Sunday, February 27, 2011

Parallel Universe

For radio buffs internet radio really revolutionized the way one could discover and listen to different stations. Any station that is online is now within reach. Thus I've been able to listen to and keep up with Albuquerque radio, Los Angeles radio and beyond. (Dublin's Phantom 105.2 is fun) I've also become quite fond of stations from Australia although, they do tend to sound like  the down-under version of 94 Rock. Then I discovered KCAL in San Bernadino, Ca., it's a classic rock station with the routine morning show that is the lowest common denominator for all stations regardless of format or geographic location.
All morning shows basically follow a similar format; crank calls, old guy, sexy lady with sexy voice, bickering duos,  parody songs and of course LOUDER! always means we're having fun.  After listening to KCAL for a few minutes it suddenly struck me, Holy Shit!  KCAL is the bizarro world version of KZRR-94 Rock. T.J. Trout and Stu were separated at birth, Stu was raised by weed smokin' hippies in SoCal, while T.J. was raised by ham fisted alcoholics in Ohio. Stu is T.J. Trout as a burned out ex-hippie with a smoker's hack. Unlike T.J. who golfs, goes fishing and stays fit, Stu smokes, drinks, plays in a garage band, and is married to a flight attendant (who he rarely sees) T.J. rides a mountain bike while wearing spandex biker shorts, Stu wears the same shorts but never rides his bike. T.J. can lift some heavy objects, while Stu shakes violently whenever he has to exert himself.  Stu is a Steelers fan, T.J. is a Browns Backer. On air their role is the same, the still hip but cranky old guy.
Stu's female foil is Tiffany, she's pushing forty, she's married to a younger guy but she still flaunts what she has left. Erica is pushing forty, dates a younger guy and can still sidestep the haggard look that Tiffany can't seem to avoid.  She is a responsible driver who uses her turn signals and slows down in school zones. Tiffany is a terrible driver who has reported from the scene of her own accidents, and once almost took out an entire gas station when she hooked a gas pump with the bumper of her truck. Where Erica Viking would demand to be taken seriously and treated with respect, Tiffany demands tequila and is a shameless attention whore. Erica's "Bitch Please" feature was usually the highlight of the KZRR morning routine, Tiff sings a parody of that old warhorse "Fever" retitled "Beaver" and her favorite catch phrase is "Why must it always be about fish?" Erica Viking didn't just sit there and yuk it up and that may have been what led to her being forced out. The only way Tiffany could  get fired is if she wiped out a carload of nuns or school kids on her way to work. 
Jimbo is like Swami Rob, but with hair, a sense of humor and a personality.  Jimbo is the wild haired maniac, who usually gets humiliated during remote broadcasts at gun shops and tattoo parlors throughout the greater San Berdoo area.  Jimmy is married and just became the father of twins, the trials and tribulations of his fledgling fatherhood, are fodder for jokes and "Ah!, ain't that cute" moments.  Swami Rob on the other hand has a voice that sounds like a rock grinder, probably prefers hookers and may live beneath a freeway bridge. Jimbo loves Stu but won't kiss up to him, while Rob hates T.J. yet kisses his ass every day. Bruno is the gay traffic guy at KCAL, that was Donnie's role at KZRR before he left to join the morning show at "The Peak." KCAL doesn't take the news seriously, (Tiffany does a feature called "The Hole News") while KZRR had Erika Viking (who was good) and now has Carmelina Hart (who is adequate)  TJ interviews political candidates and puts them on the hot seat, KCAL sponsors parking lot keggers and an annual Boob Camp, a contest where the winning girl gets a free boob job.  KZRR rarely strays beyond the morning show cast, while KCAL has a cast of hanger-ons that take part in the festivities; 4orty (the KCAL whipping boy) Intern Creepy (who Tiffany showers with abuse) and Sayda (she dates Lakers)
Both stations essentially play the same music, KCAL is openly "Classic Rock" while KZRR tries to get by as "Modern Rock."  Since the mid-1990's when Classic 104 was kickin' their asses, KZRR has edged closer to that format. They play just enough new music to avoid the "classic" tag, you can blame Jaxon (who?) for that, ex-program director Frank Jaxon (who?) was always one step behind, look how long it took him to catch on to Nirvana and that whole Grunge thing. He wouldn't play any U2, because "Most new wave music just wasn't very good"  Jaxon (who?) was an idiot, because of him Albuquerque missed out on Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Replacements, Bad Religion etc. (remember this was before the internet and music downloads, we were at the mercy of the play list!) However, cheer up campers! we did get the latest Van Halen, ZZ Top and The Scorpions. I've heard enough Styx, Rush, Kansas, Boston and Journey to last a lifetime and this was long after any of those bands were relevant. So, Fuck You! Jaxon (stop!) I recommend to everyone; get online and listen but you better hurry, Stu or T.J. are not getting any younger, one will probably drop dead soon, I would bet my money on Stu, maybe even while he's that sick?...yes it is!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Surf's Up

