“Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” released as a single in 1969 and included on Parton’s The RCA Years 1967-1986 (RCA), is best heard on the hard-to-find A Real Live Dolly Parton, a 1970 RCA LP recorded at Sevier County High School, Parton’s alma mater, which also features “Bloody Bones,” a ditty about orphans who burn down their orphanage.”
(Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “Notes and Discographies,” 2008 edition, p. 360, emphasis mine)
“But Warren Smith (1933-80) had no real affinity for the black rhythms rockabilly took off from (though Smith, in his heart an Appalachian balladeer, can be heard for the quirky delight he was on his Classic Recordings: 1956-59, Bear Family, an ideal Sun retrospective that includes the devastating “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” “Ubangi Stomp”–one of the only rockabilly records with the word ‘nigger’ in it–“Black Jack David,” and “So Long I’m Gone.”)”
(Ibid, pp. 368, 369, emphasis mine)
I always wonder. Are they delusional or do they just lie?
I finally got hold of that “hard-to-find” Dolly Parton LP this week, based entirely on Marcus’s recommendation which had been floating around in my head since I read the 1984 edition of Mystery Train. It’s a good album (everything she did in that period was at least good). I didn’t worry too much that the LP’s version of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” was no patch on the studio recording and cut in half to boot, that this clearly wasn’t the best place to hear it. Such things are a legitimate matter of opinion.
But imagine my surprise when, after all these years, “Bloody Bones” which I had never even listened to on YouTube because I wanted to hear it the first time in the full context of Dolly singing it live in front of her home town crowd, turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with orphans or orphanages or burning anything down. By all means listen, because I could never convey with mere words just how far from the reality Marcus strayed.
While I was reconfirming his account of “Bloody Bones” I read around in the other “Notes” and came across the assertion that Warren Smith, recording for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in the 50’s had actually used the word “nigger” in “Ubangi Stomp” which was his followup to the regional hit “Rock and Roll Ruby” and an obvious attempt to break him nationally.
I’d heard “Ubangi Stomp” a dozen or so times over the years and two or three times very recently and this allegation had me scratching my head. So I listened to the song three more times last night and also looked up the lyrics on the internet.
No one who follows along here will be surprised to learn that Warren Smith did not say “nigger” on “Ubangi Stomp”–a song that is actually about being so caught up by the native music of Africa that the white boy decides to abandon ship and maybe, just maybe, take up with a local girl.
One thing this particular encounter with classic Crit-Illuminati tactics brought to light was a possible reason Marcus, among many others, have treated Bill Clinton like an untouchable hero instead of the snake oil scumbag he so obviously was and remains.
When the reality is too discomforting to confront…make things up.
Unfortunately, per Philip K. Dick, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Hence the Nineteenth Maxim:
Pay attention and don’t lie. And if you fail to follow this, don’t be surprised to find yourself living in a world you despise.
10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)
The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?
9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.
You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.
8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)
If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.
If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.
7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)
From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.
6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings(1984)
Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.
5) The Clash London Calling (1979)
Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?
If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.
Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.
4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)
Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.
3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)
So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.
Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.
2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics(1984)
There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).
More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.
1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)
The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.
Country Music Hall of Famer Fred Foster had a long and varied career as a producer, talent scout, and label owner. His main labels, Monument and Sound Stage 7 (a rare Nashville-based soul label), were among the most successful and important of their era, the era when independent labels had more success and importance than ever before or since. His contributions to American music included jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Dean, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (with whom he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee”) while his labels gave a home to the likes of Tony Joe White and Joe Simon.
But his greatest moment came when he head something in Roy Orbison’s voice which had escaped the ears of record men as formidable as Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins. By the time Orbison signed with Foster’s Monument label in Nashville in 1960, he had, as the saying goes, been kicked out of all the best places in town and was scraping by as a contract songwriter for the country publishing giant Acuff-Rose. With Foster (and songwriter Joe Melson) Roy was able to fashion this:
It got just enough attention to allow a little experimenting on the next record, which was only this…
…which set Roy Orbison on the path to being one of the biggest stars of the era and gave him a grip on the souls of the lonely that will last until the day we’re officially outlawed.
Elvis had been offered the demo of “Only the Lonely” and took a pass. When he heard Oribson’s finished product on the radio he immediately ordered boxes of the 45 and began handing them out to anyone who would listen.
That’s how much difference Fred Foster made. He passed away on Feb. 20, at age 87.
