1951-54 Veterans Committee Meeting

Our current list of nominees for the Hall of Songs is at 28 songs. In this bonus episode, we add another.

The “veterans committee” meets, and we discuss “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James (1951) as we add it to the pool. Then we go deep into the list itself, picking out trends we’ve seen between 1951 and ’54, highlighting some of the bigger stories we’ve talked about, and handicapping listener picks for the Hall of Songs.

Here’s the current list of nominees:

Our next episode, unveiling the nominees from 1955, drops on April 4, 2021.

1954: Our Nominees for the Hall of Songs

We continue to fill up the pool of nominees as we reach 1954. Here is our next set of nominees for the Hall of Songs.

Smack in the middle of 1954, a young man from Memphis records his first single late at night during a session at Sun Records. That single, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” causes a fervor in Memphis and makes a name of its singer, Elvis Presley.

While Elvis’ origin story casts a large shadow over 1954, it’s not just him making noise. In fact, 1954 is the year doo-wop really steps up and becomes a force in pop music. Two hits specifically – “Sh’Boom” and “Mr. Sandman” – prove mightiest as massive hits on the pop charts.

With all this shifting on the charts, that means the era of the big-selling, old-school pop vocalist is beginning to end. The most popular names in pop heading into 1954 are Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Eddie Fisher, and their fortunes are soon to change. Meanwhile another major vocalist of the last 15 years, Frank Sinatra, is about to see his career take a major shift in a good way.

We talk about all of that and more in our 1954 episode of Hall of Songs.

Our 1954 nominees:

  • I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” as performed by Muddy Waters
    • Written by Willie Dixon, recorded January 1954, released January 1954
  • Work With Me Annie” as performed by Hank Ballard & His Midnighters
    • Written by Hank Ballard, recorded January 1954, released February 1954
  • Sh’Boom” as performed by The Chords
    • Written by James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, recorded March 1954, released spring 1954
  • Shake, Rattle and Roll” as performed by Big Joe Turner
    • Written by Jesse Stone (as Charles F. Calhoun), recorded February 1954, released April 1954
  • That’s All Right” as performed by Elvis Presley
    • Written by Arthur Crudup, recorded July 1954, released July 1954
  • Earth Angel” as performed by The Penguins
    • Written by Curtis Williams, Jesse Belvin, Gaynel Hodge, recorded August 1954, released October 1954
  • Hearts of Stone” as performed by The Charms
    • Written by Eddie Ray and Rudy Jackson, recorded fall 1954, released fall 1954
  • Mr. Sandman” as performed by The Chordettes
    • Written by Pat Ballard, recorded fall 1954, released November 1954

Check out the full episode to learn more about these songs and why they’re so great, and come back on April 4, 2021, when we discuss our nominees from 1955.

So, This is Music Before Elvis

On July 8, 1954, Elvis Presley’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” first hit the airwaves in Memphis, Tennessee. While the full weight of Elvis wasn’t felt across America for another two years, you can draw a clear line in the middle of ’54. After this is a music world with Elvis, whose pull was as strong as a deadly tornado, while before it is a vast landscape untouched by ferocious winds. It’s a place where sounds could sprout and grow on their own terms. It’s a time of innocence and wildness – really anything could happen.

What we’ve heard during the first three episodes of Hall of Songs is a whole range of sounds, from plaintive and searing country by way of Hank Williams to gashouse rhythm and blues by way of Billy Ward and His Dominoes, and from rousing blues by way of Big Mama Thornton to doo-wop by way of the Crows. This is practically everything in the Anglo West outside of jazz and the traditional pop laid down by the likes of Nat King Cole, Patti Page, and Tony Bennett, but it exists in pockets. There’s rhythm and blues in the Deep South, Blues in Chicago, country music in between, and something a bit more polished on either coast. Soon everything will converge, and to many, it does so through Elvis.

That makes this period, the years between 1951 and 54, intimately special. All of the songs we hear in the Hall of Songs nominee pool are held dear by the youth and by Black Americans, by the non-traditional musical tastemakers. They’re not pop hits because they’re not pop, or in other words, pop hasn’t shifted to these genres. That will happen with Bill Haley and especially with Elvis, and then there’ll be some pushback in the very late 1950s and early 1960s, just before the Beatles kick down the doors for good. But before all that push and pull there’s this small slice of music history, where pioneers like Les Paul and Lloyd Price advance music forward so that the more immortalized giants like Elvis can really thrive.

