Rock 'n' roll has had few years as productive as 1956-57. Succeeding generations of singers have returned repeatedly to those two years to redo such classics as Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog," Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby."
But just six years later, in 1963, most of these artists had already burned out. Presley was a prisoner of Hollywood schlock; Berry was a real prisoner in a federal penitentiary on a morals charge; Lewis had been blacklisted since his 1958 marriage to a 14-year-old cousin; Little Richard Penniman was an evangelical minister denouncing his own records; Holly was four years dead; Perkins was battling a pill and liquor addiction; Domino and the Everlies had already slid off the charts for good.
Only Presley, Cooke and Orbison were still enjoying hit records in 1963.Presley was already a parody of himself; Orbison would have his last hit in '64, and Cooke would be shot to death in '65.
Of those who lived, only Presley and Lewis would stage convincing comebacks. Presley made a dramatic return to gutsy rock 'n' roll on his 1968 TV special and the resulting record. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a fiery album, "The Session," with British rock stars in London in 1973. Both efforts, however, relied heavily on old songs, and both artists shortly slipped back into their lazy habits.
Chuck Berry scored a freak hit in 1972 with a double entendre novelty song, "My Ding-a-Ling," but never caught his old fire. Domino and Perkins recorded pleasant but easily forgettable combeack albums.
Still they keep trying. This year has already seen albums of new material by Chuck Berry -- "Rockit" (Atco SD 38-118); Jerry Lee Lewis -- "Jerry Lee Lewis" (Elektra 6E-184), Roy Orbison -- "Laminar Flow" (Asylum 6E-198), and Phil Everly -- "Living Alone" (elektra 6E-213).
In a sense, these public careers are a fascinating reflection of each person's brief periods of satisfaction and subsequent attempts at revival. (How else can one explain the persistent, irrational calls for a Beatles reunion?) The new albums by Berry and Lewis hold out hope but not proof of the possibility of revival, while the Everly and Orbison albums reveal just how far one can fall from grace.
If you go back and listen to the great Chuch Berry sides -- "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen," etc. -- the musical excitement comes as much from Johnny Johnson's rattling piano fills as it does from Berry's guitar leads. On "Rockit" Berry and Johnson are reunited for the first time in many years. Once again Johnson's sprinkling notes provide the sweetener for Berry's fuzzy chords and pointed leads.
Also on the record is Kenneth Buttrey, the best drummer to come out of Nashville's studios. Berry himself provides tasteful blues guitar triplets on "Move It" and hard reverberating lines on "I Need You Baby." For the first time in years, Berry has a sparse, understated sound that indicates a sense of control. And for the first time in almost 10 years, he's written some songs that other artists might want to cover.
"Rockit" is almost a total comeback for Berry. The only weakness is a curious flatness in the vocals, the rhythm and the overall sounds. Where Berry's music once crackled with immediacy, as if he were leaning forward from the back seat to jabber in year ear, the new album occasionally sounds as if it were phoned in.
But at least six of the songs could potentially make a lot of money for other singers. Berry has once again found his gift for snappy lines and catchy guitar riffs. Though he lacks the substance of writers like Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, Berry is one of the cleverest wordsmiths in rock history. The fast pace of "Move It" is set by his short five-syllable bursts. "If I Were" is five verses crammed full of fresh analogies and witty puns.
One can almost hear the Beach Boys filling out the vocal harmonies on "Move It" and turning its verses about cars, baseball and disco dancers into another American anthem. One can imagine Keith Richards thickening the rhythm on "Oh What a Thrill" as Mick Jagger squeezes the eroticism out of "I can stay here all evening. Hearing the music you play . . . . hollering yes, yes, oh what a thrill." One can imagine Linda Ronstadt sashaying through "If I were" or Bob Seger tearing through "California."
"Jerry Lee Lewis" shows that the "Killer" can still return from his long sojourns in country music to his inimitable rock 'n' roll style. Lewis attacks the prime keys on the opening cut, "Don't Let Go," as if he could knock them right off the instrument, as the cover illustration has him doing.
Lewis' voice has hardly changed in 20 years. There's still a knowing smirk in the back of his delivery that hints at much more than he's saying. In contrast to the earnest kid in English class portrayed by Bubby Holly and Paul McCartney, Lewis has always come across like a 25-year-old carnival worker who's going to show the local high-school girls things they never dreamed of.
On his new record, Lewis' voice beams confidence, just waiting for the action to develop. Back in his greatest days, though, Lewis' voice was so revved up, it seemed sure to start the action all by itself. That's the biggest difference between this new, good record and those classic sides for Sun Records in the late '50s.
This year's album takes material from disparate sources and recasts it all in the Lewis boogie stomp style. There are old rock 'n' roll hits -- Lloyd Price's 1959 "Personality" and Chris Kenner's 1961 "I Like It Like That"; country tearjerkers like Charlie Rich's "Who Will the Next Fool Be," and odd items like Bob Dylan's seldom heard "Rita May" and Jimmie Rogers' "Rocking Little Angel."
Leading a fine sextet that includes Presley's guitarist, James Burton, Lewis pumps up every song with his trademark syncopation. Lewis may not have recaptured his old heights yet, but he imitates himself better than the many others who try.
Phil and Don Everly broke up acrimoniously in 1973. "Living Alone" is Phil's attempt to reestablish his career as a California soft-rock singer-songwriter as Ricky Nelson did. But the 10 songs that the younger Everly brother co-wrote with John Durrill and Joey Paige betray the worst aspects of the California sound: somnolent mellowness and maudlin sentimentality.
The Everly Brothers were never very substantial, but their fluttering harmonies and sincerity had a genuine charm. On his new record, Phil Everly has no one to harmonize with and his attempts at innocence seen transparently contrived. His efforts to examine his own past on "Charleston Guitar" and "The Fall of '59" lapse into kitschy nostalgia.
Roy Orbison's "Luminar Flow" is even worse. The songs are no more than tired cliches laminated together with sticky strings, gooey vocals and every overused Nashville formula available. Perhaps the most embarrassing song is "Hound Dog Man," Orbison's tribute to Presley. "Hey hound dog man," he sings, "My old friend, why did it end?" It's a question he could ask of his own once-glorious career.