Fifties Rock ' N' Roll



The 1950's have been both villified and canonized for that decade's sanity and mannerly demeanor. How ironic, then, that the rock and roll of that era should still rank among the most insane, unmannerly skronk in all of the music's history.

The Golden Age of Rock 'N" Roll (roughly 1955 - 1963, but who's keeping track?) arose from the cultural trainwreck of the American South, a place where black and white met to the thunder of R&B rhythms and country guitars. In a world of crewcuts, segregation and Joe McCarthy, early Rock 'N' Roll really was a threat to the established social order - a pied piper call to race-mixing, lewd dancing and all sorts of hell-raising fun.



V/A - THE SUN STORY (Rhino LP 1986) and assorted re-issues

The essential core of Sun singles your collection is utterly meaningless without. Elvis, Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Rufus Thomas, Charley Rich, etc., etc. Sun was THE ESSENTIAL rockabilly label. You could make a worthwhile collection of fifties rock and roll based solely on Sun recordings, many of which have been reissued on album several times. Hardcore Sun freaks are steered towards Bear Family's series of Sun box sets. Those who wish to delve further into specific artists are directed towards the indispensable, if shoddily packaged, vinyl re-issues of the 1970's, which include at least two volumes of Jerry Lee Lewis's ORIGINAL GOLDEN HITS, three collections of Charlie Rich's Sun recordings, JOHNNY CASH'S ORIGINAL GOLDEN HITS VOLUMES 1 & 2, THE BEST OF CARL PERKINS (2 LPs issued by Trip records in the early 1970s,) and RCA's 1976 re-issue of the Elvis's Sun session, which the label bought from Sun owner Sam Phillips in the 1950's.

V/A - SIN ALLEY comp. series / DESPERATE ROCK 'N' ROLL comp series / JUNGALA comp series / LAS VEGAS GRIND comp series


These compilation series document the dark underbelly of the rock and roll beast. For every Elvis Presley or Everly Brothers - acts who could clean up pretty for Ed Sullivan - a thousand hopped-up hillbillies or whacked-out blooze rockers pounded and howled on small, regional labels . As frightening today as it was to Mom and Dad back in the '50's, the true sounds of rock rebellion paint vivid, two minute portraits of harmonal frenzy pushed way over the edge - young minds driven hard by cheap drugs, cheap liquor and fine ass. Grey matter turned red with rockabilly bloodlust.



Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps: THE BOP THAT WON'T STOP (Capitol LP 1974)

Gene Vincent took rock ' n' roll rebellion to extremes which border on mental illness. Drinking and popping pills like a wildman, Vincent left a trail of broken hearts, smashed-up motel rooms and spectacular episodes of vehicular mayhem. The leather-clad Black Angel of Bop, it is alleged, once ripped the cast from his own broken leg onstage and kept on rockin'. Some would have it that he got rough with Dick Clark backstage at American Bandstand when Clark insisted he lipsync rather than sing live.

This wildest of wild rockers left the world early, but his recorded legacy, particularly the sides he recorded from 1956 - 58, is one of the more solidly exciting in rock's history. Gene would go pop in a big way after '58, but this comp, made up entirely of 1956 recordings, is the business and then some. Also of interest are the GREATEST HITS (Volumes 1 -2) on Capitol, which contain more of Gene's best bop, and some of his coolest pop sides, as well.

Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm - RHYTHM ROCKIN' BLUES (Ace CD 2001)

Vilified for his drug addiction, as well as his history of domestic violence, Ike Turner's well-deserved reputation as a shitty human being has pretty much obscured his place in rock history as an early star and innovator.

A professional musician before he was 11, Ike Turner was the songwriter, pianist, guitar hero and Svengali behind the legendary Kings of Rhythm. It was the Kings, billed as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who recorded "Rocket 88," the record no less an authority than Sun Records' Sam Phillips has called the first rock record. While this might be stretching the case - "Rocket 88" was recorded in 1951, at least four years behind a number of rockin' R&B records - its still true that the song was the first hit recorded at Sun Records, and a recording which deeply influenced the course of early rock. Sure, rock 'n' roll would have still happened without "Rocket 88," but it might not have sounded quite like it did.

