recorded 2 July 1956, New York, NY
One of the greatest two-sided monsters in the history of rock and roll, this 45 didn't introduce Presley -- "Heartbreak Hotel" had -- but it solidified his status as a classic vocal stylist and interpreter, not to mention a living repository of American musical tradition. The a-side was a Big Mama Thornton blues classic recut with Vegas panache; the b was so good it made Sam Phillips pull his car over to the side of the road in delight.
recorded 16 April 1956, Chicago, IL
Other rock anthems spoke a language adults didn't understand, but this one specifically celebrated the impending death of traditional, "serious" music (albeit in an offhand manner). Chuck was proactive, writing a letter and mailing it to his local DJ. The blistering solo -- one of rock's best ever -- gets most of its bite from the fact that the finished track was sped up half a step, on purpose, in mastering.
recorded 1955, New Haven, CT
Doo-wop's greatest ballad? That's a matter of opinion, but it's certainly the most durable, having hit the Top 40 in three separate years (yet never making it past #24!). This raw yet gorgeous ode proved that rock could come from anywhere: it was written by the group's leader while on guard duty in the Army and recorded in the basement of a church in New Haven, CT. Few top 40 hits sound so honest.
recorded 10 February 1956, New Orleans, LA
Pat Boone routinely stole the thunder of early rock anthems with his bland cover versions. So Little Richard and his producer specifically made this rocker hard to sing ("He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley") so that Pat couldn't cover it. He did anyway. Why is Sally long, tall, and bald? Because she's -- gulp -- a man. And Little Richard gets another one past the censors.
recorded 1956, New Orleans, LA
Early rock legends never shied away from covering pop standards, and this giant smash, already a hit for Glenn Miller in 1940, proves it. Bandleader/arranger Dave Bartholomew hated it when Fats pulled this already-oldie out at the end of a recording session, and Domino had so much trouble with the lyrics that the finished song had to be pieced together from different takes, but his sincerity shines through.
recorded 19 December 1955, Memphis, TN
Elvis stole the thunder on this one, but Carl Perkins' original recording is the one prized by rockabilly purists, and it was commercial enough for Sam Phillips to mark Carl as his next breakout star. In fact, Phillips himself suggested that the "go, man, go" of the immortal intro be changed to "go, cat, go." A hit with hillbilly cats first and then with the R&B crowd, proving rock's influence flowed both ways.
recorded November 1955, New York, NY
Frankie Lymon was rock and roll's first child star and one of its greatest tragedies, but it's worth remembering that he was also a phenomenal thirteen-year-old falsetto (Michael Jackson is impossible to imagine without him). Originally entitled "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay," this band composition has more pop smarts than most doo-wop classics, and the authenticity of having been written from real love letters!
recorded 4 May 1956, Nashville, TN
"Woman Love" was actually the a-side, but "suggestive" lyrics caused DJs to flip it over, not realizing they were now promoting a song originally written about a stripper in Portsmouth, VA. Vincent bought the song from a patient at the VA hospital, and the rest is history. Obviously calculated to play off the success of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel," this classic rockabilly slow-burner is actually the tighter song.
recorded 2 April 1956, Memphis, TN
One of the only songs where you can hear the singer trying to find the key before each verse. That's not a knock on The Man In Black, who wrote this song after being inspired by Dale Carnegie, whose positivity seminars helped Cash to "keep [his] eyes wide open all the time." Rewritten as a typically countryish ode to the hard work involved in being half a couple, it lives on despite (or maybe because of?) its wandering key.
recorded 16 June 1956, New York, NY
As with many future songs of the same ilk, this 45 -- rock's first big instrumental hit -- was more popular for Pt. 2 of its sexy, strutting, jazzy R&B workout. And the forty-year-old Doggett, who'd worked as an arranger for the Ink Spots, never considered himself a rock and roller. But the dazzling interplay between sax and guitar, not to mention the sheer joy coming through the performance, are pure rock.