A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

By Andrew Hickey

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Andrew Hickey presents a history of rock and roll in five hundred songs.

Episode Date
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Today's podcast is eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence. 

Jun 02, 2020
Episode 84: "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates


Episode eighty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and how the first great British R&B band interacted with the entertainment industry. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a fifteen-minute bonus episode, on "Under Your Spell Again" by Buck Owens.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/




As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

Only one biography of Kidd has been written, and that's been out of print for nearly a quarter of a century and goes for ridiculous prices. Luckily Adie Barrett's site http://www.johnnykidd.co.uk/ is everything a fan-site should be, and has a detailed biographical section which I used for the broad-strokes outline.

Clem Cattini: My Life, Through the Eye of a Tornado is somewhere between authorised biography and autobiography. It's not the best-written book ever, but it contains a lot of information about Clem's life.

Spike & Co by Graham McCann gives a very full account of Associated London Scripts.

Pete Frame's The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective. Be warned, though -- his jokey and irreverent style can, when dealing with people like Larry Parnes (who was gay and Jewish) very occasionally tip over into reinforcing homophobic and anti-semitic stereotypes for an easy laugh.

Billy Bragg's Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is one of the best books I've read on music at all, and gives far more detail about the historical background.

And a fair chunk of the background information here also comes from the extended edition of Mark Lewisohn's Tune In, which is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Beatles, British post-war culture, and British post-war music.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


As we get more into this story, we're going to see a lot more British acts becoming part of it. We've already looked at Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, and Vince Taylor, but without spoiling anything I think most of you can guess that over the next year or so we're going to see a few guitar bands from the UK enter the narrative.

Today we're going to look at one of the most important British bands of the early sixties -- a band who are now mostly known for one hit and a gimmick, but who made a massive contribution to the sound of rock music. We're going to look at Johnny Kidd and the Pirates:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "Shakin' All Over"]

Our story starts during the skiffle boom of 1957. If you don't remember the episodes we did on skiffle and early British rock and roll, it was a musical craze that swept Britain after Lonnie Donegan's surprise hit with "Rock Island Line". For about eighteen months, nearly every teenage boy in Britain was in a group playing a weird mix of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs, old folk tunes, and music-hall numbers, with a lineup usually consisting of guitar, banjo, someone using a washboard as percussion, and a homemade double bass made out of a teachest, a broom handle, and a single string.

The skiffle craze died away as quickly as it started out, but it left a legacy -- thousands of young kids who'd learned at least three chords, who'd performed in public, and who knew that it was possible to make music without having gone through the homogenising star-making process. That would have repercussions throughout the length of this story, and to this day.

But while almost everyone in a skiffle group was a kid, not everyone was. Obviously the big stars of the genre -- Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt, the Vipers -- were all in their twenties when they became famous, and so were some of the amateurs who tried to jump on the bandwagon.

In particular, there was Fred Heath. Heath was twenty-one when skiffle hit, and was already married -- while twenty-one might seem young now, at the time, it was an age when people were meant to have settled down and found a career. But Heath wasn't the career sort. There were rumours about him which attest to the kind of person he was perceived as being -- that he was a bookie's runner, that he'd not been drafted because he was thought to be completely impossible to discipline, that he had been working as a painter in a warehouse and urinated on the warehouse floor from the scaffolding he was on -- and he was clearly not someone who was *ever* going to settle down. The first skiffle band Heath formed was called Bats Heath and the Vampires, and featured Heath on vocals and rhythm guitar, Brian Englund on banjo, Frank Rouledge on lead guitar, and Clive Lazell on washboard. The group went through a variety of names, at one point naming themselves the Frantic Four in what seems to have been an attempt to confuse people into thinking they were seeing Don Lang's Frantic Five, the group who often appeared on Six-Five Special:

[Excerpt: Don Lang and his Frantic Five, "Six-Five Hand Jivel"]

The group went through the standard lineup and name changes that almost every amateur group went through, and they ended up as a five-piece group called the Five Nutters. And it was as the Five Nutters that they made their first attempts at becoming stars, when they auditioned for Carroll Levis.

Levis was one of the most important people in showbusiness in the UK at this time. He'd just started a TV series, but for years before that his show had been on Radio Luxembourg, which was for many teenagers in the UK the most important radio station in the world.

At the time, the BBC had a legal monopoly on radio broadcasting in the UK, but they had a couple of problems when it came to attracting a teenage audience. The first was that they had to provide entertainment for *everyone*, and so they couldn't play much music that only appealed to teenagers but was detested by adults. But there was a much bigger problem for the BBC when it came to recorded music.

In the 1950s, the BBC ran three national radio stations -- the Light Programme, the Home Service, and the Third Programme -- along with one national TV channel. The Musicians' Union were worried that playing recorded music on these would lead to their members losing work, and so there was an agreement called "needletime", which allowed the BBC to use recorded music for twenty-two hours a week, total, across all three radio stations, plus another three hours for the TV. That had to cover every style of music from Little Richard through to Doris Day through to Beethoven. The rest of the time, if they had music, it had to be performed by live musicians, and so you'd be more likely to hear "Rock Around the Clock" as performed by the Northern Dance Orchestra than Bill Haley's version, and much of the BBC's youth programming had middle-aged British session musicians trying to replicate the sound of American records and failing miserably.

But Luxembourg didn't have a needle-time rule, and so a commercial English-language station had been set up there, using transmitters powerful enough to reach most of Britain and Ireland. The station was owned and run in Britain, and most of the shows were recorded in London by British DJs like Brian Matthew, Jimmy Savile, and Alan Freeman, although there were also recordings of Alan Freed's show broadcast on it. The shows were mostly sponsored by record companies, who would make the DJs play just half of the record, so they could promote more songs in their twenty-minute slot, and this was the main way that any teenager in Britain would actually be able to hear rock and roll music.

Oddly, even though he spent many years on Radio Luxembourg, Levis' show, which had originally been on the BBC before the War, was not a music show, but a talent show. Whether on his original BBC radio show, the Radio Luxembourg one, or his new TV show, the format was the same. He would alternate weeks between broadcasting and talent scouting. In talent scouting weeks he would go to a different city each week, where for five nights in a row he would put on talent shows featuring up to twenty different local amateur acts doing their party pieces -- without payment, of course, just for the exposure. At the end of the show, the audience would get a chance to clap for each act, and the act that got the loudest applause would go through to a final on the Saturday night. This of course meant that acts that wanted to win would get a lot of their friends and family to come along and cheer for them. The Saturday night would then have the winning acts -- which is to say, those who brought along the most paying customers -- compete against each other. The most popular of *those* acts would then get to appear on Levis' TV show the next week.

It was, as you can imagine, an extremely lucrative business.

When the Five Nutters appeared on Levis' Discoveries show, they were fairly sure that the audience clapped loudest for them, but they came third. Being the type of person he was, Fred Heath didn't take this lying down, and remonstrated with Levis, who eventually promised to get the Nutters some better gigs, one suspects just to shut Heath up. As a result of Levis putting in a good word for them, they got a few appearances at places like the 2Is, and made an appearance on the BBC's one concession to youth culture on the radio -- a new show called Saturday Skiffle Club.

Around this time, the Five Nutters also recorded a demo disc. The first side was a skiffled-up version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll", with some extremely good jazzy lead guitar:

[Excerpt: Fred Heath and the Five Nutters, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"]

I've heard quite a few records of skiffle groups, mostly by professionals, and it's clear that the Five Nutters were far more musical, and far more interesting, than most of them, even despite the audible sloppiness here. The point of skiffle was meant to be that it was do-it-yourself music that required no particular level of skill -- but in this case the Nutters' guitarist Frank Rouledge was clearly quite a bit more proficient than the run-of-the-mill skiffle guitarist.

What was even more interesting about that recording, though, was the B-side, which was a song written by the group. It seems to have been mostly written by Heath, and it's called "Blood-Red Beauty" because Heath's wife was a redhead:

[Excerpt: Fred Heath and the Five Nutters, "Blood Red Beauty"]

The song itself is fairly unexceptional -- it's a standard Hank Williams style hillbilly boogie -- but at this time there was still in Britain a fairly hard and fast rule which had performers and songwriters as two distinct things. There were a handful of British rock musicians who were attempting to write their own material -- most prominently Billy Fury, a Larry Parnes artist who I'm afraid we don't have space for in the podcast, but who was one of the most interesting of the late-fifties British acts -- but in general, there was a fairly strict demarcation. It was very unusual for a British performer to also be trying to write songs.

The Nutters split up shortly after their Saturday Skiffle Club appearance, and Heath formed various other groups called things like The Fabulous Freddie Heath Band and The Fred, Mike & Tom Show, before going back to the old name, with a new lineup of Freddie Heath and the Nutters consisting of himself on vocals, Mike West and Tom Brown -- who had been the Mike and Tom in The Fred, Mike, & Tom Show, on backing vocals, Tony Doherty on rhythm guitar, Ken McKay on drums, Johnny Gordon on bass, and on lead guitar Alan Caddy, a man who was known by the nickname "tea", which was partly a pun on his name, partly a reference to his drinking copious amounts of tea, and partly Cockney rhyming slang -- tea-leaf for thief -- as he was known for stealing cars.

The Nutters got a new agent, Don Toy, and manager, Guy Robinson, but Heath seemed mostly to want to be a songwriter rather than a singer at this point. He was looking to place his songs with other artists, and in early 1959, he did. He wrote a song called "Please Don't Touch", and managed to get it placed with a vocal group called the Bachelors -- not the more famous group of that name, but a minor group who recorded for Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI run by a young producer named George Martin. "Please Don't Touch" came out as the B-side of a Bachelors record:

[Excerpt: The Bachelors, "Please Don't Touch"]

One notable thing about the songwriting credit -- while most sources say Fred Heath wrote the song by himself, he gave Guy Robinson a co-writing credit on this and many of his future songs. This was partly because it was fairly standard at the time for managers to cut themselves in on their artists' credits, but also because that way the credit could read Heath Robinson -- Heath Robinson was a famous British cartoonist who was notable for drawing impossibly complicated inventions, and whose name had become part of the British language -- for American listeners, imagine that the song was credited to Rube Goldberg, and you'll have the idea.

At this point, the Nutters had become quite a professional organisation, and so it was unsurprising that after "Please Don't Touch" brought Fred Heath to the attention of EMI, a different EMI imprint, HMV, signed them up.

Much of the early success of the Nutters, and this professionalism, seems to be down to Don Toy, who seems to have been a remarkably multi-talented individual. As well as being an agent who had contracts with many London venues to provide them with bands, he was also an electrical engineer specialising in sound equipment. He built a two-hundred watt bass amp for the group, at a time when almost every band just put their bass guitar through a normal guitar amp, and twenty-five watts was considered quite loud. He also built a portable tape echo device that could be used on stage to make Heath's voice sound like it would on the records. Heath later bought the first Copicat echo unit to be made -- this was a mass-produced device that would be used by a lot of British bands in the early sixties, and Heath's had serial number 0001 -- but before that became available, he used Toy's device, which may well have been the very first on-stage echo device in the UK.

On top of that, Toy has also claimed that most of the songs credited to Heath and Robinson were also co-written by him, but he left his name off because the credit looked better without it. And whether or not that's true, he was also the drummer on this first session -- Ken McKay, the Nutters' drummer, was a bit unsteady in his tempo, and Toy was a decent player and took over from him when in April 1959, Fred Heath and the Nutters went into Abbey Road Studio 2, to record their own version of "Please Don't Touch". This was ostensibly produced by HMV producer Walter Ridley, but Ridley actually left rock and roll records to his engineer, Peter Sullivan:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "Please Don't Touch"]

It was only when the session was over that they saw the paperwork for it. Fred Heath was the only member of the Nutters to be signed to EMI, with the rest of the group being contracted as session musicians, but that was absolutely normal for the time period -- Tommy Steele's Steelmen and Cliff Richard's Drifters hadn't been signed as artists either. What they were concerned about was the band name on the paperwork -- it didn't say Fred Heath and the Nutters, but Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

They were told that that was going to be their new name. They never did find out who it was who had decided on this for them, but from now on Fred Heath was Johnny Kidd.

The record was promoted on Radio Luxembourg, and everyone thought it was going to go to number one. Unfortunately, strike action prevented that, and the record was only a moderate chart success -- the highest position it hit in any of the UK charts at the time was number twenty on the Melody Maker chart. But that didn't stop it from becoming an acknowledged classic of British rock and roll. It was so popular that it actually saw an American cover version, which was something that almost never happened with British songs, though Chico Holliday's version was unsuccessful:

[Excerpt: Chico Holliday, "Please Don't Touch"]

It remained such a fond memory for British rockers that in 1980 the heavy metal groups Motorhead and Girlschool recorded it as the supergroup HeadGirl, and it became the biggest hit either group ever had, reaching number five in the British charts:

[Excerpt: Headgirl, "Please Don't Touch"]

But while "Please Don't Touch" was one of the very few good rock and roll records made in Britain, it wasn't the one for which Johnny Kidd and the Pirates would be remembered.

It was, though, enough to make them a big act. They toured the country on a bill compered by Liverpool comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, and they made several appearances on Saturday Club, which had now dropped the "skiffle" name and was the only place anyone could hear rock and roll on BBC radio.

Of course, the British record industry having the immense sense of potential it did, HMV immediately capitalised on the success of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates doing a great group performance of an original rock and roll number, by releasing as a follow-up single, a version of the old standard "If You Were the Only Girl in the World and I Were the Only Boy" by Johnny without the Pirates, but with chorus and orchestra conducted by Ivor Raymonde:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd, "If You Were The Only Girl in the World"]

For some reason -- I can't imagine why -- that didn't chart. One suspects that young Lemmy wasn't quite as fond of that one as "Please Don't Touch". The B-side was a quite good rocker, with some nice guitar work from the session guitarist Bert Weedon, but no-one bothered to buy the record at the time, so they didn't turn it over to hear the other side.

The follow-up was better -- a reworking of Marv Johnson's "You've Got What it Takes", one of the hits that Berry Gordy had been writing and producing for Johnson. Johnson's version made the top five in the UK, but the Pirates' version still made the top thirty. But by this time there had been some changes.

The first change that was made was that the Pirates changed manager -- while Robinson would continue getting songwriting credits, the group were now managed through Associated London Scripts, by Stan "Scruffy" Dale.

Associated London Scripts was, as the name suggests, primarily a company that produced scripts. It was started as a writers' co-operative, and in its early days it was made up of seven people. There was Frankie Howerd, one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the time, who was always looking for new material; Spike Milligan, the writer and one of the stars of the Goon Show, the most important surreal comedy of the fifties; Eric Sykes, who was a writer-performer who was involved in almost every important comedy programme of the decade, including co-writing many Goon episodes with Milligan, before becoming a TV star himself; Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote the most important *sitcom* of the fifties and early sixties, Hancock's Half Hour; and Scruffy Dale, who was Howerd and Sykes' manager and was supposed to take care of the business stuff.

In fact, though, most of the business was actually taken care of by the seventh person and only woman, Beryl Vertue, who was taken on as the secretary on the basis of an interview that mostly asked about her tea-making skills, but soon found herself doing almost everything -- the men in the office got so used to asking her "Could you make the tea, Beryl?", "Could you type up this script, Beryl?" that they just started asking her things like "Could you renegotiate our contract with the BBC, Beryl?" She eventually became one of the most important women in the TV industry, with her most recent prominent credit being as executive producer on the BBC's Sherlock up until 2017, more than sixty years after she joined the business.

Vertue did all the work to keep the company running -- a company which grew to about thirty writers, and between the early fifties and mid sixties, as well as Hancock's Half Hour and the Goons, its writers created Sykes, Beyond Our Ken, Round the Horne, Steptoe and Son, The Bedsitting Room, the Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, Til Death Us Do Part, Citizen James, and the Daleks. That's a list off the top of my head -- it would actually be easier to list memorable British comedy programmes and films of the fifties and early sixties that *didn't* have a script from one of ALS' writers.

And while Vertue was keeping Marty Feldman, John Junkin, Barry Took, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus and all the rest of these new writers in work, Scruffy Dale was trying to create a career in pop management. As several people associated with ALS had made records with George Martin at Parlophone, he had an in there, and some of the few pop successes that Martin had in the fifties were producing acts managed by Dale through ALS, like the Vipers Skiffle Group:

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O"]

and a young performer named Jim Smith, who wanted to be a comedian and actor, but who Dale renamed after himself, and who had a string of hits as Jim Dale:

[Excerpt: Jim Dale, "Be My Girl"]

Jim Dale eventually did become a film and TV star, starting with presenting Six-Five Special, and is now best known for having starred in many of the Carry On films and narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks, but at the time he was still a pop star.

Jim Dale and the Vipers were the two professional acts headlining an otherwise-amateur tour that Scruffy Dale put together that was very much like Carroll Levis' Discoveries show, except without the need to even give the winners a slot on the TV every other week. This tour was supposed to be a hunt for the country's best skiffle group, and there was going to be a grand national final, and the winner of *that* would go on TV. Except they just kept dragging the tour out for eighteen months, until the skiffle fad was completely over and no-one cared, so there never was a national final. And in the meantime the Vipers had to sit through twenty groups of spotty kids a night, all playing "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O", and then go out and play it themselves, every night for eighteen months.

Scruffy Dale was unscrupulous in other ways as well, and not long after he'd taken on the Pirates' management he was sacked from ALS. Spike Milligan had never liked Dale -- when told that Dale had lost a testicle in the war, he'd merely replied "I hope he dropped it on Dresden" -- but Frankie Howerd and Eric Sykes had always been impressed with his ability to negotiate deals.

But then Frankie Howerd found out that he'd missed out on lucrative opportunities because Dale had shoved letters in his coat pocket and forgotten about them for a fortnight. He started investigating a few more things, and it turned out that Dale had been siphoning money from Sykes and Howerd's personal bank accounts into his own, having explained to their bank manager that it would just be resting in his account for them, because they were showbiz people who would spend it all too fast, so he was looking after them. And he'd also been doing other bits of creative accounting -- every success his musical acts had was marked down as something he'd done independently, and all the profits went to him, while all the unsuccessful ventures were marked down as being ALS projects, and their losses charged to the company.

So neither Dale nor the Pirates were with Associated London Scripts very long. But Dale made one very important change -- he and Don Toy decided between them that most of the Pirates had to go. There were six backing musicians in the group if you counted the two backing vocalists, who all needed paying, and only one could read music -- they weren't professional enough to make a career in the music business.

So all of the Pirates except Alan Caddy were sacked. Mike West and Tony Doherty formed another band, Robby Hood and His Merry Men, whose first single was written by Kidd (though it's rare enough I've not been able to find a copy anywhere online).

The new backing group was going to be a trio, modelled on Johnny Burnette's Rock and Roll Trio -- just one guitar, bass, and drums. They had Caddy on lead guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, and Brian Gregg on bass.

Cattini was regarded as by far the best rock drummer in Britain at the time. He'd played with Terry Dene's backing band the Dene Aces, and can be seen glumly backing Dene in the film The Golden Disc:

[Excerpt: Terry Dene, "Candy Floss"]

Gregg had joined Dene's band, and they'd both then moved on to be touring musicians for Larry Parnes, backing most of the acts on a tour featuring Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran that we'll be looking at next week. They'd played with various of Parnes' acts for a while, but had then asked for more money, and he'd refused, so they'd quit working for Parnes and joined Vince Taylor and the Playboys. They'd only played with the Playboys a few weeks when they moved on to Chas McDevitt's group. For a brief time, McDevitt had been the biggest star in skiffle other than Lonnie Donegan, but he was firmly in the downward phase of his career at this point.

McDevitt also owned a coffee bar, the Freight Train, named after his biggest hit, and most of the musicians in London would hang out there. And after Clem Cattini and Brian Gregg had joined the Pirates, it was at the Freight Train that the song for which the group would be remembered was written.

They were going to go into the studio to record another song chosen by the record label -- a version of the old standard "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" -- because EMI had apparently not yet learned that if you had Johnny Kidd record old standards, no-one bought it, but if you had him record bluesy rock and roll you had a hit. But they'd been told they could write their own B-side, as they'd been able to on the last few singles. They were also allowed to bring in Joe Moretti to provide a second guitar -- Moretti, who had played the solo on "Brand New Cadillac", was an old friend of Clem Cattini's, and they thought he'd add something to the record, and also thought they'd be doing him a favour by letting him make a session fee -- he wasn't a regular session player.

So they all got together in the Freight Train coffee bar, and wrote another Heath/Robinson number. They weren't going to do anything too original for a B-side, of course. They nicked a rhythm guitar part from "Linda Lu", a minor US hit that Lee Hazelwood had produced for a Chuck Berry soundalike named Ray Sharpe, and which was itself clearly lifted from “Speedoo” by the Cadillacs:

[Excerpt: Ray Sharpe, "Linda Lu"]

They may also have nicked Joe Moretti's lead guitar part as well, though there's more doubt about this. There's a Mickey and Sylvia record, "No Good Lover", which hadn't been released in the UK at the time, so it's hard to imagine how they could have heard it, but the lead guitar part they hit on was very, very similar -- maybe someone had played it on Radio Luxembourg:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "No Good Lover"]

They combined those musical ideas with a lyric that was partly a follow-on to the line in "Please Don't Touch" about shaking too much, and partly a slightly bowdlerised version of a saying that Kidd had -- when he saw a woman he found particularly attractive, he'd say "She gives me quivers in me membranes".

As it was a B-side, the track they recorded only took two takes, plus a brief overdub for Moretti to add some guitar shimmers, created by him using a cigarette lighter as a slide:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "Shakin' All Over"]

The song was knocked off so quickly that they even kept in a mistake -- before the guitar solo, Clem Cattini was meant to play just a one-bar fill. Instead he played for longer, which was very unlike Cattini, who was normally a professional's professional. He asked for another take, but the producer just left it in, and that break going into the solo was one of the things that people latched on to:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "Shakin' All Over"]

Despite the track having been put together from pre-existing bits, it had a life and vitality to it that no other British record except "Brand New Cadillac" had had, and Kidd had the added bonus of actually being able to hold a tune, unlike Vince Taylor. The record company quickly realised that "Shakin' All Over" should be the record that they were pushing, and flipped the single. The Pirates appeared on Wham!, the latest Jack Good TV show, and immediately the record charted. It soon made number one, and became the first real proof to British listeners that British people could make rock and roll every bit as good as the Americans -- at this point, everyone still thought Vince Taylor was from America.

It was possibly Jack Good who also made the big change to Johnny Kidd's appearance -- he had a slight cast in one eye that got worse as the day went on, with his eyelid drooping more and more. Someone -- probably Good -- suggested that he should make this problem into an advantage, by wearing an eyepatch. He did, and the Pirates got pirate costumes to wear on stage, while Kidd would frantically roam the stage swinging a cutlass around. At this point, stagecraft was something almost unknown to British rock performers, who rarely did more than wear a cleanish suit and say "thank you" after each song. The only other act that was anything like as theatrical was Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, a minor act who had ripped off Screamin' Jay Hawkins' act.

The follow-up, "Restless", was very much "Shakin' All Over" part two, and made the top thirty. After that, sticking with the formula, they did a version of "Linda Lu", but that didn't make the top forty at all. Possibly the most interesting record they made at this point was a version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You", a song Willie Dixon had written for Muddy Waters:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "I Just Want to Make Love to You"]

The Pirates were increasingly starting to include blues and R&B songs in their set, and the British blues boom artists of the next few years would often refer to the Pirates as being the band that had inspired them. Clem Cattini still says that Johnny Kidd was the best British blues singer he ever heard.

But as their singles were doing less and less well, the Pirates decided to jump ship. Colin Hicks, Tommy Steele's much less successful younger brother, had a backing band called the Cabin Boys, which Brian Gregg had been in before joining Terry Dene's band. Hicks had now started performing an act that was based on Kidd's, and for a tour of Italy, where he was quite popular, he wanted a new band -- he asked the Pirates if they would leave Kidd and become the latest lineup of Cabin Boys, and they left, taking their costumes with them. Clem Cattini now says that agreeing was the worst move he ever made, but they parted on good terms -- Kidd said "Alan, Brian and Clem left me to better themselves. How could I possibly begrudge them their opportunity?"

We'll be picking up the story of Alan, Brian, and Clem in a few months' time, but in the meantime, Kidd picked up a new backing band, who had previously been performing as the Redcaps, backing a minor singer called Cuddly Dudley on his single "Sitting on a Train":

[Excerpt: Cuddly Dudley and the Redcaps, "Sitting on a Train"]

That new lineup of Pirates didn't last too long before the guitarist quit, due to ill health, but he was soon replaced by Mick Green, who is now regarded by many as one of the great British guitarists of all time, to the extent that Wilko Johnson, another British guitarist who came to prominence about fifteen years later, has said that he spent his entire career trying and failing to sound like MIck Green.

In 1962 and 63 the group were playing clubs where they found a lot of new bands who they seemed to have things in common with. After playing the Cavern in Liverpool and a residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, they added Richie Barrett's "Some Other Guy" and Arthur Alexander's "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" to their sets, two R&B numbers that were very popular among the Liverpool bands playing in Hamburg but otherwise almost unknown in the UK. Unfortunately, their version of "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" didn't chart, and their record label declined to issue their version of "Some Other Guy" -- and then almost immediately the Liverpool group The Big Three released their version as a single, and it made the top forty.

As the Pirates' R&B sound was unsuccessful -- no-one seemed to want British R&B, at all -- they decided to go the other way, and record a song written by their new manager, Gordon Mills (who would later become better known for managing Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck). "I'll Never Get Over You" was a very catchy, harmonised, song in the style of many of the new bands that were becoming popular, and it's an enjoyable record, but it's not really in the Pirates' style:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, "I'll Never Get Over You"]

That made number four on the charts, but it would be Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' last major hit. They did have a minor hit with another song by Mills, "Hungry For Love", but a much better record, and a much better example of the Pirates' style, was an R&B single released by the Pirates without Kidd. The plan at the time was that they would be split into two acts in the same way as Cliff Richard and the Shadows -- Kidd would be a solo star, while the Pirates would release records of their own.

The A-side of the Pirates' single was a fairly good version of the Willie Dixon song "My Babe", but to my ears the B-side is better -- it's a version of "Casting My Spell", a song originally by an obscure duo called the Johnson Brothers, but popularised by Johnny Otis. The Pirates' version is quite possibly the finest early British R&B record I've heard:

[Excerpt: The Pirates, "Casting My Spell"]

That didn't chart, and the plan to split the two acts failed. Neither act ever had another hit again, and eventually the classic Mick Green lineup of the Pirates split up -- Green left first, to join Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, and the rest left one by one.

In 1965, The Guess Who had a hit in the US with their cover version of "Shakin' All Over":

[Excerpt: The Guess Who, "Shakin' All Over"]

The Pirates were reduced to remaking their own old hit as "Shakin' All Over '65" in an attempt to piggyback on that cover version, but the new version, which was dominated by a Hammond organ part, didn't have any success.

After the Pirates left Kidd, he got a new group, which he called the New Pirates. He continued making extremely good records on occasion, but had no success at all. Even though younger bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals were making music very similar to his, he was regarded as an outdated novelty act, a relic of an earlier age from six years earlier. There was always the potential for him to have a comeback, but then in 1966 Kidd, who was never a very good driver and had been in a number of accidents, arrived late at a gig in Bolton. The manager refused to let him on stage because he'd arrived so late, so he drove off to find another gig. He'd been driving most of the day, and he crashed the car and died, as did one person in the vehicle he crashed into.

His final single, "Send For That Girl", was released after his death. It's really a very good record, but at the time Kidd's fortunes were so low that even his death didn't make it chart:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the New Pirates, "Send For That Girl"]

Kidd was only thirty when he died, and already a has-been, but he left behind the most impressive body of work of any pre-Beatles British act. Various lineups of Pirates have occasionally played since -- including, at one point, Cattini and Gregg playing with Joe Moretti's son Joe Moretti Jr -- but none have ever captured that magic that gave millions of people quivers down the backbone and shakes in the kneebone.

May 28, 2020
Episode 83: "Only the Lonely" by Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison

Episode eighty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Only the Lonely" by Roy Orbison, and how Orbison finally found success by ignoring conventional pop song structure. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have two bonus podcasts -- part one of a two-part Q&A and a ten-minute bonus on "Walk Don't Run" by the Ventures.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



Apologies for the delay this week -- I'm still trying to catch up after last week. 


As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

I have relied for biographical information mostly on two books -- The Authorised Roy Orbison written by Jeff Slate and three of Orbison's children, and Rhapsody in Black by John Kruth. 

For the musicological analysis, I referred a lot to the essay “Only the Lonely: Roy Orbison’s Sweet West Texas Style,” by Albin Zak, in Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music

 There are many Orbison collections available, but many have rerecordings rather than the original versions of his hits. The Monument Singles Collection is the originals. 


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


It's been nearly a year since we last looked at Roy Orbison, so it's probably a good idea to quickly catch up with where we were up to. Roy Orbison had started out as a rockabilly singer, with a group called the Wink Westerners who changed their name to the Teen Kings and were signed to Sun Records. Orbison had thought that he would like to be a ballad singer, but everyone at Sun was convinced that he would never make it as anything other than a rocker. He had one minor hit on Sun, "Ooby Dooby", but eventually got dissatisfied with the label and asked to be allowed to go to another label -- Sam Phillips agreed to free him from his contract, in return for all the songwriting royalties and credits for everything he'd recorded for Sun.

Newly free, Orbison signed to a major publisher and a major record label, recording for RCA with the same Nashville A-Team that were recording with Elvis and Brenda Lee. He had some success as a songwriter, writing "Claudette", which became a hit for the Everly Brothers, but he did no better recording for RCA than he had recording for Sun, and soon he was dropped by his new label, and the money from "Claudette" ran out. By the middle of 1959, Roy Orbison was an absolute failure.

But this episode, we're going to talk about what happened next, and the startling way in which someone who had been a failure when produced by both Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins managed to become one of the most important artists in the world on a tiny label with no track record. Today, we're going to look at "Only the Lonely", and the records that turned Roy Orbison into a star:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely"]

It seems odd that Roy Orbison could thank Wesley Rose for introducing him to Monument Records. Rose was the co-owner of Acuff-Rose publishing, the biggest country music publishing company in the world, and the company to which Orbison had signed as a songwriter. Fred Foster, the owner of Monument, describes being called to a meeting of various Nashville music industry professionals, at which Rose asked him in front of everyone "Why are you trying to destroy Nashville by making these..." and then used an expletive I can't use here and a racial slur I *won't* use here, to describe the slightly R&B-infused music Foster was making.

Foster was part of the new wave of Nashville record makers that also included Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, though at this time he was far less successful than either of them. Foster had started out as a songwriter, writing the words for the McGuire Sisters' hit "Picking Sweethearts":

[Excerpt: The McGuire Sisters, "Picking Sweethearts"]

He had moved from there into record production, despite having little musical or technical ability. He did, though, have a good ear for artists, and he made his career in the business by picking good people and letting them do the music they wanted. He started out at 4 Star Records, a small country label. From there he moved to Mercury Records, but he only spent a brief time there -- he was in favour of moving into the rockabilly market, while his superiors in the company weren't. He quickly found another role at ABC/Paramount, where he produced hits for a number of people, including one track we've already covered in this podcast, Lloyd Price's version of "Stagger Lee". He then put his entire life savings into starting up his own company, Monument, which he initially co-owned with a DJ named Buddy Deane. As Foster and Deane were based in Washington at this time, they used an image of the Washington Monument as the label's logo, and that also inspired the name.

The first single they put out on the label caused them some problems. Billy Grammer, their first signing, recorded a song that they believed to be in the public domain, "Done Laid Around", which had recently been recorded by the Weavers under the name "Gotta Travel On":

[Excerpt: The Weavers, "Gotta Travel On"]

However, after putting out Grammer's version, Foster discovered that the song was actually in copyright, with a credit to the folk singer and folklorist Paul Clayton. I don't know if Clayton actually wrote the song or not -- it was common practice at that time for folk songs to be copyrighted in the name of an artist.

But whether Clayton wrote the song or not, "Done Laid Around" had to be withdrawn from sale, and reissued under the name "Gotta Travel On", with Clayton credited as the composer -- something which cost the new label a substantial amount of money. But it worked out well for everyone, with Grammer's record eventually reaching number four on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Billy Grammer, "Gotta Travel On"]

After that success, Foster bought out Buddy Deane and moved the label down to Nashville. They put out a few more singles over the next year, mostly by Grammer, but nothing recaptured that initial success. But it did mean that Foster started working with the Nashville A-Team of session musicians -- people like Bob Moore, the bass player who played on almost every important record to come out of Nashville at that time, including the Elvis records we looked at last week.

Moore had also played on Roy Orbison's last sessions for RCA, where he'd seen how downcast Orbison was. Orbison had explained to Moore about how this was going to be his last session for RCA -- his contract was about to expire, and it was clear that Chet Atkins had no more idea than Sam Phillips how to make a successful Roy Orbison record. Moore told him not to worry -- he very obviously had talent, and Moore would speak to Wesley Rose about him.

As well as being Orbison's music publisher, Rose was also Orbison's manager, something that would nowadays be considered a conflict of interest, but was par for the course at the time -- he was also the Everly Brothers' manager and publisher, which is how Orbison had managed to place "Claudette" with them. There were a lot of such backroom deals in the industry at the time, and few people knew about them -- for example, none of Bob Moore's fellow session players on the A-Team knew that he secretly owned thirty-seven percent of Monument Records.

While Fred Foster is credited as the producer on most of Orbison's sessions from this point on, it's probably reasonable to think of Bob Moore as at the very least an uncredited co-producer -- he was the arranger on all of the records, and he was also the person who booked the other musicians on the sessions.

Orbison was by this point so depressed about his own chances in the music industry that he couldn't believe that anyone wanted to sign him at all -- he was convinced even after signing that Fred Foster was confusing his own "Ooby Dooby" with another Sun single, Warren Smith's similar sounding "Rock and Roll Ruby":

[Excerpt: Warren Smith, "Rock and Roll Ruby"]

Wesley Rose had very clear ideas as to what Orbison's first single for Monument should be -- that last session at RCA had included two songs, "Paper Boy", and "With the Bug", that RCA had not bothered to release, and so Orbison went into the studio with much the same set of musicians he'd been working with at RCA, and cut the same songs he'd recorded there. The single was released, and made absolutely no impact -- unsurprising for a record that was really the end of Orbison's period as a failure, rather than the beginning of his golden period.

That golden period came when he started collaborating with Joe Melson. The two men had known each other for a while, but the legend has it that they started writing songs together after Melson was walking along and saw Orbison sat in his car playing the guitar -- Orbison and his wife Claudette had recently had a son, Roy DeWayne Orbison (his middle name was after Orbison's friend Duane Eddy, though spelled differently), and the flat they were living in was so small that the only way Orbison could write any songs without disturbing the baby was to go and write them in the car.

Melson apparently tapped on the car window, and asked what Roy was doing, and when Roy explained, he suggested that the two of them start working together. Both men were more than capable songwriters on their own, but they brought out the best in one another, and soon they were writing material that was unlike anything else in popular music at the time.

Their first collaboration to be released was Orbison's second Monument single, "Uptown", a bluesy rock and roll track which saw the first big change in Orbison's style -- the introduction of a string section along with the Nashville A-Team. This was something that was only just starting to be done in Nashville, and it made little sense to most people involved that Orbison would want strings on what would otherwise be a rockabilly track, but they went ahead:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Uptown"]

The string arrangement was written by Anita Kerr, of the Anita Kerr Singers, the female vocal group that would be called into any Nashville session that required women's voices (the male equivalent was the Jordanaires). Kerr would write a lot of the string arrangements for Orbison's records, and her vocal group -- with Joe Melson adding a single male voice -- would provide the backing vocals on them for the next few years.

Wesley Rose was still unsure that Orbison could ever be a star, mostly because he thought he was so odd-looking, but "Uptown" started to prove him wrong. It made number seventy-two on the pop charts -- still not a massive hit, but the best he'd done since "Ooby Dooby" three years and two record labels earlier.

But it was the next single, another Orbison/Melson collaboration, that would make him into one of the biggest stars in music.

"Only the Lonely" had its roots in two other songs. Melson had written a song called "Cry" before ever meeting Orbison, and the two of them had reworked it into one called "Only the Lonely", but they were also working on another song at the same time. They had still not had a hit, and were trying to write something in the style of a current popular record. At the time, Mark Dinning was having huge success with a ballad called "Teen Angel", about a girl who gets run over by a train:

[Excerpt: Mark Dinning, "Teen Angel"]

Orbison and Melson were writing their own knock-off of that, called "Come Back to Me My Love". But when they played it for Fred Foster, he told them it was awful, and they should scrap the whole thing -- apart from the backing vocal hook Joe was singing. That was worth doing something with:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely", vocal intro]

They took that vocal part and put it together with "Only the Lonely" to make a finished song. According to most reports, rather than have Orbison record it, they initially tried to get Elvis to do it -- if they did, they must have known that they had no chance of it getting recorded, because Elvis was only recording songs published by Hill and Range, and Orbison and Melson were Acuff-Rose songwriters. They also, though, tried to get it recorded by the Everly Brothers, who were friends of Orbison, were also signed with Acuff-Rose, and were also managed by Wesley Rose, and even they turned it down.

This is understandable, because the finished "Only the Lonely" is one of the most bizarrely structured songs ever to be a hit. Now, I've known this song for more than thirty years, I have a fair understanding of music, *and* I am explaining this with the help of a musicological essay on the song I've read, analysing it bar by bar. I am *still* not sure that my explanation of what's going on with this song is right. *That's* how oddly structured this song is.

The intro is straightforward enough, the kind of thing that every song has. But then the lead vocal comes in, and rather than continue under the lead, like you would normally expect, the lead and backing vocals alternate, and push each other out of phase as a result. Where in the intro, the first "dum dum dum" starts on the first bar of the phrase, here it starts on the *second* bar of the phrase and extends past the end of Orbison's line, meaning the first line of the verse is actually five bars (from where the instruments come in after the a capella "Only the"), and not only that, the backing vocals are stressing different beats to the ones the lead vocal is stressing:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely", first line of verse]

This is quite astonishingly jarring. Pop songs, of whatever genre -- country, or blues, or rock and roll, or doo-wop, or whatever -- almost all work in fours. You have four-bar phrases that build up into eight- or twelve-bar verses, choruses, and bridges. Here, by overlaying two four-bar phrases out of synch with each other, Orbison and Melson have created a five-bar phrase -- although please note if you try to count bars along with these excerpts, you may come out with a different number, because phrases cross bar lines and I'm splitting these excerpts up by the vocal phrase rather than by the bar line.

The lead vocal then comes back, on a different beat than expected -- the stresses in the melody have moved all over the place. Because the lead vocal starts on a different beat for the second phrase, even though it's the same length as the first phrase, it crosses more bar lines, meaning two five-bar phrases total eleven bars. Not only that, but the bass doesn't move to a new chord where you expect, but it stays on its original chord for an extra two beats, giving the impression of a six-beat bar, even though the drums are staying in four-four. So the first half of the verse is eleven bars long, if you don't get thrown by thinking one of the bars is six beats rather than four. Structurally, harmonically, and rhythmically, it feels like someone has tried to compromise between a twelve-bar blues and an eight-bar doo-wop song:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely", second line]

There's then another section, which in itself is perfectly straightforward -- an eight-bar stop-time section, whose lyric is possibly inspired by the Drifters song that had used strings and rhythmic disorientation in a similar way a few months earlier:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely", "There goes my baby..."]

The only incongruity there is a very minor one -- a brief move to the fifth-of-fifth chord, which is the kind of extremely minor deviation from the key that's par for the course in pop music. That section by itself is nothing unusual.

But then after that straightforward eight-bar section, which seems like a return to normality, we then get a five-bar section which takes us to the end of the verse:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Only the Lonely", "But only the lonely know why..."]

The song then basically repeats all its musical material from the start, with a few changes – the second time, the verse starts on the third of the scale rather than the first, and the melody goes up more, but it's structured similarly, and finishes in under two and a half minutes.

So the musical material of the song covers twenty-four bars, not counting the intro. Twenty-four bars is actually a perfectly normal number of bars for a song to cover, but it would normally be broken down into three lots of eight or two lots of twelve -- instead it's a five, a six, an eight, and a five. I think. Honestly, I've gone back and forth several times about how best to break this up.

The song is so familiar to most of us now that this doesn't sound strange any more, but I distinctly remember my own first time listening to it, when I was about eight, and wondering if the backing vocalists just hadn't known when to come in, if the people making the record just hadn't known how to make one properly, because this just sounded *wrong* to me.

But it's that wrongness, that strangeness, of course -- along with Orbison's magnificent voice -- that made the record a hit, expressing perfectly the confusion and disorientation felt by the song's protagonist. It went to number two in the US, and number one in the UK, and instantly made Roy Orbison a star.

A couple of slightly more conventional singles followed -- "Blue Angel" and "I'm Hurtin'" -- and they were both hits, but nowhere near as big as "Only the Lonely", and this seems to have convinced Orbison and Melson that they needed to follow their instincts and go for different structures than the norm. They started to make their songs, as far as possible, through-composed pieces. While most songs of the time break down into neat little sections -- verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, instrumental solo, chorus to fade, or a similar structure, Orbison and Melson's songs rarely have sections that repeat without any changes. Instead a single melody develops and takes twists and turns over the course of a couple of minutes, with Orbison usually singing throughout.

This also had another advantage, as far as Orbison was concerned -- their songs hardly ever had space for an instrumental break, and so he never had to do the rock and roll star thing of moving around the stage and dancing while the instrumentalists soloed, which was something he felt uncomfortable doing. Instead he could just stand perfectly still at the microphone and sing.

The first single they released that fit this new style was inspired by a piece of music Fred Foster introduced Orbison to -- Ravel's "Bolero":

[Excerpt: Ravel, "Bolero" (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra)]

Orbison and Melson took that basic feel and changed it into what would become Orbison's first number one in the US, "Running Scared":

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Running Scared"]

That song was apparently one that met some resistance from the Nashville A-Team. A chunk of the song is in rubato, or "free time", where the musicians speed up or slow down slightly to make the music more expressive. This was not something that Bob Moore, in particular, was comfortable with -- they were making pop music, weren't they? Pop music was for kids to dance to, and if kids were going to dance to it, it had to have a steady beat.

Orbison wasn't very good at all at dealing with conflict, and wherever possible he would try to take the most positive attitude possible, and in this case he just went into the control room and waited, while the musicians tried to figure out a way of playing the song in strict tempo, and found it just didn't work. After a while, Orbison walked back into the studio and said "I think we should play it the way it was written", and the musicians finally went along with him.

It may also have been on "Running Scared" that they pioneered a new recording technique, or at least new for Nashville, which was surprisingly conservative about recording technology for a town so rooted in the music industry. I've seen this story written about three different early Orbison songs, and it could have been any of them, but the descriptions of the "Running Scared" session are the most detailed. While Orbison had a great voice, at this point it wasn't especially powerful, and with the addition of strings, the band were overpowering his voice. At this time, it was customary for singers to record with the band, all performing together in one room, but the sound of the instruments was getting into Orbison's mic louder than his voice, making it impossible to get a good mix. Eventually, they brought a coatrack covered with coats into the studio, and used it to partition the space -- Orbison would stand on one side of it with his mic, and the band and their mics would be on the other side. The coats would deaden the sound of the musicians enough that Orbison's voice would be the main sound on his vocal mic.

In this case, the reason his voice was being overpowered was that right at the end of the song he had to hit a high A in full voice -- something that's very difficult for a baritone like Orbison to do without going into falsetto. It may also be that he was nervous about trying this when the musicians could see him, and the coats in the way helped him feel more secure. Either way, he does a magnificent job on that note:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Running Scared", tag]

Apparently when Chet Atkins popped into the studio for a visit, he was utterly bemused by what he saw -- but then he was impressed enough by the idea that he got RCA to build a proper vocal isolation booth at their studios to get the same effect.

"Running Scared" also came along just after Orbison made one big change to his image. He'd been on tour with Patsy Cline, promoting "Blue Angel", and had left his glasses on the plane. As he couldn't see well without them, he had to resort to using his prescription sunglasses on stage, and was astonished to find that instead of looking gawky and rather odd-looking, the audience now seemed to think he looked cool and brooding. From that point on, he wore them constantly.

For the next three years, Orbison and Melson continued working together and producing hits -- although Orbison also wrote several hits solo during this time, including "In Dreams", which many consider his greatest record. But Melson was becoming increasingly convinced that he was the real talent in the partnership. Melson was also putting out singles on his own at this time, and you can judge for yourself whether his most successful solo track, "Hey Mr. Cupid" is better or worse than the tracks Orbison did without him.

[Excerpt: Joe Melson, "Hey Mr. Cupid"]

Eventually Melson stopped working with Orbison altogether, after their last major collaboration, "Blue Bayou".

This turned out to be the beginning of the collapse of Orbison's entire life, though it didn't seem like it at the time. It was the first crack in the team that produced his biggest hits, but for now he was on a roll. He started collaborating with another writer, Bill Dees, and even though Beatlemania was raging in the UK, and later in the US, he was one of a tiny number of American artists who continued to have hits. Indeed, two of the early collaborations by Orbison and Dees were the *only* two records by an American artist to go to number one in the UK between August 1963 and February 1965. The second of those, "Oh, Pretty Woman", also went to number one in the US, and became one of his most well-known songs:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman"]

That song again caused problems with his new collaborator, as Bill Dees sang the harmony vocals on it, and felt he wasn't getting enough credit for that.

But that was the high point for Orbison. Wesley Rose and Fred Foster had never got on, and Rose decided that he was going to move Orbison over to MGM Records, who gave him an advance of a million dollars, but immediately the hits dried up. And the events of the next few years were the kind of thing that would would break almost anyone. He had divorced his wife Claudette, who had inspired "Oh, Pretty Woman", in November 1964, just before signing to MGM, because he'd discovered she was cheating on him. But the two of them had been so in love they'd ended up reconciling and remarrying in December 1965. But then six months later, they were out riding motorbikes together, Claudette crashed hers, and she died.

And then a little over two years later, while he was on tour in the UK, his house burned down, killing two of his three children.

Orbison continued to work, putting out records that no-one was buying, and playing the chicken-in-a-basket circuit in the UK. He even remarried in 1969, and found happiness and a new family with his second wife. But for about twenty years, from 1965 through to 1985, he was in a wilderness period. Between personal tragedy, changing fashions in music, and the heart condition he developed in the 70s, he was no longer capable of making records that resonated with the public, even though his voice was as strong as ever, and he could still get an audience when singing those old hits. And even the old hits were hard to get hold of -- Monument Records went bankrupt in the seventies, and reissues of his old songs were tied up in legal battles over their ownership.

But then things started to change for him in the mid-eighties. A few modern artists had had hits with cover versions of his hits, but the big change came in 1985, when he collaborated with his fellow ex-Sun performers Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, on an album called Class of 55:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Class of 55, "Coming Home"]

That came out in 1986, and made the top twenty on the country charts -- the first time he'd had an album make any chart at all since 1966. Also in 1986, David Lynch used Orbison's "In Dreams" in his film Blue Velvet, which brought the record to a very different audience. He collaborated with k.d. lang, who was then one of the hottest new singers in country music, on a new version of his hit "Crying":

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and k.d. lang, "Crying"]

That later won a Grammy. He recorded a new album of rerecordings of his greatest hits, which made the lower reaches of the charts. He got inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame, and recorded a live TV special, A Black and White Night, where he was joined by Elvis' seventies backing band, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Tom Waits, among others, all just acting as backing singers and musicians for a man they admired.

He also joined with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan in a supergroup called The Travelling Wilburys, whose first album made the top five:

[Excerpt: The Travelling Wilburys, "Handle With Care"]

And he recorded an album of new material, his best in decades, Mystery Girl, produced by Lynne and with songs written by Orbison, Lynne, and Petty -- along with a couple of songs contributed by famous admirers like Bono and the Edge of U2.

But by the time that came out, Orbison was dead -- after a day flying model aeroplanes with his sons, he had a heart attack and died, aged only fifty-two. When Mystery Girl came out a couple of months later, it rose to the top five or better almost everywhere -- and in the UK and US, he had two albums in the top five at the same time, as in the UK a hits compilation was also up there, while in the US the Wilburys album was still near the top of the charts.

Orbison's is one of the saddest stories in rock music, with one of the greatest talents in history getting derailed for decades by heartbreaking tragedies unimaginable to most of us, and then dying right at the point he was finally starting to get the recognition he deserved. But the work he did, both as a songwriter and as a singer, would inspire people long after his death.

May 21, 2020
Episode 82: "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" by Elvis Presley

Elvis in 1960

Episode eighty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" by Elvis Presley, and the way his promising comeback after leaving the Army quickly got derailed. This episode also contains a brief acknowledgment of the death of the great Little Richard, who died just as I was recording this episode. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Muleskinner Blues" by the Fendermen.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



Apologies for the delay this week -- I've been unwell, as you might be able to tell from the croaky voice in places. Don't worry, it's not anything serious... 


No Mixcloud this week, as almost every song excerpted is by Elvis, and it would be impossible to do it without breaking Mixcloud's rules about the number of songs by the same artist.

My main source for this episode is Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the second part of Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis. It's not *quite* as strong as the first volume, but it's still by far the best book covering his later years. I also used Reconsider Baby: The Definitive Elvis Sessionography 1954-1977 by Ernst Jorgensen.

The box set From Nashville to Memphis contains all Elvis' sixties studio recordings other than his gospel and soundtrack albums, and thus manages to make a solid case for Elvis' continued artistic relevance in the sixties, by only including records he chose to make. It's well worth the very cheap price.

And Back in Living Stereo, which rounds up the 1960s public domain Elvis recordings, contains the gospel recordings, outtakes, and home recordings from 1960 through 1962.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


I say that by the time “Stuck on You” had come out, Elvis had already made his TV appearance with Sinatra. In actual fact, he was still rehearsing for it, and wouldn't record it for a few more days.

I also say that the Colonel had managed Gene Austin. In fact the Colonel had only promoted shows for Austin, not been his manager.


ERRATUM: I say that by the time “Stuck on You” had come out, Elvis had already made his TV appearance with Sinatra. In actual fact, he was still rehearsing for it, and wouldn't record it for a few more days.

Before I start this week's episode, I had to mark the death of Little Richard. We've already covered his work of course, in episodes on "Tutti Frutti" and "Keep A Knockin'", and I don't really have a lot to add to those episodes in terms of his importance to twentieth-century music. We can argue about which of Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard was the most important artist of the fifties, but I don't think you can make a good argument that anyone other than one of those three was, and I don't think you can argue that those three weren't the three most important in whatever order.

Without Little Richard, none of the music we're covering in this podcast after 1955 would be the same, and this podcast would not exist. There are still a handful of people alive who made records we've looked at in the podcast, but without intending the slightest offence to any of them, none are as important a link in the historical chain as Richard Penniman was.

So, before the episode proper, let's have a few moments' noise in memory of the force of nature who described himself as the King and Queen of Rock and Roll:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Ooh! My Soul!"]

Now on to the main podcast itself.

Today we're going to take what will be, for a while, our last look at Elvis Presley. He will show up in the background of some other episodes as we go through the sixties, and I plan to take a final look at him in a hundred or so episodes, but for now, as we're entering the sixties, we're leaving behind those fifties rockers, and Elvis is one of those we're definitely leaving for now.

Elvis' two years spent in the Army had changed him profoundly. His mother had died, he'd been separated from everyone he knew, and he'd met a young woman named Priscilla, who was several years younger than him but who would many years later end up becoming his wife. And the music world had changed while he was gone. Rockabilly had totally disappeared from the charts, and all the musicians who had come up with Elvis had moved into orchestrated pop like Roy Orbison or into pure country like Johnny Cash, with the exception of a handful like Gene Vincent who were no longer having hits, at least in the US.

Elvis had, though, continued to have hits. He'd recorded enough in 1958 for RCA to have a tiny stockpile of recordings they could issue as singles over the intervening two years -- "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck", "Hard-Headed Woman", "One Night", "I Need Your Love Tonight", and "A Big Hunk O' Love". Along with those hits, they repackaged several single-only recordings into new albums, and managed to keep Elvis in the spotlight despite him not recording any new material.

This had been a plan of the Colonel's from the moment it became clear that Elvis was going to be drafted -- his strategy then, and from then on, was to record precisely as much material for RCA as the contracts stipulated they were entitled to, and not one song more. His thinking was that if Elvis recorded more songs than they needed to release at any given time, then there would be nothing for him to use as leverage in contract negotiations. The contract wasn't due for renegotiation any time soon, of course, but you don't want to take that chance.

This meant that Elvis didn't have long to relax at home before he had to go back into the studio. He had a couple of weeks to settle in at Graceland -- the home he had bought for his mother, but had barely spent any time in before being drafted, and which was now going to be inhabited by Elvis, his father, and his father's new, much younger, girlfriend, of whom Elvis definitely did not approve. In that time he made visits to the cinema, and to an ice-dancing show -- he went to the performance for black people, rather than the one for whites, as Memphis was still segregated, and he made a brief impromptu appearance at that show himself, conducting the orchestra. And most importantly to him, he visited the grave of his mother for the first time.

But two weeks and one day after his discharge from the Army, he was back in the studio, recording tracks for what would be his first album of new material since his Christmas album two and a half years earlier.

We talked a little bit, a few weeks back, about the Nashville Sound, the new sound that had become popular in country music, and how Chet Atkins, who had produced several of Elvis' early recordings, had been vitally responsible for the development of that sound. Many of the Nashville A-team, the musicians who were responsible for making those records with Atkins or the other main producer of the sound, Owen Bradley, had played on Elvis' last session before he went into the Army, and they were at this session, though to keep fans from congregating outside, they were told they were going to be playing on a Jim Reeves session -- Reeves was one of the country singers who were having hits with that sound, with records like “He'll Have to Go”:

[Excerpt: Jim Reeves, “He'll Have to Go”]

So with Chet Atkins in the control booth, the musicians were Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland -- the great guitarist who had briefly replaced Scotty Moore on stage when Elvis and his band had split; Floyd Cramer, who had been playing piano with Elvis on record since his first RCA session, Buddy Harman, who had doubled DJ Fontana on percussion on Elvis' last session from 58, on drums, and Bob Moore, who had played bass on those sessions, back on bass. And of course the Jordanaires were at the session as well -- as well as having sung on Elvis' pre-Army records, they were also part of the Nashville A-Team, and were the go-to male backing vocalists for anyone in Nashville making a country or pop record.

Scotty and DJ were there, too, but they were in much reduced roles -- Scotty was playing rhythm guitar, rather than lead, and DJ was only one of two drummers on the session. Bill Black was not included at all -- Black had always been the one who would try to push for more recognition, and he was now a star in his own right, with his Bill Black Combo. He would never record with Elvis again.

The session took a while to get going -- the first hour or so was spent ordering in hamburgers, listening to demos, and Elvis and Bobby Moore showing each other karate moves -- and then the first song they recorded, an Otis Blackwell number titled "Make Me Know It" took a further nineteen takes before they had a satisfactory one:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Make Me Know It"]

Elvis' voice had improved dramatically during his time in the Army -- he had been practising a lot, with his new friend Charlie Hodge, and had added a full octave to his vocal range, and he was eager to display his newfound ability to tackle other kinds of material. But at the same time, all the reports from everyone in the studio suggest that these early sessions were somewhat hesitant. The best song from this initial session was Pomus and Shuman's "A Mess of Blues":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "A Mess of Blues"]

But it was a song by Aaron Schroeder and Leslie McFarland that was chosen for the first single -- a mediocre track called "Stuck on You":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Stuck on You"]

Such was the demand for new Elvis material that the single of "Stuck on You" backed with "Fame and Fortune" was released within seventy-two hours. By that time, RCA had printed up 1.4 million copies of the single, just to fulfil the advance orders -- they came out in sleeves that just read "Elvis' 1st New Recording For His 50,000,000 Fans All Over The World", because when they were printing the sleeves the record company had no idea what songs Elvis was going to record.

By that time, Elvis had already made what would turn out to be his only TV appearance for eight years. The Colonel had arranged for a TV special, to be hosted by Frank Sinatra -- The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis.

Most of that special was the standard Rat Packisms, with Sinatra joined by Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. Sinatra had not been at all complimentary about Elvis before he'd gone into the Army, and in later years would continue to be insulting about him, but money was money, and so Sinatra put on a grin and pretended to be happy to be working with him.

The train trip to Florida to record the TV show was something Scotty Moore would always remember, saying that at every single crossroads the train tracks went past, there were people lined up to cheer on the train, and that the only comparisons he could make to that trip were the funeral journeys of Lincoln and Roosevelt's bodies.

Scotty also remembered one other thing about the trip -- that Elvis had offered him some of the little pills he'd been taking in the Army, to keep him awake and alert.

Elvis, Scotty, and DJ were friendly enough on the train journey, but when they got to Miami they found that during the week they were in rehearsals, Scotty, DJ, and the Jordanaires were forbidden from socialising with Elvis, by order of the Colonel.

The TV show was one of a very small number of times in the sixties that Elvis would perform for an audience, and here, dressed in a dinner jacket and clearly attempting to prove he was now a family-friendly entertainer, he looks deeply uncomfortable at first, as he croons his way through "Fame and Fortune". He gets into his stride with the other side of his single, "Stuck on You", and then Sinatra joins him for a duet, where Sinatra sings "Love Me Tender" while Elvis sings Sinatra's "Witchcraft". Watching the footage, you can see that by this point Elvis is completely comfortable in front of the audience again, and frankly he wipes the floor with Sinatra. Sinatra is trying to mock "Love Me Tender", but Elvis takes Sinatra's song completely straight, but at the same time knows exactly how ridiculous he is being:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft”]

There's a passage in Umberto Eco's book about writing The Name of the Rose, where he talks about the meaning of postmodernism. He explains that an unsophisticated writer like Barbara Cartland might write "I love you madly". A sophisticated modernist writer would recognise that as a cliche, and so choose not to write about love at all, having no language to do it in, and mock those who did. And a postmodernist would embrace and acknowledge the cliche, writing "As Barbara Cartland might say, 'I love you madly'". This, crucially, means that the postmodernist is, once again, able to talk about real emotions, which the modernist (in Eco's view) can't.

By this definition, Sinatra's performance is modernist -- he's just showing contempt for the material -- while Elvis is postmodernist, sincere even as he's also knowingly mocking himself. It comes across far more in the video footage, which is easily findable online, but you can hear some of it just in the audio recording:

[Excerpt: Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, "Love Me Tender/Witchcraft"]

A week later, Elvis was back in the studio, with the same musicians as before, along with Boots Randolph on saxophone, to record the rest of the tracks for his new album, to be titled Elvis is Back!

Elvis is Back! is quite possibly the most consistent studio album Elvis ever made, and that second 1960 session is where the most impressive material on the album was recorded. They started out with a version of "Fever" that easily measured up to the original by Little Willie John and the most famous version by Peggy Lee, with Elvis backed just by Bobby Moore on bass and the two drummers:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Fever"]

Then there was "Like a Baby", a song originally recorded by Vikki Nelson, and written by Jesse Stone, who had written so many R&B classics before. This saw some of Elvis' best blues vocals:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Like a Baby"]

The next song was a huge departure from anything he'd done previously. Elvis had always loved Tony Martin's 1950 hit "There's No Tomorrow":

[Excerpt: Tony Martin, "There's No Tomorrow"]

That had become one of the songs he rehearsed with Charlie Hodge in Germany, and he'd mentioned the idea of recording it. But, of course, "There's No Tomorrow" was based on the old song "O Sole Mio", which at the time was considered to be in the public domain (though in fact a later Italian court ruling means that even though it was composed in 1897, it will remain in copyright until 2042), so Freddy Bienstock at Hill and Range, the publishing company that supplied Elvis with material, commissioned a new set of lyrics for it, and it became "It's Now or Never".

Elvis did several near-perfect takes of the song, but then kept flubbing the ending, which required a particularly powerful, sustained, note. Bill Porter, who was engineering, suggested that they could do a take of just that bit and then splice it on to the rest, but Elvis was determined. He was going to do the song all the way through, or he was not going to do it. Eventually he got it, and the result was extraordinary, nothing like any performance he'd given previously:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "It's Now Or Never"]

That would go to number one, as would another non-album single from this session. This one was the only song the Colonel had ever asked Elvis to record, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

That song had been written in 1926, and had been a hit in several versions, most notably the version by Al Jolson:

[Excerpt: Al Jolson, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"]

But the Colonel had two reasons for wanting Elvis to record the song. The first was that, while the Colonel didn't have much interest in music, he associated the song with Gene Austin, the country singer who had been the first act the Colonel had managed, and so he had a sentimental fondness for it. And the second was that it was the Colonel's wife Marie's favourite song.

While the studio was normally brightly lit, for this song Elvis made sure that no-one other than the few musicians on the track, which only featured acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, were in the studio, and that all the lights were off.

He did one take of the song, on which the Jordanaires apparently made a mistake. He then did a false start, and decided to give up on the song, but Steve Sholes, RCA's A&R man, insisted that the song could be a hit. They eventually got through it, although even the finished take of the song contains one mistake -- because the song was recorded in the dark, the musicians couldn't see the microphones, and you can hear someone bumping into a mic during the spoken bridge:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"]

Despite that flaw, the track was released as a single, and became a massive success, and a song that would stay in Elvis' repertoire until his very last shows.

During that one overnight session, Elvis and the band recorded twelve songs, covering a stylistic range that's almost inconceivable. There was a Leiber and Stoller rocker left over from "King Creole", a cover version of "Such a Night", the hit for Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the old Lowell Fulson blues song "Reconsider Baby", the light Latin pop song "The Girl of My Best Friend", a Louvin Brothers style duet with Charlie Hodge -- in one session Elvis managed to cover every style of American popular song as of 1960, and do it all well.

In total, between this session and the previous one, Elvis recorded eighteen tracks -- three singles and a twelve-track album -- and while they were slicker and more polished than the Sun recordings, it's very easy to make the case that they were every bit as artistically successful, and this was certainly the best creative work he had done since signing to RCA. All three singles went to number one, and the Elvis Is Back! album went to number two, and sold half a million copies.

But then, only three weeks after that session, he was in a different studio, cutting very different material.

His first post-Army film was going to be a quick, light, comedy, called "GI Blues", intended to present a new, wholesome, image for Elvis. Elvis disliked the script, and he was also annoyed when he got into the recording studio in Hollywood, which was used for his film songs, to discover that he wasn't going to be recording any Leiber and Stoller songs for this film, for what the Colonel told him were "business reasons" -- Elvis seems not to have been aware that the Colonel had made them persona non grata.

Instead, he was to record a set of songs mostly written by people like Sid Wayne, Abner Silver, Sid Tepper, and Fred Wise, journeymen songwriters with little taste for rock and roll. Typical of the songs was one called "Wooden Heart", based on an old German folk song, and with a co-writing credit to the German bandleader Bert Kaempfert (of whom we'll hear a little more in a future episode):

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Wooden Heart"]

Now, one should be careful when criticising Elvis' film songs, because they were written for a specific context. These aren't songs that were intended to be listened to as singles or albums, but they were intended to drive a plot forward, and to exist in the context of a film. Taking them out of that context is a bit like just writing down all the lines spoken by one character in a film and complaining that they don't work as a poem. There's a habit even among Elvis' fans, let alone his detractors, of dunking on some of the songs he recorded for film soundtracks without taking that into account, and it does rather miss the point.

But at the same time, they still had to be *performed* as songs, not as parts of films, and it was apparent that Elvis wasn't happy with them. Bones Howe, who was working on the sessions, said that Elvis had lost something when compared to his pre-Army work -- he was now trying, and often failing, to find his way into a performance which, pre-Army, he would have been able to do naturally. But when you compare his performances from the Elvis is Back! sessions, it's clear that the time in the Army wasn't the problem -- it's just that Elvis had no desire to be singing those songs or appearing in this film.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “GI Blues”]

Elvis told the Colonel that at least half the songs for the film soundtrack had to be scrapped, but the Colonel told him he was locked into them by contract, and he just had to do the best he could with them. And he did -- he gave as good a performance as possible, both in the film and on the songs. But his heart wasn't in it.

He was placated, though, by being told that his next couple of films would be *proper films*, like the ones he'd been making before going into the Army. These next two films were made back-to-back. Flaming Star was a Western with a rather heavy-handed message about racism, starring Elvis as a mixed-race man who felt at home neither with white people nor Native Americans, and directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry. Elvis' role was originally intended for Marlon Brando, his acting idol, and he only sang one song in the film, other than the title song which played over the credits.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Flaming Star”]

And then he made Wild in the Country, which featured only a very small number of songs, and had Elvis playing a troubled young man who has to get court-ordered psychological counselling, but eventually goes off to college to become a writer.

There's quite a bit of debate about the merits of both these films, and of Elvis' acting in them, but there's no doubt at all that they were intended to be serious films, even more so than Jailhouse Rock and King Creole had been.

After filming these three films, Elvis went back into the studio for another overnight session, to record another album. This time, it was a gospel album, his first full-length gospel record. His Hand in Mine was possibly the purest expression of Elvis' own musical instincts yet -- he had always wanted to be a singer in a gospel quartet, and now he was singing gospel songs with the Jordanaires, exactly as he'd wanted to:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "His Hand in Mine"]

So in 1960, Elvis had recorded two very different, but hugely artistically satisfying, albums, and had made three films, of which he could reasonably be proud of two.

Unfortunately for him, it was the film he didn't like, GI Blues, that was the big success -- and while Elvis Is Back had gone to number two and sold half a million copies, the soundtrack to GI Blues went to number one and stayed there for eleven weeks, and sold a million copies -- an absurd number at a time when albums generally sold very little. His Hand in Mine only made number thirteen.

The same pattern happened the next year -- a studio album was massively outsold by the soundtrack album for Blue Hawaii, a mindless film that was full of sea, sand, and bikinis, and which featured dreadful songs like "Ito Eats":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Ito Eats"]

There would be a couple more films in 1961 and 62, Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream, which tried to do a little more, and which weren't as successful as Blue Hawaii.

From that point on, the die was cast for Elvis. The Colonel wasn't going to let him appear in any more dramatic roles. The films were all going to be light comedies, set somewhere exotic like Hawaii or Acapulco, and featuring Elvis as a surfer or a race-car driver or a surfing race-car driver, lots of girls in bikinis, and lots of songs called things like "There's No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car". When Elvis got a chance to go into the studio and just make records, as he occasionally did over the next few years, he would make music that was as good as anything he ever did, but starting in 1962 there was a routine of three films a year, almost all interchangeable, and until 1968 Elvis wouldn't be able to step off that treadmill. After 68, he did make a handful of films in which, again, he tried to be an actor, but after twenty or so lightweight films about beaches and bikinis, no-one noticed.

As a result, Elvis mostly sat out the sixties. While the music world was changing all around him, he was an irrelevance to the new generation of musicians, who mostly agreed with John Lennon that "Elvis died when he went into the Army". We'll pick up his story in 1968, when he finally got off the treadmill.


May 14, 2020
Episode 81: "Shout" by the Isley Brothers

Episode eighty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Shout" by the Isley Brothers, and the beginnings of a career that would lead to six decades of hit singles. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Peterson.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


Amazingly, there are no books on the Isley Brothers, unless you count a seventy-two page self-published pamphlet by Rudolph Isley's daughter, so I've had to piece this together from literally dozens of different sources.

The ones I relied on most were this section of a very long article on Richie Barrett, this interview with Ronald Isley, and Icons of R&B and Soul by Bob Gulla

The information on Hugo and Luigi comes mostly from two books -- Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick, and  Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin.

There are many compilations of the public-domain recordings of the Isleys. This one seems the most complete.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Today we're going to take one of our rare looks -- at this point in the story anyway -- at an act that is still touring today. Indeed, when I started writing this script back in February, I started by saying that I would soon be seeing them live in concert, as I have a ticket for an Isley Brothers show in a couple of months. Of course, events have overtaken that, and it's extremely unlikely that anyone will be going to any shows then, but it shows a fundamental difference between the Isley Brothers and most of the other acts we've looked at, as even those who are still active now mostly concentrate on performing locally rather than doing international tours playing major venues.

Of course, the version of the Isley Brothers touring today isn't quite the same as the group from the 1950s, but Ronald Isley, the group's lead singer, remains in the group -- and, indeed, has remained artistically relevant, with collaborations with several prominent hip-hop artists. The Isleys had top forty hits in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and two thousands, and as recently as 2006 they had an album go to number one on the R&B charts.

But today, we're going to look back at the group's very first hit, from 1959.

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Shout"]

The Isley Brothers were destined to be a vocal group even before they were born, indeed even before their parents were married. When O'Kelly Isley senior was discussing his marriage proposal with his future in-laws, he told his father-in-law-to-be that he intended to have four sons, and that they were going to be the next Mills Brothers. Isley Sr had been a vaudeville performer himself, and as with so many family groups the Isleys seem to have gone into the music business more to please their parents than because they wanted to do it themselves.

As it turned out, O'Kelly and Sallye Isley had six children, all boys, and the eldest four of them did indeed form a vocal group. Like many black vocal groups in the early fifties, they were a gospel group, and O'Kelly Jr, Rudolph, Ronald, and Vernon Isley started performing around the churches in Cincinnati as teenagers, having been trained by their parents. They appeared on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, the popular TV talent show which launched the careers of many entertainers, and won -- their prize was a jewelled watch, which the boys would take turns wearing.

But then tragedy struck. Vernon, the youngest of the four singing Isleys, and the one who was generally considered to be far and away the most talented singer in the group, was hit by a car and killed while he was riding his bike, aged only thirteen.

The boys were, as one would imagine, devastated by the death of their little brother, and they also thought that that should be the end of their singing career, as Vernon had been their lead singer. It would be two years before they would perform live again. By all accounts, their parents put pressure on them during that time, telling them that it would be the only way to pay respect to Vernon. Eventually a compromise was reached between parents and brothers -- Ron agreed that he would attempt to sing lead, if in turn the group could stop singing gospel music and start singing doo-wop songs, like the brothers' favourite act Billy Ward and the Dominoes.

We've talked before about how Billy Ward & The Dominoes were a huge influence on the music that became soul, with hit records like "Have Mercy Baby":

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, "Have Mercy Baby"]

Both Ward's original lead singer Clyde McPhatter and McPhatter's later replacement Jackie Wilson sang in a style that owed a lot to the church music that the young Isleys had also been performing, and so it was natural for them to make the change to singing in the style of the Dominoes. As soon as Ronald Isley started singing lead, people started making comparisons both to McPhatter and to Wilson. Indeed, Ronald has talked about McPhatter as being something of a mentor figure for the brothers, teaching them how to sing, although it's never been clear exactly at what point in their career they got to know McPhatter.

But their real mentor was a much less well-known singer, Beulah Bryant.

The three eldest Isley brothers, O'Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald, met Bryant on the bus to New York, where they were travelling to try and seek their fortunes. Bryant was one of the many professional blues shouters who never became hugely well known, but who managed to have a moderately successful career from the fifties through to the eighties, mostly in live performances, though she did make a handful of very listenable records:

[Excerpt: Beulah Bryant, "What Am I Gonna Do?"]

When they got to New York, while they had paid in advance for somewhere to stay, they were robbed on their second day in the city and had no money at all. But Bryant had contacts in the music industry, and started making phone calls for her young proteges, trying to get them bookings. At first she was unsuccessful, and the group just hung around the Harlem Apollo and occasionally performed at their amateur nights.

Eventually, though, Bryant got Nat Nazzaro to listen to them over the phone. Nazzaro was known as "the monster agent" -- he was one of the most important booking agents in New York, but he wasn't exactly fair to his young clients. He would book a three-person act, but on the contracts the act would consist of four people -- Nazzaro would be the fourth person, and he would get an equal share of the performance money, as well as getting his normal booking agent's share.

Nazzaro listened to the Isleys over the phone, and then he insisted they come and see him in person, because he was convinced that they had been playing a record down the phone rather than singing to him live. When he found out they really did sound like that, Nazzaro started getting them the kind of bookings they could only dream of -- they went from having no money at all to playing on Broadway for $750 a week, and then playing the Apollo for $950 a week, at least according to O'Kelly Isley Jr's later recollection. This was an astonishing sum of money to a bunch of teenagers in the late 1950s.

But they still hadn't made a record, and their sets were based on cover versions of songs by other people, things like "Rock and Roll Waltz" by Kay Starr:

[Excerpt: Kay Starr, "Rock and Roll Waltz"]

It was hardly the kind of material they would later become famous for. And nor was their first record. They had signed to a label called Teenage Records, a tiny label owned by two former musicians, Bill "Bass" Gordon and Ben Smith. As you might imagine, there were a lot of musicians named Ben Smith and it's quite difficult to sort out which was which -- even Marv Goldberg, who normally knows these things, seems confused about which Ben Smith this was, describing him as a singer on one page and a sax player on another page. As Ben Smith the sax player seems to have played on some records for Teenage, it was probably him, in which case this Ben Smith probably also played alto sax for Lucky Millinder's band and wrote the hit "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Harlem" for Glenn Miller:

[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Harlem"]

It's more certain exactly who Bill "Bass" Gordon was -- he was the leader of Bill "Bass" Gordon and the Colonials, who had recorded the doo-wop track "Two Loves Have I":

[Excerpt: Bill "Bass" Gordon and the Colonials, "Two Loves Have I"]

Smith and Gordon signed the Isley Brothers to Teenage Records, and in June 1957 the first Isley Brothers single, "Angels Cried", came out:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Angels Cried"]

Unfortunately, the single didn't have any real success, and the group decided that they wanted to record for a better label. According to O'Kelly Isley they got some resistance from Teenage Records, who claimed to have them under contract -- but the Isley Brothers knew better. They had signed a contract, certainly, but then the contract had just been left on a desk after they'd signed it, rather than being filed, and they'd swiped it from the desk when no-one was looking. Teenage didn't have a copy of the contract, so had no proof that they had ever signed the Isley Brothers, and the brothers were free to move on to another label.

They chose to sign to Gone Records, one of the family of labels that was owned and run by George Goldner. Goldner assigned Richie Barrett, his talent scout, producer, and arranger, to look after the Isleys, as he had previously done with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Chantels, as well as his own group the Valentines:

[The Valentines, "The Woo Woo Train"]

By this point, Barrett had established an almost production-line method of making records. He would block-book a studio and some backing musicians for up to twenty-four hours, get as many as ten different vocal groups into the studio, and record dozens of tracks in a row, usually songs written by either group members or by Barrett.

The Isleys' first record with Barrett, "Don't Be Jealous", was a fairly standard doo-wop ballad, written by Ron Isley:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Don't Be Jealous"]

There's some suggestion that Barrett is also singing on that recording with the group -- it certainly sounds like there are four voices on there, not just three. Either way, the song doesn't show much of the style that the Isley Brothers would later make their own. Much more like their later recordings was the B-side, another Ronald Isley song, which could have been a classic in the Coasters' mould had it not been for the lyrics, which were an attempt at a hip rewriting of "Old McDonald":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Rockin' McDonald"]

They were nearly there, but not quite. The next single, "I Wanna Know", came closer -- you can hear they were clearly trying to incorporate elements of other people's successful records -- Ronald Isley's vocal owes a lot to Little Richard, while the piano playing has the same piano "ripping" that Jerry Lee Lewis had made his own. But you can also hear the style that would make them famous coming to the fore.

But they were not selling records, and Richie Barrett was stretched very thin. A few more singles were released on Gone (often pairing a previously-released track with a new B-side) but nothing was successful enough to justify them staying on with Goldner's label.

But just as they'd moved from a micro-indie label to a large indie without having had any success, now they were going to move from a large indie to a major label, still not having had a hit. They took one of their records to Hugo and Luigi at RCA records, and the duo signed them up.

Hugo and Luigi were strange, strange, figures in popular music in the 1950s. They were two cousins, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, who were always known by their first names, and had started out making children's records before being hired by Mercury Records, where they would produce, among other things, the cover versions by Georgia Gibbs of black records that we've talked about previously, and which were both ethically and musically appalling:

[Excerpt: Georgia Gibbs, "Dance With Me Henry"]

After a couple of years of consistently producing hits, they got tempted away from Mercury by Morris Levy, who was setting up a new label, Roulette, with George Goldner and Alan Freed. Goldner and Freed quickly dropped out of the label, but Hugo and Luigi ended up having a fifty percent stake in the new label. While they were there, they showed they didn't really get rock and roll music at all -- they produced follow-up singles by a lot of acts who'd had hits before they started working with Hugo and Luigi, but stopped as soon as the duo started producing them, like Frankie Lymon:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon, "Goodie Goodie"]

But they still managed to produce a string of hits like "Honeycomb" by Jimmie Rodgers (who is not either the blues singer or the country singer of the same name), which went to number one:

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rogers, "Honeycomb"]

And they also recorded their own tracks for Roulette, like the instrumental Cha-Hua-Hua:

[Excerpt: Hugo and Luigi, "Cha-Hua-Hua"]

After a year or so with Roulette, they were in turn poached by RCA -- Morris Levy let them go so long as they gave up their shares in Roulette for far less than they were worth. At RCA they continued their own recording career, with records like "Just Come Home":

[Excerpt: Hugo and Luigi, "Just Come Home"]

They also produced several albums for Perry Como. So you would think that they would be precisely the wrong producers for the Isley Brothers. And the first record they made with the trio would tend to suggest that there was at least some creative difference there. "I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door" was written by Aaron Schroeder and Sid Wayne, two people who are best known for writing some of the less interesting songs for Elvis' films, and has a generic, lightweight, backing track -- apart from an interestingly meaty guitar part. The vocals have some power to them, and the record is pleasant, and in some ways even ground-breaking -- it doesn't sound like a late fifties record as much as it does an early sixties one, and one could imagine, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers making a substantially identical record. But it falls between the stools of R&B and pop, and doesn't quite convince as either:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door"]

That combination of a poppy background and soulful vocals would soon bear a lot of fruit for another artist Hugo and Luigi were going to start working with, but it didn't quite work for the Isleys yet.

But their second single for RCA was far more successful. At this point the Isleys were a more successful live act than recording act, and they would mostly perform songs by other people, and one song they performed regularly was "Lonely Teardrops", the song that Berry and Gwen Gordy and Roquel Davis had written for Jackie Wilson:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "Lonely Teardrops"]

The group would perform that at the end of their shows, and they started to extend it, with Ron Isley improvising as the band vamped behind him, starting with the line "say you will" from Wilson's song. He'd start doing a call and response with his brothers, singing a line and getting them to sing the response "Shout". These improvised, extended, endings to the song got longer and longer, and got the crowds more and more excited, and they started incorporating elements from Ray Charles records, too, especially "What'd I Say" and "I Got a Woman".

When they got back to New York at the end of the tour, they told Hugo and Luigi how well these performances, which they still thought of as just long performances of "Lonely Teardrops", had gone. The producers suggested that if they went down that well, what they should do is cut out the part that was still "Lonely Teardrops" and just perform the extended tag. As it turned out, they kept in a little of "Lonely Teardrops" -- the "Say you will, say you will" line -- and the resulting song, like Ray Charles' similar call-and-response based "What'd I Say", was split over two sides of a single, as "Shout (Parts One and Two)":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Shout (Parts One and Two)"]

That was nothing like anything that Hugo and Luigi had ever produced before, and it became the Isley Brothers' first chart hit, reaching number forty-seven. More importantly for them, the song was credited to the three brothers, so they made money from the cover versions of the song that charted much higher. In the USA, Joey Dee and the Starliters made number six in 1962 with their version:

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, "Shout"]

In the UK, Lulu and the Luvvers made number seven in 1964:

[Excerpt: Lulu and the Luvvers, "Shout"]

And in Australia, Johnny O'Keefe released his version only a month after the Isleys released theirs, and reached number two:

[Excerpt: Johnny O'Keefe, "Shout"]

Despite all these cover versions, the Isleys' version remains the definitive one, and itself ended up selling over a million copies, though it never broke into the top forty.

It was certainly successful enough that it made sense to record an album. Unfortunately, for the album, also titled Shout!, the old Hugo and Luigi style came out, and apart from one new Isleys original, "Respectable", which became their next single, the rest of the album was made up of old standards, rearranged in the "Shout!" style. Sometimes, this almost worked, as on "Ring-A-Ling A-Ling (Let The Wedding Bells Ring)", whose words are close enough to Little Richard-style gibberish that Ronald Isley could scream them effectively. But when the Isleys take on Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean" or "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands", neither the song nor the group are improved by the combination.

They released several more singles on RCA, but none of them repeated the success of "Shout!". At this point they moved across to Atlantic, where they started working with Leiber and Stoller. Leiber and Stoller kept them recording old standards as B-sides, but for the A-sides they went back to gospel-infused soul party songs, like the Leiber and Stoller song "Teach Me How To Shimmy" and the Isleys' own "Standing On The Dance Floor", a rewrite of an old gospel song called "Standing at the Judgment":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Standing on the Dance Floor"]

But none of these songs scraped even the bottom of the charts, and the brothers ended up leaving Atlantic after a year, and signing with a tiny label, Scepter. After having moved from a tiny indie label to a large indie to a major label, they had now moved back down from their major label to a large indie to a tiny indie. They were still a great live act, but they appeared to be a one-hit wonder.

But all that was about to change, when they recorded a cover version of a flop single inspired by their one hit, combined with a dance craze. The Isley Brothers were about to make one of the most important records of the 1960s, but "Twist and Shout" is a story for another time.


May 04, 2020
Episode 80: "Money" by Barrett Strong

Barrett Strong

Episode eighty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Money" by Barrett Strong, the dispute over its authorship, and the start of a record label that would change music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Alley Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles.


I say “His name didn't appear on the label of the record.” I mean here that Strong's name didn't appear on the label as a songwriter. It obviously did appear as the performer.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

You might want to listen again to the episode on Jackie Wilson, in which we looked at Berry Gordy's career to this point.

I used six principal sources to put together the narrative for this one, most of which I will be using for most future Motown episodes. 

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Janie Bradford.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown's thirty-year history.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 693 tracks released on Motown singles.

There is a Complete Motown Singles 1959-62 box available from Hip-O-Select with comprehensive liner notes, but if you just want the music, I recommend instead this much cheaper bare-bones box from Real Gone Music.

And this set contains every recording that Barrett Strong made for Tamla as a performer.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Today, we're going to look at a record which was the first success for one of the most important record labels of all time, which has one of the most instantly recognisable riffs of any record ever, and which was the product of a one-hit wonder who would, several years later, go on to be a hugely important figure as a writer, rather than a performer. Along the way we're going to look at the beginnings of many, many, other careers we'll be seeing more of in the next couple of years. Today, we're going to look at "Money" by Barrett Strong:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Money"]

When we left Berry Gordy Jr, he had just stopped writing songs for Jackie Wilson -- while the songs he'd co-written with his sister Gwen and her boyfriend Roquel Davis had been massive hits for Wilson, Wilson's manager had believed that any songwriters could bring the same amount of success, and that Wilson's records were selling solely because of Wilson's performances.

Davis and Gwen had started up a new record label with the help of another Gordy sister, Anna, after whom they named the label. But at the start, Berry Gordy had little involvement in that label. While Gwen had wanted Berry to become a partner in the business, Berry had soured on the idea of business partners after some of his other ventures had failed due to conflicts between him and his partners. Berry was going to work for himself. He would write and produce for his family's record labels, but he wasn't going to be a partner in their businesses.

Instead, he focussed on a group he'd got to know. The Matadors were a vocal group he'd seen audition, and been mildly impressed with, but he had decided to work with them mostly because he was very attracted to one of their singers, Claudette Rogers. He'd worked with them for a few days before asking Claudette out, and she'd turned him down because she was seeing one of the other group members, William Robinson. But by that point Gordy had got to know Robinson, and to appreciate his talent, and his response was just to tell her how lucky she was to have a man like that.

He took them on as a management project, and also decided to teach Robinson songwriting -- Robinson had written a lot of songs, which showed potential, but Gordy thought none of them were quite there yet. What impressed Gordy most was Robinson's attitude, every time Gordy told him what was wrong with a song -- Robinson would just go on to the next song, as enthusiastic as ever.

Eventually, Robinson came up with a song that they thought could be a hit. At the time, the Silhouettes had a big hit with a song called "Get a Job":

[Excerpt: The Silhouettes, "Get a Job"]

Robinson had come up with an answer song, which he called "Got a Job". Gordy decided that that was good enough for him to produce a recording -- he'd recently started up a production company, which he primarily used to produce demos of his own songs, with singers like Eddie Holland.

Gordy took the group into the studio, and got a deal with George Goldner's label End Records to distribute the single that resulted. The only thing was, Gordy still wasn't happy with the group's name -- The Matadors sounded too masculine for a group which had a woman in it. So they all chose other names, wrote them down, stuck them in a hat, and the one that came out was "the Miracles"; and so "Got a Job" by the Miracles came out on End Records on William “Smokey” Robinson's eighteenth birthday:

[Excerpt: The Miracles, "Got a Job"]

Gordy at this point was a songwriter first and foremost, but he wanted to make sure he was making money from the songs. He had already started his own publishing company, after having not been paid the royalties he was owed on several of his songs. He'd decided that he could use his production company to ensure his songs got a release -- he'd lease the recordings out to other labels, like End, or his sister's label Anna. The recordings themselves were just a way to get some money from the songs, which were his real business.

He and his second wife Raynoma also used their production company, named Rayber as a portmanteau of their two names, in another way -- they would, for a fee, provide a full professional recording of anyone -- you could walk in and pay for an arrangement of your song by Berry Gordy, instrumental backing, vocals by the Rayber Singers (a fluid group of people that included Raynoma and Eddie Holland), and a copy of the record. If the amateur singer who came in was any good, the results would be quite listenable, as in "I Can't Concentrate" by Wade Jones, which they liked so much they later even released it properly:

[Excerpt: "I Can't Concentrate", Wade Jones]

But at this point, Gordy still wasn't making much money at all. In 1959, according to court papers around a claim for child support for his kids, he made $27.70 a week on average -- and almost all of that came from a single one-thousand-dollar cheque for writing "Lonely Teardrops" for Jackie Wilson. And producing the Miracles didn't add much to that -- when Gordy received his first royalty cheque from End Records for "Got a Job", he was astonished to see that it was only for $3.19.

