“Legend” hardly cuts it.

Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).

Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).

And after that?

Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.

Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.

But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.

In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.

Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.

Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.

Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:

He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…


and this…

Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…

The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…

By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.

Big names even.

Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.

What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings  Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…

…and literally a hundred more.

You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”

To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”

As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”

You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.

But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!

Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?

Nobody’s laughing.

In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…

and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…

And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone,  sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…

or this…

…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…

Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.

But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.

Those records could be as great and iconic as this…

or even this…

But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…

Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).

As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.

One man did.

That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…


and is now reduced to no more than this…

american studios3

…will play no small part.

So long brother. You did good. You did real good.



Whenever you do this sort of thing, ad hoc, you’re almost bound to leave something out. But, while I haven’t had more than one or two pangs of regret over my sixties’ list, the deep and fundamental inadequacy of my seventies’ list started bugging me almost as soon as I posted it. I kept remembering yet another album that made me ask “How could I have left that one off?” Finally, when there were enough of them, I decided to put the eighties’ list on hold.

I’m not much into the old this “decade vs. that decade” disputes, at least not when the decades in question were indisputably great. But for rather obvious historical and demographic reasons, the seventies were certainly the most prolific decade for rock and roll. One fun aspect of taking the focus off the canon for a bit is exploring roads not taken or roads that were partially explored before being abandoned. More of that probably happened in the seventies with truly popular (and populist) music than in any other arbitrary ten year stretch. Some of what’s here “hit,” some didn’t. But it’s easy to think that any of it might have. And, in any case, it was fun to have an excuse to dig out the vinyl and just sit back and smile….

Brinsley Schwarz Despite It All (1970)


Fake country rock…from England. Really, now, what other decade had that? Weird thing was, for the space of this album, it was convincing. Even Gram Parsons never did better with the concept. And, as we surely know now if we didn’t know then, that’s as good as the concept gets.

Pick to Click: “Ebury Down”

The Move Message From the Country (1971)


In the later vinyl and cd era, re-releases of this album have always included “Do Ya” and some other fine singles recorded around the same time which were not on this album originally. But the original album was fine on its own. They morphed into ELO of course, but, believe me, Bachman Turner Overdrive took a few notes as well. If, like me, you cant that a good thing, then this is a kind of touchstone of a style of rock and roll that, unless “rock and roll” counts, was never hip enough to acquire a catchy name.

Pick to Click: “Until Your Mama’s Gone”

The Belmonts Cigars, Acappella, Candy (1972)


I have to admit, when I put the original list together I left this off because I thought these guys had been inducted along with a lot of other famous backup bands/groups a few years back (Blue Caps, Miracles, like that). Seems they weren’t. Once again, you have to sometimes wonder what the folks at the Hall are thinking. Me, I’d put them in if this miraculous LP was all they ever did.

Pick to Click: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”

B.J. Thomas Billy Joe Thomas (1972)


I wrote at length about this album’s most famous track here. There’s no way the rest of it could live up to “Rock and Roll Lullaby” which would pretty much upset the balance of any LP ever made. But Thomas was one of the finest studio singers of studio singing’s golden age and, as the title suggests, this is an attempt at the kind of cohesive statement studio pros weren’t supposed to be capable of (not being “soulful” enough presumably). Despite some occasionally pedestrian production, it largely succeeds. A vocal tour-de-force.

Pick to Click: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Following along with the “Drift Away” theory established in the “Volume 2, The Seventies” portion of our program….Of the album’s other cuts, I especially commend the closer, a version of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell” which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find on-line.)

Barry White Stone Gon’ 1973


One of the things Rock and Roll America used to turn up on a fairly regular basis was voices the rest of America hadn’t been able to previously imagine. Believe me, you can find more precedent for Little Richard in 1955, or Jimi Hendrix in 1967, than you can for Barry White in 1973. This was his second album. It’s here because it’s the only non-comp of his I happen to own. I’ll need to correct that oversight some day. Just be warned that his habit on LP was to stretch his great singles to the breaking point and then surround them with the stuff the radio didn’t have time for…also stretched to the breaking point. I’ll just add that when white Englishmen took this sort of approach, it was always called “art” or “classical” and never once sounded either half as good or half as adventurous.

Pick to Click: “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” (long version)

KC and the Sunshine Band Do it Good (1974)


If disco hadn’t taken off the way it did, and they hadn’t played such a key role in that takeoff, then they would probably be recognized and celebrated for what they really were, which was a hardcore southern funk band whose leader, Harry Wayne Casey, was, as bandleader, frontman, writer, producer and arranger, the point man in changing the style’s deepest scene from Memphis to Miami.

