Long before I actually "discovered" the blues when I went to college, I was an avid fan of the rock 'n' roll and R&B/soul I heard on AM Top 40 radio. In fact, I was just knocked out by R&B and even blues before I really knew what it was! It was "only rock 'n roll to me" as I eagerly rocked on to the sounds of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Hank Ballard, and even Jimmy Reed and Bobby Bland that I heard on Top 40 radio, not really knowing what I was listening to, only knowing that I really, really dug it.
Rock 'n' roll is often considered a bastard child of the blues, but it was Muddy Waters himself who said, "Blues had a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll." Rock 'n' roll was the "jungle music" dismissed by the highbrow critics that just excited the hell out of me and millions of other youth across the land.
Rock 'n' roll was also the great leveler and door opener that brought the music of the riffraff, African Americans, and the other "undesirables" of the Eisenhower Era to our young white ears and, for some of us, was the opening wedge that made some of us more receptive to the countercultures that would explode in the mid-1960s.
Rock 'n' roll was, for me, the bridge over which I eagerly walked to support the Civil Rights Movement, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the early anti-Vietnam War protests. And it didn't hurt at all that this music I loved so much was consistently derided by my parents, teachers and other pillars of "respectable society"!
"Hail, hail, rock 'n' roll
Deliver me from the days of old."
- Chuck Berry
Rockers, white and black, really turned me on as a preadolescent and early adolescent youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I voraciously listened to the music of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and so many others that I heard on the radio and on TV's American Bandstand.
I developed my own little collection of favorite rock 'n' roll songs that gravitated toward the wilder sounds of this new, exciting music -- Huey Smith and the Clowns' "Don't You Just Know It," Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls Of Fire," Elvis's "Hard-Headed Woman," Lavern Baker's "Jim Dandy," Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Conway Twitty's raucous remakes of the venerable "Mona Lisa" and "Danny Boy," and countless more from the Wild Side.
My rock 'n' roll tastes were catholic and indiscriminate: I just loved this music of the driving drumbeat and burning guitars, and if a sax played a fiery solo, so much the better. Yes, I could even dig the Teen Idols, such as Connie Francis, Fabian, Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, and ballads such as Jesse Belvin's "Goodnight My Love," Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe" and Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby."
Rock 'n' roll was my musical world then, and even though my musical tastes and awareness have broadened considerably since then, it was rock 'n' roll that opened my musical ears and started that love affair with pop music that's carried on to this day. "Before Elvis, there was nothing," John Lennon said. That was true for me as well.
"Hail, hail, rock 'n' roll/Deliver me from the days of old," Chuck Berry sang. He also sang derisively of the "good music" my parents, teachers and school principals were always trying to foist on me and the other youth of our day -- that it sounded "just like a symphony." But it was precisely rock 'n' roll that led me to appreciate classical music, not as an alternative, but as confirmation and musical enrichment.
"Blues had a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll."
- Muddy Waters
My love of the percussive sounds of rock 'n' roll opened my ears to the savage beat of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," the marvelous fantasia of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Schereherezade," and the mathematically precise harmonic explorations of Bach.
Needless to say, because rock 'n' roll came earlier, the dynamic enhancements of the British Invasion of 1964-65 and the rock that followed were made possible. "It's loud, and you can dance to it, and it's loud," was how the Lovin' Spoonful, one of the most creative of the later rock groups, expressed tribute to rock 'n' roll. It was just one (borrowing from Jerry Lee Lewis) Great Ball of Fire!
Rock 'n' roll records were produced as throwaway music, quickly recorded to garner quick radio airplay and climb the Top 40 charts. And yet -- this was certainly true of the best of them -- they were lovingly made, featured musicians and singers that could care about the music, and producers and engineers who had professional production values.
Remember, rock 'n' roll was recorded live in the studio by live musicians, and there was simply no way then to electronically enhance mediocre performances or electronically correct mistakes except by laborious splicing of tapes. And studio time was not cheap even then, and retakes were costly. So, unlike today, there was an emphasis on doing it well from the beginning.
This was an ethos that carried on in Top 40 even into the 1970s, and that ethos is what makes even the alleged "schlock" of that era still exciting listens today. I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for the vastly-underrated Lesley Gore, for Johnny Rivers's "Poor Side of Town," and the Grassroots' "Midnight Confessions," with its absolutely brilliant arrangement that incorporated an understated simple bass opening line with horns following in boldly brassy timbre. Try and find those kinds of production values in the music of Britney Spears, Jason Timberlake, Jay Z. and the other forgettables of our day!
"Remember, rock 'n' roll was recorded live in the studio by live musicians."
And yes, long before Hendrix or Clapton, there was outstanding musicianship, and outstanding ensemble work. Just consider the Champs' "Tequila" in this regard, recorded as an afterthought at the end of a studio session. And consider guitarists such as Elvis's Scotty Moore, or Link Wray, or Dick Dale. Guitarists Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were major musical innovators, as were the Beach Boys with their elaborate explorations in harmony. (The Beach Boys were innovators in another way as well--in their original songs we find a clearly-stated angst of youth in that era, a wistful White Blues of otherwise arid white middle-class America.)
Although not nearly as subtle as the piano playing of the great blues masters, Jerry Lee Lewis's signature approach to the piano playing of the rock 'n' roll era makes him a dynamic standout even today, as he still knows how to rock the keyboards at 70, shown on his latest CD, Last Man Standing. (Reviewed in "Blues and More" on Nov. 11, 2007.) And what of that marvelously demented melange of nonsensical, repetitive lyrics that makes the Trashmen's 1964 "Surfin' Bird" one of the greatest rock 'n' roll records of all time?
