A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

By Andrew Hickey

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Description

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

Episode Date
Episode 66: "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis
36:04

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.

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Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Erratum:

I say “Glad All Over” was written by Aaron Schroeder. In fact it was co-written by Schroeder, Roy Bennett, and Sid Tepper.

Transcript

 

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
36:09

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.

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Resources

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.

Patreon

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”

 

Transcript

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
44:36

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.

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Resources

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.

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Transcript

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
38:55

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.

 ----more----

Errata

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.

Resources

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.

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
01:13

Transcript

 

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
31:22

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
38:24

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

----more----

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.

Resources

 

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.

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
41:37

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
01:00

Cover of the book

Transcript

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
36:54

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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.

The episode of Cocaine and Rhinestones I mention in the episode is here.

There are many budget CDs containing Lewis' pre-1962 work. This set seems as good an option as any.

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
34:24

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.

 ----more----

 

Resources

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. 

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
37:09

 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.

----more----
Resources

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

Patreon

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

 

ERRATUM

I mistakenly said “Jack Earl” instead of Jack Earls at one point.

 

Transcript

 

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
36:36

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.

 ----more----

 

Resources

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.

 

Patreon

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

 

Transcript

[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
34:13

The

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.

 

----more----

 

Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Erratum

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.

 

Transcript

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
35:30

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.

 

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Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Erratum

In the podcast I refer to a jazz band as "the Buddy Bolden Legacy Group". Their name is actually "the Buddy Bolden Legacy Band".

 

Transcript

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
40:23

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

----more----

 

Erratum

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.

Resources

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. 

 

Patreon

 

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

Transcript

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
35:39

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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.

Patreon

 

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

Transcript

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.

[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”]

Hmm…

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
35:03

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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.

 Patreon

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

Transcript

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
30:17

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.

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Resources

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.

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
36:21

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.

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Resources

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. 

Patreon

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

Transcript

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
37:40

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.

----more----

Resources

 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 

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

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 What 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
01:44
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
36:50

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.

 ----more----

Resources

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, Honkers and Shouters by Arnold Shaw, which has a six-page interview with Bob Rolontz , and The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnan.

This double-CD set contains all of Mickey and Sylvia's releases as a duo, plus several Little Sylvia singles.

And Mississippi Delta Dues is an album that all blues lovers should have.

Patreon

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

Transcript

We've talked before, of course, about the great Bo Diddley, and his main contributions to rock and roll, but today we're going to talk about a song he co-wrote which ended up, in a roundabout way, contributing to many other genres, in ways that we won't properly see until we reach the 1970s. A song that, for all that it is a classic that almost everyone knows, is still rarely treated as an important song in music history.

Yet this is a song that's a nexus of all sorts of music, which connects the birth of hip-hop to the compositions of Iannis Xenakis, by way of Doc Pomus, Bo Diddley, and Ike and Tina Turner.

The story of this song starts with Billy Stewart. These days, Billy Stewart is a largely unknown figure -- a minor blues man on Chess who was too close to soul music for the Chess Chicago blues fans to take him to heart.

Stewart, like many of the musicians we're looking at at the moment, started out in the gospel field, but moved over to vocal group R&B. In his case, he did so by occasionally filling in for a group called the Rainbows, which featured Don Covay, who would later go on to become a very well-known soul singer.

There are no recordings of Stewart with the Rainbows, but this recording of the group a few years later should give you some sort of idea what they sounded like:

[Excerpt: The Rainbows, "If You See Mary Lee"]

Through his work with the group, Stewart got to know Bo Diddley, whose band he joined as a piano player. Stewart also signed with Chess, and his first record, "Billy's Blues", featured both Diddley and Diddley's guitarist Jody Williams on guitar:

[Billy Stewart, "Billy's Blues"]

Williams came up with that guitar part, and that would lead to a lot of trouble in the future.

And that trouble would come because of Mickey Baker.

Mickey Baker's birth name was McHouston Baker. Baker had a rough, impoverished, upbringing. He didn't know the identity of his father, and his mother was in and out of prison. He started out as a serious jazz musician, playing bebop, up until the point he saw the great blues musician Pee Wee Crayton:

[Excerpt: Pee Wee Crayton: "Blues After Hours"]

Or, more precisely, when he saw Crayton's Cadillac. Baker was playing difficult, complex, music that required a great amount of skill and precision. What Crayton was doing was technically far, far, easier than anything Baker was doing, and he was making far more money. So, as Baker put it, "I started bending strings. I was starving to death, and the blues was just a financial thing for me then."

Baker became part of an informal group of people around Atlantic Records, centred around Doc Pomus, a blues songwriter who we will hear more about in the future, along with Big Joe Turner and the saxophone player King Curtis. They were playing sophisticated city blues and R&B, and rather looked down on the country bluesmen who are now much better known, as being comparatively unsophisticated musicians. Baker's comments about “bending strings” come from this attitude, that real good music involved horns and pianos and rhythmic sophistication, and that what the Delta bluesmen were doing was something anyone can do.

Baker became one of the most sought-after studio guitarists in the R&B field, and for example played the staggering lead guitar on "Need Your Love So Bad" by Little Willie John:

[Excerpt, Little Willie John, "Need Your Love So Bad"]

That's some pretty good string-bending. He was also on a lot of other songs we've talked about in previous episodes. That's him on guitar on "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean":

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"]

And "Shake, Rattle, and Roll":

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll"]

and "Money Honey"

[Excerpt: Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, "Money Honey"]

And records by Louis Jordan, LaVern Baker, Ray Charles and more.

Baker was also a guitar teacher, and one of his students was a young woman named Sylvia Vanterpool. Sylvia was, at the time, a singer who was just starting out in her career. She had recorded several unsuccessful tracks on Savoy and Jubilee records. A typical example is her version of "I Went to Your Wedding":

[Excerpt: Little Sylvia, "I Went to Your Wedding"]

Sylvia was only thirteen when she started her career, using the name "Little Sylvia" -- inspired by "Little Esther", who like her was making records for Savoy records -- and her early recordings are a strange mix of different styles. For every syrupy ballad like "I Went to Your Wedding" there was a hard R&B number, more in the Little Esther style, like "Drive, Daddy, Drive":

[Excerpt: Little Sylvia, "Drive Daddy Drive"]

That was the other side of the same single as "I Went to Your Wedding", and you can hear that while she had some vocal talent, she was not keeping to a coherent enough, distinctive enough, sound to make her into a star.

By the time she was twenty, Sylvia was holding down a day job as a typist, trying and failing to earn enough money to live on as a singer. But she'd been taking guitar lessons from Mickey Baker and had got pretty good.

But then Sylvia started dating a man named Joe Robinson.

Joe Robinson was involved in some way with gangsters -- nobody has written enough detail for me to get an exact sense of what it was he did with the mob, but he had connections. And he decided he was going to become Sylvia's manager.

While Sylvia's career was floundering, Joe thought he could beef it up. All that was needed was a gimmick.

Different sources tell different stories about who thought of the idea, but eventually it was decided that Sylvia should join with her guitar teacher and form a duo. Some sources say that the duo was Joe Robinson's idea, and that it was inspired by the success of Gene and Eunice, Shirley and Lee, and the other vocal duos around the time.

Other sources, on the other hand, talk about how Mickey Baker, who had started out as a jazz guitarist very much in the Les Paul mode, had wanted to form his own version of Les Paul and Mary Ford.

Either way, the gimmick was a solid one -- a male/female duo, both of whom could sing and play the guitar, but playing that string-bending music that Mickey was making money from.

And the two of them had chemistry -- at least on stage and on recordings. Off stage, they soon began to grate on each other. Mickey was a man who had no interest in stardom or financial success -- he was a rather studious, private, man who just wanted to make music and get better at his instrument, while Sylvia had a razor-sharp business mind, a huge amount of ambition, and a desire for stardom. But they worked well as a musical team, even if they were never going to be the best of friends.

Originally, they signed with a label called Rainbow Records, a medium-sized indie label in New York, where they put out their first single, "I'm So Glad". It's not an especially good record, and it does seem to have a bit of Gene and Eunice to it, and almost none of the distinctive guitar that would characterise their later work -- just some stabbing punctuation on the middle eight and a rather perfunctory solo. The B-side, though, "Se De Boom Run Dun", while it's also far from a wonderful song, does have the semi-calypso rhythm that would later make them famous:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Se De Boom Run Dun"]

Unsurprisingly, it didn't sell, and nor did the follow-ups. But the records did get some airplay in New York, if nowhere else, and that brought them to the attention of Bob Rolontz at Groove Records.

Groove Records was a subsidiary of RCA, set up in 1953. At that time, the major record labels had a problem, which we've talked about before. For years, none of them had put out R&B records, and the small labels that did put out R&B had been locked out of the distribution networks that the major labels dominated. The result had been that a whole independent network of shops -- usually black-owned businesses selling to black customers -- had sprung up that only sold R&B records.

Those shops had no interest in selling the records put out by the major labels -- their customers weren't interested in Doris Day or Frank Sinatra, they wanted Wynonie Harris and Johnny Otis, so why would the shop want to stock anything by Columbia or Decca or RCA, when there was Modern and Chess and Federal and King and Sun and RPM out there making the kind of records their customers liked?

But, of course, the major labels still wanted to sell to those customers. After all, there was money out there in the pockets of people who weren't shareholders in RCA or Columbia, and in the eyes of those shareholders that was the greatest injustice in the world, and one that needed to be rectified forthwith.

And so those labels set up their own mini-divisions, to sell to those shops. They had different labels, because the shops wouldn't buy from the majors, but they were wholly-owned subsidiaries. Fake indie labels. And Groove was one of them.

Groove Records had had a minor hit in 1955 with the piano player Piano Red, and his "Jump Man Jump":

[Excerpt: Piano Red, "Jump Man Jump"]

They hadn't had a huge amount of commercial success since, but Rolontz thought that Mickey and Sylvia could be the ones to bring him that success. Rolontz put them together with the saxophonist and arranger King Curtis, who Mickey already knew from his work with Doc Pomus, and Curtis put together a team of the best R&B musicians in New York, many of them the same people who would play on most of Atlantic's sessions.

Mickey and Sylvia's first single on Groove, "Walking in the Rain", had the potential to be a big hit in the eyes of the record company:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Walking in the Rain"]

But unfortunately for them, Johnnie Ray put out this at around the same time:

[Excerpt: Johnnie Ray, "Just Walking in the Rain"]

That's a totally different song, of course -- it's a cover version of one of the first records ever released on Sun Records, a few years earlier, originally by a vocal group called the Prisonaires. But customers were understandably confused by the presence of two songs with almost identical titles in the market, and so Mickey and Sylvia's song tanked. They still didn't have that hit they needed.

But at that point, fate intervened in the form of Bo Diddley.

In May 1956, Diddley had written and recorded a song called "Love is Strange", and not got round to releasing it. Jody Williams, who was in Diddley's band at the time, had played the lead guitar on the session, and he'd reused the licks he had used for "Billy's Blues" on the song:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "Love is Strange"]

At the time, Diddley was friendly with Mickey Baker, and was using Baker as a session guitarist on outside recordings he was producing for other artists, including recordings with Billy Stewart and with the Marquees, a vocal group which featured a young singer named Marvin Gaye:

[Excerpt: The Marquees, "Wyatt Earp"]

As a result, Mickey and Sylvia ended up playing a few shows on the same bill as Diddley, and at one of the shows, Williams, who was attracted to Sylvia, decided to play "Love is Strange" for her. Sylvia liked the song, and Mickey and Sylvia decided to record it.

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Love is Strange"]

Now, Diddley claimed that what he told the song's publishers was that Jody Williams wrote the music, while he wrote the lyrics, but he asked that the credit for the lyrics be put in the name of his wife Ethel Smith.

While Smith's name made the credits, Williams' didn't, and Williams blamed Diddley for the omission, while Diddley just said (with some evidence) that most of the people he signed contracts with were liars and thieves, and that it didn't surprise him that they'd missed Williams' name off.

We'll never know for sure what was actually in Diddley's contracts because, again according to Diddley, just before he and Smith divorced she burned all his papers so she could claim that he never gave her any money and he couldn't prove otherwise.

Williams never believed him, and the two didn't speak for decades.

Meanwhile, two other people were credited as writers on the song -- Mickey and Sylvia themselves. This is presumably for the changes that were made between Diddley's demo and the finished song, which mostly amount to Baker's lead guitar part and to the famous spoken-word section of the song in the middle:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Love is Strange", spoken word section]

According to Diddley, he also later sold his own share in the song to Sylvia, some time in the early sixties. This may well be the case, because Sylvia Vanterpool went on to become a very, very successful businesswoman, who made a lot of very wise business decisions.

Either way, "Love is Strange" was a big hit. It went to number eleven in the pop charts and number one on the R&B chart. It's one of those records that everyone knows, and it went on to be covered by dozens upon dozens of performers, including The Maddox Brothers and Rose:

[Excerpt: The Maddox Brothers and Rose, "Love is Strange". All very short excerpts here]

The Everly Brothers:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Love is Strange"]

And Paul McCartney and Wings:

[Excerpt: Wings, "Love is Strange"]

And Jody Williams never saw a penny from it.

But after Groove Records had had this breakthrough big hit, RCA decided to close the label down, and move the acts on the label, and their producer Rolontz, to another subsidiary, Vik. Vik Records had, according to Rolontz, "probably the worst collection of talent in the history of the world", and was severely in debt. All the momentum for their career was gone.

Mickey and Sylvia would release many more records, but they would have diminishing returns. Their next record went top ten R&B, but only number forty-seven on the pop charts, and the record after that did even worse, only reaching number eighty-five in the hot one hundred, even though it was another Bo Diddley ballad very much in the same vein as "Love is Strange":

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, "Dearest"]

But even though that wasn't a big hit record, it was a favourite of Buddy Holly -- a singer who at this time was just starting out in his own career. You can tell how much Holly liked Mickey and Sylvia, though, just by comparing the way he sings the word “baby” on many of his records to the way Sylvia sings it in “Love is Strange”, and he recorded his own home demos of both "Love is Strange" and "Dearest" -- demos which were released on singles after his death:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Dearest"]

But "Dearest" was so obscure that when Holly's single came out, the song was titled "Umm Oh Yeah", and credited to "unknown" for many years, because no-one at the record label had heard the earlier record.

Mickey and Sylvia would have several more records in the hot one hundred, but the highest would only reach number forty-six. But while they had no more hits under their own names, they did have another hit...

as Ike Turner.

After Mickey and Sylvia were dropped along with the rest of the Vik artists, they split up temporarily, but then got back together to start their own company, Willow Records, to release their material. Ike Turner played on some of their records, and to return the favour they agreed to produce a record for Ike and Tina Turner.

The song chosen was called "It's Gonna Work Out Fine", and it was co-written by the great R&B songwriter Rose Marie McCoy, who had written for Elvis, Nat "King" Cole, Nappy Brown, and many others. The other credited co-writer is one Sylvia McKinney, who some sources suggest is the same person as Sylvia Vanterpool -- who had by this point married Joe Robinson and changed her name to Sylvia Robinson.

Whether she was the other co-writer or not, Mickey and Sylvia had recorded a version of the song for Vik Records, but it hadn't been released, and so they suggested to Ike that the song would work as an Ike and Tina Turner record -- and they would produce and arrange it for them.

Indeed they did more than that. They *were* Ike Turner on the record -- Sylvia played the lead guitar part, while Mickey did the spoken "Ike" vocals, which Ike would do live. Sylvia also joined the Ikettes on backing vocals, and while Mickey and Sylvia aren't the credited producers, the end result is essentially a Mickey and Sylvia record with guest vocals from Tina Turner:

[Excerpt: Ike and Tina Turner, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine"]

That record sold over a million copies, and got a Grammy nomination.

However, Mickey and Sylvia's recordings under their own name were still having no success, and Mickey was also having problems because his then-wife was white, and with the particularly virulent form of racism the US was suffering through at the time, he didn't want to be in the country any more.

He was also becoming more and more interested in the academic side of music. He had already, in 1955, written a book, the Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, which is still available today and highly regarded.

So he moved to Europe, and went back into jazz, performing with people like Coleman Hawkins:

[Excerpt: Mickey Baker and Coleman Hawkins: "South of France Blues"]

But he did more than just jazz. He studied composition with Iannis Xennakis and started writing fugues and a concerto for guitar and orchestra, "The Blues Suite". Unfortunately, while some of that music was recorded, it only appears to have been released on now out of print and expensive vinyl which no-one has uploaded to the Internet, so I can't excerpt it for you here.

What I *can* excerpt is a project he did in the mid-1970s, an album called "Mississippi Delta Dues", released under his birth name McHouston Baker, where he paid tribute to the country bluesmen he'd looked down on early on by performing their songs, along with some of his own in a similar style. It's an odd album, in which sometimes he does a straight soundalike, like this version of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues":

[Excerpt: McHouston Baker, "Terraplane Blues"]

And sometimes he uses strings. Sometimes this is just as a standard pop-style string section, but sometimes he's using them in ways he learned from Xenakkis, like on this version of J.B. Lenoir's "Alabama Blues", rewritten as "Alabama March", which ends up sounding like nothing as much as Scott Walker:

[Excerpt: McHouston Baker, "Alabama March"]

Baker carried on performing music of all kinds around Europe until his death in 2011. He died massively respected for his contributions to blues, jazz, R&B, and the technical proficiency of generations of guitarists.

Sylvia Robinson made even more of a contribution. After a few years off to have kids after the duo split up, she set up her own record label, All Platinum. For All Platinum she wrote and produced a number of proto-disco hits for other people in the late sixties and early seventies. Those included "Shame Shame Shame" for Shirley and Company:

[Excerpt: Shirley and Company, "Shame Shame Shame"]

That's the song that inspired David Bowie, John Lennon, and Carlos Alomar to rework a song Bowie and Alomar had been working on, called "Footstompin'", into "Fame".

Sylvia also had a hit of her own, with a song called "Pillow Talk" that she'd written for Al Green, but which he'd turned down due to its blatant sexuality conflicting with his newfound religion:

[Excerpt: Sylvia, "Pillow Talk"]

But I'm afraid we're going to have to wait more than two years before we find out more about Sylvia's biggest contribution to music, because Sylvia Robinson, who had been Little Sylvia and the woman calling her lover-boy, became to hip-hop what Sam Phillips was to rock and roll, and when we get to 1979 we will be looking at how, with financing from her husband's gangster friend Morris Levy, someone from the first wave of rock and roll stars was more responsible than anyone for seeing commercial potential in the music that eventually took rock's cultural place.

Sep 09, 2019
Episode 48: "Rock With the Caveman" by Tommy Steele
32:02

Tommy Steele

Welcome to episode forty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "Rock With the Caveman" by Tommy Steele, and the birth of the British rock and roll industry. 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 "The Death of Rock and Roll" by the Maddox Brothers and Rose, in which we look at a country group some say invented rock & roll, and how they reacted badly to it

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Resources

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

This double-CD set contains all Steele's rock and roll material, plus a selection of songs from the musicals he appeared in later.

This MP3 compilation, meanwhile, contains a huge number of skiffle records and early British attempts at rock and roll, including Steele's. 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 covers Steele from the skiffle perspective.

Fings Ain't What They Used T'Be: The Life of Lionel Bart by David & Caroline Stafford gave me a lot of information on Steel's songwriting partner.

Steele's autobiography, Bermondsey Boy, covers his childhood and early stardom. I am not 100% convinced of its accuracy, but it's an entertaining book, and if nothing else probably gives a good idea of the mental atmosphere in the poor parts of South London in the war and immediate post-war years.

And George Melly's Revolt Into Style was one of the first books to take British pop culture seriously, and puts Steele into a wider context of British pop, both music and art.

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Transcript

Let's talk a little bit about the Piltdown Man.

Piltdown Man was an early example of a hominid -- a missing link between the apes and humans. Its skull was discovered in 1912 in Piltdown, East Sussex, by the eminent archaeologist Charles Dawson, and for years was considered one of the most important pieces of evidence in the story of human evolution.

And then, in 1953, it was discovered that the whole thing was a hoax, and not even a particularly good one. Someone had just taken the jaw of an orang-utan and the top part of a human skull, and filed down the orang-utan teeth, and then stained the bones to make them look old. It was almost certainly the work of Dawson himself, who seems to have spent his entire life making fraudulent discoveries. Dawson had died decades earlier, and the full extent of his fraud wasn't even confirmed until 2003.

Sometimes researching the history of rock and roll can be a lot like that. You can find a story repeated in numerous apparently reliable books, and then find out that it's all based on the inaccurate testimony of a single individual. The story never happened. It was just something someone made up.

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

We talked a little while ago about the skiffle movement, and the first British guitar-based pop music. Today, we're going to look at the dawn of British rock and roll.

Now, there's an important thing to note about the first wave of British rock and roll, and that is that it was, essentially, a music that had no roots in the culture. It was an imitation of American music, without any of the ties to social issues that made the American music so interesting.

Britain in the 1950s was a very different place to the one it is today, or to America. It was ethnically extremely homogeneous, as the waves of immigration that have so improved the country had only just started. And while few people travelled much outside their own immediate areas, it was culturally more homogeneous as well, as Britain, unlike America, had a national media rather than a local one. In Britain, someone could become known throughout the country before they'd played their second gig, if they got the right media exposure.

And so British rock and roll started out at the point that American rock and roll was only just starting to get to -- a clean-cut version of the music, with little black influence or sexuality left in it, designed from the outset to be a part of mainstream showbusiness aimed at teenagers, not music for an underclass or a racial or sexual minority.

Britain's first rock and roll star put out his first record in November 1956, and by November 1957 he was appearing on the Royal Variety Show, with Mario Lanza, Bob Monkhouse, and Vera Lynn. That is, fundamentally, what early British rock and roll was. Keep that in mind for the rest of the story, as we look at how a young sailor from a dirt-poor family became Britain's first teen idol.

To tell that story, we first have to discuss the career of the Vipers Skiffle Group. That was the group's full name, and they were just about the most important British group of the mid-fifties, even though they were never as commercially successful as some of the acts we've looked at.

The name of the Vipers Skiffle Group was actually the first drug reference in British pop music. They took the name from the autobiography of the American jazz clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow -- a man who was better known in the jazz community as a dope dealer than as a musician; so much so that "Mezz" itself became slang for marijuana, while "viper" became the name for dope smokers, as you can hear in this recording by Stuff Smith, in which he sings that he "dreamed about a reefer five foot long/Mighty Mezz but not too strong".

[Excerpt: Stuff Smith, "You'se a Viper"]

So when Wally Whyton, Johnny Booker, and Jean Van Den Bosch formed a guitar trio, they chose that name, even though as it turned out none of them actually smoked dope. They just thought it sounded cool.

They started performing at a cafe called the 2is (two as in the numeral, I as in the letter), and started to build up something of a reputation -- to the point that Lonnie Donegan started nicking their material. Whyton had taken an old sea shanty, "Sail Away Ladies", popularised by the country banjo player Uncle Dave Macon, and rewritten it substantially, turning it into "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O". Donegan copyrighted Whyton's song as soon as he heard it, and rushed out his version of it, but the Vipers put out their own version too, and the two chased each other up the charts. Donegan's charted higher, but the Vipers ended up at a respectable number ten:

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

That recording was on Parlophone records, and was produced by a young producer who normally did comedy and novelty records, named George Martin. We'll be hearing more about him later on.

But at the time we're talking about, the Vipers had not yet gained a recording contract, and they were still playing the 2is. Occasionally, they would be joined on stage by a young acquaintance named Thomas Hicks. Hicks was a merchant seaman, and was away at sea most of the time, and so was never a full part of the group, but even though he didn't care much for skiffle -- he was a country and western fan first and foremost -- he played guitar, and in Britain in 1955 and 56, if you played guitar, you played skiffle.

Hicks had come from an absolutely dirt-poor background. Three of his siblings had died at cruelly young ages, and young Thomas himself had had several brushes with ill health, which meant that while he was a voracious reader he had lacked formal education.

He had wanted to be a performer from a very early age, and had developed a routine that he used to do around the pubs in his early teens, in which he would mime to a record by Danny Kaye, "Knock on Wood":

[Excerpt: Danny Kaye, "Knock on Wood"]

But at age fifteen he had joined the Merchant Navy. This isn't the same thing as the Royal Navy, but rather is the group of commercial shipping companies that provide non-military shipping, and Hicks worked as wait staff on a cruise ship making regular trips to America. On an early trip, he fell in love with the music of Hank Williams, who would remain a favourite of his for the rest of his life, and he particularly loved the song "Kaw-Liga":

[Excerpt: Hank Williams, "Kaw-Liga"]

Hicks replaced his old party piece of miming to Danny Kaye with a new one of singing "Kaw-Liga", with accompaniment from anyone he could persuade to play guitar for him. Eventually one of his crewmates taught him how to play the song himself, and he started performing with pick-up groups, singing Hank Williams songs, whenever he was on shore leave in the UK. And when he couldn't get a paid gig he'd head to the 2is and sing with the Vipers.

But then came the event that changed his life. Young Tommy Hicks, with his love of country music, was delighted when on shore leave in 1955 to see an advert for a touring show based on the Grand Ole Opry, in Norfolk Virginia, where he happened to be. Of course he went along, and there he saw something that made a huge impression. One of the acts in the middle of the bill was a young man who wore horn-rimmed glasses. Tommy still remembers the details to this day. The young man came out and did a three-song set. The first song was a standard country song, but the second one was something else; something that hit like a bolt of lightning:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "Peggy Sue"]

That song was young Thomas Hicks' introduction to the new music called rock and roll, and nothing would ever be the same for him ever again after seeing Buddy Holly sing "Peggy Sue". By February 1956 he had finished working on the cruise ships, and was performing rock and roll in London, the very first British rock and roller.

Except...

There's a reason why we're covering Tommy Steele *before* Buddy Holly, the man who he claims as his inspiration.

Buddy Holly *did* perform with a Grand Ole Opry tour. But it didn't tour until May 1956, three months after Thomas Hicks quit his job on the cruise ships, and about a year after the time Tommy claims to have seen him. That tour only hit Oklahoma, which is landlocked, and didn't visit Norfolk Virginia. According to various timelines put together by people like the Buddy Holly Centre in Lubbock Texas, Holly didn't perform outside Lubbock until that tour, and that's the only time he did perform outside West Texas until 1957.

Also, Buddy Holly didn't meet Peggy Sue Gerron, the woman who gave the song its name, until 1956, and the song doesn't seem to have been written until 1957.

So whatever it was that introduced young Tommy Hicks to the wonders of rock and roll, it wasn't seeing Buddy Holly sing "Peggy Sue" in Norfolk Virginia in 1955. But that's the story that's in his autobiography, and that's the story that's in every other source I've seen on the subject, because they're all just repeating what he said, on the assumption that he'd remember something like that, something which was so important in his life and future career.

Remember what I said at the beginning, about rock and roll history being like dealing with Piltdown Man? Yeah.

There are a lot of inaccuracies in the life story of Thomas Hicks, who became famous under the name Tommy Steele. Anything I tell you about him is based on information he put out, and that information is not always the truth, so be warned. For example, when he started his career, he claimed he'd worked his way up on the cruise ships to being a gymnastics instructor -- something that the shipping federation denied to the press. You find a lot of that kind of thing when you dig into Steele's stories.

In fact, by the time Hicks started performing, there had already been at least one British rock and roll record made. He wasn't bringing something new that he'd discovered in America at all. "Rock Around the Clock", the Bill Haley film, had played in UK cinemas at around the time of Hicks' supposed epiphany, and it had inspired a modern jazz drummer, Tony Crombie, to form Tony Crombie and the Rockets and record a Bill Haley soundalike called "Teach You To Rock":

[Excerpt: Tony Crombie and the Rockets, "Teach You To Rock"]

However, Crombie was not teen idol material -- a serious jazz drummer in his thirties, he soon went back to playing bebop, and has largely been written out of British rock history since, in favour of Tommy Steele as the first British rock and roller.

Thomas Hicks the merchant seaman became Tommy Steele the pop idol as a result of a chance meeting. Hicks went to a party with a friend, and the host was a man called Lionel Bart, who was celebrating because he'd just sold his first song, to the bandleader Bill Cotton.

No recording of that song seems to exist, but the lyrics to the song -- a lament about the way that old-style cafes were being replaced by upscale coffee bars -- are quoted in a biography of Bart:

"Oh for a cup of tea, instead of a cuppuchini/What would it mean to me, just one little cup so teeny!/You ask for some char and they reckon you're barmy/Ask for a banger, they'll give you salami/Oh for the liquid they served in the Army/Just a cup of tea!"

Heartrending stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. But Bart was proud of the twenty-five guineas the song had earned him, and so he was having a party.

Bart was at the centre of a Bohemian crowd in Soho, and the party was held at a squat where Bart, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, spent most of his time. At that squat at various times around this period lived, among others, the playwright John Antrobus, the actor Shirley Eaton, who would later become famous as the woman painted gold in the beginning of Goldfinger, and the great folk guitarist Davey Graham, who would later become famous for his instrumental, “Angi”:

[Excerpt: Davey Graham, “Angi”]

We'll hear more about Graham in future episodes.

Another inhabitant of the squat was Mike Pratt, a guitarist and pianist who would later turn to acting and become famous as Jeff Randall in the fantasy detective series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Hicks, Bart, and Pratt started collaborating on songs together -- Hicks would bring in a basic idea, and then Bart would write the lyrics and Pratt the music. They also performed as The Cavemen, though Bart soon tired of playing washboard and stuck to writing. The Cavemen became a floating group of musicians, centred around Hicks and Pratt, and with various Vipers and other skifflers pulled in as and when they were available.

The various skiffle musicians looked down on Hicks, because of his tendency to want to play "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Blue Suede Shoes" rather than "Bring a Little Water Sylvie" or "Rock Island Line", but a gig was a gig, and they had to admit that Hicks seemed to go down well with the young women in the audience.

Two minor music industry people, Bill Varley and Roy Tuvey, agreed to manage Hicks, but they decided that they needed someone involved who would be able to publicise Hicks, so they invited John Kennedy, a PR man from New Zealand, to come to the 2is to see him. Hicks wasn't actually playing the 2is the night in question – it was the Vipers, who were just on the verge of getting signed and recording their first single:

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, “Ain't You Glad?”]

While Hicks wasn't scheduled to play, at the request of Varley and Tuvey he jumped on stage when the Vipers took a break, and sang a song that he, Bart, and Pratt had written, called "Rock With the Caveman".

Kennedy was impressed. He was impressed enough, in fact, that he brought in a friend, Larry Parnes, who would go on to become the most important manager in British rock and roll in the fifties and early sixties. Kennedy, Parnes, and Hicks cut Varley and Tuvey out altogether -- to the extent that neither of them are even mentioned in the version of this story in Tommy Steele's autobiography.

Hicks was renamed Tommy Steele, in a nod to his paternal grandfather Thomas Stil-Hicks (the Stil in that name is spelled either Stil or Stijl, depending on which source you believe) and Parnes would go on to name a whole host of further rock stars in a similar manner -- Duffy Power, Johnny Gentle, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde. They had everything except a record contract, but that was why Kennedy was there.

Kennedy rented a big house, and hired a load of showgirls, models, and sex workers to turn up for a party and bring their boyfriends. They were to dress nicely, talk in fake posh accents, and if anyone asked who they were they were to give fake double-barrelled names. He then called the press and said it was "the first high society rock and roll show" and that the girls were all debutantes. The story made the newspapers, and got Steele national attention.

Steele was signed by Decca records, where Hugh Mendl, the producer of "Rock Island Line", was so eager to sign him that he didn't check if any studios were free for his audition, and so Britain's first homegrown rock idol auditioned for his record contract in the gents' toilets.

A bunch of slumming jazz musicians, including Dave Lee, the pianist with the Dankworth band, and the legendary saxophone player Ronnie Scott, were brought in to record "Rock With the Caveman":

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

The single went to number thirteen. Tommy Steele was now a bona fide rock and roll star, at least in the UK. The next record, "Elevator Rock", didn't do so well, however:

[Excerpt: Tommy Steele, "Elevator Rock"]

That failed to chart, so Steele's producers went for the well-worn trick in British record making of simply copying a US hit. Guy Mitchell had just released "Singing the Blues":

[Excerpt: Guy Mitchell, "Singing the Blues"]

That was actually a cover version of a recording by Marty Robbins from earlier in the year, but Mitchell's version was the one that became the big hit. And Steele was brought into the studio to record a soundalike version, and hopefully get it out before Mitchell's version hit the charts.

Steele's version has an identical arrangement and sound to Mitchell's, except that Steele sings it in an incredibly mannered Elvis impression:

[Excerpt: Tommy Steele, "Singing the Blues"]

Now, to twenty-first century ears, Steele's version is clearly inferior. But here was the birth of something particularly English -- and indeed something particularly London -- in rock and roll music. The overly mannered, music-hall inspired, Cockneyfied impression of an American singing style. On Steele's subsequent tour, a nine-year old kid called David Jones, who would later change his name to Bowie, went to see him and came away inspired to become a rock and roll star. And we can hear in this performance the roots of Bowie's own London take on Elvis, as we can also hear a style that would be taken up by Anthony Newley, Ray Davies, and many more masters of Cockney archness.

I don't think "Singing the Blues" is a particularly good record compared to Mitchell's, but it is a prototype for something that would become good, and it deserves recognition for that.

Mitchell's version got out first, and went to the top of the charts, with Steele's following close behind, but then for one week Mitchell's record label had a minor distribution problem, and Steele took over the top spot, before Mitchell's record returned to number one the next week.

Tommy Steele had become the first British rock and roll singer to get to number one in the UK charts. It would be the only time he would do so, but it was enough. He was a bona fide teen idol.

He was so big, in fact, that even his brother, Colin Hicks, became a minor rock and roll star himself off the back of his brother's success:

[Excerpt: Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys, "Hollering and Screaming"]

The drummer on that record, Jimmy Nicol, later had his fifteen minutes of fame when Ringo Starr got tonsilitis just before a tour of Australia, and for a few shows Nicol got to be a substitute Beatle.

Very soon, Tommy Steele moved on into light entertainment. First he moved into films -- starting with "The Tommy Steele Story", a film based on his life, for which he, Bart, and Pratt wrote all twelve of the songs in a week to meet the deadline, and then he went into stage musicals. Within a year, he had given up on rock and roll altogether.

But rock and roll hadn't *quite* given up on him. While Steele was appearing in stage musicals, one was also written about him -- a hurtful parody of his life, which he claimed later he'd wanted to sue over. In Expresso Bongo, a satire of the British music industry, Steele was parodied as "Bongo Herbert", who rises to fame with no talent whatsoever.

That stage musical was then rewritten for a film version, with the satire taken out of it, so it was a straight rags-to-riches story. It was made into a vehicle for another singer who had been a regular at the 2is, and whose backing band was made up of former members of the Vipers Skiffle Group:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard, "Love" (from Expresso Bongo)]

We'll talk about both Cliff Richard and the Shadows in future episodes though...

Tommy Steele would go on to become something of a national treasure, working on stage with Gene Kelly and on screen with Fred Astaire, writing several books, having a minor artistic career as a sculptor, and touring constantly in pantomimes and musicals. At age eighty-two he still tours every year, performing as Scrooge in a stage musical version of A Christmas Carol. His 1950s hits remain popular enough in the UK that a compilation of them went to number twenty-two in the charts in 2009.

He may not leave a large body of rock and roll work, but without him, there would be no British rock and roll industry as we know it, and the rest of this history would be very different.

Sep 02, 2019
Episode 47: "Goodnight My Love" by Jesse Belvin
38:08

Jesse Belvin

Welcome to episode forty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "Goodnight My Love" by Jesse Belvin, and at the many groups he performed with, and his untimely 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 podcast, on "In the Still of the Night" by the Five Satins.----more----

Resources

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

My principal source for this episode was this CD, whose liner notes provided the framework to which I added all the other information from a myriad other books and websites, including but not limited to Jackie Wilson Lovers, Marv Goldberg's website, and Etta James' autobiography. But as I discuss in this episode this is one of those where I've pulled together information from so many sources, a full list would probably be longer than the episode itself.

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Transcript

 

Before we begin, a quick content warning. This episode contains material dealing with the immediate aftermath of a death in a car crash. While I am not explicit, this might be upsetting for some.

Jesse Belvin is a name that not many people recognise these days -- he's a footnote in the biographies of people like Sam Cooke or the Penguins, someone whose contribution to music history is usually summed up in a line or two in a book about someone else.

The problem is that Jesse Belvin was simply too good, and too prolific, to have a normal career. He put out a truly astonishing number of records as a songwriter, performer, and group leader, under so many different names that it's impossible to figure out the true extent of his career. And people like that don't end up having scholarly books written about them.

And when you do find something that actually talks about Belvin himself, you find wild inaccuracies. For example, in researching this episode, I found over and over again that people claimed that Barry White played piano on the song we're looking at today, "Goodnight My Love". Now, White lived in the same neigbourhood as Belvin, and they attended the same school, so on the face of it that seems plausible. It seems plausible, at least, until you realise that Barry White was eleven when "Goodnight My Love" came out.

Even so, on the offchance, I tracked down an interview with White where he confirmed that no, he was not playing piano on doo-wop classics before he hit puberty. But that kind of misinformation is all over everything to do with Jesse Belvin.

The end result of this is that Jesse Belvin is someone who exists in the gaps of other people's histories, and this episode is an attempt to create a picture out of what you find when looking at the stories of other musicians. As a result, it will almost certainly be less accurate than some other episodes. There's so little information about Belvin that if you didn't know anything about him, you'd assume he was some unimportant, minor, figure.

But in 1950s R&B -- among musicians, especially those on the West Coast -- there was no bigger name than Jesse Belvin. He had the potential to be bigger than anyone, and he would have been, had he lived. He was Stevie Wonder's favourite singer of all time, and Etta James argued to her dying day that it was a travesty that she was in the rock and roll hall of fame while he wasn't. Sam Cooke explicitly tried to model his career after Belvin, to the extent that after Cooke's death, his widow kept all of Cooke's records separate from her other albums -- except Belvin's, which she kept with Cooke's.

Marv Goldberg, who is by far the pre-eminent expert on forties and fifties black vocal group music, refers to Belvin as the genre's "most revered stylist". And at the time he died, he was on the verge of finally becoming as well known as he deserved to be. So let's talk about the life -- and the tragic death -- of Mr Easy himself:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin, "Goodnight My Love"]

Like so many greats of R&B and jazz, Belvin had attended Jefferson High School and studied music under the great teacher Samuel Browne, who is one of the great unsung heroes of rock and roll music. One of the other people that Browne had taught was the great rhythm and blues saxophone player Big Jay McNeely.

McNeely was one of the all-time great saxophone honkers, inspired mostly by Illinois Jacquet, and he had become the lead tenor saxophone player with Johnny Otis' band at the Barrelhouse Club, and played on records like Otis' "Barrel House Stomp":

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, "Barrel House Stomp"]

As with many of the musicians Otis worked with, McNeely soon went on to a solo career of his own, and he formed a vocal group, "Three Dots and a Dash".

Three Dots and a Dash backed McNeely's saxophone on a number of records, and McNeely invited Belvin to join them as lead singer. Belvin's first recording with the group was on "All That Wine is Gone", an answer record to "Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee".

[Excerpt: Big Jay McNeely with Three Dots and a Dash, "All That Wine is Gone"]

After recording two singles with McNeely, Belvin went off to make his own records, signing to Specialty Records. His first solo single, "Baby Don't Go", was not especially successful, so he teamed up with the songwriter Marvin Phillips in a duo called Jesse and Marvin. The two of them had a hit with the song "Dream Girl":

[Excerpt: Jesse and Marvin, "Dream Girl"]

"Dream Girl" went to number two on the R&B charts, and it looked like Jesse and Marvin were about to have a massive career. But shortly afterwards, Belvin was drafted.

It was while he was in the armed forces that “Earth Angel” became a hit -- a song he co-wrote, and which we discussed in a previous episode, which I'll link in the show notes. Like many of the songs Belvin wrote, he ended up not getting credit for that one -- but unlike most of the others, he went to court over it and got some royalties in the end.

Marvin decided to continue the duo without Jesse, renaming it "Marvin and Johnny", and moved over to Modern Records, but he didn't stick with a single "Johnny". Instead "Johnny" would be whoever was around, sometimes Marvin himself double-tracked. He had several minor hit singles as "Marvin and Johnny", including "Cherry Pie", on which the role of "Johnny" was played by Emory Perry:

[Excerpt: Marvin and Johnny, "Cherry Pie"]

"Cherry Pie" was a massive hit, but none of Marvin and Johnny's other records matched its success. However, on some of the follow-ups, Jesse Belvin returned as one of the Johnnies, notably on a cover version of "Ko Ko Mo", which didn't manage to outsell either the original or Perry Como's version:

[Excerpt: Marvin and Johnny, "Ko Ko Mo"]

Meanwhile, his time in the armed forces had set Belvin's career back, and when he came out he started recording for every label, and under every band name, he could. Most of the time, he would also be writing the songs, but he didn't get label credit on most of them, because he would just sell all his rights to the songs for a hundred dollars. Why not? There was always another song.

As well as recording as Marvin and Johnny for Modern Records, he also sang with the Californians on Federal:

[Excerpt: The Californians, "My Angel"]

The Sheiks, also on Federal :

[Excerpt: The Sheiks, "So Fine"]

The Gassers, on Cash:

[Excerpt: The Gassers, "Hum De Dum"]

As well as recording under his own name on both Specialty and on John Dolphin's Hollywood Records. But his big project at the time was the Cliques, a duo he formed with Eugene Church, who recorded for Modern. Their track, "The Girl in My Dreams" was the closest thing he'd had to a big success since the similarly-named "Dream Girl" several years earlier:

[Excerpt: The Cliques, "The Girl in my Dreams"]

That went to number forty-five on the pop chart -- not a massive hit, but a clear commercial success.

And so, of course, at this point Belvin ditched the Cliques name, rather than follow up on the minor hit, and started making records as a solo artist instead. He signed to Modern Records as a solo artist, and went into the studio to record a new song.

Now, I am going to be careful how I phrase this, because John Marascalco, who is credited as the co-writer of "Goodnight My Love", is still alive. And I want to stress that Marascalco is, by all accounts, an actual songwriter who has written songs for people like Little Richard and Harry Nilsson.

But there have also been accusations that at least some of his songwriting credits were not deserved -- in particular the song "Bertha Lou" by Johnny Faire:

[Excerpt: Johnny Faire, "Bertha Lou"]

Johnny Faire, whose real name was Donnie Brooks, recorded that with the Burnette brothers, and always said that the song was written, not by Marascalco, but by Johnny Burnette, who sold his rights to the song to Marascalco for fifty dollars -- Burnette's son Rocky backs up the claim.

