The 1950s marked the birth of rock’n’roll. From big band tracks to jazz standards, until midway through the 20th century, music was a resolutely parent-friendly zone. But then everything changed. Elvis had flustered teenagers all shook up, while the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like were destroying the old safety nets with a virile, passionate new sound. Here are the top 100 tracks from the decade that that sparked a musical revolution. Words by Matthew Horton, Tim Chester, Priya Elan. 100 best tracks of the ’50s – Spotify playlist
100 Dion & The Belmonts, ‘A Teenager In Love’
Written by blues rock stalwarts Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, ‘A Teenager In Love’ found itself in the UK charts three times over in June 1959. The biggest hit belonged to Kim’s dad Marty Wilde but Dion DiMucci launched a career off the back of this doo-wop beauty, hitting paydirt with ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’ and still mooching around today.
99 Sonny Boy Williamson, ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’
A perennial blues fave, ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin” was a self-penned hit for Williamson and housed a who’s who of blues heavyweights in its credits, including Willie Dixon on bass and Muddy Waters on guitar. Since its 1955 release its rickety power has been harnessed by ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore, blues supergroup The Yardbirds and that man Dion again.
98 Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, ‘Ain’t Got No Home’
Clarence earned his nickname from an uncanny ability to sing like a frog – as he boasts on ‘Ain’t Got No Home’, “I can sing like a bird/ And I can sing like a frog”. He undermines his destitution with zany voices and jaunty rolling blues, and the song found a place in cinema posterity, popping up in 80s Brat Pack movies Diner and The Lost Boys.
97 Elizabeth Cotten, ‘Freight Train’
Elizabeth Cotten got her belated break in 1957 at the grand old age of 62 when her shimmering guitar playing talents were finally spotted by the Seeger family. She’d actually written the mesmeric ‘Freight Train’ when she was 12 – after 50 years in mothballs, it was soon covered by artists including country star Chet Atkins and folkie Joan Baez.
96 Little Willie John, ‘Fever’
Covered by countless artists – Peggy Lee, Madonna, Beyoncé, funk don George Clinton, The Doors, you name ’em – Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley’s ‘Fever’ was originally recorded, reluctantly, by R&B warbler Little Willie John. Lee’s version might be the one everyone remembers but Little Willie John’s swinging soul take was a specialist US hit and million-seller in its own right.
95 The Champs, ‘Tequila’
The man behind The Champs’ one and only hit (a massive one, mind you – No.1 in the US, No.5 in the UK) was Danny Flores, who played the wild sax solo and blurted out “tequila!”, as you do. But Flores was under contract elsewhere and the writing credit had to go to one ‘Chuck Rio’. Still, his salsa-tinged instrumental lives on, a cheeky soundtrack to shenanigans the world over.
94 Johnnie Ray, ‘Cry’
Weepy Johnnie Ray found his signature tune here, swamping Churchill Kohlman’s song with his sobbing tones and topping the Billboard chart too. It later became a standard, providing teen idol David Cassidy with a bit of emotional heft and giving Crystal Gayle a country chart No.1. For Ray, ‘Cry’ was the start of a long, successful career in music and film.
93 Nina Simone, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’
Nina Simone’s hepcat jazz cut was a cover of a number from the 1930 musical Whoopee! that appeared on her debut album but only made megahit status when it was used for a 1987 Chanel No.5 advert. The walking bass and skipping keys found favour with the late 80s jazz vampires who sent it top 5 in the UK.
92 Fats Domino, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’
New Orleans pianist Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino was a profound influence on later pop idols Elvis Presley and John Lennon, bringing swing to rock’n’roll’s baby steps. Although it was wholesome crooner Pat Boone who took ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ to the top in the States, the song was Domino’s entry to the mainstream, paving the way for ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Blueberry Hill’.
91 Johnny Burnette & The Rock’n’Roll Trio, ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’
Memphis-born Johnny Burnette and his trio patented that dirty rock’n’roll sound pretty much by accident when guitarist Paul Burlison knocked over his Fender Deluxe amp. The grubby fuzz that attached itself to the tinny twang of Burlison’s guitar lent ‘Train Kept A-Rollin” a roughneck danger that still sounds seedy and threatening five decades on.