If that kind of recognition should ever come, it might just get him and his crack band (along with his partner in enlightenment, Richard Finch) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they richly belong. All of their period albums are good, and their basic comp is essential. But not more so than their first album, which creased the R&B charts and presaged their breakout the following year. In a word, they did what a southern funk band was supposed to do and for half a decade they did it better than anyone else.

They stomped.

Pick to Click: “Sound Your Funky Horn”

Hot Chocolate Cicero Park (1974)


Actually, every album they released in the seventies could qualify as one of my favorites for this list and just as superb albums period. They were basically unclassifiable, which may be why they’ve never quite gotten credit for being as great as they were. The vision was equal parts funk, rock, glam, reggae, sixties’ soul and social protest. Actually there once was a classification for that: Rock and Roll. Don’t tell the wrong people. They might swim over to your island and steal your Hot Chocolate records.

Pick to Click: “Changing World”

Wet Willie Keep On Smilin’ (1974)


The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd set the tone for most of Southern Rock. It would be rooted in blues and R&B, crossed with country and English hard rock, with (in the case of the Allmans) a little jazz thrown in. Wet Willie were hardly unmindful of all that, but they also gravitated toward blue eyed soul and hard funk and, at their best, it led to what I can only call gutbucket beauty. This is them at their best. If the title track were even conceivable today, it would be slotted “Americana” and have no chance whatsoever of being played anywhere except college radio. In it’s day it went Top Ten on the Pop charts. Tell me again why things are really the same or better now?

Pick to Click: “Keep On Smilin'” (live)

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Rock & Roll Forever (1975)


This is a cheat. It’s a sort of comp, though sufficiently unusual for me to include it even if I didn’t have my reasons. It contains their first album, plus other stuff like the cut from American Graffiti (where they played the band for the high school dance) that threatened very briefly to break them out. They were neo to the core, of course. Throwbacks of a kind that normally aren’t good for anything more than the cheapest nostalgia. A decade later, bands like the Blasters made the throwback thing cool and the Stray Cats even made it commercial. But Flash Cadillac weren’t really like that. They were more like a group of guys who were genuinely caught out of time. They played and sang like the sixties had never happened. There were limits to the approach to say the least. But they, almost alone among the many practitioners of the ethos, found a genuine joy in it, too. Having never heard a single cut on this LP except the American Graffiti stuff, finding this in a used record shop in the nineties still put the smile of the year on my face. And taking it home and listening to it didn’t dim that smile even a little bit.

Pick to Click: “She’s So Fine”

Vicki Sue Robinson Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)


Out here in the hinterlands there was a very long stretch, basically from whenever the single edit of “Turn The Beat Around” fell off the charts and took the LP out of your local department store’s record bin with it, until the mid-nineties CD reissue boom began taking hold, when, if you wanted to hear the incendiary long version of “Turn the Beat Around,” you had to get lucky and find this in a throwaway bin somewhere. (Oh yeah, you could luck into a 12″ white-sleeve single version…In North Florida…Sure you could. Just like you could see Elvis and Jim Morrison pumping gas across the street from the local Hardee’s.)

My copy was acquired in the late eighties. It still has the fifty-cent tag on it and, if memory serves, it was from a shop where the standard fare was more like fifty bucks.

Or it could have been from the one that was keeping most of their stock on dirt floors in an open-ended barn.

Have I mentioned previously that, sometimes, memory does not serve very well?

What I do remember was picking it up because I had kind of liked the single once upon a time, didn’t have it, but was having a bit of a love affair with old disco albums at the time, figured “Hey, it’s fifty cents. What can it hurt?”

What else I remember was playing the lead track–yes, it’s “Turn the Beat Around”–and being literally floored. There was a time when I obsessed on understanding the lyrics, especially the part where she started redeeming what I had previously considered the dubious history of any and all scat-singing that didn’t involve Louis Armstrong, before finally deciding it was pointless because she was obviously speaking in tongues.

Then, of course, Gloria Estefan came along and straightened it all out with her perfectly articulated 1994 version. I can’t tell you how I know this, and, of course it won’t really be my call, but you can rest assured that, on the Judgment Day, one Gloria Estefan will not be forgiven.