Now, in the case of "Goodnight My Love", the credited writers are George Motola and Marascalco, but the story as it's normally told goes as follows -- Motola had written the bulk of the song several years earlier, but had never completed it. He brought it into the studio, and Jesse Belvin came up with the bridge -- but he said that rather than take credit, he just wanted Motola to give him four hundred dollars. Motola didn't have four hundred dollars on him, but Marascalco, who was also at the session and is the credited producer, said he could get it for Belvin, and took the credit himself.

That's the story, and it would fit with both the rumour that Marascalco had bought an entire song from Johnny Burnette and with Belvin's cavalier attitude towards credit. On the other hand, Marascalco was also apparently particularly good at rewriting and finishing other people's half-finished songs, and so it's entirely plausible that he could have done the finishing-up job himself.

Either way, the finished song became one of the most well-known songs of the fifties:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin, "Goodnight My Love"]

Belvin's version of the song went to number seven in the R&B charts, but its impact went beyond its immediate chart success. Alan Freed started to use the song as the outro music for his radio show, making it familiar to an entire generation of American music lovers. The result was that the song became a standard, recorded by everyone from James Brown to Gloria Estefan, the Four Seasons to Harry Connick Jr. If John Marascalco *did* buy Jesse Belvin's share of the songwriting, that was about the best four hundred dollars he could possibly have spent.

Over the next year, Belvin recorded a host of other singles as a solo artist, none of which matched the level of success he'd seen with "Goodnight My Love”, but which are the artistic foundation on which his reputation now rests. The stylistic range of these records is quite astonishing, from Latin pop like "Senorita", to doo-wop novelty songs like "My Satellite", a song whose melody owes something to "Hound Dog", credited to Jesse Belvin and the Space Riders, and released to cash in on the space craze that had started with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin and the Space Riders, "My Satellite"]

That featured Alex Hodge of the Platters on backing vocals. Hodge's brother Gaynel Hodge, who like Belvin would form groups at the drop of a hat, joined Jesse in yet another of the many groups he formed. The Saxons consisted of Belvin, Gaynel Hodge, Eugene Church (who had been in the Cliques with Belvin) and another former Jefferson High student, Belvin's friend Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

Watson would later become well known for his seventies "gangster of love" persona and funk records, but at this point he was mostly making hard electric blues records like "Three Hours Past Midnight":

[Excerpt: "Three Hours Past Midnight", Johnny "Guitar" Watson]

But when he worked with Belvin in the Saxons and other groups, he recorded much more straightforward doo-wop and rock and roll, like this example, "Is It True":

[Excerpt: The Saxons, "Is It True"]

The Saxons also recorded as the Capris (though with Alex Hodge rather than Gaynel in that lineup of the group) and, just to annoy everyone who cares about this stuff and drive us all into nervous breakdowns, there was another group, also called the Saxons, who also recorded as the Capris, on the same label -- at least one single actually came out with one of the groups on one side and the other on the other. Indeed, the side featuring our Saxons had previously been released as a Jesse Belvin solo record.

Anyway, I hope in this first half of the story I've given some idea of just how many different groups Jesse Belvin recorded with, and under how many different names, though I haven't listed even half of them. This is someone who seemed to form a new group every time he crossed the street, and make records with most of them, and a surprising number of them had become hits -- and "Goodnight My Love" and "Earth Angel" had become the kind of monster perennial standard that most musicians dream of ever writing.

And, of course, Belvin had become the kind of musician that most record companies and publishers dream of finding -- the kind who will happily make hit records and sell the rights for a handful of dollars.

That was soon to change. Belvin was married; I haven't been able to find out exactly when he married, but his wife also became his songwriting partner and his manager, and in 1958 she seemed to finally take control of his career for him.

But before she did, there was one last pickup group hit to make.

Frankie Ervin had been Charles Brown's replacement in Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, and had also sung briefly with Johnny Otis and Preston Love. While with Brown's group, he'd developed a reputation for being able to perform novelty cash-in records -- he'd made "Dragnet Blues", which had resulted in a lawsuit from the makers of the TV show Dragnet, and he'd also done his Johnny Ace impression on "Johnny Ace's Last Letter", a single that had been rush-released by the Blazers after Johnny Ace's death:

[Excerpt: Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, "Johnny Ace's Last Letter"]

Ervin was looking for a solo career after leaving the Blazers, and he was put in touch with George Motola, who had a suggestion for him. A white group from Texas called The Slades had recorded a track called "You Cheated", which looked like it could possibly be a big hit -- except that the label it was on wasn't willing to come to terms with some of the big distributors over how much they were charging per record:

[The Slades, "You Cheated"]

Motola wanted to record a soundalike version of the song with Jesse Belvin as the lead singer, but Belvin had just signed a record contract with RCA, and didn't want to put out lead vocals on another label. Would Ervin like to put out the song as a solo record?

Ervin hated the song -- he didn't like doo-wop generally, and he thought the song was a particularly bad example of the genre -- but a gig was a gig, and it'd be a solo record under his own name. Ervin agreed to do it, and Motola got Jesse Belvin to put together a scratch vocal group for the session. Belvin found Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Tommy "Buster" Williams at a local ballroom and got them to come along, and on the way to the session they ran into "Handsome" Mel Williams and pulled him in.

They were just going to be the uncredited backing vocalists on a Frankie Ervin record, and didn't spend much time thinking about what was clearly a soundalike cash-in. But when it came out it was credited as "The Shields" rather than Frankie Ervin:

[Excerpt: The Shields, "You Cheated"]

That's Belvin singing that wonderful falsetto part.

Frankie Ervin was naturally annoyed that he wasn't given the label credit for the record. The recording was made as an independent production but leased to Dot Records, and somewhere along the line someone decided that it was better to have a generic group name rather than promote it as by a solo singer who might get ideas about wanting money.

In a nice bit of irony, the Shields managed to reverse the normal course of the music industry -- this time a soundalike record by a black group managed to outsell the original by a white group. "You Cheated" ended up making number twelve on the pop charts -- a massive hit for an unknown doo-wop group at the time.

Ervin started touring and making TV appearances as the Shields, backed by some random singers the record label had pulled together -- the rest of the vocalists on the record had been people who were under contract to other labels, and so couldn't make TV appearances.

But the original Shields members reunited for the followup single, "Nature Boy", where they were joined by the members of the Turks, who were yet another group that Belvin was recording with, and who included both Hodge brothers:

[Excerpt: "Nature Boy", the Shields]

That, according to Ervin, also sold a million copies, but it was nothing like as successful as "You Cheated". The record label were getting sick of Ervin wanting credit and royalties and other things they didn't like singers, especially black ones, asking for. So the third Shields record only featured Belvin out of the original lineup, and subsequent recordings didn't even feature him.

But while Belvin had accidentally put together yet another million-selling group, he had also moved on to bigger things. His wife had now firmly taken control of his career, and they had a plan. Belvin had signed to a major label -- RCA, the same label that Elvis Presley was on -- and he was going to make a play for the big time.

He could still keep making doo-wop records with Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Eugene Church and the Hodge brothers and whoever else, if he felt like it, but his solo career was going to be something else. He was going to go for the same market as Nat "King" Cole, and become a smooth ballad singer.

He was going to be a huge star, and he actually got to record an album, Just Jesse Belvin. The first single off that album was "Guess Who?", a song written by his wife Jo Anne, based on a love letter she had written to him:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin, "Guess Who?"]

That song made the top forty -- hitting number thirty-three on the pop chart and managed to reach number seven on the R&B charts. More importantly, it gained Grammy nominations for both best R&B performance and best male vocal performance. He lost to Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra, and it's not as if losing to Dinah Washington or Frank Sinatra would have been an embarrassment.

But by the time he lost those Grammies, Jesse was already dead, and so was Jo Anne.

And here we get into the murkiest part of the story. There are a lot of rumours floating around about Jesse Belvin's death, and a lot of misinformation is out there, and frankly I've not been able to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. When someone you love dies young, especially if that someone is a public figure, there's a tendency to look for complex explanations, and there's also a tendency to exaggerate stories in the telling. That's just human nature. And in some cases, that tendency is exploited by people out to make money.

And Jesse and Jo Anne Belvin were both black people who died in the deep South, and so no real investigation was ever carried out. That means that by now, with almost everyone who was involved dead, it's impossible to tell what really happened.

Almost every single sentence of what follows may be false. It's my best guess as to the order of events and what happened, based on the limited information out there.

On February the sixth, 1960, there was a concert in Little Rock Arkansas, at the Robinson Auditorium. Billed as "the first rock and roll show of 1960", the headliner was Jackie Wilson, a friend of Belvin's. Jesse had just recorded his second album, "Mr Easy", which would be coming out soon, and while he was still relatively low on the bill, he was a rising star.

That album was the one that was going to consolidate Belvin's turn towards pop balladry in the Nat "King" Cole style, but it would end up being a posthumous release:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin with the Marty Paich Orchestra, "Blues in the Night"]

It was an all-black lineup on stage, but according to some reports it was an integrated audience. In fact some reports go so far as to say it was the first integrated audience ever in Little Rock.

Little Rock was not a place where the white people were fans of integration -- in fact they were so against it that the National Guard had had to be called in only two years earlier to protect black children when the first school in Little Rock had been integrated. And so apparently there was some racial abuse shouted by members of the audience. But it was nothing that the musicians hadn't dealt with before.

After the show they all drove on towards Dallas. Jackie Wilson had some car problems on the way, and got to their stop in Dallas later than he was expecting to. The Belvins hadn't arrived yet, and so Wilson called Jesse's mother in LA, asking if she'd heard from them.

She hadn't. Shortly after setting off, the car with Jesse and Jo Anne in had been in a crash. Jesse and the drivers of both cars had been killed instantly. Kirk Davis, Belvin's guitarist on that tour, who had apparently been asleep in the back seat, was seriously injured but eventually came out of his coma. And Jesse had apparently reacted fast enough to shield his wife from the worst of the accident. But she was still unconscious, and seriously injured.

The survivors were rushed to the hospital, where, according to Etta James, who heard the story from Jackie Wilson, they refused to treat Jo Anne Belvin until they knew that they would get money. She remained untreated until someone got in touch with Wilson, who drove down from Dallas Texas to Hope, Arkansas, where the hospital was, with the cash. But she died of her injuries a few days later.

Now, here's the thing -- within a fortnight of the accident, there were rumours circulating widely enough to have been picked up by the newspapers that Belvin's car had had its tyres slashed. There were also stories, never confirmed, that Belvin had received death threats before the show. And Jackie Wilson had also had car trouble that night -- and according to some sources so had at least one other musician on the bill. So it's possible that the car was sabotaged.

On the other hand, Belvin's driver, Charles Shackleford, had got the job with Belvin after being fired by Ray Charles. He was fired, according to Charles, because he kept staying awake watching the late-night shows, not getting enough sleep, and driving dangerously enough to scare Ray Charles -- who was fearless enough that he used to ride motorbikes despite being totally blind.

So when Jesse and Jo Anne Belvin died, they could have been the victims of a racist murder, or they could just have been horribly unlucky. But we'll never know for sure, because the institutional racism at the time meant that there was no investigation.

When they died, they left behind two children under the age of five, who were brought up by Jesse's mother. The oldest, Jesse Belvin Jr, became a singer himself, often performing material written or made famous by his father:

[Excerpt: Jesse Belvin Jr, "Goodnight My Love"]

Jesse Jr. devoted his life to finding out what actually happened to his parents, but never found any answers.

Aug 26, 2019
Episode 46: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" by Chuck Berry
34:39

Chuck Berry performing in

Episode forty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" by the Chuck Berry Combo, and how Berry tried to square the circle of social commentary and teen appeal. 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 "Rock and Roll Waltz" by Kay Starr..

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Resources

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

I used two 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.

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 any of the filler.

  

Patreon

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Transcript

 When we left Chuck Berry, he had just recorded and released his third single, "Roll Over Beethoven", the single which had established him as the preeminent mythologiser of rock and roll. Today, we're going to talk about the single that came after that, both sides of which were recorded at the same session as "Beethoven". Specifically, we're going to talk about a single that is as close as Berry got to being outright political.

While these days, both sides of his next single -- "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "Too Much Monkey Business" -- are considered rock and roll classics, neither hit the pop charts in 1956 when they were released. That's because, although they might not seem it at first glance now, both songs are tied in to a very different culture from the white teen one that was now dominating the rock and roll audience.

To see why, we have to look at the R&B tradition which Berry grew up in, and in particular we want to look once again at the work of Berry's hero Louis Jordan, and the particular type of entertainment he provided.

You see, while Louis Jordan was a huge star, and had a certain amount of crossover appeal to the white audience, he was someone whose biggest audience was black people, and in particular black adults.

The teenager as a separate audience for music didn't really become a thing in a conscious way until the mid-fifties. Before the rise of the doo-wop groups, R&B music, and the jump band music before it, had been aimed at a hard-working, hard-partying, adult audience, and at a defiantly working-class audience at that -- one that had a hard life, and whose reality involved cheating partners, grasping landlords, angry bosses, and a large amount of drinking when they weren't dealing with those things.

But one mistake that's always made when talking about marginalised people is to equate poverty or being a member of a racial minority with being unsophisticated. And there was a whole seam of complex, clever, ironic humour that shows up throughout the work of the jump band and early R&B musicians -- one that is very different from the cornball humour that was standard in both country music and white pop.

That style of humour is often referred to as "hip" or "hep" humour, and the early master of it was probably Cab Calloway, who was also the author of a "hepster's dictionary" which remained for many years the most important source for understanding black slang of the twenties through forties. Calloway also sang about it:

[Excerpt: "Jive: Page One of the Hepster's Dictionary", Cab Calloway]

This style of humour, specific to the experiences of black people, was also the basis of much of Louis Jordan's work – and Jordan was clearly influenced by Calloway. You only have to look at songs like "Open the Door Richard":

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Open the Door Richard"]

Or "What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You'll Only Get Drunk Again?)":

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You'll Only Get Drunk Again)?"]

Obviously the experience of being drunk is one that people of all races have had, but the language used there, the specific word choices, roots Jordan's work very firmly in the African-American cultural experience. Jordan did, of course, have a white audience, but he got that audience without compromising the blackness of his language and humour.

That humour disappears almost totally from the history of rock music when the white people start showing up, and there are only two exceptions to this. There are the Coasters, whose lyrics by Jerry Leiber manage to perfectly capture that cynical adult humour of the old-style jump bands, even when dealing with teenage frustrations rather than adult ones -- and we'll look at how successfully they do that in a few weeks' time.

The other exception is, of course, Chuck Berry, who would repeatedly cite Jordan as his single biggest influence. As we continue through Berry's career we will see time and again how things that appear original to him are actually Berry's take on something Louis Jordan did.

Berry would later manage to couple Jordan's style of humour to the adolescent topics of school, dancing, cars, and unrequited love, rather than to the more adult topics of jobs, sex, drinking, and rent.

But, crucially, at the time we're looking at, he was not yet doing so. At the session in April 1956 which produced "Roll Over Beethoven", "Drifting Heart", "Too Much Monkey Business", and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man", there were still relatively few signs that Berry was appealing to a white adolescent audience. "Very few signs" does not, of course, mean that there were no signs -- Berry would have been able to see who it was who was turning up to his live performances -- but it seems to have taken him some time to adapt his songwriting to his new audience.

Even "Roll Over Beethoven", which was, after all, a song very specifically aimed at mythologising the new music, had referred to "these rhythm and blues" rather than to rock and roll. Berry was almost thirty, and he was still in a mindset of writing songs for people his own age, for the audiences that had come to see him play small clubs in St. Louis.

Indeed, the record industry as a whole still saw the teenage audience as almost an irrelevance – other than Bill Haley and Alan Freed, very few people really realised how big that audience was. The combination of disposable income and the changes in technology that had led to the transistor radio and the 45rpm single meant that for the first time teenagers were buying their own records, and listening to them on their own portable radios and record players, rather than having to listen to whatever their parents were buying.

1956 was the year that this new factor stopped being ignorable, and Berry would become the poet laureate of teenage America, the person who more than anyone else would create the vocabulary which would be used by everyone who followed to write about the music and the interests of white teenagers.

But at this point, Berry's music was very much not that, and both "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" address very, very, adult concerns.

"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man", in particular, loses a lot of its context when heard today, but is an explicitly racialised song:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry Combo, "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"]

Now, it's worth looking at that opening verse in some detail -- "arrested on charges of unemployment" is, first of all, a funny line, but it's *also* very much the kind of trumped-up charge that black people, especially black men, would be arrested and tried for. And then we have the judge's wife getting the man freed because he's so attractive. This is a very, very, common motif in black folklore and blues mythology. For example, in "Back Door Man", written by Willie Dixon for Howlin' Wolf and released on Chess a few years after the time we're talking about, we have the following verse:

[Excerpt: Howlin' Wolf, "Back Door Man"]

This is a hugely common theme in the blues -- you hear it in various versions of "Stagger Lee", for example. Later this would become, thanks to these blues songs, a staple of rock and pop music too -- you get the same thing in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by the Beatles, or Frank Zappa's "The Illinois Enema Bandit", but stripped of its original context, both those songs have a reputation, at least partly deserved, for tastelessness and misogyny.

But when this motif first came to prominence, it had a very pointed message. There is a terrible stereotype of black men as being more animal than man, and of both having insatiable sexual appetites and being irresistible to white women. This is, of course, no more true of black men than it is of any other demographic, but it was used to fuel very real moral panics about black men raping white women, which led to many men being lynched.

The trope of the women screaming out for the man to be set free, in this context, is very, very, pointed, and is owning this literally deadly negative stereotype and turning it into something to boast about.

And then there's this verse:

[Excerpt: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man", Chuck Berry Combo]

Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play for a major league baseball team, had only started playing for the Dodgers in 1947, and was still playing when Berry recorded this. Robinson was a massively influential figure in black culture, and right from the start of his career, he was having records made about him, like this one by Count Basie:

[Excerpt: Count Basie, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"]

It's almost impossible to state how important Jackie Robinson was to black culture in the immediate post-war period. He was a huge example of a black man breaking a colour barrier, and not only that but excelling and beating all the white people in the field. Robinson was probably the single most important figurehead for civil rights in the late forties and early fifties, even though he was -- at least in his public statements -- far more interested in his ability to play the game than he was in his ability to affect the course of American politics.

While obviously Robinson isn't mentioned by name in Berry's lyric, the description of the baseball player is clearly meant to evoke Robinson's image.

None of the men mentioned in the song lyric are specifically stated to be black, just "brown-eyed" -- though there are often claims, which I've never seen properly substantiated, that the original lyric was "brown-skinned handsome man". That does, though, fit with Berry's repeated tendency to slightly tone down politically controversial aspects of his lyrics – "Johnny B Goode" originally featured a "coloured boy" rather than a "country boy", and in "Nadine" he was originally "campaign shouting like a Southern Democrat" rather than a "Southern diplomat".

But while the men are described in the song in deliberately ambiguous terms, the whole song is very much centred around images from black culture, and images of black men, and especially black men in contexts of white culture, usually high culture, from which they would normally be barred. Much as his idol Jordan had done earlier, Berry is repackaging black culture in a way that is relatable by a white audience, while not compromising that culture in any real way.

The flip side of "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" is also interesting. "Too Much Monkey Business" is much more directly inspired by Jordan, but is less obviously rooted in specific black experiences. But at the same time, it is absolutely geared to adult concerns, rather than those of teenagers:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Too Much Monkey Business"]

Well, at least six of the seven verses dealt with adult concerns. Over the seven verses, Berry complains about working for the US mail and getting bills, being given the hard sell by a salesman, having a woman want him to settle down with her and get married, having to go to school every day, using a broken payphone, fighting in the war, and working in a petrol station.

With the exception of the verse about going to school, these are far more the concerns of Louis Jordan, and of records like the Drifters' "Money Honey" or the records Johnny Otis was making, than they are of the new white teenage audience.

While both "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "Too Much Monkey Business" made the top five on the R&B chart, they didn't hit the pop top forty -- and "Roll Over Beethoven" had only just scraped into the top thirty. It was plain that if Berry wanted to repeat the success of "Maybellene", he would have to pivot towards a new audience. He couldn't make any more records aimed at black adults. He needed to start making records aimed at white children.

That wasn't the only change he made. The "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" single was the last one to be released under the name "the Chuck Berry Combo". There are at least two different stories about how Berry stopped working with Ebby Hardy and Johnnie Johnson. Berry always claimed that his two band members were getting drunk all the time and not capable of playing properly. Johnson, on the other hand, always said instead that the two of them got tired of all the travelling and just wanted to stay in St. Louis.

Johnson would continue to play piano on many of Berry's recordings -- though from this point on he would never be the sole pianist for Berry, as many sources wrongly claim he was. From now on, Chuck Berry was a solo artist.

The first fruit of this newfound solo stardom was Berry's first film appearance. Rock! Rock! Rock! is one of the more widely-available rock and roll films now, thanks to it having entered into the public domain -- you can actually even watch the film through its Wikipedia page, which I'll link in the show notes. It's not, though, a film I'd actually recommend watching at all. The plot, such as it is, consists of Tuesday Weld wanting to buy a new dress for the prom, and her dad not wanting to give her the money, and an "evil" rival for Weld's boyfriend's attentions (who you can tell is evil because she has dark hair rather than being blonde like Weld) trying to get her in trouble.

You get something of an idea of the quality of the film by the fact that its writer was also its producer, who was also the composer of the incidental music and the title song:

[Excerpt: "Rock Rock Rock", Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers]

That was co-written by Milton Subotsky, the film's producer, who would go on to much better and more interesting things as the co-founder of Amicus Films, a British film company that made a whole host of cheap but enjoyable horror and science fiction films. Oddly enough, we'll be meeting Subotsky again.

How important the plot is can be summed up by the fact that there is a fifteen-minute sequence in this seventy-minute film, in which Weld and her friend merely watch the TV. The programme they're watching is a fictional TV show, presented by Alan Freed, in which he introduces various rock and roll acts, and this is where Berry appears.

The song he's singing in the film is his next single, "You Can't Catch Me", which had actually been recorded before “Roll Over Beethoven”. But the story of the song's release is one that tells you a lot about the music business in the 1950s, and about how little the artists understood about what it was they were getting into.

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry: "You Can't Catch Me"]

As we discussed last week when talking about Fats Domino, it wasn't normal for R&B acts to put out albums, and so it was a sign of how much the film was aimed at the white teenage audience that a soundtrack album was considered at all. It seems to have been Alan Freed's idea. Freed was the star of the film, and the acts in it -- people like Lavern Baker, the Moonglows, Johnny Burnette, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers -- were for the most part people he regularly featured on his radio show (along with a handful of bland white novelty acts that were included in the misguided belief that the teenage audience wanted to hear a pre-teen kid singing about rock and roll).

But of course, Freed being Freed, what that meant was that the acts he included were from record labels that would bribe him, or with which he had some kind of financial relationship, and as they were on multiple different labels, this caused problems when deciding who got to put out a soundtrack album.

In particular, both the Chess brothers, whose labels had provided the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and Berry, and Morris Levy, the gangster who controlled the career of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the single biggest act in the film, wanted the right to put out a soundtrack album and profit from the publicity the film would provide. All of them were "business associates" of Freed -- Freed managed the Moonglows, and had been given writing credit on songs by both the Moonglows and Berry in return for playing them on his radio show, while Levy was himself Freed's manager, and had been largely responsible for getting Freed his unchallenged dominance of New York radio.

So they came to a compromise. The soundtrack album would only feature the three Chess acts who appeared in the film, and would include four songs by each of them, rather than the one song each they performed in the film. And the album would be out on Chess. But the album would include the previously-released songs that Freed was credited with co-writing, and the new songs would be published, not by the publishing companies that published those artists' songs, but by one of Levy's companies.

Chuck Berry was tricked into signing his rights to the song away by a standard Leonard Chess tactic -- he was called into Chess' office to receive a large royalty cheque, and Chess asked him if while he was there he would mind signing this other document that needed signing, only could he do it in a hurry, because Chess had an urgent appointment? It was six months until Berry realised that he'd signed away the rights to "You Can't Catch Me", and twenty-eight years before he was able to reclaim the copyright for himself.

In the meantime, the rights to that one Chuck Berry song made Levy far more money than he could possibly have expected, because of this one line:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "You Can't Catch Me"]

In 1969, John Lennon took that line and used it as the opening line for the Beatles song "Come Together":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Come Together"]

Rather than go through the courts, Levy and Lennon came to an agreement -- Lennon was going to make an album of rock and roll covers, and he would include at least three songs to which Levy owned the copyright, including "You Can't Catch Me". As a result, even after Levy finally lost the rights to the song in the early 1980s, he still continued earning money from John Lennon's cover versions of two other songs he owned, which would never have been recorded without him having owned “You Can't Catch Me”.

"You Can't Catch Me" was a flop, and didn't even make the R&B charts, let alone the pop charts. This even though its B-side, "Havana Moon", would in a roundabout way end up being Berry's most influential song:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Havana Moon"]

We'll talk about just how influential that song was in a year or so…

Berry knew he had to pivot, and fast. He wrote a new song, "Rock and Roll Music", which he thought could maybe have the same kind of success as "Roll Over Beethoven", but used the more currently-popular term rock and roll rather than talking about "rhythm and blues" as the earlier song did. But while he demoed that, it wasn't a song that he could be certain would directly get right into the head of every teenage kid in America.

For that, he turned to Johnnie Johnson again. For years, Johnson had had his own theme song at the Cosmopolitan Club. In its original form the song was based on "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade "Lux" Lewis:

[Excerpt: Meade "Lux" Lewis, "Honky Tonk Train Blues"]

Johnson's own take on the song had kept Lewis' intro, and had been renamed "Johnnie's Boogie":

[Excerpt: Johnnie Johnson, "Johnnie's Boogie"]

Johnson suggested to Berry that they take that intro and have Berry play the same thing, but on the guitar. When he did, they found that when he played his guitar, it was like ringing a bell -- a school bell, to be precise. And that gave Berry the idea for the lyric:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "School Day"]

"School Day" was the pivot point, the song with which Chuck Berry turned wholly towards teenage concerns, and away from those of adults. The description of the drudgery of life in school was not that different from the descriptions of working life in "Too Much Monkey Business", but it was infinitely more relatable to the new young rock and roll audience than anything in the earlier song.

And not only that, the slow trudge of school life gets replaced, in the final verses, with an anthem to the new music:

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "School Day"]

"School Day" became the biggest-selling single ever to be released by Chess to that point. It hit number one on the R&B charts, knocking "All Shook Up" by Elvis off the top, and made number five on the Billboard pop charts. It charted in the UK, which given Chess' lack of distribution over here at that point was a minor miracle, and it stayed on the Billboard pop chart for an astonishing six months.

"School Day" was successful enough that Berry was given an album release of his own. "After School Session" was a compilation of tracks Berry had released as either the A- or B-sides of singles, including "School Day", "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man", "Too Much Monkey Business", and "Havana Moon", but not including "You Can't Catch Me" or the other songs on the "Rock Rock Rock" compilation. It was filled out with a couple of generic blues instrumentals, but was otherwise a perfect representation of where Berry was artistically, right at this turning point. And that shows even in the title of the record.

The name "After School Session" obviously refers to "School Day", and to the kids in the song going to listen to rock and roll after school ended, but it was also a tip of the hat to another song, one which may have inspired the lyrics to "School Day" in much the same way that Meade "Lux" Lewis had inspired the music:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "After School Swing Session (Swinging With Symphony Sid)"]

Even at his most up-to-date, Chuck Berry was still paying homage to Louis Jordan.

"School Day" was the point where Chuck Berry went from middling rhythm and blues star to major rock and roll star, and his next twelve records would all make the Billboard pop charts. 1957 was going to be Chuck Berry's year, and we'll hear how in a few weeks time, when we look at another Louis Jordan influenced song, about a kid who played the guitar...

Aug 19, 2019
Episode 45: "Blueberry Hill", by Fats Domino
33:35

Fats Domino

Episode forty-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Blueberry Hill" by Fats Domino, and at how the racial tensions of the fifties meant that a smiling, diffident, cheerful man playing happy music ended up starting riots all over the US.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Birmingham Bounce" by Hardrock Gunter.

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Resources

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

The best compilation of Fats Domino's music is a four-CD box set called They Call Me The Fat Man: The Legendary Imperial Recordings.

The biographical information here comes from Rick Coleman's Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll. 

The information about the "Yancey Special" bassline and its history comes from "Before Elvis", by Larry Birnbaum.

There have been three previous episodes in which Domino and Bartholomew have featured, including two on Domino songs. See the "Fats Domino" tag for those episodes.

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

 Transcript

This is the third episode we're going to do on Fats Domino, and the last one, though he will be turning up in other episodes in various ways. He was the one star from the pre-rock days of R&B to last and thrive, and even become bigger, in the rock and roll era, and he was, other than Elvis Presley, by far the most successful of the first wave of rock and roll stars.
 
And this points to something interesting -- something which we haven't really pointed out as much as you might expect.
 
Because of that first wave of rock and rollers, by late 1956 there were only Elvis and the black R&B stars left as rock and roll stars on the US charts. The wave of white rockabilly acts that had hits throughout 1955 and 56 had all fizzled -- Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and Bill Haley would between them never have another major hit in the US, though all of them would have success in other countries, and make important music over the next few years. Johnny Cash would have more hits, but he would increasingly be marketed as a country music star.
If we're talking about actual rock and roll hits rising to decent positions in the charts, by late 1956 you're looking at acts like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, with only Elvis left of the rockabillies.
 
Of course, very shortly afterwards, there would come a second wave of white rock and rollers, who would permanently change the music, and by the time we get to mid-1957 we'll be in a period where white man with guitar is the default image for rock and roll star, but in late 1956, that default image was a black man with a piano, and the black man with a piano who was selling the most records, by far, was Fats Domino.
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
When we left Domino, he had just had his breakout rock and roll hit, with "Ain't That A Shame". He was so successful that Imperial Records actually put out an album by him, rather than just singles, for the first time in the six years he'd been recording for them. This was a bigger deal than it sounds -- rhythm and blues artists hardly ever put out albums in the fifties. The sales of their records weren't even normally directly to their audiences -- they were to jukebox manufacturers.
 
So when Imperial put out an album, that was a sign that something had changed with Domino's audience -- he was selling to white people with money. The black audience, for the most part, were still buying 78s, not even 45s -- they were generally relatively poor, and not the type of people to upgrade their record players while the old ones still worked.
 
(This is obviously a huge generalisation, but it's true in so far as any generalisations are true.)
 
Meanwhile, the young white rock and roll audience that had developed all of a sudden between 1954 and 1956 was mostly buying the new 45rpm singles, but at least some of them were also buying LPs -- enough of them that artists like Elvis were selling on the format.
 
Domino's first album, Rock and Rollin' With Fats Domino, was made up almost entirely of previously released material -- mostly hit singles he'd had in the few years before the rock and roll boom took off, and including the songs we've looked at before. It was followed only three months later by a follow-up, imaginatively titled Fats Domino Rock and Rollin'. That one was largely made up of outtakes and unreleased tracks from 1953, but when it came out in April 1956 it sold twenty thousand copies in its first week on release.
 
That doesn't sound a lot now, but for an album aimed at a teenage audience, by a black artist, in 1956, and featuring only one hit single, that was quite an extraordinary achievement.
 
But Domino's commercial success in 1956 was very much overshadowed by other events, which had everything to do with the racial attitudes of the time. Because believe it or not, Fats Domino's shows were often disrupted by riots.
 
We've been talking about 1956 for a while, and dealing with black artists, without having really mentioned just what a crucial time this was in the history of the civil rights struggle. The murder of Emmett Till, supposedly for whistling at a white woman, had been in August 1955. Rosa Parks had refused to get to the back of the bus in December 1955, and in early 1956 a campaign of white supremacist terrorism against black people stepped up, with the firebombing of several churches and of the houses of civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King.
 
This, as much as anything musical, is the context you need to understand why rock and roll was seen as so revolutionary in 1956 in particular. White teenagers were listening to music by black musicians, and even imitating that music themselves, right at the point where people were having to start taking sides for or against racial justice and human decency. A large chunk of white America was more concerned about the "inappropriate" behaviour of people like Rosa Parks than about the legitimate concerns of the firebombers.
And this attitude was also showing up in the reaction to music. In April 1956 Nat King Cole was injured on stage when a mob of white supremacists attacked him. Cole was one of the least politically vocal black entertainers, and he was appearing before an all-white audience, but he was a black man playing with a white backing band, and that was enough for him to be a target for attempted murder.
 
And this is the background against which you have to look at the reports of violence at Fats Domino shows. The riots which broke out at his shows throughout that year were blamed in contemporary news reports on his "pulsating jungle rhythms" -- and there's not even an attempt made to hide the racism in statements like that -- but there was little shocking about Domino's actual music at the time.
 
In fact, in 1956, Domino seemed to be trying to cross over to the country and older pop audience, by performing old standards from decades earlier. His first attempt at doing so became a top twenty pop hit. "My Blue Heaven" had originally been a hit in 1927 for the crooner Gene Austin:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Austin, "My Blue Heaven"]
 
Domino's version gave it a mild R&B flavour, and it became a double-sided hit with "I'm In Love Again" on the other side:
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "My Blue Heaven"]
 
And for the rest of the year, Domino would repeat this formula -- one side of each of his singles would be written by Domino or his producer Dave Bartholomew, while the other side would be a song from twenty to forty years earlier. His single releases for the next eighteen months or so would include on them such standards as "I'm in the Mood for Love", "As Time Goes By", and "When My Dreamboat Comes Home".
 
And so, this is the music that was supposedly to blame for riots. And riots *did* follow Domino around everywhere he went. In Roanoake, Virginia, for example, in May, Domino was playing to a segregated crowd -- whites in the balcony, black people on the floor. The way segregation worked when it came to rock and roll or R&B concerts was simple -- whichever race the promoter thought would be more likely to come got the floor, the race which would have fewer audience members got the balcony.
 
But in this case, the promoters underestimated how many white people were now listening to this new music. The balcony filled up, and a lot of white teenagers went down and joined the black people on the ground floor. Towards the end of the show, someone in the balcony, incensed at the idea of black and white people dancing together, threw a whisky bottle at the crowd below. Soon whisky bottles were flying through the air, and the riot in the audience spread to the streets around.
 
The New York Times blamed the black audience members, even though it had been a white person who'd thrown the first bottle. The American Legion, which owned the concert venue, decided that the simplest solution was just to ban mixed audiences altogether -- they'd either have all-white or all-black audiences.
 
Another riot broke out in San Jose in July, when someone threw a string of lit firecrackers into the audience. In the ensuing riot, a thousand beer bottles were broken, twelve people were arrested, and another twelve needed medical treatment.
 
In Houston, Domino played another show where white people were in the balcony and black people were on the dancefloor below. Some of the white people decided to join the black dancers, at which point a black policeman -- trying to avoid another riot because of "race mixing" -- said that everyone had to sit down and no-one could dance. But then a white cop overruled him and said that only white people could dance. Domino refused to carry on playing if black people weren't allowed to dance, too, and while that show didn't turn violent, a dozen people were arrested for threatening the police.
 
This is the context in which Domino was performing, and this is the context in which he had his biggest hit.
The song that was meant to be the hit was "Honey Chile", a new original which Domino got to feature in an exploitation film called "Shake, Rattle, and Rock":
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "Honey Chile"]
 
At the same session where he recorded that, he tried to record another old standard, with disappointing results.
"Blueberry Hill" was originally written in 1940 by Vincent Rose, Larry Stock, and Al Lewis. As with many songs of the time, it was recorded simultaneously by dozens of artists, but it was the Glenn Miller Orchestra who had the biggest hit with it:
 
[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
After Glenn Miller, Gene Autry had also had a hit with the song. We've talked before about Autry, and how he was the biggest Western music star of the late thirties and early forties, and influenced everyone from Les Paul to Bo Diddley. Given Domino's taste for country and western music, it's possible that Autry's version was the first version of the song he came to love:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
But Domino was inspired to cover the song by Louis Armstrong's recording. Armstrong was, of course, another legend of New Orleans music, and his version, from 1949, had come out after Domino had already started his own career:
 
[Excerpt: Louis Armstrong: "Blueberry Hill"]
 
Domino loved Armstrong's version, and had wanted to record it for a long time, but when they got into the studio the band couldn't get through a whole take of the song. Dave Bartholomew, who hadn't been keen on recording the song anyway, said at the end of the session, "We got nuthin'".
 
But Bunny Robyn, the engineer at the session, thought it was salvageable. He edited together a version from bits of half-finished takes, and thanks to the absolutely metronomic time sense of Earl Palmer, he managed to do it so well that after more than thirty years of listening to the record, I'm still not certain exactly where the join is. I *think* it's just before he starts the second middle eight -- there's a *slight* change of sonic ambience there -- but I wouldn't swear to it. Listen for yourself. The part where I think the join comes is just before he sings "the wind in the willow":
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
After Robyn edited that version together, Dave Bartholomew tried to stop it from being released, telling Lew Chudd, the owner of the record label, that releasing it would ruin Domino's career forever.
 
He couldn't have been more wrong. The song became Domino's biggest hit, rising to number two in the pop charts, and Bartholomew later admitted it had been a huge mistake for him to try to block it, saying that his horn arrangement for the song would be the thing he would be remembered for, and telling Domino's biographer Rick Coleman, "When I'm dead and gone a million times, they'll still be playing 'da-da-da-da-dee-dah'".
 
Not only was Domino's version a hit, but it was big enough that Louis Armstrong's version of the song was reissued and became a hit as well, and Elvis recorded a soundalike cover, including the piano intro that Domino had come up with, for his film "Loving You":
 
[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
The song was so big that it even revived the career of its co-lyricist, Al Lewis, whose career had been in the doldrums since a run of hits for people like Eddie Cantor in the 1930s. Lewis made a comeback as an R&B songwriter, co-writing songs for Domino himself:
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "I'm Ready"]
 
And for Little Anthony and the Imperials:
 
[Excerpt: Little Anthony and the Imperials, "Tears on My Pillow"]
 
As always with a Fats Domino record, we're going to talk about its points of rhythmic interest. The bass-line here is not one that was used on any of the previous versions, but it was common on New Orleans R&B records -- indeed it's very similar to the one Domino used on "Ain't That a Shame", which we looked at a few months ago.
 
This kind of bassline has some of that Jelly Roll Morton Spanish tinge we've talked about before, when we talked about the tresilo rhythms that Dave Bartholomew brought to the arrangements. But when it's used as a piano bassline, as it is here, it comes indirectly from the boogie woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey:
 
[Excerpt: Jimmy Yancey, "How Long Blues"]
 
Yancey made a speciality of this kind of bassline, but the man who made every New Orleans piano player start playing like that was the great boogie player Meade "Lux" Lewis, with his song "Yancey Special":
 
[Excerpt: Meade "Lux" Lewis, "Yancey Special"]
 
Lewis named that song after Yancey, which caused a problem for him when Sonny Thompson, an R&B bandleader from Chicago, recorded an instrumental with a similar bassline, "Long Gone":
 
[Excerpt: Sonny Thompson, "Long Gone"]
 
That song went to number one on the R&B charts, and Lewis sued Thompson for copyright infringement, claiming it was too similar to "Yancey Special", because it shared the same bassline. The defendants brought out Jimmy Yancey, who said that he'd come up with that bassline long before Lewis had. Lewis didn't help himself in his testimony -- he claimed, at first, that he hadn't named the song after Jimmy Yancey, but later admitted on the stand that the song called "Yancey Special" which featured a bassline in the style of Jimmy Yancey had indeed been named after Jimmy Yancey.
 
The plagiarism case was thrown out for that reason, but also for two others. One was that the bassline was such a simple idea that it couldn't by itself be copyrightable -- which is something I would question, but I have spoken in great detail about the problems with copyright law as it comes to black American musical creation in the past, and I won't repeat myself here. The other was that by allowing the record of "Yancey Special" to come out before he'd registered the copyright, Lewis had dedicated the whole composition to the public domain, and so Thompson could do what he liked with the bassline.
 
That bassline became a staple of R&B music, and particularly of New Orleans R&B music. You can hear it, for example, on "I Hear You Knockin'", a 1955 hit for Smiley Lewis, arranged by Dave Bartholomew, featuring Huey "Piano" Smith playing a very Fats Domino style piano part:
 
[Excerpt: Smiley Lewis, "I Hear You Knockin'"]
 
Domino had used the bassline in "Ain't That A Shame", as well, and it seems to have been taken up by Bartholomew as a signature motif -- he also used it in "Blue Monday", another song which he'd written for Smiley Lewis:
 
[Excerpt: Smiley Lewis, "Blue Monday"]
 
Domino's remake of that song would become his next hit after "Blueberry Hill", and almost as big a success.
Worldwide, "Blueberry Hill" was the biggest rock and roll hit of 1956, outdoing even Elvis' "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" in worldwide chart positions, though none of those songs could beat "Que Sera Sera" by Doris Day -- however much our popular image of the 1950s is based on ponytailed bobbysoxers, the fact remains that a sizeable proportion of the record-buying public were older and less inclined to rock than to gently sway, and for all that Domino's shows were inspiring riots wherever he went in 1956, his records were still also appealing to that older crowd.
 
But segregation applied here too. "Blueberry Hill" made Billboard's top thirty records of the year for country sales in its annual roundup, but it never appeared even on the top one hundred country charts during 1956 itself. We've talked before about how the recent "Old Town Road" debacle shows how musical genres are the product of rigid segregation, but nothing shows that more than this. That appearance by Domino in the top thirty sellers for the year was the only appearance by a black artist on any Billboard country charts in the fifties, and it shows that country audiences were buying Domino's records, just as his *lack* of appearance on all the other country charts that year shows that this wasn't being recognised by any of the musical gatekeepers, despite the evident country sensibility in his performance:
 
[Excerpt: Fats Domino, "Blueberry Hill"]
 
Meanwhile, of course, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were appearing on the R&B charts as well as the country and pop ones.
 
1956 was the absolute peak of Domino's career in chart terms, and "Blueberry Hill" was his biggest hit of that year, but he would carry on having top twenty pop hits until 1962, by which point he had outlasted not only the first wave of rockabilly acts that came up in 1955 and 56, but almost all of the second wave that we're going to see coming up in 1957 as well. His is an immense body of work, and we've barely touched upon it in the three episodes this podcast has devoted to him. His top thirty R&B chart hits span from 1949 through to 1964, a career that covers multiple revolutions in music. When he started having hits, the biggest artists in pop music were Perry Como and the Andrews Sisters, and when he stopped, the Beatles were at the top of the charts.
Domino was, other than Elvis, the biggest rock and roll star of the fifties by a massive margin. The whole of New Orleans music owes a debt to him, and "Blueberry Hill" in particular has been cited as an influence by everyone from Mick Jagger to Leonard Cohen.
 
