41. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
(Lloyd Price, 1952)
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Lloyd Price is the fact that, contrary to every single other artist represented with an entry on this list, he is still alive. The same is true of two other rock and roll giants who are present on 1952’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Born in a suburb of New Orleans in 1933, Price worked for a local radio station in his teens, providing his soulful singing to its advertisement jingles. Borrowing a catchphrase from the DJ who employed him, Price began performing concise variations of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” on the air. It was received well by listeners, so Price expanded it into a full-length song and made it a regular part of his radio appearances.
The song brought Price to the attention of the soon-to-be groundbreaking New Orleans label, Specialty. The tune itself was notably derivative of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” and Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues,” but the arrangement, accompaniment, and approach would make this the next stage in the Crescent City’s rising rock and roll profile. Presided over by producer Dave Bartholomew (arguably as determinant an architect as there is in the trademark sound of Rampart Street), Price was paired with a band of future all-stars.
Particularly, Fats Domino’s rolling piano lead-in, Earl Palmer’s backbeat drumming, and Price’s own yelping plaint would make this the most significant recording yet for all involved. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” would land on the top slot of the R&B Billboard charts, ultimately spending half of 1952 occupying its upper reaches. Though the record never crossed over onto the Pop charts, it sold over a million copies, moving quickly with black and white audiences alike.
Imitators were legion, with nearly everything that came out of New Orleans over the next several years closely resembling the approach refined on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Bartholomew and Domino, both still alive today (94 and 87, respectively), would collaborate on a number of the most definitive records to come out of New Orleans during the rock and roll era.
Lloyd Price would chart a number of important hits over the coming decades, including the definitive rock and roll era take (and an approach deeply similar to that which drives “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”) on blues murder saga “Stagger Lee” (aka “Stag-o-Lee”) in 1959.
In addition to continuing to tour and perform, Price has seen ongoing success as an entrepreneur, working at one point in housing development and even collaborating with boxing promoter Don King and legendary prizefighter Muhammad Ali.
Price was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and remains active today at age 82. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” has been either “borrowed” or covered by everybody from Little Richard and the Beatles to Conway Twitty and the Replacements.
(The Crows, 1953)
Lest you should get the impression that rock and roll evolved entirely out of Southern rural tradition, the Crows should dispel this misconception. As blues, boogie, and country were emerging from the backwoods, street-corner vocal harmonies colored Northern cityscapes. The melodic scatting and four-part harmonies of doo-wop—basic ingredients to the rock and roll lyrical recipe—were born on the streets of cities like New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
The Crows were amateur Harlem sidewalk singers when they won an Apollo Theater talent show and earned a contract with a tiny start-up label called Rama. In 1953, they recorded a small clutch of songs in their familiar doo-wop style, but with the backing of an electric jump blues band. The group actually wrote “Gee” in a matter of minutes during the session, a fact that would ultimately make it the very first original doo-wop song to become a crossover hit.
Over the course of its first year, the record actually did very little, slowly climbing local playlists in Philly and New York. It wasn’t until 1954 that it began to pick up national steam, eventually topping out at #2 on the R&B charts and lurching all the way to the #14 spot on the Pop charts.
This, in essence, makes “Gee” the very first original hit by a true rock and roll group. Such is to say that The Crows were not interlopers from a jazz background. They weren’t crack study aces assembled by a savvy music businessman. They were young, amateur musicians recording on an independent label without pretension.
“Gee” is a decidedly innocent recording on its surface, evoking an idyllic “aww shucks” take on the 1950s that totally obscures the enormity of its impact.
The Crows saw little chart success after “Gee,” but theirs was the first trickle in a coming flood of crossover doo-wop hits and rock and roll vocal combos.
43. “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean”
(Ruth Brown, 1953)
Atlantic Records—the leading brand name in R&B during its most fruitful decades—is sometimes referred to as “the house that Ruth built.”
Portsmouth, Virginia–born Ruth Brown is the inspiration for this attribution. Also revered as the “Queen of R&B,” Brown fronted a series of bold, brassy, uptown rhythm & blues tunes during the ’50s, dominating the charts before, during, and after rock and roll’s initial explosion into popular consciousness.
With a blues belter’s voice and an affinity for Dinah Washington, Brown’s music helped to take the female blues singer into the next era. Brown’s material moved increasingly toward a slick, tight, uptempo take on R&B that is perhaps best encapsulated by “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.”
