Saturday, March 18, 2017

Early Rock

Once the zeitgeist has passed, attempts to describe the elan of the day may scribe threads of veracity, but ultimately historical descriptions of an era fail to capture its essence in its entirety. And popular accounts are often viewed askance by those who were actually there, "well, that's kinda how it was - but not really."

The early years of rock and roll were simultaneously bobby sox and bubble gum - rebellion and violence. Rumors of an impending fight, someone was "called out." Rumors of pregnancy passed around at a sock hop. Custom cars, hubcap theft, switchblade knife threats. Overly possessive boyfriends. Dry-humping - some kids actually getting to it. And America's dark racial history, never known by a young postwar generation, was being challenged by their embrace of black music, preferred by many over the slick close harmonies and fuddy-duddy swing of their parents.

Early rock was angular in its Rock-a-billy aspect, gyratingly sweet in its rolling New Orleans presentations. The singers ran the gamut from cloying adonises and teen goddess types to scarily screaming witch doctors in suits and pomaded pompadours. It all coexisted, and somehow all of it was tinged with rebellion and discovery. There was a hep cat versus square thing, "are you a hood, or a cherry?" But even the laid back and disinterested knew that something big was going on, totally new and forbidden by convention - and for why? What reason? The adults were showing their previously subterranean bigotry, banning "race records" - using pejoratives to describe the R&B hits that too often "crossed" into the Top 40.

The music itself was neutral. It was just good music, mirroring the tone of the times. My family moved to the San Francisco Peninsula in 1952, and Bay Area radio became a big part of my young 9 year old world. Lucky for me, my mother was a real hep cat, and her musical ears were open to the radical developments we were hearing from AM radio playing lists of current hits. In the center of the dial at 1260 there was KYA (rumored to be owned by a sister station in Los Angeles, it made their top hits list suspect). Next door to the right was KWBR (your Warner Brothers Station...) at 1310 - later "lucky 13" KDIA. Serving up black culture for migrant workers from New Orleans - and all over the South. Promoting the blues of Lowell Fulsom, Jimmy McCracklin, Bob Geddins artists (Sugar Pie DeSanto), and Ray Dobard's Music City artists in addition to Chess, Checker, King, Federal label artists.

Farther to the right was KSAN at 1450 ("that's the spot - the best in rhythm 'n' blues is what we got") with DJs like Old "Rockin' Lucky" and the Magnificent Montague. KSAN was even deeper into the mine, working the threads of black vinyl to find even grittier treasures than the ones offered by competing KWBR, and ultimately victorious KDIA. And then to the right even further still, little KOBY (1550) with a more eclectic mix of budding rock than that offered by KYA - where you could hear "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvis, or a dreamy Susie Darlin'.

Even though there were other records preceding it - somehow most folks at the time (mid-fifties) of the rock and roll "craze" recognized Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" as the one that started it all. I'm talking zeitgeist, not total factual reality. And the "geist" changes depending on your location. The aromas and humidities of the deep South are nothing like the manicured yards of a western suburbia. And the mix of recordings, rumors and events that combine to form a pastiche in the memories of those from that geography or this - are different. Different spices locally, but the main ingredients of rock, rhythm and blues were universal.

Here's a two page list of recordings that filled the airwaves, emanated from the A&W jukebox, the counter nickel grabbers at sit-down lunch counters, 45 records and black bakelite ear pieces for listening at the open front walk-in record store. In the early days you could get Little Richard on a 78 or a 45. Older brothers and sisters held the forerunners to the rock revolution in their 78 collection - but the smaller combos and the curious egalitarian mix of young white vocal groups and guitar bands juxtaposed against the arguable superiority of their black counterparts (and antecedents) signaled rock's exit from the jazz ghetto. If the blues had a baby called rock and roll, who was the father?



These lists were spontaneously generated in a fit of reminiscence - actually a rare moment of lucidity. Starting with Rock Around The Clock I simply remembered moments in time, and what music was playing. The lists were done around the late 80s, about 40 years after the fact. It's now 60 years or more gone by and looking at the lists I saw a few titles I would not have remembered, and reading between the lines, a few I forgot.

Sh-boom was at the crux of the white-black dichotomy. I don't know who sold more but the more soulful version belonged to The Chords, not the Crewcuts - and the Chords version had a great tenor sax solo. (Street Corner Renaissance - Life Could Be A Dream - a 21st century refinement of the art.)

Elvis and Ready Teddy - ready to party, ready to fight, rock all night. The Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes controversy, the echo chamber on Heartbreak Hotel controversy, the hip-shaking out of camera range on Ed Sullivan controversy, the Presley pout. Most of the girls loved Elvis, which made it tough for the guys, and any guy who liked Elvis was suspect. Brown bucks versus white, pink and black a fad color scheme, super thin belts. Levis, cuff rolled under, Pendleton shirt untucked on the south side of town, cuffs rolled up with pale blue showing, Pendleton tucked in, mostly unbuttoned, collar and cuffs carefully turned halfway back guaranteed safety on the north side of town.

Certain songs were in heavy airplay - Searchin' by the Coasters b/w (backed with) Young Blood. Honky Tonk and Tequila - sax instrumentals. Jimmy Rodgers - Woman From Liberia - they played Honeycomb too much! And the flip side of You Cheated by the Shields - That's The Way It's Gonna Be - could've been a Fats Domino song and it got more play on the lunchtime jukebox. And, again the white replicants, the Slades, had a version. They sang well, and gave the pigmentally challenged a ray of hope, but still, the soul version ruled.

And when Please, Please, Please hit - it hit big in the Bay Area - every R&B copy band was required to field a version, and you'd be judged on that. Along with the requisite Little Richard, Fats Domino, Larry Williams and other James Brown numbers: Good Good Lovin', I'll Go Crazy, Think, Baby You're Right, And I Do Just What I Want. Bobby Bland entered into the fray, horn bands loved to do Turn On Your Love Light, and the more adept would add St. James Infirmary, Jelly Jelly Jelly, and in later years That's The Way Love Is. And of course Ray Charles was discovered to be a deep source of archival material after the Wurlitzer piano used in What'd I Say came out of every kitchen radio in America with a delightful resonance the Summer of 1959. And the Kings of the blues: B.B., Albert, Freddie - and Come On PI & II by Earl King ("King Earl" before Imperial Records messed up his name).

And a glaring omission from my hand-written lists - Hank Ballard & The Midnighters. There was a period of a couple of years where we waited for the latest release from Elvis, yes, but more so Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Chuck Berry and Hank Ballard were both prolific, but Hank Ballard had cool sax work and double entendre! Early on it was Work With Me Annie, Sexy Ways, Annie Had A Baby. Later he got into the dance grooves: The Coffee Grind, The Hoochie Coochie Coo, Finger Poppin' Time, The Continental - but it was The Twist that became a harbinger of the fad to come. The group of kids I hung out with had cars by 1959, and whenever Ballard's recording came on we would pull to the side of the road, open the doors so the sound could come out and we'd twist by the roadside. Then a year later Chubby Checker stole the Twist - I think that's a suitable place to draw the curtain on early rock and roll!