The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, which mounts the occasional traveling exhibition, probably couldn't come up with a better one than Tuesday's Wolf Trap concert featuring Hall of Famers Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. All were voted in at the museum's first induction ceremony, recognition of their position as key architects of the music that transformed American popular culture, and, in turn, the world's.
It's hardly surprising, then, that these three titans account for nine of the 105 songs on "Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock." The new four-CD box set from Rhino looks to reclaim the raucous spirit and energy that fueled cultural transformation in the '50s, but which was later overwhelmed by the misleading nostalgia of "Happy Days," "Grease" and Johnny Rockets restaurants.
Happily, nobody's ever found a way to codify and repackage Little Richard's 1955 version of abracadabra: When he sang "a-wop-bop-aloo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom" in "Tutti-Frutti," the minds of millions of American teenagers were suddenly opened to new notions of sex and race, as well as pure fun. When Chuck Berry warned "Roll Over Beethoven," he was telling the musical establishment to move aside, to make way for the new world order. And when Jerry Lee Lewis pounded on his piano and crowed that there was a "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On," he might as well have been Samson pushing at the very foundations of postwar culture.
Clearly, rock-and-roll was the right music at the right time--or, as the elders might have seen it, the wrong music at the wrong times. Gary Stewart writes in the liner notes, "No other decade mixed the right amount of frustration, sexual repression, racial tension, disposable income among teenagers and affordable entertainment technology on such a massive scale in just the right way." Rock-and-roll, Stewart adds, was "a backlash against the vision of tranquillity, complacency and false fulfillment to its youth."
What emerged was a soundtrack of generational identification, social resentment and rebellion, sexual discovery and delight. The music embraced fiery rockabilly, hard-driving R&B, voodoo blues and sci-fi country. It was testosterone-rich, built on rollicking piano, wailing saxophone and churning guitar, and always a big, big beat. Or as Ronnie Dee put it, "If the music's gonna move me/ It's got to be action packed!"
The collection kicks off with "C'mon Everybody," Eddie Cochran's mischievous invitation to both party and rebel. "Now the house is empty and the folks are gone," Cochran sang in 1958, adding, "When you hear the music you can't sit still/ If your brother won't rock, then your sister will."
Sex, of course, was crucial--rock-and-roll was, after all, slang for sex--and there's plenty of it here, from Fats Domino's genial invitation "I'm Ready" and Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" to the red-hot R&B of Wynonie Harris's "Lovin' Machine" and honking saxophonist Joe Houston's "All Night Long."
Given the time period, however, lewd metaphors are actually few and far between, but the political ones are sometimes odd, as when rockafilly Wanda Jackson promises in "Fujiyama Mama" that "I've been to Nagasaki/ Hiroshima, too/ The things I did to them/ Baby I can do to you."
The collection addresses such other teen obsessions as cars and fashion. For the latter, there's head-to-toe coverage, from Joe Clay's admonition "(Don't Mess With My) Duck Tail" to Carl Perkins's warning not to step on his "Blue Suede Shoes," along with Dwight Pullen's "Sunglasses After Dark," Perkins's "Put Your Cat Clothes On" and Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones' paean to "Black Slacks."
Among the key historical recordings included here: Jackie Brenston's 1951 R&B hit "Rocket '88,' " which many critics have dubbed the first rock-and-roll record; Bill Haley's 1953 "Crazy Man, Crazy," the first rock-and-roll hit on the pop charts; and his 1954 follow-up, "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock." The latter was not only the first No. 1 rock-and-roll hit but the hit used in what became the first rock-and-roll movie. Ironically, the single had originally stiffed until it was used in "The Blackboard Jungle," a then-shocking film about high school violence.
"Loud, Fast & Out of Control" makes no effort at pure chronology. Instead, the collection mixes the mandatory hits with a choice group of lesser-known tracks and some intriguing novelties and one-hit wonders like Tarheel Slim's "Number 9 Train," a rare example of black rockabilly, and such macabre discourses as Jackie Morningstar's "Rockin' in the Graveyard" and Ronnie Dawson's "Rockin' Bones." There is also plenty of rhythmic jubilance, from Arthur Prysock's "Hand Clappin' " and Johnny Otis's "Willie and the Hand Jive" to the Rock-a-Teens' wordless anthem, "Woo-Hoo."
Several local legends are included as well: Maryland guitarist Link Wray, whose 1958 hit "Rumble" marks the birth of the power chord (a "D," incidentally); and Virginia's Janis Martin, whose 1956 recording "My Boy Elvis" was the first Presley tribute and led to her brief vogue as "the female Elvis."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)
CAPTION: Little Richard, from left, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, the musical and cultural heart of the four-CD, 105-song boxed set, perform Tuesday at Wolf Trap.