Ike's Kings of Rhythm were a revolving door unit who recorded under various names behind many singers, with Ike's songwriting, piano playing and heavy-handed insistence on perfection providing consistency. As Ike moved from piano to guitar, the group became a platform for his ever-wilder excursions into amped-out, whammy-bar nirvana.

RHYTHM ROCKIN' should serve as merely an introduction to Ike and the Kings of Rhythm. Nearly everything the band recorded is good to great, and a good compilation of Ike's instrumental sides, the Ike and Tina records and the man's solo recordings from the sixties and seventies are all cakes well worth shoving your face into.

Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio - ROCKBILLY BOOGIE (Bear Family CD 1989)

Johnny Burnette was best remembered as a teen crooner when way-belated interest in these early recordings re-established him and brother, Dorsey, as rockabilly royalty. Hard music with a big bottom end and sharp guitar sound, sung by a man more in control of his impressive voice than of his emotions. Many reckon the Rock and Roll Trio recordings to have been the greatest Rockabilly sides of all, and I'm not one to argue. Savage and essential.


Bill Haley and the Comets - ROCK THE JOINT! THE ORIGINAL ESSEX RECORDINGS 1951-1954 (School Kids/Jet-Eye/Rollercoaster CD 1994)

Bill Haley's transformation from western swing cowboy into kiss-curled rock and roller was almost strictly mercenary, but he and his Comets (nee the Saddlemen) rocked as hard as any band of the day. While Haley would later sack the steel guitar in favor of a more contemporary R&B saxophone, these recordings show how dynamite and futuristic Billy Williamson's manic steel playing was. In wild, distorted runs that preface all the wild rock guitar you've ever heard, Williamson's steel zigzags over the rolling rhythm section like Nugent on locoweed. An essential and little heard body of work.

Little Richard - THE SPECIALTY SESSIONS (Specialty CD Box Set 1989)


Little Richard has, since the beginning, personified the rock and roll wild man. Defiant in his blackness and bisexuality at a time when one quality made you an outcast and the other could get you killed, Richard howled, screamed and gyrated his way through McCarthy's America in a mad explosion of raucous energy the world had not seen since, well...maybe the world had never seen the likes of Little Richard.

The sides that Richard cut for Specialty Records in the 1950s are the corner stones of any complete rock and roll collection. On such essential tracks as "Tutti Fruiti," "The Girl Can't Help It," and "Keep A-Knockin" (which Led Zeppelin well...umm...appropriated for their song, "Rock and Roll,") Richard and his band, the Upsetters, cemented their reputation as the wildest rockers ever, and laid the groundwork for the coming revolution. It's no coincidence that nearly every rock drummer since Earl Palmer sounds like he does on these recordings, nor is it just chance that has found nearly five decades of rock and roll scrambling to maintain the frenzied pace set by these recordings. Whop-Bam-Boom indeed!

If you can't afford or find the box, hunt yourself up a copy of STAR PORTRAIT, a double LP set issued by Specialty in 1980. This set contains much of the essential Specialty material. Don't let the embarrassing 1970s concert photo throw you!


This bootleg LP was, back in the 1980's, the doorway a lot of us first took into the sleazier side of the fifties rock 'n' roll universe. Ostensibly a tribute to the Cramps, this comp collects some of the wilder moments of the First Golden Age, including the Phantom's ESSENTIAL "Love Me," Dwight Pullen's "Sunglasses After Dark," and Link Wray's "Fatback."

In the years since I first picked this up in the basement at Cut Corners records in Lexington, Ky, compilations of Cramps-related oldies have become a cottage industry, with SONGS THE CRAMPS TAUGHT US expanding into a legitimate (?) series of CD compilations and the BORN BAD CD series, which covers complementary territory. A recent favorite of this sub-genre is the Double-LP PURPLE KNIF compilation, which documents a late-night radio show main Cramp Lux Interior emceed for a Los Angeles Radio Station. Lux does his best Mad Daddy impersonation between greasy R&B tracks, mad garage tunes, jungle exotica and bent country ditties.

