When Little Richard died in 2020, the world lost one of the most important and influential performers of the 20th century. Music scholars have long placed Little Richard on the hypothetical “Mount Rushmore” of rock, an imaginary construct that’s been part of the cultural conversation since the 1960s. However, trying to narrow the great pioneers and founders of rock and roll down to four is nearly impossible, particularly when you consider how many people had a hand in pulling in or creating subgenres, from the blues scholars to doo-wop to rockabilly and more. That’s why a general reframing is in order. Instead of Mount Rushmore, let’s get a bit more mythical and invoke Mount Olympus. That allows 12 chairs, plus one for Hades (a brother of Zeus who declined a place on Olympus) and one for Heracles/Hercules, who rose to Olympus as he died. Here then is the Post’s Mount Olympus of Rock; you’re welcome to counter with your Heliopolis or Takamagahara, but Zeppelin already rules Asgard.
(Note: The Key Tracks are significant singles that fall between the advent of rock and the British Invasion of the 1960s.)
1. Little Richard
They don’t call him the “Architect of Rock and Roll” for nothing. Richard Wayne Penniman combined piano virtuosity and an explosive brand of showmanship punctuated by those immortal “whooooos.” He mangled gender norms while blasting through a succession of hits that drove kids crazy and terrified their parents.
Key Tracks: Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Ready Teddy, The Girl Can’t Help It, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Keep A Knockin’
2. Chuck Berry
Berry helped make the guitar into rock and roll’s lethal weapon. He was called “The Father of Rock and Roll” for his deft fusion and adaptation of rhythm and blues into something new. It’s not for nothing that The Beatles idolized Chuck Berry and covered his songs (like “Roll Over Beethoven”).
Key Tracks: Maybelline; Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music, No Particular Place to Go, Roll Over Beethoven
3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was making music in the 1940s that’s considered to be the blue (or blues) print for rock. A singer and guitarist, Tharpe injected her blues with gospel and distorted guitar.
Key Tracks: Rock Me, This Train, Strange Things Happening Every Day, Down by the Riverside
4. Jerry Lee Lewis
“The Killer” rose from the clubs of the S outh after getting kicked out of school for playing a hymn in “boogie-woogie” style. With a piano style that figuratively (and occasionally, literally) set the keys on fire, Lewis perfected a wildman persona that he rode to both fame and infamy. Somehow, he’s still alive to tell about it.
Key Tracks: Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, Crazy Arms, High School Confidential, Breathless
5. Carl Perkins
Bestriding both country and the burgeoning sound of rock, Carl Perkins became “The King of Rockabilly.” Perkins innovated on the guitar, using every possible permutation of style he could to get new sounds and rhythms out of his instrument. One of the early Sun Records artists, he circled in the orbit of stars like Lewis, Johnny Cash, and the next gentleman on the list.
Key Tracks: Blue Suede Shoes, Dixie Fried, Boppin’ the Blues, Your True Love
6. Elvis Presley
It’s a matter of cultural record that Elvis is called “The King of Rock and Roll.” What’s maybe more amazing is that you can invoke all of the different phases of Elvis (“Early Elvis,” “Movie Elvis,” “Army Elvis,” “Comeback Elvis,” “Vegas Elvis,” etc.) and generally everyone knows what you mean. Putting rock on wax as early as 1954 (with “That’s All Right”) and infuriating parents almost immediately, Elvis helped turn rock into a growth industry.
Key Tracks: That’s All Right, Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Blue Suede Shoes, Love Me Tender, All Shook Up, Can’t Help Falling Love
7. Bill Haley & His Comets
While everyone seems to have a different opinion of what the first rock and roll record actually was (it’s “Rocket 88” from 1951), it’s indisputable that the first rock and roll record to hit #1 on Billboard’s pop chart was “Rock Around the Clock.” This feat was accomplished on July 9, 1955, by Bill Haley & His Comets, a Pennsylvania band that had made the transition from country to rockabilly to rock. The driving force for promoting the record was its inclusion in the film Blackboard Jungle, a movie that would soon result in widespread use of rock tunes across a number of movies.
Key Tracks: Crazy Man, Crazy, Rock Around the Clock, Shake, Rattle, and Roll, See You Later, Alligator, Skinny Minnie
8. Eddie Cochran
A multi-instrumentalist known for the work he did to bring new sounds to both the guitar and to the studio, Eddie Cochran left behind a solid musical legacy before his death in a car accident at 21. His string-bending technique has been picked up by scores of artists. Cochran also wrote his own songs, a fact not lost on fans like Paul McCartney and John Lennon; in fact, it’s was McCartney’s ability to play “Twenty Flight Rock” that convinced Lennon to invite McCartney into his then-band, The Quarrymen.