90 The Big Bopper, ‘Chantilly Lace’
Chunky Jiles Perry Richardson went down in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, but not before releasing this twisting paean to a cute girlfriend. Its skittering groove would underpin many of rock’n’roll’s dancefloor cuts, most dubiously Jive Bunny’s 1988 megamixes where the Big Bopper’s “Ooh, baby, that’s what I like!” provided regular punctuation. But that’s not his fault.
89 Dinah Washington, ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes’
Already decades old before this version was recorded, ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes’ never tingled so much as when Washington gave it some of that Grammy-winning magic. It would become a standard for any jazz/soul singer hoping to prove their chops, picked up by Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan and – naturally – Rod Stewart.
88 B.B.King, ‘Rock Me Baby’
Plundering the early blues catalogue – notably Lil’ Son Jackson’s ‘Rockin’ And Rollin” – for inspiration, King created his own standard, his chiming guitar a hypnotic groove. ‘Rock Me Baby’ is an essential part of any blues grounding, cropping up in the oeuvre of Jeff Beck and The Animals and on Otis Redding’s 1965 classic ‘Otis Blue’.
87 Jimmy Reed, ’Honest I Do’
Jimmy Reed’s first US chart hit, ‘Honest I Do’ is a slow blues drawl featuring guitar and harmonica duelling from the man himself. Reed’s pure voice and persuasive playing had a deep impact on the approaching rock’n’roll boom, particularly The Rolling Stones who covered ‘Honest I Do’ on their 1964 debut album.
86 The Dells, ‘Oh, What A Night’
In one form or another The Dells have stuck around for the past 60 years, but it was ‘Oh, What A Night’ that gave them their first hit. Marvin Junior’s baritone plays off Johnny Carter’s falsetto to form an easy, woozy slice of doo-wop that The Dells would revisit later, a 1969 soul re-tooling proving most successful.
85 Ray Charles, ‘ I Got A Woman’
Now most famous for the combination of Ray Charles sample and Jamie Foxx impression that cooked up the gold dust for Kanye West’s stupendous ‘Gold Digger’ in 2005, ‘I Got A Woman’ itself takes inspiration from gospel song ‘It Must Be Jesus’, in the process marking out the territory for what would become soul music.
84 The Dave Brubeck Quartet, ‘Take Five’
Written by Quartet member Paul Desmond, ‘Take Five’ features Brubeck on nudging, insistent piano and Desmond on the meandering sax, and was a pioneering jazz/pop crossover. It took a couple of years to break into the UK charts, but is now woven into the very fabric of pop’s zoot suit and remains the signature tune for the still-going Quartet.
83 Cliff Richard & The Drifters, ‘Move It!’
Hard to believe sometimes that Cliff was once a genuine, lip-curling rock’n’roller, but ‘Move It!’ is a convincing start. Don’t be fooled, those Drifters soon became The Shadows, and they work up the dirty thrum behind Cliff’s still-polite but suitably snotty vocal. Yes, the UK had its very own Elvis, for a time at least, and sent his debut single straight to No.2.
82 The Chords, ‘Sh-Boom’
An early doo-wop success, The Chords’ stray cat strut through ‘Sh-Boom’ would end up being their only hit, albeit a sturdy one, reaching the Billboard top 10. Various versions have surfaced in the movies and on TV, sh-booming through Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby and Patrick Swayze’s Roadhouse as well as appearing in Dennis Potter’s 50s pastiche Lipstick On Your Collar for the BBC.
81 Johnny Ace, ‘Pledging My Love’
‘Pledging My Love’ was a posthumous hit for Ace who weeks earlier had suffered the ultimate rock’n’roll demise, shooting himself in a blitzed round of Russian Roulette. He left behind this delicate ballad – reputedly the first record Paul Simon ever bought – that lives on in 50s-fuelled movies like Stephen King’s Christine and, of course, Back To The Future.
80 Jackie Wilson, ‘Reet Petite’
It took a claymation video to finally shoot ‘Reet Petite’ to the top of the UK charts at the end of 1986, at that point setting a record for longest gap between release and hitting No.1. On its initial release ‘Reet Petite’ was a throaty solo debut for Wilson, who had just left his band The Dominoes, and a lyrical inspiration for Van Morrison’s 1972 R&B classic ‘Jackie Wilson Said’.
