by John Ellis
A famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. This series, “The Pop Presidents,” will hopefully honor an aspect of the last eleven presidents’ responsibilities that is often overlooked – overseeing the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
Depending on whom you ask, when Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office on January 20, 1953, the phrase “rock and roll” had been in use as we know it for less than two years. So, it’s safe to say that President Eisenhower’s greatest achievement as Commander in Chief was overseeing the explosion of the Rock and Roll age. Now, some people like to give credit to President Truman for introducing Americans to Rock and Roll, and those people do have a minor point. But, whereas President Truman laid the groundwork; it was President Eisenhower’s tireless efforts that propelled Rock and Roll into the mainstream consciousness.
The great debate of what was the first Rock and Roll record extends back into the late 40s with “Rock Awhile” by Goree Carter most often being the selection of choice by Truman apologists. Most rock and presidential historians recognize that until Bill Haley and the Comets recorded their version of “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954, previous records only contained the seeds of Rock and Roll as we now love it. Since “Rock Around the Clock” didn’t tick itself into public consciousness until 1955, “Maybellene” by Chuck Berry may possibly be the only other full-fledged contender for the title of “First Rock and Roll Record.”
Besides spearheading the explosion of Rock and Roll, President Eisenhower’s administration was also instrumental in the evolution of bebop/hard bop jazz and cool jazz into the modal jazz of musicians like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. Modal jazz was a big influence on fusion jazz, as well as influencing rock bands that incorporated fusion jazz – bands like Pink Floyd.
It’s hard to deny that without President Eisenhower and his belief in American values, the distinctly American cultural voice of Rock and Roll, shaped by blues, jazz, and bluegrass, would not have evolved into the apple pie, American flag brand of Americana that it is today. In honor of President Eisenhower being the de facto father of Rock and Roll, I will be adding an additional fifty points to his final tally in the final article of this series.
Honorable Mentions: A Date With the Everly Brothers, The Everly Brothers; Joan Baez, Joan Baez; Go Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley; Birth of Cool, Miles Davis; Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus; The Chirping Crickets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets; Ramblin’ Man, Hank Williams.
- The Weavers at Carnegie Hall – The Weavers, April, 1957
While still suffering under the censorship that accompanied the heavy curtain of blacklisting, Pete Seeger and the rest of The Weavers reunited to perform a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Not only did the concert revive The Weavers’ career, the concert and subsequent album stoked the fires of the Folk Renaissance.
- The Genius of Ray Charles – Ray Charles, October, 1959.
One of the pioneers of Soul Music, Ray Charles demonstrated with The Genius of Ray Charles the artistic potential that comes from melding pop music with blues, jazz, and gospel music. The album is fun and airy, but with enough heat to singe.
- Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar – Johnny Cash, October, 1957.
Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar has the honored distinction of being the first LP released by producer Sam Phillips on his label Sun Records. The album, that includes the tracks “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” also has the distinction of being the quintessential Johnny Cash album, which means that it is also in competition for the quintessential rockabilly album.
- Chuck Berry Is on Top – Chuck Berry, July, 1959.
Truth in reporting dictates that it be recognized that Chuck Berry Is on Top is essentially a greatest hits album. The inclusion of the singles “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene” with its brilliant guitar solo makes this record significant; but the listener is going to have trouble finding “filler” songs on this album.
- Blue Train – John Coltrane, 1957.
While listening to the great bebop and hard bop jazz albums that were released during President Eisenhower’s administration, and there are many, it’s hard not to be struck by the thought this is the music that will dominate the discussions about 20th century music in future graduate music programs. And Blue Train by John Coltrane will undoubtedly be included in the syllabus.
- Here’s Little Richard – Little Richard, March, 1957.
With an undeniably powerful and flamboyant voice (and persona), Little Richard has had as big of an influence on subsequent pop and even rock musicians as any other artist on this list. The list of groups and artists that cite Little Richard as an influence include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and even Bon Scott of AC/DC. And, it’s hard to imagine either Freddy Mercury or Prince without the trailblazing influence of Little Richard.
- Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley and His Comets, December, 1955.
Teenage rebellion was not, by any means, caused by Rock and Roll, regardless of what scared and confused preachers believe. That being said, since Bill Haley and His Comets enticed white, middle-class teenagers into “rocking” around the clock, preachers have been scared and confused for good reason
- Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley, March, 1956.
For many, their opinion of Elvis rests on a caricature, which is unfortunate. Elvis not only helped shape rock and roll, but he also produced some of rock and roll’s most enduring music. Many regard the Sun Sessions, specifically Elvis’ cover of “That’s All Right,” as Elvis Presley’s coming out party. His first studio album Elvis Presley, however, was the gold from which the King’s crown was forged.
- Lady Sings the Blues – Billie Holiday, June, 1956.
With her brilliant voice, Billie Holiday smashed the homogeneity of Tin Pan Alley into tiny pieces of ivory, and ironically created another Tin Pan Alley – almost every female pop singer since Billie Holiday has been chasing her voice, cognitively or not. The Lady Sings the Blues demonstrates the reason why in an unquestionably haunting display of genius.
- Kind of Blue – Miles Davis, August, 1959.
Never heard of Kind of Blue? Heard of Kind of Blue but never listened to it? I recommend that this very evening you find your significant other, pour yourselves generous servings of your favorite drinks, and turn on what many critics consider the greatest jazz album of all time. A heads up, though – there is a generation called Baby Boomers for a reason.
 Alan Freed began using the term in 1951 to describe the music he was playing. Technically the term didn’t really take shape until 1954 on Freed’s NYC radio program The Rock and Roll Show, according to music historians Jim Dawson and Steve Propes in their book What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record?. In other words, pushing the definition back two years (while arguably/possibly correct) is me being generous to President Truman.
 It wasn’t until 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was featured in the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle that the song became the first Rock and Roll song to hit #1 on Billboard’s Pop Charts.
Although exonerated in ’61, which is when the album finally charted, it took until the late 60’s for Seeger to begin to escape the stigma of McCarthyism. The Weavers at Carnegie Hall was the first, impressive step in a long road back.
 Of course the album’s stiffest competition sits at #4 and #3 on this list.
 Two things: First, one of the problems with ranking albums from this time period is that many artists released singles. I agonized whether to include singles or not, but ultimately went with “not.” Secondly, many place Elvis’ Sun Session recordings alongside “Rock Around the Clock” and “Maybellene” in the argument about the beginning of Rock and Roll.