Yet he is curiously unacknowledged in the popular consciousness, while much lesser stars loom larger. I suspect that part of the reason for that is racism, both in ignoring a black man because he was black, and in ignoring him because he didn't fit white prejudices about black people and the music they make.
 
Other than drinking a bit too much, and sleeping around a little in the fifties, Domino led a remarkably non-rock-and-roll life. He was married to the same woman for sixty-one years, he rarely left his home in New Orleans, and other than a little friction between songwriting partners you'll struggle to find anyone who had a bad word to say about him. You build a legend as a rock star by shooting your bass player on stage or choking to death on your own vomit, not by not liking to travel because you don't like the food anywhere else, or by being shy but polite, and smiling a lot.
 
That's not how you build a reputation for rock and roll excess. But it *is* how you build a body of work that stands up to any artist from the mid-twentieth-century, and how you live a long and happy life. It's how you get the Medal of Arts awarded to you by two Presidents -- George W. Bush awarded Domino with a replacement after he lost his first medal, from Bill Clinton, during Hurricane Katrina. And it's how you become so universally beloved and admired that when your home is destroyed in a hurricane, everyone from Elton John to Doctor John, from Paul McCartney to Robert Plant, will come together to record a tribute album to help raise funds to rebuild it.
 
Fats Domino died in 2017, sixty-eight years after the start of his career, at the age of eighty-nine. His collaborator Dave Bartholomew died in June this year, aged one hundred. They both left behind one of the finest legacies in the histories of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and New Orleans music.
Aug 12, 2019
Episode 44: "Train Kept A-Rollin'", by Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio
31:52

The Rock 'n' Roll Trio

 

Episode forty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Train Kept A-Rollin'" by Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, and how a rockabilly trio from Memphis connect a novelty cowboy song by Ella Fitzgerald to Motorhead and Aerosmith. 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 "Jump, Jive, an' Wail", by Louis Prima.

----more---- 

Resources

 

For biographical information on the Burnettes, I've mostly used Billy Burnette's self-published autobiography, Craxy Like Me. It's a flawed source, but the only other book on Johnny Burnette I've been able to find is in Spanish, and while I go to great lengths to make this podcast accurate I do have limits, and learning Spanish for a single lesson is one of them.

The details about the Burnettes' relationship with Elvis Presley come from Last Train To Memphis by Peter Guralnick.

Before Elvis by Larry Birnbaum has a chapter on "Train Kept A-Rollin'", and its antecedents in earlier blues material, that goes into far more detail than I could here, but which was an invaluable reference.

And this three-CD set contains almost everything Johnny Burnette released up to 1962. 

Patreon

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

Transcript

There are some records that have had such an effect on the history of rock music that the record itself becomes almost divorced from its context. Who made it, and how, doesn't seem to matter as much as that it did exist, and that it reverberated down the generations. Today, we're going to look at one of those records, and at how a novelty song about cowboys written for an Abbot and Costello film became a heavy metal anthem performed by every group that ever played a distorted riff.
 
There's a tradition in rock and roll music of brothers who fight constantly making great music together, and we'll see plenty of them as we go through the next few decades -- the Everly Brothers, Ray and Dave Davies, the Beach Boys... rock and roll would be very different without sibling rivalry. But few pairs of brothers have fought as violently and as often as Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. The first time Roy Orbison met them, he was standing in a Memphis radio station, chatting with Elvis Presley, and waiting for a lift. When the lift doors opened, inside the lift were the Burnette brothers, in the middle of a fist-fight.
 
When Dorsey was about eight years old and Johnny six, their mother bought them both guitars. By the end of the day, both guitars had been broken -- over each other's heads.
 
And their fights were not just the minor fights one might expect from young men, but serious business. Both of them were trained boxers, and in Dorsey Burnette's case he was a professional who became Golden Gloves champion of the South in 1950, and had once fought Sonny Liston. A fight between the Burnette brothers was a real fight.
 
They'd grown up around Lauderdale Court, the same apartment block where Elvis Presley spent his teenage years, and they used to hang around together and sing with a gang of teenage boys that included Bill Black's brother Johnny. Elvis would, as a teenager, hang around on the outskirts of their little group, singing along with them, but not really part of the group -- the Burnette brothers were as likely to bully him as they were to encourage him to be part of the gang, and while they became friendly later on, Elvis was always more of a friend-of-friends than he was an actual friend of theirs, even when he was a colleague of Dorsey's at Crown Electric. He was a little bit younger than them, and not the most sociable of people, and more importantly he didn't like their aggression – Elvis would jokingly refer to them as the Daltons, after the outlaw gang,
Another colleague at Crown Electric was a man named Paul Burlison, who also boxed, and had been introduced to Dorsey by Lee Denson, who had taught both Dorsey and Elvis their first guitar chords. Burlison also played the guitar, and had played in many small bands over the late forties and early fifties. In particular, one of the bands he was in had had its own regular fifteen-minute show on a local radio station, and their show was on next to a show presented by the blues singer Howlin' Wolf. Burlison's guitar playing would later show many signs of being influenced by Wolf's electric blues, just as much as by the country and western music his early groups were playing. Some sources even say that Burlison played on some of Wolf's early recordings at the Sun studios, though most of the sessionographies I've seen for Wolf say otherwise.
 
The three of them formed a group in 1952, the Rhythm Rangers, with Burlison on lead guitar, Dorsey Burnette on double bass, and Johnny Burnette on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. A year later, they changed their name to the Rock & Roll Trio.
 
While they were called the Rock & Roll Trio, they were still basically a country band, and their early setlists included songs like Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On":
 
[Excerpt: Hank Snow, "I'm Moving On"]
 
That one got dropped from their setlist after an ill-fated trip to Nashville. They wanted to get on the Grand Ole Opry, and so they drove up, found Snow, who was going to be on that night's show, and asked him if he could get them on to the show. Snow explained to them that it had taken him twenty years in the business to work his way up to being on the Grand Ole Opry, and he couldn't just get three random people he'd never met before on to the show.
 
Johnny Burnette replied with two words, the first of which would get this podcast bumped into the adult section in Apple Podcasts, and the second of which was "you", and then they turned round and drove back to Memphis. They never played a Hank Snow song live again.
 
It wasn't long after that, in 1953, that they recorded their first single, "You're Undecided", for a tiny label called Von Records in Boonville, Mississippi;
 
[Excerpt: The Rock and Roll Trio, "You're Undecided", Von Records version]
 
Around this time they also wrote a song called "Rockabilly Boogie", which they didn't get to record until 1957:
[Excerpt: Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, "Rockabilly Boogie"]
 
That has been claimed as the first use of the word "rockabilly", and Billy Burnette, Dorsey's son, says they coined the word based on his name and that of Johnny's son Rocky.
 
Now, it seems much more likely to me that the origin of the word is the obvious one -- that it's a portmanteau of the words "rock" and "hillbilly", to describe rocking hillbilly music -- but those were the names of their kids, so I suppose it's just about possible.
 
Their 1953 single was not a success, and they spent the next few years playing in honky-tonks. They also regularly played the Saturday Night Jamboree at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium, a regular country music show that was occasionally broadcast on the same station that Burlison's old bands had performed on, KWEM. Most of the musicians in Memphis who went on to make important early rockabilly records would play at the Jamboree, but more important than the show itself was the backstage area, where musicians would jam, show each other new riffs they'd come up with, and pass ideas back and forth. Those backstage jam sessions were the making of the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, as they were for many of the other rockabilly acts in the area.
 
Their big break came in early 1956, when they appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and won three times in a row. The Ted Mack Amateur Hour was a TV series that was in many ways the X Factor or American Idol of the 1950s. The show launched the careers of Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Gladys Knight among others, and when the Rock and Roll Trio won for the third time (at the same time their old neighbour Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan show on another channel) they got signed to Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca Records, one of the biggest major labels in the USA at the time.
 
Their first attempt at recording didn't go particularly well. Their initial session for Coral was in New York, and when they got there they were surprised to find a thirty-two piece orchestra waiting for them, none of whom had any more clue about playing rock and roll music than the Rock And Roll Trio had about playing orchestral pieces.
 
They did record one track with the orchestra, "Shattered Dreams", although that song didn't get released until many years later:
 
[Excerpt: Johnny Burnette, "Shattered Dreams"]
 
But after recording that song they sent all the musicians home except the drummer, who played on the rest of the session. They'd simply not got the rock and roll sound they wanted when working with all those musicians. They didn't need them.
 
They didn't have quite enough songs for the session, and needed another uptempo number, and so Dorsey went out into the hallway and quickly wrote a song called "Tear It Up", which became the A-side of their first Coral single, with the B-side being a new version of "You're Undecided":
 
[Excerpt: The Rock and Roll Trio, "Tear It Up"]
 
While Dorsey wrote that song, he decided to split the credit, as they always did, four ways between the three members of the band and their manager. This kind of credit-splitting is normal in a band-as-gang, and right then that's what they were -- a gang, all on the same side. That was soon going to change, and credit was going to be one of the main reasons.
 
But that was all to come. For now, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio weren't happy at all about their recordings. They didn't want to make any more records in New York with a bunch of orchestral musicians who didn't know anything about their music. They wanted to make records in Nashville, and so they were booked into Owen Bradley's studio, the same one where Gene Vincent made his first records, and where Wanda Jackson recorded when she was in Nashville rather than LA. Bradley knew how to get a good rockabilly sound, and they were sure they were going to get the sound they'd been getting live when they recorded there.
 
In fact, they got something altogether different, and better than that sound, and it happened entirely by accident.
On their way down to Nashville from New York they played a few shows, and one of the first they played was in Philadelphia. At that show, Paul Burlison dropped his amplifier, loosening one of the vacuum tubes inside. The distorted sound it gave was like nothing he'd ever heard, and while he replaced the tube, he started loosening it every time he wanted to get that sound.
 
So when they got to Nashville, they went into Owen Bradley's studio and, for possibly the first time ever, deliberately recorded a distorted guitar.
 
I say possibly because, as so often happens with these things, a lot of people seem to have had the same idea around the same time, but the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's recordings do seem to be the first ones where the distortion was deliberately chosen. Obviously we've already looked at "Rocket 88", which did have a distorted guitar, and again that was caused by an accident, but the difference there was that the accident happened on the day of the recording with no time to fix it. This was Burlison choosing to use the result of the accident at a point where he could have easily had the amplifier in perfect working order, had he wanted to.
 
At these sessions, the trio were augmented by a few studio musicians from the Nashville "A-Team", the musicians who made most of the country hits of the time. While Dorsey Burnette played bass live, he preferred playing guitar, so in the studio he was on an additional rhythm guitar while Bob Moore played the bass. Buddy Harmon was on drums, while session guitarist Grady Martin added another electric guitar to complement Burlison's.
 
The presence of these musicians has led some to assume that they played everything on the records, and that the Rock 'n' Roll Trio only added their voices, but that seems to be very far from the case. Certainly Burlison's guitar style is absolutely distinctive, and the effect he puts on his guitar is absolutely unlike anything else that you hear from Grady Martin at this point. Martin did, later, introduce the fuzztone to country music, with his playing on records like Marty Robbins' "Don't Worry":
 
[Excerpt: Marty Robbins, "Don't Worry"]
 
But that was a good five years after the Rock 'n' Roll Trio sessions, and the most likely explanation is that Martin was inspired to add fuzz to his guitar by Paul Burlison, rather than deciding to add it on one session and then not using it again for several years.
 
The single they recorded at that Nashville session was one that would echo down the decades, influencing everyone from the Beatles to Aerosmith to Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages.
 
The A-side, "Honey Hush", was originally written and recorded by Big Joe Turner three years earlier:
 
[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Honey Hush"]
 
It's not one of Turner's best, to be honest -- leaning too heavily on the misogyny that characterised too much of his work -- but over the years it has been covered by everyone from Chuck Berry to Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello to Jerry Lee Lewis. The Rock 'n' Roll Trio's cover version is probably the best of these, and certainly the most exciting:
 
[Excerpt: Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, "Honey Hush"]
 
This is the version of the song that inspired most of those covers, but the song that really mattered to people was the B-side, a track called "Train Kept A-Rollin'".
 
"Train Kept A-Rollin'", like many R&B songs, has a long history, and is made up of elements that one can trace back to the 1920s, or earlier in some cases. But the biggest inspiration for the track is a song called "Cow Cow Boogie", which was originally recorded by Ella Mae Morse in 1942, but which was written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in an Abbot and Costello film, but cut from her appearance.
 
Fitzgerald eventually recorded her own hit version of the song in 1943, backed by the Ink Spots, with the pianist Bill Doggett accompanying them:
 
[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, "Cow Cow Boogie"]
 
That was in turn adapted by the jump band singer Tiny Bradshaw, under the title "Train Kept A-Rollin'":
 
[Excerpt: Tiny Bradshaw, "The Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
 And that in turn was the basis for the Rock 'n' Roll Trio's version of the song, which they radically rearranged to feature an octave-doubled guitar riff, apparently invented by Dorsey Burnette, but played simultaneously by Burlison and Martin, with Burlison's guitar fuzzed up and distorted. This version of the song would become a classic:
 
[Excerpt: Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
The single wasn't a success, but its B-side got picked up by the generation of British guitar players that came after, and from then it became a standard of rock music. It was covered by Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages:
 
[Excerpt: Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
The Yardbirds:
 
[Excerpt: The Yardbirds, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets:
 
[Excerpt: Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
 Aerosmith:
 
[Excerpt: Aerosmith, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
 Motorhead:
 
[Excerpt: Motorhead: "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
You get the idea. By adding a distorted guitar riff, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio had performed a kind of alchemy, which turned a simple novelty cowboy song into something that would make the repertoire of every band that ever wanted to play as loud as possible and to scream at the top of their voices the words "the train kept rolling all night long".
 
Sadly, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio didn't last much longer. While they had always performed as the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, Coral Records decided to release their recordings as by "Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio", and the other two members were understandably furious. They were a band, not just Johnny Burnette's backing musicians.
 
Dorsey was the first to quit -- he left the band a few days before they were due to appear in Rock! Rock! Rock!, a cheap exploitation film starring Alan Freed. They got Johnny Black in to replace him for the film shoot, and Dorsey rejoined shortly afterwards, but the cracks had already appeared.
 
They recorded one further session, but the tracks from that weren't even released as by Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, just by Johnny Burnette, and that was the final straw. The group split up, and went their separate ways.
 
Johnny remained signed to Coral Records as a solo artist, but when he and Dorsey both moved, separately, to LA, they ended up working together as songwriters.
 
Dorsey was contracted as a solo artist to Imperial Records, who had a new teen idol star who needed material -- Ricky Nelson had had an unexpected hit after singing on his parents' TV show, and as a result he was suddenly being promoted as a rock and roll star. Dorsey and Johnny wrote a whole string of top ten hits for Nelson, songs like "Believe What You Say", "Waiting In School", "It's Late", and "Just A Little Too Much":
 
[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, "Just a Little Too Much"]
 
They also started recording for Imperial as a duo, under the name "the Burnette Brothers":
 
[Excerpt: The Burnette Brothers, "Warm Love"]
 
But that was soon stopped by Coral, who wanted to continue marketing Johnny as a solo artist, and they both started pursuing separate solo careers. Dorsey eventually had a minor hit of his own, "There Was a Tall Oak Tree", which made the top thirty in 1960. He made a few more solo records in the early sixties, and after becoming a born-again Christian in the early seventies he started a new, successful, career as a country singer, eventually receiving a "most promising newcomer" award from the Academy of Country Music in 1973, twenty years after his career started. He died in 1979 of a heart attack.
 
Johnny Burnette eventually signed to Liberty Records, and had a string of hits that, like Dorsey's, were in a very different style from the Rock 'n' Roll Trio records. His biggest hit, and the one that most people associate with him to this day, was "You're Sixteen, You're Beautiful, And You're Mine":
 
[Excerpt: Johnny Burnette, "You're Sixteen"]
 
That song is, of course, a perennial hit that most people still know almost sixty years later, but none of Johnny's solo records had anything like the power and passion of the Rock 'n' Roll Trio recordings. And sadly we'll never know if he would regain that passion, as in 1964 he died in a boating accident.
 
Paul Burlison, the last member of the trio, gave up music once the trio split up, and became an electrician again. He briefly joined Johnny on one tour in 1963, but otherwise stayed out of the music business until the 1980s. He then got back into performing, and started a new lineup of the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, featuring Johnny Black, who had briefly replaced Dorsey in the group, and Tony Austin, the drummer who had joined with them on many tour dates after they got a recording contract.
 
He later joined "the Sun Rhythm Section", a band made up of many of the musicians who had played on classic rockabilly records, including Stan Kessler, Jimmy Van Eaton, Sonny Burgess, and DJ Fontana.
Burlison released his only solo album in 1997. That album was called Train Kept A-Rollin', and featured a remake of that classic song, with Rocky and Billy Burnette -- Johnny and Dorsey's sons -- on vocals:
 
[Excerpt: Paul Burlison, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"]
 
 He kept playing rockabilly until he died in 2003, aged seventy-four.
Aug 05, 2019
Episode 43: "I Gotta Know" by Wanda Jackson
30:38

Wanda Jackson playing guitar

Episode forty-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "I Gotta Know" by Wanda Jackson, and the links between rockabilly and the Bakersfield 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 "Bacon Fat" by Andre Williams.

 ----more----

Resources

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

 

My main source for this episode is Wanda Jackson's autobiography, Every Night is Saturday Night.

I also made reference to the website Women in Rock & Roll's First Wave, and I am very likely to reference that again in future episodes on Wanda Jackson and others.

I mentioned the podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, and its episode on "Okie From Muskogee". Several other episodes of that podcast touch tangentially on people mentioned in this episode too -- the two-parter on Buck Owens and Don Rich, the episode on Ralph Mooney, and the episodes on Ralph Mooney and the Louvin Brothers all either deal with musicians who played on Wanda's records, with Ken Nelson, or both. Generally I think most people who enjoy this podcast will enjoy that one as well.

And this compilation collects most of Jackson's important early work.

Errata

I say Jackson's career spans more than the time this podcast covers. I meant in length of time – this podcast covers sixty-two years, and Jackson's career so far has lasted seventy-one – but the ambiguity could suggest that this podcast doesn't cover anything prior to 1948.

Patreon

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

Transcript

Today we're going to talk about someone whose career as a live performer spans more than the time that this podcast covers. Wanda Jackson started performing in 1948, and she finally retired from live performance in March 2019, though she has an album coming out later this year. She is only the second performer we've dealt with who is still alive and working, and she has the longest career of any of them.

Wanda Jackson is, simply, the queen of rockabilly, and she's a towering figure in the genre.

Jackson was born in Oklahoma, but as this was the tail-end of the great depression, she and her family migrated to California when she was small, as stragglers in the great migration that permanently changed California.

The migration of the Okies in the 1930s is a huge topic, and one that I don't have the space to explain in this podcast -- if you're interested in it, I'd recommend as a starting point listening to the episode of the great country music podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones on "Okie From Muskogee", which I'll link in the show notes. The very, very, shortened version is that bad advice as to best farming practices created an environmental disaster on an almost apocalyptic scale across the whole middle of America, right at the point that the country was also going through the worst economic disaster in its history. As entire states became almost uninhabitable, three and a half million people moved from the Great Plains to elsewhere in the US, and a large number of them moved to California, where no matter what state they actually came from they became known as "Okies".

But the thing to understand about the Okies for this purpose is that they were a despised underclass -- and as we've seen throughout this series, members of despised underclasses often created the most exciting and innovative music.

The music the Okies who moved to California made was far more raucous than the country music that was popular in the Eastern states, and it had a huge admixture of blues and boogie woogie in it. Records like Jack Guthrie's "Oakie Boogie", for example, a clear precursor of rockabilly:

[Excerpt: Jack Guthrie, "Oakie Boogie"]

We talked way back in episode three about Western Swing and the distinction in the thirties and forties between country music and western music. The "Western" in that music came from the wild west, but it also referred to the west coast and the migrants from the Dust Bowl. Of the two biggest names in Western Swing, one, Bob Wills, was from Texas but moved to Oklahoma, while the other, Spade Cooley, was from Oklahoma but moved to California.

It was the Western Swing that was being made by Dust Bowl migrants in California in the 1940s that, when it made its way eastwards to Tennessee, transmuted itself into rockabilly. And that is the music that young Wanda Jackson was listening to when she was tiny. Her father, who she absolutely adored, was a fan of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams, as well as of Jimmie Rodgers' hillbilly music and the blues. They lived in Greenfield, a town a few miles away from Bakersfield, where her father worked, and if any of you know anything at all about country music that will tell you a lot in itself. Bakersfield would become, in the 1950s, the place where musicians like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart, most of them from Dust Bowl migrant families themselves, developed a tough form of honky-tonk country and western that was influenced by hillbilly boogie and Western Swing.

Wanda Jackson spent the formative years of her childhood in the same musical and social environment as those musicians, and while she and her family moved back to Oklahoma a few years later, she had already been exposed to that style of music. At the time, when anyone went out to dance, it was to live music, and since her parents couldn't afford babysitters, when they went out, as they did most weekends, they took Wanda with them, so between the ages of five and ten she seems to have seen almost every great Western band of the forties.

Her first favourite as a kid was Spade Cooley, who was, along with Bob Wills, considered the greatest Western Swing bandleader of all. However, this podcast has a policy of not playing Cooley's records (the balance of musical importance to outright evil is tipped too far in his case, and I advise you not to look for details as to why), so I won't play an excerpt of him here, as I normally would.

The other artist she loved though was a sibling group called The Maddox Brothers and Rose, who were a group that bridged the gap between Western Swing and the newer Bakersfield Sound:

[Excerpt: The Maddox Brothers and Rose, "George's Playhouse Boogie"]

The Maddox Brothers and Rose were also poor migrants who'd moved to California, though in their case they'd travelled just *before* the inrush of Okies rather than at the tail end of it. They're another of those groups who are often given the credit for having made the first rock and roll record, although as we've often discussed that's a largely meaningless claim. They were, however, one of the big influences both on the Bakersfield Sound and on the music that became rockabilly.

Wanda loved the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and in particular she loved their stage presence -- the shiny costumes they wore, and the feistiness of Rose, in particular. She decided before she was even in school that she wanted to be "a girl singer", as she put it, just like Rose Maddox.

When she was six, her father bought her a guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalogue and started teaching her chords. He played a little guitar and fiddle, and the two of them would play together every night. They'd sit together and try to work out the chords for songs they knew from the radio or records, and Wanda's mother would write down the chords in a notebook for them.

She also taught herself to yodel, since that was something that all the country and western singers at the time would do, and had done ever since the days of Jimmie Rodgers in the late twenties and early thirties. The record she copied to learn to yodel was "Chime Bells" by Elton Britt, "Country Music's Yodelling Cowboy Crooner":

[Excerpt: Elton Britt, "Chime Bells"]

By the time she was in her early teens, she was regularly performing for her friends at parties, and her friends dared her to audition for a local radio show that played country music and had a local talent section. Her friends all went with her to the station, and she played Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #6" for the DJ who ran the show.

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, "Blue Yodel #6"]

To her shock, but not the shock of her friends, the DJ loved her sound, and gave her a regular spot on the local talent section of his show, which in turn led to her getting her own fifteen-minute radio show, in which she would sing popular country hits of the time period. One of the people whose songs she would perform on a regular basis was Hank Thompson.

Thompson was a honky-tonk singer who performed a pared-down version of the Bob Wills style of Western Swing. Thompson's music was using the same rhythms and instrumentation as Wills, but with much more focus on the vocals and the song than on instrumental solos. Thonpson's music was one of several precursors to the music that became rockabilly, though he was most successful with mid-tempo ballads like "The Wild Side of Life":

[Excerpt: Hank Thompson, "The Wild Side of Life"]

Thompson, like Wanda, lived in Oklahoma, and he happened to be driving one day and hear her show on the radio. He phoned her up at the station and asked her if she would come and perform with his band that Saturday night. When she told him she'd have to ask her mother, he laughed at first -- he hadn't realised she was only fourteen, because her voice made her sound so much older.

At this time, it was normal for bands that toured to have multiple featured singers and to perform in a revue style, rather than to have a single lead vocalist -- there were basically two types of tour that happened: package tours featuring multiple different acts doing their own things, and revues, where one main act would introduce several featured guests to join them on stage. Johnny Otis and James Brown, for example, both ran revue shows at various points, and Hank Thompson's show seems also to have been in this style.

Jackson had never played with a band before, and by her own account she wasn't very good when she guested with Thompson's band for the first time. But Thompson had faith in her. He couldn't take her on the road, because she was still so young she had to go to school, but every time he played Oklahoma he'd invite her to do a few numbers with his band, mentoring her and teaching her on stage how to perform with other musicians.

Thompson also invited Jackson to appear on his local TV show, which led to her getting a TV show of her own in the Oklahoma area, and she became part of a loose group of locally-popular musicians, including the future homophobic campaigner against human rights Anita Bryant.

While she was still in high school, Thompson recorded demos of her singing and took them to his producer, Ken Nelson, at Capitol Records. Nelson liked her voice, but when he found out she was under eighteen he decided to pass on recording her, just due to the legal complications and the fact that she'd not yet finished school.

Instead, Jackson was signed to Decca Records, where she cut her first recordings with members of Thompson's band. Her first single was a duet with another featured singer from Thompson's band, Billy Gray. Thompson, who was running the session, basically forced Jackson to sing it against her objections. She didn't have a problem with the song itself, but she didn't want to make her name from a duet, rather than as a solo artist.

[Excerpt: Billy Gray and Wanda Jackson, "You Can't Have My Love"]

She might not have been happy with the recording at first, but she was feeling better about it by the time she started her senior year in High School with a top ten country single.

Her followups were less successful, and she became unhappy with the way her career was going. In particular she was horrified when she first played the Grand Ole Opry. She was told she couldn't go onstage in the dress she was wearing, because her shoulders were uncovered and that was obscene -- at this time, Jackson was basically the only country singer in the business who was trying to look glamorous rather than like a farmgirl -- and then, when she did get on stage, wearing a jacket, she was mocked by a couple of the comedy acts, who stood behind her making fun of her throughout her entire set. Clearly the country establishment wasn't going to get along with her at all.

But then she left school, and became a full-time musician, and she made a decision which would have an enormous effect on her. Her father was her manager, but if she was going to get more gigs and perform as a solo artist rather than just doing the occasional show with Hank Thompson, she needed a booking agent, and neither she nor her father had an idea how to get one.

So they did what seemed like the most obvious thing to them, and bought a copy of Billboard and started looking through the ads. They eventually found an ad from a booking agent named Bob Neal, in Memphis, and phoned him up, explaining that Wanda was a recording artist for Decca records.

Neal had heard her records, which had been locally popular in Memphis, and was particularly looking for a girl singer to fill out the bill on a tour he was promoting with a new young singer he managed, named Elvis Presley.

Backstage after her support slot on the first show of the tour, she and her father heard a terrible screaming coming from the auditorium. They thought at first that there must have been a fire, and Wanda's father went out to investigate, telling her not to come with him. He came back a minute later telling her, "You've got to come see this".

The screaming was, of course, at Elvis, and immediately Wanda knew that he was not any ordinary country singer. The two of them started dating, and Elvis even gave Wanda his ring, which is still in her possession, and while they eventually drifted apart, he had a profound influence on her.

Her father was not impressed with Elvis' performance, saying "That boy's got to get his show in order... He's all over the stage messin' around. And he's got to stop slurrin' his words, too."

Wanda, on the other hand, was incredibly impressed with him, and as the two of them toured -- on a bill which also included Bob Neal's other big act of the time, Johnny Cash -- he would teach her how to be more of a rock and roller like him. In particular, he taught her to strum the acoustic guitar with a single strum, rather than to hit each string individually, which was the style of country players at the time.

Meanwhile, her recording career was flagging -- she hadn't had another hit with any of her solo recordings, and she was starting to wonder if Decca was the right place for her. She did, though, have a hit as a songwriter, with a song called "Without Your Love", which she'd written for Bobby Lord, a singer who appeared with her on the radio show Ozark Jubilee.

[Excerpt: Bobby Lord, "Without Your Love"]

That song had gone to the top ten in the country charts, and turned out to be Lord's only hit single.

But while she could come up with a hit for him, she wasn't having hits herself, and she decided that she wanted to leave Decca. Her contract was up, and while they did have the option to extend it for another year and were initially interested in exercising the option, Decca agreed to let her go.

Meanwhile, Wanda was also thinking about what kind of music she wanted to make in the future. Elvis had convinced her that she should move into rockabilly, but she didn't know how to do it. She talked about this to Thelma Blackmon, the mother of one of her schoolfriends, who had written a couple of songs for her previously, and Blackmon came back with a song called "I Gotta Know", which Jackson decided would be perfect to restart her career.

At this point Hank Thompson went to Ken Nelson, and told him that that underage singer he'd liked was no longer underage, and would he be interested in signing her?

He definitely was interested, and he took her into the Capitol tower to record with a group of session musicians who he employed for as many of his West Coast sessions as possible, and who were at that point just beginning to create what later became the Bakersfield Sound.

The musicians on that session were some of the best in the country music field -- Jelly Sanders on fiddle, Joe Maphis on guitar, and the legendary Ralph Mooney on steel guitar, and they were perfect for recording what would become a big country hit.

But "I Gotta Know" was both country and rock and roll. While the choruses are definitely country:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "I Gotta Know"]

the verses are firmly in the rock and roll genre:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "I Gotta Know"]

Now, I'm indebted to the website "Women in Rock & Roll's First Wave", which I'll link in the shownotes, for this observation, but this kind of genre-mixing was very common particularly with women, and particularly with women who had previously had careers outside rock and roll and were trying to transition into it. While male performers in that situation would generally jump in head first and come up with an embarrassment like Perry Como's version of "Ko Ko Mo", female performers would do something rather different.

They would, in fact, tend to do what Jackson did here, and combine the two genres, either by having a verse in one style and a chorus in the other, as Wanda does, or in other ways, as in for example Kay Starr's "Rock and Roll Waltz":

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

Starr is a particularly good example here, because she's doing what a lot of female performers were doing at the time, which is trying to lace the recording with enough irony and humour that it could be taken as either a record in the young persons' style parodying the old persons' music, or a record in the older style mocking the new styles. By sitting on the fence in this way and being ambiguous enough, the established stars could back down if this rock and roll music turned out to be just another temporary fad.

Jackson isn't quite doing that, but with her Elvis-style hiccups on the line "I gotta know, I gotta know", she comes very close to parody, in a way that could easily be written off if the experiment had failed.

The experiment didn't fail, however, and "I Gotta Know" became Jackson's biggest hit of the fifties, making its way to number fifteen on the country charts -- rather oddly, given that she was clearly repositioning herself for the rockabilly market, it seemed to sell almost solely to the country market, and didn't cross over the way that Carl Perkins or Gene Vincent did.

Her next single could have been the one that cemented her reputation as the greatest female rockabilly star of all, had it not been for one simple mistake. The song "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!" had been a favourite in her stage act for years, and she would let out a tremendous growl on the title line when she got to it, which would always get audiences worked up.

Unfortunately, she horrified Ken Nelson in the studio by taking a big drink of milk while all the session musicians were on a coffee break. She hadn't realised what milk does to a singer's throat, and when they came to record the song she couldn't get her voice to do the growl that had always worked on stage. The result was still a good record, but it wasn't the massive success it would otherwise have been:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!"]

After that failed, Ken Nelson floundered around for quite a while trying to find something else that could work for Jackson. She kept cutting rockabilly tracks, but they never quite had the power of her stage performances, and meanwhile Nelson was making mistakes in what material he brought in, just as he was doing at the same time with Gene Vincent. Just like with Vincent, whenever Wanda brought in her own material, or material she'd picked to cover by other people, it worked fine, but when Nelson brought in something it would go down like a lead balloon.

Probably the worst example was a terrible attempt to capitalise on the current calypso craze, a song called "Don'a Wanna", which was written by Boudleaux Bryant, one of the great songwriters of the fifties, but which wouldn't have been his best effort even before it was given a racist accent at Nelson's suggestion (and which Jackson cringed at doing even at the time, let alone sixty years later):

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Don'a Wanna"]

Much better was "Cool Love", which Jackson co-wrote herself, with her friend Vicki Countryman, Thelma Blackmon's daughter:

[Excerpt: Wanda Jackson, "Cool Love"]

That one is possibly too closely modelled after Elvis' recent hits, right down to the backing vocals, but it features a great Buck Owens guitar solo, it's fun, and Jackson is clearly engaged with the material.

But just like all the other records since "I Wanna Know", "Cool Love" did nothing on the charts -- and indeed it wouldn't be until 1960 that Jackson would reach the charts again in the USA. But when she did, it would be with recordings she'd made years earlier, during the time period we're talking about now.

And before she did, she would have her biggest success of all, and become the first rock and roll star about whom the cliche really was true -- even though she was having no success in her home country, she was big in Japan.

But that's a story for a few weeks' time...

Jul 29, 2019
Episode 42: "Ooby Dooby" by Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings
30:14

Roy Orbison and Sam Phillips

Episode forty-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Ooby Dooby" by Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, and the time when Sam Phillips got things badly wrong.. 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.

----more----

Resources

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 Orbison. The one I have used for much of this is The Authorised Roy Orbison written by Jeff Slate and three of Orbison's children.

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.

This compilation features every track Orbison released up til 1962.

His early Sun singles are also 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 Orbison's work, in a way hearing it in isolation wouldn't.

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

Today we're once again going to look at a star who was discovered by Sun Records. But for once, the star we're looking at did not do his most interesting or vital work at Sun, and nor did he do the work that defined his persona there.

Indeed, today we're going to talk about one of the very few times that Sam Phillips and Sun Records took on someone who would become a massive, massive, star, and completely mismanaged him, misjudged his abilities totally, and did everything completely wrong, to the point where he almost destroyed his career before it began.

Roy Orbison was someone who made an unlikely rock and roll star. A quiet, unassuming, man, who rarely used an oath stronger than "Mercy", and wore dark glasses in later years to hide as much of his face as possible, he was the last person one would expect to be making music that was regarded as rebellious or exciting. And indeed, in his later years, the music he chose to make was very far from rebellious, though always rooted in rock and roll.

Orbison had grown up knowing he was going to be a singer. When he was six years old, his father had bought him a guitar and taught him the chords to "You Are My Sunshine", and by the age of ten he was already winning talent contests. But it was seeing the famous country singer Lefty Frizzell live that really convinced him.

[Excerpt: Lefty Frizzell, "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time"]

It wasn't so much that Frizzell was a great performer -- though he was pretty good, and he hugely influenced Orbison's vocal style. What really impressed young Roy Orbison, though, was seeing Frizzell, after the show, getting into a Cadillac. Orbison realised you could make real money just from singing, and started to make plans.

In his teens, he and a group of his friends formed a country and western band, the Wink Westerners (named after the small town they lived in). That band had various lineups, but it eventually settled into a two-guitar, bass, drums, and electric mandolin lineup of Orbison, Billy Pat Ellis, Jack Kenneally, Johnny Wilson, and James Morrow.

While Orbison was still in school, the band got their own radio show, one day a week, and became big enough that when the country star Slim Whitman came to town they were chosen as his backing group:

[Excerpt: Slim Whitman, "Indian Love Call"]

The band were primarily a country band, but like most bands of the time they would play whatever music the customers wanted to hear. In later years, Orbison would be able to pinpoint the exact moment he became a rock and roller -- on New Year's Eve 1954. The band started playing "Shake, Rattle, and Roll", expecting it to finish dead on the stroke of midnight, but then Orbison looked at the clock and realised they'd started far too soon. That version of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll", which lasted for eight minutes, converted Roy Orbison. When he started playing it, rock and roll was just another form of music, but by the end he knew he wanted to play that kind of music forever. The Wink Westerners were quickly renamed the Teen Kings.

Orbison went off to university, where he heard a song called "Ooby Dooby" which was written by two classmates of his, Dick Penner and Wade Moore. They allegedly wrote it in a fifteen minute period, while on the roof of their frat house, and to be honest it sounds like fifteen minutes is about as long as it would take to write. It soon entered the set of the newly-named Teen Kings and became one of their most successful songs.

The Teen Kings soon got their own local TV series, to go with the local radio shows they already had. When the new country star Johnny Cash passed through town, he appeared on the Teen Kings' TV show, and Orbison asked him how to get signed to Sun Records. Cash gave Orbison the phone number for Sam Phillips, and told him to tell Phillips that Cash had sent him. He also advised Orbison that if he wanted to have any success as a musician, he should probably start singing in a lower register, and maybe change his name. Orbison never took that advice, and in later years he would joke with Cash about how terrible his advice was.

His advice about getting signed to Sun wasn't much better either -- Orbison did indeed phone Sam Phillips and tell him Johnny Cash had said to call Phillips. Phillips responded by saying "Tell Johnny Cash he doesn't run Sun Records, I do" and slamming the phone down. So Sun Records seemed like a dead end. The Teen Kings were going to have to look elsewhere for a record contract.

So instead the Teen Kings went into the studio to audition for Columbia Records. They recorded two tracks at that initial session. One was "Ooby Dooby"; the other was a cover version of a song by the Clovers, "Hey, Miss Fannie":

[Excerpt: The Clovers, "Hey, Miss Fannie"]

At the time, the Teen Kings thought that they'd almost certainly get a contract with Columbia, but Columbia ended up turning them down. They did, however, like "Ooby Dooby", enough to give it to another group, Sid King and the Five Strings, who released it unsuccessfully as a single.

[Excerpt: Sid King and the Five Strings, "Ooby Dooby"]

As they had been turned down now by both the major label Columbia and the large indie Sun, Roy and the band went into the studio with Norman Petty, a local Texas record producer, to record "Ooby Dooby" again, to be released as a single on the tiny indie label Je-Wel. It came out at almost exactly the same time as Sid King's version.

[Excerpt: The Teen Kings, "Ooby Dooby", Je-Wel version]

But then Sam Phillips had a change of heart. Roy still wanted to be on Sun, and pestered a local record shop owner who knew Phillips to play "Ooby Dooby" for him. Phillips eventually listened to the single and liked it, but thought that he could do a better job of it. He discovered that Orbison wasn't yet twenty-one, and so the contract he'd signed with Je-Wel was void. Phillips signed Orbison, got an injunction taken out against Je-Wel, preventing them from putting out any more copies of the single -- only a few hundred ever got released -- and quickly went into the studio to record a new version of the song.

And this sort of sums up the difference between Orbison's relationship with Sam Phillips and everyone else's. Every other successful musician who recorded for Sun Records recorded for them first, and owed their careers to Phillips. He'd given them the shot that no-one else would, and he'd moulded them into the artists that they would become. Even the ones who later fell out with Phillips always credited him with being the reason they'd had any success in the business.

Roy Orbison, on the other hand, had been discovered before Phillips. Phillips had turned him down, and he'd made a record somewhere else. That record was even with a producer who, in a little while, would be putting out rockabilly hits every bit as big as Phillips was. That meant that Roy Orbison would never feel, as Elvis or Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins did, that he owed his career to Sam Phillips.

The rerecorded version was, as far as Orbison's performance goes, almost identical to the original. Orbison was not a wild improviser like many of the artists with whom Phillips worked -- he would work out his parts exactly, and stick to them. While Phillips would always claim in later life that his version of "Ooby Dooby" was vastly superior to the earlier one, most listeners would struggle to tell the difference:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, "Ooby Dooby", Sun version]

Rather oddly, given Orbison's later career, it wasn't primarily his singing that impressed Phillips, but rather his guitar playing. Phillips would talk for the rest of his life about what a great guitarist Orbison was. Phillips would often get Orbison to play on records by other artists, and would later say that the only musician he knew who had a better sense of rhythm was Jerry Lee Lewis.

And Orbison *was* a great guitarist. He was similar to Chuck Berry in that he would play both rhythm and lead simultaneously -- if you listen to the records he made where his guitar playing is prominent, you can hear him using the bass strings to keep a riff down, and then playing fills between his vocal lines.

But still, it would be several years before anyone in the record industry seemed to notice that Roy Orbison was, well, Roy Orbison.

The B-side was recorded in a single take, and itself became a rockabilly classic. It was co-written by Orbison and the band's drummer, Billy Pat Ellis, but it caused problems:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, "Go Go Go"]

That would later be recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, among others, and would be one of the few rockabilly songs that Orbison would keep in his setlists in future years.

While Ellis had cowritten the song, he wasn't credited on the label, which understandably caused him to get angry -- it seemed like Roy was cheating him out of his royalties. And while the record had been made by Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings as a group, it seemed that all anyone was talking about was Roy Orbison, not the Teen Kings.

The group went out on tour, on a package with other Sun artists, and "Ooby Dooby" went to number fifty-nine in the pop charts and sold around two hundred thousand copies. This wasn't an amazing, ground-breaking level of success like some other Sun artists had had, but it was perfectly respectable, and was enough to see them go into the studio to record a follow-up, "Rockhouse".

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Rockhouse"]

That song was originally written by a young singer called Harold Jenkins, who was making recordings for Sun at the time, though the recordings didn't get released until after Jenkins became a country star under the name Conway Twitty. Orbison took Jenkins' demo and substantially reworked it, earning himself a co-writing credit.

The B-side was a song that Johnny Cash had written, called "Little Woolly Booger":

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "Little Woolly Booger"]

10) That was renamed to the rather more radio-friendly "You're My Baby" for Orbison's version:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, "You're My Baby"]

"Rockhouse" didn't do very well, and the band were getting disgruntled. They felt that Sam Phillips didn't care about any of them, and they were also getting a bit sick of Roy himself, who they thought was taking too much of the spotlight. So they secretly made an agreement. At the start of a scheduled recording session, Orbison and Phillips went to the cafe next door to take a break. When they got back, they found that the Teen Kings had packed up all their gear and driven away. Roy no longer had a band.

He was absolutely devastated -- the people he'd come up with as a teenager, the people he'd thought were his friends, had all deserted him. He'd been playing with these people for years, and now, just as they were starting to achieve some success, they'd decided to leave him. The session was cancelled, and Sam Phillips was so worried about Orbison that he invited the young man to stay in his house for what turned into a several-month-long stay. Phillips, who had himself suffered from severe depression, was worried about the young singer, and tried to give him life advice.