79 Danny & The Juniors, ‘At The Hop’
Initially sung as ‘At The Bop’ to tie in with the latest dance moves, new name ‘At The Hop’ was suggested by American Bandstand presenter Dick Clark, immediately conjuring a readymade soundtrack for high school dances the nation over. Danny Rapp sustains his lead vocal over a breakneck couple of minutes, but it’s baritone Joe Terranova who steals the show.
78 Muddy Waters, ‘Got My Mojo Working’
McKinley ‘Muddy Waters’ Morganfield wasn’t the first artist to record ‘Got My Mojo Working’ – that accolade goes to gospel singer Ann Cole – but as a blues pioneer his thundering version has set the standard and been covered by Elvis, Etta James, Canvey Island rockers Doctor Feelgood, fellow blues legend B.B. King and – well – how much time have you got?
77 Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, ‘Rocket 88’
Its position in history has become murky, but ‘Rocket 88’ has a fair claim to be the first rock’n’roll record – and it was credited to a group that barely existed. Written and arranged by one Ike Turner, who turns in the rolling piano too, it was released on Chicago blues label Chess with singer Jackie Brenston taking all the glory and publishing cash. Turner eventually disputed and won.
76 Julie London, ‘Cry Me A River’
‘Cry Me A River’ made its big screen debut in Jayne Mansfield’s The Girl Can’t Help It, with London performing it as the sultry, unattainable siren. It’s remarkable for its minimalist presentation, with London accompanied only by Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on double bass. London’s cool, seductive vocal carries it.
75 Johnny Otis, ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’
Dad of cult funk artist Shuggie, Johnny Otis was a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist who spent as much time discovering and nurturing new talent – Etta James for one – as making his own records. ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’ is that old staple, a tie-in with a dance craze, but was fresh and vital enough to crack the US top 10.
74 Paul Anka, ‘Diana’
Recorded when the remarkable Anka – who also managed to co-write it – was only 15, this perky slice of doo-wop turned into one of the biggest selling singles of all time, apparently shifting nine million units. Almost from the get-go it established the Canadian Anka as a mainstream crooner who continues to record and perform into his 70s.
73 The Spaniels, ‘Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight’
The comically named Spaniels formed at school in 1952 and clocked their biggest with this evergreen doo-wop number two years later. It was co-written by nominal lead singer Pookie Hudson and Calvin Carter and its “doh-doh-doh” vocal rhythms often rear up on other records, including Pete Wingfield’s 1975 pastiche ‘Eighteen With A Bullet’ featured on the Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels soundtrack.
72 Lloyd Price, ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’
Lloyd Price hit the jackpot with his very first recording, an impassioned rock’n’roll stormer that puts all its heart into telling a young lady how fine she is. These noble, traditional sentiments inspired huge swathes of artists to have a go too, tempting Elvis, The Beatles, Little Richard and – almost certainly definitively – the great Shakin’ Stevens in 1982.
71 The Platters, ‘The Great Pretender’
LA vocal group The Platters made their name with this – their second and biggest hit, a US No.1 and UK No.5. A showy and expansive number, ‘The Great Pretender’ inevitably found favour with Freddie Mercury who once more took it into the UK top 5 in 1987, out-camping The Platters no doubt but possibly not wringing out similar emotion.
70 Roy Orbison, ‘Ooby Dooby’
Also credited to his band The Teen Kings just before The Big ‘O’ stepped into the spotlight once and for all, ‘Ooby Dooby’ is a lithe bit of trad rock’n’roll that convinced Sam Phillips to give Orbison his Sun Records break and introduced America to one of its finest pop voices. It peaked at a modest 59 on the Billboard chart but registered 200,000 sales.
69 The Shirelles, ‘I Met Him On A Sunday’
You can credit (or, occasionally, blame?) The Shirelles for the invention of the girl group. They would score their signature No.1 in 1960 with ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’, but ‘I Met Him On A Sunday’ was the first single, a laconic, gorgeous doo-wop call and response that got them signed to Tiara before a Decca licensing deal sent them national.
68 Hank Williams, ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’
Named after the Creole rice and meat dish, ‘Jambalaya’ has become one of ill-starred country singer Hank Williams’ most lasting tracks. His spry take on the song, released six months before his death from heart failure, remains definitive but well-known versions have been cut by Fats Domino and MOR legends The Carpenters.
