Posts Tagged ‘music’

by Robert Seoane

1959 FALL TELEVISION – THE QUARRYMEN BREAK UP – WILBERT HARRISON – THE FLAMINGOS – FREDDY CANNON – EDD BYRNES – CONNIE STEVENS – FRANKIE FORD – PHIL PHILLIPS – HUEY ‘PIANO’ SMITH – SANTO & JOHNNY – THE DRIFTERS – CLYDE McPHATTER – BEN E. KING

The year 1959 had some notable milestones occurring within its 365 days. The United States had 48 states until both Alaska and Hawaii were given official statehood status that year. Alaska had been purchased by the US from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867 for $7.2 million ($121 million in 2015, still a bargain for a land where you can see Russia from your house). It then became a territory of the USA on May 11, 1912 and finally became the 49th state on January 3rd, 1959. Hawaii followed suit as the 50th state on August 21, 1959 after having been a territory since August 12, 1898.


These two new states were ratified just in time to enjoy the creation of the first Barbie doll manufactured in 1959.

It was also a year in which the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States began in earnest… and the USSR was winning, by sending the first man-made object to reach a celestial body when the unmanned Luna 2 spacecraft crash landed on the moon on September 14, 1959.

And in music history, the first ever Grammy Awards were introduced in 1959, hosted by Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra was busy that year. Besides releasing two classic albums, “Come Dance With Me” and “No One Cares”, and appearing on television on a regular basis, he also got involved in politics. On November 2, 1959 in Los Angeles, he introduced Democratic Senator from Massachussetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy at a fundraising dinner to a host of supporters where JFK hinted at his interest of running for President.

“It seems to me that in the 1960 election…that we should take into that election words which were spoken by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. …. In that speech he said…’Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in the spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.’ It seems to me in the United States in the last seven years, we have come very close to a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference, and I do not look with pleasure upon going through another decade of it…and therefore I think this election is most important.” — Senator John F. Kennedy; November 2, 1959.

Meanwhile, television was now in its eleventh year of existence, and the three networks ABC, CBS and NBC unveiled a host of new TV shows with names like “Hawaiian Eye” a detective adventure series with a young Robert Conrad; the 1959-1973 TV cowboy western series “Bonanza”, filmed in color but still broadcast in black and white since TV did not yet have the technology to broadcast color developed fully; “The Price Is Right”, still airing today but totally different from its first episode; a new Hanna-Barbera cartoon character named Huckleberry Hound, also in color… and “The Twilight Zone”.




Of all these television debuts, “The Twilight Zone”, premiering on October 2, 1959, was the most unique. Created by screenwriter and playwright Rod Serling and coming off his classic Playhouse 90 teleplay “Requiem For A Heavyweight”(1956), Serling introduced an anthology series of the unexplained and creepy, writing most of the episodes and famously introducing them, always with a cigarette in his hand. He was the only consistent face in the series, as each week a different story was told by then unknown actors such as Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Redford, Dennis Hopper, Lee Marvin and Burt Reynolds to name a few. Its famous theme music however, would not be introduced until the second season. Its first season’s score was written by the renowned Bernard Herrmann, who had composed soundtracks for many Alfred Hitchcock movies as well as the classic score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). The iconic theme song however, was written by Romanian-born French composer Marius Constant.


Serling was quite simply a brilliant writer, having written 92 of the 156 “Twilight Zone” episodes during its five-year run. Aside from this iconic, landmark series, he also wrote with Michael Wilson, an adaptation of the 1963 French novel “La Planete des Singes” by Pierre Boulle, author of “Bridge On The River Kwai” and translated the title to “Planet Of The Apes”. After the film’s release in 1968, it became so popular that four sequels, were produced through 1973, as well as a television show, an animated series and comic books. The franchise was resurrected in 2001 by Director Tim Burton to dismal reviews, but then was rebooted ten years later in 2011 with probably the best version in the series since the original, “The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes”.

 

THE QUARRYMEN BREAK UP

Many believe that the break up of the Beatles lays squarely on the lap of Yoko Ono, who met John Lennon in 1966. This is an extremely simplistic point of view, because as in most every rock ‘n’ roll disbanding, several factors contributed to the break up of the greatest band in the world. To begin with, it was Paul McCartney, not John, who announced that the Beatles had officially broken up in March 1970. Also, George Harrison had become increasingly unhappy because of the fact that he had a backlog of music that had no room in Beatle albums.

John and Paul were always the principal songwriters, while George was usually granted two tracks per album. George complained that whenever they got to his compositions, they rushed through the recording, while John and Paul always took their sweet time with theirs. Ringo Starr, who wasn’t a songwriter, was given one track to sing for every album release. The only exception occurred during the recording of the double disc “The Beatles” (1968) more popularly known as The White Album. Ringo was given two tracks to sing, “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Good Night”. George was given the unprecedented number of four tracks in The White Album: “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Savoy Truffle” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

By the time the group got around to recording “Abbey Road” (1969), Harrison’s songwriting could no longer be overlooked, having written the classics “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”. Still, between 1968 and 1970, George had written so many songs that when the group broke up, Harrison was the first Beatle to release a solo album (not including his 1968 film soundtrack “Wonderwall”) on November 27, 1970. “All Things Must Pass” was a three record set with two of the records filled with original music and the third a compilation of informal jams, and was nominated by the Grammys for Album Of The Year.

Quarreling was beginning to be more commonplace after 1968. Paul, a demanding sort, was a perfectionist and knew exactly how he wanted his tracks to be recorded, much to George’s dismay, whose ideas for Paul’s tunes would usually be rejected (just one notable exception is the beautiful guitar in “And I Love Her”; totally George’s contribution). Even Ringo, who went along with everything, got fed up in 1968 and quit for two weeks, only to be begged back by the other three and adorning his drum kit with dozens of colorful flowers upon his return.

So Yoko Ono was not the reason for the break up of the Beatles. It may have not been helpful that John insisted on her company in the recording studio, a place where no one but the Beatles were ever allowed in, but it was not the sole contributing factor.

The temporary break up of the Quarrymen was due to totally different dynamics.

Before the beginning, when John, Paul and George still called themselves the Quarrymen, (the name was taken from a line of their school song at Quarry Bank High), the Beatles almost never came to be due to persistent lineup changes and drunken rows that at one point broke the Quarrymen up for seven months.

Between 1956 and 1959, the Quarrymen’s line-up would change considerably, making it very difficult for John to form a permanent band. Some of the band members never took playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band seriously, and others just weren’t very good musicians. Only Paul McCartney and George Harrison passed musical muster and shared the same desire to carve a rock ‘n’ roll career for themselves with John.

Difficulties were common. The Quarrymen had to alternate rehearsals at their respective parents’ homes, not always successfully. They liked playing at George’s house because his mom would serve them shots. Pete Shotton’s mom however wasn’t as forthcoming and ordered them to play in a cold corrugated air raid shelter in their backyard to hold in the noise. They also rehearsed at drummer Colin Hanton’s home as well as Eric Griffiths’. Griffiths’ father had died in WWII and his mother worked in the daytime, giving them plenty of time to rehearse without bothering anyone. But their best rehearsal location was at John’s mom’s house, Julia, the coolest mother of them all without a doubt, because she actually had a collection of rock ‘n’ roll songs like Shirley & Lee’s “Let The Good Times Roll” and Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula”. The Quarrymen would play the songs over and over until they had it down pat. As a result, the group was getting really good, especially John, Paul and George.

Another difficulty was obtaining the proper musical instruments. When the Quarrymen were still a skiffle group, they needed a tea chest bass, a standard instrument for the genre. Schoolmate Bill Smith had one so he was in, but he never really showed up to rehearsals, so he was out. One particular evening, John and Eric Griffiths couldn’t locate Smith for a gig they were booked in that night so they took it upon themselves to break into Smith’s parents’ garage to retrieve it. They handed the tea chest bass to another schoolmate, Len Garry, but he couldn’t always be available either, so they would call on yet another schoolmate, Ivan Vaughan, to play with them when Garry wasn’t available. A third friend, Nigel Walley also stood in at the tea chest bass but that was soon over when he forgot the bass at a bus station on his way home. It was just as well, because by then they were all deeply immersed into the amazing new sound of rock ‘n’ roll so they didn’t need a tea chest bass anyway. Walley then took it upon himself to be their manager, to some success. Most of the gigs were free, but hey, they had gigs.

One of the gigs Nigel Walley scored was a skiffle amateur contest organized by one Carroll Levis in which each competing band would be given three minutes to perform. The Quarrymen finished to thunderous applause, but it was a competing band, the Sunnyside Skiffle Group, that beat them with their onstage antics. John Lennon complained bitterly to Levis, stating that the contest had been rigged because the other group had brought “ringers” to cheer for them, so Levis gave them both another chance and this time used a “clap-o-meter”. The Quarrymen lost by a hair.

Walley also managed to get the Quarrymen a gig at the Cavern Club in 1957 as a skiffle group. He had met the father of the Cavern Club owner, Dr. Joseph Sytner at the Lee Park Golf Club where Walley was an apprentice golf professional. He managed to convince Sytner to get his son to book the Quarrymen. Sytner Sr. suggested they play at the golf club first so he could hear and see them for himself, and was duly impressed when the Quarrymen had a following, filling up the venue with around 100 supporters. The performance was such a success, despite the fact that band mate Rod Davis broke his zipper and had to play the banjo covering it, that they were able to raise up to 15 pounds in audience donations, much more than other groups were normally paid.

The Quarrymen were then booked at the Cavern for the first time. There was one little problem, however. John and his fellow band members were leaning more towards playing rock ‘n’ roll, but the Cavern was, back then, a jazz club. Still, they did allow skiffle music so they agreed to only play that. After their second song however, John started to play Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”. Soon, they received a hastily written note from Sytner as he waded through the packed crowd to hand it to John. It read “cut out the bloody rock and roll”. Nobody in 1957 could have guessed that John would return to the Cavern four years later as the Beatles to play “the bloody rock and roll” when their fan base had grown to such a point that they couldn’t be ignored.

Cracks in the Quarrymen lineup were already beginning to show as early as ’57 when John’s friend Pete Shotton told John he was no longer interested in playing with the group. John responded by taking the washboard Shotton used for percussion and smashing it over his head. After dusting him off, John proceeded to plead with Pete to stay on for a couple more performances. Their next gig would be the one where Pete brought Paul McCartney at St. Paul’s Church fete on July 6, 1957.

But in January 1959, it was down to just John, Paul, George and drummer Colin Hanton. Pete Shotton was tired of the rock ‘n’ roll life, telling John just before his washboard became his neck adornment, “I hate this, John, it’s not for me”. Eric Griffiths was forgotten about when George joined the band as lead guitarist, so Griffiths, insulted, quit and joined the Merchant Marines not long afterwards. Len Garry came down with tubercular meningitis, went to the hospital and never played with the group again. In the meantime, John and Paul began to write songs together and apart, inspired by Buddy Holly because he wrote his own music. Together, they wrote “One After 909” an early rocker the Beatles recorded as a demo in 1963 and was then re-recorded on January 20, 1969 when they played it live on the Apple rooftop where they were almost arrested for disturbing the peace. The song ultimately wound up on the Beatles’ final album release, “Let It Be” (1970).

The other two early Quarrymen songs were John and Paul’s “Like Dreamers Do”, which was recorded by the Applejacks in 1964, and John’s “Hello, Little Girl”. Their music was developing slowly but surely.

One thing that could be said, even early on in their careers, was that they were a bunch of clowns. That was part of the Beatles’ incredible charm. Besides writing songs that would endure for generations, they never took themselves seriously and were happy to make faces and joke around onstage, something most pop stars today simply don’t do.




By January of 1959, John Lennon had temporarily lost interest in playing music, still mourning the death of his mother Julia after being hit and killed by a car just six short months earlier. They did however manage to perform at two venues that month. They played on New Year’s Day 1959 at the Speke Bus Depot social club that had been organized by George Harrison’s father, then at a party at Woolton Village Club three weeks later. After those two performances, they had an opportunity to play at the Pavillion Theater in Lodge Lane, where the management was looking for a band to play thirty-minute sets between bingo games. The job was theirs for the taking, having played their first set quite well. But before the next set, John, Paul and Colin had a few beers (George was underage and not allowed to take part) and then switched to “Poor Man’s Black Velvets”, a mix of Guinness and cider, and got summarily drunk on their collective asses. Their second set, as a result, was a disaster, and having lost the opportunity for a steady gig, got into a great drunken row on their way home, with Paul telling Colin Hanton that he sucked at drumming, even sober. Pete Shotton had come to hear them play that night and had joined the four afterwards and had to pry Colin and Paul apart as fists began to fly. After that night, the Quarrymen had no drummer.

