Friday, May 29, 2009

Remembering Two Who Got Away: Joe Clay and Andy Starr

In the mid to late 1950's, fame and recognition on a national scale for aspiring rockabilly musicians seemed to be within reach. However, in the vast majority of cases, the breakthrough record or performance remained elusive. Obviously, there was an upper echelon of recording artist who were garnering most of the exposure: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Unfortunately, there were some very talented musicians who recorded some of the finest rockabilly of all and who also seemed to be on the cusp of something much larger until mitigating factors relegated them to almost complete obscurity for several decades. This post will deal with two such rockabilly musicians: Joe Clay and Andy Starr. In each case, careers in rockabilly that started out auspiciously never transcended their regional following and were eventually consigned to obscurity until interest in Great Britain helped to resurrect their careers.

Joe Clay was born Joe Cheramie in Harvey, Louisiana and was a musician since the age of 12. He appeared poised to breakthrough when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, ready to rip it up with his scorching cover of the Rudy Grayzell tune "Duck Tail," only to have Sullivan reign him in and require him to perform the much more serene cover of The Platters' "Only You." Missing his breakthrough moment, Joe began to slide into obscurity in spite of his excellent RCA recordings. Like so many rockabilly musicians, recognition was confined to regional interest.

Joe's RCA recordings from 1956 to 1958 are simply extraordinary. His "Sixteen Chicks" has to rate as one of the purest, uninhibited, quintessential rockabilly songs from the 1950's. I would say the same about the incredible recording "Goodbye, Goodbye". Both are well produced and highlight Joe's vocals and the very hot lead by the legendary rockabilly guitarist Hal Harris. Both of these are the real thing and have to rate as some of the finest rockabilly ever recorded. Clay's catchy vocals and spontaneous, boppin' style with a hard edge have led to claims that he is the principal forerunner to psychobilly and even punk rock. His 1956 recording of "Get on the Right Track," recorded in New York with a black session band is often cited owning to its wild and frenetic energy. After failing to generate national following and being constrained by a manager who wanted to keep him in New Orleans, Joe keeps his music interests alive but ends up earning a living driving a school-bus until he is resurrected in the mid 1980's by Willie Jeffries, a London businessman. Tours to a more appreciative Europe followed.

Andy Starr was born in the rockabilly rich state of Arkansas in the small town of Combs in the Boston Mountains. While serving in Korea, Andy put together a combo he named The Arkansas Plowboys and kept the group together upon his return. He eventually moved to Texas and and began to absorb the new "Cat Music" beginning to take shape in early 1955. Finally, Andy was afforded an opportunity to appear with Elvis in Gainesville, Texas at an open air concert that went well enough for Andy that he parlayed it into a record deal with MGM. Over the course of the next year,(1956) Starr produced eight very high quality rockabilly cuts that showcase his songwriting talent and vocals, which were often compared to Elvis. While "Round and Round" is a rocker whose laments the allure of the casino while "She's a Jesse" addresses the recurring "perfectly compatible female" theme so often heard in rockabilly. Andy's signature piece, "Rockin Rollin Stone" is pure rockabilly that works on the common blues metaphor to address wanderlust, with fine guitar work provided by Larry Adair. Andy's later recording from the early 1960's, "Evil Eye", is well arranged in an R&B format with a brass section. All in all all are top notch rockabilly that never acquired the national following that MGM had hoped for, leading to Andy's slide into musical obscurity. He remained active in music, recording his last record in Nashville in 2002, one year prior to his death.

Both Andy Starr and Joe Clay have been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Majestic King: The Short Career of King Curtis

King Curtis, aka Curtis Ousley, whose career was cut short by tragedy, possessed a remarkable fluency in all the styles he worked in. Whether it was straight ahead jazz, R&B, blues, rock n' roll or soul, the King always delivered with a huge tone and some of the dirtiest, low down tenor and alto blowing ever recorded. Deeply rooted in jazz and the R&b style of the 1950's, the King took his lessons seriously as he studied masters like Arnette Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Earl Bostic. His career begins with his association with Lionel Hampton and ends tragically as a major recording artist with his "Kingpins" for Atlantic Records in 1971 at the age of 37. Curtis was a victim of random violence, stabbed to death by a drug addict.

For my tastes, the King's finest work is found in his early R&B recordings from the 1950's. An excellent example of the tough sound of the King can be heard on the bluesy 1959 recording "Just Smoochin". In a pure R&B framework is the classic, "Castle Rock" from the same time period, which showcase the King's versatility. The last minute is classic King Curtis. The early 1960's recording "Sister Sadie" is a perfect example of the King's fluency in a shuffle based structure. From the same sessions, "Night Train", played on the alto, is also pure, straight-ahead R&B with some fantastic playing while the King's cover of the classic "Harlem Nocturne" demonstrates his proficiency in handling jazzier ballads.