The song strolls along with a honking hucklebuck, tightly coiled electric guitar licks and late, loping horn parts. In reality though, it is Brown’s soulful squeal that distinguishes “Mama.”
Brown exhibits a light touch on a nonetheless impassioned delivery that would make this her third consecutive #1 on the R&B charts. By this early stage in her career, Brown’s music was absolutely omnipresent throughout the South, helping to mold countless future soul sisters like Aretha Franklin, Tina Tuner, and Mavis Staples.
Brown’s popularity would fade in the ’60s, but she would enjoy a resurgence starting in the mid-’70s, eventually earning a Tony for her work on stage and a Grammy for her musical contributions in the same medium.
Brown lived to the age of 78, passing on in 2006.
(Sugar Boy Crawford and his Cane Cutters, 1953)
The city of New Orleans has appropriately bubbled up throughout this historical trek, with many of the songs noted here taking on the distinctively festive, boozy, horn-heavy sound of that city.
But there is a separate and equally consequential strand of music that comes from the city’s tradition of revelry. While the music of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price put a Crescent City spin on R&B and jump blues, “Jock-A-Mo” renders hit material out of a chant descended from Mardi Gras Indians.
The song tells the story of two clashing tribes of Mardi Gras clans and details the threat of one tribe’s spy boy to set the other tribe’s flag on fire. The history of the so-called Mardi Gras Indians—members of the city’s population who dress in colorful native American regalia to celebrate the annual festival—is its own story and one I urge you to research when you have some time.
But for our purposes, Sugar Boy Crawford and His Cane Cutters offer a landmark recording in which the musical predilections of these ecstatic revelers are captured in the bounce and sway of a single recording. Sugar Boy’s version was released for Chess Records and was not a national hit. It would, however, become a standard in New Orleans—among a handful of songs that remain emblematic of Mardi Gras and the city as a whole.
When it was re-recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965 as “Iko, Iko,” it would become a hit and the subject of a dispute over authorship. Sadly, the Dixie Cups would eventually be awarded sole status as writers of the song, with Crawford only earning a small cut from live performances.
Crawford would largely disappear from public view, particularly after a 1963 beating by police officers that left him physically hobbled for years. Crawford did live to the age of 77, dying in 2012.
In one form or another, “Jock-A-Mo” would never leave the public eye. The song would not only become a staple of Grateful Dead set lists and a constant presence on the charts via hit versions by the likes of the Belle Stars (1982) and Cindy Lauper (1986), but it remains even to this day as omnipresent in New Orleans as booze and beignets.
45. “Crazy Man Crazy”
(Bill Haley & His Comets, 1953)
Of course, Michigan-born Bill Haley is among the most familiar first-generation rock and rollers, largely for the immortal “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” And we’ll get to that. But his contribution to the early evolution of rock and roll stretches back a few years before his was a household name.
Born in 1925, Haley began his career as a well-regarded country yodeler, fronting various bands before ultimately forming Bill Haley and His Saddlemen. Though they largely played in the Western swing style, the band gradually began to incorporate elements of R&B into a country-rock hybrid called rockabilly. The use of slap-back bass for percussion and Haley’s hip, swinging delivery made the Saddlemen early pioneers in the genre. But when Haley heard Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” he launched his band headlong into rock and roll.
Their recordings were still imbued with a rockabilly undercurrent, but as the band evolved into Bill Haley & His Comets (aka Bill Haley & the Comets), they continued to kick the momentum, electricity and, intensity of their music into higher gear. Borrowing a popular phrase uttered by members of his own audience, Haley authored “Crazy Man, Crazy.”
“Crazy Man, Crazy” throws the drums up front, rips smoking guitar licks throughout, and blows the joint up with a chorus of hepped up shouters. The whole thing feels like a party.
It was the first Pop-charting rock and roll hit by a white group, hitting #12 that summer. It was nudged forward by its appearance on a CBS television special featuring an emerging James Dean. This would make it the first rock and roll song to appear on American television and it would earn the Comets their eventual invitation to record “Rock Around the Clock.”
Bill Haley would become a major force in the coming decade, carving out an enormous piece of Billboard real estate and selling over 25 million records worldwide. He lived to the age of 55, dying in 1981.
46. “Hound Dog”
(Big Mama Thornton, 1953)
Topping out at 350 pounds, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton cut an impressive figure on the blues landscape. Born in Alabama in 1926, Thornton’s first and biggest hit would also be the first independent production for songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The latter two gentlemen were already on their way to becoming among the most important songwriters of the rock and roll era (thanks to Wilbert Harrison’s 1952 taken on their “Kansas City”), but over the course of its life cycle, “Hound Dog” would be their single most consequential work.
