FIFTIES’ R&B: Part II, 1955–1959 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll, Volume 4)

R&BPOSTER Again, a few precious drops from a mighty flood. One thing that is different from Part I is that I’ve linked to many more live versions. This is partly because much of this music is more likely to be familiar in its recorded form–and partly because television was becoming a force by 1955 and there are many more TV performances available, many of them revelatory (even if they are sometimes from a slightly later vintage than the original recording). Enjoy:


“Tweedlee Dee”–Lavern Baker: Another old fashioned Earth Mother, shouting in the style that had been familiar for such going back to at least the twenties, but the novelty lyric and slightly sped-up tempo (which she handles beautifully) sent it reasonably high (#14) on the pop charts. The wave was beginning to break for shore.

“Sincerely”–The Moonglows (Bobby Lester, lead vocal, Harvey Fuqua, Pete Graves, Prentiss Barnes, harmony vocals): A huge record in the careers of Alan Freed (who took a half-composer credit and showcased the group at one of his early, cross-racial New York Rock n’ Roll extravaganzas) the Chess Brothers (who began looking beyond straight blues when the record broke wide open in both original and white “cover” versions and, in the wide world waiting, found, among other things, one Chuck Berry). Eventually, the Moonglows made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On the basis of this one miraculous record, they earned it.

“The Wall Flower” (a.k.a. “Roll With Me Henry”)–Etta James and the Peaches (Etta James and Richard Berry, shared lead vocals): I don’t hear much of the Peaches. Basically, this consists of barely legal Etta (or is seventeen not quite?…see below) sparring with Richard Berry, who had a habit of showing up everywhere in those days and does a nice job of not sounding too worldly.

“Earth Angel”–The Penguins (Cleve Duncan, lead vocal, Curtis Williams, Dexter Tisby, Bruce Tate, harmony vocals): A new kind of swoon–with Duncan’s tenor so ethereal he sounds like a man who was haunting himself long before he consoled the future.

“I Got A Woman”–Ray Charles: Roughly seven years into his recording career, the genius shows up. Like all good things, it was worth the wait. (Included a scorching live version here from a slightly later period, so if you only click on one link, I’d advise this one.)

“Bo Diddley”–Bo Diddley: It wasn’t so much the beat that was new, as Bo’s relationship to it. Nobody had been quite so shamelessly “country” in the city before. And his flat, slightly ominous tone was not entirely comic. As Ellas McDaniel, he might have been a bumpkin–here today, gone tomorrow, one fluke hit. As Bo Diddley, he was a mastermind, able to parlay the lyrical and vocal basics fully defined here, into a legend. That’s what alter-egos are for. (Okay, I lied before. If you only click on one…let it be this one.)

“Ain’t It A Shame” (a.k.a. “Ain’t That a Shame)–Fats Domino: Modulate, modulate, modulate. Truth be told, Fats had been content to repeat himself quite a bit throughout the first half of the decade. This was the first time he really broke past the formula he had set out in “The Fat Man” five years earlier. Even then, he made this leap to the open field sound so natural–like breathing–that he’s been underestimated ever since, like the guy everybody can outrun, unless he’s somehow slipped by and they’re trying to catch him.

“Maybellene”–Chuck Berry: Without a vocal style to match, Berry’s genius as a guitar player and songwriter might have very easily been marginalized. Faster and funnier than anyone had ever been, but without a trace of novelty or affect. The essence of what the punks and rappers would later chase–and never catch. (Oh, by the way, if you only watch one of these….Aw, I give up. Just watch ’em all.)

“At My Front Door”–The El Dorados (Pirkle Lee Moses, Jr., lead vocal, Louis Bradley, Arthur Bassett, Jewel Jones, James Maddox, Richard Nickens, harmony vocals): Sheer dynamics. And controlled improv as the Beats and Boppers could only imagine.

“Tutti Frutti”–Little Richard: This hit like an atom bomb–only if an atom bomb were a good thing. From this distance it’s possible to judge that the secret was all in the interpolations–gospel screams delivered like tats from a semi-automatic instead of drawn out siren wails or moans meant to summon the world beyond. In the moment I doubt anyone, black or white, really cared–too busy trying to put the pieces back together.

