THE THREAT: ELVIS IN THE FIFTIES, VOLUME 7….“HOUND DOG” RISING

Volumes 1–6 can be accessed under the “Elvis In The Fifties” category at the right

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Before Elvis’ eightieth birthday recedes, here’s a reminder of just how much the sands of history–and its shady cousin, memory–can slip and slide.

NOTES are mine….quotes are sourced as notated.

I actually assembled this series of quotes about fifteen years ago as part of a larger piece I wrote in response to a friend of mine making the standard claim that Elvis basically “stole everything” (including, of course, “Hound Dog”) from black people and, more generally, to a strain of then prominent “scholarship” (mostly found in left leaning magazines and, to be  fair, mostly refuted there, too) which frequently asserted, among other things, that Big Mama Thornton had not only recorded the original version (true) but had written it (false).

So, for a messy, complicated story of one little record…

Speak memory….I leave it to each reader to decide who to believe!

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….On August 13, 1952, (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller became de facto producers when they supervised, from the studio control booth, Big Mama Thornton’s recording of their song “Hound Dog.”

Johnny Otis, a white drummer and vibraphonist, was the leader of a popular black blues band. He asked Leiber and Stoller to write some material for several of the singers in his band. Little Esther and Big Mama among them. “We went down to a rehearsal,” says Leiber, “and watched Big Mama perform. She must have weighed three hundred pounds and she was the saltiest chick we’d ever seen. We went home to write for her and out came “Hound Dog.”

Otis supervised the recording session first with Leard Bell, who worked with him on the road, playing the drums. The tune had been conceived by Jerry and Mike as a kind of country blues, with the drums playing a loping figure such as one might hear in Louisiana music. Bell had trouble finding a groove, and Jerry and Mike told Otis he had to play drums to save the song. “Who’s gonna’ sit in the booth?” Otis asked. “We will,” answered Jerry and Mike. And with Otis on the drums, his snares turned off so the drum kit got an unusual hollow ring, “Hound Dog” was recorded in two takes. “That was the first time,” Leiber says, “that we actually took over some authority and asked for a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that.” The record was number one on the national rhythm-and-blues charts for three months, eclipsing the success of Leiber and Stoller’s first r&b hit, “Hard Times” by Charles Brown. But since the charts were still segregated, few of Jerry and Mike’s remaining white friends heard either tune.

[From Baby That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

….Mike Stoller: “Johnny Otis called us in August 1952, and asked us to come over to his house. We knew Johnny because we’d written songs for Mel Williams and Little Esther, who worked with his band. He said, “I’ve got this singer, Willie Mae Thornton, who I’m going to produce. I want you to come by and listen to her and write a song for her.’ That’s how we meet her. I’d seen her name on something prior to that, but I didn’t know what she looked like. And to my knowledge I’d never heard her. Just knew the name.

“We went to this house in West L.A.–it was in the West Adams area. Beneath the living quarters of the house was a garage which he’d converted into a kind of rehearsal studio. I remember it was a warm afternoon, so the doors were open and it was sort of a half-inside, house-out rehearsal. And that’s when we first saw Big Mama. We were kind of….she was very imposing. [Laughs.] We ran back to my house and wrote “Hound Dog” in about eight or nine minutes. I started playing the piano with a beat that was kind of angry-sounding, because she seemed to be an imposing and salty kind of woman. She appeared to be close to 300 pounds and strong as an ox–she used to lift the microphone, with its heavy steel base, with one hand and sing into it while the base was up in the air. That’s what came through when I played the piano. And Jerry just started rambling and shouting and all of a sudden came out with, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.’ And it became a song about a gigolo. We took it back over to the garage that same day, and that was it. We sang it to her and she said, ‘Uh-huh.’ [Laughs.] [Referring to other printed versions of the story:] I don’t think we wrote it on a paper bag; it was probably a piece of lined paper.

“I remember we walked into the studio the next day and Jerry said, ‘Willie Mae, growl that opening line.’ And she said, ‘Don’t tell me how the sing the blues.’ Of course, the idea stuck, though. There was just two takes. When we’d rehearsed it at Johnny’s house, Johnny was sitting in on the drums. He’d had the snares turned off and was playing an old southern-style beat that sounded like something from an Alan Lomax recording–like they’d just come back from the fields. In the studio, his drummer, K.C. Bell, was on the drums. He had a regular, good-sounding set of traps you know, a regular crisp-sounding snare, and it just wasn’t happening. We told Johnny to get on the drums, and he said ‘Who’s going to run this thing?’ We said, ‘We will.’ It was actually the first time we had been fully in charge in the studio. Big Mama gave two incredible performances; the second one was better. It was a killer.”