67 Little Richard, ‘Lucille’
Almost krautrock in its relentless, headlong rhythm, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’ showcases the flamboyant rock’n’roll pianist at his blistering best. One of the unimpeachable dawn-of-rock standards, ‘Lucille’ was a smash on both sides of the Atlantic and has been butchered by artists ranging from hair-metallers Van Halen to rock’n’roll pasticheurs par excellence Mud.
66 The Cadillacs, ‘Speedoo’
A meld of baby rock’n’roll and doo-wop, The Cadillacs’ ‘Speedoo’ was so called after their lead singer Earl Carroll’s nickname. Parping sax and handclaps drove a kinetic track that earned a reputation as a crucial bridge between black music and white audiences, and it remains the calling card of a band that endures with Speedoo Carroll still upfront.
65 Patti Page, ‘Tennessee Waltz’
Featuring lyrics by Redd Stewart (that’s Redd, not Rod) and music by Pee Wee King, ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another popular track for entertainers in the fifties. Patti Page, the biggest-selling female artist of the decade, did the honours. Jack White’s so enamoured with her he once covered another of her numbers, ‘Conquest’.
64 Chuck Berry, ‘Rock And Roll Music’
‘Rock And Roll Music’ is a quickfire tribute to the form, a skidding, popping workout written by Berry and produced by the Chess brothers for their own leading blues label. As a neat summary of rock’n’roll it’s understandably been knocked out by big-hitters from The Beatles to The Beach Boys, Humble Pie to Australian cheese captains Mental As Anything.
63 Miles Davis, ‘Blue In Green’
Miles Davis’s ‘A Kind Of Blue’ has stuck around as an all-time great jazz album and one of the more accessible examples in its field, with ‘Blue In Green’ one of a couple of ballads revealing Davis’s more subtle, feet-up playing. The subject of discord over writing credits, ‘Blue In Green’ is now credited to Davis and occasional collaborator and legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans.
62 Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’
Signed up by Capitol Records in Los Angeles as a quick fix for their lack of Elvis, Gene Vincent made an iconic splash first time out with the sexy, courageously stilted ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. Sessions musicians were on standby just in case Vincent’s pals the Blue Caps couldn’t hack it in the studio but together Vincent and band pulled off the rockabilly riot in style.
61 Bill Haley & His Comets, ‘Rock Around The Clock’
This is the one that shoved rock’n’roll into the charts, but for an essentially teen movement it was odd to see Bill Haley front and centre. An ancient 29 – and appearing years older – Haley nevertheless led a well-drilled band and he and his Comets toured incessantly to establish themselves as unexpected trailblazers.
60 Eddie Cochran, ‘C’mon Everybody’
Eddie Cochran lived fast and died young in classic teen rebellion style but left a beautiful body of work to show for his two short years in the business. ‘C’mon Everybody’, with its motorik guitar foundations and raspy vocal from Cochran still stands up and was memorably covered in 1979 by Sid Vicious – another briefly burning rock’n’roller.
59 Chuck Berry, ‘School Days’
Chess brothers Leonard and Phil also helmed this Chuck Berry number, a riffing, jangling template that Berry would habitually plunder as he struggled to maintain his later career. It features the immortal line “Hail, hail, rock’n’roll”, a phrase recycled as the title for an 80s Berry documentary, and was blessed with a cover from Bart Simpson on ‘The Simpsons Sing The Blues’.
58 The Penguins, ‘Earth Angel’
Another one for Back To The Future – and Superman III and The Karate Kid II as the 80s went crazy disinterring early rock’n’roll era favourites – ‘Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)’ is an exquisite doo-wop pleasure written by Penguins baritone Curtis Williams that made the US top 10, the group’s only real success of note.
57 The Everly Brothers, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’
Habitually warring brothers Phil and Don regularly put aside their differences (or at least put them on ice for a couple of minutes) to record glorious close-harmony pop that influenced generations of bands from The Beatles to The Beach Boys to Simon & Garfunkel and beyond. With tremolo guitar from Chet Atkins, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ is one of the decade’s more saccharine options, but proved how vital harmonies could be to a song’s DNA.
56 The Five Satins, ‘In The Still Of The Night’
‘In The Still Of The Night’ enjoys the perhaps tainted honour of being an integral part of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Still, it had the cash rolling in, which would explain The Five Satins’ continued existence. They deserve their longevity with this meaty doo-wop stayer led by Fred Parris’s clearcut vocals and backed by rootsy, grainy sax.
