The recent death of Phil Everly has me thinking about the intensely iconic nature of '50s rock 'n' roll and how, over the last half-century, that nature has quite often haunted the very musicians who helped to create it. For the Everlys this took the form of a fan base that never really allowed them to grow beyond the boyish faces that sang "Wake Up Little Susie" to adoring teens on The Ed Sullivan Show. The brothers released some of the best music of their career in the '60s, yet amazing efforts such as 1968's Roots (country rock meets psychedelic Tin Pan Alley) sold poorly and don't belong to their commonly accepted legacy. Fellow '50s icon Rick Nelson (referred to as Ricky in his youth) bemoaned this very phenomenon in his 1972 hit single "Garden Party."
Played them all the old songs, thought that's why they came
No one heard the music, we didn't look the same
I said hello to "Mary Lou," she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave
Much like The Everlys, Nelson braved the leap from '50s teen idol to adult country rocker. Backed by the Stone Canyon Band (who counted among their ranks future Eagles bassist Randy Meisner), he released a string of innovative albums at the dawn of the '70s that, outside Garden Party, failed to make meaningful dents on the pop charts. Nelson found himself jammed between two divergent scenes: the then-burgeoning oldies circuit, which only wanted him to play "Hello Mary Lou" over and over, and the cooler-than-thou hippies, who dismissed him as a corny relic from the days of Eisenhower.
But not every '50s rocker suffered such a fate. Elvis Presley famously fought his way back to pop relevancy via a string of brilliant singles and full-lengths unleashed between the years 1968 and '72. Admittedly, The King's situation was somewhat different from that of The Everlys. Where the brothers never ceased recording top-notch material (which only made their commercial failures that much more galling), Presley by the mid-'60s had allowed himself to be transformed into a leading man appearing in Hollywood schlock like Clambake and Fun in Acapulco. (Presley would wind up squandering his comeback by slipping into sequined peacock suits and becoming a Las Vegas sideshow. But hey, that's a whole other story.)
Chuck Berry and Jerry lee Lewis also achieved considerable success beyond the '50s. The former experienced one of his very best years in 1964. While The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and the rest of the British Invasion (all of whom absolutely worshipped him) dominated the pop press, Berry quietly sent one amazing tune after another into the upper reaches of the Billboard singles chart: "Nadine," "No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell" and "Promised Land." Interestingly enough, he achieved this success without resorting to reinvention. He simply stayed true to his original vision.
The same cannot be said of Lewis. Arguably the most versatile of the '50s great rockers not named Elvis, the fiery pianist turned to an R&B-inspired brand of honky-tonk music, in the process proving to be one of Nashville's best crooners of the '60s. Even more successful in regards to the rock-to-country transition was Lewis' Sun Records labelmate Johnny Cash. But since The Man in Black's brand of rockabilly was already infused with country and western, his evolution felt less radical. Still, Cash is the only '50s rock 'n' roller to enjoy A-level stardom as late as the '90s (see his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings album).
In my playlist you will certainly encounter tunes by all the artists mentioned in this post, but be prepared for many others, like Fats Domino's 1968 rendition of "Lady Madonna" (surely Macca was impressed), Bo Diddley's scorching "Bo Diddley 1969" and Link Wray's mind-blowing "Fire and Brimstone" (from his self-titled cult classic, originally released in 1971). Now get listening!