Yes, there’s a whole album and it’s a pretty darn good album. I especially like that fact that, according the back cover, one Vicki Sue Robinson both arranged and performed all that scat-singing herself, including the backup. And, of course, these days, the long version is readily available on YouTube, Amazon, etc.

But that’s really immaterial.

It would be immaterial if the rest of this album were Let It Bleed. Music’s an affair of the heart before it’s anything else. So’s record collecting.

Vicki Sue Robinson, come on down.

Pick to click: “Turn the Beat Around” (long version)

The Cars (1978)


The album has nine tracks. Six of them became permanent radio staples, despite no single reaching higher than #27 in Billboard. It didn’t sound like anything else before it (even though everybody swore it did, because, well, it must have) and, except for other Cars’ albums, it hasn’t sounded like anything since. Maybe we should be thankful, because, before it’s anything else, it’s ice cold, the epitome of naked ambition. But it worked. And, when it works, ice cold naked ambition is as rock and roll as anything else in this vail of tears.

Pick to Click: “Bye Bye Love” (live)

Rachel Sweet Fool Around (1978)


As I’ve said somewhere on here before, the missing link between Brenda Lee and Britney Spears. I bet Britney would have been better–and better off–if Rachel had been as big as either. Girl could have used a role model. (Britney, I mean. Rachel was a smart cookie. Went into TV, did just fine. Her lack of stardom was our loss, not hers.)

Click to Pick: “Who Does Lisa Like” (live…and absolutely smokin’)

Nick Lowe Pure Pop For Now People (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979)



I should mention at this point that there are several albums here, including both of these, which have different tracks for English and American releases. My preferences are for the American versions. Sometimes this is simply because those are what I heard first. More often it’s because I just think the American versions are better.

Going back to the Beatles and Stones, the hard fact is that American record companies had a tendency to cut the fluff. I know this fiddled with everyone’s artistic integrity and all, but I think it also made for better listening experiences. Letting artists have complete control over their album content and sequencing was great in theory, just like letting movie directors have the final cut was great in theory. In practice, better movies and better albums got made when there was a hard won balance between what the artist wanted and what the suits wanted. Now, in the music business at least, we’ve managed the worst of all worlds. The artists are indulged and the suits could care less because there’s no real money in the recording subdivision of the multi-media conglomerate that controls the artist and reports to the corporate sub-overlords who report to the real overlords who keep asking why we really need to keep this music thing going anyway when there’s no money in it?

Case in point, the “bowdlerized” and “re-sequenced” American versions of these two LPs are swift and concise and perfect. The longer English versions (all that’s available on CD as far as I can tell, Pure Pop was originally titled Jesus of Cool) wander around a bit, never quite come to the point and leave no real indication of why this old Brinsley Schwarz hand and jack-of-all-trades record man should have been a much bigger star than he was.

If you can find the vinyl, the question will arise. Those albums were perfect in theory and in fact and, unlike, say, Elvis Costello, he clearly wanted the stardom that never quite came.

No better way to conclude an amended post on the seventies, then, than with the nearest of all the near misses…

Picks to click: “Rollers Show” (Pure Pop) and “American Squirm” (Labour of Lust)

I had some additional thoughts about Pure Pop‘s most famous track, among other things, here.

And I promise you I’m done with the seventies!

And that the eighties, being the eighties, won’t take nearly as long.



…There used to be a certain type of professional songwriter who wasn’t easy, or even possible, to categorize. They only existed for a relatively brief time, between say the fifties and, at the outside, the eighties. Before that, songs and songwriters fit into fairly neat slots, like pretty much everything else in the music industry. Since then, songs have principally become vehicles of “personal expression,” usually unearned angst, and songwriters have largely become corporate entities with interests that hie closer to spread sheet balances than memorable melodies. None of which is new, of course, but the concepts have metastasized to the point where the kind of songwriters who pumped a good deal of popular music’s life blood in the only era when music was at the center of American culture have been made virtually obsolete.

Nobody exemplified that noble concept better than Wayne Carson, who passed away from congestive heart failure this week at 72. He doesn’t need me to say much. A lot of folks already said it for me. In a lot of different ways:

Tip of the iceberg really, but you get the idea.


“Rock And Roll Lullaby”
Artist: B.J. Thomas
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

B.J. Thomas “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Studio recording)

“According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s ‘La Bamba.’ Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie, Louie’ in the light of ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks, then ‘You Really Got Me’ in the light of ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, then ‘No Fun’ in the light of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones, and finally note that ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ sounds a lot like ‘La Bamba.’ There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled.”

