The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Audit, Part 1: 1986-1990

After a quarter-century of selecting inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been under steady criticism for its choices, as readers of this site are well-aware. So, in an exercise in extreme foolishness, I think it's high time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was audited to determine whether its selections really are justified. It is a comprehensive task, and just as you eat an elephant one bite at a time, I am starting with the first five years' worth of inductees.

The Audit: Baselines and Process

Let me be the first to acknowledge that an audit process of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is as inherently arbitrary as the selection process. Part of the problem (as I have written about on this site) is that, unlike sports halls of fame, there are no objective criteria for music that can definitively indicate a candidate's worthiness. Terms like "innovation," "influence," "popularity," and so forth can suggest categories for evaluation, but these are still sufficiently broad enough to mean whatever you want them to. Furthermore, artists might have had a significant impact at a key moment in musical history that exceeds their overall ability or output; the Sex Pistols, for example, changed the course of rock music with a relative handful of recordings and concert appearances.

Another problem is the covert and capricious process by which the voting members of the Hall determine the nominees and then the winning candidates. Various biases have been alleged concerning the voters, not without justification.

Finally, and most significantly, there is no universal definition of just what is rock and roll. I myself think it is more accurate to refer to the music as rock and soul, which at least explicitly encompasses black-oriented popular music, which is abundantly represented in the Hall. Perhaps, as I have done, it is easier to think of "rock and roll" simply as popular music from the Rock Era, which exists from the mid-1950s to the present.

Once you get that sorted out, the next question becomes: What kind of Hall of Fame are we talking about? Is that a "big Hall" or a "small Hall"? A "big Hall" is much like what the Hall looks like today—many artists inducted under broad, liberal criteria. Given the sheer number of rock and soul acts in the Rock Era, even the current roster is a relative handful. By contrast, a "small Hall" entails greater discrimination—is the artist in question truly an innovator, an influence, a prime exemplar of a style, genre, or period? If not, that artist doesn't belong in the Hall. That might seem unfair, or elitist, but it does make the accolade "Hall of Famer" that much more meaningful.

And there is no shame in being measured only to fall short. It only means that you have to be exceptional to be inducted. If everyone is exceptional then no one is. This is a matter of degree, and I am a small-Hall proponent. Make no mistake—I enjoy the music of many artists whom I would not consider to be Hall-worthy; conversely, there are artists whom I consider Hall-worthy whose music I do not enjoy. More so than with sports appreciation, music appreciation is an intensely personal, and intensely emotional, experience, which makes the attempt to evaluate, particularly with little objective criteria, that much more difficult.

In assessing the inductees year-by-year, I organized them into three categories:

Yes. The artist is considered to be a Hall of Famer with little, if any, controversy or objection.

Borderline Yes. The artist is considered to be a Hall of Famer, but there is significant controversy or objection or, at the very least, the case for inclusion must be made.

No. The artist is considered not to be a Hall of Famer.

Again, not a perfect system but it gave me three buckets into which I could toss each inductee. As always, subjectivity will make those definitions fuzzy.

To determine into which bucket I would toss the artist, I considered this: For an artist to be worthy of the Hall of Fame, that artist must demonstrate significant success in most, if not all, of the following areas: innovation, influence, popularity, crossover appeal, and legacy. We can think of these as an artist's Defining Factors, and they are outlined below:

Innovation. The artist has invented or refined one or more aspects of the music.

Influence. The artist has made a demonstrable impact on the music of either contemporaries or succeeding artists.

Popularity. The artist has achieved an appreciable measure of commercial or critical success.

Crossover appeal. The artist is recognized and appreciated outside the artist's primary arena.

Legacy. The artist's accomplishments have lasting impact and appeal.

These are the baselines and process for the following audit of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's choices from 1986 to 1990. I was inspired to explore the audit idea by the late, lamented, but still accessible website Fametracker, which, unfortunately, has been on hiatus since 2007. The wickedly snarky Fametracker did audits to determine whether celebrities, primarily movie or television actors, actually deserved the level of fame accorded to them by the media and public.

Although I've generally resisted the snark factor, this article will try to determine whether a musical act really is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Let's start with the inductees from 1986 to 1990.

1986: The Founding Fathers of Rock and Soul

10 Inductees: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley


Yes: All 10.

It should be no surprise that the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contains no disputed or controversial picks—after all, it had the entire gamut of popular music from the start of the Rock Era from which to choose. Because the Hall's stipulation is that an artist is first eligible 25 years from the release of the artist's first recording, only artists whose first recordings were before 1961 were eligible.

The shape that rock and soul music would take from its inception stems from the contributions of these ten inductees. All of them are essential artists, although they can be further classified into three tiers based on the magnitude of the Defining Factors. This isn't mere critical hair-splitting: Although both have lasting greatness that makes them Hall of Famers, Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers are not equally matched—Berry laid the very foundation upon which succeeding rock and roll was built. There are very few artists comparable to Berry.

The First Tier: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley

These four men—Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley—had the greatest Defining Factors on popular music during the Rock Era. They form the cornerstones of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—although it would be more accurate to call it the Rock and Soul Hall of Fame. Their legacies should be well-understood by anyone even remotely aware of the musical history of the last sixty years, so I won't belabor their bona fides for the Hall.

Chuck Berry: The Architect of Rock and Roll, Berry laid the foundation of the music through three accomplishments: He synthesized disparate musical strands—blues, rhythm and blues, country and western, and pop—into an instantly recognizable sound; he wrote witty, articulate songs that defined the hopes, dreams, and desires of postwar America, particularly American youth; and he established the guitar as the dominant instrumental expression of rock and roll. Berry's influence is integral to the success of the four biggest artists of the 1960s: the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, who are inconceivable without Berry. These artists in turn influenced countless others.