Kenny O’Dell started in Duane Eddy’s band and had some modest success as a recording artist. But he made his lasting mark as a Hall of Fame country songwriter who had a knack for scoring signature hits for era-defining country acts.
His best known song, “Behind Closed Doors,” made Charlie Rich a huge crossover star after Sam Phillips and a string of Nashville’s crack producers had been trying to put him over since the fifties. Released in 1973, the record probably did more than any other to open Nashville up to modern crossover and while that might have been a mixed blessing for those who liked to keep their country pure (it was only a year or two later that Rich himself, after reading John Denver’s name off a card that read Entertainer of the Year, proceeded to pull out his cigarette lighter and set the card on fire), it established an art and business model the town adhered to for the rest of the decade.
The New Nashville that emerged in the eighties was defined by the Judds if it was defined by anyone and O’Dell wrote their breakout hit “Mama He’s Crazy” as well.
Before, during and after all that he wrote a few dozen other hits and the several hundred other songs that won him every accolade a Nashville songwriter could hope for, from the Grammy on down.
One of those did something that meant as much to me personally as any record could. It was the first single Tanya Tucker released after she left Billy Sherrill (one of the aforementioned crack producers who had, incidentally, helmed “Behind Closed Doors”), Columbia Records and (for the time) Nashville.
Those were considered three very big mistakes at the time. Tucker was still a teenager and was supposed to know her place. The experience was not, in the end, entirely a happy one for her, either personally or professionally.
But the first single she released on her new label went #1 country, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and became her only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40. It laid to rest any question of whether she needed Billy Sherrill or Columbia or Nashville.
I missed all that. But a few years later the record was in constant rotation on the same weird little station that played the only Pop or Oldies format in my North Florida county and introduced me to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My,” Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak”er” and “Black Dog,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown” and more than a few timeless others.
Nothing ever opened my ears more than waiting for that one song to come back around.
And out of all that, Tanya Tucker ended up being the only singer besides Elvis and Patty Loveless who ever kept me up all night.
Kenny O’dell passed away last week at 73. He outlived the wife he married long enough ago to leave five great grandchildren behind by less than a year.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.
What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.
There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.
(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)
I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.
And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.
As to the Elvis part:
Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.
I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion. Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.
As to facts? Those stubborn things?
Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.
Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.
Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:
The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.
Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.
The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.
He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.
And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.
Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.
But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.
Makes it seem, you know, credible.
Nonetheless, Elvis made this..
…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.
Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.
And why not?
Because that would make me look stupid?
Yeah, that’s part of it.
But the main reason is this little creed of mine:
When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.
Not even a little one.
No matter how good it makes you feel.
(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)
There are some artists I keep coming back to, assuming at some point I’ll get it.
This week, I think I finally got Jerry Lee Lewis.
Oh, I’ve listened to a lot of his music, from all eras, over the years. I count fourteen vinyl LPs on my shelf, several of which have seen heavy play at one time or another (I’m especially fond of the album he did with his sister). I owned the first Bear Family box set, a massive collection that runs to something like 8 CDs as I remember, until the great CD selloff of 2002. And I’ve never had any problem seeing him as an all timer in both rock and roll and country.
But, as with certain others–Ray Charles and Otis Redding come to mind–I could appreciate the greatness, and love a dozen or so songs unreservedly, without quite feeling him at the deepest, most unreserved, level.
Now, as with Ray Charles and Otis Redding of late, I think I finally really get him.
The box set pictured above is all the Killer I have on CD at present. It’s been kicking around for a couple of years and I had listened to it once through when I first got it.
But this time I actually went in the other room and let it drift through the house and it turned out that, straining just a bit to hear, being half-distracted by a work project-from-hell, was the ticket in.
I suddenly felt like I was standing outside a country church listening to somebody preach to the empty pews as if they were on fire and stomping on a piano was the only chance of putting them out. That’s kind of a melodramatic and hokey image, but it suits Jerry Lee’s insularity. I think maybe the reason I never quite “got” him was that he always sounded like he was singing mostly to himself.
In that respect, he really was the first true punk. The first, and maybe only, rock and roller sufficiently narcissistic to prophesy Johnny Rotten.
Like Johnny Rotten, Jerry Lee was born to be a Show Biz Lifer. Like Johnny Rotten, he will always be viewed by many as unrepentant, crude, the opposite of a sellout, no matter how artfully he represents himself or his art and no matter how many times he stands before some version of the man with his hat in his hand, begging for one more chance. Like Johnny Rotten, he’s completely full of himself, to the exclusion of all others, living or dead.
