We break down the top moments of the decade, including Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and more

By EW Staff
Updated May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Two seconds. Maybe three. Michael Jackson glides backward on the balls of his feet. Two kids in Liverpool shake hands at a church social. Feedback flies as Bob Dylan plugs into an amp. Duh, duh duh duh. Duh duh. Duh duh duh. Duh duh — the first 11 notes of ”Louie Louie,” an automatic howl of debauchery. A guy in the Bronx runs two turntables through the same speakers and l-l-l-likes what he hears. Some of the biggest seismic shifts in the history of pop culture can be traced to a tiny impulse, a blast of courage, a mistake. A moment, followed by a gasp, followed by a brand-new world: That is the essence of rock & roll.

Through all of its mutations and revolutions, pop music has always boiled down to the same split-second manifestation of freakish wizardry. In this issue, EW strives to capture the best of those moments and — call us listful thinkers — rank them from 1 to 100. Some of these moments had a deep impact on the way we live now. Some didn’t — they’re just really funny or weird or fleeting, like pop itself. Scores of 20th-century pioneers blazed the way: Pop would be nowhere without the grace of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, the cool authority of Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe and Frank Sinatra, the fearless quests of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, the heroism of Woody Guthrie. But we begin our saga after them, outside of traditional American genres like jazz and country. We begin in the boom and glare of a new day, when everything could change in the blink of an eye, the shriek of a teenage girl, or the quiver of a pelvis…

The story of rock & roll’s creation is the story of integration — or at least appropriation. Producer Sam Phillips’ famously prophetic pre-Elvis assertion, ”If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,” attests to that. And while preppy Pat Boone made a Fats Domino tune safe for the masses, Domino’s subsequent hit ”Blueberry Hill” was itself a remake of a Gene Autry chestnut. The color blue suddenly mattered more than black and white all over when Carl Perkins’ ”Blue Suede Shoes” became the first record to hit the pop, country, and R&B charts.

That song was also one of the last to manage that feat; a return to fragmentation wasn’t far off. But for a few bright moments in the ’50s, the melting pot was boiling. In black music, the term rock & roll had been a euphemism for sex, and was even the title of a 1947 song by Wild Bill Moore. But the coinage really took off in ’55, when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed — taking heat from parents and community leaders alarmed that white kids were flocking to his mostly black live revues and radio show — needed a pseudonym for R&B to throw adults off the scent. Rock & roll was the new name not just for the racy shuffles that Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Hank Ballard, and Ray Charles already turned out, but for the mongrel urban-hillbilly stuff being conceived by the likes of Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Gene Vincent. Not placated for long, alarmists said it was the devil’s music…it wouldn’t last. As the rock & roll explosion of the mid-’50s became the true genesis for youth culture as the dominant culture in America, they should’ve known better: How could anyone have thought original sin was a passing fad?

Elvis? Sun Sessions begin: 7/5/54
”It was just an audition,” remembers Scotty Moore, the country guitarist brought in to back a nervous Elvis Presley for his Sun Records tryout. There weren’t many initial fireworks this Fifth of July; Elvis, apparently a Dean Martin wannabe, ran timidly through a succession of pop ballads. But just as quittin’ time (and a long future as a truck driver) seemed nigh, Presley broke into an obscure black blues tune, ”That’s All Right,” that the others recognized as pretty fly for a white guy. The result was a wonderful, world-changing, bastard amalgam art form lacking only a name. Fortunately, the tape was rolling. ”I don’t think there was any confidence that this would sell, or that they wouldn’t be run out of town for it,” says Presley biographer Peter Guralnick. ”But there was a sense of tremendous excitement, like ‘Eureka! I invented the telephone!”’ It was no accident, though, when the revved-up trio then turned bluegrass favorite ”Blue Moon of Kentucky” into a rave-up. ”I’m sure some of us said, ‘Better not let Bill Monroe hear that!”’ laughs Moore. ”But it didn’t matter to us where the song came from — country, R&B, whatever — if it felt good.” Musical blasphemy would never be this innocent again.