To add insult to injury, End Records tried to claim that the Miracles were now their artists, and they were going to record them directly, without the involvement of Gordy. This was a thing that many businesses connected with Morris Levy did, and they were usually successful, because if you get into an argument with the Mafia you'll probably not win. But in the case of Gordy, his family were so well-known and respected in Detroit's black community, and Gordy himself had enough cachet because of his work with Jackie Wilson, that a contingent of black DJs told End Records that they'd stop playing any of their records unless they backed off on the Miracles.

But all this led Gordy to one conclusion -- one he didn't come to until Smokey Robinson pointed it out to him. He needed to start his own record label, just like his sisters had. The problem was that he had no money, and while his family was, for a black family at the time, very rich, they held their money in a trust and required a proper contract and unanimous approval from all eight siblings before they would provide one of the family with a business loan -- and Berry was regarded by his siblings as a useless drifter and underachiever.

But eventually he managed to win them round, and they lent him $800. His original idea for the name of the label was "Tammy", after Debbie Reynolds' hit, to show that they weren't just aiming at the R&B market:

[Excerpt: Debbie Reynolds, "Tammy"]

However, it turned out that there was another label called Tammy, and so Gordy decided on Tamla instead.

Tamla's first record was by a local singer called Marv Johnson, who had a very similar voice to that of Jackie Wilson, but who was known for having more of an ego than Wilson. There's an anonymous quote by someone who knew both men -- "The difference between Marv and Jackie Wilson was that Wilson would kiss all the women, especially the ugly ones, because he knew if he did they'd be with him forever. Marv only kissed the pretty ones, and that coldness came through in everything he did."

One can argue about whether it's colder to cynically manipulate people's feelings or to show contempt for them, but it's definitely the case that Marv Johnson does not seem to have been well loved by many of the people who knew him.

Johnson had recorded one previous single, "My Baby-O", on another record label:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, "My Baby-O"]

Some sources claim that Berry Gordy produced that track -- others that he was just present at the session, watching.

Whatever Gordy's involvement with Johnson before signing him to Tamla, the first Tamla single, "Come to Me", was the start of something big. It was written by Johnson and Gordy, and featured a group of session players who would form the core of what would become known as the Funk Brothers -- James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Thomas “Beans” Bowles. On top of that, Brian Holland, who with his brother Eddie would later go on to become part of arguably the most important songwriting and production team of the sixties, was on backing vocals:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, "Come to Me"]

Johnson wrote that song himself, and Gordy polished it up, giving himself a co-writing credit.

At the start, Tamla was a very, very small operation. Other than the musicians they employed, the team mostly consisted of Berry and Raynoma Gordy, Smokey Robinson acting essentially as Berry's apprentice and assistant, and Janie Bradford, a teenage songwriter with whom Gordy had collaborated on a couple of songs for Jackie Wilson:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "The Joke (Is Not On Me)"]

Bradford was given the official job title of receptionist, but she actually did almost all the admin at the label offices, doing everything from sorting out the contracts to mopping the floor, along with chipping in with songs when she had an idea.

Because they were a shoestring operation, Gordy, Marv Johnson, and Robinson would do most of the legwork of getting the track to radio stations, and it only got local distribution. They followed up with a second Tamla record, three weeks later, written by Berry and sung by Eddie Holland, who had sung on Berry's demos for Jackie Wilson and also had a Wilson-esque voice:

[Excerpt: Eddie Holland, "Merry Go Round"]

Marv Johnson's record, "Come to Me", became a local hit, but as we've talked about before, when you're running an indie label the last thing you want is a hit -- you have to pay to get the records pressed, but then you have to wait months for the money to come in from the distributors. Becoming too big too fast could be a problem.

Luckily, before the record got too big, United Artists stepped in. They wanted to buy the master for "Come to Me", and to buy both Johnson and Holland's contracts from Gordy. Gordy would continue writing and producing for them, but they would be United Artists performers rather than on Tamla. Gordy got enough money from that deal to continue running his label for a while longer, and United Artists got their first R&B star -- "Come to Me" ended up going top thirty on the pop charts and top ten on the R&B charts. Not bad at all for something put out on a little micro-label.

Eddie Holland, on the other hand, didn't do so well on United Artists -- he wasn't ever a confident performer, and after two years he was back with Gordy's operation, this time working behind the scenes rather than as the main performer.

So Tamla was ready to put out its third single, and Gordy may have had a plan for how his label was going to get much bigger. It's been suggested by several people that a few of the early acts he signed were intended as ways to get more famous relatives of those acts interested in the label. For example, the first female solo singer he signed to the label, Mable John, was the sister of Little Willie John, the R&B star. Mable was certainly good enough to be hired on her own merits, but at the same time the thought must have crossed Gordy's mind that it would be good to get her brother recording for him.

In the same way, Smokey Robinson's favourite local group was Nolan Strong and the Diablos, who recorded the doo-wop classic "The Wind":

[Excerpt: Nolan Strong and the Diablos, "The Wind"]

Nolan Strong's cousin Barrett was also an aspiring singer, and Gordy signed him to Tamla, and wrote him a song with his sister Gwen and her then-boyfriend Roquel Davis, the same team with whom he'd collaborated on Jackie Wilson's hits:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Let's Rock"]

Unfortunately, "Let's Rock" wasn't a hit, and Gordy seemed to decide to try to throw a lot of records at the wall to see what would stick. Over the next few months, they put out a variety of odd singles, none of which charted, and none of which seem much like the music Gordy was generally known for. There was "Snake Walk", a jazz instrumental played by the Funk Brothers under the name The Swinging Tigers, with the songwriting credited to Gordy and Robinson:

[Excerpt: The Swinging Tigers, "Snake Walk (part 1)"]

There was "It", a novelty single about an alien, performed by Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White of the Miracles, under the name "Ron & Bill":

[Excerpt: Ron & Bill, "It"]

And a few more. But it wasn't until Barett Strong's second single, in August 1959, that Tamla hit the jackpot again.

There are three very different stories about how "Money" was written. According to Berry Gordy, he came up with the music and the whole first verse and chorus himself, and played it to Janie Bradford, who suggested a couple of lines for the second verse, but he was impressed enough with her lines that he gave her fifty percent of the song, even though she didn't think she'd contributed very much. Barrett Strong came and sat down with them, uninvited, and started singing along, but didn't contribute anything to the writing of the song.

According to Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy was playing the riff on the piano, but had no words or melody yet. He said to her, "I need a title, give me a title, something that everybody wants," and she replied "Money, that's what I want!" and the two of them wrote the lyrics together based on her lyrical idea.

And according to Barrett Strong, who is backed up by the engineer and the guitarist on the session, *Strong* -- who played the piano on the session as well as singing -- was jamming the riff, having hit upon it while messing around with Ray Charles' "What'd I Say". Gordy only came into the session after Strong had already taught the instrumental parts to the musicians, and Gordy and Bradford only wrote the lyrics after the instrumental track was already completed.

The initial filing of the song's copyright credited Strong for words and music, Gordy for words and music, and Bradford only for words. According to both Bradford and Gordy, that's because Bradford, who filled out the form, didn't understand the form and made a mistake. Three years later, Strong's name was taken off the copyright, and he wasn't informed of the change. His name didn't appear on the label of the record.

Personally, I tend to believe Strong. The song simply doesn't sound that much like Gordy's other songs of the period, which were based far less on riffs, and which didn't tend to be twelve-bar blueses.

Whoever wrote it, the result was a great record, and the first true classic to come out of the Gordy operation:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Money"]

The B-side isn't quite as good, but it's still a strong ballad, and if you're a fan of John Lennon's solo work you might find the middle eight very familiar:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Oh I Apologize"]

"Money" came out on Tamla and was initially fairly unsuccessful, because Tamla didn't have any national distribution. But Anna Records did.

That label had partnered with Chess Records. Chess had sent Harvey Fuqua, who was working for Chess as an executive as well as a performer, over to work with Anna Records. Fuqua had brought with him another member of his latest lineup of the Moonglows, a young man named Marvin Gay, to work for Anna as a session drummer and part-time janitor, and Marvin soon got into a relationship with Anna Gordy.

But Marvin wasn't the only one to get into a relationship with a Gordy sister. Harvey Fuqua had been dating Etta James, with whom he was having a few hits as a duet act on Chess:

[Excerpt: Etta James and Harvey Fuqua, "Spoonful"]

But he soon struck up a relationship with Gwen Gordy. He split up with James, Gwen Gordy split up with Roquel Davis -- and then Berry and Gwen Gordy and Roquel Davis wrote a song about the splits, which Etta James performed for Chess, back as a solo artist again:

[Excerpt: Etta James, "All I Could Do Was Cry"]

That became a hit in June 1960, and that was also the month that "Money" finally became a hit, nearly a year after it was released. The Tamla record had been a local hit, but Tamla still didn't have any national distribution, so Berry Gordy leased the recording to his sisters' label. It was rereleased on Anna Records, distributed through Chess, and became the first national hit for one of the Gordy family of labels, reaching number two on the R&B charts and number twenty-three on the pop charts. The Gordy family of labels was starting to have some real success:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Money"]

Unfortunately, that would be Barrett Strong's only hit as a performer. Over the next eighteen months he would release a whole variety of singles, none of which had any success, eventually trying the desperate tactic of recording a follow-up to "Money", titled "Money and Me", with the writing credited to Berry Gordy, Janie Bradford, Smokey Robinson, and Robert Bateman -- a singer who was one of the Rayber singers:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, "Money and Me"]

That didn't work, and Strong ended up going back to work on the Chrysler production line, giving up his singing career. But that won't be the last we'll see of him -- he'll be back with a new job in a few years' time.

But in late 1959, they didn't know yet that "Money" would even be a hit, let alone a classic that would be remembered more than sixty years later. Indeed, the biggest success that had come out of the Gordy operation was still Marv Johnson, and while he was signed to United Artists, he was still making records with Berry Gordy. Gordy was writing and producing his records, and now they were also being recorded at Gordy's home -- he and Raynoma had bought a house with a recording studio in the back in August 1959. They named the house Hitsville USA, and it became the headquarters for the Gordy family of labels. Berry and Raynoma lived in a flat upstairs, while the recording studio downstairs was open twenty-two hours a day. Eventually they would buy all the other nearby houses, and turn them into offices for their recording, publishing, and management empire.

The whole family pitched in to make the company a success. Berry's sister Esther took over the finances of Tamla, with the assistance of her accountant husband. Their other sister Loucye took charge of the record manufacturing side of the business -- liaising with pressing plants, overseeing cover art, and so on. Raynoma managed Jobete, the publishing company named after Berry's first three children, Joy, Berry, and Terry.

The Hitsville studio was primitive at first -- the echo chamber was also the toilet, and someone had to stand guard outside it while they were recording to make sure no-one used it during a session -- but it was good enough for Gordy to use it to make hit records for Marv Johnson, like "You Got What It Takes":

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, "You Got What It Takes"]

That went top ten on both the pop and R&B charts, as did the follow-up, "I Love The Way You Love":

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, "I Love the Way You Love"]

But those hits were on someone else's label. Berry Gordy was still looking to expand his own record business, and so he decided he was going to start a second label, to go along with Tamla. Smokey Robinson had still not had a hit, though he was writing a lot of material, but then Smokey brought Berry a song he thought was a guaranteed hit, "Bad Girl":

[Excerpt: The Miracles, "Bad Girl"]

Gordy decided that he was going to start up a new label just for groups, while Tamla would be for solo artists, and "Bad Girl" was going to be the first release on it.

But once again, he didn't have a proper national distributor for his record, so after it started selling around Detroit, he licensed the record to Chess Records, who reissued it. "Bad Girl" went to number ninety-three on the Hot One Hundred, proving that Smokey Robinson did indeed have the potential to make a real hit.

But, as was so often the way, Chess didn't pay Gordy's company the proper royalties for the record, and so Gordy decided that his new label was going to have to have national distribution. He wasn't going to let any more of its records come out on Chess or United Artists. From now on, either they were on Tamla, or they were coming out on the new label, Motown.

Apr 27, 2020
Episode 79: "Sweet Nothin's" by Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee with the caption

Episode seventy-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Sweet Nothin's" by Brenda Lee, and at the career of a performer who started in the 1940s and who was most recently in the top ten only four months ago. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "16 Candles" by the Crests.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/


Erratum: I say that the A-Team played on “every” rock and roll or country record out of Nashville. This is obviously an exaggeration. It was just an awful lot of the most successful ones.


As always, I've put together a Mixcloud playlist of all the songs excerpted in the episode.

Most of the information in here comes from Brenda Lee's autobiography, Little Miss Dynamitethough as with every time I rely on an autobiography I've had to check the facts in dozens of other places.

And there are many decent, cheap, compilations of Lee's music. This one is as good as any.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


 A couple of months ago, we looked in some detail at the career of Wanda Jackson, and in the second of those episodes we talked about how her career paralleled that of Brenda Lee, but didn't go into much detail about why Lee was important.

But Brenda Lee was the biggest solo female star of the sixties, even though her music has largely been ignored by later generations. According to Joel Whitburn, she was the fourth most successful artist in terms of the American singles charts in that whole decade -- just behind the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles, and just ahead of the Supremes and the Beach Boys, in that order.

Despite the fact that she's almost completely overlooked now, she was a massively important performer -- while membership of the "hall of fame" doesn't mean much in itself, it does say something that so far she is the *only* solo female performer to make both the rock and roll and country music halls of fame. And she's the only performer we've dealt with so far to have a US top ten hit in the last year. So today we're going to have a look at the career of the girl who was known as "Little Miss Dynamite":

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "Sweet Nothin's"]

 Lee's music career started before she was even in school. She started performing when she was five, and by the time she was six she was a professional performer. So by the time she first came to a wider audience, aged ten, she was already a seasoned professional. Her father died when she was very young, and she very quickly became the sole breadwinner of the household. She changed her name from Brenda Tarpley to the catchier Brenda Lee, she started performing on the Peach Blossom Special, a local sub-Opry country radio show, and she got her own radio show. Not only that, her stepfather opened the Brenda Lee Record Shop, where she would broadcast her show every Saturday -- a lot of DJs and musicians performed their shows in record shop windows at that time, as a way of drawing crowds into the shops. All of this was before she turned eleven.

One small piece of that radio show still exists on tape -- some interaction between her and her co-host Peanut Faircloth, who was the MC and guitar player for the show -- and who fit well with Brenda, as he was four foot eight, and Brenda never grew any taller than four foot nine.

You can hear that when she was talking with Faircloth, she was as incoherent as any child would be:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee and Peanut Faircloth dialogue]

But when she sang on the show, she sounded a lot more professional than almost any child vocalist you'll ever hear:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee and Peanut Faircloth, "Jambalaya"]

Her big break actually came from *not* doing a show. She was meant to be playing the Peach Blossom Special one night, but she decided that rather than make the thirty dollars she would make from that show, she would go along to see Red Foley perform.

Foley was one of the many country music stars who I came very close to including in the first year of this podcast. He was one of the principal architects of the hillbilly boogie style that led to the development of rockabilly, and he was a particular favourite of both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis -- Elvis' first ever public performance was him singing one of Foley's songs, the ballad "Old Shep". But more typical of Foley's style was his big hit "Sugarfoot Rag":

[Excerpt: Red Foley, "Sugarfoot Rag"]

Foley had spent a few years in semi-retirement -- his wife had died by suicide a few years earlier, and he had reassessed his priorities a little as a result. But he had recently been tempted back out onto the road as a result of his being offered a chance to host his own TV show, the Ozark Jubilee, which was one of the very first country music shows on television. And the Ozark Jubilee put on tours, and one was coming to Georgia.

Peanut Faircloth, who worked with Brenda on her radio show, was the MC for that Ozark Jubilee show, and Brenda's parents persuaded Faircloth to let Brenda meet Foley, in the hopes that meeting him would give Brenda's career a boost. She not only got to meet Foley, but Faircloth managed to get her a spot on the show, singing "Jambalaya".

Red Foley said of that performance many years later:

"I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes."

Foley got Brenda to send a demo tape to the producers of the Ozark Jubilee -- that's the tape we heard earlier, of her radio show, which was saved in the Ozark Jubilee's archives, and Brenda immediately became a regular on the show. Foley also got her signed to Decca, the same label he was on, and she went into the studio in Nashville with Owen Bradley, who we've seen before producing Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, and Wanda Jackson, though at this point Bradley was only the engineer and pianist on her sessions -- Paul Cohen was the producer.

Her first single was released in September 1956, under the name "Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)", though in fact she was almost twelve when it came out. It was a version of "Jambalaya", which was always her big showstopper on stage:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old), "Jambalaya"]

Neither that nor her follow-up, a novelty Christmas record, were particularly successful, but they were promoted well enough to get her further national TV exposure. It also got her a new manager, though in a way she'd never hoped for or wanted.

Her then manager, Lou Black, got her a spot performing at the national country DJs convention in Nashville, where she sang "Jambalaya" backed by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. She went down a storm, but the next night Black died suddenly, of a heart attack. Dub Albritten, Red Foley's manager, was at the convention, and took the opportunity to sign Brenda up immediately.

Albritten got her a lot of prestigious bookings -- for example, she became the youngest person ever to headline in Las Vegas, on a bill that also included a version of the Ink Spots -- and she spent the next couple of years touring and making TV appearances. As well as her regular performances on the Ozark Jubilee she was also a frequent guest on the Steve Allen show and an occasional one on Perry Como's.

She was put on country package tours with George Jones and Patsy Cline, and on rock and roll tours with Danny & the Juniors, the Chantels, and Mickey & Sylvia. This was the start of a split in the way she was promoted that would last for many more years.

Albritten was friends with Colonel Tom Parker, and had a similar carny background -- right down to having, like Parker, run a scam where he put a live bird on a hot plate to make it look like it was dancing, though in his case he'd done it with a duck rather than a chicken. Albritten had managed all sorts of acts -- his first attempt at breaking the music business was when in 1937 he'd helped promote Jesse Owens during Owens' brief attempt to become a jazz vocalist, but he'd later worked with Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb before managing Foley.

Brenda rapidly became a big star, but one thing she couldn't do was get a hit record. The song "Dynamite" gave her the nickname she'd be known by for the rest of her life, "Little Miss Dynamite", but it wasn't a hit:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee, "Dynamite"]

And while her second attempt at a Christmas single, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", didn't chart at all at the time, it's been a perennial hit over the decades since -- in fact its highest position on the charts came in December 2019, sixty-one years after it was released, when it finally reached number two on the charts:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"]

Part of the problem at the beginning had been that she had clashed with Paul Cohen -- they often disagreed about what songs she should perform. But Cohen eventually left her in the charge of Owen Bradley, who would give her advice about material, but let her choose it herself.

While her records weren't having much success in the US, it was a different story in other countries. Albritten tried -- and largely succeeded -- to make her a breakout star in countries other than the US, where there was less competition. She headlined the Paris Olympia, appeared on Oh Boy! in the UK, and inspired the kind of riots in Brazil that normally didn't start to hit until Beatlemania some years later -- and to this day she still has a very substantial Latin American fanbase as a result of Albritten's efforts.

But in the US, her rockabilly records were unsuccessful, even as she was a massively popular performer live and on TV. So Bradley decided to take a different tack. While she would continue making rock and roll singles, she was going to do an album of old standards from the 1920s, to be titled "Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang!"

But that was no more successful, and it would be from the rockabilly world that Brenda's first big hit would come.

Brenda Lee and Red Foley weren't the only acts that Dub Albritten managed. In particular, he managed a rockabilly act named Ronnie Self. Self recorded several rockabilly classics, like "Ain't I'm A Dog":

[Excerpt: Ronnie Self, "Ain't I'm A Dog"]

Self's biggest success as a performer came with "Bop-A-Lena", a song clearly intended to cash in on "Be-Bop-A-Lula", but ending up sounding more like Don and Dewey -- astonishingly, this record, which some have called "the first punk record" was written by Webb Pierce and Mel Tillis, two of the most establishment country artists around:

[Excerpt: Ronnie Self, "Bop-A-Lena"]

That made the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, but was Self's only hit as a performer. While Self was talented, he was also unstable -- as a child he had once cut down a tree to block the road so the school bus couldn't get to his house, and on another occasion he had attacked one of his teachers with a baseball bat. And that was before he started the boozing and the amphetamines. In later years he did things like blast away an entire shelf of his demos with a shotgun, get into his car and chase people, trying to knock them down, and set fire to all his gold records outside his publisher's office after he tried to play one of them on his record player and discovered it wouldn't play. Nobody was very surprised when he died in 1981, aged only forty-three.

But while Self was unsuccessful and unstable, Albritten saw something in him, and kept trying to find ways to build his career up, and after Self's performing career seemed to go absolutely nowhere, he started pushing Self as a songwriter, and Self came up with the song that would change Brenda Lee's career - "Sweet Nothin's":

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "Sweet Nothin's"]

"Sweet Nothin's" became a massive hit, reaching number four on the charts both in the UK and the US in early 1960. After a decade of paying her dues, Brenda Lee was a massive rock and roll star at the ripe old age of fifteen.

But she was still living in a trailer park. Because she was a minor, her money was held in trust to stop her being exploited -- but rather too much was being kept back. The court had only allowed her to receive seventy-five dollars a week, which she was supporting her whole family on. That was actually almost dead on the average wage for the time, but it was low enough that apparently there was a period of several weeks where her family were only eating potatoes. Eventually they petitioned the court to allow some of the money to be released -- enough for her to buy a house for her family.

Meanwhile, as she was now a hitmaker, she was starting to headline her own tours -- "all-star revues". But there were fewer stars on them than the audience thought. The Hollywood Argyles and Johnny Preston were both genuine stars, but some of the other acts were slightly more dubious.

She'd recently got her own backing band, the Casuals, who have often been called Nashville's first rock and roll band. They'd had a few minor local hits that hadn't had much national success, like "My Love Song For You":

[Excerpt: The Casuals, "My Love Song For You"]

They were led by Buzz Cason, who would go on to a very long career in the music business, doing everything from singing on some Alvin and the Chipmunks records to being a member of Ronnie and the Daytonas to writing the massive hit "Everlasting Love".

The British singer Garry Mills had released a song called "Look For A Star" that was starting to get some US airplay:

[Excerpt: Garry Mills, "Look For A Star"]

Cason had gone into the studio and recorded a soundalike version, under the name Garry Miles, chosen to be as similar to the original as possible. His version made the top twenty and charted higher than the original:

[Excerpt: Garry Miles, "Look For A Star"]

So on the tours, Garry Miles was a featured act too. Cason would come out in a gold lame jacket with his hair slicked back, and perform as Garry Miles. Then he'd go offstage, brush his hair forward, take off the jacket, put on his glasses, and be one of the Casuals. And then the Casuals would back Brenda Lee after their own set. As far as anyone knew, nobody in the audience seemed to realise that Garry Miles and Buzz Cason were the same person.

And at one point, two of the Casuals -- Cason and Richard Williams -- had a minor hit with Hugh Jarrett of the Jordanaires as The Statues, with their version of "Blue Velvet":

[Excerpt: The Statues, "Blue Velvet"]

And so sometimes The Statues would be on the bill too...

But it wasn't the Casuals who Brenda was using in the studio. Instead it was the group of musicians who became known as the core of the Nashville A-Team -- Bob Moore, Buddy Harmon, Ray Edenton, Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, and Boots Randolph. Those session players played on every rock and roll or country record to come out of Nashville in the late fifties and early sixties, including most of Elvis' early sixties records, and country hits by Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, George Jones and others.

And so it was unsurprising that Brenda's biggest success came, not with rock and roll music, but with the style of country known as the Nashville Sound.

The Nashville Sound is a particular style of country music that was popular in the late fifties and early sixties, and Owen Bradley was one of the two producers who created it (Chet Atkins was the other one), and almost all of the records with that sound were played on by the A-Team. It was one of the many attempts over the years to merge country music with current pop music to try to make it more successful. In this case, they got rid of the steel guitars, fiddles, and honky-tonk piano, and added in orchestral strings and vocal choruses. The result was massively popular -- Chet Atkins was once asked what the Nashville Sound was, and he put his hand in his pocket and jingled his change -- but not generally loved by country music purists.

Brenda Lee's first number one hit was a classic example of the Nashville Sound -- though it wasn't originally intended that that would be the hit.

To follow up "Sweet Nothin's", they released another uptempo song, this time written by Jerry Reed, who would go on to write "Guitar Man" for Elvis, among others:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "That's All You Gotta Do"]

That went to number six in the charts -- a perfectly successful follow-up to a number four hit record. But as it turned out, the B-side did even better.

The B-side was another song written by Ronnie Self -- a short song called "I'm Sorry", which Owen Bradley thought little of. He later said "I thought it kind of monotonous. It was just 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry' over and over". But Brenda liked it, and it was only going to be a B-side. The song was far too short, so in the studio they decided to have her recite the lyrics in the middle of the song, the way the Ink Spots did:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "I'm Sorry"]

Everyone concerned was astonished when that record overtook its A-side on the charts, and went all the way to number one, even while "That's All You Gotta Do" was also in the top ten.

This established a formula for her records for the next few years -- one side would be a rock and roll song, while the other would be a ballad. Both sides would chart -- and in the US, usually the ballads would chart higher, while in other countries, it would tend to be the more uptempo recordings that did better, which led to her getting a very different image in the US, where she quickly became primarily known as an easy listening pop singer and had a Vegas show choreographed and directed by Judy Garland's choreographer, and in Europe, where for example she toured in 1962 on the same bill as Gene Vincent, billed as "the King and Queen of Rock and Roll", performing largely rockabilly music.

Those European tours also led to the story which gets repeated most about Brenda Lee, and which she repeats herself at every opportunity, but which seems as far as I can tell to be completely untrue.

She regularly claims that after her UK tour with Vincent in 1962, they both went over to tour military bases in Germany, where they met up with Little Richard, and the three of them all went off to play the Star Club in Hamburg together, where the support act was a young band called the Beatles, still with their drummer Pete Best. She says she tried to get her record label interested in them, but they wouldn't listen, and they regretted it a couple of years later.

Now, Brenda Lee *did* play the Star Club at some point in 1962, and I haven't been able to find the dates she played it. But the story as she tells it is full of holes. The tour she did with Gene Vincent ended in mid-April, around the same time that the Beatles started playing the Star Club. So far so good. But then Vincent did another UK tour, and didn't head to Germany until the end of May -- he performed on the same bill as the Beatles on their last three nights there. By that time, Lee was back in the USA -- she recorded her hit "It Started All Over Again" in Nashville on May the 18th:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "It Started All Over Again"]

Little Richard, meanwhile, did play the Star Club with the Beatles, but not until November, and he didn't even start performing rock and roll again until October. Brenda Lee is not mentioned in Mark Lewisohn's utterly exhaustive books on the Beatles except in passing -- Paul McCartney would sometimes sing her hit "Fool #1" on stage with the Beatles, and he went to see her on the Gene Vincent show when they played Birkenhead, because he was a fan of hers -- and if Lewisohn doesn't mention something in his books, it didn't happen.

(I've tweeted at Lewisohn to see if he can confirm that she definitely didn't play on the same bill as them, but not had a response before recording this).

So Brenda Lee's most often-told story, sadly, seems to be false. The Beatles don't seem to have supported her at the Star Club.

Over the next few years, she continued to rack up hits both at home and abroad, but in the latter half of the sixties the hits started to dry up -- her last top twenty pop hit in the US, other than seasonal reissues of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", was in 1966. But in the seventies, she reinvented herself, without changing her style much, by marketing to the country market, and between 1973 and 1980 she had nine country top ten hits, plus many more in the country top forty. She was helped in this when her old schoolfriend Rita Coolidge married Kris Kristofferson, who wrote her a comeback hit, “Nobody Wins”:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “Nobody Wins”]

Her career went through another downturn in the eighties as fashions changed in country music like they had in pop and rock, but she reinvented herself again, as a country elder stateswoman, guesting with her old friends Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn on the closing track on k.d. lang's first solo album Shadowland:

[Excerpt: k.d. lang, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee, "Honky Tonk Angels Medley"]

While Lee has had the financial and personal ups and downs of everyone in the music business, she seems to be one of the few child stars who came through the experience happily. She married the first person she ever dated, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, and they remain together to this day -- they celebrate their fifty-seventh anniversary this week. She continues to perform occasionally, though not as often as she used to, and she's not gone through any of the dramas with drink and drugs that killed so many of her contemporaries. She seems, from what I can tell, to be genuinely content. Her music continues to turn up in all sorts of odd ways -- Kanye West sampled "Sweet Nothin's" in 2013, on his hit single “Bound 2” – which I'm afraid I can't excerpt here, as the lyrics would jeopardise my iTunes clean rating. And as I mentioned at the start, she had "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" go to number two on the US charts just last December. And at seventy-five years old, there's a good chance she has many more active years left in her.

I wish I could end all my episodes anything like as happily.

Apr 22, 2020
Episode 78: "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles

Ray Charles singing

Episode seventy-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, and at Charles' career in jazz, soul, and country. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



There's no Mixcloud this week, as twelve of the fourteen tracks here are by Ray Charles, and Mixcloud has limits on how many songs by one artist one can include.

I've used two sources for the information here --  Charles' autobiography, Brother Ray, which gives a very clear view of his character, possibly not always in the ways he intended, and Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul by Mike Evans.

There are three collections of Ray Charles' work that everyone should own, and which cover the music in this podcast. The Complete Swing Time and Atlantic Recordings is a seven-CD set which contains everything up to 1959, The Complete ABC Years 1959-1961 is a three-CD set covering the next phase of his career, and Modern Sounds in Country & Western Vols 1& 2 is a single CD with those two albums on.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


When we last left Ray Charles, he had just had a run of hits at Atlantic records, including several of the songs that became the foundation of soul music. But as I mentioned at the end of that episode, after that run of hits, he hit a dry spell, and for a few years he was releasing records like "Swanee River Rock", which were hardly up to the standards of his best work. After his first single of 1957, "Ain't That Love", which made the top ten on the R&B chart, most of his singles didn't chart at all for the next two years, with some bobbling around at the bottom of the R&B top twenty.

He was having a tough time in his life, too. He was addicted to heroin, he had a small child, and he was playing night after night in third-class venues. At one point, several members of the band, including Charles himself, had been arrested for heroin use, and Charles had had to pay a bribe of six thousand dollars to get the charges dropped -- he'd been let out of jail before the rest of the band, and had to record his hit "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" with session musicians rather than his regular band:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Hallelujah, I Love Her So"]

Most of the places he was playing were bad in other ways. Many were filthy -- he sometimes had to rent hotel rooms to get changed in because the dressing rooms were unusably dirty -- and in those days before portable keyboard instruments became commonplace, he had to make do with whatever pianos were at the venues. He would talk later about how some were so badly out of tune that he'd have to play in C sharp while the rest of the band were in C, just so he could be something like in the same key as them.

This did improve his musicianship, though -- he had to learn to play in keys that most musicians would normally avoid, and he became a much more fluent pianist. But he ended up taking an electric piano with him on the road, so he could be sure it would always be in tune. Other musicians would make fun of him for this, as the electric piano was regarded at the time as a novelty instrument, not something a serious musician would use, but Charles knew it had possibilities.

So, by the late 1950s, Charles seemed to be trying to go more in the direction of becoming a jazz musician, rather than an R&B one, in an attempt to play more upmarket gigs. He kept releasing R&B singles, but he was increasingly moving in a jazz direction both in his albums and in his live performances. In 1957 he played Carnegie Hall for the first time, on a bill which also included Billie Holiday, Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie, Mose Allison, and Chet Baker, along with a performance by Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane which has itself become legendary:

[Excerpt: Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane, "Blue Monk"]

He was encouraged in his turn towards jazz by the Ertegun brothers, who had founded Atlantic as a jazz label, and who were still very much jazz lovers first and foremost, even as their label was increasingly an R&B one -- and they were encouraged by people like Miles Davis, who kept telling them that Charles was something special, and should be allowed to become one of the jazz greats.

At the time there was a keen interest among many jazz musicians in making a new form of jazz that was more influenced by the other musics that black people played -- the blues and gospel, in particular. People like Art Blakey and Horace Silver were trying to incorporate these musics into their own, partly because they loved them, and partly because they felt that black people had invented jazz, but it was becoming an increasingly white music. By incorporating a gospel or blues feel into their music, they could create something based on their own heritage, something which it would be impossible for white people who hadn't grown up in those traditions to copy successfully.

Many of these musicians had started using the terms "soul" and "funk" about their music -- and it's particularly notable that someone like James Brown, for example, did not come from a blues background, but from a jazz one. Brown always talked about his influences being people like Lionel Hampton and Miles Davis, and you can definitely tell if you study Brown's records that he was passionate about fifties jazz.

Ray Charles in the late fifties was arguably the person who was mixing these styles most fluently, doing things like recording an album with Milt Jackson, the vibraphonist with the Modern Jazz Quartet:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles and Milt Jackson, "How Long How Long Blues"]

But of course, even in the jazz shows, he was still playing his R&B hits -- he was a musician who was blurring boundaries, not one who was moving all the way from one genre to another.

On several of his records in the mid-fifties, he had been backed by a group of backing vocalists known as the Cookies, who were the go-to backing vocalists for Atlantic Records, and had also sung with people like Chuck Willis and Big Joe Turner. Charles invited two of the girls to become two-thirds of a new vocal trio, the Raelettes, and back him on the road -- the Cookies continued with a new lineup and were to have a few hits of their own in the early sixties.

The Raelettes would go through several lineup changes, largely because they fell in and out of favour with Charles over their personal relationships -- there was a rather unpleasant, but not totally unfounded, joke that went around that if you wanted to be a Raelette you had to let Ray -- but the original lineup was Margie Hendrix, Pat Lyles, and Gwen Berry, and Charles would always say that Margie Hendrix, the trio's leader, was at least the equal of Aretha Franklin or Etta James:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles/Margie Hendrix "The Right Time"]

But the Raelettes caused a lot of controversy. A lot of people had already been upset by the way that Ray Charles appropriated gospel music and turned it into pop songs -- they felt that that style of music was sacred, and he was defiling it, though his own argument was that he never sang about God, and if he had a bit of gospel feeling in his voice, that was just how he sang. And after all, while he had been one of the first to do this, he wasn't the only one -- there was Clyde McPhatter, and Sam Cooke, and James Brown, all doing the same kind of thing.

But adding the Raelettes made his performances seem, to many critics, like he was copying the call-and-response vocals in Pentecostal services. And certainly a record like "Yes Indeed" seems deliberately to be invoking the church at points:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Yes Indeed"]

But the record that would see him turn away from jazz, and start his period of greatest commercial success, was one which took that church music and turned it to extremely earthy concerns. And it came about at what he intended to be one of his last low-class dance gigs playing for the R&B audience.

Charles' normal method of working was to record songs before going out on the road with them, and to have tight arrangements written for the recordings by people like Jesse Stone or Quincy Jones. He always knew what he was going to do on stage, and didn't like to mess around with new things in performance. But one night he had mistimed the length of the show he was playing, and found himself on stage at one o'clock in the morning, with another half hour to go of the night's show, and no more songs rehearsed.

So he said to the group, “Listen, I’m going to fool around and y’all just follow me.”

He started playing some riffs on the electric piano, following a standard twelve-bar blues structure, and improvised a few lyrics, mostly about dancing. Just as he had on his first Atlantic hit, "Mess Around", he took inspiration from an old boogie woogie classic, this time Pinetop Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie":

[Excerpt: Pinetop Smith, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie"]

After a few minutes of this, he told the Raelettes to just copy him, and started a call-and-response section, where he'd make moaning noises and then they'd repeat them. The song went on for several minutes, and he thought of it as just a relatively successful way to fill out an underrunning show -- so he was quite surprised when audience members came up to him afterwards and asked him where they could get a copy of the record.

So over the next few nights, he played the riffs he'd improvised, and did the call and response section, and slowly built it up into a properly structured song. And every time, the audience went wild.

He called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and told him he was coming to him with a new song to record, "and it's pretty nice". Normally he didn't like to build up the songs he was going to record in advance -- he thought that it was better for him to let the music speak for itself. But this time he thought it was worth giving it a bit of a build up, so -- "It's pretty nice".

"What'd I Say" was a far more technically innovative record than it's normally given credit for, and one that was largely built in the studio. As well as being Charles' first record to really show off his electric piano playing, it was also one of his first to be recorded on an eight-track machine.

Tom Dowd, Atlantic's engineer, is someone who is acknowledged by almost everyone he worked with as one of the great recording engineers of all time. He'd actually started as a physicist, working on a cyclotron at Columbia University, which he attended from the age of sixteen, and he had been working towards his degree when he was called up for World War II, and put to work on the Manhattan Project. When the war was over, he'd planned to continue in physics, but his war work was top secret and so not useful for getting a qualification, and after working on the development of the atom bomb there was nothing he could learn in an undergraduate physics degree, so he'd switched careers and become a recording engineer instead.

In the early years at Atlantic he'd worked miracles with terrible equipment and recording spaces -- in those early years, Atlantic's recording studio had also been its offices, with the desks and chairs cleared out of the way when it came time to record. He'd constantly pushed Atlantic forward, insisting on recording on tape when everyone else was recording on acetates, and recording in stereo when people were still only buying records in mono. And he'd recently got hold of an eight-track recorder -- the second one in existence, after the one that Les Paul had built for himself.

The song that Ray Charles brought into the studio, "What'd I Say", was clearly something with commercial potential. But it was a song designed to stretch out for a long time, to fill up time in a show. There was no way it could be a single at the length that Charles played it. It was also so obscene at points that it was very unlikely to get played on the radio.

But Dowd put together several different edits of the track, recorded on his new eight-track machine in what was for the time astounding sound quality. He took the seven-and-a-half-minute track that they recorded, cut it down to five minutes and seven seconds, and then split it into two so it could go over both sides of a single. The result is one of the great masterpieces of dynamics in pop music.

It starts with Charles playing, solo, just with his left hand, a simple twelve-bar riff on the electric piano:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

Then his right hand comes in, while the drummer plays a Latin rhythm, mostly on the hi-hat:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

Then, for the bulk of what became part one of the song, Charles sings disconnected verses over this backing:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

Then at the end of the first part, the horns come in, answering Charles as he sings the song's title:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

The song comes to a sudden stop, and the band pretend to complain about the unexpected ending of the song:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

And then, for part two, we get a call-and-response, with the Raelettes answering him along with the horns on the choruses:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

But also the bit of the track that caused the most controversy -- several breakdowns with Charles and the Raelettes sighing and moaning in an almost pornographic way:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"]

As Charles himself said in his autobiography, "I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out “What I Say,” then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love."

Many radio stations banned the song -- although Charles noted that when later white artists, like Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley recorded cover versions of it, those versions weren't banned, and said "That seemed strange to me, as though white sex was cleaner than black sex".

None of that stopped it becoming a hit, though. It went to number one on the R&B charts, and number six on the Hot One Hundred, becoming his biggest hit up to that point. But even more than its chart success, it was a record that had influence in all sorts of places. Many people consider it the first soul record, though we've already looked at several songs in this series which I would consider soul. But it was certainly one of the ones that defined the genre. And it was the record that single-handedly turned the electric piano from a joke instrument into one that was as respectable as any other.

Atlantic followed up the single with an album he'd recorded earlier, a big band record made with various members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands -- great players like Zoot Sims, Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry, and Fathead Newman, playing arrangements written by Quincy Jones. The lead-off track of that album, a cover version of Louis Jordan's "Let The Good Times Roll", was only a minor hit, but it's now one of the records most identified with Charles:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Let The Good Times Roll"]

That album introduced another aspect of Ray Charles' legend -- the record was called "The Genius of Ray Charles". Charles himself always disliked the term "genius" being applied to him, but Jerry Wexler thought it appropriate, and it stuck -- over the next few years there would be albums like The Genius Sings the Blues, The Genius After Hours, The Genius Hits The Road, and Genius + Soul = Jazz.

As it turned out, it was also the last album Charles recorded for Atlantic -- though he'd recorded enough of a backlog that they could release four more albums over the next couple of years. His contract with them was up for renewal in October 1959, and while it seemed at first as if that was a pure formality, he ended up going to another label.

ABC Paramount wanted to expand into the R&B market, and came to him with an offer that no other artist had ever had from a label. He'd get complete artistic control over his recordings, he'd get seventy-five percent of all profits made once the label had recouped their costs, he'd get a guarantee of fifty thousand dollars per year against his royalties -- and remember that three years earlier, when RCA had paid thirty-five thousand dollars for Elvis' contract, that had been the most any label had ever paid. And, best of all, after five years the ownership of the masters would revert to him -- he'd own his own work, rather than the label owning it.

Charles took the offer to Atlantic and gave them the chance to match it, because he did like recording for them, but they said there was simply no way that they could come close to it, so he moved to ABC Paramount. And a strange thing happened -- for a few years he flourished artistically as he never had before, but as a performer, and not as a songwriter. In fact from that point on he almost completely stopped writing songs, and concentrated on other people's material.

The first album he did for ABC Paramount, The Genius Hits the Road, is a patchy affair, a collection of old songs about places in America, like "Mississippi Mud", "Alabamy Bound", and "New York's My Home", but it had one standout hit, a version of "Georgia on My Mind" that sixty years on is still considered the definitive version of that song:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Georgia on My Mind"]

That went to number one on the charts, and earned him four Grammy awards.

It looked like the move to ABC was a successful one, but the next album, Dedicated to You, was a bit of a misfire. It was a similar themed collection, this time of songs based on women's names, but it didn't have anything like the highs of "Georgia On My Mind". Luckily, the album after that, Genius + Soul = Jazz, was a return to form -- another album of funky jazz with the Basie band and Quincy Jones, which gave him another top ten hit with the instrumental "One Mint Julep":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "One Mint Julep"]

To follow that album, he put together a big band of his own for the first time -- a seventeen-piece group that could play the Quincy Jones charts the way they sounded on the records. His career seemed to be going from strength to strength. He recorded "Hit the Road Jack", which became his second number one on the pop chart:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Hit the Road Jack"]

An album of duets with Betty Carter, which included their version of "Baby It's Cold Outside", now generally considered the definitive version of the song:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles and Betty Carter, "Baby It's Cold Outside"]

And then he made another move which seemed bizarre to everyone, recording an album of country songs, Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. The idea of Ray Charles doing an album of songs by people like Don Gibson and Hank Williams made no sense to anyone except Ray Charles, but he had the right to make whatever records he felt like.

And as it turned out, that became his greatest album, and possibly the peak of his career. While the songs were all country songs, Charles did them all in his own style, with either orchestral or big band backing, and with no concession either in his vocals or the instrumental backing to country genre elements. The lead single from it, Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You", went to number one on the Hot One Hundred, the R&B charts, and the Adult Contemporary chart, but my favourite track from the album is the second single, Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me", which may be Charles' greatest performance ever, and went to number two on the charts:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "You Don't Know Me"]

That album confirmed that Ray Charles could make any kind of music he wanted -- rock and roll, soul, big band, jazz, or country -- and have it sound like no-one else. It solidified him as the most important musician of his generation, a link between all the disparate threads of American music. He had nothing left to prove -- and so from that point on his artistic development stalled.

His next albums were Modern Sounds in Country and Western Volume 2 -- a good album, but not as essential as the first; Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul, an album mostly consisting of old standards, and Sweet and Sour Tears, a collection of songs themed around crying. All are thoroughly enjoyable albums, but none of them reach the peaks of his very best work. And after one further album, Have a Smile On Me -- a weak album of alleged comedy songs -- he was arrested again for his heroin use, and spent a year on probation, unable to work.

He got clean, and never used heroin again, but on his return to music, while he made many fine records, a spark was lost. Now, I want to be very clear here that I am *not* saying that stopping using heroin made him a less interesting musician or any of that nonsense. I have no interest in romanticising addiction. It's just that in the first thirteen years of his career, he was constantly finding new things he could do, pushing his music in different directions, and discovering what "Ray Charles music" really was. For the last forty years, he was working within the boundaries he had set in those initial years. But then, it can be argued that in that time, entire genres of music were also contained entirely within the boundaries he had set.

He kept working almost up until his death. His final album, Genius Loves Company, was recorded when he knew he had terminal liver cancer. It's an album of duets with singers who had been influenced by him, like Van Morrison and Elton John, plus his contemporary Willie Nelson:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, "It Was A Very Good Year"]

The album was released two months after his death in 2004, and became his first number one album since Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, more than forty years earlier. It went triple platinum, and earned nine Grammy awards -- as much as a recognition of the esteem in which Ray Charles was held as of the quality of the album itself. It's safe to say that at the time he died there wasn't a musician alive in the fields of rock, R&B, soul, and country music whose career hadn't in some way been influenced by his, and as long as recorded music exists, people will still listen to Ray Charles.


Apr 13, 2020
Episode 77: "Brand New Cadillac" by Vince Taylor and the Playboys

Vince Taylor 

Episode seventy-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Brand New Cadillac" by Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and the sad career of rock music's first acid casualty. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers have two bonus podcasts this week. There's a haf-hour Q&A episode, where I answer backers' questions, and a ten-minute bonus episode on "The Hippy Hippy Shake" by Chan Romero.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are several books available on Vince Taylor, including an autobiography, but sadly these are all in French, a language I don't speak past schoolboy level, so I can't say if they're any good.

The main resources I used for this episode were the liner notes for this compilation CD of Taylor's best materialthis archived copy of a twenty-year-old homepage by a friend of Taylor's, this blogged history of Taylor and the Playboys, and this Radio 4 documentary on Taylor. But *all* of these were riddled with errors, and I used dozens of other resources to try to straighten out the facts -- everything from a genealogy website to interviews with Tony Sheridan to the out-of-print autobiography of Joe Barbera. No doubt this episode still has errors in it, but I am fairly confident that it has fewer errors than anything else in English about Taylor on the Internet.




This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


On the twenty-first of May 1965, at the Savoy Hotel in London, there was a party which would have two major effects on the history of rock and roll music, one which would be felt almost immediately, and one whose full ramifications wouldn't be seen for almost a decade. Bob Dylan was on the European tour which is chronicled in the film "Don't Look Back", and he'd just spent a week in Portugal. He'd come back to the UK, and the next day he was planning to film his first ever televised concert.


That plan was put on hold. Dylan was rushed to hospital the day after the party, with what was claimed to be food poisoning but has often been rumoured to be something else. He spent the next week in bed, back at the Savoy, attended by a private nurse, and during that time he wrote what he called "a long piece of vomit around twenty pages long". From that "long piece of vomit" he later extracted the lyrics to what became "Like a Rolling Stone".

But Dylan wasn't the only one who came out of that party feeling funny. Vince Taylor, a minor British rock and roller who'd never had much success over here but was big in France, was also there. There are no euphemisms about what it was that happened to him. He had dropped acid at the party, for the first time, and had liked it so much he'd immediately spent two hundred pounds on buying all the acid he could from the person who'd given it to him.

The next day, Taylor was meant to be playing a showcase gig. His brother-in-law, Joe Barbera of Hanna Barbera, owned a record label, and was considering signing Taylor. It could be the start of a comeback for him.

Instead, it was the end of his career, and the start of a legend:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, "Brand New Cadillac"]

There are two problems with telling the story of Vince Taylor. One is that he was a compulsive liar, who would make up claims like that he was related to Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese mountaineer who was one of the two men who first climbed Everest, or that he was an airline pilot as a teenager. The other is that nobody who has written about Taylor has bothered to do even the most cursory fact-checking

For example, if you read any online articles about Vince Taylor at all, you see the same story about his upbringing -- he was born Brian Holden in the UK, he emigrated to New Jersey with his family in the forties, and then his sister Sheila met Joe Barbera, the co-creator of the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Sheila married him in 1955 and moved with him to Los Angeles -- and so the rest of the family also moved there, and Brian went to Hollywood High School. Barbera decided to manage his brother-in-law, bring him over to London to check out the British music scene, and get him a record deal.

There's just... a bit of a problem with this story. Sheila did marry Joe Barbera, but not until the mid 1960s. Her first marriage, in 1947, was to Joe Singer, and it was Singer, not Barbera, who was Taylor's first manager. That kind of inaccuracy appears all over the story of Vince Taylor

So, what we actually know is that Brian Maurice Holden -- or Maurice Brian Holden, even his birth name seems to be disputed -- was born in Isleworth Middlesex, and moved to New Jersey when he was seven, with his family, emigrating on the Mauretania, and that he came back to London in his late teens. While there was a real Hollywood High School, which Ricky Nelson among others had attended, I suspect it's as likely that Holden decided to just tell people that was where he'd been to school, because "Hollywood High School" would sound impressive to British people.

And sounding impressive to British people was what Brian Holden had decided to base his career on. He claimed to an acquaintance, shortly after he returned to the UK, that he'd heard a Tommy Steele record while he was in the US, and had thought "If this is rock and roll in England, we'll take them by storm!"

[Excerpt: Tommy Steele, "Rock With the Caveman"]

Holden had been playing American Legion shows and similar small venues in the US, and when his brother-in-law Joe Singer came over to Britain on a business trip, Holden decided to tag along, and Singer became Holden's manager.

Holden had three great advantages over British stars like Steele. He had spent long enough in America that he could tell people that he was American and they would believe him. In Britain in the 1950s, there were so few Americans that just being from that country was enough to make you a novelty, and Holden milked that for all it was worth, even though his accent, from the few bits of interviews I've heard with him, was pure London. He was also much, much better looking than almost all the British rock and roll stars. Because of rationing and general poverty in the UK in the forties and fifties as a result of the war, the British fifties teenage generation were on the whole rather scrawny, pasty-looking, and undernourished, with bad complexions, bad teeth, and a general haggardness that meant that even teen idols like Dickie Pride, Tommy Steele, or Marty Wilde were not, by modern standards, at all good looking.

Brian Holden, on the other hand, had film-star good looks. He had a chiselled jaw, thick black hair combed into a quiff, and a dazzling smile showing Hollywood-perfect teeth. I am the farthest thing there is from a judge of male beauty, but of all the fifties rock and roll stars, the only one who was better looking than him was Elvis, and even Elvis had to grow into his good looks, while Holden, even when he came to the UK aged eighteen, looked like a cross between James Dean and Rock Hudson.

And finally, he had a real sense of what rock and roll was, in a way that almost none of the British musicians did. He knew, in particular, what a rockabilly record should sound like.

He did have one tiny drawback, though -- he couldn't sing in tune, or keep time. But nobody except the unfortunate musicians who ended up backing him saw that as a particular problem.

Being unable to sing was a minor matter. He had presence, and he was going to be a star. Everyone knew it. He started performing at the 2Is, and he put together a band which had a rather fluid membership that to start with featured Tony Meehan, a drummer who had been in the Vipers Skiffle Group and would later join the Shadows, but by the time he got a record deal consisted of four of the regular musicians from the 2is -- Tony Sheridan on lead guitar, Tony Harvey on rhythm, Licorice Locking on bass and Brian Bennett on drums.

He also got himself a new name, and once again there seems to be some doubt as to how the name was chosen. Everyone seems agreed that "Taylor" was suggested by his sister Sheila, after the actor Robert Taylor. But there are three different plausible stories for how he became Vince. The first is that he named himself after Vince Everett, Elvis' character in Jailhouse Rock. The second is that he was named after Gene Vincent. And the third is that he took the name from a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, which had a logo with the Latin motto "in hoc signo vinces" -- that last word spelled the same way as "Vinces".

And while I've never seen this suggestion made anywhere else, there is also the coincidence that both Licorice Locking and Tony Sheridan had been playing, with Jimmy Nicol, in the Vagabonds, the backing band for one of Larry Parnes' teen idol acts, Vince Eager, who had made one EP before the Vagabonds had split from him:

[Excerpt: Vince Eager, "Yea Yea"]

So it may be that the similarity of names was in someone's mind as well.

Taylor and his band, named the Playboys, made a huge impression at the 2is, and they were soon signed to Parlophone Records, and in November 1958 they released their first single. Both sides of the single were cover versions of relatively obscure releases on Sun records. The B-side was a cover version of "I Like Love", which had been written by Jack Clement for Roy Orbison, while the A-side, "Right Behind You Baby" was written by Charlie Rich and originally recorded by Ray Smith:

[Excerpt: Ray Smith, "Right Behind You Baby"]

Taylor's version was the closest thing to an American rockabilly record that had been made in Britain to that point. While the vocal was still nothing special, and the recording techniques in British studios created a more polite sound than their American equivalents, the performance is bursting with energy:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, "Right Behind You Baby"]

It's Sheridan, though, who really makes the record -- he plays a twenty-four bar guitar solo that is absolute light years ahead of anything else that was being done in Britain. Here, for example, is "Guitar Boogie Shuffle", an instrumental hit from Britain's top rock and roll guitarist of the time, Bert Weedon:

[Excerpt: Bert Weedon, "Guitar Boogie Shuffle"]

As you can hear, that's a perfectly good guitar instrumental, very pleasant, very well played. Now listen to Tony Sheridan's guitar solo on "Right Behind You Baby":

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, "Right Behind You Baby"]

That's clearly not as technically skilled as Weedon, but it's also infinitely more exciting, and it's more exciting than anything that was being made by any other British musicians at the time.

Jack Good certainly thought so. While "Right Behind You Baby" wasn't a hit, it was enough to get Vince on to Oh Boy!, and it was because of his Oh Boy! performances that Vince switched to the look he would keep for the rest of his career -- black leather trousers, a black leather jacket, a black shirt with the top few buttons undone, showing his chest and the medallion he always wore, and black leather gloves. It was a look very similar to that which Gene Vincent also adopted for his performances on Oh Boy! -- before that, Vincent had been dressing in a distinctly less memorable style -- and I've seen differing accounts as to which act took on the style first, though both made it their own.

Taylor was memorable enough in this getup that when, in the early seventies, another faded rocker who had been known as Shane Fenton made a comeback as a glam-rocker under the name Alvin Stardust, he copied Taylor's dress exactly.

But Good was unimpressed with Taylor's performance -- and very impressed with Sheridan's. Sheridan was asked to join the Oh Boy! house band, as well as performing under his own name as Tony Sheridan and the Wreckers. He found himself playing on such less-than-classics as "Happy Organ" by Cherry Wainer:

[Excerpt: Cherry Wainer, "The Happy Organ"]

He also released his own solo record, "Why":

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan, "Why"]

But Sheridan's biggest impact on popular music wouldn't come along for another few years...

Losing the most innovative guitarist in the British music industry should have been a death-blow to Taylor's career, but he managed to find the only other guitarist in Britain at that time who might be considered up to Sheridan's standard, Joe Moretti -- who Taylor nicknamed Scotty Moretti, partly because Moretti was Scottish, but mostly because it would make his name similar to that of Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitarist, and Taylor could shout out "take it, Scotty!" on the solos.

While Sheridan's style was to play frantic Chuck Berry-style licks, Moretti was a more controlled guitarist, but just as inventive, and he had a particular knack for coming up with riffs. And he showed that knack on Taylor's next single, the first to be credited to Vince Taylor and the Playboys, rather than just to Vince Taylor.

The A-side of that single was rather poor -- a cover version of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love", which was done no favours by Taylor's vocal:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, "Pledging My Love"]

But it was the B-side that was to become a classic. From the stories told by the band members, it seems that everyone knew that that song -- one written by Taylor, who otherwise barely ever wrote songs, preferring to perform cover versions -- was something special. But the song mentioned two different brand names, Cadillac and Ford, and the BBC at that time had a ban on playing any music which mentioned a brand name at all.

So "Brand New Cadillac" became a B-side, but it's undoubtedly the most thrilling B-side by a British performer of the fifties, and arguably the only true fifties rock and roll classic by a British artist. "Move It" by Cliff Richard had been a good record by British standards -- "Brand New Cadillac" was a great record by any standards:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, "Brand New Cadillac"]

Unfortunately, because "Pledging My Love" was the A-side, the record sold almost nothing, and didn't make the charts. After two flops in a row, Parlophone dropped Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and Taylor went back to performing at the 2Is with whatever random collection of musicians he could get together. Brian Bennett and Licorice Locking, meanwhile, went on to join Marty Wilde's band the Wildcats, and scored an immediate hit with Wilde's rather decent cover version of Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love":

[Excerpt: Marty Wilde and the Wildcats, "Teenager in Love"]

Moretti, Locking, and Bennett will all turn up in our story in future episodes.

Taylor's career seemed to be over before it had really begun, but then he got a second chance. Palette Records was a small label, based in Belgium, which was starting operations in Britain. They didn't have any big stars, but they had signed Janis Martin, who we talked about back in episode forty, and in August 1960 they put out her single "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow Love":

[Excerpt: Janis Martin, "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow Love"]

And at the same time, they put out a new single by Vince Taylor, with a new lineup of Playboys. The A-side was a fairly uninspired ballad called "I'll Be Your Hero", very much in the style of Elvis' film songs, but they soon switched to promoting the flip side, "Jet Black Machine", which was much more in Taylor's style. It wasn't up to the standards of "Brand New Cadillac", but it was still far more exciting than most of the records that were being made in the UK at the time:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, "Jet Black Machine"]

That seemed like it would be a turning point in Taylor's career -- according to one source I've read, it made the top twenty on the NME charts, though I haven't been able to check those charts myself, and given how unreliable literally everything I've read about Taylor is, I don't entirely trust that. But it was definitely more successful than his two previous singles, and the new lineup of Playboys were booked on a package tour of acts from the 2Is. Things seemed like they were about to start going Taylor's way.

But Taylor had always been a little erratic, and he started to get almost pathologically jealous. He would phone his girlfriend up every night before going on stage, and if she didn't answer he'd skip the show, to drive to her house and find out what she was doing. And in November 1960, just before the start of the tour, he skipped out on the tour altogether and headed back to visit his family in the States.

The band carried on without him, and became the backing group for Duffy Power, one of the many acts managed by Larry Parnes. Power desperately wanted to be a blues singer, but he was pushed into recording cover versions of American hits, like this one, which came out shortly after the Playboys joined him:

[Excerpt: Duffy Power, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"]

The Playboys continued to back Power until June 1960, when they had a gig in Guildford, and a remarkable coincidence happened. They were unloading their equipment at the 2Is, to drive to Guildford with it, when Taylor walked round the corner. He'd just got back from the USA and happened to be passing, and they invited him along for the drive to the show. He came with them, and then Duffy Power, who was almost as unreliable as Taylor, didn't turn up for the show. They invited Taylor to perform in his place, and he did, and blew the audience away.

Power eventually turned up half-way through the show, got angry, punched the drummer in the face during the interval, and drove off again. The drummer got two stitches, and then they finished the show.

Taylor was back with the Playboys, and Duffy Power was out, and so the next month when Power was booked for some shows in Paris, on a bill with Vince Eager and Wee Willie Harris, Taylor took his place there, too. France was about as far behind Britain in rock and roll terms as Britain was behind America, and no-one had ever seen anything like Vince Taylor. Taylor and the Playboys got signed to a French label, Barclay Records, and they became huge stars -- Taylor did indeed get himself a brand new Cadillac, a pink one just like Elvis had. Taylor got nicknamed "le diable noir" -- the black Devil -- for his demonic stage presence, and he inspired riots regularly with his shows.

A review of one of his performances at that time may be of interest to some listeners:

"The atmosphere is like many a night club, but the teenagers stand round the dancing floor which you use as a stage. They jump on a woman with gold trousers and a hand microphone and then hit a man when he says "go away." A group follows, and so do others, playing 'Apache' worse than many other bands. When the singer joins the band, the leather jacket fiends who are the audience, join in dancing and banging tables with chairs.

The singers have to go one better than the audience, so they lie on the floor, or jump on a passing drummer, or kiss a guitar, and then hit the man playing it. The crowd enjoy this and many stand on chairs to see the fun, and soon the audience are all singing and shouting like one man, but he didn't mind.

Vince (Ron, Ron) Taylor finally appeared and joined the fun, and in the end he had so much fun that he had to rest. But in spite of this it had been a wonderful show, lovely show...lovely."

That was written by a young man from Liverpool named Paul McCartney, who was visiting Paris with his friend John Lennon for Lennon's twenty-first birthday. The two attended one of Taylor's shows there, and McCartney sent that review back to run in Mersey Beat, a local music paper. Lennon and McCartney also met Taylor, with whom they had a mutual friend, Tony Sheridan, and tried to blag their way onto the show themselves, but got turned down. While they were in Paris, they also got their hair cut in a new style, to copy the style that was fashionable among Parisian bohemians. When they got back to Liverpool everyone laughed at their new mop-top hairdos...

Taylor kept making records while he was in Paris, mostly cover versions of American hits. Probably the best is his version of Chuck Willis' "Whatcha Gonna Do?":

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor et ses Play-Boys, "Watcha Gonna Do (When Your Baby Leaves You)?"]

But while Taylor was now a big star, his behaviour was becoming ever more erratic, not helped by the amphetamines he was taking to keep himself going during shows. The group quit en masse in November 1962, but he persuaded them back so they could play a two-week residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, before a group from Liverpool called the Beatles took over for Christmas.

But Taylor only lasted four days of that two-week residency. Just before midnight on the fifth night, just before they were about to go on, he phoned his girlfriend in Paris, got no answer, decided she was out cheating on him, and flew off to Paris instead of playing the show. He phoned the club's manager the next day to apologise and say he'd be back for that night's show, but Horst Fascher, the manager, wasn't as forgiving of Taylor as most promoters had been, and said that he'd shoot Taylor dead if he ever saw him again. The residency was cancelled, and the Playboys had to sell their mohair suits to Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers to pay for their fare back to Paris.

For the next few years, Taylor put out a series of fairly poor records with different backing groups, often singing sickly French-language ballads with orchestral backings. He tried gimmicks like changing from his black leather costume into a white leather one, but nothing seemed to work. His money was running out, but then he had one more opportunity to hit the big time again.

Bobby Woodman, the drummer from the second lineup of the Playboys, had been playing with Johnny Hallyday, France's biggest rock and roll star, under the stage name Bobbie Clarke, but then Hallyday was drafted and his band needed work. They got together with Taylor, and as Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise they recorded an EP of blues and rock covers that included a version of the Arthur Crudup song made famous by Elvis, "My Baby Left Me". It was a quite extraordinary record, his best since "Brand New Cadillac" seven years earlier:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise, "My Baby Left Me"]

They played the Paris Olympia again, this time supporting the Rolling Stones. Vince Taylor was on his way to the top again. And they had the prospect of an American record deal -- Taylor's sister Sheila had married Joe Barbera, and he'd started up a new label and was interested in signing Taylor. They arranged a showcase gig for him, and everyone thought this could be the big time.

But before that, he had to make a quick trip to the UK. The group were owed money by a business associate there, and so Taylor went over to collect the money, and while he was there he went to Bob Dylan's party, and dropped acid for the first time. And that was the end of Vince Taylor's career.

One of the things that goes completely unreported about the British teen idols of the fifties is that for whatever reason, and I can't know for sure, there was a very high incidence of severe mental illness among them -- an astonishingly high incidence given how few of them there were. Terry Dene was invalided out of the Army with mental health problems shortly after he was drafted. Duffy Power attempted suicide in the early sixties, and had recurrent mental health problems for many years. And Dickie Pride, who his peers thought was the most talented of the lot, ended up dead aged twenty-seven, after having spent time in a psychiatric hospital and suffering so badly he was lobotomised.

Vince Taylor was the one whose mental problems have had the most publicity, but much of that has made his illness seem somehow glamorous or entertaining, so I want to emphasise that it was anything but. I spent several years working on a psychiatric ward, and have seen enough people with the same condition that Taylor had that I have no sense of humour about this subject at all. The rest of this podcast is about a man who was suffering horribly.

Taylor had always been unstable -- he had been paranoid and controlling, he had a tendency to make up lies about himself and act as if he believed them, and he led a chaotic lifestyle. And while normally LSD is safe even if taken relatively often, Taylor's first acid trip was the last straw for his fragile mental health.

He turned up at the showcase gig unshaven, clutching a bottle of Mateus wine, and announced to everyone that he was Mateus, the new Jesus, the son of God. When asked if he had the band's money, he pulled out a hundred and fifty francs and set fire to it, ranting about how Jesus had turfed the money-lenders out of the temple. An ambulance was called, and the band did the show without him.

They had a gig the next day, and Taylor turned up clean-shaven, smartly dressed, and seemingly normal. He apologised for his behaviour the night before, saying he'd "felt a bit strange" but was better now. But when they got to the club and he saw the sign saying "Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise", he crossed "Vince Taylor" out, and wrote "Mateus" in a felt pen. During the show, instead of singing, he walked through the crowd, anointing them with water.

He spent the next decade in and out of hospital, occasionally touring and recording, but often unable to work. But while he was unwell, "Brand New Cadillac" found a new audience. Indeed, it found several audiences. The Hep Stars, a band from Sweden who featured a pre-ABBA Benny Andersson, had a number one hit in Sweden with their reworking of it, just titled "Cadillac", in 1965, just a month before Taylor's breakdown:

[Excerpt: Hep Stars, "Cadillac"]

In 1971, Mungo Jerry reworked the song as "Baby Jump", which went to number one in the UK, though they didn't credit Taylor:

[Excerpt: Mungo Jerry, "Baby Jump"]

And in 1979, the Clash recorded a version of it for their classic double-album London Calling:

[Excerpt: The Clash, "Brand New Cadillac"]

Shortly after recording that, Joe Strummer of the Clash met up with Taylor, who spent five hours explaining to Strummer how the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were trying to kill him with poisoned chocolate cake.

Taylor at that time was still making music, and trying to latch on to whatever the latest trend was, as in his 1982 single "Space Invaders", inspired by the arcade game:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, "Space Invaders"]

But the new music he was making was almost an irrelevance -- by this point he had become a legend in the British music industry, not for who he was in 1982, but for who he was in 1958, and he has had songs written about him by people as diverse as Adam Ant and Van Morrison. But his biggest influence came in the years immediately after his breakdown.

Between 1966 and 1972, Taylor spent much of his time in London, severely mentally ill, but trying to have some kind of social life based on his past glories, reminding people that he had once been a star. One of the people he got to know in London in the mid-sixties was a young musician named David Jones. Jones was fascinated by Taylor, even though he'd never liked his music -- Jones' brother was schizophrenic, and he was worried that he would end up like his brother. Jones also wanted to be a rock and roll star, and had some mildly messianic ideas of his own. So a rock and roll star who thought he was Jesus -- although he sometimes thought he was an alien, rather than Jesus, and sometimes claimed that Jesus *was* an alien -- and who was clearly severely mentally ill, had a fascination for him. He talked later about not having been able to decide whether he was seeing Taylor as an example to follow or a cautionary tale, and about how he'd sat with Taylor outside Charing Cross Station while Taylor had used a magnifying glass and a map of Europe to show him all the sites where aliens were going to land.

Several years later, after changing his name to David Bowie, Jones remembered the story of Vince Taylor, the rock and roll star who thought he was an alien messiah, and turned it into the story of Ziggy Stardust:

[Excerpt: David Bowie, "Ziggy Stardust"]

In 1983, Taylor retired to Switzerland with his new wife Nathalie. He changed his name back to Brian Holden, and while he would play the occasional gig, he tried as best he could to forget his past, and seems to have recovered somewhat from his mental illness. In 1991 he was diagnosed with cancer, and died of it three months later. Shortly before he died, he told a friend "If I die, you can tell them that the only period in my life where I was really happy was my life in Switzerland".

Apr 07, 2020
Episode 76: "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price

Lloyd Price

Episode seventy-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price, and how a barroom fight 125 years ago led to a song performed by everyone from Ma Rainey to Neil Diamond. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "That Crazy Feeling" by Kenny Rogers.

I have also beeped out some expletives in the song excerpts this week, so as not to be censored by some podcast aggregators, and so I've uploaded an unbeeped version for backers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

The bulk of the information in this episode came from Stagolee Shot Billy, by Cecil Brown, the person who finally identified Lee Shelton as the subject of the song.

I also got some information from Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition by Bruce Jackson, Unprepared to Die by Paul Slade, and Yo' Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children's Rhymes from Urban Black America edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie.

Lloyd Price has written a few books. His autobiography is out of print and goes for silly money (and don't buy the "Kindle edition" at that link, because it's just the sheet music to the song, which Amazon have mislabelled) but he's also written a book of essays with his thoughts on race, some of which shed light on his work.

The Lloyd Price songs here can be found on The Complete Singles As & Bs 1952-62 .

And you can get the Snatch and the Poontangs album on a twofer with Johnny Otis' less explicit album Cold Shot.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Before we start today's episode, a brief note.

Firstly, this episode contains a description of a murder, so if you're squeamish about that sort of thing, you may want to skip it.

Secondly, some of the material I'm dealing with in this episode is difficult for me to deal with in a podcast, for a variety of reasons. This episode will look at a song whose history is strongly entwined both with American racism and with black underworld culture. The source material I've used for this therefore contains several things that for different reasons are difficult for me to say on here. There is frequent use of a particular racial slur which it is not okay under any circumstances for me as a white man to say; there are transcripts of oral history which are transcribed in rather patronising attempts at replicating African-American Vernacular English, which even were those transcripts themselves acceptable would sound mocking coming out of my English-accented mouth; and there is frequent use of sexual profanity, which I personally have no problem with at all, but would get this podcast an explicit rating on several of the big podcast platforms.

There is simply no way to tell this story while avoiding all of those things, so I've come up with the best compromise I can. I will not use, even in quotes, that slur. I will minimise the use of transcripts, but when I have to use them, I will change them from being phonetic transcripts of AAVE into being standard written English, and I will include the swearing where it comes in the recordings I want to use but will beep it out of the version that goes up on the main podcast feed. I'll make an unexpurgated version available for my Patreon backers, and I'll put the unbleeped recordings on Mixcloud.

The story we're going to tell goes back to Christmas Day 1895, but we're going to start our story in the mid 1950s, with Lloyd Price.

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee”]

You may remember us looking at Lloyd Price way back in episode twelve, from Christmas 2018, but if you don't, Price was a teenager in 1952, when he wandered into Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans, at the invitation of his acquaintance Dave Bartholomew, who had produced, co-written, and arranged most of Fats Domino's biggest hits. Price had a song, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", which was loosely based around the same basic melody as Domino's earlier hit "The Fat Man", and they recorded it with Bartholomew producing, Domino on piano, and the great Earl Palmer on drums:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"]

That was one of the first R&B records put out on Specialty Records, the label that would later bring Little Richard, Larry Williams, Sam Cooke and others to prominence, and it went to number one on the R&B charts. Price had a couple more big R&B hits, but then he got drafted, and when he got back the musical landscape had changed enough that he had no hits for several years. But then both Elvis Presley and Little Richard cut cover versions of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", and that seemed to bring Price enough extra attention that in 1957 he got a couple of songs into the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, and one song, "Just Because" went to number three on the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, "Just Because"]

But it wasn't until 1958 that Price had what would become his biggest hit, a song that would kickstart his career, and which had its roots in a barroom brawl in St. Louis on Christmas Day 1895:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, "Stagger Lee"]

The Lee Line was a line of steamboats that went up and down the Mississippi, run by the Lee family. Their line was notorious, even by Mississippi riverboat standards, for paying its staff badly, but also for being friendly to prostitution and gambling. This meant that some people, at least, enjoyed working on the ships despite the low pay. There is a song, whose lyrics were quoted in an article from 1939, but which seems to have been much older, whose lyrics went (I've changed these into standard English, as I explained at the start):

Reason I like the Lee Line trade

Sleep all night with the chambermaid

She gimme some pie, and she gimme some cake

And I give her all the money that I ever make

The Lee Line was one of the two preferred steamboat lines to work on for that reason, and it ended up being mentioned in quite a few songs, like this early version of the song that's better known as "Alabamy Bound", but was here called "Don't You Leave Me Here":

[Excerpt: Little Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed, "Don't You Leave Me Here"]

The line, "If the boat don't sink and the Stack don't drown" refers to one of the boats on the Lee Line, the Stack Lee, a boat that started service in 1902. But the boat was named, as many of the Lee Line ships were, after a member of the Lee family, in this case one Stack Lee, who was the captain in the 1880s and early 90s of a ship named after his father, James Lee, the founder of the company.

In 1948 the scholar Shields McIlwayne claimed that the captain, and later the boat, were popular enough among parts of the black community that there were "more colored kids named Stack Lee than there were sinners in hell". But it was probably the boats' reputation for prostitution that led to a thirty-year-old pimp in St. Louis named Lee Shelton taking on the name "Stack Lee", at some time before Christmas Day 1895.

On that Christmas Day, a man named Bill Lyons entered the Bill Curtis Saloon. Before he entered the saloon, he stopped to ask his friend to give him a knife, because the saloon was the roughest in the whole city, and he didn't want any trouble.

Bill Lyons was known as "Billy the Bully", but bully didn't quite, or didn't only, mean what it means today. A "bully", in that time and place, was a term that encompassed both being a pimp and being a bagman for a political party. There was far more overlap in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between politics and organised crime than many now realise, and the way things normally operated in many areas was that there would be a big man in organised crime whose job it would be to raise money for the party, get people out to vote, and tell them which way to vote.

Lyons was not a popular man, but he was an influential man, and he was part of a rich family -- one of the richest black families in St. Louis. He was, like his family, very involved with the Republican Party. Almost all black people in the US were Republicans at that time, as it was only thirty years since the end of the Civil War, when the Republican President Lincoln had been credited with freeing black people from slavery, and the Bridgewater Saloon, owned by Lyons' rich brother-in-law Henry Bridgewater, was often used as a meeting place for local Republicans.

Lyons had just ordered a drink when Lee Shelton walked into the bar. Shelton was a pimp, and seems to have made a lot of money from it. Shelton was also a Democrat, which in this time and place meant that he was essentially a member of a rival gang.

[Excerpt: Duke Ellington, "Stack-A-Lee Blues"]

Shelton was very big in the local Democratic party, and from what we can tell was far more popular among the black community than Lyons was. While the Democrats were still the less popular of the two major parties among black people in the area, some were starting to feel like the Republicans talked a good game but were doing very little to actually help black people, and were considering taking their votes elsewhere.

He was also a pimp who seems to have had a better reputation than most among the sex workers who worked for him, though like almost everything in this story it's difficult to know for certain more than a hundred and twenty years later. When he walked into the bar, he was wearing mirror-toed shoes, a velvet waistcoat, an embroidered shirt, and gold rings, and carrying an ebony cane with a gold top. He had a slightly crossed left eye, and scars on his face. And he was wearing a white Stetson.

Lee asked the crowd, "Who's treating?" and they pointed to Lyons. There was allegedly some bad blood between Lyons and Shelton, as Lyons' step-brother had murdered Shelton's friend a couple of years earlier, in the Bridgewater Saloon. But nonetheless, the two men were, according to the bartenders working there, who had known both men for decades, good friends, and they were apparently drinking and laughing together for a while, until they started talking about politics.

They started slapping at each other's hats, apparently playfully. Then Shelton grabbed Lyons' hat and broke the rim, so Lyons then snatched Shelton's hat off his head.

Shelton asked for his hat back, and Lyons said he wanted six bits -- seventy-five cents -- for a new hat. Shelton replied that you could buy a box of those hats for six bits, and he wasn't going to give Lyons any money. Lyons refused to hand the hat back until Shelton gave him the money, and Shelton pulled out his gun, and told Lyons to give him the hat. Lyons refused, and Shelton hit him on the head with the gun. He then threatened to kill Lyons if he didn't hand the hat over.

Lyons pulled out the knife his friend had given him, and said "You cock-eyed son of a bitch, I'm going to *make* you kill me" and came at Shelton, who shot Lyons. Lyons staggered and clutched on to the bar, and dropped the hat. Shelton addressed Lyons using a word I am not going to say, and said "I told you to give me my hat", picked it up, and walked out. Lyons died of his wounds a few hours later.

[Excerpt: Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, "Stack O' Lee Blues"]

Shelton was arrested, and let go on four thousand dollars bail -- that's something like a hundred and twenty thousand in today's money, to give you some idea, though by the time we go that far back comparisons of the value of money become fairly meaningless.

Shelton hired himself the best possible lawyer -- a man named Nat Dryden, who was an alcoholic and opium addict, but was also considered a brilliant trial lawyer. Dryden had been the first lawyer in the whole of Missouri to be able to get a conviction for a white man murdering a black man.

Shelton was still at risk, though, simply because of the power of Henry Bridgewater in local politics -- a mob of hundreds of people swamped the inquest trying to get to Shelton, and the police had to draw their weapons before they would disperse. But something happened between Shelton's arrest and the trial that meant that Bridgewater's political power waned somewhat.

Shelton was arraigned by Judge David Murphy, who was regarded by most black people in the city as on their side, primarily because he was so against police brutality that when a black man shot a policeman, claiming self defence because the policeman was beating him up at the time, Murphy let the man off. Not only that, when a mob of policemen attacked the defendant outside the court in retribution, Murphy had them jailed.

This made him popular among black people, but less so among whites.

[Excerpt: Frank Westphal and his Orchestra, "Stack O'Lee Blues"]

The 1896 Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis, and one of the reasons it was chosen was that the white restaurants had promised the party that if they held the convention there, they would allow black people into the restaurants, so the black caucus within the party approved of the idea. But when the convention actually happened, the restaurants changed their minds, and the party did nothing.

This infuriated many black delegates to the convention, who had seen for years how the system of backhanders and patronage on which American politics ran never got so far as to give anything to black people, who were expected just to vote for the Republicans. James Milton Turner, one of the leaders of the radical faction of the Republicans, and the first ever black US ambassador, who was a Missouri local and one of the most influential black politicians in the state, loudly denounced the Republican party for the way it was treating black voters.

Shortly afterwards, the party had its local convention. Judge Murphy was coming up for reelection, and the black delegates voted for him to be the Republican nominee again. The white delegates, on the other hand, voted against him.

This was the last straw. In 1896, ninety percent of black voters in Missouri voted Democrat, for the first time. Shelton's faction was now in the ascendant.

Because Murphy wasn't reselected, Shelton's trial wasn't held by him, but Nat Dryden did an excellent job in front of the new judge, arguing that Shelton had been acting in self-defence, because Lyons had pulled out a knife. There was a hung jury, and it went to a retrial.

Sadly for Shelton, though, Dryden wasn't going to be representing him in the second trial. Dryden had hidden his alcoholism from his wife, and she had offered him a glass of sherry. That had triggered a relapse, he'd gone on a binge, and died.

At his next trial, in late 1897, Shelton was convicted, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison -- presumably the influence of his political friends stopped him from getting the death penalty, just as it got him paroled twelve years later. Two years after that, though, Shelton was arrested again, for assault and robbery, and this time he died in prison.

But even before his trial -- just before Dryden's death, in fact -- a song called "Stack-A-Lee" was mentioned in the papers as being played by a ragtime pianist in Kansas City.

The story gets a bit hazy here, but we know that Shelton was friends with the ragtime pianist Tom Turpin.

Ragtime had become popular in the US as a result of Scott Joplin's performance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair -- the same fair, incidentally, that introduced the belly dancers known as "Little Egypt" who we talked about in the episode on the Coasters a few weeks back. But a year before that, Turpin, who was a friend of Joplin's, had written "Harlem Rag", which was published in 1897, and became the first ragtime tune written by a black man to be published:

[Excerpt: Ragtime Dorian Henry, "Harlem Rag"]

Turpin was another big man in St. Louis politics, and he was one of those who signed petitions for Shelton's release. While we can't know for sure, it seems likely that the earliest, ragtime, versions of the "Stagger Lee" song were written by Turpin. It's been suggested that he based the song on "Bully of the Town", a popular song written two years earlier, and itself very loosely based on a real murder case from New Orleans.

That song was popularised by May Irwin, in a play which is also notable for having a love scene filmed by Edison in 1897, making it possibly the first ever love scene to be filmed. Irwin recorded her version in 1909, but she uses a racial slur, over and over again, which I am not going to allow on this podcast, so here's a 1920s version by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers:

[Excerpt: Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, "Bully of the Town"]

That song, in its original versions, is about someone who goes out and kills a bully -- in the same sense that Billy Lyons was a bully -- and so becomes the biggest bully himself. It's easy to see how Turpin could take that basic framework and add in some details about how his friend had done the same thing, and turn it into a new song.

By 1910, the song about Stack Lee had spread all across the country. The folklorist and song collector John Lomax collected a version that year that went "Twas a Christmas morning/The hour was about ten/When Stagalee shot Billy Lyons/And landed in the Jefferson pen/O lordy, poor Stagalee".

In 1924, two white songwriters copyrighted a version of it, called "Stack O'Lee Blues", and we've heard instrumental versions of that, from 1923 and 24, earlier in this episode -- that's what those instrumental breaks were. Lovie Austin recorded a song called "Skeg-A-Lee Blues" in 1924, but that bears little lyrical resemblance to the Stagger Lee we know about:

[Excerpt: Ford & Ford, "Skeg-A-Lee Blues"]

The first vocal recording of the song that we would now recognise as being Stagger Lee was by Ma Rainey, in 1925. In her version, the melody and some of the words come from "Frankie and Johnny", another popular song about a real-life murder in St. Louis in the 1890s:

[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, "Stack O'Lee Blues"]

According to Wikipedia, Louis Armstrong is playing cornet on that song. It doesn't sound like him to me, and I can't find any other evidence for that except other sites which get their information from Wikipedia. Sites I trust more say it was Joe Smith, and they also say that Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson are on the track.

By 1927, the song was being recorded in many different variants. Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull recorded a version that clearly owes something to "the Bully of the Town":

[Excerpt: Long Cleve Reed and Little Henry Hull -- Down Home Boys, "Original Stack O'Lee Blues"]

And in possibly the most famous early version, Mississippi John Hurt asks why the police can't arrest that bad man Stagger Lee:

[Excerpt: Mississippi John Hurt, "Stack O'Lee (1928 version)"]

By this point, all connection with the real Lee Shelton had been lost, and it wouldn't be until the early nineties that the writer Cecil Brown would finally identify Shelton as the subject of the song.

During the thirties and forties, the song came to be recorded by all sorts of musicians, almost all of them either folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, blues musicians like Ivory Joe Hunter, or field recordings, like the singer known as "Bama" who recorded this for the Lomaxes:

[Excerpt: Bama, "Stackerlee"]

None of these recorded versions was a major hit, but the song became hugely well known, particularly among black musicians around Louisiana. It was a song in everyone's repertoire, and every version of the song followed the same basic structure to start with -- Stagger Lee told Billy Lyons he was going to kill him over a hat that had been lost in a game of craps, Billy begged for his life, saying he had a wife and children, and Stagger Lee killed him anyway. Often the bullet would pass right through Billy and break the bartender's glass.

From there, the story might change -- in some versions, Lee would go free -- sometimes because they couldn't catch him and sometimes because crowds of women implored the judge to let him off. In other versions, he would be locked up in jail, and in yet other versions he would be sentenced to death. Sometimes he would survive execution through magical powers, sometimes he would be killed, and crowds of women would mourn him, all dressed in red.

In the versions where he was killed, he would often descend to Hell, where he would usurp the Devil, because the Devil wasn't as bad as Stagger Lee.

There were so many versions of this song that the New Orleans pianist Doctor John was, according to some things I've read, able to play "Stagger Lee" for three hours straight without repeating a verse.

Very few of these recordings had any commercial success, but one that did was a 1950 New Orleans version of the song, performed by "Archibald and His Orchestra":

[Excerpt: Archibald and His Orchestra, "Stack A'Lee"]

That version of the song was the longest ever recorded up to that point, and took up both sides of a seventy-eight record. It was released on Imperial Records, the same label that Fats Domino was on, in 1950, and was recorded at Cosimo Matassa's studio. It went top ten on the Billboard R&B charts, and was Archibald's only hit.

That's the version that, eight years later, inspired Lloyd Price to record this:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, "Stagger Lee"]

That became a massive, massive hit. It went to number one on both the Hot One Hundred and the R&B charts -- which incidentally makes Lloyd Price the earliest solo artist to have a number one hit on the Hot One Hundred and still be alive today. Price's career was revitalised -- and "Stagger Lee" was brought properly into the mainstream of American culture.

Over the next few decades, the song -- in versions usually based on Price's -- became a standard among white rock musicians. Indeed, it seems to have been recorded by some of the whitest people in music history, like Huey Lewis and the News:

[Excerpt: Huey Lewis and the News, "Stagger Lee"]

Mike Love of the Beach Boys:

[Excerpt: Mike Love, "Stagger Lee"]

and Neil Diamond:

[Excerpt: Neil Diamond, “Stagger Lee”]

But while the song had hit the white mainstream, the myth of Stagger Lee had an altogether different power among the black community. You see, up to this point all we've been able to look at are versions of the song that have seen commercial release, and they all represent what was acceptable to be sold in shops at the time.

But as you may have guessed from the stuff about the Devil I mentioned earlier, Stagger Lee had become a folkloric figure of tremendous importance among many black Americans. He represented the bad man who would never respect any authority -- a trickster figure, but one who was violent as well. He represented the angry black man, but a sort of righteous anger, even if that anger was chaotic. Any black man who was not respected by white society would be thought of as a Stagger Lee figure, at least by some -- I've seen the label applied to everyone from O.J. Simpson to Malcolm X.

Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panther Party, named his son Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, and was often known to recite a version of "Stagger Lee" at parties. In an interview, later, Seale said "Now I transformed Stagolee, more or less in my own mind, into brothers standing on the block and all of the illegitimate activity. In effect, they were the lumpen proletariat in a high-tech social order, different from how 'lumpen' had been described historically. My point is this; that Malcolm X at one time was an illegitimate hustler. Later in life, Malcolm X grows to have the most profound political consciousness as far as I'm concerned. To me, this brother was really getting ready to move. So symbolically, at one time he was Stagolee."

