Little Richard kick-starting his piano, 1958
I think it is safe to say that Rock n Roll is sixty years old this year. In reality, it’s older than that – but I’m talking in terms of the musical use of the term being translated into mainstream ‘hit records’ as we used to say in days of yore: during those years before tapes, mainstream disc albums, tape cassettes, album videos, compact discs, spelling disc ‘disk’, downloads, Itunes, clouds and all the other virtual stuff.
In 1955, a middle-aged swing and rockabilly singer called Bill Haley emerged with his Comets to take the Number Two slot in the US with Rock Around the Clock.
The song was the credits music to a Glenn Ford movie Blackboard Jungle – very much in the genre of the Crazy mixed-up Kid stuff like Rebel Without A Cause a year later….possibly James Dean’s worst ever acting performance, and definitely the most didactically arch expression of Freudian nonsense ever filmed.
But Haley grasped his place in musical history by saying in a couple of interviews that he and his band played Rock n Roll. The term was musical by then, but had originated from black jive slang for sexual intercourse. Very different to Shakespeare’s ‘beast with two backs’, but equally descriptive nevertheless. So Bill became a youth icon associated with jooovniyall delernquenceee – and in the UK, with ‘Teddy Boy’ vandalism. Until, that is, he arrived there…and was revealed to be a rolly-polly bloke with receding hair and a very odd kiss-curl to the forehead.
The Comets were very much my elder brother’s music. The following year, Elvis arrived with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and rather more about him that suggested he might be a force for sedition. As I was eight years old at the time, I took almost no notice of him until the release of All Shook Up in early 1957. Anyway, in the meantime an addictive rock n roll single called Long Tall Sally had reached our shores in late 1956, and this launched the career of the inimitable Little Richard.
Little Richard and Elvis Presley shared two commonalities in my experience at the time: they both had background rhythm sections that made it impossible for me to sit still, down or up. The only option was to leap around the room. And second, they both spoke a language which might as well have been a dialect of Neptunion for all the sense it made to me.
I remember very clearly hearing the Presley track and seeing it in my mind as Amarlshacoop. This made some kind of sense in a context where he was itching like a man in a fuzzy tree and wild as a bug. But what made the record an enormous hit was the base piano going ba doom a doom a doom a doom in the background. It just made you want to move.
Little Richard’s song (he co-wrote it with two others) wormed its way under your skin with a sax and percussion backing that topped out the ‘Oh Baby’ lyric with a dodoodidaddadoodidadda beat leading into “Yeeeeeees baby!” that nobody has ever matched in sessions since. But here too, I was clueless as to what he was singing about: It seemed he had….
A Taliban Mary boun up a join/ she claim she had the mizzy but she hadalodda ferrn
….. and also, God forbid he….
Saw uncle John wid bald-head Sally/ he saw my merry comin an he jumback in der alley.
It really didn’t matter. This was music that made the calves jiggle and the neck-hairs erect. This was seriously dangerous stuff.
One more track topped my bill in 1957: this was Jerry Lee Lewis and Great Balls of Fire. I’ve been hopelessly hooked by Lewis’s honky-tonk piano thumping ever since…and that unique use of tinkly top keys to punctuate the immediacy of sexual desire:
dadadada You shake ma nerves and ya addle my brain/too much love’ll drive a man insane/
you broke my wheel/ but whadda threel/ dadada Gooderness geracious GREAT BALLS O FIRE
dadadadah kiss me baby eeeeerm feels gooourrd dadada hold me baby weeeeuurrl/ I wanna love yer like a leeerrver should/ babababa
you’re fine babababa/so kindbababa/godda let this world know yer mine mine mine mine tertinkletick
I bite ma nails an ah twiddle ma thumbs/I’m real nervous but it sure is fun/yer lerrv is mine/sure is fine/ Goodernous geracious GREAT BALLS O FIRE babababam.
It was a funny old time, the late 1950s. A grey world of rationing, grey flannel trousers, grey-haired politicians and grey flickering television screens was about to give way to The Beatles, mods, motown, and all the colours of Carnaby Street leading Brit rock bands and then flower power. In the interregnum, we had the one-hit wonders, Bobby Vees, Fabians, Cliff Richards and – astonishingly – Ray Charles.
But the Fifties played out with a whimper rather than a bang. There was some great stuff from the Everley Brothers, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane: but then Elvis went into the army, and from that moment until October 1962, there was little more than Chubby Checker, Little Eva, The Allisons, Helen Shapiro and John Leyton. In that era, I was quite taken with Del Shannon and Ricky Nelson: but my passion for music didn’t really come back until Love Me do.
The Beatles’ first single was seen by many as a throwback. For me, it was the button marked ‘fast forward’. Rock n Roll had been reborn.
Bill Haley became an alcoholic before succumbing to a brain tumour on February 9, 1981.
Elvis Presley went on to make several forgettable Hollywood movies and one dramatic comeback, but eventually became morbidly obese, and died of heart failure on August 16, 1977.
Little Richard is aged 83 and still with us.
Jerry Lee Lewis will be 80 years old on September 29th this year.
Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in the early hours of February 3rd 1959. He is cited as a formative influence by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Little Richard wrote in his memoirs that Holly had “the biggest dick I’ve ever seen”, although we aren’t told the exact details of how he discovered this fact.
Eddie Cochrane was killed in a UK car crash on April 17th 1960.
Bobby Vee is 72 years old, and suffering from tertiary Alzheimer’s Disease. He filled in for Buddy Holly at his venue after the fatal plane crash of the day before. One of his backing artists was one Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. In later years, Dylan paid tribute to Vee as “one of the most meaningful musicians I ever met”.
Cliff Richard is alive, well, a highly committed Christian, and battling against ludicrous allegations that he is a paedophile. He is preparing to sue various organisations for suggesting this. Some of us eagerly await the outing of the false accusers…and their foul motives.
Ray Charles went on to complete an unparalleled career as a jazz, soul and rock pianist and vocalist. He died of liver failure on June 10th 2004, having sired twelve children via ten women.
Of the Everley Brothers, Phil died January 4th last year of lung cancer, and Don is still with us. They had a bitter breakup, but eventually reformed, performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1983 and 1997. The author attended the latter performance, and left feeling forty years younger.
Chubby Checker will be 74 years old on October 29th this year.
Little Eva died of cervical cancer on April 10, 2003. Her record ‘The Locomotion’ was one of the biggest dance hits of all time.
Helen Shapiro will be 69 later this year. She was the headliner on the Beatles first ever UK tour in 1962.
John Leyton was 80 on 17th February this year. He had a massive hit with Johnny Remember Me in 1961, and went on to have cameo roles in various movies, most notably The Great Escape. He still tours with his band The Flames.
Del Shannon had a string of hit records from ‘Runaway’ to ‘Swiss Maid’ in the early 1960s. A long-time sufferer from depression, he committed suicide on February 8, 1990, killing himself with a .22-calibre rifle at his home in Santa Clarita, California.
Rick Nelson recorded 19 Top 10 hits and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 21, 1987. Sadly he’d died fourteen months earlier in a plane crash, on December 31, 1985. His massive hit ‘Hello Mary Lou” has a middle eight instrumental that is amazing, and one of the few things I can play competently on guitar.