[From Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll–Bob Shannon and John Javna (1986)]

[NOTE: “Hound Dog” became Big Mama Thornton’s only hit of any kind on any national chart, reaching #1 on the R&B charts in April, 1953.]

….Somebody told me they were recording there at Sun and I just went. Everybody had been in there. Sam [Phillips] had a completely black stable then, no white artists in there at all. All black. I had cut a song in Sun in 1953 called “Bear Cat,” that was the first hit for Sun, but I had done some other songs before that. I think two songs. Then Sun leased some of my songs to Chess up in Chicago. All I wanted to do was make a record. I didn’t worry about the money, because at that time you’d only get a penny a record.

“Bear Cat” was a spin-off from Willie Mae Thornton’s “Hound Dog”–same background music and everything, just different words. Sort of an answer to “Hound Dog.” It was a big song. The first hit with a Sun label on it. I made maybe five, six hundred dollars off it. Sam made a bit more than that. But Sam wouldn’t hardly tell anyone I made the first record for him that got a hit until about three years ago. They’d put us on panels together and he never did mention it. But I’d always come back and say, ‘Sam didn’t tell you I made the first record.’

He was an arrogant bastard. He is today. Back then he had a big car, was maybe a foreign car, a Bentley, and he’d boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, ‘Yeah, but if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have had that car.’

[Rufus Thomas, from Sun Records: An Oral History–John Floyd (1998)]

….Consider American popular culture in the moments just after 8:00 p.m. on January 28, 1956, as represented (quite accurately) by “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.” The theme music is a large, bland was of strings and brass without discernible rhythmic accent. The male entertainers are decked out in tuxedos; suits and ties constitute casual wear except in the odd comedy skit. The only women are skimpily clad dancers. Everyone is white; no one speaks with an accent (except, perhaps, in an ethnic comedy sketch). The atmosphere is polished, sophisticated, slick, easy–nothing is difficult or challenging because there’s nothing at stake. Everyone has a role to play, entertainer and audience, assigned at birth and kept for life.

Enter Elvis, the living antithesis of this culture. Not unkempt but unruly, fresh, arrogant, surly, raw and powerful, his lip curling, hips shaking, knees swiveling. The music is streamlined and defined, his small band louder than the Dorseys’ huge orchestra. Elvis snaps into “Heartbreak Hotel.” He owns the song and the crowd immediately; the audience is stunned. This isn’t so much an “act” as an expose of the emptiness not only of most entertainment but of most lives. In the process of watching him, lives are changed.

Yet the reaction wasn’t national convulsion. “Heartbreak Hotel” came out the week Elvis’ first Dorsey show aired and, though the song soon topped national pop and country charts–even got to Number 5 in R&B–TV wasn’t decisive in its success. The Dorsey show wasn’t highly rated. Elvis had been booked because he might boost its ratings. Elvis had been spectacularly successful with his live show in the South and Southwest, radio programmers were becoming more open to rock & roll with each passing week and he now had a record with the promotional clout of RCA behind it from the day of release. All these factors contributed to Elvis’ national breakout.

All this while the band toured ceaselessly, flying into New York to do the TV appearances and to make an occasional record date. Elvis, Scotty [Moore], Bill [Black] and D.J. Fontana were selling out the honky-tonks and the arenas in the South and Southwest, making an occasional foray into the Middle West but basically avoiding the big cities. It was the country circuit they played. But Colonel Parker had bigger ideas.

On April 23, they began what was meant to be a two-week headline engagement at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was an undiluted disaster. The crowd came to gawk and glare at the hillbilly freak. It sat on its hands, a middle-aged, middle-class wad that wanted nothing more threatening or challenging than a little diversion from its losses at the tables. After the first few days, Presley’s name dropped to second on the bill, below comedian Shecky Greene. Before the start of the second week, the Frontier agreed to tear up Elvis’ $8,500-per-week contract.