The Quarrymen found themselves without any more gigs after that. John and Paul however, continued writing songs together, but George Harrison went his own way and joined another group, the Les Stewart Quartet. It wasn’t until eight months later, on August 29, 1959, that the Quarrymen reunited. The Les Stewart Quartet had a gig playing at Mona Best’s Casbah Coffee Club but Stewart refused to play when guitarist Ken Brown missed rehearsals. George quickly called John and Paul to sub. As a result, the Quarrymen name was resurrected one last time and the group, John, Paul, George and Ken, played seven Saturdays in a row from August to October of that year, earning fifteen shillings a week. It was always a packed house, despite the fact that they had no drummer. Their gig at the Casbah ended badly when Brown arrived at one of the shows but couldn’t play because he had fallen ill. Mona Best insisted that Brown should still get paid for showing up, but John and Paul loudly voiced their objection, insisting that they should all receive Ken’s pay to be distributed among the three for playing anyway. That disagreement led to the group walking away from their first steady gig.

On October 18, 1959, John, Paul and George had another opportunity to play in one of Carroll Levis’ talent shows. This time, they decided to drop the Quarrymen name once and for all and called themselves Johnny and the Moondogs for that one performance. They passed the audition, but when they arrived to play again on November 15, 1959, the registration line seemed endless. Waiting for hours to play, not having a drummer, having only two guitars among the three of them and only just enough money to take the last bus to Liverpool at 9:47PM, they gave up and went home, but not before John saw a cutaway electric guitar by the stage door and pilfered it.

 

STUART SUTCLIFFE

“I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth…Stu would tell me if something was good and I’d believe him” -John Lennon

John enrolled in the Liverpool College of Art in 1957. Stuart Sutcliffe had enrolled the year before and they soon became good friends. John admired Stu’s artistic talent as a painter, and Stu admired John’s musical ability. Stu was an intuitive soul, able to see through John’s tough exterior, acting like a “teddy boy”. Teddy boys were the 1950’s version of today’s gangstas and John fit the part well, always wearing leather and developing a chip on his shoulder to hide his vulnerabilities. This fraudulent façade of John’s was made more impactful after the death of his mother.

“Paul and I got to know Stuart Sutcliffe through going into the art college. Stuart was a thin, arty guy with glasses and a little Van Gogh beard; a good painter. John really liked Stuart as an artist. Stuart obviously liked John because he played the guitar and was a big Ted. Stuart was cool. He was great looking and had a great vibe about him, and was a very friendly bloke. I liked Stuart a lot; he was always very gentle. John had a slight superiority complex at times, but Stuart didn’t discriminate against Paul and me because we weren’t from the art school. He started to come and watch us when we played at parties and he became a fan of ours. He actually got some parties for John, Paul and me to play at.” – George Harrison

Stu Sutcliffe was an aspiring, talented artist and in 1959, sold one of his first works, which in comparison to his other brilliant paintings, doesn’t do his art justice. “Summer Painting” was sold for £65 (£1135 in 2015, which translates to approximately $1750 today). It was a tidy sum, and Stu was planning to use it to invest in his artwork. But John, Paul and George were continuing to struggle in forming a permanent group, now nameless, and they needed a bass guitarist.

“What do you do with £65? We all reminded him over a coffee: ‘Funny you should have got that amount, Stuart – it is very near the cost of a Hofner bass.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t just spend all that.’ It was a fortune in those days, like an inheritance. He said he had to buy canvases or paint. We said, ‘Stu, see reason, love. A Hofner, a big ace group… fame!’ He gave in and bought this big Hofner bass that dwarfed him. The trouble was he couldn’t play well. This was a bit of a drawback, but it looked good, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. When he came into the band, around Christmas of 1959, we were a little jealous of him; it was something I didn’t deal with very well. We were always slightly jealous of John’s other friendships. He was the older fellow; it was just the way it was. When Stuart came in, it felt as if he was taking the position away from George and me. We had to take a bit of a back seat. Stuart was John’s age, went to art college, was a very good painter and had all the cred that we didn’t.” -Paul McCartney


Stuart Sutcliffe’s “Summer Painting” circa 1959

 

 

1959 CLASSICS

“A one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him.” – Bob Dylan accepting his induction as MusicCares Person of the Year on February 6, 2015

KANSAS CITY – JERRY LIEBER & MIKE STOLLER

One of the more popular and enduring songs of 1959 is Lieber & Stoller’s “Kansas City”, sung by Wilbert Harrison. Its laid back groove tells the story of a young man hitting the town to look for “crazy little women”. It was a laid back groove and instantly catchy, never mind that Lieber & Stoller had never really been to Kansas City. Its popularity was undeniable as it rocketed up the Billboard Pop chart to Number One in the Spring of 1959, selling over one million copies and receiving a gold disc.

“I’m going to Kansas City… Kansas City here I come (2x), they got some crazy little women there and I’m gonna get me one…” ”Kansas City” – Wilbert Harrison

“Kansas City” was originally written in 1952 and it was one of Lieber & Stoller’s first compositions, recorded that year by Little Willie Littlefield. Littlefield’s version is a bit more upbeat and showcases a sexy tenor sax. The lyrics are also a bit more risqué. Instead of singing “they got some crazy little women there and I’m gonna get me one”, he sings “they got a crazy way of lovin’ and I’m gonna get me some”. If they were trying to tame it by changing the lyrics, it wasn’t by much. After all, what else would a young man want to do with crazy little women?

Since its success with Harrison, there have been over three hundred cover versions of the song.

Little Richard recorded two versions of “Kansas City” in 1955. The first version, traditional to the original version of “Kansas City”, wasn’t released until 1970. Little Richard’s second version was released at around the same time as Wilbert Harrison’s and was the version that was recorded by the Beatles and released on their “Beatles For Sale” UK album and “The Beatles VI” US album, both in late 1964. Little Richard added the “hey hey hey hey” lyrics to the song and then got the idea to record a stand alone version of just that section in 1956, calling it “Hey Hey Hey Hey (Going Back To Birmingham)” so he can collect co-songwriting royalties off his “Kansas City” version.

Although Little Richard must be credited for adding a great groove to “Kansas City” and changing the lyrics around, The Beatles, led by Paul McCartney’s vocals, kicks serious ass.



Other versions of “Kansas City” were then subsequently recorded by James Brown, Bill Haley & His Comets, Peggy Lee, Dion, Jan & Dean, Fats Domino, Sammy Davis Jr., The Everly Brothers, Tom Jones and Muddy Waters to name a few.

The city of Kansas City adopted the song and made it their state song, so I suppose there really are “crazy little women” there. Although 12th Street and Vine no longer exists, a park was designed in the shape of a grand piano, and a path in the shape of a treble clef in the very location where 12th Street and Vine used to be.

Wilbert Harrison died of a stroke at a nursing home in 1994 at age 65. Jerry Lieber died on August 28, 2011 at age 78 from cardio-pulmonary failure. Mike Stoller is 82 years old in 2015.

 

I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU – THE FLAMINGOS

One of the most popular doo-wop groups of the Fifties was the Flamingos. The Flamingos were a family act. Formed in 1952 in Chicago, Illinois by brothers Jacob and Ezekial Carey, they recruited their two cousins, baritone Paul Wilson and first tenor Johnny Carter to join the group and soon added the only non-family member Earl Lewis. They seemed to have an obsession with naming their group for feathered friends because they had previously called themselves the Swallows, El Flamingos and the Five Flamingos until they finally settled on just the Flamingos.

After some personnel changes, Jake and Zeke Carrey (who returned to the group in 1958 after a brief stint in the military) were joined by Nate Nelson, Tommy Hunt, Terry Johnson and Paul Wilson.

The Flamingos scored their first hit, “I’ll Be Home” when they signed with Checker Records, the Chess Records subsidiary. A slow, uneventful song, it reached Number Five in the R&B Billboard chart in 1955. Pat Boone released it a year later and his version made it to Number Six in the Billboard Pop chart. Both versions are forgettable.

“I Only Have Eyes For You” is quite a different story. Written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin in 1934 for a movie called “Dames”. The Flamingos contemporized it, giving it the doo-wop spin with their “de-bop, sh-bop” chirping that makes it distinctively a Fifties pop hit. When listening to both versions, it’s pretty striking to hear the difference in style, which is why the Flamingos song endures to this day.


In 2001, The Flamingos were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Today in 2015, all the members of the Flamingos except for Tommy Hunt, are deceased.

 

TALLAHASSEE LASSIE – FREDDY CANNON

Rock ‘n’ roll in 1959 seemed to enjoy travel, since two Top Ten songs with city names were big hits that year. Besides “Kansas City”, “Tallahassee Lassie”, although quite simplistic, rocked itself up to Number Six on Billboard’s Top 100.

Its composer Frederic Anthony Picariello, born in Massachusetts and establishing a fan base in Boston, was a fan of rhythm & blues and an ardent admirer of both Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He formed a group and called themselves Freddy Karmon and the Hurricanes. Having formed his band, he took to songwriting, using lyrics his mother wrote to compose a song called “Rock and Roll Baby”. His manager, Boston disc jockey Jack McDermott, took the song to two producers he knew, Bob Crewe and Frank Slay. The duo liked the song, and offered to rearrange and produce it if they could re-write the lyrics and receive two-thirds of the songwriting credit. Recognizing an opportunity when he saw it, Piciarello took them up on the deal. The result was “Tallahassee Lassie”.

Dick Clark of American Bandstand saw potential in the song, even though it was rejected by every record company that heard it. Clark was part owner of Swan Records in Philadelphia and offered to distribute the song as long as they allowed him to make some important changes. He wanted the bass drum sound highlighted as well as Piciarello’s “whoo”, which were both buried in the original recording. They agreed and Clark suggested adding hand claps as well. Subsequently, right before its release, Swan Records President Bernie Binnick suggested that Piciarello change his stage name to Freddy Cannon. The result was a winner, and Dick Clark showcased it on his show.

“Well, she comes from Tallahassee, she got a hi-fi chassis, maybe looks a little sassy, but to me, she’s real classy, yeah, my Tallahassee Lassie down in F-L-A” “Tallahassee Lassie” – Freddy Cannon

Cannon released his next single with a title of another Florida town, “Okeefenokee”, but it didn’t even make it into the Top Forty, stalling at Number 43. He was only able to reach the Top Ten two more times, later in 1959 with “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” (again with the town titles) and then again in 1962 with “Palisades Park”. His song titles were sounding like travelogues. Both songs made it to Number Three in the Billboard Hot 100, and both songs were nothing to write home about.

Freddy Cannon, now 74 years old, continues to appear in concert venues throughout the country.

 

KOOKIE, LEND ME YOUR COMB – EDD BYRNES AND CONNIE STEVENS

“Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb”, despite being a Top Ten hit, is an annoying song. Its origin comes from the television show “77 Sunset Strip”, a major hit that lasted for six years, from 1958 to 1964.

Edward Byrne Breitenberger, known professionally as Edd Byrnes, plays the cool, hip private eye, inspired by James Dean’s attitude and the blueprint for the character of Henry Winkler’s Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli from the TV show “Happy Days” (1974-1984).

Kookie’s comb was his trademark, combing his hair at the beginning of every single episode so often that one was tempted to take the comb from his hand and break it to pieces. Henry Winkler’s Fonz would goof on that, as he would begin to comb his hair but never really did, reacting at his reflection in the mirror with his own trademark “aaayyy”, secure in the knowledge that he looked perfect already.

Byrne’s Kookie character also consistently spoke in “jive talk” indicative of the era, and pretty damn funny to hear today.

An interesting footnote is that in the pilot episode, Edd Byrnes plays Kookie as a serial killer, but after it was picked up as a weekly series on ABC, Byrnes received such acclaim from female teens everywhere, so principal Sunset Strip actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. narrated a disclaimer just before its premiere to explain away why Edd Byrnes’ character “Kookie” was still in the show.

“We previewed this show, and because Edd Byrnes was such a hit we decided that Kookie and his comb had to be in our series. So this week, we’ll just forget that in the pilot he went off to prison to be executed.” –Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Connie Stevens, borrowed from another detective series that had debuted in 1959, “Hawaiian Eye”, was tapped to sing on “Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” with Byrnes. The tune was obviously written to capitalize on the popularity of both “77 Sunset Strip” and “Hawaiian Eye”, as well as on the crush teenage fans had for Byrnes, as proved by the ear shattering screams heard ‘round the world when they both appeared on “American Bandstand”. The novelty song made it to Number Four on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1959. But it’s still an annoying song.