The version of Stagger Lee that Seale knew is the one that came from something called "toasts".

Toasting is a form of informal storytelling in black American culture, usually rhyming, and usually using language and talking about subjects that would often be considered obscene. Toasting is now generally considered one of the precursors of rapping, and the style and subject matter are often very similar.

Many of the stories told in toasts are very well known, including the story of the Signifying Monkey (which has been told in bowdlerised forms in many blues songs, including Chuck Berry's "Jo Jo Gunne"), and the story of Shine, the black cook on the Titanic, who swims for safety and refuses to help the Captain's daughter even after she offers sex in return for his help. Shine outswims the sharks who try to eat him, and arrives back on land before anyone there even knew the ship was sinking.

Shine is, of course, another Stagger Lee style figure.

These toasts remained largely unknown outside of the less respectable parts of the black community, until the scholar Bruce Jackson published his seminal book "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Poetry from Oral Tradition", whose title is taken from a version of the story of Shine and the Titanic. Jackson's field recordings, mostly recorded in prisons, have more recently been released on CD, though without the names of the performers attached. Here's the version of Stagger Lee he collected -- there will be several beeps in this, and the next few recordings, if you're listening to the regular version of this podcast:

[Excerpt: Unknown field recording, "Stagger Lee"]

After Jackson's book, but well before the recordings came out, Johnny Otis preserved many of these toasts in musical form on his Snatch and the Poontangs album, including "The Great Stack-A-Lee", which clearly has the same sources as the version Jackson recorded:

[Excerpt: Snatch and the Poontangs, "The Great Stack-A-Lee"]

That version was used as the basis for the most well-known recentish version of the song, the 1995 version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:

[Excerpt: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Stagger Lee"]

Cave has later said in interviews that they improvised the music and used the lyrics from Jackson's book, but the melody is very, very, close to the Johnny Otis version. And there's more evidence of Cave basing his version on the Johnny Otis track. There's this line:

[Excerpt: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Stagger Lee"]

That's not in the versions of the toast in Jackson's book, but it *is* in a different song on the Snatch and the Poontangs album, "Two-Time Slim":

[Excerpt: Snatch and the Poontangs, "Two-Time Slim"]

This is the Stagger Lee of legend, the Stagger Lee who is the narrator of James Baldwin's great poem "Stagolee Wonders", a damning indictment of racist society:

[Excerpt: James Baldwin, reading an excerpt from "Stagolee Wonders" on "Poems for a Listener",]

Baldwin's view of Stagger Lee was, to quote from the interview from which that reading is also excerpted, "a black folk hero, a singer essentially, who actually truly comes out of the auction block, by way of the cotton field, into the beginning of the black church. And Stagger Lee's roots are there, and Stagger Lee's often been a preacher. He's one who conveys the real history.”

It's a far cry from one pimp murdering another on Christmas Day 1895. And it's a mythos that almost everyone listening to Lloyd Price's hit version will have known nothing of.

As a result of "Stagger Lee", Lloyd Price went on to have a successful career, scoring several more hits in 1959 and 1960, including the song for which he's now best known, "Personality":

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, "Personality"]

Price also moved into other areas, including boxing promotion -- he was the person who got Don King, another figure who has often been compared to Stagger Lee, the chance to work with Mohammed Ali, and he later helped King promote the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight.

Lloyd Price is eighty-seven years old, now, and released his most recent album in 2016. He still tours -- indeed, his most recent live show was earlier this month, just before the current coronavirus outbreak meant live shows had to stop. He opened his show, as he always does, with "Stagger Lee", and I hope that when we start having live shows again, he will continue to do so for a long, long time.

Mar 31, 2020
Episode 75: "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters

The Ben E. King Line-up of the Drifters

Episode seventy-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters, and how a fake record label, a band sacked for drunkenness, and a kettledrum player who couldn't play led to a genre-defining hit. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Rebel Rouser" by Duane Eddy

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

I'm not going to recommend a compilation this week, for reasons I mention in the episode itself. There are plenty available, none of them as good as they should be.

The episode on the early career of the Drifters is episode seventeen

My main resource in putting this episode together was Marv Goldberg's website, and his excellent articles on both the early- and late-period Drifters, Bill Pinkney's later Original Drifters, the Five Crowns, and Ben E. King. 

Lonely Avenue, a biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, helped me with the information on Pomus.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

And Bill Millar's book on the Drifters, while it is more a history of 50s vocal group music generally using them as a focus than a biography of the group, contains some interesting material.



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A quick note about this one, before I start. As we'll see in this episode, there have been many, many, lineups of the Drifters over the years, with many different people involved. One problem with that is that there have been lots of compilations put out under the Drifters name, featuring rerecorded versions of their hits, often involving nobody who was on the original record.

Indeed, there have been so many of these compilations, and people putting together hits compilations, even for major labels, have been so sloppy, that I can't find a single compilation of the Drifters' recordings that doesn't have one or two dodgy remakes on replacing the originals.

I've used multiple sources for the recordings I'm excerpting here, and in most cases I'm pretty sure that the tracks I'm excerpting are the original versions. But particularly when it comes to songs that aren't familiar, I may have ended up using a rerecording rather than the original. Anyway, on with the story...

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby"]

It's been more than a year since we last properly checked in with the Drifters, one of the great R&B vocal groups of all time, so I'll quickly bring you up to speed -- if you want to hear the full story so far, episode seventeen, on "Money Honey", gives you all the details.

The Drifters had originally formed as the backing group for Clyde McPhatter, who had been the lead singer of Billy Ward and the Dominoes in the early fifties, when that group had had their biggest success. The original lineup of the group had all been sacked before they even released a record, and then a couple of members of the lineup who recorded their first big hits became ill or died, but the group had released two massive hits -- "Money Honey" and "Such a Night", both with McPhatter on lead vocals:

[Excerpt: Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, "Such a Night"]

But then McPhatter had been drafted, and the group's manager, George Treadwell, had got in a member of the original lineup, David Baughan, to replace McPhatter, as Baughan could sound a little like McPhatter. When McPhatter was discharged from the army, he decided to sell the group name to Treadwell, and the Drifters became employees of Treadwell, to be hired and fired at his discretion. This group went through several lineup changes, some of which we'll look at later in this episode, but they kept making records that sounded a bit like the ones they'd been making with Clyde McPhatter, even after Baughan also left the group.

But there was a big difference behind the scenes. Those early records had been produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and had usually been arranged by Jesse Stone, the man who'd written "Money Honey" and many other early rock and roll hits, like "Shake, Rattle, and Roll". But a little while after Baughan left the group, Ertegun and Wexler asked Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to start working with them.

Leiber and Stoller, you might remember, were working with a *lot* of people at the time. They'd come over to Atlantic Records with a non-exclusive contract to write and produce for the label, and while their main project at Atlantic was with the Coasters, they were also producing records for people like Ruth Brown, as well as also working on records for Elvis and others at RCA.

But they took on the Drifters as well, and started producing a string of minor hits for them, including "Ruby Baby" and "Fools Fall In Love". Those hits went top ten on the R&B chart, but did little or nothing in the pop market.

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Fools Fall In Love"]

That song, which had Johnny Moore on lead vocals, was the last big hit for what we can think of as the "original" Drifters in some form. It came out in March 1957, and for the rest of the year they kept releasing singles, but nothing made the R&B charts at all, though a few did make the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred.

Throughout 1957, the group had been gaining and losing members. Bill Pinkney, who had been chosen by the other group members to be essentially their shop steward, had gone to Treadwell and asked for a raise in late 1956, and been promptly fired. He'd formed a group called the Flyers, with a new singer called Bobby Hendricks on lead. The Flyers recorded one single, "My Only Desire":

[Excerpt: the Flyers, "My Only Desire"]

But then Tommy Evans, Pinkney's replacement in the group, was fired, and Pinkney was brought back into the group. Hendricks thought that was the end of his career, but then a few days later Pinkney phoned him up -- Johnny Moore was getting drafted, and Hendricks was brought into the group to take Moore's place.

But almost immediately after Hendricks joined the group, Pinkney once again asked for a raise, and was kicked out and Evans brought back in. Pinkney went off and made a record for Sam Phillips, with backing music overdubbed by Bill Justis:

[Excerpt: Bill Pinkney, "After the Hop"]

The group kept changing lineups, and there was only one session in 1958, which led to a horrible version of "Moonlight Bay". Apparently, the session was run by Leiber and Stoller as an experiment (they would occasionally record old standards with the Coasters, so presumably they were seeing if the same thing would work with the Drifters), and several of the group's members were drunk when they recorded it. They decided at the session that it was not going to be released, but then the next thing the group knew, it was out as their next single, with overdubs by a white vocal group, making it sound nothing like the Drifters at all:

[Excerpt: The Drifters "Moonlight Bay"]

Bobby Hendricks hated that recording session so much that he quit the group and went solo, going over to Sue Records, where he joined up with another former Drifter, Jimmy Oliver. Oliver wrote a song for Hendricks, "Itchy Twitchy Feeling", and the Coasters sang the backup vocals for him, uncredited. That track went to number five on the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Bobby Hendricks, "Itchy Twitchy Feeling"]

By this time, the Drifters were down to just three people -- Gerhart Thrasher, Jimmy Milner, and Tommy Evans. They no longer had a lead singer, but they had a week's worth of shows they were contracted to do, at the Harlem Apollo, on a show hosted by the DJ Doctor Jive. That show was headlined by Ray Charles, and also featured the Cookies, Solomon Burke, and a minor group called the Crowns, among several other acts.

Treadwell was desperate, so he called Hendricks and Oliver and got them to return to the group just for one week, so they would have a lead vocalist. They both did return, though just as a favour. Then, at the end of the week's residency, one of the group members got drunk and started shouting abuse at Doctor Jive, and at the owner of the Apollo.

George Treadwell had had enough. He fired the entire group.

Tommy Evans went on to join Charlie Fuqua's version of the Ink Spots, and Bill Pinkney decided he wanted to get the old group back together. He got a 1955 lineup of the Drifters together -- Pinkney, David Baughan, Gerhart Thrasher, and Andrew Thrasher. That group toured as The Original Drifters, and the group under that name would consist almost entirely of ex-members of the Drifters, with some coming or going, until 1968, when most of the group retired, while Pinkney carried on leading a group under that name until his death in 2007. But they couldn't use that name on records. Instead they made records as the Harmony Grits:

[Excerpt: The Harmony Grits, "I Could Have Told You"]

and with ex-Drifter Johnny Moore singing lead, as a solo artist under the name Johnny Darrow:

[Excerpt: Johnny Darrow, "Chew Tobacco Rag"]

And with Bobby Hendricks singing lead, as the Sprites:

[Excerpt: The Sprites, "My Picture"]

But the reason they couldn't call themselves the Drifters on their records is that George Treadwell owned the name, and he had hired a totally different group to tour and record under that name.

The Crowns had their basis in a group called the Harmonaires, a street-corner group in New York. They had various members at first, but by the time they changed their name to the Five Crowns, they had stabilised on a lineup of Dock Green, Yonkie Paul, and three brothers -- Papa, Nicky, and Sonny Boy Clark.

The group were managed by Lover Patterson, who they believed was the manager of the Orioles, but was actually the Orioles' valet. Nonetheless, Patterson did manage to get them signed to a small record label, Rainbow Records, where they released "You're My Inspiration" in 1952:

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, "You're My Inspiration"]

The record label sent out a thousand copies of that single to one of their distributors, right at the point a truckers' strike was called, and ended up having to send another thousand out by plane. That kind of thing sums up the kind of luck the Five Crowns would have for the next few years.

Nothing they put out on Rainbow Records was any kind of a success, and in 1953 the group became the first act on a new label, Old Town Records -- they actually met the owner of the label, Hy Weiss, in a waiting room, while they were waiting to audition for a different label. On Old Town they put out a couple of singles, starting with "You Could Be My Love":

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, "You Could Be My Love"]

But none of these singles were hits either, and the group were doing so badly that when Nicky Clark left the group, they couldn't get another singer in to replace him at first -- Lover Patterson stood on stage and mimed while the four remaining members sang, so there would still be five people in the Five Crowns.

By 1955, the group had re-signed to Rainbow Records, now on their Riviera subsidiary, and they had gone through several further lineup changes. They now consisted of Yonkie Paul, Richard Lewis, Jesse Facing, Dock Green, and Bugeye Bailey. They put out one record on Riviera, "You Came To Me":

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, "You Came to Me"]

The group broke up shortly after that, and Dock Green put together a totally new lineup of the Five Crowns. That group signed to one of George Goldner's labels, Gee, and released another single, and then they broke up. Green got together *another* lineup of the Five Crowns, made another record on another label, and then that group broke up too. They spent nearly two years without making a record, with constantly shifting lineups as people kept leaving and rejoining, and by the time they went into a studio again, they consisted of Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Papa Clark, Elsbeary Hobbs, and a new tenor singer called Benjamin Earl Nelson, who hadn't sung professionally before joining the group -- he'd been working in a restaurant owned by his father, and Lover Patterson had heard him singing to himself while he was working and asked him to join the group.

This lineup of the group, who were now calling themselves the Crowns rather than the Five Crowns, finally got a contract with a record label... or at least, it was sort of a record label.

We've talked about Doc Pomus before, back in November, but as a brief recap -- Pomus was a blues singer and songwriter, a white Jewish paraplegic whose birth name was Jerome Felder, who had become a blues shouter in the late forties:

[Excerpt: Doc Pomus, "Send for the Doctor"]

He had been working as a professional songwriter for a decade or so, and had written songs for people like Ray Charles, but the music he loved was hard bluesy R&B, and he didn't understand the new rock and roll music at all. Other than writing "Young Blood", which Leiber and Stoller had rewritten and made into a hit for the Coasters, he hadn't written anything successful in quite some time.

He'd recently started writing with a much younger man, Mort Shuman, who did understand rock and roll, and we heard one of the results of that last week -- "Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts, which would be the start of a string of hits for them:

[Excerpt: Dion and the Belmonts, "Teenager in Love"]

But in 1958, that had not yet been released. Pomus' wife had a baby on the way, and he was desperate for money. He was so desperate, he got involved in a scam. An old girlfriend introduced him to an acquaintance, a dance instructor named Fred Huckman. Huckman had recently married a rich old widow, and he wanted to get away from her during the day to sleep with other people.

So Huckman decided he was going to become the owner of a record label, using his wife's money to fund an office. The label was named R&B Records at Doc's suggestion, and Doc was going to be the company's president, while Mort was going to be the company's shipping clerk.

The company would have offices in 1650 Broadway, one of the buildings that these days gets lumped in when people talk about "the Brill Building", though the actual Brill Building itself was a little way down the street at 1619. 1650 was still a prime music business location though, and the company's office would let both Doc and Mort go and try to sell their songs to publishing companies and record labels. And they'd need to do this because R&B Records wasn't going to put out any records at all.

Doc and Mort's actual job was that one of them had to be in the office at all times, so when Huckman's wife phoned up, they could tell her that he'd just popped out, or was in a meeting, or something so she didn't find out about his affairs.

They lived off the scam for a little while, while writing songs, but eventually they started to get bored of doing nothing all day. And then Lucky Patterson brought the Crowns in.

They didn't realise that R&B Records wasn't a real record label, and Pomus decided to audition them. When he did, he was amazed at how good they sounded. He decided that R&B Records was *going* to be a real record label, no matter what Huckman thought. He and Shuman wrote them a single in the style of the Coasters, and they got in the best session musicians in New York -- people like King Curtis and Mickey Baker, who were old friends of Pomus -- to play on it:

[Excerpt: The Crowns, "Kiss and Make Up"]

At first that record was completely unsuccessful, but then, rather amazingly, it started to climb in the charts, at least in Pittsburgh, where it became a local number one. It started to do better elsewhere as well, and it looked like the Crowns could have a promising career.

And then one day Mrs. Huckman showed up at the office. Pomus tried to tell her that her husband had gone out and would be back later, but she insisted on waiting in the office, silently, all day. R&B Records closed the next day.

But "Kiss and Make Up" had been a big enough success that the Crowns had ended up on that Doctor Jive show with the Drifters. And then when George Treadwell fired the Drifters, he immediately hired the Crowns -- or at least, he hired four of them. Papa Clark had a drinking problem, and Treadwell was fed up of dealing with drunk singers. So from this point on the Drifters were Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs, and Benjamin Nelson, who decided that he was going to take on a stage name and call himself Ben E. King.

This new lineup of the group went out on tour for almost a year before going into the studio, and they were abysmal failures. Everywhere they went, promoters advertised their shows with photos of the old group, and then this new group of people came on stage looking and sounding nothing like the original Drifters. They were booed everywhere they went.

They even caused problems for the other acts -- at one show they nearly killed Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Hawkins used to pop out of a coffin while performing "I Put A Spell on You":

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put a Spell on You"]

The group were sometimes asked to carry the coffin onto the stage with Hawkins inside it, and one night Charlie Thomas accidentally nudged something and heard a click. What he didn't realise was that Hawkins put matchbooks in the gap in the coffin lid, to stop it closing all the way -- Thomas had knocked the coffin properly shut.

The music started, and Hawkins tried to open the coffin, and couldn't. He kept pushing, and the coffin wouldn't open. Eventually, he rocked the coffin so hard that it fell off its stand and popped open, but if it hadn't opened there was a very real danger that Hawkins could have asphyxiated.

But something else happened on that tour -- Ben E. King wrote a song called "There Goes My Baby", which the group started to perform live. As they originally did it, it was quite a fast song, but when they finally got off the tour and went into the studio, Leiber and Stoller, who were going to be the producers for this new group just like they had been for the old group, decided to slow it down.

They also decided that this was going to be a chance for them to experiment with some totally new production ideas. Stoller had become infatuated with a style called baion, a Brazillian musical style that is based on the same tresillo rhythm that a lot of New Orleans R&B is based on.

If you don't remember the tresillo rhythm, we talked about it a lot in episodes on Fats Domino and others, but it's that "bom [pause] bom-bom [pause] bom [pause] bom-bom" rhythm. We've always been calling it the tresillo, but when people talk about the Drifters' music they always follow Stoller's lead and call it the baion rhythm, so that's what we'll do in future.

They decided to use that rhythm, and also to use strings, which very few people had used on a rock and roll record before -- this is an idea that several people seemed to have simultaneously, as we saw last week with Buddy Holly doing the same thing. It may, indeed, be that Leiber and Stoller had heard "It Doesn't Matter Any More" and taken inspiration from it -- Holly had died just over a month before the recording session for "There Goes My Baby", and his single hit the top forty the same week that "There Goes My Baby" was recorded.

Stoller sketched out some string lines, which were turned into full arrangements by an old classmate of his, Stan Applebaum, who had previously arranged for Lucky Millinder, and who had written a hit for Sarah Vaughan, who was married to Treadwell.

Charlie Thomas was meant to sing lead on the track, but he just couldn't get it right, and eventually it was decided to have King sing it instead, as he'd written the song. King tried to imitate the sound of Sam Cooke, but it came out sounding like no-one but King himself.

Then, as a final touch, Leiber and Stoller decided to use a kettledrum on the track, rather than a normal drum kit. There was only one problem -- the drummer they booked didn't know how to change the pitch on the kettledrum using the foot pedal. So he just kept playing the same note throughout the song, even as the chords changed:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby"]

When Leiber and Stoller took that to their bosses at Atlantic Records, they were horrified. Jerry Wexler said “It’s dog meat. You've wasted our money on an overpriced production that sounds like a radio caught between two stations. It’s a goddamn awful mess!”

Ahmet Ertegun was a little more diplomatic, but still said that the record was unreleasable. But eventually he let them have a go at remixing it, and then the label stuck the record out, assuming it would do nothing.

Instead, it went to number two on the charts, and became one of the biggest hits of 1959. Not only that, but it instantly opened up the possibilities for new ways of producing records. The new Drifters were a smash hit, and Leiber and Stoller were now as respected as producers as they already had been as songwriters. They got themselves a new office in the Brill Building, and they were on top of the world.

But already there was a problem for the new Drifters, and that problem was named Lover Patterson.

Rather than sign the Crowns to a management deal as a group, Patterson had signed them all as individuals, with separate contracts. And when he'd allowed George Treadwell to take over their management, he'd only sold the contracts for three of the four members. Ben E. King was still signed to Lover Patterson, rather than to George Treadwell. And Patterson decided that he was going to let King sing on the records, but he wasn't going to let him tour with the group.

So there was yet another lineup change for the Drifters, as they got in Johnnie Lee Williams to sing King's parts on stage. Williams would sing one lead with the group in the studio, "If You Cry True Love, True Love":

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "If You Cry True Love, True Love"]

But for the most part, King was the lead singer in the studio, and so there were five Drifters on the records, but only four on the road. But they were still having hits, and everybody seemed happy.

And soon, they would all have the biggest hit of their careers, with a song that Doc Pomus had written with Mort Shuman, about his own wedding reception. We'll hear more about that, and about Leiber and Stoller's apprentice Phil Spector, when we return to the Drifters in a few weeks time.

Mar 23, 2020
Episode 74: "It Doesn't Matter Any More" by Buddy Holly

The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly

Episode sixty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "That'll Be the Day" by The Crickets. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Chantilly Lace" by the Big Bopper.

 Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/----more----

Before I get to the resources and transcript, a quick apology. This one is up more than a day late. I've not been coping very well with all the news about coronavirus outbreak (I'm one of those who's been advised by the government to sel-isolate for three months) and things are taking longer than normal. Next week's should be up at the normal time.

Also, no Mixcloud this week -- I get a server error when uploading the file to Mixcloud's site.


I mention that Bob Dylan saw the first show on the Winter Dance Party tour with no drummer. He actually saw the last one with the drummer, who was hospitalised that night after the show, not before the show as I had thought. 



I've used two biographies for the bulk of the information here -- Buddy Holly: Learning the Game, by Spencer Leigh, and Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly by Philip Norman. I also used  Beverly Mendheim's book on Ritchie Valens.

There are many collections of Buddy Holly's work available, but many of them are very shoddy, with instrumental overdubs recorded over demos after his death. The best compilation I am aware of is The Memorial Collection, which contains almost everything he issued in his life, as he issued it (for some reason two cover versions are missing) along with the undubbed acoustic recordings that were messed with and released after his death.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



Before I begin, this episode will deal with both accidental bereavement and miscarriage, so if you think those subjects might be traumatising, you may want to skip this one.

Today, we're going to look at a record that holds a sad place in rock and roll's history, because it's the record that is often credited as "the first posthumous rock and roll hit".

Now, that's not strictly true -- as we've talked about before in this podcast, there is rarely, if ever, a "first" anything at all, and indeed we've already looked at an earlier posthumous hit when we talked about "Pledging My Love" by Johnny Ace. But it is a very sad fact that "It Doesn't Matter Any More" by Buddy Holly ended up becoming the first of several posthumous hit records that Holly had, and that there would be many more posthumous hit records by other performers after him than there had been before him.

Buddy Holly's death is something that hangs over every attempt to tell his story. More than any other musician of his generation, his death has entered rock and roll mythology. Even if you don't know Holly's music, you probably know two things about him -- that he wore glasses, and that he died in a plane crash. You're likely also to know that Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in the same crash, even if you don't know any of the songs that either of those two artists recorded.

Normally, when you're telling a story, you'd leave that to the end, but in the case of Holly it overshadows his life so much that there's absolutely no point trying to build up any suspense -- not to mention that there's something distasteful about turning a real person's tragic death into entertainment. I hope I've not done so in episodes where other people have died, but it's even more important not to do so here.

Because while the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper is always portrayed as an accident, the cause of their death has its roots in exploitation of young, vulnerable, people, and a pressure to work no matter what.

So today, we're going to look at how "It Doesn't Matter Any More" became Buddy Holly's last single:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "It Doesn't Matter Any More"]

People often talk about how Buddy Holly's career was short, but what they don't mention is that his chart career was even shorter. Holly's first chart single, "That'll Be the Day", was released in May 1957. His last top thirty single during his lifetime, "Think it Over", was released in May 1958. By the time he went on the Winter Dance Party, the tour that led to his death, in January 1959, he had gone many months without a hit, and his most recent record, "Heartbeat", had only reached number eighty-two. He'd lost every important professional relationship in his life, and had split from the group that had made him famous. To see how this happened, we need to pick up where we left off with him last time.

You'll remember that when we left the Crickets, they'd released "That'll Be the Day", and it hadn't yet become a hit, and they'd also released "Words of Love" as a Buddy Holly solo single. While there were different names on them, the same people would make the records, whether it was a solo or group record -- Buddy Holly on vocals and lead guitar, Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar, Jerry Allison on drums, Joe Mauldin on bass, and producer Norman Petty and his wife sometimes adding keyboards. They didn't distinguish between "Buddy Holly" and "Crickets" material when recording -- rather they separated it out later. The more straight-ahead rock and roll records would have backing vocals overdubbed on them, usually by a vocal group called the Picks, and would be released as Crickets records, while the more experimental ones would be left with only Holly's vocal on, and would be released as solo records.

(There were no records released as by "Buddy Holly and the Crickets" at the time, because the whole idea of the split was that DJs would play two records instead of one if they appeared to be by different artists).

And they were recording *a lot*. Two days after “That'll be the Day” was released, on the twenty-seventh of May 1957, they recorded "Everyday" and "Not Fade Away". Between then and the first of July they recorded "Tell Me How", "Oh Boy", "Listen to Me", "I'm Going to Love You Too", and cover versions of Fats Domino's "Valley of Tears" and Little Richard's "Ready Teddy". Remember, this was all before they'd had a single hit -- "That'll Be the Day" and "Words of Love" still hadn't charted.

This is quite an astonishing outpouring of songs, but the big leap forward came on the second of July, when they made a second attempt at a song they'd attempted to record back in late 1956, and had been playing in their stage show since then. The song had originally been titled "Cindy Lou", after Buddy's niece, but Jerry Allison had recently started dating a girl named Peggy Sue Gerrison, and they decided to change the lyrics to be about her.

The song had also originally been played as a Latin-flavoured number, but when they were warming up, Allison started playing a fast paradiddle on his snare drum. Holly decided that they were going to change the tempo of the song and have Allison play that part all the way through, though this meant that Allison had to go out and play in the hallway rather than in the main studio, because the noise from his drums was too loud in the studio itself.

The final touch came when Petty decided, on the song's intro, to put the drums through the echo chamber and keep flicking the switch on the echo from "on" to "off", so it sounded like there were two drummers playing:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Peggy Sue"]

Someone else was flicking a switch, too -- Niki Sullivan was already starting to regret joining the Crickets, because there really wasn't room for his rhythm guitar on most of the songs they were playing. And on "Peggy Sue" he ended up not playing at all. On that song, Buddy had to switch between two pickups -- one for when he was singing, and another to give his guitar a different tone during the solo. But he was playing so fast that he couldn't move his hand to the switch, and in those days there were no foot pedals one could use for the same sort of effect. So Niki Sullivan became Holly's foot pedal. He knelt beside Holly and waited for the point when the solo was about to start, and flicked the switch on his guitar. When the solo came to an end again, Sullivan flicked the switch again and it went back to the original sound.

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Peggy Sue"]

It's a really strange sounding record, if you start to pay attention to it. Other than during the solo, Holly's guitar is so quiet that you can hear the plectrum as loudly as you can hear the notes. He just keeps up a ram-a-ram-a quaver downstrum throughout the whole song, which sounds simple until you try to play it, at which point you realise that you start feeling like your arm's going to fall off about a quarter of the way through. And there's just that, those drums (playing a part which must be similarly physically demanding) with their weird echo, and Holly's voice. In theory, Joe Mauldin's bass is also in there, but it's there at almost homeopathic levels. It's a record that is entirely carried by the voice, the drums, and the guitar solo.

Of course, Niki Sullivan wasn't happy about being relegated to guitar-switch-flicker, and there were other tensions within the group as well. Holly was having an affair with a married woman at the time -- and Jerry Allison, who was Holly's best friend as well as his bandmate, was also in love with her, though not in a relationship with her, and so Holly had to keep his affair hidden from his best friend. And not only that, but Allison and Sullivan were starting to have problems with each other, too.

To help defuse the situation, Holly's brother Larry took him on holiday, to go fishing in Colorado. But even there, the stress of the current situation was showing -- Buddy spent much of the trip worried about the lack of success of "That'll Be the Day", and obsessing over a new record by a new singer, Paul Anka, that had gone to number one:

[Excerpt: Paul Anka, "Diana"]

Holly was insistent that he could do better than that, and that his records were at least as good. But so far they were doing nothing at all on the charts.

But then a strange thing happened. "That'll Be the Day" started getting picked up by black radio stations. It turned out that there had been another group called the Crickets -- a black doo-wop group from about five years earlier, led by a singer called Dean Barlow, who had specialised in smooth Ink Spots-style ballads:

[Excerpt The Crickets featuring Dean Barlow, "Be Faithful"]

People at black radio stations had assumed that this new group called the Crickets was the same one, and had then discovered that "That'll Be the Day" was really rather good. The group even got booked on an otherwise all-black tour headlined by Clyde McPhatter and Otis Rush, booked by people who hadn't realised they were white. Before going on the tour, they formally arranged to have Norman Petty be their manager as well as their producer.

They were a success on the tour, though when it reached the Harlem Apollo, which had notoriously hostile audiences, the group had to reconfigure their sets, as the audiences didn't like any of Holly's original material except "That'll Be the Day", but did like the group's cover versions of R&B records like "Bo Diddley":

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Bo Diddley (Undubbed Version)"]

Some have said that the Crickets were the first white act to play the Apollo. That's not the case -- Bobby Darin had played there before them, and I think so had the jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and maybe one or two others. But it was still a rarity, and the Crickets had to work hard to win the audience around.

After they finished that tour, they moved on to a residency at the Brooklyn Paramount, on an Alan Freed show that also featured Little Richard and Larry Williams -- who the Crickets met for the first time when they walked into the dressing room to find Richard and Williams engaged in a threesome with Richard's girlfriend.

During that engagement at the Paramount, the tensions within the group reached boiling point. Niki Sullivan, who was in an awful mood because he was trying to quit smoking, revealed the truth about Holly's affair to Allison, and the group got in a fist-fight. According to Sullivan -- who seems not to have always been the most reliable of interviewees -- Sullivan gave Jerry Allison a black eye, and then straight away they had to go to the rooftop to take the photo for the group's first album, The "Chirping" Crickets. Sullivan says that while the photo was retouched to hide the black eye, it's still visible, though I can't see it myself.

After this, they went into a three-month tour on a giant package of stars featuring Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, the Bobbettes, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, and many more. By this point, both "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" had risen up the charts -- "That'll Be the Day" eventually went to number one, while "Peggy Sue" hit number three -- and the next Crickets single, "Oh Boy!" was also charting.

"Oh Boy!" had originally been written by an acquaintance of the band, Sonny West, who had recorded his own version as "All My Love" a short while earlier:

[Excerpt: Sonny West, "All My Love"]

Glen Hardin, the piano player on that track, would later join a lineup of the Crickets in the sixties (and later still would be Elvis' piano player and arranger in the seventies). Holly would later also cover another of West's songs, "Rave On".

The Crickets' version of “Oh Boy!” was recorded at a faster tempo, and became another major hit, their last top ten:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "Oh Boy!"]

Around the time that came out, Eddie Cochran joined the tour, and like the Everly Brothers he became fast friends with the group. The group also made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Holly, Mauldin, and Allison enthusiastically performing "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue", and Sullivan enthusiastically miming and playing an unplugged guitar.

Sullivan was becoming more and more sidelined in the group, and when they returned to Lubbock at the end of the tour -- during which he'd ended up breaking down and crying -- he decided he was going to quit the group.

Sullivan tried to have a solo career, releasing "It's All Over" on Dot Records:

[Excerpt: Niki Sullivan, "It's All Over"]

But he had no success, and ended up working in electronics, and in later years also making money from the Buddy Holly nostalgia industry. He'd only toured as a member of the group for a total of ninety days, though he'd been playing with them in the studio for a few months before that, and he'd played on a total of twenty-seven of the thirty-two songs that Holly or the Crickets would release in Holly's lifetime.

While he'd been promised an equal share of the group's income -- and Petty had also promised Sullivan, like all the other Crickets, that he would pay 10% of his income to his church -- Sullivan got into endless battles with Petty over seeing the group's accounts, which Petty wouldn't show him, and eventually settled for getting just $1000, ten percent of the recording royalties just for the single "That'll Be the Day", and co-writing royalties on one song, "I'm Going to Love You Too". His church didn't get a cent.

Meanwhile, Petty was busy trying to widen the rifts in the group. He decided that while the records would still be released as either "Buddy Holly" or "the Crickets", as a live act they would from now on be billed as "Buddy Holly and the Crickets", a singer and his backing group, and that while Mauldin and Allison would continue to get twenty-five percent of the money each, Holly would be on fifty percent. This was an easy decision, since Petty was handling all the money and only giving the group pocket money rather than giving them their actual shares of the money they'd earned.

The group spent all of 1958 touring, visiting Hawaii, Australia, the UK, and all over the US, including the famous last ever Alan Freed tour that we looked at recently in episodes on Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. They got in another guitarist, Tommy Allsup, who took over the lead role while Buddy played rhythm, and who joined them on tour, though he wasn't an official member of the group. The first recording Allsup played on was "It's So Easy":

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "It's So Easy"]

But the group's records were selling less and less well. Holly was getting worried, and there was another factor that came into play. On a visit to New York, stopping in to visit their publisher in the Brill Building, all three of the Crickets became attracted to the receptionist, a Puerto Rican woman named Maria Elena Santiago who was a few years older than them. They all started to joke about which of them would ask her out, and Holly eventually did so.

It turned out that while Maria Elena was twenty-five, she'd never yet been on a date, and she had to ask the permission of her aunt, who she lived with, and who was also the head of the Latin-American division of the publishing company. The aunt rang round every business contact she had, satisfied herself that Buddy was a nice boy, and gave her blessing for the date.

The next day, she was giving her blessing for the two to marry -- Buddy proposed on the very first date. They eventually went on a joint honeymoon with Jerry Allison and Peggy Sue.

But Maria Elena was someone who worked in the music industry, and was a little bit older, and she started saying things to Buddy like "You need to get a proper accounting of the money that's owed you", and "You should be getting paid". This strained his relationship with Petty, who didn't want any woman of colour butting her nose in and getting involved in his business.

Buddy moved to a flat in Greenwich Village with Maria Elena, but for the moment he was still working with Petty, even after Petty used some extremely misogynistic slurs I'm not going to repeat here against his new wife. But he was worried about his lack of hits, and they tried a few different variations on the formula. The Crickets recorded one song, a cover version of a song they'd learned on the Australian tour, with Jerry Allison singing lead. It was released under the name "Ivan" -- Allison's middle name -- and became a minor hit:

[Excerpt: Ivan, "Real Wild Child"]

They tried more and more different things, like getting King Curtis in to play saxophone on "Reminiscing", and on one occasion dispensing with the Crickets entirely and having Buddy cut a Bobby Darin song, "Early in the Morning", with other musicians. They were stockpiling recordings much faster than they could release them, but the releases weren't doing well at all. "It's So Easy" didn't even reach the top one hundred.

Holly was also working with other artists. In September, he produced a session for his friend Waylon Jennings, who would later become a huge country star. It was Jennings' first ever session, and they turned out an interesting version of the old Cajun song "Jole Blon", which had earlier been a hit for Moon Mullican. This version had Holly on guitar and King Curtis on saxophone, and is a really interesting attempt at blending Cajun music with R&B:

[Excerpt: Waylon Jennings, "Jole Blon"]

But Holly's biggest hope was placed in a session that was really breaking new ground. No rock and roll singer had ever recorded with a full string section before -- at least as far as he was aware, and bearing in mind that, as we've seen many times, there's never truly a first anything. In October 1958, Holly went into the studio with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra, with the intention of recording three songs -- his own "True Love Ways", a song called "Moondreams" written by Petty, and one called "Raining in My Heart" written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who'd written many hits for his friends the Everly Brothers.

At the last minute, though, he decided to record a fourth song, which had been written for him by Paul Anka, the same kid whose "Diana" had been so irritating to him the year before. He played through the song on his guitar for Dick Jacobs, who only had a short while to write the arrangement, and so stuck to the simplest thing he could think of, basing it around pizzicato violins:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "It Doesn't Matter Any More"]

At that point, everything still seemed like it could work out OK. Norman Petty and the other Crickets were all there at the recording session, cheering Buddy on. That night the Crickets appeared on American Bandstand, miming to "It's So Easy". That would be the last time they ever performed together, and soon there would be an irreparable split that would lead directly to Holly's death -- and to his posthumous fame.

Holly was getting sick of Norman Petty's continual withholding of royalties, and he'd come up with a plan. The Crickets would, as a group, confront Petty, get him to give them the money he owed them, and then all move to New York together to start up their own record label and publishing company. They'd stop touring, and focus on making records, and this would allow them the time to get things right and try new things out, which would lead to them having hits again, and they could also produce records for their friends like Waylon Jennings and Sonny Curtis.

It was a good plan, and it might have worked, but it relied on them getting that money off Norman Petty.

When the other two got back to Texas, Petty started manipulating them. He told them they were small-town Texas boys who would never be able to live in the big city. He told them that they didn't need Buddy Holly, and that they could carry on making Crickets records without him. He told them that Maria Elena was manipulating Buddy, and that if they went off to New York with him it would be her who was in charge of the group from that point on. And he also pointed out that he was currently the only signatory on the group's bank account, and it would be a real shame if something happened to all that money.

By the time Buddy got back to Texas, the other two Crickets had agreed that they were going to stick with Norman Petty. Petty said it was fine if Buddy wanted to fire him, but he wasn't getting any money until a full audit had been done of the organisation's money. Buddy was no longer even going to get the per diem pocket money or expenses he'd been getting.

Holly went back to New York, and started writing many, many, more songs, recording dozens of acoustic demos for when he could start his plan up:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Crying, Waiting, Hoping"]

It was a massive creative explosion for the young man. He was not only writing songs himself, but he was busily planning to make an album of Latin music, and he was making preparations for two more projects he'd like to do -- an album of duets on gospel songs with Mahalia Jackson, and an album of soul duets with Ray Charles. He was going to jazz clubs, and he had ambitions of following Elvis into films, but doing it properly -- he enrolled in courses with Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, to learn Method Acting. Greenwich Village in 1958 was the perfect place for a young man with a huge amount of natural talent and appetite for learning, but little experience of the wider world and culture.

But the young couple were living off Maria Elena's aunt's generosity, and had no income at all of their own. And then Maria Elena revealed that she was pregnant. And Norman Petty revealed something he'd kept hidden before -- by the terms of Buddy's contract, he hadn't really been recording for Brunswick or Coral, so they didn't owe him a penny. He'd been recording for Petty's company, who then sold the masters on to the other labels, and would get all the royalties. The Crickets bank account into which the royalties had supposedly been being paid, and which Petty had refused to let the band members see, was essentially empty.

There was only one thing for it. He had to do another tour. And the only one he could get on was a miserable-seeming affair called the Winter Dance Party. While most of the rock and roll package tours of the time had more than a dozen acts on, this one had only five. There was an opening act called Frankie Sardo, and then Dion and the Belmonts, who had had a few minor hits, and had just recorded, but not yet released, their breakthrough record "Teenager in Love":

[Excerpt: Dion and the Belmonts, "Teenager in Love"]

Then there was the Big Bopper, who was actually a fairly accomplished songwriter but was touring on the basis of his one hit, a novelty song called "Chantilly Lace":

[Excerpt: the Big Bopper, "Chantilly Lace"]

And Ritchie Valens, whose hit "Donna" was rising up the charts in a way that "It Doesn't Matter Any More" was notably failing to do:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Donna"]

Buddy put together a new touring band consisting of Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass -- who had never played bass before starting the tour -- and a drummer called Carl Bunch. For a while it looked like Buddy's friend Eddie Cochran was going to go on tour with them as well, but shortly before the tour started Cochran got an offer to do the Ed Sullivan Show, which would have clashed with the tour dates, and so he didn't make it.

Maria Elena was very insistent that she didn't want Buddy to go, but he felt that he had no choice if he was going to support his new child.

The Winter Dance Party toured Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, through the end of January and the beginning of February 1959, and the conditions were miserable for everyone concerned. The tour had been put together with no thought of logistics, and it zig-zagged wildly across those three states, with gigs often four hundred miles away from each other. The musicians had to sleep on the tour bus -- or buses. The tour was being run on a shoe-string, and they'd gone with the cheapest vehicle-hire company possible. They went through, according to one biography I've read, eight different buses in eleven days, as none of the buses were able to cope with the Midwestern winter, and their engines kept failing and the heating on several of the buses broke down.

I don't know if you've spent any time in that part of America in the winter, but I go there for Christmas every year (my wife has family in Minnesota) and it's unimaginably cold in a way you can't understand unless you've experienced it. It's not unusual for temperatures to drop to as low as minus forty degrees, and to have three feet or more of snow. Travelling in a bus, with no heating, in that weather, all packed together, was hell for everyone. The Big Bopper and Valens were both fat, and couldn't fit in the small seats easily. Several people on the tour, including Bopper and Valens, got the flu. And then finally Carl Bunch got hospitalised with frostbite.

Buddy's band, which was backing everyone on stage, now had no drummer, and so for the next three days of the tour Holly, Dion, and Valens would all take it in turns playing the drums, as all of them were adequate drummers. The shows were still good, at least according to a young man named Robert Zimmerman, who saw the first drummerless show, in Duluth Minnesota, and who would move to Greenwich Village himself not that long afterwards.

After a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy had had enough. He decided to charter a plane to take him to Fargo, North Dakota, which was just near Moorhead, Minnesota, where they were planning on playing their next show. He'd take everyone's laundry -- everyone stank and had been wearing the same clothes for days -- and get it washed, and get some sleep in a real bed.

The original plan was to have Allsup and Jennings travel with him, but eventually they gave up their seats to the two other people who were suffering the most -- the Big Bopper and Valens. There are different stories about how that happened, most involving a coin-toss, but they all agree that when Buddy found out that Waylon Jennings was giving up his seat, he jokingly said to Jennings "I hope your old bus freezes", and Jennings replied, "Yeah, well I hope your ol' plane crashes".

The three of them got on the plane in the middle of the night, on a foggy winter's night, which would require flying by instruments. Unfortunately, while the pilot on the plane was rated as being a good pilot during the day, he kept almost failing his certification for being bad at flying by instrument. And the plane in question had an unusual type of altitude meter. Where most altitude meters would go up when the plane was going up and down when it was going down, that particular model's meter went down when the plane was going up, and up when it was going down.

The plane took off, and less than five minutes after takeoff, it plummeted straight down, nose first, into the ground at top speed, killing everyone on board instantly.

As soon as the news got out, Holly's last single finally started rising up the charts. It ended up going to number thirteen on the US charts, and number one in many other countries.

The aftermath shows how much contempt the music industry -- and society itself -- had for those musicians at that time. Maria Elena found out about Buddy's death not from the police, but from the TV -- this later prompted changes in how news of celebrity deaths was to be revealed. She was so upset that she miscarried two days later. She was too distraught to attend the funeral, and to this day has still never been able to bring herself to visit her husband's grave. The grief was just too much.

The rest of the people on the tour were forced to continue the remaining thirteen days of the tour without the three acts anyone wanted to go and see, but were also not paid their full wages, because the bill wasn't as advertised.

A new young singer was picked up to round out the bill on the next gig, a young Minnesotan Holly soundalike called Bobby Vee, whose first single, "Suzy Baby", was just about to come out:

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, "Suzy Baby"]

When Vee went on tour on his own, later, he hired that Zimmerman kid we mentioned earlier as his piano player. Zimmerman worked under the stage name Elston Gunn, but would later choose a better one.

After that date Holly, Valens, and the Bopper were replaced by Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Jimmy Clanton, and the tour continued.

Meanwhile, the remaining Crickets picked themselves up and carried on. They got Buddy's old friend Sonny Curtis on guitar, and a succession of Holly-soundalike singers, and continued playing together until Joe Mauldin died in 2015. Most of their records without Buddy weren't particularly memorable, but they did record one song written by Curtis which would later become a hit for several other people, "I Fought the Law":

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "I Fought the Law"]

But the person who ended up benefiting most from Holly's death was Norman Petty. Suddenly his stockpile of unreleased Buddy Holly recordings was a goldmine -- and not only that, he ended up coming to an agreement with Holly's estate that he could take all those demos Holly had recorded and overdub new backing tracks on them, turning them into full-blown rock and roll songs. Between overdubbed versions of the demos, and stockpiled full-band recordings, Buddy Holly kept having hit singles in the rest of the world until 1965, though none charted in the US, and he made both Petty and his estate very rich.

Norman Petty died in 1984. His last project was a still-unreleased "updating" of Buddy's biggest hits with synthesisers.

These days, Buddy Holly is once again on tour, or at least something purporting to be him is. You can now go and see a "hologram tour", in which an image of a look-not-very-alike actor miming to Holly's old recordings is projected on glass, using the old Victorian stage trick Pepper's Ghost, while a live band plays along to the records. Just because you've worked someone to death aged twenty-two, doesn't mean that they can't still keep earning money for you when they're eighty-three. And a hologram will never complain about how cold the tour bus is, or want to wash his laundry.

Mar 17, 2020
Episode 73: "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens in a dinner jacket, wearing a bow tie

Episode seventy-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens, and is the first of a two-part story which will conclude next week with an episode on Buddy Holly. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Kansas City" by Wilbert Harrison.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


Only one biography of Valens has ever been written -- understandably since his public career lasted a matter of months and he died when he was seventeen -- but Beverly Mendheim's book is about as good as one could expect given that.

And this CD compiles all three of the posthumous album releases, Valens' entire musical legacy.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


This is actually going to be part one of a two-part story, which will be continued in next week's episode. Ritchie Valens died so young that he is nowadays mostly known for his death, but in this episode we're going to look at why people cared about him at all -- the story of the plane crash that took his life will wait for next week's episode. This week, we're going to look at his short recording career, and at his most famous record:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "La Bamba"]

So far in this podcast, when we've looked at race, we've mostly dealt with either black or white musicians, along with a few people who are clearly white by the standards of 2020 but might not have been considered so at the time.

But there was, in Los Angeles, a whole parallel music culture growing up around Latino teenagers. This subculture only rarely impinged on the consciousness of the wider American public, but without it we would have had no garage rock and no punk, as we know them today. And the first big star, the person around whom that culture coalesced, was Ritchie Valens.

Now, I have to stress here that I am at even more of a disadvantage when talking about this subculture than I am when talking about black America. While black culture has been extensively documented in all sorts of other popular culture I've consumed, and I've studied mid-twentieth-century black American culture to a reasonable extent (though nowhere near enough, of course, that my thoughts on the subject should be taken as authoritative), I have had almost no exposure to the Latino culture of the same time period.

And on top of that, there's an additional problem, which is that I am going to have to refer to quite a few Spanish terms in the course of this episode, and I don't speak Spanish. While I'm going to try my best with those, I will undoubtedly mangle some things.

But that's sort of appropriate, at least, in the case of Ritchie Valens, because one of the things that people who knew him would say is that he spoke Spanish terribly -- while he was a Mexican-American, he was raised in an English-speaking household, and only spoke Spanish as a second language, in which he wasn't especially fluent.

By all accounts, in fact, Valens -- who was born Richard Valenzuela, but had his name shortened when he got a record deal -- was at least somewhat unpopular among the other Mexican-Americans at his school. Some of this was due to his appearance -- he was notably light-skinned for a Mexican-American, and apparently there was a level of colourism among Latino kids in that area at that time, and he was also quite fat -- and some was due to his willingness to associate with people of other races, as he had both black and white friends.

Valens' big interest in school was music, especially R&B, and especially the music of Little Richard and Larry Williams, and other people who had recorded for Specialty Records. When he was in high school, he joined a group called the Silhouettes, who had named themselves after a recent hit of that name by the Rays:

[Excerpt: The Rays, "Silhouettes"]

That song was also the inspiration for another group, a doo-wop group also called the Silhouettes, who had a hit with "Get a Job". That's not this group, and they weren't yet known at the time.

These Silhouettes never recorded, and after Valens became famous there were a lot of interviews with various members of the band who disagreed, of course, on who it was who invited Valens into the band, who the leader of the band was, and who had really taught Valens everything he knew about performing, as well as disagreeing on what songs the band performed, and who contributed what to the songs that made Valens famous.

The Silhouettes were by modern standards a very big band, having three trumpets, five saxophones, a vibraphone player, a pianist, a drummer, and a couple of singers, as well as Valens on guitar and vocals. They were very unusual for the time in being a mixed-race group -- they were mostly Mexican-Americans, but there were also black and Italian members (at a time when Italians weren't considered fully white by then-prevailing racial standards) and a Japanese-American saxophone player. Their repertoire was apparently largely based around R&B songs, but they would occasionally play Mexican material, usually when requested for a particular event such as a wedding. Valens usually didn't sing on those songs, because he didn't speak Spanish, but he was eventually persuaded to sing one song in Spanish, "La Bamba".

"La Bamba" is an old folk song from Veracruz in Mexico, and is an example of a style called son jarocho, [CUT THIS which fuses Mexican and African musical styles]. The earliest known recording of “La Bamba” is from 1939, but there are suggestions it's been around for centuries:

[Excerpt: El Jarocho, "La Bamba"]

The song is traditionally sung at weddings, and its origins are fairly obscure. I've seen claims that the song has its origins in music made by slaves in Mexico, and that the title is a reference either to the Mbamba tribe from Angola or to a seventeenth-century slave uprising called the Bambarria -- but the only references I can find to that uprising talk about how it was an inspiration for the song, and seem to differ on all the other details.

As I've said before on this podcast, I tend to doubt a lot of stories claiming that various bits of music and folklore have their origin in African traditions kept up by slaves, as the majority of such stories tend to have very little evidence backing them up, and in the case of “La Bamba” I think it's far more likely that the song, whose lyrics are mostly about a dance, is referring to the Spanish word "bambolear", which means to sway, swing, or wobble. Which is not to say that there's no African influence on the song -- I've talked before about how African music has influenced Central and South American musical forms, and the son jarocho tradition “La Bamba” is a part of is a mixture of Spanish, indigenous, and African styles. But I think it's safe to say that the song doesn't have a "ring a ring a roses" style hidden meaning (and, for that matter, nor does ring a ring a roses" in reality) and that it is what it sounds like -- a song about a dance, with nonsense lyrics thrown in.

When the Silhouettes played the song, they did it more or less the same way everyone else at the time would play it. There are no recordings of the Silhouettes, but they likely based their performance on a successful recording of the song like the version by Hermanos Huesca:

[Excerpt: Hermanos Huesca, "La Bamba"]

The Silhouettes built up quite a local following, and in January 1958 they played a show that they promoted themselves, in a hall they'd rented out in order to raise money to pay for Valens' family's mortgage payment for that month. One of the people who attended the show was a twenty-year-old from the area named Doug Macchia, who vaguely knew a couple of the band members.

Macchia was, at the time, employed by Bob Keane. We've not mentioned Keane himself before, but we have mentioned one of the labels he owned, Keen Records, which was the label on which he'd released Sam Cooke's "You Send Me":

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "You Send Me"]

Many of the people involved in that record, like guitarist René Hall and drummer Earl Palmer, had worked with many of the Specialty acts that Valens admired, and Keane had started employing them on a regular basis, both on Keen Records and on his new label, Del-Fi.

Macchia recorded the Silhouettes at the gig on a portable tape recorder, and took the recording (which is now lost) to Keane, who was impressed enough with Valens, though not with the other members, that he requested that they come to audition for him in his home recording studio. Valens was at first reluctant to go to the audition when Macchia told him about it, and he also delayed the audition, because when Macchia came round Valens was minding the other children at home and had to wait until his mother got back before he could go to the studio.

While he was waiting, Macchia helped Valens finish up a song he was working on, which he named after a girl with whom he'd been having some sort of relationship (people differ on whether it was just a crush he had or whether they were in some great doomed romance):

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Donna"]

When it came to the audition, Keane was impressed with Valens, not because of his ability, but because of his energy. Keane signed him, and started shaping him into a new style of performer.

Valens was not a particularly proficient guitarist. He had a lot of natural skill, and a love of the instrument, but when he first started recording he could only play in a handful of keys. Almost everything he recorded is in the key of D or A, and had only three or four chords. When he recorded one song and needed to drop the key down to D flat, he ended up tuning his guitar down half a step, because he didn't know the chords in that key -- and on another occasion, when he was trying to tell the bass player on a session what part to play, he became frustrated because the part he could hear in his head had a low D, but the bass only goes down as far as a low E.

He would rarely play the same song the same way twice, and most of the recordings he completed were pulled together by Bob Keane from multiple takes -- the tapes were spliced so much that Stan Ross, the co-owner of Gold Star Studios, described them as "looking like they'd been through World War Fourteen". Valens would go into the studio with a rough idea for a melody and a few words, and improvise several different variations on the song, and the best bits of each improvisation would be used for the finished recording.

According to at least some sources, Bob Keane would shape the actual song during the recording and in the edit, helping Valens finish the lyrics and editing together bits of different performances to make a coherent song out of them. Other sources, including Ross, say that wasn't the case and that Valens essentially produced his own sessions and wrote all the material himself. I actually lean towards Keane's claims in this case, because Keane was one of the few record company owners who was himself an accomplished musician, being a fairly respectable jazz clarinettist, and Valens seems to have had a very laissez-faire attitude towards structure.

Members of the Silhouettes have talked about Valens' performances on stage, where he would start out playing, for example, "Jenny Jenny" by Little Richard, but after a few lines, he would start improvising his own new melody and lyrics, which would be different every time. This seems to back up Bob Keane's claims that Valens would only bring in a four or eight-bar riff and a few lines of lyric and improvise the rest in performances which Keane would shape. The most obvious example of Valens working this way is the song "Ooh My Head", a song that's credited as a solo Valens composition. Listen to Valens' song:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Ooh My Head"]

And now compare Little Richard's earlier "Ooh! My Soul":

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Ooh! My Soul!"]

You can see that Valens' song seems to have come from precisely this process, of performing someone else's song and changing it around until it became something different, though in this case not all that different.

Amusingly, Led Zeppelin later did exactly the same thing with Valens' song, resulting in "Boogie With Stu":

[Excerpt: Led Zeppelin, "Boogie With Stu"]

While Little Richard never sued over his song being appropriated by Valens, Bob Keane, who owned the publishing for Valens' songs, did sue Led Zeppelin for that one, even though they had tried to forestall the possibility of a lawsuit by crediting Valens' mother as a co-writer.

So it seems safe to say that Valens' music was largely spontaneous, to the extent that even after the recording had gone out, he would change the song dramatically in live performance. Compare, for example, the studio version of "Come On Let's Go":

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Come On Let's Go"]

With this recording of him performing the song live at his old junior high school after it had already become a hit:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Come On Let's Go (live at Pacoima Junior High School)"]

As you can hear, the basic structure of the song remains the same, but there are huge variations in both the lyrics and the melody.

At the time of his audition, Valens still thought of himself as primarily an R&B singer, and he was being referred to as "the Little Richard of the Valley", but Keane had other ideas. Keane didn't believe that anyone other than black people could make good R&B music, and while Valens would record R&B songs as album tracks -- he'd record both "Bony Moronie" by Larry Williams and "Framed" by the Robins -- Keane was more interested in emphasising the Latin sound of Valens' music.

Happily for Keane, Valens' relatively limited guitar playing skills allowed him to do just that. Most R&B and rock and roll of the time was based on a handful of different chord sequences, of which the most common was the twelve-bar blues. The twelve-bar blues has only three chords in, which are the first, fourth, and fifth chords of the major scale. You play four bars of the first, two bars of the fourth, two more of the first, then one each of the fifth and fourth, and two more of the first, like this:

[demonstrates twelve-bar blues on guitar]

A lot of Latin music uses those same three chords, just arranged in different ways. For example, there's what's known as the I-IV-V-I progression:

[demonstrates on guitar]

That's the basis of quite a few Latin songs, and it also became the basis of the first record Valens released, "Come On Let's Go":

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Come On Let's Go"]

"Come On Let's Go" was recorded along with its B-side, a cover of "Framed" by the Robins, by Valens at Gold Star studios backed by a group of session musicians who would become regulars on his sessions. The union documents for the sessions are not available, so there's some question as to exactly who played on which recordings, but they would usually involve Rene Hall, Bill Pitman, and/or Carol Kaye on guitar along with Valens himself, Red Callender or Buddy Clarke on standup bass, Earl Palmer on drums, and Ernie Freeman on piano. Sometimes one of the guitarists would instead play a Danelectro bass -- a six-string bass guitar with a unique tone that became a signature of many records made in LA. Many of these musicians would later go on to be important parts of the Wrecking Crew, the informal collective of session musicians who played on a huge number of hit records made in LA in the sixties.

"Come On Let's Go" was a minor hit, reaching number forty-two on the Hot One Hundred. This was enough to prove to Keane that his instincts were right -- if he pushed Valens into a Latin rock sound, he could have a big star on his hands. He just needed some more material in that style. And he found the next single by accident, when he heard Valens noodling "La Bamba" on his guitar in the back seat of Keane's car.

Keane insisted that that should be Valens' next single, but Valens was very hesitant. He considered the song to be an important part of his family's culture, and didn't want to be accused of selling out his cultural background for a cheap hit. Keane thought that was ridiculous, though personally I have a lot more sympathy with Valens' problem.

Valens was also worried about his Spanish -- he basically didn't speak Spanish at all, and he originally thought it might be an idea to get his aunt to help him translate the lyrics into English and sing those. But eventually it was decided that he'd just sing it in the original Spanish, and he got his aunt to write down as many of the lyrics as she could remember, and learned them phonetically. While Valens normally could only sing while playing his guitar, this time he recorded the vocal as an overdub, apparently with Bob Keane standing behind him whispering the lyrics to him.

The arrangement was very different from any earlier versions of the song, and the result was the first record to successfully meld Latin and rock and roll styles into one coherent whole:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "La Bamba"]

For the B-side, Keane wanted something that could be a throwaway, so as not to distract from the A-side, and so he just got the musicians to overdub onto the original demo of "Donna" that Valens had recorded in his basement:

[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, "Donna"]

As it turned out, "Donna" became the bigger hit -- "Donna" reached number two on the charts, while "La Bamba" only reached number twenty-two. But "La Bamba" is the record that became far more influential.

"La Bamba" has another three-chord sequence, based around those same three chords, but in yet another order. This one is known as the three-chord trick, and goes I-IV-V-IV, like this:

[Demonstrates I-IV-V-IV on guitar]

"La Bamba" wasn't the first rock and roll record to use that pattern -- there are only a small number of patterns that one can make out of the same three chords, and in particular Chuck Berry had recorded "Havana Moon" a year earlier, and that song would itself go on to be particularly influential. But "La Bamba" definitely was the one that inspired a *lot* of other records to use the same pattern, and one can hear the distinctly Latin echoes of it in records like "Hang on Sloopy":

[Excerpt: The McCoys, "Hang on Sloopy"]

or "Twist and Shout":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Twist and Shout"]

Between that and the influence of "Havana Moon" on records like "Louie Louie" and "Wild Thing", the three-chord trick became one of the most important chord sequences in rock music, and "La Bamba" was the first record to make that chord sequence popular, and inspired thousands of garage bands.

On the back of the success of "La Bamba" and "Donna", Valens appeared in the Alan Freed film "Go Johnny Go", which featured Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Flamingos and Jackie Wilson. Valens performed "Ooh My Head", and also appeared in several scenes of the film, but had no lines, as the musical performers weren't being paid, as the film was considered to be promotion for them, while anyone who had a line was considered an actor and had to be paid.

That film was the last major piece of work that Valens did before he headed off for what would be his last tour, which we'll talk about next week, when we look at the last recording Buddy Holly released in his lifetime.


Mar 09, 2020
Episode 72: "Trouble" by Elvis Presley

Elvis in his army uniform with his mother, Gladys

Episode seventy-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Trouble" by Elvis Presley, his induction into the army, and his mother's death. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "When" by the Kalin Twins.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/----more----


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

There are many, many books about Elvis Presley out there, but the one I'm using as my major resource for information on him, and which has guided my views as to the kind of person he was, is Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick, generally considered the best biography of him.

 The Colonel by Alanna Nash is a little more tabloidy than those two, but is the only full-length biography I know of of Colonel Tom Parker.

This box set contains all the recordings, including outtakes, for Elvis' 1950s films, while this one contains just the finished versions of every record he made in the fifties.

And King Creole itself is well worth watching.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



As 1957 turned into 1958, Elvis' personal life was going badly wrong, even as he was still the biggest star in the world. In particular, his relationships with everyone involved in his career -- everyone except the Colonel, of course -- were getting weakened.

In September, Scotty Moore and Bill Black had written to Elvis, resigning from his band -- they'd been put on a salary, rather than a split of the money, and then Elvis' concert schedule had been cut back so much that they'd only played fourteen shows so far all year. They were getting into debt while Elvis was earning millions, but worse than that, they felt that the Colonel was controlling access to Elvis so much that they couldn't even talk to him.

DJ Fontana wouldn't sign the letter -- he'd joined the group later than the others, and so he'd not lost his position in the way that the others had. But the other two were gone. Elvis offered them a fifty dollar raise, but Scotty said that on top of that he would need a ten thousand dollar bonus just to clear his debts -- and while Elvis was considering that, a newspaper interview with Moore and Black appeared, in which they talked about Elvis having broken his promise to them that when he earned more, they would earn more.

Elvis was incensed, and decided that he didn't need them anyway. He could replace them easily. And for one show, he did just that. He played the fair at his old home town of Tupelo, Mississippi, with DJ and the Jordanaires, and with two new musicians. On guitar was Hank Garland, a great country session musician who was best known for his hit "Sugarfoot Rag":

[Excerpt: Hank Garland, "Sugarfoot Rag"]

Garland would continue to play with Elvis on recordings and occasional stage performances until 1961, when he was injured in an accident and became unable to perform. On bass, meanwhile, was Chuck Wigington, a friend of DJ's who, like DJ, had been a regular performer in the Louisiana Hayride band, and who had also played for many years with Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys:

[Excerpt: Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, "Screwball"]

Wigington actually didn't have a contract for the show, and he wasn't even a full-time musician at the time -- he had to take a leave of absence from his job working in a bank in order to play the gig.

Meanwhile, Scotty and Bill were off on their own playing the Dallas State Fair. But Elvis found that performing live without Scotty and Bill was just not the same, even though Garland and Wigington were perfectly fine musicians, and he decided to offer Scotty and Bill their old jobs back -- sort of. They'd be getting paid a per diem whether or not they were performing, which was something, but after the next recording sessions Bill never again recorded with Elvis -- he was replaced in the studio by Bob Moore. Scotty remained a regular in Elvis' studio band too, but only on rhythm guitar -- Hank Garland was going to be the lead player on Elvis' records from now on.

The new arrangement required a lot of compromise on both sides, but it meant that Moore and Black were on a better financial footing, and Elvis could remain comfortable on stage, but it was now very clear that the Colonel, at least, saw Black and Moore as replaceable, and neither of them were necessary for Elvis to continue making hit records.

His relationship with the two men who had come up with him had now permanently changed -- and that was going to be the case with a lot of other relationships as well.

In particular, the Colonel was starting to think that Leiber and Stoller should be got rid of. The two of them were dangerous as far as the Colonel was concerned. Elvis respected them, they weren't under the Colonel's control, they didn't even *like* the Colonel, and they had careers that didn't rely on their association with Elvis.

But they were also people who were able to generate hits for Elvis, and they were currently working for RCA, so while that was the case he would put them to use. But they were loose cannons.

Now, before we go further, I should point out that what I'm about to describe is *one* way that Leiber and Stoller have explained what happened. In various different tellings, they've told events in different orders, and described things slightly differently. This is, to the best of my understanding, the most likely series of events, but I could be wrong.

Leiber and Stoller had a complex attitude towards their work with Elvis. They liked Elvis himself, a lot, and they admired and respected his work ethic in the studio, and shared his taste in blues music. But at the same time, they didn't consider the work they were doing with Elvis to be real art, in the way that they considered their R&B records to be. It was easy money -- anything Elvis recorded was guaranteed to sell in massive amounts, so they didn't have to try too hard to write anything particularly good for him, but they didn't like the Colonel, and they were already, after a couple of films, getting bored with the routine nature of writing for Elvis' films.

I'm going to paraphrase a quote from Jerry Leiber here, because I don't want to get this podcast moved into the adults-only section on Apple Podcasts, and the Leiber quote is quite full of expletives, but the gist of it is that they believed that if they were given proper artistic freedom with Elvis they could have made history, but that the people in his management team only wanted money. Every film needed just a few songs to plug into gaps, and they were usually the same type of songs to go in the same type of gaps. They were bored.

And they actually had a plan for a project that would stretch them all creatively. Leiber vaguely knew the film producer Charles Feldman, who had produced On The Waterfront and The Seven-Year Itch, and Feldman had come to Leiber with a proposition. He'd recently acquired the rights to the novel A Walk on the Wild Side, set in New Orleans, and he thought that it would be perfect for Elvis. He'd have the script written by Budd Schulberg, and have Elia Kazan direct -- the same team that had made On The Waterfront.

Elvis would be working with people who had made Marlon Brando, one of his idols, a star. Leiber and Stoller would write the songs, and given that Kazan was known as an actors' director, the chances were that the film could take Elvis to the next level in film stardom -- he could become another Sinatra, someone who was equally respected as an actor and as a singer.

Leiber took the proposal to Jean Aberbach, who was one of the heads of Hill and Range, the music publishing company that handled all the songs that Elvis performed. Aberbach listened to the proposal, called the Colonel to relay the idea, and then said "If you ever try to interfere with the business or artistic workings of the process known as Elvis Presley, if you ever start thinking in this direction again, you will never work for us again."

So they resigned themselves to just churning out the same stuff for Elvis' films. Although, while they were soured on the process, the next film would be more interesting:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "King Creole"]

"King Creole" was the first of Elvis' films to be based on a book -- though "Loving You" had been based on a short story that had appeared in a magazine. "A Stone For Danny Fisher" was one of Harold Robbins' early novels, and was about a boxer in New York who accepts a bribe from criminals to lose a fight, but then wins the fight anyway, goes on the run, but encounters the criminals who bribed him two years later. It's the kind of basic plot that has made perfectly good films in the past -- like the Bruce Willis sequence in Pulp Fiction, for example.

But while it's a fairly decent plot, it is... not the plot of "King Creole". Hal Wallis had bought the rights to the book in the hope of making it a vehicle for James Dean, before Dean's death. When it was reworked as a Presley vehicle, obviously it was changed to be about a singer rather than a boxer, and so the whole main plotline about throwing a fight was dropped, and then the setting was changed to New Orleans... and truth be told, the resulting film seems to have more than a hint of "Walk on the Wild Side" about it, with both being set in New Orleans' underworld, and both having a strained relationship between a father and a son as a main theme.

Oddly, Leiber and Stoller have never mentioned these similarities, even though it seems very likely to me that someone involved in the Elvis organisation took their idea and used it without credit. They've both, though, talked about how dull they found working on the film's soundtrack -- and even though they were currently Elvis' favourite writers, and producing his sessions, they ended up writing only three of the eleven songs for the film.

"King Creole" is, in fact, a rather good film. It has a good cast, including Walter Matthau, and it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who was one of those directors of the time who could turn his hand to anything and make good films in a huge variety of genres. He'd directed, among many, many, many other films, "White Christmas", the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, and "Casablanca".

However, Leiber and Stoller's writing for the film was more or less on autopilot, and they produced songs like "Steadfast, Loyal, and True", which is widely regarded as the very worst song they ever wrote:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Steadfast, Loyal, and True"]

That said, there is an important point that should be made about the songs Elvis recorded for his films generally, and which applies to that song specifically. Many of the songs Elvis would record for his films in later years are generally regarded as being terrible, terrible songs, and with good reason. Songs like "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car", "Yoga is as Yoga Does", "Queenie Wahini's Papaya", or "Ito Eats" have few if any merits.

But in part that's because they are not intended to work as songs divorced from their context in the film. They're part of the storytelling, not songs that were ever intended to be listened to as songs on their own.

But still, Leiber and Stoller could undoubtedly have come up with something better than "Steadfast, Loyal, and True", had they not been working with the attitude of "that'll do, it's good enough".

Indeed, the most artistically interesting song on the soundtrack is one that was not written by Leiber and Stoller at all, a jazz song sung as a duet with Kitty White, "Crawfish":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley and Kitty White, "Crawfish"]

While other songwriters were turning out things like that, Leiber and Stoller were putting in a minimal amount of effort, despite their previous wish to try to be more artistically adventurous with their work with Elvis. They still, however, managed to write one song that would become known as a classic, even if they mostly did it as a joke:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Trouble"]

That song combines two different elements of Leiber and Stoller's writing we've looked at previously. The first is their obsession with that stop-time blues riff, which had first turned up in Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" back in 1954:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "Hoochie Coochie Man"]

Leiber and Stoller had latched on to that riff, as we saw when we talked about "Riot in Cell Block #9" back in the episode on "The Wallflower". They would consistently use it as a signifier of the blues -- they used the same riff not only in "Riot in Cell Block #9" and "Trouble", but also "I'm A Woman" for Peggy Lee and "Santa Claus is Back in Town" for Elvis, and slight variations of it in "Framed" by the Robins and "Alligator Wine" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, among many others.

It's clearly a riff that they loved -- so much so that they pretty much single-handedly made it into something people will now think of as a generic indicator of the blues rather than, as it was originally, a riff that was used on one specific song -- but it's also a riff they could fall back on when they were just phoning in a song.

The other aspect of their songwriting that "Trouble" shows is their habit of writing songs as jokes and then giving them to singers as serious songs. They'd done this before with Elvis, when they'd written "Love Me" as a parody of a particular kind of ballad, and he'd then sung it entirely straight. Leiber compared “Trouble” to another song they'd written as a joke, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots":

[Excerpt: The Cheers, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"]

Leiber later said of "Trouble", comparing it to that song, "the only people who are going to take them seriously are Hell's Angels and Elvis Presley. I suppose there was a bit of contempt on our part." He went on to say "There's something laughable there. I mean, if you get Memphis Slim or John Lee Hooker singing it, it sounds right, but Elvis did not sound right to us. "

Either way, Elvis performs the song with enough ferocity that it sounded right to a lot of other people:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Trouble" 2]

He thought well enough of the song that when, a decade later, he recorded what became known as his comeback special, that was the first song in the show. And while Leiber clearly thought that Elvis didn't really sound like he was trouble in that song, you only have to compare, for example, the French cover version of it by Johnny Hallyday -- the man often referred to as the French Elvis -- to see how much less intense the vocal could have been:

[Excerpt: Johnny Hallyday, "La Bagarre"]

But some time after the King Creole sessions, the Colonel had the chance to separate Elvis from Leiber and Stoller for good. Elvis wanted them at all of his sessions, but Jerry Leiber got pneumonia and was unable to travel to a session. The Colonel kept insisting, and eventually Leiber asked Stoller what he should do, and Stoller said to tell him to do something to himself using words that you can't use without being bumped into the adult section of the podcast directories.

I assume from looking at the dates that this was for a session in June 1958 which Chet Atkins produced. From this point on, Leiber and Stoller would never work in the studio with Elvis again, and nor would they ever again be commissioned to write a song for him. They soon lost their jobs at RCA, which left them to concentrate on their work with R&B artists like the Clovers, the Coasters, and the Drifters.

Their active collaboration with Elvis -- a collaboration that would define all of them in the eyes of the public -- had lasted only ten months, from April 1957 through February 1958.

But Elvis kept an eye on their careers. He took note of songs they wrote for LaVern Baker:

[Excerpt: LaVern Baker, "Saved"]

The Clovers:

[Excerpt: The Clovers, "Bossa Nova Baby"]

The Coasters:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Little Egypt"]

and more, and would record many more of their songs. He'd just never again have them write a song specifically for him.

Not that this mattered in the short term for Leiber and Stoller, as that June 1958 session was Elvis' last one for a couple of years. Because Colonel Parker had forced Elvis into the Army.

At the time, and for many years afterwards, the US military still drafted every man in his early twenties for two years, and so of course Elvis was going to be drafted, but both the Army and Elvis assumed he'd be able to join Special Services, which would mean he'd be able to continue his career, so long as he performed a few free concerts for the military.

But Colonel Parker had other ideas. He didn't want his boy going around doing free shows all over the place and devaluing his product, and he also thought that Elvis was getting too big for his boots. Getting him sent away to Germany to spend two years scrubbing latrines and driving tanks, and away from all the industry people who might fill his head with ideas, sounded like an excellent plan. And not only that, but if he didn't give RCA much of a backlog to release while he was away, RCA would realise how much they needed the Colonel.

So the Colonel leaked to the press that Elvis was going to get special treatment, and got a series of stories planted saying how awful it was that they were going to treat Elvis with kid gloves, so that he could then indignantly deny that Elvis would do anything other than his duty.

For the next two years, the only recordings Elvis would make would be private ones, of himself and his army friends playing and singing during their down time:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Earth Angel"]

But there was still one final person in the Colonel's way, and fate took care of that:

[Excerpt: Gladys Presley, "Home Sweet Home"]

Elvis' mother had been unwell for some time -- and the descriptions of her illness sound an awful lot like the descriptions of Elvis' own final illness a couple of decades later. Recent reports have suggested that Elvis may have had hereditary autoimmune problems -- and that would seem to make a lot of sense given everything we know about him. Given that, it seems likely that his mother also had those problems. It also won't have helped that she was on a series of fad diets, and taking diet pills, in order to lose weight, as the Colonel kept pressuring her to look thinner in photos with Elvis.

Whatever the cause, she ended up hospitalised with hepatitis, which seemed to come from nowhere. Elvis was given compassionate leave to visit her in hospital, where she had the pink Cadillac that Elvis had bought her parked outside the window, so she could see it.

When she died on August 14, aged forty-six, Elvis was distraught. There are descriptions in biographies of him that go into detail about his reactions. I won't share those, because reading about them, even more than sixty years later, after everyone involved is dead, feels prurient to me, like an intrusion on something we're not meant to see or even really to comprehend. Suffice it to say that his mother's death was almost certainly the greatest trauma, by far, that Elvis ever experienced.

At the funeral, Elvis got the Blackwood Brothers -- Gladys' favourite gospel quartet -- to sing "Precious Memories":

[Excerpt: The Blackwood Brothers, "Precious Memories"]

Gladys' death, even more than his induction into the army, was the real end of the first phase of Elvis' life and career. From that point on, while he always cared about his father, he had nobody in his life who he could trust utterly. And even more importantly, Colonel Parker now had nobody standing in his way. Gladys had never really liked or trusted Colonel Parker, but Vernon Presley saw him as somebody with whom he could do business, and as the only person around his son who really understood business. The Colonel had little but contempt for Vernon Presley, but knew how to keep him happy.

While Elvis was in the Army, of course Scotty and Bill had to find other work. Scotty became a record producer, producing the record "Tragedy" for Thomas Wayne, whose full name was Thomas Wayne Perkins, and who was the brother of Johnny Cash's guitarist Luther Perkins:

[Excerpt: Thomas Wayne, "Tragedy"]

That went to number five on the pop charts, and after that Scotty took a job working for Sam Phillips, and when Elvis got out of the Army and Scotty rejoined him, he continued working for Phillips for a number of years.

Bill Black, meanwhile, formed Bill Black's Combo, who had a number of instrumental hits over the next few years:

[Excerpt: Bill Black's Combo, "Hearts of Stone"]

Unlike Scotty, Bill never worked with Elvis again after Elvis joined the army, and he concentrated on his own career. Bill Black's Combo had eight top forty hits, and were popular enough that they became the opening act for the Beatles' first US tour. Unfortunately, by that point, Black himself was too ill to tour, and he had to send the group out without him. He died in 1965, aged thirty-nine, from a brain tumour.

As Elvis entered the Army, a combination of deliberate effort on the Colonel's part and awful events had meant that every possible person who could give Elvis advice about his career, everyone who might tell him to trust his own artistic instincts, or who might push him in new directions, was either permanently removed from his life or distanced from him enough that they could have no further influence on him.

From now on, the Colonel was in charge.



Mar 02, 2020
REUPLOAD Episode 71: "Willie and the Hand Jive" by Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis holding a guitar, with the Three Tons of Joy, by a street sign saying

Note: This is a new version because I uploaded the wrong file originally


Episode seventy-one of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs continues our look at British music TV by looking at the first time it affected American R&B, and is also our final look at Johnny Otis.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Short Shorts" by the Royal Teens, a group whose members went on to be far more important than one might expect. 

Also, this is the first of hopefully many podcasts to come where Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/




As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

 Much of the information on Otis comes from Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story by George Lipsitz. 

I've also referred extensively to two books by Otis himself, Listen to the Lambs, and Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue.

I've used two main books on the British side of things: 

Pete Frame's The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective. Be warned, though -- his jokey and irreverent style can, when dealing with people like Larry Parnes (who was gay and Jewish) very occasionally tip over into reinforcing homophobic and anti-semitic stereotypes for an easy laugh.

Billy Bragg's Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is one of the best books I've read on music at all, and talks about the problems between the musicians' unions.

This three-CD set provides a great overview of Otis' forties and fifties work, both as himself and with other artists. Many of the titles will be very familiar to listeners of this podcast.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


And so we come to our last look at Johnny Otis, one of those people who has been turning up throughout the early episodes of the podcast. Indeed, he may continue to appear intermittently until at least the late sixties, as an influence and occasional collaborator. But the days of his influence on rock and roll music more or less came to an end with the rise of the rockabillies in the mid fifties, and from this point on he was not really involved in the mainstream of rock and roll.

But in one of those curious events that happens sometimes, just as Otis was coming to the end of the run of hits he produced or arranged or performed on for other people, and the run of discoveries that changed music, he had a rock and roll hit under his own name for the first and only time. And that hit was because of the Six-Five Special, the British TV show we talked about last week:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, "Willie and the Hand Jive"]

The way this podcast works, telling stories chronologically and introducing new artists as they come along, can sometimes make it seem like the music business in the fifties was in a constant state of revolution, with a new year zero coming up every year or two. "First-wave rockabilly is *so* January through August 1956, we're into late 1958 and everything's prototype soul now, granddad!"

But of course the majority of the podcast so far has looked at a very small chunk of time, concentrating on the mid 1950s, and plenty of people who were making hits in 1955 were still having very active careers as of 1958, and that's definitely the case for Johnny Otis.

While he didn't have that many big hits after rockabilly took over from R&B as the predominant form of rock and roll music, he was still making important records. For example, in 1957 he produced and co-wrote "Lonely, Lonely Nights" for Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers, which became a local hit, and which he thought at the time was the first big record to feature a Chicano singer.

We're going to talk about the Chicano identity in future episodes of the show, but Chicano (or Chicana or Chicanx) is a term that is usually used for Americans of Mexican origin. It can be both an ethnic and a cultural identifier, and it has also been used in the past as a racial slur. It's still seen as that by some people, but it's also the chosen identifier for a lot of people who reject other labels like Hispanic or Latino. To the best of my knowledge, it's a word that is considered acceptable and correct for white people to use when talking about people who identify that way -- which, to be clear, not all Americans of Mexican descent do, by any means -- but I'm very happy to have feedback about this from people who are affected by the word.

And Little Julian Herrera did identify that way, and he became a hero among the Chicano population in LA when "Lonely Lonely Nights" came out on Dig Records, a label Otis owned:

[Excerpt: Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers, "Lonely, Lonely Nights"]

But it turned out shortly afterwards that Herrera wasn't exactly what he seemed. Police came to Otis' door, and told him that the person he knew as Julian Herrera was wanted on charges of rape. And not only that, his birth name was Ron Gregory, and he was of Jewish ethnicity, and from a Hungarian-American family from Massachusetts. Apparently at some point he had run away from home and travelled to LA, where he had been taken in by a Mexican-American woman who had raised him as if he were her own son.

That was pretty much the end of Little Julian Herrera's career -- and indeed shortly after that, Dig Records itself closed down, and Otis had no record contract.

But then fate intervened, in the form of Mickey Katz. Mickey Katz was a comedian, who is now probably best known for his famous family -- his son is Joel Grey, the star of Cabaret, while his granddaughter, Jennifer Grey, starred in Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Katz's comedy consisted of him performing parodies of currently-popular songs, giving them new lyrics referencing Jewish culture. A typical example is his version of "Sixteen Tons", making it about working at a deli instead of down a mine:

[Excerpt: Mickey Katz, "Sixteen Tons"]

Even though Katz's music was about as far from Otis' as one can imagine, Katz had been a serious musician before he went into comedy, and when he went to see Otis perform live, he recognised his talent as a bandleader, and called his record label, urging them to sign him.

Katz was on Capitol, one of the biggest labels in the country, and so for the first time in many years, Otis had guaranteed major-label distribution for his records.

In October 1957, Capitol took the unusual step of releasing four Johnny Otis singles at the same time, each of them featuring a different vocalist from his large stable of performers. None did especially well on the American charts at the time, but one, featuring Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy, would have a major impact on Otis' career.

Marie Adams was someone who had been on the R&B scene for many years, and had been working with Otis in his show since 1953. She'd been born Ollie Marie Givens, but dropped the Ollie early on.

She was a shy woman, who had to be pushed by her husband to audition for Don Robey at Peacock Records. Robey had challenged her to sing along with Dinah Washington's record "Harbor Lights":

[Excerpt: Dinah Washington, "Harbor Lights"]

When she'd proved she could sing that, Robey signed her, hoping that he'd have a second Big Mama Thornton on his hands. And her first single seemed to confirm him in that hope -- "I'm Gonna Play the Honky Tonks" went to number three on the R&B chart and became one of the biggest hit records Peacock had ever released:

[Excerpt: Marie Adams, "I'm Gonna Play the Honky Tonks"]

But her later career with Peacock was less successful. The follow-up was a version of Johnny Ace's "My Song", which seems to have been chosen more because Don Robey owned the publishing than because the song and arrangement were a good fit for her voice, and it didn't do anything much commercially:

[Excerpt: Marie Adams, "My Song"

Like many of Peacock's artists who weren't selling wonderfully she was handed over to Johnny Otis to produce, in the hopes that he could get her making hits. Sadly, he couldn't, and her final record for Peacock came in 1955, when Otis produced her on one of many records recorded to cash in on Johnny Ace's death, "In Memory":

[Excerpt: Marie Adams, "In Memory"]

But that did so poorly that it's never had an official rerelease, not even on a digital compilation I have which has half a dozen other tributes to Ace on it by people like Vanetta Dillard and Linda Hayes.

Adams was dropped by her record label, but she was impressive enough as a vocalist that Otis -- who always had an ear for great singing -- kept her in his band, as the lead singer of a vocal trio, the Three Tons of Joy, who were so called because they were all extremely fat.

(I say this not as a criticism of them. I'm fat myself and absolutely fat-positive. Fat isn't a term of abuse in my book).

There seems to be some debate about the identity of the other two in the Three Tons of Joy. I've seen reliable sources refer to them as two sisters, Sadie and Francine McKinley, and as *Adams'* two sisters, Doris and Francine, and have no way of determining which of these is correct. The three of them would do synchronised dancing, even when they weren't singing, and they remained with Otis' show until 1960.

And so when Capitol came to release its first batch of Johnny Otis records, one of them had vocals by Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy.

The song in question was "Ma! He's Making Eyes At Me", a vaudeville song which dated back to 1921, and had originally sounded like this:

[Excerpt: Billy Jones, "Ma! She's Making Eyes at Me"]

In the hands of the Otis band and the Three Tons of Joy, it was transformed into something that owed more to Ruth Brown (especially with Marie Adams' pronunciation of "mama") than to any of the other performers who had recorded versions of the song over the decades:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis and his Orchestra with Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy: "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me"]

In the US, that did nothing at all on the charts, but for some reason it took off massively in the UK, and went to number two on the pop charts over here. It was so successful, in fact, that there were plans for a Johnny Otis Show tour of the UK in 1958.

Those plans failed, because of something I've not mentioned in this podcast before, but which radically shaped British music culture, and to a lesser extent American music culture, for decades.

Both the American Federation of Musicians and their British equivalent, the Musicians' Union, had since the early 1930s had a mutual protectionist agreement which prevented musicians from one of the countries playing in the other. After the Duke Ellington band toured the UK in 1933, the ban came into place on both sides.

Certain individual non-instrumental performers from one country could perform in the other, but only if they employed musicians from the other country. So for example Glenn Miller got his first experience of putting together a big band because Ray Noble, a British bandleader, had had hits in the US in the mid thirties. Noble and his vocalist Al Bowlly were allowed to travel to the US, but Noble's band wasn't, and so he had to get an American musician, Miller, to put together a new band.

Similarly, when Johnnie Ray had toured the UK in the early fifties, he'd had to employ British musicians, and when Lonnie Donegan had toured the US on the back of "Rock Island Line"'s success, he was backed by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio -- Donegan was allowed to sing, but not allowed to play guitar.

In 1955, the two unions finally came to a one-in-one-out agreement, which would last for the next few decades, where musicians from each country could tour, but only as a like-for-like swap. So Louis Armstrong was allowed to tour the UK, but only on condition that Freddie Randall, a trumpet player from Devon, got to tour the US. Stan Kenton's band toured the UK, while the Ted Heath Orchestra (which was not, I should point out, led by the Prime Minister of the same name) toured the US.

We can argue over whether Freddie Randall was truly an adequate substitute for Louis Armstrong, but I'm sure you can see the basic idea. The union was making sure that Armstrong wasn't taking a job that would otherwise have gone to a British trumpeter. Similarly, when Bill Haley and the Comets became the first American rock and roll group to tour the UK, in 1957, Lonnie Donegan was allowed to tour the US again, and this time he could play his guitar.

