetics company uses the spelling “Maybelline,” another change made to avoid potential legal problems). “Rolling Stone” has described the influence of “Maybellene,” Berry’s first single and a #5 pop hit, by proclaiming “Rock and roll guitar starts here.” Chuck also got a lesson on how the music industry works when he discovered that disc jockey Alan Freed and Chess financer Russ Fratto were listed as co-writers. Although “Maybellene” came his first recording session (after 36 takes), his skills as a lyricist and story teller were fully formed.

15. “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley. Songwriters: Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, Elvis Presley; #1 pop/#1 country/#5 R&B; 1956. While Elvis started hitting the country charts while on Sun Records, he hadn’t become a significant national star. He signed with RCA Records in late 1955 and started looking for new material. “Heartbreak Hotel” was written by Mae Boren Axton, the mother of future country star/songwriter Hoyt Axton, with steel guitarist Tommy Durden. In exchange for agreeing to record the song, Elvis also received a writing credit. However, it has been noted that Elvis not only reshaped the structure of the composition, but also served as the de facto producer for the session. Record executives and radio were initially skeptical of the song’s commercial potential, since it was a radical departure from Presley’s Sun Records material. “Heartbreak Hotel” became The King’s first major hit, topping the pop charts for 8 weeks, the country charts for 17 weeks, and peaking at #3 on the R&B charts. John Lennon, “When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that.”

14. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Hank Williams. Songwriter: Hank Williams; #1 country; 1953. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a you’ll-get-your-just-deserts composition that Hank wrote about former wife Audrey with future wife Billie Jean Jones taking dictation. Hank biographer Colin Escot, “The song – for all intents and purposes – defines country music.” Historian Ronnie Pugh, “It’s Hank’s anthem, it’s his musical last will and testament.” Hank gives a lyrical hat tip to Ernest Tubb (“You’ll walk the floor/The way I do”) on his timeless farewell to a bad marriage. This is the signature song of the country music’s most iconic performer.

13. “Don’t Be Cruel,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Otis Blackwell; #1 pop/#1 country/#1 R&B; 1956. African American songwriter Otis Blackwell was raised in Brooklyn, where he played piano and became a fan of both R&B and country music. After winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, he became a recording artist for a short period of time, but quickly changed his focus to songwriting. He wrote several rock ‘n’ roll and pop classics including “Fever,” popularized by Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, Jerry Lee’s “Great Balls of Fire,” and the Jimmy Jones/James Taylor hit “Handy Man.” He is probably best known for his association with Elvis, writing “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis owned every chart known to mankind in 1956 and “Don’t Be Cruel” was a #1 pop, R&B, and country single. Author Chris Herrington, “With Bill Black and D.J. Fontana popping from the jump and the Jordanaires having perhaps their finest backup vocal moment, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ positively swings before Elvis really gets ahold of it. But when he does, it’s as easeful a vocal as he ever recorded. At his best, Elvis sang like genius athletes often play, with casual command and self-aware delight.”

12. “Got My Mojo Working”, Muddy Waters. Songwriter: Preston Foster (credited on record to McKinley Morganfield, a.ka., Muddy Waters); Did Not Chart; 1957. Kansas City based pianist Jay McShann released an upbeat R&B number, featuring some red hot guitar licks, in 1955 titled “Hands Off.” Songwriter Preston “Red” Foster reshaped the lyrics of romantic possession to one of voodoo frustration for “Got My Mojo Working,” a song that R&B singer Ann Cole began performing as an opening act for Muddy Waters. Waters then modified the lyrics, recorded the song and took the writing credit, which was later changed due to legal action. On the musical front, drummer Francis Clay pushes the tempo on “Got My Mojo Working,” while Muddy laments about his sexual frustration. Author James Perone, “’Got My Mojo Working’ represented a tie to the early blues tradition – and back to religious practices of an earlier century – but was also state-of-the-art South Chicago electric blues.” “Mojo” also has a direct tie to the next generations of rock music, as represented by English blues based rock bands (Led Zep, the Stones, the Animals, Humble Pie), then repatriated by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers.

11. “Rumble,” Link Wray and His Ray Men. Songwriters: Milt Grant, Link Wray; #16 pop/#11 R&B; 1958. The guitar sound on “Rumble” is phenomenal – the band sounds like a group of dinosaurs deliberately stomping huge holes within the Earth’s surface. Legend has it that “Rumble” was written by accident. The band was asked to perform “The Stroll” by the Diamonds, but didn’t know the chords. Author Cary O’Dell, “When someone grabbed one of the mikes and stuck it up to one of the amps, creating the tune’s signature distortion, a modern classic was born. ‘The kids just went ape,’ according to Wray.” Wray’s combination of distortion and power chords sounded so menacing, some radio stations banned the instrumental, fearing the title might incite gang fights. Ray, on that brilliantly filthy guitar tone, “In the studio, the sound was too clean, too country. So I started experimenting, and I punched holes in the speakers with a pencil, trying to re-create that dirty, fuzzy sound I was getting onstage. And on the third take, there it was, just like magic.”

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