You'd need a wall full of early rock & roll records to get a truly definitive summary of the best sounds from the music's first decade. That qualification noted, this is about as good a sampling of the most important early rock & roll hits and performers as could be stuffed into a three-CD, 62-song set, and deserves the highest rating even if it can't tell the whole story. Other than Elvis Presley (perhaps not present due to licensing obstacles), it has definitive hits by all the major early rock & roll performers, including Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran, the Coasters, the Drifters, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, the Platters, Brenda Lee, and Roy Orbison. There's still room for a wealth of tracks by doo wop groups who had only one or two hits, from the Crows' "Gee" to the Marcels' "Blue Moon"; instrumental rock from Duane Eddy and the Ventures; rockabilly by Dale Hawkins and Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio (whose "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" is the only song on the whole set that wasn't a big hit); and New Orleans R&B-rock from Shirley & Lee and Frankie Ford. And there are classic hits by other performers who only got one big smash, like Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" and Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City."
If you're inclined to nitpick, there are a few tiny flaws in this anthology's execution. Sam Cooke is represented by his relatively minor early hit "I'll Come Running Back to You," where "You Send Me" would have been the obviously better choice, though it might not have been available for licensing reasons. As on Hip-O's companion set, The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll: 1946-1954, the annotation is on the perfunctory side, failing to supply detailed background information on specific artists and tracks. And the early '60s are covered in far less depth than the mid- to late '50s, missing such vital innovators as the Impressions, James Brown, Phil Spector, and all the early Motown hitmakers, though it does at least sample classics of the girl group style; offer smashes by Dion, Del Shannon, and Gary "U.S." Bonds; and provide a glimpse of future trends with the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys. It's still a superb compilation, however, in which virtually every song is great and important. And you could still play it to someone who knows nothing about rock & roll, and after one listen, he or she would have a pretty good idea of how the music was born and evolved in its pre-Beatles days.