The advice that Phillips was giving Orbison had a profound effect on both Orbison and on Phillips' son Knox, who later said

“It was the first time I actually could see Sam giving someone he really cared about like Roy some hard advice — I mean, I was real young, but I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a different way he’s saying it but it’s the same advice he’s been giving me. It’s the same thing.’ That was the first time I actually knew that Sam was just trying to make people better. I mean, he wasn’t in the studio trying to inspire or record them. He could say the same thing that would teach you the same lesson if you were talking to him about charcoal or motorcycles. It was the same lesson."

For much of the next year, Orbison was essentially homeless. He spent most of his time on tour, but considered Memphis his home base, and stayed with either Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, or Carl Perkins when he was "at home".

But he was starting to get bigger plans. He had already co-written a handful of songs, but he hadn't put serious thought into his songwriting. That changed when he went on a tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. He realised that they -- and the other people on the bill -- had one hit each. Cochran would later have more, but still, Orbison wondered where those people's other hits were going to come from. Where were they going to find their material?

He didn't want to get into a position where he had to just keep playing the same hit every day for the rest of his life, and realised that the only way to ensure he would have a ready supply of new material was to write it himself, and so he started to take his songwriting seriously as his principal art. Given that the hits on Sun had dried up, in fact, he basically became a songwriter who happened to sing, rather than a singer who wrote some of his own songs.

While he continued making recordings for Sun, none of them did anything, and he later referred to some of them as among the worst records ever made. As Orbison was becoming less successful, Phillips increasingly palmed him off on his new assistant, Jack Clement, and Clement insisted on Orbison performing material for which he had no feeling. Orbison was starting to push to record ballads, but Clement knew that Roy Orbison just didn't have the voice for them.

But his songwriting was another matter. Sun artists started recording his stuff. Jerry Lee Lewis put out "Go Go Go" as the B-side to his big hit "Breathless", and the minor Sun artist Warren Smith recorded Roy's "So Long, I'm Gone":

[Excerpt: Warren Smith, "So Long, I'm Gone"]That reached the lower reaches of the Hot 100, and so became the first thing that earned Roy some serious money since "Ooby Dooby" a year earlier. Songwriting was clearly the way forward, and he decided to write a song about his new wife, Claudette, which he pitched to the Everly Brothers when they were on a bill together, and which they decided to record.

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Claudette"]

We'll be talking about the Everly Brothers in future episodes, but the important thing to note right now is that they were a much bigger act than Roy Orbison was. Them performing one of Orbison's songs would be a massive break for him, but there was a catch. They had a deal with the publishing company Acuff-Rose that they would only perform songs that were published by that company, and Orbison had a contract with Sam Phillips that meant that Orbison's songs were all published by Phillips.

Orbison went to Phillips and explained the situation. He didn't want to record for Sun any more anyway -- they weren't releasing most of what he was recording, he wasn't having any hits, and they didn't have the same ideas about what material he should be recording as he did. He wanted to assign the song to Acuff-Rose and give himself a chance at doing better than he had been.

Phillips was not happy about this. This was at almost exactly the same time that both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins left Sun Records, and he suspected a degree of collusion between the three men -- and he wasn't wrong in his suspicion. The three of them all thought that Phillips was not paying them enough royalties, was not telling them important business information, and was more interested in the latest new thing than in building the careers of people he'd already signed.

Sam Phillips eventually made a suggestion which Orbison took up, though he later said that he didn't realise what the consequences would be. The deal he made was that Orbison could quit his contract, and sign with Acuff-Rose, but only by signing all the songwriting royalties for the songs he'd already recorded over to Phillips.

So Sam Phillips is now the credited songwriter for all the songs Orbison wrote and recorded during his time at Sun, and unsurprisingly Orbison resented this for the rest of his life. Most Sun artists came to believe that they had been treated badly in business dealings by Phillips, and that he hadn't properly recognised their talent. Roy Orbison, more than any of the others, actually had a case to answer here.

Sam Phillips never understood what he had in Roy Orbison until much later. With every other artist he had, he took someone raw and unsure of his own direction and moulded him into what Sam saw in him. With Orbison, he took an artist who was already a moderate success, and who had firm ideas, and kept him from doing the material that was good for him. He later said “I really have to take the blame for not bringing Roy to fruition."

As soon as the Everlys' version of "Claudette" came out, Orbison saw an immediate upswing in his fortunes. Two weeks after it came out, he called Wesley Rose at Acuff Rose.

"How's the record doing?"

"Oh, it sold half a million already."

"Have I made any money?"

"Why, yes you have".

Roy bought a Cadillac, moved to Nashville, and quickly signed with RCA Records, who saw in him the potential to be the next Elvis. And it seemed he was following the same career path exactly, as his first recordings for RCA were with largely the same group of musicians who played on Elvis' big hits. There was no Scotty, Bill, or DJ, as they were all exclusive to Elvis, but Chet Atkins was on guitar, Floyd Cramer was on piano, and the Jordanaires were on backing vocals. But even though Roy had largely been signed on the basis of his songwriting ability, the songs they chose to record for him were once again not written by him and not his choice of material. This time they were all picked by Wesley Rose:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Seems to Me"]

He was now being allowed to sing ballads, but they weren't the ballads that he wanted to be singing -- they were the kind of song that anyone in the pop-country market could be singing. And still the producers didn't know how to deal with his voice. His RCA singles did even worse than his records on Sun, despite having the push of a major label behind him. Eventually the money from "Claudette" ran out, and he was dropped by RCA.

Chet Atkins, like Sam Phillips, just didn't get Roy Orbison. He would later say “We did some pretty good records, but they were typical Nashville at that time, and we didn’t reach out and try to do something different. I blame myself for that. I should have seen the greatness in him and the quality of his voice.”

Orbison sold his Cadillac, and moved out of Nashville, and back to West Texas. It looked like his career was over, and he would spend his life exactly as he'd hoped he wouldn't, as a musician who'd had one minor hit and never did anything else.

But then he met a couple of people who would change the course of his life forever. But that's a story for a future episode.

Jul 22, 2019
Episode 41: "Be-Bop-A-Lula" by Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps
33:37

Gene Vincent

Episode forty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Be-Bop-A-Lula" by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, and how Vincent defined for many what a rock and roll star was. 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 "Smokestack Lightning" by Howlin' Wolf.

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Resources

There are far, far more books on Gene Vincent than one would expect from his short chart history -- a testament to how much he influenced a generation. The two that I used most are Race With the Devil by Susan VanHecke, and Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran: Rock and Roll Revolutionaries by John Collis. Of the two, I'd recommend the latter more.

There are many compilations of Gene Vincent's early rock and roll work. This one contains everything he recorded up until 1962.

And as always there's a Mixcloud with the full versions of all the songs featured in today's episode.

Patreon

 

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

Transcript

[Excerpt: Ian Dury and the Blockheads, "Sweet Gene Vincent"]

So sang Ian Dury, one of the greats of the rock and roll generation that came up in the seventies, a generation that grew up on listening to Gene Vincent. In the USA, Vincent was more or less regarded as a one-hit wonder, though that one hit was one of the most memorable of the 1950s, but in the UK, he was to become one of the biggest influences on everyone who sang or played a guitar.
 
Gene Vincent was born Vincent Eugene Craddock, and he would have been perfectly happy in his original career as a sailor, until 1955. Then, something happened that changed his life forever. He re-enlisted in the Navy, and got a nine-hundred dollar bonus – a huge sum of money for a sailor in those days – which he used to buy himself a new Triumph racing motorbike.
 
The bike didn't last long, and nor did Gene's Navy career. There are two stories about the accident. The one which he told most often, and which was the official story, was that he was not at fault – a woman driving a Chrysler ran a red light and ran into him, and the only reason he didn't get compensation was that he signed some papers while he was sedated in hospital.
 
The other story, which he told at least one friend, was that he'd been out drinking and was late getting back to the Naval base. There was a security barrier at the base, and he tried to ride under the barrier. He'd failed, and the bike had come down hard on his left leg, crushing it.
 
Whatever the truth, his left leg was smashed up, and looked for a long time like it was going to be amputated, but he refused to allow this. He had it put into a cast for more than a year, after which it was put into a metal brace instead. His leg never really properly healed, and it would leave him in pain for the rest of his life. His leg developed chronic osteomyelitis, he had a permanent open sore on his shin, his leg muscles withered, and his bones would break regularly.
 
Then in September 1955, finally discharged from the naval hospital, Gene Vincent went to see a country music show. The headliner was Hank Snow, and the Louvin Brothers were also on the bill, but the act that changed Gene's life was lower down the bill – a young singer named Elvis Presley.
 
[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Mystery Train”]
 
The story seems to be the same for almost every one of the early rockabilly artists, but this is the first time we've seen it happen with someone who didn't go on to sign with Sun – a young man in the Southern US has been playing his guitar for a while, making music that's a little bit country, a little bit blues, and then one day he goes to see a show featuring Elvis Presley, and he immediately decides that he wants to do that, that Elvis is doing something that's like what the young man has already started doing, but he's proved that you can do it on stage, for people.
 
It's as if at every single show Elvis played in 1954 and 1955 there was a future rockabilly star in the audience -- and by playing those shows, Elvis permanently defined what we mean when we say "rock and roll star".
The first thing Gene did was to get himself noticed by the radio station that had promoted the show, and in particular by Sheriff Tex Davis, who was actually a DJ from Connecticut whose birth name was William Doucette, but had changed his name to sound more country. Davis was a DJ and show promoter, and he was the one who had promoted the gig that Elvis had appeared at. Gene Craddock came into his office a few days after that show, and told him that he was a singer. Davis listened to him sing a couple of songs, and thought that he would do a decent job as a regular on his Country Showtime radio show.
 
Soon afterwards, Carl Perkins came to town to do a show with Craddock as the opening act. It would, in fact, be his last show for a while – it was right after this show, as he travelled to get to New York for the TV appearance he was booked on, that he got into the car crash that derailed his career. But Tex Davis asked Carl to watch the opening act and tell him what he thought. Carl watched, and he said that the boy had potential, especially one particular song, "Be-Bop-A-Lula", which sounded to Carl quite like some of his own stuff.
 
That was good enough for Tex Davis, who signed Craddock up to a management contract, and who almost immediately recorded some of his performances to send to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records.
 
Capitol at the time was the home of crooners like Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, and other than its small country music division had little connection to the new forms of music that were starting to dominate the culture. Capitol had been founded in the early 1940s by the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote many standards for Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and others, and also recorded his own material, like this:
 
[Excerpt: Johnny Mercer, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"]
 
Mercer was a great songwriter, but you can imagine that a record label headed up by Mercer might not have been one that was most attuned to rock and roll. However, in 1955 Capitol had been bought up by the big conglomerate EMI, and things were changing at the label.
 
Ken Nelson was the head of country music for Capitol Records, and is someone who has a very mixed reputation among lovers of both country music and rockabilly, as someone who had impeccable taste in artists – he also signed Buck Owens and the Louvin Brothers among many other classic country artists – but also as someone who would impose a style on those artists that didn't necessarily suit them.
 
Nelson didn't really understand rockabilly at all, but he knew that Capitol needed its own equivalent of Elvis Presley. So he put a call out for people to recommend him country singers who could sound a bit like Elvis. On hearing the tape that Tex Davis sent him of Gene Craddock, he decided to call in this kid for a session in Nashville.
 
By this point, Craddock had formed his own backing band, who became known as the Blue Caps. This consisted of guitarist Cliff Gallup, the oldest of the group and a plumber by trade, drummer Dickie Harrell, a teenager who was enthusiastic but a good decade younger than Gallup, rhythm guitarist Willie Williams, and bass player Jack Neal. They took the name "Blue Caps" from the hats they all wore on stage, which were allegedly inspired by the golf caps that President Eisenhower used to wear while playing golf. Not the most rebellious of inspirations for the group that would, more than any other rock and roll group of the fifties, inspire juvenile delinquency and youthful rebelliousness.
 
The session was at a studio run by Owen Bradley, who had just recently recorded some early tracks by a singer from Texas named Buddy Holly. The song chosen for the first single was a track called "Woman Love", which everyone was convinced could be a hit. They were convinced, that is, until they heard Gene singing it in the studio, at which point they wondered if perhaps some of what he was singing was not quite as wholesome as they had initially been led to believe:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, "Woman Love"]
 
Ken Nelson asked to look at the lyric sheet, and satisfied that Gene *could* have been singing "hugging" rather than what Nelson had worried he had been singing, agreed that the song should go out on the A-side of Gene's first single, which was to be released under the name Gene Vincent – a name Nelson created from Gene's forenames.
 
It turned out that the lyric sheet didn't completely convince everyone. Most radio stations refused to play “Woman Love” at all, saying that even if the lyrics weren't obscene – and plenty of people were convinced that they were – the record itself still was.
 
Or, at least, the A-side was.
 
The B-side, a song called "Be-Bop-A-Lula", was a different matter:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps: "Be-Bop-A-Lula"]
 
There are three stories about how the song came to have the title "Be-Bop-A-Lula". Donald Graves, a fellow patient in the naval hospital who was widely considered to have co-written the song with Gene, always claimed the song was inspired by the 1920s vaudeville song "Don't Bring Lulu".
 
[Excerpt: "Don't Bring Lulu", Billy Murray]
 
As Tex Davis told the story, it was inspired by a Little Lulu comic book Davis showed Vincent, to which Vincent said, "Hey, it's be-bop a lulu!"
 
Davis is credited as co-writer of the song along with Gene, but it's fairly widely acknowledged that he had no part in the song's writing. Almost every source now says that Davis paid Donald Graves twenty-five dollars for his half of the songwriting rights.
 
Far more likely is that it was inspired by the Helen Humes song "Be Baba Leba":
 
[Excerpt: Helen Humes, "Be Baba Leba"]
 
That song had been rerecorded by Lionel Hampton as "Hey Baba Reba!", which had been a massive R&B hit, and the song is also generally considered one of the inspirations behind the term "be bop" being applied to the style of music.
 
And that's something we should probably at least talk about briefly here, because it shows how much culture changes, and how fast we lose context for things that seemed obvious at the time. The term "bebop", as it was originally used, was used in the same way we use it now -- for a type of jazz music that originated in New York in the mid-1940s, which prized harmonic complexity, instrumental virtuosity, and individual self-expression. The music made by people like Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and so on, and which pretty much defined what was thought of as jazz in the postwar era.
 
But while that was what the term originally meant, and is what the term means now, it wasn't what the term meant in 1956, at least to most of the people who used the term. Colloquially, bebop meant "that noisy music I don't understand that the young people like, and most of the people making it are black". So it covered bebop itself, but it was also used for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, even rockabilly -- you would often find interviewers talking with Elvis in his early years referring to his music as "Hillbilly Bop" or "a mixture of country music and bebop".
 
So even though “Be-Bop-A-Lula” had about as much to do with bebop as it did with Stravinsky, the name still fit.
 
At that initial session, Ken Nelson brought in a few of the top session players in Nashville, but when he heard the Blue Caps play, he was satisfied that they were good enough to play on the records, and sent the session musicians home. In truth, the Blue Caps were probably best described as a mixed-ability group. Some of them were rudimentary musicians at best -- though as we've seen, rockabilly, more than most genres, was comfortable with enthusiastic amateurs anyway.
 
But Cliff Gallup, the lead guitarist, was quite probably the most technically accomplished guitarist in the world of rockabilly. Gallup's guitar style, which involved fast-picked triplets and the use of multiple steel fingerpicks, was an inspiration for almost every rock and roll guitarist of the 1960s, and any group which had him in would sound at least decent.
 
During the recording of “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, the young drummer Dickie Harrell decided to let out a giant scream right in the middle of the song -- he later said that this was so that his mother would know he was on the record. Cliff Gallup was not impressed, and wanted to do a second take, but the first take was what was used.
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, “Be Bop A Lula”, scream section]
 
"Be-Bop-A-Lula" is by any standards a quite astonishing record. The lyric is, of course, absolute nonsense -- it's a gibberish song with no real lyrical content at all -- but that doesn't matter at all. What matters is the *sound*. What we have here, fundamentally, is the sound of "Heartbreak Hotel" applied to a much, much, less depressive lyric. It still has that strange morbidity that the Elvis track had, but combined with carefree gibberish lyrics in the style of Little Richard. It's the precise midpoint between "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Tutti Frutti", and is probably the record which, more than any other, epitomises 1956.
 
A lot of people commented on the similarity between Vincent's record and the music of Elvis Presley. There are various stories that went round at the time, including that Scotty and Bill got annoyed at Elvis for recording it without them, that Elvis' mother had told him she liked that new single of his, "Be-Bop-A-Lula", and even that Elvis himself, on hearing it, had been confused and wondered if he'd forgotten recording it.
In truth, none of these stories seem likely. The record is, sonically and stylistically, like an Elvis one, but Vincent's voice has none of the same qualities as Elvis'. While Elvis is fully in control at all times, playful and exuberant, Gene Vincent is tense and twitchy. Vincent's voice is thinner than Elvis', and his performance is more mannered than Elvis' singing at that time was.
 
But none of this stopped Vincent from worrying the one time he did meet Elvis, who came over and asked him if he was the one who'd recorded "Be-Bop-A-Lula". Vincent was apologetic, and explained that he'd not been intending to copy Elvis, the record had just come out like that. But Elvis reassured him that he understood, and that that was just how Gene sang.
 
What fewer people commented on was the song's similarity to “Money Honey”:
 
[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Money Honey”]
 
The two songs have near-identical melodies. The only real difference is that in “Be-Bop-A-Lula” Vincent bookends the song with a slight variation, turning the opening and closing choruses into twelve-bar blueses, rather than the eight-bar blues used in the rest of the song and in “Money Honey”. Luckily for Vincent, at this time the culture in R&B was relaxed enough about borrowings that Jesse Stone seems not to have even considered suing.
 
The follow-up to "Be-Bop-A-Lula" did much less well. "Race With the Devil" -- not the same song as the one later made famous by Judas Priest -- was one of the all-time great rockabilly records, but the lyrics, about a hot-rod race with the actual Devil, were, like "Woman Love", considered unbroadcastable, and this time there was no massive hit record hidden away on the B-side to salvage things:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, "Race With The Devil"]
 
The single after that, "Blue Jean Bop", did a little better, reaching the lower reaches of the top fifty, rather than the lower reaches of the top hundred as "Race With the Devil" had, and making the top twenty in the UK:
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, "Blue Jean Bop"]
 
But there were three major problems that were preventing Vincent and the Blue Caps from having the success that it seemed they deserved.
 
The first was Ken Nelson. He was in charge of the material that the group were recording, and he would suggest songs like "Up a Lazy River", "Ain't She Sweet", and "Those Wedding Bells are Breaking up That Old Gang of Mine". Vincent enjoyed those old standards as much as anyone, but they weren't actually suited to the rockabilly treatment – especially not to the kind of rough and ready performances that the original lineup of the Blue Caps were suited to.
 
And that brings us to the second problem. There was a huge age gap, as well as disparity in ability, in the band, and Cliff Gallup, in particular, felt that he was too old to be touring in a rock and roll band, and quit the group. Gallup was actually offered a regular gig as a session guitarist by Ken Nelson, which would have meant that he didn't have to travel, but he turned it down and got a job as a high school janitor and maintenance man, just playing the occasional extra gig for pin money. When he was contacted by fans, he would get embarrassed, and he didn't like to talk about his brief time as a rock and roll star. He never signed a single autograph, and when he died in 1989 his widow made sure the obituaries never mentioned his time with Gene Vincent.
 
But Gallup was just the first to leave. In the first two and a half years of the Blue Caps' existence, twenty different people were members of the band. Vincent could never keep a stable lineup of the band together for more than a few weeks or months at a time.
 
And the third major problem... that was Vincent himself. Even before his accident, he had been an impetuous, hot-headed man, who didn't think very carefully about the possible consequences of his actions. Now he was in chronic pain from the accident, he was a rock and roll star, and he was drinking heavily to deal with the pain. This is not a combination that makes people less inclined to rash behaviour.
 
So, for example, he'd started breaking contracts. Vincent and the Blue Caps were booked to play a residency in Las Vegas, where they were making three thousand dollars a week – for 1956 a staggering sum of money.
But Tex Davis told Vincent that the owner of the casino wanted him to tone down some aspects of his act, and he didn't like that at all. It wasn't even enough to convince him when it was pointed out that the man doing the asking was big in the Mafia. Instead, Gene went on stage, sang one song, found Tex Davis in the crowd, caught his eye, flipped him off, and walked off stage, leaving the band to do the rest of the show without him.
Unsurprisingly, the residency didn't last very long. Equally unsurprisingly, Tex Davis decided he was no longer going to manage Gene Vincent. Legal problems around the fallout from losing his management caused Vincent to be unable to work for several months.
 
While both "Race With the Devil" and "Blue Jean Bop" were big hits in the UK, the closest they came to having another hit in the USA was a song called "Lotta Lovin'":
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, "Lotta Lovin'"]
 
That was written by a songwriter named Bernice Bedwell, who is otherwise unknown -- she wrote a handful of other rockabilly songs, including another song that Vincent would record, but nothing else that was particularly successful, and there seems to be no biographical information about her anywhere. She sold the publishing rights to the song to a Texas oilman, Tom Fleeger, who does seem to have had a fairly colourful life -- he wrote a memoir called "Fidel and the Fleeg", which I sadly haven't read, but in which he claims that Fidel Castro tried to frame him for murder in the 1940s after a dispute over a beautiful woman.
 
Fleeger was soon to start his own record label, Jan Records, but for now he thought that the song would be suitable for Gene Vincent, and got in touch with him. "Lotta Lovin'" was quickly recorded at Gene's first session at Capitol's new studio at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood.
 
The B-side was a ballad called "Wear My Ring" by Warren Cassoto, the future Bobby Darin, and Don Kirshner.
 
[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, "Wear My Ring"]
 
"Lotta Lovin'" went to number thirteen on the pop charts, and number seven on the R&B charts, and it looked like it would revitalise Gene's career. But it was not to be. Vincent's increasingly erratic behaviour -- including pulling a gun on band members on multiple occasions -- and Capitol and Ken Nelson's lack of understanding of rock and roll music, meant that he quickly became a forgotten figure in the US.
 
But he had a huge impact on the UK, thanks to a TV producer named Jack Good.
 
Jack Good was the person who, more than anyone else, had brought rock and roll to British TV. He'd been the producer of Six-Five Special, a BBC TV show that was devoted to rock and roll and skiffle, before moving to ITV, producing its first two rock and roll shows, "Oh Boy", and "Boy Meets Girls". And it was Good who suggested that Vincent switch from his normal polite-looking stagewear into black leather, and that he accentuate the postural problems his disability caused him.
 
Vincent's appearances on “Boy Meets Girls”, dressed in black leather, hunched over, in pain because of his leg, defined for British teenagers of the 1950s what a rock and roller was meant to look like. At a time when few American rock and roll stars were visiting the UK, and even fewer were getting any exposure on the very small number of TV shows that were actually broadcast -- this was when there were only two TV channels in the UK, and they broadcast for only a few hours -- Gene Vincent being *here*, and on British TV, meant the world. And on a show like Boy Meets Girls, where the rest of the acts were people like Cliff RIchard or Adam Faith, having a mean, moody, leather-clad rock and roller on screen was instantly captivating. For a generation of British rockers, Gene Vincent epitomised American rock and roll.
 
Until in 1960 he was on a tour of the UK that ended in tragedy. But that's a story for another time...
Jul 15, 2019
Episode 40: "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll" by Janis Martin
29:59

Janis Martin

Episode forty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll", by Janis Martin, an early rockabilly classic by the woman known as "the Female Elvis". 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 "Fever" by Little Willie John

 ----more----

A brief apology before I go any further. There is no Mixcloud this week, and also I've only done one edit pass, rather than my customary two, on the podcast sound file, so there might be some noises and so on that would otherwise not be on there, and the sound quality may not be as good as normal. A close family member has had a severe medical emergency this weekend, and I haven't been able to put in the time I normally would. Normal service should be resumed next week, and I hope this is at least adequate.

 

Resources

 

There is very little information out there about Janis Martin. Much of this was stitched together from brief mentions in books on other people, and from ten minutes' worth of interview in an out-of-print documentary called Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly.

The single most important source here was the liner notes for the Bear Family CD collecting all Janis' fifties recordings.

Patreon

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

Transcript

Sometimes a novelty act will have real talent, and sometimes the things that can bring you the most success initially can be the very things that stop you from building a career. In the case of Janis Martin, "the female Elvis Presley", those four words were the reason she became successful, and some say they are also the reason she very quickly dropped into obscurity. There are no books about Janis Martin, who as far as I can tell was the first successful female rockabilly artist. There are no films about her. There are just a handful of articles in obscure fanzines, and pages on unvisited websites, to mark the story of a true pioneer of rockabilly music.

But I don't think that the way Janis Martin's career stalled was down to that label at all. I think it stalled because of misogyny, plain and simple, and I'm going to explain why in this episode. So a warning right now -- this will deal in passing with abortion and underage marriage. If you are likely to find anything dealing with those things traumatising, please check out the transcript on the podcast website at 500songs.com, to make sure it's something you're comfortable hearing. I won't be going into those things in any great detail, but sometimes better safe than sorry.

Janis Martin was born in 1940, and spent her early years as a child country and western act. She started playing the guitar when she was only four, holding it upright because she wasn't big enough yet to play it normally, and by the age of eleven she was a regular on The Old Dominion Barn Dance. This was at a time when the dominant force in country and western music was a series of live variety shows that would be broadcast by different radio stations, and there was a definite hierarchy there. At the very top of the chain was the Grand Ole Opry, whose performers like Roy Acuff would absolutely dominate the whole medium of country music. If you were on the Opry, you were going to be a big star, and you would be heard by everyone. You'd made it.

Slightly lower than the Opry were shows like the Louisiana Hayride. The Hayride was for those who were on their way up or on their way down. Elvis Presley got a residency on the show when he went down too badly on the Opry for them to book him again, and Hank Williams started performing on it when he was dropped by the Opry for drunkenness, but it also booked acts who weren't quite well known enough to secure a spot on the Opry, people who were still building their names up.

And then, a rung below the Hayride, were shows like the Old Dominion Barn Dance. The Barn Dance had some big name acts -- the Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, Joe Maphis -- these weren't small-time no-namers by any means. But it wasn't as big as the Hayride.

Young Janis Martin was a country singer, pushed into the role by her domineering mother. But she wasn't massively interested in country music. She liked the honky-tonk stuff -- she liked Hank Williams, "Because he had a little rock to his music":

[Excerpt: Hank Williams, "Honky Tonkin'"]

But she didn't like bluegrass, and she was starting to get bored with the slow country ballads that dominated the pop part of the country field. But luckily, the further down the rungs you got, the more experimental the hillbilly shows could be, and the more they could deviate from the straight formula insisted on by the shows at the top. Shows like the Opry, while wildly popular, were also extraordinarily conservative. The Barn Dance allowed people to try things that were a little different.

Janis Martin was a little different. She changed her whole style with one twist of a radio dial, when she was thirteen. She was going through the radio stations trying to find something she liked, when she hit on a station that was playing "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" by Ruth Brown:

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"]

She immediately decided that that was what she wanted to be singing -- "black R&B", as she would always put it, not country music. She immediately incorporated "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" into her set, and started adding a lot of similar songs -- not just Ruth Brown songs, though Brown would always remain her very favourite, but songs by LaVern Baker and Dinah Washington as well.

This was not normal, even for the small number of country musicians who were playing R&B songs. Generally, the few who did that were performing music originally recorded by male jump band artists like Louis Jordan or Big Joe Turner. The songs Brown, Baker, and Washington recorded were all closer to jazz than to country music, and it's actually quite hard for me to imagine how one could perform "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" with country instrumentation.

But this was what Janis Martin was doing, and it went down well with the Old Dominion Barn Dance audience. What worried some of them was another change that went along with this -- she started performing in a manner that they interpreted as overtly sexual. At thirteen and fourteen years old, she was dancing on the stage in a way that was often compared to Elvis Presley -- someone she'd never heard of at the time, and wasn't that impressed by when she did. She preferred Carl Perkins. She wasn't intending to be vulgar or sexual -- it just made no sense to her *not* to dance while she was singing uptempo R&B-style songs.

As she later said, "When I was a little girl doing all those rock 'n' roll moves on the barndances, people thought it was cute. But then, when I was fifteen or sixteen, and wearing a ponytail, and out there moving like Elvis, a lot of people thought it was vulgar."

But, at the time, the crowds at the Barndance shows were still happy to hear this music, however different it was from the country music they were used to.

Martin's big break came when two staff announcers on WRVA, the station that hosted the barndance, Carl Stutz and Carl Barefoot, brought her a song they'd written, "Will You, Willyum?":

[Excerpt: Janis Martin, "Will You, Willyum?"]

The song itself was not hugely impressive -- it's a standard boogie rhythm country song, and like many second-rate songs of the time it tries to get itself a little second-hand excitement by namechecking another song -- in this case, it references dancing with Henry, a reference to "the Wallflower". But Martin's demo of the song was enough to catch the ear of Steve Sholes, the A&R man who had signed Elvis a few months earlier, and so in March 1956, aged just fifteen, Janis Martin was signed to RCA Records, one of the biggest labels in the country.

Sholes wanted to record "Will You Willyum?" as her first single, but had also suggested that she try writing songs herself. Her very first attempt at writing a song took her, by her own accounts, ten or fifteen minutes to write, and ended up as the B-side. It was "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll":

[Excerpt: Janis Martin, "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll"]

Now, this actually marks something of a turning point in our story, though it may not seem it. Up to this point, the music we've looked at broadly falls into three categories -- R&B and jump band music made by and for black adults, white country musicians imitating that jump band music and generally aiming it at a younger audience, and doo-wop music made by and for black teenagers.

"Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll" is the first record we've looked at -- and one of the first records ever made -- to deal specifically with the experience of the white teenagers who were now the music's biggest audience, and deal with it from their own perspective. This is where the 1950s of the popular imagination -- letter sweaters, crewcuts, ponytails, big skirts, dancing to the jukebox, drinking a malt with two straws, the 1950s of "Happy Days" and "American Graffiti" and Archie Comics, all starts.

Now, in this, we have to consider that the micro and the macro are telling us rather different things, and that both parts of the picture are true. On the one hand, we have a teenage girl, writing her first ever song, talking about her own experiences and doing so in a musical idiom that she loves. On the other hand, we have a massive corporate conglomerate taking musical styles created by marginalised groups, removing those elements that made them distinctive to those groups, and marketing them at a more affluent, privileged, audience.

Both these things were happening at the same time -- and we'll see, as we look at the next few years of rock and roll history, how an influx of well-meaning -- and often great -- individual white artists making music they truly believed in, and with no racist motives as individuals (indeed many of them were committed anti-racists), would still, in aggregate, turn rock and roll from a music that was dominated by black artists and created for a primarily black audience, into one that was created by and for privileged white teenagers.

Over the next few years the most popular artists in rock and roll music would go from being black men singing about gay sex and poor white sharecroppers singing about drinking liquor from an old fruit jar to being perky teenagers singing about sock hops and going steady, and Janis Martin was an early example of this. But she was still, ultimately, too individual for the system to cope with.

Given that she supposedly moved like Elvis (I say "supposedly" because I haven't been able to find any footage of her to confirm this) and had had a similar career path, RCA decided to market her as "the Female Elvis". They got the permission of Elvis and the Colonel to do so, though Martin only ever met Elvis twice, and barely exchanged a couple of words with him when she did.

They also got in some of the same people who performed on Elvis' records. While Elvis' own musicians weren't available, Chet Atkins, who also produced Janis' sessions, and Floyd Cramer were both on most of Janis' early recordings, and came up with a very similar sound to the Elvis records, and on at least some of her records the Jordanaires provided backing vocals, as they did for Elvis.

The first single, "Will You Willyum" backed with "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll" was a hit, and went to number thirty-five in the pop charts. It sold three quarters of a million copies, and led to performances on most of the big TV shows, as well as on the Grand Ole Opry. But the follow-up, "Ooby Dooby" (a cover of a song we'll be dealing with in a future episode) didn't do quite so well. So for her third single they tried to lean into the Elvis comparisons with... a song about Elvis:

[Excerpt: "My Boy Elvis", Janis Martin]

She wasn't particularly keen on the song, but she had no control over the material she was given -- back then, artists on major labels made the records they were told to make, and that was the end of it.

"My Boy Elvis" was, in fact, only one of a large number of novelty records about Elvis that hit in 1956. Novelty records were a huge part of the music industry in the 1950s and 60s, and there would not be a trend that would go by without a dozen people putting out records of one kind or another about the trend. And given that Elvis' rise to stardom was the biggest cultural phenomenon the world had ever seen, it's not surprising that a few record company owners figured that if the kids were interested in buying records by Elvis, they might be tricked into buying records about Elvis too.

A typical example of the form was "I Want Elvis For Christmas":

[Excerpt: The Holly Sisters, "I Want Elvis For Christmas"]

That song was written by two aspiring songwriters -- Don Kirshner, who would later become one of the most important music publishing executives in the world, and a young man named Walden Cassoto, who would soon change his name to Bobby Darin. The person impersonating Elvis was a country singer called Eddie Cochran, who we'll be hearing a lot more about soon.

So these novelty records were being released left and right, but very few of them had any success. And Martin's record was no exception. Not only that, the teenage girl audience who were Elvis' biggest fanbase started to resent the marketing -- which she hadn't chosen herself -- comparing her to Elvis. They were in love with Elvis, and didn't like the comparison.

Janis was selling records, but not quite at the level RCA initially hoped – they were having trouble building her audience. That was because in 1956, unlike even a year or so later, record labels had no idea what to do with white rock and roll acts aimed at the teen crowd. There were Bill Haley and Elvis, who were in a league of their own, and there were the Sun Records artists who could be packaged together on tours and play to the same crowds.

But other than that, rock and roll acts played the chitlin circuit, and that was black acts for black audiences.

There was a possible solution to this problem -- Elvis. Colonel Parker, Elvis' manager, was a close associate of Steve Sholes, and believed Sholes when he told Parker that Janis Martin was going places. He wanted to sign Janis to a management contract and promote Elvis and Janis as a double-bill, thinking that having a male-female act would be a good gimmick.

But her parents thought this was a bad idea. Just before she had been signed to RCA, Elvis had very publicly collapsed and been hospitalised with exhaustion through overwork. For all that Martin's mother was a pushy stage mother, she didn't want that for her daughter, and so the Colonel never got to sign Janis, and Janis never got to tour and play to Elvis' audience.

So since she had come up through the country music scene, and had been signed by RCA's country department, she was put on bills with other RCA country artists like Hank Snow, who made music like this:

[Excerpt: Hank Snow, "Wedding Bells"]

Understandably, Martin's rock and roll style didn't really fit on the bills, and the audiences were unimpressed. No-one in RCA or her promotional team knew how to deal with a rock and roll star who wasn't the most massive thing on the charts -- there was not, yet, anywhere to put a mid-range rock and roll star.

But she continued plugging away, making rockabilly records, and slowly building up a fanbase for herself. She even had a screen test with MGM, the film studio that had signed Elvis up so successfully.

But she had a problem, and one that would eventually cause the end of her career. A few months before she was signed to RCA, she had got married.

This is less odd than it might now sound. In the southern US in the 1950s, it was perfectly normal for people to get married in their early or mid teens. We will see a few more stories as the series goes on where people have married far, far, too young -- in some cases, because of abuse by an older man, in other cases just because teenage hormones had convinced them that they were definitely mature enough, no matter what those old people said. In this case, she had eloped with a paratrooper, who was stationed in Germany soon after. She only told her parents about the marriage once her husband had left the country.

So everything was fine -- while she might have been technically married, it wasn't like she was even on the same continent as her husband, so for all practical purposes it was exactly as if she was the single, sweet, innocent teenage girl that RCA wanted people to think she was. And she didn't see the need to tell RCA any different. What they didn't know couldn't hurt them.

And that was all fine, until her 1957 European tour. As she was going to be in Europe anyway, her husband asked for a leave of absence and spent thirty days travelling around with her. And when she got back to the US, she was pregnant.

When she informed RCA, they were furious. They couldn't have their seventeen-year-old nation's sweetheart going around being visibly pregnant -- even though one of the songs they'd chosen for her to record at her first session, "Let's Elope Baby", had described her actual experiences rather better than they'd realised:

[Excerpt: Janis Martin, "Let's Elope Baby"]

And so they came up with what they thought was the obvious solution -- they tried to persuade her to get an abortion, although that was still illegal in the US at the time. She refused, and the label dropped her.

She started recording for a small label -- she turned down offers from King and Decca records, and instead went with the tiny Belgian label Palette -- but she never had any success, and soon split from her husband. By 1960, aged twenty, she was on to her second marriage.

Her second husband toured with her for a while, but soon told her that if she wanted to stay with him, she would have to give up on the music industry. For the next thirteen years, while she was married to him, she did just that, and her career was over.

But then, after her second marriage ended, she put together a band, Janis Martin and the Variations, and started playing gigs again. And the woman whose entire life had been controlled by other people -- first her mother, then her record label, then her husband -- found she liked performing again. She didn't return to full-time music, at least at first -- she held down a day job as the assistant manager of a country club in Virginia -- but she found that she still had fans, especially in Europe. In the late seventies Bear Family Records, a German reissue label that specialises in doing comprehensive catalogue releases by 50s country and rock and roll artists, had put out two vinyl albums collecting everything she'd released in the fifties (and this was later put together as a single-CD set, one of their first CD releases, in the mid-eighties), and she'd become known to a new generation of rockabilly fans in Europe, as well as building up a new small fanbase in the USA. So in 1982, she travelled to Europe for the first time since that 1957 tour, and started performing for audiences who, more than anything else, wanted to hear her own song, "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll".

For the last few decades of her life, Janis Martin would regularly tour, even though she hated flying, because she felt she owed it to the fans to let them see her perform. Her son played drums with her band, and audiences would regularly thrill to Janis, as this woman who was now a great-grandmother and looked like any other great-grandmother from Virginia, sang her songs of teenage rebellion. Her third marriage, in 1977, was to a man who had been a fan of hers during her first career, and lasted the rest of her life. She was finally happy.

And in 2006 she recorded what was intended to be a comeback album, and she was finally able to fulfil a lifetime ambition, and perform with Ruth Brown, singing the song that changed everything for her when she'd heard it more than fifty years earlier:

[Excerpt: Ruth Brown and Janis Martin, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean"]

That was the first and only time Janis Martin and Ruth Brown would meet and perform together. Ruth Brown died in late 2006, and Janis' son died in early 2007. Janis herself died of cancer in September 2007, having outlived the man with whom she had been compared in her teens by more than thirty years, and having lived to see her work embraced by new generations. There are much worse lives for an Elvis to have had.

Jul 07, 2019
Episode 39: "Please Please Please" by James Brown and the Famous Flames
32:50

 

James Brown at a piano 

Episode thirty-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Please Please Please" by James Brown, and at the early rock and roll career of the Godfather of Soul. 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 "Come Go With Me" by the Del Vikings.

----more---- 

Resources

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

 I relied mostly on two books for this episode. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, by James Brown with Bruce Tucker, is a celebrity autobiography with all that that entails, but a more interesting read than many. 

Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown, by James McBride is a more discursive, gonzo journalism piece, and well worth a read.

And this two-CD compilation has all Brown's singles from 1956 through 61.

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

Just as the other week we talked about a country musician who had a massive impact on rock and roll, one who was originally marketed as a rock and roller, so today we're going to talk about a funk and soul musician who got his first hits playing to the rock and roll audience.
 
There is a type of musician we will come across a lot as our story progresses. He is almost always a man, and he is usually regarded as a musical genius. He will be focused only on two things -- his music and his money -- and will have basically no friends, except maybe one from his childhood. He has employees, not friends. And he only hires the best -- his employees do staggering work while being treated appallingly by him, and he takes all the credit while they do most of the work. Yet at the same time, the work those employees do ends up sounding like that genius, and when they go on to do their own stuff without him, it never sounds quite as good. That one percent he's adding does make the difference. He's never really liked as a person by his employees, but he's grudgingly respected, and he's loved by his audience.
 
There are people like that in every creative field -- one thinks of Stan Lee in comics, or Walt Disney in film -- but there are a *lot* of them in music, and they are responsible for an outsized portion of the most influential music ever made. And James Brown is almost the archetypal example of this kind of musician.
 
James Brown had a hard, hard childhood. His mother left his father when James was four -- stories say that Brown's father pulled a gun on her, so her wanting to get away seems entirely reasonable, but she left her son with him, and James felt abandoned and betrayed for much of his life. A few years later his father realised that he didn't have the ability to look after a child by himself, and dumped James on a relative he always called an aunt, though she was some form of cousin, to raise. His aunt ran a brothel, and it's safe to say that that was not the best possible environment in which to raise a young child. He later said that he was in his teens before he had any underwear that was bought from a shop rather than made out of old sacks. In later life, when other people would talk about having come from broken homes and having been abandoned by their fathers, he would say "How do you think I feel? My father *and my mother* left me!"
 
But he had ambition. Young James had entered -- and won -- talent shows from a very young age -- his first one was in 1944, when he was eleven, and he performed "So Long", the song that would a few years later become Ruth Brown's first big hit, but was then best known in a version by the Charioteers:
 
[Excerpt: The Charioteers, "So Long"]
 
He loved music, especially jazz and gospel, and he was eager to learn anything he could about it. The one form of music he could never get into was the blues -- his father played a little blues, but it wasn't young James' musical interest at all -- but even there, when Tampa Red started dating one of the sex workers who worked at his aunt's house, young James Brown learned what he could from the blues legend.
 
He learned to sing from the holiness churches, and his music would always have a gospel flavour to it. But the music he liked more than anything was that style of jazz and swing music that was blending into what was becoming R&B. He loved Count Basie, and used to try to teach himself to play "One O'Clock Jump", Count Basie's biggest hit, on the piano:
 
[Excerpt: Count Basie, "One O'Clock Jump"]
 
That style of music wouldn't show up in his earlier records, which were mostly fairly standard vocal group R&B, but if you listen to his much later funk recordings, they owe a *lot* to Basie and Lionel Hampton. The music that Brown became most famous for is the logical conclusion to the style that those musicians developed -- though we'll talk more about the invention of funk, and how funk is a form of jazz, in a future episode.
But his real favourite, the one he tried to emulate more than any other, was Louis Jordan. Brown didn't get to see Jordan live as a child, but he would listen to his records on the radio and see him in film shorts, and he decided that more than anything else he wanted to be like Jordan. As soon as he started performing with small groups around town, he started singing Jordan's songs, especially "Caldonia", which years later he would record as a tribute to his idol:
 
[Excerpt: James Brown, "Caldonia"]
 
But as you might imagine, life for young James Brown wasn't the easiest, and he eventually fell into robbery. This started when he was disciplined at school for not being dressed appropriately -- so he went out and stole himself some better clothes. He started to do the same for his friends, and then moved on to more serious types of theft, including cars, and he ended up getting caught breaking into one.
 
