Rollins began to make a name for himself in 1949 as he recorded with J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell what would later be called “hard bop”, with Davis in 1951, with the Modern Jazz Quartet and with Monk in 1953, but the breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions “Oleo”, “Airegin” and “Doxy” with a quintet led by Davis. Rollins then joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955, but left after a short stay to deal with his drug problems. Rollins was invited later in 1955 to join the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio recordings documenting his time in the band are the albums Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4.
After Brown’s death in 1956 Rollins began his subsequent career as a leader; his first long-playing albums were released on Prestige Records.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favourite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins’ sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition “St. Thomas”, a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number “Strode Rode”, and “Moritat” (the Kurt Weill composition also known as “Mack the Knife”).
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Davis’ group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also in Davis’ group.
These albums find Rollins developing from a promising player into a potential giant; many of his best recordings would take place a year or two after his spell with Prestige. In addition to his own sessions, Rollins is featured with trombonist J.J. Johnson, on four dates with Miles Davis, and on sessions led by Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Art Farmer. Among the other musicians participating are trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Clifford Brown; pianists John Lewis, Kenny Drew, Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Ray Bryant, Red Garland, and Tommy Flanagan; drummers Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones; the Modern Jazz Quartet; Julius Watkins on French horn; altoist Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.