James Brown: From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Godfather of Soul had been at the forefront of pop innovation so many times that hip-hoppers continue to sample him today. James Brown shouted and shimmied from hard-edged 1950s R&B ("Please Please Please') to brash, almost jazzy 1960s soul ("Papa's Got a Brand New Bag") to gritty 1970s funk ("Sex Machine") with a bold style, heaving passion, and sweaty energy that is as contagious as it is influential. Brown's backing bands, notably the Famous Flames and then the JBs, were no less crucial to his success and influence. Moreover, the appeal of the live album, a staple of white classic rock, stems from Brown's landmark 1962 set Live at the Apollo, a bravura performance that still sounds fresh today.

Ray Charles: There was a reason why they called him a genius: By wedding the soaring emotionalism of gospel with the gritty sensuality of rhythm and blues, Ray Charles invented, almost single-handedly, soul music, an enormously popular and resilient style that still survives today as "urban" and "modern R&B." Yet Charles exhibited a broader musical ambition, one that found him recording with jazz artists and recording a popular country and western album and making it swing. Following his idol Nat "King" Cole, Charles wanted to transcend categorization and become simply an entertainer, and he succeeded enormously—his impact on post-World War Two popular music is too titanic to ignore.

Elvis Presley: At the birth of the music, Presley transformed rock and roll from a rude and possibly transitory aberration into a lasting cultural phenomenon, and then he transcended that categorization to become an American icon. David Bowie, Madonna, and Michael Jackson (who married Presley's daughter Lisa Marie), among many others, would be inconceivable without Presley. It didn't hurt that Presley not only had a gorgeous voice but was a consummate interpreter, putting his undeniable stamp on every song he sung. When Presley burst onto the international stage in the 1950s, he inspired countless youngsters to become rock musicians at a time when rock was considered a fad destined to pass soon. Presley's unparalleled impact on not only pop music but pop culture makes his inclusion in the Hall compulsory.

The Second Tier: Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard

The Defining Factors of the Second Tier artists was not as profound as those of the first group, but their contributions are nevertheless essential to the evolution, development, and perpetuation of rock music.

Fats Domino: Arguably the most sophisticated of the Founding Fathers, thanks in large measure to his supple arrangements by collaborator Dave Bartholomew, Antoine "Fats" Domino was also arguably the first of them to rock: His 1949 hit "The Fat Man" is a favorite among rock historians searching for that mythical "first-ever rock and roll record." Domino's smooth, rolling piano style and engaging, effortless singing is not only influential—Van Morrison is a famous disciple, while "Ain't That a Shame" survived Cheap Trick's enthusiastic tribute—it introduced a high degree of musical legitimacy to early rock and roll, which was being derided as primitive noise with no musical value. Although he could rock with the best of them, Domino excelled at pulling out the emotion of a slower-tempo song as he exhibited maturity in more adult-themed numbers like "Blue Monday."

Buddy Holly: This singer, guitarist, bandleader, songwriter, and record-maker is the first test case of the Rock Era: Buddy Holly's career was cut short just as it was beginning; his death at age 22 in a 1959 airplane crash is the first great tragedy of the Rock Era. Yet Holly and his band the Crickets, supported by producer Norman Petty, burst onto the scene fully-formed, with rich, energetic songs that still sound fresh and vital today. Holly's rock and roll is rooted in country and rockabilly sensibilities, but he was hip to contemporaries like Chuck Berry, and the irresistible pop appeal that informs much of his material influenced countless artists from the Beatles, whose insectoid name bows to the Crickets, to Fleetwood Mac and beyond. The great mystery, of course, is what more Holly could have accomplished had he lived, but what he accomplished during his short time on earth is fundamental to rock and roll.

Little Richard: Even more than half-century later, Little Richard's records still explode from the speakers, a raucous fusion of gospel's passion and rhythm and blues' power topped by shouts of exultation into the virgin rock and roll wilderness. Yet singer and piano-player Richard Penniman always maintained command of the song even at the height of frenzy, and that infectious enthusiasm, coupled with his exuberant showmanship, proved an influence on everyone from the Beatles to Prince. Like many early rockers, Little Richard disappeared from the scene after a few short years in the spotlight; in his case, he decided to become an ordained minister (prefiguring Al Green, for instance), although he did return to the secular realm to remain a lasting rock icon.

The Third Tier: Sam Cooke, Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis

Their Defining Factors are not as apparent as their eight fellow inductees, but Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Jerry Lee Lewis are indeed worthy of the Hall.

Sam Cooke: First gaining exposure as a gospel singer, most notably as a member of the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke had a pleasing voice and an effortless singing style that could interpret material from church music to melodramatic ballads to energetic dance songs with equal aplomb. He displayed that glorious voice on a string of pop hits from the 1950s to 1964, when he was murdered in a bizarre incident, which leaves the question of what more he could have accomplished one of the more fascinating ones of the Rock Era; based on the direction of his posthumous hit "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke could have been among the forefront of black artistic consciousness inspired by the civil rights movement. As it stands, Cooke influenced any number of singers from Otis Redding to Rod Stewart, making his contributions worthy of the Hall.

