The recent death of Little Richard Penniman was a stark reminder that the founders of rock and pop music are not getting any younger. It’s been nearly 70 years since the birth of rock and roll, so this seems like a good time to take stock in our musical forebears and review who we still have left. The list is growing shorter all the time for the first generation of 50s rock, pop, country, rockabilly and blues performers, who need to be celebrated while they can still celebrate.
August 3, 1926 (age 93)
Bennet began performing in the 1940s, and came to prominence as a pop crooner in the early 1950s. Maybe the most prolific member on this list, he is still recording, performing and was touring as recently as January of this year. April 25th, 2020, Bennet led a worldwide singalong of his signature tune, “I left my heart in San Francisco” in tribute to frontline workers in the Covid-19 Crisis. Not only is he still with us, he is still with IT.
March 9, 1933 (age 87)
“Mr. Personality” Lloyd Price first hit the charts with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, and he had an unmatched string of dozens of charting singles that stretched well into the 1970s. He remains a successful entrepreneur, and was performing as recently as 2017.
Huey “Piano” Smith
January 26, 1934 (age 86)
New Orleans born, Huey “Piano” Smith brought together multiple playing styles into a blues-based boogie R&B that was very influential to early Rock & Roll. His first record deal was signed in 1952, he played piano with Little Richard on his first Specialty releases, as well as backing Lloyd Price and on Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’”. Best remembered for his 1957 hit “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”, Smith continued recording until the late 60s when he became a Jehovah’s Witness and left music altogether.
Jerry Lee Lewis
September 29, 1935 (age 84)
Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Killer” has outlived damn near every one of his Sun Records “Rocker” label mates, best known for his run of wild hits that began with “Wild Arms” in 1956. Lewis is still working on new material at last report, and it was announced in April 2020 that he is working with Mick Jagger and T-Bone Burnett on a documentary examining his life and career.
April 29, 1933 (age 87)
Although more country than rock, Nelson’s crossover appeal cannot be denied. His first recordings hit the airwaves in early 1957, and he quickly became one of the go-to songwriters for the Nashville crowd. Nelson is still actively recording, touring and playing with friends new and old, and continues to be a major force to reckon with in music and marijuana.
February 1, 1937 (age 83)
The older of the Everly Brothers, Don began performing with his family in 1951, but didn’t have a solid hit until he and his younger brother Phil went to #1 with “Bye Bye Love” in the spring of 1957. After serving in the Marines in the early 60s,, Don and Phil’s popularity waned as popular tatstes changed, and eventually their brotherly feuding broke the duo up. They finally reunited in the mid 1980s and performed sporadically until Phil’s death in 2014. Don Everly last performed with Paul Simon in June of 2018.
October 20, 1937 (age 82)
The Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson began performing and recording in 1954 while she was still attending high school. She mixed it up with the best of them, famously dating Elvis and dumping him, and had a string of hits that ran through the mid 1960s, when she pivoted to country and gospel music, and continued having hits into the early 1980s. In the 80s, Jackson continued performing and recording, and in 2009 reached a new peak with her Jack White produced album “The Party Ain’t Over”, she touring until her semi-retirement in 2018; Jackson is reported to be working on new material with Joan Jett.
January 10, 1935 (age 85)
Ronnie Hawkins was a rockabilly band leader from Toronto, Canada, who started performing with The Hawks in 1957. Early 58 saw Levon Helms join him on drums, beginning the lineup that would eventually, although without Hawkins, become The Band. Ronnie and The Hawks released singles starting in 1958, and he toured with them as they slowly became Bob Dylan’s backing band, with Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel eventually joining, until the end 1963, when they left The Hawks behind for good. Hawkins continued to record sporadically with his last release in 2002. Hawkins became an Honorary Officer in the Order of Canada in 2014, and continues to accept booking inquiries through his website.
May 3, 1934 (age 86)
Best known as the lead vocalist in The Four Seasons, Valli began his singing career in 1950 with The Variety Singers, and cut his first single in 1953. He performed, recorded and released singles throughout the 50s but didn’t get a solid hit until 1962 when The Four Seasons hit #1 with “Sherry”, beginning a string of hits that stretched into the 1980s, and more recently, in October 2012, he performed a week long block of shows on Broadway to capitalize on the Jersey Boys broadway production, and continued acting and performing into 2017. Valli’s website lists upcoming summer concerts in 2020, but those may be on hold pending the outbreak.
October 3, 1941 (age 78)
Born Ernest Evans, he gained fame as Chubby Checker, first with a string of novelty records starting in 1959, and then becoming synonymous with The Twist craze, single handedly keeping the dance alive through until Beatlemania took over. Checker continued to record and release singles and hits compilations throughout the 60s and 70s and released new music as recently as 2013. In 2008, Billboard Magazine named “The Twist” the Biggest Chart Hit of All Time. He’s still booking shows, and offering autographed merch on his website.
November 28, 1929 (age 90)
Motown founder Berry Gordy began writing songs in the early 50s and found success with Jackie Wilson recording and charted multiple singles beginning in 1957, leading up to his founding of Tamla Records in 1959, and the formation of Motown Records in 1960. Gordy developed an unmatched stable of performers backed by one of the best house session bands in the world. He was instrumental in developing Motown: The Musical for Broadway in 2011, and oversaw its launch in London, England in 2015. Gordy announced his retirement in September 2019, and is currently living in Los Angeles.
February 12, 1920 (age 100)
Although not a “star” in his own right, Bill Pitman may have played on more hit records than everyone else on this list combined. After beginning his stage career in jazz clubs, he came to prominence as a first call studio player in Los Angeles playing with Mel Torme and other, and by happenstance becoming one of Phil Spector’s earliest Will of Sound/ wrecking crew players, first as Spector’s guitar tutor and eventually playing on hundreds, if not thousands of records for The Ronettes, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Nancy SInatra, The Byrds and dozens of others, plus movie and TV soundtrack work through the early 1990s. Pitman is still active, golfing and speaking on panels about the Wrecking Crew documentary.
March 24, 1935 (age 85)
Another Wrecking Crew regular, Carol Kaye began recording in 1957, playing guitar and bass on an estimated ten thousand records from the early rock era to the present day, starting with sessions for Sam Cooke, and incredibly, she played 12 string guitar on “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens. Kaye went on to work with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson throughout the 60s, she wrote the bass line for “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’”and was featured on Frank Zappa’s “Freakout”. She continued session work, cutting tracks with Frank Black in 2006 for his “Fast Man Raider Man” release. Kaye recently published her autobiography, she’s still a dues paying member of AFM 145 in Los Angeles and is booking guitar and bass lessons over skype.
Amazingly, the list goes on with notable 60s hitmakers Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), Rolling Stones Bassist Bill Wyman, Bobby Vinton, Herb Albert, Fabian Forte, Frankie Avalon, John Mayhall of The Bluesbreakers, Gary “US” Bonds and an extremely long list of british invasion and 60 rockers just around the corner.
-Feature by Denis Mutter
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