1956 in Music

My music reviews for music originally released in 1956.

1. Elvis Presley (10/10)

It’s hard for us now, 60 years later, to understand what a big deal this record was and listening to it doesn’t necessarily help, because it doesn’t sound great – at least the mono version sure doesn’t – and it doesn’t sound anywhere near as dynamic as it must have then.

One huge surprise is the lack of Presley’s early hits. I had always been led to believe that albums in the ’50s were nearly exclusively singles compilations with a little bit of a filler to trick the public into believing they’re buying new material. But, even though this might have happened due to recording contract conflicts, the result is that Presley’s debut has new material on it. (I think, perhaps, exclusively new material – at least new in the sense of “unreleased.) In that sense it’s more of a statement than it might have otherwise been, coming, as it did, nearly two years after his first hit single. And though it’s a compilation of two different recording sessions, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it – instead it feels varied in a way that is surprising to me.

Anyway, there are few more important albums in early rock and roll, probably.

2. Pithecanthropus Erectus (10/10) by Charles Mingus

The beginning of Charles Mingus’ prime. Read the review of Pithecanthropus Erectus.

3. Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps: Bluejean Bop! (9/10)

Consistent rockabilly/rock and roll and probably fairly important in those genres’ histories. Read the review of Bluejean Bop!

4. Mingus at the Bohemia (9/10)

A stellar set showing off everything that makes Mingus great (at this band size, anyway). Read the review of Mingus at the Bohemia.

5. Ellington Live at Newport (9/10)

Though Ellington is one of the most famous leaders in jazz, and probably the greatest composer in the music’s history, this is the first set I have ever heard (deliberately) by his band. The reason for that is simply because I got into jazz through Miles Davis, whose entire career has been played in the post-Big Band world. The little inquiry I’ve made into earlier jazz has been into Dixieland.

Read the full review.

6. Dizzy Gilespie: Birks’ Works (8/10)

This is a link to a review of a compilation including the album, not just the album.

7. Elvis Presley: Elvis (8/10)

This record generally seems to be regarded pretty well, as an improvement on his incredible debut. I agree that Elvis himself sounds more confident on the crooning side of things but, on the whole, I find this pretty disappointing in relation.

Elvis’ debut is one of the landmarks in music history in the 20th century, but at least some of that comes from the rawness of his performance on that record, and the degree that it was captured using fairly primitive technology. A lot of that is gone here, with the ballads particularly schmaltzy and the rock and roll songs sounding relatively restrained perhaps just because the production is better.

That’s not to say this is bad: it’s still quite strong for its era and Elvis’ stylistic range is so broad for a rock and roll performer that all the albums which were just compilations of rock and roll hits must be boring in comparison. But the idea that this record is better than his debut is balderdash.

8. Johnny Smith: Moonlight in Vermont (8/10)

A landmark for sure, but he still pales in my mind to Charlie Christian.

9. Glenn Gould: “String Quartet” (8/10)

I like this more than I should.

10. Harry Belafonte: Calypso (8?/10)

A massive hit, it supposedly launched a calypso craze that is entirely forgotten now. Read the review of Calypso.

11. The New Miles Davis Quintet (7/10)

An early version of the “first” quintet which doesn’t impress anywhere near as much as the music they recorded on May 11th and October 26th (which produced four albums released in later years).

12. Aram Khachaturian: Spartacus (6/10)

Khachaturian’s first name (Aram) is an occasional clue in the NYT crossword. I know it’s used because they love short words with two or more vowels, but it’s interesting to me that this man, of all Soviet composers, is the one known to Americans. I believe there’s a good reason for this, shown off by this ballet, as well as the other music I’ve heard of his so far – he’s easy.

American “classical” music before minimalism was all about the big easy melodies of Barber and Copland. It should come as no surprise that a bombastic, melodic composer with less nuance to his music than other Russians should become famous in the US.

As you can tell, I don’t particularly like this. It’s loud, it’s hummable, it’s long, it’s safe (and not just by Soviet standards). Sure, it lacks the “hit” from Gayane, but it’s much of the same quality in its bombast and its ease of communicating its musical ideas.

Very meh.


