Elvis Presley “Elvis Presley” (1956)

         In 1956, American television audiences were introduced to Elvis Presley for the first time.  Although many believe his first television appearance was on the Ed Sullivan Show, he actually appeared two months earlier on the competing Steve Allen Show, as well as previous stints on Milton Berle and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show.  None of these hosts knew what to do with Elvis.  They weren’t that impressed with his talent or his taste in music, and they were certainly not enamored with his style of performance.  All of that aside, they recognized ratings gold when they saw it and negotiated in earnest with Colonel Tom Parker for a piece of the Elvis Presley money pie.

     As a national sensation, Elvis was following the release of his first full length album, “Elvis Presley”, released in March of 1956.  Rated as the #332 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Album of All Time, this first professional release builds on the raw sound of the Sun Sessions material.  I have mixed opinions on this album, even as a passionate Elvis fan since I began following his music and career in the early 1970s.  The album kicks off with the instantly familiar sound of “Blue Suede Shoes”, and I will fully confess I was hoping for more of the classic Elvis hits I assumed would populate this debut.  However, the rest of the album is a combination of less familiar tunes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and versions of songs that just don’t match up to their more famous renditions.  As much as I love Elvis and prefer his take on “Blue Suede Shoes” versus the original recorded by Carl Perkins, his take on “Tutti Frutti” or “I Got A Woman” just fall flat next to Little Richard and Ray Charles.  I am much more partial to his take on “Blue Moon”, a haunting vocal with alternating falsetto that contrasts and highlights the unbelievable vocal gifts Elvis possessed.

     It is hard to process how Elvis transformed from a relatively unknown aspiring country singer to the face of the emerging sound of rock and roll, peaking as the most famous musical artist of the 20th century.  Every stop on Elvis’s progression is worthy of study and consideration, and this debut is no exception.  In my view, it provides the dynamic brilliance and moments of inconsistency that marked his entire career.  It would have been fascinating to see Elvis emerge in a slightly different era when he could have had more artistic control over the songs and career choices he opted for, but no matter what, when I first hear “Well, it’s one for the money…”, I know I am listening to the King of Rock and Roll.

Harry Belafonte “Calypso” (1956)

          Starting in 1956, Billboard began tracking album sales in addition to single recordings.  As I have previously noted, one of the nets I cast to ensure a wide diversity and chronological sampling of the music of my lifetime was to include the number one selling album for each year.  Kicking off this data set is the album “Calypso” by Harry Belafonte.

     As one might hope, this island trade wind kicks off with the infamous “Banana Boat (Day-O)”.  Although not my proudest moment, I can’t help but think of the ridiculous scene in the movie “Beetlejuice”.  With this being the most instantly recognizable song on the album, I was surprised to hear a nearly identical version later in the album, “Star-O”.  Following the opening hit single is “Jamaica Farewell”, a simple and beautiful tropical ballad.  The rest of the album contains a mix of up-tempo and soft sounds, a perfect listen when you are on the water, or at least sailing away in your mind.  Another track that really caught my ear was “Come Back Liza”, which has a series of alluring harmonies, I believe with Harry’s voice double-tracked.  The instrumentation is simple and safely flowing in the background, really allowing his accented voice to shine through.

     I have to confess, if you would have asked me who the #1 selling artist was in 1956, I probably would not have had Harry Belafonte in my Top 5.  However, as I reflected on that, it makes me happy that even then, the musical branches of the world were spreading beyond the roots of blues, jazz, and country to embrace new sounds and different artists.  Beyond this highly successful commercial success, Belafonte has not only led a life of musical accomplishment, he has been a passionate and highly influential voice in the civil rights movement.  His association with Dr. Martin Luther King made him a visible figure during the confrontational 1960s, and he has continued to fight worldwide against apartheid and other civil injustices.  At 93 years of age, Harry Belafonte is the first artist on my list still with us today.  Hopefully somewhere he is embracing a warm breeze at his back as he sails onward a few knots ahead of the rest of us.

Ella Fitzgerald “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” (1956)

          Today’s collection is a beautiful collaboration, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook”.  This double studio album, recorded in 1956, is the 8th rated album on gq.com’s Top 10 Jazz Albums of All Time.  This is my first female vocalist on the list, and what an outstanding choice she is.

     Several things captured my attention listening to this album.  First, it’s amazing how pure and perfect Ella’s voice sounded here.  Her tone and range on “Anything Goes” is simply spectacular.  It must also be said, it is remarkable how many standard classics all came from the creative mind of Cole Porter.  Beyond the magic of “Anything Goes”, “Too Darn Hot”, “In the Still of the Night”, “I Get A Kick Out of You”, “Let’s Do It”, “All of You”, “From This Moment On”, “You’re The Top”, “Love for Sale”, “Don’t Fence Me In”, and the timeless “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”…  it’s hard to imagine any other songwriter so productive in the creation of songs that not only narrate the first half of the 20th century, they live on every day in today’s pop culture, in our movies, television shows and theatrical productions.  With that arsenal of songs, Ella’s flawless vocals and top-notch orchestral accompaniment, this album flows seamlessly with her peers of jazz and pop standards.