Influenced by the likes of Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton honed her chops as a gospel-turned-blues belter with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. But as blues transformed into R&B in the late 1940s, Thornton embraced the genre’s more aggressive and sexually confrontational predilections. Thornton came to meet Leiber and Stoller while working with star R&B drummer and bandleader, Johnny Otis.
In their very first session as leading producers, the already-successful songwriters encouraged Thornton to raunch up the vocals, which she did with inimitable authority. Behind her, a band of ace musicians is anchored by the reliable Mr. Otis on drums and the smoking-hot Pete Lewis on the tune’s resonant guitar solo.
A blues tune with a backbeat, but absent a saxophone, “Hound Dog” sounded like something altogether different from R&B or traditional blues. By the time Thornton’s recording descends into chaotic canine howling and yelping, a new sound has been born.
“Hound Dog” became a #1 R&B hit, topping the charts for seven weeks and selling somewhere just under a million copies in 1953. Thornton was paid a pittance for her work, as were Leiber and Stoller. While the former was never compensated, and died with little to her name but alcoholism at age 57 in 1984, Leiber and Stoller would ultimately make out like bandits when Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1956.
“Hound Dog” would become a 10-million unit seller for Presley, pulling off the then-unprecedented feat of simultaneously topping the pop, country, and R&B charts that year. It remains Presley’s single best-selling song to date and among the most representative songs of the rock and roll genre.
47. “Riot in Cell Block #9”
(The Robins, 1954)
Not to belabor the point, but Leiber and Stoller were pretty damn important songwriters as R&B continued to mutate into that which we now call rock and roll. Driven by disappointment over their personal compensation for Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” (and preceding their contentment over compensation for Presley’s version), Leiber and Stoller formed their own Spark label.
It was from this position of independence that they launched one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships of the era. One of their first major hits would be this hard-as-nails prison break drama, “Riot in Cell Block #9.”
The Robins were already a fairly successful doo-wop combo from the mid-1940s onward. But the Leiber and Stoller vehicle fixed them with a song that claimed to have none of doo-wop’s harmonic elegance. In the style to which the songwriters would frequently turn in the future, “Riot” aspires to a rawness that would be rock and roll’s future calling card. The vocals are coarse, the sax wails like an alarm, the drums rap like a Tommy Gun.
The song proclaims that “there’s a riot goin’ on” and it feels like they’re telling the truth. The Robins would score an R&B #1 with this tune in 1954, producing as hard-rocking a track as the charts had yet seen. Soon after the song’s success, Leiber and Stoller would poach two members from the Robins’ ranks to form The Coasters.
Leiber and Stoller would thereafter help to write the book on rock and roll as songsmiths for The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby,” “Spanish Harlem”), Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”), and most importantly, said Coasters (“Yakety Yak,” “Searchin’,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” etc, etc, etc). Leiber passed on at 78 in 2011. Mike Stoller is still with us at 82.
48. “Hoochie Coochie Man”
(Muddy Waters, 1954)
The end of World War II saw a massive migration, as black laborers from the South journeyed northward in search of better-paying work. It was thus that over the following decade, the heart of blues country moved from the Mississippi Delta to the mean streets of downtown Chicago.
The rustic mystique of pre-war blues was replaced by something harder, nastier, more in-your-face. Muddy Waters is the most important link between these two traditions. As the blues moved north, so did the man who was born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena County, Mississippi.
As Muddy Waters, he would become one of the preeminent popular musicians of the 20th century. His deep resonating voice, his commanding physical presence, and his muscular accompaniment would make Waters’s catalogue of work instrumental, not just in bridging the gap between South and North, Mississippi and Chicago, acoustic and electric, but ultimately in beginning the process of making blues indistinguishable from rock and roll. Like a few other artists on this list, pinning Waters’s importance in rock and roll to one song is difficult, to say the least.
Though Muddy had already picked up the electric guitar a few years prior, his performance on the Willie Dixon–penned vehicle would mark his first with a full band behind him. “Hoochie Coochie Man”—with its stop-time rhythms, hoodoo theme, and heavy electrification—is the defining song of the Chicago blues genre. It would also become the biggest hit yet for Muddy Waters, reaching #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart and remaining in play for 13 weeks.
