The Early Years
Back in the '50s, what began as an amalgam of genres ranging from gospel and jazz to rhythm and blues took on a life of its own, and the explosive result was rock and roll. Here, to mark Buddy Holly's birthday, are 20 musical pioneers who made it happen.
Rock's first true singer-songwriter, Holly wrote and performed songs with his backing band, the Crickets, that remain as fresh and potent today as when he recorded them more than a half century ago. With his sweet country-tinged falsetto, trademark hiccup and Fender Stratocaster—and hits ranging from "That'll Be the Day" to "Not Fade Away"—the skinny Texan with the horn-rimmed glasses inspired everyone from the Beatles and the Stones to Dylan and Clapton. Unfortunately Holly did fade away, all too soon, killed in a plane crash at the age of 22 on February 3, 1959—aka the Day the Music Died.
It all began on July 5, 1954, when 19-year-old Elvis paid a visit to producer Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis to record a few Bing Crosby ballads. Phillips was underwhelmed. Then, just to let off team during a break, Elvis let it rip. He began wailing away on bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama," with session men Scotty Moore and Bill Black joining in the fun. "What are you doing?" Phillips asked, suddenly impressed. None of them had an answer. Certainly not Elvis. Because, you see, it didn't have a name yet. But it was rock and roll.
He pre-dated Elvis, his first recordings coming out in the early '50s. But Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard, was a flamboyant black man who sang "voodoo music," the kind of stuff that scared most white folk. Then, in 1955, Little Richard released a cleaned-up version of "Tutti Frutti," a raunchy song he'd been improvising in clubs, and it became an a crossover hit—followed by such rock and roll classics as "Long Tall Sally," " Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Rip It Up." Little Richard's early stage performances were positively wild—until 1958, when he temporarily gave up the music he helped invent to become a traveling preacher.
When Berry toured, he never brought a backing band along. Instead, he'd hire unrehearsed guitar-playing kids on the cheap in whatever town or city he'd "motivated" to. When criticized for this practice, he shot back, "Man, if they don't know Chuck Berry, they don't know rock and roll." Can't argue with that. Because without the licks, the showmanship, the deep connection to R&B and, most important, the lyrics that made Berry poet laureate to teenagers everywhere, there would be no rock and roll. Said Leonard Cohen many years later: "'Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news'—I'd like to write a line like that."
Jerry Lee Lewis
Ivory-thumping, whoop-wailing, crazy-as-a-loon Jerry Lee Lewis slayed us all, setting the world—and his piano—on fire. Steeped in the music of his native rural Louisiana, the rock and roll wild man known as the Killer shot to fame in 1957 with his Sam Phillips-produced "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," following by incendiary hits like "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless." Heir apparent to Elvis upon the King's 1958 induction into the Army, Lewis saw his career crash after he married his 13-year-old cousin. But Jerry Lee never stopped rocking. He tours even today, just about the last man standing.
His name will forever be linked with domestic violence—and eclipsed by his brilliantly talented ex-wife, Tina Turner. By Ike Turner was the musical pioneer behind "Rocket 88," the 1951 single that many consider to be the first rock and roll record. Although it was credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, the No. 1 hit was actually recorded by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm.
Portly, kind of square, with a goofy spit curl on his forehead, Bill Haley didn't look much like a rocker. And, in fact, he was more of a country artist. But with 1954's "Rock Around the Clock," Haley and his Comets gave the world its first rock and roll hit—the song that brought this alchemy of R&B and hillbilly music into the mainstream. Before long, he was eclipsed by the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly. Still, Haley continued rocking around the clock at nostalgia concerts and county fairs right up until his death in 1981.
Already known as the King of Rockabilly, Perkins—the composer of the seminal "Blue Suede Shoes" and a guitar lick master who influenced everyone from Elvis to the Beatles—was on his way to the top of the rock and roll heap and a national TV appearance when his car hit the back of a pickup truck, causing severe injury. By the time Perkins got out of the hospital, Elvis Presley had made headlines with an April 1956 appearance on "The Milton Berle Show." Among the songs Presley performed that night: Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."
He wasn't the only father of rock and roll, but Mississippi-born, Chicago-raised Bo Diddley made sure the music had plenty of his DNA—in the form of the blues and his patented Bo Diddley beat, derived from African rhythms and known to guitarists worldwide as "the mother of all riffs." Diddley influenced not only rock and roll but also rap and hip-hop. He also had a penchant for unforgettable album titles: "Have Guitar Will Travel," "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger," "Bo Diddley is a Lover" and "500% More a Man."
Another hell-raising country boy with authentic rock and roll looks, he outdid Elvis with his self-penned 1956 hit "Be-Bop-A-Lula" (and its mid-song "Let's Rock!!" primal cry). But while Vincent recorded numerous follow-ups, most notably "Race With The Devil" and "Blue Jean Bop," he never was able to repeat his original chart success, eventually spending much of his time touring Europe. To see Vincent in all his Be-Bop-A-Lula glory, check him out in 1956's "The Girl Can't Help It," one of the best rock and roll movies ever made.