The Three Tons of Joy went over to the UK to appear on the Six-Five Special, backed by British musicians and to scout out some possible tour venues with Otis' manager, but the plans fell through because of the inability to find a British group who could reasonably do a swap with Otis' band.

They came back to the US, and cut a follow-up to "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me", with vocals by Marie and Johnny Otis:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis and Marie Adams, "Bye Bye Baby"]

That's an example of what Johnny Otis meant when he said later that he didn't like most of his Capitol recordings, because he was being pushed too far in a commercial rock and roll direction, while he saw himself as far closer in spirit to Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, or Louis Jordan than to Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly. The song is just an endless litany of the titles of recentish rock and roll hits, with little to recommend it.

It made the top twenty in the UK, mostly on the strength of people having bought the previous single. The record after that was an attempt to capitalise on "Ma! He's Making Eyes At Me" -- it was another oldie, this time from 1916, and another song about making eyes at someone. Surely it would give them another UK hit, right?:

[Excerpt: Marie Adams, "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?"]

Sadly, it sank without a trace -- at least until it was picked up by Emile Ford and the Checkmates, who released a soundalike cover version, which became the last British number one of the fifties and first of the sixties, and was also the first number one hit by a black British artist and the first record by a black British person to sell a million copies:

[Excerpt: Emile Ford and the Checkmates, "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?"]

We'll be hearing more from Ford's co-producer on that record, a young engineer named Joe Meek, later in the series.

But Otis had another idea for how to crack the British market.

While the Three Tons of Joy had been performing on Six-Five Special, they had seen the British audiences doing a weird dance that only used their arms. It was a dance that was originally popularised by a British group that was so obscure that they never made a record, and the only trace they left on posterity was this dance and three photos, all taken on the same night by, of all people, Ken Russell.

From those photos, the Bell Cats were one of the many British bands trying to sound like Bill Haley and the Comets. Their regular gig was at a coffee house called The Cat's Whisker, where they were popular enough that the audience were packed in like sardines -- the venue was so often dangerously overcrowded that the police eventually shut it down, and the owner reopened it as the first Angus Steak House, an infamous London restaurant chain.

In those Bell Cats performances, the audience were packed so tightly that they couldn't dance properly, and so a new dance developed among the customers, and spread -- a dance where you only moved your hands. The hand jive.

That dance spread to the audiences of the Six-Five Special, so much that Don Lang and his Frantic Five released "Six-Five Hand Jive" in March 1958:

[Excerpt: Don Lang and His Frantic Five, "Six-Five Hand Jive"]

Oddly, despite Six-Five Special not being shown in Sweden, that song saw no less than three Swedish soundalike cover versions, from (and I apologise if I mangle these names) Inger Bergrenn, Towa Carson, and the Monn-Keys.

The Three Tons of Joy demonstrated the hand jive to Otis, and he decided to write a song about the dance. There was a fad for dance songs in 1958, and he believed that writing a song about a dance that was popular in Britain, where he'd just had a big hit -- and namechecking those other dances, like the Walk and the Stroll -- could lead to a hit followup to "Ma He's Making Eyes At Me".

The dance also appealed to Otis because, oddly, it was very reminiscent of some of the moves that black American people would do when performing "Hambone", the folk dance-cum-song-cum-game that we discussed way back in episode thirty, and which inspired Bo Diddley's song "Bo Didlley".

Otis coupled lyrics about hand-jiving to the Bo Diddley rhythm -- though he would always claim, for the rest of his life, that he'd heard that rhythm from convicts on a chain gang before Diddley ever made a record:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, "Willie and the Hand Jive"]

Surprisingly, the record did nothing at all commercially in the UK. In fact, its biggest impact over here was that it inspired another famous dance. Cliff Richard cut his own version of "Willie and the Hand Jive" in 1959:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Shadows, "Willie and the Hand Jive"]

His backing band, the Shadows, were looking for a way to liven up the visual presentation of that song when they performed it live, and they decided that moving in unison would work well for the song, and worked out a few dance steps. The audience reaction was so great that they started doing it on every song. The famous -- or infamous -- Shadows Walk had developed.

But while "Willie and the Hand Jive" didn't have any success in the UK, in the US it became Otis' only top ten pop hit, and his first R&B top ten hit as a performer in six years, reaching number nine on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts. This was despite several radio stations banning it, as they assumed the "hand jive" was a reference to masturbation -- even though on Otis' TV shows and his stage performances, the Three Tons of Joy would demonstrate the dance as Otis sang. As late as the nineties, Otis was still having to deal with questions about whether "Willie and the Hand Jive" had some more lascivious meaning.

Of course, with him now being on a major label, he had to do follow-ups to his big hit, like "Willie Did The Cha-Cha":

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, "Willie Did The Cha-Cha"]

But chart success remained elusive, and nothing he did after this point got higher than number fifty-two on the pop charts. The music industry was slowly moving away from the kind of music that Otis had always made -- as genres got narrower, his appreciation for all forms of black American music meant that he no longer appealed to people who wanted one specific style of music.

He was also becoming increasingly involved in the civil rights movement, writing a weekly newspaper column decrying racism, helping his friend Mervyn Dymally who became the joint first black person elected to statewide office in the USA since the reconstruction, and working with Malcolm X and others. He had to deal with crosses burning on his lawn, and with death threats to his family -- while Otis was white, his wife was black.

The result was that Otis recorded and toured only infrequently during the sixties, and at one point was making so little as a musician that his wife became the main breadwinner of the family while he was a stay-at-home father.

After the Watts riots in 1965, which we'll talk about much more when we get to that time period, Otis wrote the book Listen to the Lambs, a combination political essay, autobiography, and mixture of eyewitness accounts of the riots that made a radical case that the first priority for the black community in which he lived wasn't so much social integration, which he believed impossible in the short term due to white racism, as economic equality -- he thought it was in the best interests, not only of black people but of white people as well, if black people were made equal economic participants in America as rapidly as humanly possible, and if they should be given economic and political control over their own lives and destinies. The book is fierce in its anger at systemic racism, at colonialism, at anglocentric beauty standards that made black people hate their own bodies and faces, at police brutality, at the war in Vietnam, and at the systemic inequalities keeping black people down.

And over and again he makes one point, and I'll quote from the book here: "A newborn Negro baby has less chance of survival than a white. A Negro baby will have its life ended seven years sooner. This is not some biological phenomenon linked to skin colour, like sickle-cell anaemia; this is a national crime, linked to a white-supremacist way of life and compounded by indifference". Just to remind you, the word he uses there was the correct word for black people at the time he was writing.

Some of the book is heartrending, like the description from a witness -- Otis gives over thirty pages of the book to the voices of black witnesses of the riots -- talking about seeing white police officers casually shoot black teenagers on the street and make bullseye signals to their friends as if they'd been shooting tin cans. Some is, more than fifty years later, out of date or "of its time", but the sad thing is that so many of the arguments are as timely now as they were then. Otis wrote a follow-up, Upside Your Head, in the early nineties inspired by the LA riots that followed the Rodney King beating, and no doubt were he alive today he would be completing the trilogy.

But while politics had become Otis' main occupation, he hadn't stopped making music altogether, and in the late sixties he was contacted by Frank Zappa, who was such a fan of Otis that he copied his trademark beard from Otis. Otis and Zappa worked together in a casual way, with Otis mostly helping Zappa get in touch with musicians he knew who Zappa wanted to work with, like Don "Sugarcane" Harris. Otis also conducted the Mothers of Invention in the studio on a few songs while Zappa was in the control room, helping him get the greasy fifties sound he wanted on songs like "Holiday in Berlin":

[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, "Holiday in Berlin, Full Blown"]

Apparently while they were recording that, Otis was clapping his hands in the face of the bass player, Roy Estrada, who didn't like it at all. Given what I know of Estrada that's a good thing.

Otis' teenage son Shuggie also played with Zappa, playing bass on "Son of Mr. Green Genes" from Zappa's Hot Rats album. Zappa then persuaded a small blues label, Kent Records, which was owned by two other veterans of the fifties music industry, the Bihari brothers, to sign Otis to make an album. "Cold Shot" by the New Johnny Otis Show featured a core band of just three people -- Otis himself on piano and drums, Delmar "Mighty Mouth" Evans on vocals, and Shuggie playing all the guitar and bass parts. Shuggie was only fifteen at the time, but had been playing with his father's band since he was eleven, often wearing false moustaches and sunglasses to play in venues serving alcohol.

The record brought Otis his first R&B hit since "Willie and the Hand Jive", more than a decade earlier, "Country Girl":

[Excerpt: The Johnny Otis Show, "Country Girl"]

Around the same time, that trio also recorded another album, called "For Adults Only", under the name Snatch and the Poontangs, and with a cover drawn by Otis in a spot-on imitation of the style of Robert Crumb. For obvious reasons I won't be playing any of that record here, but even that had a serious sociological purpose along with the obscene humour -- Otis wanted to preserve bits of black folklore. Songs like "The Signifying Monkey" had been performed for years, and had even been recorded by people like Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon, but they'd always stripped out the sexual insults that make up much of the piece's appeal.

Otis would in later years laugh that he'd received accusations of obscenity for "Roll With Me Henry" and for "Willie and the Hand Jive", but nobody had seemed bothered in the slightest by the records of Snatch and the Poontangs with their constant sexual insults.

"Cold Shot" caused a career renaissance for Otis, and he put together a new lineup of the Johnny Otis Show, one that would feature as many as possible of the veteran musicians who he thought deserved exposure to a new audience. Probably the highest point of Otis' later career was a 1970 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where his band featured, along with Johnny and Shuggie, Esther Phillips, Big Joe Turner, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Roy Milton, Pee Wee Crayton, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Roy Brown:

[Excerpt: The Johnny Otis Show featuring Roy Brown, "Good Rocking Tonight"]

That performance was released as a live album, and Clint Eastwood featured footage of that show -- the band performing "Willie and the Hand Jive" -- in his classic film Play Misty For Me. It was probably the greatest example of Otis' belief that all the important strands of black American music shared a commonality and could work in combination with each other.

For the next few decades, Otis combined touring with as many of his old collaborators as possible -- Marie Adams, for example, rejoined the band in 1972 -- with having his own radio show in which he told people about black musical history and interviewed as many old musicians as he could, writing more books, including a cookbook and a collection of his art, running an organic apple juice company and food store, painting old blues artists in a style equally inspired by African art and Picasso, and being the pastor of a Pentecostal church -- but one with a theology so broadminded that it was not only LGBT-affirming but had Buddhist and Jewish congregants. He ran Blues Spectrum Records in the seventies, which put out late-career recordings by people like Charles Brown, Big Joe Turner, and Louis Jordan, some of them their last ever recordings. And he lectured in the history of black music at Berkeley.

Johnny Otis died in 2012, aged ninety, having achieved more than most of us could hope to achieve if we lived five times that long, and having helped many, many more people to make the most of their talents. He died three days before the discovery of whom he was most proud, Etta James, and she overshadowed him in the obituaries, as he would have wanted.

Feb 24, 2020
Episode 70: "Move It" by Cliff Richard and the Drifters

 Cliff Richard on

Episode seventy of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs looks at "Move It" by Cliff Richard, and the beginning of rock and roll TV in the UK. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

This week's Patreon bonus is delayed, as Storm Dennis is making it too noisy to record, but will hopefully be up tomorrow, and will be on "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson. I will edit this description to include the link when it's up.



 ERRATUM: I say Cliff Richard was sixteen when he first heard “Heartbreak Hotel”. He was fifteen.


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


This four-CD set contains all the singles and EPs released by Cliff Richard and the Shadows, together and separately, between 1958 and 1962.

This MP3 compilation, meanwhile, contains a huge number of skiffle records and early British attempts at rock and roll. Much of the music is not very good, but I can't imagine a better way of getting an understanding of the roots of British rock.

Pete Frame's The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective.

Billy Bragg's Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is one of the best books I've read on music at all, and gives far more detail about the historical background.

And Cliff Richard: The Biography by Steve Turner is very positive towards Richard, but not at the expense of honesty.




This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



We've looked a little bit at the start of rock and roll in Britain, which was so different from the American music that it feels absurd to talk of the two in the same breath. But today we're going to have a look at the first really massive star of British rock and roll -- someone who is still going strong today, more than sixty years after he released his first record:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard, "Move It"]

When we've looked at British rock and roll to this point, it's been rather lifeless, and there's a reason for that. There were, in the mid-fifties, two different streams of music in Britain that were aiming to appeal to young people. One was skiffle, and that's the branch of music that eventually led to all British rock and roll from the sixties onwards -- we looked at that with Lonnie Donegan, but the skiffle craze was a big, big thing for about two years, and when it finally died down it splintered into three different, overlapping, groups -- there were the folk revivalists, who we'll talk about when we get to Bob Dylan; the British blues people, who we'll look at when we get to the Rolling Stones; and the rock and rollers. Skiffle had everything that people found exciting and interesting about American rock and roll -- at least, it had much of the excitement of the rockabilly music. But it wasn't marketed as rock and roll, and it tended to aim at a slightly more bohemian audience.

Meanwhile, British rock and roll proper -- the stuff that was being marketed as rock and roll -- was mostly being made by longtime professional musicians who had switched from playing anaemic copies of swing music to anaemic copies of Bill Haley and the Comets. Groups like Tony Crombie and the Rockets were making records like "Let's You and I Rock", which copied the formula of Haley's less good records:

[Excerpt: Tony Crombie and the Rockets, "Let's You and I Rock"]

The idea of rock and roll in the British music business in those early years came entirely from the film Rock Around the Clock, which had featured Haley, the Platters, and Freddie Bell and His Bellboys -- who were a second-rate clone of Haley's band. As we discussed in the episodes on Haley, his particular style of music had few imitators in American rock and roll, so while British groups were copying things like Freddie Bell's one hit, "Giddy-Up A Ding-Dong", British teenagers were instead listening to American records by Buddy Holly or Little Richard, the Everly Brothers or Elvis, none of whose recordings had anything to do with anything that was being made by the British commercial rock and roll industry.

For British rock and roll to matter, it had to at least catch up to what the American records were doing. It needed its own Elvis -- and that Elvis would ideally be someone who came from the skiffle scene, but was more oriented towards rock and roll than most of the skifflers, who were very happy playing Lead Belly songs rather than "Blue Suede Shoes".

Tommy Steele had been a good start, but he'd jumped the gun a little bit. He was essentially still a pre-Elvis performer, although he was one who followed the rockabilly pattern of a young man with a guitar. His records were still novelty songs with the word "rock" thrown in, like "Rock With the Caveman", and when he tried to copy Elvis' vocal mannerisms, while it brought him a number one hit, it didn't really sound particularly credible:

[Excerpt: Tommy Steele, "Singing the Blues"]

In the wake of Steele came a whole host of other teen idols along the same lines, most of them managed by Larry Parnes -- Adam Faith, Mary Wilde, Terry Dene, Vince Taylor, Johnny Gentle, Billy Fury, Duffy Power, Dickie Pride, and many more. Some of these went on to have interesting careers, and a few made records that we'll be looking at in future episodes, but one of them -- one of the few not managed by Parnes -- managed to have a career that would outlast almost all of his American contemporaries, and outsell many of them.

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard, "Move It"]

One of the things that will be a recurring theme in this podcast as Britain becomes a bigger part of rock history is the end of the British Empire. It is literally impossible to understand anything about Britain for the last eighty years without understanding that at the start of the 1940s the British Empire was the largest, most powerful empire that had ever been seen in human history, while by the early 1970s Britain was a tiny island that was desperately begging to be allowed into the EEC -- the precursor of the EU -- because it had no economic or political power at all on its own.

The psychic shock this change in status gave to multiple generations of British people cannot be overstated, and almost all British history since at least 1945 can be explained in terms of Britain trying and failing to convince itself and the world that it was still important and still mattered. And one of the people whom that change in status hit most dramatically was a young boy named Harry Webb, who was born in India in 1940, to a family who were of British descent, but who had been in India for a couple of generations. Like most white people in India at the time they benefited hugely from the Empire -- although they were only moderately well off by white British standards in India, they lived in what for most people would seem absolute luxury, with servants looking after them, and the people of India being deferential to them.

But then, after World War II came Indian independence and partition, and the Webb family found themselves in Britain, a country they'd never lived in, homeless and jobless. Harry, his parents, and his three sisters had to live in one room of a three-bedroom house, with the other rooms of the house occupied by another family of eight. Not only that, but while Harry had been a beneficiary of racism in India, in Britain he was a victim of it -- while he was white, he had a dark complexion, an Anglo-Indian accent, and came from India, so everyone assumed he was Indian -- except that the only Indians that his schoolmates knew anything about were the ones in cowboy films, so he kept getting asked where his wigwam was.

Eventually the Webb family managed to get a house to themselves, and young Harry managed to get rid of his accent, ending up with an accent that reflected neither his Indian origins nor his London upbringing, but rather a generic regionless middle-class accent with a trace of the mid-Atlantic behind it. Webb's accent would later become almost the default for people in the media, edging out the received pronunciation that had dominated in previous decades, but at the time it gave him a distinct advantage when he finally became a pop star, because he didn't sound like he was from a particular place.

When he was sixteen, he heard the record that would change his life:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel”]

Young Harry became obsessed with Elvis Presley, and tried to make himself look as much like Elvis as possible. His first public performance was with a vocal group he formed at school, and he took a solo on "Heartbreak Hotel". On leaving school, having failed almost all his exams, he decided that he wanted to become a rock and roll star.

He had no idea how he was going to go about it until one day his bike broke, and he had to get the bus into work. On the same bus was an old schoolfriend, Terry Smart, who was the drummer in a skiffle group. Their singer had recently been drafted, and they needed a new one. He remembered that Harry could sing, and invited him to join the group.

Harry's musical tastes didn't really run to skiffle, which by this time had become a very formalised genre, with the instruments almost always consisting of acoustic guitar, teachest bass, and washboard, and a repertoire that was made up primarily of songs by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Big Bill Broonzy (who was the one blues musician that even the least knowledgable skiffler could name, despite his relative lack of commercial success in the US). There would also be a good chunk of traditional folk and sea shanties thrown in. A typical example of the style would be the Vipers Skiffle Group's version of "Maggie May":

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, "Maggie May"]

Skiffle was both too rowdy and too intellectual for young Harry Webb, whose main interest other than music was sports rather than digging up old folk songs. Other than Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, his tastes ran to smoother American soft-rockers like Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers -- he never had much time for the R&B styles of people like Little Richard, let alone for anything as raw as Lead Belly or Big Bill Broonzy.

But Harry Webb was an unusual person. On the one hand, he was amazingly old-fashioned and prudish even for the period -- he refused to smoke, drink, or blaspheme, he was very softly spoken, and as a teenager when asked if he had a girlfriend he would say "Yes, I've got a picture of her in my pocket" and would pull out a photo of his mother.

But on the other hand, he was incredibly driven, and was willing to make use of anyone around him for precisely as long as it would take for them to help him achieve his goals. If the musicians around him wanted to play skiffle, he would play skiffle -- for the moment.

So Harry Webb joined Dick Teague's Skiffle Group, and became their lead singer. He applied himself diligently to learning the skiffle material -- songs like "Rock Island Line", "This Train", "This Little Light of Mine", and "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O" -- and he would rehearse every single night, and got to know the material intimately. But he insisted on singing in an imitation of Elvis' voice, and thrusting his hips like Elvis did.

But an Elvis-style vocal simply didn't work with songs like this:

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, “Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O”]

After a short period with the group, he started scheming with Terry Smart -- they were going to continue with the skiffle group for the moment, but they secretly put together their own rock and roll group. Harry's friend Norman Mitham started turning up to the group's rehearsals, and watching the guitarists' fingers intently -- he was learning their material for the new group.

Webb and Smart left the Dick Teague Skiffle Group, and with Mitham they formed a new rock and roll group. Inspired by the recent launch of Sputnik, they thought of calling themselves The Planets. But they decided that wasn't quite right, and looked up the etymology of "planet", and found it came from the Greek for "wanderer" or "drifter", and so they became the Drifters, unaware there was an American group of the same name.

On one of their very early gigs, a man named John Foster came up and introduced himself to them. Foster had no music business experience -- he worked in a sewage farm -- but he became the group's manager based on two important factors. The first was that he had a telephone, which in 1958 meant he was clearly a figure of some importance -- *no-one* in Britain had a telephone! And the second was that he was a nodding acquaintance of the managers of the 2is, the famous coffee bar where the Vipers used to play, and where both Tommy Steele and Terry Dene had been discovered, and he was pretty sure he could get them a gig there.

He managed to get them a two-week residency at the 2is, and during the first week, a young man named Ian Samwell came up and asked them if they needed a lead guitarist. They said yes, and he was in the group.

A booking agent who saw the group in their second week decided he wanted to book them for some shows in the North, but he had two problems. He didn't want them to be booked as a group, but as a lead singer and his backing group, and he thought Harry Webb wasn't a good enough name. So the Drifters became Cliff Richard and the Drifters, and Harry Webb soon told everyone in his life that he was only to be addressed as Cliff from now on.

Foster and Samwell got the group an agent, and the agent in turn got them an audition with Norrie Paramor at Columbia Records. But there was one more thing to do. By this time Cliff *did* have a girlfriend -- while according to those around him he was never that interested in dating or sex, they did go out with each other for a little while and claimed to be in love with each other. But he knew that if he was going to be a rock and roll star, he had to appear available to the teenage girls, so he dumped her. She understood -- he'd had to choose between his career and love, and he'd chosen his career.

Paramor was interested, and he wanted the group to record a song which had been a hit in the US for Bobby Helms:

[Excerpt: Bobby Helms, "Schoolboy Crush"]

That song was co-written by Aaron Schroeder, who we've seen before as the co-writer of some of Elvis' tracks for Jailhouse Rock, and of Carl Perkins' "Glad All Over".

Cliff learned the song straight away, and soon the Drifters were in Abbey Road studios ready to record their first single -- but only Cliff Richard's name was on the recording contract. While the record label would say "Cliff Richard and the Drifters", the other group members were only going to get a flat session fee for the record, while Cliff was going to get artist royalties.

Also, not all of the Drifters were present. Ian Samwell had persuaded Cliff that there was no need to keep Norman Mitham in the band. Mitham was just playing rhythm guitar like Cliff was, and Samwell thought there was no point having three guitarists and splitting the money three ways instead of two. So Mitham, who had been friends with Cliff since they were both nine, was out of the group.

Cliff didn't play guitar especially well, so for the session Samwell switched to rhythm and a session player, Ernie Shear, was brought in to play lead. The group was also augmented in the studio by a double bass player, Frank Clarke, and the Mike Sammes singers on backing vocals.

The track they cut that day was not hugely inspiring:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, "Schoolboy Crush"]

But the B-side was more interesting. It was the first song that Ian Samwell had ever written -- an angry response to an article in the Melody Maker arguing that rock and roll was dead. It was stuck on the B-side of the proposed single mostly for lack of anything better, and it was knocked off quickly. Indeed, the main engineer on the session didn't stick around for the recording -- he wanted to go to the opera, and so it was left to the junior engineer Malcolm Addey to actually record the song.

And that made a big difference -- Addey was young enough to have some idea himself as to what a rock and roll record should sound like, and he came up with a much louder, more resonant, sound than anything that had been heard in a British recording session -- a record that didn't sound all that dissimilar to the records that Sun was putting out:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, "Move It"]

That track was still intended for the B-side, until the point that Jack Good heard it. Jack Good was possibly the most important person ever to be involved in music TV -- not just in Britain, but in the world. Good had been an actor, until he saw "Rock Around the Clock" in the cinema, and saw the way that the audiences reacted to the film. He became immediately convinced that the audience response was a crucial part of rock and roll, and that if done properly rock and roll performances could lead to the kind of catharsis that classical Greek drama aimed at.

He took this idea to the BBC, who were at the time looking to put on a new teenage show. Up until mid 1956, the practice in British TV had been to stop transmitting for an hour, from six until seven in the evening, in order to let parents put their kids to bed -- this was known as the Toddlers' Truce. But after the commercial network ITV began broadcasting in 1955, the practice became controversial. While the BBC saved money by not putting on any programmes between six and seven -- they got the same amount in TV license fees however much they broadcast -- an hour without programmes for a commercial channel meant an hour without advertising fees.

Eventually, ITV managed to get the rules changed, and the BBC decided that at five past six on a Saturday, they would put out a programme for young people, but young people allowed up that late -- and it was to be called Six-Five Special.

[Excerpt: The Bob Cort Skiffle Group, "The Six-Five Special"]

Six-Five Special embodied many of Good's ideas about how to broadcast rock and roll music -- it had the audience as an integral part of the programme -- there was very little distinction between the audience and the performers, who would perform among the crowd rather than separated from them. By all accounts it had some fantastic moments, including an appearance by Big Bill Broonzy, and a live broadcast from the 2Is coffee bar itself.

But Good wasn't the sole producer, and he had to compromise his vision. As well as rock and roll and skiffle, the programme also included light music of a kind parents would approve of, educational items, and bits about sport. Good kept trying to persuade the people at the BBC to let him have the show be just about rock and roll, but his co-producer wanted Hungarian acrobats and features on stamp collecting.

So Good moved over to ABC, one of the ITV stations, and started a rival show, "Oh Boy!"

On "Oh Boy!" the focus was entirely on the music. Good had very strong ideas on what he wanted from the show, ideas he'd got from sources as varied as a theatrical company who put on performances of Shakespeare with all-black backgrounds and no sets, and a book he'd read on the physiology of brainwashing. He wanted to make something powerful. Unlike on Six-Five Special the audience wouldn't be mixing with the performers, but this time the performers would be picked out by a white spotlight on a black background.

After two pilot episodes in June 1958, the programme started its run in September, with appearances from Marty Wilde, the John Barry Seven and more, and with instrumental backing for the solo performers provided by Lord Rockingham's Eleven, a studio group who would go on to have a novelty hit with "Hoots Mon!" as a result of their appearances on the show:

[Excerpt: Lord Rockingham's XI, "Hoots Mon!"]

And Cliff Richard was to be added to that show.

It was Jack Good who, more than anyone else, came up with the image of the rock and roll star, and his influence can be seen in literally every visual depiction of rock and roll music from the early sixties on. And from the evidence of the two surviving episodes of Oh Boy! he, and the director Rita Gillespie, one of the very few female directors working in TV at the time, did a remarkable job of creating something truly exciting -- something all the more remarkable when you look at what they had to work with. Most of the British rock and roll acts at the time were small, malnourished, spotty, teenage boys, who were doing a sort of cargo-cult imitation of American rock and rollers without really understanding what they were meant to be doing.

But the lighting and the visuals of the show were extraordinary -- and in Cliff Richard, Good had found someone who, if he was nowhere near as exciting as his American models, at least could be moulded into something that was the closest thing that could be found to a real British rock and roll star -- someone who might one day be almost as good as Gene Vincent.

Good insisted that the song Cliff should perform on his show should be "Move It", and so the record label quickly flipped the single. Good worked with Cliff for a full week on his performance of the song, instructing him in every blink, every time he should clutch his arm as if in pain, the way he should look down , not straight at the audience, everything. Good chose his shocking pink outfit (not visible on black and white TV, but designed to send the girls in the audience into a frenzy) and had him restyle his hair to be less like Elvis'. And so in September 1958, a few weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Cliff Richard made his TV debut:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard, “Move It”]

"Oh Boy" was the most fast-paced thing on TV -- on the evidence of the surviving episodes it was one song after another, non-stop, by different performers -- as many as seventeen songs in a twenty-five minute live show, with no artist doing two songs in a row. It was an immediate hit, and so was "Move It", which went to number two in the charts. There was a media outcry over Cliff's brazen sexuality, with the NME accusing him of "crude exhibitionism", while the Daily Sketch would ask "Is this boy TV star too sexy?"

Cliff Richard was suddenly the biggest star and sex symbol in the UK, but there were problems with the band. Cliff was no longer playing guitar while he sang, and the group also needed a bass player, so Ian Samwell switched to bass, and they went looking for a new guitarist. The original intention was to audition a young player named Tony Sheridan, but while John Foster was waiting in the 2is to meet him, he started talking with someone who had just left the Vipers, and said that he and his friend would be happy to join the group, and so Cliff's backing group now consisted of Ian Samwell, Terry Smart, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch.

The new group recorded another Ian Samwell song, "High Class Baby":

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, "High Class Baby"]

What Samwell didn't know when they recorded that was that Cliff was already planning to replace him, with Jet Harris, who had played with Marvin in the Vipers. Now he was playing with better musicians, Samwell's shortcomings were showing up. Cliff didn't tell Samwell himself -- he got John Foster to fire him. Samwell would go on to have some success as a songwriter and record producer, though, most famously producing “Horse With No Name” for America.

Shortly after that, Foster was gone as well, first demoted from manager to roadie, then given two weeks' notice in a letter from Cliff's dad.

And then finally, Cliff replaced Terry Smart, his old school friend, the person who had invited him into his group, with Tony Meehan, another ex-Viper.

By Cliff's nineteenth birthday, the only thing left of the original Drifters was the name. And soon that would change too, as Cliff Richard and the Drifters became Cliff Richard and the Shadows.

Feb 17, 2020
Episode 69: "Fujiyama Mama" by Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson in Japan, with unidentified Japanese woman, both in kimonos

Episode sixty-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Fujiyama Mama" by Wanda Jackson, and the first rock and roller to become "big in Japan" Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


I have two main sources for this eposode. One is Wanda Jackson's autobiography, Every Night is Saturday Night. The other is this article on "Fujiyama Mama", which I urge everyone to read, as it goes into far more detail about the reasons why the song had the reception it did in Japan.


And this compilation collects most of Jackson's important early work.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Before we begin this episode, a minor content note. I am going to be looking at a song that is, unfortunately, unthinkingly offensive towards Japanese people and culture. If that – or flippant lyrics about the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki – are likely to upset you, be warned.

When we left Wanda Jackson six months ago, it looked very much like she might end up being a one-hit wonder. "I Gotta Know" had been a hit, but there hadn't been a successful follow-up. In part this was because she was straddling two different genres -- she was trying to find a way to be successful in both the rock and roll and country markets, and neither was taking to her especially well.

In later years, it would be recognised that the music she was making combined some of the best of both worlds -- she was working with a lot of the musicians on the West Coast who would later go on to become famous for creating the Bakersfield Sound, and changing the whole face of country music, and her records have a lot of that sound about them. And at the same time she was also making some extremely hot rockabilly music, but she was just a little bit too country for the rock market, and a little bit too rock for the country market.

Possibly the place where she fit in best was among the Sun records acts, and so it's not surprising that she ended up towards the bottom of the bill on the long tour that Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash did over much of North America in early 1957 -- the tour on which Jerry Lee Lewis moved from third billed to top of the bill by sheer force of personality. But it says quite a bit about Jackson that while everyone else talking about that tour discusses the way that some of the men did things like throwing cherry bombs at each other's cars, and living off nothing but whisky, Wanda's principal recollection of the tour in her autobiography is of going to church and inviting all the men along, but Jerry Lee being the only one who would come with her.

To a great extent she was shielded from the worst aspects of the men's behaviour by her father, who was still looking after her on the road, and acted as a buffer between her and the worst excesses of her tourmates, but she seems to have been happy with that situation -- she didn't seem to have much desire to become one of the boys, the way many other female rock and roll stars have. She enjoyed making wild-sounding music, but she saw that mostly as a kind of acting -- she didn't think that her onstage persona had to match her offstage behaviour at all.

And one of the wildest records she made was "Fujiyama Mama":

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Fujiyama Mama"]

"Fujiyama Mama" was written by the rockabilly and R&B songwriter Jack Hammer (whose birth name was the more prosaic Earl Burroughs), who is best known as having been the credited co-writer of "Great Balls of Fire". We didn't talk about him in the episode on that song, because apparently Hammer's only contribution to the song was the title -- he wrote a totally different song with the same title, which Paul Case, who was the music consultant on the film "Jamboree", liked enough to commission Otis Blackwell to write another song of the same name, giving Hammer half the credit.

But Hammer did write some songs on his own that became at least moderate successes. For example, he wrote "Rock and Roll Call", which was recorded by Louis Jordan:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Rock and Roll Call"]

And "Milkshake Mademoiselle" for Jerry Lee Lewis:

[Excerpt, Jerry Lee Lewis, "Milkshake Mademoiselle"]

And in 1954, when Hammer was only fourteen, he wrote "Fujiyama Mama", which was originally recorded by Annisteen Allen:

[Excerpt: Annisteen Allen, "Fujiyama Mama"]

This was a song in a long line of songs about black women's sexuality which lie at the base of rock and roll, though of course, as with several of those songs, it's written by a man, and it's mostly the woman boasting about how much pleasure she's going to give the man -- while it's a sexually aggressive record, this is very much a male fantasy as performed by a woman.

Allen was yet another singer in the early days of R&B and rock and roll to have come out of Lucky Millinder's orchestra -- she had been his female singer in the late forties, just after Rosetta Tharpe had left the group, and while Wynonie Harris was their male singer. She'd sung lead on what turned out to be Millinder's last big hit, "I'm Waiting Just For You":

[Excerpt: Lucky Millinder and his orchestra, "I'm Waiting Just For You"]

After she left Millinder's band, Allen recorded for a variety of labels, with little success, and when she recorded "Fujiyama Mama" in 1954 she was on Capitol -- this was almost unique at the time, as her kind of R&B would normally have come out on King or Apollo or Savoy or a similar small label.

In its original version, "Fujiyama Mama" wasn't a particularly successful record, but Wanda Jackson heard it on a jukebox and fell in love with the record. She quickly learned the song and added it to her own act.

In 1957, Jackson was in the studio recording a country song called "No Wedding Bells for Joe", written by a friend of hers called Marijohn Wilkin, who would later go on to write country classics like "Long Black Veil":

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "No Wedding Bells For Joe"]

For the B-side, Jackson wanted to record "Fujiyama Mama", but Ken Nelson was very concerned -- the lyrics about drinking, smoking, and shooting were bad enough for a girl who was not yet quite twenty, the blatant female sexuality was not something that would go down well at all in the country market, and lyrics like "I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too/The things I did to them I can do to you" were horribly tasteless -- and remember, this was little more than a decade after the bombs were dropped on those cities.

Nelson really, really, disliked the song, and didn't want Jackson to record it, and while I've been critical of Nelson for making poor repertoire choices for his artists -- Nelson was someone with a great instinct for performers, but a terrible instinct for material -- I can't say I entirely blame him in this instance.

But Wanda overruled him -- and then, when he tried to tone down her performance in the studio, she rebelled against that, with the encouragement of her father, who told her "You're the one who wanted to do it, so you need to do it your way".

In the last episode about Jackson, we talked about how she'd tried to do her normal growling roar on "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!" but was let down by having drunk milk before recording the song. This time, she had no problem, and for the first time in the studio she sang in the voice that she used for her rock and roll songs on stage:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Fujiyama Mama"]

To my ears, Jackson's version of the song is still notably inferior to Allen's version, but it's important to note that this isn't a Georgia Gibbs style white person covering a black artist for commercial success at the instigation of her producer, and copying the arrangement precisely, this is a young woman covering a record she loved, and doing it as a B-side. There's still the racial dynamic at play there, but this is closer to Elvis doing "That's All Right" than to Georgia Gibbs ripping off LaVern Baker or Etta James.

It's also closer to Elvis than it is to Eileen Barton, who was the second person to have recorded the song. Barton was a novelty singer, whose biggest hit was "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake" from 1950:

[Excerpt: Eileen Barton, "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake"]

Barton's version of "Fujiyama Mama" was the B-side to a 1955 remake of "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake", redone as a blues. I've not actually been able to track down a copy of that remake, so I can't play an excerpt -- I'm sure you're all devastated by that.

Barton's version, far more than Jackson's, was a straight copy of the original, though the arranger on her version gets rid of most of the Orientalisms in Allen's original recording:

[Excerpt: Eileen Barton, "Fujiyama Mama"]

I think the difference between Barton's and Jackson's versions simply comes down to their sincerity. Barton hated the song, and thought of it as a terrible novelty tune she was being forced to sing. She did a competent professional job, because she was a professional vocalist, but she would talk later in interviews about how much she disliked the record. Jackson, on the other hand, pushed to do the song because she loved it so much, and she performed the song as she wanted it to be done, and against the wishes of her producer.

For all the many, many problematic aspects of the song, which I won't defend at all, that passion does show through in Jackson's performance of it.

Jackson's single was released, and did absolutely nothing sales-wise, as was normal for her records at this point. Around this time, she also cut her first album, and included on it a cover version of a song Elvis had recently recorded, "Party", which in her version was retitled "Let's Have a Party":

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Let's Have a Party"]

That album also did essentially nothing, and while Jackson continued releasing singles throughout 1958, none of them charted. Ken Nelson didn't even book her in for a single recording session in 1959 -- by that point they'd got enough stuff already recorded that they could keep releasing records by her until her contract ran out, and they didn't need to throw good money after bad by paying for more studio sessions to make records that nobody was going to buy.

And then something really strange happened. "Fujiyama Mama" became hugely successful in Japan.

Now, nobody seems to have adequately explained quite how this happened. After all, this record was... not exactly flattering about Japanese people, and its first couple of lines seem to celebrate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it's not as if they didn't know what was being sung. While obviously Jackson was singing in English and most listeners in Japan couldn't speak English, there was a Japanese translation of the lyrics printed on the back sleeve of the single, so most people would at least have had some idea what she was singing about. Yet somehow, the record made number one in Japan.

In part, this may just have been simply because any recognition of Japanese culture from an American artist at all might have been seen as a novelty. But also, while in the USA pretty much all the rock and roll hits were sung by men, Japan was developing its own rock and roll culture, and in Japan, most of the big rock and roll stars were teenage girls, of around the same age as Wanda Jackson.

Now, I am very far from being an expert on post-war Japanese culture, so please don't take anything I say on the subject as being any kind of definitive statement, but from the stuff I've read (and in particular from a very good, long, article on this particular song that I'm going to link in the liner notes and which I urge you all to read, which goes into the cultural background a lot more than I can here) it seems as if these girls were, for the most part, groomed as manufactured pop stars, and that many of them were recording cover versions of songs in English, which they learned phonetically from the American recordings. For example, here's Izumi Yukimura's version of "Ko Ko Mo":

[Excerpt: Izumi Yukimura, "Ko Ko Mo"]

In many of these versions, they would sing a verse in the original English, and then a verse in Japanese translation, as you can again hear in that recording:

[Excerpt: Izumi Yukimura, "Ko Ko Mo"]

Izumi Yuklmura also recorded a version of "Fujiyama Mama", patterned after Jackson's:

[Excerpt: Izumi Yukimura, "Fujiyama Mama"]

There are many, many things that can be said about these recordings, but the thing that strikes me about them, just as a music listener, and separate from everything else, is how comparatively convincing a rock and roll recording that version of "Fujiyama Mama" actually is. When you compare it to the music that was coming out of places like the UK or Australia or France, it's far more energetic, and shows a far better understanding of the idiom.

It's important to note though that part of the reason for this is the peculiar circumstances in Japan at the time. Much of the Japanese entertainment industry in the late forties and fifties had grown up around the US occupying troops who were stationed there after the end of World War II, and those servicemen were more interested in seeing pretty young girls than in seeing male performers.

But this meant two things -- it firstly meant that young women were far more likely to be musical performers in Japan than in the US, and it also meant that the Japanese music industry was geared to performers who were performing in American styles -- and so Japanese listeners were accustomed to hearing things like this:

[Excerpt: Chiemi Eri, "Rock Around the Clock"]

So when a recording by a young woman singing about Japan, however offensively, in a rock and roll style, was released in Japan, the market was ready for it. While in America rock and roll was largely viewed as a male music, in Japan, they were ready for Wanda Jackson.

And Jackson, in turn, was ready for Japan. In her autobiography she makes clear that she was the kind of person who would nowadays be called a weeb -- having a fascination with Japanese culture, albeit the stereotyped version she had learned from pop culture. She had always wanted to visit Japan growing up, and when she got there she was amazed to find that they were organising a press conference for her, and that wherever she went there were fans wanting her autograph. Jackson, of course, had no idea about the complex relationship that Japan was having at the time with American culture -- though in her autobiography she talks about visiting a bar over there where Japanese singers were performing country songs -- she just knew that they had latched on, for whatever reason, to an obscure B-side and given her a second chance at success.

When Jackson got back from Japan, she put together her own band for the first time -- and unusually for country music at the time, it was an integrated band, with a black pianist. She had to deal with some resistance from her mother, who was an older Southern white woman, but eventually managed to win her round.

That pianist, Big Al Downing, later went on to have his own successful career, including a hit single duetting with Esther Phillips:

[Excerpt Big Al Downing and Little Esther Phillips, "You'll Never Miss Your Water Until The Well Runs Dry"]

Downing also had disco hits in the early seventies, and later had a run of hits on the country charts.

Jackson also took on a young guitarist named Roy Clark, who would go on to have a great deal of success himself, as one of the most important instrumentalists in country music, and Clark would later co-star in the hit TV show Hee-Haw, with Buck Owens (who had played on many of Jackson's earlier records).

In 1960, Jackson returned to the studio. While she'd not had much commercial success in the US yet, her records were now selling well enough to justify recording more songs with her. But Ken Nelson had a specific condition for any future recordings -- he pointed out that while she'd been recording both rock and roll and country music in her previous sessions, she had only ever charted in the US as a country artist, and she'd been signed as a country artist to Capitol. All her future sessions were going to be purely country, to avoid diluting her brand.

Jackson agreed, and so she went into the studio and recorded a country shuffle, "Please Call Today":

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Please Call Today"]

But a few weeks later she got a call from Ken Nelson, telling her that she was in the charts -- not with "Please Call Today", but with "Party", the album track she'd recorded three years earlier.

She was obviously confused by this, but Nelson explained that a DJ in Iowa had taken up the song and used it as the theme song for his radio show. So many people had called the DJ asking about it that he in turn had called Ken Nelson at Capitol and convinced him to put the track out as a single, and it had made the pop top forty.

As a result, Capitol rushed out an album of her previous rockabilly singles, and then got her back into the studio, with her touring band, to record her first proper rock and roll album -- as opposed to her first album, which was a mixture of country and rock, and her second, which was a compilation of previously-released singles. This album was full of cover versions of rock and roll hits from the previous few years, like Elvis' "Hard-Headed Woman", LaVern Baker's "Tweedle Dee", and Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Any More". And she also recorded a few rock and roll singles, like a cover version of the Robins' "Riot in Cell Block #9".

Those sessions also produced what became Jackson's biggest hit single to that point. At the time, Brenda Lee was a big star, and a friend of Jackson. The two had had parallel careers, and Lee was someone else who straddled the boundaries between rockabilly and country, but at the time she had just had a big hit with "I'm Sorry":

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, "I'm Sorry"]

That was one of the first recordings in what would become known as "the Nashville Sound", a style of music that was somewhere between country music and middle-of-the-road pop. Wanda had written a song in that style, and since she was now once again being pushed in a rock and roll direction, she thought she would give it to Lee to record. However, she mentioned the song to Ken Nelson when she was in the studio, and he insisted that she let him hear it -- and once he heard it, he insisted on recording it with her, saying that Brenda Lee had enough hits of her own, and she didn't need Wanda Jackson giving her hers.

The result was "Right or Wrong", which became her first solo country top ten hit, and all of a sudden she had once again switched styles -- she was now no longer Wanda Jackson the rock and roller, but she was Wanda Jackson the Nashville Sound pop-country singer:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Right or Wrong"]

Unfortunately, Jackson ended up having to give up the songwriting royalties on that record, as she was sued by the company that owned "Wake the Town and Tell the People", which had been a hit in 1955 and had an undeniably similar melody:

[Excerpt: Mindy Carson, "Wake the Town and Tell the People"]

Even so, her switch to pure country music ended up being good for Jackson. While she would have peaks and troughs in her career, she managed to score another fifteen country top forty hits over the next decade -- although her biggest hit was as a writer rather than a performer, when she wrote "Kickin' Our Hearts Around" for Buck Owens, who had played on many of her sessions early in his career before he went on to become the biggest star in country music:

[Excerpt: Buck Owens, "Kickin' Our Hearts Around"]

Like almost everything Owens released in the sixties, that went top ten on the country charts.

Jackson was a fairly major star in the country field through the sixties, even having her own TV show, but she was becoming increasingly unhappy, and suffering from alcoholism. In the early seventies she and her husband had a religious awakening, and became born-again Christians, and she once again switched her musical style, this time from country music to gospel -- though she would still sing her old secular hits along with the gospel songs on stage.

Unfortunately, Capitol weren't interested in putting out gospel material by her, and she ended up moving to smaller and smaller labels, and by the end of the seventies she was reduced to rerecording her old hits for mail-order compilations put out by K-Tel records.

But then her career got a second wind. In Europe in the early 1980s there was something of a rockabilly revival, and a Swedish label, Tab Records, got in touch with Jackson and asked her to record a new album of rockabilly music, which led to her touring all over Europe playing to crowds of rockabilly fans.

By the nineties, American rockabilly revivalists were taking notice of her as well, and Rosie Flores, a rockabilly artist who would later produce Janis Martin's last sessions, invited Jackson to duet with her on a few songs and tour North America with her:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson and Rosie Flores, "His Rockin' Little Angel"]

In 2003, she recorded her first new album of secular music for the American market for several decades, featuring several of her younger admirers, like the Cramps and Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats. But the most prominent guest star was Elvis Costello, who duetted with her on a song by her old friend Buck Owens:

[Excerpt: Elvis Costello and Wanda Jackson, "Crying Time"]

After duetting with her, Costello discovered that she wasn't yet in the rock and roll hall of fame, and started lobbying for her inclusion, writing an open letter that says in part: "For heaven's sake, the whole thing risks ridicule and having the appearance of being a little boy's club unless it acknowledges the contribution of one of the first women of rock and roll.

“It might be hard to admit, but the musical influence of several male pioneers is somewhat obscure today. Even though their records will always be thrilling, their sound is not really heard in echo. Look around today and you can hear lots of rocking girl singers who owe an unconscious debt to the mere idea of a girl like Wanda. She was standing up on stage with a guitar in her hands and making a sound that was as wild as any rocker, man or woman, while other gals were still asking 'How much is that doggy in the window'"

Thanks in large part to Costello's advocacy, Jackson finally made it into the hall of fame in 2009, and that seems to have spurred another minor boost to her career, as she released two albums in the early part of last decade, produced by young admirers -- one produced by Justin Townes Earle, and the other by Jack White.

Jackson has been having some health problems recently, and her husband and manager of fifty-six years died in 2017, so she finally retired from live performance in March last year, but she's apparently still working on a new album, produced by Joan Jett, which should be out soon. With luck, she will have a long and happy retirement.


Feb 10, 2020
Episode 68: "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters

The Coasters

Episode sixty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Searchin'" by The Coasters, and at the group's greatest success and split, and features discussion of racism, plagiarism, STDs and Phil Spector. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.


Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Tears on My Pillow" by Little Anthony and the Imperials




This week's Mixcloud is not yet done, as I had technical problems getting this episode up. I'll edit it in here tomorrow.


I've used multiple sources to piece together the information here.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

Yakety Yak, I Fought Back: My Life With the Coasters by Carl and Veta Gardner is a self-published, rather short, autobiography, which gives Gardner's take on the formation of the Coasters.

Those Hoodlum Friends is a Coasters fansite, with a very nineties aesthetic (frames! angelfire domain name! Actual information rather than pretty, empty, layouts!)


The Coasters by Bill Millar is an excellent, long out-of-print, book which provided a lot of useful information.

And The Definitive Coasters is a double-CD set that has the A- and B-sides of all the group's hits.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



When we last left the Coasters, they'd just taken on two new singers -- Cornell Gunter and Dub Jones -- to replace Leon Hughes and Bobby Nunn. The classic lineup of the Coasters had finally fallen into place, but it had been a year since they had had a hit -- for most of 1957, their writing and production team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been concentrating on more lucrative work, with Elvis Presley among others.


Leiber and Stoller had a rather unique setup, which very few other people in the business had at that point. They were independent writer/producers -- an unusual state in itself in the 1950s -- but they were effectively under contract to two different labels, whose markets and audiences didn't overlap very much. They were contracted to RCA to work with white pop stars -- not just Elvis, though he was obviously important to them, but people like Perry Como, who were very far from Leiber and Stoller's normal music. That contract with RCA produced a few hits outside Elvis, but didn't end up being comfortable for either party, and ended after a year or so, but it was still remarkable that they would be working as producers for a major label while remaining independent contractors.

And at the same time, they were also attached to Atlantic, where they were recording almost exclusively with the black performers that they admired, such as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and the Drifters.

And it was, of course, also at Atlantic that they were working with the Coasters, who unlike those other artists were Leiber and Stoller's own personal project, and the one with whom they were most identified, and for whom they were about to write the group's biggest hit:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Yakety Yak"]

For the most part, Leiber and Stoller had the classic songwriting split of one lyricist and one composer. Leiber had started out as a songwriter who couldn't play an instrument or write music -- he'd just written lyrics down and remembered the tune in his head -- while Stoller was already an accomplished and sophisticated jazz pianist by the time the two started collaborating. But they wrote together, and so occasionally one would contribute ideas to the other's sphere.

Normally, we don't know exactly how much each contributed to the other's work, because they didn't go into that much detail about how they wrote songs, but in the case of "Yakety Yak" we know exactly how the song was written -- everyone who has had a certain amount of success in the music business tends to have a store of anecdotes that they pull out in every interview, and one of Leiber and Stoller's was how they wrote "Yakety Yak".

According to the anecdote, they were in Leiber's house, in a writing session, and Stoller started playing a piano rhythm, with the idea it might be suitable for the Coasters, while Leiber was in the kitchen. Leiber heard him playing and called out the first line, "Take out the papers and the trash!", and Stoller immediately replied "Or you don't get no spending cash". They traded off lines and had the song written in about ten minutes.

"Yakety Yak" featured a new style for the Coasters' records. Where their earlier singles had usually alternated between a single lead vocalist -- usually Carl Gardner -- on the verses, and the group taking the chorus, with occasional solo lines by the other members, here the lead vocal was taken in unison by the two longest-serving members of the group, Gardner and Billy Guy, with Cornell Gunter harmonising with them. Leiber and Stoller, in their autobiography, actually call it a duet between Gardner and Guy, but I'm pretty sure I hear three voices on the verses, not two, although Gardner's voice is the most prominent.

Then, at the end of each verse, there's the chorus line, where the group sing "Yakety Yak", and then Dub Jones takes the single line "Don't talk back":

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Yakety Yak"]

This formula would be one they would come back to again and again -- and there was one more element of the record that became part of the Coasters' formula -- King Curtis' saxophone part:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Yakety Yak"]

While “Yakety Yak” seems in retrospect to be an obvious hit record, it didn't seem so at the time, at least to Jerry Leiber. Mike Stoller was convinced from the start that it would be a massive success, and wanted to put another Leiber and Stoller song on the B-side, so they'd be able to get royalties for both sides when the record became as big as he knew it would. Leiber, though, thought they needed a proven song for the B-side -- something safe for if "Yakety Yak" was a flop.

They went with Leiber's plan, and the B-side was a version of the old song "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart", performed as a duet by Dub Jones and Cornell Gunter:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"]

Leiber shouldn't have worried -- "Yakety Yak" was, of course, a number one hit single. The song was successful enough that it spawned a few answer records, including one by Cornell Gunter's sister Gloria, which Cornell sang backing vocals on:

[Excerpt: Gloria Gunter, "Move on Out"]

With the new lineup of the group in place, they quickly settled into a hit-making machine. Everyone had a role to play. Leiber and Stoller would write the songs and take them into the studio. Stoller would write the parts for the musicians and play the piano, while Leiber supervised in the control room. Cornell Gunter would work out the group's vocal arrangements, Dub Jones would always take his bass solo lines, and either Carl Gardner or Billy Guy would take the lead vocal -- but when they did, they'd be copying, as exactly as they could, a performance they'd been shown by Leiber.

From the very start of Leiber and Stoller's career, Leiber had always directed the lead vocalist and told them how to sing his lines -- you may remember from the episode on "Hound Dog", one of the very first songs they wrote, that Big Mama Thornton was annoyed at him for telling her how to sing the song. When Leiber and Stoller produced an artist, whether it was Elvis or Ruth Brown or the Coasters or whoever, they would get them to follow Leiber's phrasing as closely as possible.

And this brings me to a thing that we need to deal with when talking about the Coasters, and that is the criticism that is often levelled against their records that they perpetuate racist stereotypes. Johnny Otis, in particular, would make this criticism of the group's records, and it's one that must be taken seriously -- though of course Otis had personal issues with Leiber and Stoller, resulting from the credits on "Hound Dog". But other people, such as Charlie Gillett, have also raised it.

It's also a charge that, genuinely, I am not in any position to come to a firm conclusion on. I'm a white man, and so my instincts as to what is and isn't racist are likely to be extremely flawed.

What I'd say is this -- the Coasters' performances, and *especially* Dub Jones' vocal parts, are very clearly rooted in particular traditions of African-American comedy, and the way that that form of comedy plays with black culture, and reappropriates stereotypes of black people. If black people were performing, just like this, songs just like this that they had written themselves, there would be no question -- it wouldn't be racist.

Equally, if white people were performing these songs, using the same arrangements, in the same voices, it would undoubtedly be racist -- it would be an Amos and Andy style audio blackface performance, and an absolute travesty.

The problem comes with the fact that the Coasters were black people, but they were performing songs written for them by two white people -- Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- and that Leiber and Stoller were directing how they should perform those songs. To continue the Amos 'n' Andy analogy, is this like when Amos and Andy transferred from the radio to the TV, and the characters were played by black actors imitating the voices of the white comedians who had created the characters?

I can't answer that. Nor can I say if it makes a difference that Leiber and Stoller were Jewish, and so were only on the borders of whiteness themselves at the time, or that they were deeply involved in black culture themselves -- though that said, they also claimed on several occasions that they weren't writing about black people in particular in any of their songs. Leiber said of "Riot in Cell Block #9" "It was inspired by the Gangbusters radio drama. Those voices just happened to be black. But they could have been white actors on radio, saying, “Pass the dynamite, because the fuse is lit.”"

[Excerpt: The Robins, “Riot in Cell Block #9”]

That may be the case as well -- their intent may not have been to write about specifically black experiences at all. And certainly, the Coasters' biggest hits seem to me to be less about black culture, and more about generic teenage concerns. But still, it's very obvious that a large number of people did interpret the Coasters' songs as being about black experiences specifically -- and about a specific type of black experience.

Otis said of Leiber and Stoller, "They weren't racist in the true sense of the word, but they dwelled entirely on a sort of street society. It's a very fine point -- sure, the artist who performed and created these things, that's where he was. He wasn't a family person going to a gig, he was in the alleys, he was out there in the street trying to make it with his guitar. But while it might be a true reflection of life, it's not invariably a typical reflection of the typical life in the black community".

The thing is, as well, a lot of this isn't in the songwriting, but in the performance -- and that performance was clearly directed by Leiber. I think it makes a difference, as well, that the Coasters had two different audiences -- they had an R&B audience, who were mostly older black people, and they had a white teenage audience. Different audiences preferred different songs, and again, there's a difference between black performers singing for a black audience and singing for a white one.

I don't have any easy answers on this one. I don't think that whether something is racist or not is a clear binary, and I'm not the right person to judge whether the Coasters' music crosses any lines. But I thought it was important that I at least mention that there is a debate to be had there, and not just leave the subject alone as being too difficult.

The song Johnny Otis singled out in the interview was "Charlie Brown", which most people refer to as the follow-up to "Yakety Yak".

In fact, after "Yakety Yak" came a blues song called "The Shadow Knows", based on the radio mystery series that starred Orson Welles. While Leiber and Stoller often talked about the inspiration that radio plays gave them for their songs for the group, that didn't translate to chart success -- several online discographies even fail to mention the existence of "The Shadow Knows". It's a more adult record than "Yakety Yak", and seems to have been completely ignored by the Coasters' white teenage audience -- and in Leiber and Stoller's autobiography, they skip over it completely, and talk about "Charlie Brown" as being immediately after "Yakety Yak".

"Charlie Brown" took significantly longer to come up with than the ten minutes that "Yakety Yak" had taken -- while Stoller came up with some appropriate music almost straight away, it took Leiber weeks of agonising before he hit on the title "Charlie Brown", and came up with the basic idea for the lyric -- which, again, Stoller helped with. It's clear, listening to it, that they were trying very deliberately to replicate the sound of "Yakety Yak":

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Charlie Brown"]

"Charlie Brown" was almost as big a hit as "Yakety Yak", reaching number two on the pop charts, so of course they followed it with a third song along the same lines, "Along Came Jones". This time, the song was making fun of the plethora of Western TV series:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Along Came Jones"]

While that's a fun record, it “only” reached number nine in the pop charts – still a big success, but nowhere near as big as “Charlie Brown” or “Yakety Yak”. Possibly "Along Came Jones" did less well than it otherwise would have because The Olympics had had a recent hit with a similar record, "Western Movies":

[Excerpt: The Olympics, "Western Movies"]

Either way, the public seemed to tire of the unison-vocals-and-honking-sax formula -- while the next single was meant to be a song called "I'm a Hog For You Baby" which was another iteration of the same formula (although with a more bluesy feel, and a distinctly more adult tone to the lyrics) listeners instead picked up on the B-side, which became their biggest hit among black audiences, becoming their fourth and final R&B number one, as well as their last top ten pop hit.

This one was a song called "Poison Ivy", and it's frankly amazing that it was even released, given that it's blatantly about sexually transmitted diseases -- the song is about a woman called "Poison Ivy", and it talks about mumps, measles, chicken pox and more, before saying that "Poison Ivy will make you itch" and "you can look but you'd better not touch". It's hardly subtle:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Poison Ivy"]

Shortly after that, Adolph Jacobs left the group. While he'd always been an official member, it had always seemed somewhat strange that the group had one non-singing instrumental member -- and that that member wasn't even a particularly prominent instrumentalist on the records, with Mike Stoller's piano and King Curtis' saxophone being more important to the sound of the records.

"Poison Ivy" would be the group's last top ten hit, and it seemed to signal Leiber and Stoller getting bored with writing songs aimed at an audience of teenagers. From that point on, most of the group's songs would be in the older style that they'd used with the Robins -- songs making social comments, and talking about adult topics.

The next single, "What About Us?", which was a protest song about how rich (and by implication) white people had an easy life while the singers didn't have anything, "only" reached number seventeen, and there seems to have been a sort of desperate flailing about to try new styles. They released a single of the old standard "Besame Mucho", which extended over two sides -- the second side mostly being a King Curtis saxophone solo. That only went to number seventy.

Then they released the first single written by a member of the group -- "Wake Me, Shake Me", which was written by Billy Guy. That was backed by the old folk song "Stewball", and didn't do much better, reaching number fifty-one on the charts.

The song after that was an attempt at yet another style, and that did even worse in the charts, but it's now considered one of the Coasters' great classics. "Clothes Line (Wrap It Up)" was a comedy blues song written by a singer called Kent Harris and performed by him under the name Boogaloo and His Solid Crew, and it seems to have been modelled both on the early Robins songs that Leiber and Stoller had written, and on Chuck Berry's "No Money Down":

[Excerpt: Boogaloo and His Solid Crew: "Clothes Line (Wrap it Up)"]

Leiber and Stoller told various different stories over the years about how the Coasters came to record what they titled "Shopping For Clothes", but the one they seem to have settled on was that Billy Guy vaguely remembered hearing the original record, and knew about half the lyrics, and they'd reconstructed the song from what he remembered. They'd been unable to find out who had written it, so had just credited it to "Elmo Glick", a pseudonym they sometimes used.

The new version of the song was reworked significantly, and in particular it became a dialogue, with Billy Guy playing the shopper and Dub Jones playing the sales assistant:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Shopping For Clothes"]

The record only reached number eighty-three on the charts, and of course Kent Harris sued and was awarded joint writing credit with Leiber and Stoller. While it didn't chart, it is usually regarded as one of the Coasters' very best records.

It's also notable for being the first Coasters record to feature a young session musician that Leiber and Stoller were mentoring at the time. Lester Sill, who had been Leiber and Stoller's mentor in their early years, had partnered with them in several business ventures, and was currently the Coasters' manager, phoned them up out of the blue one day, and told them about a kid he knew who'd had a big hit with a song called "To Know Him Is To Love Him", which he'd written for his group the Teddy Bears:

[Excerpt: The Teddy Bears, "To Know Him Is To Love Him"]

That record had been released on Trey Records, a new label that Sill had set up with another producer, Lee Hazlewood.

Sill said that the kid in question was a huge admirer of Leiber and Stoller, and wanted to learn from them. Would they give him some kind of job with them, so he could be like an apprentice?

So, as a favour to Sill, and even though they found they disliked the kid once he got to New York, they signed him to a publishing contract, gave him jobs as a session guitarist, and even let him sleep in their office or in Leiber's spare room for a while. We'll be hearing more about how their collaboration with Phil Spector worked out in future episodes.

Around the time that "Shopping For Clothes" came out, the group became conscious that their time as a pop chart act with a teenage fanbase was probably close to its end, and they decided to do something that Carl Gardner had wanted to do for a while, and try to transition into the adult white market -- the kind of people who were buying records by Tony Bennett or Andy Williams.

Gardner had wanted, from the start, to be a big band singer, and his friend Johnny Otis had always encouraged him to try to sing the material he really loved, rather than the stuff he was doing with the Coasters. So eventually it was agreed that the group would do their first proper album -- something recorded with the intention of being an LP, rather than a collection of singles shoved together.

This record was to be titled "One By One", and would have the group backed by an orchestra, singing old standards. Each song would have a single lead vocalist, with the others relegated to backing vocal parts. Gardner took lead on four songs, and seems to have believed that this would be his big chance to transition into being a solo singer, but it didn't work out like that.

The album wasn't a particular success, either commercially or critically, but to the extent that anyone noticed it at all, they mostly commented on how good Cornell Gunter sounded. Gunter had always been relegated to backing roles in the group -- he was an excellent singer, and a very strong physical comedian, but his sweeter voice didn't really suit being lead on the material that made the group famous.

Gunter had always admired the singer Dinah Washington, and he used to do imitations of her in the group's shows. Getting the chance to take a solo lead on three songs, he shone with his imitation of her style:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Easy Living"]

For comparison, this is Washington's version of the same song:

[Excerpt: Dinah Washington, "Easy Living"]

Despite the record showing what strong vocalists the group were, it did nothing, and by this time the group's commercial fortunes seemed to be in terminal decline. Looking at their releases around this period, it's noticeable as well that the Coasters stop being produced exclusively by Leiber and Stoller -- several of their recordings are credited instead to Sill and Hazlewood as producers.

There could be several explanations for this -- it could be that Leiber and Stoller were bored of working with the Coasters, or it could be that they thought that getting in another production team might give the group a boost -- after all, Sill and Hazlewood had recently had a few hits of their own, producing records like "Rebel Rouser" by Duane Eddy:

[Excerpt: Duane Eddy, "Rebel Rouser"]

But nothing they produced for the group had any great commercial success either. The group's last top thirty hit was another Leiber and Stoller song -- one that once again shows the more adult turn their writing for the group had taken:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Little Egypt"]

"Little Egypt" was originally the stage name for three different belly-dancers, two of whom performed in Chicago in the mid-1890s and introduced the belly dance to the American public, and another who performed in New York a few years later and was the subject of a scandal when a party she was performing at was raided and it was discovered she planned to perform nude. These dancers had been so notorious that as late as the early 1950s -- nearly sixty years after their careers -- there was a highly fictionalised film supposedly based on the life of one of them.

Whether Leiber and Stoller were inspired by the film, or just by the many exotic dancers who continued using variations of the name, their song about a stripper would be the last time the Coasters would have a significant hit.

Shortly after its release, Cornell Gunter decided to leave the group and take up an opportunity to sing in Dinah Washington's backing group. He was replaced by Earl "Speedo" Carroll, who had previously sung with a group called the Cadillacs, whose big hit was "Speedoo":

[Excerpt: The Cadillacs, "Speedoo"]

Carroll, according to Leiber and Stoller, was so concerned about job security that he kept his day job as a school janitor after joining the Coasters.

Unfortunately, Gunter was soon sacked by Dinah Washington, and he decided to form his own group, and to call it the Coasters. A more accurate name might have been the Penguins, since the other three members of his new group had been members of the Penguins previously -- Gunter had come out of the same stew of vocal groups as the Penguins had, and had known them for years.

Gunter's group weren't allowed to record as the Coasters, so they made records just under Gunter's own name, or as "Cornell Gunter and the Cornells":

[Excerpt: Cornell Gunter, “In a Dream of Love”]

But while he couldn't make records as the Coasters, his group could tour under that name -- and they were cheaper than the other group. Gunter was friends with Dick Clark, and so Clark started to book Gunter's version of the group, rather than the version that was in the studio.

Not that the group in the studio was exactly the same as the group you'd see live, even if you did go and see the main group. Billy Guy decided he wanted to try a solo career, but unlike Gunter he didn't quit the group. Instead, he had a replacement go out on the road for him, but still sang with them in the studio. None of Guy's solo records did particularly well, and several of them ended up getting reissued under the Coasters name, even though no other Coasters were involved:

[Excerpt: Billy Guy, "It Doesn't Take Much"]

The band membership kept changing, and the hits stopped altogether. Over the next few decades, pretty much everyone who'd been involved with the Coasters started up their own rival version of the group. Carl Gardner apparently retained the legal rights to the name "the Coasters", and would sue people using it without his permission, but that didn't stop other members performing under names like "Cornel Gunter's Coasters", which isn't precisely the same.

Sadly, several people associated with the Coasters ended up dying violently. King Curtis was stabbed to death in the street in 1971, outside his apartment building. Two people were making a drug deal outside his door, and he asked them to move, as he was trying to carry a heavy air-conditioning unit in. They refused, a fight broke out, and he ended up dead, aged only thirty-seven. One of Cornell Gunter's Coasters was murdered by Gunter's manager in 1980, after threatening to expose some of the manager's criminal activities. And finally Gunter himself was shot dead in 1990, and his killer has never been found.

These days there are three separate Coasters groups touring. "Cornell Gunter's Coasters" is a continuation of the group that Gunter led before his death. "The Coasters" is managed by Carl Gardner's widow. And Leon Hughes, who is the only surviving original member of the Coasters but was gone by the time of "Yakety Yak", tours as "Leon Hughes and His Coasters".

The Coasters are now all gone, other than Hughes, but their records are still remembered. They created a sound that influenced many, many, other groups, but has never been replicated by anyone. They were often dismissed as just a comedy group, but as anyone who has ever tried it knows, making music that is both funny and musically worthwhile is one of the hardest things you can do. And making comedy music that's still enjoyable more than sixty years later? No-one else in rock and roll has ever done that.

Feb 04, 2020
Episode 67: "Johnny B. Goode", by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry and Alan Freed


Episode sixty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, and the decline and fall of both Berry and Alan Freed. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Splish Splash" by Bobby Darin.



As always, I've created Mixcloud streaming playlists with full versions of all the songs in the episode. Because of the limit on the number of songs by one artist, I have posted them as two playlists -- part one, part two.

I used foue main books as reference here:

Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry by Bruce Pegg is a good narrative biography of Berry, which doesn't shy away from the less salubrious aspects of his personality, but is clearly written by an admirer.

Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy by Fred Rothwell is an extraordinarily researched look at every single recording session of Berry's career up to 2001.

I also used a Chuck Berry website, http://www.crlf.de/ChuckBerry/ , which contains updates on Rothwell's research.

The information on the precursors to the "Johnny B. Goode" intro comes from Before Elvis by Larry Birnbaum. 

And for information about Freed, I used  Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll by John A. Jackson.

There are a myriad Chuck Berry compilations available. The one I'd recommend if you don't have a spare couple of hundred quid for the complete works box set is the double-CD Gold, which has every major track without much of the filler.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


A brief content warning for this episode – like last week's, this discusses, though not in any great detail, a few crimes of a sexual nature. If that's likely to upset you, please either check the transcript to make sure you'll be OK, or come back next week.

Today we're going to talk about the definitive fifties rock and roll song. “Johnny B. Goode” is so much the epitome of American post-war culture that when NASA sent a record into space, on the Voyager probes in the seventies, it was the only rock and roll song included in the selection of audio, which also included pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky, and performances by Louis Armstrong and Blind Willie Johnson, along with folk songs, spoken greetings from world leaders, and so on.

At the time the golden record was put together, it was criticised for containing any rock and roll at all. Now, that record is further away from Earth than any other object created by a human being.

On Saturday Night Live, the week the probe was launched, Steve Martin joked that there'd been a message from aliens – “Send more Chuck Berry”.

That's what an important record "Johnny B. Goode" is.

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”]

When we last looked at Chuck Berry, he'd just released "School Day", which had been his breakout hit into the broader white teenage market that had started to listen to rock and roll.

Berry's career didn't go on a completely upward curve after that point. His next single, "Oh Baby Doll", was a comparative flop -- it reached number twelve in the R&B charts, but only number fifty-seven on the pop charts. But the record after that was the start of a three-single run that would consolidate Berry as rock and roll's premier mythologiser.

Where in May 1956 Berry had sung about "these rhythm and blues", this time he was going to use the music's new name, and he was singing "just let me hear some of that rock and roll music":

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Rock and Roll Music"]

That put him back in the top ten, and everything seemed to be going wonderfully for him. He was so popular now as a rock and roll star that on one of the late 1957 tours he did, when Buddy Holly and the Crickets were lower down the bill, the Crickets would do "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" as part of their set. Berry had written enough classics by now that other acts on the bill could do the ones he didn't have time for.

When he next went back into the studio, it was to cut seven songs.

One of them, "Reelin' and Rockin'", was a slight reworking of the old Wynonie Harris song, "Round the Clock Blues". Harris' song, which had also been recorded by Big Joe Turner with Johnny Otis' band, was an inspiration for "Rock Around the Clock" among other records:

[Excerpt: Wynonie Harris, "Round the Clock Blues"]

Berry's version got rid of some of the more sexual lyrical content -- though that would later come back in live performances of the song -- and played up the song's similarity to "Rock Around the Clock", but it's still basically the exact same song that Wynonie Harris had performed. Of course, the copyright is in Chuck Berry's name -- for all that he and his publishers would be very eager to sue anyone who might come too close to one of Berry's songs, he had no compunction about taking all the credit for a song someone else had written.

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, “Reelin' and Rockin'”]

You might notice that the piano style on that track is very different from some of Berry's earlier recordings.

Now, there are two possible explanations for this, because I've seen two different pianists credited for these sessions. Some sources credit Lafayette Leake with playing the piano here, and that might be enough to explain the difference in style, but I'm going with the other sources, which credit Johnnie Johnson, Berry's regular player, as playing on the session.

If it is, though, he's playing in a different style. This is because of the popularity of Jerry Lee Lewis, who had risen to fame since Berry's last session.

Lewis used to use a simple technique called "ripping" when playing the piano, in which you just slide your fingers across the keys as fast as possible. He does it pretty much constantly in his solos, as you can hear in this:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire”, piano solo]

Leonard Chess had heard that sound, and become convinced that that was the main reason that Lewis' records were so successful, so he insisted on Johnnie Johnson doing that on Berry's new records.

Johnson didn't like the sound, which he considered "all flash and no technique", but Chess insisted -- to the extent that when they were rehearsing the tracks, Chess would walk over and rip his hand down the keys himself, to show Johnson what he wanted. Johnson eventually went along with it, though he said he "'bout tore my thumbnail off" getting it done.

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, “Reelin' and Rockin'”]

He later acknowledged that Chess had a point, though -- simple as it was, it did make the records more exciting, and it was something that the kids clearly liked.

And something else that the kids liked was another song recorded at the same session -- this time about the kids themselves:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Sweet Little Sixteen"]

"Sweet Little Sixteen" was one of the first songs about the experience of being a rock and roll fan. There had been earlier records about just dancing to rock and roll music, of course -- things like "Drugstore Rock & Roll" or "Rip it Up" -- but this was about fandom, and about the experience of following musicians.

It's not completely about that, sadly -- it's the teen girl fan filtered through the male gaze, and so it's also about how "everybody wants to dance with" this sixteen-year-old girl, and about her "tight dresses and lipstick" -- but where the song gains its power is in the verse sections where the girl becomes the viewpoint character, and we hear about how excited she is to go to the show, and about her collections of autographs and photos. However flawed it is, it's one of the best evocations of the experience of fandom as a hobby -- not just liking the music, but having the experience of fandom be a major part of your life.

One of the most notable things about "Sweet Little Sixteen" is the way that Berry uses the song to namecheck American Bandstand, which was fast becoming the most important rock and roll TV show around. While in the first chorus he sings about how they'll be rocking in Boston and Pittsburgh, PA, in the subsequent choruses he changes that to "on Bandstand" and "in Philadelphia PA", which is where American Bandstand was broadcast from. It's a sign that Dick Clark was becoming more important than Berry's mentor, Alan Freed.

A week after the session for "Reelin' and Rockin'" and "Sweet Little Sixteen", came another session for what would become Berry's most well-known song, and one that remains in the repertoire of almost every bar band in the world.

It's instantly recognisable right from the start. The introduction to "Johnny B. Goode" is one of the most well-known guitar parts in history:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode"]

But that guitar part has a long history -- it's original to Chuck Berry, but at the same time it's based on a lot of earlier examples.

Berry took the basic idea for that line from Carl Hogan, Louis Jordan's guitarist, who played this as the intro to Jordan's "Ain't That Just Like a Woman":

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Ain't That Just Like a Woman"]

But Hogan was only the latest in a long line of people who had played essentially that identical line. The first recording we have of that riff dates back to 1918, and a recording by Wilbur Sweatman's Jazz Orchestra. Sweatman was a friend and colleague of Scott Joplin, and his band was one of the very first black jazz groups to record at all. And on their song "Bluin' the Blues", you hear this:

[Excerpt: Wilbur Sweatman's Jazz Orchestra, "Bluin' the Blues"]

We hear it in Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Got the Blues", in 1926:

[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Got the Blues"]

In Blind Blake's "Too Tight", also from 1926:

[Excerpt: Blind Blake, "Too Tight"]

then in records by Cow Cow Davenport, Andy Kirk, and Count Basie, before it turns up in the Louis Jordan record. But there is a crucial difference between what Carl Hogan played and what Chuck Berry played. Listen again to Hogan's playing:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Ain't That Just Like a Woman"]

and now to Berry:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode"]

The crucial change Berry makes there is that most of the time he's playing the solo line on two strings instead of one, creating a thicker sound, with parallel harmonies, rather than just the simple melody line. This was something that Berry learned from the great blues guitarist T-Bone Walker:

[Excerpt: T-Bone Walker, "Shufflin' the Blues"]

Berry took Walker's playing style, and combined it with Hogan's note choices, and that simple change makes all the difference. It transmutes the part that Hogan had played from just a standard riff you find in dozens of old jazz records, a standard part of any musician's toolkit, into a specific intro to a specific song. When, six years later, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys played this as the intro to "Fun, Fun, Fun":

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Fun Fun Fun"]

Absolutely no-one listening thought "Oh, he's riffing off 'Texas Shout' by Cow Cow Davenport" -- everyone instantly thought "Oh, that's the intro to 'Johnny B. Goode'". Berry had taken a standard piece of every musician's toolkit, and by putting a very slight twist on it had made everyone listening hear it differently, so now it was identified solely with him.

The lyric to Johnny B. Goode is more original than the music, but even there we can trace its origins. Berry always talked about how the original idea for the lyric was as a message to Johnnie Johnson, saying "Johnnie, be good", stop drinking so much -- a wake-up call to his friend and colleague. But that quickly changed, and the song became more about Berry himself, or an idealised version of Berry, perhaps how he would want people to see him -- something that was even more explicit in the original version of the lyric, where rather than sing "a country boy", he sang "a coloured boy".

But there's another sign that Berry was talking about himself, and that's in the very title itself. Goode is spelled "G-o-o-d-e", with an "e" on the end -- and Berry's childhood home was at 2520 Goode avenue, with an E.

There's another possible origin as well -- the poet Langston Hughes had written a very widely circulated series of newspaper columns, which Berry would have encountered in his teenage years and early twenties, about a character named Jesse B. Simple.

(And in an interesting note, in 1934 Hughes wrote a story about racial injustice called "Berry", about a boy named Berry who would, among other things, tell children stories and sing them songs, and Hughes signed the dedication in the book that story was in "Berry" rather than with his own name.)

You can point to every element of "Johnny B. Goode" and say "well, this came from there, and this came from there", but still you're no closer to identifying why Johnny B. Goode works as well as it does. it's the combination of all these elements in a way that they'd never been put together before that is Berry's genius, and is why Berry is pretty much universally regarded as an innovator, not just as an imitator.

"Johnny B. Goode" was also the title song for what turned out to be Alan Freed's final film -- a film called Go, Johnny, Go! which also featured Eddie Cochran, the Moonglows, and Ritchie Valens.

[Excerpt: Berry and Freed dialogue from Go, Johnny, Go!]

That film came out in 1959, and had Berry as Freed's co-star, appearing with Freed as himself in almost every scene. It was the last gasp of rock and roll cultural relevance for almost everyone involved. By the time the film had come out, Valens was already dead, and within a little over eighteen months after its release, Cochran was also dead, Freed was disgraced, and Berry was in prison.

In the last couple of episodes, I've mentioned a tour that Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlined in 1958, just after “Johnny B. Goode” came out, with Alan Freed as the MC. What I didn't mention until now is that as well as the tension between Chuck and Jerry Lee, that tour ended up spelling the end of Freed's career.

Freed was already on the downturn in his career -- rock and roll was moving from being a music made largely by black musicians to one dominated by white people, and to make matters worse the major labels had finally got a handle on it and started churning out dozens of prepackaged teen idols, most of them called Bobby. Freed didn't have the connections with the major labels, or the understanding of the new manufactured pop, that he did with the R&B records from labels like Chess.

But it was the show in Boston on this tour that led to Freed's downfall. The early show, which had been headlined by Lewis, had had the audience dancing, and the police were not at all impressed with this. They'd forced Alan Freed to make the audience sit down, and Lewis had had to play his set to an audience who were seated and squirming, unable to get up and dance to his recent big hits like “Great Balls of Fire”:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire”]

Then came the late show, which Berry was headlining. The same thing started to happen -- the kids in the audience got up to dance, and the police made Alan Freed make them sit down. But then, when the audience had quietened down, while Berry was standing there on stage, the police refused to dim the house lights and let the musicians carry on playing. So Freed got back on stage and said "It looks like the Boston police don't want you to have a good time."

The show continued with the lights on, but the audience got annoyed -- so much so that Chuck Berry finished the show from behind the drummer, in case the audience attacked. But the police got more annoyed.

They got so annoyed, in fact, that they decided to simply claim that every single crime reported to them that night had been inspired by the show.

Nobody now thinks that the New York Times reports which said there were multiple stabbings, fifteen people hospitalised, and multiple rapes, are actually accurate reports of anything caused by the show. But at the time, everyone believed it. Boston decided to ban rock and roll concerts altogether, as a result of the show, and while the tour continued through a couple more dates, most of the remaining tour dates got cancelled.

Oddly, going through this adversity seems to have brought Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis together. While they'd been fighting each other for almost the entire tour, after this point they became quite close friends, and would speak warmly about each other.

Things didn't end so happily for Alan Freed.

Freed had been having some problems with his radio station for a little while. He was difficult to work with, and they particularly disliked that he had started doing his broadcasts from home, rather than from the studio. When he'd been hired, the station was losing money, and he'd been a gamble. Now, they were in profit, and they didn't need to take risks, and they'd been considering not renewing his contract when it came up in six months. Now that this had happened, they took the opportunity to use the morals clause in Freed's contract to fire him, although he was allowed to present it as a resignation instead of a firing.

Freed would manage to get another radio job, but not one with anything like the same prominence. He would, within a couple of years, become the designated industry fall guy for the practice of payola. This is something that we've talked about before -- record labels would pay DJs to play their records. Sometimes it was in the form of adding their name to the writing credits, as was the case for Freed with records like "Maybellene" and "Sincerely" – and you can tell how much Freed contributed to those songs by hearing his own attempts at making records:

[Excerpt: Alan Freed and his Rock and Roll Band, “Rock and Roll Boogie”, Rock Rock Rock version]

Sometimes a promoter would just slip a DJ fifty dollars when handing over a promotional copy of the record. Sometimes, the DJ would be hired to announce a show by the act whose record was to be promoted. There were a lot of different methods, some of them more blatant than others, but it was a common practice.

Every DJ and TV presenter took part in this, pretty much -- Dick Clark certainly did -- and while no-one other than the DJs liked the practice, the small labels that built rock and roll, labels like Sun or Chess or Atlantic, all saw it as a way that they could equalise things a little bit. The major labels all had an inbuilt advantage, and would get their records played on the radio no matter what -- this was a way that the smaller labels could be heard.

But precisely because it levelled the playing field somewhat, the larger record labels didn't like it, and by this point the major labels were becoming more interested in rock and roll. And to protect that interest, they promoted a campaign against payola.

Freed, as the most prominent DJ in the country, and someone who did his fair share of taking bribes, was essentially chosen as the scapegoat for this, once he lost his job at WINS. By the end of 1959 he lost his job with the station he moved to, WABC, once the payola scandal became headline news, and he spent the next few years moving from smaller stations to yet smaller ones, not staying anywhere very long. He died in 1965, of illnesses caused by his alcoholism. He was only forty-three.

[Excerpt: Alan Freed sign-off, “This is not goodbye, it's just goodnight”]

And here we get to the downfall of Chuck Berry himself. It's an unfortunate fact of chronology that I have to deal with this the week after dealing with Jerry Lee Lewis' own underage sex scandal -- well, a fact of both chronology and a terrible society that sees the bodies of young girls as something to which powerful men are entitled, anyway.

Chuck Berry had been on a tour of the Southwest, when in Texas he had met up with a fourteen-year-old sex worker, who had accompanied him on the rest of the tour. He'd promised her a job working at his nightclub in St. Louis, and when he fired her shortly after she started there, she went to the police.

Like Lewis, Berry has been more or less forgiven by the consensus narrative of rock history. There is slightly more justification for doing so in Berry's case than in Lewis', because the Mann Act, the law under which he was charged and convicted, was a law that was created specifically to punish black men -- indeed, its official title was The White Slave Traffic Act. Given the way that other rock and roll artists seem to have had carte blanche to abuse young girls, the fact that a black man was about the only one, certainly for many decades, to spend time in prison for this, is more than a little unjust.

But the fact remains, a man in his thirties had had sexual relations with a fourteen-year-old girl. And it's not like this was an isolated incident -- he would later famously settle a class-action suit brought against him by a large number of women he had videotaped on the toilet without their permission.

So while Berry had an entirely fair complaint that the prosecution was motivated by race -- and his prison sentence was reduced in large part because the judge made some extremely racist remarks -- it's still a fact that what he did was wrong.

Now, I'm not going to spend much more time on this with Berry -- not as much as I did with Jerry Lee Lewis last week -- and that's because as I said in the beginning of the series, this is not a podcast about the horrible crimes men have committed against women.

So why bring it up at all?

Well, there's a myth that Berry's career was completely wrecked by his arrest. This simply isn't true.

It's true that "Johnny B. Goode" was Berry's last top ten hit for quite a few years, and he only had one more top twenty hit in the fifties. But the thing is, his singles had had a very inconsistent chart history before that. He'd released eleven singles up to that point, and only five of them had made the top ten on the pop charts. Classics like "Thirty Days", "Too Much Monkey Business", "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "You Can't Catch Me" had totally failed to hit the pop charts at all.

Berry was arrested in December 1959, and between trials and appeals, he didn't end up going to jail until 1961. "Johnny B. Goode" came out in March 1958. That means that for almost two years *before* the arrest, Berry was, at best, charting in the lower reaches of the charts.

The fact is, there's a simple reason why Berry didn't chart very much in the late fifties and early sixties. Well, there are two reasons. The first is that public taste had moved on, as it does every few years. There are very few singles artists -- and all artists in the fifties were singles artists -- who can survive a major change in the public's taste.

The other reason, as he would later admit himself, is that the material he recorded in the few years after "Johnny B. Goode" wasn't his best. There were some good songs -- things like "Carol", "Little Queenie", and "I've Got to Find My Baby" -- but even those weren't Berry at his absolute peak. And the majority of the material he put out during that time was stuff like "Anthony Boy" and "Too Pooped to Pop", which very few of even Berry's most ardent fans will tell you are worth listening to.

There was one exception -- during that time, he put out what may be the best song he ever wrote, "Memphis, Tennessee":

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Memphis, Tennessee"]

While it's a travesty that that record didn't chart, in retrospect it's easy to see why it didn't. Berry's audience were, for the most part, teenagers. No matter how good a song it was, "Memphis Tennessee" was about a man wanting to regain contact with his six-year-old daughter after he's split up with her mother. That's something that would have far more relevance to people of Berry's own age group than to the people who had been, a year or so earlier, wanting to dance with sweet little sixteen, and wanting to hear some of that rock and roll music.

As odd as it is to say, Berry's eighteen months in jail may have done him some good as a commercial prospect. The first three singles he released in 1964, right after getting out of prison, were all bigger hits than he'd had since summer 1958 -- "Nadine" made number 23, "You Never Can Tell" made number fourteen, and "No Particular Place to Go", a rewrite of "School Day", with new, funnier, lyrics about sexual frustration, went to number ten:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "No Particular Place to Go"]

Those songs were better than anything he'd released for several years previously, and it seemed that Berry might be on his way back to the top, but it was a false dawn. Berry's studio work slid back into mediocrity with occasional flashes of his old brilliance, and his only hit after this point was in the seventies, when he had his only number one with a novelty song by Dave Bartholomew, "My Ding-a-Ling", which if you've not heard it is about as juvenile as it sounds.