55 Elvis Presley, ‘Jailhouse Rock’
You’d be hard-pushed to pick a definitive Elvis single, but ‘Jailhouse Rock’ has to be one of the most iconic Pelvis tunes, all stop-start judder and growly holler. It was the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, Elvis’s third, and shook its hips to the top of the charts in the US and the UK. It’s also been covered by constipated ersatz soul bellower Michael Bolton, so is clearly indestructible.
54 Bo Diddley, ‘Bo Diddley’
One of the rawest early rock tracks, Bo Diddley’s self-regarding jerker has been covered, ripped off and filleted repeatedly since. It was Diddley’s first ever recording and from day one established the Bo Diddley Beat, a frenetic pattering rhythm that underscored a career and set Buddy Holly and The Rolling Stones on their own rhythmic adventures.
53 Big Joe Turner, ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’
Unusually for the youthful starburst of the age, Big Joe Turner was a veteran when he recorded this swinging blaster from jazz songwriter Jesse Stone (credited under the pseudonym Charles E. Calhoun). Turner was 43, making the transition from blues to rock’n’roll with the vim of a chap half his age, and grazing the Billboard top 20 for the first time.
52 Buddy Holly & The Crickets, ‘Not Fade Away’
‘Not Fade Away’ picks up the Bo Diddley Beat, drummer Jerry Allison getting inventive with the use of a cardboard box, while Holly huffs and riffs in the foreground. It was only released as the B-side to ‘Oh, Boy!’, but shone brightly enough to make the charts as a Rolling Stones cover in 1964 and provide a debut single for Canadian prog-metallers Rush in 1973.
51 Smiley Lewis, ‘I Hear You Knocking’
Smiley Lewis was already in his 40s when he recorded the first version of ‘Blue Monday’, later a hit for fellow New Orleans musician Fats Domino. ‘I Hear You Knocking’ was another Dave Bartholomew composition (with Pearl King), adorned by Lewis’s rich soulful croon and the kind of barrelling piano that Domino would make his own, sadly stealing all of Lewis’s thunder.
50 Chuck Berry, ‘Maybellene’
As introductions go, this was hard to beat. Chuck Berry’s first record, and first hit, pumped more excitement and genius guitar work into its short few minutes than most post-millennial bands muster in a career. Subsequently covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Carl Perkins – and Bubba Sparks.
49 The Coasters, ‘Yakety Yak’
Penned by legendary songwriting duo Leiber and Stroller, this bit of teenage harrumphing and door slamming was given to vocal harmony group The Coasters and, rather confusingly, played out like “a white kid’s view of a black person’s conception of white society,” according to Leiber.
48 Johnny Preston, ‘Running Bear’
An utterly tragic love story of two doomed lovers from rival American Indian tribes who drown in each other’s arms. It should be a swooning country ballad, instead it’s a jaunty jive, under-laid with some comical “natives American tribal chanting” (sung, in part, by the whiter than white George Jones).
47 Everly Brothers, ‘Bye Bye Love’
The Everly’s celestial harmonies were goose bump inducing, and would later influence everyone from The Beatles to Fleetwood Mac. ‘Bye Bye Love’ pushed those voices front and centre. They were so lush in fact that you could forget that they were singing lines like “I feel like I could die”.
46 Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu’
Combining the boogie of Pete Johnson with Jelly Roll’s jazz and the piano virtuosity of Fats Domino, Huey Smith was a seminal r ‘n’ b pianist whose tunes heavily influenced early rock and roll. Making influenza catchy since ’57.
45 Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’
Number One on the country music chart for a month, Cash’s fictional account of incarceration at the Californian clink was a mid-fifties smash, and opened his seminal live album from the state penitentiary, ‘At Folsom Prison’. The track also led Cash to perform an entire set at Folsom Prison, which was recorded for a successful live album.
44 Shirley & Lee, ‘Let The Good Times Roll’
Later recorded by The Rolling Stones and George Clinton, there’s a timeless carefree spirit about ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, which gives the whole thing a gentle ‘Happy Birthday’-like vibe. Over a simple piano figure and a nursery rhyme like melody, these “good times” sound like they’re nothing more salacious than a game of Scrabble and some warm Ribena.