The Vegas dates did have one benefit. While watching a lounge act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Elvis and the band heard a trumped-up version of Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 R&B hit, “Hound Dog,” an arrangement so wild and preposterously stagy that they immediately added it to their own stage show, where it became a sensation.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….The Bellboys, a highly visual act who provided both action and comic relief, had had a minor hit the previous year with a song that had been a huge rhythm and blues success for Duke/Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton in 1953. “Hound Dog” had been written by two white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who specialized in rhythm and blues, and was a very odd choice for a male performer, since it was written from a female point of view. Nonetheless, it was the showstopper of Bell’s act, even retaining some of the original rhumba-flavored beat, and it sparked a determination on Elvis’ part to incorporate it into his own show. “We stole it straight from them,” said Scotty. “He already knew it, knew the song, but we were just looking on it as comic relief, if you will, just another number to do on stage.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It was Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” the second time he appeared on “The Milton Berle Show” that created outrage in papers and pulpits across the land. “Hound Dog” itself, although written as an exercise in black vernacular by a pair of hustling white leftists from Hollywood, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was greeted as the worst kind of hillbilly barbarism. That is, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog/Cryin’ all the time” was regarded as culturally retarded by a nation that only months before had found “How much is that doggie in the window/The one with the waggly tail” perfectly acceptable.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

He opened (the Milton Berle Show appearance) with “Hound Dog,” the song with which he had been closing his act ever since Las Vegas. He was wearing a light-color checked jacket, dark pants, a two-tone polo shirt, and white socks, and for the first time, surprisingly, he was not even cradling a guitar. Perhaps to make up for its absence he seemed to have carefully worked out new moves, wrists splayed out almost limply in seeming contrast to the ferocity of his vocal attack, fingers fluttering, arms outspread. With Scotty’s solo he lurches backward in what might be interpreted as an upbeat adaptation of the shrugging, stuttering, existential hopelessness of a James Dean, there is a jittery fiddling with his mouth and nose, and as the song comes to an end he is dragging the microphone down to the floor, staggering almost to his knees. Scotty and D.J. and Bill keep their eyes glued on him, there is only the slightest flicker of surprise as he points at the audience and declared emphatically. You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, then goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jack knifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too–it is clearly all in good fun.

[From Last Train in Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The biggest outcry was against the way Elvis moved. “Elvis the Pelvis” became an epithet on the lips of the nation’s adults, moving Elvis to a rare public expression of bitterness (in a TV Guide interview): “It’s one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.” TV critics used Presley’s TV performances to argue their case against the decadence and boorishness of the medium; the ordinarily sober John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar,” just short of true obscenity. It was an opinion seconded, often in stronger terms, by preachers, critics and educators across the land.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

…The attacks continued: In Nashville an effigy of him was hung, in St. Louis he was burned in absentia. Writing in the Catholic Sun the Reverend William Shannon complained that “Presley and his voodoo of frustrations and defiance have become symbols in our country.” Cardinal Spellman, in a sermon, quoted one of Jack Gould’s articles on Presley at length. The Reverend Charles Howard Graff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village, New York, called the singer a “whirling dervish of sex.” The evangelist Billy Graham admitted he hadn’t met Presley and didn’t know much about him, but based on what he’d heard he wasn’t “so sure I’d want my children to see him.”

Reactions to Presley were not limited to the critics. One campaign was the brainchild of two Yale students who had become alarmed when they saw a lot of kids sporting “I Like Elvis” buttons. These two launched a counterattack on behalf of Beethoven and had a thousand “I Like Ludwig” buttons made up. A placard on the counter of a music store in Manhattan read, “Combat the Menace! Get Your Ludwig Button.” They sold them all in a matter of hours and within a few weeks claimed to be a national club with twenty thousand members across the country. Those who were seen with “Ludwig” buttons included such famous musicians as Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy, and Pablo Casals.

It seemed that everybody got in on the act, including one used car dealer in Cincinnati, who advertised that he would break fifty Presley records in the presence of anybody who bought one of his cars. He sold five cars in one day. In Toronto, Canada a columnist for the Toronto Telegram started a club for those who disliked Elvis and rock. It was called the Elvis Suppresley Club. On Canada’s west coast, columnist Jack Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun held a contest in which listeners were invited to complete, in fifty words or less, the following sentence: “I hate Elvis Presley because….” The winner got a Frank Sinatra record album. In the town of Aylmer, Quebec jukebox operators took Presley songs out of boxes after the mayor-elect urged the ban on the basis that the songs were too suggestive. At a private school in Ottawa, Canada eight female students were expelled after they disobeyed a school edict to stay away from a Presley concert. The principal of the senior high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, Oren T. Freeman, stated that, “We do not tolerate Elvis Presley records at our dances, or blue jeans or ducktail haircuts.” The editors of the Music Journal blasted Elvis for his “leering, whining, moaning,” and for his “filthy performances.” Two female students from a San Francisco high school won a “Why I Love Elvis” contest and were flown to Hollywood to be kissed. The principal expelled them and explained, “We don’t need that kind of publicity.”