1. Ray Charles: “Down in My Own Tears” (10/10)

A really slow blues number with a passionate vocal from Charles that feels like the very invention of soul music in single form, especially with that horn section, and the backing vocals that come in late in the song. Just textbook.

1. Ray Charles: “Hallelujah I Love Her So” (10/10)

I have only heard a live version of this track, unfortunately, but the single is an iconic moment in music history, distinguishing up-beat soul music from rock and roll, with the beat being more complicated and with emphasis on breaks and such.,

1. Little Richard: “Long Tall Sally” / “Slippin’ and Slidin'” (10/10)

One of the essential early rock and roll songs.

4. Little Richard: “Rip it Up” / “Ready Teddy”” (10/10)

Very much following in the pattern of “Tutti Frutti” but still incredible stuff.

3. B.B. King: “Sweet Little Angel” (9/10)

This is a really slow blues that shows that BB’s tone has improved leaps and bounds since his early days. Maybe the recording technology improved, or maybe he wasn’t using Lucille before, but it’s kind of shocking. This song has been sooo influential on so many players, I would think.

4. Wanda Jackson: “I Gotta Know” / “Half as Good a Girl” (9/10)

The A-side already starts off with a considerable dose of rock and roll input in the verses (alternating with pure country choruses) that was possibly unheard of within rockabilly. The B-side is considerably more traditional, country music wise and the lyrics have dated rather horribly.

5. Billie Holiday: “I Cover the Waterfront” (8/10)

A live track from late in her career, with a smallish band. Now this is vocal jazz. The intro feels completely improvised.

6. Billie Holiday: “Lady Sings the Blues” (8/10)

Another track where the sound of the horns is rather incredible for the era (not the drums, though). I guess this is sort of her most famous song – her anthem as it were.
Switches tempo and shows off her lower range.

7. Billie Holiday: “God Bless The Child” (8/10)

You can start to hear her voice deteriorate in this one. Super idiosyncratic phrasing.

8. B.B. King: “Bad Luck” (8/10)

This a bit of a regression in terms of the gorgeous tone found on “Sweet Little Angel,” this feels like it was recorded earlier (or on a different instrument) than that classic track. Still pretty classic BB, but it pales in comparison given that it was released later.

9. Wanda Jackson: “Hot Dog! That Made Him Man” / “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (8/10)

The A-side feels like pure rockabilly with a rather assertive lyric for the era. Again, it’s backed by a much more traditional country song, of the kind that inspired Lurleen on The Simpsons.

10. Buddy Holly: “Blue Days (Black Nights)” b/w “Love Me” (7/10)

Holly’s first single is pretty standard rockabilly that is enlivened by Holly’s pretty incredible range and a solo that feels almost tropical.

The b-side features some inane lyrics and a pretty standard solo. His voice is the only draw here. Only worth listening to for the a-side.

11. Buddy Holly: “Modern Don Juan” (7/10)

An interesting (and elaborate) cover by Holly featuring a sax and a piano – and a very professional guitar solo (by a session musician).

12. B.B. King: “Dark is the Night Part 2” (6/10)

This is just a nearly instrumental version of “Part 1” released again for some unknown reason.

James Brown: “Please, Please, Please” (???/10)

Bo Diddley: “Who Do You Love?” (??/10)

Not Ranked:

Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey, Hilde Zadek, Marcel Cordes, Ilse Wallenstein, Kolner Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Joseph Keilbert: Iphigenie Auf Taurus by Christoph Gluck (8/10)

I am not a fan of the ‘classical’ era, compared to the other major epochs of western ‘classical’ music. I don’t know that I ever will be. I’d much rather listen to Baroque, Romantic or various more modern music. But I appreciate anything that was path-breaking (at least I try to) and I do my very best to listen to music while considering the context.

So I have to at least admire Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride (though this is the 1781 German version) even if I had to read about it to admire it more than I would just listening to it. The opera was apparently a watershed moment in French opera (Gluck had moved to Paris) and, given what I have read, I’m kind of glad. Though no fan of French opera in general, it sounds like it might have been ever less interesting prior to Gluck. And if someone like Strauss liked it so much he adapted it, then it’s got my vote.

Definitely not my cup of tea, but worth listening to if you are interested in the history of opera.

Helmut Walch: Die Kunst der Fuge by JS Bach (7/10)

Not my favourite performance of the piece.

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