43 Barrett Strong, ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’
The first ever hit for Motown contained a universal, decade-spanning sentiment (seen by the covers of the track by The Beatles in the 60s and The Flying Lizards in the 80s). Barrette Strong’s soulful delivery of the key lyrics of : “Money! That’s what I want!” was full of so much humanity that you could ignore the grubby, capitalist sentiment contained within.
42 Patsy Cline, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’
Decades after it was released, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ would be referred to as “David Lynch-esque”. The gossamer tones of Cline’s voice and honky tonk rhythms were paired with the creepy undercurrents of the lyrics, that suggested insomnia or even some sort of psychotic, night-time mania. It was a beautiful duality.
41 Dale Hawkins, ‘Susie Q’
A simple blues-rockabilly shake-down which was enlivened by sprawling axe work from future guitar legend James Burton. Hugely influential in the way it shaped the sound of the nascent rock and roll sound, the rudimentary blues contained within would later be appropriated by The Velvet Underground (who covered the track early in their career).
40 Elmore James, ’Dust My Broom’
This was the second song Robert Johnson ever recorded, but its creation has also been attributed to Elmore James. Either way, it’s the latter’s version that rules, and proves beyond dispute why the guy was dubbed “the king of slide guitar”.
39 Ritchie Valens, ‘La Bamba’
Easily one of the most recognisable cuts in the entire list, Valens’ adaption of a Mexican folk song is jam-packed with infectious refrains, classic guitar lines and monster drumming. Nice woodblocks too. While it bizarrely only reached 49 in the UK charts it’s gone on to become a household classic.
38 Elvis Presley, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’
Once the adolescent screams had abated, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ was revealed to be a jaunty 50s jive-a-thon, a simple plea from a puppy dog faced Elvis to not dismiss his pure, beating heart of love. Backed by ‘Hound Dog,’ the track became one of the biggest sellers of his career.
37 Nat King Cole, ‘When I Fall In Love’
A cover of a Doris Day standard, Nat King Cole’s version was a creamy confection of dream-like music covered in swathes of layered strings, over which Cole’s velvet voice floated. It sounded like a puffy white cloud floating in the sky. No wonder it’s permanently associated with Christmas.
36 Buddy Holly & The Crickets, ‘That’ll Be The Day’
Holly was inspired to write the track after his cinematic hero John Wayne repeatedly used the phrase in a film and it ended up a chart-topper on both sides of the pond. Appropriately the rugged anthem was full of bolshy swagger and teenage ballsiness.
35 Link Wray, ‘Rumble’
Bob Dylan’s favourite intrumental has been pilfered by Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Rodriguez (Roadracers), Spongebob and the Sopranos. One of the earliest records to explore distortion and feedback it’s also the song that invented the power chord, ensuring Townshend and Blackmore are forever in his debt.
34 Elvis Presley, ‘That’s All Right Mama’
One of the many tracks that’s been claimed as the first rock and roll record (alongside efforts from Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and Roy Brown), the Pelvis’ cover of blues singer Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ is certainly the one that broke him. His first commercial release was recorded in an impromptu jam featuring guitars, upright bass and no drums. The rest is, as you know, history.
33 Little Richard, ‘Long Tall Sally’
A 12-bar blues jaunt that was unlike no other. Richard’s vocal was frazzled and spunky, half gospel apostle, half bar room holler as he told the story of Uncle John getting his ja-ja’s on with bald-headed Sally in a backstreet alley. The filthiest thing to be released in all of 1956.
32 The Everly Brothers, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’
Banned from some extremely prudish radio stations on its release, due to its perceived suggestive content, this smooth pop ditty is two minutes flat of teenage high jinx and sweet harmonies that went on to garner the dubious accolade of being George Dubya’s favourite track.
31 Muddy Waters, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’
Featuring one of the dirtiest riffs this side of Jimmy Page’s fretboard, this is five minutes of low down, grungy, swampy blues at its best, Muddy Waters delivering his gravelly take on Willie Dixon’s classic, which incidentally refers to a provocative belly dance from the late nineteenth century.