The Everly Brothers - 24 ORIGINAL CLASSICS (RCA Dbl-LP 1984)

The Everly Brothers' inestimable contribution to rock lies in their mastery of a country vocal tradition they inherited from the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers. A direct influence on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Simon and Garfunkle and PRACTICALLY EVERYONE ELSE, the Everlys wrapped their smooth voices around some of the best rock and pop songs of the decade. This comp includes all the essential hits, of course. Moreover, it does the service of including some of the brothers' later, seventies granola rock - a valuable illustration of both the fleeting nature of true genius, and the hard way the legends of the fifties had to go in the Groovy New World.

Advanced listeners are instructed to check out A DATE WITH THE EVERLY BROTHERS (Warner Bros. 1960) and SONGS OUR DADDY TAUGHT US (CADENCE 1958.)


Buddy Holly and the Crickets - A PORTRAIT IN MUSIC (Coral Dbl LP 1971)

Buddy Holly was the first rock and roller to do it all. In an age when most popular artists sang standards or songs professionally written and arranged by others, Buddy Holly was writing, arranging and even producing his own songs. Among the first rockers to realize that the studio could do more than simply document a live performance, Holly utilized novel instrumentation (such as the celesta heard on "Every Day") and upped the ante on sonic clarity and studio sophistication. It is these innovations, as much as the great hits he and the Crickets recorded from 1957 - 1959, that made Holly a figure of such strong influence over rock music to the present day.

PORTRAIT IN MUSIC contains all the hits, plus a lot of tracks which remained unfinished at the time of Holly's death. Some songs were built around Holly vocal tracks by a hot-as-shit sixties band called the Fireballs, while others could be Crickets tracks featuring soundalike Bobby Fuller. Whatever their vintage, the songs are all pure Buddy, and the best testament to his lasting genius.


Ace is a British label that has amassed an extensive catalogue of old rock 'n' roll, blues, pop and hillbilly titles. Lots of rowdy shit kickin' herein, including prime slop from Glen Glenn, Jimmy & Johnny, Jimmy Dale, and GEORGE JONES (appearing both as himself, and incognito as "Thumper Jones." For my money, the hillbilly portion of our program is the wildest , but the straight rockabilly here is killer, too.

Eddie Cochran - DON'T FORGET ME (Rockstar CD 2005)

While Eddie Cochran is a figure of massive posthumous popularity and influence in England, his short career (Cochran died young in an auto accident) and lack of comparative chart action in the US have relegated him to minor legend status in America. This is a tragedy, as no other early rock performer, even Elvis, had anything on Eddie Cochran. Cochran was a distinctive singer with flash guitar skills, songwriting ability and considerable personality and stage presence. Had he lived, Cochran would certainly have been a household name, even to the uninformed.

Jack Starr - BORN PETRIFIED (Norton LP 1988)

Truely bent stuff from Texas. Jack Starr was horror film buff who, as a young man in the late fifties, lived with his mother and made his own scary movies, complete with crazy, homemade make up and original soundtracks. These films, of which there were several, were lost to the world when all of Starr's films were seized as evidence when Jack was arrested for making porno movies at his Mom's house.

Some of these lo-fi recordings must be all that is left of Jack's soundtracks and, judging from the abandon of the music, those films must have been wild. When, at one point, Jack stops in mid-song to scream at someone off-mike (probably his mom, who walked into his room while he was recording,) you know you've entered a special place.


Wanda Jackson - ROCKIN' IN THE COUNTRY (Rhino CD 1993)

With the notable exception of her greatest single, "Funnel of Love," all of Wanda's best are here, in a balanced compilation that does justice to her later country period as well as her tenure as "The Female Elvis." Wanda Jackson was the prototypical bad girl with a guitar, who spit as much fire as any of her male contemporaries (more than some,) and perfected a sneering rock and roll persona that prefigured not only every woman to rock in her wake, but most of the men too. Better looking than Sid Vicious and twice as fierce.