The Everly Brothers: The vocal harmonies of Don and Phil Everly echoed far into rock and roll's future, from the folk-rock and country-rock of the 1960s to the soft-rock, singer-songwriter sounds of the 1970s. Benefiting from the engaging songwriting of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the Everlys scored a number of innocent-sounding hits in the 1950s—although check out the slyly subversive gem "Wake up Little Susie"—before they, like Elvis Presley, were called to national service. However, unlike Presley, they returned to civilian life all but forgotten and had to re-establish themselves, this time in a changing rock and roll climate. Plenty of rock, folk, and country artists remembered the Everly Brothers, though, citing them as influences and thus justifying their inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Like Buddy Holly, singer and piano-pounding demon Jerry Lee Lewis had his rock and roll career cut short too, but it was a social taboo—marrying his 14-year-old cousin—that proved his undoing. Nevertheless, Lewis's mark on early rock and roll is indelible even if casual fans know him only from his handful of pre-fall-from-grace hits: Certainly Lewis displayed the same wild abandon as Little Richard, but listen to the technique both in Lewis's singing and piano-playing—his assurance is remarkable, and he is in firm control of the proceedings at all times. Lewis brought that skill and power to country and western (for example, practically stealing "Jambalaya" from Hank Williams, Sr.), which he turned to after being shunned by rock, and his resilience and status as rock and roll's first true outlaw is enduring.

1987: It's a Big Hall after All

15 Inductees: The Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bill Haley, B.B. King, Clyde McPhatter, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson


Yes: Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson, Muddy Waters


Borderline Yes: The Coasters, Bill Haley, Clyde McPhatter, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson


No: Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Carl Perkins

Just one year after the inaugural class entered the Hall of Fame, it opened its doors in 1987 to fifteen more inductees—and here is where the expansive, almost arbitrary tendencies of the Hall first manifested themselves. While seven of the fifteen are no-doubt candidates, five are on the borderline, and three should not be in the Hall.

The Shoo-Ins: Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, B. B. King, Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson, Muddy Waters

Given the impact and influence of these seven performers on the evolution, development, and perpetuation of rock and soul, their inductions should not be considered controversial. True, both B. B. King and Muddy Waters are classified as blues musicians; however, given that blues is probably the single most influential musical form on rock and soul, and that the bulk of both King's and Waters's careers were concurrent with the Rock Era while also intersecting with rock and soul, it is difficult to conceive of rock and soul as we know it without their contributions.

Bo Diddley: Chuck Berry's stablemate at Chess Records and the only musician of the Rock Era with a specific beat named for him, Bo Diddley exerted an influence on rock and soul that is only slightly behind Berry's, and might have extended a bit farther: Some of his songs ("Say Man," for instance) featured his verbal sparring with his bass and maracas player Jerome Green, an extension of "the dozens," or the African-American tradition of boasting and cutting, which continues through hip-hop today. His beat, usually described as the amplified version of "Shave and a haircut/Two bits," is no less influential. The Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds all borrowed from Diddley as they in turn became influences themselves.

Aretha Franklin: "Lady Soul," Aretha Franklin, is the greatest female singer of the Rock Era—although she might not have gotten off the ground had she not gone to Atlantic Records. Signed first to Columbia, Franklin was positioned as a jazz/torch-song performer with limited results. At Atlantic, she was paired with producers Jerry Wexler and, later, Arif Mardin, who backed her with lean, tough, R&B-styled arrangements, which included her own estimable piano playing, and encouraged her gospel stylings on a host of timeless hits. (Franklin, the daughter of noted Detroit preacher C. L. Franklin, had already earned a reputation as a gospel singer, which culminated in her essential 1972 spiritual album Amazing Grace.) Her career cooled by the mid-1970s, but she still scored the occasional hit in the 1980s en route to becoming an institution.

Marvin Gaye: Motown's greatest male solo vocalist, Marvin Gaye certainly helped to define soul music in the 1960s, both on his own sides and in tandem with a series of female vocalists, most notably the tremendous Tammi Terrell—their breathtaking duets are at the pinnacle of the Rock Era. But Gaye's greatest contribution might be when, tired of Motown's production-line formula, he stepped out as a record-maker, particularly with 1971's sublime What's Going On album. Gaye, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder helped to shape the course of black music in particular and popular music in general starting in the early 1970s. Gaye's career faltered later in the decade (although he could still produce a hit like "Got to Give It Up"), but he rebounded in the early 1980s with the Midnight Love album (featuring the smash hit "Sexual Healing")—only to be killed in an altercation with his father. How he would have responded to hip-hop and other urban styles remains a fascinating question.

B. B. King: B. B. King's brilliant, singular lead-guitar style—sharp, economical, but extremely expressive—was hugely influential on blues and rock guitarists alike, and that alone would ensure him a place in the Hall. But King was far more than a guitar hero: As an equally expressive singer, bandleader, and record-maker, King became the leading figure in post-World War Two blues, and largely by, as veteran music writer John Swenson has noted, incorporating various musical styles and strategies squarely under the umbrella of the blues. This expansive palette enabled him to intersect seamlessly with rock, funk, and soul at various times in his career (for example, his collaboration with U2, "When Love Comes to Town," sounds perfectly in synch with both artists' styles) while also keeping the blues from becoming fossilized.

Roy Orbison: Although Roy Orbison's career began at Sun Records in the 1950s, he didn't find his métier until 1960. That marked his move to Monument Records, where his heavily-arranged, operatic sides, a departure from the rockabilly of his earlier work, defined his legacy. Indeed, Orbison's first success occurred in the interregnum between Elvis Presley's Army induction and the Beatles' invasion of the United States—a period that many believe featured no rock and roll. Moreover, Orbison's hits seemed the antithesis of that early, raw, beat-heavy rock and roll. His clear, pure baritone soaring over strings (and the Bolero-like rhythm of "Running Scared"), Orbison also sounded more like a man terrified that his woman was going to leave him at any moment rather than the typical swaggering about conquest; even when he was on the prowl, as in "Oh, Pretty Woman," Orbison was pursuing a woman "lonely just like me." Yet Orbison's singular style filtered into later rock grandiosity and melodrama—most notably into Bruce Springsteen's—and marks him as a seminal influence.

