The trio is the perfect format for a rock 'n' roll band: lean, mean and to the point. With so few ingredients in the mix, of course, the recipe has to be just right: The players must mesh on both a musical and interpersonal level. And that's just what seven classic threesomes managed to accomplish with the tunes discussed here.
Elvis, Scotty and Bill — "That's All Right" (1954)
Here's where it all started. Though only a few early singles listed them as a trio — "Elvis Presley" in big letters, and underneath that "Scotty and Bill" — there's no doubt this was a real group. Elvis was the artist with the talent and the vision — and, yes, the smoldering good looks and irresistible charisma — but he was also just a kid of 19 at the time. Guitarist Scotty Moore brought crisp, professional country pickin', while bassist Bill Black was a cut-up whose levity spurred Elvis to his first truly great musical moment: the trio's seminal recording of "That's All Right." Without Elvis, the other two might never have hit the big time; without them, on the other hand, would Elvis ever have discovered his sound?
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The Supremes — "Stop! In the Name of Love" (1965)
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard toiled in obscurity for years, contributing backup vocals and handclaps to more successful Motown acts. But once the hard work and rich talent of the Supremes paid off, the trio became not just the most commercially successful act of Motown's heyday but the most successful American vocal group ever. They applied their effervescent vocals to some classic songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland, most memorably on the commanding "Stop! In the Name of Love," with its heartbreaking pleas in the chorus ("Haven't I been good to you?").
Cream — "Crossroads" (1968)
Cream brought unprecedented levels of musicianship to rock 'n' roll. It was also the first trio to be perfectly balanced. Although guitarist and occasional singer Eric Clapton was the one who eventually achieved superstardom, bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer (and occasional vocalist) Ginger Baker were his equals when it came to instrumental prowess. Combining blues, jazz, pop and rock in a heady mix, the Cream sound could be explosive. (Indeed, the group self-destructed after barely two years.) Their legacy lives on in virtually every trio that has come along since, including a number of jazz and pop triads. Indeed, Cream's cover of Robert Johnson's classic "Cross Road Blues" was largely responsible for bringing the late bluesman (d. 1938) to the attention of rock audiences.