At the age of sixteen, Brown was sent to a juvenile detention centre, on a sentence of eight to sixteen years, and this inadvertently led to the biggest piece of luck in his life, when he met the man who would be his mentor and principal creative partner for the next twenty years. There was a baseball game between inmates of the detention centre and a team of outsiders, one of whom was named Bobby Byrd, and Byrd got talking to Brown and discovered that he could sing. In fact Brown had put together a little band in the detention centre, using improvised instruments, and would often play the piano in the gym. He'd got enough of a reputation for being able to play that he'd acquired the nickname "Music Box" -- and Byrd had heard about him even outside the prison.
 
At the time, Byrd was leading a gospel vocal group, and needed a new singer, and he was impressed enough with Brown that he put in a word for him at a parole hearing and helped him get released early. James Brown was going to devote his life to singing for the Lord, and he wasn't going to sin any more.
He got out of the detention centre after serving only three years of his sentence, though you can imagine that to a teen there was not much "only" about spending three years of your life locked up, especially in Georgia in the 1940s, a time and place when the white guards were free to be racially abusive to an even greater extent than they are today. And for the next ten years, throughout his early musical career, Brown would be on parole and in danger of being recalled to prison at any time.
 
Brown ended up joining Byrd's *sister's* gospel group, at least for a while, before moving over to Byrd's own group, which had originally been a gospel group called the Gospel Starlighters, but by now was an R&B group called the Avons. They soon renamed themselves again, to the Flames, and later to the *Famous* Flames, the name they would stick with from then on (and a name which would cause a lot of confusion, as we've already talked about the Hollywood Flames, who featured a different Bobby Byrd). Brown's friend Johnny Terry, who he had performed with in the detention centre, also joined the group. There would be many lineups of the Famous Flames, but Brown, Byrd, and Terry would be the nucleus of most of them.
 
Brown was massively influenced by Little Richard, to the extent that he was essentially a Little Richard tribute act early on. Brown felt an immediate kinship with Richard's music because both of them were from Georgia, both were massively influenced by Louis Jordan, and both were inspired by church music. Brown would later go off in his own direction, of course, but in those early years he sounded more like Little Richard than like anyone else.
 
In fact, around this time, Little Richard's career was doing so well that he could suddenly be booked into much bigger halls than he had been playing. He still had a few months' worth of contracts in those old halls, though, and so his agent had a brainwave. No-one knew what Richard looked like, so the agent got Brown and the Flames to pretend to be Little Richard and the Upsetters and tour playing the gigs that Richard had been booked into. Every night Brown would go out on stage to the introduction, "Please welcome the hardest working man in showbusiness today, Little Richard!", and when he finished ghosting for Little Richard, he liked the introduction enough that he would keep it for himself, changing it only to his own name rather than Richard's.
Brown would perform a mixture of Richard's material, his own originals, and the R&B songs that the Flames had been performing around Georgia. They'd already been cutting some records for tiny labels, at least according to Brown's autobiography, mostly cover versions of R&B hits. I haven't been able to track down any of these, but one that Brown mentions in his autobiography is "So Long", which he later rerecorded in 1961, and that version might give you some idea of what Brown sounded like at the period when he was trying to be Little Richard:
 
[Excerpt: James Brown, "So Long"]
 
Brown's imitation of Richard went down well enough that Richard's agent, Clint Brantley, decided to get the group to record a demo of themselves doing their own material.
 
They chose to do a song called "Please, Please, Please", written by Brown and Johnny Terry. The song was based on something that Little Richard had scribbled on a napkin, which Brown decided would make a good title for a song. The song fits neatly into a particular genre of R&B ballad, typified by for example, Richard's "Directly From My Heart to You":
 
[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Directly From My Heart to You"]
 
Though both "Directly From My Heart" and "Please Please Please" owe more than a little to "Shake A Hand" by Faye Adams, the song that inspired almost all slow-burn blues ballads in this period:
 
[Excerpt: Faye Adams, "Shake a Hand"]
 
However, the real key to the song came when Brown heard the Orioles' version of Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go", and used their backing vocal arrangement:
 
[Excerpt: The Orioles, "Baby Please Don't Go"]
 
The Famous Flames were patterning themselves more and more on two groups -- Billy Ward and the Dominoes, whose records with Clyde McPhatter as lead singer had paved the way for vocal group R&B as a genre, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, whose "Work With Me Annie" had had, for the time, a blatant sexuality that was unusual in successful records. They were going for energy, and for pure expression of visceral emotion, rather than the smooth sophisticated sounds of the Platters or Penguins.
 
They were signed to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King, by Ralph Bass, the visionary A&R man we've dealt with in many other episodes. Bass was absolutely convinced that "Please Please Please" would be a hit, and championed the Flames in the face of opposition from his boss, Syd Nathan. Nathan thought that the song just consisted of Brown screaming one word over and over again, and that there was no way on earth that it could be a hit. In Brown's autobiography (not the most reliable of sources) he even claims that Bass was sacked for putting out the record against Nathan's will, but then rehired when the record became a hit. I'm not sure if that's literally true, but it's a story that shows the emotional truth of the period -- Bass was the only person at the record company with any faith in the Famous Flames.
 
But the song became hugely popular. The emotion in Brown's singing was particularly effective on a particular type of woman, who would feel intensely sorry for Brown, and who would want to make that poor man feel better. Some woman had obviously hurt him terribly, and he needed the right woman to fix his hurt. It was a powerful, heartbreaking, song, and an even more powerful performance:
 
[Excerpt: James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Please Please Please"]
 
The song would eventually become one of the staples in the group's live repertoire, and they would develop an elaborate routine about it. Brown would drop to his knees, sobbing, and the other band members would drape him in a cape -- something that was inspired by a caped wrestler, Gorgeous George -- and try to lead him off stage, concerned for him. Brown would pull away from them, feigning distress, and try to continue singing the song while his bandmates tried to get him off the stage.
 
Sometimes it would go even further -- Brown talks in his autobiography about one show, supporting Little Richard, where he climbed into the rafters of the ceiling, hung from the ceiling while singing, and dropped into the waiting arms of the band members at the climax of the show.
 
But there was trouble in store. The record reached number six on the R&B chart and supposedly sold between one and three million copies, though record companies routinely inflated sales by orders of magnitude at this point. But it was credited to James Brown and the Famous Flames, not just to the Famous Flames as a group. When they started to be billed that way on stage shows, too, the rest of the band decided that enough was enough, and quit en masse.
 
Bobby Byrd and Johnny Terry would rejoin fairly shortly afterwards, and both would stay with Brown for many more years, but the rest of the group never came back, and Brown had to put together a new set of Famous Flames, starting out almost from scratch. He had that one hit, which was enough to get his new group gigs, but everything after that flopped, for three long years.
 
Records like "Chonnie On Chon" tried to jump on various bandwagons -- you can hear that there was still a belief among R&B singers that if they namechecked "Annie" from "Work With Me Annie" by the Midnighters, they would have a hit -- but despite him singing about having a rock and roll party, the record tanked:
 
[Excerpt: James Brown, "Chonnie On Chon"]
 
 Brown and his new group of Flames had to build up an audience more or less from nothing. And it's at this point -- when Brown was the undisputed leader of the band -- that he started his tactic of insisting on absolute discipline in his bands. Brown took on the title "the hardest working man in showbusiness", but his band members had to work equally hard, if not harder. Any band member whose shoes weren't shined, or who missed a dance step, or hit a wrong note on stage, would be fined. Brown took to issuing these fines on stage -- he'd point at a band member and then flash five fingers in time to the music. Each time he made his hand flash, that was another five dollar fine for that musician. Audiences would assume it was part of the dance routine, but the musician would know that he was losing that money.
 
But while Brown's perfectionism verged on the tyrannical (and indeed sometimes surpassed the tyrannical), it had results.
 
Brown knew, from a very early age, that he would have to make his success on pure hard work and determination. He didn't have an especially good voice (though he would always defend himself as a singer -- when someone said to him "all you do is grunt", he'd respond, "Yes, but I grunt *in tune*”). And he wasn't the physical type that was in fashion with black audiences at the time. While I am *absolutely* not the person to talk about colourism in the black community, there is a general consensus that in that time and place, black people were more likely to admire a black man if he was light-skinned, had features that didn't fit the stereotype of black people, and was tall and thin. Brown was *very* dark, had extremely African features, and was short and stocky.
 
So he and his group just had to work harder than everyone else. They spent three years putting out unsuccessful singles and touring the chitlin' circuit. We've mentioned the chitlin' circuit in passing before, but now is probably the time to explain this in more detail.
 
The chitlin' circuit was an informal network of clubs and theatres that stretched across the USA, catering almost exclusively to black audiences. Any black act -- with the exception of a handful of acts who were aiming at white audiences, like Harry Belafonte or Nat "King" Cole -- would play the chitlin' circuit, and those audiences would be hard to impress. As with poor audiences everywhere, the audiences wanted value for their entertainment dollar, and were not prepared to tolerate anything less than the best.
 
The worst of these audiences was at the amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The audiences there would come prepared with baskets full of rotten fruit and eggs to throw at the stage. But all of the audiences would be quick to show their disapproval.
 
But at the same time, that kind of audience will also, if you give them anything *more* than their money's worth, be loyal to you forever. And Brown made sure that the Famous Flames would inspire that kind of loyalty, by making sure they worked harder than any other group on the circuit. And after three years of work, he finally had a second hit.
 
The new song was inspired by "For Your Precious Love" by Jerry Butler, another slow-burn ballad, though this time more obviously in the soul genre:
 
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, "For Your Precious Love"]
 
As Brown told the story, he wrote his new song and took it to Syd Nathan at Federal, who said that he wasn't going to waste his money putting out anything like that, and that in fact he was dropping Brown from the label. Brown was so convinced it was a hit that he recorded a demo with his own money, and took it directly to the radio stations, where it quickly became the most requested song on the stations that played it.
 
According to Brown, Nathan wouldn't budge on putting the song out until he discovered that Federal had received orders for twenty-five thousand copies of the single.
 
Nathan then asked Brown for the tape, saying he was going to give Brown one more chance. But Brown told Nathan that if he was going to put out the new song, it was going to be done properly, in a studio paid for by Nathan. Nathan reluctantly agreed, and Brown went into the studio and cut "Try Me":
 
[Excerpt: James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Try Me"]
 
"Try Me" became an even bigger hit than "Please Please Please" had, and went to number one on the R&B charts and number forty-eight on the pop charts.
 
But once again, Brown lost his group, and this time just before a big residency at the Apollo -- the most prestigious, and also the most demanding, venue on the chitlin' circuit. He still had Johnny Terry, and this was the point when Bobby Byrd rejoined the group after a couple of years away, but he was still worried about his new group and how they would fare on this residency, which also featured Little Richard's old group the Upsetters, and was headlined by the blues star Little Willie John.
 
Brown needn't have worried. The new lineup of Famous Flames went down well enough that the audiences were more impressed by them than by any of the other acts on the bill, and they were soon promoted to co-headline status, much to Little Willie John's annoyance.
 
That was the first time James Brown ever played at the Apollo, a venue which in later years would become synonymous with him, and we'll pick up in later episodes on the ways in which Brown and the Apollo were crucial in building each other's reputation.
 
But for Brown himself, probably the most important thing about that residency at the Apollo came at the end of the run. And I'll finish this episode with Brown's own words, from his autobiography, talking about that last night:
 
"The day after we finished at the Apollo I was in my room at the Theresa, fixing to leave for Washington, when somebody knocked on the door.
 
“Come in,” I said. I was gathering up my belongings, not really watching the door. I heard it open, real slow, but that was all. After a minute, when I realized how quiet it was, I turned around. There was a small woman standing there, not young, not old. I hadn’t seen her since I was four years old, but when I looked at her I knew right away it was my mother.
 
I had no idea she was coming to see me that day or any day.
 
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.”
 
She started to smile, and when she did I could see she’d lost all her teeth.
 
All I could think to say was, “I’m going to get your mouth fixed for you.”
 
She didn’t say anything. She just walked toward me. We hugged, and then I kissed my mother for the first time in more than twenty years."

 

Jul 01, 2019
Episode 38: "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley
31:42

elvis.jpeg

NB This is a new version -- I accidentally uploaded the wrong file previously

Episode thirty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, and is part three of a trilogy on the aftermath of Elvis leaving Sun, and the birth of rockabilly. 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 "The Flying Saucer" by Buchanan and Goodman.

 Also, it came too late for me to acknowledge in the episode itself, but I have to mention the sad news that Dave Bartholomew died today, aged 100. He will be missed.

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Resources

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

 

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.

This 3-CD box set (expensive on CD, but relatively cheap as MP3s) contains every surviving recording by Elvis from 1956, including outtakes. This more reasonably priced ten-CD box contains every official release he put out from 1954 through 62, but without the outtakes.

Patreon

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

Transcript

 

We've talked before, a couple of times, about Elvis Presley and his early recordings. Those Sun records are the ones on which his artistic reputation now largely rests, but they weren't the ones that made him famous. He didn't become the Elvis we all know until he started recording for RCA. So today we're going to look at the first single he put out on a major label, and the way it turned him from a minor regional country star into the King of Rock and Roll, a cultural phenomenon that would eclipse all music prior to him, and lead John Lennon to say "Before Elvis there was nothing".

As you might remember from the last episode on Elvis, a few weeks ago, Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had managed to get Elvis signed to RCA Records for a sum of money far greater than anything anyone had paid for a singer before, after Sam Phillips made what seemed like a ludicrous demand just to get Parker out of his hair.

And this was a big deal. Sun Records, as we've seen, was a tiny regional operation. It was able to generate massive hits for Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash after Elvis left, but that's only because of the cash the label was able to make from the Elvis deal. It's safe to say that the whole genre of rockabilly was funded by that one deal. RCA, on the other hand, was one of the biggest labels in the world.

The first thing RCA did was to reissue his last Sun single, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget", backed with "Mystery Train". With RCA's backing, the single did far better than it had on Sun, hitting number one on the country charts at the beginning of 1956.

But was that enough to make the money RCA had paid for Elvis worth it? When Elvis went into the studio on January 10 1956, two days after his twenty-first birthday, the pressure was on him to record something very special indeed.

Before going into the studio, Elvis had been sent ten demos of songs to consider for this first session. The song he ended up choosing as the main one for the session, though, was a song by someone he already knew -- and for which he had a third of the songwriting credit.

Mae Axton was an odd figure. She was an English teacher who had a sideline as a freelance journalist. One day she was asked by a magazine she was freelancing for to write a story about hillbilly music, a subject about which she knew nothing. She went to Nashville to interview the singer Minnie Pearl, and while she was working on her story, Pearl introduced her to Fred Rose, the co-owner of Acuff-Rose Publishing, the biggest publishing company in country music. And Pearl, for some reason, told Rose that Mae, who had never written a song in her life, was a songwriter.

Rose said that he needed a new novelty song for a recording session for the singer Dub Dickerson that afternoon, and asked Mae to write him one. And so, all of a sudden, Mae Axton was a songwriter, and she eventually wrote over two hundred songs, starting with her early collaborations with Dub Dickerson:

[Excerpt: Dub Dickerson, "Shotgun Wedding"]

She was still also a freelance journalist, though, and it was easy for her to make a sidestep into publicity for hillbilly acts. For a time she was Hank Snow's personal publicist, and she would often work with Colonel Parker on promoting shows when they came through Florida, where she lived.

She'd interviewed Elvis when he came to Florida, and had immediately been struck by him. He'd talked to her about how amazed he was by how big the ocean was, and how he'd give anything to have enough money to bring his parents down to Florida to live there. She said later, "That just went through my heart. 'Cause I looked down there, and there were all these other kids, different show members for that night, all the guys looking for cute little girls. But his priority was doing something for his mother and daddy."

She promised she'd write him a song, and by the end of the year, she had one for him.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel”]

"Heartbreak Hotel" was, initially, the work of Tommy Durden, a country singer and songwriter.

As Durden used to tell it, he was inspired by a newspaper story of a man who'd died by suicide, who had been found with no identification on him and a note that simply read "I walk a lonely street".

Later research has suggested that rather than a suicide, the story Durden had read was probably about an armed robber, Alvin Krolik, who had been shot dead in the course of committing a robbery. Krolik had, a few years earlier, after confessing to a string of other robberies, made the news with a partial autobiography he'd written containing the lines “If you stand on a corner with a pack of cigarettes or a bottle and have nothing to do in life, I suggest you sit down and think. This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street. I hope this will help someone in the future.”

Whatever the actual story, it inspired Durden, who had a few lines of the song, and he played what he had to Mae Axton. She thought a lot about the phrase, and eventually came to the conclusion that what you'd find at the end of a lonely street was a heartbreak hotel. The two of them finished the song off, with the help of Glenn Reeves, a rockabilly singer who refused to take credit for his work on the song, because he thought it was ridiculous.

Reeves did, though, record the demo for them. They'd already decided that the song should be pitched to Elvis, and so Reeves impersonated Presley:

[Excerpt: Glenn Reeves, "Heartbreak Hotel"]

A lot of people have claimed that Elvis copied that recording exactly, phrasing and all. Comparing the two recordings, though, shows that that's not the case. Elvis definitely found it easier to record a song when he'd heard someone else doing it in an approximation of his style, and in the sixties he often *would* just copy the phrasing on demos.

But in the case of "Heartbreak Hotel", Elvis is not copying Reeves' phrasing at all. The two are similar, but that's just because Reeves is imitating Elvis in the first place. There are dozens of tiny choices Elvis makes throughout the song which differ from those made by Reeves, and it's clear that Elvis was thinking hard about the choices he was making.

When Mae played him the song, insisting to him that it would be his first million seller, his reaction on hearing it was "Hot dog, Mae! Play it again!" He instantly fell in love with the song, which reminded the young blues-lover of Roy Brown's "Hard Luck Blues":

[Excerpt: Roy Brown, "Hard Luck Blues"]

Elvis got a third of the songwriting credit for the song, which most people have said was insisted on by the Colonel – and certainly other songs Elvis recorded around that time gave him a credit for that reason. But to her dying day Mae Axton always said that she'd cut him in on the song so he might be able to get that money to buy his parents a house in Florida.

The session to record "Heartbreak Hotel" started with the engineers trying -- and failing -- to get a replica of Sam Phillips' slapback echo sound, which was a sound whose secret nobody but Phillips knew. Instead they set up a speaker at one end of the room and fed in the sound from the mics at the other end, creating a makeshift echo chamber which satisfied Chet Atkins but threw the musicians, who weren't used to hearing the echo live rather than added after the fact.

Atkins isn't the credited producer for "Heartbreak Hotel" -- that's Steve Sholes, the A&R man at RCA Records who had signed Presley -- but by all accounts Atkins was nominally in charge of actually running the session. And certainly there would be no other reason for having Atkins there -- he played guitar on the record, but only adding another acoustic rhythm guitar to the sound, which was frankly a waste of the talents of probably the greatest country guitarist of his generation.

That said, Atkins didn't do that much production either -- according to Scotty Moore, his only suggestion was that they just keep doing what they'd been doing.

To start the session off, they recorded a quick version of "I Got A Woman", the Ray Charles song, which had been a staple of Elvis' live act since it had been released:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "I Got A Woman"]

After that, the remainder of the first session was devoted to "Heartbreak Hotel", a record that has a sense of thought that's been put into the arrangement that's entirely absent from the Sun Records arrangements, which mostly consist of start the song, play the song through with a single solo, and end the song. The whole point of those records was to capture a kind of spontaneity, and you can't do much to play with the dynamics of an arrangement when there are only three instruments there. But now there were six -- Scotty Moore and Bill Black were there as always, as was D.J. Fontana, who had joined the band on drums in 1955 and was recording for the first time, along with Atkins and piano player Floyd Cramer, who played on many of the biggest hits to come out of Nashville in the fifties and sixties.

Atkins and Cramer are two of the principal architects of what became known as "the Nashville Sound" or "Countrypolitan" -- there are distinctions between these two styles for those who are interested in the fine details of country music, but for our purposes they're the same, a style of country music that pulled the music away from its roots and towards a sound that was almost a continuation of the pre-rock pop sound, all vocal groups and strings with little in the way of traditional country instrumentation like fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and steel guitars. And there's an element of that with their work with Presley, too -- the rough edges being smoothed off, everything getting a little bit more mannered. But at this point it seems still to be working in the record's favour.

After recording "Heartbreak Hotel", they took a break before spending another three-hour session recording another R&B cover that was a staple of Elvis' stage show, "Money Honey".

Along with the addition of Atkins and Cramer, there were also backing vocalists for the very first time. Now this is something that often gets treated as a problem by people coming to Elvis' music fresh today. Backing vocals in general have been deprecated in rock and roll music for much of the last fifty years, and people think of them as spoiling Elvis' artistry. There have even been releases of some of Elvis' recordings remixed to get rid of the backing vocals altogether (though that's thankfully not possible with these 1956 records, which were recorded directly to mono).

But the backing vocals weren't an irritating addition to Elvis' artistry. Rather, they were the essence of it, and if you're going to listen to Elvis at all, and have any understanding of what he was trying to do, you need to understand that before anything else.

Elvis' first ambition -- the aspiration he had right at the beginning of his career -- was to be a member of a gospel quartet. Elvis wanted to have his voice be part of a group, and he loved to sing harmony more than anything else. He wanted to sing in a gospel quartet before he ever met Sam Phillips, and as his career went on he only increased the number of backing vocalists he worked with -- by the end of his career he would have J.D. Sumner and the Stamps (a Southern Gospel group), *and* the Sweet Inspirations (the girl group who had backed Aretha Franklin), *and* Kathy Westmoreland, a classically-trained soprano, all providing backing vocals.

However, the backing vocalists on this initial session weren't yet the Jordanaires, the group who would back Elvis throughout the fifties and sixties. One of the Jordanaires *was* there -- Gordon Stoker -- but the rest of them weren't hired for the January sessions, as Steve Sholes wanted to use members of a group who were signed with RCA in their own right -- the Speer Family. So Ben and Brock Speer joined Elvis and Stoker to make an unbalanced gospel quartet, with too many tenors and no baritone.

When Elvis found out at a later session that this had happened as a cost-cutting measure, he insisted that all the Jordanaires be employed at his future sessions.

The next day, to end the sessions, they regrouped and cut a couple of ballads. "I'm Counting On You" was rather mediocre, but "I Was The One" ended up being Elvis' personal favourite track from the sessions:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "I Was The One"]

At the end of the sessions, Steve Sholes was very unsure if he'd made the right choice signing Elvis. He only had five tracks to show for three sessions in two days, when the normal thing was to record four songs per session -- Elvis and his group were so slow partly because they were used to the laid-back feel of the Sun studios, with Sam Phillips never clock-watching, and partly because Elvis was a perfectionist. Several times they'd recorded a take that Sholes had felt would be good enough to release, but Elvis had insisted he could do it better. He'd been right -- the later versions were an improvement -- but they had remarkably few tracks that they could use.

Many of those who'd loved Elvis' earlier work were astonished at how bad "Heartbreak Hotel" sounded to them. The reverb, sounding so different from the restrained use of slapback on the Sun records, sounded to many ears, not least Sam Phillips', like a bad joke -- Phillips called the result "a morbid mess".

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel”]

Yet it became a smash hit. It went to number one on the pop charts, number one in country, and made the top five in R&B. This was the moment when Elvis went from being a minor country singer on a minor label to being Elvis, Elvis the Pelvis, the King of Rock & Roll.

After the sessions that produced "Heartbreak Hotel", Elvis went back into the studio twice more and recorded a set of songs -- mostly R&B and rockabilly covers -- for his first album. Almost all of these were Elvis' own choice of material, and so while his versions of "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Tutti Frutti" didn't match the quality of the originals, they were fine performances and perfect for album tracks. While the "Heartbreak Hotel" session had been in Nashville -- a natural choice, since it was both relatively close to Elvis' home town of Memphis, and the capital of country music, and Elvis was still supposedly a country artist -- the next couple of sessions were in New York, timed to coincide with Elvis' appearances on TV.

Starting with the low-rated Stage Show, a programme that was presented by the swing bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Elvis quickly moved up the ladder of TV shows, appearing first with Milton Berle, then with Steve Allen, and then finally on the Ed Sullivan show. On his first appearances, you can see the Elvis that people who knew him talked about – even as he's working the audience with what looks like the utmost confidence, you can see his fingers twitching wildly in a way he's not properly conscious of, and you can tell that under the mask of the sex symbol is the quiet country boy who would never meet anyone's eye.

Each show caused more controversy than the last, as first Elvis' hip gyrations got him branded a moral menace, then he was forced to sing while standing still, and then only filmed from the waist up. Those shows helped propel "Heartbreak Hotel" to the top of the charts, but the Colonel decided that Elvis probably shouldn't do too much more TV – if people could see him without paying, why would they pay to see him? No, Elvis was going to be in films instead.

But all that work meant that Elvis' fourth set of sessions for RCA was fairly disastrous, and ended up with nothing that was usable. Elvis had been so busy promoting "Heartbreak Hotel" that he hadn't had any chance to prepare material, and so he just went with Steve Sholes' suggestion of "I Want You I Need You I Love You". But the session went terribly, because Elvis had no feel for the song at all. Normally, Elvis would learn a song straight away, after a single listen, but he just couldn't get the song in his head. They spent the whole session working on that single track, and didn't manage to get a usable take recorded at all. Steve Sholes eventually had to cobble together a take using bits of two different performances, and no-one was happy with it, but it reached number one on the country chart and number three on the pop charts. It was hardly "Heartbreak Hotel" levels of success, but it was OK.

It was the B-side of that single that was really worth listening to. A leftover from the album sessions, it was, like Elvis' first single, a cover version of an Arthur Crudup song. And this one also gave D.J. Fontana his first chance to shine.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "My Baby Left Me"]

By this point, it was very clear that if Elvis was given control of the studio and singing material he connected with, he would produce great things. And if he was doing what someone else thought he should be doing, he would be much less successful.

A couple of months later Elvis and the group were back in the studio cutting what would become their biggest double-sided hit, both songs definitely chosen by Elvis. These days their cover version of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" is the better-known of the two sides they cut that day, but while that's an excellent track -- and one that bears almost no relation to Thornton's original -- the A-side, and the song that finally convinced several detractors, including Sam Phillips, that Elvis might be able to make decent records away from Sun, was "Don't Be Cruel", a song written by Otis Blackwell, but credited to Blackwell and Presley, as the Colonel insisted that his boy get a cut for making it a hit.

Otis Blackwell is another person who we'll be hearing from a lot over the course of the series, as he wrote a string of hits, including several for Elvis, who he never met -- the one time he did have a chance to meet him, he declined, as he'd developed a superstition about meeting the man who'd given him his biggest hits.

At this time, Blackwell had just written the song "Fever" for Little Willie John:

[Excerpt: "Fever", Little Willie John]

That song had become a big hit for Peggy Lee, in a version with different lyrics, and Blackwell was at the start of an impressive career. We don't have Blackwell's demo of "Don't Be Cruel", but he recorded a version in the 1970s which might give some idea of what Elvis heard in 1956:

[Excerpt: Otis Blackwell, "Don't Be Cruel"]

Elvis' version showed a lightness of touch that had been absent on his earlier RCA records. He was finally in control of the sound he wanted in the studio. "Don't Be Cruel" took twenty-eight takes, and "Hound Dog" thirty-one, but you'd never believe it from the light, frothy, sound that "Don't Be Cruel" has in its finished version, where Elvis sounds as playful as if he was improvising the song on the spot:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Don't Be Cruel"]

Both sides of the record went to number one – first “Don't Be Cruel” went to number one and “Hound Dog” to number two, and then they swapped over. Between them they spent eleven weeks at the top of the charts.

But even as Elvis was starting to take complete control in the studio, that control was starting to be taken away from him by events. His next session after the one that produced "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" was one he had not been expecting. When he'd signed to make his first film, a Western called "The Reno Brothers", he'd expected it to be a straight acting role with no songs -- he wanted to follow the path of people like Frank Sinatra, who had parallel careers in the cinema and in music, and he also hoped that he could emulate his acting idols, Marlon Brando and James Dean.

But by the time he came to make the film, several songs had been added -- and he found out, to his annoyance, that he wasn't allowed to use Scotty, Bill, and DJ on the soundtrack, because the film company didn't think they could sound hillbilly enough. They were replaced with Hollywood session musicians, who could do a better job of sounding hillbilly than those country musicians could. Elvis didn't have any say over the material either, although he did like the main ballad that was going to be used in the film -- the other three songs were among the most mediocre he'd do in the fifties.

By the time "The Reno Brothers" was finished, it had been renamed "Love Me Tender", and we'll be picking up on Elvis' film career in a future episode...

Jun 24, 2019
Episode 37: "I Walk The Line" by Johnny Cash
34:45

Johnny Cash

Episode thirty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "I Walk The Line" by Johnny Cash, and is part two of a trilogy on the aftermath of Elvis leaving Sun, and the birth of rockabilly. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a thirteen-minute bonus episode available, on "Don't Be Angry" by Nappy Brown.

 ----more----

Errata

Two minor errors I noticed while editing but didn't think were worth going back and redoing -- I pronounce "Belshazzar" incorrectly (it's pronounced as Cash does in the song, as far as I can tell), and I said that the lyric to "Get Rhythm" contains the phrase "if you get the blues", when of course it's "when you get the blues".

Resources

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

My main source for this episode is Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn.

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.

This triple-CD set contains everything Johnny Cash recorded for Sun Records.

His early Sun singles are also 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 Cash's work, in a way hearing it in isolation wouldn't.

 

 

Patreon

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

 Transcript

This podcast is called a history of rock music, but one of the things we're going to learn as the story goes on is that the history of any genre in popular music eventually encompasses them all. And at the end of 1955, in particular, there was no hard and fast distinction between the genres of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music.

So today we're going to talk about someone who, to many, epitomises country music more than any other artist, but who started out recording for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, making music that was stylistically indistinguishable from any of the other rockabilly artists there, and whose career would intertwine with all of them for decades to come.

Before you listen to this one, you might want to go back and listen to last week's episode, on "Blue Suede Shoes", because the stories of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins tie together quite a lot, and this is effectively part two of a three-parter, about Sun Records and the birth of rockabilly.

Johnny Cash's birth name was actually J.R. Cash -- initials rather than a full name -- and that was how he was known until he joined the Air Force. His parents apparently had a disagreement over what their son's name should be, and so rather than give him full names, they just gave him initials.

The Air Force wouldn't allow him to just use initials as his name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. It was only once he became a professional musician that he took on the name Johnny Cash. He still never had a middle name, just a middle initial.

While he was in the military, he'd been the very first American to learn that Stalin had died, as he'd been the radio operator who'd intercepted and decoded the Russian transmissions about it. But the military had never been the career he wanted. He wanted to be a singer. He just didn't know how.

After returning to the US from his stint in the Air Force in Germany, aged twenty-two, Cash got married and moved to Memphis, to be near his brother. Cash's brother introduced him to two of his colleagues, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. Both Perkins and Grant could play a little guitar, and they started getting together to play a little music, sometimes with a steel player called Red Kernodle.

They were very, very, unskilled musicians, but that didn't matter. They had a couple of things that mattered far more than skill. They had a willingness to try anything if it might sound good, and they had Cash's voice, which even as a callow young man sounded like Cash had been carved out of rock and imbued with the spirit of an Old Testament prophet. Cash never had a huge range, but his voice had a sonority to it that was quite astonishing, a resonant bass-baritone that demanded you pay attention to what it had to say.

And Cash had a determination that he was going to become a famous singer. He had no idea how one was to go about this, but he knew it was what he wanted to do.

To start with, they mostly performed the gospel songs that Cash loved. This was the music that is euphemistically called Southern Gospel, but which is really white gospel. Cash had had a religious experience as a kid, when his elder brother, who had wanted to become a priest, had died and had had a deathbed vision of heaven and hell, and Cash wanted to become a gospel singer to pay tribute to his brother while also indulging his own love of music.

But then at one of their jam sessions, Cash brought in a song he had written himself, called "Belshazzar", based on a story from the Bible:

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash: "Belshazzar"]

The other two were amazed. Not so much by the song itself, but by the fact that you could write a song at all. The idea that songs were something you write was not something that had really occurred to them.

Cash, Perkins, and Grant all played acoustic guitar at first, and none of them were particularly good. They were mostly just hanging out together, having fun. They were just singing stuff they'd heard on the radio, and they particularly wanted to sound like the Louvin Brothers:

[Excerpt: The Louvin Brothers, "This Little Light of Mine"]

They were having fun together, but that was all. But Cash was ambitious to do something more. And that "something more" took shape when he heard a record, one that was recorded the day after the plane that took Cash back into the US touched down:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "That's All Right Mama"]

He liked the sound of that record a lot. And what he liked even more was hearing the DJ, after the song was played, say that the record was out on Sun Records, a label based in Memphis itself.

Johnny, Luther, and Marshall went to see Elvis, Scotty, and Bill perform, playing on the back of a flatbed truck and just playing the two songs on their single. Cash was immediately worried – Elvis was clearly a teenager, and Cash himself was a grown man of twenty-two. Had he missed his chance at stardom? Was he too old?

Cash had a chat with Elvis, and went along again the next night to see the trio performing a proper set at a nightclub, and this time he talked with Scotty Moore and asked him how to get signed to Sun.

Moore told him to speak to Sam Phillips, and so Cash got hold of Sun's phone number and started calling, asking to speak to Phillips, who was never in – he was out on the road a lot of the time, pushing the label's records to distributors and radio stations.

But Cash also knew that he was going to have to do something more to get recorded. He was going to have to turn his little guitar jam sessions into a proper group like Elvis, Scotty, and Bill, not just three people bashing away together at acoustic guitars. They sometimes had Red on steel guitar, but they still needed some variety. Cash was obviously going to be the lead singer, so it made sense for him to stick with the acoustic rhythm guitar. Luther Perkins got himself an electric guitar and started playing lead lines which amounted to little more than boogie-woogie basslines transposed up an octave.

Marshall Grant, meanwhile, got himself a double bass, and taped markers on it to show him where the notes were. He'd never played one before, so all he could do was play single notes every other beat, with big gaps between the notes -- "Boom [pause] boom [pause] boom [pause] boom" -- he couldn't get his fingers between the notes any faster.

This group was clearly not anything like as professional as Presley and his group, but they had *something*. Their limitations as musicians meant that they had to find ways to make the songs work without relying on complicated parts or virtuoso playing. As Luther Perkins would later put it, "You know how all those hot-shot guitarists race their fingers all over the strings? Well, they’re looking for the right sound. I found it.”

But Cash was still, frankly, a little worried that his group weren't all that great, and when he finally went to see Sam Phillips in person, having failed to get hold of him on the phone, he went alone.

Phillips was immediately impressed by Cash's bearing and presence. He was taller, and more dignified, than most of the people who came in to audition for Phillips. He was someone with presence, and gravitas, and Phillips thought he had the makings of a star.

The day after meeting Phillips for the first time, Cash brought his musician friends around as well, and Johnny, Luther, Marshall, and Red all had a chat with Phillips. Phillips explained to them that they didn't need to be technically great musicians, just have the right kind of sound.

The four of them rehearsed, and then came back to Phillips with some of the material they'd been practising. But when it came time to audition, their steel player got so scared that he couldn't tune his guitar, his hands were shaking so much. Eventually he decided that he was holding the other three back, and left the studio, and the audition continued with just the group who had now become the Tennessee Three – a name they chose because while they all now lived in Tennessee, none of them had originally come from there.

Phillips liked their sound, but explained that he wasn't particularly interested in putting out gospel music. There's an urban legend that Phillips said "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell", though this was denied by Cash. But it is true that he'd had no sales success with gospel music, and that he wanted something more commercial.

Whatever Phillips said, though, Cash took the hint, and went home and started writing secular songs. The one he came back to Phillips with, "Hey Porter", was inspired by the sound of the railway, and had a boom-chick-a-boom rhythm that would soon become Cash's trademark:

[Excerpt, "Hey Porter": Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two]

Phillips liked it, and the Tennessee Three set to recording it. Or at least that was what they were called when they recorded it, but by the time it was released Sam Phillips had suggested a slight name change, and the single came out under the name Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.

As the Tennessee Two didn't have a drummer, Cash put paper between the strings and the fretboard of his acoustic guitar to deaden the sound and turn it into something that approximated the sound of a snare drum. The resulting boom-chick sound was one that would become a signature of Cash's recordings for the next few decades, a uniquely country music take on the two-beat rhythm. That sound was almost entirely forced on the group by their instrumental limitations, but it was a sound that worked.

The song Cash brought in to Phillips as a possible B-side was called "Folsom Prison Blues", and it was only an original in the loosest possible sense. Before going off to Germany with the air force, Cash had seen a film called "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison", and it had given Cash the idea that someone should write a song about that. But he'd put the idea to the back of his mind until two other inspirations arrived.

The first was a song called "Crescent City Blues", which he heard on a Gordon Jenkins album that a fellow airman in Germany owned:

[Excerpt: Gordon Jenkins (Beverly Maher vocals): "Crescent City Blues"]

If you've not heard that song before, and are familiar with Cash's work, you're probably mildly in shock right now at just how much like “Folsom Prison Blues” that is. Jenkins' song in turn is also strongly inspired by another song, also titled "Crescent City Blues", by the boogie-woogie pianist Little Brother Montgomery:

[Excerpt Little Brother Montgomery, "Crescent City Blues"]

The second musical inspiration for Cash's prison song was a song by Cash's idol, Jimmie Rodgers, "Blue Yodel #1", also known as "T For Texas":

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, "Blue Yodel #1"]

The line "I'm gonna shoot poor Thelma, just to see her jump and fall" hit Cash hard, and he realised that the most morally bankrupt person he could imagine was someone who would kill someone else just to watch them die.

He put this bleak amorality together with the idea of a song about Folsom, and changed just enough of the words to "Crescent City Blues" that it worked with this new concept of the character, and he titled the result "Folsom Prison Blues":

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"]

9) Sam Phillips didn't think that was suitable as the B-side to "Hey Porter", and they eventually went for a sad song that Cash had written titled "Cry Cry Cry," but "Folsom Prison Blues" was put aside as a future possibility.

When the contract was drawn up, the only person who was actually signed to Sun was Cash – Phillips didn't want to be tied to the other two musicians. But while only Cash was signed to the label, they split the money more or less equitably, in a forty-thirty-thirty split (other sources say that the split was completely equal).

“Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry” both charted, and "Folsom Prison Blues" became Cash's second single, and one of the songs that would define him for the rest of his career. It went to number four on the country and western chart, and established him as a genuine star of country music.

It's around this time that Sun signed Carl Perkins, which caused problems. Cash resented the way that he was being treated by Phillips as being less important than Perkins. He thought that Phillips was now only interested in his new star, and wasn't going to bother promoting Cash's records any more. This would be a recurring pattern with Phillips over the next few years -- he would discover some new star and whoever his previous favourite was would be convinced that Phillips no longer cared about them any more. This is ultimately what led to Sun's downfall, as one by one his discoveries moved on to other labels that they believed valued them more than Phillips did.

Phillips, on the other hand, always argued that he had to put in more time when dealing with a new discovery, because he had to build their career up, and that established artists would always forget what he'd done for them when they saw him doing the same things for the next person.

That's not to say, though, that Cash disliked Perkins. Quite the contrary. The two became close friends -- though Cash became even closer with Clayton Perkins, Carl's wayward brother, who had a juvenile sense of humour that appealed to Cash. Cash even co-wrote a song with Perkins, "All Mama's Children", which became the B-side to Perkins' "Boppin' the Blues":

[Excerpt, Carl Perkins, "All Mama's Children"]

It's not the greatest song either man ever wrote, by any means, but it was the start of a working relationship that would continue off and on for decades, and which both men would benefit from significantly.

By this point, Cash had started to build a following, and as you might expect given his inspiration, he was following the exact same career path as Elvis Presley. He was managed by Elvis' first proper manager, Bob Neal, and he was given a regular slot on the Louisiana Hayride, the country music radio show that Elvis had built his reputation on. But this meant that Cash was being promoted alongside Carl Perkins, as a rock and roll star.

This would actually do wonders for Cash's career in the long term. A lot of people who wouldn't listen to anything labeled country were fans of Cash in the mid fifties, and remained with him, and this meant that his image was always a little more appealing to rock audiences than many other similar singers. You can trace a direct line between Cash being promoted as a rock and roller in 1955 and 56, and his comeback with the American Recordings series more than forty years later.

But when Cash brought in a new song he'd written, about his struggle while on the road to be true to his wife (and, implicitly, also to his God), it caused a clash between him and Sam Phillips.

That song was quite possibly inspired by a line in "Sixteen Tons", the big hit from Tennessee Ernie Ford that year, which Cash fell in love with when it came out, and which made Cash a lifelong fan of its writer Merle Travis:

[Excerpt: "Sixteen Tons", Tennessee Ernie Ford]

He never made the connection publicly himself, but that image of walking the line almost definitely stuck in Cash's mind, and it became the central image of a song he wrote while on the road, thinking about fidelity in every sense.

"I Walk the Line" was the subject of a lot of debate between Cash and Phillips, neither of whom were entirely convinced by the other's argument. Cash was sure that the song was a good one, maybe the best song he ever wrote, but he wanted to play it as a slow, plaintive, lovelorn ballad. Phillips, on the other hand, wasn't so impressed by the song itself, but he thought that it had some potential if it was sped up to the kind of tempo that "Hey Porter", "Cry Cry Cry" and "Folsom Prison Blues" had all been performed in -- a rock and roll tempo, for Cash's rock and roll audience. Give it some rhythm, and some of the boom-chika-boom, and there might be something there.

Cash argued that he didn't need to. After all, the other song he had brought in, one that he cared about much less and had originally written to give to Elvis, was a rock and roll song. The lyrics even went "Get rhythm if you get the blues":

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two: "Get Rhythm"]

That song itself would go on to become a hit for Cash, and a staple of his live shows, but Phillips didn't see a reason why, just because one side of the record was uptempo, the other shouldn't be as well. He wanted the music to be universal, rather than personal, and to his mind a strong rhythm was necessary for universality.

They eventually compromised and recorded two versions, a faster one recorded the way Phillips wanted it, and a slower one, the way Cash liked it. Cash walked out convinced that Phillips would see reason and release the slower version. He was devastated to find that Phillips had released the faster version.