(Lester Bangs, “Protopunk: The Garage Bands,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 edition)

“Like I said, that’s the saddest song I’ve ever sung. It’s supposed to be a true song, too. And I believe it. Back when I was a boy, if a girl got pregnant, she never did return home. Not pregnant and single. She just wasn’t welcome….It was the first song I learned, but I can’t hardly sing it now, because it’s so possible. Because it happened then, and it could still happen now.”

(Charlie Louvin, describing his childhood experience of learning to harmonize “Mary of the Wild Moor” with his brother Ira, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, 2011)

In 1972, attempts to limit the world’s understanding of what “rock and roll” was, were becoming more self-conscious by the day. The paragraph above–written a few years later by the only rock critic with a legitimate claim on genius–exemplified these attempts as neatly as anyone ever could. Note how a “theory” of “punk rock” at the beginning of one sentence moves swiftly and inexorably to “rock & roll history” at the beginning of the next. Given the dubiousness of the premise–three-chord “primitivism” as the only rock and roll that matters–you can’t get any neater than that.

*  *  *  *

In 1972, everyone also knew what to think about girls who got themselves pregnant without catching a husband.

For the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve (who dominated the North Alabama world Charlie Louvin grew up in), she was a fallen woman.

For the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate (who dominated the world Lester Bangs operated in as a critic) she was a social project.

For the vast Middle-Which-Does-Not-Rock-The-Boat-Ever (the world most of us live in, toiling along, forever getting the government we deserve) she was best left unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. To be spoken of in whispers if at all.

She had an ongoing place in the history of popular music to be sure–and one did not have to reach back to “Mary of the Wild Moor” to know where she stood.

As recently as 1969, Dolly Parton, just then establishing herself as a legitimate genius of country music, had written what would turn out to be likely the most powerful song of her career about the very subject. It was called “Down From Dover,” and Parton matched the death-dealing, heart-clutching lyric to one of her greatest vocals. She updated the social and musical traditions she had grown up on with the tenderest of all possible care. She brought all the pathos of the mountain ballads, mournful and endless, often stretching to dozens of verses, down to a manageable commercial length without sacrificing anything vital in the way of emotional impact or telling descriptive detail. She took a decided leap in a brilliant songwriting career that already included “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.”

What she did not do, was release it as a single.

What she also did not do–and which was probably related to relegating what she must have known was a song she would never better to an album cut–was break the cycle of pain and death inherent in the tradition.

Admittedly, in “Down From Dover,” it’s only the “illegitimate” child that dies. That was a merciful step past “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which killed off the mother, the child, and the grandfather who leaves them to freeze to death in the snow when his daughter attempts to return home.

But it was evidently still too strong for country radio, which, in those days, always had a place for murder ballads and such. I mean, 1973 wasn’t very different and, in that year, Tanya Tucker could top the charts with a chilling, off-hand reading of “Blood Red and Going Down,” which tells the tender tale of a ten-year-old girl (Tucker herself was fourteen at the time) tagging along behind her Daddy while he tracks down his wife and her lover and leaves them “soaking up the sawdust on the floor” in an Augusta bar-room.

For that, there was room.

Just not for unwed mothers–at least not those rendered as sympathetically and realistically as Parton’s.

Over at Top 40 radio–from a few years earlier–there was another recent twist on the theme–told from the perspective of the Supremes’ “Love Child.”

Nobody dies in that one, but–#1 hit or not–it’s clear from the dread and shame in Diana Ross’ voice as she’s fending off the advances of a potential baby-daddy, that no possible good can come of it:

“No child of mine will be wearin’, this name of shame I been bearin’”….

That was how it was in 1966–not to mention 1966 B.C.

It was no different in 1972.

*  *  *  *

I’m not sure how much better it is now. Maybe we really are a little more thoughtful and forgiving. Maybe we are more empathetic and civilized. Maybe it only seems that way from certain carefully guarded perspectives. It’s hard to turn a tradition thousands of years in the making on its head in an instant. And the uglier the tradition the harder the turning often is.

But Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil gave it a try.

They took on the truly momentous rock and roll responsibility (if you want to call it the burden of the revolution you won’t get an argument from me) of giving voice to the voiceless and then had the nerve to give their song a title evidently designed to make advocates of punk primitivism as the only rock and roll that matters grind their filed teeth to paste.