Genial, heavy set, elegant in his suit and tie, Fats Domino didn't look the part of a rock and roller. But when he first appeared in the early '50s, no one knew what a rock and roller was supposed to look like. And the spirit of the music was in Domino's New Orleans "professor" fingers, his Creole-flecked voice and the sparkle in his eyes. With hits like "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walkin'" and "Ain't That a Shame, the "Fat Man" inspired several generations of artists, especially the British bands that invaded the U.S. in the mid-'60s. Seemingly immune to rock and roll strife and scandal, Domino continued to perform right up to his death in 2017.
Valens' recording career spanned only eight months, from July 1958 to February 1959. He died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Still, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter demonstrated that if you could get your hands on a cheap guitar, you could rock the world, even in Spanish—as evidenced by "La Bamba," which entered the Top 40 just two weeks before Valens' death at the age of 17.
The Everly Brothers
Radio child stars in the late '40s, Don and Phil Everly harmonized their way to rock and roll immortality with hits such as "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream," and "Bye Bye Love," melding country with the emerging sound of rock and roll. Difficulties with their record company, amphetamine addiction and military service took them out of the spotlight in the early '60s. And when the British Invasion hit in 1964, the Everly Brothers were viewed as old hat. Ironically, the brothers subsequently saw great success in the U.K., where their appeal stayed strong. Though famous for their sibling rivalry, Don and Phil reunited in 2003 to join mega-fans Simon & Garfunkel on tour.
Before his 1960 death in a car crash while touring the U.K. (the vehicle also contained Gene Vincent), Cochran hit rock and roll gold with his teenage anthem "Summertime Blues," one of the most influential and most covered songs in rock and roll history.
One of the very few rockers, then or now, who could swing like Sinatra, Bronx-born Dion DiMucci took the multicultural sounds of New York City streets, black blues clubs and even Hank Williams tunes he heard on the radio, shuffled them all together, put on a bow tie and then grand-slammed them all out of the rock and roll ballpark. Just listen to "Runaround Sue." Or "The Wanderer." Like other rock pioneers, Dion saw his career interrupted by the 1964 British Invasion, and his heroin addiction didn't help. He later turned to folk, with the heartbreaking "Abraham, Martin and John."
When Link Wray (awesome name) released his power-chord-heavy, distorted-electric-guitar-charged "Rumble" in 1958, it became the only instrumental ever to be banned from radio—out of fear that it might incite gang violence. And in this case, the guardians of polite society may have been right. Sunglasses-wearing, leather-clad and badass to the core, Wray created a sound in that would rumble its way to the core of metal, punk and grunge.
Called the Caruso of Rock, he had a pure, beautiful voice, yet nobody ever laid down a more primal, sexual "Grrrrrrooowww" than Roy Orbison in "Oh Pretty Woman." With hits like "In Dreams," "Crying" and "Only the Lonely," he projected a vulnerability unusual in early rock and roll, and his life was marked by tragedy (Orbison's wife was killed in a motorcycle accident and two of his sons died in a fire that burned down his home). But Orbison continued to perform and record, which led to a career revival on the 1980s, when he began performing with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys. Orbison died in 1988 at the height of his career resurgence.
He couldn't sing or play, yet Alan Freed sits high in the rock and roll pantheon. An early Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the radio disc jockey was the first to popularize the term rock and roll, and served as its first ambassador. Freed fell on hard times in the late '50s when he was busted in the infamous "payola scandal" and exposed for taking bribes to play certain songs and taking songwriting credits before doing so. Still, Freed had great taste, stealing a partial credit from the likes of Chuck Berry. It was wrong, and Berry never forgave Freed for it. But that was rock and roll.
He didn't wiggle or swivel, nor did he shake, rattle and roll. He didn't have to. Ricky Nelson had those drop-dead dreamy eyes. And though he was from Southern California, a former child actor and the son of white-bread TV stars Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Ricky—with songs like "Travelin' Man" and "Be-Bop Baby"—could rock and roll with a cool style all his own. If you doubt Nelson's importance, read Bob Dylan's memoir "Chronicles," in which he spends paragraphs rhapsodizing over Ricky's sound and chill rock and roll persona.
Seek out the Beatles' "Live at the BBC," recordings from radio gigs they did on the eve of Beatlemania. What you'll hear is a sound influenced by everyone from Elvis and Buddy Holly to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, performed with pure joy. Every note and lick and vocal honed during their eight-hour marathon sets onstage at the Hamburg Star Club. Then listen to the Fab Four's' studio albums. All the pioneers are to be found there, too. Moving into the future, as the Beatles began to take rock and roll in a whole new direction.
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