….A jockey known as the Great Scott, in Nashville, burned six hundred Elvis records in a public park.

….When radio station WPST of Minneapolis banned Presley from their airwaves they brought down the ire of some residents. Several DJs reported receiving threatening calls to “play Elvis Presley or else.” A rock was thrown through the outlet’s front window and the attached note read, “I am a teenager–you play Elvis Presley or else we tear up this town.” The ban stood.

….In Leipzig (East Germany) police arrested a gang of youths after they had come under the influence of “NATO ideology.” The name of the gang was the “Elvis Presley Hound Dogs.”

[From Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock and Roll–Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave (1988)]

“appalling taste”–The San Francisco Chronicle.

“no discernible singing ability…an undistinguished whine…for the ear he is an utter bore”–The New York Times (Jack Gould)

“Elvis Presley wriggled and wiggled with such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Southern really deserves equal time to reply in gyrating kind…He can’t sing a lick, makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance….The sight of young (21) Mr. Presley’s caterwauling his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice, during a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper, has caused the most heated reaction since the stone-age days of TV when Dagmar and Faysie’s necklines were plunging to oblivion.”–New York Journal-American (Jack O’Brien)

“[Popular music] has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. The TV audience had a noxious sampling of it on the Milton Berle Show the other evening. Elvis, who rotates his pelvis, was appalling musically. Also he gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”–New York Daily News (Ben Gross)

“…if his entertainment could be confined to records, it might not be too bad an influence on the young, but unfortunately Presley makes personal appearances.

“He recently appeared in two shows in the Municipal Auditorium of La Crosse, Wisconsin. According to the La Crosse paper, his movements and motions during the performance, described as a ‘strip-tease with clothes on,’ were not only suggestive but downright obscene. The youngsters at the shows–4,000 at one, about 1,200 at the second–literally ‘went wild,’ some of them actually rolling in the aisles…

“Yet the National Broadcasting Company wasn’t loath to bring Presley into the living-rooms of the nation on the evening of June 5. Appearing on the Milton Berle show, Presley fortunately didn’t go so far as he did in La Crosse, but his routine was ‘in appalling taste’ (said the San Francisco Chronicle) and ‘his one specialty is an accented movement of the body that hitherto has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.’ (New York Times)

“If agencies (TV and other) would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presleys of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.”–Catholic weekly America.

[Select quotes (a very small sampling) gathered from Anti-Rock and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley]

….Juvenile delinquency, a widespread breakdown of morality and cultural values, race mixing, riots and irreligion all were being blamed on Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll by a national press that was seemingly just awakening to the threat, the popularity of the new music among the young, and, of course, the circulation gains that could always be anticipated from a great hue and cry.

….When in Charleston he nibbled a reporter’s fingers just to get her attention, it made national headlines–“Girl Reporter Bitten by Elvis”–and his mother was upset that now he was being accused of some new form of moral degeneracy until he reassured her there was nothing to it.

….“I’m going to get a wiggle meter to time the wiggles,” said the Colonel with imperturbable calm. “When Elvis stops singing, we’ll put him on the stage and just let him wiggle!”

….The Milton Berle Show topped Phil Silver’s Sergeant Bilko in the ratings for the first time all season.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….All this caught they eye of Steve Allen, then hosting a Sunday night variety show. If he outlives Norman Cousins, Allen may yet come to be regarded as this century’s preeminent embodiment of the patronizing middlebrow. Allen was a pianist and sometime lyricist, and he hated the emergent rock & roll; he would later be reduced to reading aloud the lyrics to “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Allen seized the opportunity to present Elvis as a chance to hype his own ratings while putting the young hillbilly in his place.

Elvis appeared on July 1, 1956. The program began with Allen walking on stage dressed in a tux, short hair slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses set firmly on his smirking image, wringing his hands in gleeful anticipation. “Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ our next guest, Elvis Presley, received a great deal of attention–which some people seemed to interpret one way and some viewers interpreted another.” Allen said, his silly smirk growing larger. “Naturally, it’s our intention to do nothing but a good show. [A bark from offstage, Allen laughs nervously.] We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy and we always do. And tonight we are presenting Elvis Presley in his [snicker], what you might call his first comeback. And so it gives me great pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley.”