“Only You”–The Platters (Tony Williams, lead vocal, David Lynch, Paul Robi, Zola Taylor, Herb Reed, harmony vocals): If ballad singing were properly understood as one of the central components of the rock ’n’ roll revolution, then Tony Williams would occupy a place as honored as Chuck Berry’s among guitar players. Maybe more. After all, there were guitar players who got past Chuck Berry. Nobody–not even Jackie Wilson or Roy Orbison–ever really got past Tony Williams.

“All Around the World”–Little Willie John: As singular a voice as this most explosive and expansive era produced. His emotional command was as pure as Tony Bennett’s. But, here, questions of pitch and tone were left to hang if they didn’t serve the larger purpose, which was the reformation of “taste.”

“Mannish Boy”–Muddy Waters: A vocal–half roaring assertion, half pleading purr–that stands to urban blues as Mount Everest stands to mountain peaks.


“Speedoo”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Philips, Lavern Drake, Earl Wade, Charles Brooks, harmony vocals): Verbally, and–more to the point–vocally, a kind of answer record to the Dominos’ “Sixty Minute Man.” Tortoise…meet hare.

“Blue Suede Shoes”–Carl Perkins: The first record of the revolution–and the first since Louis Jordan had turned the trick a few times in the mid-forites–to storm all three major charts (Pop, Country, R&B) all at once, beating “Heartbreak Hotel” by a few weeks. More laid back than memory has generally allowed for, but it’s not Bing Crosby laid back. More like a guy who always knows where the back door is even if he’s rocking the house down. A different kind of reserve, then, and a different kind of excitement.

“Why Do Fools Fall In Love”–The Teenagers (Frankie Lymon, lead vocal, Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Joe Negroni, Sherman Garnes, harmony vocals): Lymon’s flat, near-toneless delivery and slightly ragged phrasing were not new. Bo Diddley and plenty of second line blues singers had already mined the depths of affectless-ness. Nor was his flight to the upper register (sudden and spectacular as it was) all that novel. Clyde McPhatter had dozens of imitators by this point. What was different then? Well, none of the others were thirteen. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to the vocal history of the bubble gum aesthetic. For now, I’ll just say the implications for the teen-pop future were enormous.

“Smokestack Lightnin’”–Howlin’ Wolf: Hoo-doo’s last stand. About ten thousand white boy bands laid down some credible (or incredible) version of the record’s stringent lyrical imagery and propulsive instrumental dynamics. I don’t think any of them were ever foolish enough to attempt living up to the vocal, which would find its real heir in Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing.

“Drown In My Own Tears”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocals, Margie Hendrix, Dorothy Jones, Darlene McCrea, harmony vocals): The first truly epic side of Charles’ career. He always lagged a beat behind the times, waiting, assessing. But when he struck, as here, he always moved in for the kill.

“Long Tall Sally”–Little Richard: For anyone who thought “Tutti Frutti” couldn’t possibly be turned into a formula…or who thought it would lose something if it did.

“Please, Please, Please”–James Brown with the Famous Flames (James Brown, lead vocal, Bobby Byrd, Johnny Terry, Sylvester Keels, Nash Knox, harmony vocals): Should we pause to recall that James Brown was as inventive and transformative a ballad singer as he was a beat master? And that the ballads came first? Yes. Yes, we should.

“Treasure of Love”–Clyde McPhatter: On his early group sides (with the Dominoes and Drifters), McPhatter often turned out full-blown comic operas in two and half minutes. Here, it’s just opera, albeit with Romance’s version of the Sermon on the Mount substituted for the melodrama.

“Fever”–Little Willie John: This song begs for at least a touch of the pure Show Biz Peggy Lee would later supply (and wonderfully, by the way). Little Willie John was a Doomed Soul. So he just did what doomed souls do–cut to the heart of it and left the knife in.