30 Frank Sinatra, ‘I’ve Got you Under My Skin’
Cole Porter had written the track back in the 1930s but it was covered by Sinatra for his ‘Songs For Swingin’ Lovers’ album in 1956 . The smooth, daytime jazz waltz became one of his trademark tracks. But his delivery belied the lyrics, which rather unsettlingly suggested the creeping sense of an inescapable obsession.
29 Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, ‘I Put A Spell On You’
An air of otherworldly mystery hangs about this bluesy stomp. Tales of recording sessions happening in a state of inebriated revery and the track being banned for being too ‘cannibalistic’, and no wonder, Jay sounds like a cartoon villain as he intones the lyrics.
28 James Brown, ‘Please, Please, Please’
Brown was never more energized than during this early period of his career when his Gospel roots collided with the passionate blues of his Famous Flames band. This track was famously used as a key part of his gig routine, when a handler came out, covered Brown in a cape and escorted a seemingly overwrought Brown off-stage. It made his legend.
27 Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk The Line’
Written as a pledge of marital devotion and penned as a ballad, it was producer Sam Phillips who suggested the breezy, arrangement. Although Cash’s music and career would inhabit darker, more complicated and ornate territory, the simplicity of ‘I Walk The Line’ is one of his most memorable moments.
26 Little Richard, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’
The reverend of the double entendre, Little Richard’s portrait of a good time “mama” is unforgettable. With a ragtime piano and a crowing vocal, Little Richard creates a sonic romp that suggests there’s a lot more going under the covers than one initially suspects.
25 Chuck Berry, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’
The birth of rock ‘n roll meant that screaming teens were the norm. It also meant that it was just a matter of time before songs were written about them. Berry’s song follows one such rabid fan over a simple blues riff. As she follows her favourite band around the country, her “sweetness” oscillates between chats with her “mommy” and struggling with “the grown up blues.”
24 Big Mama Thornton, ‘Hound Dog’
Elvis may have the more popular version but nobody delivers ‘Hound Dog’ like the Mama; altering her inflections on every line she delivers by far the most captivating rendition. This was the first version, and inspired no less than six covers within a month of its release.
23 The Platters, ‘Only You’
Hard to re-appraise objectively after its use and abuse on films and adverts – from Hot Shots to So I Married An Axe Murderer, Alvin And The Chipmunks and beyond – over the years, The Platters’ sweetly harmonised ballad is nevertheless a total classic.
22 Ray Charles, ‘What’d I Say’
It’s hard to believe but this track, Ray Charles’ first gold record, the one he finished every set with, one of the cuts that’s credited as kick-starting a small genre known as soul, a frisky nugget currently residing in the national recording registry, started life as an improvised thing at the end of a set.
21 Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’
Where the sound of street doo-wop met rock and roll, the precocious Harlem teen Lymon and his vocal harmony group The Teenagers sang with the type of honesty about teenage love angst which that only a (then) 15 year old could have known about .
20 Wanda Jackson, ‘Let’s Have A Party’
Another Elvis classic recorded for the movie Loving You, it was also laid down by rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson in ’60 and used on the soundtrack for Dead Poet’s Society. Sonia also did a version in 2010, but the less said about that the better.
19 Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’
Recorded by several obscure artists before and numerous big names after (from Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Gerry & The Pacemakers to Elton John and Ten Years After), this raucous ditty was made most famous by Lewis, who less tinkles the ivories than spanks them remorselessly.
18 The Flamingos, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’
Originally written for the 1934 film Dames, before being covered by Peggy Lee, the definitive version of this track was by the vocal harmony group The Flamingos. A gentle waltz that relied heaving on a mountainous orchestration, it showcased the vocal talents of doo-wop quintet.
17 Bo Diddley, ‘Who Do You Love?’
A favourite of The Rolling Stones, this ramshackle r ‘n’ b classic was thrust into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2010 and with good reason – it’s a perfect little slab of catchy choruses and infectious guitar.
16 Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill’
Originally a Glenn Miller jazz standard from the early ‘40s, this classic was revived by Louis Armstrong at the end of the decade and reworked by Elvis Presley and Little Richard. However, Fats did it best, and it remained his biggest track. Vladimir Putin attempted it live last year – every time someone watches that rendition, a cat is tortured somewhere on the globe.
15 The Isley Brothers, ‘Shout’
Few songs come spring-loaded with the amount of energy this tune packs. A brilliantly constructed couple of minutes it weaves frenetic harmonies, time signature changes and varied dynamics to irresistible effect. Forget Lulu’s rendition – this is the real deal.