Link Wray and his Raymen - RUMBLE: THE BEST OF LINK WRAY (Rhino CD 1993) and WALKIN' WITH LINK (Epic CD 1992)

With instrumentals like "Rumble," and "Jack the Ripper," Link Wray took Duane Eddy's down-tuned twang into some pretty scary territory during the late-fifties to mid-sixties. Ramming long needles through his amplifier cones to distort his sound, Wray was perhaps the first to wrestle with intentional feedback on record and to explore the moody atmospherics and droning riffs that would later find voice in heavy metal. RUMBLE... is an ace collection of his most recognized cuts, and serves as a good introduction. WALKIN'... collects various mid-1960s singles with alternate takes and un-issued instrumentals that sound far looser and more organic than almost anything recorded during the same period. Many cuts are so trashy and hard-edged, you'd swear you've stumbled upon lost tapes from the EXILE ON MAINSTREET sessions, were it not for Wray's agonized vocals (he has only one lung - that's why most of his records are instrumentals) and the thick as syrup Southern drawl with which the players address each other between takes.

Jimmie Logsdon (Jimmie Lloyd) - I GOT A ROCKET IN MY POCKET (Bear Family CD1995)


Jimmie Lloyd Logsdon was a disc jockey from Panther, Ky who cut two country hits, "The Death of Hank Williams" and "Hank Williams Sings No More," as well as "Rocket in My Pocket," one of rockabilly's hottest moments. Logsdon recorded 29 sides during the fifties, and most of them are drop-dead killers. As Jimmie Logsdon, Jimmie cut used his uncanny vocal resemblance to Hank Williams to eulogize the fallen master, with Hank's own Drifting Cowboys in tow. As Jimmie Lloyd, he recorded searing rock 'n' roll.

Jimmie lived for many years in Louisville, Ky, and it was my honor and pleasure to make his aquaintance on several occasions. Meeting him was one of the true thrills of my life as a music fan.

Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks - THE BEST OF RONNIE HAWKINS AND THE HAWKS (Rhino CD 1990)

The Hawks, who eventually became The Band, were one of the baddest little combos to rock the Americas, and were helmed by golden-voiced Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, one of the all-time unsung greats of rock and roll. Hawkins reportedly whipped his band awfully hard, which shows in the tightness of their recorded canon, which gives one the impression of a more polished Bo Diddley, fronted by a powerful singer. Awesome, rhythmic motion mixed with an advanced pop sense and an ear for complex, mature-sounding studio arrangements. Check out also The Band's box set, which includes some KILLER blue-eyed R&B from the post-Hawkins Hawks, fronted by drummer, Levon Helm.

Jerry Lee Lewis - ORIGINAL GOLDEN HITS (Sun LP 197?)

Forget Marilyn Manson, forget Slayer, and forget backwards masking. For all the evidence you need of demonic influence in rock and roll, look no further than the Sun recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis. Of course, the spirits which possessed him came straight from a bottle of corn liquor, but that does little to dispel the downtright malicious ambiance that pervades Lewis's earliest work.

A lot of artists have sung about being drunk but Jerry Lee actually was blind drunk when he recorded his best known material. And, as we all know, Jerry Lee is one mean drunk, which is captured quite ominously on record. Hearing him perform "Great Balls of Fire," talking to himself in hushed, quivering tones, trying to calm the wild thing that curled inside his frontal lobe is scary, exciting stuff, especially - as many who has gotten too close to Jerry Lee can attest to - that mean ol thing up there never cottoned to any of that "calm down" shit.

The devil, come to do the devil's work.

Chuck Berry - CHUCK BERRY'S GOLDEN DECADE VOL. 1-2 (2 Dbl. LP Sets, Chess 1972)


Four discs in all, these sets are the exhaustive compilations that revived Berry's career during the 70's and led a new generation to a more complete understanding of his importance. Just as Elvis thumped Jim Crow over the head as a white boy who sounded black, Chuck Berry knocked over the race barrier as a black man who played smooth, country guitar and sang, to the race-conscious listeners of the fifties, like a white man.

There is a wonderful photograph from the mid-fifties of Chuck Berry visiting an elementary school to sign autographs and pose with a room full of smiling, white children, each of whom proudly grasps a Chuck Berry record under the approving, cheerful eye of their white teacher. You can almost hear the rasp of segregation's dying breath.

