Styles & Forms | Fifties Pop Singer-Songwriters

Until the advent of rock’n’roll, pop singers and songwriters were, for the most part, divided into two separate camps. The singers were typically faced with the daunting task of unearthing new hit material, unless, like Frank Sinatra, they were so esteemed that they had the best songwriters in the business lining up to write for them.

All of this began to change in the mid-1950s, however, as pop music commenced its evolution into a do-it-yourself art form in which, as with country and western and the blues, the performance of a song was often less about perfection than about feel.

Rockabilly singer-songwriter Carl Perkins secured his own place in pop history by way of his one major chart hit, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, which became a rock’n’roll anthem when it was covered by Elvis Presley in 1956. At around the same time, the R&B field delivered the likes of Little Richard (real name Richard Penniman), an electrifying, gospel-rooted singer/pianist who co-wrote many of his biggest hits, including ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘She’s Got It’, ‘Keep A Knockin’’, ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’ and ‘Jenny, Jenny’; and singer/guitarist Bo Diddley (born Otha Ellas Bates), innovator of the pounding, Latin-tinged rhythm and beat that infused not only self-referential compositions such as ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘Diddley Daddy’, but also numerous classic songs by other artists down the years, such as The Strangeloves’ ‘I Want Candy’, Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’, Johnny Otis’s ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’, Shirley And Company’s ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’, George Michael’s ‘Faith’ and U2’s ‘Desire’.

Pure Poetry For A New Generation

Nevertheless, perhaps the single most influential singer-songwriter of the era was Chuck Berry, whose driving guitar licks and topical, witty and ingeniously quick-fire, poetic lyrics pretty much defined rock’n’roll. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Edward Anderson Berry threw country, R&B and boogie-woogie into the mix when concocting major chart hits such as ‘Maybellene’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’. The results were pure poetry for a new generation of car-cruising, guitar-strumming, record-playing, dancing and dating teens. As John Lennon once said, ‘If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.’

As attested to by his chart success and influence over 1960s superstars ranging from The Beach Boys and The Beatles to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, Berry had little trouble appealing to white audiences. Meanwhile, another singer-songwriter who made a more concerted effort in that regard was Sam Cooke, who crossed over from his gospel origins as the lead singer with The Soul Stirrers to lend his sublime voice to self-penned mainstream white pop, flavoured with an assortment of soul, R&B and, on occasion, unadulterated kitsch. In 1957, Cooke enjoyed his first solo American No. 1 with ‘You Send Me’, a romantic ballad complemented by white backing vocalists, and moved even further away from his roots with overtly commercial...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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