I am not sure where the term “ice cream changes” for this chord progression came from, nor am I sure when the progression was first used, but my guess would be Bach, since almost every chord progression in contemporary music occurs somewhere in the two Well-Tempered Klavier collections.
Anyway, when I first started as a gig musician and was playing and singing with musicians who I did not work with often, if we ran short of material, we could always rely on a medley of songs based on this chord progression: I - Vi - IV - V. It easily could fill 15–30 minutes whenever necessary, and potentially a lot longer than that.
In the key of C major, this progression becomes C–Am–F–G. In the key of F it would be F–Dm–B♭–C, and so on.
Sometimes the last chord would be a dominant 7th, e.g., G7 in the key of C.
In early Rock 'n' Roll it was generally written either in 6/8, 12/8, or in 4/4 with triplets. See Pic 1 and Pic 2.
They were played with variations in rhythm and duration of the chords. Here are some famous examples.
The first one that I remember well was by a group called The Five Satins. It was called “In The Still Of The Night.” It was written by Fred Parris, and it bore little resemblance to the classic Cole Porter song of the same title in its harmonic complexity. Here is a bit of it. (Let me apologize in advance for pitch and "popping" plosive issues in these.)
A huge hit for the late Ritchie Valens, of “La Bamba” fame, was a song he wrote and recorded entitled “Donna.” Notice that the chord changes only last half as long as “In The Still Of The Night.”
Here is a variation with a shuffle feel, “Silhouettes”. It was written by Bob Crewe (who played an important role as a writer and producer for The Four Seasons) and Frank Slay hit for a group called The Rays and later it was a hit a second time for Herman’s Hermits.
Singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka scored with his “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” in the early ’60s and then later again in the ’70s with a ballad version.
Even The Beatles could not resist the lure of this classic chord progression. Here is a bit of John and Paul’s “This Boy”. They also used it as the basis of “Yes It Is”.
A list of these would go on forever, but here are some notable ones:
- “All I Have To Do Is Dream” recorded by The Everly Brothers
- “Duke Of Earl” ” recorded by Gene Chandler
- “Stand By Me” ” recorded by Ben E. King
- “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” ” recorded by Frankie Lyman.
- “Please Mr. Postman” ” recorded by The Marvelettes and The Beatles
- “Crocodile Rock ” recorded by Elton John
And lest you think it is only used in very old songs, even “Every Breathe You Take” by The Police, “True Blue” by Madonna, “All I Want For Christmas IS You” by Mariah Carey and “Messin’ Around” by Pitbull feature it, at least in part.
Keep an ear out for it!