Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 27, 2009: The 15 Greatest Singles of 1959

Rock & Roll’s first boom was pretty brief. Although it sent American teens into frenzy and inspired countless future British Invaders; parents, religious types, and other squares saw to it that Rock & Roll didn’t get the radio-time it deserved. As every rock doc ever made has already stated, a slew of controversies and deaths helped hip-check R&R from the spotlight by the end of the ‘50s: the deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens; Elvis’s stint in the army; Little Richard’s shunning Rock & Roll in favor of religion; Jerry Lee Lewis getting hitched to his 13-year old cousin; Chuck Berry getting arrested at the end of 1959; and on and on. Regardless, there were still some red hot singles hitting record shop shelves 50 years ago. Here are my 15 favorites:

15. “I’m Ready”- Fats Domino

Fats Domino is one of the few original Rock & Rollers who made it through the ‘50s unscathed, although his hits certainly dried up when the decade was over. “I’m Ready” is one of his last big ones, but its relentless rhythm, good-natured boasting, and breezy piano fills suggest that Fat Man didn’t have a worry in the world.

14. “Forty Days”- Ronnie Hawkins

Rockabilly meets gospel on Ronnie Hawkins’s hit version of Chuck Berry’s “Forty Days” (basically a rewrite of the Berry hit “Thirty Days”). The fiery performance arrives special delivery from Hawkins’s backing band, the Hawks, who would achieve stardom a decade later as the Band.

13. “Mr. Blue”- The Fleetwoods

Proof that being square isn’t always a bad thing. How many poodle skirt-clad teens got groped in the backseat while this number was playing on the radio? White-as-white-can-be, yet “Mr. Blue” is a great song because it’s also very eerie (as was the Fleetwoods’ biggest hit, “Come Softly to Me”).

12. “Rockin’ Bones”- Ronnie Dawson

“The Blonde Bomber”, Ronnie Dawson, was twenty years old when he released this Rockabilly classic, but you’d think he was twelve based on his “puberty is light years away” voice. A chanting line of backing vocalists, an insistent guitar lick, and the clitter-clatter of some boney percussion keep “Rockin’ Bones” rolling along.

11. “Charlie Brown”- The Coasters

The Coasters were the most overtly comedic original rockers, and “Charlie Brown” is a classic teenage delinquent tale about a kid who smokes in the auditorium, covers the walls in graffiti, zaps spitballs all over the joint, and has the audacity to refer to his English teacher as “Daddy-O”, yet he still doesn’t know why everyone’s always picking on him. Based on his basso profundo, I’d say Charlie Brown has been left back about twelve times. A little wackity sax and a lot of attitude.

10. “Rockin’ in the Graveyard”- Jackie Morningstar

1,000 horror-obsessed Rockabilly kids must have cut their teeth on this spooky number. Slinking in with a shivery tremeloed guitar, some makeshift wind effects, and spectral giggling, before kicking into a lurching boogie, “Rockin’ in the Graveyard” is a horror rock masterpiece.

9. “Raw-Hide”- Link Wray and His Wray Men

Link Wray was one of the God Daddies of surf music, but his instrumental “Raw-Hide” looks forward to hard rock, as well. The heavily fuzzed out riff is as fat and formidable as the one that drives along “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Wray essentially surfs on that riff for the entire two minutes and seven seconds of “Raw-Hide”, but it’s never anything less than addictive.

8. “The Happy Organ”- Dave “Baby” Cortez

The combination of a rock steady beat with one of the most joyously cheesy organ lines ever tinkled makes this instrumental piffle a work of genius. And just when that organ threatens to give you a toothache, in comes a blast of ball-stomping Rock & Roll guitar! Dave Cortez’s last name was actually Clowney. While I fully understand why he dropped that from his professional moniker, Clowney is still one fucking awesome name.

7. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”/“Raining in My Heart”- Buddy Holly

Released less than two weeks before Buddy Holly’s tragic death, this single is evidence of what an innovator he was. From a straight-up rocker to a crafter of strange, orchestral pop in the span of four years, Holly had pulled off the very trick the Beatles would get all the credit for a few years later. Both tracks on this lovely single find Holly experimenting with complex arrangements and singing with his usual rich expressiveness. The galloping “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” was the bigger hit, but “Raining in My Heart” was just as good; its pizzicato strings perfectly conjuring up images of raindrops splattering on pavement.

6. “Woo-Hoo”- The Rock-A-Teens

The one hit from one-hit-wonders The Rock-A-Teens is a Rockabilly blow out of spazzy drum solos, moron-simple acoustic guitar interludes, and weirdo wordless vocals. The defiant goofiness of “Woo-Hoo” makes it an absolute classic. The Rezillos and The’s both did solid covers of it, but nothing beats the original. When that cat starts screeching “Yeeeeah!” you know just how he feels.

5. “Money (That’s What I Want)”- Barrett Strong

Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” is more Rock & Roll than soul, with its heavy duty riff, pounding beat, and sneeringly cynical lyric. Still this was the record that launched Tamla Records (soon to be Motown) as a soul-record hit machine. That monster riff is like Ray Charles channeled through Keith Richards’s fuzz box, and the Stones would, indeed, cover this classic a few years later (as would the Beatles, the Sonics, the Flying Lizards, and half-a-zillion other acts).

4. “I Only Have Eyes for You”- The Flamingos

One of the greatest love songs ever written… right up there with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. The Flamingos’ smash hit doo-wop rendition of “I Only Have Eyes for You” (original written in 1934 for a Busby Berkley musical called Dames) is ethereal and glimmering, those “doo-bop, shoo-bops” as buoyant as bubbles in a bottle of Bolly. Sit back and swoon, Daddy-O.

3. “Tallahassee Lassie”- Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon

Woo! A brutal rhythm batters away behind Freddy Cannon’s whooping vocals in this ode to a Florida lassie with a high flyin’ chassis. Brainless and brilliant, “Tallahassee Lassie” is a testament to the power of Big Dumb Rock, and Cannon earns his “Boom Boom” every inch of the way.

Too Cool for School: Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon parties with a chick with gigantic hair in the 1965 cult classic Village of the Giants.

2. “Somethin’ Else”- Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran invents death metal in 1959. That riff! Like a fucking jackhammer, it is. Cochran growls and does his best Elvis impression over stop/start verses, then allows that vicious bass riff to take over. Two minutes and nine seconds of sheer madness guaranteed to terrorize the God-fearing parents of legions of juvenile delinquents.

1. “Almost Grown”/”Little Queenie”- Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry just exudes cool, and “Almost Grown” is all cool, all the time. A rhythm that manages to be both lazy and incessant, a vocal that whines even as it seems to say “I don’t give a shit”, Johnny Johnson’s effortless piano runs, and those genius “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat” backing vocals. An indication that Chuck was reinventing himself as a soul singer at the end of the decade, perhaps? But wait! Flip the record over and there he is pounding out the very tough-ass/wise-ass Rock & Roll he invented on “Little Queenie”! Double A-side! Those spoken interludes slay me, not just because of Chuck’s droll delivery, but because of the ecstatic way they lead right into his shouts of “Go, Go, Go, Little Queenie!” Spectacular.

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