1. Rock Around The Clock-Bill Haley & The Comets-Decca Records-1954
2. Maybellene-Chuck Berry-Chess Records-1955
While some other candidates were tremendously influential on a regional basis or earned a seminal ranking in retrospect, these two recordings affected listeners on a national and international level during the 1950s in a way that few others did.
Recorded in April of 1954, Haley’s version of “Rock Around The Clock” admittedly didn’t set the world on fire upon its initial release. After hearing his daughter playing the record, director Richard Brooks opted to license the song from Milt Gabler at Decca Records for inclusion in his film, “Blackboard Jungle”. Hoping to boost sagging sales of the year-old recording, Gabler signed over the rights for a single dollar.
As the first rock’n’roll record to be featured in a motion picture, it quickly became an anthem for a generation of young rock and rollers, spending eight weeks at #1 on the pop charts in mid-1955. It served as the title song for the genre’s first full-length film a year later. It also made an unlikely international star out of the 31-year old former western swing bandleader and later came to represent the decade to younger listeners when it was included in the American Graffiti soundtrack and as the theme to the Happy Days television show. Visiting him backstage in London in 1968, John Lennon autographed a photo to Haley with the inscription, “To Bill- You started it all!”
Chuck Berry’s ability to blend his gift for songwriting with his primary influences- the jazzy guitar licks of Charlie Christian and Carl Hogan, the emotive blues of T-Bone Walker, and various country & western and novelty tunes is simply unique. “Maybellene”, and his string of hit records that followed, changed the scope of popular music forever. Sure, a number of other records spent 11 weeks atop the R&B chart in the 1950s, but “Maybellene” did so much more. While the major labels may have been able to sell cover versions of Fats Domino and Little Richard to White America, it simply never happened with Chuck. Berry and his music transcended racial and cultural barriers in the 1950s, turning millions on to this explosive new music.
Equally notable, Berry’s talents influenced countless artists from Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. While it may not have been his biggest seller or most recognized composition, “Maybellene” got aspiring musicians and fans of the music to stand up and take notice.
Rocket 88-Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats-Chess Records-1951
I’ve Got A Woman-Ray Charles-Atlantic Records-1954
Why Do Fools Fall in Love-Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-Gee Records-1956
The Fat Man-Fats Domino-Imperial Records-1949/1950
That’s All Right-Elvis Presley-Sun Records-1954
These five Honorable Mention candidates sold anywhere from a few hundred thousand to a million-plus when they were first released, but are especially significant in the effect they had on aspiring artists. “Rocket 88”, featuring Ike Turner’s barrelhouse boogie-woogie piano may have just been the very first rock’n’roll record. Charles’ effective blend of gospel melody and R&B lyrics in 1954 was innovative and, to say the least, controversial, but set a trend that continues unabated today. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” inspired thousands of untrained, inner-city youngsters to create five-part harmonies in the way that the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon To Know” had done nearly a decade earlier, and briefly turned the 13-year old
Lymon into an international sensation. Fats Domino’s initial offering set the stage for dozens of magical Crescent City recordings, often coming out of the same Cosimo Matassa-run studio. While “That’s All Right” may not have had the national impact of, say, “Heartbreak Hotel”, Sun #209 not only started the career of the biggest and brightest star of all, it brought young talent like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison to the door’s of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, the same Memphis landmark that produced “Rocket 88” just a few years before.