NPR – Rock and Roll Summer School – Singers Influences

29 09 2009

Original article and broadcast available on NPR

Rock ‘n’ Roll Summer School: Singers And Their Influences

Every Wednesday this summer, we’re offering a quick course in early rock ‘n’ roll. Your professor will be Tom Moon, NPR contributor and author of the book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. These overviews, mostly from the 1950s, are not intended to be comprehensive, but to help curious listeners dive in and explore some of the genre’s often-overlooked building blocks. Whether you’re a novice or a rock snob, join the conversation below.

by Tom Moon

The young rock singers of the 1950s picked up tricks of the trade from all corners, but primarily from the world of rhythm and blues: Elvis Presley was a huge Jackie Wilson fan, while Buddy Holly and others idolized the smooth delivery of Sam Cooke. And then there’s Ray Charles, who taught everybody.

Wilson, the singing and dancing dynamo, remains one of the chronically under-appreciated influences on early rock — check his 1957 hit “Reet Petite” to hear mannerisms that spread like wildfire through the rock ‘n’ roll ranks. He was a rhythmic demon, able to “juice” the music just by changing the inflection on seemingly ordinary phrases. (Alas, live video of that tune and Wilson’s other early hits is hard to find.)

Cooke, meanwhile, brought a patient gospel singer’s temperament to his vocals, infusing his lines with an earnest, almost devotional sweetness. Here’s Cooke performing the hit “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Not all the inspiration came from men. In the mid-’50s, female R&B singers like Ruth Brown changed the game, combining blues-belter lung power with spry rhythmic agility and a sense of attitude later seized by everyone from The Ronettes to Bonnie Raitt. Here’s Brown performing her 1955 hit “Teardrops From My Eyes.”

It was probably inevitable that young upstarts of the 1950s would turn to R&B for inspiration — after all, R&B was flat-out thriving at the time. If you find yourself curious about other stylists who helped teach rock ‘n’ rollers to sing, check out Johnny Otis, Esther Phillips, Wynonie Harris, Etta James, Lloyd Price, Big Joe Turner and Dinah Washington, to name just a few.


Ray Charles: “What’d I Say”
Jackie Wilson: “Reet Petite”
Sam Cooke: “You Send Me”
Ruth Brown: “Teardrops From My Eyes”

Wynonie Harris: “Good Rockin’ Tonight”
Johnny Otis: “Willie and the Hand Jive”
Etta James: “Tough Lover”


Even if they didn’t have experience singing swing, all the great R&B singers understood the feeling of swing rhythm. Which of the rockers picked that up?

Is there a figure from rock’s first decade whose sound doesn’t reflect the influence of R&B?




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