Whether you love Elvis, Chubby Checkers, Little Richard, or Eddie Cochran, rock and roll is, as a genre, something most of us can agree is one of the best ways to spend a night, dancing away as we listen.
The history behind rock music is just as fascinating as the songs themselves, as well as how the artists were discovered, how the songs were written, and how they were inspired. So, if you love rock n’ roll music, pull out your ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and dance along to these rock and roll songs.
Long Tall Sally – Little Richard
‘Long Tall Sally’ was a real person and a friend of Little Richard. The gal always had a glass of whiskey in her hands, “treating a cold” with the hot toddies made from alcohol all day. “Aunt Sally,” as Richard grew up calling her, was quite the character and inspired the quirky song. This is one of Richard’s four songs he wrote in the kitchen at the Greyhound bus station, where he worked as a dishwasher before he made it big.
Recommended: Our pick of Little Richards’ greatest hits.
Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley and the Comets
According to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, it’s “Rocket 88,” but many think it was “Rock Around the Clock” to be the first to top the charts at the beginning of the Rock Era. Bill Haley & the Comets recorded the song in 1954 for Decca Records. The phrase “rock n ‘roll” was still new to the vernacular, and many listeners had never heard of the music style when this song was released. Because of that, the song was originally labeled as a “novelty foxtrot.”
Related: Listen to more memorable 50s hits.
Great Balls of Fire – Jerry Lee Lewis
Written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis at the famed Sun Records in 1957. The song became Lewis’s signature song and was a bit shocking thanks to the innuendo in the song and the more conservative Southern culture in which it was released. The song skyrocketed to the Top 5 of the Pop, R&B, and Country charts and sold over 5 million copies.
Related: Here are the rest of the songs from Top Gun.
That’ll Be the Day – Buddy Holly & The Crickets
Buddy Holly & The Crickets released ‘That’ll Be the Day’ in 1957, a year after Holly had recorded the song with The Three Tunes and had the song rejected by Decca record execs. The song was inspired by the film The Searchers starring John Wayne. Wayne’s character kept saying the phrase, and it stuck in the mind of Jerry Allison, the drummer for Holly’s band. Holly commented one night it would be great to have a hit someday, and Allison replied, quoting Wayne’s line, “That’ll be the day,” and the song was born.
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
“Go Johnny, go, go, Johnny B. Goode. He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack, go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track.” The energetic song known from the oldies radio station and the 1980s classic film Back to the Future, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is based on Chuck Berry’s life. It’s the story of a boy coming up from humble beginnings, discovering his guitar talent, and then finding success.
Related: Find this song on our list of Back to the Future songs.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley
One of Elvis Presley’s most famous songs, ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ was released in 1957. The song was featured in the Elvis film of the same name, in which Elvis plays a wrongfully accused convict who becomes a huge star when he’s finally released. Of his 31 films, this one is considered his best and famous for the scene in which Elvis does his elaborate dance number in the prison setting. Interestingly, the film was originally named Ghost of a Chance, but when the single came out, it was clear the song would meet huge success, so the film title was changed to match.
Related: Put your hands up and enjoy these songs about jail.
C’mon Everybody – Eddie Cochran
Written by Eddie Cochran and Jerry Capehart, ‘C’mon Everybody’ was released as a B-side. The song actually has an alternative, with the only change in lyrics being the title change to “Let’s get together.” The song was Cochran’s biggest hit before he passed at age 21. The song has been used in multiple pop culture settings and has been covered by several other artists who have helped to make it even more popular.
Recommended: More Eddie Cochran songs.
Ain’t That a Shame – Fats Domino
Recorded by Fats Domino, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ was the first song to cross over from the R&B charts to the mostly white artist pop charts of the day. Before that, the song was exclusively heard in black nightclubs and bars. Concerned with the crossover response, the song’s title was briefly changed to ‘Isn’t That a Shame,’ but producers convinced Domino to keep the original title, convinced it would actually sell better under the original.
Recommended: Our pick of the best Fats Domino songs.
Blue Suede Shoes – Carl Perkins
While we might be more familiar with Elvis Presley’s cover of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in 1958, it was written and originally recorded by rock legend Carl Perkins in 1955. The song is considered one of the first rockabilly songs recorded, using elements of blues, current pop, and country music to create this rock and rustic vibe. The song itself refers to a luxury item in the South at the time—stylish footwear worn for a night out. “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes” because they’re hard to clean!