Then they wrote a song so powerful almost no one has ever bothered to deny its classic status even if it does turn the most comfortable narratives sideways and upside down–complete with a wash of “sha-na-nas” lifted from rock’s oft-despised (by everyone from the old Tin Pan Alley crowd to the new-left folkies to the mock-intelligentsia forever gathering ’round the Beatles and such to today’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee) tradition of nonsense group vocals.

Mann told the song’s producer Steve Tyrell that he heard “old sounds” in the lyric and suggested they get the session guitarist to play like Duane Eddy.

Tyrell heard old sounds, too.

He said, “why not get Duane Eddy?”

Things only got more ambitious from there.

What they ended up with was a record that sounded absolutely constructed, layer by loving layer–not just Eddy’s bottomless guitar part, likely the emotional pinnacle of his monumental career, but background support from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and ex-Diamond Dave Somerville, carefully modulated dead-ringer early-and-late Beach Boy arrangements, Barry Mann himself on the piano, the lushest possible orchestration–and also as if it had been breathed into the world in an instant.

Why Mann and Weil chose to write a song redeeming abandoned single mothers and their children–to that moment, possibly the most doomed and despised sub-group in the history of doomed and despised sub-groups–I do not know. That they even thought it was possible seems a bit nervy and mysterious–unless, of course, you know (as they certainly did) the actual history of rock and roll, which, more than anything else, is the history of speaking up. The few interviews I’ve heard or read from them over the years have–perhaps understandably given the full weight of their accomplishments (they wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among voluminous others)–bypassed this particular record.

So maybe they had some special attachment to the situation…or maybe they just figured it was time.

I could be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think it was just that week’s assignment.

It says something, for instance, that they chose to write it from the perspective of the fatherless child, now grown up. That deliberately placed “the event”–and the teenage mother’s dilemma–closer to the social realities of the nineteen fifties than of 1972, when there might at least have been a commune waiting for her somewhere. It thus very specifically and pointedly pushed the concept of “rock and roll” back to its own beginnings–when the audience, more so than any self-appointed intellectual class or marketing department or even the artists themselves–was deciding not so much what rock and roll was (as a form of music) as what it was going to mean to their lives (which they were determined to make matter).

In a rhyme scheme as tick-tock perfect as any Tin Pan Alley ever produced, the Brill Building grads inserted the key into the secret chambers of the rock and roll heart and said, in everything but words, that “Love Me Tender” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were every bit as much “rock and roll” as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Tutti Frutti.” That the Platters and “In The Still Of The Nite” mattered just as much as Chuck Berry and “La Bamba.”

That, in fact, this had been the point.

So, in addition to pushing back against the cruel tide of human history, “things were bad and she was scared but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fears and dry my tears with a rock and roll lullaby,” also pushed back even harder against the increasingly hide-bound–and increasingly suffocating–mantra of its own moment, and, in doing so, asserted in no uncertain terms that rock and roll, more than any art that preceded it, offered something very like salvation for its audience.

All of its audience–not just the part recognized by white boys fighting out its “meaning” in college dorm rooms and the pages of Rolling Stone.

What resulted was a record that seemed, on the surface, too perfect to not reach the top of the charts and take its place as a permanent staple at oldies’ radio.

Of course, surfaces often tantalize and delude and that sort of inevitability often rides a curse.

“Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” fate certainly proved all that.

Well on its way to the fate it richly deserved, its distribution was undone by the financial collapse of B.J. Thomas’ record company, Scepter–a fate Scepter shared with many of the other record labels which had turned out the doo-wop and girl group sounds “Lullaby” was invoking, including, most particularly, Red Bird, the failure of which had destroyed the career of the Shangri-Las, who had surely given Mann and Weil a Zeitgeist to play into if anyone had. (If anyone wants to hear how a sixteen-year-old girl with a backbone ends up alone–pregnant or otherwise–they can listen to Mary Weiss singing “Never Again”–that’s the one where she begins by telling the boy he better not walk out on her again and ends by walking out on him–and get a pretty direct idea.)

The record ultimately stalled at #15. Not bad, and plenty of records, including Thomas’ own “The Eyes of a New York Woman” (which had topped out at #29 a few years earlier) have stayed in heavy rotation for decades following even less initial success.

But none of those records were fighting history.

