21. “The Honeydripper”
(Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers, 1945)
In 1945, soldiers were returning from World War II and looking for good times. For 18 straight weeks that year, Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers provided the best time around. Their 1945 jump blues number (complete with requisite honking sax solo) topped the Race Record charts for that span of time and eventually became a #13 hit on the Billboard Pop charts.
This made “The Honeydripper” the very first monster hit in the R&B mold. Oklahoma-born Joe Liggins originally served as the pianist for a number of larger combos when he composed “The Honeydripper.” When his bandleader refused to perform the number, Liggins assembled his own four-piece combo and created the prototypical R&B outfit around the landmark composition. Since the song could stretch out for as long as 15 wild minutes in live performance, the original 1945 single release would actually feature “The Honeydripper, Pt. 1” on the A-side and “Pt. 2” on the flip.
The single went on to sell two million copies and most assuredly would have moved more had record stores not run out of stock. Market demand, in fact, would be satisfied by an immediate flurry of also-successful cover versions.
Liggins would continue to perform until his death in 1987, at 72 years of age.
(Helen Humes, 1945)
“Be-Baba-Leba” places the unassuming Helen Humes on the cutting edge of popular music in the post-war era. Though the Kentucky-born singer never actively courted famed, it seemed to find her throughout her life, beginning with her stint as the immediate replacement to Billie Holliday in Count Basie’s Orchestra.
Starting there in 1938, Humes became inextricably linked to the pre-evolution of rock and roll. Her participation in John Hammond’s second annual “Spirituals to Swing” event at Carnegie Hall in 1939 and her lead vocals on Basie’s balladry would make her an important side player.
By contrast, “Be-Baba-Leba” would reveal Humes to be a forceful frontwoman and a daring songwriter to boot. Leaving Basie’s band in 1942 to escape the physical toll of life on tour (and according to some sources, because her affair with Basie had enraged the bandleader’s wife), Humes would eventually relocate to Los Angeles and release this, her biggest hit in 1945.
Her raunchy vocals and scatting lyrics elevated the jump blues tune to something vaguely scandalous. Backed by the omnipresent Bill Doggett and his octet, Humes presides over a clattering arrangement replete with honking sax solos (courtesy of Wild Bill Moore) and suggestive instrumental intercourse. By the song’s end, the band has reached a ramshackle crescendo that sounds suspiciously like rock and roll.
Humes would tour and perform only intermittently over the course of her life, enjoying critical praise up to her death at age 68, in 1981. And if the lyrics of “Be-Baba-Leba”, both sensical and nonsensical, sound familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
23. “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”
(Louis Jordan & His Typmany Five, 1946)
Speaking of songs that you thought were totally original but actually aren’t, here’s the riff upon which Chuck Berry based his career.
Louis Jordan was a categorically groundbreaking musician, a brilliant songwriter, a formidable frontman, a wild sax-man, and a genuine superstar of stage, screen, and record. He actually got his start working in the same incarnation of the Chick Webb band that birthed Ella Fitzgerald’s career.
The Arkansas-born Jordan was nicknamed the “King of the Jukebox” and, from the late ’30s to the early ’50s, was one of the most popular performers in America.
Like a few other artists represented on this list, Jordan leaves us with so influential a body of work that it is a bit painful to narrow it down to just one song. Indeed, as the frontman for the Tympany Five, Jordan would produce a torrent of jump blues originals distinctive for their spirited performances, instrumental prowess, and frequently humorous lyrics.
Ultimately, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” became a #1 hit on the Race charts and reached #17 on the Pop charts. It earns inclusion here because its lead-in electric guitar riff would become the basis for Chuck Berry’s elemental fretwork a decade later.
It also bears noting that it’s a smoking hot R&B number whose elevation of the electric guitar marks yet another step closer to the sound we know of as rock and roll. In spite of his critical role in shaping rock and roll, Jordan’s own popularity would decline just as that era truly touched off.
That said, Jordan did remain musically active until his death in 1975 at age 66.