In the late seventies, Berry essentially retired from making new music, choosing instead to spend the best part of forty years touring the world with just his guitar, playing with whatever local pickup band the promoter could scrape together, and often not even letting them know in advance what the next song was going to be -- he assumed that everyone knew all of his songs, and he was, by and large, correct in that assumption. He was, by all accounts, an extremely bitter man.

He did, though, work on one final album, just called "Chuck", which was announced as part of the celebrations for his ninetieth birthday, but wasn't released until shortly after his death. He died, aged ninety, in 2017, and the obituaries concentrated on his music rather than his crimes against women. John Lennon once said "if you tried to give rock and roll another name, it would be Chuck Berry", and for both better and worse, that's probably true.

Jan 27, 2020
Episode 66: "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis

Episode sixty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode. This one comes with a bit of a content warning, as while it has nothing explicit, it deals with his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Rumble" by Link Wray.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode (with one exception, which I mention in the podcast).

The Spark That Survived by Myra Lewis Williams is Myra's autobiography, and tells her side of the story, which has tended to be ignored in favour of her famous husband's side.

I'm relying heavily on Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll by Peter Guralnick for all the episodes dealing with Phillips and Sun Records.

Books on Jerry Lee Lewis tend to be very flawed, as the authors all tend to think they're Faulkner rather than giving the facts. This one by Rick Bragg is better than most.

There are many budget CDs containing Lewis' pre-1962 work. This set seems as good an option as any.

And this ten-CD box set contains ninety Sun singles in chronological order, starting with "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and covering the Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins records discussed here. There are few better ways to get an idea of Lewis' work in context.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


I say “Glad All Over” was written by Aaron Schroeder. In fact it was co-written by Schroeder, Roy Bennett, and Sid Tepper.



We've looked before at the rise of Jerry Lee Lewis, but in this episode we're going to talk about his fall. And for that reason I have to put a content warning at the beginning here. While I'm not going to say anything explicit at all, this episode has to deal with events that I, and most of my listeners, would refer to as child sexual abuse, though the child in question still, more than sixty years later, doesn't see them that way, and I don't want to say anything that imposes my framing over hers. If you might find this subject distressing, I suggest reading the transcript before listening, or just skipping this episode. It also deals, towards the end, with domestic violence.

Indeed, if you're affected by these issues, I would also suggest skipping the next episode, on "Johnny B. Goode", and coming back on February the second for "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters. We're hitting a point in the history of rock and roll where, for the first time, rock and roll begins its decline in popularity. We'll see from this point on that every few years there's a change in musical fashions, and a new set of artists take over from the most popular artists of the previous period. And in the case of the first rock and roll era, that takeover was largely traumatic. There were a number of deaths, some prosecutions -- and in the case of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, scandals.

In general, I try not to make these podcast episodes be about the horrific acts that some of the men involved have committed. This is a podcast about music, not about horrible men doing horrible things. But in the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, he was one of the very small number of men to have actually faced consequences for his actions, and so it has to be discussed. I promise I will try to do so as sensitively as possible.

Although sensitivity is not the word that comes to mind when one thinks of Jerry Lee Lewis, generally...

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls of Fire"]

When we left Jerry Lee Lewis, he had just had his first really major success, with "Whole Lotta Shakin'". He was on top of the world, and the most promising artist in rock and roll music. With Elvis about to be drafted into the army, the role of biggest rock and roll star was wide open, and Lewis intended to take over Elvis' mantle. There was going to be a new king of rock and roll.

It didn't quite work out that way.

"Whole Lotta Shakin'" was such a massive hit that on the basis of that one record, Jerry Lee was invited to perform his next single in a film called Jamboree.

This was one of the many exploitation films that were being put out starring popular DJs -- this one starred Dick Clark, rather than Alan Freed, who'd appeared in most of them. They were the kind of thing that made Elvis' films look like masterpieces of the cinema, and tended to involve a bunch of kids who wanted to put a dance on at their local school, or similar interchangeable plots. The reason people went to see them wasn't the plot, but the performances by rock and roll musicians.

Fats Domino was in most of these, and he was in this one, singing his minor single "Wait and See". There were also a few performances by musicians who weren't strictly rock and roll, and were from an older generation, but who were close enough that the kids would probably accept them. Slim Whitman appeared, as did Count Basie, with Joe Williams as lead vocalist:…

[Excerpt: Joe Williams, "I Don't Like You No More"]

The film also featured the only known footage of Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, who we talked about briefly last week. More pertinently to this story, it featured Carl Perkins:

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Glad All Over"]

That song was one of the few that Perkins recorded which wasn't written by him. Instead, it was written by Aaron Schroeder, who had co-written the non-Leiber-and-Stoller songs for Jailhouse Rock, and who also appeared in this film in a cameo role as himself. The song was provided to Sam Phillips by Hill and Range, who were Phillips' publishing partners as well as being Elvis'.

It was to be Carl Perkins' last record for Sun -- Perkins had finally had enough of Sam Phillips being more interested in Jerry Lee Lewis. Even little things were getting to him -- Jerry Lee's records were credited to "Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano". Why did Carl's records never say anything about Carl's guitar?

Sam promised him that the records would start to credit Carl Perkins as "the rocking guitar man", but it was too late -- Perkins and Johnny Cash both made an agreement with Columbia Records on November the first 1957 that when their current contracts with Sun expired, they'd start recording for the new label.

Cash was in a similar situation to Perkins -- Jack Clement had now taken over production of Cash's records, and while Cash was writing some of his best material, songs like "Big River" that remain classics, Clement was making him record songs Clement had written himself, like "Ballad of a Teenage Queen":

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen"]

It's quite easy to see from that, which he recorded in mid-November, why Cash left Sun.

While Cash would go on to have greater success at Columbia, Perkins wouldn't. And ironically it was possible that he had had one more opportunity to have a hit follow-up to "Blue Suede Shoes" at Sun, and he'd passed on it.

According to Perkins, he was given a choice of two songs to perform in Jamboree, both of them published by Hill and Range, but "I thought both of them was junk!" and he'd chosen the one that was slightly less awful -- that's not how other people involved remember it, but he would always claim that he had been offered the song that Jerry Lee Lewis performed, and turned down "Great Balls of Fire":

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls of Fire"]

That song was one that both Lewis and Phillips were immediately convinced would be a hit as soon as they heard the demo. Sam Phillips' main worry was how they were going to improve on the demo by the song's writer, Otis Blackwell, which he thought was pretty much perfect as it was.

We've met Otis Blackwell briefly before -- he was a New York-based songwriter, one of a relatively small number of black people who managed to get work as a professional songwriter for one of the big publishing companies. Blackwell had written "Fever" for Little Willie John, "You're the Apple of My Eye" for Frankie Valli, and two massive hits for Elvis -- "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up". We don't have access to his demo of "Great Balls of Fire", but in the seventies he recorded an album called "These are My Songs", featuring many of the hits he'd written for other people, and it's possible that the version of "Great Balls of Fire" on that album gives some idea of what the demo that so impressed Phillips sounded like:

[Excerpt: Otis Blackwell, "Great Balls of Fire"]

"Great Balls of Fire" seems to be the first thing to have been tailored specifically for the persona that Lewis had created with his previous hit. It's a refinement of the "Whole Lotta Shakin'" formula, but it has a few differences that give the song far more impact.

Most notably, where "Whole Lotta Shakin'" starts off with a gently rolling piano intro and only later picks up steam:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin'"]

"Great Balls of Fire" has a much more dynamic opening -- one that sets the tone for the whole record with its stop-start exclamations:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls of Fire"]

Although that stop-start intro is one of the few signs in the record that point to the song having been possibly offered to Perkins -- it's very reminiscent of the intro to "Blue Suede Shoes":

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes"]

I could imagine Perkins recording the song in the "Blue Suede Shoes" manner and having a hit with it, though not as big a hit as Lewis eventually had. On the other hand I can't imagine Lewis turning "Glad All Over", fun as it is, into anything even remotely worthy of following up "Whole Lotta Shakin'".

Almost straight away they managed to cut a version of "Great Balls of Fire" that was suitable for the film, but it wasn't right for a hit record. They needed something that was absolutely perfect. After having sent the film version off, they spent several days working on getting the perfect version cut -- paying particular attention to that stop-start intro, which the musicians had to time perfectly for it not to come out as a sloppy mess.

Oddly, the musicians on the track weren't the normal Sun session players, and nor were they the musicians who normally played in Lewis' band. Instead, Lewis was backed by Sidney Stokes on bass and Larry Linn on drums -- according to Lewis, he never met those two people again after they finished recording.

But as the work proceeded, Jerry Lee became concerned. "Great Balls of Fire"? Didn't that sound a bit... Satanic? And people did say that rock and roll was the Devil's music.

He ended up getting into an angry, rambling, theological discussion with Sam Phillips, which was recorded and which gives an insight into how difficult Lewis must have been to work with, but also how tortured he was -- he truly believed in the existence of a physical Hell, and that he was destined to go there because of his music:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips, Bible discussion]

Sam Phillips, who appears to have had the patience of a saint, eventually talked Lewis down and persuaded him to get back to making music.

When "Great Balls of Fire" came out, with a cover of Hank Williams' ballad "You Win Again" on the B-side, it was an immediate success. It sold over a million copies in the first ten days it was out, and it became a classic that has been covered by everyone from Dolly Parton to Aerosmith. It's one of the records that defines 1950s rock and roll music, and it firmly established Jerry Lee Lewis as one of the greatest stars of rock and roll, if not the greatest.

Jack and Sam kept recording everything they could from Lewis, getting a backlog of recordings that would be released for decades to come -- everything from Hank Williams covers to the old blues number "Big Legged Woman":

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Big Legged Woman"]

But they decided that they didn't want to mess with a winning formula, and so the next record that they put out was another Otis Blackwell song, "Breathless".

This time, the band was the normal Sun studio drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley on guitar -- Riley was also furious with Sam Phillips for the way he was concentrating on Lewis' career at the expense of everyone else's, but he was still working on sessions for Phillips -- and Jerry Lee's cousin J.W. Brown on bass. J.W. was his full name -- it didn't stand for anything -- and he was the regular touring bass player in Lewis' band.

"Breathless" was very much in the same style as "Great Balls of Fire", if perhaps not *quite* so good:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Breathless"]

To promote the record, Jud Phillips, Sam's brother, came up with a great promotional scheme. Dick Clark, the presenter of American Bandstand, had another show, the Dick Clark Show, which was also called Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show because it was sponsored by Beechnut chewing gum. Clark had already had Jerry Lee on his show once, and he'd been a hit -- Clark could bring him back on the show, and they could announce that if you sent Sun Records five Beechnut wrappers and fifty cents for postage and packing, you could get a signed copy of the new record. The fifty cents would be more than the postage and packing would cost, of course, and Sun would split the profits with Dick Clark.

Sun bought an autograph stamp to stamp copies of the record with, hired a few extra temporary staff members to help them get the records posted, and made the arrangements with Dick Clark and his sponsors. The result was extraordinary -- in some parts of the country, stores ran out of Beechnut gum altogether. More than thirty-eight thousand copies of the single were sent out to eager gum-chewers.

It was around this time that Jerry Lee went on the Alan Freed tour that we mentioned last week, with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Larry Williams, the Chantels, and eleven other acts. The tour later became legendary not so much for the music -- though that was great -- but for the personal disputes between Lewis and Berry.

There were two separate issues at stake. The first was Elmo Lewis, Jerry's father. Elmo had a habit of using racial slurs, and of threatening to fight anyone, especially black people, who he thought was disrespecting him. At one show on the tour, a dispute about parking spaces between Berry and Lewis led to the elder Lewis chasing Berry three blocks, waving a knife, and shouting "You know what we do with cats like you down in Ferriday? We chop the heads off them and throw it in a lake."

Apparently, by the next day, Elmo and Chuck were sat with each other at breakfast, the best of friends.

The other issue was Berry's belief that he, rather than Lewis, should be headlining the shows. He managed to persuade the promoters of this, and this led Lewis to try more and more outrageous stunts on stage to try to upstage Berry. The legend has it that at one show he went so far as to set his piano on fire at the climax of "Great Balls of Fire", and then walk off stage challenging Berry to follow that.

Some versions of the story have him using a racial slur there, too, but the story in whatever form seems to be apocryphal. It does, though, sum up the atmosphere between the two.

That said, while Lewis and Berry fought incessantly, Berry was one of the few people to whom Lewis has ever shown any respect at all. Partly that's because of Lewis' admiration for Berry's songwriting -- he's called Berry "the Hank Williams of rock and roll" before now, and for someone who admires Williams as much as Lewis does that's about the highest imaginable praise. But also, Lewis and his father were both always very careful not to do anything that would lead to word of the feud getting back to his mother, because his mother had repeatedly told him that Chuck Berry was the greatest rock and roller in the world -- Elvis was good, she said, and obviously so was her son, but neither of them were a patch on Chuck. She would have been furious with him, and would definitely have taken Chuck's side.

After the tour, Jerry Lee recorded another song for a film he was going to appear in. This time, it was the title song for a terribly shlocky attempt at drama, called High School Confidential -- a film that dealt with the very serious and weighty issue of marijuana use among teenagers, and is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made. The theme music, though, was pretty good:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "High School Confidential"]

That came out on the nineteenth of May, 1958, and immediately started rising up the charts. Two days later, Jerry Lee headed out on what was meant to be a triumphal tour of the UK, solidifying him as the biggest, most important, rock and roll star in the world.

And that is when everything came crashing down. Because it was when he and his entourage landed in the UK, and the press saw the thirteen-year-old girl with him, and asked who she was, that it became public knowledge he had married his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra.

And here we get to something I've been dreading talking about since I decided on this project. There is simply no way to talk about Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to Myra Gale Brown which doesn't erase Brown's experience, doesn't excuse Lewis' behaviour, explains the cultural context in which it happened, and doesn't minimise child abuse -- which, and let's be clear about this right now, this was.

If you take from *anything* that I say after this that I think there is any possible excuse, any justification, for a man in his twenties having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl -- let alone a thirteen-year-old girl in his own family, to whom he was an authority figure -- then I have *badly* failed to get my meaning across. What Lewis did was, simply, wrong.

It's important to say that, because something that applies both to this episode and to the downfall of Chuck Berry, which we'll be looking at in the next episode, is the way that both have been framed by all the traditional histories of rock and roll. If you read almost anything about rock and roll history, what you see when it gets to 1958 is "and here rock and roll nearly died, because of the prurient attitudes of a few prudes, who were out to destroy the careers of these new exciting rock and rollers because they hated the threat they posed to their traditional way of life".

That is simply not the case. Yes, there was a great deal of establishment opposition to rock and roll music, but what happened to Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't some conspiracy of blue-nosed prudes. It was people getting angry, for entirely understandable reasons, about a man doing something that was absolutely, unquestionably, just *wrong*.

And the fact that this has been minimised by rock and roll histories says a lot about the culture around rock journalism, none of it good.

Now, that said, something that needs to be understood here is that Lewis and most of the people round him didn't see him as doing anything particularly wrong. In the culture of the Southern US at the time, it was normal for very young girls to be married, often to older men. By his own lights, he was doing nothing wrong. His first marriage was when he was sixteen -- Myra was his third wife, and he was still legally married to his second when he married her -- and his own younger sister had recently got married, aged twelve.

Likewise, marrying one's cousin was the norm within Jerry Lee's extended family, where pretty much everyone whose surname was Lewis, Swaggart, or Gilley was married to someone else whose surname was Lewis, Swaggart, or Gilley.

But I don't believe we have to judge people by their own standards, or at least not wholly so. There were many other horrific aspects to the culture of the Southern states at the time, and just because, for example, the people who defended segregation believed they were doing nothing wrong and were behaving according to their own culture, doesn't mean we can't judge them harshly.

And it's not as if everyone in Jerry Lee's own culture was completely accepting of this. They'd married in secret, and when Myra's father -- Jerry Lee's cousin and bass player, J.W. Brown -- found out about it, he grabbed his shotgun and went out with every intention of murdering Jerry Lee, and it was only Sam Phillips who persuaded him that maybe that would be a bad idea.

The British tour, which was meant to last six weeks, ended up lasting only three days. Jerry Lee and his band and family cancelled the tour and returned home, where they expected everyone to accept them again, and for things to carry on as normal. They didn't.

The record company tried to capitalise on the controversy, and also to defuse the anger towards Lewis. At the time, there was a craze for novelty records which interpolated bits of spoken word dialogue with excerpts of rock and roll hits, sparked off by a record called "The Flying Saucer":

[Excerpt: Buchanan and Goodman, "The Flying Saucer"]

Jack Clement put together a similar thing, as a joke for the Sun Records staff, called "The Return of Jerry Lee", having an interviewer, the DJ George Klein, ask Jerry Lee questions about the recent controversy, and having Jerry Lee "answer" them in clips from his records. Sam Phillips loved it, and insisted on releasing it as a single.

[Excerpt: George and Louis, "The Return of Jerry Lee"]

Unsurprisingly, that did not have the effect that was hoped, and did not defuse the situation one iota -- especially since some of the jokes in the record were leering ones about Myra's physical attractiveness -- the attractiveness, remember, of a child. For that reason, I will *not* be putting the full version of that particular track in the Mixcloud mix of songs I excerpted in this episode.

This is where we say goodbye to Sam Phillips. With Jerry Lee Lewis' career destroyed, and with all his other major acts having left him, Phillips' brief reign as the most important record producer and company owner in the USA was over. He carried on running Sun records for a few years, and eventually sold it to Shelby Singleton. Singleton is a complicated figure, but one thing he definitely did right was exploiting Sun's back catalogue -- in their four-year rockabilly heyday Sam Phillips and Jack Clement had recorded literally thousands of unreleased songs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, Billy Lee Riley, and many more.

Those tracks sat in Sun's vaults for more than a decade, but once Singleton took over the company pretty much every scrap of material from Sun's vaults saw release, especially once a British reissue label called Charly employed Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott, two young music obsessives, to put out systematic releases of Sun's rockabilly and blues archives.

The more of that material came out, the more obvious it became that Sam Phillips had tapped into something very, very special at Sun Records, and that throughout the fifties one small studio in Memphis had produced staggering recordings on a daily basis. By the time Sam Phillips died, in 2003, aged eighty, he was widely regarded as one of the most important people in the history of music.

Jerry Lee Lewis, meanwhile, spent several years trying and failing to have a hit, but slowly rebuilding his live audiences, playing small venues and winning back his audience one crowd at a time. By the late 1960s he was in a position to have a comeback, and "Another Place, Another Time" went to number four on the country charts, and started a run of country hits that lasted for the best part of a decade:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Another Place, Another Time"]

Myra divorced Jerry Lee around that time, citing physical and emotional abuse. She is now known as Myra Williams, has been happily married for thirty-six years, and works as a real-estate agent.

Jerry Lee has, so far, married four more times. His fourth and fifth wives died in mysterious circumstances -- his fourth drowned shortly before the divorce went through, and the fifth died in circumstances that are still unclear, and several have raised suspicions that Jerry Lee killed her. It's not impossible. The man known as the Killer did once shoot his bass player in the chest in the late seventies -- he insists that was an accident -- and was arrested outside Graceland, drunk and with a gun, yelling for Elvis Presley to come out and settle who was the real king.

Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, married to his seventh wife, who is Myra's brother's ex-wife. Last year, he and his wife sued his daughter, though the lawsuit was thrown out of court. He's eighty-four years old, still performs, and according to recent interviews, worries if he is going to go to Heaven or to Hell when he dies. I imagine I would worry too, in his place.


Jan 20, 2020
Episode 65: "Maybe" by the Chantels

The Chantels


Episode sixty-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Maybe" by the Chantels, and covers child stardom, hymns in Latin, and how to get discovered twice in one day. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Don't You Just Know It" by Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

The only book actually about the Chantels is barely a book -- Maybe, Renee Minus White's self-published memoir, is more of a pamphlet, and it only manages even to get to that length with a ton of padding -- things like her fruit cake recipe. Don't expect much insight from this one.

A big chunk of the outline of the story comes from Girl Groups; Fabulous Females Who Rocked the World by John Clemente, which has  a chapter on the Chantels. 

This article on Richie Barrett's career filled in much of the detail. 

My opinions of George Goldner come mostly from reading two books -- Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz, which talks about Leiber and Stoller's attempts to go into business with Goldner, and Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin.

There are innumerable collections of the small number of recordings the Chantels released -- this one is as good as any.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

ERRATUM: I refer to “Summer Love” rather than “Summer's Love”



We've already seen one girl group, when we looked at “Mr Lee” by the Bobbettes, but already within a few months of the Bobbettes' breakout hit, other groups were making waves with the public.

The Chantels were one such group, and one of the best. They were pretty much exact contemporaries of the Bobbettes – so much so that when the Bobbettes were forming, they decided against calling themselves the Chanels, because it would be too similar. The Chantels, too, changed their name early on. They were formed by a group of girls at a Catholic school – St Anthony of Padua school in the Bronx – and were originally named “the Crystals”, but they found that another group in the area had already named themselves that, and so they changed it. (This other group was not the same one as the famous Crystals, who didn't form until 1961). They decided to name themselves after St Francis de Chantal after their school won a basketball game against St. Francis de Chantal school – when they discovered that the Chantal in the saint's name was from the same root as the French word for singing, it seemed to be too perfect for them.

Originally there were around a dozen members of the group, but they slowly whittled themselves down to five girls, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen – Arlene Smith, Lois Harris, Sonia Goring, Jackie Landry, and Renee Minus. According to Renee (who now goes by her married name Renee Minus White) the group's name came from a brainstorming session between her, Lois, Jackie, and Sonia, with Arlene agreeing to it later – this may, though, have more to do with ongoing disputes between Arlene and the other group members than with what actually happened.

They were drawn together by their mutual love of R&B vocal groups – a particular favourite record of theirs was “In Paradise” by the Cookies, a New York-based girl group who had started recording a few years earlier, and whose records were produced by Jesse Stone, but who wouldn't have any major chart successes for several years yet:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, "In Paradise"]

So they were R&B singers, but the fact that these were Catholic schoolgirls, specifically, points to something about the way their music developed, and about early rock and roll more generally.

We've talked about the influence of religious music on rock and roll before, but the type of religious music that had influenced it up until this point had generally come from two sources – either the black gospel music that was created by and for worshippers in African-American Pentecostal denominations, or the euphemistically-named “Southern Gospel” that is usually made by white Pentecostals, and by Southern Baptists.

These denominations, in 2020, have a certain amount of institutional power – especially the Southern Baptists, who are now one of the most important power blocs within the Republican Party. But in the 1950s, those were the churches of the poorest, most despised, people. By geography, class, and race, the people who attended those churches were overwhelmingly those who would be looked down on by the people who had actual power in the USA. The churches that people with power overwhelmingly went to at the time were those which had been established in Western Europe – the so-called mainline Protestant churches – and, to a lesser extent, the Catholic Church. The music of those churches had very little influence on rock and roll.

It makes sense that this would be the case – obviously underprivileged people's music would be influenced by the churches that underprivileged people went to, rather than the ones that privileged people attended, and rock and roll was, at this point, still a music made almost solely by people who were underprivileged on one or more axis – but it's still worth pointing out, because for the first time we're going to look at a group who – while they were also underprivileged, being black – were influenced by Catholic liturgical music, rather than gospel or spiritual music.

Because there's always been a geographical variation, as well as one based on class and race, in what religions dominate in the US. While evangelical churches predominate in the southern states, in the North-East there were, especially at the time we're talking about, far more mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jewish people.

The Chantels were a New York group, and it's notable that New York groups were far more likely to have been influenced by Catholic or Episcopalian liturgical music, and choral music in general, than vocal groups from other areas. This may go some way towards explaining Johnny Otis' observation that all the LA vocal groups he knew had pitching problems, while the New York groups could sing in tune – choir practice may have made the New York groups more technically adept (though to my own ears, the New York groups tend to make much less interesting music than the LA groups).

Certainly when it comes to the Chantels, the girls had all sung in the choir, and had been taught to read music and play the piano, although a couple of them had eventually been kicked out of the choir for singing “that skip and jump music”, as the nuns referred to rock and roll.

Indeed, at their very first appearance at the Apollo, after getting a record contract, one of the two songs they performed was a Catholic hymn, in Latin - “Terra Tremuit”. That piece remains in the group's repertoire to this day, and while they've never formally recorded it, there are videos on YouTube of them performing it:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "Terra Tremuit", soundcheck recording]

The story of how the Chantels were discovered, as it's usually told, is one that leaves one asking more questions than it answers. The group were walking down the street, when they passed a rehearsal room. A young man spotted them on the street and asked them if they were singers, since they were dressed identically. When they said “yes”, he took them up to a rehearsal studio to hear them.

The rehearsal studio happened to be in the Brill Building. We've not mentioned the Brill Building so far, because we're only just getting to the point where it started to have an impact on rock and roll music, but it was a building on Broadway – 1619 Broadway to be exact – which was the home of dozens, even hundreds at times, of music publishers, record labels, and talent agencies. There were a few other nearby buildings, most notably 1650 Broadway, which became the home of Aldon Music, which often get lumped in with the Brill Building when most people talk about it, and when I refer to the Brill Building in future episodes I'll be referring to the whole ecosystem of music industries that sprang up on Broadway in the fifties and early sixties.

But in this case, they were invited into the main Brill Building itself. They weren't just being invited into some random room, but into the heart of the music industry on the East Coast of America. This was the kind of thing that normally only happens in films – and relatively unrealistic films at that.

So far, so cliched, though it's hard to believe that that kind of thing ever really happened. But then something happened that isn't in any of the cliches – the girls noticed, through the window, that three members of the Valentines, one of their favourite groups, were walking past.

We've mentioned the Valentines a few months ago, when talking about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and we talked about how Richie Barrett, as well as being a singer and songwriter in the group, was also a talent scout for George Goldner's record labels.

The Valentines had released several records, but none of them had had anything but local success, though records like “The Woo Woo Train” have since become cult favourites among lovers of 1950s vocal group music:

[Excerpt: The Valentines, "The Woo Woo Train"]

The girls loved the Valentines, and they also knew that Barrett was important in the industry. They decided to run out of the rehearsal room and accost the group members. They told Richie Barrett that they were a singing group, and when he didn't believe them, they burst into song, singing what would later become the B-side of their first record, “The Plea”:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "The Plea"]

That song was one they'd written themselves, sort of. It was actually based on a song that a group of boys they knew, who sang in a street-corner group, had made up. That song had been called “Baby”, but the Chantels had taken it and reworked it into their own song. The version that they finally recorded, which we just heard, was further revamped by Barrett.

Barrett was impressed, and said he'd be in touch. But then he never bothered to get in contact with them again, until Jackie Landry managed to obtain his home address and get in touch with him. She got the address through a friend of hers, a member of the Teenchords, a vocal group fronted by Frankie Lymon's brother Lewis, who recorded for one of George Goldner's labels, releasing tracks like “Your Last Chance”:

[Excerpt: Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, "Your Last Chance"]

They tracked down Barrett, and he agreed to try to get them signed to a record deal.

That story has many, many, problems, and frankly doesn't make any kind of sense, but it's the accepted history you'll find in books that deal with the group. According to Renee Minus White's autobiography, though, each of the girls has a different recollection of how they first met Barrett – in her version, they simply waited at the stage door to get autographs, and told him they were a singing group. My guess is that the accepted story is an attempt to reconcile a bunch of irreconcilable versions of the story.

Whatever the true facts as to how they started to work with Richie Barrett, the important thing is that they did end up working with him. Barrett was impressed by their ability not just to sing the “oohs” and “aahs”, but the complex polyphonic parts that they sang in choir.

For the most part, doo-wop groups either sang simple block chords behind a lead singer, or they all sang their own moving parts that worked more or less in isolation – the bass singer would sing his part, the falsetto singer his, and so on. I say “his” because pretty much all doo-wop groups at this point were male. They were all singing the same song, but doing their own thing.

The Chantels were different – they were singing block harmonies, but they weren't singing simple chords, but interlocking moving lines. What they were doing ended up being closer to the so-called "modern harmony" of jazz vocal groups like the Four Freshmen:

[Excerpt: The Four Freshmen, "It's a Blue World"]

But where other groups singing in that style had no R&B background, the Chantels were able to sing a rhythm and blues song with the best of them.

Barrett signed the group to End Records, one of George Goldner's stable of record labels. But before recording them, he spent weeks rehearsing them, and teaching them how to perform on stage.

The first record they made, when they finally went into the studio, was a song primarily written by Arlene Smith, who also sang lead, though the composition is credited to the girls as a group. And listening to it, you have in this record for the first time the crystallisation of the girl-group sound, the sound that would later become a hallmark of people like Phil Spector.

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "He's Gone"]

It's a song about adolescent anguish, written by and for adolescents, and it has a drama and angst to it that none of the other records by girl groups had had before – it's obviously inspired by groups like the Penguins and the Platters, but there's a near-hysteria to the performance that hadn't really been heard before. That strained longing is something that would appear in almost every girl-group record of the early sixties, and you can hear very clear echoes of the Chantels in records by people like the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Shangri-Las. It's a far cry from “Mr. Lee”.

Most of the time, when people talk about the Chantels' vocals, they – rightly – draw attention to Arlene Smith's leads, which are astonishing. But listen to the a capella intro, which is repeated as the outro, and you can hear those choir-trained voices – this was a vocal group, not just a singer and some cooing background vocalists:

[Excerpt: the Chantels, "He's Gone"]

As well as being pioneers in the girl-group sound, the Chantels were also one of the first self-contained vocal groups to play their own instruments on stage. This was not something that they did at first, but something that Barrett encouraged them to do. Some of them had instrumental training already, and those who didn't were taught how to play by Barrett. Sonia and Jackie played guitar, Arlene bass, Lois piano, and Renee the drums. They even, according to Renee's autobiography, recorded an instrumental by themselves, called “The Chantels' Rock”.

Almost immediately, the girls were pulled out of Catholic school and instead sent to Quintano’s School for Young Professionals, the same school that the Teenagers went to, which was set up to accommodate children who had to go on tour. But there was one exception. Lois' mother would not let her transfer schools, or go on tour with the group. She could sing with them in the studio, and when they were performing in New York, but until she graduated high school that was all.

In many ways her mother was right to be worried, or at least Richie Barrett believed she had good reason to be. They started touring as soon as “He's Gone” came out, but the girls, at the time, resented Barrett, who came along on tour with them, because he would lock them in the dressing rooms and only let them out for the show itself, not allowing them to socialise with the other acts.

In retrospect, given that they were girls in their teens, and they were touring with large numbers of male musicians, many of them with reputations as sexual predators, Barrett's protectiveness (and his apparent threats to several of these men) was probably justified.

For example, in early 1958, the girls were sent out on a tour that became legendary – and given its lineup it's easy to see why. As well as the Chantels, the tour had Frankie Lymon, Danny & the Juniors, the Diamonds, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Larry Williams, Buddy Holly, and as alternating headliners Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. We'll talk more about that tour in the next couple of episodes, but aside from the undoubted musical quality of the performers, that was simply not a group of people who young women were going to be safe around (though several of the individuals there were harmless enough). One could, of course, argue that young girls shouldn't be put in that situation at all, but that never seems to have occurred to anyone involved.

By the time of that tour, they'd recorded what would become by far their biggest hit, their second single, “Maybe”:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "Maybe"]

“Maybe” was a song that was originally co-credited to George Goldner and an unknown “Casey”, but for which Richie Barrett later sued and won co-writing credit. Barrett was presumably the sole writer, though some have claimed that Arlene Smith was an uncredited co-writer – something the other Chantels deny.

It was very much in the mould of “He's Gone”, and concentrated even more on Smith's lead vocal, and that lead vocal took an immense amount of work to obtain. In total they recorded fifty-two takes of the song before they got one that sounded right, and Smith was crying in frustration when she recorded the last take.

“Maybe” reached number fifteen on the pop charts, and number two on the R&B charts, and it became a classic that has been covered by everyone from Janis Joplin to the Three Degrees.

The group's next two records, “Every Night (I Pray)” and “I Love You So”, both charted as well, though neither of them was a massive hit in the way that “Maybe” was. But after this point, the hits dried up – something that wasn't helped by the fact that George Goldner went through a phase of having his artists perform old standards, which didn't really suit the Chantels' voices.

But they'd had four hit records in a row, which was enough for them to get an album released. The album, which just featured the A- and B-sides of their first six singles, was originally released with a photo of the group on the front. That version was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a stock image of two white teenagers at a jukebox, just in case you've forgotten how appallingly racist the music industry was at this point.

They continued releasing singles, but they were also increasingly being used as backing vocalists for other artists produced by Barrett. He had them backing Jimmy Pemberton on “Rags to Riches”:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Pemberton, “Rags to Riches”]

And they also backed Barrett himself on "Summer Love", which got to the lower reaches of the top one hundred in pop, and made the top thirty in the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Richie Barrett and the Chantels, “Summer Love”]

There had also been some attempts to give Arlene a separate career outside the Chantels, as she duetted with Willie Wilson on “I've Lied”:

[Excerpt: Willie Wilson and the Tunemasters, "I've Lied"]

Unfortunately, after a year of success followed by another year of comparative failure, the group discovered that their career was at an end, thanks to George Goldner.

We've talked about Goldner before, most significantly in the episode on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”, but he had an almost unique combination of strong points and flaws as a record executive.

His strongest point was his musical taste. Nobody who knew him respected his taste, but everyone respected his ability to pick a hit, and both of these things sprang from the same basic reason – he had exactly the same musical tastes as a typical teenage girl from the period.

Now, it's an unfortunate fact that the tastes of teenage girls are looked down upon by almost anyone with any power in the music industry, because of the almost universal misogyny in the industry, but the fact remains that teenage girls were becoming a powerful demographic as customers, and anyone who could accurately predict the music that they were going to buy would have a tremendous advantage when it came to making money in the music industry.

And Goldner definitely made himself enough money over the years, because he engaged in all the usual practices of ripping off his artists – who were, very often, teenagers themselves. He would credit himself as the writer of their songs, he would engage in shady accounting practices, and all the rest.

But Goldner's real problem was his gambling addiction, and so there's a pattern that happens over and again throughout the fifties and sixties. Goldner starts up a new record label, discovers some teenage and/or black act, and makes them into overnight stars. Goldner then starts getting vast amounts of money, because he's ripping off his new discoveries. Goldner starts gambling with that money, loses badly, gets into debt with the mob, and goes to Morris Levy for a loan in order to keep his business going. Levy and his Mafia friends end up taking over the whole company, in exchange for writing off the debts. Levy replaces Goldner's writing credits on the hits with his own name, stops paying the artists anything at all, and collects all the money from the hits for the rest of his life, while Goldner is left with nothing and goes off to find another bunch of teenagers.

And so End Records met the same fate as all of Goldner's other labels. It went bankrupt, and closed down, owing the Chantels a great deal of money.

After End records closed, the Chantels wanted to carry on – but Arlene Smith decided she wanted to go solo instead. She recorded a couple of singles with a new producer, Phil Spector:

[Excerpt: Arlene Smith, "Love, Love, Love"]

And she also recorded another single with Richie Barrett as producer:

[Excerpt: Arlene Smith, "Everything"]

At first, that looked like it would be the end of the Chantels, but then a year or so later Richie Barrett got back in touch with the girls. He had some ideas for records that would use the Chantels sound. By this point, Lois had decided that she was going to retire from the music business, but Jackie, Renee, and Sonia agreed to restart their career. There was a problem, though – they weren't sure what to do without their lead singer. Barrett told them he would sort it out for them.

Barrett had been working with another girl group, the Veneers, for a couple of years. They'd released a few singles on Goldner-owned labels, like “Believe Me (My Angel)”:

[Excerpt: The Veneers, "Believe Me (My Angel)"]

And they'd also been the regular backing group Barrett used for sessions for male vocalists like Titus Turner:

[Excerpt: Titus Turner, "The Return of Stagolee"]

But they'd never had a huge amount of success. So Barrett got their lead singer, Annette Swinson, to replace Arlene. To make it up to the Veneers, he got the rest of them a job as Jackie Wilson's backing vocalists.

He changed Annette's name to Annette Smith, and the new lineup of the group had a few more hits, with “Look in My Eyes”, which went to number six on the R&B charts and number fourteen on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "Look in My Eyes"]

They also backed Richie Barrett on an answer record to Ray Charles' “Hit the Road Jack”, titled “Well I Told You”, which made the top thirty on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Richie Barrett and the Chantels, "Well I Told You"]

This second phase of the Chantels' career was successful enough that Goldner, who no longer had the girls under contract, got one of his record labels to put out a new Chantels album, featuring a few tracks he owned by them that hadn't been on their first album. To fill out the album, and make it sound more like the current group, he also took a few of the Veneers' singles and stuck them on it under the Chantels' name.

Annette would stay with the group for a while, but the sixties saw several lineup changes, as the group stopped having chart successes, and members temporarily dropped out to have children or pursue careers. However, Sonia and Renee remained in place throughout, as the two constant members of the group (though Sonia also moonlit for a while in the sixties with another group Richie Barrett was looking after at the time, the Three Degrees).

By the mid-nineties, they had reformed with all of the original members except Arlene, who was replaced by Ami Ortiz, who can do a very creditable imitation of Arlene's lead vocals. Sadly Jackie Landry died in 1997, but the other four continued to tour, though only intermittently in between holding down day jobs.

Almost uniquely, the Chantels are still touring with the majority of their original members. Sonia Goring Wilson, Renee Minus White, and Lois Harris Powell still tour with the group, and they have several tour dates booked in for 2020, mostly on the east coast of the US. Arlene Smith spent many years touring solo and performing with her own rival “Chantels” group. She has very occasionally reunited with the rest of the Chantels for one-off performances, but there appears to be bad blood between them. She kept performing into the middle of the last decade, and as of 2018, her Facebook page said she was planning a comeback, but no further details have emerged.

The Chantels never received either the money or the acclaim that they deserved, given their run of chart successes and the way that they pioneered the girl group sound. But more than sixty years on from their biggest hits, four of the five of them are still alive, and apparently healthy, happy, and performing when the opportunity arises, and three of them are still good friends. Given the careers of most other stars of the era, especially the other child stars, that's as close to a happy ending as a group gets.

Jan 13, 2020
Episode Sixty-Four: "Reet Petite" by Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson


Episode sixty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Reet Petite" by Jackie Wilson, and features talent contests with too much talent, the prehistory of Motown, a song banned by the BBC, and a possible Mafia hit. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


I used three main books to put together the narrative for this one. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent history of the various companies that became Motown. To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography. And Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops by Tony Douglas is the closest thing out there to a definitive biography.

There are dozens of compilations of Wilson's fifties material, as it's in the public domain, but for around the same price as those you can get this three-CD set which also has his later hits on, so that's probably the place to start when investigating Wilson's music.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Today, we're going to have a look at one of the most important people in the history of popular music, and someone we'll be seeing a lot more of as the series goes on. There are very few people in the world who can be said to have created an entire genre of music, and even fewer who were primarily record company owners rather than musicians, but Berry Gordy Jr was one of them.

Gordy didn't start out, though, as a record executive. When he first got into the music industry, it was as a songwriter, and today we're going to look at his early songwriting career.

But we're also going to look at a performer who was massively important in his own right, and who was one of the most exciting performers ever to take to the stage -- someone who inspired Elvis, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, and who provides one of the key links between fifties R&B and sixties soul:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "Reet Petite"]

I'm afraid that this episode is another case where I have to point you to the disclaimer I did in the early weeks of the show. Jackie Wilson was an admirable musician, but he was in no way an admirable human being, particularly in his treatment of women – he's been credibly accused of at least one sexual assault, and he fathered many children by many different women, who he abandoned, and was known for having a violent temper. As always, this podcast is not about his reprehensible acts, but about the music, but again, it should not be taken as an endorsement of him as a person when I talk about his artistic talent.

Wilson started out as a boxer in his teens, but he quickly decided to move into singing instead. He would regularly perform at talent contests around Detroit, and he was part of a loose association of musicians and singers including Wilson's cousin Levi Stubbs, the Royals, who would later become Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and the blues singer Little Willie John. They would all perform on the same talent shows and would agree among themselves who was going to win beforehand – Wilson would tell Stubbs "you win this week, I'll win next week".

On one occasion, Johnny Otis happened to be in the audience, when the Royals, Little Willie John, and Wilson were all on the same bill, and on that particular show Wilson came third. Otis was working as a talent scout for King Records at the time, and tried to get all three acts signed to the label, but for reasons that remain unclear, King decided they only wanted to sign the Royals (though they would sign Little Willie John a couple of years later). As a result, a song that Otis had written for Wilson was recorded instead by the Royals:

[The Royals, "Every Beat of My Heart"]

Wilson kept performing at the amateur nights for a couple of years, until at the age of seventeen he was signed to Dee Gee Records, a small label co-owned by the jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. There he cut two singles, under the name Sonny Wilson.

Wilson's favourite song to sing in talent contests was "Danny Boy", which would remain in his setlists until late in his life, and he would use that song as a way to show off his vocal virtuosity, ornamenting it to the point that the melody would become almost unrecognisable, and so that was, of course, one of the two singles:

[Excerpt: Sonny Wilson, "Danny Boy"]

Neither single was particularly successful, but Wilson continued performing in nightclubs around Detroit and built up something of a local following. But in 1953 he got a big break, when he auditioned for Billy Ward and his Dominoes.

We've talked about the Dominoes before, back in the episode on "Money Honey", but as a bit of a recap, they were the biggest black vocal group of the early fifties, and they were led by Billy Ward, a vocal coach who was not their lead singer. The lead singer in the early fifties was Clyde McPhatter, but McPhatter was getting restless.

There are several different stories about how Wilson came to be picked for Ward's group, but one that sticks out in my mind is one that Ward used to tell, which is that one reason Wilson was picked for the group is that his mother begged Ward, saying that she was scared for the life of her son, as he was getting into trouble on the streets.

Certainly, she had every reason to be worried for him – Wilson had recently been stabbed in the chest by a sex worker. But Ward noted that Wilson was a diamond in the rough, and could have a great deal of success with the right amount of polishing. He decided to get Wilson into the group as a replacement for McPhatter, though McPhatter and Wilson were in the group together for a while, as McPhatter served out his notice with the group.

Over the next few weeks, Wilson studied what McPhatter was doing, until he was able to take McPhatter's place. Ward taught him breath control, and became something of a father figure, giving him some discipline for the first time in his life. McPhatter's were very big shoes to fill, but Wilson soon won the audiences over, both with his vocals and his dancing.

While Wilson was not regarded as a good dancer by most of the people who knew him – he couldn't dance with a partner at all – he had a unique way of moving all his own, which he had learned in the boxing ring, where he'd learned to slide, sidestep, and duck away from other fighters, and to come at them from unexpected angles. He soon became one of the most riveting performers on stage, jumping up, throwing his mic in the air, doing mid-air splits, and completely dominating the stage.

As well as teaching him to perform, Ward made one other major change. Up to this point, Wilson had always been known either as Jack or as Sonny. Ward thought that being called Sonny smacked of Uncle Tommery, and decided that from this point on, Wilson's stage name was going to be Jackie. Wilson was not happy with this at first, but later decided that Ward had been right – though he was still always "Jack" or "Sonny" to those who knew him.

Wilson's first recording with the group as lead singer came just after he turned nineteen, when he went into the studio with them to cut "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" for King Records -- the same label that had turned him down when Johnny Otis had put him forward:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down"]

Four months later, they went back into the studio to cut eleven songs in a single day -- a mammoth session which really allowed Wilson to show off his vocal versatility. From that session, their version of "Rags to Riches", which had been a massive hit for Tony Bennett earlier in the year, went to number two on the R&B chart, though it didn't dent the pop chart:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, "Rags to Riches"]

But after this, the Dominoes started to have less success in the charts -- their records weren't selling as well as they had been when Clyde McPhatter was the group's lead singer, and in 1954 they had no hits at all.

But in some ways that didn't really matter -- the group weren't just looking to have success as recording artists, but as live performers, and they got a two-year residency in Las Vegas, supporting Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The group were getting five thousand dollars a week -- a massive amount of money in those days -- though most of that went to Ward, and Wilson was on a salary of only ninety dollars a week.

It was while he was performing in Las Vegas that Wilson first came to the notice of someone who would later become a good friend -- Elvis Presley. In 1956 Elvis made his own first trip to perform in Vegas, although he was far, far less successful there than he would be thirteen years later. While he was there, he watched with amazement as Jackie Wilson performed Elvis' own hit "Don't Be Cruel" much better than Elvis did himself -- and in the famous Million Dollar Quartet tapes, you can hear Elvis raving about Wilson to Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis:

[Excerpt: Elvis talking about Jackie Wilson]

It's quite funny listening to those recordings, as the others keep trying to drag Elvis on to other topics of conversation, and Elvis keeps insisting on telling them just how good this singer with Billy Ward and the Dominoes, whose name he hadn't caught, was.

But Vegas wasn't a good fit for Wilson. He chafed at the discipline of the Dominoes, and at staying in one place all the time.

After a couple of years of disappointing record sales, the Dominoes switched labels to Decca, and for the first time Jackie Wilson hit the pop charts as a lead singer, when "St. Therese of the Roses" made number thirteen on the pop charts and number twenty-seven on the hot one hundred:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, "St. Therese of the Roses"]

Incidentally, over in the UK, where American chart records were often covered for the domestic market by British acts, that was recorded by Malcolm Vaughan, a pop tenor who wanted to be England's answer to Dean Martin:

[Excerpt: Malcolm Vaughan, "St. Therese of the Roses"]

That version actually became a massive hit over here, reaching number three, after being banned by the BBC.

Yes, you heard that right. That song was banned, because it was "contrary both to Roman Catholic doctrine and to Protestant sentiment". The ban caused enough controversy that the record sold half a million copies. Vaughan would later go on to have a minor hit with a cover version of another Jackie Wilson record, "To Be Loved".

In 1957, Jackie decided to leave Billy Ward and the Dominoes. It had become apparent that Ward had no bigger ambitions than to keep playing Las Vegas forever, and keep making vast amounts of money without having to travel or work especially hard. Jackie Wilson wanted something more, and he went back to Detroit.

At first he was going to join a vocal group that had been performing for a few years, the Four Aims, which featured his cousin Levi Stubbs and another distant relative, Lawrence Payton. Unfortunately, they found that Jackie's voice didn't blend well with the group -- he sounded, according to Wilson's first wife Freda, too similar to Stubbs, though I don't hear that much of a vocal resemblance myself. Either way, the attempt to work together quickly fizzled out, and the Four Tops, as they became, had to find their own success without Jackie Wilson in the group.

Around this time, Wilson also became obsessed with the singer Mario Lanza. Lanza was an Italian-American pop singer who sang in a pseudo-operatic style, rather than in the more casual crooning style of contemporaries like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and Wilson was a huge fan of Lanza's 1951 film The Great Caruso, in which he played the opera singer Enrico Caruso:

[Excerpt: Mario Lanza, "The Loveliest Night of the Year"]

Wilson studied Lanza's performances, and he tried to emulate Lanza's diction and projection. But at the same time, he was, at heart, an R&B performer, and he also knew that as a black singer in Detroit in the early fifties, R&B was what he needed to do to make money.

And making money was what Wilson needed to do more than anything else, and so he got an audition at the Flame Bar, which was owned and run by a local mobster, Al Green. Green was a big name in the local music business -- he managed Johnnie Ray, one of the biggest names in white pop music at the time, and also LaVern Baker, who had had a string of R&B hits.

Wilson got the audition through his friend Roquel Davis, who went by the name Billy Davis, who was Lawrence Payton's cousin and had performed with him in an early lineup of the Four Aims. Davis had also written songs for the Four Aims, but more importantly for this purpose, his girlfriend, Gwen Gordy, worked with her sister Anna at the Flame Bar. Through these connections, Wilson got himself a regular spot at the Flame -- and he also got to meet Gwen and Anna's little brother Berry.

Berry Gordy Jr was someone who would go on to be one of the most important people in the history of twentieth century music -- someone without whom none of the rest of this story would happen. He was as important to the music of the sixties as Sam Phillips was to the fifties, if not more important.

Gordy was born, the seventh of eight children, to a poor family in Detroit. As a child, he was taught some of the rudiments of the piano by an uncle, who tried to get him to learn to play in the proper manner -- learning scales and arpeggios, and how to read music. But young Berry was easily bored, and soon figured out that if you play the first three notes of an arpeggio together, you can get a simple triad chord.

A diversion here, just for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about -- an arpeggio is a musical term that literally means "like a harp", and it's used for a type of scale where you pick out the individual notes of a chord. You know the sound, even if you don't know the term. So when you arpeggiate a C major chord, you play the notes C, E, and G, sometimes in multiple octaves:

[Demonstrates on guitar]

When you play those notes together, that's a C major chord:

[Demonstrates on guitar]

Once young Berry Gordy Jr figured out how to play the chords C, F, and G, he was able to start playing boogie-woogie piano by ear. His favourite boogie record was "Hazel Scott's Boogie Woogie":

[Excerpt: Hazel Scott, "Hazel Scott's Boogie Woogie"]

From an early age, he also became a fan of a particular type of vocal group performance, especially when the singers were singing touching songs about loneliness. He loved "Paper Doll" by the Mills Brothers:

[Excerpt: The Mills Brothers, "Paper Doll"]

and "We Three" by the Ink Spots:

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots, "We Three"]

But in his early years, Gordy was unsure whether he wanted to become a musician, or if instead he wanted to become a boxer like his hero Joe Louis -- and in this way his career was paralleling that of Jackie Wilson, though he didn't know Wilson at the time.

He actually had a reasonable amount of success as a boxer, up until a point in 1950 where he saw two posters next to each other. One of them, on top, was advertising a battle of the bands between Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, while the other was advertising a fight. He noticed two things about the posters. The first was that the bandleaders could work every night and make money, while he knew that boxers would go weeks or months between fights. And the second was that the bandleaders "were about fifty and looked twenty-three", while the boxers "were about twenty-three and looked fifty".

He knew what he was going to do, and it wasn't boxing.

His attempts at a music career were soon put on the back-burner when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War. After he got out of the military, he had a variety of short-term jobs, but he was regarded by his family more or less as a bum -- he never held down a steady job and he was a dreamer who saw himself as becoming a successful songwriter and a millionaire, but had never quite managed to make anything of his dreams.

That was, at least, until he met Billy Davis, who at the time was a struggling songwriter like him, but one who had had slightly more success. Davis had managed to persuade Chess Records to sign up the Four Tops, as they were now called, and release a single with Davis credited as the songwriter:

[Excerpt: The Four Tops, "Kiss Me Baby"]

I say Davis was credited as the songwriter, because that song bears more than a little resemblance to the Ray Charles song from a few years earlier, "Kissa Me Baby":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Kissa Me Baby"]

But Chess hadn't really been interested in the Four Tops themselves -- they'd instead been interested in Billy Davis as a songwriter, and they quickly used songs he'd written for the Four Tops, and cut them instead with the Moonglows:

[Excerpt: The Moonglows, "See Saw"]

and the Flamingos:

[Excerpt: The Flamingos, "A Kiss From Your Lips"]

Neither of those had been a big hit, but the result was that Billy Davis was, in Gordy's eyes at least, someone with a track record and connections. The two men hit it off musically as well as personally, and they decided that they'd start to collaborate on songs, along with Gordy's sister Gwen, who was dating Davis. Anything any of them wrote on their own would also get credited to them as a group, and they'd pool whatever they got. And they were going to write songs for Jackie Wilson.

Davis tried to get Wilson signed to Chess Records, but they weren't interested in Wilson's sound -- they wanted a harder blues sound, rather than Wilson's more soulful sound. But then Al Green took on Wilson's management, and managed to persuade Bob Thiele at Decca Records, who had just signed Buddy Holly and the Crickets, to sign Wilson -- not so much for Wilson's own talent, though Thiele was impressed by him, but because Green promised that he could also sign LaVern Baker when her contract with Atlantic expired.

As it turned out, though, Thiele would never get to sign Baker, as the day before Wilson's contract was meant to be signed, Al Green died suddenly. More by chutzpah than anything else, Nat Tarnopol, an office boy who had been employed by Green, managed to take over Wilson's management, just by saying that he was in charge now. He got the contracts signed, and got Wilson signed to Brunswick, the Decca subsidiary that put out rock and roll records. Over the next few years Tarnopol would manage to get himself made a co-owner of Brunswick, by using the leverage he got as Wilson's manager.

The first record Wilson put out as a solo artist was a song that Billy Davis had originally come up with when he was sixteen, inspired by a Louis Jordan song titled "Reet, Petite, and Gone":

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Reet, Petite, and Gone"]

Davis and the Gordys reworked his original idea into a new song called "Reet Petite", which became Wilson's first solo single since leaving the Dominoes. When Wilson took the song to Dick Jacobs, the arranger assigned to the session, Jacobs was impressed with the song, but became worried -- he sat down with Wilson to work out what key to record the song in, and Wilson kept telling him to take it higher, and higher, and higher. Wilson couldn't demonstrate what he meant during the preparations for the session, as he had laryngitis, but he kept insisting that he should sing it a full octave higher than Jacobs initially suggested.

Jacobs went to Bob Thiele, and Thiele said it didn't really matter, they'd only signed Wilson in order to get LaVern Baker, and just to do what he wanted. Jacobs hired some of the best session players in New York, including Panama Francis on drums and Sam "the Man" Taylor on saxophone, reasoning that if he had the best players around then the record wouldn't end up too bad, whatever the singer sounded like.

I'll now quote some of Jacobs' description of the session itself:

"I got him behind the microphone and said a silent prayer that this aerial key he'd picked to sing in would be okay, and that this guy was a reasonable approximation of a singer.

"Jackie Wilson opened his mouth and out poured what sounded like honey on moonbeams, and it was like the whole room shifted on some weird axis. The musicians, these meat and potatoes pros, stared at each other slack-jawed and goggle-eyed in disbelief; it was as if the purpose of their musical training and woodshedding and lickspitting had been to guide them into this big studio in the Pythian Temple to experience these pure shivering moments of magic. Bob Thiele and I looked at each other and just started laughing, half out of relief and half out of wonder. I never thought crow could taste so sweet."

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "Reet Petite"]

The record wasn't a massive hit in the US -- it only went to number sixty-two on the pop charts -- but it was a much bigger hit in the UK, reaching number six, and over here it became a much-loved classic, so much so that it went to number one for four weeks when it was reissued in 1986.

At one show, where he was Dinah Washington's support act, he rolled his "r" on the title of the song, like he did on the record, and his two front dentures went flying off. He never sang the song live again.

"Reet Petite" was the start of a run of songs that Davis and the Gordys wrote for Wilson, most of them big hits and several of them classics. Most notably, there was Wilson's second solo single, "To Be Loved".

That song was written by Berry Gordy and Davis, after Gordy found out his wife was divorcing him. Gordy went round to his sister Gwen's house, where Davis also was, and started playing the piano, after Gwen reassured him that even though his wife had left him, he still had the love of his children and his siblings. The result was a gorgeous ballad that went to number seven on the R&B charts and number twenty-two on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "To Be Loved"]

They also wrote what became Wilson's biggest early it, "Lonely Teardrops", which went to number one on the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "Lonely Teardrops"]

That had originally been written as a ballad, but was reworked into a more danceable song in the studio. Berry Gordy and Davis hated it when they first heard the finished record, but grew to appreciate it as it became a hit. However, from that point on, they started to take more interest in the production side of Wilson's recordings, and they developed a routine where Davis and Gordy would rehearse Wilson, with Gordy on the piano, and they'd teach him the song and record a demo, which Jacobs would then use to write the arrangements -- Dick Jacobs wasn't the only arranger on Wilson's early records, but they soon learned that he was the one who could best capture the sound they wanted. The three men would then supervise in the studio.

(Gwen Gordy is also credited as a co-writer on several of the records, but her contributions tend to be played down by the others, and she doesn't appear to have been involved in the production side. How much of that is her not contributing as much, and how much is just misogyny in how the story is told, is hard to say.)

But eventually, they fell out with Nat Tarnopol, after they figured out that Tarnopol was putting songs to which he owned the copyright on the B-sides of all Wilson's records, so he could get royalties from the sales. Gordy and Davis insisted that they should get to write the songs on both sides of the singles, so that they could get a fair share of the money -- especially as they were effectively producing the sessions, without either a credit or royalties. Tarnopol disagreed -- as far as he was concerned, Jackie Wilson could be a star with anyone writing his material, and he didn't need these songwriters. Their days as Jackie Wilson's hit factory were over.

Davis and Gwen Gordy went off to found their own record label, along with Gwen and Berry's sister Anna. Anna Records, as it was called, didn't have the most propitious start, with its first single being a Davis and Gwen Gordy song "Hope and Pray", performed by the Voice Masters:

[Excerpt: The Voice Masters, "Hope and Pray"]

But it would later put out some much more influential records.

Berry, meanwhile, decided to groom another young artist for stardom -- he saw a lot of possibilities in a young man called William Robinson, who everyone referred to as Smokey, and his group the Miracles. We'll pick up on the Gordys and their business ventures in a few months' time.

Jackie Wilson continued having hits for several years, although his career dipped in the early sixties with the British Invasion. He then had a revival in 1967, when he recorded what would end up being his biggest hit, "Higher and Higher":

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, "Higher and Higher"]

Wilson continued having occasional hits through to 1970, and remained a popular live artist for years afterwards, but then in 1975, in the middle of performing "Lonely Teardrops", right after singing the line "my heart is crying", he clutched his chest and collapsed. At first people thought it was part of the act, but he didn't get back up. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters gave him mouth to mouth, and possibly saved his life, but some would question whether that was, in retrospect, a bad idea -- Wilson was in a coma from which he would never fully recover.

For the next eight and a half years, Wilson was institutionalised. There are some people who claim that he gained a little bit of awareness during that time, but by most accounts he was in a persistent vegetative state.

At first, the music business rallied round and helped pay for his treatment -- there are some reports that Jackie's old friend Elvis Presley anonymously donated a lot of the money for his medical bills, though these obviously can't be verified. The Detroit Spinners held a benefit concert for him, and donated $5000 of their own money. Al Green (the singer, not Wilson's ex-manager) performed at the concert and gave ten thousand dollars, Stevie Wonder gave five thousand, Gladys Knight gave two thousand five hundred, Michael Jackson ten thousand, Richard Pryor twelve hundred. James Brown sent a one thousand dollar cheque, which bounced, but he coughed up the actual money when Jackie's common-law wife said she was going to tell Jet magazine about the bouncing cheque.

Nat Tarnopol and Brunswick Records, on the other hand, gave nothing. In fact, they did worse than nothing -- they lied to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, claiming that Wilson hadn't had any earnings from them in the year prior to his collapse, when he'd been in the studio and was owed regular union rates for recording sessions. If they'd told the truth, his medical bills would have been covered by the insurance, but they weren't.

There are many hypotheses as to why Wilson collapsed on stage that day, including that he used to drink salt water before going on stage to make himself sweat, and that this caused him to have a heart attack due to induced hypertension. But several people close to Wilson believed that his collapse was somehow caused by Nat Tarnopol having him poisoned. Wilson had been due to testify against Tarnopol in front of a grand jury ten days after his collapse, and Tarnopol was very involved with the Mafia -- at one point he'd tried to have Carl Davis, who produced "Higher and Higher" killed, and it was only Davis' friendship with another mobster with ties to Brunswick, Tommy Vastola, that saved him.

Johnny Roberts, Wilson's manager in the seventies and another mobster, actually faked his own death in the eighties and had a funeral, and then reappeared once Tarnopol himself died in 1987, while some of those close to Wilson think it's no coincidence that Cornell Gunter, who had been there when Wilson collapsed and had always thought there was something strange about it, was murdered himself in 1990, in Las Vegas, by an unknown gunman -- though if that murder did have anything to do with Wilson's collapse, it can't have been Tarnopol himself who ordered that murder, of course.

Jackie Wilson finally died of pneumonia on January 21, 1984, after having been hospitalised since September 29, 1975. He was buried in an unmarked grave, but three years later funds were raised for a headstone, which reads "no more lonely teardrops".

Jan 06, 2020
Episode 63: "Susie Q", by Dale Hawkins

Dale Hawkins


Episode sixty-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Susie Q" by Dale Hawkins, and at the difference between rockabilly and electric blues. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Shake a Hand" by Faye Adams.



I pronounce presage incorrectly in the episode, and the song "Do it Again a Little Bit Slower" doesn't have the word "just" in the title.


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This time, for reasons to do with Mixcloud's terms of service, it's broken into two parts. Part one, part two.

There are no books that I know of on Hawkins, but I relied heavily on three books with chapters on him -- Hepcats and Rockabilly Boys by Robert ReynoldsDig That Beat! Interviews with Musicians at the Root of Rock and Roll by Sheree Homer,  and Shreveport Sounds in Black and White edited by Kip Lornell and Tracy E.W. Laird.

This compilation of Hawkins' early singles is as good a set as any to start with, though the liner notes are perfunctory at best.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


We're pretty much at the end of the true rockabilly era already -- all the major figures to come out of Sun studios have done so, and while 1957 saw several country-influenced white rock and rollers show up, like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, and those singers will often get referred to as "rockabilly", they don't tend to get counted by aficionados of the subgenre, who think they don't sound enough like the music from Sun to count.

But there are still a few exceptions. And one of those is Dale Hawkins, the man whose recordings were to spark a whole new subgenre, the style of music that would later become known as "swamp rock".

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q"]

Dale Hawkins never liked being called a rockabilly, though that's the description that most people now use of him. We'll look later in the episode at how accurate that description actually is, but for the moment the important thing is that he thought of himself as a bluesman. When he was living in Shreveport, Louisiana, he lived in a shack in the black part of town, and inside the shack there was only a folding camp bed, a record player, and thousands of 78RPM blues records. Nothing else at all.

It's not that he didn't like country music, of course -- as a kid, he and his brother hitch-hiked to a nearby town to go to a Flatt and Scruggs gig, and he also loved Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers -- but it was the blues that called to him more, and so he never thought of himself as having the country elements that would normally be necessary for someone to call themselves a rockabilly.

While he didn't have much direct country influence, he did come from a country music family. His father, Delmar Hawkins senior, was a country musician who was according to some sources one of the original members of the Sons of the Pioneers, the group that launched the career of Roy Rogers:

[Excerpt: Sons of the Pioneers, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"]

While Hawkins Sr.'s name isn't in any of the official lists of group members, he might well have performed with them at some point in the early years of the group. And whether he did or didn't, he was definitely a bass player in many other hillbilly bands. However, it's unlikely that Delmar Hawkins Sr. had much influence on his son, as he left the family when Delmar Jr was three, and didn't reconnect until after “Susie Q” became a hit.

Delmar Sr. wasn't the only family member to be a musician, either -- Dale's younger brother Jerry was a rockabilly who made a few singles in the fifties:

[Excerpt: Jerry Hawkins, "Swing Daddy Swing"]

Another family member, Ronnie Hawkins, would later have his own musical career, which would intersect with several of the artists we're going to be looking at later in this series.

Del Hawkins, as he was originally called, did a variety of jobs, including a short stint as a sailor, after dropping out of school, but he soon got the idea of becoming a musician, and started performing with Sonny Jones, a local guitarist whose sister was Hank Williams' widow. Jones had a lot of contacts in the local music industry, and helped Hawkins pull together the first lineup of his band, when he was nineteen.

While Hawkins thought of himself as a blues musician, for a white singer in Shreveport, there was only one option open if you wanted to be a star, and that was performing on the Louisiana Hayride, the country show where Elvis, among many others, had made his name. And Jones had many contacts on the show, and performed on it himself.

But Hawkins' first job at the Louisiana Hayride wasn't as a performer, but working in the car park. He and his brother would go up to drivers heading into the car park for the show, and charge them fifty cents to park their cars for them -- when the car park filled up, they'd just park the cars on the street outside. What they didn't tell the drivers was that the car park was actually free to the public.

At the same time he was starting out as a musician, Del was working in a record shop, Stan's Record Shop, run by a man named Stan Lewis. Hawkins had been a regular customer for several years before working up the courage to ask for a job there, and by the time he got the job, he was familiar with almost every blues or R&B record that was available at the time. Customers would come into the shop, sing a snatch of a song they'd heard, and young Del would be able to tell them the title and the artist. It was through doing this job that Hawkins became friendly with customers like B.B. King, who would remain a lifelong friend. It was also while working at Stan's Record Shop that Hawkins became better acquainted with its owner.

Stan Lewis was, among other things, both a talent scout for Chess records and one of the biggest customers of the label -- if he got behind a record, Chess knew it would sell, at least in Louisiana, and so they would listen to him.

Indeed, Lewis was one of the biggest record distributors, as well as a record shop owner, and he distributed records all across the region, to many other stores. Lewis also worked as a record producer -- the first record he ever produced was one of the biggest blues hits of all time, Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby", which was released on the Chess subsidiary Checker:

[Excerpt: Lowell Fulson, "Reconsider Baby"]

Lewis took an interest in his young employee's music career, and introduced Hawkins to his cousin, D.J. Fontana, another musician who played on the Louisiana Hayride. Fontana played with Hawkins for a while before taking on a better-paid job with Elvis Presley.

At Lewis' instigation, Hawkins went into the studio in 1956 with engineer Merle Kilgore (who would later become famous in his own right as a country songwriter, co-writing songs like "Ring of Fire"), his new guitarist James Burton, and several other musicians, to record a demo of what would become Hawkins' most famous song, "Susie Q":

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q", demo version]

Listening to that, it's clear that they already had all the elements of the finished record nearly in place -- the main difference between that and the finished version that they cut later is that the demo has a saxophone solo, and that James Burton hasn't fully worked out his guitar part, although it's close to the final version.

At the time he cut that track, Hawkins intended it as a potential first single, but Stan Lewis had other ideas. While Chess records put out almost solely tracks by black artists, their subsidiary Checker *had* recently released a single by a white artist -- a song by Bobby Charles called "Later, Alligator", which a short while later had become a hit for Bill Haley, under the longer title "See You Later, Alligator":

[Excerpt: Bobby Charles, "Later Alligator"]

Lewis thought that given that precedent, Checker might be willing to put out another record by a white act, if that record was an answer record to Bobby Charles'. So he persuaded Hawkins to write a soundalike song, which Hawkins and his band quickly demoed -- "See You Soon, Baboon":

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "See You Soon, Baboon"]

Lewis sent that off to Checker, who released Hawkins' demo, although they did make three small changes. The first was to add a Tarzan-style yodelling call at the beginning and end of the record:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "See You Soon, Baboon"]

The second, which would have long-lasting consequences, was that they misspelled Hawkins' first name -- Leonard Chess misheard "Del Hawkins" over the phone, and the record came out as by "Dale Hawkins", which would be his name from that point on.

The last change was to remove Hawkins' songwriting credit, and give it instead to Stan Lewis and Eleanor Broadwater. Broadwater was the wife of Gene Nobles, a DJ to whom the Chess brothers owed money. Nobles is also the one who supplied the Tarzan cry.

Both Lewis and Broadwater would also get credited for Hawkins' follow-up single, a new version of "Susie Q":

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q"]

On that, at least, Hawkins was credited as one of the writers along with Lewis and Broadwater. But according to Hawkins, not only did the credit get split with the wrong people, but he didn't receive any of the royalties to which he was entitled until as late as 1985.

And crucially, the other people who did cowrite the song -- notably James Burton -- didn't get any credit at all.

In general, there seems to be a great deal of disagreement about who contributed what to the song -- I've seen various other putative co-authors listed -- but everyone seems agreed that Hawkins came up with the lyrics, while Burton came up with the guitar riff. Presumably the song evolved from a jam session by the musicians -- it's the kind of song that musicians come up with when they're jamming together, and that would explain the discrepancies in the stories as to who wrote it. Well, that and the record company ripping the writers off.

The song came from a myriad musical sources. The most obvious influence for its overall sound -- both the melody and the way the melody interacts with the guitar riff -- is "Baby Please Don't Go" by Muddy Waters:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "Baby Please Don't Go"]

But the principal influence on the melody was, rather than Waters' song, a record by the Clovers which had a very similar melody -- "I've Got My Eyes on You":

[Excerpt: The Clovers, "I've Got My Eyes On You"]

Hawkins and Burton took those melodic and arrangement ideas and coupled them with a riff inspired by Howlin' Wolf -- I've seen some people claim that the song was "ripped off" from Wolf. I don't believe, myself, that that is the case. Wolf certainly had several records with similar riffs, like "Smokestack Lightnin'":

[Excerpt: Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lightnin'"]

And "Spoonful":

[Excerpt: Howlin' Wolf, "Spoonful"]

But nothing with the exact same riff, and certainly nothing with the same melody.

Some have also claimed that Wolf provided lyrical inspiration -- that Hawkins was inspired by seeing Wolf drop to his knees on stage yelling something about "Suzy". There are also claims that the song was named after Stan Lewis' daughter Suzie -- and notably Stan Lewis himself bolstered his claim to a co-writing credit for the song by pointing out that not only did he have a daughter named Susan, so did Leonard Chess. He claimed that he had mentioned this to Hawkins and suggested that the two of them write a song together with the name in it, because it would appeal to Chess.

Both of those tales of the song's lyrical inspiration may well be true, but I suspect that a more likely explanation is that the song is named after a dance move. We talked way back in episode four about the Lindy Hop, the popular dance from the late 1930s and forties. That dance was never a formalised dance, and one of its major characteristics was that it would incorporate dance moves from any other dance around.

And one of the dances it incorporated into itself was one called the Suzie Q, which at the height of its popularity was promoted by a song performed by the pianist Lilian Hardin, who is now best known for having been the wife of Louis Armstrong, whose career she managed in its early years, but who at the time was a respected jazz musician in her own right:

[Excerpt: Lil Hardin Armstrong, "Doin' the Suzie Q"]

The dance that that song was about was a simple dance step, involving crossing one's feet, swivelling. and stepping to one side. It got incorporated into the more complex Lindy Hop, but was still remembered as a step in itself.

So, it's likely that Hawkins was at least as inspired by that as he was by any of the other alleged inspirations for the song. Certainly at least one other Checker records artist thought so -- Jimmy McCracklin, in his song "The Walk", released the next year, starts his list of dances by singing "I know you've heard of the Susie Q":

[Excerpt: Jimmy McCracklin, "The Walk"]

According to the engineer on the session, Bob Sullivan, who was more used to recording Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman than raw rock and roll music, "Susie Q" was recorded in four takes, and Hawkins had the final choice of which take to use, but in Sullivan's opinion he chose the wrong one. The take chosen for release was an early take of the song, when Sullivan was still trying to get a balance, and he didn't notice at first that Hawkins was starting to sing, and had to quickly raise the volume on Hawkins' vocal just as he started. You can hear this if you listen to the finished recording:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q"]

This new version of "Susie Q" was stripped right down -- it was just guitar, bass, and drums -- none of the saxophone that was present on the early version. But it kept the crucial ingredients of the earlier version -- that biting guitar riff played by James Burton, and the drum part, with its ear-catching cowbell. That drum part was played by Stan Lewis' fifteen-year-old brother Ronnie on the new version, but he's closely copying the part that A.J. Tuminello played on the demo -- Tuminello couldn't make the session, so Lewis just copied the part, which came about when Hawkins had heard Tuminello playing his drum and cowbell simultaneously during a soundcheck.

Now that we've put the song in context, there's an interesting point we can make. As we discussed in the beginning, people usually refer to "Susie Q" as a rockabilly song. But there are a few criteria that generally apply to rockabilly but not to "Susie Q". And one of the most important of these ties back to something we were talking about last week -- the electric bass.

The demo version of "Susie Q" had, like almost all rock and roll records of the time, featured a double bass, played in the slapback style, and as we talked about back in the episodes on Bill Haley several months back, slapback bass is one of the defining features of the rockabilly genre. For this new recording, though, Sonny Trammell, a country player who played with Jim Reeves, played electric bass, as he was the only person in Shreveport who owned one.

This was a deliberate choice by Hawkins, who wanted to imitate the sound of electric blues records, rather than using the double bass, which he associated with country music -- though as it turns out, he would probably have been better off using a double bass if he wanted that sound, as Willie Dixon, who played bass on all the Chess blues records, actually didn't play an electric bass. Rather, he got a sound similar to an electric bass by actually placing the microphone inside the bottom of the bass' tailpiece.

But that points to something that "Susie Q" was doing that we've not seen before. One of the things people have asked me a few times is why I've not looked very much at the music that we now think of as "the blues", though at the time it was only a small part of the blues -- the guitar playing male solo artists who made up the Chicago sound, and the Delta bluesmen who inspired them. And that's because the common narrative, that rock and roll came from that kind of blues, is false -- as I hope the last year and a bit of podcasts have shown. Rock and roll came from a lot of different musics -- primarily Western swing, jump bands, and vocal group R&B -- and had relatively little influence in its early years from that branch of blues.

But over the next few years we will see a lot of musicians, primarily but not exclusively white British men, inspired by the first wave of rock and rollers to pick up a guitar, but rejecting the country music that inspired those early rock and rollers, and turning instead to Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf.

There's never a first anything, and that's especially the case here where we're talking about musical ideas crossing racial lines, but one can make an argument that Dale Hawkins was the first white rock and roller to be inspired by people like Waters and Wolf, and for "Susie Q" as the record, more than any other, that presaged the white rock acts of the sixties, with its electric bass, Chess-style guitar riffs, and country-inflected vocals. Acts like the Rolling Stones or the Animals or Canned Heat were all following in Hawkins' footsteps, as you can hear in, for example, the Stones' own version of the song:

[Excerpt: the Rolling Stones, “Susie Q”]

What's surprising is how reluctant Chess were to release the single. The master was sent to Chess for release, but they kept hold of it for ten months without getting round to releasing it. Eventually, Hawkins became so frustrated that he sent a copy of the recording to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. Wexler got excited, and told Leonard Chess that if Chess weren't going to put out the single, Atlantic would release it instead.

At that point, Chess realised that he might have something commercial on his hands, and decided to put the record out on Checker as it was originally intended.

The song went to number seven on the R&B charts, and number twenty-seven on the pop charts. Between the recording and release of the single, James Burton quit the band. He moved on first to work with another Louisiana musician, Bob Luman:

[Excerpt: Bob Luman, "All Night Long"]

Burton then went on to work first with Ricky Nelson and then as a session player with everyone from the Monkees to Elvis.

Hawkins had an ear for good guitarists, and after Burton went on to be one of the most important guitarists in rock music, Hawkins would continue to play with many other superb players, such as Roy Buchanan, who played on Hawkins' cover version of Little Walter's "My Babe":

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "My Babe"]

And then there was the guitarist on the closest he came to a follow-up hit, “La-Do-Dada”:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Lo-Do-Dada"]

That guitarist was another young player, Joe Osborn, who would soon follow James Burton to LA and to the pool of session players that became known as the Wrecking Crew, though Osborn would switch his guitar for bass.

However, none of Hawkins' follow-ups had anything more than very minor commercial success, and he would increasingly find himself chasing trends and trying to catch up with other people's styles, rather than continuing with the raw rock and roll sound he had found on "Susie Q". By the early sixties he was recording novelty live albums of twist songs, to try to cash in on the twist fad:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Do the Twist"]

After his brief run of hits dried up, he used his connection with Dick Clark, the TV presenter whose American Bandstand had helped to break "Susie Q" on the national market, to get his own TV show, The Dale Hawkins Show, which ran for eighteen months and was a similar format to Bandstand. Once that show was over, he turned to record production.

There he once again worked for Stan Lewis, who by that point had started his own record labels. There seems to be some dispute as to which records Hawkins produced in his second career. I've seen claims, for example, that he produced "Hey Baby" by Bruce Channel:

[Excerpt: Bruce Channel, "Hey Baby"]

But Hawkins is not the credited producer on that, or on "Judy In Disguise With Glasses" by John Fred and the Playboy Band, another record he's often credited with. On the other hand, he *is* the credited producer on the big hit "Do it Again Just a Little Bit Slower" by Jon and Robin:

[Excerpt: Jon and Robin, "Do it Again A Little Bit Slower"]

Towards the end of the sixties, he had a brief second attempt at a recording career for himself. Creedence Clearwater Revival had a hit in 1968 with their version of "Susie Q":

[Excerpt: Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Susie Q"]

And that was enough to draw Hawkins back into the studio, working once again with James Burton on guitar and Joe Osborn on bass, along with a few newer blues musicians like Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, on an album full of the swamp-rock style he had created in the fifties, "LA, Memphis, and Tyler, Texas":

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins: "LA, Memphis, Tyler, Texas"]

When that wasn't a success, he moved on to RCA Records to become head of A&R for their West Coast rock department -- a job he was apparently put forward for by Joe Osborn.

But after a successful few years, he spent much of the seventies suffering from an amphetamine addiction, having started taking speed back in the fifties. He finally got clean in the early eighties, and started touring the rockabilly revival circuit -- as well as finally getting his master's degree, which for a high school dropout was a major achievement, and something to be as proud of as any hit.

In 1998, he recorded his first album in thirty years, Wildcat Tamer:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, "Wildcat Tamer"]

That got some of the best reviews of his career, but his next album took nearly a decade to come out, and by that time he had been diagnosed with the colon cancer that eventually killed him in 2010.

Hawkins is in many ways a paradoxical figure -- he was someone who pointed the way to the future of rock and roll, but the future he pointed to was one of white men taking the ideas of black blues musicians and only slightly altering them. He was a byword for untutored, raw, instinctive rock and roll, and yet his biggest hit is carefully constructed out of bits of other people's records, melded together with a great deal of thought.

At the end of it all, what survives is that one glorious hit record -- a guitar, a bass, drums, a cowbell, and a teenage boy singing of how he loves Susie Q.

Dec 30, 2019
Guest Appearance Announcement



Hello. I am currently staying at my in-laws for Xmas without my recording equipment, and also have a cold, so apologies for how this sounds, but this is just a quick note to let you know that I recorded a guest appearance last year for a podcast, “So Here it Is”, about Christmas music, and it's gone up today. It's actually the first of *three* episodes about former Beatles' Christmas music that I guested on (as well as another episode of the show, which I appeared on last year), and I imagine these will be up over the next few days.

I've no idea if I made any kind of sense at all, as it was recorded over a year ago, but hopefully I did. You can find it at anchor.fm/holly-boson . I'll link the actual episode on the website.

Also, if you missed the announcement, I appeared on the TCBCast, a podcast about Elvis, last week. I'll link that on the website too, but it's at tcbcast.libsyn.com

Have a good Christmas if you celebrate it.


The links:

My appearance on "So Here it Is"

My appearance on TCBCast



Dec 23, 2019
Episode 62: "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley

Elvis performing


Episode sixty-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley, and at his relationships with Colonel Tom Parker, Leiber and Stoller, his band members, and the film industry. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on Santa Claus is Back in Town, also by Elvis, which ties in more than most to this episode.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

There are many, many books about Elvis Presley out there, but the one I'm using as my major resource for information on him, and which has guided my views as to the kind of person he was, is Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick, generally considered the best biography of him.

 The Colonel by Alanna Nash is a little more tabloidy than those two, but is the only full-length biography I know of of Colonel Tom Parker.

This box set contains all the recordings, including outtakes, for Elvis' 1950s films, while this one contains just the finished versions of every record he made in the fifties.

And Jailhouse Rock itself is well worth watching.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Colonel Tom Parker, from the very first, had wanted Elvis to move into films. Indeed, even before he met Elvis, he had tried grooming the other stars he'd managed -- and non-stars like Tommy Sands -- for film roles. In particular, he wanted to work with Hal Wallis at MGM, who had become something of an idee fixe for him after the first time he saw a film being made and was told that Wallis was the man in charge of it all.

In particular, Parker was interested in film as a mass medium that nonetheless required people to pay. While Elvis had become famous by taking advantage of television's newfound ubiquity, Colonel Parker didn't like the idea that people could just watch Elvis for free. If they could watch him for nothing in their own home, why would they pay to see his shows, or pay for his records?

But the cinema was different. People paid to go to the cinema, and you could get millions of people paying money to see the same performance. For the Colonel, that was the key -- a way to maximise paying customers. Even if you made more money from the TV than from the cinema in the short term, cultivating a paying audience was clearly the best thing to do in the medium term.

And so, from late 1956, Elvis' career had started to be focussed on films, which were themselves focussed on his music. His first film, a Western originally titled The Reno Brothers, had been intended to have him in a small part, trying to be a straight actor, without any singing at all, and that was how Elvis had been persuaded to do it.

Instead, at the last minute, four songs had been added to the film, and it had been retitled from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender. Elvis' part -- which was originally a relatively minor part -- had been beefed up, though in terms of actual plot involvement he was still not the main star, and the film became an uneasy compromise between being a serious Western drama and a rock and roll vehicle, not really managing to do either well.

The film after that, "Loving You", had been different:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Loving You"]

That one had been a more straight ahead rock and roll film -- it was basically a fictionalised version of Elvis' own life to that point, with him playing Deke Rivers, a singer who is discovered by the manager of a fading country star. The manager in this case is a woman, and she also becomes the love interest in the film, but the broad outlines are about what you'd expect from a fictionalised biopic -- Elvis was  clearly playing himself.

But the soundtrack to "Loving You" had been a huge improvement on the soundtrack to "Love Me Tender", and had included some of Elvis' very best songs, including a title song written for him by Leiber and Stoller.

The pair had been called on almost straight away after their "Hound Dog" had become a hit for Elvis, to see if they had any more songs for him. At the time, they hadn't been hugely impressed by Elvis' version of "Hound Dog", and so rather than give him anything new, they suggested he record a song they had written for the duo Willy and Ruth:

[Excerpt: Willy and Ruth, "Love Me"]

That song had been written as a parody of country songs, and they hadn't taken it seriously at all, but there had been all sorts of cover versions of it, by everyone from Georgia Gibbs to Hank Snow's son Jimmie Rodgers Snow. None of them had been hits, but the song obviously had some commercial potential.

So Leiber and Stoller suggested that Elvis try it, and they were very impressed with his performance of the song, which unlike them he *did* take seriously:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Love Me"]

From that point on, they had a certain amount of respect for Elvis as a performer, and so they were happy to write "Loving You" for the film. But at this point they still hadn't even met him, and regarded him as, in their words, "an idiot savant" -- someone who just happened to have a marketable talent, rather than an actual artist like the people they worked with.

But Elvis was so impressed with the songs that Leiber and Stoller were writing that they soon got the call to write more songs for his next film. The original plan was that they were to write all of the songs for the film, but there was a snag. They'd been flown back to New York from LA, and they had a suite at an expensive hotel, and Miles Davis and Count Basie and Thelonius Monk all had gigs in the city that week, and there were a few good plays on at the theatre, and they had some friends who wanted to take them out for meals, and... well, there's a lot of stuff to do in New York that's more interesting than work.

Eventually, Jean Aberbach from Hill and Range publishing came round to see them in their hotel suite, and ask them where his songs were. They told him he would have them soon, and he replied that he knew he would, because he wasn't going to let them leave until he did. He pushed the sofa in front of the door so they couldn't get out, and went to sleep on it.

In the next five hours, Leiber and Stoller wrote four songs together, which was just about enough for the film, which was padded out with two other songs by other writers -- both of them co-written by Aaron Schroeder. There was "Don't Leave Me Now", which had been recorded but not used for "Loving You",  but which had still already appeared on that film's soundtrack album, and a new ballad called "Young and Beautiful".

But neither of those songs were particularly strong, and so it was the Leiber and Stoller songs that would be the musical spine of the film -- the credits at the beginning of the film said "songs mostly by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber", clearly showing that they knew which songs it was that people would actually care about.

It was only in April 1957 that Leiber and Stoller actually met the man who had already had hits with two of their songs and used a third as the title song for one of his films. Coincidentally, they met him in Radio Recorders Annex, the same studio where five years earlier they had recorded the original version of "Hound Dog" with Big Mama Thornton.

They went in not knowing what to expect, but were struck, in order, by three different things. The first was that Elvis was extremely physically beautiful, far more so in person than in photos. The second was how shy and quiet he was -- but how these things actually gave him an extra presence.

And the third was how much he knew about R&B music, and how much he loved it. Leiber and Stoller had believed themselves to be the only white people of their own generation to really know or care about R&B or the blues, and here was someone enthusing to them about B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, and Arthur Crudup, and also about their own songs. He particularly liked one they'd written for Ray Charles, "The Snow is Falling":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "The Snow is Falling"]

He ended up sitting at the piano playing a four-handed blues with Mike Stoller. The three men were getting on well enough that even though Leiber and Stoller had only intended to visit the sessions for a short while to meet Elvis, they ended up essentially producing the session -- Leiber was in the control room, and would show Elvis how he wanted the songs to be phrased, while Stoller was on the studio floor, working with the musicians, and playing piano on one track.

The two were particularly impressed by Elvis' determination in the studio. They were having to record multiple versions of almost every song, because the plot of the film would have Elvis' character, Vince Everett, learning songs, trying them out in different arrangements, trying different vocal styles on them, and so on. As well as recording the songs properly, the way he'd like to sing them, Elvis had to do tentative versions, versions with wrong notes, and so forth.

And Elvis happily worked, take after take, to get all these different versions of the songs done exactly right.  In fact, he ended up not just singing on the tracks, but playing bass on one of them. 

Up until these sessions, Bill Black had been playing double bass on all Elvis' sessions -- the double bass was the standard bass instrument in country music, and had become so in rockabilly as well. But around this time it became clear that the new Fender bass guitars, which had been introduced to the market a couple of years earlier and had quickly taken off in the jazz and blues worlds, were going to become the standard instrument for studio work for everyone.

Black was far from being the most accomplished musician in the world -- what he brought to Elvis' sessions was more about his enthusiasm and attitude than his ability to play -- and the switch to the bass guitar was an uncomfortable one. If you don't know, a double bass is played standing up, like a cello, and has no frets, while a bass guitar is played like a guitar. They're very different instruments, and Black had trouble switching from one to the other.

