Thursday, March 4, 2010

Volume Five: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On - Honky-Tonk, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues

92. Hank Williams: Ramblin’ Man
(Hank Williams) 1951

93. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys: Blue Moon of Kentucky
(Bill Monroe) 1947

94. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys: Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
(Charlie Monroe) 1951

95. Red Foley: Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy
(Harry Stone-Jack Stapp) 1950

96. Kitty Wells: It Wasn’t Got That Made Honky Tonk Angels
(J. D. Miller) 1952

97. Lonnie Donegan: Rock Island Line
(Huddie Ledbetter) 1954

98. Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons
(Merle Travis) 1955

99. Roy Hall: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
(Dave Williams-Sunny David) 1954

100. Bill Haley and his Comets: (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
(Jimmy DeKnight-Max Freedman) 1954

101. Elvis Presley: Reconsider Baby
(Lowell Fulsom) 1960

102. Buddy Holly: Rave On
(Sonny West-Bill Tilghman-Norman Petty) 1958

103. Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen
(Chuck Berry) 1958

104. Bo Diddley: Hey! Bo Diddley
(Ellas McDaniel) 1957

105. The Johnny Burnette Trio: Honey Hush
(Big Joe Turner) 1956

106. The Johnny Otis Show: Willie and the Hand Jive
(Johnny Otis) 1958

107. Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes
(Carl Perkins) 1955

108. Jerry Lee Lewis: High School Confidential
(Jerry Lee Lewis-Ron Hargrave) 1958

109. Little Richard: Tutti Frutti
(Richard Penniman-Dorothy LaBostrie) 1955

110. Paul Peek, featuring Esquerita: Sweet Skinny Jenny
(Paul Peek) 1958

111. Larry Williams: Bony Moronie
(Larry Williams) 1957

112. Hasil Adkins: Chicken Walk
(Hasil Adkins) 1962

113. Eddie Cochran: Summertime Blues
(Eddie Cochran-Jerry Capehart) 1958

114. Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps: Be-Bop-a-Lula
(Gene Vincent-Donald Graves-Bill Davis) 1956

115. Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on You
(Screamin' Jay Hawkins) 1956

116. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: Southern Love
(Ronnie Hawkins-Jacqueline Magill-Levon Helm) 1960

117. Ruth Brown: Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean
(Johnny Wallace-Herbert J. Lance) 1953

118. Chuck Willis: C.C. Rider
(Traditional, Arr. Chuck Willis) 1957

119. Lloyd Price: Stagger Lee
(Traditional-Harold Logan-Lloyd Price) 1959

120. Fats Domino: Blue Monday
(Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew) 1956

121. Clarence 'Frogman' Henry: Ain’t Got No Home
(Clarence "Frogman" Henry) 1956


“Rock 'n' roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. And, by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd and in plain fact, dirty lyrics ... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.”

--- Frank Sinatra

The music of the nineteen fifties looms large in our popular imagination: the clips of Elvis on camera and his pelvis slightly off camera and Buddy Holly and the Crickets bounding through “Peggy Sue” on that slightly distorted Ed Sullivan kinescope, the candied silliness of American Graffiti and original Happy Days jukebox playing “Rock Around the Clock.” The effect of such pop-cultural oversaturation has been to launch fifties rock and roll into the no man’s land of free-floating-signifiers, memories of a past constructed by film and television, divorced from their original cultural significance. That is to say: to contemporary ears, it’s often difficult to hear what’s so great about Elvis.

The crossovers taking place in post-war popular music, between rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and swing, and the pop charts gave birth, so the story goes, inevitably, to rock and roll. The hegemonic narrative of “rock” has so permeated our contemporary understanding of popular music and, particularly, of rock’s relationship to American identity, that it becomes, after a certain point, difficult to separate “rock” from “popular music.” Indeed, during my mis-spent youth of the eighties, I’m not sure I (and millions like me) could have adequately separated the two. From this point on, rock becomes the focal point of popular music and we follow the ways in which it became that focal point.

Along with the increasing popularity of black musics, especially rhythm and blues, one of the key factors in that development was the splintering, commercialization, and general “toughening-up” of country and western music. Hank Williams became a model of self-contained singer-songwriter-guitarist, who scored country chart hits that became, when slightly urbanized by producers such as Mitch Miller, pop hits for Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and other pop singers in the early fifties. His influence both as songwriter and as ur-rock cultural icon (living recklessly, dying young, balancing the spiritual and the carnal) is still pervasive; indeed, it is somewhat difficult to imagine Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, much less entire schools of country music, without him.