14 Junior Parker, ‘Mystery Train’
From its brassy train whistle to the evocative lyrics, few tunes encapsulate a sense of travel and wonder as this early ‘50s classic. Where’s it coming from? Where’s it going? It remains a mystery but we’re very much on board for the ride.
13 Chuck Berry, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’
If not rock ‘n’ roll’s calling card then a strong contender, this track’s been covered approximately 12,000 times, mostly notably by The Beatles for several years at the start of their career. Chuck Berry’s cut remains the set text, though.
12 Carl Perkins, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’
Inspired in part by a guy’s precious love for his suede shoes over the girl he was dancing with, Perkins’ big hit went on to sell a million records in the first three months (no mean feat in ’55) and climb the country, rhythm and blues, and pop charts simultaneously. Not bad for a tune about footwear.
11 Elvis Presley, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’
In the world of rock mythology, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was inspired by a real life suicide, the story of which propelled songwriting duo Axton and Durden to pen this track. A bluesy rock and roll number with a dour undercurrent, it was Elvis’ first number one.
10 Buddy Holly, ‘Peggy Sue’
An early work of rock genius. Holly And The Crickets created a penetrating slab of early, guitar driven blues. The rolling rumble of bass and drums and the lo-fi guitar sound would influence everyone from The Beatles to Girls, while the simplicity of its chord structure provided that the most infectious tracks often came in seemingly basic packages – the effect of which would be seen until this day.
9 Hank Williams, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’
As legend would have it, this track was penned by Williams about his first wife, but dictated to his second wife, whilst he was driving. The cad! Released after his death, it would typify a sort of ageless, heart-sore balladeering form that Williams helped inaugurate.
8 The Drifters, ‘Money Honey’
Forget Lady Gaga’s 2008 album monstrosity, this slinky shuffle features some top vocal lines from the Drifters’ tenor, bass, and baritone voices and, halfway through the playful sax solo, one of the greatest screams in rock history. Being broke never sounded so good.
7 Sam Cooke, ‘You Send Me’
Sometimes the best songs are the most simple. A sweet love letter to his darling full of earnest sentiment and unashamed admiration, this beautiful track saw Cooke shift from his gospel roots to a more soulful direction. Subsequently revived by all manner of crooners, from Michael Bolton (questionable) to Aretha (worth a listen).
6 Eddie Cochran, ‘Summertime Blues’
Armed with an amazing rockabilly riff (so good that it was later covered by The Who), ‘Summertime Blues’ pulverizes with Cochran’s “gee, shucks” vocal style and jumping, speed demon rhythms. If there were any blues contained in this summer, we couldn’t detect them.
5 Howlin Wolf, ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’
Think blues and you think Howlin Wolf and ‘Smokestack Lightnin’. Played live since his Delta blues days in the ‘30s and honed for two decades before its release in ’56, it sees harmonica, train references and a repeated E major chord collide to mesmerising effect.
4 Little Richard, ‘Tutti Frutti’
Little Richard’s best track was revolutionary in terms of how it shaped rock and roll, not just in musically but in its pioneering use of double entendre. The original lyrics (“Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy”) were so, well fruity, they made ‘Relax’ seem like a Vera Lynn track.
3 Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Great Balls of Fire’
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain / Too much love drives a man insane”. So begins the third greatest song of the entire decade and one of the best rock ‘n’ roll tracks ever. From Jerry Lee to Goose and Maverick, this irrepresible dose of raw rock energy and serious piano abuse has been a stone cold classic for nearly 60 years.
2 Elvis Presley, ‘Hound Dog’
A cover of the bluesy Big Mama Thornton track, Elvis changed the track into hip-swiveling pound of rolling drums and grinding guitars that set teenage girls alight and made parents blush. After years of prom-friendly sweetness, here was a track that finally soundtrack the rampant, fiery nature of spurned love.
1 Chuck Berry, ‘Johnny B Goode’
What else could it be, really? That riff, that piano, and that chorus – all packaged into a timeless track about rock ‘n’ roll itself. Covered hundreds of times, from B.B. King to Back To The Future, it was included on the Voyager Golden Record, a selection of discs sent into space to demonstrate the cultural capacity of life on earth. Makes you proud to be human.