Cash later said, “The first time I heard it on the radio, I called him and said, ‘I hate that sound. Please don’t release any more records. I hate that sound.’ ”

But then the record became a massive hit, and Cash decided that maybe the sound wasn't so bad after all. It went to number one on the country jukebox chart, made the top twenty in the pop charts, and sold more than two million copies as a single. Phillips had unquestionably had the right instincts, commercially at least.

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "I Walk The Line"]

"I Walk The Line" has a very, very, unusual structure. There's a key change after every single verse. This is just not something that you do, normally. Most pop songs will either stay in one key throughout, have a different key for different sections (so they might be in a minor key for the verse and a major key for the chorus, for example) or have one key change near the end, to give the song a bit of a kick. Here, the first verse is in F, then it goes up a fourth for the second verse, in B flat. It goes up another fourth, to E flat, for the third verse, then for the fourth verse it's back down to B flat, and the fifth verse it's back down to F, though an octave lower.

(For those wondering about those keys, either they're playing with capoes or, more likely, Sam Phillips sped the track up a semitone to make it sound faster.)

And this is really very, very, clever in the way it sets the mood of the song. The song starts and ends in the same place both musically and lyrically -- the last verse is a duplicate of the first, though sung an octave lower than it started -- and the rising and falling overall arc of the song suggests a natural cycle that goes along with the metaphors in the lyrics -- the tides, heartbeats, day and night, dark and light. The protagonist of the song is walking a thin line, wobbling, liable at any moment to fall over to one side or another, just like the oscillation and return to the original tonal centre in this song. What sounds like a relatively crude piece of work is, when listened to closely, a much more inventive record.

And this is true of the chord sequences in the individual verses too. The verses only have three chords each -- the standard three chords that most country or blues songs have, the tonic, subdominant and dominant of the key. But they're not arranged in the standard order that you'd have them in, in a three-chord trick or a twelve-bar blues. Instead the verses all start with the dominant, an unusual, unstable, choice that came about from Cash having once threaded a tape backwards and having been fascinated by the sound. The dominant is normally the last chord. Here it's the first.

The backwards tape is also one story as to where he got the idea of the humming that starts every verse -- though Cash also used to claim that the humming was so he could find the right note because there were so many key changes.

This is not a song that's structured like a normal country and western song, and it's quite an extraordinarily personal piece of work. It's an expression of one man's very personal aesthetic, no matter how much Sam Phillips altered it to fit his own ideas of what Cash should be recording. It's an utterly idiosyncratic, utterly *strange* record, and a very strong contender for the best thing Sun Records ever put out, which is a high bar to meet. The fact that this sold two million copies in a country market that is usually characterised as conservative shows just how wrong such stereotypes can be.

It was a masterpiece, and Johnny Cash was set for a very, very, long and artistically successful career.

But that career wouldn't be with Sun. His life was in turmoil, the marriage that he had written so movingly about trying to keep together was falling apart, and he was beginning to think that he would do better doing as Elvis had and moving to a major label. Soon he would be signed to Columbia, the label where he would spend almost all his career, but we'll have one last glimpse of him at Sun. before he went off to Columbia and superstardom, in a future episode.

And next week, we'll look at how Elvis was doing away from Sun.

Jun 17, 2019
Episode 36: "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins
28:57

Carl Perkins

 

Episode thirty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins, and is part one of a trilogy on the aftermath of Elvis leaving Sun, and the birth of rockabilly. 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 "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by the Cheers.

 ----more----

Clarification

While editing tonight's podcast I noticed something I didn't make clear. I talk about "Movie Magg" by Carl Perkins being about riding a mule to the cinema, but in the song he uses the word "horse" rather than mule. Perkins' family, in real life, had a mule when he wrote the song, and that was what he was writing about, even though the song lyric is "horse".

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. For copyright reasons, that might not be available in North America, so here's a Spotify playlist of the same recordings.

Much of the information here comes from Go Cat Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, by Carl Perkins and David McGee.

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.

There are many compilations available of Perkins' Sun recordings. This double-CD one seems as good as any.

All Perkins' early Sun singles are also 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 Perkins' work, in a way hearing it in isolation wouldn't.

 

 

Patreon

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

 Transcript

 

Today's episode is, in effect, part one of a three-part story, looking at the repercussions of Elvis Presley's move from Sun Records, and the birth of rockabilly. As when I did my recent Chess Records trilogy, all of these episodes should stand alone, but you might find it interesting to listen back to this one after the next two.

While Elvis Presley had moved from Sun to RCA, that didn't mean that Sam Phillips had given up on recording rock and roll music. Far from it. With the amount of money that RCA had paid for Elvis' contract, Sun Records was for the first time on a completely secure footing, and now Phillips could really begin work on making the music that would come to define his legacy.

Because now, Sun Records shifted almost entirely from being a blues label to being a rockabilly label. We've not talked much about rockabilly as a genre, and that's because until now we've only heard one person performing it. But while Elvis was arguably the first rockabilly artist, it wasn't until Elvis had left Sun that the floodgates opened, and Sam Phillips started producing the records that defined the genre as a genre, rather than as the work of a single individual.

The rockabilly sound was, in essence, created in Sun studios. And rockabilly is one of those sounds that purists, at least, insist had a very, very specific meaning. It had to have slapback echo on the vocals, it had to have an electric lead guitar and slapback bass. It basically had to have all the elements of Elvis' very earliest records. You could add a few other elements, like piano or drums -- mostly because anything else would exclude Jerry Lee Lewis -- but no horns or strings, no backing vocals, nothing that would take away from the very primitive sound. And no steel guitar or fiddle, either -- that would tip it over into country.

There were, of course, other people who produced rockabilly records, and we'll look at some of them as the next couple of years go on. But when they did, they were all copying the sound that Sam Phillips created.

Because after Elvis stopped recording for Sun, Sam Phillips and his small staff discovered enough young, exciting, musicians that Sun Records was assured a place in music history, even though its biggest artist was gone.

The first of the new artists Phillips discovered was someone who came to Sun when Elvis was still on the label -- a young man named Carl Perkins.

Perkins, like many of the pioneers of rock and roll music, had grown up dirt-poor. His parents were sharecroppers, who were illiterate enough that they misspelled their own surname on his birth certificate (they spelled it Perkings, but he always used Perkins in later life. His family had been so poor that when young Carl, inspired by listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, asked if he could have a guitar, his parents couldn't afford one, and so his father made him one from a cigar box and a broom handle. However, young Carl got good enough that soon his dad bought him a real guitar. He was so poor that when he broke strings, he had to tie them together because he couldn't afford new ones, and he ended up developing a unique guitar style -- bending strings to get different notes rather than fretting them normally -- to avoid the knots in the strings, which hurt his fingers.

When he was fourteen, Perkins wrote his first song, and it again shows just how poor he was. Listen to the lyrics to "Movie Magg":

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Movie Magg"]

That's about going to the cinema *riding on a mule*. Because in the time and place where Perkins grew up, it was actually considered slightly classier to ride a mule to the cinema than to take a car, because if anyone *did* have a car, it was one that was so broken down and rusted that it was actually less impressive than a mule.

All of Perkins' early work is like that, rooted in a poverty far deeper than almost anyone listening to this podcast will be able to understand. It's music based in the country music he heard growing up, and it's music that could only be made by someone who spent his childhood picking cotton for pennies an hour in order to help his family survive.

When Perkins had learned to play the guitar well enough to play lead, he taught his brother Jay to play rudimentary rhythm parts. Jay loved music as much as Carl did, but the two brothers had slightly different tastes in country music. Carl was a massive fan of the inventor of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, who sang high, driving, harmony-filled songs of longing:

[Excerpt: Bill Monroe, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"]

Jay, on the other hand, preferred Ernest Tubb's low, honky tonk, music:

[Excerpt: Ernest Tubb, "Tomorrow Never Comes"]

They taught their younger brother Clayton to play a little bass, even though he wasn't a music lover especially -- Clayton loved drinking and fighting and not much else. But he had a reasonable sense of rhythm, so they could teach him the three places to put his fingers on most country songs, and let him figure out the rest with practice. Their friend Fluke Holland joined on drums, and the Perkins Brothers Band was born.

The Perkins brothers spent the next several years honing their craft playing some of the roughest bars in Tennessee. They had to develop an ability to play dance music for venues where it was customary to buy two bottles of beer at a time -- one to drink, and one to smash over someone else's head -- you didn't want to use an empty bottle for your smashing, as there was no weight to them, but a full bottle of beer would put someone out of commission very quickly.

So they very quickly developed a style that was rooted in honky-tonk music, but which was totally oriented around getting people dancing. It had elements of bluegrass, Western Swing, the blues, and anything else that could possibly be used to get a crowd of drunks dancing, if you only had two guitars, a double bass, and a drum kit. Both Carl and Jay would take turns singing lead, and when they ran out of songs to perform, Carl would improvise new ones around standard chord changes. He had the ability to improvise words and music off the top of his head -- and he'd remember a good chorus or a good line and reuse it, so these improvised songs slowly became standard, structured, parts of their set.

They were soon able to make a full-time living playing music for bars full of angry drunk men, and for several years they did just that, starting from before it was even legal for them to enter the bars they were playing. They had no ambition to do anything else -- they were just glad to be earning a living doing something that was fun.

Slowly but surely, Carl Perkins started to carve out a unique sound for the band, at least on the songs that he wrote and sang. He didn't know what it was that he was doing, but he knew it was different, and that no-one else was doing anything like it. Until one day he heard someone who was:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"]

When Carl Perkins heard Elvis singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the radio, he knew that there was someone else who was out there doing the same kind of thing as him. He was even singing a song by Carl's favourite, Bill Monroe.

If this Elvis Presley kid could become a star making that kind of music, maybe so could Carl himself. He and his brothers went to see Elvis live and while Jay and Clayton took a dislike to Elvis -- deciding that because he paid any attention to his appearance he must be gay, and therefore in their opinion worthy of nothing but contempt -- Carl saw something else.

He determined right then that he was going to go to Sun Records and demand an audition. If they would put that Elvis boy's records out, then surely they would put his out too?

The Perkins Brothers Band all piled into a single car, and drove down to Memphis, to 706 Union Ave. They went in to see the people at Sun Records -- and were turned away. Marion Keisker told them that they weren't auditioning right then, and that they didn't need any new singers. When Carl Perkins told her that they sounded a bit like Elvis, she was even more dismissive -- they didn't need another Elvis. They'd already got one.

They trudged back despondently to the car, deciding that their dream of stardom was at an end. But as they were doing so, a Cadillac pulled up and a man got out of it. They decided that the only person who would be driving a Cadillac to that studio must be the owner of the record label, so they went over to him and told him what had happened.

And Sam Phillips agreed with Keisker. He wasn't after anyone else right now. He had enough acts. And Carl was devastated. According to Perkins, Phillips later told him “I couldn’t say no. Never have I [seen] a pitifuller-looking fellow as you looked when I said, ‘I’m too busy to listen to you.’ You overpowered me.” He relented, and told them that he'd give them a quick listen, but it had to be quick as he was busy that day.

They went into the studio and started running through their set. They got through a verse of the first song, and Phillips stopped them. He wasn't interested in anything like that. They started another song. Again, Phillips stopped them and said he wasn't interested. They were about to go home, but then Carl asked if he could try just one more song. He started up that song he had written when he was fourteen, "Movie Magg":

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Movie Magg"]

The band joined in, and as they played through the song, Carl noticed something. Sam Phillips hadn't stopped them from playing. He sat through the whole thing, listening intently.

When they got to the end, he said that if they came back with a few more songs that sounded like that, they might just be worth recording. The band were pleased, but Phillips also said something else, to Carl alone, that was more worrying. He told Carl that there was no place for any lead vocals by his brother Jay. "There's already one Ernest Tubb in the world. No-one needs another one."

Without them having fully realised it at the time, the Perkins Brothers Band had now become Carl Perkins and his band.

When they came back a few weeks later, they had worked out a few more songs. Phillips put out "Movie Magg", backed with a ballad Carl had written, "Turn Around", but he didn't put these out on Sun. Rather, he put them out on a new label, Flip, that didn't pay union scale. Flip only put out records around Tennessee, and the idea was that these would be audition records -- Phillips would see how the records would do locally, without paying full royalties and without paying expensive shipping costs or for a large print run. Phillips was in financial trouble at the time, and he was trying to find ways to cut costs.

"Movie Magg" did well enough on Flip that for the next Carl Perkins single, Phillips moved him on to Sun Records proper. This followed the same formula as the first single, pairing an uptempo A-side with a B-side ballad in the Hank Williams vein. The A-side, "Gone Gone Gone", was one of Carl's improvised songs -- every take of it was different, although they were all based around the same basic idea, which was riffing on the old phrase, "It must be jelly, 'cause jam don't shake like that".

[Excerpt, Carl Perkins, "Gone Gone Gone"]

"Gone Gone Gone" wasn't a hit, but it sold well enough, and Phillips arranged for Perkins to go out on tour, on a bill with Elvis and another new Sun signing, Johnny Cash. It was on this tour that Cash made a suggestion to Perkins that would change Perkins' life.

Cash remembered a fellow serviceman, a black man named C.V. Wright, had referred to his service issue shoes as "blue suede shoes", and he told Perkins that he should write a song about that. Perkins dismissed the idea. What the hell did he know about shoes, anyway? And what kind of song could you write about them? The idea was ridiculous.

The tour went well, apart from one incident -- Perkins and Presley had been talking about their mutual love for the song "Only You", and that inspired Perkins to add the song to his own setlist.

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Only You"]

That irritated Presley, who had been planning to perform the song himself the same night, and Presley felt that Perkins' performance had upstaged him. The two remained friends, but would never perform on the same bill again. Elvis did, however, take Carl out clothes shopping, and show him how to dress in a more sophisticated manner on stage.

Shortly after that tour, Perkins was performing another show, when he noticed someone in the audience berating his date, "Don't step on my suedes!" He started thinking about what kind of person would find his shoes so important, and started thinking about pride, and about people who don't have anything. The idea merged with Cash's mention of blue suede shoes, and Perkins found himself one night getting out of bed, playing his electric guitar unplugged, so as not to disturb his wife, and writing a song he called "Blue Swade Shoes" -- he spelled "suede" s w a d e, because he didn't know how the word was spelled. Two days later, on December 19, 1955, he was in the studio recording it:

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes"]

Perkins was certain that this was going to be it. This was his breakthrough record. But at the same time he was getting depressed about his prospects. He had a wife and kids to support, and he was earning so little money from his music that he was having to do farm work as a side job in order to make enough money to buy his kids Christmas presents. The people at this side job were often astonished that "that singer fella" was there. Everyone around knew him from his stage shows, and they all knew he'd put out records. Surely he was rich now, and didn't need to be doing such menial work?

He was at a low, and that didn't get better when he finally got his complimentary copies of his new single. They arrived through the post and, as often happened with records at that time, they'd got smashed into bits. He wanted to have his own copies of the record, of course, so he went into town to the shop that sold records, and asked for a copy. He was horrified at what he saw. Instead of a proper record -- a big ten inch thing with a tiny little hole in the middle, made out of shellac -- he was confronted with something only seven inches across, made of some kind of plastic, and with a big hole in the middle.

He explained that no, he wanted his record, and the store owner replied that this was his record. He came home with this little floppy thing and cried, explaining to his wife that they'd messed up his record in some way, and that he was ruined. Eventually they figured out that this was OK, and that what the store owner had told Carl had been correct -- these new vinyl records were apparently what all the kids wanted instead of what Carl thought of as real records.

"Blue Suede Shoes" was an obvious hit, but the B-side, "Honey Don't", got more than a little airplay as well:

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Honey Don't"]

"Blue Suede Shoes" was such a smash hit that Steve Sholes of RCA called Sam Phillips, worried. When he'd signed Elvis, had he backed the wrong horse? Phillips assured Sholes that he hadn't.

As it turned out, "Blue Suede Shoes" and Elvis' first single for RCA, "Heartbreak Hotel", were racing up the charts at the same time as each other. "Heartbreak Hotel" ended up at number one, and "Blue Suede Shoes" at number two, and both were crossover hits, making the top two in both pop and country and the top five in R&B.

"Blue Suede Shoes" was so popular, in fact, that at one point it was being performed simultaneously on two different TV shows -- at the same time as Carl Perkins was appearing on the Ozark Jubilee, his very first TV appearance, Presley was on Stage Show on another network, performing his cover version of it:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Blue Suede Shoes"]

Presley's version wasn't released as a single until a few months later -- they'd come to a gentleman's agreement that he wouldn't affect Perkins' sales -- but it was put out as the opening track on Presley's first album, and as a track on an EP. When Presley's version finally came out as a single, towards the end of the year, it made the top twenty and brought in further royalties for Perkins.

Perkins' version of "Blue Suede Shoes" and Elvis' had a few crucial differences other than just their performer. Perkins' version is more interesting rhythmically at the start -- it has a stop-time introduction which essentially puts it into six-four time before settling into four-four. Elvis, on the other hand, stayed with a four-four beat all the way through. Elvis' performance is all about keeping up a sense of urgency, while Perkins is about building up tension and release. Listen first of all to Elvis' introduction:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Blue Suede Shoes"]

"Well, it's one for the money," BAM, "two for the show", BAM... that's a record that's all about that initial urgency. Now listen to Perkins':

[Excerpt: Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes"]

It seems to stall after every line, as if it's hesitant, as if he doesn't really want to get started. But at the same time that gives it a rhythmic interest that isn't there in Presley's version. Perkins' original is the more sophisticated, musicianly, record. Most cover versions since have followed Presley's version, with the notable exception of John Lennon's live cover version from 1969, which follows the pattern of Perkins'.

Unfortunately, Perkins' career was then derailed in a tragic accident. On his way to perform on the Perry Como Show on TV, Perkins' car hit a truck. The truck driver was killed, and Perkins and his brother Jay were both hospitalised. They got better, but their career had lost momentum -- and by the time they were completely well, Sam Phillips was rather more interested in his next big thing.

Phillips did, however, get Perkins a Cadillac of his own, like the one Perkins had been impressed by when he first met Phillips. He told Perkins that he'd planned to do this for the first Sun Records artist to have a million-seller, which "Blue Suede Shoes" was. Perkins was less impressed when he found out that the Cadillac wasn't a gift, but had been paid for out of Perkins' royalties, and that eventually started a lifelong series of royalty disputes between the two men, with Perkins never believing he had received all the money that was rightfully his.

Perkins would never have another hit as a performer, and his career would be defined by that one song, but he continued making great records, and in a few weeks' time we'll be taking a look at another of them, and at what happened in the studio when a couple of people came to visit while he was recording. Those future records would include some that would inspire some of the most important musicians in the world, and would rightfully become classics.

But it's "Blue Suede Shoes" which ensured his place in music history, and which sixty-three years later, more than any other record, sums up that point in 1956 when two country boys from Tennessee were chasing each other up the charts and defining the future of rock and roll.

Jun 09, 2019
Episode 35: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
31:44

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

Episode thirty-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and at the terrible afterlife of child stardom. 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 "Space Guitar" by Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

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Resources

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

There are no books on the Teenagers, as far as I know, so as I so often do when talking about vocal groups I relied heavily on Marv Goldberg's website.

Some information also comes from Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll by John A. Jackson.

Some background on George Goldner was from Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz.

And for more on Morris Levy, see Me, the Mob, and the Music, by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick.

This compilation contains every recording by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, together or separately, as well as recordings by Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, a group led by Lymon's brother.

Patreon

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

Transcript

The story of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers is, like so many of the stories we're dealing with in this series, a story of heartbreak and early death, a story of young people of colour having their work become massively successful and making no money off it because of wealthy businessmen stealing their work. But it's also a story of what happens when you get involved with the Mafia before you hit puberty, and your career peaks at thirteen.

The Teenagers only had one really big hit, but it was one of the biggest hits of the fifties, and it was a song that is almost universally known to this day. So today we're going to talk about "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"

The Teenagers started when two black teenagers from New York, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Garnes, left the vocal group they'd formed, which was named "the Earth Angels" after the Penguins song, and hooked up with two Latino neighbours, Joe Negroni and Herman Santiago. They named themselves the Ermines. Soon after, they were the support act for local vocal group the Cadillacs:

[Excerpt, The Cadillacs, "Speedoo"]

They were impressed enough by the Cadillacs that in honour of them they changed their name, becoming the Coup de Villes, and after that the Premiers.

They used to practice in the hallway of the apartment block where Sherman Garnes lived, and eventually one of the neighbours got sick of hearing them sing the same songs over and over. The neighbour decided to bring out some love letters his girlfriend had written, some of which were in the form of poems, and say to the kids "why don't you turn some of these into songs?"

And so they did just that -- they took one of the letters, containing the phrase "why do birds sing so gay?" and Santiago and Merchant worked out a ballad for Santiago to sing containing that phrase.

Soon after this, the Premiers met up with a very young kid, Frankie Lymon, who sang and played percussion in a mambo group.

I suppose I should pause here to talk briefly about the mambo craze. Rock and roll wasn't the only musical style that was making inroads in the pop markets in the fifties -- and an impartial observer, looking in 1953 or 1954, might easily have expected that the big musical trend that would shape the next few decades would be calypso music, which had become huge in the US for a brief period. But that wasn't the only music that was challenging rock and roll. There were a whole host of other musics, usually those from Pacific, Latin-American and/or Caribbean cultures, which tend to get lumped together as "exotica" now, and "mambo" was one of those.

This was a craze named after a song by the Cuban bandleader Perez Prado, "Mambo Jambo":

[Excerpt: Perez Prado, "Mambo Jambo"]

That song was popular enough that soon everyone was jumping on the bandwagon -- for example, Bill Haley and the Comets with "Mambo Rock":

[Excerpt: Bill Haley and the Comets, "Mambo Rock"]

The group that Frankie Lymon was performing with was one of those groups, but he was easily persuaded instead to join the Premiers. He was the young kid who hung around with them when they practiced, not the leader, and not even a major part of the group. Not yet, anyway.

But everything changed for the group when Richie Barrett heard them singing on a street corner near him.

These days, Barrett is best-known for his 1962 single "Some Other Guy", which was later covered by the Beatles, among others:

[Excerpt: Richie Barrett, "Some Other Guy"]

But at the time he was the lead singer of a group called the Valentines:

[Excerpt: The Valentines, "Tonight Kathleen"]

He was also working for George Goldner at Rama Records as a talent scout and producer, doing the same kind of things that Ike Turner had been doing for Chess and Modern, or that Jesse Stone did for Atlantic -- finding the acts, doing the arrangements, doing all the work involved in turning some teenage kid into someone who could become a star.

Goldner was someone for whom most people in the music industry seem to have a certain amount of contempt -- he was, by most accounts, a fairly weak-willed figure who got himself into great amounts of debt with dodgy people. But one thing they're all agreed on is that he had a great ear for a hit, because as Jerry Leiber put it he had the taste of a fourteen-year-old girl.

George Goldner had actually got into R&B through the mambo craze. When Goldner had started in the music industry, it had been as the owner of a chain of nightclubs which featured Latin music. The clubs became popular enough that he also started Tico Records, a label that put out Latin records, most notably early recordings by Tito Puente.

[Excerpt: Tito Puente: "Vibe Mambo"]

When the mambo boom hit, a lot of black teenagers started attending Goldner's clubs, and he became interested in the other music they were listening to. He started first Rama Records, as a label for R&B singles, and then Gee records, named after the most successful record that had been put out on Rama, "Gee", by the Crows.

However, Goldner had a business partner, and his name was Morris Levy, and Levy was *not* someone you wanted involved in your business in any way.

In this series we're going to talk about a lot of horrible people -- and in fact we've already covered more than a few of them -- yet Morris Levy was one of the worst people we're going to look at. While most of the people we've discussed are either terrible people in their personal life (if they were a musician) or a minor con artist who ripped off musicians and kept the money for themselves, Morris Levy was a terrible human being *and* a con artist, someone who used his Mafia connections to ensure that the artists he ripped off would never even think of suing him, because they valued their lives too much. We'll be looking at at least one rock and roll star, in the 1960s, who died in mysterious circumstances after getting involved with Levy.

Levy had been the founder of Birdland, the world-famous jazz club, in the 1940s, but when ASCAP came to him asking for the money they were meant to get for their songwriters from live performances, Levy had immediately seen the possibilities in music publishing.

Levy then formed a publishing company, Patricia Music, and a record label, Roulette, and started into the business of properly exploiting young black people, not just having them work in his clubs for a night, but having them create intellectual property he could continue exploiting for the rest of his life.

Indeed, Levy was so keen to make money off dubious intellectual property that he actually formed a company with his friend Alan Freed which attempted to trademark the phrase "rock and roll", on the basis that this way any records that came out labelled as such would have to pay them for the privilege. Thankfully, the term caught on so rapidly that there was no way for them to enforce the trademark, and it became genericised.

But this is who Levy was, and how he made his money -- at least his more legitimate money. Where he got the rest from is a matter for the true crime podcasts.

There are several people who report death threats, or having to give up their careers, or suddenly move thousands of miles away from home, to avoid Levy's revenge on artists who didn't do exactly what he said. So when we're looking at a group of literal teenage kids -- and black teenagers at that, with the smallest amount of institutional privilege possible, you can be sure that he was not going to treat them with the respect that they were due.

Levy owned fifty percent of Goldner's record companies, and would soon grow to own all of them, as Goldner accumulated more gambling debts and used his record labels to pay them off.

But at the start of their career, the group didn't yet have to worry about Levy. That would come later. For now, they were dealing with George Goldner.

And Goldner was someone who was actually concerned with the music, and who had been producing hits consistently for the last few years. At the time the Premiers signed with him, for example, he had just produced "You Baby You" for the Cleftones.

[Excerpt: The Cleftones, "You Baby You"]

When Richie Barrett brought the Premiers to Goldner, he was intrigued because two of the members were Latino, and he was such a lover of Latin music. But he quickly latched on to the potential of Frankie Lymon as a star. Lymon was a captivating performer, and when you watch video footage of him now you can't help but think of Michael Jackson, who followed almost exactly the same early career trajectory a decade later. While the other band members were the normal kind of teenage kids who joined doo-wop groups, and were clearly a little reserved, Lymon just *went for it*, working the crowd like a young James Brown with absolutely no self-consciousness at all.

He also had a gorgeous falsetto voice, and knew how to use it. As we've heard, many of the doo-wop groups of the fifties weren't particularly proficient singers, but Lymon did have a real vocal talent. He was clearly a potential star.

Frankie Lymon wasn't even originally meant to be the lead singer on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" -- that distinctive falsetto that makes the record so memorable was a late addition. The song was originally meant to be sung by Herman Santiago, and it was only in the studio that the song was rearranged to instead focus on the band's youngest -- and youngest-sounding -- member.

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"]

When the record came out, it wasn't credited to the Premiers, but to "The Teenagers, featuring Frankie Lymon". Goldner hadn't liked the group's name, and decided to focus on their big selling point -- their youth, and in particular the youth of their new lead singer.

Much of the work to make the record sound that good was done not by the Teenagers or by Goldner, but by the session saxophone player Jimmy Wright, who ended up doing the arrangements on all of the Teenagers' records, and whose idea it was to start them with Sherman Garnes' bass intros.

Again, as with so many of these records, there was a white cover version that came out almost immediately -- this time by the Diamonds, a group of Canadians who copied the formula of their fellow countrymen the Crew Cuts and more or less cornered the market in white remakes of doo-wop hits.

[Excerpt: The Diamonds, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"]

But in a sign of how the times were changing, the Diamonds' version of the song only went to number twelve, while the Teenagers' version went to number six, helped by a massive push from Morris Levy's good friend Alan Freed.

Partly this may have been down to the fact that all the Diamonds were adults, and they simply couldn't compete with the novelty sound of a boy who sounded prepubescent, singing in falsetto.

Falsetto had, of course, always been a part of the doo-wop vocal blend, but it had been a minor part up to this point. Lead vocals would generally be sung in a smooth high tenor, but would very rarely reach to the truly high notes. Lymon, by virtue of his voice not yet having broken, introduced a new timbre into rock and roll lead vocals, and he influenced almost every vocal group that followed. There might have been a Four Seasons or a Jan and Dean or a Beach Boys without Lymon, but I doubt it.

There was also a British cover version, by Alma Cogan, a middle-of-the-road singer known as "the girl with the giggle in her voice".

[Excerpt: Alma Cogan, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"]

This sort of thing was common in Britain well into the sixties, as most US labels didn't have distribution in the UK, and so if British people wanted to hear American rock and roll songs, they would often get them in native cover versions. Cogan was a particular source of these, often recording songs that had been R&B hits.

We will see a lot more of this in future episodes, as we start to look more at the way rock and roll affected the UK.

The Teenagers followed the success of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" with "I Want You to Be My Girl":

[Excerpt, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "I Want You to Be My Girl"]

This one did almost as well, reaching a peak of number thirteen in the pop charts. But the singles after that did less well, although "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" became a big hit in the UK.

The record label soon decided that Lymon needed to become a solo star, rather than being just the lead singer of the Teenagers. Quite why they made this decision was difficult to say, as one would not normally deliberately break up a hit act. But presumably the calculation was that they would then have two hit acts -- solo Frankie Lymon, and the Teenagers still recording together. It didn't work out like that.

Lymon inadvertently caused another crisis in the ongoing battle of rock and roll versus racism. Alan Freed had a new TV series, The Big Beat, which was a toned-down version of Freed's radio show. By this point, real rock and roll was already in a temporary decline as the major labels fought back, and so Freed's show was generally filled with the kind of pre-packaged major label act, usually named Bobby, that we'll be talking about when we get to the later fifties. For all that Freed had a reputation as a supporter of black music, what he really was was someone with the skill to see a bandwagon and jump on it.

But still, some of the black performers were still popular, and so Freed had Lymon on his showr. But his show was aimed at a white audience, and so the studio audience was white, and dancing. And Frankie Lymon started to dance as well. A black boy, dancing with a white girl.

This did not go down well at all with the Southern network affiliates, and within a couple of weeks Freed's show had been taken off the TV.

And that appearance, the one that destroyed Freed's show, was almost certainly Lymon's very first ever solo performance. One might think that this did not augur well for his future career, and that assessment would be largely correct.

Neither Lymon nor the Teenagers would ever have another hit after they split. The last few records credited to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were in fact Lymon solo recordings, performed with other backing singers. "Goody Goody" did manage to reach number twenty on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Goody Goody"]

Everything after that did worse. Lymon's first solo single, "My Girl", failed to chart:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon, "My Girl"]

He continued making records for another couple of years, but nothing came of any of them, and when his voice broke he stopped sounding much like himself. The last recording he made that came even close to being a hit was a remake of Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One" from 1960.

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon, "Little Bitty Pretty One"]

And the Teenagers didn't fare much better. They went through several new lead singers. There was Billy Lobrano, a white kid who according to Jimmy Merchant sounded more like Eddie Fisher than like Lymon:

[Excerpt: The Teenagers, "Mama Wanna Rock"]

Then there was Freddie Houston, who would go on to be the lead singer in one of the many Ink Spots lineups touring in the sixties, and then they started trying to focus on the other original group members, for example calling themselves "Sherman and the Teenagers" when performing the Leiber and Stoller song "The Draw":

[Excerpt: Sherman and the Teenagers, "The Draw"]

As you can hear, none of these had the same sound as they'd had with Lymon, and they eventually hit on the idea of getting a woman into the group instead. They got in Sandra Doyle, who would later be Zola Taylor's replacement in the Platters, and struggled on until 1961, when they finally split up.

Lymon's life after leaving the Teenagers was one of nothing but tragedy. He married three times, every time bigamously, and his only child died two days after the birth. Lymon would apparently regularly steal from Zola Taylor, who became his second wife, to feed his heroin addiction.

He briefly reunited with the Teenagers in 1965, but they had little success. He spent a couple of years in the army, and appeared to have got himself clean, and even got a new record deal. But the night before he was meant to go back into the studio, he fell off the wagon, for what would be the last time.

Frankie Lymon died, aged just twenty-five, and a has-been for almost half of his life, of a heroin overdose, in 1968.

The other Teenagers would reunite, with Lymon's brother joining them briefly, in the 70s. Sherman Garnes died in 1977, and Joe Negroni in 1978, but Santiago and Merchant continued, off and on, with a lineup of the Teenagers -- a version of the band continues to this day, still featuring Herman Santiago, and Merchant remained with the band until his retirement a few years ago.

But their first hit caused legal problems:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"]

"Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" was written by Herman Santiago, with the help of Jimmy Merchant. But neither Santiago or Merchant were credited on the song when it came out. The credited songwriters for the song are Frankie Lymon -- who did have some input into rewriting it in the studio -- and Morris Levy, who had never even heard the song until after it was a massive hit.

George Goldner was originally credited as Lymon's co-writer, and of course Goldner never wrote it either, but at least he was in the studio when it was recorded. But when Levy bought out Goldner's holdings in his companies, he also bought out his rights to songs he was credited for, so Levy became the legal co-writer of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"

In 1992 Santiago and Merchant finally won the credit for having written "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?", but in 1996 the ruling was overturned. They'd apparently waited too long to take legal action over having their song stolen, and so the rights reverted to Lymon and Morris Levy -- who had never even met the band when they wrote the song.

But, of course, Lymon wasn't alive to get the money. But his widow was. Or rather, his widows, plural, were. In the 1980s, three separate women claimed to be Lymon's widow and thus his legitimate heir. One was his first wife, who he had married in 1964 while she was still married to her first husband. One was Zola Taylor, who Lymon supposedly married bigamously a year after his first marriage, but who couldn't produce any evidence of this, and the third was either his second or third wife, who he married bigamously in 1967 while still married to his first, and possibly his second, wife. That third wife eventually won the various legal battles and is now in charge of the Frankie Lymon legacy.

"Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" has gone on to be a standard, recorded by everyone from Joni Mitchell to the Beach Boys to Diana Ross. But Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers stand as a cautionary tale, an example that all too many people were still all too eager to follow.

Jun 03, 2019
Episode 34: "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
35:30

Little Richard

Episode thirty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard, and at the rather more family-unfriendly subject the song was originally about. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

(Apologies that this one is a day late -- health problems kept me from getting the edit finished).

Also, a reminder for those who didn't see the previous post -- my patreon backers are now getting ten-minute mini-episodes every week, and the first one is up, and I guested on Jaffa Cake Jukebox this week, talking about the UK top twenty for January 18 1957.

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Resources

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 recorded before 1962, from his early blues singles through to his gospel albums from after he temporarily gave up rock and roll for the church.

Patreon

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

Transcript

There are a handful of musicians in the history of rock music who seem like true originals. You can always trace their influences, of course, but when you come across one of them, no matter how clearly you can see who they were copying and who they were inspired by, you still just respond to them as something new under the sun.

And of all the classic musicians of rock and roll, probably nobody epitomises that more than Little Richard. Nobody before him sounded like he did, and while many later tried -- everyone from Captain Beefheart to Paul McCartney -- nobody ever quite sounded like him later.

And there are good reasons for that, because Little Richard was -- and still is -- someone who is quite unlike anyone else.

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti", just the opening phrase]

This episode will be the first time we see queer culture becoming a major part of the rock and roll story -- we've dealt with possibly-LGBT people before, of course, with Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and with Johnny Ray in the Patreon-only episode about him, but this is the first time that an expression of sexuality has become part and parcel of the music itself, to the extent that we have to discuss it.

And here, again, I have to point out that I am going to get things very wrong when I'm talking about Little Richard. I am a cis straight white man in Britain in the twenty-first century. Little Richard is a queer black man from the USA, and we're talking about the middle of the twentieth century. I'm fairly familiar with current British LGBT+ culture, but even that is as an outsider. I am trying, always, to be completely fair and to never say anything that harms a marginalised group, but if I do so inadvertantly, I apologise.

When I say he's queer, I'm using the word not in its sense as a slur, but in the sense of an umbrella term for someone whose sexuality and gender identity are too complex to reduce to a single label, because he has at various times defined himself as gay, but he has also had relationships with women, and because from reading his autobiography there are so many passages where he talks about wishing he had been born a woman that it may well be that had he been born fifty years later he would have defined himself as a bisexual trans woman rather than a gay man. I will still, though, use "he" and "him" pronouns for him in this and future episodes, because those are the pronouns he uses himself.

Here we're again going to see something we saw with Rosetta Tharpe, but on a much grander scale -- the pull between the secular and the divine.

You see, as well as being some variety of queer, Little Richard is also a very, very, religious man, and a believer in a specific variety of fundamentalist Christianity that believes that any kind of sexuality or gender identity other than monogamous cis heterosexual is evil and sinful and the work of the Devil. He believes this very deeply and has at many times tried to live his life by this, and does so now. I, to put it as mildly as possible, disagree. But to understand the man and his music at all, you have to at least understand that this is the case. He has swung wildly between being almost the literal embodiment of the phrase "sex and drugs and rock and roll" and being a preacher who claims that homosexuality, bisexuality, and being trans are all works of the literal Devil -- several times he's gone from one to the other. As of 2017, and the last public interview I've seen with him, he has once again renounced rock and roll and same-sex relationships. I hope that he's happy in his current situation.

But at the time we're talking about, he was a young person, and very much engaged in those things.

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti", just the opening phrase]

Richard Penniman was the third of twelve children, born to parents who had met at a Pentecostal holiness meeting when they were thirteen and married when they were fourteen. Of all the children, Richard was the one who was most likely to cause trouble. He had a habit of playing practical jokes involving his own faeces -- wrapping them up and giving them as presents to old ladies, or putting them in jars in the pantry for his mother to find.

But he was also bullied terribly as a child, because he was disabled. One of his legs was significantly shorter than the other, his head was disproportionately large, and his eyes were different sizes. He was also subjected to homophobic abuse from a very early age, because the gait with which he walked because of his legs was vaguely mincing.

At the age of fourteen, he decided to leave school and become a performer. He started out by touring with a snake-oil salesman.

Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine, about which there have been claims made for centuries, and those claims might well be true. But snake oil in the US was usually a mixture of turpentine, tallow, camphor, and capsaicin. It wasn't much different to Vicks' VaporRub and similar substances, but it was sold as a cure-all for serious illnesses.

Snake-oil salesmen would travel from town to town selling their placebo, and they would have entertainers performing with them in order to draw crowds. The young Richard Penniman travelled with "Doc Hudson", and would sing the one non-religious song he knew, "Caldonia" by Louis Jordan:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Caldonia"]

The yelps and hiccups in Jordan's vocals on that song would become a massive part of Richard's own vocal style.

Richard soon left the medicine show, and started touring with a band, B. Brown and his orchestra, and it was while he was touring with that band that he grew his hair into the huge pompadour that would later become a trademark, and he also got the name "Little Richard". However, all the musicians in the band were older than him, so he moved on again to another touring show, and another, and another. In many of these shows, he would perform as a female impersonator, which started when one of the women in one of the shows took sick and Richard had to quickly cover for her by putting on her costume, but soon he was performing in shows that were mostly drag acts, performing to a largely gay crowd.

It was while he was performing in these shows that he met the first of his two biggest influences. Billy Wright, like Richard, had been a female impersonator for a while too. Like Richard, he had a pompadour haircut, and he was a fairly major blues star in the period from 1949 through 1951, being one of the first blues singers to sing with gospel-inspired mannerisms:

[Excerpt: Billy Wright, "Married Woman's Boogie"]

5) Richard became something of a Billy Wright wannabe, and started incorporating parts of Wright's style into his performances. He also learned that Wright was using makeup on stage -- Pancake 31 -- and started applying that same makeup to his own skin, something he would continue to do throughout his performing career.

Wright introduced Richard to Zenas Sears, who was one of the many white DJs all across America who were starting to become successful by playing black music and speaking in approximations of African-American Vernacular English -- people like Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips.

Sears had connections with RCA Records, and impressed by Richard's talent, he got them to sign him. Richard's first single was called "Every Hour", and was very much a Billy Wright imitation:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Every Hour"]

It was so close to Wright's style, in fact, that Wright soon recorded his own knock-off of Richard's song, "Every Evening".

[Excerpt: Billy Wright, "Every Evening"]

At this point Richard was solely a singer -- he hadn't yet started to play an instrument to accompany himself. That changed when he met Esquerita.

Esquerita was apparently born Stephen Quincey Reeder, but he was known to everyone as "Eskew" Reeder, after his initials, and that then became Esquerita, partly as a pun on the word "excreta".

Esquerita was another gay black R&B singer with a massive pompadour and a moustache. If Little Richard at this stage looked like a caricature of Billy Wright, Esquerita looked like a caricature of Little Richard. His hair was even bigger, he was even more flamboyant, and when he sang, he screamed even louder. And Esquerita also played the piano.

Richard -- who has never been unwilling to acknowledge the immense debt he owed to his inspirations -- has said for years that Esquerita was the person who taught him how to play the piano, and that not only was his piano-playing style a copy of Esquerita's, Esquerita was better.

It's hard to tell for sure exactly how much influence Esquerita actually had on Richard's piano playing, because Esquerita himself didn't make any records until after Richard did, at which point he was signed to his own record deal to be basically a Little Richard clone, but the records he did make certainly show a remarkable resemblance to Richard's later style:

[Excerpt: Esquerita: "Believe Me When I Say Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay"]

Richard soon learned to play piano, and he was seen by Johnny Otis, who was impressed. Otis said: "I see this outrageous person, good-looking and very effeminate, with a big pompadour. He started singing and he was so good. I loved it. He reminded me of Dinah Washington. He did a few things, then he got on the floor. I think he even did a split, though I could be wrong about that. I remember it as being just beautiful, bizarre, and exotic, and when he got through he remarked, “This is Little Richard, King of the Blues,” and then he added, “And the Queen, too!” I knew I liked him then."

Otis recommended Richard to Don Robey, of Peacock Records, and Robey signed Richard and his band the Tempo Toppers. In early 1953, with none of his recordings for RCA having done anything, Little Richard and the Tempo Toppers went into the studio with another group, the Deuces of Rhythm, to record four tracks, issued as two singles:

[Excerpt: Little Richard and the Tempo Toppers with the Deuces of Rhythm: "Ain't That Good News"]

None of these singles had any success, and Richard was *not* getting on very well at all with Don Robey. Robey was not the most respectful of people, and Richard let everyone know how badly he thought Robey treated his artists. Robey responded by beating Richard up so badly that he got a hernia which hurt for years and necessitated an operation.

