Monday, April 11, 2011

Rock It, Willy!

Last week's post on aging (yes, that's what it was, sort of) ended with a photo of the Sun 78 r.p.m. record that announced Elvis Presley and the birth of rock 'n' roll--especially the Southern subgenre called Rockabilly. That 78 disc is now up for auction on eBay. It's not that I've abandoned my part-Southern roots and heritage, just that I've some bills to pay. But back in 1955-56, I was 12 and then 13, living in Virginia and Alabama, and totally swept up in the new rocking music on local radio stations, from the r&b connections of Little Richard and Fats Domino to the wildass white boys with redneck names like Elvis or Charlie Feathers or Jerry Lee (pronounced Jer uh Lee) Lewis.

Rockabilly ruled! And sometimes it still does...

In the last few weeks I found some cat-clothes-cool CDs and a terrific book too--Chrome Dreams CDCD5047, bravely titled The Rarest Rockabilly Album in the World Ever! and offering "50 of the most obscure songs from the Golden Age" which would be approximately 1954-1958; plus the 325-page, nicely illustrated trade paperback tome titled A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster's Guide to Rockabilly Music, by writer-collector Max Decharne, and the similarly named Ace CDCHD 1268, billed as "the soundtrack” to the book, packed with 28 "slices of the wildest 1950s rockabilly mayhem. A rocket-fueled mixture of hepcat classics and rockin' rarities." With just three numbers duplicated, that means a total of 75 timeless, slapbassed, jukin’ joints of hillbilly r&b.

Those primitive, do-it-yourself, pickin'-and-scufflin' screams and chants marked the Fifties explosion of teen rebellion, however shortlived. Thousands of poor-white Southern boys and a dozen or so rowdy young women found a studio or a side parlor or a gritty bathroom (good for that Rockabilly echo!) and cut disc after disc after disc, 120-second come-and-gone paeans to hot wheels, cool threads, and unbridled lust--vocalist grunts and shouts, guitarists holding their axes at an out-front angle, slapbass guys actually climbing up their instruments, Elvis's swivelling hips and Jerry Lee's pumping piano. Eager kids and aging no-hit cynics alike mimicked the lead cats' songs and style, searching for some unfilled tiny niche, shrieking and flailing at their guitars and thumping their chests, not ape-like, really, but as insignicant humans shouting, "Sir! I exist!" (Garage bands, then Punk, then Grunge in some measure, were all later Rock music expressions of that disgust and rebellion, braggadocio and self-sufficiency, anarchy and creativity in equal measure.)

Then everything went to hell. Elvis answered Uncle Sam's call, Carl Perkins nearly died in a car crash, Lewis married too young a cousin, Buddy Holly and others did die, Chuck Berry went to jail, and so on. The boppers, big and small, bailed. And sidling in came small-talent white guys from Philadelphia, and Motown's unexpected clean-streets danceability, and disaffected suburban kids strumming folk guitars. By the time Private Presley (he'd made Corporal by then) came home, he had a smoother baritone and bigger dreams--and Rockabilly was history. Gone.

... Except in England there were these stubborn "Teddy Boys," and in France various wise guys typically named Johnny, and in Germany fraulein-less herren fixated on motorsickles or something; and they all loved the hiccups and howls, the standup bass and the falldown folderol of Rockabilly. So the movement, the craze, the record-collector madness, crossed the wide ocean and settled in the U.K. and Europe. The history of Sun Records became as carefully studied as the Hundred Years' War. The whereabouts Stateside of one-hit and never-hit wonders became as important as finding more Dead Sea Scrolls.

By the early Seventies, specific-subject anthologies (Rockabilly obscurities released on Decca, say) and broader collections of rare singles (for example, tracks produced in some Memphis studio other than Sun) were being compiled and annotated and issued, and were selling more copies than the singles ever did! And so it has continued for four decades now, right up to the present, cheerfully fueled by record companies wholly dedicated to keeping America's past musics alive. For Rockabilly that's mostly meant "the ABC's"--Ace in England, Bear Family in Germany (compilers of big, definitive box sets), and Charly in England and France, for Sun Records in particular.

Decharne touches on all the odd history in his excellent book, rich in anecdote and esoteric information, but he wisely focuses most on introducing to the reader--and describing wittily and pithily--as many old Rockabilly 45s (and the performers) as can be named and organized and squeezed intelligibly into his three-hundred-page text. I recommend it heartily whether you dig Rockabilly the most or couldn't care less; you'll be amused and amazed regardless.

The CDs are well worth the investment too. Rocket is absolutely brilliant, the best single-CD, across-the-labels anthology of Rockabilly I've ever seen or listened to--literally the only one you'd ever need to stand in for that small slice of Rock history, but alternatively, and more likely, also the sampler that whets your appetite for more! The Rarest, on the other hand, has a different principle operating; you'll find many excellent examples but a whole lotta shaky cuts goin' on too. (Hey, nobody claimed these as the best, only the rarest.)

For every three you might shrug at, there's one jaw-dropper that sets your toes to tappin' and your juices flappin'. I'm particularly partial to "Rock All Night" by Glen Honeycutt, Jimmy Patton's piano-driven "Yah I'm Movin'" and later "Oakies in the Pokie," Don Woody frantic from "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" (great guitar too), "So Tired" by the unknown Chavis Brothers, and tracks by Jimmy Lloyd, Kenny Owens, and Joey Castle--that last, "That Ain't Nothin' But Right," offering cool echo-effect guitar and a catchy chorus. Should have been a hit, as others here; for instance, Don Willis's "Boppin' High School Baby" and Glenn Bond's "When My Baby Passes By," the last two tracks on CD 1 channeling Elvis very obviously but also quite effectively.