The toughened-up jukebox country music termed ‘honky tonk’ of Williams, Kitty Wells, and Red Foley provided a nice counter-part to the rapidly developing form of bluegrass. Bluegrass, as practiced by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs was more rural, more communal, and more focused on instrumental virtuosity than honky tonk. And, like honky tonk, proved invaluable as an influence on what became rock and roll: lengthy, showboating solos, and double-time instrumental passages between vocal passages would eventually become a major feature of big-time rock and roll. When Dolly Parton, in 2002, recorded a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, she underlined this connection that too few performers or listeners make.

While r&b and country were becoming increasingly popular (and those genre’s biggest hits were being covered by more sedate, more white performers on the pop charts), the tradition of jazz singing and the Great American Songbook were suffering on the pop charts. Without demonizing Mitch (“Sing Along with Mitch”) Miller too much, it should be noted that Miller, as producer and A&R man, aggressively encouraged his roster at Columbia Records to record repetitive, simplistic, and, often soulless, novelty records in pursuit of the pop charts. Sinatra recorded, under duress, “Mama Will Bark”, a duet (trio?) with Scandinavian actress Dagmar and a barking dog, and superlative jazz interpreter Rosemary Clooney recorded playwright William Saroyan and Ross (The Chipmunks) Bagdasarian’s “Come-on-a-My House”, a pop hit she despised. The gradual dumbing down of the American pop charts with novelties and watered-down versions of rhythm-and-blues and country records drew attention to the growing gulf between the worlds of pop and the semi-popular created by swing’s mutation into bop.

From this void comes the popular explosion of rock and roll. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 “Sixteen Tons” anticipated this explosion, with its catchy blues-based melody and crisp production, while Scottish Lonnie Donegan’s fusion of traditional jazz and Lead Belly-inspired folk on his cover of the latter’s “Rock Island Line” inspired the Beatles and their (English) generation to start playing rhythmic folk music.

Despite its continued overusage to signify the nineteen fifties, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” still sounds startlingly modern and exciting while less-well-remembered tracks like Roy Hall’s original version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (later, of course, covered by Jerry Lee Lewis) and Johnny Burnette’s cataclysmic “Honey Hush” anticipated the loud and loose rock of the Yardbirds, the Kinks, and the Animals ten years later. Elvis Presley, still recognizable to nearly all Americans more than thirty years after his death by the two syllables Evv-Iss was, in addition to an overexposed icon, an affecting blues singer (as heard on “Reconsider Baby”, backed by an all-star Nashville band including Hank Garland, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer).

What is perhaps most striking about the major figures of the early period of rock and roll is their eccentricity; the press of the time perceived many of them as actually dangerous and much of the scholarship written about the era suggests that this fear is rooted in racism, trepidation at the undeniably black influences of the music. Racism certainly played some part in this trepidation, but it could be argued that a fear of the “Old Weird America” was also in play. In an era in which the Weavers became subject to blacklisting following the McCarthy witchhunts, the socialist and progressive histories of folk music, and the self-identification of r&b and country as the music of the rural, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised (both black and white), it’s not difficult to see how Elvis’s blatant sexuality, Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano bashing, Chuck Berry’s exuberant celebrations of teenage nirvana, and Little Richard’s cross-racial-cross-sexual musical calls-to-arms would be seen as unnerving and, perhaps, threatening. This is not even to address more marginal figures like Esquerita, something of a more chaotic, more gender-bending version of Richard, or Hasil Adkins, with his overdriven, frantic odes to chickens and hot dogs, or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose stage coffin and snakes predate Alice Cooper by at least fifteen years and Ozzy Osbourne by still more. Uniquely American eccentricities reminiscent of the Harry Smith Anthology, heard in twenties recordings of Blind Willie Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were making it, sometimes surreptitiously, onto the pop charts. And the guardians of American virtue were actually scared.

The eccentricity and the joyfulness of the music of the period harkens back to the music of the twenties; there is an unpretentious soulfulness to the best of it that prompted a revolution as r&b and country became, when cross-pollinated into rock and roll, the predominant musics of America. Frank Sinatra called the early rock and rollers “goons” and Nat King Cole sang “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock & Roll”, but the proverbial seeds had been proverbially sewn. As the unlamented Danny and the Juniors once said, roughly, “Rock and roll [was] here to stay.”



mmoir327 said...

Ah, racism...watching that clip of Fat Albert dancing with Phylicia Rashad while a bunch of white squares who must have left their rhythm at home clap along reminds me of another film in which Little Richard had a small role. If you can find 'Catalina Caper' (starring Tommy Kirk and Lyle Waggoner), check it out...especially if it's the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version.

History of Pop said...

Michael: that's one of the things I love about the clip - it embodies the period pretty well.

I'll check out "Catalina Caper"; any Little Richard appearance is a good Little Richard appearance in my book . . .