So “Rock And Roll Lullaby” fell in between the cracks. A bit too popular (and Populist) to be a true cult item, far too strong to fit easily into any nostalgia format. Doubtless there are stations somewhere that play it. Maybe even a few that play it a lot. But in thirty-five years of listening incessantly to oldies’ stations across the country, I’ve never heard it on the radio once.

I’ve played it enough at my house to know it doesn’t really matter. A thousand random encounters between here and the grocery store or in rental cars on the way to Cleveland or Fort Worth or Memphis or Winston-Salem couldn’t possibly have dimmed it.

*  *  *  *

There’s a special reason for that last, a reason why the record simply can’t fade. A reason why the only way to deny its power is to throw up deliberate defenses, which might include “oh, we’re past all that now”…defenses you can bet will be broken down the minute you stop minding them. A reason found in a quality that actually transcends the perfect song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote–a reason that skips right past two swift verses, a luminous bridge and a simple chorus repeated three times, gently, gently, ever-so-gently telling anyone who ever turned their back on need: “Shame on you.”

That reason was specific to rock and roll as well. Simply put, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” was B.J. Thomas’ genius moment.

Now even in rock and roll, not every good singer gets one. But it does happen more often in rock and roll than anywhere else (and by “anywhere else” I don’t mean just other forms of music).

You have a career. You make some good records, maybe quite a few. You practice your craft honorably and well. You build a loyal following that sticks with you for years, or even decades.

But you aren’t a genius. Not really.

So far, you could be doing anything.

But if you sang rock and roll while the revolution was still on track, there was always a chance that once or twice, somewhere along the way, you would be better than that. That sooner (say Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain”) or later (say Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood”) or somewhere in between (say Dobie Gray on “Drift Away”) you would, for three or four minutes, be as great as anybody has ever been or ever will be.

Heck, sometimes you didn’t even have to be good or honorable or anywhere near having a career.

Rock and roll did that, too (here, I’ll let you fill in the name of your choice–no sense ticking anybody off!) It was a bit rarer than the romantic legends would have it, but it did happen.

I’ve always been fascinated by that other main chance, though. The professional’s main chance.

In a way that was a greater, rarer moment, because while it’s possible to believe that “Louie, Louie” or “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Book of Love” (okay I went ahead and named some but surely nobody could be ticked of by those examples!) really could have happened for almost anyone, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” could only have happened for someone very like B.J. Thomas–or maybe only for B.J. Thomas specifically.

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mostly invaluable celebration of the old-fashioned single, where he gave “Rock And Roll Lullaby” a deservedly high place, Dave Marsh described Thomas as being “not much better than a B-level country-rock hack on every other record he made.”

Sorry, Marsh wrote a wonderful book, but on this particular point, he’s dead wrong.

Thomas was a first-rate vocalist in the greatest era of recorded vocal music we’ve yet heard. No, he wasn’t a genius. Not usually anyway. But he had kicked off his chart career with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song that was both commercially successful and emotionally true. The first guy who tried that, fifteen years earlier, had only managed the easier half of the equation and he only turned out to be Tony Bennett.

So no, B.J. Thomas was not a genius, but he was damn good.

No “hack” could have stood in front of all that was going on in “Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” production–or gotten behind all that was going on in back of its lyric–and made it so thoroughly his own.

Neither could any one-off.

Maybe a genius could have done it…but even a genius couldn’t have made it sound as if they knew this was their lasting moment. Geniuses can’t afford to feel that way. That’s part of how they get to be geniuses: by believing that they can always go further and higher, or, at very least come back, again and again, to the furthest, highest place.

For “Rock And Roll Lullaby” to be as great as it is, though, it almost certainly needed to be sung by someone who sensed (even if they didn’t care to admit it) that the moment might never come again for them–that they would never reach any higher than this.

It took a pro for that–the very kind of craftsman who has been so often written out of rock history by those who decided rock and roll would be better off in the margins, untainted by the wearing and tearing necessities of compromise and other impurities inherent in social (as opposed to personal) relevance, and who, incidentally, have seen their wish come true.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have a claim on being geniuses. Duane Eddy has a claim on being a genius. So does Darlene Love.

They could all rightly, if arguably, claim this as the greatest record they ever worked on.

But of all the wonderful records that come from a particularly tricky place–the place where talent becomes genius for one precious, irreducible moment–“Rock And Roll Lullaby” is likely the greatest…and boldest.

And, though he has no other claim on being a genius himself, you can thank B.J. Thomas for that.