CD 2 has similar non-hits and deserving misses, but I like it for two other reasons--novelty numbers with names like "Old Moss Back," "Rock n Roll Saddles," "Pink Elephants," and "Jello Sal"; proof positive that in Rockabilly anything goes, or went anyway, back in the heyday. And this CD is quite blatant with another message too; seven of the titles tell the tale: "Hot Rod Baby... You're the One... Please Give Me Something... I Need It... Convertible Car... Swing It Little Katy... Teenage Ball." I can't decide whether Nat Couty's "Woodpecker Rock" belongs with the first group or the second!

Loads of fun among the frantic 50--and classic cuts galore in the great 28, from the chooglin' slash-guitar opener (a la the Johnny Burnette Trio), "How Can You Be Mean to Me" by Dale Vaughan; through the real JB 3, with early guitar hero Paul Burlison taking charge and tearing through "The Train Kept a-Rollin'"; to the final cut, the title track, with barrelhouse piano and more real Rock-it-Willy guitar, not to mention Jimmy Lloyd wailin' on lyrics that are lubricious at least. And speaking of guitar greats, you have Scotty Moore with Elvis, riding that "Mystery Train," Carl Perkins singlehandedly ripping up "Put Your Cat Clothes On," and little-known Hal Harris adding urgency to Bob Doss's warning, "Don't Be Gone Long." And a few cuts further on, Harris encores considerably and convincingly with his own never-released string-reinforcer called "Jitterbop Baby."

On rolls the Rocket CD: novelties like "Rockin' in the Graveyard" by Jackie Morningstar, Gene Maltais's weird, what-next number "The Raging Sea," and the equally goofy "Wash Machine Boogie" by the Echo Valley Boys. Great stuff by Charlie Feathers ("Get with It"), Ray Harris ("Come On Little Mama"), and Don Cole ("Snake Eyed Mama"), and no cut less than excellent. Even the three duplicate tracks--raucous "Jello Sal," "Boppin' High School Baby," and Ric Cartey's reverb-riot called "Scratchin' on My Screen"--sound better in this all-star crowd, as though cut hotter or mastered from cleaner original sources.

So don't be like Jimmy & Johnny (slapbass and slapstick working overtime) missing out on a swinging party inside because, as they sadly sing together, "I can't find the door knob, I can't get in." In other words, cats and kittens, get with it. Every guy and gal needs a hot rocket to ride.

The fuse is lit.


Alan Kurtz said...

Beautifully written, Ed. Unlike you, when I was 12-13, living in Pennsylvania, I was totally put off by the latest releases on local radio stations. Already a diehard jazz fan, I was appalled by the lack of sophistication in doo-wop, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, etc. I looked down on it as moron music.

Eventually, though, I opened my ears and became less of a snob, realizing that the unskilled primitiveness that offended my esthetic sense was a virtue, not a vice. As you point out, many of those records were junk then and remain so today. But the good ones had boundless energy, originality and wit.

Plus they speak volumes about what it was like to be a teenager back then. The 1950s have gotten a bum rap as being stodgy and conformist; yet just scratch the surface and you'll find a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

Steve Provizer said...

An exploration of the bio-pics of these guys might be in order. I know they've done Jerry Lee, Buddy H., RIchie Valens (maybe not right in the genre)...

I Witness said...

Thanks for the thoughts and generous words. Your remark about the Fifties makes me wonder... did the end of McCarthy and the HUAC era somehow allow the world/US to breathe easier and break loose? Did the teenage revolution come from all that attempted repression? And why Down South, so conflicted by surliness, segregation, and Southern manners? (Am I spouting nonsense or new sense?)

I Witness said...

Steve, I'm not quite following you--who are "these guys"? those of biopics done, or the little-knowns I wrote about? Are you suggesting I do a sort-of Rockabilly movies analysis? or that I somehow push candidates/treatments for new ones? All things are possible in this most perfect of Rockabilly worlds!

Steve Provizer said...

I'm suggesting a personal Rockabilly film festival followed by reviews...

I Witness said...

Capsule reviews: 1) La Bamba was easiest because few viewers had any knowledge of Richie or East L.A. life--and with Los Lobos providing the music, nothing else mattered! 2) The Buddy Holly Story made the least impression; Gary Busey is too in-your-face as an actor, and Holly too retiring a personality, so for me the flick didn't jell. And how cheerful could it be knowing the hero dies in a plane crash? 3) Great Balls of Fire--well, that part was right, Lewis's dangerous daring and frack-it attitude well met in the young, rakish-handsome, reckless Dennis Quaid. And with sex, guns, and real Rockabilly, both attitude and tunes (Breathless, Mean Woman Blues, Milkshake Mademoiselle, Lewis Boogie, Pumpin' Piano Rock, Down the Line, High School Confidential, and a couple hundred more Killer tracks, the moviemakers could choose any tune and there'd be what Alan ended comment #1 with--A.W.L.S.G.O., ga-rone-teed.

(Bonus preview while exiting: Kurt Russell made a decent Elvis way back when in some made-for-TV thing--I think it was m-f-t anyway--not quick and dirty, but stripped-down and fine-tuned.)

Steve Provizer said...

D'accord with your film reviews. I was actually willing to see GBOF twice...Feature film fails miserably with jazz.