Curtis moved along with the shifting musical currents of the 1960's, recording soul based records, heard in his accompaniment to The Shirelles 1962 recording "Ooh Poo Pah Doo." Throughout the 1960's Curtis went on to record and perform in accordance with the move toward soul yet his style never abandoned its deep roots in 1950's R&B. In 1965, Curtis worked briefly with Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers, and several years later invited Eric Clapton to sit in on his 1970 LP "Teasin."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Contemporary Roots Music: Some Favorites

Since "American Roots Music" got up and running several months ago the focus has been primarily about the history of roots music prior to 1960. So much so that some may have wondered if I ever devote any time to contemporary musicians whose styles are derivative of original roots music. In fact I do spend time trying to keep up with the explosion of popularity roots music has experienced in the last fifteen years. And from what I can see, musical groups that deal in the music we appreciate continue to proliferate: western swing groups are coming on very strong, surf groups are hot, rockabilly's "third wave" has literally exploded on an international scale, blues and R&B groups continue to flourish as do jazz ensembles. Below I will outline just a few of my favorites in the different genres, but I also applaud all the dedicated musicians who continue to keep the traditions alive and well.

Western Swing: Initially, back in the early 1970's groups like Commander Cody and Asleep at the Wheel revived the music of Bob Wills, Hank Williams and many others. Today, the success of Wayne Hancock in the genre seems to have encouraged other groups to follow suit, particularly in western Australia, where allegiance to the genre runs very strong. Perth seems to be the center of activity, check out the swing of High Rollin' Rhythm Kings, whose style nods everyone from Hank Williams to Sid King and Lew Williams. Another Perth group, The Tornado Alleycats also pay tribute to Texas music traditions of the 1940's and 50's by merging western swing and rockabilly.

Rhythm and Blues: Drawing on the powerful vocal blues of Ann Cole, Big Maybelle and Ruth Brown, Little Rachel and her R&B out of Kansas City, Missouri offer tight and high charged arrangements of R&B material. "Bull Ridin Mama" is particularly good. Also, give a listen to Johnny Carlevale's jump blues ensemble, whose interesting mix of 1940's and 50's R&B rocks.

Rockabilly: The sheer number of groups from more than 20 countries makes it difficult to choose my favorites. I do think The Mezcal Brothers from Lincoln, Nebraska have a very tight sound that stays quite true to the 1950's. Gerardo Meza is an outstanding vocalist in the rockabilly style and the guitar is right there. Also, I really enjoy a group from Ontario, The Royal Crowns , their overall sound and captivating lyrics. Miss Lauren Marie from Austin Texas nods to a variety of roots material and is a great vocalist. Love her cover of "Three Little Words." From Sonoma county in California comes 1/4 Mile Combo, a R&B -rockabilly group I would love to see live. One last favorite: Crazy Joe and his Mad River Outlaws. Just love their retro sound.

Guitar Players: Duke Levine is an extraordinary player who moves around fluently in all the roots styles, from elaborate country arrangements to jazzy shuffles. His interpretation of Caravan on myspace is unbelievable. Also check Duke out live here on one called "Mansquito." Another consummate roots guitarist anchored in R&B, shuffles and blues is Duke Robillard, check him out here. Really nice playing. In a country blues vein, the sublime, haunting guitar work of Kelly Jo Phelps is moving. Check him out live here. Also check out the incredible Gareth Pearson's melange of root based compositions, or see this young whiz from Wales perform live here. Incredible young player. From the old Country Cooking days, Russ Barenberg is still alive and doing very well.

Jazz: Two jazz guitarists I really enjoy: the eclectic style of Bob Patterson and Adam Smale from Michigan. Finally, in my opinion, the most talented jazz/country guitarist alive today: the incredible Scotty Anderson. Listen to him here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Roots and the Radio: Dewey Phillips in Memphis

About three weeks ago I posted on the move toward integration of black and white performers in the field of music during the 1950's. One facet of this convergence that wasn't discussed was the role of radio in creating the growing audiences who were listening and learning to appreciate the creative efforts of R&B and country musicians alike. Integration of radio formats was catching on in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the post war U.S., and it was in the South that this movement was most pronounced.

As mentioned previously, Sam Phillips worked as a disc jockey in Muscle Shoals before moving to Memphis. By 1950, Memphis had it's own DJ named Dewey Phillips who was actively integrating the airways on his nightly on his show "Red Hot and Blue" on WHBQ a.m. radio. Phillips is primarily known for playing "That's All Right Mama" and for the subsequent interview of Elvis in 1954 that divulged his "white identity." Yet his role as a DJ who showcased musicians black and white was instrumental in integrating musical tastes and promoting wider acceptance of black musicians, allowing in turn rockabilly and rock n' roll to emerge as national trends. By 1954, Dewey's shows were hugely popular throughout the mid South among white and black audiences alike.