Once we get to 1954, everything begins to change. The sound that is generally accepted as early rock ‘n’ roll clarifies. The sound that is generally accepted as soul is born and quickly steps into its own lane. The truth is that these sounds are a lot closer than one thinks, that what we consider rock ‘n’ roll is actually a great combination of white and Black, of gee-tar and piani. But we’ve been told that this and that are different, and once 1954 hits, this and that truly start to become this and that.

But that’s for future conversations. For now, we can appreciate the experimentation and the raw sounds of hiccupping guitars, bouncy boogie-woogie piano lines, and suggestive vocals not yet ready for prime time.

The music of the very early 1950s is as much enlightening as it is exciting. It’s been a pleasure to fall in love with songs like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Night Train.” Once Elvis hits, things won’t ever be the same, but this small sample here proves that rock ‘n’ roll was always about underdogs, the overlooked, the underappreciated, and the viscerally adept.

1953: Our Nominees for the Hall of Songs

The journey to determine the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs in history continues as we name our 1953 nominees for Hall of Songs.

1953 is when the rock ‘n’ roll narratives that we’ve come to know begin to take shape. It’s when street-corner doo-wop makes its impact in record stores, when Hank Williams sets a template for the future of country music, and when Bill Haley first gets the kids dancing to his unique version of rockabilly swing. To many, these are the things that make rock ‘n’ roll.

But 1953 is also the year rhythm and blues, or rock ‘n’ roll-style music targeted to Black listeners, takes a giant leap forward with the help of young artists like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and Clyde McPhatter. These talents, all part of the fast-growing stable at Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records, will help create what we know of as soul music, though we feel that all of it is rock ‘n’ roll, a reframing of narratives.

Another icon of rock ‘n’ roll mythology, the Corvette, is first produced in 1953. This all-American sports car will become a symbol of freedom and discovery, perfectly paralleling rock ‘n’ roll’s impact on society. Yup, 1953 is a year when narratives are born; the following nine nominees help tell the story of this critical moment in popular Western music.

Our 1953 nominees:

  • Your Cheatin’ Heart” as performed by Hank Williams
    • Written by Hank Williams, recorded September 1952, released January 1953
  • Hound Dog” as performed by Big Mama Thornton
    • Written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, recorded August 1952, released February 1953
  • (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” as performed by Ruth Brown
    • Written by Johnny Wallace and Herbert J. Lance, recorded December 1952, released early 1953
  • Crazy Man, Crazy” as performed by Bill Haley & His Comets
    • Written by Bill Haley and Marshall Lytle, recorded April 1953, released April 1953
  • Gee” as performed by The Crows
    • Written by William Davis and Viola Watkins, recorded February 1953, released June 1953
  • Mess Around” as performed by Ray Charles
    • Written by Ahmet Ertegun, recorded May 1953, released June 1953
  • Shake a Hand” as performed by Faye Adams
    • Written by Joe Morris, recorded early 1953, released mid 1953
  • Money Honey” as performed by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters
    • Written by Jesse Stone, recorded August 1953, released September 1953
  • The Things That I Used to Do” as performed by Guitar Slim
    • Written by Eddie Jones (Guitar Slim), recorded October 1953, released late 1953

Check out the full episode to learn more about these songs and why they’re so great, and come back on March 21, 2021, when we discuss our nominees from 1954.

Cleveland, 1951: A Shot Heard ‘Round the World?

At age 30, on July 11, 1951, Alan Freed looked about 40. But everyone in those days looked 10 years older than their birth certificates. He played records during the late shift on WJW in Cleveland—late shift being 11:15 p.m. Who’s awake and listening to the radio at 11:15 p.m. in 1951? The hep teens. They’re listening.

Record Rendezvous was located at 300 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. It’s about two blocks from the city’s Public Square in one direction and two blocks in the other direction from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. That’s to say that Record Rendezvous was in the middle of Cleveland, at the center of the action with its human-sized window displays, its racks upon racks of 45s and long players, and its owner Leo Mintz. That’s a very 1951 name: Leo Mintz.

Sometime before 1951 when Freed was working as a disc jockey in nearby Akron, Freed met Mintz. The latter was peddling jumpy songs labeled as “rhythm and blues” because they were targeted to Black people, an improvement from the pre-World War II term of “race records.” Freed was noticing that white teenagers were buying the songs meant for Black people. That meant there must have been other teens out there who’d buy them, which meant there must have been more money out there to make.

It’s possible Mintz saw into the future, at the scores of white people who would gladly appropriate and revise this sound for millions of dollars. But he probably didn’t—he probably just saw short-term money.