Connie Stevens enjoyed a busy career during the Sixties and Seventies, releasing records that made it to the Top Ten in 1960 and appearing on TV series such as “Maverick” with James Garner and sharing co-star credit with George Burns in the one season sitcom “Wendy and Me” (1964-1965). She played on Broadway in Neil Simon’s “The Star Spangled Girl” in 1966 and continued making television appearances during the Seventies in shows such as “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast”, “The Muppet Show” and a few Bob Hope specials.


After “77 Sunset Strip” got canceled in 1964, Edd Byrnes played minor roles in television programs until 1978, when he was cast as a horn dog Dick Clark type in “Grease” during a sequence that showcased a variation of Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive”(1958).

As of this writing in February 2015, both Byrnes and Stevens are alive and well.

 

SEA CRUISE – FRANKIE FORD/HUEY “PIANO” SMITH

Called the “New Orleans Dynamo”, Francis Guzzo aka Frankie Ford still tours 200 days a year, even at 75 years old in 2015, despite the fact that he only had one hit song, released in 1959, called “Sea Cruise”.

“Sea Cruise” was originally written and recorded by another New Orleans resident, Huey “Piano” Smith with Bobby Marchan doing vocals. But the record company decided to erase Marchan’s vocals and replace it with Ford’s, then adding some foghorns and bells as an intro.

Ford released only two more singles in 1960, both of which sank into obscurity.

Huey Smith’s piano playing style defined the New Orleans sound of the Fifties, headed by Fats Domino, one of Smith’s biggest influences. Smith began his career touring at age eighteen in the early Fifties with his friend Eddie Jones, otherwise known professionally as “Guitar Slim”. By 1953, Smith had signed to Savoy Records, recording his first single “You Made Me Cry”. Since that single wasn’t a success, he also worked as session musician and played piano for Little Richard and Lloyd Price.

He formed Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns in 1957 and enlisted Marchan to sing lead, achieving gold record status and selling over one million singles with his first hit, the classic “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” remade in 1972 by Johnny Rivers.


Smith’s biggest hit however, was neither “Sea Cruise” nor “Rockin’…”, but a funny song with an irresistibly catchy hook called “Don’t You Just Know It” released in 1958. It made it to Number Nine on the Billboard Pop chart and Number Four on the R&B chart, becoming their second million seller.

“I can’t lose with the stuff I use (Don’t you just know it) Baby, don’t believe I wear two left shoes (Don’t you just know it) Ah ha ha ha (Ah ha ha ha) Ey eh, oh (Ey eh, oh) Gooba, gooba, gooba, gooba (Gooba, gooba, gooba, gooba) Ah ha ha ha (Ah ha ha ha)…” “Don’t You Just Know It” – Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and his Clowns

After that song, Smith spent several years making comebacks in other names and guises. He’s 81 years old, today in 2015.

 

SEA OF LOVE – PHIL PHILLIPS

Philip Batiste from Louisiana, who changed his name to Phil Philips (no relation to Phillip Philllips who won on “American Idol” in 2012) when he embarked on his singing career, is one of those unfortunate musicians who never saw a dime of royalties for his song that has been remade many times. In fact, all he ever received for recording his composition and sole hit “Sea Of Love” was exactly $6800 in 1959, roughly $55,000 in 2015 dollars. An album he recorded to back the single was also never released.

“Because I decided to fight for what was rightfully and legally mine, a full album that I recorded was never released. I’m not being paid, nor have I ever been paid, as an artist for ‘Sea of Love’. I never received justice and to this day have not received justice.” –Phil Phillips

“Sea Of Love” made it to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and Number One on the R&B chart. It was a million seller and received a gold disc. The composition was resurrected in 1984 by Robert Plant when he formed a group after Led Zeppelin broke up called The Honeydrippers. This updated version made it to Number Three that year. Plant’s version eliminated the dated doo-wop background vocals and, along with a laid back guitar solo, added strings to give it a more lush, traditional feel. It worked marvelously.

An excellent suspense thriller called “Sea of Love” was released in 1989 with Al Pacino, John Goodman and Ellen Barkin. The film showcased Phillips’ original recording, as well as a darker interpretation of the song by Tom Waits and released in his 2006 collection, “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards”.

Phillips could have made millions off his own composition what with the amount of times the song has been re-recorded. Waits added his version on his album. Del Shannon recorded a version in 1981, the same year Iggy Pop also recorded it. Besides the movie “Sea Of Love”, it was also showcased in “Juno” (2007) performed by a group called “Cat Power”. It was even in an episode of “The Simpsons” called “Future-Drama” in 2005.

To date, Phil Phillips still hasn’t received any satisfaction for the monies owed him. His last performance of the song was in New Orleans in 2005, a few months before Katrina devastated the city. Despite it all, Phil Phillips is still alive and is 88 years young.

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by Robert Seoane

THE REAL FUTURE OF ROCK N ROLL: LEGENDARY BLUES ARTISTS SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON I AND II – HOWLIN’ WOLF – WILLIE DIXON AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON CLASSIC ROCK LEGENDS THE ROLLING STONES – ERIC CLAPTON – THE DOORS – LED ZEPPELIN – AEROSMITH AND MORE

 

CHANGING MUSICAL TASTES

Two compilation albums were released in 1959, one by Sonny Boy Williamson and the other by Howlin’ Wolf, that pointed the direction to the real future of rock ‘n’ roll. Every other artist that had a hit in the Billboard Top Forty that year, every Number One single and album, had nothing on them. Decades from now, these charted pop hits would be listened to as a nostalgic trip to another era, but these blues musicians who didn’t chart any pop hits, barely made any money on their success and were relegated to the shadows, deemed lesser men because of the color of their skin, have made music that has remained vital and as beautiful to listen to today in 2015 as they were all those years ago.

1959 was a year of contrasts between the music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow.

Most emerging artists of the late Fifties and early Sixties were in the impending danger of extinction by 1964, when the Beatles were to arrive in the US with a sound that blew away everything from its musical path. Slowly but surely, most of the Fifties pop and rock ‘n’ roll stars would be doomed to suffer a sudden and fiery decline into obscurity after that fateful day on February 9 when the “Fab Four” made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show to 70 million American viewers, at the time a historic record. The only few artists to survive the onslaught of new product from across the pond were older, established superstars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In fact, Martin knocked The Beatles’ seven-week debut chart topper “I Want To Hold Your Hand” off the Number One slot in the Spring of 1964 with his old-fashioned but still popular-among-the-parents hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Sinatra still managed to top the charts or enter the Top Ten during the mid-Sixties with releases such as “That’s Life” and “Strangers In The Night”. The only other unstoppable force was Motown, delivering an assortment of R&B artists into the Top Forty that paralleled in popularity and quality of the music of the British Invasion. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll was thriving in the Sixties for those who had their own sound. Anything that even remotely smacked of the previous decade was forgotten.

 

THE FUTURE OF ROCK & ROLL

In 1959, rock ‘n’ roll was mostly comprised of either doo-wop groups, who weren’t really singing rock ‘n’ roll, or pop stars who sang songs with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. All the real rock ‘n’ roll stars had been sidelined. With Elvis in the Army, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper dead, Jerry Lee Lewis’ recording career destroyed for marrying his thirteen year old cousin and Little Richard renouncing the rock ‘n’ roll life for the ministry, the only true rock ‘n’ rollers left were Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy. Everyone else in 1959, although some were immensely talented, was made into pop stars by an industry desperately searching for the new Elvis. Neil Sedaka was singing about having a different girl every calendar year and wishing his sixteen-year-old girlfriend a happy birthday. Frankie Avalon was singing to the planet Venus to grant him his girlfriend’s love. The Platters were reviving an old standard, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, and turning it into a huge hit by making it sound contemporary, and the biggest hit of 1959 wasn’t even a rock ‘n’ roll song. It was a song from a 1930s German play called “The Threepenny Opera” that had been re-hauled into a dynamic jazz number called “Mack The Knife”, its definitive version sung by another up and coming pop star, Bobby Darin. “MTK” spent the last two and a half months of the Fifties in the Number One position, twelve weeks in a row, a sure sign that the rock ‘n’ roll music that had combusted so spontaneously five years earlier was flaming out.

But blues music was a different story. The blues are always only about the blues, usually as a lament for something that was lost, whether it be a lover or a job. The lyrics were often repeated in pairs, and the lament was usually backed by amazing musicianship where each note sounded like it came from the essence of their soul. It wasn’t just the dexterity of the playing but the persistence of the beat that fueled these songs and brought the listener into its musical ride and, if properly appreciated, irresistibly persuaded you to groove along.

Looking back at 1959 now, it’s obvious that the path rock ‘n’ roll was taking was a bleached, tamped down version of its original firepower. All the teen pop idols that surfaced during this period may have had talent and some of their songs were indeed very good, but it wasn’t the future. While the record labels were grooming them, promoting them and serving them to the pubescent teen market as The Next Big Thing, the real future of rock ‘n’ roll remained under the radar. Blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley to name a handful, were playing and composing music that would greatly influence legendary rock groups and artists that include The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, The Police and Sting.

The following is a collection of these amazing blues musicians’ songs that the megastars of 20th Century rock played, loved and emulated.

Sonny Boy Williamson made a lasting impact on rock ‘n’ roll as well as on the rock giants who admired his music. But in actuality, there were two musicians who called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson. Not because they were related at all, but because the second SBW took it upon himself to take the name. Blues purists refer to them today as I and II.

 

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON I

John Lee Curtis Williamson, born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1914, was the original Sonny Boy. Christened the father of modern blues harp, Williamson was the first to use the harmonica as a lead instrument for the blues. In 1934 he settled in Chicago and as a result, pioneered Chicago blues. At age 23 in 1937, he recorded his first single for Bluebird Records, called “Good Morning, Schoolgirl”. With the simple accompaniment of a harmonica and guitar, the song became popular among the black community and established his reputation as a master harp player right from the start.

A Texas bluesman by the name of Smokey Hogg released his own version of “Good Morning Schoolgirl”, adding a piano to the tune. His version made it into Billboard’s R&B chart at Number Five. Other blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells with Buddy Guy recorded their own versions of the song. For the most part, each of those recordings used similar, sparse instrumentation, but no white artist had ever touched the song until the British Yardbirds with Eric Clapton released it as a single in the UK in 1964. The Yardbirds’ version is a well-produced, well-played version revved up to the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the day, with more than a passing resemblance to the style of the Beatles.

Once the Yardbirds released the single, then a flood of white artists began to record it over the ensuing decades, including Paul Butterfield, the Grateful Dead, Jonny Lang, Huey Lewis and the News, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ten Years After, The Derek Trucks Band, Johnny Winter, and The Allman Brothers Band. Like so many other blues compositions redone by these and other legendary artists, they turned the blues into dynamic rock music.

SBW I continued to cut records for the next ten years, all of them just as well received as the previous release. In 1947, “Shake The Boogie” made it into Billboard’s “Race” chart (that was the name they called music from African Americans before Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues) and reached Number Four.

Sometime in the early 1940s, another musician by the name of Alex “Rice” Miller out of Mississippi started to also call himself Sonny Boy Williamson. The original Williamson was aware of this but did nothing, perhaps because SBW II confined himself to playing in the Mississippi region and didn’t release any recordings during SBW I’s lifetime. SBW I did confront SBW II personally once but not much was settled.

“Big Sonny Boy [Miller] chased Little Sonny Boy [Williamson] away from there. He couldn’t play with Rice. Rice Miller could play Sonny Boy’s stuff better than he could play it!” –Robert Lockwood, guitarist who witnessed the confrontation

On June 1, 1948, SBW I had completed a performance at the Plantation Club and was walking home. A block and a half away from the club, he unwittingly found himself in the middle of a robbery and took a bullet that killed him. He was 37 years old.

 

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II

“Those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do”. – Sonny Boy Williamson II

Alex “Rice” Miller, nicknamed so because of his penchant for rice and milk as a child, was born in 1912, two years before John Williamson. Miller claimed to be born in 1899, perhaps as part of his conspiracy to own the original Sonny Boy’s name. His gravestone says he was born in 1908, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music at the University of Memphis, claimed to have found census records evidence claiming Miller to be eight years old in the year 1920.

Miller’s name change came about in 1941 when the sponsor of The King Biscuit radio show in which he performed regularly started to inexplicably refer to him as Sonny Boy Williamson.