On any given night in 1952, a Dewey Phillips play-list may have looked something like this:

Louis Jordan: "Blue Light Boogie" or "Let the Good Times Roll"

Muddy Waters: "Rollin Stone"

Hank Williams: "Hey Good Lookin"

Hank Snow: "I'm Movin' On

Wynonie Harris "Good Rockin Tonight"

Elmore James: "Dust My Broom"

The Soul Stirrers "Jesus Gave Me Water" - with Sam Cooke

Larry Darnell: "What More Do You Want"

Hank Thompson: "The Wild Side of Life"

Jackie Brenston "Rocket 88"

Although the eclectic range of material here is but a guess as to the formatting choices made by Phillips, from what I have read it is a pretty accurate reflection of what he was up to. What is fascinating is that playing songs like this back to back seemed to broaden the musical tastes and affinities of all listeners as well as stimulate the incorporation of different styles within song, a fundamental part of early rock n' roll and rockabilly. In many ways, Dewey Phillips being fired by WHBQ in 1958 for refusing to go along with the station's new "top 40" format is indicative of the move toward a more standardized, corporate control of popular music which is largely complete by the the end of the decade.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Top Guitarists of the 1950's: Five Categories

By the early 1950's as smaller combos became more popular the guitar had assumed prominence as the lead instrument of choice among rockabilly and rock n' roll groups. With the advent of amplification that became widespread in the 1940's, the guitar also assumed a featured roll in blues and country combos, and an increase in the number of jazz guitarists was also seen. In this post I will list my top choices for guitarists in five distinct categories: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly and the emerging new genre, "rock and roll." Obviously, since these selections are subjective they are open to discussion and criticism. That said, many would be hard to argue with.

JAZZ: I didn't include two incredible players, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell because much of their work appears after 1960. Also, George Barnes would have been in the running if he had not assumed a more pop direction in the 1950's.

Les Paul: Even though Les had moved into more pop oriented material by the 1950's with Mary Ford, he can still lay down some viscious chops , seen here on "How High the Moon" from 1953.

Tiny Grimes: Grimes could swing with the best of them. Check out his nifty solo on "One is Never to Old to Swing" from 1945. Also, reputedly he soloed on "Gee," (1953) by the rock pioneers The Crows, a song considered to be one of the first rock n' roll recordings, heard here.

Oscar Moore: Playing for Nat King Cole must have been a supreme privilege. Listen to Oscar smoke here on "Little Girl."

Charlie Byrd: Byrd's incursions into Samba and Flamenco make him a distinct voice among jazz guitarists from the 1950's. Check out his "At Seventeen," probably recorded in the early 1960's.

Herb Ellis: Any player chosen by Oscar Peterson to be his guitarist in the 1950's deserves consideration. Listen to Herb showcase his talent here on "A Gal in Gallico" from 1958.

BLUES: Would have loved to include Eddie Jones aka "Guitar Slim" here, but no recordings available. Also I excluded B.B. and Albert King since much of their work comes out in the 1960's. Also, my apologies to Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton and Magic Sam.

T-Bone Walker: T-Bone was probably the leading forerunner to electric blues guitar in the 1940's. Listen to how out in front he was in 1942 with "I Got a Break Baby." Chuck Berry listened very closely.

Johnny Guitar Watson: Any player who influenced Jimi Hendrix and inspired Frank Zappa to take up the guitar deserves to be looked at. Watson was already a prodigious talent in the mid- 1950's. Check out his remarkable "Three Hours Past Midnight" from 1956.

Otis Rush: This live recording of "I Can't Quir You Baby" from the early 1960's demonstrates just why Rush is in this group.

Hubert Sumlin: It's really hard to keep Hubert off this list due his incredible influence on later players and his contemporaries. Check out his work with Howlin' Wolf on Smokestack Lightning, originally recorded in the 1950's.

Freddie King: Hugely influential, his 1961 hit Hideaway becomes a blues standard that everyone covers.

COUNTRY: Roy Nichols not included due the fact his best work with Merle Haggard comes during the 1960s. The rest, well, listen for yourself.

Chet Atkins: Virtually redefined the parameters of the guitar. Check out these versions of "Villa" and "Say Si Si" from 1958.

Jimmy Bryant: Jimmy could have also been included among the jazz guitarists, his style is really jazzy country swing. Listen to Jimmy smoke here with Speedy West.

Phil Baugh: A consummate session player, Baugh could play virtually anything, as evidenced here on this nifty medley of styles.

Joe Maphis: Maphis played several instruments, but his guitar work was exceptional, as heard on "Town Hall Boogie."

Hank Garland: A legend among country guitarists primarily due to the success of "Sugarfoot Rag," heard here. Just incredible playing.