“Roll Over Beethoven”–Chuck Berry: Rock and roll’s great statement of purpose, carried by a vocal that’s a miracle of rhythm singing. Berry managed the dynamics of a fast doo wop (or a locomotive) without a backing group or resorting to any of the usual gymnastics. Somehow, in the middle of the mayhem, he stays cool. Did I say miracle?…Follow the link to the definition of “priceless.”

“Let the Good Times Roll”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Lee Leonard, shared lead vocals): The first time a man and a woman sounded so at home singing about you-know-what…to each other….on the same record. Don’t worry. You won’t need your second hand to count all the times it’s happened since.

“Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”–Elvis Presley (Elvis Presley, lead vocal, harmony vocals, Gordon Stoker, Hoyt Hawkins, Neal Matthews, Hugh Jarrett): A stunning pairing–and landmark all around, even in R&B’s signature year. “Hound Dog”’s barber shop crooning (courtesy of the Jordanaires) and “Don’t Be Cruel”’s sly dodges turned so many expectations on their respective heads that the world has been reeling from the effects ever since. The possibilities from this moment forward were endless. Just because we chose so many of the wrong ones, doesn’t make the accomplishment–achieved at a single, marathon New York session the morning after Elvis was thoroughly humiliated on The Steve Allen Show–any less breathtaking.

“In the Still of the Nite”–The Five Satins (Fred Parris, lead vocal; Ed Martin, Jim Freeman, Al Denby, harmony vocals): In whence history’s definitive doo-wop–shoo-doo-dooby-doo!–lays Cole Porter ever so gently in the shade.

“(Everytime I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone”–Roy Montrell: A definitive example of what rock and roll had done to jump blues. Faster than anything Roy Brown or Wynonie Harris would have attempted. Not to mention even rougher around the edges. No more holding back!

“Blueberry Hill”–Fats Domino: Does it make sense that the architect of rock ‘n’ roll would deliver the consummate swoon ballad? That he would make Louis Armstrong’s version sound slightly pretentious? Does to me.


“Blue Monday”–Fats Domino: The Fat Man’s version of mourning. Workers unite!

“Love Is Strange”–Mickey and Sylvia (Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool, shared lead and harmony vocals): Rock and roll dada, Part I. (As Sylvia Robinson, Vanderpool would, not so incidentally, found Sugarhill Records, the first important rap label–history never comes from nowhere. How do you call your lover boy?)

“Ain’t Got No Home”–Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry: Part II (and, at last, the logical spiritual sequel to Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man”–nearly seven years later in case you’re wondering just how far ahead of his time Fats really was.) By FAR the most surreal lyric ever recorded–and it’s only half as weird as the vocal.

“Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On”–Jerry Lee Lewis: Another triple chart smash (it actually went higher R&B than Pop), on which Jerry Lee growls and chides and speaks in tongues (even more so here than on the record) and marries Memphis to the swamps without even sounding like he’s holding a shotgun….well, at least not for the usual reasons.

“Little Darlin’”–The Gladiolas (Maurice Willams, lead vocal, Earl Gainey, William Massey, Willie Jones and Norman Wade, harmony vocals) and “Little Darlin’”–The Diamonds (David Somerville, lead vocal, Bill Reed, second lead bass vocal, Ted Kowalski, Phil Leavitt and Bill Reed, harmony vocals): Black original eclipsed–both commercially and cosmically–by a white cover which was recorded with the naked intention of achieving the former possibility by specifically mocking the intrinsic worth of the latter. Things had gotten complicated, to say the least. The Diamonds’ version was the last true “cover” record (i.e. a record by a white artist that was recorded and released to complete with, and eclipse, a black artist) to top Billboard’s Hot 100. (The practice was revived briefly in the British Invasion, with some big hits resulting but none which topped the chart). It also went #2 R&B….nine spots higher on the black chart than the Gladiolas’ version. Maurice Williams would flip the script a few years later when “Stay” went #1 on the Hot 100 in 1960 (but only #3 R&B).

