The greatest rock & roll record of all time.

I was recently asked if I could name one record that epitomizes rock & roll—one track that embodies its spirit and pulse, in all its insolent glory. A preposterously tall order I thought. But I was already hooked.

So I pondered the great rock tours-de-force over the years, from 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones to 'Rock & Roll Hoochie Coo' by Rick Derringer to 'Old Time Rock & Roll' by Bob Seger. I thought I might even include a recent tune for my short list: Green Day's 'Know Your Enemy'.

But the truth be told, these songs—and many other such classics from the last four decades—rocked more than rolled. The real heart and soul of this musical revolution, in my humble opinion, is best captured in the swaying, fluid rhythms of its 1950s pioneers—the true R&R architects—who had some swing in their rock.

But so many choices still! There's Chuck Berry's 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Sweet Little Sixteen'—the very first record I bought (while barely out of the crib). But there's also Elvis's 'Hound Dog' and 'Jail House Rock'. And let's not forget Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On'.

All these tunes had an elegantly simple but audaciously compelling feel. But finally I had to settle on this flawless gem by little Richard Penniman of Macon, Georga—the gay preacher man who terrified the culture police by inciting teen hysterics whenever and wherever he pounded a piano. A drum roll, please, for the greatest rock & roll record of all time…

And here's the original track of the song, sans video. It holds up mighty well fifty-two years later. The vocal is R&R perfection! (Feel free, of course, to register your dissent to this opinionated choice.)

Almost forgot: a business lesson from this? Get sage legal counsel before you sign a contract! With a few exceptions, these early rock & rollers were taken to the car wash by managers, producers, and record companies.

Wishing you a rollicking holiday as you rock around the Christmas tree, Chanukah lights, or Solstice log.

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  1. I'd cast my vote for one of the Everly Brothers tunes but Good Golly rocks.

    You should hold a reader's poll for the greatest rock & roll Christmas song.

  2. And, yeah, taken to the cleaners many of these artists were! Very sad, indeed. It's a great business lesson for sure.

  3. Cal, I was a card carrying member of the Everly Brothers fan club when I was a kid. But for ONE rock & roll song, you just can't beat GGMM.

    Interesting idea about a poll for the greatest R&R Xmas song. My first thought: I'd rather just render my oracular opinion! :-) I like the early ones best: Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee and Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms. Of course Jingle Bell Rock is more of a country pop song, but it's SO well (and slickly) constructed and performed I have to marvel at its "engineering."

  4. That is a great choice John.

    Do I remember The Beatles doing a version of "Good Golly Miss Molly" or is that my imagination working overtime again?

    As regards the greatest rock and roll track of all time how about The Beatles (John Lennon on vocals) version of "Twist and Shout" ... or dare I suggest "Hippy Hippy Shake" by The Swinging Blue Jeans?

    Have a great Xmas my friend and a prosperous 2010!

  5. Judith, many artist managers in those days sought to clean up and clean out their artists.

    Trevor, you're probably thinking of Long Tall Sally, which McCartney loved to sing. The Swinging Blue Jeans did a rather tame version of Good Golly Miss Molly and a decent job on Hippy Hippy Shake. (The Beatles did HHS live on the BBC.) But how did I overlook Twist & Shout?? The Beatles' version would go on my Top 20 - just for Lennon's vocal ALONE! Good catch.

  6. John - I remember - and I may well have told you this story before. When I was a lot, lot, younger I saw Swinging Blue Jeans in a concert. Among the reviews from newspapers of the time there was a report saying that in Liverpool 'clubland' the SBJ were considered a better live act than The Beatles. Wish I'd kept the press clipping.

    The night I saw them live they were absolutely outstanding. Sadly I never saw the Fab Four live so can't compare the two.

    I agree about Lennon's voice on Twist and Shout - incredible.

  7. Judith, it's a sad legacy that the early rock & roll, blues, and R&B acts were so badly exploited.

    Trevor, there were a lot of great live acts - including the SBJ - playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool in that era. From many reports I've heard, the Beatles peaked as a live band BEFORE they had their first big UK hits in 1963. After that the screaming fans and short sets inhibited their development as live performers. But soon they turned their attention to their recordings.

  8. My son asked from the other room, "Is that Little Richard?" He is just seventeen (if you know what I mean) and it made his dad proud. Do you think Little Richard is one of his Facebook friends?