Elvis stood there, decked out in a tux (and blue suede shoes, no less). Elvis beat Allen in the first round, singing a knockout version of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” his new single and a fairly conventional ballad that was entirely credible in this getup. Allen then opened a curtain, revealing Elvis’ band–and a basset hound perched on a stool, wearing a top hat and a bow tie, to which Elvis was supposed to sing “Hound Dog.” He did, and he prevailed yet again, proving himself not only a good sport but an exceptionally intense and witty performer. Only those who gazed long into Presley’s eyes could have seen how angry and humiliated he felt.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1986)]

….“He sang without passion,” Al Wertheimer noted (of the ‘Steve Allen Show’ rehearsal). “He didn’t move, he didn’t touch the microphone, he stood square, both feet spread and stuck to the ground. After he had finished….Steve patted him on the back and told him it was great. Elvis smiled and in a slow, modest voice, he said ‘Thank you, Mr. Allen.’”

Then he met the dog, a female basset hound dressed in a collar, bow tie, and top hat. In further keeping with the theme of the show he was going to sing “Hound Dog” to–who else? During the first run-through the dog ignored him. Allen “suggested that they get to know each other.” Elvis petted, sang to her, and in the end prevailed, to the applause of the assembled stagehands and professionals.

….If Allen was experiencing extreme pleasure, it was clear that Elvis was experiencing the opposite.

….With his opening number (during the show itself), “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” for the first time he appeared, if not comfortable, at least involved, even in tails. He sang the song with sincerity and feeling, hunching his shoulders, loosening his tie, but for the moment lost in the private reverie which his music provided. The Jordanaires doo-wahed behind him, out of the picture, as were the musicians, save in silhouette. Even as the last notes were still ringing, Steve Allen bustled out on stage again, this time wheeling the basset, and announced that Elvis was not going to sing “Hound Dog,” his next big hit, which he would record the next day. The dog started to look away, Elvis cupped its chin, and there was sympathetic laughter as Elvis glanced balefully, as if sharing a joke with a friend, at the audience. The camera was on the dog as Elvis pointed at her and declared the obvious with a playful snarl. When the dog started to tremble, he held her affectionately and in the course of the song even kissed her once or twice. Apart from nervous titters, there was little response from the audience, but Elvis was a good sport about it all (“He always did the best he could with whatever situation he was given,” said Jordanaire Gordon Stoker of the appearance, “and he never, ever insulted anybody”), walking the mike around into the basset’s line of vision whenever its attention wandered, sharing his discomfiture openly and amiable. There was a sense of almost palpable relief on the part of all concerned when the song ended and he could finally march offstage after a long, lonely moment in the spotlight.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It got worse, in a comedy skit that featured Allen, Imogene Coca and Andy Griffith as what was supposed to be taken as a “typical” hillbilly entertainment troupe devoted to hayseed jokes and the hustling of marketable products to the rubes. The jokes were not even up to Allen’s usual pallidly “urbane” standards. Each of them was lame, flat but vicious, a pitiless exhibition of Allens’ commitment to proving a point: that Elvis and the hillbilly culture he symbolized had no place in American life. Twenty-five years later, this skit is virtually incomprehensible except as a sort of basic attack on what Elvis was taken to represent, which was not only the South but lack of “sophistication.”

Nor was Allen’s intention missed–not by everyone. In Newsweek, John Lardner devoted an entire column to Elvis’ appearance on the program. Though it was written with Lardner’s familial sarcasm, the column (“Devitalizing Elvis”) amounts to a defense of Presley. “Steve Allen…made a public attempt to neutralize, calm or de-twitch Elvis Presley, the lively singer,” Lardner wrote. “Allen did this, one assumes, in what he personally considers the best interests of civilization. For him, it was logical. Civilization today is sharply divided into two schools which cannot stand the sight of each other. One school, Allen’s, is torpid and dormant in style; it believes in underplaying, or underbidding, or waiting ’em out. The other, Presley’s, is committed to the strategy of open defiance, of confusing ’em, of yelling ’em down. The hips and the Adam’s apple, this school believes, must be quicker than the eye.