“Searchin’”–The Coasters (Billy Guy, lead vocal, Carl Gardner, Cornell Gunter, Will ‘Dub’ Jones, harmony vocals): The Coasters were able to be the era’s great comedians because they were one of the era’s great straight R&B vocal groups, able to turn from rubber-face Lewis to straight-laced Martin and back again on a dime. I wouldn’t even try to sort out how many twists and turns this particular journey takes from mask to mask. I just sing along.

“Short Fat Fannie”–Larry Williams: Proof that Little Richard’s and Fats Domino’s fundamental notions (if not their spectacular leaps to freedom) could be credibly pastiched by a consummate journeyman catching his breath between a valet gig and a dope-dealing gig. As I say, things had gotten strange.

“Louie Louie”–Richard Berry and the Pharaohs (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Godoy Colbert, Robert Harris, Noel Collins, harmony vocals): What’s remarkable at this distance is that the consummate frat rock anthem–courtesy of the man who, as a session singer, had provided the menace on “Riot in Cell Block #9”and the voice of sly experience on “The Wallflower”–was originally delivered with a distinct (if admittedly urgent) delicacy. A nice reminder of Berry’s day job, which was providing the beating heart for L.A.’s irrepressible doo wop scene.

“Mr. Lee”–The Bobbettes (Jannie Pought, Emma Pought, Reather Dixon, Laura Webb, Helen Gathers, lead and harmony vocals**): Young and bright–but punctuated by hiccups and growls that consistently undercut the chirpiness. A nice bridge between the lighter side of the blues and the girl group ethos waiting just around the corner upon which they would have no small effect.

“Think”–The ‘5′ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, Eugene Tanner, Lowman Pauling, Jimmy Moore, Obadiah Carter, harmony vocals)–Something like the invention of funk, with Lowman Pauling’s razor sharp lead guitar and Johnny Tanner’s pleading half-shout splitting the patent. As of this writing, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s largest–and longest running–oversight.

“I’m a King Bee”–Slim Harpo: Definitively laconic and not a hit, but a sure signifier. Mick Jagger was certainly listening and of his efforts along the same lines one can certainly say that, well, bless his heart he certainly meant well.

“Jailbait”–Andre Williams (Mr. Rhythm): The answer to the question implicitly posed in “Wallflower” above. (Signature line: “Please Mr. Judge I ain’t gonna bother young girls no more.”….I mean, I almost believe him.)

“Farther On Up the Road”–Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland: Bland had been making records for at least five years. This was his first hit and his ability to haunt the most urbane setting with the shadow of the cotton fields–and the history that lay in back of those fields–would remain unmatched.

“Reet Petite”–Jackie Wilson: Did not make the R&B chart…but did crease the pop chart and make the top ten in the UK. More confusion, then, but included here because it jump-started not only Jackie’s solo career (about which more below), but also the dreams and ambitions of its composer, one Berry Gordy, Jr., who used the royalties to fund a little start-up business that would eventually be called Motown. (Love this video by the way.)


“Maybe”–The Chantels (Arlene Smith, lead vocal, Sonia Goring, Rene Minus, Jackie Landry Jackson, Lois Harris, harmony vocals): The ground from which the important part (the part about respect and equality) of what came to be called “the sexual revolution” first rose. Later perceived by many as the first “girls want to, too” record. Maybe. I hear it as the first “girls also yearn” record.

“I’ll Come Running Back to You”–Sam Cooke: As to personal style: The heir to Nat Cole’s mantle as the epitome of cool-running. As to vocal style: Unprecedented. No one–not even Clyde McPhatter–had ever been quite so light on his feet without conceding a single ounce of the full weight of Black America’s experience, and that dichotomy is evident, if not yet full-blown, even here at Cooke’s “Pop” beginning.

“Good Golly Miss Molly”–Little Richard: The mayhem had to be defined somewhere. Might as well be here.

“Get a Job”–The Silhouettes (Bill Horton, lead vocal, Rick Lewis, Earl Beal, Raymond Edwards, harmony vocals: The purest chaos brought to bear on the pursuit of order’s first rule: GET A JOB!…Which they never could find. The trapdoors forever resting under Black America were never better defined.