     It is impossible for me to contemplate the music of Ella Fitzgerald without thinking of the cruel and inhumane treatment she and many other artists on this list were subjected to as they fought for basic respect and dignity.  How appalling is it that she was good enough grace our stages and come over our airwaves, yet not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, or be offered the same basic rights all humans deserve?  Any historical reflection is incomplete without acknowledging our collective failures and more importantly, our continuing opportunity to do better and be better.  Today I raise my glass to Ella Fitzgerald and all artists who persevered on with grace, regardless of their race, gender, religion or sexual preference.  Thanks to her and all who keep working to make our world a better place.   

Clifford Brown “Clifford Brown With Strings” (1956)

          One day after the melancholy mood of Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours”, I was fortunate enough to discover the instrumental equivalent.  And when I say discover, I truly mean discover, as this was my first exposure to jazz trumpet master Clifford Brown on the 1956 album, “Clifford Brown with Strings”.  Rated by gq.com as the 6th greatest jazz album of all time, this collection of classics takes me right back to the same place I left a day before.

     Raised in Delaware and perfecting his craft in Philadelphia, Clifford Brown was recognized by artists like Dizzy Gillespie for his technical expertise and beautiful tone.  On a song we all recognize, “Blue Moon”, his treatment of this melody re-opened my eyes to the beauty of instrumental leads and our ability to fill in the blanks with our own memories of the lyrics.  For me, other highlights on this beautiful album were “When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Stardust”, a song that is very meaningful to me as I relate it to my son and his musically talented friends.

     Unlike many of his peers, Clifford Brown was never consumed by the temptation of substance.  However, sadly like many of his peers, his life ended way too early.  Driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike late one evening, he and two others were tragically killed the same year this album was created.  To this day, he remains a highly rated and influential jazz powerhouse whose music continues to thrive.  I’m grateful for opening this door, this was exactly the kind of musical exposure I was aspiring to as I began this journey.

Frank Sinatra “In The Wee Small Hours” (1955)

          Every part of the day has a different feeling, a different vibe.  The cool and crisp energy of an emerging sunrise, the bustle and burgeoning warmth of the rising sun, the hectic pace of a chaotic morning, the relaxing downshift of the lunch hour and early afternoon, the offsetting joy and tension of the escape from work, and the second burst of energy that comes when we prepare for that long-awaited evening out.  Well… this album is about none of those. 

     We all know it too well.  It’s late… really late.  You don’t really want to sleep, and you probably couldn’t if you tried.  Something isn’t right in the world… she’s not there and you wish she was.  Maybe she’s just away, maybe she’s gone and not coming back, and maybe you just haven’t met her yet.  Right now, it doesn’t matter why.  The club is empty, your glass is even emptier, and the lights are low.  Your house is quiet and the flickering TV stares back at you.  As your car pierces the dark pavement ahead, you wonder why you are the only one out here, and why are you here in the first place?  When you step outside…it’s just too quiet.  No birds, no cars, no anything.  All you know is, she isn’t there… and you are.

     And there you have the brilliance of Frank Sinatra’s 1955 album, “In the Wee Small Hours”.  This masterpiece, released as a full album, not only breaks new ground as a collective release, it is commonly considered to be one of the first “concept” albums ever released in modern music.  I mentioned that a previous selection, “Swing Easy!” was selected to present the up-tempo, swinging side of Frank as he ruled the room.  This album, created with exactly that melancholy mood intended, is a collection of songs that capture that empty feeling we all know, or have known, all too well.  From the opening title track, the down-tempo soft sounds perfectly reflect this dark and empty loneliness, with your only consolation being that somewhere out there, someone else feels it too.  Even Frank, who was going through a lot of isolation and sadness as he recorded this album with intent and purpose, felt it too.  The album was recorded late in the evening, just as these words are being written now.

     “Glad to Be Unhappy”, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, “When Your Lover Has Gone”, “I’ll Never Be the Same”… they all prove the same thing we learned from Delta blues or honky-tonk heartbreak.  When you are in love and happy, all is mostly right with the world.  But whether you are or not, if she’s not there, there is no time your mind races faster than In the Wee Small Hours.