24. “That’s All Right”
(Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, 1946)
This is the third song in a row to be included for its immediate influence on the Class of ’55. Little Richard borrowed “Tutti Frutti” from Helen Humes and Chuck Berry owes a debt to Louis Jordan for “Johnny B. Goode.” With “That’s All Right,” Big Boy Crudup authored the song that launched one Elvis Presley. More on that in a minute.
Arthur Crudup was, in most regards, a relatively minor Delta blues singer and guitarist. Playing in the country Delta style, Crudup earned a meager living performing and recording around Clarksdale, the small Mississippi city frequently noted as the third point in the geographical Blues Triangle that also includes New Orleans and Memphis.
“That’s All Right” was one of a handful of similar compositions, all registering as modest regional hits and all blurring the ever-less-meaningful line between hillbilly music and the blues. Crudup’s tune borrowed lyrically from the work of others before him, particularly the 1926 “Black Snake Moan” by seminal Delta singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. However, “That’s All Right” updates the Delta fossil with clanging uptempo guitar playing.
That song’s limited chart success is largely beside the point. There are two facts of greater historical importance than its chart performance. First, upon its re-release in 1948 under the name “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song became the very first released by a black artist to appear on a new format called the “45.”
Of even greater consequence is the fact that a hyped-up, rockabilly take on Crudup’s song would mark the recorded debut of one Elvis Presley in 1954. Sadly, Crudup would live most of his life in relative poverty, finding more work as a bootlegger than a musician in his later years. He would also battle bitterly to earn royalties from Presley’s recording.
Big Boy Crudup passed on at age 68 in 1974.
25. “Blue Moon of Kentucky”
(Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, 1946)
If you’ve read the entry above, you know that Elvis Presley’s first single was Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” The B-side to Presley’s debut was almost as important, demonstrating that the young singer was as unmatched a talent in country as he was in the blues. The back of his first 45 featured “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Contrary to the Crudup recording, the original in this case remains more earth-shattering even than Presley’s version.
Kentucky-born Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass. The bandleader presided over the advent of country music’s most exciting, virtuosic, and creative sub-genre, a form distinguished by breakneck instrumental interplay and high, yelping vocals. Its pacing and intensity make bluegrass an essential stop on the way to rock and roll. The first highlight on this stop is “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the genre’s definitive anthem.
Starting in the late 1920s, a young Bill Monroe began his experimentation with different instrumental arrangements, leading a traditional old-timey string combo composed of his brothers. Here, the mandolin player developed his trademark falsetto harmonies, a signature of the genre he would eventually spearhead.
Though various incarnations of his “Blue Grass Boys” existed starting in the early 1940s, it was the 1945 addition of virtuosic banjoist Earl Scruggs, along with guitarist Lester Flatt (who would thereafter form a lifelong partnership as Flatt & Scruggs), that would help kick the intensity of Monroe’s music up ten gears.
In actuality, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is a stately country waltz that represents the bluegrass genre less in its pacing than in its instrumental arrangement and lonesome harmonies. By 1947, “Blue Moon” had become a massive national hit, the one most responsible for placing bluegrass in the popular consciousness and a necessary weapon in every bluegrass and country band’s arsenal going forward.
In 1954, Elvis reinvented the tune with Mr. Monroe’s explicit blessing. With Presley’s trademark hiccup and his trio’s (w/ Scotty Moore and Bill Black) uptempo arrangement, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” would actually outperform “That’s All Right” on the local Southern charts. Monroe would take a cue from Elvis, later re-recording the tune in the rock and roll time signature.
Monroe remained an active and powerful force in music until his death at 84, in 1996.
26. “House of Blue Lights”
(Freddie Slack & Ella Mae Morse, 1946)
Behind the scenes of the mounting boogie boom, a songwriter named Don Raye composed a number of the era’s most defining hits, including the aforementioned “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.” Raye also wrote “House of Blue Lights” in 1946 and gave it to his old friend (via their mutual involvement in the Will Bradley Orchestra), Freddie Slack.