Related: Check out these songs with shoes in the lyrics.
La Bamba – Ritchie Valens
The Mexican folk song, ‘La Bamba,’ was recorded by Ritchie Valens with a rock twinge, helping it become one of the most well-known classic rock songs. The song was a modest hit when it was released in 1958, but after the unfortunate passing of Valens in a plane crash, the song became a much bigger hit when the biopic of Valens’ life was released under the same title in 1987.
The Twist – Chubby Checker
An early dance craze, ‘The Twist’ by Chubby Checker has remained one of the most popular early rock songs since its release in 1960. The song was originally released two years earlier by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as a B-side, but Checker’s cover brought the song into popularity, turning it into the dance craze that we’re pretty much all familiar with. At first, the song was wanted for Dick Clark’s show, but Ballard wasn’t available, so a local talent was sought for the cover on the show, and Chubby Checker was brought in to do it instead, launching the song into atmospheric popularity.
Related: Have fun with the top line dancing songs.
Maybelline – Chuck Berry
‘Maybellene’ came out of a hill song by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys from the early 1950s. Chuck Berry heard the song (‘Ida Red’) on the radio and had no idea who performed it, so he reworked the song into ‘Ida Mae’ and performed it around St. Louis with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. After seeing Muddy Waters perform live in Chicago, Berry was inspired to record, and so he pitched himself to Chess Records with ‘Ida Mae,’ but Chess determined it needed a new name to avoid confusion with the song it riffed off of. Thus, ‘Maybellene’ was born.
Related: Drive over to our playlist of car themed songs.
Tutti Frutti – Little Richard
Perhaps Little Richard’s most famous song, thanks to much use in pop culture and adverts, “Tutti Frutti” may have a lot of nonsensical songs, but the words come from somewhere. Richard explained that when he was washing dishes in Macon, Georgia, at a Greyhound station, his boss kept bringing all these pots and pans for washing, and Richard kept getting frustrated. He said, “Awap bop a lup bop bam boom, take ’em out!” as his response, thinking somehow it would keep the dishes away. This song is one of four that Richard wrote in that kitchen.
Related: Still hungry? Here are some songs about lunch.
My Babe – Little Walter
A Chicago blues standard written by Willie Dixon for Little Walter, ‘My Babe’ was released in 1955 by Checker Records (a subsidiary of the famous Chess Records). The song hit number one on the R&B charts and became the biggest hit in the careers of both the writer and the singer. Interestingly, this love song was based on a traditional Gospel song recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The song was adapted from sacred to secular and became a huge success.
Related: This song features on our playlist of popular harmonica songs.
Shake, Rattle and Roll – Elvis Presley
Originally recorded by Big Joe Turner, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ became a popular hit right away. Shortly after the original, Bill Haley and His Comets also recorded the song as a single. According to Turner, the song came about as is because of the vibe. He said in an interview, “Everybody was singing slow blues when I was young, and I thought I’d put a beat to it and sing it up-tempo.” Elvis Presley, Huey Lewis & the News, Patsy Cline, Arthur Conley, and the Beatles have all recorded this iconic dance song, each helping to keep the song’s popularity alive.
Rumble – Link Wray
A popular rock instrumental, ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray and His Wray Men released as the B-side to ‘The Swag’ in 1958. The group first performed the song at a live gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when they were actually trying to work out the backing for a different song. The song was an instant and wild hit with the live audience which demanded an encore four more times that night! The group eventually recorded the jam and got the attention of record producer Archie Bleyer when his teenage daughter absolutely loved it.
Related: Listen to the movie Blow soundtrack.
Lucille – Little Richard
One of Little Richard’s most iconic songs, ‘Lucille’ actually began as a ballad by the name of ‘Directly From My Heart to You.’ The original was recorded with a member of the Johnny Otis band in 1955 and was released as a B-side. The song didn’t make the cut for Richard’s first album, so later, he revived it, changed it, and cranked up the tempo. Now, we have this incredibly fun song practically everyone knows.
Recommended: Indulge yourself with more Little Richard songs.
Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly
Originally, this famous song by Buddy Holly was ‘Cindy Lou.’ Holly’s drummer, Jerry Allison, suggested the name change, and now we have the beloved ‘Peggy Sue’ named for the woman Allison was dating at the time. The assumption was that the song wouldn’t likely ever be heard outside of Lubbock, Texas, where they were playing those days, and Allison wanted to impress his girlfriend. Apparently, it worked! They eloped the next year, and, of course, the song went on to become one of the best-known tunes by Buddy Holly.
Related: Is your name on our list of the best songs with female names?
That’s Alright, Mama – Elvis Presley
‘That’s Alright, Mama’ may not be Elvis Presley’s most famous song, but it’s up there in the numbers. It was written and originally recorded by Arthur Crudup in 1946. Elvis used the song as his debut single release in 1954. Elvis came to Sun Studios to record the song as a mother’s day gift for his mother, but when Sam Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keiser, heard him singing, she knew she had found the guy her boss was looking for and alerted him to the 19-year-old truck driver in for a session.
Woo-Hoo – The Rock-A-Teens
The 1959 rockabilly song, ‘Woo-Hoo,’ is credited as being written by country music DJ and record company owner George Donald McGraw. The song was originally recorded by The Rock-A-Teens as a single. The primarily instrumental song (only “woo-hoo” is ever sung in the song) is a fun song that had a lot of success thanks to the lack of language barrier—no actual words were used, so anyone could understand it. Various bands have covered the song many times, including The 126.96.36.199’s, with perhaps its most iconic use in Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Summertime Blues – Eddie Cochran
Recorded when Eddie Cochran was only 19, ‘Summertime Blues’ is a fun summertime song that his biggest audience (teens) could really relate to when the rock hit was released. Cochran and co-writer Jerry Capehart wrote the song in response to all the summer songs out there, none of which dealt with the hardships of summer. The others were peppy, happy songs, and Cochran and Capehart felt there was a need for a song about the less happy moments of summer when teens faced challenges. The wild popularity of the song agreed with them!
Related: Celebrate or relive your youth with these teenage songs.
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley
Containing one of the most iconic musical riffs, ‘Bo Diddley’ is based on the American folk song ‘Mockingbird.’ The song was originally named ‘Uncle John,’ but the title was rejected and the song was reworked to appeal to a radio audience that was expected to be more prudish. Because of the rework, Diddley put his own name on the song and often repeated that practice afterward with other songs in different ways.
Recommended: Our pick of the best Bo Diddley songs.
The Wanderer – Dion & The Belmonts
According to Dion, the singer of ‘The Wanderer’ was inspired by Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m a Man.’ The song is actually a warning that turns in on itself as it “warns” women off of the character who’s singing the lyrics. “Oh well, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down. Where pretty girls are well, you know that I’m around. Oh well, I roam from town to town. I go through life without a care, ’til I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, and I’m going nowhere.”
Tequila – The Champs
Probably one of the best-known single-word lyric songs, ‘Tequila’ is a super fun rock song that infuses horns, strong guitars, and many other elements of Big Band music that helped create what we now call classic rock. The song is named for the alcoholic drink, which is named for the town of Tequila in Mexico. The band, The Champs, originally used the song as an interlude in their club shows and later recorded this now popular song as a B-side.
Related: Cheers to the best tequila songs!
I Got a Woman – Ray Charles
‘I Got a Woman’ is considered the first hit song using secular lyrics in the gospel music style. Ray Charles wrote the song with bandleader Renald Richard after listening to spirituals on the radio while on tour. The song blends together gospel, blues, and jazz into a singular “fusion” style that became a mainstay in the early rock era. Charles said that the blending of styles was just him being himself, organically infusing his influences to create this now-staple style.
Related: You’ll love these great gospel songs.
See You Later Alligator – Bill Haley and the Comets
Coming from Billy Haley & His Comets—a band considered one of the true earliest rock bands ever—’See You Later Alligator’ is a fun little number that’s easy to dance or just tap your feet to. The song was written by Robert Charles Guidry and originally recorded by him under the name Bobby Charles. The Haley version, however, was the one that took off and helped to start bringing bluesy rock into the mainstream of music.
I Get Around – Beach Boys
Released in 1964, ‘I Get Around’ remains one of the most well-known and popular songs by The Beach Boys. The upbeat surf rock song helped define the rock genre and, specifically, that unique sub-genre they’re well-known for. The song is an autobiographical examination of their lives in their new wild popularity and nearly instant fame. They were already concerned about being pegged as status quo, which is where the line “where the kids are hip” comes from: their desire to stay fresh and unique instead of creating more same-old, same-old music.