Much like AC/DC twenty years later, Chuck Berry would become a much loved figure by recycling the same song over and over and over again, but "Hail, Hail Rock and Roll" (or was that "No Particular Place to Go?") is far from the whole story. THE GOLDEN DECADE does a wonderful job of documenting Berry's essential rock and roll, but it also compiles a wealth of adventurous instrumental tracks, sublime blues runs, nimble forays into jazz territory, Latin rhythms, and a whole lot more. The cornerstone of your Chuck Berry collection, along with NEW JUKE BOX HITS (Chess 1960,) which finds Berry tackling, in spots, a harder blues sound than was usual, and may be his definitive album statement.

Big Joe Turner - GREATEST HITS (Sequel CD 1994)

Big band bop from the originator of "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Big Joe was the master architect who stood on the threshold between r&b and rock, and was a big inspiration on very early white rockers, particularly Bill Haley.


Fats Domino - FATS DOMINO (Liberty LP 1971)

Fats Domino was a powerful, distinctive singer who lent his heavy hands to the massive, rolling piano style that would typify the rock and roll sound of the fifties. It is not hyperbole to say that Domino could make a corpse dance. His recordings were so definitive, even at the time, that they ruined the piano as a lead instrument for, pretty much, everybody but Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also be on the lookout for FATS DOMINO SWINGS (Imperial 195?.)


This series compiles, hands-down, the rawest rockabilly on record. Unleased, sometimes homemade acetates of 1950's pro-hardcore bands wailing, banging on pots and pans and generally knocking it DEAD. Some of the best DIY music ever recorded. At least three volumes and counting.

RICKY NELSON (United Artists Dbl-LP 1971)

Ricky Nelson didn't have to be the real thing. He could have been just another TV heartthrob playing at being a rock and roll star. Lucky for us. however, Ricky was a talented and serious musician who gathered about himself a crackerjack band (including the Rock and Roll Trio's Dorsey Burnette) and recorded some of the most introspective pop music of the classic era.


A budget compilation of top forty singles (Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," The Chantels' "Maybe," etc.) released to cash in on the popularity of ABC's "Happy Days." Infamous among collectors for its absurd and hilarious "Impressionist Track," on which a Henry Winkler impersonator repeats the phrases "Ayyyyyyeee!" and "Sit On It!" ad infinitum over generic fifties sax rock.




Roy Orbison - FOR THE LONELY: A ROY ORBISON ANTHOLOGY (1956-1965) (Rhino Dbl - LP 1988)

Screamin' Jay Hawkins - FRENZY (Edsel LP)


The Collins Kids - HOP. SKIP AND JUMP (Bear Family Box Set 1996)

The Fleetwoods - THE BEST OF THE FLEETWOODS (United Artists LP 1975)

Hasil Adkins - OUT TO HUNCH (Norton LP)




Charlie Feathers

The Phantom


Glen Glenn

Dwight Pullen

Bunker Hill

Wade Curtiss and the Rhythm Rockers

Nervous Norvus

The Kalin Twins

Jimmy and Johnny (Jimmy Lee)

Tyrone Schmidling



Although Rock and Roll music came into its own in the mid-1950's, the beat that gave rise to rock was that of 1940's - early 50's Rhythm and Blues. In the years between the decline of the big dance bands and the rise of Elvis Presley, R&B shouters such as Wynonie Harris, Stick McGee, and "Good Rockin'" Roy Brown developed a jumpin' brand of small combo dance music with driving rhythm and a big, fat beat.

"Rock and Roll / Rhythm and Blues from 1948 to 1953 was the greatest music of all time, though few people know much about it today. The swing era was dead and the jump blues of WWII was in the decline when, in 1948, the new beat was born. It was a rocking beat, a hard-driving rhythm like nothing before it. The year 1948 saw the birth of real rock and roll music." (, see link below)

Click here to visit, a terrific site dedicated to early R&B and "Rock Before Elvis." Artist biographies, discography information and lots of sound samples.


Norton Records - The Wildest Available Guide to Insanely Obscure Rockabilly, R&B and other Trashy Slop

Crypt Records

Ace Records

Bear Family Records


Let's Rip It Up!!!

Little Richard tearing the seventies a new one (Video)

Brenda Lee Sings "Hound Dog" (Video)

The Collins Kids - "I Got Stung" Live on Ranch Party (Video)