His career began back in the 1930s when he toured and played in his home state of Mississippi and Arkansas. During his travels, he met and played with two other blues greats that would form the foundation of Mississippi blues as it’s known today, Elmore James and Robert Johnson. It was a tightly knit group; his sister was even married to Howlin’ Wolf. During those years, SBW II developed his onstage persona and entertained the audience with his banter and his abilities on the harmonica. Miller was indeed a master bluesman and incredibly talented, able to play harmonica by inserting it halfway into his mouth and not using his hands.

“Sonny Boy Williamson is the Jimi Hendrix of the Blues Harp.” John Mayall

“If you are gonna play a note, play the hell out of that goddamn note! You can take one note and upset a house. Play that damn note; don’t let the note play you.”- Sonny Boy Williamson II to Little Sonny in Detroit MI in 1955 (as reported in Living Blues Issue #207)

In 1941, SBW II started playing for “King Biscuit Time” a radio show out of Helena, Arkansas, where he garnered local fame for his performances. As his reputation grew and indeed became a superior musician over the original SBW I, Miller had no recording contract and continued to play locally. It wasn’t until SBW I’s murder in 1948 that Miller’s star began to ascend. He signed with Trumpet Records in 1951, calling himself “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson”. By 1953, he was part of Elmore James’ band, and after the label folded in 1955, Miller’s contract was taken by the label’s creditors and sold to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess. It was then that Miller began recording his own compositions. His records made it to the United Kingdom and ignited a blues craze. There, in contrast to his home country, he became a huge star and hero to many young, future musicians like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

SBW II’s first LP, “Down & Out Blues”, was released in 1959. Consisting of songs he had recorded during that decade, the record’s grooves contained the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and legendary songwriter Willie Dixon backed him up on many of these recordings.

In direct contrast to the happy, bright, white young faces adorning pop releases of the day, the “Down & Out Blues” album cover showed a black homeless man laying down on the street, conveying a gritty reality nowhere to be found in 1959 rock ‘n’ roll.

DON’T START ME TO TALKIN’ – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Don’t Start Me To Talkin” was the new Sonny Boy’s first single and his biggest hit, climbing up to Number Three in Billboard’s R&B chart after its September 1955 release. It’s a standard blues song, essentially a blueprint of how the blues should be played and sung, and a quality recording. Over the years it was re-recorded and played by Dion, the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, The Doobie Brothers and The New York Dolls to name a few. Each version by these artists shows a tremendous love and appreciation for the song, sung with an energy and exuberance that betrays the joy felt in all these musicians’ souls for the blues.


I DON’T KNOW – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

The second track on “Down & Out Blues” was originally released as the flip side of the “Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes” 45rpm record released on February 6, 1957. It’s another classic blues song filled with wit and carried on by a wicked beat. The lyrics also reaffirm Miller’s constant need to tell everyone he is Sonny Boy Williamson.

“At eleven forty-five the phone began to ring, I heard someone say Sonny Boy and I know that was my name, who call you? I don`t know, I don`t know, but I`m trying to get in touch my baby to find out why she disappoint me so.” – “I Don’t Know” – Sonny Boy Williamson

Every track of the album is a classic and more than worth a listen, with lyrics that had nothing to do with innocent love. Quite the contrary, each tune had a different way of conveying the jealousy and trials of falling in love and was filled with humorous and original perspectives that just couldn’t be found in 1959 mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.

FATTENIN’ FROGS FOR SNAKES – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

The song that opens Side Two is about a repentant man who uses the analogy of feeding amphibians to reptiles with the bad choices he made in his lifetime.

“Whoa man, nineteen and fifty-seven, I’ve got to correct all of my mistakes, I’m tellin’ my friends includin’ my wife and everybody else, not fattenin’ no more frogs for snakes” – Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes – Sonny Boy Williamson

YOUR FUNERAL AND MY TRIAL – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Your Funeral and My Trial”, recorded in March 1958, was a song about jealousy with lyrics that once again put a spin on the green-eyed monster by implying a violent end for his girlfriend if he continues her philandering ways.

Please come home to your daddy, and explain yourself to me, because I and you are man and wife, tryin’ to start a family, I’m beggin’ you baby, cut out that off the wall jive, If you can’t treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial.” – Your Funeral and My Trial – Sonny Boy Williamson


Sonny Boy Williamson didn’t just influence rock ‘n’ roll musically, he also inspired legendary artists with his lyrics as well. When John Lennon was with the Beatles, he wrote several songs that dealt with jealousy and veiled threats of violence in retribution for disloyalty much like Dixon’s “Your Funeral and My Trial” in theme. As the years progressed, Lennon’s lyrics also became more honest and even a little confessional.

“That boy took my love away, Oh, he’ll regret it someday, but this boy wants you back again.” – This Boy – The Beatles

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl or I won’t know where I am, you better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand little girl, catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” – Run For Your Life – The Beatles

“I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can…” Getting Better – The Beatles

The remaining songs on SBW II’s album, such as “Cross My Heart”, don’t let up in quality and feeling. In 2007, the album was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

SBW II continued releasing singles between 1960 and 1965, each of them classic blues songs that were aurally devoured by the future leaders of Sixties rock. Other notable songs include “Little Village”, a recording prefaced with hilariously obscene banter between Sonny Boy and his producer Leonard Chess.


EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Eyesight To The Blind” recorded by SBW II in 1951, was subsequently recorded by The Who and was the only song in their groundbreaking 1969 album “Tommy” that had been written by another artist.


In 1975, the Who released “Tommy” as a film where Eric Clapton was showcased as a preacher performing SBW II’s “Eyesight to the Blind” in a bizarre scene filmed in St. Andrews Church in Southsea, England, where paraplegics were being taken to touch a large statue of Marilyn Monroe in the hopes of being “saved”, while a crazed priest (Arthur Brown) baptizes everyone with pills and liquor. That’s rock ‘n’ roll for ya.

NINE BELOW ZERO – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

Yet another song with lyrics that put a humorous slant on being left by a woman, this time in the dead of winter, is “Nine Below Zero”. The title of the song was later taken to be used by the rock group of the same name.

“Yeah, ain’t that a pity people, ain’t that a cryin’ shame, ain’t that a pity, I declare it’s a cryin’ shame, she wait till it got nine below zero, and put me down for another man.” – Nine Below Zero – Sonny Boy Williamson

SBW II toured Europe in the early Sixties when the United Kingdom was still in the clutches of a blues craze and even recorded with the Yardbirds and the Animals. Recorded live at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey on December 8, 1963, SBW II and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar created a classic blues album.


That same month of December in 1963, Williamson recorded eleven live tracks with the Animals that were subsequently released over the years among various rock compilation albums. One of the highlights is their rendition of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe”.


Sonny Boy Williamson II’s penchant for lying and twisting the truth backfired on him when he returned to the States because none of his friends believed he went to Europe, although he had completely changed his wardrobe style due to British influence, opting for a suit complete with bowler hat and umbrella.

HELP ME – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Help Me”, released in 1963 and climbing up to Number 23 in the Billboard R&B chart, is the only song SBW II released that he didn’t write the music for, taking the melody from a rock ‘n’ roll song that had been released in 1960 called “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. Willie Dixon is also credited along with SBW II in the song.


CHECKIN’ UP ON MY BABY – SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON

“Checkin’ Up On My Baby” has been called “the most accomplished masterpiece of the postwar blues” and is a favorite of the Rolling Stones, having been performed more than once by Mick Jagger and a long list of others.


Upon SBW II’s return from Europe, he resumed playing on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show. On May 25, 1965, he was late for work, a very unusual occurrence for him. Fellow musician Peck Curtis had been waiting for his arrival along with his backup musicians and decided to go to his rooming house to see why he was delayed. He found him lifeless on his bed from a heart attack. Alex Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson was 53 years old.

 

HOWLIN’ WOLF

A compilation album was released in 1959 that contained a decade’s worth of blues recordings by an artist who essentially was one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll.

Chester Arthur Burnett, named after the 21st President of the United States Chester A. Arthur and better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf, nicknamed ‘Wolf’ as a child by his grandfather for his brusque behavior, was a blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player born in White Station, Mississippi in 1910.

This collection of a dozen songs that made up the contents of the compilation album “Moanin’At Midnight” and released in August of 1959, captured the essence of blues, and served as an aural barometer of how far the current rock ‘n’ roll sound had drifted from its roots. The rock ‘n’ roll songs of 1959 had the beat and used the proper instrumentation, but one by one, those popular artists of the time all sold out. As Madison Avenue exploited the genre and The Establishment was successfully taming and molding the beast called rock ‘n’ roll into an acceptable product that would be palatable and safe for the whole family, both institutions capitalized on the sound in the same cynical way. They packaged and sold it to a young, eager market after successfully cutting its balls off. The music’s soul and smoldering sexuality had been replaced by ditties with clever lyrics and a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

Chester Burnett had a rough childhood. His mother Gertrude, a street singer who sold gospel songs for a living, disowned him for playing “the devil’s music”. After his parents separated and his father moved away to the Mississippi Delta, little Chester lived with his uncle Will Young, a preacher and strict disciplinarian who was “the meanest man between here and Hell” according to a childhood friend of Burnett’s. Chester ultimately ran away from his mother and his maternal family when he was 13, and walked barefoot eighty-five miles according to him, until he got to his father’s home, who gladly took the young boy in.

Burnett grew up with a keen interest in blues music, especially after his father bought him his first guitar at age 18, and he became personally acquainted with the incredibly talented blues musicians that played in and around the Mississippi Delta where he lived. He met the first great blues star, Charley Patton at around that time. Patton was a major influence in his musical style, as was Sonny Boy Williamson II and other talented Mississippi bluesmen of that region. Patton taught Burnett how to play guitar. Burnett taught himself how to play the harmonica.

Throughout the Thirties, Burnett spent his time performing solo gigs as well as with a variety of Southern blues musicians. In 1941, he was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he resumed his blues career. In 1948, he formed a group called The House Rockers with pianist Bill Johnson, lead guitarist Willie Johnson, and drummer Willie Steele. Other musicians that would join the group were harmonica players James Cotton and Little Junior Parker as well as Ike Turner on piano. A local radio station in Memphis started to broadcast their live performances. At one point, Ike Turner brought Burnett to the attention of Sam Phillips, the man who would discover Elvis. Sam recorded Howlin’ Wolf at his Memphis Recording Service in 1951.

MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT – HOWLIN’ WOLF

Howlin’ Wolf’s very first recordings with Sam Phillips along with other blues classics are contained in the “Moanin’ In The Moonlight” compilation album. All of the songs in the compilation have an undeniable groove that essentially defined rock ‘n’ roll. Several of these compositions have gone on to be played by the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, the Yardbirds and Cream. It’s ironic that Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and many other American artists would not be properly recognized in their own country until British rock artists came all the way from across the Atlantic Ocean, to come here and play it for us.

MOANIN’ AT MIDNIGHT – HOWLIN’ WOLF

“Moanin’ At Midnight” opens with his humming and distinctive howling, backed by a plucky guitar and accompanied after a while with his harmonica, blowing out a chugging rhythm that proceeds to flow smoothly through the song. Howlin’ Wolf sings as though he’s being choked; his lower range was more of a growl and it ultimately became his trademark. Although “MAM” was recorded in 1951, it didn’t become an R&B national hit until 1957.

The opening cut from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moaning In The Moonlight” collection was the first song recorded by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service and distributed through Chess Records in 1951. Sam Phillips and the Chess Brothers, Phil, and Leonard, had a contractual agreement to work in conjunction with recording and distributing R&B music.

The B-side to the Chess Records release of “Moanin’…” was “How Many More Years” and the second track on the album. This song is one of a handful of tunes Howlin’ Wolf recorded that has been played many times by the aforementioned rock supergroups of the Sixties.

The next track on the collection was “Smokestack Lightnin’” a song Howlin’ Wolf wrote and has been playing since the early days of the 1930s. It’s one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most famous, having been a staple song during the live concerts of the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Wailers. The song has also been performed and/or recorded by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Soundgarden, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival among others.

“We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” – Chester ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett

“Ah-oh, smokestack lightnin’, shinin’, just like gold, why don’t ya hear me cryin’? A-whoo-hooo, oooo whooo… Whoa-oh, tell me, baby, what’s the matter with you? Why don’t ya hear me cryin’? Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo whooo…” Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf

The song was written and recorded in 1956 after Wolf moved to Chicago and signed exclusively to Chess Records.


The Yardbirds were known for being blues purists, and besides “Smokestack Lightnin'” they recorded many other blues compositions including Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'”(1951) with Jeff Beck on guitar and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man”(1955), where guitarist Jimmy Page uses a violin bow.