“Allen’s ethics were questionable from the start,” Lardner concluded. “He fouled Presley, a fair-minded judge would say, by dressing him like a corpse, in white tie and tails.” The corpse, in the long run, would be bourgeois emptiness Allen epitomized. But for now the humiliation was Elvis’.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….Back at his room at the Warwick (after the “Steve Allen Show” appearance), Elvis was still not done with his official duties. It had been arranged for him to do an interview on Herald-Tribune columnist Hy Gardner’s program, “Hy Gardner Calling!,” which broadcast locally on WRCA-TV, channel 4.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The next day he seemed hardly the worse for wear. He arrived at the RCA building to find fans carrying picket signs that declared “We Want the Real Elvis” and “We Want the Gyratin’ Elvis”…Then he entered the studio, shortly before 2:00, and settled down to work.

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….They started with “Hound Dog,” but perhaps not surprisingly it proved more difficult to capture on record than anyone had anticipated from its easy on stage success. Engineer Ernie Ulrich, as cynical about rock and roll as anyone else in the building, got a good sound mix early on, but then there were seventeen takes without a satisfactory master. The drums, always the driving force in the live show, weren’t working right. Scotty was groping toward his guitar solo, the Jordanaires were having some difficulty finding their place, and Shorty Long, the boogie-woogie piano player who had filled in on the last New York session, was just looking for his cues. (Nominal producer) Steve Sholes was getting visibly discouraged–he was desperate to get material for the second album, and here they were wasting all their time on a single song–but Elvis, who exhibited few points of stillness in any other aspect of his life, maintained absolute concentration. “In his own reserved manner,” wrote Wertheimer, “he kept control, he made himself responsible. When somebody else made a mistake, he sang off-key. The offender picked up the cue. He never criticized anyone, never got mad at anybody but himself. He’d just say, ‘Okay, fellas, I goofed.’”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….What they needed to figure out was how to turn the live performance into a record that would have the same effect. Elvis had performed the song live with a half-time, bump-and-grind ending a la “I Got a Woman,” but now that was quickly dropped in favor of a full-speed-ahead version that had more to do with energy and overall impact than anything else. Scotty’s guitar sounded loud and propulsive against a churning rhythm from Bill and D.J., while the Jordanaires delivered a backdrop of clapping hands and flowing “ahhhhs.” The end result was like a musical machine gun, and take after take rang through the room, growing tougher and sharper each time.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….On the eighteenth take they finally got something. By now the beat had changed considerably from the way they did it in live performance, and the phrasing of the lyrics had changed even more. It had veered still further from Big Mama Thornton’s original Latin-flavored “rhumba-boogie” feel (preserved mainly in the repetition of the final words, HOUND DOG at the end of the opening lines) and become a hard-driving number powered by D.J.’s tommy-gun attack and a solo that Scotty later labeled “ancient psychedelia.” With the twenty-sixth take, Sholes thought they had it….

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley– Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….This was the session where Elvis’ perfectionist streak first became apparent. From Sholes’ point of view several of the earlier takes would have been just fine, and he tried to get the singer to listen to the playbacks, but it was obvious that the singer was marching to his own beat; he wouldn’t rest until he had recorded the song to his own–not anyone else’s–satisfaction.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….After the thirty-first take Sholes announced over the PA, “Okay, Elvis, I think we got it.”

….Elvis left his chair and crouched on the floor, as if listening in a different position was like looking at subject from a different angle. Again he went into deep concentration, absorbed and motionless. At the end of the song he slowly rose from his crouch and turned to us with a wide grin, and said, “This is the one.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….Finally, with thirty-one, Elvis declared himself satisfied, and the room breathed a sigh of relief.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998) ]

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NOTE: Immediately after recording “Hound Dog,” Elvis chose Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” from a stack of demos and recorded it in twenty-eight additional takes. Although it was July, the air-conditioning was turned off in the studio for the entire session. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” were released as the A and B sides of RCA single 47-6604 (Elvis’ third for RCA) the week of August 4, 1956. It sold a million copies in the week before it was eligible to debut on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent a combined 11 weeks at number one and became the biggest selling single of the 1950s. Elvis had never before–and would never again–devote as many as thirty-one takes to a single side.

