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.
THIS WEEK: Give the Piano Man Some!
The guitar wasn't always the supreme rock 'n' roll instrument. During the 1950s, guitarists had competition from a bunch of unruly, irreverent piano players. Some of these musicians exhibited great refinement — think about the calm, lilting pulse Fats Domino put behind "Blueberry Hill" — and others were distinguished by their harsh pounding "technique." Arguably the most exciting of them: the Georgia-born whirlwind known as Little Richard, who sent devastatingly precise electric shockwaves of rhythm shooting through the piano.
In terms of sheer piano-punishing force, the only one to rival Little Richard was "The Killer," Jerry Lee Lewis. As part of the roster at Sun Records, Lewis helped create the boisterous sound of rock 'n' roll abandon. His playing, on singles like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and others, combines tight chordal jabs with extravagant slides and runs — the pianistic equivalent of an ecstatic yelp. A few such flourishes turn up on this 1957 clip:
Little Richard: "Lucille," "Tutti Fruitti"
Jerry Lee Lewis: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"
Fats Domino: "Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill"
Huey "Piano" Smith: "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" from Having a Good Time
Elton John: "Honky Cat" from Honky Chateau
In terms of intensity, do these musicians "rock" as hard as their guitar-playing contemporaries?
Why did the piano recede from the rock spotlight after the 1950s? Was it, as Jerry Lee Lewis complained, simply too unwieldy in a dance context?
Is there a solid line — or a dotted one? — between the flamboyant players of the '50s and Elton John, the reigning flamboyant piano player of the 1970s?