Side One of “Moanin’ At The Moonlight” closes with a great song called “All Night Boogie”. It’s a fast bluesy romp with more than a passing similarity to Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”(1954) that shows off the Wolf’s virtuosity on the mouth harp and pre-dated scores of honky-tonk rock ‘n’ roll songs of the Sixties and Seventies.


The other notable song in the album collection is “Evil”, written by Willie Dixon. Dixon played double-bass on this recording, produced in 1954. It’s a classic song for rock ‘n’ roll, singing about the dangers of evil lurking in “your happy home” when you’re not around and the little lady is all alone to fool around with another man. This was just the kind of topic the Establishment frowned upon, even though the song may have had a point. But if the blues and country music were the parents of rock ‘n’ roll, the blues was the genre’s mother, because it instilled in the music its ability to sing from the heart no matter how painful or embarrassing the topic may be.

“You make it to your house, knock on the front door, run ’round to the back; you’ll catch him just before he goes. That’s evil, evil is going on. I have warned you brother, you better watch your happy home.” “Evil” – Howlin’ Wolf


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by Robert Seoane
 
JULIA LENNON AND MARY McCARTNEY – BOBBY FREEMAN – JOHNNY OTIS – THE ELEGANTS – DOMENICO MODUGNO – FOLK MUSIC – LEAD BELLY – WOODY GUTHRIE – THE ALMANAC SINGERS – THE WEAVERS – THE KINGSTON TRIO

JULIA LENNON

The life of The Beatles has been blessed with incredible highs but also beset with life-altering tragedies. Like great stories in the lives of people known to millions, it seems that these tragedies were ultimately a destiny leading to a greater event. In the case of John Lennon, each soul shaking moment he endured hardened his personality and influenced his art. In the eyes of the public and ardent fans, it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy embedded with incredible beauty.

“Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia” Julia – The Beatles from The White Album (1968)

Julia was leaving her sister Mimi’s home on the evening of July 15, 1958. She was to cross the street to the bus stop and wait for the bus home, where her boyfriend and son John waited for her.

A friend of Julia’s son, Nigel Whatley, happened by as Julia exited her sister’s house.

“I went to call for John that evening but his Aunt Mimi told me he was out. Mimi was at the gate with John’s mum, who was about to leave. We stood chatting and John’s mum said ‘Well, you have the privilege of escorting me to the bus stop!’ I said ‘That will do me fine.” –Nigel Watley

******

Julia Stanley Lennon had John on October 9, 1940. John’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a very witty and charming man who knew how to play banjo, as did Julia. Alfred Lennon married Julia Stanley in 1938 but soon enlisted and left for adventure in World War II. While he was away, Julia found a lover, Taffy Williams, and became pregnant with his baby Ingrid in 1945. The baby was soon sent up for adoption to a Norwegian family who cared for her ever since. John had one other baby sister born in 1947, Julia Dykins, from Julia’s second husband, John “Bobby” Albert Dykins, although they weren’t legally married.

Julia and her sister Mary Elizabeth “Mimi” Smith were polar opposites. Where Julia was a candle in the wind, Mimi was a woman who had a distinct opinion on social etiquette.

“She had a very strong sense of what was right or wrong.” –Pete Shotton of The Quarrymen on John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi

Mimi married in 1938 to George Smith but they never had a child. When Julia became pregnant in 1940 to John, Mimi knew that her sister’s lifestyle wasn’t fit for raising a baby. In 1946, she contacted Liverpool’s Social Services to complain about the fact that she was living with yet another man and sharing her bed with him and her son John nightly. After some convincing, Julia agreed to hand over her only son to her sister Mimi so that he would grow up in a more stable home.

Living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George was indeed a good influence on young John. He was very close to his uncle up until his death in June 1953 at age 50 of a liver hemorrhage. It was 12 year old John’s first brush with loss, but far from his last.

John had been living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith on Menlove Avenue since he was six years old. The Smiths used to call their home “Mendips”, after a range of limestone hills located in Southwestern England. Yoko Ono purchased, restored and preserved John’s childhood home, then donated it to The National Trust, who has opened it to the public since 2003, restored it to its original look when John Lennon grew up there. Mendips would prove to be John’s refuge and Aunt Mimi was his stalwart, looking after him as he grew up and as he faced many difficult moments during his young life.

Alfred Lennon picked his five year old son up one day in 1945 from Aunt Mimi’s house to spend some time with him. His true intention was to take him away to New Zealand and raise him alone. Mother Julia got wind of this and tracked them down, confronting John’s father just hours after he’d taken him. She found them in a nearby pier, strolling. Little Johnny was holding his dad’s hand, happy as he can be. Julia confronted Alfred in front of the boy, and after much arguing and discussion, it was agreed to leave the decision of who Johnny should live with to the child, as if an innocent five year old can make a decision as important as that.

John’s father asked him if he’d rather go away and live with him or stay with his mother. Alfred Lennon must have conjured up images of fun and adventure, or maybe he just wanted to be with his daddy, because little John eagerly chose him. Leaving Julia crushed and feeling as though she had lost her son twice, first to her sister now to his father, she watched as John walked away holding hands with his dad.

But something made John turn his head to see his dear mother one last time. He must have felt the detachment or perhaps the image of her mother being left alone was too much, because in a moment, he let go of his father’s hand and went running to his mother, panicked at the sudden realization of loss. Reunited with her, Julia had no choice but to leave him back with his Aunt Mimi. It was an agonizing decision for the young woman but she also knew she was incapable of raising a child. Still, she visited him regularly.

John wrote “Mother” in 1970, a song about his abandonment by both his parents, and released it as a single. It was also the opening track off his first solo album “Plastic Ono Band” released months after the Beatles broke up. “Mother” is an achingly poignant composition, sung with real feeling and emotion. The song ends with the John repeatedly calling out for his parents, using Arthur Janov’s “primal scream” technique, where the person is encouraged to release his emotions through gut wrenching screams.


“Mother, you had me but I never had you, I wanted you but you didn’t want me. So I got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Father you left me but I never left you, I needed you but you didn’t need me, So I just got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Mama don’t go… Daddy come home…” Mother – John Lennon

One of the distinct songwriting differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was Lennon’s openness with writing lyrics reflecting his life. Many of the songs he wrote, “In My Life”, “Help”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Ballad Of John & Yoko” just to name a few, had to do with what was currently going on in his life or recollections from his past. Paul on the other hand, although still relating his lyrics to his own personal life, was more successful in disguising his feelings. McCartney penned songs like “Let It Be”, “I’m Looking Through You”, “Penny Lane”, “For No One” and so many others. They spoke of his past also but subtly, thereby making it less personal but more relatable to everybody else. Paul was not as confessional as his songwriting partner because he has the blood of a showman as well as an artist.

“The guitar’s alright, John. But you’ll never make a living out of it. -Aunt Mimi

Unlike Aunt Mimi, Julia was an ardent supporter of John’s burgeoning musical career. She was the one who had bought him his first guitar, a cheap Gallotone Champion acoustic “guaranteed not to split”. She was the one who dragged Aunt Mimi to St. John’s fete where her son was performing for the first time with his Quarrymen. Julia was thrilled but of course Mimi disapproved.

I was horrified to behold John in front of a microphone (and) as pleased as punch to see him up there.” -Aunt Mimi

Mimi didn’t like Paul McCartney upon meeting him because he came from a lower social class structure than they belonged to, and hated George Harrison because he dressed like a tough teddy boy.

“I was a nice clean-cut suburban boy, and in the class system I was about a half an inch in a higher class than Paul, George and Ringo who lived in subsidized government houses. We owned our own house, had our own garden… They didn’t have anything like that.” –John Lennon

During his early teenage years, Julia encouraged John to play music, teaching him the banjo and teaching him old Liverpudlian folk songs. He soaked it up like a sponge, thrilled to be growing closer to his mother now that he was no longer a child and being able to relate to her musically. One of the songs she taught him was later recorded on The Beatles final release “Let It Be” as a throw away ditty, yet still a sweet nod to his early years.

“Oh, dirty Maggie May, they have taken her away, and she doesn’t walk down Lime Street anymore, oh the judge he guilty found her, robbing the homes around her, that dirty no good, robbin’ Maggie May…” Maggie May – The Beatles, from Let It Be

******

John’s friend Nigel Watley often thought about how things would have been different if only he had walked Julia across the street to the bus stop. Maybe he would have noticed the oncoming car, grabbed her elbow and got her to slow down.

“We walked down Menlove Avenue and I turned off to go up Vale Road where I lived. I must have been fifteen yards up the road when I heard a car skidding. I turned around to see John’s mum going thru the air.” – Nigel Watley

She was killed instantly. The driver of the car that hit her was 24 year old Eric Clague, a police officer who was off duty and on his way home. He was not charged with excessive speeding, going within the thirty mile an hour speed limit, and he was not inebriated at the time. The conclusion was that 44 year old Julia Lennon, tragically, just didn’t see him.

“Mrs. Lennon just ran straight out in front of me. I just couldn’t avoid her. I was not speeding. I swear it. It was just one of those terrible things that happen.”- Eric Clague

Having been suddenly informed of a commotion by a neighbor, Mimi ran out of her home fearing and confirming the worst. She became hysterical.

“At about 9:45PM, the deceased left my home (in Menlove Avenue) and went in the direction of a bus stop on the opposite side by the Vineries. Shortly afterwards I was informed that she had been injured. I went to the scene. She was unconscious. I went with her to Sefton General Hospital. She was dead upon arrival.” – John Lennon’s aunt and Julia’s sister, Mimi Smith

The death certificate confirmed the cause of death was due to multiple head fractures.

A policeman knocked on Julia Lennon’s front door where her boyfriend and her son, John waited for her return from Mendips.

“It was just like it’s supposed to be, the way it is in the films. Asking if I was her son, and that. Then he told us, and we both went white.” – John Lennon to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies

The death of his mother in such a sudden, cruel manner despite having been an accident, affected John to his core. He became bitter, more rebellious. He concealed a seething anger and released it in spurts through dry, sharp, cutting wit.

“The day the Pope died, he did lots of drawings of him looking really awful. He did one of the Pope standing outside some big pillars outside Heaven, shaking the gates and trying to get in. Underneath it said, ‘But I’m the Pope, I tell you!’.” -Thelma Pickles, John Lennon’s college girlfriend.

Pope Pius XII died the same day as John Lennon’s 18th birthday, October 9th, just under three months after his mother had been killed. That cartoon is an interesting window into how his mind coped with the reminder of death, in this case, of the Christian world’s religious leader. The fact that the Pope died on John’s 18th birthday and on his first birthday without his mother, displays how he used humor to deal with pain. He submerged his feelings and used his developing cynicism to mock what is supposed to be holy in a flippant, comic fashion. It was the conduit for his pain and the essence of what made John a great artist, his ability to deal with reality in a truthful, yet wry manner.

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. We’d caught up so much, me and Julia, in just a few years. We could communicate. We got on. She was great. I thought… I’ve no responsibilities to anyone now.” – John Lennon

Like so many of us on this planet, John Lennon did not have a traditional upbringing and endured great heartache. Whether this informed his musical genius is a matter of speculation, but it’s a well-known and accepted truth that art is born from inner pain. The more an artist suffers they say, the greater his art.

His mother’s loss would be somewhat healed with a new, stabilizing female presence that would arrive into his life a few months later. Cynthia Powell, a pretty nineteen year old blonde and a year John’s senior, was to become Mrs. John Lennon four years later and bear John’s first son, Julian, named of course, after John’s dear mother.

“I lost her twice. Once as a five year old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again, when she actually, physically died. And that was a really hard time for me. It just absolutely made me very, very bitter. The underlying chip on my shoulder that I had as a youth got really big then. Being a teenager and a rock ‘n’ roller and an art student and my mother being killed, just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her… it was very traumatic for me.” –John Lennon, just a few days before his murder.

Julia Lennon’s accidental killer took on a job as a postal employee to supplement his police officer income and delivered mail for years throughout the same neighborhood where he had inadvertently hit Julia Lennon. In 1964, he remembered hearing about Beatlemania like the rest of the Western World, but coming to a sudden shock when he realized his tragic connection to the legend of the Beatles.

“Like everyone else I started reading in the papers about them and they were never off the TV. I read that John Lennon’s mother was dead and that he used to live on Menlove Avenue. I put two and two together and realized that it was his mum that I had killed. Everything came back to me and I felt absolutely terrible. It had the most awful effect on me. The Beatles were everywhere, especially in Liverpool, and I couldn’t get away from it.” -Eric Clague

His route as a postman delivered him daily to his painful penance.