Smokey Robinson: There is no doubt that William "Smokey" Robinson belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The question is, which Smokey—the performer, with or without the Miracles, the songwriter, the producer, or a combination of all three? That seems to be the thinking behind inducting Smokey by himself. His offstage work at Motown, producing and shepherding other artists while writing a slew of soul classics recorded either by him and the Miracles or by other acts, is integral to that label's success although it makes him a non-performer. However, his was one of the signature voices of the 1960s, a supple, high-pitched plea and seduction fronting the Miracles. And although he quit by the early 1970s to move into executive leadership at Motown, he was soon back in the studio as a successful solo artist through the decade and into the 1980s.

Although it probably wasn't realized at the time, in hindsight, given that individual artists who had also been in bands were later inducted again as solo artists—some of whom (Jeff Beck, George Harrison, even Eric Clapton) didn't merit that—Robinson should have been inducted as a performer with the Miracles, and then as a non-performer; his solo work, while excellent, is not at Hall of Fame caliber. And considering members of other Motown vocal ensembles are fittingly in the Hall, this seems a significant slight to the Miracles.

Muddy Waters: McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, recorded "Rollin' Stone," his interpretation of an earlier Delta blues song, "Catfish Blues," in 1950. More than a decade later, an English rhythm and blues band took its name from the song; a few years after that, a music magazine took its name from that band, the Rolling Stones—and the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner, became a key figure in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That alone might have been enough to put Muddy Waters in the Hall, but, fortunately, his electric blues, Delta blues brought north and amplified in Chicago bars and nightclubs, became one of the backbones of twentieth-century popular music. Waters wrote or performed numerous songs that influenced generations of blues and rock musicians, while he and his band, notably harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs, helped to shape the sound of blues and rock.

The Borderline Brigade: The Coasters, Bill Haley, Clyde McPhatter, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson

If the preceding seven inductees were uncontroversial picks, the next five teeter on the borderline. Make no mistake: All five were instrumental figures at the birth of rock and soul, and if you are a big-Hall proponent, then there is no question as to their legitimacy. However, their qualifications might not seem immediately apparent, which doesn't mean they don't belong in the Hall, only that their cases might need to be reiterated.

The Coasters: The first group inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Coasters were the foils for the songwriting and production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; they were also one of the funniest groups in rock and soul history, and it is that light-hearted approach that might detract from their talent—as well as anchor them to their era. Featuring the lead vocal tenor of Carl Gardner and the bass vocal counterpoint of Will "Dub" Jones, and often punctuated by the honking saxophone of King Curtis, the Coasters sang a variety of Leiber-Stoller "playlets" that ranged across American popular culture, from school ("Charlie Brown") to television ("Along Came Jones," "Searchin'"), teen life ("Yakety Yak," "Shopping for Clothes"), and, of course, romance ("Poison Ivy," "Turtle Dovin'"). The Coasters projected an innocence that seems dated today, although they were capable of raunchier R&B ("Down in Mexico," "Smokey Joe's Café," even "Little Egypt") while "Riot in Cell Block #9" was no comedy, and "That Is Rock and Roll" proved prophetic.

Bill Haley: Although the exact moment when rock and roll came fully into existence might never be determined, singer and bandleader Bill Haley has as much right to be the midwife for that moment as anyone. Like Chuck Berry and others, Haley understood that a fusion of country and western, rhythm and blues, swing, and other musical styles could yield a new and exciting sound, and Haley, along with his band the Comets, began to realize that sound as early as 1951. Their songs "Rock This Joint" and "Crazy Man Crazy" prefigured their signature "Rock around the Clock" (with an equally signature guitar break by Danny Cedrone) which was initially a modest success until it was used in the 1955 juvenile-delinquent melodrama The Blackboard Jungle. Re-released, it became a smash hit, then subsequently a shorthand device for nostalgia (American Graffiti, Happy Days). Haley's moment in the sun was short-lived, though—once youthful, sexy Elvis Presley burst onto the scene, the less-visually-appealing Haley faded like a wallflower. Bill Haley might be a test case for Hall-worthiness: He just squeaks in based on his tangible contributions during the crucial inception of the Rock Era.

Clyde McPhatter: The name of this sweet-voiced tenor is perhaps best-known to archivists now, but Clyde McPhatter exerted a seminal influence on early rock and soul, as the lead vocalist for Billy Ward and the Dominos ("Sixty Minute Man") before founding the Drifters; then, after completing his national service, he pursued a solo career as one of the early soul singers of the 1950s. Indeed, McPhatter's rooting in gospel produced an emotive singing style that proved influential on subsequent performers including Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, and Smokey Robinson. As a solo artist, he scored a number of hits that emphasized the vulnerability and melodrama of the new form ("A Lover's Question" and "Without Love [There Is Nothing]," for example). Although his heyday ended by the 1960s, which led to a decline that culminated in an early death, Clyde McPhatter exerted an important early influence on rock and soul that merits his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Big Joe Turner: R&B singer Joe Turner brought a lusty enthusiasm to the early Rock Era, one that found its roots in his earliest swing and boogie-woogie efforts (when he also played piano) from the 1930s. In fact, he would be a shoo-in for the Early Influences category had he not recorded so successfully for Atlantic in the 1950s, his incorporation of rock and roll elements into his already-hard-driving R&B marking him as a key early adopter of the nascent form. Bill Haley might have had a bigger hit with "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," but it is Turner's version that exhibits the salacious grit. (And it was hardly uncommon for white artists to score hits with what were still regarded as "race records.") Turner's full-throated yet relaxed singing style proved inspirational to many rock and soul singers, although his influence never seemed to be immediately apparent. Given his presence both at the birth of rhythm and blues and rock and roll, Big Joe Turner deserves to be in the Hall, although his legacy bears repeating.