ROCKABILLY: Carl Perkins could have easily been included.

Scotty Moore: I chose Scotty instead of Carl because his early work with Elvis really helps to crystallize the rockabilly guitar style. Uses a finger-picking approach on the solo, common in rockabilly guitar. Mystery Train is a prime example.

James Burton: A genuine 1950's legend who played with Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Bob Luman and Billy Lee Riley as a teenager. Listen to James showcase his skills on this later video. Very tasty playing.

Cliff Gallup: Truly one of the hottest rockabilly players who starred as Gene Vincent's guitar ace with The Blue Caps. Check out Cliff here on "Race With the Devil."

Grady Martin: I really don't want to weigh in on the controversy concerning the Johnny Burnette recordings and Paul Burlison, discussed here. Martin was a super session player who according to many played on a good deal of the Johnny Burnette Trio recordings. If this is so, he belongs here. Check out "All By Myself". Whether it's Grady or Paul, it's incredible playing.

Al Casey: Another great session player who is best known for his work with Sanford Clark. Listen to Al's great work here on "If I told You Baby" from 1956.

ROCK N' ROLL: Like Rockabilly, this is a category that emerged in the 1950's. Here is a short list of the top players.

Link Wray: Wray revolutionized 1950's guitar and sets up the huge changes to come in the 1960s. Check out "Run Boy Run. "

Dan Cedrone: Will always be remembered for his innovative solo on "Rock Around the Clock" with Bill Haley and the Comets. An entirely new sound for 1956.

Chuck Berry: Chuck's guitar style derives from R&B Blues and Rockabilly. Also a truly hybrid sound. Listen to his chording and leads on the original 1956 version, unbelievable.

Duane Eddy: Not as flashy as the others on the list, but had a remarkably clean tone and phrasing. Check out his signature piece "Rebel Rouser" from the late 1950's.

Bo Diddley: When Bo passed away last year, the list of covers and "loans" from his songs and style was astonishing. Listen to his unique style live from 1960 on the classic "Roadrunner."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lonnie Johnson: An American Treasure

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson’s creativity on American music. Johnson is a transcendent figure from the inception of the recording industry whose proficiency in jazz and blues idioms and unique guitar style make him a transitional bridge artist between rural traditions and urban recordings. Johnson’s early recording association with legendary jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang and Louis Armstrong along with his activity in the 1920’s St. Louis blues scene alongside Roosevelt Sykes, Henry Townsend and Walter Davis established his early reputation that seems to grow in stature with time. Together with his contemporaries Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, Johnson embodies the epitome of blues guiatar before the onset of the post- war amplified sound. His prolific recording career with Bluebird and Okeh records in the 1920's and 1930's are a priceless component of American roots music history.

Johnson earliest recordings demonstrate his preference for duets with piano players. His Blackbird Blues from the mid 1920's popularizes the duet format later heard in the recordings of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Johnson's 1930 recording of "Long Black Train" foregrounds his prowess as a soloist, his execution is flawless, combining traditional blues phrasing with jazz like chords in between. The improved sound quality of his later recording "The Loveless Blues" allows fuller appreciation of his guitar prowess and vocals that were popular among white and black audiences alike as the popularity of radio programs increased through the 1930's and 40's. Johnson's remarkable rendition of "Tomorrow Night" assumes a ballad like quality which undoubtedly had crossover appeal. Elvis was deeply moved by Johnson's "Tomorrow Night" and sang it long before his rise to fame according to Peter Guralnick in his magnificent biography of Presley "Last Train to Memphis."

The eclecticism of Johnson’s guitar style is evident in the way he incorporates wonderfully clean jazz based single note runs into a blues composition. "Another Night to Cry" is a perfect example of this precise fluidity which was to influence later guitarists like T- Bone Walker, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

Like many of the innovative blues players, Lonnie Johnson's legacy still resonates today in the contemporary guitarists who tribute his unique techniques. Roots guitar ace Stefan Grossman offers an excellent tribute to Johnson here. Another excellent contemporary tribute to Lonnie's style by "Daddystovepipe" can be heard here. Both players really capture the dynamics of Johnson's style in remarkable fashion.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sun Gems: Some R&B Recordings

The more I read about Sam Phillips the clearer it becomes just how out front he was in capturing for posterity some of the most relevant and exceptionally good American roots music from the 1950's. Influenced in part by his work as a disc jockey for WLAY (AM) radio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Sam became receptive to the concept of "open and balanced play lists" and more importantly, to the idea of the integration of the society through music. Sam's progressive attitude on this front essentially opened the door to the advent of rock n' roll. Although Phillips is best known for recording the canonical figures of rockabilly, the Sun vaults are also full of gems by black R&B and blues musicians who were recorded under the auspices of Phillips while he was owner of Sun Records. This video of Sam and Sun Records is a must see. A highly recommended box set of many of these recordings can be obtained here.