It could be argued that of all Muddy Waters’s recordings, this remains the most iconic and perhaps the most frequently covered. Again, this is saying a lot, considering that this guy pretty much inspired every single blues rock artist of the mid and late ’60s, on either side of the Atlantic. But couched in the stop-time rhythm of “Hoochie Coochie Man” is an immediate predecessor to the famous Bo Diddley beat that would thereafter launch a billion riffs.
Waters would of course continue on to monumental success, perhaps unmatched in the blues milieu by anybody but B.B. King, before succumbing to heart failure in 83 at age 70. He would leave a massive legacy behind him.
49. “Work with Me Annie”
(Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, 1954)
Hank Ballard was born in Detroit in 1927, but bounced between the Motor City and the Deep South of Alabama during his formative years. His exposure to two vibrant but utterly different musical cultures would imbue the young singer with a unique pedigree. He put this background to use in the early 1950s as a purveyor of some of the era’s most risqué R&B tunes.
First as the leader of a doo-wop combo called the Royals, and thereafter as frontman for the more R&B-leaning Midnighters, Ballard carved out a small niche as a singer with a particular flair for sexually overt storytelling. Their first hit, 1954’s “Work with Me Annie,” encouraged the song’s addressee to “get it while the gettin’ is good, so good, so good, so good, so good.”
Ballard’s on-the-nose lyrics and suggestive yelping earned the song a ban from the airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission, but couldn’t stop it from selling enough copies to reach all the way up to #1 on the R&B Billboard charts and #22 on the Pop charts. Its simple but scintillating electric guitar solo and shuffling harmony are also prototypical of the fare that would soon emanate from every radio. In the wake of this first success, Ballard returned to his familiar friend with the self-explanatory “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny”—which also were banned by the FCC.
“Work with Me Annie” inspired countless answer songs, most notably Etta James’s “Roll with Me, Henry (The Wallflower).” In addition to producing a song which is rightfully seen as among the most necessary immediate precursors to rock and roll, Hank Ballard would return in 1959 with “The Twist.” His original composition only reached #87 on the Pop charts, but the following year, Chubby Checker’s untouchable cover topped the chart, and in 1962, became the only song in history to ever do so a second time.
Though he last recorded in 1969, Hank Ballard had intermittently emerged from his private life to perform live prior to his death in 2003 at age 75.
50. “Rock Around the Clock”
(Sonny Dae and His Knights, 1954)
In 1953, a guy named James Myers wrote a 12-bar blues rocker that merged the cadences of Hank Williams’s “Move It On Over” with a familiar nursery rhyme. In doing so, he authored what would ultimately become the first rock and roll #1 in history. Its path there would have a few twists and turns, though. The first twist was via a Richmond, Virginia–based novelty combo led by Italian-American Sonny Dae.
Sonny Dae and His Knights were a decidedly small time act, most notable at that time for their regular appearances on the Old Dominion Barn Dance radio show—a far cry from the Grand Ole Opry. Though Myers did work closely with a client named Bill Haley, a conflict with the bandleader’s record label prevented the two from collaborating on “Rock Around the Clock.”
Thus, Myers trucked Sonny Dae and His Knights into a studio in Philadelphia to cut this comparatively nastier version of “Rock Around the Clock.” (Note: This is the only song in our account that was unavailable for inclusion in the Spotify playlist here below).
Sonny Dae’s take is tight, lean, and just a few shades more menacing than the version that would change the world. A minimal jump blues boogie with rumbling piano leads and a cymbal-riding clatter, this original version barely notched on the R&B charts.
It did, however, inform Bill Haley’s recording a year later. Though recorded in 1954 and released as a B-Side with minimal initial impact, Bill Haley & His Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock around the Clock” was selected to accompany the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, the following year. This “teenage problem film”—exploring the burgeoning youth culture and its rock and roll soundtrack—made Haley’s song a #1 hit on the Pop charts, the first rock and roll song to accomplish this feat.
“(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” held the top spot on the charts for seven weeks and ranked as Billboard’s second-biggest song in 1955. This seems like a perfect place to leave you, because Bill Haley’s occupation of the top pop spot announced rock and roll’s future dominance.
At the end of 1955, Bill Haley’s smash hit was the only rock and roll song in the Billboard’s Top 30. By the end of 1956, Elvis Presley would own five of the top 15 slots.
You know the rest.
1. Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record? (Faber & Faber, 1992). (Note: A second edition was published by Wow Wow Publishing in Kindle format in 2012.)