Jackie Wilson: Blessed with a powerful, expressive voice that held aloft the emotion of a song, Jackie Wilson should have been a bigger star than he had been. Certainly he had charisma to spare—"Mr. Excitement" not only had the vocal chops, his energetic stage performance, rooted in his athleticism (he was a Golden Gloves boxer), proved an influence on singers from James Brown to Michael Jackson. But because his operatic voice—his tendency toward pyrotechnics would unfortunately persist among singers to this day—seemed to demand big arrangements, Wilson was saddled with them even on his best songs ("Lonely Teardrops," for example), although "Reet Petite" showed him at his most infectious, while "Doggin' Around" displayed his blues sensibility. By the 1960s, Wilson had found a leaner soul approach ("Higher and Higher" being the bellwether), but his is ultimately a might-have-been career. Still, as one of the best pure voices of the early Rock Era, Jackie Wilson is undoubtedly an influence.

Not Hall-worthy: Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Carl Perkins

These three inductees admittedly underscore the arbitrary nature of evaluating who is or is not deserving of inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Carl Perkins, for instance, contributed to the development of rock music at a crucial moment—but was that contribution significant enough? Big-Hall proponents would argue that Perkins and probably Eddie Cochran deserve to be enshrined; small-Hall proponents, such as I, argue otherwise, for the reasons below.

Eddie Cochran: Had Eddie Cochran not been killed in a 1960 car accident in England, he would undoubtedly have realized the potential he flashed as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and record-maker in just the few short years in which he recorded and performed. (Singer Gene Vincent was seriously injured in that crash; we'll get to his audit by and by.) Pursuing the same themes of teenage freedom and rebellion as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Cochran produced one timeless classic, "Summertime Blues" (able to withstand covers by Blue Cheer and the Who), and number of near-great ones, "C'mon Everybody," "Somethin' Else," and the amusing, suggestive "Twenty-Flight Rock" among them; Cochran was also hip to Ray Charles ("Hallelujah, I Love Her So"), suggesting avenues for his burgeoning talent. But the closest comparison here is to Buddy Holly. Both died very young, with so much potential begging. Holly, though, was already a fully-formed talent, an assured record-maker and performer; by contrast, even Cochran's best songs seem like rough drafts. Eddie Cochran might have been a great one, but we'll never know. As it stands now, he does not belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ricky Nelson: The good news is that Ricky Nelson was more than simply a teen idol at the time of rock and roll's inception. A child actor on his parents' hit television show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Nelson used that as a platform for his singing career (his brother Sandy was a drummer), and he did yield some fine singles in the 1950s ("Hello Mary Lou," "Poor Little Fool"). And Nelson was serious about his musical career: He became a respected country-rocker in the 1960s and 1970s, even notching another hit with "Garden Party" on his way to becoming a critical darling in some quarters. But was he really a Hall of Fame-caliber talent? No, he wasn't. He was a very good performer, better than his television sitcom/teen idol beginning would suggest. But Rick Nelson's induction is the Hall's first major misstep. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last.

Carl Perkins: A running joke in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train has a teenage Japanese couple arguing over who is the King of Rock and Roll: She says Elvis Presley; he insists it's "Cah-ro Pah-kinsu." Rock-critic revisionism to the contrary, Perkins's career simply doesn't rise to the level of visibility and influence to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Yes, he was an instrumental rockabilly artist, a genre crucial to the earliest rock and roll, and, yes, he wrote and performed "Blue Suede Shoes," only to be upstaged by you-know-who. Furthermore, an untimely automobile accident, followed by a descent into alcoholism, nearly derailed his career just as it was beginning. Fair enough, and a listen to Perkins's early Sun gems ("Dixie Fried," "Honey Don't," "Matchbox," later covered by the Beatles, and even the wry "Movie Magg") confirms that "Blue Suede Shoes" wasn't a flash in the pan. But Carl Perkins simply lacked the vision that would mark him as a lasting talent. Without that, he is not a Hall of Famer.

1988: Short, Safe, and Uncontroversial

5 Inductees: The Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Drifters, Bob Dylan, the Supremes

Yes: All 5.

In just two years of inductions, the Hall had opened its doors to 25 acts, casting its net wide to select titans and demigods alike. In what appeared to be conservative retrenchment, 1988 found the Hall inducting just five new acts: The Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Drifters, Bob Dylan, and the Supremes. None of the five could be considered controversial. It was a safe year.

The Beach Boys: In the first half of the 1960s, the Beach Boys not only defined California in the popular imagination, they epitomized youthful exuberance and ambition in general, a perpetuation that Chuck Berry (a formative influence), among others, pioneered in the previous decade. Led by Brian Wilson's compositional genius, the Beach Boys unleashed a tidal wave of hits that evinced a blending of appeal and sophistication—it was labeled "surf music," but it encompassed more than that. The Beach Boys began to falter by the late 1960s as Wilson became obsessed by the Beatles' ascendancy, but even by then their place in the history of the Rock Era was assured. And the many years of mediocrity that followed shouldn't detract from that, either.

