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.