Elvis Presley “The Sun Sessions” (1954)

          In 1954, a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi made his way to the musical epicenter in Memphis.  Working with producer Sam Phillips, who ran Sun Studios, the voice of Elvis Aaron Presley quickly garnered attention with his version of “That’s Alright”, the song most of us look back on as Elvis’s entrance to a world who would embrace and celebrate him like few others.

     The album “The Sun Sessions”, captures sixteen tracks Elvis recorded in 1954 and 1955 as he was trying to make a name for himself in an evolving musical time.  It still stands as the #78 rated album on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  This collection wasn’t ultimately released until 1976, but is a phenomenal time capsule for all of us imagining being in a studio or small club and encountering the sounds and sight of this remarkably striking performer for the first time.  The production is simple, and if you can put yourself in the shoes of a new audience discovering Elvis, it is inconceivable to think you would not be taken back by his vocal talents as well as his presence and charisma.

     I love this album from beginning to end for its pure sound and raw energy, even on the bluesy ballads.  Of all the tracks, there is probably no better outlet for the range and unique power of Elvis’s voice than “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.  Other highlights include “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Mystery Train”, tracks that live on not only through Elvis but in dozens of subsequent cover versions by artists we all listen to every day.  Even in his earliest days, the impact of these songs had a massive influence on the evolution of music through the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.  Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page credits the song “Baby, Let’s Play House” as his inspiration for picking up a guitar, and artists like The Beatles shaped their sound as young teens in the late 1950s learning Elvis songs (as well as his peers of the day) and mimicking his on-stage persona.

     By the end of the 1950s, Elvis had been consumed by a world of excessive fan obsession, mediocre movies and the continuous move forward of musical trends.  That being said, this collection helps to illustrate the roots of his meteoric rise to fame and his unmatched delivery and style, proving to a TV and film generation that while music matters most, the visual element of a performer adds an entirely different element to their ability to appeal to wide audiences.  Elvis.. he was the entire package and the real deal.

Ray Charles “The Birth of Soul” (1954)

          For at least 30 years, I have maintained that my favorite singing voice of all time is Ray Charles, and nothing on this collection leads me astray in that belief.  As soon as Ray leaned into the first track, “The Sun’s Gonna Shine Again”, a huge smile came across my face and I knew I was in for a good day.

     Like many of the albums early on my list, this collection is actually a compilation of singles as most artists focused on single releases vs. full album releases during this time period.  The collection includes 53 songs, stretching for two and a half hours, covering a seven-year period from 1952 to 1959 when Ray recorded for Atlantic Records.  It was first released as a compilation in 1961, but I sequenced it in the early 1950s when he was first hitting his stride as a recording artist.  This album is rated #210 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     It’s hard to go wrong with any song Ray Charles is singing, and for new ears, some of the highlights include “I’ve Got A Woman” from 1954, and “What’d I Say” from 1959.  Movie fans may recognize the raucous rocker “Mess Around” from 1953 as the song John Candy enjoyed perhaps a little bit too much in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.  Another gem from this collection is “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)”.  If you listen to the chords, tempo and song structure, it is remarkably similar to his most well-known song “Georgia On My Mind”, which is not in this collection.  If there are any doubts to the genuine soul and ability of Charles on the piano, check out the instrumental track “A Bit of Soul”.

     This probably won’t be the last time we hear from Ray Charles on this journey, but there is no match for the authentic, raw and minimalist sound of these early releases.  As I prepare to wrap up today’s summary, I will bring you back to the opening song, “The Sun’s Gonna Shine Again”.  It certainly rings true as we all look ahead to better days in early 2021, and I guarantee you it will be 2 minutes and 36 seconds you will be glad you invested in your day, particularly if it has been a tough one.  Turn down the lights, get comfortable, and grab your favorite drink.  No matter how grey and cold it was today, the sun IS gonna shine again.  Thanks, Ray.

Frank Sinatra “Swing Easy!” (1954)

          On today’s album, American crooner icon Frank Sinatra makes his debut with the 1954 album “Swing Easy!”.  This album wasn’t found on any Top 100/500 list, but I had to include it for three simple reasons.  First, my initial collection only included one Sinatra album, which seemed insufficient given his massive influence on a generation of fans around the world.  Second, I added this album in contrast to another which will come up subsequently, for comparisons of style and approach.  And third, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t think I could look my Dad in the eyes if I had to explain to him why “The Chairman of the Board” only had one album on my list.