He was also getting annoyed with the whole Presley organisation. Tom Parker was determined to isolate Elvis from anyone else in the business, including his band members. And not only that, Bill and Scotty were on what they both considered was a miserably low salary.

So when Bill messed up the intro to "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care" repeatedly, he threw the bass across the room and stormed out of the session.

Elvis just picked up the bass and played the part himself, and it's him you can hear playing it on the finished record, doing a rather decent job of it:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care"]

While Bill had left the session, it didn't stop him appearing in the film -- "Jailhouse Rock" featured Scotty, Bill, and D.J., miming their instruments. They didn't have any lines -- they weren't members of the Screen Actors' Guild, so they couldn't -- but they appeared throughout the last half of the film, as did Mike Stoller on the piano.

It was actually meant to be Jerry Leiber miming the piano parts -- someone from the film studio had come into the recording studio while they were making the records, and had said that Leiber looked like a piano player. Elvis had said that no, it was Stoller who was the piano player, and the filmmaker had said it didn't matter -- Leiber looked like a piano player, and so if he wanted to be in the film miming the piano parts he could.

Leiber agreed, but then on the day he was meant to go into the studio, he developed a terrible toothache. He called up Stoller and said "I can't go, you go instead". 

Stoller pointed out that they were expecting Leiber, and Leiber told him that they wouldn't know the difference anyway. So Stoller went along, and the only thing he was told was that he would have to shave off his goatee beard, as it would be a scene-stealer and distract people from Elvis.

So Mike Stoller was there with Scotty, Bill, and D.J. as they filmed most of what is generally considered to be Elvis' best film. 

The film almost got stopped before it was started, though. The first thing to be filmed was the big dance sequence to one of the songs Leiber and Stoller had written, "Jailhouse Rock":

[excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Jailhouse Rock"]

That was going to be the centrepiece of the whole film, and the dance sequence involved dozens of men dressed as convicts. Some have argued that the song and the sequence were inspired by the bit in The Girl Can't Help It in which a parody of rock and roll is sung by a group dressed as convicts. There might even be some truth to that as far as the version in the film goes, as the film has extra orchestration and an intro section added which isn't on the record, and which doesn't really fit very well. Compare the film version of "Jailhouse Rock":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Jailhouse Rock", film version]

With "Rock Around the Rockpile":

[Excerpt: "Jerri Jordan", "Rock Around the Rockpile"]

But the thing is, that's only a partial explanation. The song itself is clearly in a long line of Leiber and Stoller songs about the judicial system, like "Framed":

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Framed"]

and "Riot in Cell Block #9":

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Riot in Cell Block #9"]

It also contains a lot of the humour that Leiber and Stoller were noted for. Many comedians have made fun of this section:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Jailhouse Rock"]

and pointed out the homoerotic implications of those lines. Given Leiber and Stoller's other work, I think it's fairly clear they were perfectly aware of those implications -- and given that this is a film that also features shots of Elvis shirtless, tied up, being whipped by another man, I suspect they weren't the only ones who were dropping little coded hints to gay fans at that time.

But, as I said, the dance sequence nearly ended the film -- and nearly ended Elvis' singing career along with it. Elvis had some trouble learning to dance with a choreographed troupe, at first -- he was a natural mover, and not used to the way trained dancers moved. Luckily, the choreographer, Alex Romero, came up with a solution to that problem. He got Elvis to just perform in front of him, miming to his own records, moving like he would on stage. 

Romero then took Elvis' normal stage movements and worked them into the dance routine, choreographing it so it still worked with the large dance troupe, but Elvis was able to move in ways that were comfortable for him.

(The claim on Wikipedia that Elvis himself choreographed the dance sequence is absolutely mythical, incidentally. It was Alex Romero.)

That solved the immediate problem, but there was a larger problem when, on the first day of shooting, Elvis hit his mouth and dislodged a crown. Elvis insisted that it had gone into his chest. At first, people thought he was being overly dramatic, but after a few more takes of bits of the sequence, they noticed a whistling sound when he was breathing. He had inhaled his crown. 

It required major surgery to remove the crown from his lung, and to do it they had to separate his vocal cords to get into his lungs. This was a weird case of life imitating art, as a crucial plot point in the film was Elvis' character having to have throat surgery and worrying whether he would be able to sing again. Fortunately, just as in the film, he made a full recovery and was able to carry on.

The film itself was surprisingly good, given the depths to which Elvis would sink in some of his later films. Elvis plays a very unsympathetic character, with a chip on his shoulder after being imprisoned after accidentally killing a man in a bar fight, who (of course) becomes a famous singer. It's no cinematic masterpiece, but it's a very decent film of its type.

The film sadly had a tragic coda -- just days after the film finished shooting, Judy Tyler, Elvis' love interest in the film, died in a car accident. As a result, Elvis refused to ever watch the film in full -- he couldn't bear to.

But in the short term, the film's main effect was to draw Elvis and Mike Stoller closer together. As Stoller was on the set all the time, he had a chance to get close to Elvis, and at one point they were having a game of pool, and one of the songs Leiber and Stoller had written for the Drifters came on:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Ruby Baby"]

Elvis started singing along, and asking Stoller how he and Leiber wrote so many great songs together. But then, a few minutes later, Elvis was dragged out of the room, and came back in telling Stoller that he had to leave -- the Colonel didn't want Elvis hanging round with people who were in the music industry, unless those people worked for the Colonel.

Indeed, at one point around this time, the Colonel tried to become Leiber and Stoller's manager. He sent them blank pieces of paper for them to sign, with a promise that he would fill out the rest later and give them a very good deal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their response was not one I could repeat on a podcast that isn't in the adult section.

But Elvis had still taken to Leiber and Stoller. He started calling them his "good luck charms", and decided that he wanted them at every recording session. The Colonel agreed to have them involved in everything. For the moment.

But Leiber and Stoller weren't dependent on Elvis and the Colonel. During 1957, while they were working with Elvis, they also wrote hits for Perry Como:

[Excerpt: Perry Como, "Dancin'"]

Ruth Brown:

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown, "Lucky Lips"]

The Drifters:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Fools Fall in Love"]

And of course those Coasters records we looked at a few weeks ago -- and will be looking at again in a month or so.

And that independence was bothering people in the Colonel's group of business people. In particular, Freddy Bienstock, who worked at Hill and Range and controlled what songs Elvis performed, became apoplectic when the duo gave the song "Don't" directly to Elvis:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Don't"]

Stoller explained to Bienstock that the song had been commissioned directly *by* Elvis. Elvis had said, "I want you to write a real pretty ballad for me," they'd gone away and written him a real pretty ballad, he'd liked it, what was the problem?

The problem, Bienstock explained, was that you don't just give songs to Elvis. There was no contract for the song. What if they couldn't come to a contract agreement, but Elvis wanted to record the song anyway? What if all the money ended up just going to Leiber and Stoller because they refused to cut Hill and Range, Elvis, and the Colonel in on the royalties?

That wasn't a problem, they said. They'd written songs for Elvis before. They knew the drill. They assumed that the contract would be the same one they always had to sign when writing for Elvis.

Bienstock insisted that none of that mattered. You brought the song to Bienstock, or to Jean Aberbach. If they liked it for Elvis, *then* they got the contracts sorted, and *then* Elvis got to hear it. That was the way things worked around here. You don't just go bringing Elvis a song. That was going behind the Colonel's back, and the Colonel didn't like people going behind his back.

As far as Leiber and Stoller were concerned, they weren't going behind anyone's back. 

So by September 1957, when Jailhouse Rock came out, things were a lot more precarious for Elvis than they looked from the outside. The Colonel had weakened the bonds between him and his backing musicians, by insisting that they get paid a small salary rather than a percentage; he had control over what songs Elvis could sing; Sam Phillips was no longer in the picture; and so Leiber and Stoller were the only people involved in Elvis' life who had any real independence -- everyone at Hill and Range, the film studios, and RCA was involved in a complex network of kickbacks which meant that they all stood or fell together with the Colonel. 

If the Colonel could just get those good luck charms out of Elvis' life again, he'd be all set to make sure Elvis' career was run exactly as he wanted it.

And as luck would have it, Elvis was going to become eligible for the draft in January 1958. All the Colonel had to do was wait a few months...


Dec 22, 2019
Episode Sixty-One: "That'll Be the Day", by the Crickets

The Crickets


Episode sixty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "That'll Be the Day" by The Crickets. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Gene Autry


Before I get to the resources and transcript, a quick apology. This one is up many hours later than normal, almost a full day. I've been dealing with a combination of health issues, technical problems, and family commitments, any two of which would still have allowed me to get this up on time, but which in combination made it impossible.



I've used two biographies for the bulk of the information here -- Buddy Holly: Learning the Game, by Spencer Leigh, and Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly by Philip Norman. 

There are many collections of Buddy Holly's work available, but many of them are very shoddy, with instrumental overdubs recorded over demos after his death. The best compilation I am aware of is The Memorial Collection, which contains almost everything he issued in his life, as he issued it (for some reason two cover versions are missing) along with the undubbed acoustic recordings that were messed with and released after his death.

A lot of the early recordings with Bob, Larry, and/or Sonny that I reference in this episode are included in Down The Line: Rarities, a companion set to the Memorial Collection.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


And so, far later in the story than many people might have been expecting, we finally come to Buddy Holly, the last of the great fifties rockers to appear in our story. Nowadays, Holly gets counted as a pioneer of rock and roll, but in fact he didn't turn up until the genre had become fairly well established in the charts.

Which is not to say that he wasn't important or innovative, just that he was one of the greats of the second wave -- from a twenty-first-century perspective, Buddy Holly looks like one of the people who were there when rock and roll was invented, but by the time he had his first hit, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, and Gene Vincent had all had all their major chart hits, and were on their way down and out. Little Richard was still touring, but he'd already recorded his last rock and roll record of the fifties, and while Fats Domino was still making hit records, most of the ones he's remembered by, the ones that changed music, had already been released.

But Holly was arguably the most important figure of this second wave, someone who, more than any other figure of the mid-fifties, seems at least in retrospect to point the way forward to what rock music would become in the decade after.

So today we're going to look at the story of how the first really successful rock group started. Because while these days, "That'll Be The Day" is generally just credited to "Buddy Holly", at the time the record came out, it didn't have any artist name on it other than that of the band that made it, The Crickets:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "That'll Be the Day"]

Charles Hardin Holley grew up in Lubbock, Texas, a town in the middle of nowhere that has produced more than its fair share of famous musicians. Other than Buddy Holly, the two most famous people from Lubbock are probably Waylon Jennings, who briefly played in Holly's band in 1959 before going on to his own major successes, and Mac Davis, who wrote several hits for Elvis before going on to become a country singer of some note himself.

Holly grew up with music. His elder brothers performed as a country duo in much the same style as the Louvin Brothers, and there's a recording of Holly singing the old country song, "Two Timin' Woman", in 1949, when he was twelve, before his voice had even broken:

[Excerpt: Charles Holley, "Two Timin' Woman"]

By his mid-teens, he was performing as "Buddy and Bob" with a friend, Bob Montgomery, playing pure country and western music, with Buddy on the mandolin while Bob played guitar:

[Excerpt: Buddy and Bob, "Footprints in the Snow"]

He would also appear on the radio with another friend, Jack Neal, as "Buddy and Jack". Some early recordings of that duo survive as well, with Jack singing while Buddy played guitar:

[Excerpt: Buddy and Jack, "I Saw the Moon Crying Last Night"]

When Jack Neal, who was a few years older than Buddy, got married and decided he didn't have time for the radio any more, the Buddy and Jack Show became the Buddy and Bob Show.

Around this time, Buddy met another person who would become important both to him and the Crickets, Sonny Curtis. Curtis was only a teenager, like him, but he had already made an impression in the music world. When he was only sixteen, he had written a song, "Someday", that was recorded by the country star Webb Pierce:

[Excerpt: Webb Pierce, "Someday"]

Buddy, too, was an aspiring songwriter. A typical early example of his songwriting was one he wrote in collaboration with his friend Scotty Turner, "My Baby's Coming Home". The song wasn't recorded at the time, but a few years later a demo version of it was cut by a young singer called Harry Nilsson:

[Excerpt: Harry Nilsson, "My Baby's Coming Home"]

But it wasn't until he saw Elvis live in 1955 that Buddy Holly knew he didn't want to do anything other than become a rock and roll star. When Elvis came to town, the promoter of Elvis' show was a friend of Buddy and Bob, and so he added them to the bill. They became friendly enough that every time Elvis passed through town -- which he did often in those early years of his career -- they would all hang out together. Bob Montgomery used to reminisce about going to the cinema with Elvis to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Elvis getting bored with the film half an hour in, and leaving with the rest of the group.

After seeing Elvis, Buddy almost immediately stepped up his musical plans. He had already been recording demos with Bob and Sonny Curtis, usually with Bob on vocals:

[Excerpt: Buddy and Bob, "I Gambled My Heart"]

The bass player on that song, Larry Welborn, believed in Buddy's talents, and lent him a thousand dollars -- a *massive* amount of money in 1955 -- so he could buy himself a Fender Stratocaster, an amp, and a stage suit. Holly's friend Joe B. Mauldin said of the Strat that it was the first instrument he'd ever seen with a gear shift. He was referring there to the tremelo arm on the guitar -- a recent innovation that had only been brought in that year.

Buddy kept playing guitar with various combinations of his friends. For example Sonny Curtis cut six songs in 1955, backed by Buddy on guitar, Larry Wellborn on bass, and Jerry Allison on drums:

[Excerpt: Sonny Curtis, "Because You Love Me"]

Curtis would later talk about how as soon as Elvis came along, he and Buddy immediately switched their musical style. While it was Buddy who owned the electric guitar, he would borrow Curtis' Martin acoustic and try to play and sing like Elvis, while Curtis in turn would borrow Buddy's Strat and play Scotty Moore's guitar licks.

Buddy was slowly becoming the most popular rock and roll singer in that part of Texas -- though he had an ongoing rivalry with Roy Orbison, who was from a hundred miles away in Wink but was the only serious competition around for the best local rock and roller. 

But while Buddy was slowly building up a reputation in the local area, he couldn't yet find a way to break out and have success on a wider stage. Elvis had told him that the Louisiana Hayride would definitely have him on at Elvis' recommendation, but when he and Sonny Curtis drove to Shreveport, the radio station told them that it wasn't up to Elvis who got on their show and who didn't, and they had to drive back to Texas from Louisiana without getting on the radio.

This kind of thing just kept happening. Buddy and Bob and Sonny and Larry and Jerry were recording constantly, in various combinations, and were making more friends in the local music community, like Waylon Jennings, but nothing was happening with the recordings.

You can hear on some of them, though, exactly what Sonny Curtis meant when he said that they were trying to sound like Elvis and Scotty Moore:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Don't Come Back Knockin'"]

These songs were  the recordings that got Buddy a contract with Decca Records in Nashville, which was, at the time, one of the biggest record labels in the country. And not only did he get signed to Decca, but Buddy also got a songwriting contract with Cedarwood Music, the publishing company that was jointly owned by Jim Denny, the man in charge of the bookings for the Grand Ole Opry, and Webb Pierce, one of the biggest country music stars of the period.

So it must have seemed in January 1956 as if Buddy Holly was about to become a massive rock and roll star.

That first Decca recording session took place in Owen Bradley's studio, and featured Sonny Curtis on guitar, and a friend called Don Guess on bass. The session was rounded out by two of the regular musicians that Bradley used on his sessions -- Grady Martin on rhythm guitar, so Buddy didn't have to sing and play at the same time, and Doug Kirkham on drums.

The songs they cut at that initial session consisted of two of the songs they'd already demoed, "Don't Come Back Knockin'" and "Love Me", plus "Blue Days, Black Nights", a song written by Ben Hall, a friend of Buddy's from Lubbock. But it was the fourth song that was clearly intended to be the hit.

We've talked before about the Annie songs, but that was back in March, so I'll give you a brief refresher here, and if you want more detail, go and listen to episode twenty-two, on "The Wallflower", which I'll link in the show notes.

Back in 1954, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had recorded a song called "Work With Me Annie", a song which had been, for the time, relatively sexually explicit, though it sounds like nothing now:

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Work With Me Annie"]

That song had started up a whole series of answer records. The Midnighters recorded a couple themselves, like "Annie Had a Baby":

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Annie Had a Baby"]

Most famously there was Etta James' "The Wallflower":

[Excerpt: Etta James, "The Wallflower"]

But there were dozens more songs about Annie -- there was "Annie Met Henry", "Annie Pulled a Hum-Bug", even "Annie Kicked the Bucket":

[excerpt: the Nu Tones, "Annie Kicked the Bucket"]

And the fourth song that Buddy recorded at this first Decca session, "Midnight Shift", was intended to be another in the Annie series. It was written by Luke McDaniel, a country singer who had gone rockabilly, and who recorded some unissued sides for Sun, like "My Baby Don't Rock":

[Excerpt: Luke McDaniel, "My Baby Don't Rock"]

Jim Denny had suggested "Midnight Shift" for Buddy -- though it seems a strange choice for commercial success, as it's rather obviously about a sex worker:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Midnight Shift"]

Perhaps the label had second thoughts, as "Blue Days, Black Nights" was eventually chosen as the single, rather than "Midnight Shift". When the paperwork for it came through for Buddy to sign, he discovered that they'd misspelled his name. He was born Charles Holley -- h-o-l-l-e-y -- but the paperwork spelled it h-o-l-l-y. As he was told they needed it back in a hurry, he signed it, and from then on he was Buddy Holly without the e.

For the rest of 1956 Buddy continued recording with Owen Bradley for Decca, and kept having little success. Bradley became ever more disillusioned with Holly, while Paul Cohen, the executive at Decca who had signed Holly, at one point was telling his friends "Buddy Holly is the biggest no talent I have ever worked with."

One of the songs that he recorded during that time, but which wasn't released, was one that Owen Bradley described as "the worst song I've ever heard". It had been written by Holly and Joe Allison after they'd been to see the John Wayne film The Searchers -- a film which later gave the name to a band from Liverpool who would become hugely influential. Holly and Allison had seen the film several times, and they kept finding themselves making fun of the way that Wayne said one particular line:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, John Wayne saying "That'll Be The Day"]

They took that phrase and turned it into the title of a song. Unfortunately, the first recording of it wasn't all that great -- Buddy had been told by Webb Pierce that the way to have a hit single was to sing in a high voice, and so he sang the song far out of his normal range:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "That'll Be The Day"]

Around this time, Sonny Curtis stopped working with Holly. Owen Bradley didn't like his guitar playing and wanted Holly to record with the session musicians he used with everyone else, while Curtis got an offer to play guitar for Slim Whitman, who at the time was about the biggest star in country music. So as 1956 drew to a close, Buddy Holly was without his longtime guitarist, signed to a record company that didn't know what to do with him, and failing to realise his musical ambitions.

This is when Norman Petty entered the story.

Petty was a former musician, who had performed crude experiments in overdubbing in the late forties, copying Les Paul and Mary Ford, though in a much less sophisticated manner. One of his singles, a version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo", had actually been a minor hit:

[Excerpt: The Norman Petty Trio, "Mood Indigo"]

He'd gone into the recording studio business, and charged bands sixty dollars to record two songs in his studio -- or, if he thought the songs had commercial potential, he'd waive the charge if they gave him the publishing and a co-writing credit.

Petty had become interested in rockabilly after having recorded Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings' first single -- the version of "Ooby Dooby" that was quickly deleted:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, "Ooby Dooby", Je_Wel Records version]

When he heard Sam Phillips' remake of the song, he became intrigued by the possibilities that echo offered, and started to build his own echo chamber -- something that would eventually be completed with the help of Buddy Holly and Buddy's father and brother. Petty recorded another rockabilly group, Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids, on a song, "Party Doll", that went to number one:

[Excerpt: Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids, "Party Doll"]

When the Rhythm Orchids passed through Lubbock, they told Buddy about Norman Petty's studio, and Buddy went there to cut some demos. Petty was impressed by Holly -- though he was more impressed by Sonny Curtis, who was still with Buddy for those demo sessions -- and when his contract with Decca expired, Petty and Holly agreed to work together.

But they had a problem. Buddy's contract with Decca said that even though they'd only released two singles by him, and hadn't bothered to release any of the other songs he'd recorded during the year he was signed to them, he couldn't rerecord anything he'd recorded for them for another five years. Buddy tried to get Paul Cohen to waive that clause in the contract, and Cohen said no. Holly asked if he could speak to Milt Gabler instead -- he was sure that Gabler would agree. But Cohen explained to him that Gabler was only a vice president, and that he worked for Cohen. There was no way that Buddy Holly could put out a record of any of the songs he had recorded in 1956.

So Norman Petty, who had been secretly recording the conversation, suggested a way round the problem. They could take those songs, and still have Holly sing them, but put them out as by a group, rather than a solo singer. It wouldn't be Buddy Holly releasing the records, it would be the group.

But what should they call the group? Buddy and Jerry Allison both really liked New Orleans R&B -- they loved Fats Domino, and the other people that Dave Bartholomew worked with -- and they particularly liked a song that Bartholomew had co-written for a group called the Spiders:

[Excerpt: The Spiders, "Witchcraft"]

So they decided that they wanted a name that was something like the Spiders. At first they considered "the Beetles", but decided that that was too creepy -- people would want to squish them. So they settled on The Crickets. And so the version of "That'll Be The Day" that Buddy, Larry, Jerry, and Niki Sullivan had recorded with Norman Petty producing was going to be released as by the Crickets, and Buddy Holly's name was going to be left off anything that the heads at Decca might see.

Amusingly, the record ended up released by Decca anyway -- or at least by a subsidiary of Decca.

Norman Petty shopped the demos they'd made around different labels, and eventually he took them to Bob Thiele. Thiele had had a similar career to Milt Gabler -- he'd started out as a musician, then he'd formed his own speciality jazz label, Signature, and had produced records like Coleman Hawkins' "The Man I Love":

[Excerpt: Coleman Hawkins, "The Man I Love"]

Like Gabler, he had been taken on by Decca, which of all the major labels was the only one that really understood the way that the music business was changing. He'd been put in charge of two labels owned by Decca -- Coral, which was being used mostly for insipid white cover versions of black acts, and Brunswick, which was where he released rockabilly tracks by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio.

The Crickets were clearly a Brunswick group, and so "That'll Be the Day" was going to be released on Brunswick -- and the contract was sent to Jerry Allison, not Buddy Holly. Holly's name wasn't mentioned at first, in case Thiele decided to mention it to his bosses and the whole thing was blown.

Norman Petty had assumed that what they'd recorded so far was just going to be a demo, but Thiele said that no, he thought what they had was fine as it was, and put this out:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "That'll Be The Day"]

But the Crickets had still not properly finalised their lineup. The core of Holly and Allison was there -- the two of them had been playing together for years -- and Niki Sullivan would be OK on rhythm guitar, but they needed a permanent bass player. They eventually settled on Joe B. Mauldin, who had played with a group called The Four Teens that had also featured Larry Welborn. Joe B. had sat in on a gig with the other three, and they'd been impressed with his bass playing. 

Before "That'll Be the Day" was released, they were already in the studio cutting more songs. One was a song that had originally been written by Holly's mother, though she refused to take credit for it -- she was a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, and rock and roll was the Devil's music. She was just about okay with her son playing it, but she wasn't going to get herself involved in that. So Buddy took his mother's song and turned it into this:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "Maybe Baby"]

And at the same time, they also made an agreement that Holly could record solo material for Coral. That would actually be recorded by the same people who were making the Crickets' records, but since he was coming up with so many new songs, they might as well use them to get twice as much material out -- there was no prohibition, after all, on him recording new songs under his own name, just the ones he'd recorded in 1956.

And they were recording a ludicrous amount of material. "That'll Be The Day" still hadn't been released, and they already had their next single in the bag, and were recording Buddy's first solo single. That song was based on "Love is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia, a favourite of Holly's:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Love is Strange"]

Holly took that basic musical concept and turned it into "Words of Love":

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Words of Love"]

That wasn't a hit for Holly, but even before his version was released, the Diamonds, who usually made a habit of recording tracks originally recorded by black artists, released a cover version, which went to number thirteen:

[Excerpt: The Diamonds, "Words of Love"]

The Crickets were essentially spending every second they could in Petty's studio. They were also doing session work, playing on records by Jim Robinson, Jack Huddle, Hal Goodson, Fred Crawford, and more. In the early months of 1957, they recorded dozens upon dozens of songs, which would continue being released for years afterwards. For example, just two days after "That'll Be the Day" was finally released, at the end of May, they went into the studio and cut another song they had patterned after Bo Diddley, who had co-written "Love is Strange",  as a Crickets side:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "Not Fade Away"]

and, on the same day, a Holly solo side:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Every Day"]

All these songs were written by Holly and Allison, sometimes with Mauldin helping, but the songwriting credits didn't really match that. Sometimes one or other name would get missed off the credits, sometimes Holly would be credited by his middle name, Hardin, instead of his surname, and almost always Norman Petty would end up with his name on the songwriting credits.

They weren't that bothered about credit, for the moment -- there was always another song where the last one came from, and they were piling up songs far faster than they could release them.

Indeed, only a month after the "Not Fade Away" and "Every Day" session, they were back in the studio yet again, recording another song, which Buddy had originally intended to name after his niece, Cindy Lou. Jerry, on the other hand, thought the song would be better if it was about his girlfriend.

And you'll be able to find out what happened after they decided between Cindy Lou and Peggy Sue in a few weeks' time...

Dec 16, 2019
Episode Sixty: "You Send Me" by Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke playing guitar and smoking

Episode sixty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "You Send Me" by Sam Cooke Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Little Darlin'" by The Gladiolas.

Also, an announcement -- the book version of the first fifty episodes is now available for purchase. See the show notes, or the previous mini-episode announcing this, for details.



The Mixcloud is slightly delayed this week. I'll update the post tonight with the link.

My main source for this episode is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick. Like all Guralnick's work, it's an essential book if you're even slightly interested in the subject.

This is the best compilation of Sam Cooke's music for the beginner.

A note on spelling: Sam Cooke was born Sam Cook, the rest of his family all kept the surname Cook, and he only added the "e" from the release of "You Send Me", so for almost all the time covered in this episode he was Cook. I didn't feel the need to mention this in the podcast, as the two names are pronounced identically. I've spelled him as Cooke and everyone else as Cook throughout.

Book of the Podcast

Remember that there's a book available based on the first fifty episodes of the podcast. You can buy it at this link, which will take you to your preferred online bookstore.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


We've talked before about how the music that became known as soul had its roots in gospel music, but today we're going to have a look at the first big star of that music to get his start as a professional gospel singer, rather than as a rhythm and blues singer who included a little bit of gospel feeling.

Sam Cooke was, in many ways, the most important black musician of the late fifties and early sixties, and without him it's doubtful whether we would have the genre of soul as we know it today. But when he started out, he was someone who worked exclusively in the gospel field, and within that field he was something of a superstar.

He was also someone who, as admirable as he was as a singer, was far less admirable in his behaviour towards other people, especially the women in his life, and while that's something that will come up more in future episodes, it's worth noting here.

Cooke started out as a teenager in the 1940s, performing in gospel groups around Chicago, which as we've talked about before was the city where a whole new form of gospel music was being created at that point, spearheaded by Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were all living and performing in the city during young Sam's formative years, but the biggest influence on him was a group called the Soul Stirrers.

The Soul Stirrers had started out in 1926 as a group in what was called the "jubilee" style -- the style that black singers of spiritual music sang in the period before Thomas Dorsey revolutionised gospel music. There are no recordings of the Soul Stirrers in that style, but this is probably the most famous jubilee recording:

[Excerpt: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"]

But as Thomas Dorsey and the musicians around him started to create the music we now think of as gospel, the Soul Stirrers switched styles, and became one of the first -- and best -- gospel quartets in the new style.

In the late forties, the Soul Stirrers signed to Specialty Records, one of the first acts to sign to the label, and recorded a series of classic singles led by R.H. Harris, who was regarded by many as the greatest gospel singer of the age:

[Excerpt: The Soul Stirrers feat. R.H. Harris, "In That Awful Hour"]

Sam Cooke was one of seven children, the son of Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae, and from a very early age the Reverend Cook had been training them as singers -- five of them would perform regularly around churches in the area, under the name The Singing Children.

Young Sam was taught religion by his father, but he was also taught that there was no prohibition in the Bible against worldly success. Indeed the Reverend Cook taught him two things that would matter in his life even more than his religion would. The first was that whatever it is you do in life, you try to do it the best you can -- you never do anything by halves, and if a thing's worth doing it's worth doing properly. And the second was that you do whatever is necessary to give yourself the best possible life, and don't worry about who you step on to do it.

After spending some time with his family group, Cooke joined a newly-formed gospel group, who had heard him singing the Ink Spots song "If I Didn't Care" to a girl. That group was called the Highway QCs, and a version of the group still exists to this day. Sam Cooke only stayed with them a couple of years, and never recorded with them, but they replaced him with a soundalike singer, Johnnie Taylor, and listening to Taylor's recordings with the group you can get some idea of what they sounded like when Sam was a member:

[Excerpt: Johnnie Taylor and the Highway QCs, "I Dreamed That Heaven Was Like This"]

The rest of the group were decent singers, but Sam Cooke was absolutely unquestionably the star of the Highway QCs. Creadell Copeland, one of the group's members, later said “All we had to do was stand behind Sam. Our claim to fame was that Sam’s voice was so captivating we didn’t have to do anything else.”

The group didn't make a huge amount of money, and they kept talking about going in a pop direction, rather than just singing gospel songs, and Sam was certainly singing a lot of secular music in his own time -- he loved gospel music as much as anyone, but he was also learning from people like Gene Autry or Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, and he was slowly developing into a singer who could do absolutely anything with his voice.

But his biggest influence was still R.H. Harris of the Soul Stirrers, who was the most important person in the gospel quartet field. This wasn't just because he was the most talented of all the quartet singers -- though he was, and that was certainly part of it -- but because he was the joint leader of a movement to professionalise the gospel quartet movement.

(Just as a quick explanation -- in both black gospel, and in the white gospel music euphemistically called "Southern Gospel", the term "quartet" is used for groups which might have five, six, or even more people in them. I'll generally refer to all of these as "groups", because I'm not from the gospel world, but I'll use the term "quartet" when talking about things like the National Quartet Convention, and I may slip between the two interchangeably at times. Just know that if I mention quartets, I'm not just talking about groups with exactly four people in them).

Harris worked with a less well known singer called Abraham Battle, and with Charlie Bridges, of another popular group, the Famous Blue Jays:

[Excerpt: The Famous Blue Jay Singers, “Praising Jesus Evermore”]

Together they founded the National Quartet Convention, which existed to try to take all the young gospel quartets who were springing up all over the place, and most of whom had casual attitudes to their music and their onstage appearance, and teach them how to comport themselves in a manner that the organisation's leaders considered appropriate for a gospel singer.

The Highway QCs joined the Convention, of course, and they considered themselves to be disciples, in a sense, of the Soul Stirrers, who they simultaneously considered to be their mentors and thought were jealous of the QCs.

It was normal at the time for gospel groups to turn up at each other's shows, and if they were popular enough they would be invited up to sing, and sometimes even take over the show. When the Highway QCs turned up at Soul Stirrers shows, though, the Soul Stirrers would act as if they didn't know them, and would only invite them on to the stage if the audience absolutely insisted, and would then limit their performance to a single song.

From the Highway QCs' point of view, the only possible explanation was that the Soul Stirrers were terrified of the competition. A more likely explanation is probably that they were just more interested in putting on their own show than in giving space to some young kids who thought they were the next big thing.

On the other hand, to all the younger kids around Chicago, the Highway QCs were clearly the group to beat -- and people like a young singer named Lou Rawls looked up to them as something to aspire to.

And soon the QCs found themselves being mentored by R.B. Robinson, one of the Soul Stirrers. Robinson would train them, and help them get better gigs, and the QCs became convinced that they were headed for the big time.

But it turned out that behind the scenes, there had been trouble in the Soul Stirrers. Harris had, more and more, come to think of himself as the real star of the group, and quit to go solo. It had looked likely for a while that he would do so, and when Robinson had appeared to be mentoring the QCs, what he was actually doing was training their lead singer, so that when R.H. Harris eventually quit, they would have someone to take his place.

The other Highway QCs were heartbroken, but Sam took the advice of his father, the Reverend Cook, who told him "Anytime you can make a step higher, you go higher. Don’t worry about the other fellow. You hold up for other folks, and they’ll take advantage of you."

And so, in March 1951, Sam Cooke went into the studio with the Soul Stirrers for his first ever recording session, three months after joining the group.

Art Rupe, the head of Specialty Records, was not at all impressed that the group had got a new singer without telling him. Rupe had to admit that Cooke could sing, but his performance on the first few songs, while impressive, was no R.H. Harris:

[Excerpt: the Soul Stirrers, "Come, Let Us Go Back to God"]

But towards the end of the session, the Soul Stirrers insisted that they should record "Jesus Gave Me Water", a song that had always been a highlight of the Highway QCs' set. Rupe thought that this was ridiculous -- the Pilgrim Travellers had just had a hit with the song, on Specialty, not six months earlier. What could Specialty possibly do with another version of the song so soon afterwards?

But the group insisted, and the result was absolutely majestic:

[Excerpt: The Soul Stirrers, "Jesus Gave Me Water"]

Rupe lost his misgivings, both about the song and about the singer -- that was clearly going to be the group's next single.

The group themselves were still not completely sure about Cooke as their singer -- he was younger than the rest of them, and he didn't have Harris' assurance and professionalism, yet. But they knew they had something with that song, which was released with "Peace in the Valley" on the B-side. That song had been written by Thomas Dorsey fourteen years earlier, but this was the first time it had been released on a record, at least by anyone of any prominence.

"Jesus Gave Me Water" was a hit, but the follow-ups were less successful, and meanwhile Art Rupe was starting to see the commercial potential in black styles of music other than gospel. Even though Rupe loved gospel music, he realised when "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" became the biggest hit Specialty had ever had to that point that maybe he should refocus the label away from gospel and towards more secular styles of music.

“Jesus Gave Me Water” had consolidated Sam as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, but while he was singing gospel, he wasn't living a very godly life. He got married in 1953, but he'd already had at least one child with another woman, who he left with the baby, and he was sleeping around constantly while on the road, and more than once the women involved became pregnant. But Cooke treated women the same way he treated the groups he was in – use them for as long as they've got something you want, and then immediately cast them aside once it became inconvenient.

For the next few years, the Soul Stirrers would have one recording session every year, and the group continued touring, but they didn't have any breakout success, even as other Specialty acts like Lloyd Price, Jesse Belvin, and Guitar Slim were all selling hand over fist. The Soul Stirrers were more popular as a live act than as a recording act, and hearing the live recording of them that Bumps Blackwell produced in 1955, it's easy to see why:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, "Nearer to Thee"]

Bumps Blackwell was convinced that Cooke needed to go solo and become a pop singer, and he was more convinced than ever when he produced the Soul Stirrers in the studio for the first time.

The reason, actually, was to do with Cooke's laziness. They'd gone into the studio, and it turned out that Cooke hadn't written a song, and they needed one. The rest of the group were upset with him, and he just told them to hand him a Bible. He started flipping through, skimming to find something, and then he said "I got one". He told the guitarist to play a couple of chords, and he started singing -- and the song that came out, improvised off the top of his head, "Touch the Hem of His Garment", was perfect just as it was, and the group quickly cut it:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, "Touch the Hem of His Garment"]

Blackwell knew then that Cooke was a very, very special talent, and he and the rest of the people at Specialty became more and more insistent as 1956 went on that Sam Cooke should become a secular solo performer, rather than performing in a gospel group. The Soul Stirrers were only selling in the low tens of thousands -- a reasonable amount for a gospel group, but hardly the kind of numbers that would make anyone rich. Meanwhile, gospel-inspired performers were having massive hits with gospel songs with a couple of words changed.

There's an episode of South Park where they make fun of contemporary Christian music, saying you just have to take a normal song and change the word "Baby" to "Jesus". In the mid-fifties things seemed to be the other way -- people were having hits by taking Gospel songs and changing the word "Jesus" to "baby", or near as damnit. Most famously and blatantly, there was Ray Charles, who did things like take "This Little Light of Mine":

[Excerpt: The Louvin Brothers, "This Little Light of Mine"]

and turn it into "This Little Girl of Mine:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "This Little Girl of Mine"]

But there were a number of other acts doing things that weren't that much less blatant.

And so Sam Cooke travelled to New Orleans, to record in Cosimo Matassa's studio with the same musicians who had been responsible for so many rock and roll hits. Or, rather, Dale Cook did.

Sam was still a member of the Soul Stirrers at the time, and while he wanted to make himself into a star, he was also concerned that if he recorded secular music under his own name, he would damage his career as a gospel singer, without necessarily getting a better career to replace it. So the decision was made to put the single out under the name "Dale Cook", and maintain a small amount of plausible deniability. If necessary, they could say that Dale was Sam's brother, because it was fairly well known that Sam came from a singing family, and indeed Sam's brother L.C. (whose name was just the initials L.C.) later went on to have some minor success as a singer himself, in a style very like Sam's.

As his first secular recording, they decided to record a new version of a gospel song that Cooke had recorded with the Soul Stirrers, "Wonderful":

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, "Wonderful"]

One quick rewrite later, and that song became, instead, "Lovable":

[Excerpt: Dale Cook, "Lovable"]

Around the time of the Dale Cook recording session, Sam's brother L.C. went to Memphis, with his own group, where they appeared at the bottom of the bill for a charity Christmas show in aid of impoverished black youth. The lineup of the show was almost entirely black – people like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and so on – but Elvis Presley turned up briefly to come out on stage and wave to the crowd and say a few words – the Colonel wouldn't allow him to perform without getting paid, but did allow him to make an appearance, and he wanted to support the black community in Memphis.

Backstage, Elvis was happy to meet all the acts, but when he found out that L.C. was Sam's brother, he spent a full twenty minutes talking to L.C. about how great Sam was, and how much he admired his singing with the Soul Stirrers.

Sam was such a distinctive voice that while the single came out as by "Dale Cook", the DJs playing it would often introduce it as being by "Dale Sam Cook", and the Soul Stirrers started to be asked if they were going to sing "Lovable" in their shows.

Sam started to have doubts as to whether this move towards a pop style was really a good idea, and remained with the Soul Stirrers for the moment, though it's noticeable that songs like "Mean Old World" could easily be refigured into being secular songs, and have only a minimal amount of religious content:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, "Mean Old World"]

But barely a week after the session that produced “Mean Old World”, Sam was sending Bumps Blackwell demos of new pop songs he'd written, which he thought Blackwell would be interested in producing. Sam Cooke was going to treat the Soul Stirrers the same way he'd treated the Highway QCs.

Cooke flew to LA, to meet with Blackwell and with Clifton White, a musician who had been for a long time the guitarist for the Mills Brothers, but who had recently left the band and started working with Blackwell as a session player. White was very unimpressed with Cooke – he thought that the new song Cooke sang to them, "You Send Me", was just him repeating the same thing over and over again.

Art Rupe helped them whittle the song choices down to four. Rupe had very particular ideas about what made for a commercial record – for example, that a record had to be exactly two minutes and twenty seconds long – and the final choices for the session were made with Rupe's criteria in mind. The songs chosen were "Summertime", "You Send Me", another song Sam had written called "You Were Made For Me", and "Things You Do to Me", which was written by a young man Bumps Blackwell had just taken on as his assistant, named Sonny Bono.

The recording session should have been completely straightforward. Blackwell supervised it, and while the session was in LA, almost everyone there was a veteran New Orleans player – along with Clif White on guitar there was René Hall, a guitarist from New Orleans who had recently quit Billy Ward and the Dominoes, and acted as instrumental arranger; Harold Battiste, a New Orleans saxophone player who Bumps had taken under his wing, and who wasn't playing on the session but ended up writing the vocal arrangements for the backing singers; Earl Palmer, who had just moved to LA from New Orleans and was starting to make a name for himself as a session player there after his years of playing with Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and Fats Domino in Cosimo Matassa's studio, and Ted Brinson, the only LA native, on bass -- Brinson was a regular player on Specialty sessions, and also had connections with almost every LA R&B act, to the extent that it was his garage that "Earth Angel" by the Penguins had been recorded in.

And on backing vocals were the Lee Gotch singers, a white vocal group who were among the most in-demand vocalists in LA.

So this should have been a straightforward session, and it was, until Art Rupe turned up just after they'd recorded "You Send Me":

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "You Send Me"]

Rupe was horrified that Bumps and Battiste had put white backing vocalists behind Cooke's vocals. They were, in Rupe's view, trying to make Sam Cooke sound like Billy Ward and his Dominoes at best, and like a symphony orchestra at worst. The Billy Ward reference was because René Hall had recently arranged a version of "Stardust" for the Dominoes:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, "Stardust"]

And the new version of "Summertime" had some of the same feel:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "Summertime"]

If Sam Cooke was going to record for Specialty, he wasn't going to have *white* vocalists backing him. Rupe wanted black music, not something trying to be white -- and the fact that he, a white man, was telling a room full of black musicians what counted as black music, was not lost on Bumps Blackwell.

Even worse than the whiteness of the singers, though, was that some of them were women.

Rupe and Blackwell had already had one massive falling-out, over "Rip it Up" by Little Richard. When they'd agreed to record that, Blackwell had worked out an arrangement beforehand that Rupe was happy with -- one that was based around piano triplets. But then, when he'd been on the plane to the session, Blackwell had hit upon another idea -- to base the song around a particular drum pattern:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Rip it Up"]

Rupe had nearly fired Blackwell over that, and only relented when the record became a massive hit. Now that instead of putting a male black gospel group behind Cooke, as agreed, Blackwell had disobeyed him a second time and put white vocalists, including women, behind him, Rupe decided it was the last straw. Blackwell had to go.

He was also convinced that Sam Cooke was only after money, because once Cooke discovered that his solo contract only paid him a third of the royalties that the Soul Stirrers had been getting as a group, he started pushing for a greater share of the money. Rupe didn't like that kind of greed from his artists -- why *should* he pay the artist more than one cent per record sold? But he still owed Blackwell a great deal of money. They eventually came to an agreement -- Blackwell would leave Specialty, and take Sam Cooke, and Cooke's existing recordings with him, since he was so convinced that they were going to be a hit. Rupe would keep the publishing rights to any songs Sam wrote, and would have an option on eight further Sam Cooke recordings in the future, but Cooke and Blackwell were free to take "You Send Me", "Summertime", and the rest to a new label that wanted them for its first release, Keen.

While they waited around for Keen to get itself set up, Sam made himself firmly a part of the Central Avenue music scene, hanging around with Gaynel Hodge, Jesse Belvin, Dootsie Williams, Googie Rene, John Dolphin, and everyone else who was part of the LA R&B community. Meanwhile, the Soul Stirrers got Johnnie Taylor, the man who had replaced Sam in the Highway QCs, to replace him in the Stirrers. While Sam was out of the group, for the next few years he would be regularly involved with them, helping them out in recording sessions, producing them, and more.

When the single came out, everyone thought that "Summertime" would be the hit, but "You Send Me" quickly found itself all over the airwaves and became massive:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "You Send Me"]

Several cover versions came out almost immediately. Sam and Bumps didn't mind the versions by Jesse Belvin:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin, "You Send Me"]

Or Cornell Gunter:

[Excerpt: Cornell Gunter, "You Send Me"]

They were friends and colleagues, and good luck to them if they had a hit with the song -- and anyway, they knew that Sam's version was better. What they did object to was the white cover version by Teresa Brewer:

[Excerpt: Teresa Brewer, "You Send Me"]

Even though her version was less of a soundalike than the other LA R&B versions, it was more offensive to them -- she was even copying Sam's "whoa-oh"s. She was nothing more than a thief, Blackwell argued -- and her version was charting, and made the top ten.

Fortunately for them, Sam's version went to number one, on both the R&B and pop charts, despite a catastrophic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, which accidentally cut him off half way through a song.

But there was still trouble with Art Rupe. Sam was still signed to Rupe's company as a songwriter, and so he'd put "You Send Me" in the name of his brother L.C., so Rupe wouldn't get any royalties. Rupe started legal action against him, and meanwhile, he took a demo Sam had recorded, "I'll Come Running Back To You", and got René Hall and the Lee Gotch singers, the very people whose work on "You Send Me" and "Summertime" he'd despised so much, to record overdubs to make it sound as much like "You Send Me" as possible:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "I'll Come Running Back To You"]

And in retaliation for *that* being released, Bumps Blackwell took a song that he'd recorded months earlier with Little Richard, but which still hadn't been released, and got the Specialty duo Don and Dewey to provide instrumental backing for a vocal group called the Valiants, and put it out on Keen:

[Excerpt: The Valiants, "Good Golly Miss Molly"]

Specialty had to rush-release Little Richard's version to make sure it became the hit -- a blow for them, given that they were trying to dripfeed the public what few Little Richard recordings they had left.

As 1957 drew to a close, Sam Cooke was on top of the world. But the seeds of his downfall were already in place. He was upsetting all the right people with his desire to have control of his own career, but he was also hurting a lot of other people along the way -- people who had helped him, like the Highway QCs and the Soul Stirrers, and especially women. He was about to divorce his first wife, and he had fathered a string of children with different women, all of whom he refused to acknowledge or support.

He was taking his father's maxims about only looking after yourself, and applying them to every aspect of life, with no regard to who it hurt. But such was his talent and charm, that even the people he hurt ended up defending him. Over the next couple of times we see Sam Cooke, we'll see him rising to ever greater artistic heights, but we'll also see the damage he caused to himself and to others. Because the story of Sam Cooke gets very, very unpleasant.

Dec 09, 2019
Book Announcement

Cover of the book


This is just a quick announcement that the book based on the first fifty episodes of the podcast is now available for purchase. From Savoy Stompers to Clock Rockers covers forty-nine of the first fifty episodes – I've replaced the episode on Bill Doggett with a version of the Patreon-only bonus episode on Johnnie Ray.
It's currently available in paperback (UK) (US) and ebook versions, and there'll be links to buy it in the liner notes to this announcement and in the notes to every episode going forward, or search on Amazon for my name and the podcast title. I'll be putting out a hardback version shortly, for those who prefer that.
Patreon backers at the $5 and above level have ebook copies already, and I'll be sending out their physical copies over the next few weeks. Thank you.
Dec 09, 2019
Episode 59: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis at a piano

Episode fifty-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "So Long I'm Gone" by Warren Smith.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I'm relying heavily on Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll by Peter Guralnick for all the episodes dealing with Phillips and Sun Records.

Books on Jerry Lee Lewis tend to be very flawed, as the authors all tend to think they're Faulkner rather than giving the facts. This one by Rick Bragg is better than most.

There are many budget CDs containing Lewis' pre-1962 work. This set seems as good an option as any.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


We're in an odd position with this episode, really. The first time we looked at Jerry Lee Lewis, it was as part of the Million Dollar Quartet, yet at the time of the actual Million Dollar Quartet session, Lewis was basically an unknown, and we didn't have time to cover his career up to that point -- even though the Million Dollar Quartet recordings prove that he considered himself a peer of Elvis and Carl Perkins right from the start. And we also talked about Lewis a fortnight ago, when we were dealing with Billy Lee Riley, but again, the focus was on someone other than Lewis.

The problem is that Jerry Lee Lewis is just the kind of figure who demands discussion, even before he became a famous musician. He's someone who just dominates other people's stories, and pushes in to them and takes over.

So now we've got to the point where he's about to have his first hit, but we haven't really looked at how he got to that point, just at him interacting with other people. So now we're going to have to back up, and look at the first hit record from the last great artist to be discovered by Sun Records.

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On"]

Jerry Lee Lewis was a young piano player from Ferriday, Louisiana, who loved music more than anything. He loved Gene Autry, and Hank Williams -- and he loved Al Jolson. He would later tell a story about going on a date to the cinema. Before the show they were playing records, and one record that came on was Jolson singing "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye":

[Excerpt: Al Jolson, "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye"]

Lewis immediately got out of his seat, told his girlfriend he needed to use the toilet, cycled home, worked out how to play the song on the piano, cycled back, and rejoined his date for the film. She asked why he'd been gone so long, and he said he'd picked up some popcorn as well.

Sam Phillips would often say later that Jerry Lee Lewis was the most naturally talented musician he ever worked with. Elvis was the most charismatic, Johnny Cash had the most commanding presence, and Howlin' Wolf was the most profound artist, but Lewis was the one who had the greatest obsession with his music, the greatest drive to create, and the greatest sheer knowledge of music, in all different genres. Lewis would play piano for eight hours a day, and while in other matters he was surprisingly ignorant -- other than the Bible, the only things he ever read were comics -- he could talk with a huge amount of authority about the musical techniques of everyone from B.B. King to Frank Sinatra, and he could hear a song once and remember it and play it years later. And whatever music he learned, from whatever source, he would somehow transmute it and turn it into a Jerry Lee Lewis song. Nothing he played sounded like anyone else.

He'd started playing music when he was four years old. He'd been walking past a piano in the house of his rich uncle, Lee Calhoun, and had felt the urge to play it. He'd almost instantly figured out how to play the beginning of "Silent Night", and his parents -- who always doted on him and tried to give him everything he wanted, after the tragically young death of his older brother -- realised that they might have a child prodigy on their hands. When his father finally got into a position where he could buy his own farm, the first thing he did was remortgage it so he could buy his son his own piano. They didn't have electricity in the house -- until Elmo Lewis decided to wire the house for electricity, so his boy Jerry Lee could listen to the radio and learn more songs. What Jerry Lee wanted, he got.

As a kid, Jerry Lee was always the one who would get his relatives into trouble. He would go to the cinema -- a sin in the strict Pentecostal religion of his family -- and one time he dragged in Jimmy Swaggart, who was his "double first cousin" -- Swaggart's father was Lewis' father's nephew, while Swaggart's mother was Lewis' mother's sister. Swaggart ran out of the cinema crying, convinced he had damned himself to hell. Jerry Lee stayed and watched the cowboys.

But while he loved the cinema, the piano was his true love. He and Swaggart, and their other cousin Mickey Gilley, would all play piano together, as well as separately. But Jerry Lee was undoubtedly the most talented, and he was also the biggest music lover, and he would spend his time trying to adapt the styles of the musicians he liked to the piano.

Even though Jerry Lee was in Louisiana, which is the home of great piano playing, most of his musical influences were guitarists. His favourite musician was Jimmie Rodgers, and Jerry Lee would play his "Waiting For a Train":

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, "Waiting For a Train"]

His favourite song to play, though, was "Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee", the Sticks McGhee record that some credit as the first rock and roll record ever:

[Excerpt: Sticks McGhee: "Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee"]

But he had two bigger influences -- two people who could actually play the piano the way that Jerry Lee thought it should be played. The first was Moon Mullican, who we talked about back in the episode on Hank Williams. Mullican was another Louisiana piano player, and another musician who combined bits of everything -- Western Swing, hillbilly boogie, blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun music -- into a unique melange of styles all his own:

[Excerpt: Moon Mullican, "Piano Breakdown"]

The other big influence on young Jerry Lee was his uncle, Carl McVoy. McVoy never became famous, but he made a couple of records after his nephew became famous, and listening to this one, made in 1957 with much of the same group of musicians who worked on Elvis' hits, including Chet Atkins and the Jordanaires, it's spooky how much it sounds like Jerry Lee himself:

[Excerpt: Carl McVoy: "You Are My Sunshine"]

But young Jerry Lee was torn between two worlds. On the one hand, as a kid he would regularly sneak into a local blues club with an otherwise entirely black clientele, and hide under the tables to watch people like Fats Domino, Charles Brown, B.B. King, and Big Joe Turner, until he was kicked out by the owner -- who, understandably, was not keen on having underaged white kids in his black drinking and gambling club in the segregated South.

On the other, he was deeply, deeply, religious, and for a while he studied at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, in the hope of becoming a priest. Unfortunately, he was kicked out after playing the hymn "My God is Real" with a boogie feel, which according to the people in charge was inciting lust among the other students.

This tension between religion and the secular world would recur throughout Lewis' life, but by the time he signed to Sun Records, aged twenty-one, he was firmly on the side of the Devil. He'd been making a living as a sewing machine salesman, conning women into signing up to buy one on credit by telling them they'd won the machine in a contest. He'd already got married twice, and hadn't actually got around to divorcing his first wife before marrying the second – and he'd also decided it was about time he moved on from the second wife as well.

He'd been touring with a blind musician called Paul Whitehead. Whitehead could play violin, accordion, and piano, and Jerry Lee would play piano while Mr. Paul, as he was always called, played the fiddle, and move on to the drums when Mr. Paul played the piano. Sometimes they would also add a bass player, Johnny Littlejohn (not the same person as the Chicago blues guitarist of the same name). Littlejohn had something of the style of Elvis, and Jerry Lee was jealous of him.

There's only one recording available of Lewis' mentor Mr. Paul -- his piano part on an obscure rockabilly song, "Right Now", by Gray Montgomery:

[Excerpt: Gray Montgomery, "Right Now"]

But while he needed a mentor for a while, Jerry Lee Lewis knew he was destined to be great on his own. The big break came when he read in a magazine about how it was Sam Phillips who had made Elvis into a star. He'd already tried RCA Records, the label Elvis was now on -- they'd told him he needed to play a guitar. He'd blagged his way into an audition at the Grand Ole Opry, and the same thing had happened -- he'd been told to come back when he played guitar, not piano. The only person in the country establishment who was kind to him was another piano player, Del Wood, who thought this young man reminded her of herself:

[Excerpt: Del Wood, "Down Yonder"]

Maybe Phillips would have more sense in him, and would see the greatness of a man who had been known to refer to himself, blasphemously, as "The Great I AM". Jerry Lee knew that if he just got the right break he could be the greatest star of all time.

He and his father drove down to Memphis, and got themselves a hotel room, which was the first time they'd ever stayed anywhere with running water. They saved the money from selling hundreds of eggs from Jerry Lee's father's henhouse to a local supermarket, and they couldn't afford to stay there very long.

And then, when they went into the Sun studio to meet this Mr. Phillips, the person to whom Jerry Lee had pinned all his dreams, they were told that Phillips was out of town. They were welcome to come back later, of course -- but they couldn't afford to just travel back to Memphis later and book another hotel room. It was now or never, and Jerry Lee was just going to stay there until someone listened to him play the piano.

The person who eventually agreed to listen to him was Cowboy Jack Clement, who became intrigued when Jerry Lee told him that he could play piano and make it sound like Chet Atkins did when he was playing guitar -- except that, no, he was better at piano than Chet Atkins was on guitar. Jerry Lee played for Clement for three or four hours, and when Clement played the tape for Sam Phillips when he got back from his trip, Phillips agreed -- they needed to get this man in.

Lewis' first single was recorded almost as a joke. We talked a little about his recording of "Crazy Arms" a couple of weeks back, in the episode on Billy Lee Riley, but there's more to say about the song than we covered there.

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Crazy Arms"]

"Crazy Arms" is a song with a disputed history. There are claims that the song was actually written by a man from Kentucky named Paul Gilley, who died in 1957 and is also considered by some to have secretly ghostwritten a number of Hank Williams' hits, including "Cold Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry".

Unfortunately, the bulk of the evidence for this is only available in a self-published book, which can't even be bought from Amazon but has to be purchased directly from the author via Craigslist, so I have no way of assessing the accuracy of these claims. It seems unlikely to me, but not impossible, and so I'm going to go here with the conventional narrative, that the song was written by the great pedal steel guitar player Ralph Mooney, in 1949, but had remained unrecorded until a demo by Mooney's frequent collaborator, Wynn Stewart, in 1954.

The first release of the song was by a very minor country singer called Marilyn Kaye, and while it wasn't a hit for her, it got enough response from radio listeners that a DJ played it to the singer Ray Price, who recorded his own version as a result:

[Excerpt: Ray Price, "Crazy Arms"]

That became the biggest country hit of 1956, and while it doesn't sound hugely revolutionary these days, it totally changed the sound of honky-tonk music from that point on, thanks largely to the bass player playing four notes to the bar rather than the more usual two. We don't have time in this episode to look into just how much this changed country music, but I'll link an episode of the great country podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, all about Ralph Mooney, and which talks about the song in more detail, in the notes to this episode.

But the important thing is that Ray Price's version of "Crazy Arms" was *everywhere* in 1956, and so it's unsurprising that at the end of Jerry Lee Lewis' first solo session for Sun, he started busking his way through the song, which he'd also played on his audition tape:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Crazy Arms"]

"Crazy Arms" would always be a bit of a disappointment to Jerry Lee, not because it wasn't a massive hit -- that didn't bother him, he knew he'd have to make a few records before he became the star he knew he should be -- but because his father didn't seem very impressed with it. Elmo Lewis had always wanted to be a musician himself, but he'd given up playing the piano when Jerry Lee was a small child.

Jerry Lee had been trying to teach himself a song, and after he'd been trying for a while, Elmo had sat down and played the song himself. Little Jerry Lee had cried because his dad could do something he couldn't, and so Elmo had never again touched a piano, to avoid demoralising his young son.

And so Jerry Lee believes to this day that the reason his dad wasn't hugely impressed by Jerry Lee's first record was just that -- that seeing his son achieve an ambition he'd given up on himself was at best bittersweet.

Jerry Lee's next record, though, didn't disappoint anyone.

It took him quite a while to find exactly the right song for his second single. He kept popping back into the studio, in between tour dates, and when he wasn't recording with Carl Perkins or Billy Lee Riley or whoever, he'd cut a few more songs as himself. He'd play old Gene Autry songs, and Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush", which had just been cut by Johnny Burnette, and old folk songs of the kind the Everly Brothers were soon to do on their second album, and a few songs he wrote himself, even, but nothing seemed suitable for the record that would make him into a star. Until he decided to just cut the highlight of his live show.

"Whole Lotta Shakin'" is another song whose authorship is disputed. It was originally recorded by Big Maybelle, a blues singer, in an arrangement by Quincy Jones:

[Excerpt: Big Maybelle, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"]

Two people both claimed to have written the song -- a black singer called Dave "Curlee" Williams, and a white pianist called Roy Hall, both of whom knew each other, and both of whom are now credited as the song's writers (though Hall is credited under the pseudonym "Sunny David"). They were supposedly inspired when on holiday together, in Pahokee Florida, where according to Hall they spent their days milking rattlesnakes while drunk. When it was dinnertime, someone would ring a big bell for everyone to come in, and Hall remembered someone saying about it "We got twenty-one drums, we got an old bass horn, an' they even keepin' time on a ding-dong."

That became, according to Hall, the inspiration for the opening line of the song. Curlee Williams, though, always claimed that he was the sole writer of the song, and many have speculated that Hall probably bought a share of the song from Williams -- something that happened quite a lot in those days.

Hall recorded his own version of the song, on Decca, a few months after Big Maybelle recorded her version:

[Excerpt: Roy Hall, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"]

If Hall did buy his share of the song, rather than writing it, then it was a bad deal for him -- as soon as the song became a hit, Hall's ex-wife sued him, and was awarded all of his share of the song's royalties.

Neither Big Maybelle's version of the song, nor Roy Hall's, had been the inspiration for Jerry Lee Lewis, though. Instead, his inspiration had been that bass player we mentioned earlier, Johnny Littlejohn.

Jerry Lee had turned up late to a gig with Littlejohn and Mr. Paul, back when they were playing together, and had found them already on stage, with Littlejohn singing lead on a version of "Whole Lotta Shakin'" that was very different from either version that had already come out -- they were playing the song faster, and Littlejohn included a spoken section, where he'd tell the audience that all they needed to do was stand in one spot and wiggle around just a little bit, and that's when you've got it. When Jerry Lee got on stage after the song, Littlejohn had said to him, "You're a bit late, aren't you?" "No," Jerry Lee had replied, "I'm right on time".

That spoken section was probably inspired by this similar passage in "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie", a song that Jerry Lee knew well:

[Excerpt: Pine Top Smith, "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie"]

When that group had split up, Jerry Lee had taken that song and that performance, exactly as Littlejohn had done it, and started doing it himself. He later said “I done it just like Johnny done it. Maybe I should have felt guilty about that.”

He didn't feel guilty, though. He felt many things, especially when it got the women in the audience dancing and wiggling, but he didn't feel guilty.

Jerry Lee took his version of the song into Sun, convinced that this was going to be his big hit... and neither Sam Phillips nor Jack Clement believed in it. They thought that the song was probably too vulgar to get played on the radio, and that anyway it sounded too much like Elvis -- there wasn't room for someone else who sounded like that in the charts.

No, they were going to have Jerry Lee record a nice, sensible, country song that Clement had written. A song inspired by going to the toilet, and by reincarnation. Clement was on the toilet, thinking about a breakup he'd had, and how he'd like to come back as a turd in his ex's toilet bowl, so she'd look down and see him in there winking up at her. He'd taken that idea, cleaned it up a little, and turned it into "It'll Be Me":

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "It'll Be Me", single version]

That was going to be the A-side, of course, but they'd let Jerry Lee cut this "Shakin'" thing for the B-side if he wanted.

There are different stories about the recording of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" -- Cowboy Jack Clement, for example, would always claim that they'd recorded it in just one take, with just three minutes of tape left on the reel, right at the end of the session. The reality seems, sadly, slightly more prosaic -- they took several takes, with both Clement and Phillips throwing in ideas, and changed the instrumentation around a bit during the session, lowering the bass in the mix and adding some slapback echo to the piano. However much time they spent on it, though, the result still *sounded* spontaneous:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin'"]

When it was finished, everyone knew that that would have to be the A-side of the single. Before it came out, Jerry Lee went out on tour with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, and a couple of other acts -- the only things Jerry Lee and his band brought with them on the tour, other than their clothes and instruments, were whiskey, comic books, and cherry bombs. He started out as the third billed act, with Perkins and Cash following him, but soon they started to insist he go on last, even though he'd not had a hit yet, because nobody could follow him. The three men became friends, but Perkins and Cash were already starting to resent the fact that Jerry Lee was clearly Sam Phillips' new golden boy, and plotting ways to get out of their contract with Sun, and go somewhere that they'd not be overshadowed by this wild kid.

The tour zig-zagged across much of North America -- at one point Jerry Lee insisted on a detour on the way to Buffalo, to see Niagara Falls. When he got there, he got out of the car, stood there for thirty seconds, said “Jerry Lee Lewis has seen the Niagara Falls. Now let’s go home, boys", and got back into the car.

On an early date on the tour, Jerry Lee met Sam Phillips' brother Jud for the first time. Jud did a lot of the promotion work for Sun, and he saw something in Jerry Lee -- in the way he looked, the way he performed, the way the slicked-back hair he had at the start of a performance would soon fall over his face in wild blond shocks. He knew that anyone who saw Jerry Lee perform live would see the same thing. He knew that Jerry Lee needed to be on TV.

Specifically, he had to go on either the Ed Sullivan or the Steve Allen show -- the two big variety shows that between them could make an artist. Jud persuaded Sam to let him take Jerry Lee to New York, to try to persuade the bookers for those shows to give the boy a shot. Jud and Jerry Lee travelled up to meet Steve Allen's manager and the head of talent for NBC -- they were squeezed in to a fifteen minute meeting on a Friday evening. They went in to the meeting with none of the usual things that someone trying to book an artist on the Steve Allen show would bring -- no photos, no records, nothing -- and Jerry Lee sat in the meeting reading a Superman comic and blowing bubbles with his bubblegum while the businessmen talked. Jud Phillips eventually persuaded them to let Jerry show them what he could do on the piano, explaining that records couldn't capture his performance.

When Jerry Lee did show them his stuff, they said to Jud "I'll give you five hundred dollars if you don't show him to anyone else. And bring him back on Monday morning. I want Steve to see him."

So Jerry Lee got to spend the weekend in New York, and ride the rollercoasters at Coney Island, before heading back in on the Monday to play the piano for Steve Allen, who despite his general contempt for rock and roll was as impressed as everyone else. They booked him in for an appearance on the Steve Allen Show in a month's time.

That performance is available online, if you go looking for it. I'll excerpt some of the music, but the sound alone doesn't capture it. It really needs the video:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", Steve Allen Show 1957]

At that moment, when Jerry Lee screamed "shake", he kicked the piano stool away and it went flying across the stage and out of shot. A few seconds later it came flying back across the stage, as Steve Allen, the host who'd made Elvis wear a dinner jacket and sing to a real hound dog, and who'd mocked Fats Domino and Gene Vincent's lyrics, got into the spirit of the thing and threw the stool right back.

That was the moment when Jerry Lee Lewis became a star. But when you're someone like Jerry Lee Lewis, the only reason to rise up is to fall down again, and we'll find out about Jerry Lee's fall in a few weeks' time.

Dec 02, 2019
Episode 58: "Mr. Lee" by the Bobbettes

The Bobbettes

Episode fifty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Mr. Lee" by the Bobbettes, and at the lbirth of the girl group sound. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Little Bitty Pretty One", by Thurston Harris.




As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


I've used multiple sources to piece together the information here.

Marv Goldberg's page is always the go-to for fifties R&B groups.

Girl Groups: Fabulous Females Who Rocked the World by John Clemente has an article about the group with some interview material.

American Singing Groups by Jay Warner also has an article on the group. 

Most of the Bobbettes' material is out of print, but handily this CD is coming out next Friday, with most of their important singles on it. I have no idea of its quality, as it's not yet out, but it seems like it should be the CD to get if you want to hear more of their music. 


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Over the last few months we've seen the introduction to rock and roll music of almost all the elements that would characterise the music in the 1960s -- we have the music slowly standardising on a lineup of guitar, bass, and drums, with electric guitar lead. We have the blues-based melodies, the backbeat, the country-inspired guitar lines. All of them are there. They just need putting together in precisely the right proportions for the familiar sound of the early-sixties beat groups to come out.

But there's one element, as important as all of these, which has not yet turned up, and which we're about to see for the first time. And that element is the girl group.

Girl groups played a vital part in the development of rock and roll music, and are never given the credit they deserve. But you just have to look at the first Beatles album to see how important they were. Of the six cover versions on "Please Please Me", three are of songs originally recorded by girl groups -- two by the Shirelles, and one by the Cookies.

And the thing about the girl groups is that they were marketed as collectives, not as individuals -- occasionally the lead singer would be marketed as a star in her own right, but more normally it would be the group, not the members, who were known.

So it's quite surprising that the first R&B girl group to hit the charts was one that, with the exception of one member, managed to keep their original members until they died. and where two of those members were still in the group into the middle of the current decade.

So today, we're going to have a look at the group that introduced the girl group sound to rock and roll, and how the world of music was irrevocably changed because of how a few young kids felt about their fifth-grade teacher.

[Excerpt: The Bobettes, "Mister Lee"]

Now, we have to make a distinction here when we're talking about girl groups. There had, after all, been many vocal groups in the pre-rock era that consisted entirely of women -- the Andrews Sisters, for example, had been hugely popular, as had the Boswell Sisters, who sang the theme song to this show.

But those groups were mostly what was then called "modern harmony" -- they were singing block harmonies, often with jazz chords, and singing them on songs that came straight from Tin Pan Alley. There was no R&B influence in them whatsoever.

When we talk about girl groups in rock and roll, we're talking about something that quickly became a standard lineup -- you'd have one woman out front singing the lead vocal, and two or three others behind her singing answering phrases and providing "ooh" vocals. The songs they performed would be, almost without exception, in the R&B mould, but would usually have much less gospel influence than the male vocal groups or the R&B solo singers who were coming up at the same time. While doo-wop groups and solo singers were all about showing off individual virtuosity, the girl groups were about the group as a collective -- with very rare exceptions, the lead singers of the girl groups would use very little melisma or ornamentation, and would just sing the melody straight.

And when it comes to that kind of girl group, the Bobbettes were the first one to have any real impact.

They started out as a group of children who sang after school, at church and at the glee club. The same gang of seven kids, aged between eleven and fifteen, would get together and sing, usually pop songs. After a little while, though, Reather Dixon and Emma Pought, the two girls who'd started this up, decided that they wanted to take things a bit more seriously. They decided that seven girls was too many, and so they whittled the numbers down to the five best singers -- Reather and Emma, plus Helen Gathers, Laura Webb, and Emma's sister Jannie.

The girls originally named themselves the Harlem Queens, and started performing at talent shows around New York.

We've talked before about how important amateur nights were for black entertainment in the forties and fifties, but it's been a while, so to refresh your memories -- at this point in time, black live entertainment was dominated by what was known as the Chitlin Circuit, an informal network of clubs and theatres around the US which put on largely black acts for almost exclusively black customers. Those venues would often have shows that lasted all day -- a ticket for the Harlem Apollo, for example, would allow you to come and go all day, and see the same performers half a dozen times. To fill out these long bills, as well as getting the acts to perform multiple times a day, several of the chitlin circuit venues would put on talent nights, where young performers could get up on stage and have a chance to win over the audiences, who were notoriously unforgiving.

Despite the image we might have in our heads now of amateur talent nights, these talent contests would often produce some of the greatest performers in the music business, and people like Johnny Otis would look to them to discover new talent. They were a way for untried performers to get themselves noticed, and while few did, some of those who managed would go on to have great success.

And so in late 1956, the five Harlem Queens, two of them aged only eleven, went on stage at the Harlem Apollo, home of the most notoriously tough audiences in America.

But they went down well enough that James Dailey, the manager of a minor bird group called the Ospreys, decided to take them on as well. The Ospreys were a popular group around New York who would eventually get signed to Atlantic, and release records like "Do You Wanna Jump Children":

[Excerpt: The Ospreys, "Do You Wanna Jump Children?"]

Dailey thought that the Harlem Queens had the potential to be much bigger than the Ospreys, and he decided to try to get them signed to Atlantic Records. But one thing would need to change -- the Harlem Queens sounded more like a motorcycle gang than the name of a vocal group.

Laura's sister had just had a baby, who she'd named Chanel Bobbette. They decided to name the group after the baby, but the Chanels sounded too much like the Chantels, a group from the Bronx who had already started performing. So they became the Bobbettes.

They signed to Atlantic, where Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler encouraged them to perform their own material. The girls had been writing songs together, and they had one -- essentially a playground chant -- that they'd been singing together for a while, about their fifth-grade teacher Mr. Lee. Depending on who you believe -- the girls gave different accounts over the years -- the song was either attacking him, or merely affectionately mocking his appearance. It called him "four-eyed" and said he was "the ugliest teacher you ever did see".

Atlantic liked the feel of the song, but they didn't want the girls singing a song that was just attacking a teacher, and so they insisted on them changing the lyrics. With the help of Reggie Obrecht, the bandleader for the session, who got a co-writing credit on the song largely for transcribing the girls' melody and turning it into something that musicians could play, the song became, instead, a song about "the handsomest sweetie you ever did see":

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "Mister Lee"]

Incidentally, there seems to be some disagreement about who the musicians were on the track. Jacqueline Warwick, in "Girl Groups, Girl Culture", claims that the saxophone solo on "Mr. Lee" was played by King Curtis, who did play on many sessions for Atlantic at the time. It's possible -- and Curtis was an extremely versatile player, but he generally played with a very thick tone. Compare his playing on "Dynamite at Midnight", a solo track he released in 1957:

[Excerpt: King Curtis, "Dynamite at Midnight"]

With the solo on "Mr Lee":

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "Mister Lee"]

I think it more likely that the credit I've seen in other places, such as Atlantic sessionographies, is correct, and that the sax solo is played by the less-well-known player Jesse Powell, who played on, for example, "Fools Fall in Love" by the Drifters:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Fools Fall In Love"]

If that's correct -- and my ears tell me it is -- then presumably the other credits in those sources are also correct, and the backing for "Mister Lee" was mostly provided by B-team session players, the people who Atlantic would get in for less important sessions, rather than the first-call people they would use on their major artists -- so the musicians were Jesse Powell on tenor sax; Ray Ellis on piano; Alan Hanlon and Al Caiola on guitar; Milt Hinton on bass; and Joe Marshall on drums.

"Mr. Lee" became a massive hit, going to number one on the R&B charts and making the top ten on the pop charts, and making the girls the first all-girl R&B vocal group to have a hit record, though they would soon be followed by others -- the Chantels, whose name they had tried not to copy, charted a few weeks later.

"Mr. Lee" also inspired several answer records, most notably the instrumental "Walking with Mr. Lee" by Lee Allen, which was a minor hit in 1958, thanks largely to it being regularly featured on American Bandstand:

[Excerpt: Lee Allen, "Walking With Mr. Lee"]

The song also came to the notice of their teacher -- who seemed to have already known about the girls' song mocking him. He called a couple of the girls out of their class at school, and checked with them that they knew the song had been made into a record. He'd recognised it as the song the girls had sung about him, and he was concerned that perhaps someone had heard the girls singing their song and stolen it from them. They explained that the record was actually them, and he was, according to Reather Dixon, "ecstatic" that the song had been made into a record -- which suggests that whatever the girls' intention with the song, their teacher took it as an affectionate one.

However, they didn't stay at that school long after the record became a hit. The girls were sent off on package tours of the Chitlin' circuit, touring with other Atlantic artists like Clyde McPhatter and Ruth Brown, and so they were pulled out of their normal school and started attending The Professional School For Children, a school in New York that was also attended by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Chantels, among others, which would allow them to do their work while on tour and post it back to the school.

On the tours, the girls were very much taken under the wing of the adult performers. Men like Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, and Jackie Wilson would take on somewhat paternal roles, trying to ensure that nothing bad would happen to these little girls away from home, while women like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker would teach them how to dress, how to behave on stage, and what makeup to wear -- something they had been unable to learn from their male manager.

Indeed, their manager, James Dailey, had started as a tailor, and for a long time sewed the girls' dresses himself -- which resulted in the group getting a reputation as the worst-dressed group on the circuit, one of the reasons they eventually dumped him.

With "Mr. Lee" a massive success, Atlantic wanted the group to produce more of the same -- catchy upbeat novelty numbers that they wrote themselves. The next single, "Speedy", was very much in the "Mr. Lee" style, but was also a more generic song, without "Mr. Lee"'s exuberance:

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "Speedy"]

One interesting thing here is that as well as touring the US, the Bobbettes made several trips to the West Indies, where R&B was hugely popular. The Bobbettes were, along with Gene and Eunice and Fats Domino, one of the US acts who made an outsized impression, particularly in Jamaica, and listening to the rhythms on their early records you can clearly see the influence they would later have on reggae. We'll talk more about reggae and ska in future episodes, but to simplify hugely, the biggest influences on those genres as they were starting in the fifties were calypso, the New Orleans R&B records made in Cosimo Matassa's studio, and the R&B music Atlantic was putting out, and the Bobbettes were a prime part of that influence.

"Mr. Lee", in particular, was later recorded by a number of Jamaican reggae artists, including Laurel Aitken:

[Excerpt: Laurel Aitken, "Mr. Lee"]

And the Harmonians:

[Excerpt: the Harmonians, "Music Street"]

But while "Mr Lee" was having a massive impact, and the group was a huge live act, they were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way their recording career was going. Atlantic was insisting that they keep writing songs in the style of "Mr. Lee", but they were so busy they were having to slap the songs together in a hurry rather than spend time working on them, and they wanted to move on to making other kinds of records, especially since all the "Mr. Lee" soundalikes weren't actually hitting the charts.

They were also trying to expand by working with other artists -- they would often act as the backing vocalists for other acts on the package shows they were on, and I've read in several sources that they performed uncredited backing vocals on some records for Clyde McPhatter and Ivory Joe Hunter, although nobody ever says which songs they sang on. I can't find an Ivory Joe Hunter song that fits the bill during the Bobbettes' time on Atlantic, but I think "You'll Be There" is a plausible candidate for a Clyde McPhatter song they could have sung on -- it's one of the few records McPhatter made around this time with obviously female vocals on it, it was arranged and conducted by Ray Ellis, who did the same job on the Bobbettes' records, and it was recorded only a few days after a Bobbettes session. I can't identify the voices on the record well enough to be convinced it's them, but it could well be:

[Excerpt: Clyde McPhatter, "You'll Be There"]

Eventually, after a couple of years of frustration at their being required to rework their one hit, they recorded a track which let us know how they really felt:

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "I Shot Mr. Lee", Atlantic version]

I think that expresses their feelings pretty well. They submitted that to Atlantic, who refused to release it, and dropped the girls from their label. This started a period where they would sign with different labels for one or two singles, and would often cut the same song for different labels. One label they signed to, in 1960, was Triple-X Records, one of the many labels run by George Goldner, the associate of Morris Levy we talked about in the episode on "Why Do Fools Fall In Love", who was known for having the musical taste of a fourteen-year-old girl. There they started what would be a long-term working relationship with the songwriter and producer Teddy Vann.

Vann is best known for writing "Love Power" for the Sand Pebbles:

[Excerpt: The Sand Pebbles, "Love Power"]

And for his later minor novelty hit, "Santa Claus is a Black Man":

[Excerpt: Akim and Teddy Vann, "Santa Claus is a Black Man"]

But in 1960 he was just starting out, and he was enthusiastic about working with the Bobbettes. One of the first things he did with them was to remake the song that Atlantic had rejected, "I Shot Mr. Lee":

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "I Shot Mr. Lee", Triple-X version]

That became their biggest hit since the original "Mr. Lee", reaching number fifty-two on the Billboard Hot One Hundred, and prompting Atlantic to finally issue the original version of “I Shot Mr. Lee” to compete with it.

There were a few follow-ups, which also charted in the lower regions of the charts, most of them, like "I Shot Mr. Lee", answer records, though answers to other people's records. They charted with a remake of Billy Ward and the Dominos' "Have Mercy Baby", with "I Don't Like It Like That", an answer to Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That", and finally with "Dance With Me Georgie", a reworking of "The Wallflower" that referenced the then-popular twist craze.

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "Dance With Me Georgie"]

The Bobbettes kept switching labels, although usually working with Teddy Vann, for several years, with little chart success. Helen Gathers decided to quit -- she stopped touring with the group in 1960, because she didn't like to travel, and while she continued to record with them for a little while, eventually she left the group altogether, though they remained friendly. The remaining members continued as a quartet for the next twenty years.

While the Bobbettes didn't have much success on their own after 1961, they did score one big hit as the backing group for another singer, when in 1964 they reached number four in the charts backing Johnny Thunder on "Loop De Loop":

[Excerpt: Johnny Thunder, "Loop De Loop"]

The rest of the sixties saw them taking part in all sorts of side projects, none of them hugely commercially successful, but many of them interesting in their own right. Probably the oddest was a record released in 1964 to tie in with the film Dr Strangelove, under the name Dr Strangelove and the Fallouts:

[Excerpt: Dr Strangelove and the Fallouts, "Love That Bomb"]

Reather and Emma, the group's two strongest singers, also recorded one single as the Soul Angels, featuring another singer, Mattie LaVette:

[Excerpt: The Soul Angels, "It's All In Your Mind"]

The Bobbettes continued working together throughout the seventies, though they appear to have split up, at least for a time, around 1974. But by 1977, they'd decided that twenty years on from "Mister Lee", their reputation from that song was holding them back, and so they attempted a comeback in a disco style, under a new name -- the Sophisticated Ladies.

[Excerpt: Sophisticated Ladies, "Check it Out"]

That got something of a cult following among disco lovers, but it didn't do anything commercially, and they reverted to the Bobbettes name for their final single, "Love Rhythm":

[Excerpt: The Bobbettes, "Love Rhythm"]

But then, tragedy struck -- Jannie Pought was stabbed to death in the street, in a random attack by a stranger, in September 1980. She was just thirty-four. The other group members struggled on as a trio.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, the group continued performing, still with three original members, though their performances got fewer and fewer. For much of that time they still held out hope that they could revive their recording career, and you see them talking in interviews from the eighties about how they were determined eventually to get a second gold record to go with "Mr. Lee".

They never did, and they never recorded again -- although they did eventually get a *platinum* record, as "Mr. Lee" was used in the platinum-selling soundtrack to the film Stand By Me.

Laura Webb Childress died in 2001, at which point the two remaining members, the two lead singers of the group, got in a couple of other backing vocalists, and carried on for another thirteen years, playing on bills with other fifties groups like the Flamingos, until Reather Dixon Turner died in 2014, leaving Emma Pought Patron as the only surviving member. Emma appears to have given up touring at that point and retired.

The Bobbettes may have only had one major hit under their own name, but they made several very fine records, had a career that let them work together for the rest of their lives, and not only paved the way for every girl group to follow, but also managed to help inspire a whole new genre with the influence they had over reggae. Not bad at all for a bunch of schoolgirls singing a song to make fun of their teacher...

Nov 25, 2019
Episode 57: "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" by Billy Lee RIley

 Billy Lee Riley


Episode fifty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" by Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, and at the flying saucer craze of the fifties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Silhouettes" by the Rays, and the power of subliminal messages.


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I'm relying heavily on Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll by Peter Guralnick for all the episodes dealing with Phillips and Sun Records. I've also relied on a lot of websites for this one, including this very brief outline of Riley's life in his own words.


There are many compilations of Riley's music. This one, from Bear Family, is probably the most comprehensive collection of his fifties work. 

The Patreon episode on "The Flying Saucer", for backers who've not heard it, is at https://www.patreon.com/posts/27855307


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



I mistakenly said “Jack Earl” instead of Jack Earls at one point.




Let's talk about flying saucers for a minute.

One aspect of 1950s culture that probably requires a little discussion at this point is the obsession in many quarters with the idea of alien invasion. Of course, there were the many, many, films on the subject that filled out the double bills and serials, things like "Flying Disc Man From Mars", "Radar Men From The Moon", "It Came From Outer Space", "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers", and so on. But those films, campy as they are, reveal a real fascination with the idea that was prevalent throughout US culture at the time.

While the term "flying saucer" had been coined in 1930, it really took off in June 1947 when Kenneth Arnold, a Minnesotan pilot, saw nine disc-shaped objects in the air while he was flying. Arnold's experience has entered into legend as the canonical "first flying saucer sighting", mostly because Arnold seems to have been, before the incident, a relatively stable person -- or at least someone who gave off all the signals that were taken as signs of stability in the 1940s. Arnold seems to have just been someone who saw something odd, and wanted to find out what it was that he'd seen.

But eventually two different groups of people seem to have dominated the conversation -- religious fanatics who saw in Arnold's vision a confirmation of their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible, and people who believed that the things Arnold had seen came from another planet. With no other explanations forthcoming, he turned to the people who held to the extraterrestrial hypothesis as being comparatively the saner option.

Over the next few years, so did a significant proportion of the American population. The same month as Kenneth Arnold saw his saucers, a nuclear test monitoring balloon crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. A farmer who found some of the debris had heard reports of Arnold's sightings, and put two and two together and made space aliens. The Government didn't want to admit that the balloon had been monitoring nuclear tests, and so various cover stories were put out, which in turn led to the belief in aliens becoming ever more widespread. And this tied in with the nuclear paranoia that was sweeping the nation.

It was widely known, of course, that both the USA and Russia were working on space programmes -- and that those space programmes were intimately tied in with the nuclear missiles they were also developing. While it was never stated specifically, it was common knowledge that the real reason for the competition between the two nations to build rockets was purely about weapons delivery, and that the civilian space programme was, in the eyes of both governments if not the people working on it, merely a way of scaring the other side with how good the rockets were, without going so far that they might accidentally instigate a nuclear conflict.

When you realise this, Little Richard's terror at the launch of Sputnik seems a little less irrational, and so does the idea that there might be aliens from outer space.

So, why am I talking about flying saucers?

Well, there are two reasons. The first is that, among other things, this podcast is a cultural history of the latter part of the twentieth century, and you can't understand anything about the mid twentieth century without understanding the deeply weird paranoid ideas that would sweep the culture.

The second is that it inspired a whole lot of records. One of those, "the Flying Saucer", I've actually already looked at briefly in one of the Patreon bonus episodes, but is worth a mention here -- it was a novelty record that was a very early example of sampling:

[Excerpt: Buchanan and Goodman, "The Flying Saucer"]

And there'd been "Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer" by Ella Fitzgerald:

[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald, "Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer"]

But today we're going to look at one of the great rockabilly records, by someone who was one of the great unsung acts on Sun Records:

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll"]

Billy Lee Riley was someone who was always in the wrong place at the wrong time -- for example, when he got married after leaving the army, he decided to move with his new wife to Memphis, and open a restaurant. The problem was that neither of them knew Memphis particularly well, and didn't know how bad the area they were opening it in was. The restaurant was eventually closed down by the authorities after only three months, after a gunfight between two of their customers.

But there was one time when he was in precisely the right place at the right time. He was an unsuccessful, down on his luck, country singer in 1955, when he was driving on Christmas morning, from his in-laws' house in Arkansas to his parents' house three miles away, and he stopped to pick up two hitch-hikers.

Those two hitch-hikers were Cowboy Jack Clement and Ronald "Slim" Wallace, two musicians who were planning on setting up their own record company. Riley was so interested in their conversation that while he'd started out just expecting to drive them the three miles he was going, he ended up driving them the more than seventy miles to Memphis.

Clement and Wallace invited Riley to join their label. They actually had little idea of how to get into the record business -- Clement was an ex-Marine and aspiring writer, who was also a dance instructor -- he had no experience or knowledge of dancing when he became a dance instructor, but had decided that it couldn't be that difficult. He also played pedal steel in a Western Swing band led by someone called Sleepy-Eyed John Epley.

Wallace, meanwhile, was a truck driver who worked weekends as a bass player and bandleader, and Clement had joined Wallace's band as well as Epley's. They regularly commuted between Arkansas, where Wallace owned a club, and Memphis, where Clement was based, and on one of their journeys, Clement, who had been riding in the back seat, had casually suggested to Wallace that they should get into the record business. Wallace would provide the resources -- they'd use his garage as a studio, and finance it with his truck-driving money -- while Clement would do the work of actually converting the garage into a studio.

