From Rock ‘n’ Roll 39-59 (FondationCartier)
“Stagger Lee threw seven…
Billy swore that he threw eight”
— Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee” (1959)
I’m not going to cheat. I was asked to create a portrait of rock & roll as it took shape between 1939 and 1959 through portraits of a handful of records, and I will. I won’t use one record to talk about fifteen others. I won’t go back to the 40-song LP collection of early Los Angeles group harmony singles I found in a bin outside of a Mexican restaurant for fifty cents. Nevertheless—
Early rock & roll was so rich—so different from the world as everyone understood it, so different from every other sort of music, so different, one moment to the next, from itself—so crazy, so ridiculous, so stupid, so profound—that the problem is not simply that of limiting its story to seven or ten or even a thousand records. One could answer this charge solely with doo-wop records. You could do it with records from the Sun label (“It was like Paris in the twenties,” singer, bandleader, and producer Jim Dickinson once said of the black-and-white bohemian milieu that came and went through the doors of Sam Phillips’s studio. “We saw a change in Memphis that affected the whole world”). You could do it with Clyde McPhatter records or Elvis Presley, records written and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, or for that matter records a teenage Phil Spector wished he’d produced but didn’t (his first credited production worth remembering, Johnny Nash’s shimmering “Some of Your Loving,” did not appear until 1961). Records solely from the Atlantic label. From New Orleans, or Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Texas, or New York. You could chose your number from any year between 1953 through 1956 and call it quits—but not from any year before that.
It is not hard to go back to the 1940s or the very early fifties and find prototypes, precursors, sketches, and models of what in 1951, in Cleveland, Ohio, on the radio, Alan Freed would call “Rock ’n’ Roll.” With only the barest exceptions—the Orioles’ 1948 “It’s too Soon to Know” more than any other—you will not find the real thing. It doesn’t matter that records with some variation of the “rock” or “rocking” or even “rock and roll” were common in the forties—Roy Brown’s 1947 “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Wild Bill Moore’s 1948 “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll”—or that the likes of Freddie Slack’s 1946 “The House of Blue Lights” or Jackie Breston’s “Rocket 88” are commonly wheeled onstage not only as early rock & roll records but as the first rock & roll record.
These records and many like them have rock & roll themes. They may have rock & roll shape. But they are not rock & roll. The rhythms are slack, satisfied, finished. The singing is plumy, accepting, eager to please. No musician stands out, no one makes a fool of himself without signaling that he’s only kidding. No one goes too far—which means that the music most of all affirms that the world is precisely as it seems, that there is no too far to reach.
Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else—and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turned into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself a thrill of invention so strong that the work is itself its own manifesto—a moment that, in historical time, may be repeated again and again, until, as culture, that moment of appearance can seem to define art itself—that counts.
“We didn’t know it,” the Los Angeles bandleader Johnny Otis once said of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” “but there was a whole new art form brewing.” That is the story. That’s where history is made; that’s where history is started over, as if for the first time, the slate wiped clean, one or a multitude rushing forward promising that anything is possible, and then proving it.
That’s how I see it—and from that perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to tradition, to account for all the innovators, to follow the progression of the form (there is no such thing—the most shocking aspect of early rock & roll records, as they sounded when they were first heard and as they sound now, is how many were perfect, simultaneously the first and last word the form needed to say). Because early rock & roll was so rich, one can dive with a blindfold and earplugs into a vault filled with 45s as Uncle Scrooge’s was filled with money and come out clutching a few prizes that both raise the question of rock & roll and answer it.
In 2005, in the days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, word spread that Fats Domino could not be found. The Ninth Ward, where he was born in 1928, was gone, a graveyard underwater. People searched the fetid refugee camp of the Superdome, and the diasporas that were already springing up in Baton Rouge and Houston, but Domino was already counted among the dead when he showed his face.
In the culture of celebrity that has overwhelmed the United States over the last twenty-five years, it seemed impossible that a famous person could suffer like an ordinary one—weren’t celebrities protected, even made, by God? If a famous person could be swept away in a storm, faceless, uncounted, like anybody else, didn’t that mean that there was no difference between a famous person and an ordinary one—and if that were so, how would the citizens of the republic understand their place on earth?