The Beatles: Of all the artists inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Beatles might be the ones whose justification for inclusion doesn't need to be explained to anyone. Everyone knows that the Beatles are the most important rock group in history, with their principal songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, among the most significant of the 20th century. The Beatles' innovation and influence are enormous. That is not to say that the Beatles are immune to criticism—they have always struck me as being consummate craftsmen rather than artists, seldom cutting below their surface sheen. (Charlie Gillett, in his seminal early examination of rock and soul, The Sound of the City, all but dismisses the Beatles as significant to the development of rock.) However, I'm not the one to tell you that they do not belong in the Hall. They do. Yeah yeah yeah.

The Drifters: With a career that spanned two decades, the Drifters were an enduring R&B-soul vocal ensemble that enjoyed commercial success and lasting influence. The Drifters went through various phases and personnel, founded first by lead singer Clyde McPhatter (inducted as a solo performer in 1987) before taking on lead singers Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis, among others. The tenor of the Drifters' songs varied according to which songwriting team supplied the material, although the quality remained consistent and it covered a surprising range, from the exuberance of "This Magic Moment" to the sly pragmatism of "Money Honey" to the plainspoken ambition of "On Broadway," which has endured in various cover versions, notably George Benson's (and memorably, if not successfully, in Neil Young's). The Drifters are an essential part of early rock and soul.

Bob Dylan: The greatest lyricist of the rock era, Bob Dylan had only a smattering of hits himself, although his powerfully evocative songs proved to be commercial godsends for numerous artists. But Dylan's influence transcends commercial appeal. It permeates both popular music and the culture that spawned it. As the most inspired songwriter of his generation, with lyrics of richness and complexity that opened whole new vistas of expression for the multitudes to follow, Dylan single-handedly changed the face of popular music, articulating a broad range of topics, both personal and social, that had previously been suppressed or deemed unworthy of coverage, and that echoed the feelings of a generation seeking liberation and growth. No question about his Hall bona fides.

The Supremes: Because the Supremes were the frothiest of Motown's vocal groups, they are sometimes dismissed as being a major talent. However, lead singer Diana Ross and her backing duo Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (later replaced by Cindy Birdsong) were some of the signature voices of the 1960s, and their engaging interpretations of Holland-Dozier-Holland's stellar songs (and production) epitomized the dream of Berry Gordy to be "the sound of young America." Likewise, the breathy declarations of earlier love songs ("Baby Love," "You Can't Hurry Love") grew into more mature statements such as "Love Child" and "Reflections." The Supremes might have carried the lightest weight of the five 1988 inductees, but they are worthy of inclusion in this year or any other year.

1989: Almost Perfect

5 Inductees: Dion, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder

Yes: Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder

No: Dion

Adopting the same conservative approach as in the previous year, the Hall inducted just five artists in 1989, and four of five—Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder—are hardly controversial. The exception is Dion DiMucci, and I think that strong arguments can be made either way as to his Hall-worthiness. In the end, I don't think that his accomplishments are significant enough to merit his induction.

No Question: Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder

Of these four inductees, the Temptations have the weakest case, which really speaks to how strong are the cases for Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder and not to any noticeable deficiency with the Temptations.

Otis Redding: Another great talent who died young, Otis Redding had already absorbed the lessons he learned from Sam Cooke, had assimilated the rock approaches of both the Beatles ("Day Tripper") and the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction"), and had wowed the largely white "Love Crowd" at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival when he died in an airplane crash later that year. In between, he managed to write a few classic songs of his own, notably "Respect," which became a signature song for Aretha Franklin—although his version is hardly a slouch. Moreover, his posthumous hit, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," evinced another change in direction for Redding, into folk and proto-singer-songwriter territory. What Redding could have accomplished had he lived is yet again a bittersweet question. As it stands, the energy and expressiveness of his giant voice, both in the studio and on stage (Monterey, Live in Europe), can only hint at what remains unfulfilled.

The Rolling Stones: The archetypal rock and roll band, the Rolling Stones became the model for numerous acts to follow, notably a string of American hard-rock bands from Aerosmith and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through Guns N' Roses and even Pearl Jam, combining tough rocking with a sneering, outlaw attitude. And while the Stones have been operating primarily on sheer professionalism since the mid-1980s, they had already made their bones by then, moving from being the best British R&B band in the early 1960s to becoming the premier rock band on a series of albums from Aftermath to Exile on Main Street. Like the Beatles, the Stones hardly need a detailed argument as to why they belong in the Hall. Singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richard long ago established the frontman-foil routine as they wrote a passel of classics for the rock canon.

The Temptations: Over the long haul, the Temptations proved to be the most resilient of the Motown vocal groups, scoring early with R&B-inflected songs before hitting a mid-1960s stride of soul hits that included evergreens like "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Then, when flower-power came into vogue, the group proved game, adapting its ensemble singing to psychedelic soul ("Ball of Confusion"). But as the decade ended, and the tide of black music was turning to funk, it was the Temptations, with the help of long-time writer and producer Norman Whitfield, who adapted to that genre, scoring a landmark hit with "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." Furthermore, the Temptations were blessed with a two-lead format, notably Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, that gave them range and personality. Rock and soul vocal groups don't get much more distinguished than the Temptations.