     “Swing Easy!” proved to be everything I hoped and expected it would be.  A consistently upbeat and up-tempo collection of standards, Frank is at his dashing best, joined by a ~15-piece ensemble of horns & rhythm, conducted by Nelson Riddle.  Instantly recognizable are tracks like “Jeepers Creepers” and “Just One of Those Things”.  If any song best represents this collection and the timeframe it was released, it is the classic “Get Happy”.  At this point, America was moving beyond the dark times of World War II and the Korean War and was in a relative state of growth, simplicity, and exuberance.  One of the last major releases before the sound of mainstream rock and roll began to emerge, this collection of Sinatra tracks exemplifies his dominant run on American charts in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

     In relation to many of the artists of the time, Frank lived a long and relatively happy and successful life, and through all of his ups and downs in life and as a performer, his reputation as the world’s premier crooner stands unchallenged to this day.  Frank Sinatra and his music has a permanent place on my playlist and in my heart for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.  When I’m in the mood for something elegant, sophisticated, confident, and figuratively at the head of the table, there just isn’t a better choice.

Charlie Parker “The Magnificent Charlie Parker” (1953)

          Day Three brings me to another icon of mid-century American music, jazz saxophone master innovator Charlie Parker.   The album “Yardbird Suite” from 1953 is rated as the #5 selection on gq.com’s list of 100 best jazz albums.  As will be the case with some of these older finds, I could not find this exact album on my streaming music service, so I went with a comparable release, “The Magnificent Charlie Parker”.

     Emerging in the 1940s in the Harlem jazz scene, Charlie Parker secured his place among jazz legends playing with other giants of the scene such as Miles Davis.  He has been credited with advancing the sound to a place where jazz was fully embraced by the underground scene of the 1950s.  Like my other two studies before him, Charlie experienced a difficult and short run of greatness before dying too soon in 1955.  Familiar demons of addiction hold no borders in geography or musical sound.

     I will acknowledge jazz music, while highly influential in modern music, has not always been an easy listen for me.  The frenetic and scattered pace of the most up-tempo songs sends me searching for a more soothing sound and robust melody.  However, this collection covers all the bases, and I eased in to a place of warmth and comfort with songs like “K.C. Blues” and “Blues for Alice”.  Midway through the album, multiple tracks with vocals, including the classic “In the Still of the Night” added a change of pace, before returning to the pattern of solo sax, trumpet, piano and bass blended in the ensemble beginning and conclusion.

     As is the case with any style of music, jazz captures a mood, a vibe and a feeling.  As I listened to this album while walking on a cold, grey and misty winter day, I found myself longing to be in a warm club beside a fire, listening to this incredibly smooth and alluring sound with good company, an assortment of food and drink, and the sense that nothing else would matter within this bubble.  Although I may not make it to that cocoon of musical heaven of pre-pandemic New York City today, I am very confident that as I close my eyes tonight, I will drift off again to the sounds of Charlie Parker and the age when jazz ruled supreme north of 110th street.

Hank Williams “40 Greatest Hits” (1950)

          On Day Two, we stay in the American south, moving ahead 13 years to look at the music and life of Hank Williams.  Rated as album # 132 by Rolling Stone on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, “Hank Williams 40 Greatest Hits” lays the next major foundation of a lifetime of music for those who enjoy country and/or rock and roll music.  A remarkably gifted vocalist and songwriter, Hank was an extremely productive and successful performer during his short and volatile life and career.  Despite battling the demons of pain, addiction and alcoholism for all of his adult life, a performing career that spanned from 1937 to 1953 delivered a canon of songs that remains legendary.

     On most of his recordings, Hank and his guitar are backed by guitar, bass, steel guitar and fiddle.  One of the biggest impacts from listening to this collection was the wide variety of songs.  From upbeat classics like “Move It On Over”, made famous once again by George Thorogood & The Destroyers, to timeless classic hits like “Hey, Good Lookin”, the variety of song patterns and styles were a notable step forward.  Beautiful, sad ballads such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” surround the Cajun euphoria of “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)”, and the collection even includes several spoken-word performances that stir the image of a traveling preacher seeking salvation from a sympathetic ear.

     Not unlike the blues, most of these songs speak to the heart, whether it be happy in love or broken in devastation.  With his gentle southern twang and other-worldly falsetto, this catalog of songs overflows with the authenticity that I find lacking in most of today’s country music, seemingly delivered by a stable of models who coincidentally can carry a tune.  The lyrics are full of hurt, seasoned with a dose of spice.  As he sings in “Mind Your Own Business”, “If you mind your own business, you won’t be minding mine.”

     Sadly, like many performers of his time and beyond, Williams ultimately fell victim to his demons, and he died in 1953, as his career continued to burst upwards and sideways with fame, relative fortune, and the disaster of marred and missed performances.  Seventy years later, he is still regarded as one of, if not the, true founders and kings of country music, with his songs living on through the performances of the biggest names to follow him on to the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and to audiences worldwide.

     Listening to this collection was an unexpected gift, and you can add my name to a long list of fans who still look to Hank Williams for musical inspiration and a dose of real American music legacy.