“My postman’s round took in Forthlin Road, where Paul McCartney used to live. At the height of The Beatles’ fame, I used to deliver hundreds of cards and letters to the house. I remember struggling up the path with them . But of course they just reminded me of John Lennon and his mother.” – Eric Clague

John wrote three songs to his mother, “Julia” “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”. They are slow, introspective compositions filled with pain and sadness, made even that much sharper by the deep restraint in which he sang them, except for when he unleashes his emotion at the end of “Mother”.

“My Mummy’s Dead” is John, barely singing a desperately sad, morbidly painful memory of his mother in just a little under a minute, as the final cut of his first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band”. Sounding as if he were singing and playing a toy guitar from the womb, John uses the melody from the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” to repeat words he never could completely accept.

“My mummy’s dead. I can’t get it through my head. Though it’s been so many years, my mummy’s dead. I can’t explain, so much pain. I could never show it. My mummy’s dead.” My Mummy’s Dead – John Lennon

It’s ironic when you think that the loss of Julia to John Lennon has eerie similarities to the loss of John to the world. We also lost him twice. The first time, when he went into retirement to bring up his newborn son Sean in 1975 for five years, not writing or releasing any music or appearing for any interviews. We lost him then for good when he physically died five years later as he was coming out of his self-imposed retirement.

His son Julian underwent a similar childhood as his father’s. Julian also didn’t get to see much of him due to the fact that he was born at the beginning of The Beatles’ fame, so he also lost him twice; the first time to the popularity of The Beatles and then when he died. Julian was also enjoying a new relationship with him, much like his father had been developing with Julia before her untimely death. Most ironically. John was 17 when he lost his mother. Julian was 17 when John was murdered.

John Lennon was murdered at age 40 on December 8th, 1980 in New York City by a deranged killer, less than three months after he released “Double Fantasy”, his new comeback album. Millions of fans welcomed him back. As usual, his confessional lyrics explain his five year absence with a sweetness that parallels the loss of his life in one of his final masterpieces, “Watching The Wheels”.

“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go ‘round and ‘round, I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry go round… I just had to let it go…” Watching The Wheels – John Lennon

MARY McCARTNEY

Paul shared a similar pain with his friend and songwriting partner, having lost his own mother, Mary Patricia Mohin McCartney, on October 31, 1956, two years before the death of John’s mother. Mary McCartney was undergoing surgery for a fast spreading breast cancer when she succumbed. His catharsis from that tragic event and what helped him through his profound loss also helped his muse bloom. Paul McCartney wrote his very first song soon after his deep loss, and it was about the death of his mother. As was always McCartney’s style however, and unlike Lennon’s, he disguised the personal aspect of his composition by turning it into what was just a simple break-up love ditty.

“Well, gather ‘round people, let me tell you the story, the very first song I wrote, well, I woke up late this morning, my head was in the whirl, only when I realize, I lost my little girl, oh oh oh oh…” I Lost My Little Girl – Paul McCartney

That wasn’t the only time Paul wrote about his mother. But he would never be as obvious about it as John was so confessional. In one of Paul’s most personal and beautiful songs, he recalls his mother’s wisdom.

“When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” Let It Be – The Beatles

Paul’s lyrics again disguise his personal connection with the song by allowing the public to perceive the composition as spiritual, invoking the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, when singing “mother Mary”, instead of his own mother, which is what he really meant, thereby opening the song up to more acceptance and understanding to any listener by appealing to them spiritually. As McCartney explained it, the genesis of the song came from a dream he had about his mother.

“I had a dream where my mother, who had been dead at that point about 10 years, came to me in the dream and it was as if she could see I was troubled. And she sort of said to me, she said ‘Let it be’. And I remember quite clearly her saying ‘Let it be’ and ‘it’s going to be OK. Don’t worry.” You know… ‘Let it be’”… “It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing ‘Let It Be’”. – Paul McCartney

Paul and his brother Mike were brought up by their father James McCartney, until his own death in 1976 at age 73 of bronchial pneumonia. Jim McCartney was an educated, mild mannered fellow who worked in the cotton trade as well as played in ragtime and jazz bands in Liverpool. He raised the two brothers with kindness, love and dedication. Cynthia Powell Lennon recalls Paul’s father often answering the door with his sleeves rolled up, wearing an apron and holding a tea towel whenever she and John came to visit. Many times, Paul’s father would leave him food to eat at the Cavern Club where The Beatles played in the early days. A loving musical tribute to his dad was composed by Paul McCartney in 1982 with “Put It There”, a saying his father used to tell his sons when extending his hand in friendship.

“Put it there if it weighs a ton, that’s what a father says to his young son. I don’t care if it weighs a ton, as long as you and I are here, put it there.” –Put It There – Paul McCartney

BOBBY FREEMAN

Bobby Freeman is a two-hit wonder. He released singles from 1958 at only seventeen years old up until 1964, but only of them would make it to the Top Ten. His debut single “Do You Want To Dance” was his biggest hit and was showcased in George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti. It was a catchy, danceable song that made it to Number One in the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two in the R&B chart but it was a fluke, because Freeman struggled to enter the Top Forty, let alone barely making it into the Hot 100 until 1964.

“Do You Want To Dance” got a new lease on life when Bette Midler recorded it in 1973. Many other artists re-recorded the song, including Del Shannon, The Beach Boys. Johnny Rivers, the Mamas and the Papas, the Ramones and John Lennon, but it was Midler who slowed it down and turned into a smoky, bluesy, soul-stirring song as you’re dancing closely with an amorous friend at the end of a long night.

Freeman’s only other hit single was “C’mon and Swim” in 1964, a song based on the newest dance craze, The Swim, where the dancer moves their arms as if they were swimming and hold their nose, lowering themselves towards the floor while wiggling their hips.

Released in the midst of Beatlemania, it held its own because it’s a wild, crazy tune filled with trumpets, a wailing electric guitar and a nice, fast beat. It’s no wonder it was so energetic because the writer and producer of “C’mon & Swim” is none other than twenty year old Sylvester Stewart. Stewart would develop and further funk music during the late Sixties and influence the genre for decades after he changed his name to Sly Stone and formed his own group “Sly & The Family Stone”.

“C’mon & Swim” also made it to the Number Five position in the Billboard Pop chart, but his subsequent single release, “S-W-I-M”, only made it to number 56, then sank like a rock.”S-W-I-M” couldn’t float. Freeman didn’t release another album for ten years, but that one failed to chart. At the time of the writing of this blog in 2014, Bobby Freeman is 74 years old and living in his hometown of San Francisco, California.

JOHNNY OTIS

To call Johnny Otis a one hit wonder would be a gross injustice. The fact that “Willie & The Hand Jive” was his only Top Ten Billboard hit doesn’t account for his lack of talent, but more for his talent of being able to encompass so many achievements. Born Ioannis Alexandres Vellotes to Greek immigrants and growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, Otis was a singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, TV show host with his own program, artist, author, journalist and minister. He could essentially marry you, provide entertainment, then write about the affair and broadcast highlights on his show for you.

His first big impact in music legend happened in 1945 when he formed his own band with himself as bandleader and, although not written by him, had one of the most enduring hits of the Big Band era, Harlem Nocturne.

Two years later he opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California and hired, among others, the Robins, who would later go on to become one of the Fifties’ biggest groups, the Coasters.

Before the 1940s came to an end, Johnny Otis also discovered singer Little Esther Phillips, Mel Walker and tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. He began recording them together, releasing a stream of great blues songs. Each of them made it to Billboard’s Number One spot in the R&B chart in 1949, “Double Crossin’ Blues”, “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid Boogie”.



Two years later, he released “Mambo Boogie”, the very first R&B mambo ever recorded.

His amazing ability to spot talent continued when he discovered 13 year old Etta James at one of his talent shows and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Otis produced, played drums and co-wrote “Hound Dog” with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Thornton’s 1953 recording. Lieber & Stoller pulled a fast one on Otis when they changed their written and signed contractual agreement with him just before the duo gave “Hound Dog” for Elvis to sing. It became a monster hit and Otis sued but lost on the technicality that Lieber and Stoller were minors when they signed the original contract.

During that time, Johnny Otis was also artist and repertory man for King Records and continued to discover new, young talent that would one day all become members of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hall of Fame, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John.

During the Fifties, he played vibraphone, produced and wrote songs. Always a multi-tasker, he didn’t just have a radio show for KFOX out of Long Beach, but he also hosted is own weekly program “The Johnny Otis Show”. That not being enough, he started his own label and changed the name of his band to The Johnny Otis Show to remind everyone of his program.

“Willie & The Hand Jive” is a classic rock ‘n roll tune that borrows the Bo Diddley beat to sing about a new dance move, but many people thought it was an ode to jacking off. Otis insists the song is not about masturbation, although it doesn’t help the argument that the name of the “hand-jiver” happens to be “Willie”, and a few times even sounds like he’s singing “handjob” on the recording. Nevertheless, the hand jive is an actual dance move involving a complicated pattern of hand movements that include fist pounding together, thigh slapping, hand clapping, cross-wrist slapping and hitch-hiking… but no off jacking.

It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song that gets you jumping, but its beat is due to Bo Diddley. Otis was just smart enough to steal the beat and change the lyrics. Eric Clapton re-recorded his own laid-back version of “Willie & The Hand Jive” in 1974 on his album “461 Ocean Blvd”. Lacking the original recording’s urgency, it’s more of a laid back rendition that Clapton renders, and it’s also a fascinating study of how the Bo Diddley beat can sound slowed down.

George Thorogood recorded it as well in 1985. Thorogood’s version is closer to the original than Clapton’s, which may sound somewhat lackluster in comparison. The production quality of Thorogood’s version is better than the original simply due to it having been re-recorded thirty years later with advanced recording technology. So in this writer’s opinion, Thorogood’s take on “Willie & The Hand Jive” is the definitive version of the song. It’s rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Johnny Otis continued to work through the following decades touring, recording other artists and producing, even finding time for running for California State Assembly member, but losing, probably because he did’t run under his professional, well-known name. During the 1980s, he had a weekly three hour radio show on Los Angeles radio station KPFK where he played records and invited musical guests. He continued recording with his sons Shuggie and Nicky releasing new Johnny Otis albums. In 1987, he hosted his annual Red Beans & Rice R&B Music Festival in Los Angeles and would continue to do so until 2006, touring and playing over the US and Europe during that twenty year period.

His radio show moved to another L.A. radio station in the 1990s and would broadcast until his retirement in 2004, when his grandson Lucky took it over for two more years.

Johnny Otis died of natural causes on January 17, 2012, just three days before one of his first discoveries’ death, Etta James’. He lived a full, busy life until he was 90 years old.

THE ELEGANTS

Vito Picone, Arthur Venosa, Frank Tardogno, Carmen Romano and James Mochella were pals who grew up in Staten Island, New York together and sang doo wop under the boardwalk by their homes. They called their group the Elegants, and they became a classic example of one-hit wonders with “Little Star”, a doo wop tune inspired by the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It hit Number One in 1958 in both the Pop ad R&B chart, and dominated the radio most of that year. The Elegants toured with Buddy Holly, Dion & The Belmonts, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Afterwards, none of their subsequent single and album releases ever came close to the success of “Little Star”. Some say it was because the group refused to pay payola to a prominent New York disc jockey, who then inhibited airplay of their subsequent releases.

“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are, high above the clouds somewhere, send me down a love to share…” Little Star – The Elegants

A revised version of The Elegants still perform and tour as of 2012 with Vito Picone and James Mochella as original members.

“Little Star” is a classic example of doo wop music and lauded by many well-regarded people in the record business including Phil Spector who once called it an “awful good record”.

NEL BLU DI PINTO DI BLU (VOLARE) – DOMENICO MODUGNO

“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” is not a rock ‘n’ roll song by any stretch of the imagination, but honorable mention is deserving of this tune because, besides it being a great song, it also became a big hit in 1958 during the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and is now considered a classic after it was re-done more than thirty years later by the Gipsy Kings.

Sung entirely in Italian, Domenico Modugno co-wrote “Volare” with Franco Migliacci. It seems that Magliacci started to work on the lyrics while contemplating two Marc Chagall paintings. One was a rendering of an artist painting on a canvas, and done in predominantly blue shades (“Le Peintre et son Modele”). The other was a painting of a man in yellow suspended in mid-air (“Le Coq Rouge”-1952). After drinking a little too much wine, Migliacci fell asleep, only to wake up again after having had a surreal, wine-induced dream. Upon waking up, Migliacci wrote lyrics about a man who dreams of painting himself blue and being able to fly. The only thing missing was the title of the song. Legend has it that the word “Volare” (“I will fly”) entered the lyrics when Modugno, while working on the song with Migliacci, opened a window and a huge draft of wind entered the room.

