The Birth of Rock and Roll
November 17, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

What was the really good music of the fifties and sixties?

Even though I am a child of the fifties, I didn't really start paying attention to music until I was in high school in the late sixties. I know... my head was somewhere else.

So what did I miss? Who were the really good groups, bands, singers, musicians and songwriters of the fifties and sixties? It's never too late to learn and enjoy.
posted by netbros to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Beatles.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:54 AM on November 17, 2009

Wow that's a big question.

Chuck Berry is the origin point for pretty much all the electric-guitar-based rock since, and his music holds up amazingly well.

Roy Orbison is timeless. The more I listen to "It's Over," the more I'm convinced it's one of the greatest artistic achievements in any kind of music.

The Beatles, of course.

Bob Dylan. The Rolling Stones' early stuff. The Kinks. Simon and Garfunkel. All the girl groups produced by Phil Spector. The Beach Boys, especially "Pet Sounds" and early singles like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room." Brian Wilson was (is?) the Mozart of the 20th century.

I could literally go on all day, but I have to work.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:02 AM on November 17, 2009

You probably shouldn't miss the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

As far as pure, simple, beautiful music, you can't do much better than Sam Cooke. It is literally impossible to be unhappy while listening to "Havin' a Party."

"Under the Boardwalk" by the Drifters is pretty wonderful too.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:05 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Connie Francis
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:07 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nobody has mentioned Elvis? (Click the top link)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:13 AM on November 17, 2009

(Awesome analysis, btw. Give it three minutes, and you won't stop)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:16 AM on November 17, 2009

Arthur Lee and Love
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 11:18 AM on November 17, 2009

The Doors
Phil Ochs
Leslie Gore (some of it. . just listen to it carefully)
Little Richard
Marvin Gaye
Sam Cooke
Sam and Dave
The Everly Bros.
Ray Charles
Fats Domino
Buddy Holly
The Kinks
The Zombies (!)
Gene Pitney

(I could go on. YMMV with any of these acts.)
posted by Danf at 11:25 AM on November 17, 2009

Bill Haley and the Comets. They swing like nobody's business!
posted by usonian at 11:35 AM on November 17, 2009

John Coltrane.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:36 AM on November 17, 2009

Stax Records
Northern Soul

Dusty Springfield
Edwin Starr
The Velvelettes
Gloria Jones
Stevie Wonder
The Zombies
Strawberry Alarm Clock
The Kinks
Martha and the Vandelas
...and so on.
posted by kaseijin at 11:41 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Frankie Lymon, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, the Shangri-Las, Young Rascals, Martha Reeves, James Brown.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:47 AM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a difficult question given the bredth of recorded music from that period. Are there particular genres which you are or ain't interested in learning more about?

These genres were defined or exemplified during those two decades:
Vegas grind
Garage/frat rock
Free jazz
Girl groups
Chicago blues
Southern Soul
US roots folk
UK hippie folk

And many more I'm forgetting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:50 AM on November 17, 2009


Screw the birth of Rock and Roll. You missed some of the very best Jazz and largely its death. I'm not even going to try to list the number of artists from the 50's and 60's that you could put here, but I'll start off with a few:

Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Ornette Coleman
Charlie Parker
Elvin Jones
Tito Puente
Max Roach
Coleman Hawkins
Duke Ellington
Donald Byrd
Freddie Hubbard
Eric Dolphy
Bud Powell
Perez Prado

and so on and so forth...
posted by Pollomacho at 11:54 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Are there particular genres which you are or ain't interested in learning more about?

I am not picky. I am interested in what I missed while growing up.
posted by netbros at 12:02 PM on November 17, 2009


Buffalo Springfield
The Hollies
The Box Tops
Manfred Mann
Jackson 5
Quicksilver Messenger Service (!)
The Young Rascals (seconding)
Big Brother and the Holding Company
Small Faces
The Kinks (again)
Beach Boys
The Yardbirds
Cream (!)
The Association
The Who
Velvet Underground
MC5 (!!!)

I'm gonna have to stop. I'm getting all worked up.
posted by cmoj at 12:08 PM on November 17, 2009

Holy poot, you mean you missed Motown?! The Sound of Young America??

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Stevie Wonder (known as Little Stevie Wonder during this period)
The Marvelettes
Martha and the Vandellas
The Supremes
Marvin Gayes (with--and later without--Tammi Terrell)
The Four Tops
The Temptations
The Jackson 5
Junior Walker and the All-Stars
Gladys Knight and the Pips

And of course most of the above artists were supported by Motown's legendary house band, The Funk Brothers, who created so much of the Motown Sound.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:11 PM on November 17, 2009

2nd almost every artist listed already, but especially Arthur Lee / Love and The Kinks.
posted by otters walk among us at 12:15 PM on November 17, 2009

Are you serious? How could you miss that? You have a ton of great suggestions so far that I think are excellent.

