Exactly fifty years ago, on 5 July 1954, a young Elvis Presley recorded his single, That’s Alright Mama at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. It combined rockabilly with blues and is often regarded as the very first rock’n'roll song, although critics still debate the exact genesis of the genre.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, four major record labels have complied some of the defining songs in the early years of rock’n'roll. A handful of tracks by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have been collected together on one album, and have even included that contentious British icon, Cliff Richard.
I may cringe when ever Cliff Richard releases a single but some of his early work is actually rather likable. Whether we deny it or not, Cliff – although he never had the global respect and impact his US counterparts had – was a seminal figure in early British rock’n'roll. Unlike his recent appalling and obnoxious attempts at chart success, the songs included here, such as Move It, are amazing in their simplicity and ability to strike a nerve. Mean Streak for example, has a rough sound caused by Richard’s deep vocals and a gritty guitar riff.
Yet it’s Jerry Lee Lewis who amazes me, a true rock’n'roll icon with a distinctive and very individual style. His music still holds resonance today, and has a real catchy effect. Contemporary singers like Elton John and Billy Joel owe this guy a major debt; as they built their careers copying Lewis’ style and stage antics. He is a true genius and, surprisingly, is still touring to this date.
Just like Elvis, a collection like this would be declared void without including Eddie Cochran. Although the peak of his success – in fact all artists included here – was way before my birth, it’s difficult to avoid songs like Summertime Blues and C’mon Everybody. Artists that I’m more familiar with such as Motorhead and Black Sabbath all mention Elvis and Cochran as early influences: basically it’s a cause and effect relationship. Styles develop and transcend, in the case of rock ‘n’ roll, it has become harder and faster. Lemmy once said that heavy metal is the logical successor to the rockabilly of the ’50s.
Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode (Judas Priest even covered the latter) have entered the annals of popular music as anthems for a generation. How can you not be allured by the stunning riff and brilliantly simple lyrics of Berry’s No Particular Place To Go (“Riding along in my automobile/my baby beside me at the wheel”). It was a time when fans could actually hear and comprehend the words being sung.
Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue – perhaps his most famous song – is here with its fantastically ‘bumpy’ construction. Yet unfortunately one of its partner tracks, Heartbeat, cannot be taken seriously without thinking of the awful television series of the same title. Thankfully, That’ll Be The Day more than makes up for any uncomfortable feeling.
As for Elvis, so much has been written about him that it would be futile even attempting to describe his impact on popular music. Millions of people know him on a first name basis – I think that says something just as much as a few tracks does.
Perhaps the problem here is the formal approach of the collection. The compliers have laced the artists in a fashion where they are ‘up’ against another, as if they are saying “you chose who is the greatest”. Simply, all the artists included here (even Cliff Richard) are great, but in contrasting ways.
Kings Of Rock’n'Roll is a fair and honest collection that would hopefully show younger music fans why their favourite singers/bands picked up a guitar and started singing.