Key Tracks: Twenty Flight Rock, Summertime Blues, Sittin’ in the Balcony, C’mon Everybody
9. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
If this list were trying to have each person fill an actual slot for a Greek god or goddess, then Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would be Hades. Universally accepted as the “Father of Shock Rock,” Hawkins is the first point on a straight line that can be drawn to Arthur Brown to Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson to Ghost and all points in between. Hawkins brought a dark theatricality to rock, using capes, coffins, skulls, and more on stage. Artists as diverse as film director Jim Jarmusch to musician Nick Cave have remarked on his influence.
Key Tracks: I Put a Spell on You, You Made Me Love You, I Found My Way to Wine
10. Fats Domino
A New Orleans piano man, Fats Domino grew up steeped in Creole and Catholicism. He got some musician inspiration from his violin-playing father, but it was his jazz musician brother-in-law, Harrison Verrett, who taught Fats how to play piano. By 14, Fats was gigging in bars. He was 27 when “Ain’t That a Shame” made him a pop star. Between 1955 and 1960, he hit the Top Ten 11 times and had five records sell over a million copies each.
Key Tracks: Ain’t That a Shame, Blueberry Hill, I’m Walkin’, Walking to New Orleans, I Hear You Knocking
11. Bo Diddley
It takes a special kind of rock star to make your own name into a hit song. Bo Diddley did it while playing a distinct rectangular guitar and summoning some of the first differentiated sonic effects, like reverb, heard in recordings of his instrument. Born Ellas Otha Bates, and later assuming his adoptive mother’s last name of McDaniel, Diddley kept the origins of his stage name obscure; some speculate it came from the one-string homemade “diddley bow” instrument. He brought his propulsive rhythm attack to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. It was the first major step in a career that would see him enshrined in the Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
Key Tracks: Bo Diddley, Pretty Thing, Say Man, Road Runner, Who Do You Love?
12. Ray Charles
Is it even necessary to explain Ray Charles? The masterful performer of R&B and jazz may have lost his sight in childhood, but he gave up nothing in the category of musical ability. A deft pianist with an uncanny talent for improv, Charles came up from the union halls and bars of the South before landing at Atlantic Records in 1953. “Mess Around” was his first single of note, but 1954’s “I’ve Got a Woman” made him famous. “What’d I Say” grew from a stage improv into one of his signature tunes and became a foundational text of the soul genre.
Key Tracks: Mess Around, I’ve Got a Woman, What’d I Say, Night Time Is the Right Time, Georgia on My Mind, America the Beautiful.
13. Clyde McPhatter
Founder of The Drifters and a doo-wop legend, Clyde McPhatter influenced the way that R&B and early rock were sung. He grew up singing gospel and took the arrangements and call-and-response vocalizing to the clubs. McPhatter holds the distinction of being the first person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice; the first time was as a solo act, and the second was as a member of the Drifters.
Key Tracks: Money Honey, Such a Night, A Lover’s Question.
14. Buddy Holly
He opened for Elvis in 1955 and was gone by 1959. In that brief time, Buddy Holly became one of the most important figures to hold a guitar in the ’50s. With his band The Crickets, he defined what a “rock band” looked like, with guitars, bass, and a kit drummer. Holly also wrote his own tunes, which was not necessarily the norm in his time. His work echoed through the next decade, finding expression in the songs of The Beatles, The Stones, and Dylan. Don McLean called Holly’s death “the day the music died,” but he helped bring rock and roll to glorious everlasting life.
Key Tracks: Peggy Sue, That’ll Be the Day, Oh Boy, Everyday, Not Fade Away, Rave On, It’s So Easy.
BONUS: The Muses
In Greek Mythology, the nine Muses were daughters of Zeus that influenced human inspiration in the arts and sciences. Here are an additional set of foundational figures that, along with our Mount Olympus, inspired the generations that followed.
1. Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm
Though the name on the record label was repositioned as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats by Chess Records, Turner and the Kings put out the aforementioned “Rocket 88” in 1951. The tune has a rough swing enhanced by that most rockin’ of guitar sounds: distortion.