I second the Rascals, The Velvet Underground, the Beatles. Stax-Volt Records, all those guys--Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MG's.

Vee-Jay Records
Pure Prarie League
Buffalo Springfield
Neil Young
Crazy Horse (on their own, this is my favorite record of all time.)
Buddy Miles

Sorry, have to work.
posted by chocolatetiara at 12:33 PM on November 17, 2009

Chuck Berry is the origin point for pretty much all the electric-guitar-based rock since, and his music holds up amazingly well.

If it's the electric guitar angle you are interested in, you should really start at T-Bone Walker.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:40 PM on November 17, 2009

Nuggets is an indispensable compilation of mostly obscure garage/psychedelic rock from the mid-to-late 60's.
posted by Beardman at 12:54 PM on November 17, 2009

The Beach Boys, especially ... "In My Room."

A strangely overrated song, not as good as the Beatles' thematically similar "There's a Place." I love the Beach Boys too, but they are overwhelmingly about one particular album, Pet Sounds. So, Pet Sounds is a must.

The new stereo box set of all the Beatles albums are pretty much obligatory if you at all have the budget for it. In order to find a substitute for the amount of variety and breadth in their catalogue you'd probably need to buy albums from 10 or 20 other artists -- and it'd still be hard to match the Beatles either for variety or quality. Just two albums alone -- Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's -- will give you about 20 bands in one while being brilliantly unified.

Throw in some greatest hits collections from Hendrix, the Kinks, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, and that's a good start as far as '60s rock. (Of course, some would include Dylan and the Velvet Underground. Dylan seems to mostly appeal to people who focus on lyrics, which I don't. The Velvet Underground wins huge points for pointing the way to future decades, but they're not as central to the '60s itself as the aforementioned artists.)

If you want to distill '50s rock to the very basics: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly. They're the 4 who resonate most strongly today. You can easily get a strong representation of them with one "best of" album each.

Of course there are many more essentials, but you have to start somewhere. That's where I'd start with '50s and '60s rock. (Other genres have been covered well already.)

And don't forget doo wop!
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:57 PM on November 17, 2009

My parents were avid record collectors and as I child, I loved going through their old vinyl lps and 45s. Some of my favorites from the 50s were:

Dizzy Gillespie
Charlie Parker
Miles Davis
Chet Baker
Ray Charles
Jackie Wilson
Dinah Washington
Sarah Vaughn
Ella Fitzgerald

From what I remember my mom telling me, there were basically two types of music lovers in those days: people who listened to the safe, homogenized, non-threatening music of Perry Como, Doris Day, Pat Boone, etc. and on the flip side, "bad" people, people who listened to "soul-corrupting" jazz and "dirty" rock and roll. Verve Records was always a dependable source of good ear food.

From the the 60s, you should check out the so-called "girls groups" like The Shirelles, The Supremes, The Ronettes, etc and artists from Motown's label. Wind your way through some Dan Hicks, Etta James, and Frank Zappa, then come out the other side, if you dare, and wallow in the mind-blowing and at times, disturbingly amusing experience of a prog-rock concept album. Try some King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, The Strawbs, Renaissance, and Pink Floyd on for size.

I think you're in for a treat; everyone above has offered some great suggestions.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:57 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have 30,000 songs in my itunes collection from the 50s and 60s, all rated four or more stars. I wouldn't even know how to begin to tell you to answer that question. 20 years is a lot of time for music to be made, and it was made all around the world, in all sorts of genres, and a lot of it was recorded, and, thanks to digitizing, most of it is widely available.

You mention rock and roll in your title, but even that is a broad category. At just the start of the 50s alone, there were multiple streams feeding into rock and rool, including jump blues and rhythm and blues, not to mention blues shouting and certain crooners like Dean martin and Billy Eckstein, both of whom Elvis borrowed heavily from -- and that's not even looking into the country influence on early rock and roll. There's doo wop, there's country swing, and, when rock and roll starts getting recognized as its own genre, there is rockabilly.

We're up to about 1951 now, and rock starts branching off almost instantly. There's instrumental rock, there is boogie woogie-based rock and roll, there's surf music, there's a lot of r&b based dance crazes, and, when we start moving to the 60s, there's frat rock and early garage rock and girl groups. And we start seeing the popularity of folk rock, and the British invasion, which is actually a series of invasions that have their own subgenres, such as Merseybeat. And there were a lot of stylistic experiments in the 60s, including psychedlia and fusion. And I feel like I'm just scratcing the surface here in naming genres, much less specific artists, and we're only discussing rock and roll. Country music has a similar narrative during the 60s, and there's the entire side of the charts that includes soul, the development of funk, regional rhythm and blues (just naming R&B artsits from New Orleans that are worth listening to would be an undertaking.) There was also a blues revival, and a great deal of blues inspired rock music, especially from England.