The Wisconsin-born piano player worked in tandem with a comely singer and starlet named Ella Mae Morse. As Race Records by black artists were increasingly penetrating the Pop charts, Slack and Morse did exactly the reverse. The white singer and piano player were frequently convincing enough with their hipster patois and eight-bar boogies that their records actually made an impact on the Race charts.
Their most important hit came in 1946 with a tune that extols the virtues of a rocking chicken shack on the black side of the tracks. In addition to lyrics that reference “eight bar beats” and “Detroit barbecue,” “House of Blue Lights” marks the first chronological instance in which I’ve ever heard anybody use the word “homie.”
“House of Blue Lights” was a substantial hit, reaching #8 on the Pop Billboard chart that year. It also reflected a far more reverential take on black music and culture than that which white artists were producing just a decade prior. The inherently degrading racial caricatures of the blackface and minstrel eras were supplanted by a genuine adulation for and desire to emulate the exciting distinctions of black music.
Slack and Morse co-opt the lingo and genre of black artists, but they do so out of the same genuine respect and affinity with which white rock and rollers like Elvis and Jerry Lee would perform in just a few years. Indeed, the latter would create his own cover of “House of Blue Lights.”
Slack was only 55 when he died in 1965. Morse faded into relative obscurity as the rock and roll era waxed, though she lived to the age of 75, dying in 1999.
27. “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”
(Stick McGhee & His Buddies, 1946)
Granville McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1917. He earned the nickname Stick because he was often seen around town as a child using a stick to push a wagon containing his polio-stricken older brother. While said older brother went on to become the legendary blues singer Brownie McGhee, Stick is mostly known for just this song.
Stick’s career as a recording musician didn’t truly begin until after his service in WWII, but his most important tune comes directly from his time overseas. While at war, McGhee began performing a profanity-laced song adapted from various oral traditions for his fellow GIs. “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” celebrated the intoxicating effects of a fruity, multi-spirited concoction common at black parties, particularly in the South.
In fact, the song would lend itself to the term “spodi,” which is often applied to said beverage even today. (Stick may also be responsible for coining the similarly intended phrase “jungle juice,” via a song of that title several years later.)
When Stick returned from the battlefront in 1946, he and Brownie recorded a decidedly rough-hewn party platter with minimal instrumentation. The song was not at first a hit, but its prototypical rock and roll syncopation and its thematic familiarity began to gain it some attention in New Orleans.
As the song gradually became a regional hit in the Crescent City, it caught the attention of Atlantic Records. When the fledgling label re-released a version with full R&B regalia in 1949, it rose to #2 on the R&B charts and helped Atlantic stay in business during its first lean year.
For his role in keeping Atlantic afloat, McGhee has said that he was paid $75 and a couple of hot dogs. Still, given the label’s seminal impact on the future history of recorded music, the oft-thereafter-covered “Drinkin’ Wine” is a recording of landmark importance.
Sadly, Stick McGhee saw little personal success and ultimately left the music business out of frustration, dying from lung cancer at just 44 years of age.
28. “Freight Train Boogie”
(Delmore Brothers, 1946)
In 1945, Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie” essentially invented the genre of hillbilly boogie. In the years to immediately follow, brothers Alton and Rabon Delmore would perfect it.
Born into deep poverty in Limestone County, Alabama, in 1908 and 1916, respectively, the Delmore Brothers specialized in gorgeously bucolic two-part harmonies. Alongside the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Monroe Brothers, they were among the leading stars on the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1930s.
By the mid-’40s, the Delmore Brothers had split from the Opry and from the most lucrative period of their careers. But the advent of hillbilly boogie would have an immediate impact on the Delmore Brothers. Always predisposed to the blues and Appalachian folk music that surrounded them as children, the Delmore Brothers patched their distinctive harmonies onto the chugging rhythm innovated by Smith.