He was just two months short of twenty-one when he sat down at the piano in the J & M Studio on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine streets in New Orleans. It was 10 December 1949. The notes were no longer painted on the keys, as they had been when Domino was a small boy, but they might have been. There was an eight-man band behind him, but as the record opened, the piano was all you heard.
It came out like a river bursting over a dam, cymbal noise that sounded like the hiss of shellac, a strange, cantering high-step of a beat—the river surging, but then somehow developing a mind of its own, looking around at the trees and cars and people it was sweeping up and carrying with it, paying attention to its own movement, realizing it could change, that it could laugh, that it could make the screaming men and women fighting for breath turn their faces toward each other and dance with their eyes.
There was no beginning to the rolls of pleasure that came off of the piano—the first note felt as if it had been caught in the middle of some other song—and no end, because the sound was so sweet you couldn’t bear the thought that it could end. Everything else was lagniappe: the five-foot, five-inches, 224-pound man squeaking a high “They call, they call me the fat man, ’cause I weigh two hundred pounds” over the sliding bass rumbles under his fingers, the weird wah-wah solo he sings for an instrumental break, the saxophones now creeping up behind him, letting you see the band not playing with him but swaying, as if they were not his musicians but his audience, unable to stay still in their seats.
It was his first record—how many times in the history of rock & roll, in a freedom promised by the form, has a performer done his or her best work the first time he or she stepped forward to be heard? It sold a million copies. In the next ten years, Fat Domino might have sold a hundred million more, but never again was he as loose in the water as he was that first time.
* Best heard on The Fats Domino Jukebox (Crescent City Soul, 2002)
The Jewels, “Hearts of Stone.” R&B, 1954.
Rock & roll was unlikely. The idea was that you turned on the radio expecting to hear something you could never have expected to hear—and you did.
The Jewels were a Los Angeles doo-wop group, but without the teenage romanticism of the Penguins or Ritchie Valens; one of them looked at least forty. “Haaaaaaaaaaaaarts made of stone,” was the sound the leader opened his mouth to make, the first word a flag unfurling, the next three the line pulling it up the pole, where it stopped cold. The words were recognizable English; they were shaped like speech, as if the idea was to make a point, communicate a meaning. But then instantly the language changed. The leader was upended by a chorus that could have been made by a troupe of Hollywood gorillas pounding their chests. Doody wah-dah do, they chanted, and if this wasn’t a true, authentic, unmediated cultural transmission from an Africa of four hundred years before, then it was an cheap degraded parody of cannibals dancing around an iron pot, and it sounded better than the real thing ever could. The leader kept on, “Hearts made of stone, will never break,” but now he sounded square. Listening now, you want him out of the way, so you can see who those fools behind him really are.
This was big rock, a big beat, but far more than that it was at once crazy and bottomless. Here were people who were somehow unafraid to appear in public, or at least the imaginary public of the airwaves, acting as if wadda-wadda-wadda held more truths than Shakespeare—and you believed it.
It is one of the great lost records. Except in Los Angeles, it was not a hit. Immediate cover versions by Otis Williams and the Charms, a black country and western singer passing as the leader of a rhythm and blues group (number one on the R&B charts), by Red Foley, a white country singer (#4, country), and by the Fontaine Sisters, a white vocal group (number one on the pop charts)—in every case a cold, straight treatment, taking the Jewels’ record, a thing in itself, and extracting a mere composition, something that could have been written by anyone and in their hands felt as if it had been written by no one—literally shut the Jewels’ mouths. “Once, at a show in Cleveland,” the R&B historian Marv Goldberg writes, “the Jewels found themselves on the same bill as the Charms—and it was the latter group which got to sing ‘Hearts of Stone.’”
In essence, it was a murmur—loud, pounding, but insisting amid the noise it made that, as the punk group the Germs would put it in the same town more than a quarter of a century later, that what we do is secret. Was it that murmur—or the way, after the unstoppable But they’ll say no no (NO) no no (NO) no no (NO) no no (NO) no no (NO) no no (NO) no no (NO) breakdown in the middle of the piece, the whole ensemble slid over the edge of the rhythm into a release that only people grasping for a melody can provide? We speak in unknown tongues, the Jewels said, and you can too.