“Don’t You Just Know It”–Huey ‘Piano’ Smith: (Huey Smith, lead vocal, Bobby Marchan, Junior Gordon, Roland Cook, likely second lead and harmony vocals***): Proof, if anybody needed it, that Black America could sublimate personality as well as White America. Really good beat, though, and you probably couldn’t help dancing to it.

“Splish Splash”–Bobby Darin: Atlantic signed Darin as their token white boy when they lost the bidding war on Elvis. Laugh if you want, but he, too, went #1 R&B. Oh, what a world….

“To Be Loved” and “Lonely Teardrops”–Jackie Wilson: The first two big hits for Mr. Excitement. The way he earned the nickname was by applying shock treatment to the heart. In the end, we didn’t know quite what to do with him–Stand in awe? (Sure, but don’t stand too close.) Bathe his voice in strings, horns n’ choruses imported straight from Squaresville? (Yes, alas). Sign him to Motown? (No, alas) We kept asking the questions and coming up with the wrong answers. These things happen, and Jackie Wilson became a big star anyway. Still…Oh, what a world we might have had.

“Do You Wanna Dance?”–Bobby Freeman: The fundamental rock ’n’ roll question of course, but Freeman’s vocal is beautiful because it’s a question. Yeah, he knows the answer, but he doesn’t take it for granted.

“Johnny B. Goode”–Chuck Berry: Machine gun verbal aesthetics carried to ridiculously sublime extremes. DeepdowninLou’sianaclosetoNewOrleans…seriously?

“Willie and the Hand Jive”–The Johnny Otis Show (Johnny Otis, lead vocal): Otis was a white man who had immersed himself so deeply in black music (for either purely aesthetic or highly commercial reasons, depending on who told the story) that he was almost bound to step out in front of his “Show” (generally made up of fairly anonymous African American singers and players working on salary) with at least one classic hit vocal. This silly transcendent thing was it.

“For Your Precious Love”–Jerry Butler & the Impressions (Jerry Butler, lead vocal, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Richard Brooks, Arthur Brooks, harmony vocals): Deeper than the ocean, wider than the sea and the starting point of three important careers (Butler, Mayfield, and the Impressions themselves), all of whom challenged and met this standard repeatedly, none of whom ever actually topped it. Only because, well, nothing could.

“Rockin’ Robin”–Bobby Day: Proof that it didn’t take a genius like Chuck Berry to deliver songs that would have been relegated to novelty (or even camp) status only a few years before with a passion and fierce joy fully worthy of life’s other, better side.

“A Lover’s Question”–Clyde McPhatter: Features Clyde completely relaxed and floating so far above the fray that one can’t help thinking he had learned a thing or two from Sam Cooke’s recent success. Who knows, really, but in any case it showed how definitively his voice would have been ready for the sixties if only his body and soul had managed to hold out.


“Pretty Girls Everywhere”–Eugene Church and the Fellows (Lead Vocal, Eugene Church): Proof the revolution had got pretty far along. This fine number, which would have been on the cutting edge three or four years earlier, was, by now, a standard item. (Couldn’t find any information on the Fellows.)

“I Cried a Tear”–LaVern Baker: Redolent of older sounds, but hip to the times as well–it’s easy to imagine this beautiful, slow torch, climbing the country charts if the world had been just a slightly better place as the decade came to a close. It didn’t of course. Baker’s last really big pop hit. The reaction was setting in, just a little.

“Stagger Lee”–Lloyd Price: A basic New Orleans stomp, elevated to newly mythic status by Price’s ability to sound mock-horrified, mock-confused and mock-knowing all at once.

“It’s Just a Matter of Time”–Brook Benton: A throwback who would hold on through the entire sixties. One of the very few records that truly looked forward and back with equal assurance. The arrangement and lyric certainly have something to do with it, but Benton’s resonant, time-challenging baritone was the key ingredient.

“Kansas City”–Wilbert Harrison: Vocalists as formidable as Brenda Lee and Paul McCartney later fell prey to the seductive temptation to over-emote on this just a tad. Harrison keeps it perfectly measured. He sounds happy but also relaxed about it–like he knows the good times aren’t necessarily either here to stay or gone for good. And he’s certainly prepared to take the moment at it comes regardless.