Sun Records got its start recording blues musicians from the Memphis and surrounding Delta region. One of the earliest to record for the company was the one man act Joe Hill Louis, whose recording of Hydromatic Woman showcases what a one man band can do. Also, on Tiger Man with barrelhouse ace Mose Vinson on piano, Louis provides the vocals while Big Walter Horton flies on this early recording on amplified harmonica. Check out this later cover of Tiger Man/ Mystery Train by Elvis.

It is fascinating to reveal how much of the R&B Sun material ends up being covered by later Sun rockabilly artists. Rufus Thomas began his lengthy recording career with his own 1953 version of "Tiger Man" for Sun. His earlier recording of "Bear Cat" with Sun from the same year precipitated a lawsuit with Don Robey of Duke Records for alleged plagiarism of Big Mama Thorton's 1952 recording of "Hound Dog," covered by Elvis a few years later. Junior Parker's early work for Sun is also frequently covered, such as his recording of "Love My Baby"
and his brilliant 1953 proto boogie rocker "Feelin so Good. " Parker is best know for the first known recording of the "Mystery Train", also recorded for Sun in 1953 and subsequently covered by many.

Another very nifty early Sun R&B classic is the fascinating instrumental "Hucklebuck" by guitarist Earl Hooker, known for his association with Ike Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson in the early 1950's. This 1955 recording is a dance shuffle and showcases some excellent hybrid guitar work that seems to draw from blues, jazz and country traditions. Finally, Billy "The Kid" Emerson recorded this incredible 1955 version of Red Hot for Sun which was later turned into the rockabilly smash by Billy Lee Riley for Sun (here) some two years later. Just about every group in rockabilly's second wave covered the Billy Lee Riley version. Emerson's original "When it Rains it Really Pours" is also very strong and leaves no doubt as to why Elvis decided to cover for Sun later the same year here and on an alternate take here, also for Sun in 1957.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Rockabilly Roadhouse Route: Highway 67 in Arkansas

Running north from Newport, Arkansas toward the Missouri border, a little known stretch of U.S. Highway 67 runs through the small towns of Swifton, Walnut Ridge and up to Pocahontas. Seemingly insignificant, this 60 mile stretch of road is on the verge of being recognized by the Arkansas State Legislature as a historically significant route to be named "Rock "N" Roll Highway 67," whose importance can be compared to the legendary Highway 61 in Mississippi. During the mid to late 1950's the small towns along the highway became the touring core of the "rockabilly roadhouse circuit" that many of the genre's most storied players traversed numerous times. If the Sun Studios in Memphis recorded the music for posterity, the venues along the highway; The Silver Moon Club in Newport, Bob Kings B&I club in Swifton and several other long since destroyed roadhouses constituted the live staging ground for the new and energetic sounds of live rockabilly that Elvis, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, Johnny Cash, Scotty Moore, Billy Lee Riley, Bobby Lee Trammell, Carl Perkins, Harold Jenkins (Conway Twitty) Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess and many other lesser known players cranked out on many a Saturday night. The Arkansas State Legislature's proclamation is a cultural heritage move designed to promote and encourage tourism to the region, and rockabilly festivals are also planned. Still rockin after fifty years. Posts on Arkansas, "the cradle of rockabilly" are forthcoming this month.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reflecting on My Roots: Mingus in 1975

Exploring the seemingly infinite variations of American roots music can lead to self reflection about early involvement and exposure to our musical traditions. Some of my most vivid memories are of my university years when some friends and I secured control of the University of Missouri's Blues, Jazz and Folk Committee in 1974. We had been researching roots music assiduously by doing radio shows at KOPN in Columbia, which at the time was (and still is) an incredibly progressive community station with an amazing record collection with almost unlimited roots material to explore. When we assumed leadership of the committee we had very distinct ideas about the kind of jazz we wanted to bring to the university, and we were not inclined to be swayed by the fusion jazz rave sweeping the U.S. at the time. Our interests ran toward bop jazz and post bop players, some of whom were still touring the college circuits in 1974. Miraculously, one of the committee members locked in the Charles Mingus Quartet for a ridiculously low price, and the legendary bass player would appear at Jesse Auditorium in early 1975. So while the campus was beginning to groove to Disco, we awaited a veritable jazz legend whose roots stretched back to early association with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

