December 4: The Crickets, Fats Domino, The Louvin Brothers, Sabu Martinez, Elvis Presley, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra

This week we’ll be firing up the DeLorean and heading back to the 1950s! Yes, it’s time we covered the very earliest albums on the 1001. The list goes back as far as 1955 and only 23 albums from the 50s make the cut – barely 2% of the entire list. If I had to suggest reasons, I might suggest the lack of veneration of the album as an artistic statement back in the 50s (occasional gems padded out with dross), the often poor production values, at least by modern standards, or even the scarcity or inaccessibility of music at the time; more likely, though, is that the people who made the list didn’t know very many albums from the 1950s. Anyway, let’s have a look at some of the oldest (…that I haven’t already listened to earlier).

The Crickets, ‘The “Chirping” Crickets’

The first and final appearance of Buddy Holly on the list, The Crickets invented the indie band with their guitar/bass/drums line-up and their in-house songwriting. It’s fascinating to see how it began, and often there’s an energy and verve captured in this record that is still sought-after by bands in 2016. The A-side starts with ‘Oh Boy’, the B-side with ‘That’ll Be The Day’, but unusually my favourite song is the penultimate song, written by the bassist Joe B Mauldin.

Fats Domino, ‘This is Fats’

Confusingly, Fats released two consecutive albums with near-identical names: ‘This is Fats Domino’ and ‘This is Fats’, meaning I had to check a few times whether I was listening to the right one. ‘This is Fats’ it is. This starts with his best-known song, Glenn Miller cover ‘Blueberry Hill’ and has an ace song called ‘Blue Monday’: not to be confused with the New Order classic. I always thought Domino was the sort of music that had become too old to objectively appreciate (kind of like Doris Day or Noel Coward), but I really enjoyed the warm piano sound, the song choice and even the intimate production.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘Tragic Songs of Life’

I didn’t know anything about these guys before pressing play, but researching them reminded me that I had seen one of their album covers before: the notorious ‘Satan is Real’. Not surprisingly, it turns out they were a Baptist country/gospel vocal duo whose career was ruined by mandolinist Ira’s boozing and womanising. The brothers’ voices sound nice together and Ira’s mandolin adds an Appalachian flavour to proceedings, but the lack of variety in pace or arrangement makes the album feel long even at less than 36 minutes.

Sabu Martinez, ‘Palo Congo’

Sabu was a conguero – now there’s a word I hadn’t heard before – who acted as a sideman to a variety of Blue Note jazz types but who also released four albums as a band leader, of which this is the first. It may not surprise you to learn that this is very heavy on the percussion: on a lot of the early songs there are literally no tuned instruments, running off vocals, congas (a whopping five congueros are credited) and little else. Ostensibly Latin jazz, the rhythms have something of an African flavour with their hypnotic, chanting atonality. Eventually Arsenio Rodriguez’s tres guitar makes a few appearances, but nothing melodic ever happens. I didn’t like this: what a philistine.

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’

This 1956 debut album features one of the most iconic covers in history but only one of his golden greats, opener ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Elsewhere, his band rush through Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ as if they can’t wait to get it out of the way, and there’s a stark ‘Blue Moon’. A few days’ recording, with Sun Records odds and sods padding out the track listing, the album’s an okay-I-suppose introduction to the young Elvis’s rock and roll, country and crooning combination, but (understandably) not a slam-dunk. There are three of the King’s albums on the list. We’ve already visited one, so just one more to go.

Louis Prima, ‘The Wildest!’

Prima was a jazz and lounge musician who, unlike some contemporaries, realised that rock and roll’s appeal to kids was that they wanted fun music to dance to. Here, Prima takes the energy of rock and roll and the style of swing, allowing trumpet and sax solos to share the spotlight with his vocals and his sidekick/wife Keely Smith’s. This sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s infectious: the frenzied wit, the joyous shouts of the band during the instrumental breaks and Smith & Prima’s jousts (minimised, alas, in the second half) make this a pleasure.

Frank Sinatra, ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’

Sinatra’s downbeat ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ is the sound of a man ruminating over a break-up in a smoky hotel bar at 2am, and is the oldest album on the list. While Frank doesn’t seem to have resolved the issues of his love life by the time of his next album, the record is a noticeable return to more upbeat fare. The artist’s choice, or the label’s? Whatever, it’s more like his trademark sound and, in fact, may well be the archetypal Rat Pack album: it’s free of the schmaltzy backing vocals and cheesy complacency that’s so familiar in this genre, even in the preposterous ‘Making Whoopee’. However, much like Dylan, Sinatra’s sound is so familiar that it’s difficult to judge objectively. The singing’s great (although I wish he’d experiment with singing the actual notes as written) but the Great American Songbook hasn’t ever thrilled me. Happily, the last of Sinatra’s albums on the list has a very different composer as main collaborator. Trivia: ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’ was the first album to top the UK Album Charts.

Next week: I’ll be returning to more audience-friendly fare by returning to the most common artists on the list.

Status update: 359 albums heard (36%), 642 remain.

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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