recorded 6 January 1958, Chicago, IL
The quintessential rock and roll anthem and maybe the quintessential rock and roll song, because it can still, fifty years on, instantly ignite parties of all ages. Thank that clarion call of an intro, and also mythology: the story of a little "colored boy" (later "country boy") who rises, Horatio Alger-like, through the act of effortless musicianship. Chuck's story, in other words, and, arguably, ours.
recorded 8 October 1957, Memphis, TN
Few artists have had a year like Jerry Lee Lewis did in: three classics on the charts and a career-crippling scandal. Yet in the spring of '58, he was still riding high with this single, which lacks the spontaneity of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" but makes up for it in sheer force and deadly precision. The title blasphemy did not escape Lewis, who wrestled with his demons in the studio before giving into them.
recorded October 1957, New York, NY
Staten Island made its most enduring contribution to New York Italian-American doo-wop with these five teens, who adapted the words if not the actual melody of Mozart's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (itself an adaptation) to create one of the era's most breathlessly beautiful odes. Recast as a romantic idyll, it shot up the charts, but the Elegants, like many of their brethren, never found success again.
recorded 30 June 1957, Clovis, NM
Critics usually argue that "Rave On" is the best single Buddy and his boys released in 1958, but when you factor in the flip, this has to be the single of choice -- it's a bonafide rock anthem, one of the best approximations of the Bo Diddley beat. The A-side is no slouch, either, a song so romantically innocent yet lascivious in its implications that Ed Sullivan at first refused to let the group play it on his show.
recorded 15 October 1956, New Orleans, LA
By 1958, Little Richard had already thrown his jewels in the river, renouncing rock and roll after a shaky plane ride to Australia. Fortunately, Specialty graced the charts with one last unreleased, salacious smoker, the final cut from the legendary '56 New Orleans sessions. The title was the catchphrase of DJ Jimmy Pennick; the intro was swiped directly from Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88."
recorded May 1958, Hollywood, CA
Only a nineteen-year-old could articulate teen frustration this accurately -- our hero isn't old enough to make his own decisions, but he is old enough to shoulder responsibility. What high-schooler couldn't relate to that? What sends the tune home, however, is the rhythm: the trademark stop-and-start guitar, the comical breakdowns in the middle of each verse, and those handclaps (performed by Eddie's girlfriend!)
recorded 6 March 1958, Nashville, TN
Dream, dream, dream. Don and Phil's ethereal harmonies couldn't have found a better home than this phrase, written (like the rest of the song) by longtime compatriots Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Having Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer on guitar and piano doesn't hurt, either. But as always, it's the brothers' impossibly innocent vocals that are center stage; who else could make the phrase "gee whiz" seem so melancholy?
recorded 17 March 1958, New York, NY
Lieber and Stoller get their first crack at the Coasters, and they deliver with this, '58's other great "protest" song. One that takes a comical look at the generation gap, "Yakety Yak" dares to imply -- albeit comically -- that parents expect too much from their kids, not just in what they do but with those "hoodlum friends" they associate with. No hippie anthem could sum it up so effortlessly.
recorded September 1957, New York, NY
The urban legends surrounding this Newark sextet's one big hit are legion. Did they fashion the lyrics after a popular Pepsodent ad? Did someone get the idea from another song of the same name? Did an errant baseball smack into the studio wall at exactly the same moment the downbeat starts in the song, leading the group to put it there? A novelty in the best sense of the word.
recorded April 1957, Chicago, IL
One slow, almost mournful verse repeated over and over, lyrics that sound almost freestyled, no chorus -- some songs succeed despite themselves. And so it was with this R&B standard, written by lead singer Jerry Butler when he was but sixteen. The sad beauty of it all, however, along with The Ice Man's gospel-inflected vocal prowess -- soul before it had a name -- send it through.