Being in charge of the committee had its advantages; we were able to dine and converse with the musicians before the show. Meeting Dannie Richmond, Don Pullen and George Adams and buying Mingus his pre-concert ice cream are priceless memories. But the show itself was beyond belief; I don't think the University of Missouri had ever seen this kind of jazz performed on its premises before this. A very good representation of what we saw that night is this performance in Montreal in 1975 by essentially the same group. (add Gerry Mulligan on baritone) Also, a performance at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Todi, Italy here (add Hamiet Bluiett on Baritone) in 1974 captures the same feel, where tenor master Adams is out front early and is searing in his solo. Both Don Pullen and George Adams passed away way too soon, in their early fifties. But both were just unbelievable players and continued playing together after Mingus passed away in 1979. A great example is this live video of Pullen and Adams together in a quartet in 1979, featuring Adam's great R&B vocals and his unique blues based outside style on tenor, which blew us out of Jesse Auditorium in 1975. If anyone remembers attending the show in Missouri in 1975, please weigh in with your memories.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Two Other Tragedies: Johnny Ace and Eddie Cochran

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic accident that took from all of us three top musicians who were on top of their game and popularity. The plane crash that occurred on February 3rd 1959, interrupting the Winter Dance Party tour has come to be known for variety of reasons as "the day the music died." This explanation is related in large measure to the somewhat cryptic lyrics of the Dan Mclean's song American Pie , whose meaning is convincingly interpreted here. While losing Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly on the same day was certainly a blow to the popular music field, there are other explanations for the shifting grounds of rock and roll styles, including two other accidental deaths that in their own ways had nearly as much impact as the Clear Lake Iowa tragedy.

The truncated career of Johnny Ace began in rhythm and blues and jump blues in the 1940's and extended in full swing until his tragic and untimely death in 1954. Being from Memphis, Johnny Alexander's first association is with by the Beale Streeters and B.B. King on the now legendary WDIA radio shows coming out of Memphis in 1951. Johnny's first recordings reflect his adherence to the R&B jump blues rave of the time, as heard here in "No Money". But Johnny's true legacy was forged in his love ballads, songs which, along with doo wop interpretations, form the counterpoint of the wilder R&B and rockabilly sounds emerging at the same time. Johnny's calssic ballads are "Saving My Love for You", "Anymore" and the classic "Pledging my Love." Johnny's ballads were taking off in popularity by 1954 and his heartfelt style and velvety smooth vocals promised huge national crossover potential at a time when it was becoming possible for a black musician to work into the larger popular music market. His accidental death by self- inflicted gunshot in 1954 deprived all of us of one of pop music's up and coming stars on the cusp of something much bigger. His work has been covered by countless musicians and memorialized here by by Paul Simon.

The quality of music produced during Eddie Cochran's short and prolific recording career qualify him a well deserved place in the rock and roll/rockabilly pantheon, along with Carl Perkins, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. His creativity, energy, remarkable voice and rebellious edge make Eddie a unique 1950's talent and later, a posthumous icon of the period. Whether it was delivering alluringly catchy rockabilly with songs like "C'mon Everybody" and the lesser known "Stockings and Shoes" , or showing his rebellious side with Nervous Breakdown and "Summertime Blues," Cochran work defines the direction of popular music in the 1950's. His last hit, "Three Steps to Heaven" which charted in 1960, demonstrates the move to a tamer style and thematic that was emerging by the time Eddie's embarked on his ill fated tour to England in the same year. The taxi accident in which Eddie perished before his 22nd birthday also injured Gene Vincent, ultimately shortening his music career.

The accidental deaths of Johnny Ace and Eddie Cochran, while not receiving the attention the Clear Lake Iowa tragedy did, deprive the period of two of its greatest performers and songwriters whose careers were just beginning. Occurring at both ends of the rock and roll era, Johny Ace and Eddie Cochran, each in his own way, are emblematic of trends that shaped the decade and set up the music to emerge in the coming decade.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Few Roots Favorites

First of all I would like to thank everyone who has stopped by the blog-site to check out what I have been looking into and writing about. The blog is really an outgrowth of my interest in roots music that extends back to my college days in the early 1970's. With the wonders of the internet, gone are the days of poring over dusty old back issues of Downbeat in libraries. Things are so much easier now. Since the field of roots music is so vast, it always seems as though the new ideas far outnumber the number of hours required to fully research and develop them. Most of you have probably noticed that the focus of the blog has been historical; trying to situate musicians or styles in their corresponding periods and make some valid comparisons with preceding or different styles. I've been concentrating on the 1950's but will shift the focus depending on the post. Also, please feel free to comment on anything in the posts, I'm sure I can learn from things readers point out. Here is a list of just a few of the cuts that have recently impacted me and that will probably lead to some future posts.

JAZZ: I have always loved alto players and Tab Smith has always been a favorite, even his more commercially oriented stuff. "Rock City" is a wonderfully crafted arrangement, ultra smooth with a bluesy edge.

R&B: Absolutely love this version of "Got my Mojo Working" by Ann Cole. Very tight 1957 sound. Also, Roy Brown's "Queen of Diamonds" is another R&B gem with great sax work from the same year. What a year it was.