Stevie Wonder: Perhaps the biggest knock you can make about Stevie Wonder is that he essentially went on autopilot by the mid-1980s. However, this was after two decades of continuous artistic and commercial growth, and for a span of the 1970s, Wonder practically ruled the pop roost with a clutch of essential albums that spawned a raft of hit singles. Beginning as a tween disciple of Ray Charles at Motown in the early 1960s, Wonder flexed his ambition early, eager to tackle everything from saccharine ballads ("My Cherie Amour") to Bob Dylan ("Blowing in the Wind"), with the talent to make it all work. By the early 1970s, though, Wonder helped to expand the musical boundaries for black music with a series of soul-funk albums that remain groundbreaking, both ambitious and accessible (if you don't count the inscrutable Journey through the Secret Life of Plants). As a self-contained unit, Wonder inspired the wunderkind of the 1980s, Prince, another polymath who proved just as influential.

Not Quite Strong Enough: Dion

As one of the first white singers to assimilate doo-wop and R&B, Dion DiMucci is one of the legitimate progenitors of blue-eyed soul, tougher than Bobby Darin and less histrionic than Frankie Valli. Starting in 1958 with his group the Belmonts, Dion unfurled his swinging, swaggering pipes on a slew of hits ("I Wonder Why," "A Teenager in Love") before going solo in 1960 and another slew of hits that made him an even bigger star ("Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer") while establishing a lasting persona.

Yet the young Dion had other ambitions: He signed with Columbia, where he explored Dylan and the blues to critical approval, although with diminishing chart success. Succumbing to a drug problem by the mid-1960s, he cleaned himself up and returned to recording. This time, it was folk and social protest that interested him, enough to populate several albums, and while he did score a major hit in 1968 with "Abraham, Martin, and John," which metaphorically addressed the American political assassinations of the decade, he entered the 1970s no longer a hitmaker. Dion did continue his recording career for a few decades after that as his legacy was evaluated.

That legacy spans a decade, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, and it rests on his being one of the first white, successful R&B singers of the Rock Era. Those early singles are indeed ear candy, and Dion is likewise a significant figure of the period. But in the final analysis, he isn't significant enough, and his admission into the Hall of Fame is an overly generous assessment of his abilities and influence.

1990: Hits and Misses

8 Inductees: Hank Ballard, Bobby Darin, the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, the Kinks, the Platters, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who

Yes: The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who

Borderline Yes: The Four Seasons, the Four Tops, the Platters

No: Hank Ballard, Bobby Darin

In 1990, the Hall admitted eight artists. Three of those artists—the Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Who—are obvious candidates. Three more—the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, and the Platters—are not so obvious, and it is worth revisiting their legacies to confirm that they belong in the Hall. The last two, Hank Ballad and Bobby Darin, are borderline candidates at best, and in the final decision I think they do not belong in the Hall.

Admission Assured: The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who

Grouping British Invasion bands the Kinks and the Who with folk-rockers Simon and Garfunkel is almost like an aptitude test—which one of these is not like the others? What they have in common is that for this class, they all pass the test for admission with flying colors.

The Kinks: For "You Really Got Me" alone, the Kinks would merit consideration: That monumental single is a wellspring of both heavy metal and punk rock. Fortunately, after exploring the options afforded by "You Really Got Me," they turned out to have a singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, with bigger ambitions. Davies's songs moved up the spinal column from the gonads to the brain as he began to explore introspection, interpersonal relationships, and social dynamics. At times, he might have gone overboard with that as the concept albums/song cycles/rock operas became indulgent, and at one point the band forgot how to rock out. And, finally, the Kinks became a quirky hard-rock band playing out the string. But sloppiness was always part of their charm, as was their particular kind of Britishness. The Kinks left their imprint on rock and roll at least in two or three separate periods, influencing various followers for various reasons, and everyone from Chrissie Hynde to Paul Weller to Eddie Van Halen (or is that David Lee Roth?) would be outraged were the Kinks absent from the Hall.

Simon and Garfunkel: If you are a die-hard rocker, or funker, you might very well wonder how Simon and Garfunkel have the stones to hang in the Hall. They might not have the stones, but they do have the chops: For a stretch from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, singer-guitarist Paul Simon and singer Art Garfunkel were the epitome of folk-rock, making it more legitimate and accessible than anyone. And even if you don't care for either Garfunkel's choirboy high tenor or their precious harmonizing, Simon honed his tunesmithing here, producing some of the most memorable songs of the period including at least one evergreen, "Bridge over Troubled Water," that proved to be endlessly adaptable. True, you get pseudo-profundity ("The Boxer," "The Sound of Silence") with the joyousness ("Cecilia") and the Everly Brothers tribute ("Mrs. Robinson"), which is par for the course in rock and soul. They fit right into the Hall.

The Who: Apart from beginning around the same time as the Kinks, and even sharing the same producer, Shel Talmy, for a spell, the Who does have a number of parallels to its Brit Invasion brethren: Both sprang from short bursts of high-energy rock to more ambitious forms, both had a principal songwriter who became increasingly preoccupied with making the Big Statement, both had a stretch in which each could do little wrong, and both hung around longer than they should have, although in the Who's case, they called it quits but kept going on tour, anyway. Where the two part company is that the Who owned the smartest, most ferocious sound in rock for a decade, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and at its finest could make you believe it mattered—or else it would simply bludgeon you into submission. Yes, Tommy is a silly story—Helen Keller meets Hermann Hesse in Jimmy Swaggart's Disneyland—but the music, especially live, was anything but silly. And their inclusion in the Hall is anything but mistaken.

Reaffirmations: The Four Seasons, the Four Tops, the Platters

It is true that the three acts described below have not dated that well, and in the case of the Platters, they probably sounded dated even when they were fresh. But the Rock Era encompasses many periods and styles. The question becomes, are these acts exemplars of their period and style? In all three cases, the answer is yes.