“Freight Train Boogie” is perhaps the best example of their work, at least for our purposes. Like many country songs before it (and like the broader boogie genre), “Freight Train Boogie” simulates the sound of life by the rails.
The automobile would soon become a defining feature of American life. But in the pre-war era, the rails represented work, progress, and the only way out of an infinity of tiny towns. Its whistle, its clanking, and its mythology permeated life for many Americans.
“Freight Train Boogie” captures all of this, while chugging with novel intensity and invoking railway folk legend (and real person, at some point in history), Casey Jones.
Though “Freight Train Boogie” would not return the Delmore Brothers to their prior commercial stature, it would earn them an important spot on our timeline.
Rabon and Alton died in 1952 and 1964, respectively, but their influence permeated the rock and roll era as duos like the Everly Brothers and, thereafter, Simon and Garfunkel, aspired to their rich, warm harmonies.
29. “Route 66”
(Nat King Cole, 1946)
Alabama-born and Chicago-raised, Nat King Cole began his career as a jazz musician, playing piano in combos with his brothers. But it was his rich baritone voice and debonair stage presence that ultimately made him a pop star.
Indeed, starting with radio and eventually moving to television, Cole’s healthy sales numbers would virtually define Capitol Records in its earliest days. In fact, legend has it that Cole’s sales helped to finance the construction of the iconic cylindrical Capitol building in L.A.
Though Cole was a pop singer more in the vein of the era’s famous crooners, he distinguished himself by frequently performing as part of a trio (as opposed to a big band). The result was the prototypical jazz trio—a forerunner to power trios like that of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black.
Though Cole would produce a number of mega-hits during this time that could arguably qualify as rock and roll template setters, perhaps none so effectively captures the genre’s swing, its coolness, or its highway-rambling tendencies as “Route 66.”
In the post-war era, few things would come to symbolize American freedom like the automobile and the open road. Indeed, the highway is often the only home a touring rocker knows. Nat King Cole’s constantly covered “Route 66″—conceived by songwriter Bobby Troup during (you guessed it) a cross-country road trip—captures the sensation and romance of life on the road with a cocktail-hour boogie, a sly little electric guitar solo, and Cole’s own irresistibly suave vocal charm.
In spite of the enormous imprint left by Nat King Cole, the inveterate cigarette smoker died of lung cancer in 1965 at the young age of 45. By that time, “Route 66” had already become a rock and roll standard, recorded most importantly by Chuck Berry and, on their debut record, the Rolling Stones.
30. “Good Rocking Tonight”
(Wynonie Harris, 1947)
If there’s is a landmark year—a point of transition at which evolution begins to move furiously and inexorably toward the Big Bang of 1955—it would be 1947. This is the point at which all the things that closely resembled ingredients of rock and roll took hold and manifested as something utterly indistinguishable from the genre yet to be coined.
Nothing embodies this truth better than the two versions of “Good Rocking Tonight” that battled it out on the Race Record charts in 1947. New Orleanian Roy Brown recorded the original “Good Rocking Tonight,” a song that makes lyrical reference to “rocking” as both a style of music and a euphemism for sex. The song’s lyrics also reference a litany of characters from prior Race Record hits, like Sioux City Sue, Caledonia, and Deacon Jones, suggesting that the author viewed this song as the culmination of a mounting musical movement.
Indeed, it was. After Brown’s version became a minor hit, the charismatic “Mr. Blues,” Wynonie Harris, battened on and recorded his own version. This is the one which we include here for several reasons, not the least of which is that it topped the Race charts for the majority of that year, while Brown’s version plateaued at #13.
More importantly, the Omaha-born Wynonie Harris added a particular flair and aggression to his take, supercharging Brown’s version with edgier singing and a subversive use of gospel-style hand claps.
“Good Rocking Tonight” is the prototypical rock and roll song, a fact well-illustrated by Presley’s 1954 Sun Records release and the countless cover versions that have followed.
Harris and Brown separately enjoyed widespread success during the coming rock and roll era, though each died young, the former at 53 in 1969 and the latter at 55 in 1981.