Richard would record one more session for Peacock, at the end of the year, when Don Robey gave him to Johnny Otis to handle. Otis took his own band into the studio with Richard, and the four songs they recorded at that session went unreleased at the time, but included a version of "Directly From My Heart To You", a song Richard would soon rerecord, and another song called "Little Richard's Boogie":

[Excerpt: Little Richard with Johnny Otis and his Orchestra, "Little Richard's Boogie"]

Nobody was very happy with the recordings, and Richard was dropped by Peacock. He was also, around the same time, made to move away from Macon, Georgia, where he lived, after being arrested for "lewd conduct" -- what amounted to consensual voyeurism. And the Tempo Toppers had split up. Richard had been dumped by two record labels, his father had died recently, he had no band, and he wasn't allowed to live in his home town any more. Things seemed pretty low.

But before he'd moved away, Richard had met Lloyd Price, and Price had suggested that Richard send a demo tape in to Specialty Records, Price's label. The tape lay unlistened at Specialty for months, and it was only because of Richard's constant pestering for them to listen to it that Bumps Blackwell, who was then in charge of A&R at Specialty, eventually got round to listening to it.

This was an enormous piece of good fortune, in a way that neither of them fully realised at the time. Blackwell had been a longtime friend and colleague of Ray Charles. When Charles' gospel-influenced new sound had started making waves on the charts, Art Rupe, Specialty's owner, had asked Blackwell to find him a gospel-sounding R&B singer of his own to compete with Ray Charles.

Blackwell listened to the tape, which contained two songs, one of which was an early version of "Wonderin'", and he could tell this was someone with as much gospel in his voice as Ray Charles had:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Wonderin'"]

Blackwell and Rupe made an agreement with Don Robey to buy out his contract for six hundred dollars -- one gets the impression that Robey would have paid *them* six hundred dollars to get rid of Richard had they asked him.

They knew that Richard liked the music of Fats Domino, and so they decided to hold their first session at Cosimo Matassa's studio, where Domino recorded, and with the same session musicians that Domino used. Blackwell also brought in two great New Orleans piano players, Huey "Piano" Smith and James Booker, both of whom were players in the same style as Domino. You can hear Smith, for example, on his hit "The Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu" from a couple of years later:

[Excerpt: Huey "Piano" Smith, "The Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu"]

All of these people were veterans of sessions either for Domino or for artists who had worked in Domino's style, like Lloyd Price or Smiley Lewis. The only difference here was that it would be Bumps Blackwell who did the arrangement and production, rather than Dave Bartholomew like on Domino's records.

However, the session didn't go well at all. Blackwell had heard that Richard was an astounding live act, but he was just doing nothing in the studio. As Blackwell later put it "If you look like Tarzan and sound like Mickey Mouse it just doesn’t work out."

They did record some usable material -- "Wonderin'", which we heard before, came out OK, and they recorded "I'm Just a Lonely, Lonely, Guy" by a young songwriter called Dorothy LaBostrie, which seemed to go OK. They also cut a decent version of "Directly From My Heart to You", a song which Richard had previously recorded with Johnny Otis:

[Excerpt: Little RIchard, "Directly From My Heart to You"]

So they had a couple of usable songs, but usable was about all you could say for them. They didn't have anything that would make an impact, nothing that would live up to Richard's potential.

So Blackwell called a break, and they headed off to get themselves something to eat, at the Dew Drop Inn. And something happened there that would change Little RIchard's career forever.

The Dew Drop Inn had a piano, and it had an audience that Little Richard could show off in front of. He went over to the piano, started hammering the keys, and screamed out:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti", just the opening phrase]

On hearing Richard sing the song he performed then, Bumps Blackwell knew two things pretty much instantly. The first was that that song would definitely be a hit if he could get it released. And the second was that there was no way on Earth that he could possibly put it out.

"Tutti Frutti" started as a song that Richard sang more or less as a joke. There is a whole undercurrent of R&B in the fifties which has very, very, sexually explicit lyrics, and I wish I was able to play some of those songs on this podcast without getting it dumped into the adult-only section on iTunes, because some of them are wonderful, and others are hilarious.

"Tutti Frutti" in its original form was part of this undercurrent, and had lyrics that were clearly not broadcastable -- "A wop bop a loo mop, a good goddam/Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it, you can grease it, make it easy". But Bumps Blackwell thought that there was *something* that could be made into a hit there.

Handily, they had a songwriter on hand. Dorothy LaBostrie was a young woman he knew who had been trying to write songs, but who didn't understand that songs had to have different melodies -- all her lyrics were written to the melody of the same song, Dinah Washington's "Blowtop Blues":

[Excerpt: Dinah Washington, "Blowtop Blues"]

But her lyrics had showed promise, and so Blackwell had agreed to record one of her songs, "I'm Just a Lonely Lonely Guy", with Richard. LaBostrie had been hanging round the studio to see how her song sounded when it was recorded, so Blackwell asked her to do a last-minute rewrite on “Tutti Frutti”, in the hope of getting something salvageable out of what had been a depressing session. But there was still a problem -- Richard, not normally a man overly known for his modesty, became embarrassed at singing his song to the young woman.

Blackwell explained to him that he really didn't have much choice, and Richard eventually agreed to sing it to her -- but only if he was turned to face the wall, so he couldn't see this innocent-looking young woman's face.

(I should note here that both Richard and LaBostrie have told different stories about this over the years -- both have claimed on several occasions that they were the sole author of the song and that the other didn't deserve any credit at all. But this is the story as it was told by others who were there.)

LaBostrie's new lyrics were rudimentary at best. "I got a girl named Sue, she knows just what to do". But they fit the metre, they weren't about anal sex, and so they were going to be the new lyrics.

The session was running late at this point, and when LaBostrie had the lyrics finished there was only fifteen minutes to go. It didn't matter that the lyrics were trite. What mattered was that they got a track cut to salvage the session. Blackwell didn't have time to teach the piano players the song, so he got Richard to play the piano himself. They cut the finished track in three takes, and Blackwell went back to California happy he at last had a hit:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"]

"Tutti Frutti" was, indeed, a massive hit. It went to number twenty-one on the pop charts. But... you know what comes next. There was an inept white cover version, this time by Pat Boone.

[excerpt: Pat Boone, "Tutti Frutti"]

Now, notice that there, Boone changes the lyrics. In Richard's version, after all, he seems interested in both Sue and Daisy. A good Christian boy like Pat Boone couldn't be heard singing about such immorality. That one-line change (and a couple of other spot changes to individual words to make things into full sentences) seems to be why a songwriter called Joe Lubin is also credited for the song. Getting a third of a song like "Tutti Frutti" for that little work sounds like a pretty good deal, at least for Lubin, if not for Richard.

Another way in which Richard got less than he deserved was that the publishing was owned by a company owned by Art Rupe. That company licensed the song to Specialty Records for half the normal mechanical licensing rate -- normally a publishing company would charge two cents per record pressed for their songs, but instead Specialty only had to pay one cent. This sort of cross-collateralisation was common with independent labels at the time, but it still rankled to Richard when he figured it out.

Not that he was thinking about contracts at all at this point. He was becoming a huge star, and that meant he had to *break* a lot of contracts. He'd got concert bookings for several months ahead, but those bookings were in second-rate clubs, and he had to be in Hollywood to promote his new record and build a new career. But he also didn't want to get a reputation for missing gigs. There was only one thing to do -- hire an impostor to be Little Richard at these low-class gigs. So while Richard went off to promote his record, another young singer from Georgia with a pompadour and a gospel feel was being introduced with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen—the hardest-working man in showbusiness today—Little Richard!”

When James Brown went back to performing under his own name, he kept that introduction...

Meanwhile, Richard was working on his second hit record. He and Blackwell decided that this record should be louder, faster, and more raucous than "Tutti Frutti" had been. If Pat Boone wanted to cover this one, he'd have to work a lot harder than he had previously.

The basis for "Long Tall Sally" came from a scrap of lyric written by a teenage girl. Enotris Johnson had written a single verse of lyric on a scrap of paper, and had walked many miles to New Orleans to show the lyric to a DJ named Honey Chile. (Bumps Blackwell describes her as having walked from Opelousas, Mississippi, but there's no such place -- Johnson appears to have lived in Bogalusa, Louisiana). Johnson wanted to make enough money to pay for hospital for her sick aunt -- the "Aunt Mary" in the song, and thought that Little Richard might sing the song and get her the money.

What she had was only a few lines, but Honey Chile had taken Johnson on as a charity project, and Blackwell didn't want to disappoint such an influential figure, so he and Richard hammered something together:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "Long Tall Sally"]

The song, about a "John" who "jumps back in the alley" when he sees his wife coming while he's engaged in activities of an unspecified nature with "Sally", who is long, tall, and bald, once again stays just on the broadcastable side of the line, while implying sex of a non-heteronormative variety, possibly with a sex worker. Despite this, and despite the attempts to make the song uncoverably raucous, Pat Boone still sold a million copies with his cover version:

[Excerpt: Pat Boone, "Long Tall Sally"]

So Little Richard had managed to get that good clean-cut wholesome Christian white boy Pat Boone singing songs which gave him a lot more to worry about than whether he was singing "Ain't" rather than "Isn't". But he was also becoming a big star himself -- and he was getting an ego to go along with it. And he was starting to worry whether he should be making this devil music at all. When we next look at Little Richard, we'll see just how the combination of self-doubt and ego led to his greatest successes and to the collapse of his career.

 

May 28, 2019
Announcement -- Guest appearance and Patreon Bonus
01:04

This is just a quick announcement to let listeners know about a couple of things you might be interested in.

The first is that, today, I'm guesting on Jaffa Cake Jukebox, an occasional podcast by Tilt and Gary of The Sitcom Club where they talk about and play music. We're talking about and playing a top twenty from January 1957. It's just as if I was presenting Top of the Pops, but with more mentions of Nicholas Parsons.

The other thing is that from now on, I'm going to be doing ten-minute Patreon-only episodes every week. This week's is about a song by the Clovers, about which we know very little, and whose name I can't mention if I want to keep my iTunes clean rating, so let's just say that it fits rather well with the topic of our main podcast tonight.

If you visit the podcast homepage at 500songs.com -- that's five zero zero, the numbers, songs dot com, you'll find links to both.

May 28, 2019
Episode 33: "Mystery Train", by Elvis Presley
36:42

Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley

Welcome to episode thirty-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "Mystery Train" by Elvis Presley. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 ----more----

Resources

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

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.

I'm also relying heavily on another book by Guralnick -- Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock and Roll -- for all the episodes dealing with Phillips and Sun Records.

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.

All the Sun Records excerpted here -- the ones by Junior Parker, Elvis Presley, Rufus Thomas, and Johnny Cash, are 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 for an absurdly low price.

And this three-CD box set contains literally every recording Elvis made from 1953 through 1955, including live recordings and session outtakes, along with a handsome book.

 

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

 

We talked a few weeks back about how Elvis Presley got started in the music business, but of course Elvis was important enough to rock and roll that we're not going to stop there. Today we're going to look at the rest of his career at Sun Records -- and at how and why he ended up leaving Sun for a major label, with consequences that would affect the whole of music history. We're going to tell a tale of two Parkers.

The first Parker we're going to talk about is Junior Parker, the blues musician who had been one of the Beale Streeters with Johnny Ace, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and B.B. King.

Junior Parker had been working with Howlin' Wolf for a while, before in 1952 he formed his own band, the Blue Flames (which should not be confused with all the other Flames bands we've talked about -- for some reason there is a profusion of Flames that we'll be dealing with well into the seventies). Ike Turner discovered them, and initially got them signed to Modern Records, though as with many Modern Records acts they were recording mostly in Sam Phillips' studio.

Turner contributed piano to the Blue Flames' first single, "You're My Angel":

[Excerpt: Junior Parker and the Blue Flames, "You're My Angel"]

But after that one single, Parker and his band started recording directly for Sun records.

The first single they recorded for Sun was a minor hit, but wasn't particularly interesting -- "Feelin' Good" was basically a John Lee Hooker knock-off:

[Excerpt: Little Junior's Blue Flames: "Feelin' Good"]

But it's their second single for Sun we want to talk about here, and both sides of it. The A-side of Junior Parker and the Blue Flames' second Sun single is one of the best blues records Sun ever put out, "Love my Baby":

[Excerpt: Junior Parker, "Love My Baby"]

That record was one that Sam Phillips -- a man who made a lot of great records -- considered among the greatest he'd ever made. Talking to his biographer Peter Guralnick about it decades later, he said “I mean you tell me a better record that you’ve ever heard,” and Guralnick couldn't.

But it was the B-side that made an impression. The B-side was a song called "Mystery Train".

That song actually dates back to the old folk song, "Worried Man Blues", which was recorded in 1930 by the Carter Family:

[excerpt: "Worried Man Blues", the Carter Family]

The Carter Family were, along with Jimmie Rodgers, the people who defined what country music is. Everyone in country music followed from either the Carters or Rodgers, and we'll be seeing some members of the extended Carter family much later. But the important thing here is that A.P. Carter, the family patriarch, was one of the most important songwriters of his generation, but he would also go out and find old folk songs that he would repurpose and credit himself with having written.

"Worried Man Blues" was one of those, and those lyrics, "the train arrived, sixteen coaches long" became part of the floating lyrics that all blues singers could call upon, and they became the basis for Junior Parker's song:

[Excerpt: Junior Parker, "Mystery Train"]

That song's composition was credited to Parker and to Sam Phillips. Phillips would later claim that he made three major changes to the song, and that these were why he got the co-writing credit. The first was to give the song the title "Mystery Train", which has been a big part of the song's appeal ever since. The second was to insist that the number of coaches for the train should be sixteen -- Parker had been singing "fifty coaches long". And the final one was to suggest that the band start the song slowly and build up the tempo like a train gathering steam.

Parker and his Blue Flames also backed Rufus Thomas on "Tiger Man", a song that Elvis would later go on to perform in the sixties, and would play as a medley with "Mystery Train" in the seventies:

[Excerpt: Rufus Thomas, "Tiger Man"]

But the Rufus Thomas connection proved a signifier of what was to come. Don Robey was still annoyed with Sam Phillips over "Bear Cat", the track that Phillips had produced for Thomas as an answer to "Hound Dog", and Robey would take pleasure in poaching Phillips' artists for his own label. Phillips was soon reading in Cash Box magazine that Robey was grooming Little Junior Parker for big things. Robey signed Parker to an exclusive contract, and even an unsuccessful hundred-thousand-dollar lawsuit from Sam Phillips couldn't stop Robey from having Parker on his label.

Junior Parker would go on to have a distinguished career in R&B, having occasional hit singles until shortly before his death from a brain tumour in 1971.

Luckily for Phillips, he had other artists he could work with, not least of them Elvis Presley. But before we talk more about Elvis, let's talk about that other Parker.

Tom Parker was to become the most well-known manager in the music industry, even though for most of his career he only managed one act, so today we're going to look at him in some detail, as he became the template for all the worst, most grasping, managers in the music business. When we deal with Allen Klein or Peter Grant or Don Arden, we'll be dealing with people who are following in the Colonel's footsteps.

It's difficult to separate fact from fiction in the case of Colonel Parker, though there are biographies devoted entirely to doing so, with some success. What we know for sure was that Parker was an undocumented immigrant to the United States, originally from the Netherlands, who had taken the name Parker upon his arrival.

We also know that the same day that he disappeared from his home in the Netherlands to travel to the US for the final time, a woman was found bludgeoned to death in his home town. And we know that he was dishonourably discharged from the US Army as a psychopath. And that there were rumours around his home town decades later that Parker was responsible for the murder.

We also know that he desperately hid his undocumented status long past the time when he would have been eligible for citizenship, and that he completely cut off all contact with his family, even though he had been close to them before emigrating.

Whether he was a killer or not, Parker was certainly an unsavoury character -- as, to be fair, were most people involved in the business side of the music industry in the 1950s. He had his start in the entertainment industry as a con-man, and throughout his life he loved to manipulate people, playing humiliating practical jokes on them that weren't so much jokes as demonstrations of his power over them. He was, by all accounts, a cruel man who loved to hurt people -- except when he loved to be outlandishly sentimental towards them instead, of course.

Parker had started out as a carny -- working in travelling shows, doing everything from running a dancing chicken show (in which he'd put a hot-plate under a chicken's feet so it would keep lifting its legs up and look like it was dancing) to telling fortunes, to being the person whose job it was to tempt the geek to come back to the show with a bottle of whisky when he became too sickened by his job.

(The geek, for those who don't know, was a person in a carnival who would perform acts that would disgust most people, such as biting the head off live chickens, to the amused disgust of the audience. Usually a geek would be someone who had severe mental health and substance abuse problems, degrading himself as the only way to make enough money to feed his habit.)

All this had taught Parker a lot -- it had led him to the conclusion that audiences were there to be ripped off, and that absolutely nothing mattered to them other than the promise of sexuality. As far as Parker was concerned, in showbusiness it didn't matter what the show was -- what mattered was how you sold it to the audience, and how much merchandise you could sell during the show.

In his time with the carnivals, Parker had become extremely good at creating publicity stunts. One that he did many times was to fake a public wedding. He and a female staff member would pretend to be just two customers in love, and they would "get married" at the top of the Ferris wheel, drawing huge crowds.

It was during World War II that Parker had moved into country music promotion. He first became involved in music when he got to know Gene Austin, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s:

[Excerpt: Gene Austin, "Ain't She Sweet?"]

Austin had been a huge star, but by the time Parker got to know him in the late thirties, he was much less popular. Parker helped him organise some shows (according to some claims, Parker was his manager, though other sources disagree), but at this time Austin had fallen on such hard times that he would fill his car at a petrol station, pay by cheque, and then tell them that his autograph was probably worth more than the money, so why not just leave that cheque uncashed and frame it?

Parker learned a valuable lesson from Austin, with whom he would remain friends for years. That lesson was that the stars come and go, and rise and fall in popularity, but managers can keep making money no matter how old they are. Parker determined to get into music management. And given that he didn't actually like music himself, he decided to go for the music of the common people, the music that was selling to the same people who'd been coming to the carnivals. Country music.

And so to start with he put on a show by the up-and-coming star Roy Acuff:

[Excerpt: Roy Acuff, "You're the Only Star in My Blue Heaven"]

In later years Roy Acuff would become, for a time, the single biggest star in country music, and Hank Williams would say of him, "For drawing power in the South, it was Roy Acuff, then God." But in 1941 he was merely very popular, rather than a superstar.

And Parker had used his promotional knowledge to make the show he promoted one of the biggest in Acuff's career thus far. In particular, he'd tried a new trick that no-one else had ever done before. He'd cut a deal with a local grocery chain that they would sell cut-price tickets to anyone who brought in a clipping from a newspaper. This meant that the show had, in effect, multiple box offices, while the grocery chain paid for the advertising to increase their own footfall.

Having seen what kind of money he could make from country music, Parker approached Acuff about becoming Acuff's manager. Acuff was initially interested, but after a couple of dates he was put off from working further with Parker, because Parker had what Acuff thought an un-Christian attitude to money. Acuff was playing dates for fixed fees, and Parker started insisting that as well as the fixed fee, Acuff should get a percentage of the gross. Acuff didn't want to be that grasping, and so he gave up on working with Parker -- though as a consolation, Acuff did give Parker a stake in his merchandising -- Parker got the rights to market Roy Acuff Flour in Florida.

But Acuff did more than that. He pointed Parker in the direction of Eddy Arnold, a young singer who was then working with Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys. He told Parker that Arnold would almost certainly be going solo soon, and that he would need a manager.

Arnold was a fan of Gene Austin, and so eagerly linked up with Parker. Parker quickly got Arnold signed to RCA records as a solo artist, and Arnold's second single, in 1945, "Each Minute Seems Like a Million Years", reached number five in the country charts:

[Excerpt: Eddy Arnold, "Each Minute Seems Like a Million Years"]

Eddy Arnold was to go on to become one of the biggest stars in country music, and that was in large part because of the team that Tom Parker built around him. Parker would handle the management, Steve Sholes, the head of country and R&B at RCA, would handle the record production. Parker cut a deal with Hill and Range music publishers so that Arnold would perform songs they published in return for kickbacks, and any songs that Arnold wrote himself would go through them. And the William Morris Agency would handle the bookings. Both Sholes and Arnold were given money by Hill and Range for Arnold recording the publishers' songs, Parker had Sholes in his pocket because he knew that Sholes was taking kickbacks and could inform Sholes' bosses at RCA, and Parker in turn took twenty-five percent of the twenty thousand dollar bribe that Hill and Range paid Arnold, as Arnold's manager.

This whole team, put together by a mutual love of ripping each other and their artists off, would go on to work with Parker on every other artist he managed, and would be the backbone of his success in the industry.

Parker soon used his music industry connections to get an honorary Colonel's commission from Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis, himself a former country musician, and from that point until the end of his life insisted on being addressed as "Colonel", even though in reality he was a draft-dodger who had deliberately piled on weight during the Second World War so he could become too fat to draft.

But Parker and Arnold eventually split up -- Parker was originally meant to be Arnold's exclusive manager, but in 1953 Arnold found out that Parker was putting together a tour of other RCA acts, headed by Hank Snow. Arnold fired the Colonel, and the Colonel quickly instead became the "exclusive" manager of Hank Snow.

[Excerpt: Hank Snow, "I Went to Your Wedding"]

Of course, Parker didn't leave his association with Eddy Arnold empty handed -- he insisted on Arnold giving him a severance package of fifty thousand dollars, because of how much money Arnold was making from the contracts that Parker had negotiated for him.

His association with Hank Snow would only last two years, and would break up very acrimoniously -- with Snow later saying "I have worked with several managers over the years and have had respect for them all except one. Tom Parker was the most egotistical, obnoxious human being I've ever had dealings with."

The reason Snow said this was because the Colonel tricked Snow out of the greatest business opportunity in the history of the music business. The two of them had formed a management company to manage other artists, and when Parker found another artist he wanted to manage, Snow naturally assumed that they were partners -- right up until he discovered they weren't.

Since his first single, Elvis Presley had been putting out singles on Sun that largely stuck to the same formula -- a blues number on one side, a country number on the other, and a sparse backing by Elvis, Scotty, and Bill.

In general, the blues sides were rather better than the country sides, not least because the country sides, after the first couple of singles, started to be songs that were especially written for Elvis by outside songwriters, and tended to be based on rather obvious wordplay -- songs like "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone".

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone”]

The blues songs, on the other hand, were chosen from among Elvis' own favourites and songs that got kicked around in the studio. This would set the template for his work in the future -- whenever Elvis got to choose his own material, and follow his own instincts, the results would be good music. Whenever he was working on music that was chosen for him by someone else -- even someone as sympathetic to his musical instincts as Sam Phillips -- the music would suffer, though at this stage even the songs Elvis wasn't as keen on sounded great.

By the time of Elvis' last Sun single, he had finally made one more change that would define the band he would work with for the rest of the fifties. He had introduced a drummer, DJ Fontana, and while Fontana didn't play on the single – session drummer Johnny Bernero played on it instead – he would be a part of the core band from now on. The trio of Elvis, Scotty, and Bill had now become a singer and his backup band -- Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys.

The A-side of Elvis' fifth single for Sun Records was one of those country songs that had been written especially for Elvis, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget"]

That's a perfectly adequate country pop song, but the B-side, his version of "Mystery Train", was astonishing. It was actually a merger of elements from the A-side and the B-side of Junior Parker's single, as "Love My Baby" provided the riff that Scotty Moore used on Elvis' version of "Mystery Train". Elvis, Scotty, and Bill melded the two different songs together, and they came up with something that would become an absolute classic of the rockabilly genre:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Mystery Train"]

The song was probably chosen because Sam Phillips was one of the credited songwriters -- as he was currently battling Don Robey in court over Junior Parker, he naturally wanted to make as much money off his former artist as he could. But at the same time, it was a song Elvis clearly liked, and one he would still be performing live in the 1970s. This wasn't a song that was being forced on to Elvis.

Indeed, Elvis almost certainly saw Junior Parker live when he was playing with the Beale Streeters -- B.B. King would talk in later years about the teenage Elvis having been one of the very few white people who went to see them, and even allowing for later exaggerations, it's likely that he did see them at least a few times.

So this was one of those rare cases where the financial and artistic incentives perfectly overlapped.

But while he was recording for Sun, Elvis was also touring, and he was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and they were going wilder and wilder. And when Tom Parker saw one of those crowds, he knew he had to have Elvis. He didn't understand at all why those girls were screaming at him -- he would never, in all his life, ever understand the appeal of Elvis' music -- but he knew that a crowd like that would spend money, and he definitely understood that.

Parker worked on Elvis, and more importantly he worked on Elvis' family -- and even more importantly than that, he got Hank Snow to work on Elvis' family. Elvis' parents were big Hank Snow fans, and after being told by their idol how much the Colonel had helped him they were practically salivating to get Elvis signed with him.

Elvis himself was young, and naive, and would go along with whatever his parents suggested. Carl Perkins would later describe him as the most introverted person ever to enter a recording studio, and he just wanted to make some money to look after his parents. His daddy had a bad back and couldn't work, and his mama was so tired and sick all the time. If they said the Colonel would help him earn more money, well, he'd do what his parents said. Maybe he could earn them enough money to buy them a nice big house, so his mama could give up her job. They could maybe raise chickens in the yard.

It was only after the documents were signed that Snow realised that the contracts didn't mention himself at all. His partner had cut him out, and the two parted company.

Meanwhile, Sam Phillips was finding some more country singers he could work with, and starting to transition into country and rockabilly rather than the blues. A couple of months before “Mystery Train”, he put out another single by a two-guitar and bass rockabilly act – “Hey Porter” by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two:

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, “Hey Porter”]

We'll be hearing more from Johnny Cash later, but right now he didn't seem to be star material.

Colonel Parker knew that if Elvis was to become the star he could become, he would have to move to one of the major labels. Sun Records was a little nothing R&B label in Memphis; it barely registered on the national consciousness. If Elvis was going to do what Tom Parker wanted him to do, he was going to have to move to a big label -- a big label like RCA Records. Colonel Parker was in the country music business after all, and if you were going to be anything at all in the country music business, you were going to work in Nashville. Not Memphis. Parker started hinting to people that Sam Phillips wanted to sell Elvis' contract, without bothering to check with Phillips.

The problem was that Sam Phillips didn't want to give up on Elvis so easily. Phillips was, after all, a great judge of talent, and not only had he discovered Elvis, he had nurtured his ability. It was entirely likely that without Sam Phillips, Elvis would never have been anything more than a truck driver with a passable voice. Elvis the artist was as much the creation of Sam Phillips as he was of Elvis Presley himself.

But there was a downside to Elvis' success, and it was one that every independent label dreads. Sun Records was having hits. And the last thing you want as an indie is to have a hit.

The problem is cashflow. Suppose the distributors want a hundred thousand copies of your latest single. That's great! Except they will not pay you for several months -- if they pay you at all. And meanwhile, you need to pay the pressing plant for the singles *before* you get them to the distributors. If you've been selling in small but steady numbers and you suddenly start selling a lot, that can destroy your company. Nothing is more deadly to the indie label than a hit.

And then on top of that there was the lawsuit with Don Robey over Junior Parker. That was eating Phillips' money, and he didn't have much of it.

But at that point, Sam Phillips didn't have any artists who could take Elvis' place. He'd found the musician he'd been looking for -- the one who could unite black and white people in Phillips' dream of ending racism. So he came up with a plan. He decided to tell Tom Parker that Elvis' contract would be for sale, like Parker wanted -- but only for $35,000.

Now, that doesn't sound like a huge amount for Elvis' contract *today*, but in 1955 that would be the highest sum of money ever paid for a recording artist's contract. It was certainly an absurd amount for someone who had so far failed to trouble the pop charts at all. Phillips' view was that it was a ridiculous amount to ask for, but if he got it he could cover his spiralling costs, and if he didn't -- as seemed likely -- he would still have Elvis.

As Phillips later said, “I thought, hey, I’ll make ’em an offer that I know they will refuse, and then I’ll tell ’em they’d better not spread this poison any more. I absolutely did not think Tom Parker could raise the $35,000, and that would have been fine. But he raised the money, and damn, I couldn’t back out then.”

He gave the Colonel an unreasonably tight deadline to get him a five thousand dollar unrefundable deposit, and another unreasonably tight deadline to get the other thirty thousand. Amazingly, the Colonel called his bluff. He got him the five thousand almost straight away out of his own pocket, and by the deadline had managed to persuade Steve Sholes at RCA to pay it back to him, to pay Sam Phillips the outstanding thirty thousand, and to pay Elvis a five thousand dollar signing bonus -- of which, of course, a big chunk went directly into Tom Parker's pocket.

RCA quickly reissued "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" and "Mystery Train", while they were waiting for Elvis' first recording session for his new label. With Elvis was now on a major label, and Sam Phillips had to find a new rockabilly star to promote. Luckily, there was a new young country boy who had come to audition for him. Carl Perkins had definite possibilities.

May 20, 2019
Episode 32: "I Got A Woman" by Ray Charles
33:32

Ray Charles sat at a piano

Welcome to episode thirty-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "I Got A Woman" by Ray Charles. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

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Resources

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

For more on Charles Brown and Nat Cole, Patreon backers might want to listen to the Christmas Patreon-only episode.

Most of the information here comes from Charles' autobiography, Brother Ray, which gives a very clear view of his character, possibly not always in the ways he intended.

All the Ray Charles music used in this podcast, and the Guitar Slim track, are on The Complete Swing Time and Atlantic Recordings. Charles' work from 1955 through about 1965 covers more genres of American music than any other body of work I can think of, and does so wonderfully.

Patreon

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

Transcript

 

Let's talk about melisma.

One of the major things that you'll notice about the singers we've covered so far is that most of them sound very different from anyone who's been successful as a pure vocalist in the last few decades. There's a reason for that.

Among the pop songwriters of the thirties, forties, and fifties -- not the writers of blues and country music so much, but the people writing Broadway musicals and the repertoire the crooners were singing -- melisma was absolutely anathema.

Melisma is a technical musical term, but it has a simple meaning -- it's when you sing multiple notes to the same syllable of lyric. This is something that has always existed since people started singing -- for example, at the start of "The Star-Spangled Banner", "Oh say...", there are two notes on the syllable "oh". That's melisma.

But among the songwriters who were registered with ASCAP in the middle of the last century, there was a strongly-held view that this was pure laziness. You wrote one syllable of lyric for one note of melody, and if you didn't, you were doing something wrong. The lyricist Sammy Cahn used to talk about how he wrote the lyric to "Pocketful of Miracles" -- "Practicality doesn't interest me" -- but then the composer wrote a melody with one more note per line than he'd written syllables for the lyric. Rather than let the song contain melisma, he did this:

[Excerpt: Frank Sinatra, "Pocketful of Miracles", with Sinatra singing "pee-racticality dee-oesn't interest me"]

That was the kind of thing songwriters would do to avoid even the hint of melisma. And singers were the same. If you listen to any of the great voices of the first part of the twentieth century -- Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett -- they will almost without exception hit the note dead on, one note per syllable. No ornamentation, no frills. There were a few outliers -- Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, for example, would both use a little melisma (Holiday more than Ella) to ornament their sound -- but generally that was what good singing *was*. You sang the notes, one note per syllable.

And this was largely the case in the blues, as well as in the more upmarket styles. The rules weren't stuck to quite as firmly there, but still, you'd mostly sing the song as it was written, and it would largely be written without melisma.

There was one area where that was not the case – gospel, specifically black gospel.

[Excerpt: Rosetta Tharpe, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"]

We looked at gospel already, of course, but we didn't talk about this particular characteristic of the music. You see, in black gospel -- and pretty much only in black gospel music, at the time we're talking about -- the use of melisma was how you conveyed emotion. You ornamented the notes, you'd sing more notes per syllable, and that was how you showed how moved you were by the spirit.

And these days, that style is what people now think of as good or impressive singing. There are a *lot* of class and race issues around taste in this that I'm not going to unpick here -- we've got a whole four hundred and sixty-eight more episodes in which to discuss these things, after all -- but when you hear someone on The Voice or American Idol or The X Factor trying to impress with their vocals, it's their command of melisma they're trying to impress with. The more they can ornament the notes, the more they fit today's standards of good singing.

And that changed because, in the 1950s, there was a stream of black singers who came out of the gospel tradition and introduced its techniques into pop music.

Before talking about that, it's worth talking about the musical boundaries we're going to be using in this series, because while it's called "A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs", I am not planning on using a narrow definition of "rock music", because what counts as rock tends to be retroactively redefined to exclude branches of music where black people predominate. So for example, there's footage of Mohammed Ali calling Sam Cooke "the greatest rock and roll singer in the world", and at the time absolutely nobody would have questioned Cooke being called "rock and roll", but these days he would only be talked about as a soul singer.

And much of the music that we would now call "soul" was so influential on the music that we now call rock music that it's completely ridiculous to even consider them separately until the late seventies at the earliest. So while we're going to mostly look at music that has been labelled rock or rock and roll, don't be surprised to find soul, funk, hip-hop, country, or any other genre that has influenced rock turning up. And especially don't be surprised to see that happening if it was music that was thought of as rock and roll at the time, but has been retroactively relabelled.

So today, we're going to talk about a record that's been widely credited as the first soul record, but which was released as rock and roll. And we're going to talk about a musician who cut across all the boundaries that anyone tries to put on music, a man who was equally at home in soul, jazz, R&B, country, and rock and roll. We're going to talk about the great Ray Charles.

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, “I Got a Woman”]

Ray Charles had an unusual upbringing -- though perhaps one that's not as unusual as people would like to think. As far as I can tell from his autobiography, he was the product of what we would now call a polyamorous relationship. His father was largely absent, but he was brought up by his mother, who he called "Mama", and by his father's wife, who he called "Mother". Both women knew of, approved of, and liked each other, as far as young Ray was concerned.

His given name was Ray Charles Robinson, but he changed it when he became a professional musician, due to the popularity of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, whose peak years were around the same time as Charles' -- he didn't want to be confused with another, more famous, Ray Robinson. From a very young age, he was fascinated by the piano, and that fascination intensified when, before he reached adolescence, he became totally blind.

That blindness would shape his life, even though -- and perhaps because -- he had a strong sense of independence. He wasn't going to let his disability define him, and he often said that the three things that he didn't want were a dog, a cane, and a guitar, because they were the things all blind men had.

Now, I want to make it very clear that I'm not talking here about the rights and wrongs of Charles' own attitude to his disability. I'm disabled myself, but his disability is not mine, and he is from another generation. I'm just stating what that attitude was, and how it affected his life and career. And the main thing it did was make him even more fiercely independent. He not only got about on his own without a cane or a dog, he also at one point even used to go riding a motorbike by himself.

Other than his independence, the main thing everyone noted about the young Ray Charles Robinson was his proficiency on the piano, and by his late teens he was playing great jazz piano, inspired by Art Tatum, who like Ray was blind. Tatum was such a proficient pianist that there is a term in computational musicology, the tatum, meaning "the smallest time interval between successive notes in a rhythmic phrase".

[Excerpt; Art Tatum, "I Wish I Were Twins"]

Charles never got quite that good, but he was inspired by Tatum's musicality, and he became a serious student of the instrument, becoming a very respectable jazz pianist.

When his mother died, when he was fifteen, Charles decided to leave school and set up on his own as a musician. Initially, he toured only round Georgia and Florida, and early on he made a handful of records. His very earliest recordings, oddly, sound a lot like his mature style -- his first record, "Wondering and Wondering", was almost fully-formed mature Ray Charles:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Wondering and Wondering"]

But he soon changed his style to be more popular. He moved to the West Coast, and unsuccessfully auditioned to play piano with Lucky Millinder's band, and would occasionally play jazz with Bumps Blackwell and Dizzy Gillespie. But while his association with Bumps Blackwell would continue long into the future, playing jazz wasn't how Ray Charles was going to make his name.

On the West Coast in the late forties and early fifties, the most popular style for black musicians was a particular kind of smooth blues, incorporating aspects of crooning alongside blues and jazz. Two of the biggest groups in the R&B field were the Nat "King" Cole Trio and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers featuring Charles Brown. Both of these had very similar styles, featuring a piano player who sang smooth blues, with an electric guitarist and a bass player, and sometimes a drummer.

We've heard Nat "King" Cole before, playing piano with Les Paul and Illinois Jacquet, but it's still hard for modern listeners to remember that before his massive pop success with ballads like "Unforgettable", Cole was making music which may not have been quite as successful commercially, but which was incredibly influential on the burgeoning rock music field.

A typical example of the style is Cole's version of "Route Sixty-Six":

[Excerpt: Nat "King" Cole Trio, "Route Sixty Six"]

You'll note, I hope, the similarity to the early recordings by the Chuck Berry Trio in particular -- Berry would often say that while Louis Jordan music was the music he would play to try to make a living, Nat "King" Cole was the musician he most liked to listen to, and the Chuck Berry Trio was clearly an attempt to emulate this style.

The other group I mentioned, The Three Blazers, were very much in the same style as the Nat Cole Trio, but were a couple of rungs down the entertainment ladder, and Charles Brown, their singer, would be another huge influence on Ray Charles early on. Charles formed his own trio, the McSon Trio (the "Son" came from the Robinson in his own name, the "Mc" from the guitarist's name).

[Excerpt: The McSon Trio "Don't Put All Your Dreams In One Basket"]

The McSon Trio quickly changed their name to the Ray Charles Trio, as their pianist and singer became the obvious star of the show.

Charles soon tired of running his own trio, though, and went fully solo, travelling to gigs on his own and working with local pickup bands rather than having his own steady musicians. This also gave him the opportunity to collaborate with a wider variety of other musicians than having a fixed band would.

Around this time Charles was introduced by Bumps Blackwell to Quincy Jones, with whom he would go on to collaborate in various ways for much of the rest of his career. But his most important collaboration in his early career was with the blues musician Lowell Fulson. Fulson was one of the pioneers of the smooth West Coast blues sound, and Charles became his pianist and musical director for a short time. Charles didn't perform on many of Fulson's sessions, but you can get an idea of the kind of thing that he would have been playing with Fulson from Fulson's biggest record, "Reconsider Baby", which came out shortly after Charles' time with Fulson:

[Excerpt: Lowell Fulson, "Reconsider Baby"]

So Charles was splitting his time between making his own Nat Cole or Charles Brown style records, touring on his own, and touring with Fulson. He also worked on other records for other musicians. The most notable of these was a blues classic, by another of the greats of West Coast blues, "The Things That I Used To Do" by Guitar Slim.

[Excerpt: "The Things That I Used To Do" by Guitar Slim]

Slim was one of the great blues guitarists of the 1950s, and he was also one of the great showmen, whose performance style included things like a guitar cord that was allegedly three hundred and fifty feet long, so he could keep his guitar plugged into the amplifier but walk through the crowd and even out into the street, while still playing his guitar. Slim would later be a huge influence on musicians like Jimi Hendrix, but "The Things That I Used To Do", his most famous record, is as much Charles' record as it is Guitar Slim's -- Charles produced, arranged, and played piano, and the result sounds far more like the work that Charles was doing at the time than it does Guitar Slim's other work, though it still has Slim's recognisable guitar sound.

He finally got the opportunity to stand out when he moved from Swing Time to Atlantic Records. While several of the Swing Time recordings were minor successes, people kept telling him how much he sounded like Nat Cole or Charles Brown. But he realised that it was unlikely that anyone was telling Nat Cole or Charles Brown how much they sounded like Ray Charles, and that he would never be in the first rank of musicians unless he got a style that was uniquely his.

Everything changed with "Mess Around", which was his first major venture into the Atlantic house style. "Mess Around" is credited to Ahmet Ertegun, the owner of Atlantic Records, as the writer, but it should really be credited as a traditional song arranged by Ray Charles, Jesse Stone, and Ertegun. Ertegun did contribute to the songwriting -- rather surprisingly, given the habit of record executives of just taking credit for something that they had nothing to do with. Ertegun told Charles to play some piano in the style of Pete Johnson, and Charles responded by playing "Cow Cow Blues", a 1928 song by Cow Cow Davenport:

[Excerpt: Cow Cow Davenport, "Cow Cow Blues"]

Ertegun came up with some new words for that, mostly based around traditional floating lyrics. Jesse Stone came up with an arrangement, and the result was titled "Mess Around":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles and his Orchestra, "Mess Around"]

For his next few records, Charles was one of many artists making records with the standard Atlantic musicians and arrangers -- the same people who were making records with Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker. By this point, he had gained enough confidence in the studio that he was able to sing like himself, not like Charles Brown or Nat Cole or anyone else. The music he was making was generic R&B, but it didn't sound like anyone else at all:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "It Should Have Been Me"]

"Mess Around" and "It Should Have Been Me" were Charles' two biggest hits to date, both making the top five on the R&B charts. His breakout, though, came with a song that he based around a gospel song. At this time, gospel music was not much of an influence on most of the rhythm and blues records that were charting, but as Charles would later say, "the church was something which couldn’t be taken out of my voice even if I had wanted to take it out. Once I decided to be natural, I was gone. It’s like Aretha: She could do “Stardust,” but if she did her thing on it, you’d hear the church all over the place."

Charles had now formed his own band, which was strongly influenced by Count Basie. The Count Basie band was, like Lionel Hampton's, one of the bands that had most influenced early R&B, and its music was exactly the kind of combination of jump band and classy jazz that Charles liked:

[Excerpt: Count Basie, "One O'Clock Jump"]

Charles' own band was modelled on the Basie band, though slimmed down because of the practicalities of touring with a big band in the fifties. He had three sax players, piano, bass, drums, two trumpets, and a trombone, and he added a girl group, called the Raelettes, who were mostly former members of a girl group called the Cookies (who would go on to have a few hits themselves over the years).

Charles was now able to record his own band, rather than the Atlantic session musicians, and have them playing his own arrangements rather than Jesse Stone's. And the first recording session he did with his own band produced his first number one. Charles' trumpet player, Renald Richard, brought Charles a set of blues lyrics, and Charles set them to a gospel tune he'd been listening to.

The Southern Tones were a gospel act recording for Duke Records, and they never had much success. They'd be almost forgotten now were it not for this one record:

[Excerpt, The Southern Tones, "It Must Be Jesus"]

Charles took that melody, and the lyrics that Renald Richard had given him, and created a record which was utterly unlike anything else that had ever been recorded. This was a new fusion of gospel, the blues, big band jazz, and early rock and roll. Nobody had ever done anything like it before. In the context of 1954, when every fusion of ideas from different musics, and every new musical experiment, was labeled "rock and roll", this was definitely a rock and roll record, but in later decades they would say that this music had soul:

[Excerpt, "I Got a Woman", Ray Charles]

That song was close enough to gospel to cause Charles some very real problems. Gospel singers who went over to making secular music were considered by their original fans to be going over to the side of the Devil. It wasn't just that they were performing secular music -- it was very specifically that they were using musical styles that were created in order to worship God, and turning them to secular purposes.

