What we now call the “Rock N’ Roll Era” for all intents and purposes begins in 1955. There had certainly been songs done in the rock n’ roll vein prior to ’55, particularly those done by black artists and confined to the R&B charts and radio stations. And 1954 saw the release of “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets, which was the first big rock n’ roll hit, the first rock n’ roll song by a white artist and probably the first rockabilly hit as well. But 1955 is when the music really exploded onto the airwaves- when legends like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles & Bo Diddley first surfaced and Elvis Presley too, even if then just on a regional level.
Aside from rockabilly, the components that made up rock n’ roll- Doo Wop, country music and western swing & the blues had been going strong at least since the end of the previous decade. Because the Rock N’ Roll Era is no ‘Big Bang Theory’, plenty of these genres flourished throughout ’55 and many are now considered part of rock n’ roll’s pantheon. Doo Wop morphed from successful thirties and early forties vocal groups like the Ink Spots and the Miller Brothers into something more rhythmic, starting with songs like “Crying In The Chapel” by the Orioles in the late forties. By 1955 there were countless vocal groups having R&B hits and many even crossed over to the pop charts. Some were one hit wonders and others built longer careers. The best-known Doo Wop hit makers of 1955 were the Platters (of “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”), the Clovers (“Blue Velvet”), the Cadillacs (“Speedo”), the El Dorados (“At My Front Door” and “I’ll Be Forever Loving You”) and the Nutmegs (“Story Untold” and “Ship Of Love”). Gospel groups like Chicago’s Soul Stirrers, featuring soon to be soul music star Sam Cooke, were successful outside the reaches of the secular charts. Other black vocal groups like the Drifters, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters were vocal groups who were more similar to straight up rock n’ roll than to Doo-Wop.
Elvis Presley’s big breakthrough would come in 1956 with his first huge hit “Heartbreak Hotel”, but he was doing amazing and important work with Memphis’s Sun Records in 1954 and 1955. 1955 saw the release of tracks like “Mystery Train” and “Baby Let’s Play House” which are now considered rock n’ roll standards even if they were never actual hits. Presley helped invent the rockabilly sound, which was a mix of country music with the rhythmic beat of R&B. Sam Phillips, who ran Sun, had a stable of amazing artists. Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t release music as early as 1955, but others like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins did. Perkins made rockabilly in the same vein as Presley. His career was cut short by an injury in the late 50’s and he never had Presley’s sex appeal but his recordings at the time were near uniformly great. Johnny Cash needs no introduction. He is one of the most important country artists of all time and is also considered a titan of early rock n’ roll. Though he wouldn’t have his first big hit until 1956, singles from 1955 like “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” are among his best. Another huge country star, the legendary George Jones, released his first hits in 1955 as well included the great “Why, Baby, Why”. “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford is another enduring country classic from ’55, which also became a #1 pop hit.
Most Blues music didn’t cross over to the pop charts. Some of it hit the R&B charts in the mid 50’s and others remained mostly unknown, at least by the white crossover audience, until groups of 60’s British bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Animals & the Yardbirds made them widely known with their own covers. In 1955 Chess Records in Chicago was the preeminent Blues record label. Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter & Sonny Boy Williamson all recorded for Chess and released great music that year. Furthermore, Chess had signed the great Chuck Berry, perhaps rock n’ roll’s first great star. His songs “Maybelline” and “30 Days” were two of rock n’ roll’s early landmarks. Atlantic Records was also a key label for both blues and early soul. Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker were the labels biggest early stars. Charles, perhaps as early as 1955 with the huge hit “I’ve Got A Woman” began to craft what would become soul music.
Pop crooners were also a big deal in 1955. Frank Sinatra, released the first of his string of mid to late 50’s classic albums with the somber “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning”, called the first concept album by some. Sinatra’s compadre Dean Martin had one of his biggest hits with “Memories Are Made Of This”. Silky, smooth jazz singer Chet Baker released his second album, which includes the wonderful “Let’s Get Lost” among others.
There was plenty of great music made prior to 1955 in Doo-Wop, Blues, Country & R&B, but 1955 is when it all seemed to come together to form something truly new. And from here on out things would get really interesting.