BLUES: I was blown away by the arrangement of T Bone Walker's 1945 "She is Going to Ruin Me." Sounds like Chuck Berry listened to T Bone very attentively. I have always admired Tampa Red and "It Hurts me Too" reminds me why.

COUNTRY: Webb Pierce's classic honky-tonk anthem "There Stands the Glass" is very nice, better than the Gordon cover.

ROCKABILLY: I was recently blown away by Harvey Hurt's "Big Dog Little Dog," if anyone knows who plays guitar on this song or more about Hurt please let me know. Also, early Eddie Cochran as Cochran Brothers "Tired and Sleepy" is an absolute gem.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Roots Music, Race and the Fifties: Some Observations

Any attempt to analyze the complexity of popular music in the 1950's invariably comes face to face with the issue of race in American society. In many ways, the explosion of "popular music," propelled by the spread of radio, new teenage audiences and the proliferation of record companies, becomes another important medium in which cultural miscegenation was advancing rapidly. Building on the gains made among black and white jazz musicians, professional athletes (Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Boxing) and the integration of the armed forces, the fifties witness an increasing acceptance of African American music at many levels and in all regions of the country. And the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Topeka, while not achieving integration, sets a tone and helps to create conditions more favorable to cultural integration at popular levels of expression, particularly American popular music.

Popular awareness and widespread acceptance of jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole and their association with white jazz musicians make possible the changes that begin in the late 1940's and continue throughout the 1950's. Some early signs of change can be seen in the incorporation of the boogie-woogie style among country music musicians, evidenced by the many Delmore Brother's tunes in the style, such as Panamerican Boogie . Coverage of blues classics also became commonplace, check out the Delmore Brother's Careless Love, originally recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925. Boogie Woogie was also being popularized by other leading white musicians. from Tommy Dorsey in jazz to the popular songs of the Andrews Sisters.

By the late 1940's Jump Blues was having a huge impact and was gaining wider popular acceptance, in spite of resistance at different levels. For example, the term "rockin," popularized initially by Wynonie Harris' 1948 Jump Blues classic "Good Rockin Tonight" , was shunned by many for the sexual connotation of "rockin." Harris did record double entendre songs like "Keep on Churnin" that kept stereotypes alive and resistance as well. Nonetheless, Louis Jordan's more refined brand of jump blues began to crossover into popular white music circles, and appearances with luminaries such as Bing Crosby helped to legitimize him among white audiences. White rock n'roll pioneer Jimmy Cavallo's huge success in the late forties as a dance band on the beaches of North Carolina owed much to Jordan's style, and Jordan would continue to influence musical production in most genres throughout the 1950's. Yet not all Jump Blues crossed over. Much of the material that the almost forgotten jump blues artists Jimmy Liggins and Bull Moose Jackson recorded was just too rough or explicit for popular acceptance at the time, Liggins here and Jackson here and here state their own cases to the conservative climate of the 1950's. Liggins and Jackson were really only carrying on the double entendre tradition that had been alive and well at the inception of the blues recording era, stretching back to the 1920's.

The pioneering work of Sam Phillips cannot be underestimated in this story. Recording black musicians for his young Sun label in Memphis was a labor of love and was complicated by racist attitudes of the period. His adoption of white rockers and virtual integration of the Sun studios in Memphis is remarkable and accelerates the process. Several white musicians who recorded for Sun and who covered black R&B artists speaks to this trend: Hayden Thompson's nifty cover of Junior Parker's "Love my Baby" Elvis covers Parker's Mystery Train and Arthur Crudup's "That's all Right Mama." By the time Elvis covered the Roy Brown version of "Good Rockin Tonight" for Sun in 1954, country musicians were already appropriating the language of blues and jazz musicians, and terms like "rock," "rockin daddy," "cat", "cattin", "hepcat", "jive", and "bop" all reflect a process of cultural amalgamation affecting musicians in the south who began to embrace rockabilly as the cutting edge medium. Charlie Adams' "Cattin Around", Carl Perkins' incredible numbers "Put Your Cat Clothes on" and "Boppin the Blues" , Jack Earls' "Let's Bop" and Lew Williams' "Cat Talk" are good examples that confirm the trend, there are hundreds more.