But before they were finished, they'd been out drinking in Arkansas on Christmas Eve with Wallace's wife and a friend, and Clement and the friend had been arrested for drunkenness. Wallace's wife had driven back to Memphis to be home for Christmas day, while Wallace had stayed on to bail out Clement and hitch-hike back with him.

They hadn't actually built their studio yet, as such, but they were convinced it was going to be great when they did, and when Riley picked them up he told them what a great country singer he was, and they all agreed that when they did get the studio built they were going to have Riley be the first artist on their new label, Fernwood Records. In the meantime, Riley was going to be the singer in their band, because he needed the ten or twelve dollars a night he could get from them.

So for a few months, Riley performed with Clement and Wallace in their band, and they slowly worked out an act that would show Riley's talents off to their best advantage. By May, Clement still hadn't actually built the studio -- he'd bought a tape recorder and a mixing board from Sleepy-Eyed John Epley, but he hadn't quite got round to making Wallace's garage into a decent space for recording in.

So Clement and Wallace pulled together a group of musicians, including a bass player, because Clement didn't think Wallace was good enough, Johnny Bernero, the drummer who'd played on Elvis' last Sun session, and a guitarist named Roland Janes, and rented some studio time from a local radio station. They recorded the two sides of what was intended to be the first single on Fernwood Records, "Rock With Me Baby":

[Excerpt: Billy Lee RIley, "Rock With Me Baby"]

So they had a tape, but they needed to get it properly mastered to release it as a single. The best place in town to do that was at Memphis Recording Services, which Sam Phillips was still keeping going even though he was now having a lot of success with Sun.

Phillips listened to the track while he was mastering it, and he liked it a lot. He liked it enough, in fact, that he made an offer to Clement -- rather than Clement starting up his own label, would he sell the master to Phillips, and come and work for Sun records instead?

He did, leaving Slim Wallace to run Fernwood on his own, and for the last few years that Sun was relevant, Cowboy Jack Clement was one of the most important people working for the label -- second only to Sam Phillips himself. Clement would end up producing sessions by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

But his first session was to produce the B-side to the Billy Lee Riley record. Sam Phillips hadn't liked their intended B-side, so they went back into the studio with the same set of musicians to record a "Heartbreak Hotel" knockoff called "Trouble Bound":

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley, "Trouble Bound"]

That was much more to Sam's liking, and the result was released as Billy Lee Riley's first single.

Riley and the musicians who had played on that initial record became the go-to people for Clement when he wanted musicians to back Sun's stars. Roland Janes, in particular, is someone whose name you will see on the credits for all sorts of Sun records from mid-56 onwards. Riley, too, would play on sessions -- usually on harmonica, but occasionally on guitar, bass, or piano.

There's one particularly memorable moment of Riley on guitar at the end of Jerry Lee Lewis' first single, a cover version of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms". That song had been cut more as a joke than anything else, with Janes, who couldn't play bass, on bass. Right at the end of the song, Riley picked up a guitar, and hit a single wrong chord, just after everyone else had finished playing, and while their sound was dying away:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Crazy Arms"]

Sam Phillips loved that track, and released it as it was, with Riley's guitar chord on it.

Riley, meanwhile, started gigging regularly, with a band consisting of Janes on guitar, new drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, and, at first, Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, all of whom would play regularly on any Sun sessions that needed musicians.

Now, we're going to be talking about Jerry Lee Lewis in a couple of weeks, so I don't want to talk too much about him here, but you'll have noticed that we already talked about him quite a bit in the episode on "Matchbox". Jerry Lee Lewis was one of those characters who turn up everywhere, and even before he was a star, he was making a huge impression on other people's lives. So while this isn't an episode about him, you will see his effect on Riley's career. He's just someone who insists on pushing into the story before it's his turn.

Jerry Lee was the piano player on Riley's first session for Sun proper. The song on that session was brought in by Roland Janes, who had a friend, Ray Scott, who had written a rock and roll song about flying saucers. Riley loved the song, but Phillips thought it needed something more -- it needed to sound like it came from outer space. They still didn't have much in the way of effects at the Sun studios -- just the reverb system Phillips had cobbled together -- but Janes had a tremolo bar on his guitar. These were a relatively new invention -- they'd only been introduced on the Fender Stratocaster a little over two years earlier, and they hadn't seen a great deal of use on records yet.

Phillips got Janes to play making maximum use of the tremolo arm, and also added a ton of reverb, and this was the result:

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll"]

Greil Marcus later said of that track that it was "one of the weirdest of early rock 'n' roll records - and early rock 'n' roll records were weird!" -- and he's right. "Flying Saucers Rock & Roll" is a truly odd recording, even by the standards of Sun Records in 1957.

When Phillips heard that back, he said "Man that’s it. You sound like a bunch of little green men from Mars!" -- and then immediately realised that that should be the name of Riley's backing band. So the single came out as by Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, and the musicians got themselves a set of matching green suits to wear at gigs, which they bought at Lansky's on Beale Street.

Those suits caused problems, though, as they were made of a material which soaked up sweat, which was a problem given how frantically active Riley's stage show was -- at one show at the Arkansas State University Riley jumped on top of the piano and started dancing -- except the piano turned out to be on wheels, and rolled off the stage. Riley had to jump up and cling on to a steel girder at the top of the stage, dangling from it by one arm, while holding the mic in the other, and gesturing frantically for people to get him down.

You can imagine that with a show like that, absorbent material would be a problem, and sometimes the musicians would lie on their backs to play solos and get the audiences excited, and then find it difficult to get themselves back to their feet again, because their suits were so heavy.

Riley's next single was a cover of a blues song first recorded by another Sun artist, Billy "the Kid" Emerson, in 1955. "Red Hot" had been based on a schoolyard chant:

[Excerpt: Billy "the Kid" Emerson, "Red Hot"]

While "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" had been a local hit, but not a national one, Billy was confident that his version of "Red Hot" would be the record that would make him into a national star:

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, "Red Hot"]

The song was recorded either at the same session as "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" or at one a couple of weeks later with a different pianist -- accounts vary -- but it was put on the shelf for six months, and in that six months Riley toured promoting "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll", and also carried on playing on sessions for Sun. He played bass on "Take Me To That Place" by Jack Earls:

[Excerpt: Jack Earls, "Take Me To That Place"]

 Rhythm guitar on "Miracle of You" by Hannah Fay:

[Excerpt: Hannah Fay, "Miracle of You"]

And much more. But he was still holding out hopes for the success of "Red Hot", which Sam Phillips kept telling him was going to be his big hit.

And for a while it looked like that might be the case. Dewey Phillips played the record constantly, and Alan Freed tipped it to be a big hit. But for some reason, while it was massive in Memphis, the track did nothing at all outside the area -- the Memphis musician Jim Dickinson once said that he had never actually realised that "Red Hot" hadn't been a hit until he moved to Texas and nobody there had heard it, because everyone in Memphis knew the song.

Riley and his band continued recording for Sun, both recording for themselves and as backup musicians for other artists. For example Hayden Thompson's version of Little Junior Parker's "Love My Baby", another rockabilly cover of an old Sun blues track, was released shortly after "Red Hot", credited to Thompson "with Billy Lee Riley's band [and] Jerry Lee Lewis' 'pumping piano'":

[Excerpt: Hayden Thompson, "Love My Baby"]

 But Riley was starting to get suspicious. "Red Hot" should have been a hit, it was obvious to him. So why hadn't it been?

Riley became convinced that what had happened was that Sam Phillips had decided that Riley and his band were more valuable to him as session musicians, backing Jerry Lee Lewis and whoever else came into the studio, than as stars themselves. He would later claim that he had actually seen piles of orders for "Red Hot" come in from record shops around the country, and Sam Phillips phoning the stores up and telling them he was sending them Jerry Lee Lewis records instead.

He also remembered that Sam had told him to come off the road from a package tour to record an album -- and had sent Jerry Lee out on the tour in his place.

He became convinced that Sam Phillips was deliberately trying to sabotage his career.

He got drunk, and he got mad. He went to Sun studios, where Sam Phillips' latest girlfriend, Sally, was working, and started screaming at her, and kicked a hole in a double bass. Sally, terrified, called Sam, who told her to lock the doors, and to on no account let Riley leave the building. Sam came to the studio and talked Riley down, explaining to him calmly that there was no way he would sabotage a record on his own label -- that just wouldn't make any sense. He said "“Red Hot” ain’t got it. We’re saving you for something good.’ ”

By the time Sam had finished talking, according to Riley, "I felt like I was the biggest star on Sun Records!”

But that feeling didn't last, and Riley, like so many Sun artists before, decided he had a better chance at stardom elsewhere. He signed with Brunswick Records, and recorded a single with Owen Bradley, a follow-up to "Flying Saucers Rock & Roll" called "Rockin' on the Moon", which I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear had been an influence on Joe Meek:

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley, "Rockin' on the Moon"]

But that wasn't a success either, and Riley came crawling back to Sun, though he never trusted Phillips again. He carried on as a Sun artist for a while, and then started recording for other labels based around Memphis, under a variety of different names. with a variety of different bands. For example he played harmonica on "Shimmy Shimmy Walk" by the Megatons, a great instrumental knock-off of "You Don't Love Me":

[Excerpt: The Megatons, "Shimmy Shimmy Walk Part 1"]

Indeed, he had a part to play in the development of another classic Memphis instrumental, though he didn't play on it. Riley was recording a session under one of his pseudonyms at the Stax studio, in 1962, and he was in the control room after the session when the other musicians started jamming on a twelve-bar blues:

[Excerpt: Booker T and the MGs, "Green Onions"]

But we'll talk more about Booker T and the MGs in a few months' time.

After failing to make it as a rock and roll star, Billy Riley decided he might as well go with what he'd been most successful at, and become a full-time session musician. He moved to LA, where he was one of the large number of people who were occasional parts of the group of session players known as the Wrecking Crew. He played harmonica, for example, on the album version of the Beach Boys' "Help Me Ronda":

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Help Me, Ronda"]

And on Dean Martin's "Houston":

[Excerpt: Dean Martin, "Houston"]

After a couple of years of this, he went back to the south, and started recording again for anyone who would have him. But again, he was unlucky in sales -- and songs he recorded would tend to get recorded by other artists. For example, in 1971 he recorded a single produced by Chips Moman, the great Memphis country-soul producer and songwriter who had recently revitalised Elvis' career. That song, Tony Joe White's "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" started rising up the charts:

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley, "I've Got A Thing About You Baby"]

But then Elvis released his own version of the song, and Riley's version stalled at number ninety-three.

In 1973, Riley decided to retire from the music business, and go to work in the construction industry instead. He would eventually be dragged back onto the stage in 1979, and he toured Europe after that, playing to crowds of rockabilly fans

In 1992, Bob Dylan came calling. It turned out that Bob Dylan was a massive Billy Lee Riley fan, and had spent six years trying to track Riley down, even going so far as to visit Riley's old home in Tennessee to see if he could find him. Eventually he did, and he got Riley to open for him on a few shows in Arkansas and Tennessee, and in Little Rock he got Riley to come out on stage and perform "Red Hot" with him and his band:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan and Billy Lee Riley, "Red Hot"]

In 2015, when Dylan was awarded the "Musicares person of the year" award, he spent most of his speech attacking anyone in the music industry who had ever said a bad word about Bob Dylan. It's one of the most extraordinarily, hilariously, petty bits of score-settling you'll ever hear, and I urge you to seek it out online if you ever start to worry that your own ego bruises too easily.

But in that speech Dylan does say good things about some people.He talks for a long time about Riley, and I won't quote all of it, but I'll quote a short section:

"He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don't stand a chance. So Billy became what is known in the industry—a condescending term—as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who's got 20 or 30 hits behind him.”

Dylan went on to talk about his long friendship with Riley, and to say that the reason he was proud to accept the Musicares award was that in his last years, Musicares had helped Billy Lee Riley pay his doctor's bills and keep comfortable, and that Dylan considered that a debt that couldn't be repaid.

Billy Lee Riley gave his final performance in June 2009, on Beale Street in Memphis, using a walking frame for support. He died of colon cancer in August 2009, aged 75.

Nov 18, 2019
Episode 56: "Bye Bye Love" by the Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers

Episode fifty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Bye Bye Love" by The Everly Brotherss, and at the history of country close harmony. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.


Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Short Fat Fannie" by Larry Williams.




As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are no first-rate biographies of the Everly Brothers in print, at least in English (apparently there's a decent one in French, but I don't speak French well enough for that). Ike's Boys by Phyllis Karp is the only full-length bio,  and I relied on that in the absence of anything else, but it's been out of print for nearly thirty years, and is not worth the exorbitant price it goes for second-hand.

How Nashville Became Music City by Michael Kosser has a good amount of information on the Bryants.

The Everlypedia is a series of PDFs containing articles on anything related to the Everly Brothers, in alphabetical order.

There are many, many cheap compilations of the Everly Brothers' early material available. I'd recommend this one, because as well as all the hits up to 1962 it has the complete Songs our Daddy Taught Us.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?



[Intro: Ike Everly introducing the Everly Brothers]

We've talked before about how vocal harmonies are no longer a big part of rock music, but were essential to it in the fifties and sixties. But what we've not discussed is that there are multiple different types of harmony that we see in the music of that period.

One, which we've already seen, is the vocal group sound -- the sound of doo-wop. There, there might be a lead singer, but everyone involved has their own important role to play, singing separate backing vocal lines that intertwine. One singer will be taking a bass melody, another will be singing a falsetto line, and so on. It's the sound of a collection of individual personalities, working together but to their own agendas.

Another style which we're going to look at soon is the girl group sound. There you have a lead singer singing a line on her own, and two or three backing vocalists echoing lines on the chorus -- it's the sound of a couple of friends providing support for someone who's in trouble. The lead singer will sing her problems, and the friends will respond with something supportive.

Then there's the style which Elvis used -- a single lead vocalist over a group of backing vocalists, mostly providing "oohs" and "aahs". The backing vocals here just work as another instrumental texture.

But there's one style which would be as influential as any of these, and which was brought into rock and roll by a single act -- a duo who, more than anyone else in rock music, epitomised vocal harmony:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Bye Bye Love"]

Don and Phil Everly were brought up in music. Their father, Ike Everly, had been a coalminer in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, but decided to quit coal mining and become a professional musician when he was trapped in his second cave-in, deciding he wasn't ever going to go through that a third time. He had learned a particular guitar style, which would later become known as "Travis picking" after its most famous exponent, Merle Travis -- though Travis himself usually referred to it as "Muhlenberg picking". Travis and Ike Everly knew each other, and it was Ike Everly, and Ike's friend Mose Rager, who taught Travis how to play in that style, which they had learned from another friend, Kennedy Jones, who in turn learned it from a black country-blues player named Arnold Schultz, who had invented the style:

[Excerpt, Ike Everly, "Blue Smoke"]

Ike Everly was widely regarded as one of the greatest country guitarists of all time, and his "Ike Everly's Rag" was later recorded by Merle Travis and Joe Maphis:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, "Ike Everly's Rag"]

But while Ike Everly was known as a country player, Don Everly would always later claim that deep down Ike was a blues man. He played country because that was what the audiences wanted to hear, but his first love was the blues.

But even when playing country, he wasn't just playing the kind of music that was becoming popular at the time, but he was also playing the old Appalachian folk songs, and teaching them to his sons. He would play songs like "Who's Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?", which was most famously recorded by Woody Guthrie:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?"]

The Everly family travelled all over the South and Midwest, moving between radio stations on which Ike Everly would get himself shows. As they grew old enough, his two sons, Don and Phil, would join him, as would his wife, though Margaret Everly was more of a manager than a performer. Don soon became good enough that he got his own fifteen-minute show, performing as "Little Donnie", as well as performing with his family.

The Everly family would perform their show live, first thing in the morning -- they were playing country music and so they were supposed to be playing for the farmers, and their show began at 5AM, with the young boys heading off to school, still in the dark, after the show had finished.

The radio show continued for many years, and the boys developed all sorts of tricks for keeping an audience entertained, which would stand them in good stead in future years. One thing they used to do was to have both brothers and their father play the same guitar simultaneously, with Phil fretting the bass notes, Ike Everly playing those notes, and Don playing lead on the top strings.

I've not found a recording of them doing that together, but some footage does exist of them doing this with Tennessee Ernie Ford on his TV show -- Ford, of course, being someone whose biggest hit had been written by Ike Everly's old friend Merle Travis:

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Everly Brothers, "Rattlesnake Daddy"]

That kind of trick was fairly common among country acts at the time -- Buck Owens and Don Rich would do pretty much the same act together in the 1960s, and like the Everlys would play fairly straightforward blues licks while doing it.

But while Ike Everly was primarily an instrumentalist, his sons would become known mostly as singers.

People often, incorrectly, describe the Everly Brothers as singing "bluegrass harmonies". This is understandable, as bluegrass music comes from Kentucky, and does often have close harmonies in it. But the Everlys were actually singing in a style that was around for years before Bill Monroe started performing the music that would become known as bluegrass.

There was a whole tradition of close harmony in country music that is usually dated back to the 1920s. The first people to really popularise it were a duo who were known as "Mac and Bob" -- Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner. The two men met in Kentucky, at the Kentucky School for the Blind, where they were both studying music, in 1916. They started singing close harmony together in the early 1920s, and while they sang in the overly-enunciated way that was popular at the time, you can hear the roots of the Everlys' style in their harmonies:

[Excerpt: McFarland and Gardner, "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine"]

The style is known as "close harmony" because the singers are singing notes that are close to each other in the scale, and it was the foundation of country vocal harmonies. Usually in this style, there are two singers, singing about a third apart. The lower singer will sing the melody, while the higher singer will harmonise, following the melody line closely.

This style of harmony was particularly suited to the vocal blend you can get from siblings, who tend to have extremely similar voices -- and if done well it can sound like one voice harmonising with itself. And so from the 1930s on there were a lot of brother acts who performed this kind of music. One duo who the Everlys would often point to as a particular influence was the Bailes Brothers:

[Excerpt: the Bailes Brothers, "Oh So Many Years"]

But at the time the Everly Brothers were coming up, there was one duo, more than any other, who were immensely popular in the close harmony style -- the Louvin Brothers:

[Excerpt: The Louvin Brothers, "Midnight Special"]

The Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, were cousins of John D. Loudermilk, whose "Sittin' in the Balcony" we heard in the Eddie Cochran episode a few weeks ago. They were country and gospel singers, who are nowadays probably sadly best known for the cover of their album "Satan is Real", which often makes those Internet listicles about the most ridiculous album covers. But in the mid fifties, they were one of the most popular groups in country music, and influenced everyone -- they were particular favourites of Elvis, and regular performers on the Grand Ole Opry.

Their style was a model for the Everlys, but sadly so was their personal relationship. Ira and Charlie never got on, and would often get into fights on stage, and the same was true of the Everly Brothers. In 1970, Phil Everly said "We've only ever had one argument. It's lasted twenty-five years", and that argument would continue for the rest of their lives.

There were various explanations offered for their enmity over the years, ranging from them vying to be their father's favourite, to Don resenting Phil's sweeter voice upstaging him -- he was once quoted as saying "I've been a has-been since I was ten". But fundamentally the two brothers were just too different in everything from temperament to politics -- Don is a liberal Democrat, while Phil was a conservative Republican -- and their views on how life should be lived. It seems most likely that two such different people resented being forced into constant proximity with each other, and reacted against it.

And so the Everlys became another of those sibling rivalries that have recurred throughout rock and roll history. But despite their personal differences, they had a vocal blend that was possibly even better than that of the Louvins, if that's possible.

But talent on its own doesn't necessarily bring success, and for a while it looked like the Everlys were going to be washed up before the brothers got out of their teens. While they had some success with their radio show, by 1955 there was much less of a market for live music on the radio -- it was much cheaper for the radio stations to employ DJs to play records, now that the legal ban on broadcasting recordings had been lifted.

The Everly family's radio show ended, and both Ike and Margaret got jobs cutting hair, while encouraging their sons in their music career. After a few months of this, Margaret decided she was going to move the boys to Nashville, to try to get them a record deal, while Ike remained in nearby Knoxville working as a barber.

While the family had not had much success in the music industry, they had made contacts with several people, and Chet Atkins, in particular, was an admirer, not only of Ike Everly's guitar playing, but of his barbering skills as well -- according to at least one account I've read, Atkins was a regular customer of Ike's.

Atkins seems to have been, at first, mostly interested in Don Everly as a songwriter and maybe a solo performer -- he carried out some correspondence with Don while Don was still in school, and got Kitty Wells, one of the biggest country stars of the fifties, to record one of Don's songs, "Thou Shalt Not Steal", when Don was only sixteen:

[Excerpt: Kitty Wells, "Thou Shalt Not Steal"]

That became a top twenty country hit, and Don looked like he might be on his way to a successful career, especially after another of his songs, "Here We Are Again", was recorded by Anita Carter of the famous Carter family:

[Excerpt: Anita Carter, "Here We Are Again"]

But Margaret Everly, the Everlys' mother and the person who seemed to have the ambition that drove them, didn't want Don to be a solo star -- she wanted the two brothers to be equal in every way, and would make sure they wore the same clothes, had the same toys growing up, and so on. She took Don's royalties from songwriting, and used them to get both brothers Musicians' union cards -- in the same way, when Don had had his own radio show, Margaret had made Don give Phil half of his five-dollar fee.

So solo stardom was never going to be in Don Everly's future. Margaret wanted the Everly Brothers to be a successful duo, and that was that. Chet Atkins was going to help *both* her sons.

Atkins got them a deal with Columbia Records in 1956 for a single, "Keep A-Lovin' Me", written by Don:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Keep A-Lovin' Me"]

That record flopped, and the Everlys were later very dismissive of it -- Phil said of the two songs on that single "they were stinko, boy! Really stinko!" Columbia weren't interested in putting out anything else by the Everlys, and quickly dropped them.

Part of the reason was that they were signed as a country act, but they already wanted to do more, and in particular to incorporate more influence from the rhythm and blues music they were listening to. Don worshipped Hank Williams, and Phil loved Lefty Frizzell, but they both also adored Bo Diddley, and were obsessed with his style.

Don, in particular -- who was the more accomplished instrumentalist of the two, and who unlike Phil would play rhythm guitar on their records -- wanted to learn how Diddley played guitar, and would spend a lot of time with Chet Atkins, who taught him how to play in the open tunings Diddley used, and some of the rhythms he was playing with.

Despite the brothers' lack of success on Columbia, Atkins still had faith in them, and he got in touch with his friend Wesley Rose, who was the president of Acuff-Rose publishing, the biggest music publishing company in Nashville at the time.

Rose made a deal with the brothers. If they would sign to Acuff-Rose as songwriters, and if they'd agree to record only Acuff-Rose songs, he would look after their career and get them a record deal. They agreed, and Rose got them signed to Cadence Records, a mid-sized indie label whose biggest star at the time was Andy Williams.

The first single they recorded for Cadence was a song that had been rejected by thirty other artists before it was passed on to the Everlys as a last resort.

"Bye Bye Love" was written by the husband and wife team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who had been writing for a decade, for people such as Carl Smith and Moon Mullican. Their first hit had come in 1948, with "Country Boy", a song which Little Jimmy Dickens took to number seven on the country charts:

[Excerpt: Little Jimmy Dickens, "Country Boy"]

But they had not had much chart success after that, though they'd placed songs with various Nashville-based country singers. They were virtual unknowns, and their most recent song, "Bye Bye Love", had been written for a duo called Johnny and Jack. They hadn't been interested, so the Bryants had passed the song along to their friend Chet Atkins, who had tried to record it with Porter Wagoner, who had recorded other songs by the Bryants, like "Tryin' to Forget the Blues":

[Excerpt: Porter Wagoner, "Tryin' to Forget the Blues"]

But when Atkins took the song into the studio, he decided it wasn't strong enough for Wagoner. Atkins wanted to change a few chords, and Boudleaux Bryant told him that if the song wasn't strong enough as it was, he just shouldn't record it at all.

But while the song might not have been strong enough for a big country star like Porter Wagoner, it was strong enough for Chet Atkins' new proteges, who were, after all, hardly going to have a big hit. So Atkins took the multiply-rejected song in for the duo to record as their first single for Cadence.

In one of those coincidences that seems too good to be true, Ike Everly was Boudleaux Bryant's barber, and had been bragging to him for years about how talented his sons were, but Bryant had just dismissed this -- around Nashville, everyone is a major talent, or their son or daughter or husband or wife is.

Two things happened to change the rather mediocre song into a classic that would change the face of popular music. The first was, simply, the brothers' harmonies. They had by this point developed an intuitive understanding of each other's voices, and a superb musicality. It's interesting to listen to the very first take of the song:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Bye Bye Love (take 1)"]

That's Don singing the low lead and Phil taking the high harmony.

Now, if you're familiar with the finished record, you can tell that what Phil's singing there isn't the closer harmony part he ended up singing on the final version. There are some note choices there that he decided against for the final record. But what you can tell is that they are instinctively great harmony singers. It's not the harmony part that would become famous, but it's a *good* one in its own right.

The second thing is that they changed the song from the rather sedate country song the Bryants had come up with, radically rearranging it.

Don had written a song called "Give Me a Future", which he'd intended to be in the Bo Diddley style, and one can hear something of Diddley's rhythm in the stop-start guitar part:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Give Me a Future"]

Don took that guitar part, and attached it to the Bryants' song, and with the help of Chet Atkins' lead guitar fills turned it into something quite new -- a record with a rockabilly feel, but with country close harmony vocals:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Bye Bye Love"]

The brothers were, at first, worried because almost as soon as it came out, a cover version by Webb Pierce, one of the biggest names in country music, came out:

[Excerpt: Webb Pierce, "Bye Bye Love"]

But they were surprised to discover that while Pierce's version did chart -- reaching the top ten in the country charts -- it was nowhere near as successful as their own version, which went to number one on the country charts and number two in pop, and charted on the R&B charts as well.

After that success, the Bryants wrote a string of hits for the brothers, a run of classics starting with "Wake Up Little Suzie", a song which was banned on many stations because it suggested impropriety -- even though, listening to the lyrics, it very clearly states that no impropriety has gone on, and indeed that the protagonist is horrified at the suggestion that it might have:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Wake Up Little Suzie"]

These records would usually incorporate some of Don's Bo Diddley influence, while remaining firmly in the country end of rock and roll. The Bryants also started to give the brothers ballads like "Devoted to You" and "All I Have to Do is Dream", which while they still deal with adolescent concerns, have a sweetness and melody to them quite unlike anything else that was being recorded by rock and roll artists of the time.

After the first single, everything else that the Bryants wrote for the Everlys was tailored specifically to them -- Boudleaux Bryant, who would attend more of the sessions, would have long conversations with the brothers and try to write songs that fit with their lives and musical tastes, as well as fitting them to their voices.

One of the things that's very noticeable about interviews with the brothers is that they both tend to credit Boudleaux alone with having written the songs that he co-wrote with his wife, even though everything suggests that the Bryants were a true partnership, and both have solo credits for songs that are stylistically indistinguishable from those written as a team. Whether this is pure sexism, or it's just because Boudleaux is the one who used to demo the songs for them and so they think of him as the primary author, is hard to tell -- probably a combination.

This was also a perception that Boudleaux Bryant encouraged. While Felice was the person who had originally decided to go into songwriting, and was the one who came up with most of the ideas, Boudleaux was only interested in making money -- and he'd often sneak off to write songs by himself so he would get all the money rather than have to share it with his wife. Boudleaux would also on occasion be given incomplete songs by friends like Atkins, and finish them up with Felice -- but only Boudleaux and the original writer would get their names on it.

The result was that Boudleaux got the credit from people around him, even when they knew better. One of my sources for this episode is an interview with the Bryants' son, Dane, and at one point in that interview he says "Now, lots of times I will say, 'My father.' I mean Dad and Mom".

As the Everly brothers disagreed about almost everything, they of course disagreed about the quality of the material that the Bryants were bringing them. Phil Everly was always utterly unstinting in his praise of them, saying that the Bryants' songs were some of the best songs ever written.

Don, on the other hand, while he definitely appreciated material like "All I Have to Do is Dream", wasn't so keen on their writing in general, mostly because it dealt primarily with adolescent concerns. He thought that the material the brothers were writing for themselves -- though still immature, as one would expect from people who were still in their teens at the start of their career -- was aiming at a greater emotional maturity than the material the Bryants wrote.

And on the evidence of their first album, that's certainly true. The first album is, like many albums of the time, a patchy affair. It pulls together the hit singles the brothers had already released, together with a bunch of rather mediocre cover versions of then-current hits. Those cover versions tend to support Don's repeated claims that the brothers were as interested in R&B and blues as in country -- apart from a version of "Be-Bop-A-Lula", all the covers are of R&B hits of the time -- two by Little Richard, two by Ray Charles, and one by the relatively obscure blues singer Titus Turner.

But among those songs, there are also a handful of Don Everly originals, and one in particular, "I Wonder if I Care as Much", is quite an astonishing piece of songwriting:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "I Wonder If I Care As Much"]

Don's songs were often B-sides – that one was the B-side to “Bye Bye Love” – and to my mind they're often rather more interesting than the A-sides.

While that first album is rather patchy, the second album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, is a minor revelation, and one of the pillars on which the Everly Brothers' artistic reputation rests. It's been suggested that the album was done as a way of getting back at the record company for some slight or other, by making a record that was completely uncommercial. That might be the case, but I don't think so -- and if it was, it was a gesture that backfired magnificently, as it's still, sixty years on, a consistent seller.

Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is precisely what it sounds like -- an album consisting of songs the brothers had been taught by their father. It's a mixture of Appalachian folk songs and country standards, performed by the brothers accompanied just by Don's acoustic guitar and Floyd Chance on upright bass:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?”]

It's quite possibly the most artistically satisfying album made in the fifties by a rock and roll act, and it's had such an influence that as recently as 2013 Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and the jazz-pop singer Norah Jones recorded an album, Foreverly, that's just a cover version of the whole album:

[Excerpt: Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones, “Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?”]

So as the 1950s drew to a close, the Everly Brothers were on top of the world. They'd had a run of classic singles, and they'd just released one of the greatest albums of all time. But there was trouble ahead, and when we pick up on their career again, we'll see exactly how wrong things could go for them.


Nov 11, 2019
Episode 55: "Searchin'" by the Coasters


Episode fifty-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Searchin'" by The Coasters, and at the lineup changes and conflicts that led to them becoming the perfect vehicle for Leiber and Stoller. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.


Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Raunchy" by Bill Justis.





As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


I've used multiple sources to piece together the information here.

Marv Goldberg's page is always the go-to for fifties R&B groups, and his piece on the Robins is essential.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

Yakety Yak, I Fought Back: My Life With the Coasters by Carl and Veta Gardner is a self-published, rather short, autobiography, which gives Gardner's take on the formation of the Coasters.

Those Hoodlum Friends is a Coasters fansite, with a very nineties aesthetic (frames! angelfire domain name! Actual information rather than pretty, empty, layouts!)

Lonely Avenue, a biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, helped me with the information on Pomus.

I Must Be Dreamin': The Robins on RCA, Crown, and Spark 1953-55 compiles all the material from the last couple of years of the Robins' career before Nunn and Gardner departed.

And The Definitive Coasters is a double-CD set that has some overlap with the Robins CD, as it contains all the Robins tracks on Sparks, which were later reissued as Coasters tracks. But it also contains all the group's classic hits.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


I call “Ding Dong Ding” “Ding A Ling”. Also at one point I say “sunk” when I mean “sank”, but didn't think it worth retaking to fix that.



It's been a while since we last looked at the careers of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- the last we heard of them, they had just put out a hit record with "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine" by the Robins, and they had seen Elvis Presley put out a cover version of a song they had written for Big Mama Thornton, "Hound Dog".

That hit record had caused a permanent breach between them and Johnny Otis, who had been credited as a co-writer on "Hound Dog" right up until the point it looked like becoming a big hit, but then had been eased out of the songwriting credits.

But Leiber and Stoller were, with the help of Lester Sill, starting to establish themselves as some of the preeminent songwriters and producers in the R&B field.

Their production career started as a result of the original "Hound Dog" -- Big Mama Thornton's version. That record had sold a million or so copies, according to the notoriously dodgy statistics of the time, but Leiber and Stoller had seen no money from it. Mike Stoller's father, Abe, had been furious at how little they'd made for writing it, and had suggested that they should form their own record company, so they could make sure that if they had any more hits they would get their fair share of the money. Lester Sill, their business associate, suggested that as well as a record company they should form a publishing company.

Abe Stoller had recently inherited some money from his father, and while Sill was broke himself, he had a friend, Jack "Jake the Snake" Levy, who would happily chip in money for an equal share of the company. So they formed Spark Records and Quintet Publishing, with Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Sill handling the music side of the business and Jake the Snake and Abe Stoller providing the money, with each of the five partners having an equal share in the companies.

The first record the new label put out was a record by a duo called Willy and Ruth, in the Gene and Eunice mould. The song was a Leiber and Stoller original -- as almost everything released on Spark was -- although it was based around the old "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" melody:

[Excerpt: Willy and Ruth, "Come a Little Bit Closer"]

But the act that had the most success on Spark, and to which Leiber and Stoller were devoting the most attention, was the Robins.

Now we've already talked, back in the episode on "The Wallflower" about one of the Robins' hits on Spark Records, "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine", but Leiber and Stoller did a lot more work with them than just that one hit. They'd worked with the group before forming Spark – indeed the very first song they'd had released was “That's What The Good Book Says” by the Robins – and were eager to sign them once they got their label up and running.

While the Robins had started as a four-piece group, their lineup had slowly expanded. Grady Chapman had joined them as a fifth member in 1953, becoming their joint lead singer with Bobby Nunn, and singing leads on tracks like "Ten Days in Jail":

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Ten Days in Jail"]

But Chapman himself ended up in jail, and so they took on Carl Gardner as a lead vocalist in Chapman's place. Gardner didn't really want to be in a vocal group -- he was a solo singer, and had moved to LA to become a pop singer with the big bands. But Johnny Otis had explained to him that there was no longer much of a market for solo singers in the big band style, and that if he was going to make it as a singer in the current market he was going to have to join a vocal group.

Gardner originally only joined for ten days, while Chapman was serving a short jail sentence, but then Chapman didn't come back straight away, and by the time he did Gardner was firmly established in the group, and the Robins became a sextet for a while.

While Chapman was out of the group, the rest of them had recorded not only "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine", but also several other hits, most notably "Smokey Joe's Cafe", which featured Gardner on lead vocals, and was also written by Leiber and Stoller:

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Smokey Joe's Cafe"]

But when Chapman returned, Gardner and Chapman started sharing the lead vocals between them. But they only had one recording session where this was the case, before problems started to surface in the group.

Gardner was, by his own account at least, far more ambitious than the rest of the group, who were quite reluctant to have any greater level of success than they were already getting, while Gardner wanted to become a major star.

Gardner claimed in his autobiography that one of the reasons for this reluctance was that most of the Robins were also pimps, and were making more money from that than from singing, and that they didn't want to give up that money. Whatever the reason, there were tensions within the group, and not only about their relative levels of ambition. Gardner believed that R&B was going to be a passing fad, and was pushing for the group to go more in the big band style, which he was convinced was going to make a comeback.

But there were other problems. Abe Stoller was disappointed to see that the venture he had invested in, which he'd believed was going to make everyone rich, was losing money like most other independent labels.

Despite this, Leiber and Stoller continued to pump out great records for the Robins, including records like "The Hatchet Man", a response to Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man":

[Excerpt: The Robins, "The Hatchet Man"]

Many of the other songs they recorded had a certain amount of social commentary mixed in with the humour, as in "Framed", which was for the time a rather pointed look at the way the law treated -- and still treats -- black men:

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Framed"]

But no matter how good the records they put out were, there was still the fact that the label wasn't bringing in money. And Leiber and Stoller were having other problems. Stoller's mother had died from what seemed to be suicide, while Leiber had been the driver in a car accident that had left one woman dead. Both were sunk in depression.

But then Jerry Leiber bumped into Neshui Ertegun at the home of a mutual friend. Ertegun was an admirer of Leiber and Stoller's writing, and said he wanted to get to know Leiber better -- and invited Leiber along on his honeymoon. Ertegun was about to get married, and he was planning to spend much of his honeymoon playing tennis while his wife went swimming.

He invited Leiber to join them on their honeymoon, so he would always have a tennis partner. The two quickly became good friends, and Ertegun made Leiber and Stoller a proposition. It was clear to Ertegun that Leiber and Stoller made great records, but that Spark Records had no understanding of how to get those records out to the public. So he put them in touch with his brother, Ahmet Ertegun, at Atlantic Records, who agreed to give Leiber and Stoller a freelance contract with Atlantic. They became, according to everything I've read, the first freelance production team *ever* in the US -- though I strongly suspect that that depends on how you define "freelance production team". They had contracts to make whatever records they wanted, independently of Atlantic's organisation, and Atlantic would then release and distribute those records on their new label, Atco.

And they took the Robins with them – or at least some of the Robins. The group found out that it was losing two of its members in the middle of the session for the song that was going to be the follow-up to “Smokey Joe's Cafe”, "Cherry Lips":

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Cherry Lips"]

That song was going to be a lead vocal for Carl Gardner, but just as the session started, Leiber and Stoller walked in with some legal documents. No-one has ever been clear as to what exactly those documents were -- and Gardner later claimed that they were faked, while Leiber and Stoller always said that wasn't the case, and that Gardner had already signed to Atco -- but the documents were enough to extricate Gardner from the session. Grady Martin sang lead on the song instead. Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn were now part of Leiber, Stoller, and Sill's new project with Atco. The rest of the Robins weren't

There has been quite a bit of confusion as to exactly why Leiber and Stoller only wanted two of the Robins to come across with them. Carl Gardner claimed that Leiber and Stoller wanted to get him away from the rest of the group, who he and they considered unhealthy influences. Ty Terrell, one of the other Robins, always claimed that Leiber and Stoller wanted people who would be easier to control, and that they were paying Gardner and Nunn far less money than the other Robins wanted. And Leiber and Stoller claimed that they just thought the others weren't very good -- Mike Stoller said, "The Richard brothers and Ty Terrell didn't sing lead at all. They usually sang 'do-wah,' 'do-wah' and had their hands up in the air."

I suspect, myself, that it's a combination of reasons, but whatever caused the split, Gardner and Nunn were off into the new group, leaving the other four to carry on without them.

Without Gardner and Nunn, the Robins continued recording for several years, but stopped having hits. To add insult to injury, many of the Robins' last few singles on Spark were included on the first album by the new group, "the Coasters", listed as Coasters recordings. To this day, if you buy a Coasters compilation, you're likely to find "Riot in Cell Block #9" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" on there.

For their new group Gardner and Nunn teamed up with new singers Leon Hughes and Billy Guy, along with the guitarist Adolph Jacobs.

Billy Guy had been part of a duo known as "Bip and Bop", who had recorded a "Ko Ko Mo" knock-off, "Ding a Ling", backed by "Johnny's Combo" -- the name Johnny Otis had used when backing Gene and Eunice on "Ko Ko Mo":

[Excerpt: Bip and Bop", "Ding Dong Ding"]

Hughes, meanwhile, had been one of the many, many, singers who had been in the stew of different groups that had formed the Hollywood Flames, the Penguins, and the Platters. He had been in the Hollywood Flames for a while, at a time when their lineup was in constant flux -- he had been in the group when Curtis Williams, who formed the Penguins, was still in the group, and when he left the Flames he was replaced by Gaynel Hodge, who had just quit the Platters. While he was in the Hollywood Flames, they recorded songs like this:

[Excerpt: The Flames, "Keep on Smiling"]

So this new group had the two strongest vocalists from the Robins, plus two other experienced singers. Carl Gardner was still in two minds about this, because he still wanted to be a solo artist, not part of a group, and when they came together he seems to have been under the impression that they were being formed as his backing group, rather than as a group that would include him as just one of the members. Lester Sill became the new group's manager, and largely took charge of their career.

The group became known as "the Coasters", supposedly because they were from the West Coast but recording for a label on the East Coast. Carl Gardner would later claim that the group's name was his idea, and that it was originally intended that they be promoted as "Carl Gardner and the Coasters", but that when he saw the label on the first record he was horrified to see that it just said "the Coasters", with no mention of Gardner's name as the lead singer:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Down in Mexico"]

Everything seemed, at first, to be looking good for the Coasters. Carl Gardner was happy with the other members, as they seemed to be as hungry for success as he was, and they went out on tour, while Stoller went on holiday in Europe -- and the boat he was on sunk on the way back. He and his wife survived, however, and when he got off the rescue boat he was greeted by Leiber, who informed him that Elvis Presley had just recorded "Hound Dog", and they were going to make a lot of money as a result.

But the distraction caused by that, and by the other factors in Leiber and Stoller's life, meant that for much of the rest of the year they were occupied with things other than the Coasters. The Coasters kept touring, and Leiber and Stoller relocated to New York, where they started making records for other Atlantic acts. They started a relationship with the Drifters that would last for years, and through many different lineups of the group. This one, by the Drifters' tenth lineup, became a top ten R&B single:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Fools Fall in Love"]

They also recorded "Lucky Lips" with Ruth Brown:

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown, "Lucky Lips"]

That became her first single to hit the pop charts since "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean", four years earlier.

But Leiber and Stoller were still going through all sorts of personal problems, ping-ponging from coast to coast, and apart from each other for months at a time. At one point Leiber relocated again, to LA, and Stoller stayed behind in New York, playing piano on records like Big Joe Turner's "Teenage Letter";

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Teenage Letter"]

But eventually they were together for long enough to write more songs for the Coasters. Their next work with the group was a double-sided smash hit.

"Young Blood", was a collaboration with another writer. Doc Pomus' birth name was Jerome Felder, but he'd taken on his stage name when he decided to become a blues shouter in the style of Big Joe Turner or Jimmy Rushing. Pomus was not a normal blues shouter -- he was an extremely fat Jewish man, who used crutches to get around as his legs were paralysed with post-polio syndrome.

Pomus had been recording for labels like Chess since 1944, and many of the records were very good:

[Excerpt: Doc Pomus, "Send For the Doctor"]

Pomus had become a central figure in the group of musicians around Atlantic Records, performing regularly with people like Mickey Baker, King Curtis, and the jazz vibraphone player Milt Jackson. But no matter how many records he made, he'd not had any success as a singer, and he'd fairly recently decided to move into songwriting instead.

The year before, he'd written "Lonely Avenue", which had been a minor hit for Ray Charles:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Lonely Avenue"]

But he didn't really understand this new rock and roll music -- he was a fan of jump blues, and swing bands like Count Basie's, not this newer music aimed at a younger audience, and so his songwriting hadn't been massively successful either. He was casting around for a songwriting partner who did understand the new music, so far without success. But Leiber and Stoller liked Pomus a lot -- not only did they like "Lonely Avenue" and the records he'd been making recently, but Stoller even had fond memories of a radio jingle Pomus had written and recorded for a pants shop in Brooklyn, which he remembered from growing up.

Pomus had written a song called "Young Blood", which he thought had potential, but it wasn't quite right. Depending on what version of events you believe, Leiber and Stoller either radically reworked the song, or threw away everything except the title, which they thought had immense commercial potential, and wrote a whole new song around it. Either way, the song was a huge success, and Pomus was grateful for his share of the credit and royalties, while Leiber and Stoller were happy to give someone they admired a boost.

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Young Blood"]

"Young Blood" was ostensibly the A-side of the single that resulted, but the record that actually made the biggest splash was the B-side, "Searchin'", which had Billy Guy singing lead. The song was one of Leiber and Stoller's best, and showed Leiber's sense of humour to its best effect, as Guy sang about how he was going to be a better detective than Charlie Chan or Sam Spade in tracking down his missing girlfriend:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Searchin'"]

On this session, Leon Hughes wasn't present -- I've not seen any explanation from anyone involved as to why he was absent, but his place was taken by Young Jessie. Young Jessie was a singer who had previously been a member of the Flairs, with Richard Berry, and had later recorded a handful of solo records for Modern Records, and had signed a contract with Leiber and Stoller.

Around the time of the session Young Jessie released this, with Leiber and Stoller producing, for Atco:

[Excerpt: Young Jessie, "Shuffle in the Gravel"]

Despite what some people have said, Young Jessie never became a full-time member of the Coasters (though he did later tour with a group calling itself the Coasters, led by Leon Hughes) and the original lineup of the group continued touring for a while.

After the success of "Searchin'" and "Young Blood", Atco released a series of flop singles, all of which were recorded by the original lineup, and all of which, like the hit, featured one side with a Carl Gardner lead vocal and the other with a Billy Guy lead.

Some of these, like "Idol With the Golden Head", were classic Leiber and Stoller story songs along the lines of the earlier Robins records, but they didn't yet, quite, have the classic Coasters sound:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Idol With the Golden Head"]

But then, towards the end of the year, the group split up.

It's hard to tell exactly what happened, as most of the stories about who left the group and why have been told by people who were involved, most of whom wanted to bolster their own later legal cases for ownership of the Coasters name. But whatever actually happened, Leon Hughes and Bobby Nunn were out of the group, suddenly. Depending on which version of the story you believe, they either got tired of the road and wanted to see their families, or they were sacked mid-tour because of their behaviour.

For one recording session, Tommy Evans from the Drifters substituted for Hughes and Nunn, until Lester Sill went out and found two replacement members, Cornell Gunter and Dub Jones.

We've met Gunter before -- he was part of the collection of singers who were all in half a dozen different groups, centered around Gaynel Hodge. He had been an early member of the Platters, and had also been in the Flairs with Richard Berry and Young Jessie, and had recorded a handful of solo singles:

[Excerpt: Cornell Gunter, “Neighborhood Dance”]

Gunter was also unusual for the time in being an out gay man, and was initially apprehensive about joining the group in case the other members were homophobic. For the time, they weren't especially -- Carl Gardner apparently felt the need to let Gunter know that he was straight himself and wouldn't be interested, but they took a live and let live attitude, and Gunter quickly became friendly with the rest of the group.

Dub Jones, meanwhile, had been the bass singer for the Cadets, and had done the spoken-word vocals on their biggest hit, "Stranded in the Jungle":

[Excerpt: The Cadets, "Stranded in the Jungle"]

Jones would quickly become an integral part of the group's sound.

This new lineup met for the first time on the plane to a gig in Hawaii, and Gardner at least was very worried that these new singers would not be able to fit in with the routines the others had already worked out.

He had no need to worry. It only took one quick rehearsal before the show for Gunter and Jones to slot in perfectly, and the classic lineup of the Coasters was now in place.

Leiber and Stoller loved working with the Coasters, but it had been almost a year since they'd written the group a hit at this point. "Hound Dog" had been a big enough success for Elvis that his management team wanted more from Leiber and Stoller, and fast, and most of their most commercial work in 1957 went to Elvis. But that changed in 1958, and the Coasters were the beneficiaries.

We'll be picking up with Leiber, Stoller, and Elvis, in a few weeks' time. And a few weeks after that, we'll see what happened when they got back into the studio with the Coasters...


Nov 04, 2019
Episode 54: Keep A Knockin

Little Richard

Episode fifty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Keep A Knockin'" by Little Richard, the long history of the song, and the tension between its performer's faith and sexuality. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.


Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors.




As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Most of the information used here comes from The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorised Biography by Charles White, which is to all intents and purposes Richard's autobiography, as much of the text is in his own words. A warning for those who might be considering buying this though -- it contains descriptions of his abuse as a child, and is also full of internalised homo- bi- and trans-phobia.

This collection contains everything Richard released before 1962, from his early blues singles through to his gospel albums from after he temporarily gave up rock and roll for the church.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


In the podcast I refer to a jazz band as "the Buddy Bolden Legacy Group". Their name is actually "the Buddy Bolden Legacy Band".



When last we looked at Little Richard properly, he had just had a hit with "Long Tall Sally", and was at the peak of his career. Since then, we've seen that he had become big enough that he was chosen over Fats Domino to record the theme tune to "The Girl Can't Help It", and that he was the inspiration for James Brown. But today we're going to look in more detail at Little Richard's career in the mid fifties, and at how he threw away that career for his beliefs.

[Excerpt: Little Richard with his Band, "Keep A Knockin'"]

Richard's immediate follow-up to "Long Tall Sally" was another of his most successful records, a double-sided hit with both songs credited to John Marascalco and Bumps Blackwell -- "Rip it Up" backed with "Ready Teddy". These both went to number one on the R&B charts, but they possibly didn't have quite the same power as RIchard's first two singles. Where the earlier singles had been truly unique artefacts, songs that didn't sound like anything else out there, "Rip it Up" and "Ready Teddy" were both much closer to the typical songs of the time -- the lyrics were about going out and having a party and rocking and rolling, rather than about sex with men or cross-dressing sex workers.

But this didn't make Richard any less successful, and throughout 1956 and 57 he kept releasing more hits, often releasing singles where both the A and B side became classics -- we've discussed "The Girl Can't Help It" and "She's Got It" in the episode on "Twenty Flight Rock", but there was also "Jenny Jenny", "Send Me Some Lovin'", and possibly the greatest of them all, "Lucille":

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Lucille"]

But Richard was getting annoyed at the routine of recording -- or more precisely, he was getting annoyed at the musicians he was having to work with in the studio. He was convinced that his own backing band, the Upsetters, were at least as good as the studio musicians, and he was pushing for Specialty to let him use them in the studio.

And when they finally let him use the Upsetters in the studio, he recorded a song which had roots which go much further back than you might imagine.

"Keep A Knockin'" had a long, long, history. It derives originally from a piece called "A Bunch of Blues", written by J. Paul Wyer and Alf Kelly in 1915. Wyer was a violin player with W.C. Handy's band, and Handy recorded the tune in 1917:

[Excerpt: W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues Band, "A Bunch of Blues"]

That itself, though, may derive from another song, "My Bucket's Got A Hole in It", which is an old jazz standard. There are claims that it was originally played by the great jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden around the turn of the twentieth century. No recordings survive of Bolden playing the song, but a group called "the Buddy Bolden Legacy Group" have put together what, other than the use of modern recording, seems a reasonable facsimile of how Bolden would have played the song:

[Excerpt: "My Bucket's Got a Hole in it", the Buddy Bolden Legacy Band]

If Bolden did play that, then the melody dates back to around 1906 at the latest, as from 1907 on Bolden was in a psychiatric hospital with schizophrenia, but the 1915 date for "A Bunch of Blues" is the earliest definite date we have for the melody.

"My Bucket's Got a Hole in it" would later be recorded by everyone from Hank Williams to Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. It was particularly popular among country singers:

[Excerpt: Hank Williams, "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It"]

But the song took another turn in 1928, when it was recorded by Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band. This group featured Tampa Red, who would later go on to be a blues legend in his own right, and "Georgia Tom", who as Thomas Dorsey would later be best known as the writer of much of the core repertoire of gospel music. You might remember us talking about Dorsey in the episode on Rosetta Tharpe. He's someone who wrote dirty, funny, blues songs until he had a religious experience while on stage, and instead became a writer of religious music, writing songs like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Peace in the Valley".

But in 1928, he was still Georgia Tom and still recording hokum songs.

We talked about hokum music right back in the earliest episodes of the podcast, but as a reminder, hokum music is a form which is now usually lumped into the blues by most of the few people who come across it, but which actually comes from vaudeville and especially from minstrel shows, and was hugely popular in the early decades of the twentieth century. It usually involved simple songs with a verse/chorus structure, and with lyrics that were an extended comedy metaphor, usually some form of innuendo about sex, with titles like "Meat Balls" and "Banana in Your Fruit Basket".

As you can imagine, this kind of music is one that influenced a lot of people who went on to influence Little Richard, and it's in this crossover genre which had elements of country, blues, and pop that we find "My Bucket's Got a Hole in it" turning into the song that would later be known as "Keep A Knockin'".

Tampa Red's version was titled "You Can't Come In", and seems to have been the origin not only of "Keep A Knockin'" but also of the Lead Belly song "Midnight Special" -- you can hear the similarity in the guitar melody:

[Excerpt: Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band, "You Can't Come In"]

The version by Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band wasn't the first recording to combine the "Keep a Knockin'" lyrics with the "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" melody -- the piano player Bert Mays recorded a version a month earlier, and Mays and his producer Mayo Williams, one of the first black record producers, are usually credited as the songwriters as a result (with Little Richard also being credited on his version). Mays was in turn probably inspired by an earlier recording by James "Boodle It" Wiggins, but Wiggins had a different melody -- Mays seems to be the one who first combined the lyrics with the "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" melody on a recording.

But the idea was probably one that had been knocking around for a while in various forms, given the number of different variations of the melody that turn up, and Tampa Red's version inspired all the future recordings.

As hokum music lies at the roots of both blues and country, it's not surprising that "You Can't Come in" was picked up by both country and blues musicians. A version of the song, for example, was recorded by, among others, Milton Brown -- who had been an early musical partner of Bob Wills and one of the people who helped create Western Swing.

[Excerpt: Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies: "Keep A Knockin'"]

But the version that Little Richard recorded was most likely inspired by Louis Jordan's version. Jordan was, of course, Richard's single biggest musical inspiration, so we can reasonably assume that the record by Jordan was the one that pushed him to record the song.

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Keep A Knockin'"]

The Jordan record was probably brought to mind in 1955 when Smiley Lewis had a hit with Dave Bartholomew's take on the idea. "I Hear You Knockin'" only bears a slight melodic resemblance to "Keep A Knockin'", but the lyrics are so obviously inspired by the earlier song that it would have brought it to mind for anyone who had heard any of the earlier versions:

[Excerpt: Smiley Lewis, "I Hear You Knockin'"]

That was also recorded by Fats Domino, one of Little Richard's favourite musicians, so we can be sure that Richard had heard it.

So by the time Little Richard came to record "Keep A Knockin'" in very early 1957, he had a host of different versions he could draw on for inspiration. But what we ended up with is something that's uniquely Little Richard -- something that was altogether wilder:

[Excerpt: Little Richard and his band, "Keep A Knockin'"]

In some takes of the song, Richard also sang a verse about drinking gin, which was based on Louis Jordan's version which had a similar verse:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Keep A Knockin'", "drinking gin" verse from take three]

But in the end, what they ended up with was only about fifty-seven seconds worth of usable recording. Listening to the session recording, it seems that Grady Gaines kept trying different things with his saxophone solo, and not all of them quite worked as well as might be hoped -- there are a few infelicities in most of his solos, though not anything that you wouldn't expect from a good player trying new things.

To get it to a usable length, they copied and pasted the whole song from the start of Richard's vocal through to the end of the saxophone solo, and almost doubled the length of the song -- the third and fourth verses, and the second saxophone solo, are the same recording as the first and second verses and the first sax solo. If you want to try this yourself, it seems that the "whoo" after the first "keep a knockin' but you can't come in" after the second sax solo is the point where the copy/pasting ends.

But even though the recording ended up being a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, it remains one of Little Richard's greatest tracks. At the same session, he also recorded another of his very best records, "Ooh! My Soul!":

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Ooh! My Soul!"]

That session also produced a single for Richard's chauffeur, with Richard on the piano, released under the name "Pretty Boy":

[Excerpt: Pretty Boy, "Bip Bop Bip"]

"Pretty Boy" would later go on to be better known as Don Covay, and would have great success as a soul singer and songwriter. He's now probably best known for writing "Chain of Fools" for Aretha Franklin.

That session was a productive one, but other than one final session in October 1957, in which he knocked out a couple of blues songs as album fillers, it would be Little Richard's last rock and roll recording session for several years.

Richard had always been deeply conflicted about... well, about everything, really. He was attracted to men as well as women, he loved rock and roll and rhythm and blues music, loved eating chitlins and pork chops, drinking, and taking drugs, and was unsure about his own gender identity. He was also deeply, deeply, religious, and a believer in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which believed that same-sex attraction, trans identities, and secular music were the work of the Devil, and that one should keep a vegetarian and kosher diet, and avoid all drugs, even caffeine.

This came to a head in October 1957. Richard was on a tour of Australia with Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley, who was another of the many singers billed as "the female Elvis Presley":

[Excerpt: Alis Lesley, "He Will Come Back To Me"]

Vincent actually had to miss the first couple of shows on the tour, as he and the Blue Caps got held up in Honolulu, apparently due to visa issues, and couldn't continue on to Australia with the rest of the tour until that was sorted out. They were replaced on those early shows by a local group, Johnny O'Keefe and the Dee Jays, who performed some of Vincent's songs as well as their own material, and who managed to win the audiences round even though they were irritated at Vincent's absence.

O'Keefe isn't someone we're going to be able to discuss in much detail in this series, because he had very little impact outside of Australia. But within Australia, he's something of a legend as their first home-grown rock and roll star. And he did make one record which people outside of Australia have heard of -- his biggest hit, from 1958, "Wild One", which has since been covered by, amongst others, Jerry Lee Lewis and Iggy Pop:

[Excerpt: Johnny O'Keefe, "Wild One"]

The flight to Australia was longer and more difficult than any Richard had experienced before, and at one point he looked out of the window and saw the engines glowing red. He became convinced that the plane was on fire, and being held up by angels. He became even more worried a couple of days later when Russia launched their first satellite, Sputnik, and it passed low over Australia -- low enough that he claimed he could see it, like a fireball in the sky, while he was performing.

He decided this was a sign, and that he was being told by God that he needed to give up his life of sin and devote himself to religion. He told the other people on the tour this, but they didn't believe him -- until he threw all his rings into the ocean to prove it. He insisted on cancelling his appearances with ten days of the tour left to go and travelling back to the US with his band. He has often also claimed that the plane they were originally scheduled to fly back on crashed in the Pacific on the flight he would have been on -- I've seen no evidence anywhere else of this, and I have looked.

When he got back, he cut one final session for Specialty, and then went into a seminary to start studying for the ministry.

While his religious belief is genuine, there has been some suggestion that this move wasn't solely motivated by his conversion. Rather, John Marascalco has often claimed that Richard's real reason for his conversion was based on more worldly considerations. Richard's contract with Specialty was only paying him half a cent per record sold, which he considered far too low, and the wording of the contract only let him end it on either his own death or an act of god. He was trying -- according to Marascalco -- to claim that his religious awakening was an act of God, and so he should be allowed to break his contract and sign with another label.

Whatever the truth, Specialty had enough of a backlog of Little Richard recordings that they could keep issuing them for the next couple of years. Some of those, like "Good Golly Miss Molly" were as good as anything he had ever recorded. and rightly became big hits:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Good Golly Miss Molly"]

Many others, though, were substandard recordings that they originally had no plans to release -- but with Richard effectively on strike and the demand for his recordings undiminished, they put out whatever they had.

Richard went out on the road as an evangelist, but also went to study to become a priest. He changed his whole lifestyle -- he married a woman, although they would later divorce as, among other things, they weren't sexually compatible. He stopped drinking and taking drugs, stopped even drinking coffee, and started eating only vegetables cooked in vegetable oil.

After the lawsuits over him quitting Specialty records were finally settled, he started recording again, but only gospel songs:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"]

And that was how things stood for several years. The tension between Richard's sexuality and his religion continued to torment him -- he dropped out of the seminary after propositioning another male student, and he was arrested in a public toilet -- but he continued his evangelism and gospel singing until October 1962, when he went on tour in the UK.

Just like the previous tour which had been a turning point in his life, this one featured Gene Vincent, but was also affected by Vincent's work permit problems. This time, Vincent was allowed in the country but wasn't allowed to perform on stage -- so he appeared only as the compere, at least at the start of the tour -- later on, he would sing "Be Bop A Lula" from offstage as well.

Vincent wasn't the only one to have problems, either. Sam Cooke, who was the second-billed star for the show, was delayed and couldn't make the first show, which was a bit of a disaster.

Richard was accompanied by a young gospel organ player named Billy Preston, and he'd agreed to the tour under the impression that he was going to be performing only his gospel music. Don Arden, the promoter, had been promoting it as Richard's first rock and roll tour in five years, and the audience were very far from impressed when Richard came on stage in flowing white robes and started singing "Peace in the Valley" and other gospel songs.

Arden was apoplectic. If Richard didn't start performing rock and roll songs soon, he would have to cancel the whole tour -- an audience that wanted "Rip it Up" and "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti" wasn't going to put up with being preached at. Arden didn't know what to do, and when Sam Cooke and his manager J.W. Alexander turned up to the second show, Arden had a talk with Alexander about it.

Alexander told Arden he had nothing to worry about -- he knew Little Richard of old, and knew that Richard couldn't stand to be upstaged. He also knew how good Sam Cooke was. Cooke was at the height of his success at this point, and he was an astonishing live performer, and so when he went out on stage and closed the first half, including an incendiary performance of "Twistin' the Night Away" that left the audience applauding through the intermission, Richard knew he had to up his game.

While he'd not been performing rock and roll in public, he had been tempted back into the studio to record in his old style at least once before, when he'd joined his old group to record Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again", for a single that didn't get released until December 1962. The single was released as by "the World Famous Upsetters", but the vocalist on the record was very recognisable:

[Excerpt: The World Famous Upsetters, "I'm In Love Again"]

So Richard's willpower had been slowly bending, and Sam Cooke's performance was the final straw. Little Richard was going to show everyone what star power really was.

When Richard came out on stage, he spent a whole minute in pitch darkness, with the band vamping, before a spotlight suddenly picked him out, in an all-white suit, and he launched into "Long Tall Sally".

The British tour was a massive success, and Richard kept becoming wilder and more frantic on stage, as five years of pent up rock and roll burst out of him. Many shows he'd pull off most of his clothes and throw them into the audience, ending up dressed in just a bathrobe, on his knees. He would jump on the piano, and one night he even faked his own death, collapsing off the piano and lying still on the stage in the middle of a song, just to create a tension in the audience for when he suddenly jumped up and started singing "Tutti Frutti".

The tour was successful enough, and Richard's performances created such a buzz, that when the package tour itself finished Richard was booked for a few extra gigs, including one at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton where he headlined a bill of local bands from around Merseyside, including one who had released their first single a few weeks earlier. He then went to Hamburg with that group, and spent two months hanging out with them and performing in the same kinds of clubs, and teaching their bass player how he made his “whoo” sounds when singing.

Richard was impressed enough by them that he got in touch with Art Rupe, who still had some contractual claim over Richard's own recordings, to tell him about them, but Rupe said that he wasn't interested in some English group, he just wanted Little Richard to go back into the studio and make more records for him.

Richard headed back to the US, leaving Billy Preston stranded in Hamburg with his new friends, the Beatles. At first, he still wouldn't record any rock and roll music, other than one song that Sam Cooke wrote for him, "Well Alright", but after another UK tour he started to see that people who had been inspired by him were having the kind of success he thought he was due himself. He went back into the studio, backed by a group including Don and Dewey, who had been performing with him in the UK, and recorded what was meant to be his comeback single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo":

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Bama Lama Bama Loo"]

Unfortunately, great as it was, that single didn't do anything in the charts, and Richard spent the rest of the sixties making record after record that failed to chart. Some of them were as good as anything he'd done in his fifties heyday, but his five years away from rock and roll music had killed his career as a recording artist.

They hadn't, though, killed him as a live performer, and he would spend the next fifty years touring, playing the hits he had recorded during that classic period from 1955 through 1957, with occasional breaks where he would be overcome by remorse, give up rock and roll music forever, and try to work as an evangelist and gospel singer, before the lure of material success and audience response brought him back to the world of sex and drugs and rock and roll.

He eventually gave up performing live a few years ago, as decades of outrageous stage performances had exacerbated his disabilities. His last public performance was in 2013, in Las Vegas, and he was in a wheelchair -- but because he's Little Richard, the wheelchair was made to look like a golden throne.

Oct 28, 2019
Episode 53: "I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, with a bone through his nose, holding a skull

Episode fifty-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and the career of a man who had more than fifty more children than hit records. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Since I Met You Baby" by Ivory Joe Hunter




I only noticed while doing the final edit for this episode that I used the words "legitimate" and "illegitimate" to describe children, and that this usage could quite possibly be considered offensive, something I hadn't realised when writing or recording it. I apologise if anyone does take offence.


No Mixcloud this week, as the episode is so heavy on Hawkins that it would violate Mixcloud's terms and conditions. I tried to put together a Spotify playlist instead, but a few of the recordings I use here aren't on Spotify.

As I mention in the episode, I leaned very heavily on one book here, I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins by Steve Bergsman.

There are many compilations of Hawkins' work. This double-CD set containing all his work up to 1962 is as good as any and ridiculously cheap.

Finally, you should also listen to this short audio documentary on the search for Jay's kids, as it features interviews with a couple of them. They deserve to have their voices heard. 




This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Before I start, an acknowledgment. I like to acknowledge in the podcast when I've relied heavily on one source, and in this case the source I'm relying on most is Steve Bergsman's book "I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins". That book only came out this year, so it deserves the acknowledgment even more than normal. If you like this episode, you might well want to buy Mr. Bergsman's book, which has a lot more information.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the history of rock and roll. And most of those one-hit wonders might as well have had no hits for all the impact they actually made on the genre. Of the thousands of people who have hits, many of them drop off the mental radar as soon as their chart success ends. For every Beatles or Elvis there's a Sam And The Womp or Simon Park Orchestra.

But some one-hit wonders are different. Some one-hit wonders manage to get an entire career out of that one hit. And in the case of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, not only did he do that, but he created a stage show that would inspire every shock-rocker ever to wear makeup, and indirectly inspire a minor British political party. The one hit he recorded, meanwhile, was covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Marilyn Manson.

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You"]

It's hard to separate truth from myth when it comes to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, not least because he was an inveterate liar. He always claimed, for example, that in his time in the army he had been captured by the Japanese and tortured for eighteen months.

According to Army records, he joined the army in December 1945 and was honourably discharged in 1952. Given that World War II ended in September 1945, that would tend to suggest that his story about having been a Japanese prisoner of war was, perhaps, not one hundred percent truthful. And the same thing goes for almost everything he ever said. So anything you hear here is provisional.

What we do know is that he seems to have grown up extremely resentful of women, particularly his mother. He was, depending on which version of the story you believe, the youngest of four or seven children, all from different fathers, and he, unlike his older siblings, was fostered from an early age. He resented his mother because of this, but does not seem to have been particularly bothered by the fact that his own prodigious fathering of children by multiple women, all of whom he abandoned, will have put those children in the same position. He variously claimed to have between fifty-seven and seventy-five children. Thirty-three have been traced, so this seems to be one of those rare occasions where he was telling the truth.

So this is another of the all too many episodes where I have to warn listeners that we are dealing with someone who behaved appallingly towards women. I am not going to go into too many details here, but suffice to say that Hawkins was not an admirable man.

Jalacey Hawkins was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and would often claim that he had musical training at the Ohio Conservatory of Music. This is, you will be shocked to hear, not true -- not least because there was not, in fact, an Ohio Conservatory of Music for him to train at. Instead, he learned his trade as a musician in the armed forces, where he was not, in fact, sent into Japan in a combat role aged fourteen. Instead, he joined the Special Services, the people who put on shows for the rest of the military, and learned the saxophone.

As well as his stories about being a prisoner of war, he also used to claim on a regular basis that the reason he'd loved being in the military so much was because you were allowed to kill people and wouldn't get punished for it. History does not record exactly how many people his saxophone playing killed.

After his discharge from the military in 1952, he abandoned his first wife and children -- telling them he was popping to the shop and then not seeing them again for two years. Around this time he hooked up with Tiny Grimes, who is yet another person who often gets credited as the creator of the "first rock and roll record", this one a 1946 song called "Tiny's Boogie":

[Excerpt: Tiny Grimes, "Tiny's Boogie"]

Tiny Grimes was a strange figure who straddled the worlds of jazz and R&B, and who had played with great jazz figures like Charlie Parker and Art Tatum as an instrumentalist, but who as a singer was firmly in the rock and roll world. He had seen his greatest success with a rock and roll version of the old Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond"

[Excerpt: Tiny Grimes "Loch Lomond"]

As a result of that, he'd started performing in a kilt, and calling himself Tiny "Mac" Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders. Grimes first met Hawkins backstage at the Moondog Coronation Ball -- a legendary gig put on by Alan Freed in 1952, which was the first big sign to Freed of just how successful rock and roll was going to become.

At that show, so many more people tried to get in than the venue had capacity for -- thanks, largely, to forged tickets being sold -- that the show became dangerously overcrowded, and had to be cancelled after a single song from the first artist on the bill.

So Grimes didn't get to play that day, but Jalacey Hawkins, as he was still then known, managed to get himself backstage and meet Grimes.

Hawkins did this through Freed, who Hawkins had got to know shortly after his discharge from the military. When he'd got back to Cleveland, he'd heard Freed on the radio and been amazed that they let a black man have his own show, so he'd gone down to the radio station to meet him, and been even more amazed to find out that the man who sounded black, and was playing black music, was in fact white. For decades afterwards, Hawkins would describe Freed as one of the very few white people in the world who actually cared about black people and black music.

The two had struck up a friendship, and Hawkins had managed to get backstage at Freed's show. When he did, he just went up to Grimes and asked for a job. Grimes gave him a job as a combination road manager and musician -- Hawkins would play piano and saxophone, sing occasionally, and was also (according to Hawkins) Grimes' valet and dog walker.

Working with Grimes is where Hawkins first started performing outrageously on stage. Grimes' band already dressed in Scottish clothing, and put on quite a bit of a show, but Hawkins pushed things a little further. He would, for example, come out on stage in his kilt and with tins of Carnation evaporated milk hanging on his chest as if they were breasts. He would then sing Ruth Brown's hit "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean".

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"

According to Hawkins, Ruth Brown came to see the show at one point, and said of him "This is the only bitch who can sing my song better than me". That doesn't sound especially like Brown, it has to be said.

Hawkins started recording with Grimes, and started to be billed as "Screamin' Jay Hawkins" -- a stage name which, again, he gave varying origins for. The most likely seems to be the one he gave in a documentary, in which he said that he couldn't sing, but had to take lead vocals, so he decided to just scream everything, because at least that would be different. Quite how that tallies with his ability to sing better than Ruth Brown, it's best not to wonder.

Either way, his early recordings show him trying to fit into the standard R&B vocal styles of the time, rather than screaming. On his first record, with Grimes, he's not the blues shouter that he had a reputation of being, and nor is he the screamer he would later become -- instead he sounds like he's imitating Clyde McPhatter's singing on "The Bells" by Billy Ward and His Dominoes, but in a bass register somewhat reminiscent of Paul Robeson. Compare Hawkins here:

[Excerpt: Tiny Grimes with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Why Did You Waste My Time?"]

With McPhatter on the Billy Ward record:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and His Dominoes, "The Bells"]

You can hear the resemblance there, I'm sure. At this point Hawkins had a certain amount of potential, but was just one of a million smooth blues singers, who relied more on stage gimmicks than on singing ability. But those stage gimmicks were making him a breakout star in Grimes' band, and so at a recording session for Grimes, it was agreed that Hawkins could record a single of his own at the end of the session, if there was time.

Hawkins' attitude quickly caused problems for him, though. During the recording of "Screamin' Blues", which would have been his first single, he got into an argument with Ahmet Ertegun, who kept telling him to sing the song more smoothly, like Fats Domino. Accounts of what happened next vary -- Hawkins' most frequent version was that he ended up punching Ertegun, though other people just say that the two got into a screaming row. Either way, the session was abandoned, and Hawkins soon ended up out of Grimes' band.

He worked with a few different bands, before getting a big break as Fats Domino's opening act. He only lasted a few weeks in that role -- depending on who you asked, Domino either fired Hawkins for being vulgar on stage and screaming, as Domino claimed, or because he was jealous of Hawkins' great leopardskin suit, as Hawkins would sometimes claim.

Wynonie Harris saw something in Hawkins, and helped him get his first solo shows in New York, and on the back of these he made his first records as a solo artist, for the tiny label Timely Records, under his birth name, Jalacey Hawkins, and featuring Mickey Baker, who would play on most of his fifties sessions, on guitar:

[Excerpt: Jalacey Hawkins, "Baptize Me in Wine"]

But unfortunately, after two of these singles, Timely Records folded, and Hawkins had to find another label. He moved on to Grand Records, and started recording as Screamin' Jay Hawkins. By this time, he had started using some of the gimmicks he would use in his stage show, though for the most part his act was still fairly tame by modern standards. He was also still, at least in the recording studio, making fairly standard jump blues records, like this one, the first he recorded as a solo artist under his stage name:

[Excerpt, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Take Me Back"]

That was the only single that saw release from his time with Grand Records, and it's not even certain that it was released until a year or so later -- reports seem to vary about this.

But it was while he was recording for Grand Records that he wrote the song that would bring him worldwide fame. It came about, as so much of Hawkins' life did, from his mistreatment of a woman.

He was playing a residency in Atlantic City, and he had a live-in girlfriend from Philadelphia. But, as was always the case with Hawkins, he was cheating on her with multiple other women. Eventually she figured this out, and walked into the bar in the middle of one of his sets, threw his keys onto the stage, and walked out, blowing him a kiss. He didn't realise what had happened until he was talking to the barmaid later, and she explained to him that no, that meant his girlfriend was definitely leaving.

He brooded over this for a day, and then had another conversation with the barmaid, and told her he was planning to go to Philadelphia to get the girl back. She said "so you think she'll come back to you, do you?" and he replied "yes, I'll get her back, even if I have to put a spell on her -- that's it! I'll write a song about putting a spell on her, and she'll realise how much I love her and come back!"

Hawkins would later claim that when, two years later, the song was finally released, she did come back -- not because of "I Put A Spell On You", but because she loved the B-side, a song called "Little Demon". As Hawkins told the story, she came back to him, they stayed together for four months, and then he dumped her. He hadn't wanted her back because he loved her, he'd wanted her back so that he could be the one to do the dumping, not her.

Whatever the truth of that last part, he recorded "I Put A Spell on You" some time around late 1954, but that version wouldn't be released until decades later:

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell on You (unreleased version)"]

It's a decent record, but there's something missing, and for whatever reason, it never came out.

Instead, he signed to yet another label, Mercury, which was at the time somewhere between a large independent label and a small major, and started putting out singles just as "Jay Hawkins". By this time, he'd found a regular team of people to work with -- Leroy Kirkland was the arranger, and Mickey Baker would play guitar, Sam "the Man" Taylor and Al Sears were on saxophone, and Panama Francis was on drums. That core team would work on everything he did for the next couple of years.

It was while he was at Mercury that he hit on the style he would use from that point on, with a B-side called "(She Put The) Wamee (On Me)", a song about voodoo and threatening to murder a woman who'd cast a spell on him that, in retrospect, has all the elements of Hawkins' later hit in place, just with the wrong song:

[Excerpt: Jay Hawkins, "(She Put The) Wamee (On Me)"]

That was Hawkins' first truly great record, but it was hidden away on a B-side and did nothing. After a couple more singles, Hawkins was once again dropped by his label -- but once again, he moved on to a slightly bigger label, this time to OKeh, which was a subsidiary of Columbia, one of the biggest labels in the country. And in September 1956, he went into the studio to record his first single for them, which was to be a new version of "I Put a Spell on You".

But Arnold Maxim, the producer at the session, wanted something a bit different from Hawkins. He thought that everyone sounded a little too staid, a little too uptight, and he asked why they couldn't sound in the studio like they did when they were having fun on stage and really cutting loose. Hawkins replied that when they were on stage everyone was usually so drunk they couldn't *remember* what it was they'd been doing.

So Maxim decided to order in some crates of beer and fried chicken, and told them "this isn't a recording session, it's a party. Have fun." When they were drunk enough, he started recording, and the result was this:

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You"]

Now, in later years, Hawkins would try to claim that he had been tricked into that performance, and that he'd had to relearn the song from the record after the fact, because he couldn't remember what it was he'd been doing. In truth, though, it's not that different from a record like "(She Put the) Wamee (On Me)", and it seems more than likely that this is yet more of Hawkins' exaggeration.

The record didn't chart, because many radio stations refused to play it, but it nonetheless became a classic and reportedly sold over a million copies. This was in part due to the efforts of Alan Freed. Hawkins was already starting to play up his stage persona even more -- wearing capes and bones through his nose, and trying to portray a voodoo image. But when he was booked as the headline act on a Christmas show Freed put together in 1956, Freed surprised him by telling him he'd had a great idea for the show -- he'd got hold of a coffin, and Hawkins could start his performance by rising out of the coffin like a vampire or zombie.

Hawkins was horrified. He told Freed that there was only one time a black man was ever getting into a coffin, and that was when he was never getting out again. Freed insisted, and eventually ended up paying Hawkins a large bonus -- which Hawkins would later claim was multiple thousands of dollars, but which actually seems to have been about three hundred dollars, itself a lot of money in 1956. Hawkins eventually agreed, though he kept a finger between the coffin and the lid, so it couldn't close completely on him.

This was the start of Hawkins' career as a shock-rocker, and he became known as "the black Vincent Price" for his stage shows which would include not only the coffin but also a skull on a stick with smoke coming out of it (the skull was named Henry) and a giant rubber snake. Many horror-themed rock acts of the future, such as Alice Cooper or the Cramps, would later use elements of Hawkins' stage shows -- and he would increasingly make music to match the show, so that he later recorded a song called "Constipation Blues", which he would perform while sitting on a toilet on stage.

But in 1957, neither he nor the record label seemed quite sure what they should do to follow up "I Put a Spell on You". That record had traded heavily on its shock value, to the extent that OKeh's trade ads contained the line "DJs be brave -- if you get fired, we'll get you a job!" however, only one DJ did get fired for playing it, one Bob Friesen. He contacted OKeh, but they didn't get him a job -- and eventually someone working for the company told Billboard this, Billboard publicised the story, and another station hired Friesen for the publicity that would get them.

OKeh actually edited the single shortly after release, to get rid of some of the grunts at the end, which people variously described as "orgiastic" and "cannibalistic", but it didn't make the record any more palatable to the professionally outraged.

But the next record went completely the other way -- a cover version of the old standard "You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do it)":

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)"]

I can see why they thought that was a good idea before recording it -- Fats Domino had just had a massive hit with "Blueberry Hill", another old standard done in a similar arrangement to the one on Hawkins' record, but still...

The next couple of records were more in the style one might expect from Hawkins, a track called "Frenzy", and a great Leiber and Stoller swamp-rocker called "Alligator Wine":

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Alligator Wine"]

But neither of those was a success either -- partly because Hawkins went too far in the other direction. He had the opportunity to appear in Alan Freed's film "Mister Rock and Roll" to promote "Frenzy", but while every other act in the film performed in suits or were similarly well-dressed, Hawkins insisted on performing naked apart from a loincloth, with his hair sticking up, white face-paint, and carrying a spear and a shield -- his idea of what a Mau Mau rebel in Kenya looked like (the Mau Mau fighters did not look like this). Or at least that was his later description of what he was wearing. Others who've seen the footage suggest it wasn't quite that extreme, but still involved him being half-naked and looking like a "native".

Hawkins had already been getting a certain amount of criticism from the NAACP and other civil rights groups because they believed that he was making black people look bad by associating them with voodoo and cannibalism. Paramount Pictures decided that they didn't particularly want to have their film picketed, and so removed Hawkins' section from the film. Hawkins' attitude to the NAACP was that as far as he was concerned the only thing they were doing for black people was trying to stop him earning a living, and he wanted nothing to do with them. (This was not a common attitude among black people at the time, as you might imagine.)

And so, once again, things went to the other extreme. Hawkins put out his first album. It was called "At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins", had a cheery photo of Hawkins in a Santa hat on the cover, and mixed in his recent singles, a couple of new originals (including one called "Hong Kong" which is mostly just Hawkins making racist "ching chong" sounds) and... versions of "I Love Paris in the Springtime", "Ol' Man River", and other extremely non-voodoo-shock-rock songs.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn't a success. He was dropped by OKeh and moved to a tiny label, where he started recording more idiosyncratic material like "Armpit #6":

[Excerpt: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Armpit #6"]

But any chance of a comeback was pretty much destroyed when he was arrested in 1958 for possession of cannabis and statutory rape, after having had sex with a fifteen-year-old girl. After he got out of prison, he moved to Hawaii for a while, and became a performer again, although there was a temporary hiccup in his career when his girlfriend and singing partner stabbed him after she found out he'd married someone else without telling her. She presumably also didn't know that he was still married to his first wife at the time.

Hawkins' career remained in the doldrums until 1965, when two things happened almost simultaneously. The first was that Nina Simone recorded a cover version of "I Put a Spell on You", which made the top thirty in the US charts:

[Excerpt: Nina Simone, "I Put a Spell on You"]

The second was that Hawkins got rediscovered in the UK, in quite a big way. There was a club in Manchester called the Twisted Wheel, which was legendary in soul and R&B circles -- to the extent that when I saw P.P. Arnold in its successor venue Night People two weeks ago, she kept referring to it as the Twisted Wheel, even though the original club closed down in 1971, because she had such strong memories of the original venue.

And among the regular attendees of that club were a group of people who loved the few Screamin' Jay Hawkins records they'd been able to get hold of. Hawkins had been popular enough that a British act, Screamin' Lord Sutch and the Savages, had stolen his act wholesale, cape, coffin, and all:

[Excerpt: Screamin' Lord Sutch and the Savages, "Jack the Ripper"]

Screamin' Lord Sutch would later go on to form the Monster Raving Loony Party, a political party intended as a joke that still continues to field candidates at every election twenty years after Sutch's death.

But while people like Sutch had admired him, Hawkins was mostly a legend in British blues circles, someone about whom almost nothing was known. But then some of the Twisted Wheel people went to see Little Richard at the Oasis club, another famous Manchester venue, and got chatting to Don "Sugarcane" Harris, from the support act Don and Dewey. He mentioned that he'd recently seen Hawkins, and he was still doing the same show, and so the British blues and soul fans tracked him down and persuaded the promoter Don Arden to put on a tour of the UK, with Hawkins using the Twisted Wheel as his base.

The tour wasn't a commercial success, but it built Hawkins' reputation in Britain to the point that it seemed like *every* beat group wanted to record "I Put a Spell on You". Between 1965 and 1968, it was recorded by Manfred Mann, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Animals, Them (featuring Van Morrison) and Alan Price, who made the top ten in the UK with his version:

[Excerpt: The Alan Price Set, "I Put a Spell on You"]

Hawkins even got to record a second album, finally, in Abbey Road studios, and he started to tour Europe successfully and build up a major fanbase. But Hawkins' self-destructive -- and other-people-destructive -- tendencies kicked in. The next few decades would follow a recurring pattern -- Hawkins would get some big break, like opening for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden, or recording an album with Keith Richards guesting, or finally getting to appear in a film.

Every time, he would let his addictions to alcohol or codeine overtake him, or he would rip a friend off for a trifling sum of money, or he would just get married bigamously again. Much of the time, he was living in one-room apartments, sometimes with no electricity. He married six times in total, and was abusive towards at least some of his wives.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins died in 2000 after emergency surgery for an aneurysm. His fifth wife, one of the two who seem to have been actually important to him in some way, has dropped strong hints that he was killed by his sixth wife, who he had been claiming was poisoning him, though there's no evidence for that other than that she was strongly disliked by many of the people around Hawkins. When he died, he was seventy, and his current wife was thirty-one.

Many people claimed that they had visitations from Hawkins' ghost in the days after his death, but the thing that seems to sum him up in the afterlife the most is his legacy to his family. He sold the rights to "I Put a Spell on You" shortly before his death, for twenty-five thousand dollars, which means his estate gets no songwriting royalties from his one big hit. He hadn't made a will since the 1970s, and that will left most of his money to his second wife, Ginny, who most people seem to agree deserved it if anyone did -- she was with him for sixteen years, and tolerated the worst of his behaviour. He also left an amount to a niece of his.

As for his kids? Well, none of the seventy or however many illegitimate children he had saw a penny from his will. His three legitimate children, he left a dollar each. At least one of them, his daughter Sookie, didn't get her dollar -- it went to her cousin, who didn't pass it on to her.

And I think that means I should give Sookie the final word here, in a quote from the end of Steve Bergsman's biography. "My father thought he was all that, but not to me. Screamin' Jay Hawkins didn't treat people right. He was a performer, but he didn't treat people right."

Oct 21, 2019
Episode 52: "Twenty Flight Rock", by Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran playing guitar

Episode fifty-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Twenty Flight Rock" by Eddie Cochran, and at the first great rock and roll film Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Teen-Age Crush" by Tommy Sands.



There are several books available on Cochran, but for this episode I mostly relied on Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran: Rock and Roll Revolutionaries by John Collis. I'll be using others as well in forthcoming episodes.

While there are dozens of compilations of Cochran's music available, many of them are flawed in one way or another (including the Real Gone Music four-CD set, which is what I would normally recommend). This one is probably the best you can get for Cochran novices.

And as always there's a Mixcloud with the full versions of all the songs featured in today's episode.



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


To tell the story of rock music, it's important to tell the story of the music's impact on other media. Rock and roll was a cultural phenomenon that affected almost everything, and it affected TV, film, clothing and more. So today, we're going to look at how a film made the career of one of the greats of rock and roll music:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, "Twenty Flight Rock"]

Eddie Cochran was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, though in later life he would always claim to be an Okie rather than from Albert Lea. His parents were from Oklahoma, they moved to Minnesota shortly before Eddie was born, and they moved back to Oklahoma City when he was small, moved back again to Minnesota, and then moved off to California with the rest of the Okies.

Cochran was a staggeringly precocious guitarist. On the road trip to California from Albert Lea, he had held his guitar on his lap for the entire journey, referring to it as his best friend. And once he hit California he quickly struck up a musical relationship with two friends -- Guybo Smith, who played bass, and Chuck Foreman, who played steel guitar. The three of them got hold of a couple of tape recorders, which allowed them not only to record themselves, but to experiment with overdubbing in the style of Les Paul. Some of those recordings have seen release in recent years, and they're quite astonishing:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran and Chuck Foreman, "Rockin' It"]

Cochran plays all the guitars on that (except the steel guitar, which is Foreman) and he was only fourteen years old at the time.