Modugno and Migliacci titled the song “Nel Blu DiPinto Di Blu”, then added “Volare” in parentheses. Having only used translation websites, I’ve translated the title to mean “Blue Painted in Blue” If there’s anyone who knows Italian well enough to confirm this, I would appreciate hearing from you.

The song is sung entirely in Italian and Modugno, who sings it, begins his version with a surreal prelude explaining the dream Migliacci had.

TRANSLATION: “I think that a dream like that will never return, I painted my hands and my face blue, then was suddenly swept up by the wind and started to fly in the infinite sky” Nel Blue Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) – Domenico Modugno

Mondugno presented the song with Johnny Dorrelli in the 1958 Sanremo Music Festival. The song won the contest and became a worldwide success. It sold a staggering 22 million copies and received two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the only foreign song to have ever received this honor. It went on to place in third place at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest representing Italy. It was Number One non-consecutively in Billboard’s Pop chart for five weeks and was also Billboard’s Number One single of 1958, over any rock ‘n’ roll song released that year. In fact, it was to be the only non-American, Canadian or British song ever to make Billboard’s Top Single of the year until 1994 when Swedish group Ace of Base broke the record with “The Sign”. Today, it’s considered to be the most played Italian song in Italy as well as the whole world.

“Volare” has been translated into many languages and recorded by many different artists including Dean Martin, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Barry White and the Gipsy Kings. The Kings made it a late Eighties dance hit and they sang it with a mix of the original Italian lyrics as well as their distinctive Andalusian-tinged Spanish.

In 2005, the 50th Anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest was celebrated and a ranking of the most favorite songs from the contest was revealed. “Volare” was Number Two, behind ABBA’s “Waterloo”.

“I myself voted for “Volare” but I am pleased that so many people voted for us.” – Benny Anderson of ABBA when accepting the Eurovision award.

(more…)

by Robert Seoane

 


 
Within the first three weeks of 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower gets inaugurated, Humphrey Bogart dies, Beaver Cleaver is born and the Frisbee, introduced by Wham-O, is spotted flying through the air in back yards and parks all over the country. “Bridge Over The River Kwai” turns out to be the Best Picture Of 1957 and “West Side Story”, a new Broadway musical about the very youth that Rock ‘n’ Roll was profoundly influencing, opens in late September.

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll had snowballed into a juggernaut in just a year and a half since “Rock Around The Clock” exploded on white radio, and The Establishment was not happy. The line of generation demarcation had been drawn firmly on the sand by practically every teenager’s parent, it was these very same parents who also worked their respective jobs as Network TV censors, radio station managers, corporate executives, your average Joes, your poor working stiffs, even blue collar works and common laborers, all of them white; just plain old racists who banded together in ignorance and intolerance and didn’t want their children exposed to “nigra music…”, even if they were sung by a white boy.

So The Establishment got to work and began to stamp out this rock ‘n’ roll nonsense. Yes, Elvis was a good boy, and thank God he was also white, they reasoned. The Establishment however, in their military way of thinking, made stubborn by previous decades of world wars, felt that in order to stop a movement, you have to behead their leader.

So they set their sights on Elvis.

Six days into 1957, Elvis appeared for a final time on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The “benevolent” conspirators from the side of The Establishment during this crucial episode in Elvis’ life and career, as well as a crossroads in the further development of rock ‘n’ roll music, were Ed Sullivan and Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Legend has it that it was Parker who insisted on censoring his boy from the waist down on TV, for publicity’s sake. Regardless of who made the decision, the bone-headed absurdity of being afraid to show swiveling hips on television did nothing to stop the juggernaut that was called Elvis. It enhanced it instead, confirmed by the squeals and screams of millions of teenage girls around the world whenever Elvis snapped his fingers and looked down at his swiveling self. The still new television medium had focused their collective young lenses on a unique individual that millions all over the world related to, admired and desired. Everybody wanted to see his hips swivel, just to see what all the fuss was about.

Elvis sang four songs on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that evening; “Too Much”, “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again”, “Peace In The Valley” and “Don’t Be Cruel”, his most famous song to date and one that he had sung on all three Sullivan appearances.

“Too Much” was the current single at the time of the broadcast, having been released just two days before.

Despite the consistently tight waist-up shot, the world was still enthralled with Elvis. As usual, he would spontaneously break into a charming smile for no particular reason and chuckled at times, like an inside joke with his audience over the whole scene he saw himself in. Between songs, he thanked everybody for the best Christmas he ever had, noting that he received “282 teddy bears” from his fans. Then, after telling a lame joke, he stops, looks down at the floor for a few seconds and, without introduction, goes into his next song, with screams practically drowning him out after the word “blues”.

“Well-a when-a my blue-hoos turn to gold again….”

After the cacophonous screaming finally subsides at the end of the song, Sullivan politely scolds his audience, like the “youngsters” they were, and asks them to “rest their larynx” because Elvis was coming back. That was when the mechanism of Operation Stamp Out Rock ‘n’ Roll really and very subtly began.

It happened in three stages . The first stage was the choice of the song. It wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll song at all, although it was music that Elvis and millions of other dearly loved. Singing the gospel standard “Peace In The Valley” set the White Christian Public’s perception of Presley as a nice, God-fearing young man. So at the end of that song when Ed Sullivan comes out to shake Elvis’ hand, the second stage of Operation Taming The Pelvis began.

Sullivan puts his hand on Elvis’ shoulder, looks straight at the camera and proclaims… “that this is a real decent, fine boy…” As he continues to say “…and wherever you go…” he’s drowned out by pubescent cheering, which is a good thing because he had no follow up to it, causing Sullivan to speed it up and talk in his own idiom, that they’ve “…never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you…”, then further anointing him by declaring that Elvis was “thoroughly all right” and suddenly looking at the camera dramatically to say “So now, let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person.”
Ed Sullivan was an American institution during all the years he was on the air. For him to proclaim someone as a “decent, fine boy” was like giving him White America’s blessing. Despite the fact that Sullivan had declared Presley “unfit for public consumption” just a year before, he had finally told White America he was OK to like. Then, two days after his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the third stage of his conversion begins its slow walk to inevitability.

Only two days after the Sullivan appearance, Elvis receives a letter from the Army, giving him a 1-A rating based on the physical exam he had taken just four days earlier, indicating that he was fit for the Army and should expect a draft notice in the following eight months.

In retrospect, it seems clear now that this entire Army stint was thought up by Col. Parker to “clean Elvis up” to America’s parents. Parker could have easily arranged any type of agreement with the military to avoid Elvis getting drafted, with USO tours or a practically limitless variety of other support his popular image could lend to the United States Army that could be vastly influential to millions of impressionable teenagers. Instead, he convinced Elvis that being a buck private and paying his dues for two years would legitimize him with every American family and they will then accept him into their home with a new respect that he’s done his civic duty. Of course, this hawkish, old-fashioned notion of Col. Parker’s has been since proven wrong for years to come, since the very symbol of a rock star will further develop into a rebellious, anti-establishment draft dodger, and soon a war would begin that millions of young men and women around the country will protest, down to burning their draft card and refusing to enlist, and backed by a rock music soundtrack from the radio compelling them to do just that.

But I get ahead of myself.

Showing Elvis singing a gospel song and receiving Ed Sullivan’s blessing on national TV was nothing more than a show being put on for the world to see so that Elvis would become more palatable to mainstream society. Col. Parker assured a pissed off Elvis that going to the Army for two years will make him come out a bigger star than he’s ever been. The Army was offering Elvis cushy assignments, a private room and the opportunity to serve in a platoon filled with all his friends. I don’t know how many stayed his friends if it meant a stint in the Army back then, but Col. Parker convinced Elvis to refuse all special circumstances and enter the Army as a regular Private.

The Establishment figured this would be a valuable lesson to its children. They could now be able to show their sons and daughters that Even Elvis had to toe the line and do what he’s told. They saw a rebellious storm within this rock ‘n’ roll music and this was their first real intention to quash it. This, along with fateful circumstances that would soon happen to other rock stars and those associated with Rock ‘n’ Roll, like Alan Freed for example, did indeed cause rock ‘n’ roll to lay practically moribund by the early sixties, with barely a whimper of the genre being heard, drowned out by the sugary sweetened pop songs to come, with only faint echoes of rock n roll power struggling to survive but being smothered by the Powers That Be.

“Too Much”, a remake of an obscure song recorded in 1954, would be the first of four Number One singles Elvis would have in 1957. His second number one, “All Shook Up” was released towards the beginning of early Spring. Written by his frequent songwriter, Otis Blackwell, it was the final song Elvis would receive co-credit on, and Elvis claimed to having not written the song at all, only having come up with the name when he mentioned to Blackwell that he had woken up from a bad dream that morning all shook up.

At around the same time in March, Elvis purchases the now legendary Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He would live there for twenty years, the rest of his life. He lived there, played there and died there. As a result, Graceland has since become the sole architectural structure that is today a symbol of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s opulence, comedy and tragedy.

During the Springtime and between small tours, Elvis filmed his third movie “Jailhouse Rock”.

He had already completed his second film “Loving You” and was currently in post-production. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller once again stepped in to write a song for the soundtrack. Their rising star status as one of Elvis’ stable of songwriters and the amount of cash they were raking in however, made them lazy, so Music Publisher Jean Aberbach, responsible for Elvis’ new songs, had to block them from leaving their New York City hotel room by placing a sofa against their door and forcing them to stay in their room and write. L&S had been procrastinating for weeks and when they were brought to New York to deliver their songs, they had none. Aberbach had no choice but to barricade them in their room, because instead of getting to work adfter arriving in the Big Apple, they spent their days seeing the sights instead. As a result of their involuntary hotel imprisonment, they wrote six songs. One of them was “Jailhouse Rock”.

As the summer of 1957 loomed, the Elvis PR machine was, as usual, in high gear. They released his third single “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” on June 11. It was a song that would be featured in Elvis’ second film, which would soon also spawn and his third album, both titled “Loving You”.

(LET ME BE YOUR) TEDDY BEAR

“Teddy Bear”, with a melody reminiscent of a traditional blues song called “Boll Weevil” by Leadbelly, but sped up, is the epitome of Elvis’ unique voice and phrasing. Uttering the words in his uniquely sensual baritone drawl as if he was whispering an obscene suggestion in your ear, the phrasing throughout the song is only as Elvis could do it, with subtle undulating vocal hills and valleys in each line that leads you into a smooth, infectious rhythm.

“I don’t wanna be a tiger, ‘cuz tigers play too rough, I don’t wanna be a lion, ‘cuz lions ain’t the kind you… love enough… Yes. I wanna be…”

His delivery of the song, the way he sings it, makes it distinctively his own. Nobody before ever sang like that. Add his looks, his charm and personality and his ability to move his hips, and you got yourself one sex symbol and permanent rock n roll icon.

“Teddy Bear” became part of the typical teenager’s soundtrack for that summer in 1957, staying at Number One in the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for seven weeks, as well as hitting Number One nationally in the Rhythm & Blues as well as the Country charts, a feat that Elvis was making look easy.

The song was also featured in Elvis’ first film in which he had a leading role, “Loving You” released July 30 when “Teddy Bear” was still riding high in the charts. In his prior film, “Love Me Tender”, Elvis had played a supporting role, but soon Hollywood knew to place him in starring vehicles and make his subsequent film characters more like his own personality. For the next three films released before he was to go into the Army, Elvis played the same character, a rising young star who gets the ladies, gets in trouble and wins out in the end.

Unlike the phenomenal juggernaut that was to follow in the next decade with The Beatles, Elvis movies always featured him playing another character resembling his real self, whereas The Beatles always played The Beatles in all their movies.

 

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by Robert Seoane

BILL HALEY & THE COMETS – MUDDY WATERS – BO DIDDLEY – JIMMIE RODGERS – HANK WILLIAMS – RAY CHARLES – CHUCK BERRY – LITTLE RICHARD – FATS DOMINO – PAT BOONE

The year was 1955. Dwight David Eisenhower was the President of the United States. The most devastating war in modern civilization had ended a scant ten years before. The Korean “conflict” was behind us. Senator McCarthy had been recently exposed as a crazed lunatic. “I Love Lucy” was the number one show on that eight year old upstart called television; a medium threatening to disturb the way things operated in the Hollywood movie industry. “On The Waterfront” had won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954. Actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” were not only introducing a new acting method, but symbolizing youth’s rebellion.

