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?
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.
Jimi Hendrix Experience - "Purple Haze" (1967)
What lured American Jimi Hendrix to London? Was it fame … money … a recording contract? None of the above. It was a promise from his manager, Animals bassist Chas Chandler, that he would meet Eric Clapton. Hendrix blew Clapton away with his virtuoso playing, and the two became fast friends. Jimi then teamed up with a pair of Brits — lead guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding and frenetic drummer Mitch Mitchell — and proceeded to destroy every notion of what a guitar could do. His early single, "Purple Haze," with its arresting opening and its use of the dissonant (and rare, for rock) diabolus in musica chord, proved that Hendrix was much more than a showman: He was the keenest of musical minds.
ZZ Top - "La Grange" (1973)
The little ol' band from Texas has stayed true to Cream's power-trio template: Keeping their focus on blues and unadorned rock 'n' roll, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard (the sole band member without a beard, ironically) have fashioned a career of admirable longevity — 40 years and counting. Around 1983, ZZ Top became unlikely stars of the fledgling MTV, which loved to feature the extravagantly hirsute hombres alongside the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. That glitz felt a world away from the nasty groove of their early hit "La Grange," whose guttural "A haw, haw, haw, haw" lyric you've probably heard in scores of kinetic movie montages over the last 40 years.
Police - "Message in a Bottle" (1979)
The Police turned the power-trio dynamic upside down. American Stewart Copeland's polyrhythmic drums became the lead instrument. Sting's bass supplied the pulse and much of the melody. And Andy Summers's guitar lent texture. Mixing reggae, punk and jazz, the Police sounded like nothing else at the time (or before or since, come to think of it). Sting went on to massive solo success but could never quite recapture the creative spark he had enjoyed with his trio mates. "Message in a Bottle" is a perfect example of their tricky syncopations and complex lyrics, matched with an insanely catchy melody. Can you say "earworm," boys and girls?
Rush - "Tom Sawyer" (1981)
The banshee wail of bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee is perhaps the most instantly recognizable sound of this preeminent prog-rock trio. But Lee's lifelong friend, guitarist Alex Lifeson, complements those vocals with stunning fretwork and compositions. And four decades later, drummer/lyricist Neal Peart remains a name that other musicians utter with the utmost reverence. The talents of all three nicely dovetail on their biggest hit, "Tom Sawyer," as rumbling bass, power chords and Peart's impossibly perfect drum fills are fused by Lee's synthesizer solo in a dizzying mélange that somehow works just right.
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