Although the short lived rockabilly craze (1954-1960) among white musicians can be explained in large measure as commercially driven, I also interpret the movement as symptomatic of the more over arching move toward integration, with music being the means of expression. What I am suggesting is that rockabilly was not merely a fad driven by the dream of ascending to Elvishood. A possible exception would be the Warren Smith classic rags to riches rockabilly dream "Uranium Rock." This gradual move toward cultural integration is evident in the themes found in rockabilly's lyrics, as a discernible move toward themes long present in blues and R&B becomes obvious as thousands of obscure rockabilly records are recorded by small record labels throughout the south and mid-west. Song after rockabilly song attest to this trend in the use of language and lyrical content. Some common recurring themes in rockabilly of the period are sexual prowess, heard in the Elvis' cover "Good Rockin Tonight" and Billy Lee Riley's "Rock With Me Baby" , the related theme of dancing ability, heard in the Johnny Burnette Trio's classics "Rockabilly Boogie" and "Tear it Up" and the transcendent power of the music itself, highlighted in Ronnie Dawson's "Rockin Bones" and Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp" . While Dawson's faith in "the sound" almost equates to religious fervor, Smith's voyage to Africa in Ubangi Stomp can be read as metaphor for incursions into black R&B sounds. One thing is for sure, these cats did find rhythm's promised land, and it wasn't just a fad, as Smith makes clear in the finale: "I'm going Ubangi Stomp till I roll over dead."

During the heyday of rockabilly, adoption of African American language, dress and musical expression all coincide for a short time, and it's not coincidental this happened during the country's first move toward integration. Interestingly, rockabilly suddenly declines, or in the case of Ricky Nelson and Johnny Burnette is tamed, and by 1960 is quickly replaced by the more syrupy and schmaltzier sounds of the Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and former rockabilly queen Brenda Lee. I will attempt to situate rockabilly's sudden demise in a future post.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Extended Roots: The Intriguing Career of Rosco Gordon

Few if any musicians who were active during the 1950's possessed the versatility of pianist/songwriter Rosco Gordon. Gordon recorded in or was influenced by virtually all the popular idioms of the decade, and produced original, high quality recordings in several. Growing up in Memphis in the 1940's, Gordon first absorbed the Memphis Blues sound from the Beale Streeters, associating musically with Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Ace and Earl Forest at a young age. By 1951 he had a number 1 R&B hit with Chess records entitled "Booted." After additional recordings with Chess, Gordon scores with another scorching R&B classic "No More Doggin" which highlights his unique piano style and two absolutely devastating sax solos, the second of which may be by Leo Parker, baritone legend. Rosco's piano style, known as "Rosco's Rhythm" became popular among immigrants from the West Indies in the mid 50's, (Jamaica and Trinidad) and is often cited as a primary component of the Ska style which emerged just a few years later in Jamaica.

In 1955, at the inception of the rockabilly craze, Gordon begins his association with Sam Phillips and Sun records in Memphis. Interestingly, Gordon's Sun recordings, while rooted in R&B, also show the influence of country and rockabilly, and Gordon himself recognized the imprint of country music on his work. One of his Sun/Flip cuts from this period, "Love for You Baby" is a fascinatingly hybrid composition which exhibits elements of blues, rockabilly and rock n' roll. Gordon's 1957 Sun recording of "Sally Jo" is also remarkable in that it is one of the very few examples of a black musician working within the rockabilly genre, as is G.L Crockett's incredible "Look Out Mabel" from 1957 and Roy Brown's 1958 Imperial recording "Hip Shakin Baby." Gordon's appearance with Johnny Carroll in the 1957 Rock n' Roll movie "Rock Baby Rock It" is also noteworthy for historical reasons. In the film Gordon and his ensemble perform the Jump Blues number "Bopit" in a crossover setting, as the white audience is seen fully engaged in the rhythm and beat of the tune.

After recording for Sun, Gordon's creative impulse takes another turn. In stride with the shifting stylistics of the late 1950's and early 60's, Gordon records "Let em Try" , a song that combines a Doo Wop framework with elements of early Soul, which can also be heard on his Surely I Love You" from 1960. His final recordings, while moving closer to 60's Soul, continue in a similarly eclectic mode, exemplified by "Sit Right Here." Finally, Rosco's 1958 R&B composition, "Just a Little Bit" resurfaces with the British Invasion group The Undertakers, who cover it here in 1964. Predictably, their version is no match for Rosco's original.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pete Seeger Turns 90

It's hard to believe but Pete Seeger has a birthday coming up, and it's a big one: he will be 90 years old this Sunday, May 3rd. Looking back over Pete's long career, it's difficult to know how to begin talking about the enormous contributions he has made in so many facets of American life. From his unyielding commitment to progressive causes on such a wide range of issues, from race relations, U. S. military interventions abroad, environmentalism and the labor movement, Pete has been out front and on the right side of history. His very early appreciation of what constitutes the essence of American roots music has made Pete a founding father of the movement who knew how to value and help preserve our musical history and traditions that were giving way to the impulses of modernity. Whether it was helping the now legendary musicologist Alan Lomax scour the rural south in search of overlooked blues musicians and folksingers or helping to heighten public awareness of national treasures such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pete's contributions have been invaluable. Since so much information abounds about all Pete's accomplishment, that's all I really have to say, except for this: HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND THANK YOU PETE SEEGER!