* Best heard on The Jewels!–B-Bomb Baby (Gold Dust, 1996)
Little Richard, “Ready Teddy.” Specialty, 1956.
When Jerry Lee Lewis first appeared on national television, on The Steve Allen Show in 1957, Allen had tables and chairs thrown across the stage as Lewis hammered out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” What would he have done with Little Richard? Set him on fire?
What made rock & roll different from the music that came before it was contingency and doubt, which when brought together exploded into freedom. You hear it in the rhythms, in the lift and reach of the vocals, in the way you can actually feel a singer or a band surprised at what they’re hearing, at what they themselves are doing. It’s Scotty Moore exclaiming “Damn, nigger!” in wonderment and awe in the midst of Elvis’s first session in Memphis in 1954; it’s the runaway train of the third take of “Ready Teddy,” again in the J & M Studio in New Orleans, but this day the seven musicians realizing that a runaway train means they can get away. From everything. From their lives as they were raised to live them. From the expectations of everyone around them, themselves most of all. From white America, and into an escape into the America that was always promised and has never been. Into sex, drink, drugs, an endless night with the hint of a dawn as the smile the night offers those who can hold off sleep.
Ping! goes the guitar, out of place, the guitarist unable to stop his smile, because this is take three, he knows what’s coming, but he knows what’s coming is going to go farther than it has before. This time it’s Lee Allen’s sax break that breaches the levee each man carries with himself. With the band crashing behind him like buildings blown up in sequence, Allen sounds like three of himself, negating every screaming shock Richard has already delivered. Earl Palmer, the most elegant of drummers, is smashing up a bar. Richard himself holds back at first, as if intimidated by the force he has himself let loose, but then bearing down harder on his piano, until you can almost feel it resisting him: Leave something for the poor! You shake your head in disbelief that anything like this could ever have happened, that it could have been recorded, that it is present before you now as if it is happening for the first time, not a representation of anything but the event itself.
It is probably the eighth take when they get the version that will be sent out to convulse those who can hear it and confuse everyone else. Convulse—until the very moment when silence takes over, when the train goes into the air, into a kind of suspension, where if you look down you’ll fall, but you don’t look down, and suddenly everything’s quiet. In an instant, the noise is gone and the world is defined only by what is severe, cool, geometric, Malevich’s erasure of chaos, his few planes signifying the opening of all doors, but not yet, because in this moment you stand still, gazing into the future. This is what happens when the band disappears and Richard goes into a trance. “I shuffle to the left,” he says; “I shuffle to the right.” Yes, you think, in a trance yourself, that must be it.
* Best heard on Little Richard, The Specialty Sessions (1989/90)
Buchanan and Goodman, “The Flying Saucer Parts 1 & 2.” Luniverse, 1956.
The notion that rock & roll was so strange it had to come from outer space was not arcane. It was part of the deep self-consciousness of the music, and the self-consciousness of its audience. There was the sense that something truly new was taking shape, that people were caught up in a great game without rules or expectations. There was a sense that all of this was a joke. And there was the sense that to commit oneself to novelty, adventure, and excitement as completely as the new music and its fans seemed to have done was to risk that your whole sense of who you were, what life was for, and what the future promised, might vanish in an instant.
The thrill of rock & roll was frightening. The message that unscrolled at the beginning of the 1983 film Strange Invaders—a parody of 1950s flying saucer movies—seemed like a smug look back at the grown-ups who didn’t get it: “It was a simple time, of Eisenhower, twin beds, and Elvis from the waist up—a safe, quiet moment in history. As a matter of fact, except for the communists and rock-and-roll, there was not much to fear. Not much at all… until that night.” But even its truest fans were, in moments, afraid of rock & roll. It made promises you might not be able to live up to. It affirmed a utopia of fun, speed, and pathos everyday life might never match. And, in a belief that united the people who hated the music and the people who loved it, almost everyone was certain that it would end.