The Four Seasons: What pushes the Four Seasons, fronted by the singular Frankie Valli, into the Hall of Fame is how they synthesized previous and contemporary styles and strategies into an appealing pop sound beginning in the early 1960s. They had cut their teeth on 1950s doo-wop, but they updated their close harmonies for the new decade while bringing a state-of-the-art production sheen to the string of hits ("Sherry," "Walk Like a Man") that had them squaring off against the Beach Boys and the Beatles on the singles charts while piling up sales around the world. Dig beneath the surface and their lyrical sensibilities really do belong to an earlier era; by the end of the decade, with no further update to their sound, they fell out of favor. Yet the Four Seasons managed a comeback in the mid-1970s, notching a Number One with the deliberate nostalgia of "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." In the ephemeral world of pop, the Four Seasons have endured long enough to enter the Hall of Fame.

The Four Tops: If you wanted to be really stingy, you could ace out the Four Tops from the Hall by reasoning that Motown is already represented sufficiently, and by another male vocal group, the Temptations, at that. And although Motown tried to foster a rivalry between the two groups, it really is an apples-and-oranges comparison: Whereas the Temptations featured a (comparatively) stripped-down R&B sound, the Four Tops luxuriated in the orchestral arrangements of writers-producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, topped by the huge, brooding voice of lead singer Levi Stubbs. Their hits—"Bernadette," "It's the Same Old Song," "I Can't Help Myself," and the two greatest ones, "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Reach out, I'll Be There"—epitomized the Motown approach to soul in the mid-1960s. Unlike the Temptations, the Four Tops tried but couldn't sustain their career when the decade turned, and that could be enough to bring up that stinginess again. Yet they defined their era so commandingly that their absence would be glaring.

The Platters: Another act from the inception of rock and soul, the Platters are, again, probably best remembered by archivists and oldies devotees. Yet the Platters, at least in their first main incarnation, are an intriguing paradox: As a vocal ensemble, they were the natural successors to pre-rock acts like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers—not only did they cover pre-rock chestnuts like "Harbor Lights" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," their original hits like "Only You" and "The Great Pretender" must have sounded like oldies when they first came out too. But their formula was a success thanks to lead singer Tony Williams and group impresario Buck Ram. And even when Williams left at the end of the 1950s, they continued to persevere with new lead Sonny Turner. The Platters were an influence on later crooning groups like the Impressions and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, enough—just enough—to merit their inclusion.

Below the Threshold: Hank Ballard, Bobby Darin

Although the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, and the Platters all displayed just enough mojo to merit their bid for immortality, neither Hank Ballard nor Bobby Darin did.

Hank Ballard: Even at the height of his popularity, Hank Ballard managed to be upstaged when one Ernest Evans appropriated Ballard's song "The Twist" along with Ballard's dance to accompany it and, as Chubby Checker, launched a career with it. Luckily, Ballard had another catchy gesture up his sleeve in "Finger Poppin' Time"—not to mention "Work with Me, Annie" and the slew of answer- and riposte records (including, memorably, "Annie Had a Baby") it spawned right at the inception of rock and roll. They introduced a ribald sensibility that made the budding music seem that much more dangerous (influencing a young Frank Zappa, for instance). But although Ballard and his band the Midnighters laid some important groundwork, it wasn't enough to justify a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Bobby Darin: Singer, actor, entertainer Bobby Darin had a manic career: Musically, he performed a number of stylistic shifts as he juggled acting gigs in film (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Captain Newman, MD) and television, which included his own NBC variety show in 1972 that ran until his death at age 37 in 1973. Indeed, rheumatism as a child had left him with a weak heart, and he was driven to succeed by the knowledge that he could die young. It's a tragic story ripe for a biopic (Beyond the Sea, with Kevin Spacey portraying Darin), but it doesn't make for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. Darin's first rock and roll hit was the novelty "Splish Splash," and he quickly struck again with the overwrought ballad "Dream Lover" and the catchy highlight of Brecht-Weill's The Threepenny Opera, "Mack the Knife," indicating his restless interests. By the 1960s, Darin had discovered folk-rock, scoring a hit with Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" while writing an acclaimed topical song of his own, "Simple Song of Freedom." Darin's was a fascinating, poignant life, but his impact and influence is too scattered to be considered essential to the story of rock and soul.

1986 – 1990: Coda

In its first five years of selecting inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted 43 artists. The table below shows those 43 categorized as noted previously: Yes, Borderline Yes, and No.

Breakdown of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, 1986 – 1990



Borderline Yes


Total Inductees































Pct. of Total





In the expansive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are justified, the Hall looks pretty good: 86 percent of its inductees are worthy of induction, with only 6 of 43 total inductees, or roughly 1 out of 7, not worthy of the Hall. So, apart from a few missteps, the Hall seems to have established that is has sound judgment in selecting inductees.

In the exclusive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are not justified, the Hall takes a hit: Only 67.4 percent of its inductees are worthy of induction, with 14 of 43 inductees, or roughly 1 out of 3, not worthy of the Hall. Now the Hall seems not to have sound judgment.

Which pattern the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would pursue in subsequent years is the question to be examined in subsequent audits. However, the first few years did see the Hall harvest the "low-hanging fruit"—the more obvious candidates whose qualifications are largely uncontested. The next few audits might prove to be rougher going.

Of course, all the evaluations are subjective, summarized in my capsule arguments for each artist above. You might have different conclusions, particularly regarding the borderline and undeserving candidates. But as the Coasters put it, baby, that is rock and roll.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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