Twist and Shout – The Beatles
‘Twist and Shout’ was an early rock dance craze (derived from ‘The Twist’), written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns. The Beatles helped to make the song and dance even more popular when they recorded their cover and performed it on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The band did two takes on the song but wound up keeping the first recording. The song was recorded at the same time as their marathon session of 12+ hours when they recorded the album Please Please Me.
Related: Here are some more songs that are covers.
Oh, Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
Quintessential early rocker Ray Orbison wrote the exceptionally well-known in reference to a joke. Orbison’s wife walked into the room when he and writing partner Bill Dees was working. She (Claudette) was headed out shopping, and Orbison asked if she needed some money. Dees joked that “Pretty woman never needs any money.” From this joke came the phrase, “Pretty woman walking down the street,” and the song we know and love was born!
Related: Here’s our list of Pretty Woman songs.
Not Fade Away – The Rolling Stones
Written and originally recorded by Buddy Holly in 1957, ‘Not Fade Away’ helped the Rolling Stones move forward in their career. They added a Bo Diddley beat, which was rather avant-garde at the time for White bands to do. The rhythms they applied were popular in clubs, and many actually considered this the earliest “writing” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards because of their unique take on the popular song.
Runaway – Del Shannon
This classic rock song, ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon, is all about a guy whose girl leaves, and he’s wondering what went wrong. Shannon says he actually wrote a lot of songs about breakups and the words to this one about himself as he wondered why he was “forever running” away from relationships he had. The song was the biggest selling single of 1961 and the biggest hit of Shannon’s career.
Related: Broken heart? Listen to these songs about being broken up with.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love – Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
This fun little love song by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers was released in 1956. Funnily enough, the band didn’t even know when the song had been released, but only discovered it when one of them heard a classmate singing it after hearing it on the radio. ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ helped to launch this young Black musical band into the spotlight, which then helped to lead the way for other Black singing groups like Jackson 5.
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
‘Bad Moon Rising’ was written, according to John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival, after inspiration from the film The Devil and Daniel Webster. The song, the lead single from the album Green River, was written about the “apocalypse to be visited upon us,” Fogerty said in an interview with Rolling Stone. Fogerty has had some fun with it, too, with the often misheard lyric “there’s a bad moon on the rise” as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” During concerts, Fogerty has often pointed out bathrooms and even sang the false lyric once during a concert.
Related: Find more apocalyptic songs on our list of best songs about the end.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen
When the opening riff of ‘Little Thing Called Love’ comes on, pretty much everyone knows an amazing Queen song is coming on. Freddie Mercury wrote the song while in Germany as the band was recording The Game. Apparently, Freddie wrote this crazy little song while taking a bubble bath. He popped out, grabbed a towel, dashed out for a guitar, and got writing. Freddie said it took him about 10 minutes to write, partially thanks to his limited knowledge of the guitar, limiting his options.
Related: Fall in love with our 80s love songs list.
Rebel Rouser – Duane Eddy
Duane Eddy’s unique use of “twang” in his guitar playing (i.e., FX) helped to carry this upbeat, fun instrumental song into the popular stream when he recorded it in 1958. The unique “twang” you hear on the recording was piped into the studio, which contained a water tank with a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other, creating an echo chamber. Eddy’s distinctive style was refined from this original album through other unique recording choices, like recording in a grain silo.
Related: Run over to our Forrest Gump song list.
Roll Over Beethoven – ELO
Opening to the strains of Beethoven’s 5th, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ has a bit of fun at the expense of classical music. Of course, in the day, Beethoven was contemporary, which is part of what makes the song a bit of fun. Rock n’ roll was dismissed as a fad at the time of this song’s writing, just as the composers of many past works were initially themselves. ELO’s clever use of classical elements in their rendition adds an extra uniqueness to this already fun song.
I Saw Her Standing There – The Beatles
Before they were famous, the Beatles were playing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The fun, upbeat, early rock song comes from the iconic writing duo of Paul McCartney and John Lennon and was on the band’s debut album, Please Please Me, released in 1963. The dance number tells the story of love at first sight when the singer spots a pretty girl across the girl, and they ultimately dance the night away.
Related: You’ll love our love at first sight song list.