“Sixteen Candles”–The Crests (Johnny Mastro*, lead vocal, Harold Torres, Talmadge Gough, J.T. Carter, harmony vocals): One of the few records from the era that really is teen-to-the-bone…and a pretty good candidate for the first “blue-eyed soul” record at that.

“There Is Something On Your Mind”–Big Jay McNeely and Band (Little Sonny Warner, lead vocal): An especially lovely example of the old styles not merely hanging on but changing subtly to keep up with the times.

“You’re So Fine”–The Falcons (Joe Stubbs, lead singer, Eddie Floyd, Willie Schofield, Joe Stubbs, Mack Rice, harmony vocals): If ever-so-slightly bigger names had been involved (Joe was Levi’s brother and the forerunner of Wilson Pickett in the Falcons, Floyd would have hits on Stax, Rice would be a cult item of his own, etc), this would probably get even more play than it does as the possible first soul record (a chimera nearly as elusive as the first rock ’n’ roll record). Would have been all kinds of typical/typal too–proto- stereo- arche-, you name it: Stax recorded in Detroit. In the fifties. Can’t get any more far-seeing than that.

“Sea Cruise”–Frankie Ford: Huey “Piano” Smith, one of New Orleans signature R&B piano players and band leaders had a falling out of some sort with his label. Or they just didn’t like his vocal. Or something. So they plugged a local white boy into the lead vocal spot, kept the rest of the track and released the result to big success all around. Funny thing was, Ford lived up to the deepest, fiercest tradition in fifties R&B without breaking a sweat. Of course he did….Oh, what a world….

“What a Difference a Day Makes”–Dinah Washington: Sounding wonderfully assured…and as though nothing had happened in a decade to change a thing.

“There Goes My Baby”–The Drifters (Ben E. King, lead vocal, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs, harmony vocals): Often called the first R&B record (or at least the first big hit) to feature strings…or something along those lines. I’m guessing the writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller simply heard Ben E. King’s voice–part velvet, part sandpaper, impossibly romantic, leading a new set of Drifters–and realized they had an awful lot to live up to.

“What’d I Say, Parts 1 and 2″–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal, Margie Hendrix, Dorothy Jones, Darlene McCrea, harmony vocals): As I’ve noted elsewhere, he was almost comically cautious. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when he showed up, he showed up big. This was so big, so irresistible, so RIGHT, that Ray very soon after signed a big contract with ABC (a subdivision of Paramount) and set about doing what I suspect he had always wanted to do–namely, defining the modern ballad. He rarely recorded up-tempo afterwards and never got this loose again on record. Probably because he had nothing left to prove.

“Sea of Love”–Phil Phillips with the Twilights (Phil Phillips, lead vocal): The lugubrious side of the Louisiana swamps, given fullest possible reign. Amazing how many “one hit wonders” featured singers who sounded like they had all the time in the world.

“Shout, Parts 1 and 2″–The Isley Brothers (Ronnie Isley, lead vocal, O’Kelly Isley, Jr., Rudolph Isley, harmony vocals): Sunday morning fully transported for the first time to Saturday night.

“I Only Have Eyes for You”–The Flamingos (Nate Nelson, lead vocal, Tommy Hunt, Terry Johnson, Paul Wilson, Zeke Carey, Jake Carey, harmony vocals): By now, what was later called (in a brilliant bit of reactionary propaganda) The Great American Songbook, was just another development that had paved the road to something better.

“Say Man”–Bo Diddley: Bo’s only Top 40 pop hit (it got to #20) is the one on which he mainstreamed the rap aesthetic….But that’s another story.

*–Later, as a solo act and leader of the group Brooklyn Bridge, Johnny Maestro.

**–I found no source that identified the lead for the Bobbettes–which, given the deceptive complexity of their harmonics, might be fair enough.

***–I found the exact personnel of the Clowns, Smith’s backing vocal group, just about impossible to pinpoint to any given session. This is my best guess–please let me know if you have better intel!

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