  9. Bob, EVERYBODY knows the "King of Rock & Roll." (But then I wonder, what do we call Chuck Berry? He was the certainly the founder of the R&R guitar school and R&R's first complete songwriter. I think of Richard & Chuck as R&R's two co-founders.)

    Interestingly, with the dozens of emails - and Facebook comments - I've received so far, no one has disagreed with GGMM being the greatest R&R track of all time.

  10. Digital Dreamer came up with the 100 greatest rock songs. The first 10...
    1. Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
    2. Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
    3. Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
    4. Respect - Aretha Franklin
    5. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction - Rolling Stones
    6. Jailhouse Rock - Elvis Presley
    7. A Day In The Life - Beatles
    8. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
    9. Good Vibrations - Beach Boys
    10. What'd I Say - Ray Charles
    -- Gary N

  11. Thanks, Gary. A great top 10 list, but most of these tunes aren't strictly rock & roll of course. Glad to see Little Richard tunes well represented in the top 100.

  12. Greatest song of all time? Let me pose this thought-provoking which genre? Heh, heh, heh!

    Have great holidays John!!!


  13. Guys - all very interesting but I'm afraid you're all wrong! The GREATEST single rock n' roll song, the one that everybody recognises, the one that sets all toes a-tapping and hips a-swinging, the one with lyrics that say it all, the most visceral, the most exciting, the instantly recognisable intro that we all try to play, indeed the first lick we learn to play, the fountain of all that is rock and roll, and well, simply the GREATEST song is...

    "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry.

    Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
    Way back up in the woods among the evergreens,
    There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
    Where lived a country boy name of Jonny B. Goode...
    He never ever learned to read or write so well,
    But he could play the guitar like ringing a bell.

    Mr. Berry might have a few character faults and it's hard to forgive "My Ding-a-ling" but even if this was all he ever did, he'd still be The Man.

  14. Nick, just as "rock" has become a genre of its own, I'm now thinking "rock & roll" is its own genre.

    Mark, welcome back! JBG would be in my Top 10 and I hate to argue against anything Chuck Berry does, BUT JBG just doesn't match the intensity of Good Golly Miss Molly - especially vocally. And I would place "Roll Over Beethoven" just above it too - which is probably why the Beatles featured it in their early repertoire and recorded it as well. But ROB, JBG and Sweet Little 16 may be the best triumvirate of R&R songs by anyone. And Chuck was a brilliant story teller and DID invent R&R guitar playing - as Keith Richards and others have recognized. BTW, I don't take seriously Berry's "character flaws." He was badly victimized by a racist judicial system at the time.

  15. "And I would place "Roll Over Beethoven" just above it too."

    I agree totally, John!

    The beauty in Bob's comment is technology! Gotta love it! Way cool!

  16. Mark, I forgot about Berry's conviction for income tax invasion in 1979, which unlike his other convictions may have been justified. Judith, Chuck Berry was probably the most clever and most imaginative lyricist of the 1950's R&R singer/songwriters - and a hell of a storyteller. Every R&R bar band knows his tunes... Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, Too Much Monkee Business, Rock and Roll Music. But I also LOVE the intensity of Little Richard's singing, writing, and piano-playing. And all the while this gay preacher was struggling (publicly) to reconcile his ministry with his love of rock & roll. What a story. What a character.

  17. Yeah, the Little Richard story is truly amazing and you are right on about his public struggle. I LOVE this guy too! He's undoubtedly a very talented singer and songwriter. Great natural musicianship. I don't think he had one lesson. Chuck Berry too. Did the Beatles and Elvis? They probably just picked it up too. I'm assuming most Rock and Roll musicians do such. This is also something relative here to business. How much is learned and how much is intuitive? Most entrepreneurs tend to to intuitive while executives and consultants are studied. Many are also staid. But it need not be one or the other. What we bring matters and how we integrate knowledge too.

  18. Judith, most of the great rock & rollers were self-taught - or had a few formal lessons when they were kids (often on a different instrument from the one they later mastered). McCartney is an interesting case study: he was surrounded by music growing up, played a little trumpet, then piano as a kid, and only in the mid-1960s (after the Beatles had broken through) did he take formal piano lessons. I don't think Lennon ever took a music lesson in his life. Chuck Berry had a friend show him some guitar techniques when he was a kid. Elvis, who was never considered a great guitar player, did take formal lessons. Not sure about Little Richard.

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