And Frank Sinatra was still scoring hits in the late 60s, and dominated the charts through much of the era you mentiom, along with other artists who did American popular jazz. And jazz, whoo, don't even get me started. Bop, post bop, hard bop, soul jazz, Afro-Cuban, west Coast cool, bossa nova jazz, and more. There are some awesome and generally overlooked developments in gospel. There's an awful lot of music made internationally that manages to get heard in America. There are various sorts of easy listening, including exotica.

It's a tough question you have asked, because it's so huge, and I can tell you have sort of missed those decades because you don't know how huge the question is. My suggestion is that you just start working your way through the charts of the era. You should be able to hear almost all of these songs online, and pop charts in the 50s and 60s weren't as limited as they are now -- there was sort of an amazing variety that showed up on them. It's a good starting place, although a lot of my favorite music from the time never showed up on no charts nowhere.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:17 PM on November 17, 2009

Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly.

Work back from those into the blues, especially acts like Joe Turner. Then listen to all of Phil Spector's girl groups. Then move forward into the 60's output of the Beatles and the Kinks.

You will be a happier person.
posted by kensington314 at 1:19 PM on November 17, 2009

Man, what a loaded question? Akin to asking, so what actually happened during World War 2? (but nicer)

A few touch points:

1. JAZZ was in its full-on take no prisoners maturity the 1950s (beebop in particular), lots of good names mentioned already. Take a look at any reputable Top Albums list of 1950s and it's mostly Jazz and/or Classical.

2. Rock + Roll in its infancy and pre-puberty in the 1950s. The 7-inch 45 tells the story and will continue to until roughly 1965.

3. Teenage Rock + Roll (and this includes Motown, Stax etc) drops acid in about 1965 and everything goes brilliantly f***ing haywire. Rock (no longer necessarily tied to Roll) achieves deep seriousness (if not maturity). The long playing rock album as an art form is here to stay, for better or for worse.

4. Everything else. If it's quality you want, always steer clear of the main road. A single case in point: the Spaghetti Western soundtrack recordings of Ennio Morricone ("The Good The Bad and the Ugly" etc). The 1960s will always sound like this to me. Drama, humor, sunlight, great melodies, distorted electric guitar.
posted by philip-random at 2:09 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Rate Your Music: 50s, 60s. You can also go by year.
posted by Rinku at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's worth mentioning that the 50s/60s were a global boom decade, not just in the UK/US, e.g:

Ska (Prince Buster), rocksteady (The Maytals) and reggae (Bob Marley) in Jamaica
Soukous (Franco) in the DRC
Highlife (E.T. Mensah) in English speaking west Africa
Latin Jazz (which I know nothing about)

and so on...
posted by Erberus at 2:17 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by howgenerica at 2:21 PM on November 17, 2009

Rock and R&B look like they're getting plenty of representation. But you also missed the golden age of bluegrass and the best of Southern gospel. Both are pretty uncool these days, I think — Southern Christian rural white culture picked up some bad associations during the civil rights movement, and hasn't always aged well — but both were huge unacknowledged influences on rock and roll and produced some seriously good musicians. For bluegrass, start with Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers. The Southern gospel might be more of an acquired taste, but maybe try the Blackwood Brothers or the Statesmen Quartet.

And oh, it's been said already, but you need to listen to Ray Charles's early stuff. Up through 1965 or so he was simply, effortlessly, flawlessly good on everything he recorded. He never lost the musical brilliance, but his good taste started shorting out intermittently.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:25 PM on November 17, 2009

If you can find the Time-Life Rock 'n' Roll Era series, you'll get a pretty comprehensive list of songs for each year of the mid-to-late 50s and into the early 60s. My mom had this collection when my brother and I were kids (in the 80s and early 90s) and I'm sure we were the only kids who knew who all of the characters in "Splish Splash" were. I bought the collection on CD for my mom a couple of years ago by trolling eBay for a couple of months -- be careful if you do this because the British and American versions are different and reflect the hits on each side of the pond.

Also, Jive Bunny was another one we listened to all the time -- mashups of 50s and 60s songs. You've probably heard some of those mixes at weddings.
posted by pised at 3:41 PM on November 17, 2009

Don't forget folk, including the Kingston Trio, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:24 PM on November 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for all the great suggestions.
posted by netbros at 6:18 PM on November 24, 2009

I can't believe I forgot to mention Roy Harper. Go with Flat Baroque and Berserk to see if you're willing to wade through some of the denser stuff.
posted by cmoj at 2:49 PM on November 25, 2009

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