NPR – Rock and Roll Summer School – The Songwriters

4 10 2009

The original article and broadcast can be found on NPR

Rock ‘n’ Roll Summer School: The Songwriters

by Tom Moon

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 covering music 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.


Haters had a field day during the first decade of rock ‘n’ roll. Almost as soon as it appeared, the sensation was derided as animalistic and uncouth, the reckless expression of uncontrolled hormonal urges.

That’s only part of what makes the music great. The performers had to have something to sing, and in the early days, the lucky ones snagged tunes that were as streamlined as a 12-bar blues and blessed with glowing, irresistible melodies. An astounding stack of those tunes (including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “On Broadway” and “Yakety Yak”) were written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the powerhouse tandem that brought cunning wit and sharp production values to “that crazy kids’ music.”

Here’s one key breakthrough, “Hound Dog,” which was recorded by Big Mama Thornton a few years before Elvis Presley covered it. Check out the young Buddy Guy on guitar:



The rapid ascent of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s created serious demand for songs, and gave rise to a new cadre of tunesmiths. These behind-the-scenes talents, including the great lyricist Doc Pomus (“This Magic Moment” and “A Teenager in Love”), understood rock as a visceral experience — and still managed to infuse songs about teen romance with a knowing adult perspective.

Pretty soon, though, performers began writing their own songs. Arguably the first great rock singer-songwriter was Buddy Holly, who borrowed elements of the frameworks used by Leiber and Stoller and then added his own infectious hook-phrases and guitar riffs. Holly’s works, including the great “Peggy Sue” that’s linked below, show that at its best, rock songwriting can be something more than nonsense syllables; it can be a thrillingly simple, even elegant, expression of desire.


Big Mama Thornton: “Hound Dog”
The Coasters: “Yakety Yak”
Dion and the Belmonts: “A Teenager in Love”
Buddy Holly and the Crickets: “Peggy Sue”

Ben E. King and the Drifters: “Save the Last Dance for Me”
Chuck Berry: “Roll Over Beethoven”

Which was more important to the development of rock ‘n’ roll: the intense energy of the performers, or the melodies written by Leiber and Stoller and others?

Besides blues form (and its derivations), are there other musical traits that turn up in many of the great early rock songs?



One response

5 10 2009

As with a lot of popular music, the artists usually brought attention to the songs. But the songs had to have some kind of “staying power” (i.e. well-written) in order to be considered successful. As for other influences besides blues, I think classical music shows up in some of those early songs in the form of some of their melodies.


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