Mike Stoller: “In July, 1956, I was sitting in a lifeboat with sixty or seventy other people somewhere in the Atlantic. I was relieved to be away from the sinking Andrea Doria, the beautiful Italian liner I had been on for the past eight days, which now had a large gaping hole in its side and was going down fast. The lifeboat had a broken rudder and could not be steered. I wondered what would happen to me next. Fifteen hours later I stepped on to the dock in New York and was greeted by Jerry Leiber with, among other things, the news that Elvis Presley had just recorded “Hound Dog.”

[From Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (Liner Notes)–RCA International INTS 5031 (1980)]

LEIBERSTOLLER

….Elvis Presley, who had signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor late in 1955 and was turning the country upside down with his versions of rhythm-and-blues oldies and juked up country tunes, heard their “Hound Dog” in a Las Vegas lounge in 1956 and decided to record it. Being unfamiliar with Big Mama Thornton’s original recording*, he used the lounge combo’s garbled version of the lyrics. “You ain’t never caught a rabbit” was no in Leiber and Stoller’s original arsenal of invective, but they were not heard to complain.

During the spring of 1956, Stoller and his wife took a European vacation. They booked passage back to New York on the Andrea Doria and, the night before they were to land, the ship was rammed by the Stockholm in a thick fog bank. Mike was carrying a drink into the ballroom when it happened. “The Stockholm hit us and went two-thirds of the way through the Andrea Doria, bounced off, and came back in again. The ballroom was enclosed in glass and, after the initial shock, I looked out. It looked like someone had taken a giant letter opener and opened up the side of the boat. The Andrea Doria started listing further and further over on its side, and finally we made it down a jacob’s ladder into a lifeboat, which somebody had hacked loose because the winches were broken. Eventually we got into the Cape An and it took us to New York.”

When Leiber heard that the Andrea Doria had been rammed, he spent a frantic night and day trying to find out if Mike had survived. When he learned that the Stollers were among the lucky ones he raced down to the docks to meet them, bringing a silk suit for Mike in case he had been caught without his threads and bubbling with the news that Presley had recorded their song. The news didn’t mean much more than the silk suit at first–“I was just happy to see anybody,” Mike says–but soon the record was a number-one hit.

[From Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

NOTE–*This is Palmer’s contention–disputed by Scotty Moore in an earlier quote here, and highly unlikely given “Hound Dog”’s huge R&B success and Elvis’ nearly encyclopedic knowledge (later confirmed by Leiber and Stoller themselves upon meeting him) of contemporary music.

….By now (the morning after Elvis’ “Hound Dog” recording session) the Steve Allen Show seemed like a million years ago, and the verdict was long since in. Allen had trounced Ed Sullivan in the ratings, the reviews were no more kind toward the stationary Elvis than they had been toward the gyrating one (“A cowed kid,” declared the Journal-American, “it was plain he couldn’t sing or act a lick.”) and Sullivan had publicly reiterated that he would not have the singer on his show at any price (“He is not my cup of tea.”) while privately he had already been in touch with the Colonel.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

NOTE: Elvis returned home to Memphis by train. On July 4, he performed on “Elvis Presley Day” at the town’s minor league baseball stadium. Just before beginning the concert he quieted the crowd for the following announcement: “You know, those people in New York are not gonna’ change me none. I’m gonna’ show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”

….Ed Sullivan announced on July 12 that he had changed his mind and was booking Elvis at an unprecedented fifty thousand dollars for three appearances in the fall and winter.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….By the time the first (Ed Sullivan) show appeared, on Sept. 9, Elvis had become such a cause celebre that Sullivan earned an 82.6 percent share of the viewing audience, an estimated 54 million people. (Steve Allen was off the air that night, replaced by a British movie, the network version of a flag of truce.)

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….For his third Sullivan show, Elvis was filmed only from the waist up in an attempt to do more subtly what Steve Allen had tried so awkwardly the previous summer: to make Elvis Presley respectable.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….MARLO LEWIS (director, the Ed Sullivan Show): Ed said to us just before Elvis was to do the show. “We’re in trouble. Elvis is doing something in these concerts that can no way be shown on television. He’s hangin’ some kind of device in the crotch of his pants so that when he moves his knee back and forth, it looks like his personal organ.” Ed used a little better language than that. “It’s waving back and forth just above the knee. We can’t have that on Sunday night. That’s a church night.”
So when we shot the show, I took camera two and I said, “Dolly into a chest shot and stay there.” And for that entire six minutes we only saw Elvis from his chest to his head. We never revealed the rest of him, nor did anyone ever see this “implement” between his legs. And I’ll tell you a secret: it wasn’t there.