Unlike Johnny Rotten, he clearly believes that among the excluded are God and his own immortal soul. Hence the devil’s own assurance in every note sung or played. Hence the burden of genuine torment, eternally dancing around the edges, forever needing to be dodged or bucked.
Hence the famous argument with Sam Phillips, which occurs here at the end of the first disc.
I honestly never thought much about it before. I’d heard it maybe half an dozen times, here and there. There’s not really anything too startling about it….
Heck, in the Pentecostal South that’s just good dinner table conversation.
But by then that first disc had called up the image of the loner inside the empty church, confronted by his own demons, and the first twenty-three cuts had taken the story all the way up to 1963. The music and the man had traveled from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” to “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia,” from the eye of the good old rock ‘n’ roll hurricane to country so pure that when Nashville finally decided the unrepentant Killer’s half a decade of constant repentance was enough, half of it made the Top Ten six years after the fact.
The Country Top Ten that is.
Jerry Lee under wraps had his own kind of power and, if I always sort of knew it, it never came home quite so forcefully before.
Maybe because the first time I listened to this box I clearly wasn’t paying attention to the continuity of it all.
The Great Divide, the pure representation of the wife-beating gun nut beloved by the purest representatives of the Good Liberal intelligentsia everywhere, was there all along and I could always feel it, waiting to be bridged.
Nothing quite did it until this time around, when I went straight from the end of the first disc and Jerry Lee saying “If I believed that, I’d be a Christian!” (and applying a meaning to “Christian” that is unlikely to ever be spelled out in any dictionary unless we arrive in some strange future where a Southern Evangelical Mystic has taken over for Noah Webster, an event that is even less likely to occur than the Yankees believe) to the first cut of the second disc, which was only this…
..with Jerry Lee playing Mephistopheles in a preacher’s coat, the Big Bad Wolf, right up on stage, with the pulpit kicked aside, the pews no longer empty, the fire still burning, and every Little Red Riding Hood in Birmingham, Alabama clapping and stomping her feet.
Which was what I always wanted from him and never quite got before–something more than a sense he was putting on a show for the Yanks.
Now I think I get it.
He might not be the only hell raiser who ever sold his soul to the devil. But I can’t listen to those sides bumping into each other and believe he was anything but one of the very few who went in knowing the cost.
Suddenly, his whole career makes sense.
And I really got to find a way to get hold of that 8-disc Bear Family monster again.
Volumes 1–6 can be accessed under the “Elvis In The Fifties” category at the right
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!
….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 hounddog, 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.
….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) ]
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)]
….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)]
There are a lot of folks–an alarming number of them quite influential–who prefer to believe that “rock ‘n’ roll” was really a form of magic. That it simply “appeared” out of the ether somewhere in the American South and, as Ishmael Reed once sardonically put it: “Jes’ grew.”
Rock ‘n’ roll did not appear by magic. Like all of human history, whether for good or evil, whether transcendent or mundane, it was made exclusively by people. Mostly by very talented and ambitious people.
Not one of whom was more significant than the New Orleans record man Cosimo Matassa, who just passed away at the age of 88.
If rock ‘n’ roll–as both a distinctive sound and a challenge to the reigning cultural hegemony–was “born” anywhere, it was in his J&M Studio on Rampart Street. I’d pick Dec. 10, 1949, the date of Fats Domino’s first session (out of which came “The Fat Man,”) as the delivery date.
But if you wanted to slide back a little, to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” (1947), or move forward a bit to Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (1952) or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” (1955), you still wouldn’t be wrong.
As the effective mentor of both Dave Bartholomew (pictured with Fats below) and Allen Toussaint–probably two of the top half dozen “record men” in the history of the music–the breadth and depth of Matassa’s influence was as least as sizable as those of far more famous men like Sam Phillips or the Chess brothers. Thankfully, he was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 (decades after he should have been…but at least he didn’t have to die first–we know that tune).
A much fuller account of the man’s achievements (and the genuine love that he–unlike almost every other hard-headed business man of that raucous era–inspired among the musicians who recorded for him) can be found here.
For those interested in knowing more, I’d also recommend Rick Coleman’s fine biography of Fats Domino and the very reasonably priced collections of Matassa’s music that were put out by Proper Records a few years back.
Not to mention, you know, “The Fat Man,” and “Tutti Frutti!” (both of which I highlighted in my recent vocal histories of 50’s R&B so, this being the kind of serendipity I could do without, I won’t link them here.)
(And thanks to Rock and Rap Confidential for the heads up and the link!)