And this criticism was applied, loudly, to Charles, even though he had never been a gospel singer. But while the gospel community was up in arms, people were listening. "I Got a Woman" went to number one on the R&B charts, and quickly entered the stage repertoire of another musician who had church music in his veins:

[Excerpt, Elvis Presley, "I Got a Woman"]

Even as it kicked off a whole new genre, "I Got A Woman" became a rock and roll standard. It would be covered by the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Monkees...

Ray Charles was, in the minds of his detractors, debasing something holy, but those complaints didn't stop Charles from continuing to rework gospel songs and turn them into rock and roll classics. For his next single, he took the old gospel song "This Little Light of Mine":

[Excerpt: Etta James, "This Little Light of Mine"]

And reworked it into "This Little Girl of Mine":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles: "This Little Girl of Mine"]

Ray Charles had hit on a formula that any other musician would have happily milked for decades. But Ray Charles wasn't a musician who would stick to just one style of music. This wandering musical mind would ensure that for the next few years Ray Charles would be probably the most vital creative force in American music, but it also meant that he would swing wildly between commercial success and failure. After a run of huge hits in 1954, 55, and 56 -- classic songs like "Hallelujah, I Love Her So", "Drown in My Own Tears", and "Lonely Avenue" -- he hit a dry patch, with such less-than-stellar efforts as "My Bonnie" and "Swanee River Rock". But you can't keep a good man down for long, and when we next look at Ray Charles, in 1959, we'll see him once again revolutionise both rock and roll and the music he invented, the music that we now call soul.

May 13, 2019
Episode 31: "Only You" by the Platters
34:53

The Platters

Welcome to episode thirty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This one looks at "Only You" by the Platters. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

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Resources

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

This episode ties into several others, but in particular you might want to relisten to the episode on Earth Angel, which features several of the same cast of characters.

There are no books on the Platters, as far as I know, so as I so often do when talking about vocal groups I relied heavily on Marv Goldberg's website.

For details of Buck Ram's life, I relied on The Magic Touch of Buck Ram: Songwriter, a self-published book credited to J. Patrick Carr but copyrighted in the name of Gayle Schreiber. Schreiber worked for Buck Ram for many years, and both she and Carr have put out multiple books with similar writing styles and layouts which heap fulsome praise both on Ram and on his assistant Jean Bennett. Those books are low on text and high on pictures from Bennett's personal collection, and they give a version of the story which is very slanted, but they also contain details not available elsewhere.

This long YouTube interview with Gaynel Hodge was interesting in giving Hodge's side of the story.

Some of the court case documents I read through to try to understand the legal ownership of the Platters name:
Paul Robi and Tony Williams vs Five Platters Inc

Martha Robi v. Five Platters Inc, Jean Bennett, and Buck Ram

Martha Robi v. Herb Reed

Herb Reed Enterprises v. Jean Bennett, Five Platters, Inc. and Personality Productions, Inc.

 

There are many cheap compilations of the Platters' hits. There are also many cheap compilations of rerecorded versions of the Platters' hits sung by people who weren't in the Platters. This is one of the former.

 

Patreon

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

Transcript

The story of the Platters is intimately tied up with another story we've already talked about -- that of the Penguins and "Earth Angel". You might want to relisten to that episode -- or listen to it for the first time, if you're coming to this podcast for the first time -- before listening to this one, as this tells a lot of the same story from an alternative perspective. But in both cases Buck Ram ends up being the villain.

As I mentioned in that episode, there was a lot of movement between different vocal groups, and the Platters were very far from an exception. It's hard to talk about how they formed in the way I normally would, where you talk about these three people meeting up and then getting a friend to join them, and their personalities, and so on, because none of the five people who sang on their biggest hits were among the six people who formed the original group they came from.

The Platters started out as The Flamingos -- this isn't the same group as the more well-known Flamingos, but a different group, whose lineup was Cornell Gunter, Gaynel Hodge (who was also in the Hollywood Flames at the same time), Gaynel's brother Alex Hodge, Joe Jefferson, Richard Berry, and Curtis Williams.

But very quickly, the Flamingos started to lose members to other, more popular, groups. The first to leave was Curtis Williams, who went on to join the Hollywood Flames, and from there joined the Penguins.

Richard Berry, meanwhile formed a band called the Hollywood Bluejays and got Cornell Gunter into the group. They recorded one single for John Dolphin's record label, before renaming themselves the Flairs and moving over to Flare records:

[Excerpt: "She Wants to Rock", the Flairs]

Cornel Gunter would later go on to join the Coasters, and we've already heard some of what Richard Berry would do later on in the episode on "The Wallflower".

So the Flamingos had produced some great talents, but those talents' departure left some gaping holes in the lineup. Eventually, the Flamingos settled into a new lineup, consisting of Gaynel Hodge, Alex Hodge, David Lynch (not the same one as the film director), and Herb Reed.

That lineup was not very good, though, and they didn't have a single singer who was strong enough to sing lead. Even so, the demand for vocal groups at the time was so great that they got signed by Ralph Bass, who was currently working for Federal Records, producing among other artists a singer called Linda Hayes.

We've heard quite a bit about Linda Hayes in this series already, though you might not recognise the name. She was one of the people who had tried to cash in on Johnny Ace's death with a tribute record, "Why Johnny Why", and she was also the one who had replaced Eunice in Gene and Eunice when she went on maternity leave. We find her popping up all over the place when there was a bandwagon to jump on, and at the time we're talking about she'd just had an actual hit because of doing this. Willie Mabon had just had a hit with "I Don't Know":

[Excerpt: Willie Mabon, "I Don't Know"]

That had reached number one on the R&B chart and had spawned a country cover version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. And so Hayes had put out an answer record, "Yes, I Know (What You're Putting Down)":

[Excerpt: Linda Hayes, "Yes, I Know (What You're Putting Down)"]

Hayes' answer went to number two on the R&B charts, and she was suddenly someone it was worth paying attention to. As it turned out, she would only have one other hit, in 1954. But she introduced Ralph Bass to her brother, Tony Williams, who wanted to be a singer himself.

Williams joined the Flamingos as their lead singer, and their first recording was as the vocal chorus on "Nervous Man Nervous" by Big Jay McNeely, one of the all-time great saxophone honkers, who had previously played with Johnny Otis' band:

[Excerpt: Big Jay McNeely, "Nervous Man Nervous"]

Shortly after that, the Flamingos were due to have their own first recording session, when a problem hit. There were only so many names of birds that groups could use, and so it wasn't surprising that someone else was using the name "the Flamingos", and that group got a hit record out. So they decided that since records were often called "platters" by disc jockeys, they might as well call themselves that. The Platters' first single did absolutely nothing:

[excerpt: The Platters: "Hey Now"]

They put out a few more recordings, but nothing clicked, and nobody, Ralph Bass included, thought they were any good. Gaynel Hodge finally got sick of splitting his time between groups, and left the group, to continue with the Hollywood Flames.

The group seemed like they might be on the way out, and so Tony Williams went to his sister's manager, Buck Ram, and asked him if he'd be Williams' manager as a solo singer. Ram listened to him, and said he was interested, but Williams should get himself a group to sing with. Williams said that, well, he did already have a group. Ram talked to Ralph Bass and took the Platters on as a project for himself.

Ram is unusual among the managers of this time, in that he was actually a musician and songwriter of some ability himself. He had obtained a law degree, mostly to please his parents, but Ram was primarily a songwriter.

Long before he went into music management Ram was writing songs, and was getting them performed by musicians that you have heard of. And he seems to have been part of the music scene in New York in the late thirties and early forties in a big way, having met Duke Ellington in a music arranging class both were taking, and having been introduced by Ellington to people like Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, and Ellington's publishers, Mills Music.

Ram's first big success as a songwriter was "I'll Be Home For Christmas", which had been a hit for Bing Crosby and would later become a standard:

[Excerpt: Bing Crosby, "I'll Be Home For Christmas"]

The story of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" was a rather controversial one -- Ram had written, on his own, a song called "I'll Be Home For Christmas (Tho Just In Memory)", and had registered the copyright in December 1942, but hadn't had it recorded by anyone. A few months later, he talked to his acquaintances Walter Kent and Kim Gannon about it, and was shocked when Crosby released a single written by them which bore a strong resemblance to Ram's song. His publishers, Mills Music, sued and got Ram credited on future releases. Buck Ram would end up fighting a lot of lawsuits, with a lot of people.

But while that biggest credit was the result of a lawsuit, Ram was also, as far as I can tell, an actual songwriter of great ability. Where other managers got themselves credited on songs that they didn't write and in some cases had never heard, to the best of my knowledge there has never been any suggestion that Buck Ram wasn't the sole author of the Platters songs he's credited for.

I'm so used to this working the other way, with managers taking credit for work they didn't do, that I still find it difficult to state for certain that there wasn't *some* sort of scam going on, but Ram had songwriting credits long before getting into the business side of things. Here, for example, is a song he wrote with Chick Webb, sung by Ella Fitzgerald:

[Excerpt: "Chew Chew Chew Your Bubblegum", Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald]

He spent several years working as a songwriter and arranger in New York, but made the mistake of moving West in order to get into the film music business, only to find that he couldn't break into the market and had to move into management instead. But making music, rather than managing it, was his first love, and he saw the Platters as a means to that end -- raw material he could mould in his own image.

Ram signed the Platters, now a four-piece consisting of Williams, Alex Hodge, David Lynch, and Herb Reed, to a seven-year contract, and started trying to mould them into a hit act.

The first single they released after signing with Ram was one which, rather oddly, featured Herb Reed on lead vocals on both sides, rather than their normal lead Tony Williams:

[Excerpt: The Platters, "Roses of Picardy"]

They still had the problem, though, that they simply weren't very good at singing. At the time, they didn't know how to sing in harmony -- they'd just take turns singing lead, and often not be able to sing in the same key as each other.

This didn't have much success, but Ram had an idea. In the forties, he'd managed and written for a group called the Quin-Tones. There were several groups of that name over the years, but this one had been a white vocal group with four men and one woman. They weren't very successful, but here's one of their few surviving recordings, "Midnight Jamboree", written and arranged by Ram:

[Excerpt: the Quin-Tones, "Midnight Jamboree"]

Working with the Quin-Tones had given Ram a taste for the particular vocal blend that comes from having four men and one woman. This had been a popular group style in the 1940s, thanks to the influence of the Modernaires -- the vocal group who sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra -- but had largely fallen out of favour in the 50s. Ram decided to reform the Platters along these lines.

The woman he chose to bring into the group was a singer Gaynel Hodge knew called Zola Taylor. Taylor had been recording as a solo artist, with little success, but she had a good sound on her recordings for RPM Records:

[Excerpt: Zola Taylor, "Oh! My Dear"]

With Zola in the group, Ram's ideal vocal sound was almost complete. But they hadn't quite got themselves together -- after all, there was still an original member left! But Alex Hodge wouldn't last long, as he was arrested for marijuana possession, and he was replaced by Paul Robi. Gaynel Hodge now claims that this wasn't the real reason that Alex Hodge was sacked – he says that Ram and Herb Reed conspired to get rid of Alex, who in Gaynel's telling had been the original founder of the group, because he knew too much about the music business and was getting suspicious that Ram was ripping him off. Either way, the last original member was now gone, and the Platters were Tony Williams, Zola Taylor, Herb Reed, Paul Robi, and David Lynch.

This would now be the lineup that would stay together for the rest of the 1950s and beyond.

Before that change though, the Platters had recorded a song that had sounded so bad that Ram had persuaded the label not to release it.

"Only You" was a song that Ram had written with the intention of passing it on to the Ink Spots, but for whatever reason he had never got round to it, though he'd written for the Ink Spots before -- they'd released his "I'll Lose a Friend Tomorrow" in 1946:

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots: "I'll Lose A Friend Tomorrow"]

He later said that he'd decided against giving "Only You" to the Ink Spots because they'd split up before he had a chance. That's not accurate -- the Ink Spots were still around when the earliest recordings of the song by the Platters were made. More likely, he just didn't like the song. After he wrote it, he stuck the sheet music in a box, where it languished until Jean Bennett, his assistant, was moving things around and the box fell apart. Bennett looked at the song, and said she thought it looked interesting. Ram said it was rubbish, but Bennett put the sheet music on top of Ram's piano. When Tony Williams saw it, he insisted on recording it. But that initial recording seemed to confirm Ram's assessment that the song was terrible:

[Excerpt: The Platters, "Only You" (original version), including the incredibly bad ending chord]

During this period the band were also recording tracks backing Linda Hayes, and indeed there was also a brother-sister duet credited to Linda Hayes and Tony Williams (of the Platters):

[Excerpt, Linda Hayes and Tony Williams, "Oochi Pachi"]

And again, Hayes was trying to jump on the bandwagons, recording an "Annie" song with the Platters on backing vocals, in the hope of getting some of the money that was going to Hank Ballard and Etta James:

[Excerpt: Linda Hayes and the Platters, "My Name Ain't Annie"]

But none of those records sold at all, and despite Ram's best efforts it looked like the Platters were simply not going to be having any recording success any time soon. Federal dropped them, as it looked likely they were going to do nothing.

But then, the group got very lucky. Buck Ram became the manager of the Penguins, another group that had formed out of the primal soup of singers around LA. The Penguins had just had what turned out to be their only big hit, with "Earth Angel", and Mercury Records were eager to sign them. Ram agreed to the deal, but only on the condition that Mercury signed the Platters as well. Once they were signed, Ram largely gave up on the Penguins, who never had any further success. They'd served his purpose, and got the group he really cared about signed to a major label.

There was a six-month break between the last session the Platters did for Federal and the first they did for Mercury. During that time, there was only one session -- as backing vocalists for Joe Houston:

[Excerpt: Joe Houston, "Shtiggy Boom"]

But they spent that six months practising, and when they got into the studio to record for Mercury, they suddenly sounded *good*:

[Excerpt: The Platters, "Only You"]

Everything had fallen into place. They were now a slick, professional group. They'd even got good enough that they could incorporate mistakes when they worked -- on an early take, Williams' voice cracked on the word "only", and he apologised to Ram, who said, "no, it sounded good, use it".

And "Only You" became one of those songs that defines an era. More than any of the doo-wop songs we've covered previously, it's the epitome of 1950s smooth balladry. It was a massive hit -- it spent thirty weeks on the R&B charts, seven of them at number one, and twenty-two weeks on the pop charts, peaking at number five.

Federal rush-released the awful original recording to cash in, and Ram and Mercury took them to court, which eventually ruled in favour of Federal being allowed to put out their version, but the judge also said that that decision might well turn out to be more harmful to Federal than to Mercury. The Federal version didn't chart.

The follow-up to “Only You”, also by Ram, was even bigger:

[Excerpt: The Platters, "The Great Pretender"]

And this started a whole string of hits -- "The Magic Touch", "Twilight Time", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"... most of these weren't quite as long-lasting as their first two massive hits, but they were regulars at the top of the pop charts. The Platters were, in many ways, the 1950s equivalent to the Ink Spots, and while they started off marketed as a rock and roll group, they soon transitioned into the more lucrative adult market, recording albums of standards.

But having emulated the Ink Spots in their biggest hits, the Platters also, sadly, emulated the Ink Spots in the way they fell apart. Unfortunately, the only book I've been able to find that talks about the Platters in any depth is written by someone working for Buck Ram's organisation, and so it has a very particular biased take on the legal disputes that followed for the next sixty years. I've tried to counter this by at least skimming some of the court documents that are available online, but it's not really possible to get an accurate sense, either from court filings from 2011 or the mid-eighties, or from a self-published and self-defensive book from 2015, what actually happened between the five Platters, Ram, and Ram's assistant Jean Bennett back in the late 1950s.

What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that soon after the Platters were signed to Mercury, a corporation was set up, "Five Platters Inc", which was controlled by Buck Ram and had all the members of the Platters as shareholders. The Platters, at the time, assigned any rights they had to the band's name to this corporation.

But then, in 1959, Tony Williams, who had always wanted a solo career, decided he wanted to pursue one more vigorously. He was going to leave the group, and he put out a solo album:

[Excerpt: Tony Williams, "Charmaine"]

Indeed, it seems to have been Buck Ram's plan from the very start to get Williams to be a solo artist, while keeping the Platters as a hit group -- he tried to find a replacement for Williams as early as 1956, although that didn't work out.

For a while, Williams continued in the Platters, while they looked for a replacement, but his solo career didn't go wonderfully at first. He wasn't helped by all four of the male Platters being arrested, allegedly as customers of sex workers, but in fact because they were sharing their hotel room with white women. All charges against everyone involved were later dropped, but this meant that it probably wasn't the best time for Williams to be starting a solo career.

But by 1961, Williams had managed to extricate himself from the Platters, and had been replaced by a young singer called Sonny Turner, who could sound a little like Williams. The record company were so convinced that Williams was the important one in the Platters, though, that on many of their recordings for the next year or two Mercury would take completed recordings by the new Platters lineup and overdub new lead vocals from Williams.

But one at a time the band members left, following Williams. And as each member left, they sold their shares in Five Platters Inc. to Buck Ram or to one of Ram's companies. By 1969 Herb Reed was the only member of the classic lineup still in the group, and then he left the group too, and Buck Ram and his companies continued putting out groups with no original members as the Platters.

Now, this doesn't mean that the real members stopped touring as the Platters. After David Lynch left in 1967, for example, he formed a group called "The Original Platters", and got both Zola Taylor and Paul Robi into the group. Tony Williams, Herb Reed, and Sonny Turner all also formed their own groups which toured under the Platters name, competing with the "official" Buck Ram Platters.

There followed forty years of litigation between Ram's companies and various Platters members. And the judgements went both ways, to the point that I can't make accurate judgements from the case documents I've been able to find online. As best as I can understand it, there was a court ruling back in 1974 that the whole purpose of Five Platters Inc. had been to illegally deprive the band members of their ownership in the band name, that it was a sham corporation, and that Buck Ram had illegally benefited from an unfair bargaining position. Shortly after that, it was ruled that FPI's trademark in the Platters name was void. But then there were other cases which went the other way, and Five Platters Inc. insisted that the band members had mostly left because they were alcoholics who didn't want to tour any more, and that they'd given up their rights to the band name of their own free will.

Meanwhile, over a hundred fake Platters groups with no original members went out on the road at various points. There have been almost as many fake Platters as there have fake Ink Spots.

The band name issues were finally resolved in 2011. By that point Buck Ram was long dead, as were all the members of the classic Platters lineup except Herb Reed. A judge finally ruled that Herb Reed had the rights to the name, and that Five Platters Inc. had never owned the name. Just before that ruling, Five Platters Inc., which was now run by Jean Bennett, announced that they were going to retire the name. Herb Reed died in 2012, shortly afterwards, though the company he licensed the name to still licenses a band to tour as the Platters.

Gaynel Hodge, however, is still alive, the last surviving member of the original Platters, and he still performs with his own Platters group, performing songs the Platters recorded after he left. His website hasn't been updated since 2005, but at the time its most recent newsflash was that he had co-written this song with Dr. John for Shemekia Copeland:

[Excerpt: Shemekia Copeland, "Too Close"]

Gaynel Hodge was a major figure in the California music industry. He'll be turning up in all sorts of odd places in future episodes, as he was involved in a lot of very important records. And we'll definitely be seeing more of both Richard Berry and Cornell Gunter later as well. And meanwhile, somewhere out there are multiple groups of people who've never met anyone who sang on "Only You", singing that song right now and calling themselves the Platters.

May 06, 2019
Episode 30: "Bo Diddley" by "Bo Diddley
38:10

Bo Diddley in a tartan jacket and bow tie, playing his trademark box guitar

Welcome to episode thirty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This is the last of our three-part look at Chess Records, and focuses on "Bo Diddley" by Bo Diddley. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

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Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.I accidentally used a later rerecording of "I Wish You Would" by Billy Boy Arnold on the playlist, but I use the correct version in the podcast itself. Sorry about that.

As this is part three of the Chess Records trilogy, you might want to listen to part one, on the Moonglows, and part two, on Chuck Berry, if you haven't already.

Along with the resources mentioned in the previous two episodes, the resource I used most this time was Bo Diddley: Living Legend by George R. White, a strong biography told almost entirely in Diddley's own words from interviews, and the only full-length book on Diddley.

This compilation contains Diddley's first six albums plus a bunch of non-album and live tracks, and has everything you're likely to want by Diddley on it, for under ten pounds.

If you want to hear more Muddy Waters after hearing his back-and-forth with Diddley, this double CD set is a perfect introduction to him.

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Transcript

Welcome to the final part of our trilogy about Chess Records. Last week, we looked at Chuck Berry. This week, we're going to deal with someone who may even have been more important.

One of the many injustices in copyright law -- and something that we'll have a lot of cause to mention during the course of this series -- is that, for the entire time period covered by this podcast, it was impossible to copyright a groove or a rhythm, but you could copyright a melody line and lyric. And this has led to real inter-racial injustice.

In general, black musical culture in the USA has emphasised different aspects of musical invention than white culture has. While white American musical culture -- particularly *rich* white musical culture -- has stressed inventive melodies and harmonic movement -- think of, say, Burt Bacharach or George Gershwin -- it has not historically stressed rhythmic invention. On the other hand, black musical culture has stressed that above everything else -- you'll notice that all the rhythmic innovations we've talked about in this series so far, like boogie woogie, and the backbeat, and the tresillo rhythm, all came from black musicians.

That's not, of course, to say that black musicians can't be melodically inventive or white musicians rhythmically -- I'm not here saying "black people have a great sense of rhythm" or any of that racist nonsense. I'm just talking about the way that different cultures have prioritised different things.

But this means that when black musicians have produced innovative work, it's not been possible for them to have any intellectual property ownership in the result. You can't steal a melody by Bacharach, but anyone can play a song with a boogie beat, or a shuffle, or a tresillo... or with the Bo Diddley beat.

[Very short excerpt: “Bo Diddley”, Bo Diddley]

Elias McDaniel's distinctive sound came about because he started performing so young that he couldn't gain entrance to clubs, and so he and his band had to play on street corners. But you can't cart a drum kit around and use it on the streets, so McDaniel and his band came up with various inventive ways to add percussion to the act. At first, they had someone who would come round with a big bag of sand and empty it onto the pavement. He'd then use a brush on the sand, and the noise of the brushing would provide percussion -- at the end of the performance this man, whose name was Sam Daniel but was called Sandman by everyone, would sweep all the sand back up and put it back into his bag for the next show.

Eventually, though, Sandman left, and McDaniel hit on the idea of using his girlfriend's neighbour Jerome Green as part of the act.

We heard Jerome last week, playing on "Maybellene", but he's someone who there is astonishingly little information about. He doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, and you'll find barely more than a few paragraphs about him online. No-one even knows when he was born or died – *if* he died, though he seems to have disappeared around 1972. And this is quite astonishing when you consider that Green played on all Bo Diddley's classic records, and sang duet on a few of the most successful ones, *and* he played on many of Chuck Berry's, and on various other records by Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, the Moonglows... yet when you Google him, the third hit that comes up is about Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, a nineties soft-pop duo who span out of a soap opera.

At first, Jerome's job was to pass the hat around and collect the money, but McDaniel decided to build Jerome a pair of maracas, and teach him how to play. And he learned to play very well indeed, adding a Latin sound to what had previously been just a blues band.

Jerome's maracas weren't the only things that Elias McDaniel built, though. He had a knack for technology, though he was always rather modest about his own abilities. He built himself one of the very first tremelo systems for a guitar, making something out of old car bits and electronic junk that would break the electronic signal up. Before commercial tremelo systems existed, McDaniel was the only one who could make his guitar sound like that.

The choppy guitar, with its signal breaking up deliberately, and the maracas being shook frantically, gave McDaniel's music a rhythmic drive unlike anything else in rock and roll.

McDaniel and his band eventually got their music heard by Leonard Chess at Chess Records. Chess was impressed by a song called "Uncle John", which had lyrics that went "Uncle John's got corn ain't never been shucked/Uncle John's got daughters ain't never been... to school"; but he said the song needed less salacious lyrics, and he suggested retitling it “Bo Diddley”, which also became the stage name of the man who up until now had been called Elias McDaniel.

The new lyrics were inspired by the black folk song "Hambone", which a few years earlier had become a novelty hit:

[Excerpt: "Hambone", Red Saunders Orchestra with the Hambone Kids]

Now, I have to be a bit careful here, because here I'm talking about something that's from a different culture from my own, and my understanding of it is that of an outsider. To *me*, "Hambone" seems to be a unified thing that's part song, part dance, part game. But my understanding may be very, very flawed, and I don't want to pretend to knowledge I don't have. But this is my best understanding of what “Hambone” is.

"Hambone", like many folk songs, is not in itself a single song, but a collection of different songs with similar elements. The name comes from a dance which, it is said, dates back to enslaved people attempting to entertain themselves. Slaves in most of the US were banned from using drums, because it was believed they might use them to send messages to each other, so when they wanted to dance and sing music, they would slap different parts of their own bodies to provide percussive accompaniment.

Now, I tend to be a little dubious of narratives that claim that aspects of twentieth-century black culture date back to slavery or, as people often claim, to Africa. A lot of the time these turn out to be urban myths of the "ring a ring a roses is about the bubonic plague" kind. One of the real tragedies of slavery is that the African culture that the enslaved black people brought over to the US was largely lost in the ensuing centuries, and so there's a very strong incentive to try to find things that could be a continuation of that. But that's the story around “Hambone”, which is also known as the “Juba beat”.

Another influence Diddley would always cite for the lyrical scansion is the song “Hey Baba Reba”, which he would usually misremember as having been by either Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan, but was actually by Lionel Hampton:

[Excerpt: Lionel Hampton, “Hey Baba Reba”]

But the important thing to note is that the rhythm of all these records is totally different from the rhythm of the song "Bo Diddley". There's a bit of misinformation that goes around in almost every article about Diddley, saying "the Bo Diddley beat is just the 'Hambone' beat", and while Diddley would correct this in almost every interview he ever gave, the misinformation would persist -- to the point that when I first heard "Hambone" I was shocked, because I'd assumed that there must at least have been some slight similarity. There's no similarity at all.

And that's not the only song where I've seen claims that there's a Bo Diddley beat where none exists. As a reminder, here's the actual Bo Diddley rhythm:

[Very short excerpt: Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley”]

Now the PhD thesis on the development of the backbeat which I talked about back in episode two claims that the beat appears on about thirteen records before Diddley's, mostly by people we've discussed before, like Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis, Fats Domino, and Roy Brown.

But here's a couple of examples of the songs that thesis cites. Here's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" by Fats Domino:

[Excerpt: "Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fats Domino]

And here's "That's Your Last Boogie", by Joe Swift, produced by Johnny Otis:

[Excerpt: Joe Swift, "That's Your Last Boogie"]

As you can hear, they both have something that's *sort of* the Bo Diddley beat, but not really, among their other rhythms. It's most notable at the very start of "That's Your Last Boogie"

[Intro: "That's Your Last Boogie"]

That's what's called a clave beat -- it's sort of like the tresillo, with an extra bom-bom on the end. Bom bom-bom, bom-bom. That's not the Bo Diddley beat. The Bo Diddley beat actually varies subtly from bar to bar, but it's generally a sort of chunk-a chunk-a-chunk a-chunk a-chunk ah. It certainly stresses the five beats of the clave, but it's not them, and nor is it the "shave and a haircut, two bits" rhythm other people seem to claim for it.

Most ridiculously, Wikipedia even claims that the Andrews Sisters' version of Lord Invader's great calypso song, "Rum and Coca Cola", has the Bo Diddley beat:

[Excerpt: "Rum and Coca Cola", the Andrews Sisters]

Both records have maracas, but that's about it. Incidentally, that song was, in the Andrews Sisters version, credited to a white American thief rather than to the black Trinidadian men who wrote it. Sadly appropriate for a song about the exploitation of Trinidadians for "the Yankee dollar".

But none of these records have the Bo Diddley beat, despite what anyone might say. None of them even sound very much like Diddley's beat at all.

The origins of the Bo Diddley beat were, believe it or not, with Gene Autry. We've talked before about Autry, who was the biggest Western music star of the late thirties and early forties, and who inspired all sorts of people you wouldn't expect, from Les Paul to Hank Ballard. But Diddley hit upon his rhythm when trying to play Autry's "I've Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle".

[excerpt, Gene Autry, "I've Got Spurs that Jingle Jangle Jingle"]

No, I don't see the resemblance either. But this ties back into what we were talking about last week, with the influence of country musicians on the blues and R&B musicians at Chess.

And if you become familiar with his later work, it becomes clear that Diddley truly loved the whole iconography of the Western, and country music. He did albums called "Have Guitar Will Travel" (named after the Western TV show "Have Gun Will Travel") and "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger". Diddley's work is rooted in black folklore -- things like hambone, but also the figure of Stagger Lee and other characters like the Signifying Monkey -- but it should be understood that black American folklore has always included the image of the black cowboy.

The combination of these influences – the “Hambone” lyrical ideas, the cowboy rhythm, and the swaggering character Diddley created for himself – became this:

[Excerpt: “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley]

The B-side to the record, meanwhile, was maybe even more important. It's also an early example of Diddley *not* just reusing his signature rhythm. The popular image of Diddley has him as a one-idea artist remaking the same song over and over again -- and certainly he did often return to the Bo Diddley beat -- but he was a far more interesting artist than that, and recorded in a far wider variety of styles than you might imagine. And in "I'm A Man" he took on another artist's style, beating Muddy Waters at his own game.

"I'm A Man" was a response to Waters' earlier "Hoochie Coochie Man":

[Excerpt: "Hoochie Coochie Man", Muddy Waters]

"Hoochie Coochie Man" had been written for Muddy Waters by Willie Dixon and was, as far as I can tell, the first blues record ever to have that da-na-na na-na riff that later became the riff that for most people defines the blues.

"Hoochie Coochie Man" had managed to sum up everything about Waters' persona in a way that Waters himself had never managed with his own songs. It combined sexual braggadocio with hoodoo lore -- the character Waters was singing in was possessed of supernatural powers, from the day he was born, and he used those powers to "make pretty women jump and shout". He had a black cat bone, and a mojo, and a John the Conqueror root.

It was a great riff, and a great persona, and a great record. But it was still a conventionally structured sixteen-bar blues, with the normal three chords that almost all blues records have.

But Bo Diddley heard that and decided that was two chords too many. When you've got a great riff, you don't *need* chord changes, not if you can just hammer on that riff. So he came up with a variant of Dixon's song, and called it "I'm a Man". In his version, there was only the one chord:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "I'm a Man"]

Willie Dixon guested on bass for that song, as it wasn't felt that Diddley's own bass player was getting the feeling right. There were also some changes made to the song in the studio -- as Diddley put it later: "They wanted me to spell 'man', but they weren't explaining it right. They couldn't get me to spell 'man'. I didn't understand what they were talking about!"

But eventually he did sing that man is spelled m-a-n, and the song went on to be covered by pretty much every British band of the sixties, and become a blues standard. The most important cover version of it though was when Muddy Waters decided to make his own answer record to Diddley, in which he stated that *he* was a man, not a boy like Diddley. Diddley got a co-writing credit on this, though Willie Dixon, whose riff had been the basis of "I'm a Man", didn't.

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "Mannish Boy"]

And then there was Etta James' answer record, "W.O.M.A.N.", which once again has wild west references in it:

[Excerpt: Etta James, "W.O.M.A.N."]

And that… "inspired" Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to write this for Peggy Lee:

[Excerpt: Peggy Lee, "I'm A Woman"]

Of course, none of those records, except Muddy Waters', gave Bo Diddley a writing credit, just as Diddley didn't credit Dixon for his riff.

At the same session as the single was recorded, Diddley's harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold, recorded a single of his own, backed by Diddley and his band. "I'm Sweet on you Baby" wasn't released at the time, but it's a much more straightforward blues song, and more like Chess' normal releases. Chess were interested in making more records with Arnold, but we'll see that that didn't turn out well:

[Excerpt: Billy Boy Arnold, "I'm Sweet on you Baby"]

Despite putting out a truly phenomenal single, Diddley hit upon a real problem with his career, and one that would be one of the reasons he was never as popular as contemporaries like Chuck Berry. The problem, at first, looked like anything but. He was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show to promote his first single.

The Ed Sullivan Show was the biggest TV show of the fifties and sixties. A variety show presented by the eponymous Sullivan, who somehow even after twenty years of presenting never managed to look or sound remotely comfortable in front of a camera, it was the programme that boosted Elvis Presley from stardom to superstardom, and which turned the Beatles from a local phenomenon in the UK and Europe into the biggest act the world had ever seen.

Getting on it was the biggest possible break Diddley could have got, and it should have made his career. Instead, it was a disaster, all because of a misunderstanding.

At the time, the country song "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford was a big hit:

[Excerpt: "Sixteen Tons", Tennessee Ernie Ford]

Diddley liked the song -- enough that he would later record his own version of it:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "Sixteen Tons"]

And so he was singing it to himself in his dressing room. One of the production staff happened to walk past and hear him, and asked if he could perform that song on the show. Diddley assumed he was being asked if he would do it as well as the song he was there to promote, and was flattered to be asked to do a second song.

[Excerpt: Ed Sullivan introducing "Dr Jive", with all the confusion about what words he's using]

When he got out on to the stage he saw the cue card saying "Bo Diddley Sixteen Tons", assumed it meant the song "Bo Diddley" followed by the song "Sixteen Tons", and so he launched into "Bo Diddley". After all, why would he go on the show to promote someone else's record? He was there to promote his own debut single. So of course he was going to play it.

This was not what the production person had intended, and was not what Ed Sullivan wanted. Backstage, there was a confrontation that got so heated that Diddley had to be physically restrained from beating Sullivan with his guitar after Sullivan called Diddley a “black boy” (according to Diddley, “black” at that time and in that place, was a racial slur, though it's the polite term to use today). Sullivan yelled and screamed at Diddley and told him he would be blacklisted from network TV, and would certainly never appear on Sullivan's show again under any circumstances. After that first TV appearance, it would be seven years until Diddley's second.

And unlike all his contemporaries he didn't even get to appear in films. Even Alan Freed, who greatly respected Diddley and booked him on his live shows, and who Diddley also respected, didn't have him appear in any of the five rock and roll films he made. As far as I can tell, the two minutes he was on the Ed Sullivan show is the only record of Bo Diddley on film or video from 1955 through 1962.

And this meant, as well, that Chess put all their promotional efforts behind Chuck Berry, who for all his faults was more welcome in the TV studios. If Diddley wanted success, he had to let his records and live performances do the work for him, because he wasn't getting any help from the media.

Luckily, his records were great. Not only was Diddley's first hit one of the great two-sided singles of all time, but his next single was also impressive. The story of "Diddley Daddy" dates back to one of the white cover versions of "Bo Diddley". Essex Records put out this cover version by Jean Dinning, produced by Dave Miller, who had earlier produced Bill Haley and the Comets' first records:

[Excerpt: Jean Dinning, "Bo Diddley"]

And, as with Georgia Gibbs' version of “Tweedle Dee”, the record label wanted to make the record sound as much like the original as possible, and so tried to get the original musicians to play on it, and made an agreement with Chess. They couldn't get Bo Diddley himself, and without his tremelo guitar it sounded nothing like the original, but they *did* get Willie Dixon on bass, Diddley's drummer Clifton James (who sadly isn't the same Clifton James who played the bumbling sheriff in "Live and Let Die" and "Superman II", though it would be great if he was), and Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica.

But Billy Boy Arnold made the mistake of going to Chess and asking for the money he was owed for the session. Leonard Chess didn't like when musicians wanted paying, and complained to Bo Diddley about Arnold. Diddley told Arnold that Chess wasn't happy with him, and so Arnold decided to take a song he'd written, "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum", to another label rather than give it to Chess. He changed the lyrics around a bit, and called it "I Wish You Would":

[Excerpt: Billy Boy Arnold, "I Wish You Would"]

Arnold actually recorded that for Vee-Jay Records on the very day that Bo Diddley's second single was due to be recorded, and the Diddley session was held up because nobody knew where Arnold was. They eventually found him and got him to Diddley's session -- where Diddley started playing "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum". Leonard Chess suggested letting Arnold sing the song, but Arnold said "I can't -- I just recorded that for VeeJay", and showed Chess the contract.

Diddley and Harvey Fuqua, who was there to sing backing vocals with the rest of the Moonglows, quickly reworked the song. Arnold didn't want to play harmonica on something so close to a record he'd just made, though he played on the B-side, and so Muddy Waters' harmonica player Little Walter filled in instead. The new song, entitled "Diddley Daddy", became another of Diddley's signature songs:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "Diddley Daddy"]

but the B-side, "She's Fine, She's Mine", was the one that would truly become influential:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "She's Fine, She's Mine"]

That song was later slightly reworked into this, by Willie Cobbs:

[Excerpt: Willie Cobbs, "You Don't Love Me"]

That song was covered by pretty much every white guitar band of the late sixties -- the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Allman Brothers, Steve Stills and Al Kooper... the list goes on. But Cobbs' song itself was also slightly reworked, by Dawn Penn, in 1967, and became a minor reggae classic. Twenty-seven years later, in 1994, Penn rerecorded her song, based on Cobbs' song, based on Bo Diddley's song, and it became a worldwide smash hit, with Diddley getting cowriting credit:

[Excerpt: Dawn Penn, "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)"]

And *that* has later been covered by Beyonce and Rhianna, and sampled by Ghostface Killah and Usher. And that's how important Bo Diddley was at this point in time. The B-side to his less-good follow-up to his debut provided enough material for sixty years' worth of hits in styles from R&B to jam band to reggae to hip-hop.

And the song “Bo Diddley” itself, of course, would provide a rhythm for generations of musicians to take, everyone from Buddy Holly:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “Not Fade Away”]

to George Michael:

[Excerpt George Michael, “Faith”]

to U2:

[Excerpt: U2, “Desire”]

Because that rhythm was so successful – even though most of the success went to white people who didn't credit or pay Diddley – people tend to think of Diddley as a one-idea musician, which is far from the truth. Like many of his contemporaries he only had a short period where he was truly inventive -- his last truly classic track was recorded in 1962. But that period was an astoundingly inventive one, and we're going to be seeing him again during the course of this series. In his first four tracks, Diddley had managed to record three of the most influential tracks in rock history. But the next time we look at him, it will be with a song he wrote for other people -- a song that would indirectly have massive effects on the whole of popular music.

 

Apr 29, 2019
Episode 29: "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry
36:14

Chuck Berry on guitar, with Alan Freed behind pretending to play drums

Welcome to episode twenty-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. This is the second of our three-part look at Chess Records, and focuses on "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 ----more----

Resources

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

I reference three previous episodes here -- last week's, the disclaimer episode, and the episode on Ida Red.

I used three 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.

And for information on Chess, I used The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll by Richard Cohen. I wouldn't recommend that book, however -- while it has some useful interview material and anecdotes from those involved, Cohen gets some basic matters of fact laughably wrong, and generally seems to be more interested in showing off his prose style than fact-checking.

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 any of the filler.

And if you want to check out more of Willie Dixon's material, this four-CD set contains a hundred records he either performed on as an artist, played on as a session player, wrote, or produced. It's the finest body of work in post-war blues.

 

 

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Transcript

 

[Intro: Alan Freed introducing Chuck Berry and Maybellene]

Welcome to the second part of our trilogy on Chess Records. This week, we're going to talk about the most important single record Chess ever put out, and arguably the most important artist in the whole history of rock music.

But first, we're going to talk about something a lot more recent. We're going to talk about "Old Town Road," by Lil Nas X. For those of you who don't follow the charts and the music news in general, "Old Town Road" is a song put out late last year by a rapper, but it reached number nineteen in the country charts. Because it's a country song:

[Excerpt: "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X]

That's a song with banjo and mandolin, with someone singing in a low Johnny Cash style voice about riding a horse while wearing a cowboy hat. It's clearly country music if anything at all is country music. But it was taken off the country music charts the week it would otherwise have made number one, in a decision that Billboard was at pains to say was nothing at all to do with his race.

A hint -- if you have to go to great lengths to say that the thing you're doing isn't racist, it's probably racist.

Because genre labels have always been about race, and about policing racial boundaries in the US, since the very beginning. Remember that when Billboard started the R&B charts they were called the "race music" charts. You had the race music charts for black people, the country charts for lower-class whites, and the pop charts for the respectable white people. That was the demarcation, and that still is the demarcation.

But people will always want to push against those constraints. And in the 1950s, just like today, there were black people who wanted to make country music. But in the 1950s, unlike today, there was a term for the music those people were making. It was called rock and roll. For about a decade, from roughly 1955 through 1965, "rock and roll" became a term for the music which disregarded those racial boundaries. And since then there has been a slow but sure historical revisionism. The lines of rock and roll expand to let in any white man, but they constrict to push out the women and black men who were already there. But there's one they haven't yet been able to push out, because this particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.

Chuck Berry was, in many ways, not at all an admirable man. He was one of all too many rock and roll pioneers to be a sex offender (and again, please see the disclaimer episode I did close to the start of this series, for my thoughts about that -- nothing I say about his work should be taken to imply that I think that work mitigates some of the awful things he did) and he was also by all accounts an unpleasant person in a myriad other ways. As I talked about in the disclaimer episode, we will be dealing with many awful people in this series, because that's the nature of the history of rock and roll, but Chuck Berry was one of the most fundamentally unpleasant, unlikeable, people we'll be looking at. Nobody has a good word to say about him as a human being, and he hurt a lot of people over his long life. When I talk about his work, or the real injustices that were also done to him, I don't want to forget that.

But when it comes to rock and roll, Chuck Berry may be the single most important figure who ever lived, and a model for everyone who followed.

[Excerpt: “Maybellene”, just the intro]

To talk about Chuck Berry, we first of all have to talk about Johnnie Johnson. Johnnie Johnson was a blues piano player, who had got a taste of life as a professional musician in the Marines, where he'd played in a military band led by Bobby Troup, the writer of "Route 66" among many other songs. After leaving the Marines, he'd moved around the Midwest, playing blues in various bands, before forming his own trio, the Johnnie Johnson Trio, in St Louis.

That trio consisted of piano, saxophone, and drums -- until New Year's Eve 1952, when the saxophone player had a stroke and couldn't play. Johnson needed another musician to play with the trio, and needed someone quick, but it was New Year's Eve -- every musician he could think of would be booked up. Except for Chuck Berry. Berry was a guitarist he vaguely knew, and was different in every way from Johnson. Where Johnson was an easy-going, fat, jovial, man, who had no ambitions other than to make a living playing boogie-woogie piano, Chuck Berry had already served a term in prison for armed robbery, was massively ambitious, and was skinny as a rake. But he could play the guitar and si