[From Elvis Up Close–Rose Clayton and Dick Heard (eds.) (1994)]

NOTE: Waist up?…More like solar plexus up!

….Sullivan himself had been almost as derisive of Elvis’ ability as Allen. Sullivan wasn’t the host on the first Presley-led program–he was ill, so Charles Laughton filled in. But Ed was there when Elvis came back on October 28 and again the following January. By then, everyone but Sullivan and Elvis had forgotten Ed’s original snub.

As a result, that final appearance was complicated. As penance for attacking Elvis, the Colonel insisted that Sullivan publicly apologize–which Sullivan did, saying, “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.” But Sullivan and the CBS censors contradicted themselves, declaring that for this night, Elvis’ “suggestive movements” made it imperative that he be shown only from the waist up. Elvis made a mockery of this censorship, swiveling wildly, bumping and grinding with everything from his elbows to his eyebrows, using his shoulders as a metaphoric pelvis, and grinning wildly at the undiminished screams.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

Z Magazine: What happened with the royalty agreement you had with Leiber and Stoller around the rights to “Hound Dog”?

Johnny Otis: There were two young guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who came to me in the early 1950s and said we’re trying to write songs and we think we’ve got good songs and good ideas. Could we hook up with you and you could help us when the song needs some help and maybe you could record some of our songs. In fact, they did have great ideas. Some songs I would put my two cents in and other songs didn’t need it. But on the songs I did put my two cents in, we had a hand shake agreement that I would be a partner. One such song was “Hound Dog.” I was supposed to have half the publishing credit and one-third of the writer’s royalties. There was no problem when we had a R&B hit with Big Mama Thornton’s record of it in 1953, but when Elvis Presley’s version hit big, they couldn’t hold on to their integrity. They found out that the law specified if you’re under 21 you’re a minor. They used that and won a victory in court to get out of our agreement. Recently, when I was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, here they appeared on the screen, like the great white fathers of rhythm and blues music, congratulating me and giving a little bit of our history together. I resented that so much.

[From “Slippin’ & Slidin’: An Interview With Johnny Otis” in Z Magazine–Sandy Carter (April, 1995)]

NOTE: You might not guess it reading this quote, but, as earlier noted, Johnny Otis was himself white.

….The best account of Elvis facing his real audience is Gordon Bowker’s “Rock!” (Seattle magazine, February, 1970), which places several teenagers at Elvis’ 1957 Seattle concert, and then catches up with them twelve years later. Bowker’s concluding words cannot be topped, and they sum up the moment:

“The rosy glow had gone from the cap of Mount Ranier, and the infield was bright with the best night-baseball lights in the minor leagues. The noise from the 15,000 people was immense. Finally the crown grew quiet.

“‘I alluz like to begin mah concerts with the national anthem,’ the King said, into the mike. ‘Will ya’ll please rise?’ Boyd Grafmyre and Willie Leopold and Ted Shreffler and Dennis Lunder and Merrilee Gunst [who, as Merrilee Rush, would score a top ten hit in 1968 with the shining “Angel of the Morning”] and Tom Hullet and Pat O’Day who had driven over from Yakima with his wife to celebrate his second wedding anniversary and the other 15,000 people all stood up. Also on his feet was Jimi Hendrix, then a Seattle schoolboy.

“Elvis picked up his guitar, twitched once more, took a breath, and groaned: ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog….’

“The crowd was stunned. Then it erupted into a frenzy that dwarfed the one a few minutes earlier. The grandstands seethed back and forth like a huge sea anemone. Not even Elvis could be heard above the roar.”

[From Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music–Greil Marcus (1975)]

 

FIFTIES’ R&B: Part I, 1950–1954 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 3)

If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:

CLYDEMCPHATTER

 

Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”

In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).

That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.

This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)

(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…

1950:

“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.

“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.

“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.

“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.

1951:

“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.

“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.

“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.

“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.

“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!

“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.

“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).

“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.

1952:

“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.

“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.

“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”

“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.

“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.

“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.

“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.

“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)

1953:

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.

“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.

“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.

“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.

“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.

“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)

“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.

“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.

“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)

1954:

“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.

“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.

“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.

“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.

“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.

“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.

“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.

“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”–Big Joe Turner: The big man finally wigs out.

“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.

“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.

“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.

“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”

“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.

“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.

So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!

[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]