recorded 18 February 1959, New York, NY
Yes, this epochal recording -- considered the first "soul" song for its mixture of churchy call-and-repsonse and bluesy couplets -- was created exactly as you saw it in the biopic Ray. In fact, the original recording was even longer than this seven-minute wonder, which was then snipped in half. There's a shorter edit of the two-parter out there, too, but a song this primal is like sex: you need to make it last as long as you can.
recorded 6 March 1959, New York, NY
One of the strangest and yet most breathtaking productions in rock history, this number -- another important soul milestone, but more urbane and filled with Latin inflections and off-tune tympani -- caused Atlantic's Jerry Wexler to threaten to throw the master out the window. There's no denying the dizzying romantic swell of the orchestration, however, which would guide singer Ben E. King through his own solo career.
recorded October 1958, Los Angeles, CA
Hero of the Pacoima barrio Ritchie Valens died not long after this two-sided smash had peaked, but it was enough to guarantee him a place in the rock and roll pantheon, and not just because of the Winter Dance Party, either. One of the genre's most innocently and emotionally raw ballads backed by the song that practically invented Tex-Mex, a rockin' rendition of a Latin standard. A continuing inspiration to la raza rockers.
recorded March 1959, New York, NY
It was this doo-wop group's manager who pushed them into doing standards like this one, which had already been a hit twenty years earlier for Eddy Duchin. But slowed down and graced with an frekaishly ghostly arrangment that still defies explanation, it was transformed into a new standard, a transmission from some plush, ethereal make-out valhalla where romance isn't just a nice idea, it's a sensual experience all its own.
recorded August 1958, Detroit, MI
Jackie Wilson was a soul prophet without a country, the kind of man who could box by day and belt out "Danny Boy" by night. But there were times he wasn't overwhelmed by his own love of schmaltz, and this was one of them. Written by Motown's Berry Gordy, it balanced pop sophistication and soul's unbridled bursts of joy perfectly, the ideal setting for one of rock's most thrilling instruments.
recorded 18 June 1959, New Orleans, LA
Fats was still on a roll as rock's original gods perished all around him, quietly cranking out hit after massive hit. This was one of his best bargains, a deceptively simple pledge that somehow spoke volumes (a la the Beatles' later "I Want To Hold Your Hand") backed with a remake of Bobby Mitchell's rather wan protest that showed just how genius Fats' Creole phrasing really was. (Not to mention the sheer snap of his backup band.)
recorded March 1959, New Orleans, LA
Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns had already recorded this as the followup to their smash "Don't You Just Know It," but singer Bobby Marchan's vocal was problematic, so the relatively-unknown white boy from Gretna was given a stab at it. Needless to say, it worked, although the Clowns balked at the opening sound effects, all out of key with the actual song. In the end, it didn't matter much: a rock classic was born.
recorded 17 February 1959, Chicago, IL
Chuck Berry was on such a roll by 1959 that it's hard to pick just one classic 45 from this twelvemonth, especially since he'd go on to wax "Back In The U.S.A." b/w "Memphis, Tennessee" later in the year. However, this single was the slightly bigger hit, and featured the Moonglows on backup vocal. Which one you prefer has much to do with whether you identify more with the proud American in Berry or the eternal teenager in him.
recorded February 1959, New York, NY
A recipe for tranforming black tradition into the best kind of pop product. Take an ancient blues already morphed by R&B, pass it through the loving hands of Lieber and Stoller, slap it on an urbane "walking" shuffle, add sax, and get Wilbert Harrison to bring it home with his sophisticated yet worldly mojo. The result is a "one hit wonder" that, like so many, is practically a part of American folklore now.
recorded April 1959, New York, NY
His brother Johnny plays on it, and his sister (mother?) Ann gets partial credit, but this is Santo Farina's moment, as befits a man who started out playing acoustic axes like steel ones before receiving Shaolin-style training in the art of Hawaiian guitar. The result is a wonder that fits its title like a sleepy hand in a velvet glove, quite possibly rock's most enduring fantasia of an instrumental.