This was not the tone of Billy Lee Riley’s 1956 “Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll,” a crash-through-the-swamp in which Riley, who could sing like a chainsaw when it was called for, insisted that not only had spacemen “brought rock ‘’n’ roll all the way from Mars,” but that “the little green men taught me how to do the bop.” And it was not the tone of “The Flying Saucer,” in which two comedy writers produced an idiot’s version of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play “The War of the Worlds.” The device was simple and irresistible: a flying saucer is about to land on earth, and everybody—humans and aliens—speaks in rock & roll. “Are you there?” says a reporter, knocking on the space ship door: a sample from the Smiley Lewis hit has the space man answering “I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in.” The “outer-space disc jockey” plays “Earth Angel.” “And now I believe we’re about to hear the words of the first spaceman ever to land on earth,” says the reporter. What do you think he says? Why, he sounds just like Little Richard: “A WOP BOP A LOO BOP A LOP BAM BOOM!”
Rock & roll was weird; it was also ordinary language. All those stupid little catch-phrases and throwaway and nonsense syllables could say anything. Think of the greatest of all alien-invader movies, Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (where the only defense against the Martians is Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call,” an anti-rock record that melts their brains), with Jack Nicholson’s President of the United States pleading “Can’t well all just… get along?” before the smiling little Martian smokes him—and then give the story back to Buchanan and Goodman’s president, and imagine how right the moment they conjured up was, a world-historical crisis changed into a stomp not even Martians could resist: “Here is a news item from Washington,” a broadcaster says, in a nervous tone that matches that of the first reports of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy all too closely. “The president has just issued a statement to the spacemen, and we quote—” And then, in a perfect cut-in, Carl Perkins is the president of the United States. There’s a lift as the chief steps out, his guitar bouncing in his hands, his legs jumping, a welcome so warm you just know everything is going to work out fine: “You can do anything, but lay off of my blue suede shoes.”
Dion and the Belmonts, “I Wonder Why.” Laurie, 1958.
Contingency and doubt were never more at the heart of the rock & roll style than in doo-wop. All doo-wop began a cappella—as it was spelled in New York and New Jersey, where a whole cult grew up around unaccompanied vocal groups, “acapella”—which meant that as groups formed on street corners or at the bottom of high-school stairwells, there was nothing to fall back on. The voices of yourself and the guys around you had to make every change, find every transition hidden in the melody, create a unique drama out of the same old ballads—“The Glory of Love,” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “Gloria”—everybody else sang. Some of the most unearthly of all early rock & roll recordings are early sixties acapella rehearsals by the Detroit harmony group Nolan Strong and the Diablos, “Since I Fell for You” and “(So Long), Gee, I Hate to See You Go,” sung with an affection, a comradeship almost from beyond the grave—each singer forced not only to speak to every other singer, but obligated, somehow, to speak for every other singer even as he heard them speaking to him—that neither Sam Cooke, Jesse Belvin, Jerry Butler, or anyone else ever quite touched.The first record Dion and the Belmonts made had musical instruments on it, but you barely noticed, if you noticed at all. In fact, there are no instruments until Carlo Mastrangelo and then the rest of the group make it through the first thirteen seconds—which might as well be the whole of the song. When they repeat the same figures at the end of the recording—with drums, bass, and piano now behind them—it has lost its flair, the trembling joy that comes when you’re working without a net.
Dion is the formal leader—singing words in English, “When you’re with me, I’m sure you’re always true,” etc.—but Mastrangelo, mouthing “Din din din din din din din” until he finally reaches the long “Dah” that allows the other singers into the music—never surrenders the song. His low tenor is everywhere, constant, his doo-wop language pulling back against the chiming high notes the Dion and the other Belmonts hit again and again, ringing bells as Mastrangelo races through every back alley in the Bronx, bringing the news.