It was the beginning of what would prove to be the most lucrative and hopeful era of the century. The middle class comprised a large percentage of society and its way of life was affordable. Most modern homes had a telephone, modern kitchen luxuries, a black and white TV set and a monaural record player. Stereophonic sound was just being introduced into a few select living rooms that could afford the triple price of a system versus a regular mono player, and the $18.99 price tag for a stereo record, in contrast to only $.99 for the mono version of the same record.

It was a different world in 1955 in contrast to today, particularly in complexion. White faces comprised the vast majority of the middle and upper classes, and dominated the look Madison Avenue advertised to the country. White people were the niche market, with darker color skins relegated to the sidelines and in the roles of servants and criminals. But that perception also began to turn the corner in 1955. The first rumblings of change truly began in White America when, despite mainstream society’s desperate attempt to prevent the winds of tolerance from blowing, the countdown to a new era had already begun.

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock, five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock, nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock, we’re gonna rock around the clock tonight…” -Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley and the Comets

“Rock Around The Clock” is arguably the first rock and roll song ever recorded. Written by Max Friedman and James E. Myers under the pseudonym “Jimmy De Knight” in 1952, it was given to William John Clifton “Bill” Haley to sing and record. Carried along with a steady drum beat and Haley’s crisp, melodic voice, and including one of the best rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos in rock ‘n’ roll history, “Rock Around The Clock” strongly persuaded everyone under 30 to jump on their feet and dance ‘til they dropped.

Bill Haley himself looked like the antithesis of what a rock ‘n’ roller should look like. He had a round, plump face, short hair with a curlicue hanging over his forehead, was 30 years old when the song took off, an age considered the line of demarcation between rockers and The Establishment, and was fat. Still, Bill Haley and his Comets had already been charting in the Country Top Songs list with similar hits, such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, which had also climbed to Number Seven in 1954 in the Billboard Pop chart. It wasn’t going to be the first song that would cross over on to the main charts; Top Pop, Top Country and Top R&B, an achievement that is rare today.

Haley didn’t get around to recording “RATC” until a full year after Friedman and Myers wrote it for him, so an Italian-American band named Sonny Dae and his Knights beat him to the punch and recorded it in March, 1954. Nothing happened. It seemed that destiny was waiting around for Bill Haley to record it, and so he did, just a month later. Once he released it, again nothing happened. The song that was about to launch an entire culture needed a little push.

It came in the form of a teen movie called “Blackboard Jungle”, starring a then famous actor by the name of Glenn Ford, and introducing a young black actor named Sidney Poitier. The movie dealt with juvenile delinquents in school and was a mediocre melodrama. The producers wanted to choose a song that would symbolize what youth was listening to at the time, so the opening credits showcased Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”. Soon after the release of the song, it shot up to the first position in the Pop charts in July of 1955, a feat repeated throughout the entire world, and stayed there for eight weeks. The seed had been planted, and the song would remain the music movement’s starting point through the decades, as its legitimacy was proven once again almost twenty years later when it played on the opening credits of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973) and re-entered the pop charts a year later.

Teenagers went wild over the song. They danced in the aisles of the movie theater each time “Blackboard Jungle” began. Their dances were comprised of wild, disorderly gyrations that seemed to have no sense or style, a far cry from the classy and graceful dance moves of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The song was played loud, an essential pre-requisite to enjoying rock ‘n’ roll music. Everyone over 30 was horrified at what sounded to them like primitive savage beats that belonged in the jungle. But they accepted it quietly because Bill Haley was a white country boy and fit the description of what White America would accept. It was a flash in the pan, everyone thought. The song would leave the charts and American ears will be made safe once again for Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. Black singers before the rock ‘n’ roll era were only accepted into the mainstream as long as they sounded white. Nat “King” Cole filled that vacuum nicely.

Bill Haley’s comet fizzled out rather quickly, just as White America thought he would. He released a few more singles that did not do as well as “Rock Around The Clock”. Soon, he was quickly forgotten in the US, although Europe still coveted and respected him well into the 60s, and as a result, Haley enjoyed a resurging career overseas. His faltering career however, took a toll on him and he began to drink heavily in the Seventies. On February 9, 1981, he died of a heart attack at age 55.

 

BEFORE 1955

THE BLUES

The term “feeling blue” is a phrase that’s in dispute as to its origins. The term supposedly began with the custom among many old deep water sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

Legend also has it that blues music began back in the days of slavery. West African slaves sang as they worked, mourning their state. One of the plants that grew in the many plantations they were forced to work on was called the Indigo plant. This plant also grew in their native Africa. There, the blue indigo dye that the plant produced was used in their West African wardrobe as part of their traditional death and mourning ceremonies, when everyone wore blue to mourn the parting of their loved one. The fact that the plant also grew in American plantations allowed these West African slaves to mourn and sing in this traditional garb in their new, forced-upon country. The type of singing the white landowners heard coming from their fields was quickly dubbed ‘the blues”. White America didn’t give it a second thought, but I suspect they quietly enjoyed the sound emanating from their fields.

As the 20th century dawned and America became industrialized, wired and packaged to be sold to a finicky public who demanded to be entertained and distracted from the woes of daily life, the blues found itself a home in the brand new music recording industry. The industry was already heady competition with sheet music, the standard of the 19th century when the only way to listen to music was to go see a performance or buy the sheet music and play it yourself. In 1908, the very first blues sheet music was white Italian-American Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues”.

Despite the fact that African American rhythms and melodies had a significant impact on the start of America’s music recording business, blacks were still not allowed to perform. Instead, white entertainers like Al Jolson painted their face black, as was the practice of black-face minstrelsy of the day, and came out to sing; lampooning, stealing, insulting and inadvertently honoring African-American talent at once, while at the same time giving a boost to the US music industry. In other words, White America got a tremendous boost in starting a future multi-million dollar industry, in part by pretending to be black people.


The first African American to record a blues song was Mamie Smith. The song “Crazy Blues” was written by fellow African-American Perry Bradford. Soon, White America began to accept black entertainers, culminating in the 1920s with Jazz musician Louis Armstrong, who leaned more towards jazz arrangements. In the meantime, the blues was becoming increasingly popular and soon gave way to boogie-woogie in the 1930s and 1940s. Usually featuring a piano, boogie-woogie comprised of a small combo, in contrast to Big Band blues, of which the Count Basie Orchestra remains one of the best of time.

In the 1950s, the Blues grew an arm that blossomed into an entire genre, simply by adding the word “rhythm”. Jerry Wexler, a music journalist and aspiring record producer, worked at Billboard Magazine at the time and coined the term “Rhythm & Blues”. Wexler went on to become a pioneering producer of many great artists into the 1980s, but not before he gave the blues a little respect. “Rhythm & Blues” replaced the label they used before, which was “race” records, and soon after received its own singles chart on Billboard magazine. It was as if the stars were aligning to give birth to the primary force of music that would catapult the industry in the latter part of the 20th century.

Rock ‘n’ roll is essentially the blend of country & western music with rhythm & blues. Traces of rock ‘n’ roll that still reverberate today are rooted directly from the work of legendary blues artists who blossomed in the late 1940s and 1950s. Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson are just a handful of artists who profoundly influenced the styles of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and their Sixties peers. Three songs by Muddy Waters in particular, pointed the direction to the future and ultimately became inextricably a part of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

A copy of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” was laying on the floor the day Brian Jones was speaking on the phone with a club manager interested in booking the still struggling group. When he was asked what the name of the band was, Brian glanced over to the record.

“Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working” along with the inspiration to the name of one of Rock’s greatest groups, were the fertile soil that rock ‘n’ roll blossomed in. This one was written by Willie Dixon, a prolific songwriter who wrote over 500 songs, many of them blues classics and favorites of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin among many more.

Subsequent legendary rock artists like Eric Clapton played the song, copying Waters’ exact enunciation of the lyrics, down to the way he sang the word “womens”.

Other great blues artists besides Muddy Waters, like Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Big Joe Turner, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Little Willie John, Buddy Guy, Albert King, were such influential blues musicians that they have been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

 

BO DIDDLEY

Honorable mention should be given to Elias Otha Bates, otherwise known as Bo Diddley, whose single of the same name was released in March of 1955 and charted in the R&B charts, making it the first rhythm & blues song to mix rock ‘n’ roll with African rhythms, led by a series of waves of tremolo guitar that was so innovative for its time, it got to be known as the “Bo Diddley Beat”. His influence pervaded most of the upcoming rock ‘n’ roll legends of the next ten years, from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Parliament Funkadelic, The Velvet Underground, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles, among others.

“Bo Diddley’s b-side was another classic called “I’m A Man” which was inspired by Muddy Waters 1954 recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Having heard the song, Waters then recorded an answer song called “Mannish Boy”.


Diddley recalls having difficulty recording the song due to the timing of spelling out “M…A…N”. The two-sided hit made it to Number One in the R&B chart.

Many versions of “I’m A Man” was recorded over the years, but the most well known of them all was by the Yardbirds. They had recorded it live in 1964 when Eric Clapton was the band’s lead guitarist. The group then went into the studio to record it for single release the following year, but this time with Jeff Beck on lead guitar. The Yardbirds’ version picks up the pace from the original, speeding up as it churns along, and includes Beck’s “scratch picking” during the instrumental break.

Slavery, therefore and ironically enough, had become a vitally instrumental contribution to the varied culture of America’s music and entertainment. If White America had not pillaged and kidnapped so many unfortunate souls from Africa, we would probably not have rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today.

 

COUNTRY & WESTERN

Country and Western music was also encumbered with its own stereotypes as it grew in popularity. Like the blues’ “race” records moniker, C&W music was called “Hillbilly” music up until the 1940s, when it was re-labeled “country”. C&W music originated from the southeastern and western part of the US and first became evident in the 1920s. It too, borrowed inspiration from the blues and re-twanged it into its own signature style. If you were to trace the origins of C&W, you would go back as much as 300 years to the Irish, who brought their fiddle to the New World. That and the banjo, originally from West-Africa, among a handful of other instruments (drums weren’t introduced into country music until the 1930s), formed the foundation for country music. The reason for this influence is simply because blacks and whites would get together back in those days to play their particular instruments; the Irish with their fiddle, the blacks with their banjos. Music , once again, manages to cross ethnic boundaries.

Atlanta was the first location to produce recorded country music in the 1920’s and one of the first country songs ever recorded is “Turkey In The Straw” by two fiddlers named Henry Gilliland and A.C. Robertson in 1922. Throughout that decade, Jimmie Rodgers pointed the direction to the future as he mixed country with jazz, blues and gospel and other genres such as folk and pop.

As the decades unfolded, country music became extremely popular thanks to movie westerns showcasing cowboy songs with movie star heroes like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Soon, women joined the country music fray as Rogers sang with his wife, Dale Evans.

Meanwhile, other female country singers began to debut. The blues continued to influence country music through one of its branches; boogie woogie was a profound influence to several country artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford. It’s offspring was christened “country boogie”. In the meantime, blues and different forms of country music continued to collide like atomic experiments. Honky tonk, a mix of western swing and Mexican rancheras, originated from Oklahoma and Texas, and was similar in its birth to the blues in that it also came from the voices of the poor. Honky tonk got into a mixed marriage in 1937 when Al Dexter released “Honky Tonk Blues”.

But the biggest influence borne from honky tonk was Hank Williams.

Hank Williams’ influence can be heard in the songs of early rock ‘n’ roll artists such as the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and in the songs of future rock icons like Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and many, many others, including the one man who firmly cemented rock ‘n’ roll into American society, Elvis Presley. When country music became so evident in some of Elvis’ songs, along with Lewis, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly to name some, the name “rockabilly” was invented to label this mix of rock ‘n’ roll with country.

So there you have it. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a collision of musical cultures that were flirting with each other for decades before it finally came into full bloom. Since 1955, rock ‘n’ roll remained one of the most popular forms of music for the remainder of the 20th century. It’s declined somewhat in the beginning of the 21st century and has been mostly replaced by hip-hop and dance pop songs in the charts. Today, the most popular forms of music on the radio are country and religious. Rhythm & Blues also remains a potent force, and although there are still strong rock artists today successfully recording and releasing popular albums, the real dollars and cents in the rock industry today is in touring.

My intention in writing this down is to bring out the knowledge I’ve collected about the rock ‘n’ roll era from 1955 to 1999. Being not only a music lover but an avid follower and student of rock ‘n’ roll history, I feel I should write the events that I not only know, but have also lived through, for anyone who cares to reminisce or is eager to learn.

 

THE PIONEERS OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

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