Rock 'n' roll was many things. Sure, it was in part theft by white artists of black blues and R&B, but rock 'n' roll also opened the Top 40 charts to black R&B artists who would've remained virtually unheard of by white America, and made R&B an integral part of rock 'n' roll.
And don't forget rockabilly, where its Southern Roots incorporated white country sounds along with black sounds into rock 'n' roll. And the creation of the rock 'n' roll instrumental, which created a new sub-genre that went beyond rockabilly, beyond blues and R&B.
Yes, all of us who love good pop music owe a considerable debt to rock 'n' roll for opening our ears, and for some of us, opening our eyes to the seamy underside of America that exploded into that era of protest, defiance and rebellion that was the mid- and late 1960s.
Hail, hail rock 'n' roll indeed!
Broadcasting the Blues! A Down-home Compilation of Live Radio Blues from KJZZ
Broadcasting the Blues!
Southwest Musical Arts Foundation Records SAMAF 04
Bob Corritore, DJ/host of the award-winning "Those Lowdown Blues" program on radio station KJZZ, 91.5 FM, Tempe and Mesa, Ariz., wears many distinguished blues hats: owner of the Rhythm Room blues club in Phoenix, avid blues record collector, noted blues harp player and record producer, and author/publisher of the online Bob Corritore Blues Newsletter.
"These 15 artists represent a roster of accomplishment that embraces both better-known and lesser-known but equally talented African American blues players."
He's been hosting "Those Lowdown Blues" now for 25 years, and Broadcasting the Blues! is a 20-track CD of artists he's recorded live for his show right there in the studio. The performances here were recorded spontaneously between 1984 and 2008, using only one or two microphones, so that the tracks on Broadcasting the Blues! capture the down-home traditional blues in a setting that's the closest thing to the blues' natural environment.
Of these 20 tracks, one is of Willie Dixon giving a plug for Corritore's show, which leaves 19 tracks of music featuring 13 different leading artists and one duet, with only one or two accompanying musicians for each artist, with an elemental blues accompaniment of acoustic and electric guitars. These 15 artists represent a roster of accomplishment that embraces both better-known and lesser-known but equally talented African American blues players.
Those better-known featured on this CD include the legendary Lowell Fulson, Billy Boy Arnold, Louisiana "swamp blues" maestro Lazy Lester, Louisiana Red, Tomcat Courtney and Henry Gray. The accompanying musicians are among the finer young players: guitarists Johnny Rapp and Mario Moreno accompany African-born Arizona Blues Hall of Fame inductee Chief Schabutte Gilliame (whose CD, Snakes Crawls at Night, was reviewed in the Sept. 26, 2007 "Blues and More"); guitarist Chris James accompanies several artists; guitarist Billy Flynn joins James in accompanying Henry Gray; and harpman Patrick Rynn joins James in accompanying Johnny Dyer.
The down-home blues represent a variety of vocal and guitar styles and thematic content, and that variety is well displayed on Broadcasting the Blues! While most of the tracks are guitar-accompanied, Jerry Lawson's humorous "Who Stole The Chicken" is sung a cappella. Lazy Lester sings "Out On The Road," accompanying himself on acoustic guitar with foot-driven percussion, and plays neck-rack solo harmonica. Tomcat Courtney sings one bad-woman blues, "Tell Me Where You Stayed Last Night," while Dave Riley sings another, "My Baby's Gone."
"The down-home blues represent a variety of vocal and guitar styles and thematic content, and that variety is well displayed on Broadcasting the Blues!"
Johnny Dyer sings a blues of what good love can do to a man, "Johnny's Crazy Blues;" CeDell Davis another, "I Need You Bad;" and Henry Gray a third, "Cold Chills." Tomcat Courtney gives forth with social commentary on "The World Is Mad." Louisiana Red plays a semi-gospel number he wrote for and performed in the play "Juneteenth" with Odetta, "Look What A Wonder." (Juneteenth was the date of the freeing of the slaves in Texas.)
Venerable classics are here as well. Lowell Fulson does "Sinner's Prayer," a song he first recorded with Lloyd Glenn in the late 1940s, while Louisiana Red does a number he wrote while in the Army and recorded in Detroit in the late 1940s, "The World Is Awful." Billy Boy Arnold accompanies himself on solo harp on Sonny Boy Williamson's (John Lee Williamson) "Shake Your Boogie," which he later covered; and Chief Schabutte Gilliame does his version of Roscoe Gordon's 1952 "No More Doggin'."
There are also two instrumentals on the CD. Billy Flynn plays lead harp to Chris James's guitar accompaniment on the original "Billy's Bounce," while Lazy Lester plays guitar and foot-pedal percussion on "O.J. Shuffle."
Fittingly enough, Broadcasting the Blues! features four spirituals as well. Chicago soul master Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls do "I Want To Be At The Meeting," while Louisiana Red accompanies himself on slide guitar as he sings "Home In The Rock." Chief Schabutte Gilliame does "When The Saints Go Marching In," and the sole woman performer here, Margo Reed, sings "Eye On The Sparrow" a cappella.
The sleeve jacket to Broadcasting the Blues! unfolds to give a pictorial panorama of the various artists who've appeared on "Those Lowdown Blues," and the sleeve notes by Jennifer Waters, KJZZ Blues Production Assistant, give a brief history of the first 25 years of the show.
If you like down-home blues played down-home, then you're going to love Broadcasting the Blues!
George Fish can be reached at email@example.com.