recorded 25 March 1960, New York, NY
No, it doesn't rock. In fact, there's no real backbeat to speak of. But if you think of Rock and Roll as Americana, this is it -- a mixture of blues, soul, jazz, and pop that can only be understood if you live in Brother Ray's mind but that can be easily appreciated by anyone. Ray's chauffeur suggested he cut this Hoagy Carmichael standard because he couldn't stop singing it.
recorded August 1959, Detroit, MI
Berry Gordy would have his first million-seller in '60 (the Miracles' "Shop Around"), but this 45 holds together even better, as close to the blues as pop music ever got and a yelp of pain straight from the underclass. A frat-boy favorite nevertheless due to the sheer up-front urgency of the music and the desperation of Barrett's plea. Gordy and the Motown mafia never recorded R&B this raw again. But then, who did?
recorded July 1960, New York, NY
Written way back in '53 by the composer of "Little Darlin'," this was one of the finer entries in doo-wop's latter-day Golden Era; if it sounds flat, that's because the producer wanted the vocals sung just that way so that Joe Average could hum it on the street. And that's just what happened. Matters may have been helped by the abbreviated length (1:36), as this remains the shortest ever Number One record.
recorded 19 May 1960, New York, NY
Having invented the genre with '59's "There Goes My Baby," the Drifters and Lieber/Stoller go on to perfect their elegant, Nuyorican-tinged tenement soul with this gorgeous yet emotionally resonant cha-cha, an ode to biding one's time. This also happens to be the last session at which Ben E. King would sing with the group; he'd go on to refine the sound even further with "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem."
recorded 23 April 1960, New Orleans, LA
His peers had almost all fallen victim to fate or their own baser natures by this point, but Fats just kept right on pounding out classic singles with astonishing regularity. He could be overwhelmed by dross on a rare occasion ("Valley Of Tears"), but this, his most heartbreaking ballad, is perfectly balanced with the sad strings of the Louisiana Symphony Orchestra. A sad but resolute stroll. Literally.
recorded 4 April 1960, Nashville, TN
Refurbishing pop standards was a common practice in rock's early days, but The King went all the way back to 1928 for this chestnut. Elvis, as always, made this quiet, almost hushed ballad his own, complete with a stirring spoken bridge delivered like Shakespeare. The sheer scope of Presley's career makes a "signature song" unthinkable, but as a fan favorite with pin-drop gravitas, this could be in the running.
recorded 26 March 1960, Nashville, TN
Rock and roll's greatest voice of heartbreak enters his classic period with this single, transforming himself from a good rockabilly artist to a phenomenal pop-opera stylist. You can hear the Tex-Mex Roy brought with him all the way from Wink, TX, but this song is more concerned with the high falsetto yearning of a tragically crushed heart. As such, it set the standard, for Roy's career and everyone's.
recorded 2 March 1959, Los Angeles, CA
Written largely by Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame, this ballad, perfectly suited to Cooke's angelic tenor, offered a unique perspective for troubled teens everywhere -- he's not good with the books, but he loves you anyway. Beatifically sweet in its longing, blissful enough to leave words behind, this song proves just how holy Sam could make the secular seem. A talent crucial to the decade ahead.
recorded 18 March 1960, Nashville, TN
Classical composer Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" isn't the first place you'd think of for pop music inspiration, but it's where Don Everly got the distinctive martial drum-roll and two-chord progression for this, the duo's first Warner Bros. hit. Fifteen minutes later he had the song, switching back and forth from the parade-march to a more generic country shuffle. The rest, as they say, is history.
recorded May 1960, Philadelphia, PA
And the dance craze years begin in earnest. Or, rather, Ernest Evans, who found his niche as Chubby Checker with this smash adaptation of a Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' b-side. The producers didn't do much to the original but remove the seventh chords, but that (and the backing of Dick Clark) created a bonafide mania that drove this exact same recording back to the top two years later. No one's managed to do that since.