He played with several groups who were playing the Okie Western Swing and proto-rockabilly that was popular in California at the time, and eventually hooked up with a singer from Mississippi who was born Garland Perry, but who changed his name to Hank Cochran, allowing the duo to perform under the name "the Cochran Brothers".

The Cochran Brothers soon got a record deal. When they started out, they were doing pure country music, and their first single was a Louvin Brothers style close harmony song, about Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams:

[Excerpt: The Cochran Brothers, "Two Blue Singing Stars"]

But while Hank was perfectly happy making this kind of music, Eddie was getting more and more interested in the new rock and roll music that was starting to become popular, and the two of them eventually split up over actual musical differences.

Hank Cochran would go on to have a long and successful career in the country industry, but Eddie was floundering. He knew that this new music was what he should be playing, and he was one of the best guitarists around, but he wasn't sure how to become a rock and roller, or even if he wanted to be a singer at all, rather than just a guitar player. He hooked up with Jerry Capehart, a singer and songwriter who the Cochran Brothers had earlier backed on a single:

[Excerpt: Jerry Capehart and the Cochran Brothers, "Walkin' Stick Boogie"]

The two of them started writing songs together, and Eddie also started playing as a session musician. He played on dozens of sessions in the mid-fifties, mostly uncredited, and scholars are still trying to establish a full list of the records he played on.

But while he was doing this, he still hadn't got himself a record contract, other than for a single record on an independent label:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, "Skinny Jim"]

Cochran was in the studio recording demos for consideration by record labels when Boris Petroff, a B-movie director who was a friend of Cochran's collaborator Jerry Capehart, dropped in. Petroff decided that Cochran had the looks to be a film star, and right there offered him a part in a film that was being made under the working title Do-Re-Mi. Quite how Petroff had the ability to give Cochran a part in a film he wasn't working on, I don't know, but he did, and the offer was a genuine one, as Cochran confirmed the next day.

There were many, many, rock and roll films made in the 1950s, and most of them were utterly terrible. It says something about the genre as a whole when I tell you that Elvis' early films, which are not widely regarded as cinematic masterpieces, are among the very best rock and roll films of the decade.

The 1950s were the tipping point for television ownership in both the US and the UK, but while TV was quickly becoming a mass medium, cinema-going was still at levels that would stagger people today -- *everyone* went to the cinema.

And when you went to the cinema, you didn't go just to see one film. There'd be a main film, a shorter film called a B-movie that lasted maybe an hour, and short features like cartoons and newsreels. That meant that there was a much greater appetite for cheap films that could be used to fill out a programme, despite their total lack of quality. This is where, for example, all the films that appear in Mystery Science Theater 3000 come from, or many of them.

And these B-movies would be made in a matter of weeks, or even days, and so would quickly be turned round to cash in on whatever trend was happening right at that minute. And so between 1956 and 1958 there were several dozen films, with titles like "Rock! Rock! Rock!", "Don't Knock The Rock" and so on. [retook last sentence at end of take two because of poor stressing of words]

[Excerpt: Bill Haley and the Comets, “Don't Knock the Rock”]

In every case, these films were sold entirely on the basis of the musical performances therein, with little or no effort to sell them as narratives, even though they all had plots of sorts. They were just excuses to get footage of as many different hit acts as possible into the cinemas, ideally before their songs dropped off the charts. (Many of them also contained non-hit acts, like Teddy Randazzo, who seemed to appear in all of them despite never having a single make the top fifty. Randazzo did, though, go on to write a number of classic hits for other artists).

Very few of the rock and roll films of the fifties were even watchable at all. We talked in the episode on "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" about the film "Rock! Rock! Rock!" which Chuck Berry appeared in -- that was actually towards the more watchable end of these films, terrible as it was.

The film that Cochran was signed to appear in, which was soon renamed The Girl Can't Help It, is different. There are plenty of points at which the action stops for a musical performance, but there is an actual plot, and actual dialogue and acting. While the film isn't a masterpiece or anything like that, it is a proper film.

And it's made by a proper studio. While, for example, Rock! Rock! Rock! was made by a fly-by-night company called Vanguard Productions, The Girl Can't Help It was made by Twentieth Century Fox. And it was made in both colour and Cinemascope. The budget for Rock! Rock! Rock! was seventy-five thousand dollars compared to the 1.3 million dollars spent on The Girl Can't Help It.

[Excerpt: Little Richard, “The Girl Can't Help It”]

Indeed, it seems to be as much an attempt to cash in on a Billy Wilder film as it is an attempt to cash in on rock and roll. The previous year, The Seven-Year Itch had been a big hit, with Tom Ewell playing an unassuming middle-aged man who becomes worryingly attracted to a much younger woman, played by Marilyn Monroe. The film had been a massive success (and it's responsible for the famous scene with Monroe on the air grate, which is still homaged and parodied to this day) and so the decision was taken to cast Tom Ewell as an unassuming middle-aged man who becomes worryingly attracted to a much younger woman, played by Jayne Mansfield doing her usual act of being a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

Just as the film was attempting to sell itself on the back of a more successful hit film, the story also bears a certain amount of resemblance to one by someone else. The playwright Garson Kanin had been inspired in 1955 by the tales of the jukebox wars -- he'd discovered that most of the jukeboxes in the country were being run by the Mafia, and that which records got stocked and played depended very much on who would do favours for the various gangsters involved. Gangsters would often destroy rivals' jukeboxes, and threaten bar owners if they were getting their jukeboxes from the wrong set of mobsters.

Kanin took this idea and turned it into a novella, Do-Re-Mi, about a helpless schlub who teams up with a gangster named "Fatso" to enter the record business, and on the way more or less accidentally makes a young woman into a singing star. Do-Re-Mi later became a moderately successful stage musical, which introduced the song "Make Someone Happy".

[Excerpt: Doris Day, “Make Someone Happy”]

Meanwhile the plot of The Girl Can't Help It has a helpless schlub team up with a mobster named "Fats", and the two of them working together to make the mobster's young girlfriend into a singing star.

I've seen varying accounts as to why The Girl Can't Help It was renamed from Do-Re-Mi and wasn't credited as being based on Kanin's novella. Some say that the film was made without the rights having been acquired, and changed to the point that Kanin wouldn't sue. Others say that Twentieth Century Fox acquired the rights perfectly legally, but that the director, Frank Tashlin changed the script around so much that Kanin asked that his credit be removed, because it was now so different from his novella that he could probably resell the rights at some future point.

The latter seems fairly likely to me, given that Tashlin's next film, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which also starred Jayne Mansfield, contained almost nothing from the play on which it was based.

Indeed, the original play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? was by the author of the original play on which The Seven-Year Itch was based. The playwright had been so annoyed at the way in which his vision had been messed with for the screen that he wrote Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as a satire about the way the film industry changes writers' work, and Mansfield was cast in the play. When Tashlin wanted Mansfield to star in The Girl Can't Help It but she was contractually obliged to appear in the play, Fox decided the easiest thing to do was just to buy up the rights to the play and relieve Mansfield of her obligation so she could star in The Girl Can't Help It.

They then, once The Girl Can't Help It finished, got Frank Tashlin to write a totally new film with the title Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, keeping only the title and Mansfield's character.

While The Girl Can't Help It has a reputation for satirising rock and roll, it actually pulls its punches to a surprising extent. For example, there's a pivotal scene where the main mobster character, Fats, calls our hero after seeing Eddie Cochran on TV:

[excerpt: dialogue from "The Girl Can't Help It"]

Note the wording there, and what he doesn't say. He doesn't say that Cochran can't sing, merely that he "ain't got a trained voice". The whole point of this scene is to set up that Jerry Jordan, Mansfield's character, could become a rock and roll star even though she can't sing at all, and yet when dealing with a real rock and roll star they are careful to be more ambiguous.

Because, of course, the main thing that sold the film was the appearance of multiple rock and roll stars -- although "stars" is possibly overstating it for many of those present in the film. One thing it shared with most of the exploitation films was a rather slapdash attitude to which musicians the film would actually feature. And so it has the genuinely big rock and roll stars of the time Little Richard, the Platters, and Fats Domino, the one-hit wonder Gene Vincent (but what a one hit to have), and a bunch of… less well-known people, like the Treniers -- a jump band who'd been around since the forties and never really made a major impact, or Eddie Fontaine (about whom the less said the better), or the ubiquitous Teddy Randazzo, performing here with an accordion accompaniment.

[Excerpt: Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles, “Cinnamon Sinner”]

And Cochran was to be one of those lesser-known acts, so he and Capehart had to find a song that might be suitable for him to perform in the film. Very quickly they decided on a song called "Twenty Flight Rock", written by a songwriter called Nelda Fairchild.

There has been a lot of controversy as to who actually contributed what to the song, which is copyrighted in the names of both Fairchild and Cochran. Fairchild always claimed that she wrote the whole thing entirely by herself, and that Cochran got his co-writing credit for performing the demo, while Cochran's surviving relatives are equally emphatic in their claims that he was an equal contributor as a songwriter.

We will almost certainly never know the truth. Cochran is credited as the co-writer of several other hit songs, usually with Capehart, but never as the sole writer of a hit. Fairchild, meanwhile, was a professional songwriter, but pieces like "Freddie the Little Fir Tree" don't especially sound like the work of the same person who wrote "Twenty Flight Rock". As both credited writers are now dead, the best we can do is use our own judgment, and my personal judgment is that Cochran probably contributed at least something to the song's writing.

The original version of "Twenty Flight Rock", as featured in the film, was little more than a demo -- it featured Cochran on guitar, Guybo Smith on double bass, and Capehart slapping a cardboard box to add percussion. Cochran later recorded a more fully-arranged version of the song, which came out after the film, but the extra elements, notably the backing vocals, added little to the simplistic original:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, "Twenty Flight Rock"]

It was that simpler version that appeared in the film, and which took its place alongside several other classic tracks in the film's soundtrack.

The film was originally intended to have a theme tune recorded by Fats Domino, who appeared in the film performing his hit "Blue Monday", but when Bobby Troup mentioned this to Art Rupe, Rupe suggested that Little Richard would be a more energetic star to perform the song (and I'm sure this was entirely because of his belief that Richard would be the better talent, and nothing to do with Rupe owning Richard's label, but not Domino's).

As a result, Domino's role in the film was cut down to a single song, while Richard ended up doing three -- the title song, written by Troup, "Ready Teddy" by John Marascalco and Bumps Blackwell, and "She's Got It".

We've mentioned before that John Marascalco's writing credits sometimes seem to be slightly exaggerated, and “She's Got It” is one record that tends to bear that out. Listen to “She's Got It”, which has Marascalco as the sole credited writer:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, “She's Got It”]

And now listen to “I Got It”, an earlier record by Richard, which has Little Richard credited as the sole writer:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, “I Got It”]


The Girl Can't Help It was rather poorly reviewed in America. In France it was a different story. There's a pervasive legend that the people of France revere Jerry Lewis as a genius. This is nonsense. But the grain of truth in it is that Cahiers du Cinema, the most important film magazine in France by a long way -- the magazine for which Godard, Truffaut, and others wrote, and which popularised the concept of auteur theory, absolutely loved Frank Tashlin. In 1957, Tashlin was the only director to get two films on their top ten films of the year list -- The Girl Can't Help It at number eight, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter at number two. The other eight films on the list were directed by Chaplin, Fellini, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Sidney Lumet.

Tashlin directed several films starring Jerry Lewis, and those films, like Tashlin's other work, got a significant amount of praise in the magazine. And that's where that legend actually comes from, though Cahiers did also give some more guarded praise to some of the films Lewis directed himself later.

Tashlin wasn't actually that good a director, but what he did have is a visual style that came from a different area of filmmaking than most of his competitors. Tashlin had started out as a cartoon director, working on Warner Brothers cartoons. He wasn't one of the better directors for Warners, and didn't direct any of the classics people remember from the studio -- he mostly made forgettable Porky Pig shorts. But this meant he had an animator's sense for a visual gag, and thus gave his films a unique look. For advocates of auteur theory, that was enough to push him into the top ranks.

And so The Girl Can't Help It became a classic film, and Cochran got a great deal of attention, and a record deal.

According to Si Waronker, the head of Liberty Records, Eddie Cochran getting signed to the label had nothing to do with him being cast in The Girl Can't Help It, and Waronker had no idea the film was being made when Cochran got signed. This seems implausible, to say the least. Johnny Olenn, Abbey Lincoln and Julie London, three other Liberty Records artists, appeared in the film -- and London was by some way Liberty's biggest star. Not only that, but London's husband, Bobby Troup, wrote the theme song and was musical director for the film.

But whether or not Cochran was signed on account of his film appearance, "Twenty Flight Rock" wasn't immediately released as a single. Indeed, by the time it came out Cochran had already appeared in another film, in which he had backed Mamie Van Doren -- another Marilyn Monroe imitator in the same vein as Mansfield -- on several songs, as well as having a small role and a featured song himself.

Oddly, when that film, Untamed Youth, came out, Cochran's backing on Van Doren's recordings had been replaced by different instrumentalists. But he still appears on the EP that was released of the songs, including this one, which Cochran co-wrote with Capehart:

[Excerpt: Mamie Van Doren, "Ooh Ba La Baby"]

It had originally been planned to release "Twenty Flight Rock" as Cochran's first single on Liberty, to coincide with the film's release but then it was put back for several months, as Si Waronker wanted Cochran to release "Sitting in the Balcony" instead. That song had been written and originally recorded by John D Loudermilk:

[Excerpt: John D Loudermilk, "Sitting in the Balcony"]

Waronker had wanted to release Loudermilk's record, but he hadn't been able to get the rights, so he decided to get Cochran to record a note-for-note cover version and release that instead:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, "Sitting in the Balcony"]

Cochran was not particularly happy with that record, though he was happy enough once the record started selling in comparatively vast quantities, spurred by his appearance in The Girl Can't Help It, and reached number eighteen in the charts. The problem was that Cochran and Waronker had fundamentally different ideas about what Cochran actually was as an artist. Cochran thought of himself primarily as a guitarist -- and the guitar solo on "Sittin' in the Balcony" was the one thing about Cochran's record which distinguished it from Loudermilk's original -- and also as a rock and roller. Waronker, on the other hand, was convinced that someone with Cochran's good looks and masculine voice could easily be another Pat Boone.

Liberty was fundamentally not geared towards making rock and roll records. Its other artists included the Hollywood composer Lionel Newman, the torch singer Julie London, and a little later novelty acts like the Chipmunks -- the three Chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, being named after Al Bennett, Si Waronker, and Theodore Keep, the three men in charge of the label. And their attempts to force Cochran into the mould of a light-entertainment crooner produced a completely forgettable debut album, Singin' to My Baby, which has little of the rock and roll excitement that would characterise Cochran's better work.

(And a warning for anyone who decides to go out and listen to that album anyway -- one of the few tracks on there that *is* in Cochran's rock and roll style is a song called "Mean When I'm Mad", which is one of the most misogynist things I have heard, and I've heard quite a lot -- it's basically an outright rape threat. So if that's something that will upset you, please steer clear of Cochran's first album, while knowing you're missing little artistically.)

“Twenty Flight Rock” was eventually released as a single, in its remade version, in November 1957, almost a year after The Girl Can't Help It came out. Unsurprisingly, coming out so late after the film, it didn't chart, and it would be a while yet before Cochran would have his biggest hit. But just because it didn't chart, doesn't mean it didn't make an impression.

There's one story, more than any other, that sums up the impact both of "The Girl Can't Help It" and of "Twenty Flight Rock" itself. In July 1957, a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, led by a teenager called John Lennon, played a village fete in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. After the show, they were introduced to a young boy named Paul McCartney by a mutual friend.

Lennon and McCartney hit it off, but the thing that persuaded Lennon to offer McCartney a place in the group was when McCartney demonstrated that he knew all the words to "Twenty Flight Rock". Lennon wasn't great at remembering lyrics, and was impressed enough by this that he decided that this new kid needed to be in the group.

[Excerpt: Paul McCartney, “Twenty Flight Rock”]

That's the impact that The Girl Can't Help It had, and the impact that "Twenty Flight Rock" had. But Eddie Cochran's career was just starting, and we'll see more of him in future episodes...

Oct 14, 2019
Episode 51: "Matchbox" by Carl Perkins

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash stand around Elvis (seated)

Episode fifty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Matchbox" by Carl Perkins, and at the session that turned into the historic Million Dollar Quartet jam session. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Blue Yodel #9" by Jimmie Rodgers.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I've used multiple books for this episode, as it deals with multiple artists.

I'm relying heavily on Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll by Peter Guralnick for all the episodes dealing with Phillips and Sun Records. And another book by Guralnick. Last Train to Memphis , is undoubtedly the best book on Elvis ever written.

Information on Carl Perkins comes from comes from Go Cat Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, by Carl Perkins and David McGee.

Information on Johnny Cash came from Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn.

Books on Jerry Lee Lewis tend to be very flawed, as the authors all tend to think they're Faulkner rather than giving the facts. This one by Rick Bragg is better than most.

This double-CD collection of Carl Perkins' Sun recordings seems as good as any.

The early Sun singles are all on this ten-disc set, which charts the history of Sun Records, with the A- and B-sides of ninety of the first Sun singles in chronological order for an absurdly low price. This will help give you the full context for "Matchbox", in a way hearing it in isolation wouldn't, including the first recordings by all the participants in the Million Dollar Quartet.

And the complete Million Dollar Quartet recordings themselves can be found on this CD.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


We're coming to the end of 1956, and with it the end of the first wave of rockabilly. As we've discussed before, by December 1956, only Elvis was left standing as a white rock and roll star from the first wave -- Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and Bill Haley had stopped having hits, and Johnny Cash had started to be promoted as a country singer rather than a rock and roller.

But just because someone has stopped having hits doesn't mean they've stopped making good music, and that was certainly the case for Carl Perkins, who spent the rest of 1956 making records that were every bit as good as his one hit, "Blue Suede Shoes". After "Boppin' the Blues", the song's unsuccessful follow-up, he released "Dixie Fried":

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Dixie Fried"]

But that was no more successful. Perkins was increasingly dissatisfied with the way Sam Phillips was promoting his work, and like Johnny Cash was strongly considering moving to another label.

But on December the fourth, 1956, Perkins was still working for Sun, and so he was in the studio with his brothers, recording another single that was destined to do very little.

The A-side, "Your True Love", charted, but not very high -- it went to number thirteen on the country charts and only number sixty-seven on the pop charts. It was a decent country record, but not much more than that. The B-side, though, was more interesting:

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Matchbox"]

"Matchbox" was a song that came from an idea Carl had been given by his father. His father had been sitting around in the session, watching his sons play, and remembered an old song he used to like with the line "sitting here wondering will a matchbox hold my clothes/Ain't got no matches, but I've got a long way to go". Carl had never heard the song before, and he wasn't particularly impressed by the line his dad sang -- he thought the line made no sense. His dad also couldn't remember any of the rest of the song, but Carl took that line and built a new song around it.

Given Carl's father's musical tastes, it's likely that the record he was remembering was "Matchbox Blues" by Roy Newman and His Boys

[Excerpt: Roy Newman and His Boys, "Match Box Blues"]

That's a country cover of an old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson:

[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Match Box Blues"]

That was in turn inspired by this from Ma Rainey:

[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, "Lost Wandering Blues"]

In a coincidence which once again shows how interconnected the different musicians we're looking at are, Jefferson's song also contained the line “Brown ’cross town going to be my teddy bear / Put a string on me, I’ll follow you everywhere.” -- a line which may well have inspired this song, with a very different feel, recorded by Perkins' ex-labelmate Elvis Presley:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"]

But by Perkins' own account, he never heard the original "Match Box Blues", and was just going from his dad's description. And certainly after the chorus the song diverges totally from Jefferson's song. Instead, he uses floating lyrics that one can find in all sorts of other blues songs. For example, the verse starting "I'm a poor boy and I'm a long way from home" comes from the old traditional blues song usually called, unsurprisingly, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home":

[Excerpt: Bo Weavil Jackson: "Poor Boy Blues"]

"Matchbox" shows all the signs of having been put together in the studio, largely improvised, as most of Perkins' songs were -- you might remember from the episode on "Blue Suede Shoes" that most of his records were at least semi-improvised. And interviews back this up -- it was a throwaway B-side and Perkins was just making anything up to fill out a couple of minutes of vinyl.

But in this case the song, while it's credited to Carl Perkins, probably deserves at least one more co-author credit. Because the way Perkins told the story, Perkins didn't come up with the music. Somebody else did.

That someone else, surprisingly, wasn't one of the Perkins Brothers Band. While Jay, Clayton, and Fluke Holland were all there, present and accounted for, there was a fifth musician at the session.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a new piano player who had been discovered by Sam Phillips' assistant, Cowboy Jack Clement, the previous month. He'd cut his first record for Sun a couple of weeks earlier, and it had been released three days before this session. We'll be talking more about how Jerry Lee started with Sun, and his own early recordings, in a few weeks' time, but right now he wasn't there in his capacity as a performer, but he was just working as a session musician, trying to earn enough money to buy his parents some Christmas presents by sitting in on the session.

Lewis was, by every account I've ever read, one of the most musically fecund people who ever lived. He was a Louisiana piano player like Fats Domino, but his biggest influence was Moon Mullican -- but he'd absorbed everything, every piece of music he'd ever heard, and was desperate to show off and play for people no matter what the song.

And so when Carl Perkins started singing the lines from "Match Box Blues", Jerry Lee immediately started playing a boogie piano part. The Perkins brothers fell in with what Lewis was playing, and the result, while Carl's singing lead, sounds exactly like a Jerry Lee Lewis record -- at least up until the guitar solo.

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Matchbox", first guitar solo]

Because Perkins was hugely impressed by Lewis as a musician, but he was less impressed by him as a person, at least at first. He'd got Perkins' back up after they'd finished recording "Your True Love", when he'd said, bluntly, "that song ain't worth a damn". Perkins had also heard him showing off at the piano, singing his new record in a break, and he'd thought that Lewis had no originality -- he could hear bits of himself, and bits of Elvis, and bits of Hank Williams, but not a lot that was new.

What Lewis was playing on this new record was great, but Perkins wasn't going to let the new kid show him up, and he decided to up his game as a guitar player, playing a hard-driving riff on the bass strings of his guitar while he was singing, but really letting rip on the guitar solos, which he played on the top three strings on his guitar. As he later said, "I took some of my best guitar breaks on that song. Triple string is what I was doing, playing all three strings at the same time with a pick, which is usually done finger-style. But fooling around and practising I knew it would work, and that was the time to try it, because I was shooting at Jerry Lee's head. It was never rehearsed."

And the reason Perkins took two solos... is because he could tell that Jerry Lee Lewis really wanted to show him exactly what he could do, and Carl Perkins wasn't going to let him. As he said later, "I thought, No, you smart aleck, I'm going to play both breaks on this guitar. Next time I'm going to try to burn the neck off of it. I knew he was itching for me to holler, 'Get it, Jerry!' I kinda wished I had of, I'd like to have seen what he would've done, 'cause he was hot that day. He was going after it. I let myself get in the way of probably a phenomenal piano break. He would have *shown* me how to play a piano. So the world probably missed the greatest piano break Jerry Lee would have ever taken".

But the result was, still, extraordinary -- the absolute ultimate definition of rockabilly, with two huge musical egos pushing each other to greater heights. Who knows what would have happened had it not been buried on the B-side to "Your True Love"?

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Matchbox", second guitar solo]

Because Jerry Lee was right. I wouldn't go so far as to say “Your True Love” is not worth a damn, like he said, but I definitely don't think it's worth a millionth of "Matchbox", and certainly the fact that "Matchbox" went on to become a rock and roll standard once the Beatles unearthed it and brought it to prominence seems to suggest that it could have been a bigger hit.

But either way, everyone was happy with the second take of the song, and they were listening back to it when Elvis Presley walked into the room.

Elvis had been driving past with a girlfriend, and had been able to tell that there was a session on that day because, as Marion Keisker later put it, it looked like a Cadillac showroom outside. So he'd popped in to see who was playing.

Carl Perkins was astonished to see Elvis there. While the two of them were friendly, he'd not seen Elvis in several months, and his appearance had changed considerably. Elvis was now dyeing his hair, which had previously been a light brown, a dark black. His acne had cleared up so much that he was no longer keeping his collars up to avoid showing his neck. He'd gone from being a spotty, shy, adolescent to being a major sex symbol.

Elvis went over and started noodling on the piano.

This immediately caused Jerry Lee Lewis to start showing off. He went over to Elvis and said "I didn't know you could play".

Elvis responded "I can't", at which point Jerry Lee said, "Well then, why don't you let me sit down?"

Elvis just replied "Well, I'd like to try", and carried on noodling. At this point Elvis had largely dismissed Jerry Lee Lewis -- Elvis was not, himself, an arrogant person, and he detested those who were, and Jerry Lee clearly was one.

Sam Phillips invited Elvis into the control room to listen to "Matchbox", and Elvis was duly impressed.

And then everything changed, as the session turned in to a jam session. And it was a jam session that *possibly* involved a fourth person.

[Excerpt: Million Dollar Quartet, "When God Dips His Love In My Heart/Just A Little Talk With Jesus"]

Every single account of what became known as the Million Dollar Quartet session disagrees as to how much, if at all, Johnny Cash participated in the proceedings. Cash always claimed he was the first there and last to leave -- that he'd turned up at the session before it had even started, because he'd wanted to watch his friends make their latest record, and he stayed through the whole jam session afterwards.

Other accounts have Cash turning up part way through the session in order to pick up a royalty cheque that Sam Phillips had for him, singing a couple of songs with the others before the tape machine started running, but having to go off and do some Christmas shopping before everything really got going. And yet other accounts have Sam Phillips realising that he had a good opportunity for publicity here, calling Cash -- who was at the time by far the biggest act on Sun records -- at the same time he called journalists and photographers, and Cash just turning up for a photo and then immediately leaving again.

Whatever the truth, it's definitely not easy to hear Cash on the tapes of the jam session, which finally got released in the 1980s. It was recorded on a single microphone – Phillips just started recording after they'd already started jamming, realising he may never have another chance to record these people together – and Cash always said that he was there, just the furthest from the microphone, and that he was singing in a higher register than normal because he was trying to sing in the keys that were comfortable for the other three.

Either way, the legendary "Million Dollar Quartet" recordings are completely dominated by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, with Carl Perkins a distant third.

When they start out, there are other musicians -- Carl Perkins' backing band play on the early tracks, before giving up -- but the majority of the recording consists of Elvis on acoustic guitar or piano, Jerry Lee on piano when Elvis isn't playing it, and them all singing together, with Elvis or Jerry Lee taking most of the lead vocals. Various other people join in at different points, but what this really is is two immense talents, both trying to size each other up, outdo each other, and also at the same time share in their joy at making music together.

[Excerpt: Million Dollar Quartet, "I Shall Not Be Moved"]

The interesting thing about the music they play is how little of it is actually rock and roll. There's some, of course -- they're all hugely impressed with Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and have several goes at playing it -- and they talk about "Too Much Monkey Business", though Elvis was less impressed by that one than "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man". Elvis also sings a single line of Little Richard's "Rip It Up", but otherwise what they're playing is either pure country music or what's euphemistically called Southern Gospel -- the gospel music performed primarily by white people from the Deep South, rather than the gospel music primarily performed by black people.

Both Elvis and Jerry Lee were brought up in the Assembly of God, a Pentecostal "holy roller" church, which we'll talk more about when we get to an episode on Jerry Lee himself, but that meant they shared even more of a religious culture than they did with Cash or Perkins, both of whom were deeply religious men but neither of whom were brought up in that particular tradition.

Most interesting is their take on "Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley", which unfortunately includes a verse about John the Baptist that could be interpreted as mildly antisemitic. I'm not going to include that line in here -- and it is *very* mild antisemitism at worst, not hate speech or anything -- but I thought I'd flag that for anyone going to listen to the Mixcloud after hearing this, as in the current political climate people might not want to hear that without a warning.

However, that aside, the track is interesting, as even though it's a call-and-response song and starts with Elvis taking the lead and Jerry Lee doing the responses, by the first verse Jerry Lee has already taken over the lead and left Elvis echoing him, rather than vice versa.

[Excerpt: the Million Dollar Quartet: "Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley"]

You can hear there exactly how this friendly rivalry was already working. Remember, at this time, Jerry Lee Lewis was nobody at all, someone who had one single out which had been out a matter of days. But here he is duetting with the "King of Rock and Roll", and seeing himself as the person who should naturally be taking the lead. When we get to Jerry Lee's work in a few weeks' time, you'll see just how completely in character this is.

It was also completely in character for Elvis, at least at this time, to defer to another musician, even though he was the biggest star around. One of the most fascinating elements of the Million Dollar Quartet session is Elvis talking of his experience in Las Vegas, watching Billy Ward and the Dominoes sing Elvis' own hit, "Don't Be Cruel":

[Excerpt: Elvis session chatter and "Don't Be Cruel"]

The Yankee singer he's talking about there, who he's so convinced did the song better than he did, was Jackie Wilson, who was at the time the lead singer for the Dominoes, before striking out as a solo singer. You can hear just how influenced Elvis was by Wilson's performance -- and that "Yankee" pronunciation "telly-phone" that he makes fun of [retook at end take 2 a couple of times] -- by listening to his performance of the song on the Ed Sullivan show a few weeks later, where he pronounces the word the same way:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Don't Be Cruel", Ed Sullivan Show version]

It's worth seeking out the video of that, if you're not someone who has objections to using YouTube, as just seeing the expression on Elvis' face when he sings that line is priceless.

But listening to him talk about Jackie Wilson's performance, he keeps talking about how much better Wilson did the song, and the others keep insisting that he couldn't have been that much better than Elvis, but Elvis insists.

For the first part of the session, Elvis is on the piano, and while he claimed to not be able to play, he actually does a perfectly decent job. But when Jerry Lee Lewis took over the piano, things would kick up a notch, as Lewis was desperate to show off.

[Excerpt: the Million Dollar Quartet, "When the Saints Go Marching In"]

And when Elvis was called into the control room again, towards the end of the jam session, Jerry Lee took over completely, just playing by himself and showing off what he could do.

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Black Bottom Stomp"]

The last few songs in the jam session are essentially Lewis playing by himself, singing "Crazy Arms" and Gene Autry's "You're the Only Star in My Blue Heaven", and playing the old Jelly Roll Morton piano piece "Black Bottom Stomp". Right at the end we hear Elvis leaving, and him saying goodbye to someone called "Johnny", which suggests that Cash was right when he said that he was there all along.

The Million Dollar Quartet session might well have been the making of Jerry Lee Lewis, even though the recordings weren't released until decades later. Sam Phillips took the opportunity to publicise his stars far and wide. and that publicity placed the four of them on the same level. Jerry Lee, by virtue of being at the session, was an equal with Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

The Million Dollar Quartet tape isn't great music, except at odd moments -- it's an interesting historical document, rather than anything else. But those odd moments when it *does* become great are frankly electrifying, as a group of musicians at the height of their powers just play for each other for the sheer pleasure of playing.

To me, the very best moment in the whole session comes near the end, when Elvis plays a solo version of "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", the Ink Spots song he had performed three years earlier, when he had first walked into that studio to record himself for his mother:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"]

Hearing how much his voice had matured, and how much his performance had improved, in the three years between his first and last recordings in that Memphis studio, sends shivers down my spine.

There were a couple of attempts at "Million Dollar Quartet" reunions over the years, as the session became legendary among rockabilly fans. None, however, featured the quartet's full line-up, as they happened after Elvis' death.

The first, and the one that was more in the spirit of the original sessions, was a live performance released as "The Survivors", when on April 23 1981 Perkins and Lewis joined Cash on stage in Stuttgart for an impromptu performance. All three of them ran through their biggest hits:

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, "Matchbox"]

But again, a substantial proportion of the show was taken up with the old gospel and country songs they all knew, with them trading off vocals on "I'll Fly Away", "I Saw the Light", "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?", and one song they'd performed at the earlier session, which they dedicated to Elvis, "Peace in the Valley":

[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, "Peace in the Valley"]

20) Four years later they would get together again, for a studio album recorded at Sun Studios, with Roy Orbison filling in for Elvis. Class of '55 has its moments, but isn't a highlight of any of those men's discographies:

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, "Waymore's Blues"]

This is the point that Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins leave our story, at least as main players, though no doubt we'll be hearing about them again when we talk about Jerry Lee Lewis and other Sun artists over the next few months. They both moved increasingly towards country music, and away from rockabilly. December 4, 1956, is as good a date as any, then, to nominate as the border between periods in rock and roll history -- the last point at which rock and roll, rockabilly, gospel, and country music could all be considered as the same kind of thing, before rock and roll became the dominant genre, with artists like Jerry Lee Lewis who started their career after rock and roll was already established.

The world of music had changed irreparably in the year since Elvis had last been in the Sun Studios, and it was going to keep on changing.

[Excerpt, Elvis saying “Johnny, I'll see you later...”]

Oct 07, 2019
BONUS: Question and Answer Episode 2

This week's episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs is the second of two bonus episodes answering listener questions at the end of the first year of the podcast. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode. Patreon backers also have a bonus podcast, answering even more questions.


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This one also includes the songs from the Patreon bonus episode, as that's even more questions and answers.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Welcome to the second and final part of this year's question and answer bonus podcasts. This week I'm actually going to do two of these. The one that's going on the main podcast is going to consist of those questions that my backers asked that have to do primarily with the podcast and the music, while the one that's going only to backers consists mostly of questions that have been asked about me and my life and so forth -- stuff that might be less interesting to the casual listener, but that clearly someone is interested in. Next week I get back to the main story, with an episode about Carl Perkins, but right now we're going to jump straight into the questions.


Matthew Elmslie asks:
"It's not an issue you've had to confront yet, as you navigate the mid-'50s, but eventually you're going to come up against the clash between the concept of popular music where the basic unit is the song or single, and the one where the basic unit is the album. What are your thoughts on that and how do you plan to deal with it?"
This is a question I had to give some consideration to when I was writing my book California Dreaming, which in many ways was sort of a trial run for the podcast, and which like the podcast told its story by looking at individual tracks. I think it can be a problem, but probably not in the way it first appears.
First, the period where the album was dominant was a fairly short one -- it's only roughly from 1967 through about 1974 that the bands who were getting the most critical respect were primarily thinking in terms of albums rather than singles. After that, once punk starts, the pendulum swings back again, so it's not a long period of time that I have to think of in those terms. But it is something that has to be considered during that period.
On the other hand, even during that period, there were many acts who were still primarily singles acts -- the Monkees, Slade, the Move, T-Rex... many of whom, arguably, had more long-term influence than many of the album acts of the time.
I think for the most part, though, even the big album acts were still working mostly in ways that allow themselves to be looked at through the lens of single tracks. Like even on something like Dark Side of the Moon, which is about as concept-albumy as it gets, there's still "Money" and "Great Gig in the Sky" which are individual tracks people know even if they don't necessarily know the album, and which could be used as the focus of an episode on the album. Even with Led Zeppelin, who never released singles at all, there are tracks that might as well have been singles, like "Whole Lotta Love" or "Stairway to Heaven". So for the most part it's fairly easy to find a single track I can focus on.
The real problem only comes in for a handful of albums -- records, mostly from that period in the late sixties and early seventies, which absolutely deserve to be considered as part of the podcast, but which don't have standout tracks. It's hard to pick one track from, say, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart or Astral Weeks by Van Morrison -- those two albums really do need considering as albums rather than as individual tracks -- there's no reason to choose, say, "Frownland" over "The Dust Blows Forward 'n' the Dust Blows Back" or vice versa, or "Madame George" over "Slim Slow Slider".
What I'll do in those cases will probably vary from case to case. So with Trout Mask Replica I'd probably just pick one song as the title song for the episode but still talk about the whole album, while with Astral Weeks the most likely thing is for me to focus the episode on "Brown-Eyed Girl", which isn't on the album, but talk about the making of Astral Weeks after "Brown-Eyed Girl" was a success. That's assuming I cover both those albums at all, but I named them because I'm more likely to than not.
[Excerpt: Van Morrison, “Brown-Eyed Girl”]
Russell Stallings asks: "Andrew, in [the] 60s it seems rock guitar was dominated by Stratocasters and Les Pauls, what was the guitar of choice in the period we are currently covering (1957) ?"
Well, 1957 is just about the point where this becomes an interesting question. Before this point the guitar hasn't played much of a part in the proceedings -- we've seen guitarists, but there've been more piano players -- 1957 is really the point where the guitar becomes the primary rock and roll instrument.
Before I go any further, I just want to say that I've never been a particular gearhead. There are people out there who can tell the difference instantly between different types of guitars based on a note or two. I'm not one of them -- I can sort of make out the difference between a Fendery sound and a Gibsony one and a Rickenbackery one, but not at a tremendous level of precision. I tend to care more about the technique of the player than the sound of the instrument, so this isn't my area of expertise. But I'll give this a go.
Now, there wasn't a straightforward single most popular guitar at this point. It's true that from the late sixties on rock pretty much standardised around the Les Paul and the Stratocaster -- though it was from the late sixties, and you get a lot of people playing different guitars in the early and mid sixties -- but in the fifties people were still figuring things out as individuals. But at the same time, there is, sort of, an answer to this.
The Strat wasn't particularly popular in the 50s. The only first-rank 50s rocker who played a Strat was Buddy Holly, who always played one on stage, though he varied his guitars in the studio from what I've read. Buddy Holly is indirectly the reason the Strat later became so popular -- he inspired Hank Marvin of the Shadows to get one, and Marvin inspired pretty much every guitarist in Britain to copy him. But other than in surf music, the Strat wasn't really popular until around 1967. You'd occasionally get a Telecaster player in the 50s -- Buck Owens, who played on quite a few rockabilly sessions for people like Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson before he became one of the greats of country music, played a Telecaster. And James Burton, who played in the fifties with Ricky Nelson and Dale Hawkins, among others, was another Telecaster player. But in general there weren't a lot of Fender players.
[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, “Hello, Mary Lou”, James Burton guitar solo]
Some people did play Gibsons -- most of the Chicago electric blues people seem to have been Gibson people, and so was Chuck Berry. Scotty Moore also played a Gibson. But rather than go for the Les Paul, they'd mostly go for hollow-body models like the L5, which could be played as either electric or acoustic. Scotty Moore also used a custom-built Echosonic amp, so he could get a similar guitar sound on stage to the one he'd got in the studio with Sam Phillips, and he used the L5 and Echosonic combination on all the Elvis hits of the fifties. Carl Perkins did play a Les Paul at first, including on "Blue Suede Shoes", but he switched to a Gibson ES-5 (and got himself an Echosonic from the same person who made Scotty Moore's) after that.
[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, “Matchbox”]
For acoustic guitar, people generally either used a Martin, like Elvis Presley or Ray Edenton, who was the session rhythm player who doubled Don Everly's guitar in the studio (Phil Everly would double it live, but he didn't play on the records), or they'd play a Gibson acoustic, as Don Everly and Buddy Holly did.
But overwhelmingly the most popular guitar on rockabilly sessions -- which means in rock and roll for these purposes, since with the exception of Chuck Berry the R&B side of rock and roll remained dominated by piano and sax -- the most popular rockabilly guitar was a Gretsch. There were various popular models of Gretsch guitar, like the Duo Jet, but the most popular were the 6120, the Country Gentleman, and the Tennessean, all of which were variants on the same basic design, and all of which were endorsed by Chet Atkins, which is why they became the pre-eminent guitars among rockabilly musicians, all of whom idolised Atkins.
You can hear how that guitar sounds when Atkins plays it here…
[Excerpt: Chet Atkins, “Mr. Sandman”]
Atkins himself played these guitars on sessions for Elvis (where he just played rhythm) and the Everly Brothers (for whom he played lead in the studio). Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup of the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, and many more played Gretsch guitars in imitation of Atkins. Bo Diddley also played a Gretsch before he started playing his own custom-built guitar.
There was no default guitar choice in the 50s the way there was later, but the Gretsch seemed to be the choice of the guitarists who were most admired at the time, and so it also became the choice for anyone else who wanted that clean, country-style, rockabilly lead guitar sound. That sound went out of fashion in the later sixties, but George Harrison used a Gretsch for most of his early leads, and Michael Nesmith of the Monkees always played a Gretsch -- when they started doing twelve-strings, in 1966, they initially only made three, one for Chet Atkins, one for George Harrison, and one for Nesmith, though they later mass-produced them.
But anyway, yeah. No single answer, but Gretsch Country Gentleman, with a hollow-bodied Gibson in close second, is the closest you'll get.
William Maybury asks "About when does the History of Soul divorce from the History of Rock, in your eyes?"
That's a difficult question, and it's something I'll be dealing with in a lot more detail when we get to the 1970s, over a whole series of episodes. This is the grotesquely oversimplified version. The short answer is -- when "soul" stopped being the label that was applied to cutting-edge black music that white people could rip off. The history of rock is, at least in part, a history of white musicians incorporating innovations that first appeared in black musicians' work. It's not *just* that, of course, but that's a big part of it.
Now, around 1970 or so, "rock" gets redefined specifically as music that is made by white men with guitars, and other people making identical music were something else. Like there's literally no difference, stylistically, between "Maggot Brain" by Funkadelic and things like Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac or "Watermelon in Easter Hay" by Frank Zappa, but people talk about P-Funk as a funk group rather than a rock group – I know the question was about soul, rather than funk, but in the early seventies there was a huge overlap between the two.
[Excerpt: Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain”]
But as long as soul music remained at the forefront of musical innovations, those innovations were incorporated by white "rock" acts, and any attempt to tell the story of rock music which ignores George Clinton or Stevie Wonder or Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye would be a fundamentally dishonest one.
But some time around the mid-seventies, "soul" stops being a label that's applied to innovative new music, and becomes a label for music that's consciously retro or conservative, people like, say, Luther Vandross. Not that there's anything wrong with retro music -- and there's some great soul music made in the 80s and 90s -- but the music that was at the cutting edge was first disco and then hip-hop, and that's the music that was spawning the innovations that the rock musicians would incorporate into their work.
And, indeed, after around 1980 rock itself becomes more consciously retro and less experimental, and so the rate of incorporation of new musical ideas slows down too, though never completely stops.
But there's always some fuzziness around genre labels. For example, if you consider Prince to be a soul musician, then obviously he's still part of the story. Same goes for Michael Jackson. I don't know if I'd consider either of them to be soul per se, but I could make a case for it, and obviously it's impossible to tell the story of rock in the eighties without those two, any more than you could tell it without, say, Bruce Springsteen.
So, really, there's a slow separation between the two genres over about a twenty-year period, starting in the mid-sixties and finishing in the mid-eighties. I *imagine* that Prince is probably the last new musician who might be described as soul who will be appearing in the podcast, but it really depends on where you draw the boundaries of what counts as soul. There'll be a few disco and hip-hop acts appearing over the last half of the series, and some of them might be considered soul by some people.
That's the best I can do at answering the question right now, but it's a vastly oversimplified version of the real answer, which is "listen to all the podcasts for the seventies when I get to them".
One from Jeff Stanzler:
"For me, the most surprising inclusion so far was the Janis Martin record. You did speak some about why you felt it warranted inclusion, but I'd love to hear more of your thinking on this, and maybe also on the larger philosophical question of including records that were more like significant signposts than records that had huge impact at the time."
[Excerpt: Janis Martin, “Drugstore Rock & Roll”]
Some of this goes back to some of the stuff I was talking about last week, about how there are multiple factors at play when it comes to any song I'm choosing, but the Janis Martin one makes a good example of how those factors play into each other.
First, everything I said in that episode is true -- it *is* an important signpost in the transition of rock and roll into a music specifically aimed at white teenagers, and it is the first record I've come across that deals with the 1950s of Happy Days and American Graffiti rather than the other things that were going on in the culture. Even though "Drugstore Rock and Roll" wasn't a massively successful record, I think that makes it worth including.
But there were other factors that warranted its inclusion too. The first of these was simply that I wanted to include at least one song by a woman at that point. If you don't count the Platters, who had one female member, it had been three months since the last song by a woman. I knew I was going to be doing Wanda Jackson a few weeks later, but it's important to me that I show how women were always part of the story of rock and roll. The podcast is going to be biased towards men, because it's telling the story of an industry that was massively biased towards men, but where women did have the opportunity to break through I want to give them credit. This is not including "token women" or anything like that -- rather it's saying "women have always been part of the story, their part of the story has been ignored, I want to do what I can to redress the balance a bit, so long as I don't move into actively misrepresenting history".
Then there's the fact that Janis Martin had what to my mind was a fascinating story, and one that allowed me to talk about a lot of social issues of the time, at least in brief.
And finally there's the way that her story ties in with those of other people I've covered. Her admiration of Ruth Brown allowed me to tie the story in with the episode on "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean", and also gave me a way to neatly bookend the story, while showing the influence of one of the songs I'd already covered. Her working for RCA and with the same musicians as Elvis meant that I could talk a bit more about those musicians, and her being marketed as "the Female Elvis" meant that I could talk about Elvis' larger cultural impact on the world in 1956, something that needed to be discussed in the series, but which I hadn't found space for in an episode on Elvis himself at that point. (And in talking about the various Elvis-based novelty records I was also able to mention a few figures who will turn up in future episodes, planting seeds for later).
[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran and the Holly Twins, “I Want Elvis For Christmas”]
So that's the thinking there. Every episode has to serve a bunch of different purposes if I'm going to tell this story in only five hundred episodes, and the Janis Martin one, I think, did that better than many.
As to the larger question of signposts versus impact at the time -- I am trying, for the most part, to tell the story from the point of view of the time we're looking at, and look at what mattered to listeners and other musicians at the time. But you also have to fill in the details of stuff that's going to affect things in the future. So for example you can't talk about REM without first having covered people like Big Star, so even though Big Star weren't huge at the time, they'll definitely be covered. On the other hand someone like, say, Nick Drake, who had little influence until he was rediscovered decades later, won't be covered, except maybe in passing when talking about other artists Joe Boyd produced, because he didn't really have an effect on the wider story.
In general, the prime consideration for any song that I include is -- does it advance the overall story I'm telling? There'll be stuff left out that would be in if the only criterion was how people reacted to it at the time, and there'll be stuff included which, on its own merits, just wouldn't make the list at all. There's one Adam Faith album track, for example, that I'm going to talk about in roughly nine months, which I think is almost certainly not even the best track that Adam Faith recorded that day, which is about as low a bar as it gets. But it'll be in there because it's an important link in a larger story, even though it's not a song that mattered at all at the time.
And a final question from Daniel Helton on whether I considered doing an episode on "Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry.
[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “Ain't Got No Home”]
It's a great record, but much of what I'd have to say about it would be stuff about the New Orleans scene and Cosimo Matassa's studio and so forth -- stuff that I'd probably already covered in the episodes on Fats Domino and Lloyd Price (including the episode on Price that's coming up later), so it'd be covering too much of the same ground for me to devote a full episode to it.
If I was going to cover Frogman in the main podcast, it would *probably* be with "I Don't Know Why (But I Do)" because that came out at a time when there were far fewer interesting records being made, and I'd then cover his history including "Ain't Got No Home" as part of that, but I don't think that's likely.
In fact, yeah, I'll pencil in "Ain't Got No Home" for next week's Patreon episode. Don't expect much, because those are only ten-minute ones, but it came out at around the same time as next week's proper episode was recorded, and it *is* a great record. I'll see what I can do for that one.
Anyway, between this and the Patreon bonus episode, I think that's all the questions covered. Thanks to everyone who asked one, and if I haven't answered your questions fully, please let me know and I'll try and reply in the comments to the Patreon post. We'll be doing this again next year, so sign up for the Patreon now if you want that. Next week we're back to the regular podcasts, with an episode on "Matchbox" by Carl Perkins.
Also, I'm *hoping* -- though not completely guaranteeing yet -- that I'll have the book based on the first fifty episodes done and out by this time next week. These things always take longer than I expect, but here's hoping there'll be an announcement next week. See you then.
Sep 30, 2019
BONUS: Question and Answer Episode 1

This week's episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs is the first of two bonus episodes answering listener questions at the end of the first year of the podcast.. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.


Patreon backers can ask questions for next episode at this link.

Books mentioned -- Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick, Before Elvis by Larry Birnbaum, Roots, Radicals and Rockers by Billy Bragg, Honkers and Shouters by Arnold Shaw. 


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Hello, and welcome to the first of our two-part question and answer session.


For those who didn't hear the little admin podcast I did last week, this week and next week are not regular episodes of the podcast -- I'm taking two weeks out to get the book version of the first fifty episodes edited and published, and to get a bit of a backlog in writing future episodes. I'm planning on doing this every year from now on, and doing it this way will mean that the podcast will take exactly ten years, rather than the nine years and eight months it would otherwise take,
But to fill in the gaps while you wait, I asked for any questions from my Patreon backers, about anything to do with the podcast. This week and next week I'm going to be answering those questions.
Now, I'll be honest, I wasn't even sure that anyone would have any questions at all, and I was worried I'd have to think of something else to do next week, but it turns out there are loads of them. I've actually had so many questions, some of them requiring quite long answers, that I'll probably have enough to not only do this week and next week's episodes based on questions, but to do a bonus backer-only half-hour podcast of more questions next week.
Anyway, to start with, a question that I've been asked quite a bit, and that both Melissa Williams and Claire Boothby asked -- what's the theme music for the podcast, and how does it fit in with the show?
[Excerpt: Boswell Sisters, “Rock and Roll”]
The song is called "Rock and Roll", and it's from 1934. It is, I believe, the very first song to use the phrase "rock and roll" in those words -- there was an earlier song called "rocking and rolling", but I think it's the first one to use the phrase "rock and roll".
It's performed by the Boswell Sisters, a jazz vocal trio from the thirties whose lead singer, Connee Boswell, influenced Ella Fitzgerald among others, and it was written by Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare.
They actually wrote it for Shirley Temple -- they're the people who wrote "On the Good Ship Lollipop" -- but it was turned down for use in one of her films so the Boswells did it instead.
The version I'm using is actually the version the Boswells sang in a film, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, rather than the proper studio recording. That's just because the film version was easier for me to obtain.
As for why I'm using it, a few reasons. One is that it's of historical note, as I said, because it's the first song to use the phrase, and that seemed appropriate for a podcast on the history of rock music. The other main reason is that it's in the public domain, and I try wherever possible to keep to copyright laws. I think all the uses of music in the podcast fall under fair use or fair dealing, because they're short excerpts used for educational purposes and I link to legal versions of the full thing, but using a recording as the theme music doesn't, so I had to choose something that was in the public domain.
Next we have a question from David Gerard: "piece of trivia from waaaaay back: in "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", why "*democratic* fellows named Mack"? what's that line about?"
[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, “Choo Choo Ch'Boogie”]
Well, I've never actually seen an interview with the writers of the song, but I can hazard two educated guesses. One of them is boring and probably right, the other one is more interesting and probably wrong.
The boring and probably right one is very simple -- the word "democratic" scans, and there aren't that many words that fit that syllable pattern. There are some -- "existential", "sympathetic", "diuretic" -- but not that many, and "democratic" happens to be assonant with the song's rhyme scheme, too -- the "cratic" doesn't actually rhyme with all those "alack", "track" "jack", and so on, but it sounds good in combination with them. I suspect that the solution is as simple as that.
The more interesting one is probably not the case, and I say this because the songwriters who wrote "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" were white. BUT, Milt Gabler, one of the three credited writers, was familiar enough with black culture that this might be the case.
Now, the character in "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" is a soldier returning from the second world war -- we know this from the first two lines, "Heading for the station with a pack on my back/I'm tired of transportation in the back of a hack", plus the date the song was recorded, 1946. So we've got someone who's recently been discharged from the army and has no job.
BUT, given it's Louis Jordan singing, we can presume this someone is black. And that puts the song in a rather different light. Because 1946 is slap in the middle of what's known as the second great migration -- the second big wave of black people moving from the rural deep south to the urban north and (in the case of the second migration, but not really the first) the west. This is something we've touched on a bit in the podcast, because it was the second great migration that was, in large part, responsible for the popularity of the urban jump blues that became R&B -- and separately, it was also the cause of the creation of the electric blues in Chicago.
And Chicago is an interesting one here. Because Chicago was one of the biggest destinations -- possibly the single biggest destination -- for black people looking to move around this time.
And so we recontextualise a bit. Our black soldier has returned to the US, but he's travelling by train to somewhere where there's no job waiting for him, and there's no mention of going to see his friends or his wife or anything like that. So maybe, he's someone who grew up in the rural deep south, but has decided to use the opportunity of his discharge from the military to go and build himself a new life in one of the big cities, quite probably Chicago. And he's looking for work and doesn't have many contacts there. We can tell that because in the second verse he's looking at the classified ads for jobs in the paper.
[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, “Choo Choo Ch'Boogie”]
Now, at this time, especially during and immediately after the Second World War, the single biggest employer in the US in the big cities was the government, and in the big cities there was a *lot* of patronage being handed out by the party in charge -- basically, in most of the big cities, the political parties, especially the Democrats at this time, were an arm of organised crime, with the mayor of the city acting much as a Mafia don would. And the only way to get a job, if you didn't have any special qualifications, if you weren't a "man with a knack" as the song puts it -- especially a sinecure where you didn't have to work very hard -- the only way to get such a job was to be owed a favour by the local Democratic Party.
Now, in Chicago -- again, Chicago is not named in the song, but it would seem the most logical place for our protagonist to be travelling, and this was true of other big Northern cities like New York, too -- the Democratic Party was run at this time almost entirely by Irish-Americans. The Mayor of Chicago, at the time was Edward Kelly, and he was the head of a formidable electoral machine, a coalition of several different ethnic groups, but dominated by Irish people.
So, if you wanted one of those jobs that were being handed out, you'd have to do favours for Kelly's Irish Democrats -- you'd have to pal around with Democratic fellows named Mac.
[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, “Choo Choo Ch'Boogie”]
Now I come to a few questions that I'm going to treat as one -- questions from Jeff Stanzler, Steven Hinkle, and Matthew Elmslie. They ask, between them, how I plan out what songs I'm going to include, and if I have to make difficult choices about what to include and what not to include, and who the most significant performer I don't plan to include at all is. Jeremy Wilson also asks if I've got all five hundred songs planned out and how close to the current day I plan to get.
These are all, actually, very different questions, but they all centre around the same thing, and so I'm going to address them all together here. If any of you don't think I've addressed your question sufficiently, please say and I'll come back to it next week.
Now, I don't have the whole five hundred songs mapped out. To do that would be for me to assume that in the next nine years none of my research will cause me to revise my opinions on what's important. So far, in the first fifty, I've not really had to make any difficult choices at all -- the only things I've wished I could include have either been things where there's just not enough information out there to put together an interesting episode, or where my own self-imposed restrictions like the starting point cut them off. Like if I'd decided to start a few years earlier, I *would* have included Jimmie Rodgers, but you have to have a cut-off point, and if I hadn't set 1938 and the Goodman Carnegie Hall concerts as a good starting point I could have gone all the way back at least to the mid nineteenth century, and it would have been more the prehistory of rock.
Maybe I'll do that as a project when I've finished this one.
But even those people I've excluded, I've ended up being able to cover as bonus episodes, so I've not really had to leave anything out.
But that means so far, since we're still really at the very beginning of rock and roll, there have been no difficult choices. That will change as the story goes on -- in the sixties there are so many important records that I'm going to have to cut out a lot, and by the mid-seventies rock has diversified so much that there will be *tons* of things I'll just have to gloss over. But right now I've had to make no tough decisions.
Now, the way I do this -- I have a list of about two hundred or so songs that I'm pretty sure are going to make the final list. Like I'm sure nobody will be surprised to find that I'll be covering, say, "Peggy Sue", "Satisfaction", "Stairway to Heaven", "God Save the Queen" and "Walk This Way". You can't leave those things out of the story and still have it be anything like an actual history of rock music. That's my sort of master list, but I don't consult that all that often.
What I do, is at any given point I'm working on the next ten scripts simultaneously -- I do things that way because I use the same research materials for multiple episodes, so for example I was writing the Chess episodes all at the same time, and the rockabilly episodes all at the same time, so I might be reading a biography of Carl Perkins, see an interesting fact about Johnny Cash, and stick the fact in the Johnny Cash episode or whatever. I have another list of about twenty probables, just titles, that I'm planning to work on soon after. Every time I finish a script, I look through the list of probables, pull out a good one to work on next, and add that to the ten I'm writing. I'll also, when I'm doing that, add any more titles I've thought of to the list. So I know exactly what I'm going to be doing in the next two and a half months, have a pretty good idea of what I'm doing for the next six, and only a basic outline after that.
That means that I can't necessarily say for certain who I *won't* be including. There will, undoubtedly, be some significant performers who don't get included, but I can't say who until we get past their part in the story.
Steven also asked as part of this if I've determined an end point. Yes I have. That may change over the next nine years, but when I was planning out the podcast -- even before it became a podcast, when I was thinking of it as just a series of books -- I thought of what I think would make the perfect ending for the series -- a song from 1999 -- and I'm going to use that.
Related to that, William Maybury asked "Why 1999?"
Well, a few reasons -- partly because it's a nice cut-off point -- the end of the nineties and so on. Partly because it's about the time that I disengaged totally from popular culture -- I like plenty of music from the last couple of decades, but not really much that has made any impact on the wider world. Partly because, when I finish the podcast, 1999 will be thirty years ago, which seems like about the right sort of length of time to have a decent historical perspective on things; partly because one of the inspirations for this was Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music and that cut off -- well, it cut off in 2001, but close enough; and partly because the final song I'm going to cover came out then, and it's a good ending song.
William also asked "What's the bottom standard for notability to be covered? (We heard about "Ooby Dooby" before "Crying," are we going to hear about "Take My Tip" before "Space Oddity"? Bootlegs beyond the Million Dollar Band that you mentioned on Twitter? Archival groundbreakers like Parson Sound?)"
[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Ooby Dooby”]
That's an interesting question... there's no bottom standard for notability *as such*. It's more that notability is just one of a number of factors I'm using to decide on the songs I cover. So the question I ask myself when I'm choosing one to include isn't just "is this song influential or important?" though that's a primary one. There's also "is there a particularly fascinating story behind the recording of this track?" "Does this illustrate something important about music or about cultural history?", “Is this just a song I really like and want to talk about?” And also, "does this provide a link between otherwise disconnected strands of the story?" There are also things like "have I not covered anything by a woman or a black person or whatever in a while?" because one of the things I want to do is make sure that this isn't just the story of white men, however much they dominate the narrative, and I know I will have to consciously correct for my own biases, so I pay attention to that.
And there's *also* the question of mixing the stuff everyone knows about with the stuff they'll be hearing about for the first time -- you have to cover "Satisfaction" because everyone would notice it's missing, but if you just do Beatles-Stones-Led Zep-Pink Floyd-whoever's-on-the-cover-of-Mojo-this-month, nobody's going to hear anything they can't get in a million different places.
So to take the example of "Ooby Dooby", it's only a relatively important track in itself, though it is notable for being the start of Roy Orbison's career. But it also ties Orbison in to the story of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and thus into the stories of Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and so on. It allows me to set up something for the future while tying the story together and moving the stories of multiple people forward a bit.
So... as a tiny bit of a spoiler, though this won't be too much of a surprise to those who've read my book California Dreaming, I am almost certainly going to cover the GTOs, who are almost a footnote to a footnote. I'll cover them because their one album was co-produced by Frank Zappa and Lowell George, later of Little Feat, it featured the Jeff Beck Group, including Rod Stewart, and it had songs co-written by Davy Jones of the Monkees -- and the songs Davy Jones co-wrote were about Captain Beefheart and about Nick St Nicholas of Steppenwolf. That's an enormous nexus of otherwise unconnected musicians, and it allows me to move several strands of the story forwards at the same time -- and it also allows me to talk about groupie culture and misogyny in the rock world from the perspective of the women who were involved.
[Excerpt: GTOs, “The Captain's Fat Theresa Shoes”]
I'm not *definitely* going to cover that, but I'm likely to -- and I'm likely to cover it rather than covering some more well-known but less interesting track.
Dean Mattson asks what my favourite three books are on the music I've covered so far. That's a good question. I'm actually going to name more than three, though...
The book that has been of most value in terms of sheer information density is Before Elvis, by Larry Birnbaum. This is a book that covers the prehistory of rock and roll to an absurd level of detail, and it's absolutely wonderful, but it's also absolutely hard going. Birnbaum seems to have heard, without exaggeration, every record released before 1954, and he'll do things like trace a musical motif from a Chuck Berry solo to a Louis Jordan record, and from the Louis Jordan record to one by Count Basie, and from that to Blind Blake, to Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Jelly Roll Morton, to a 1918 recording by Wilbur Sweatman's Jazz Orchestra. And he does that kind of thing in every single paragraph of a 474-page book. He must reference, at a very conservative estimate, five thousand different recordings.
Now this is information density at the expense of everything else, and Birnbaum's book has something of the air of those dense 18th and 19th century omnium gatherum type books like Origin of Species or Capital or The Golden Bough, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where there are a million examples provided to prove a point in the most exhaustive detail possible. I've done entire episodes of the podcast which are just expanding on a single paragraph of Birnbaum and providing enough context and narrative for a lay audience to appreciate it. It's not a book you read for fun. It's a book you read a paragraph at a time, with a notepad, looking up recordings of all the songs he covers as he gets to them. But if you're willing to put that time in, the book will reward you with a truly comprehensive understanding of American popular music of the period up to 1954.
The book that surprised me the most with its quality was Billy Bragg's Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. I've always quite liked Bragg as a songwriter, but I'd never expected him to be much good at writing a work of non-fiction. I only actually got hold of a copy because it had just come out when I started the podcast, and it had a certain amount of publicity behind it. I thought if I didn't read it I would then get people asking questions like, "But Billy Bragg says X, why do you say Y?"
But in fact, if you want a book on the skiffle movement and early British rock and roll, you could not do better than this one. It's exhaustively researched, and it's written in a staggeringly readable prose style, by someone who has spent his life as both a folk musician and a political activist, and so understands the culture of the skiffle movement on a bone-deep level. If there was one book I was to urge people to read just to read a really good, entertaining, book, it would be that one.
The book that's been the most use to me is Honkers and Shouters by Arnold Shaw -- an account of the 50s R&B scene from someone who was part of it. Shaw worked for a music publisher at the time, and had a lot of contacts in the industry. When he came to write the book in the 70s, he was able to call upon those contacts and interview a huge number of people -- many of whom gave him their last interviews before they died. The podcast wouldn't be as good without some of the other books, but it wouldn't exist at all without this one, because Shaw added so much to our knowledge of 50s R&B.
But I also want to recommend all of Peter Guralnick's books, but especially Last Train to Memphis, the first of his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. Guralnick's written a lot of books on Southern US music, including ones on Sam Phillips and Sam Cooke which have also been important resources. But the thing that sets Guralnick apart as a writer is his ability to make the reader thoroughly understand why people admired extraordinarily flawed individuals, but without minimising their flaws. With all Guralnick's biographies, I've come away both thinking less of his subjects as people *and* admiring them more as creators. He doesn't flinch from showing the men he writes about as egocentric, often misogynist, manipulators who damaged the people around him, but nor does he turn his books into Albert Goldman style denunciations of his subjects.
Indeed, in the case of Elvis, I've got more understanding of who Elvis was from Guralnick than from any of the hundreds of thousands of other words I've read on the subject. Elvis as he turns up in this podcast is the Elvis that Guralnick wrote about, rather than anything else.
Magic at Mungos asked what the best song I've discovered, that I hadn't heard before doing the podcast, is.
Well, I've discovered very little doing the podcast, really. The only song I've covered that I didn't know before starting work on the podcast was "Ko Ko Mo", and I can't say that one was a favourite of mine -- it's not a bad record by any means, but it's not one that changed my life or anything. But there have been a few things that I've heard that I didn't do full episodes about but which made an impression -- the McHouston Baker album I talked about towards the end of the “Love is Strange” episode, for example, is well worth a listen.
[Excerpt: McHouston Baker, “Alabama March”]
What the podcast *has* done, though, is make me reevaluate a few people I already knew about. In particular I'd been very dismissive of Lonnie Donegan previously -- I just hadn't got him -- but having to cover him for the podcast meant listening to all his fifties and early sixties work, and I came out of that hugely impressed.
I had a similar experience with Bo Diddley, who I *did* admire beforehand, and whose music I knew fairly well, but listening to his work as a body of work, rather than as isolated tracks and albums, made me think of him as a far more subtle, interesting, musician and songwriter than I'd given him the credit for previously.
Another one from William Maybury, who wants to know about my recording setup. I actually don't have very good recording equipment -- I just use a thirty-pound USB condenser mic plugged into my laptop on my dining room table. This is partly because I don't have a huge budget for the podcast, but also because there's only so much that can be done with the sound quality anyway. I live in an acoustically... fairly horrible... house, which has a weird reverb to a lot of the rooms. It's a terraced house with relatively thin walls, so you can hear the neighbours, and I live underneath a major flight path and by a main road in a major city, often driven on by people with the kind of in-car sound systems that inflict themselves on everyone nearby.
While I would like better equipment, at a certain point all it would be doing is giving a really clear recording of the neighbours' arguments or the TV shows they're watching, and the sound systems in the cars driving past – like today, I was woken at 3AM by someone driving by, playing “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips in their car so loud it woke me up. Acoustic perfection when recording somewhere like here would just be wasted.
So I make up for this by doing a *LOT* of editing on the podcast. I've not done so much on this episode, because these are specifically designed to be low-stress episodes for me, but I've been known to spend literally twenty hours on editing some individual episodes, cutting out extraneous noises, fixing sound quality issues, and so on.
And finally for this week, Russell Stallings asks, "my son Pete wants to know if you are a musician? And , who is your favorite beatle?"
The answer to whether I'm a musician is "yes and no", I'm afraid. I can play a lot of instruments badly. I'm dyspraxic, so I have natural limits to my dexterity, and so no matter how much I practiced I never became more than a competent rhythm guitarist at best. But I manage to be not very good on a whole variety of instruments -- I've been in bands before, and played guitar, keyboards, bass, mandolin, ukulele, and banjo on recordings -- and I can, more or less, get a tune out of a clarinet or saxophone with a good run-up.
Where I think my own musical skills lie is as a songwriter, arranger, and producer. I've not done much of that in over a decade, as I don't really have the personality for collaboration, but I did a lot of it in my twenties and thirties. Here's an example, from a band I used to be in called The National Pep.
[Excerpt: The National Pep, "Think Carefully For Victory"]
In the section you just heard, I wrote the music, co-produced, and played all the instruments except the drums. Tilt -- who does a podcast called The Sitcom Club I know some of you listen to -- sang lead, wrote the lyrics, played drums, and co-produced.
So, sort of a musician, sort of not.
As to the question about my favourite Beatle, John Lennon has always been my favourite, though as I grow older I'm growing more and more to appreciate Paul McCartney. I'm also, though, someone who thinks the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts in that particular case. All four of them did solo work I like a lot, but also the group was immensely better than any of the solo work. It's very, very, rare that every member of a band is utterly irreplaceable -- normally, even when every member of a band is talented, you can imagine them carrying on with one or more members swapped out for other, equally competent, people. But in the case of the Beatles, I don't think you can.
Anyway, that's all for this week. I'll be answering more questions next week, then the podcast will be back to normal on October the sixth with an episode on Carl Perkins. If you have any questions you'd like to ask, you can still ask by signing up on patreon.com/andrewhickey – and if you've not signed up for that, you can do so for as little as a dollar a month. Patreon backers also get a ten minute bonus podcast every week I do a regular podcast, and when the book version of the podcast comes out, backers at the $5 or higher level will be getting free copies of that. They also get copies of my other books.
Thanks for listening.
Sep 23, 2019
Episode 50: "Honky Tonk", by Bill Doggett

Bill Doggett

Episode fifty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Honky Tonk" by Bill Doggett, and uses his career to provide a brief summary of the earlier episodes of the podcast as we're now moving forward into the next stage of the story. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford.



 As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are many best-of collections of Doggett's work available. This one seems to have the best sound quality and is a decent overview of his work.

Information for this one comes from all over the place, including Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, Honkers & Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues by Arnold Shaw, and Inkspots.ca 



This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Welcome to the fiftieth episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. We're now ten percent of the way through our story, and also most of the way through 1956.

I'm told that when history podcasts hit a big round number, it's customary for them to do a jumping-on episode, perhaps a "story so far" which covers everything that's been discussed up to that point, but in brief, so that new listeners can get up to speed.

That's sort of what I'm about to do here. This week, we're going to look at a hit song from 1956, but by someone whose career interacted with almost everyone in the first twenty or so episodes of the podcast.

We're going to look again at some of that old music, not as isolated records by different artists, but as stages in the career of a single individual. We're going to look at someone who was a jobbing musician, who'd take any job that was on offer, but who by virtue of just being a hard-working competent jobbing player and arranger managed to have an astonishing influence on the development of music.

While rock and roll was primarily a vocal music, it wasn't a completely clean break with the past, and for most of the decades from the 1920s through to the early 50s, if you wanted music for dancing you would want instrumental groups. The big bands did employ vocalists, of course, but you can tell who the focus was on from looking at the names of the bands -- the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Count Basie orchestra -- all of the leaders of the big bands were instrumentalists. They played clarinet or trombone or piano, they didn't sing.

It was only with the musicians union strikes of the 1940s, which we've talked about before, that more through necessity than anything else the music industry moved from being dominated by instrumental music to being dominated by singers. But well into the 1960s we'll still be seeing rock and roll hits that were purely instrumental. Indeed, we probably wouldn't have rock and roll guitar bands at all without instrumental groups like the Ventures in the US or the Shadows in the UK who had hits with pure instrumental records.

And one of the greatest of the early rock and roll instrumentals was by someone who didn't actually consider himself a rock and roll musician. It's a record that influenced everyone from James Brown to the Beach Boys, and it's called "Honky Tonk":

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk"]

There is surprisingly little information out there about Bill Doggett, for someone who had such an impact on the fields of rock and roll, blues, jazz, and soul. There are no books about his life, and the only website devoted to him is one designed by his nephew, which... has all the flaws one might expect from a website put together about someone's uncle.

Doggett was born in 1916 in Philadelphia, and he moved to New York in his late teens and formed his own band, for which he was the piano player. But in 1938, Lucky Millinder was looking for a new band -- the way Millinder worked was that he bought out, and took over the leadership, of existing bands, which then became "the Lucky Millinder Orchestra".

This incarnation of the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, the one that was put together by Doggett before Millinder took the band over, is the one that got a residency at the Savoy after Chick Webb's band stopped playing there, and like Webb's band this group was managed by Moe Gale. Doggett stayed on with Millinder as his pianist, and while with the group he appeared with Millinder in the 1938 all-black film Paradise in Harlem, playing on this song:

[Excerpt: Lucky Millinder, "I've Got To Put You Down"]

Doggett was, from what I can tell, the de facto musical director for Millinder's band in this period -- Millinder was a frontman and occasional singer, but he couldn't play an instrument and was reliant on the musicians in his band to work the arrangements out for him.

Doggett was in the band when Moe Gale suggested that Sister Rosetta Tharpe would work well paired up with Millinder's main singer, Trevor Bacon, in the same way that Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald had worked well together in the Chick Webb band. Doggett was the pianist during the whole of Tharpe's time with the Millinder band, and he co-composed, with Millinder, the song that later gave its title to a biography of Tharpe, "Shout! Sister, Shout!":

[Excerpt: Rosetta Tharpe, "Shout! Sister, Shout!"]

If you listen to any of Tharpe's big band recordings from her time with Millinder, it's Doggett on the piano, and I strongly suspect it was Doggett who came up with the arrangements. Listen for example to his playing on "Lonesome Road", another song that the MIllinder band performed on film:

[Excerpt: Rosetta Tharpe, "Lonesome Road"]

The Millinder band were pivotal in the move from swing music to R&B, and Doggett was an important part in that move. While he'd left the band before they took on later singers like Wynonie Harris and Ruth Brown, he had helped set the band up to be the kind of band that those singers would feel comfortable in.

Doggett was also in the band when they had their biggest hit, a song called "When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World)":

[Excerpt: Lucky Millinder, "When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World)"]

That's most notable now for being one of the first recordings of a young trumpeter who was just starting out, by the name of Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie was quickly sacked by Millinder, who had a habit of getting rid of musicians before they reached their full potential.

I've not been able to find out why Doggett left Millinder -- whether he was one of those musicians who was sacked, or whether he just wanted to move on to other things -- but whatever the reason, it can't have been anything that put a stain on his reputation, because Doggett remained with Millinder's manager, Moe Gale.

We've mentioned Gale before several times, but he was the manager of almost every important black act based in New York in the late thirties and early forties, as well as running the Savoy Club, which we talked about in several of the earliest episodes of the podcast. Gale managed Millinder and Rosetta Tharpe, and also managed the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, and Louis Jordan, and so whenever one of his acts needed a musician, he would tend to find them from his existing pool of talent.

And so this is how, straight after leaving Lucky Millinder's band, Doggett found himself working for another Gale act, the Ink Spots. He joined them as their pianist and arranger, and stayed with them for several years:

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots, "I'll Get By"]

The Ink Spots, if you don't remember, were a vocal quartet who became the most popular black act of the forties, and who stuck to a unique formula based around Bill Kenny's high tenor and Hoppy Jones' low spoken bass. They had hit after hit during the forties with songs that all sound remarkably similar, and in the mid forties those songs were arranged by Bill Doggett.

He was with the group for two years -- starting with the classic line-up of the group, and staying with them through Charlie Fuqua being drafted and Deek Watson being fired. While he was a sideman rather than a full member of the group, he was important enough to them that he now gets counted in lists of proper members put together by historians of the band. He ended up leaving them less than two weeks before Hoppy Jones died, and during that time he played on fourteen of their hit singles, almost all of them sticking to the same formula they'd used previously, the "top and bottom":

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots, "Ev'ry Night About This Time"]

The different acts managed by Moe Gale all sat in with each other when needed, so for example Trevor Bacon, the male vocalist with Millinder's band, temporarily joined the Ink Spots when Deke Watson got sick for a few weeks. And so during the times when the Ink Spots weren't touring, Doggett would also perform with Ella Fitzgerald, who was also managed by Gale.

[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald, "Time Alone Will Tell"]

And indeed, during the end of Doggett's time with the Ink Spots, Fitzgerald recorded a number of hit singles with the group, which of course featured Doggett on the piano. That included this one, which later went on to be the basis of "Train Kept A-Rollin'", which we looked at a few episodes back:

[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, "Cow Cow Boogie"]

Doggett moved over full time to become Ella's arranger and pianist at some point during the couple of weeks between Deek Watson leaving the Ink Spots and Hoppy Jones dying, in early October 1944, and stayed with her for a couple of years, before moving on to Illinois Jacquet's band, taking the same role again, in the band that introduced the honking tenor saxophone into R&B, and thus into rock and roll:

[Excerpt: Illinois Jacquet, "Doggin' With Doggett"]

He also played on one of the most important records in forties R&B -- Johnny Otis' "Harlem Nocturne", the first hit for the man who would go on to produce most of the great R&B artists of the fifties:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, "Harlem Nocturne"]

And he also led his own band for a while, the Bill Doggett Octet. They were the ones who recorded "Be-Baba-Leba" with Helen Humes on vocals -- the song that probably inspired Gene Vincent to write a very similarly named song a few years later:

[Excerpt: Helen Humes, "Be-Baba-Leba"]

He then moved on to Louis Jordan's band full time, and this is where his career really starts.

Jordan was another act in Moe Gale's stable, and indeed just like the Ink Spots he'd had hits duetting with Ella Fitzgerald, who he'd first worked with back in the 1930s in Chick Webb's band. He was also, as you may remember from earlier episodes, the leader of the most popular R&B group in the late forties and early fifties -- the one that inspired everyone from Chuck Berry to Bill Haley. And as with his tenure with the Ink Spots, Doggett was in Jordan's band during its period of peak commercial success.

The timeline for who Doggett played with when, as you can probably tell, is all over the place, because he seemed to be playing with two or three acts at any given time. And so officially, if you look at the timelines, so far as they exist, you see that it's generally claimed that Bill Doggett joined Louis Jordan in 1949. But I've seen interviews with members of Jordan's organisation that suggest he joined much earlier, but he would alternate with Jordan's other piano player, Wild Bill Davis.

The way they worked, according to Berle Adams, who was involved in Jordan's management, was that Davis would spend a week on the road as Jordan's piano player, while Doggett would spend the same week writing arrangements for the group, and then they would swap over, and Doggett would go out on the road while Davis would write arrangements.

Either way, after a while, Doggett became the sole pianist for the group, as Davis struck out on his own, and Doggett once again basically became the musical director for one of the biggest bands in the R&B business. Doggett is often credited as the person who rewrote "Saturday Night Fish Fry" into one of Jordan's biggest hits from its inauspicious original version, though Jordan is credited on the record:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Saturday Night Fish Fry"]

During his time with Jordan, Doggett continued playing on records for Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, and other artists, but he was paying close attention to Wild Bill Davis, who he had replaced in Jordan's group. Davis had discovered the possibilities in a new musical instrument, the Hammond organ, and had formed a trio consisting of himself, a guitarist, and a drummer to exploit these possibilities in jazz music:

[Excerpt: Wild Bill Davis, "Things Ain't Whahttps://www.buzzfeed.com/emilyashton/jo-swinson-heckle-lgbtt They Used To Be"]

Doggett was also fascinated by this instrument, especially when hearing it up close, as when Davis rejoined Jordan's band to record "Tamburitza Boogie", which had Doggett on piano and Davis on the Hammond organ:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Tamburitza Boogie"]

When Doggett left Jordan's band, he decided to form an organ trio just like Davis'. The only problem was that it was just like Davis'. His group had the same instrumentation, and Doggett and Davis had very similar playing styles. Still, Henry Glover got him a contract with King Records, and he started recording Hammond organ blues tracks in the Davis style:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett Trio, "Big Dog"]

Davis and Doggett between them gave the Hammond organ its prominence in the world of jazz, R&B, and soul music. The Hammond organ has an odd image, as most people associate it with the cheesiest sort of light entertainment -- certainly for anyone in Britain of the generation older than mine, for example, the name it conjures up is Reggie Dixon, possibly the least funky man ever. But in that part of music which is the intersection of jazz and R&B -- the part of music inhabited by Jimmy Smith, Booker T Jones, Ray Charles, Georgie Fame, Billy Preston and others -- the Hammond organ has become an essential instrument, used so differently that one might almost compare it to the violin, where the instrument is referred to as a fiddle when it's played on folk or country songs.

And that comes from Davis and Doggett and their almost simultaneous invention of a new style of keyboards for the new style of music that was coming up in the late forties and early fifties.

But after a year or two of playing in an organ trio, Doggett decided that he didn't want to keep making records that sounded so much like the ones Wild Bill Davis was making -- he didn't want to be seen as a copy. And so to vary the style, he decided to take on a honking saxophone player to be the group's lead instrumentalist, while Doggett would concentrate on providing a rhythmic pad. This lineup of his group would go on to make the record that would make Doggett's name.

"Honky Tonk, Parts 1 and 2" came about almost by accident. As Doggett told the story, his biggest hit started out at a dance in Lima, Ohio on a Sunday night. The group were playing their normal set and people were dancing as normal, but then in between songs Billy Butler, Doggett's guitarist, just started noodling an instrumental line on his bass strings:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk" intro]

This hadn't been planned -- he was just noodling around, as all guitarists will do when given five seconds silence. But the audience started dancing to it, and if you're in a bar band and the audience is dancing, you keep doing what you're doing. As Butler was just playing a simple twelve-bar blues pattern, the rest of the group fell in with the riff he was playing, and he started soloing over them:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk" guitar soloing]

After three choruses of this, Butler nodded to Clifford Scott, the group's saxophone player, to take over, and Scott started playing a honking saxophone version of what Butler had been playing:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk", sax]

After Scott played through it a few times, he looked over to Doggett to see if Doggett wanted to take a solo too. Doggett shook his head. The song had already been going about five minutes and what Butler and Scott had been playing was enough. The group quickly brought the song to a close using a standard blues outro:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk", outro]

And that would have been the end of that. It's the kind of thing that bar bands have jammed a million times, the sort of thing that if you're a musician you think nothing of. They laughed at the end of the song, happy that they'd pulled off something that spontaneous and the audience had been OK with it, and carried on with the rest of their planned set.

But then, a couple of songs later, someone in the audience came up and asked them if they could play that hot new song they'd been playing before again, not realising it had just been a spur-of-the-moment jam. OK, you give the audience what they want, the band members could remember more or less what they'd been playing, so they played it again. And the crowd went wild.

And they played it again. And the crowd went wild again.

By the end of the night they'd played that new song, the one they'd improvised based on Billy Butler's guitar noodling, ten times.

Doggett immediately phoned Syd Nathan at King Records, his label, and told him that they had a hit on their hands and needed to get it out straight away. But there was one problem -- the song was over five minutes long, and a shellac 78RPM disc, which was still the most popular format for R&B music, could only hold three minutes per side. It would have to be a double-sided record.

Nathan hated putting out records where the song continued onto the other side, because the jukebox operators who were his main customers didn't like them. But he eventually agreed, and Doggett and his band got together in the studio and recorded their new instrumental in a single take. It was released as "Honky Tonk Part One" and part two, and they pressed up five thousand copies in the first week. Those sold out straight away, so the next week they pressed up twelve thousand five hundred copies. Those also sold straight away, and so for the next few weeks they started pressing up a hundred thousand copies a week.

The song went to number one on the R&B charts, and became the biggest selling R&B song of 1956, spending thirteen weeks in total at number one -- dropping down the charts and then back up again. It also reached number two on the pop charts, an astonishing feat for an R&B instrumental. It became a staple for cover bands, and it was recorded by the obvious instrumental acts like the Ventures and Duane Eddy -- and indeed Duane Eddy's whole style seems to have come from "Honky Tonk" -- but by other people you might not expect, like Buddy Holly:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Honky Tonk"]

The Beach Boys:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Honky Tonk"]

And even James Brown:

[Excerpt: James Brown, Honky Tonk"]

 Doggett never had another hit quite as big as "Honky Tonk", though his next few records, based on the "Honky Tonk" pattern, also made the top five on the R&B chart:

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Slow Walk"]

He had ten more R&B top thirty hits over the course of the 1950s.

But Doggett was being promoted as a rock and roll act, and playing bills with other rock and roll stars, and he didn't really feel comfortable in the rock and roll world. When "Honky Tonk" came out, he was forty years old -- by far the oldest of the people who had rock and roll hits in the mid fifties -- and he was a jazz organ player, not a Little Richard type. He was also stuck repeating a formula -- over the decade after "Honky Tonk" parts one and two he recorded tracks like "Honky Tonk (vocal version)", "Hippy Dippy", "Blip Blop", "Yocky Dock", and "Honky Tonk Bossa Nova".

His career as a charting artist more or less stopped after 1960, when he made the mistake of asking Syd Nathan if he could have a higher royalty rate, given the millions of dollars his recordings had brought in to King Records, and King dropped him. But it didn't stop his career as a working musician. In 1962 he teamed up again with Ella Fitzgerald, who wanted to go back to making music with a bit more rhythm than her recent albums of ballads. The resulting album, "Rhythm is my Business", featured Doggett's arrangements and Hammond organ very prominently:

[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald, "Hallelujah I Love Him So"]

He also teamed up in 1969 with James Brown, who around that time was trying to pay back his dues to others who'd been artists on King Records when Brown had started with them in the fifties. As well as recording his album "Thinking About Little Willie John and Other Nice Things", Brown had also been producing records for Hank Ballard, and now it was Bill Doggett's turn. For Doggett, Brown produced and wrote "Honky Tonk Popcorn":

[Excerpt: Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk Popcorn"]

Doggett spent most of the rest of his life touring the oldies circuit, a respected organist who would play hundreds of shows a year, until his death in 1996 aged eighty. He played "Honky Tonk" at every show, saying "I just wouldn't be Bill Doggett if I didn't play 'Honky Tonk'. That's what the people pay to hear, so that's what they get."

Sep 16, 2019
Brief Announcement Before Episode 50
This is just a quick note to tell people about the plans for the next couple of weeks.
Later today I'll be putting up episode fifty of the podcast, which is in a way a summary of all the episodes that came previously.
I will then be doing two episodes that aren't like the rest of the series. I've realised that if I take two weeks off every year, I can get the podcast to run to exactly ten years rather than nine years and eight months, and i can use those two weeks to catch up on research for future episodes, and to edit and publish the book based on the first fifty episodes.
But I'm not going to leave you without new episodes for that time, so next week and the week after I plan to do Q&A episodes. I'm going to invite my Patreon backers to ask me any questions they want about the podcast – whether about why I haven't covered someone yet, or my technique for making the podcast, or a detail they didn't understand, or anything else. I'm then going to answer those questions in the episodes on the twenty-second and twenty-ninth of September, before getting back to episode fifty-one proper on the sixth of October.
(If I don't get enough questions to fill up two episodes... then I'll think of something else to do for the twenty-ninth).
If you want to ask a question for these Q&A episodes, sign up for the Patreon, which starts at just a dollar a month and can be found at patreon.com/andrewhickey
Sep 15, 2019
Episode 49: "Love is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia

Mickey and Sylvia

Welcome to episode forty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "Love is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia, and how a reluctant bluesman who wrote books on jazz guitar, and a failed child star who would later become the mother of hip-hop, made a classic. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a bonus episode available. This one's on "Ain't Nobody's Business" by Jimmy Witherspoon, and is about blues shouting and the ambition to have a polyester suit.



As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

The information here was pulled together from bits of pieces all over the place, as neither Mickey Baker nor Sylvia Robinson have ever had a biography published. As well as their obituaries on various news sites, my principal sources were Bo Diddley: Living Legend by George R. White, which tells Diddley's side of how the song came about,