They are faster than sound. They achieve what true speed in rock & roll always has—tenths, hundredths of seconds where a match is struck in the midst of the storm. You revel in the rush, but it’s those moments of suspension that call you back—for me, the slight shift one minute thirty-nine seconds in, just after the outrageous “Wop/Wop/Wop wop wop” from four Italian boys, because it’s the doo-wop syllable with the percussive force they need, and because they are mouthing a forbidden word, when two notes from the bass guitar turn the song over, physically, like Astaire leading Rogers. But you don’t imagine the Belmonts dancing—their matching suits, their matching gestures, elbows to one side, knees to the other—you imagine them doing back flips. It’s a gymnastics final in the Olympics, and everyone else has come out with some Celine Dion number or “I Will Always Love You” or even some flaccid techno track—and then the judges thrown down their cards and run for their lives.
“5” Royales, “The Slummer the Slum.” King, 1958.
Rock & roll was not afraid of its own stupidity. “The Purple People Eater,” a hit in the summer of 1958, was so fascinatingly moronic people simply could not turn away from it; in San Francisco, a new Top 40 station announced itself by playing the record for 24 hours straight. The “5” Royales were a vocal group from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, led by the guitarist Lowman Pauling, who ran rings around Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix before they ever stepped on a stage. They made many great records, including the original versions of “Think” (taken by James Brown) and “Dedicated to the One I Love” (the Shirelles), but in a career played out mostly in the shadows, “The Slummer the Slum” was their strangest.
“Slummer the slum,” the group hammered down, sounding for all the world as if they were promoting a new dance, “The Slumety Stomp,” when hidden in their sound was a three-word protest song. The leader announced himself as if he were the Lone Ranger—but the Lone Ranger with a scary, stop-time rhythm he used instead of silver bullets. The words Paulman wrote were among the most Gothic, and at the same time the most shameless, in all of American music.
To figure out
Where I come from
Now, don’t try
To figure out
Where I come from
He could have stopped right there—
I could be a smart guy from Wall Street
I could be the Purple People Eater’s son
But you couldn’t tell—maybe it was a new dance.
Well, now, that’s only one difference
That’s only one difference
Between me and you,
You’ve got money in your pocket
And I’ve got a hole in my shoe
All from doing the slummer the slum…
The song ends, and you can’t believe what you’ve just heard—the guitar playing, that is, absolutely modern, a style still waiting for someone to catch up with it. And then you hear the words, and you can’t believe they mean what they say. Figure out where he came from? Not a chance in the world.
* Best heard on Monkey Hips and Rice: The “5”Royales Anthology (Rhino, 1994)
The Fleetwoods, “Come Softly to Me.” Dolton, 1959.
The sounds traveled across the country, around the world. One spot they lighted down was Olympia, Washington. There at Olympia High School, seniors Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis were auditioning for a third girl to sing the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” with them. The audition didn’t work out; disappointed, they sat down at the piano and worked out a song called “Come Softly.” Then they began looking for a trumpet player for a new arrangement of “Stormy Weather.” Gary Troxel of the Blue Comets showed up. Nothing worked—except a new sound.
Re-arranged around the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go with Me,” and renamed “Come Softly to Me,” to take some of the sex out of the title, the song was a number one hit. The feeling was soft and gentle, but behind Troxel’s lead—“Dum dum, dum do dum, doobey do”—Christopher and Ellis, almost whispering “Come softly, darling,” were implacable, hard, demanding. The record was a dream the radio dreamed for you—even if the truest version of the dream was never on the radio at all. That is an acapella rehearsal, where the singers surrender themselves completely, exposed to the melody, allowing it to strip them naked, leaving them unashamed. “Oh!,” says Christopher or Ellis. “I was busy kissing Gary.” She giggles. “Tee hee,” Troxel says, as if he’s too nice for these sluts, but hell, he’s a guy, and when a girl throws herself at you, what are you going to do? And then the song takes them all into its tunnel. As the era ends, they disappear into it; they don’t even wave goodbye.
* Best heard on Come Softly to Me: The Very Best of the Fleetwoods (EMI, 1993)
[Upcoming: Greil’s notes on the 2007 Cartier history of rock ‘n’ roll exhibit in Paris.]
Originally published in Rock ‘n’ Roll 39-59, 2007 (FondationCartier)
Monumental in size (25 by 31.5 cm., 432 pages, 300+ photos), R’n’R 39-59 features writing by GM, Robert Palmer, Peter Guralnick, David Halberstam, et al. Available for purchase here.