In 1951 in Cleveland, a city north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Black people of course weren’t actually considered equal to white people. Pay wasn’t the same. Job opportunities weren’t the same. We were three years away from Brown v Board of Education and in the very early stages of white flight. Highways were being threaded right through Black neighborhoods. And we were 22 years from a lawsuit brought on by the NAACP against Cleveland schools and the State of Ohio aiming to integrate those schools. Cleveland was still very racist in 1951, but Mintz noticed that Black and white hep teens were coming into Record Rendezvous and buying rhythm and blues records. It’s 1951—small things had to happen as much as big things.

So once Freed got to WJW in Cleveland, Mintz started pushing those rhythm and blues records to Freed. And that’s a literal push—Mintz sat next to Freed in the studio and gave him the vinyl records he’d play. Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers. Tiny Grimes, who played with Art Tatum, who influenced Les Paul. It wouldn’t all be rhythm and blues at 11:15 p.m., since Freed still had to ensure radio listeners were getting a full spectrum of songs, from hits of the day to showtunes and novelty fare, to occasional jazz and whatever else came about. But when rhythm and blues records came on, the white kids responded. Immediately.

By fall 1951, Freed had a large audience following him late at night. He called himself the Moondog, possibly after a song he may have used as his theme, or possibly after the man who performed the other song he may have used as his theme. The truth is blurred because it’s 1951, but the point is Freed became an overnight sensation on the radio. WJW’s reach gave Freed an audience that spanned the Midwestern United States. By the end of 1951 thousands of hep teens were jamming out to the Moondog and the rhythm and blues records fed to him by his small business owner friend.

At some point during all this, Freed is said to have used the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” He didn’t invent that— “rocking and rolling” had been used as a way to describe the activity in Black churches, and in some places it was used as a sexual term—but like the music that he played, Freed was the one who got it out to the white teens. The hep ones. Freed called himself a “hep” guy, too.

When we talk about rock ‘n’ roll, we start with 30-year-old 40-something Alan Freed and his buddy Leo Mintz because it’s the closest we get to a big bang, a shot heard ’round the world. They’re the guys who realized that the records made by Black performers and marketed to Black audiences by white executives could actually make a lot more money because the music was really good. Freed and Mintz deserve credit for seeing a trend, for believing in the music, and for I assume rightly thinking the music was really good. But they’re just two guys who steered something in another direction. If anything, rock ‘n’ roll was always there in the sounds of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Robert Johnson, and of Roy Brown and most certainly of the Dominoes and the Hucklebuckers.

Cleveland is where rock ‘n’ roll became an idea celebrated by the entire country. That’s no small feat. But we don’t need to continue lifting Freed up to an impossible plateau. We don’t need to continue crediting a city by building shrines designed to be the new center of the action. (Record Rendezvous is no longer inhabited, and WJW is now ESPN Cleveland.) The best way to honor the roots of rock ‘n’ roll is to play those songs as loud and as often as possible. Blast those Dominoes. Higher on the Hucklebuckers. That’s the idea.

1951: Our Nominees for the Hall of Songs

Feb. 7, 2021: It’s 1951! Welcome to our first main timeline episode of Hall of Songs, digging into the songs we’ve nominated for Hall consideration in 1951.

There is no single song that marks the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not as if all music was this, and then one day *that* happened and people said, “Oh! That’s different! That’s rock ‘n’ roll!” But we can take a whole bunch of information, scan it through our brains, and decide that 1951 is about the time that rock ‘n’ roll starts to truly take shape.

The six songs from 1951 that we’ve nominated for inclusion in the Hall of Songs seem to reflect this premise. They all sound like both something else and maybe rock ‘n’ roll, all at the same time. The rock may be in the vocal or the lyric sheet of the song, it may be in some innovation put down in the record, or it may just be the feeling the track gives. Either way, to us, these six say “rock ‘n’ roll” in some way.

Our 1951 nominees:

  • “Cold Cold Heart” as performed by Hank Williams
    • Written by Hank Williams (disputed), recorded December 1950, released February 1951
  • “How High the Moon” as performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford
    • Written by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton, recorded January 1951, released March 1951
  • “Rocket 88” as performed by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats
    • Written by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner (disputed), recorded March 1951, released April 1951
  • “Sixty Minute Man” as performed by Billy Ward and his Dominoes
    • Written by Billy Ward and Rose Marks, recorded December 1950, released May 1951
  • “Hey, Good Lookin'” as performed by Hank Williams
    • Written by Hank Williams, recorded March 1951, released June 1951
  • “I’m in the Mood” as performed by John Lee Hooker
    • Written by John Lee Hooker, recorded August 1951, released October 1951

Listen to our 1951 episode to learn more about these songs, and come back on Feb. 21, 2021, when we discuss our nominees from 1952.