2. Big Mama Thornton
A high priestess of the blues, Thornton recorded the first version of “Hound Dog” in 1952. It sold two million copies and spent seven weeks atop Billboard’s R&B charts. Her other major hit was “Ball ‘N’ Chain.” Though the songs would become cultural touchstones under, respectively, Elvis and Janis Joplin, Thornton, like many other Black female artists of the time, was frequently left out of the discussion. While she continued to perform until her death in 1984, it took years for Thornton to be regarded as a pioneer by mainstream media.
3. BB King
His nickname is, simply, “The King of the Blues.” And while that is unmistakably his genre, his virtuosic guitar playing influenced thousands of players that followed him. His ceaseless touring, including 342 shows in 1956 alone, made King a household name. Beloved by acts like the Stones and Eric Clapton, King benefited from the idolization when they booked him on their shows. Though he passed in 2015, the King lives on in songs like his take on “The Thrill is Gone” and every bent-string solo that followed his lead.
4. The Everly Brothers
Harmony, harmony, harmony. Brother Don and Phil Everly specialized in a style of vocal-melding that majorly influenced The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, and Simon & Garfunkel. Playing guitar side-by-side on stage, the Everlys cut an original figure for duos in the 1950s. Among their many hits prior to 1960 were “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have to Do is Dream.”
5. Roy Orbison
Orbison first cracked the Top 100 with “Ooby Dooby” in 1956. His voice always seemed like it was on the verge of heartbreak, but his familiar black clothes/black sunglasses look wouldn’t gel until 1963. Most of his iconic songs (“Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” “It’s Over”) were hits before the British Invasion. However, his biggest hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” managed to stay at #1 for three weeks in 1964 as the Invasion exploded; its run at the top was sandwiched between The Animals and Manfred Mann. Bob Dylan counted him as a major influence (and later, Traveling Wilburys bandmate).
6. Lloyd Price
They called him Mr. Personality. He had a hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, years before Elvis recorded it. But his biggest songs were the #2 “Personality” and the million-selling, chart-topping “Stagger Lee,” both from 1959. The swingin’ sax on his hits came from Merritt “Mel” Dalton. Price owns the curious distinction of being one of the earliest rock artists to be asked to change their lyrics to perform on TV; Price made the concession to tone down “Stagger Lee,” originally a blues-revenge classic, for American Bandstand. Price continued to perform until his passing just last year.
7. Gene Vincent
A giant of rockabilly, Vincent cemented his place in history with “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” The song sold two million copies after dropping in 1956, and he toured with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran. Though he didn’t have the large body of classics like many of his peers, he’s remembered for rockabilly style, general swagger, and his musical performances in films like 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It.
8. Johnny Cash
Hello, he’s Johnny Cash. Cash stands at the intersection of half-a-dozen genres, including country, gospel, blues, rockabilly, and straight up rock. His storytelling on songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” inspired writers of all stripes, and his Man in Black persona still manifests across every permutation of rock. Part of the Million Dollar Quartet of himself, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash came off like a rock star before people knew what to call it. He came in on prison songs and spent his final years covering the likes of Nine Inch Nails. If that’s not inspiration, nothing is.
9. Chubby Checker
It’s fair to say that Chubby Checker was rock and roll’s first dance artist. After breaking through in 1960 with a cover of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist,” Checker continued to hit the charts with a run of songs like “Pony Time,” “The Fly,” and “Limbo Rock.” “The Twist” went #1 in 1960, and its sequel song, “Let’s Twist Again,” hit #8 in 1961. Remarkably, a reissue of “The Twist” in 1962 went to #1 again. Though Checker felt that he was pigeon-holed as a dance artist, he had a huge hand in spreading movement-based rock. Amazingly, he’s still performing.
Bonus Titan: Sam Cooke
He’s been called The King of Soul, but he was as a crossover success before his death at 33 in 1964. Cooke’s vocal stylings influenced his peers and generations of R&B and soul singers to follow. But he also proved adept on the pop charts, scoring 30 hits in the Top 40 between 1957 and his early exit. Among his best known hits were “Wonderful World,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away,” but his vocal prowess also shown on ballads like “You Send Me” and the socially conscious “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Featured image: Chuck Berry (Pickwick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons); Buddy Holly (Brunswick Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons); Sister Rosetta Tharpe (James J. Kriegsmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons); Little Richard(TGC-Topps Gum Cards, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
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