 In the late 1950's a new sound had began to develop  on the West Coast, that would soon fill the vacuum left by the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army and the deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. Surf music was built on a variety of influences;  Jazz, Swing, R & B, Folk, Barber Shop quartet and Doo Wop.  The music evolved from the surfing culture of post war Southern California. Hot Rod music was born from the obsession for customized hot rods  that has long gripped the California southland.  Surf and Hot Rod music are one and the same, musically there is no difference. Lyrically most musicians of that era would switch from Surf to Hot Rod jargon with ease.   Instrumental groups also played a big part in Surf's early development, The Fireballs, who started in their hometown of Raton,N.M, preceded most of the California surf bands. They first recorded at Norman Petty Studios in 1958. It would be a stretch to call The Fireballs a surf band, but their hit songs fit right into that genre. "Bulldog" and "Torquay" would become surf band standards, surefire crowd favorites at  surfer stomps.  
Around that same time Link Wray was recording music that was way ahead of its time. "Rumble", "Rawhide" and "Run Chicken Run" were unlike anything else from that era.  Surely, Link was a time traveler who had dropped in to show us puny mortals what music would sound like in the future.  It was hard to pin any one style on Link Wray, he never achieved great commercial success.  Just the same, he would have a strong influence on the next generation of rock guitarists. Do they surf in Tacoma? that northwest city was home to The Ventures, the most successful instrumental rock group ever. They sold millions of albums and their first hit single "Walk Don't Run" is cited by many surf musicians as their primary influence.  The Ventures also pioneered the concept album, releasing  several albums every year, many of them centered around a specific theme. The Ventures released so many albums that it's rumored that their record label had a crew of studio musicians recording them, while the real Ventures were out on the road.  Surf music's popularity would result in surf bands from the most unlikely of places; The Trashmen (Minneapolis) and The Astronauts (Denver) Buddy Holly's old band The Crickets would record surf music as did El Paso's Bobby Fuller Four.
Thus, it doesn't seem so absurd that the  "King of the Surf Guitar", was born in Boston and raised in Quincy,Mass.  Dick Dale (Richard A. Monsour) did not get to California until his last year of high school. Once in California he took up surfing and started playing music.  Although, what Dick Dale played then was closer to jazz or swing than the surf sound he would become famous for. (Dale has always said that Gene Krupa was his biggest influence.) In the mid-1950's He met up with Leo Fender and the two began an association that would benefit both. Dale played a Fender Stratocaster guitar, being left handed he played it upside down and backwards, rather than re-stringing, which amused Fender to no end. This technique, born out of necessity, gave Dale his signature sound. Dick Dale used an early prototype reverb unit, invented by Leo Fender, to get what he referred to as a "Wet Sound" that was supposed to imitate the sound of waves. He was the first to use a tubular or rolling effect to imitate the sound of a surfer riding through a pipeline. Dick Dale invented surf music one technique at a time, playing a steady schedule of surfer stomps, he tweaked and fine tuned his music and equipment until he got the exact sound he wanted.
Dale became acquainted with Jimi Hendrix (a fellow left handed guitar player) and played a small role in one of Jimi's most famous songs "Third Stone From The Sun" Dick Dale who was being treated for cancer explained: "Jimi thought I was dying and that's why he said you'll never hear Surf music again. People say he was putting it down, but that's not true."...hmm!...I don't buy it, everyone knows that hippies don't surf, the drug addled, unwashed youth of the late 1960's would look down on surf music as square. (but they just loved Sha-Na-Na! go figure?) While Dick Dale refined the surf guitar, Jan Berry was developing a vocal style that would forever  be associated with surf music.  By 1957 Jan was experimenting with different vocal techniques in his makeshift home studio. Dean Torrance and Arnie Ginsburg (they were all from SoCal) worked with him until Torrance left for a stint in the Army Reserves. Jan Berry's first musical success came in 1958 with "Jennie Lee" (a song about a stripper best known for spinning tassels around with her breasts) credited to Jan and Arnie it peaked at #8. Dean Torrance returned in 1959 and Ginsburg was drafted into the Army, thus they became Jan and Dean. "Baby Talk" released that year was a Top Ten hit, sporting flat tops with fenders and white bucks, Jan and Dean were still far  removed from the surf scene.  In fact that early music had more in common with The Coasters and Chuck Berry than anything Dick Dale was playing. 
Brian Wilson would claim that Jan and Dean's "Baby Talk" inspired him to write music, while Jan Berry said that it was the Beach Boy's surf sound that inspired him to go in that direction. The chicken or the egg? who knows!, either way everybody that came after them simply used the same formula with slight variations. Jan and Brian Wilson worked together on "Surf City" (two Girls for every boy!) a song written by Brian that went all the way to #1 for Jan and Dean.  This angered Brian's father Murry, who felt that Brian had given away a  #1 single. Jan and Dean also had iconic hits with "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" and "Deadman's Curve" before Jan Berry suffered serious brain injuries in a car accident that for all intents and purposes ended the group's run. The three Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl and Dennis) grew up in Hawthorne, Ca. Under the tutelage of their overbearing and abusive father Murry, they (and by that I mean Brian) started to develop a lyrical and vocal style that would be the trademark of the genre. Brian had his finger on the teenage pulse of Southern California, writing about Surfin', Hot Rods and Teenage angst.  He accompanied these operatic tales with music inspired by (some would say stolen from) Chuck Berry.
During the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, Brian matched hit song after hit song with Lennon and McCartney before the stress and drug abuse did him in.  At his prime, leading up to the "Smile" sessions, Brian Wilson was without a doubt America's premier pop composer. Today it's hard to remember that The Beach Boys were once cutting edge, and not just an oldies band led by some asshole in a baseball cap.  With Brian out of commission, leadership of the group fell to Mike Love.  Cousin Mike had always opposed most of Brian's more progressive musical ideas telling him  "Don't Fuck with the formula"  in the end Love would get his way and The Beach Boys became nothing more than a novelty act. The creative departure of both Jan Berry and Brian Wilson all but spelled an end for surf music.  Jan Berry never fully recovered from his injuries, but eventually he was able to compose and record music. Jan and Dean continued to tour but sadly their live shows were painful to watch, as Berry's ability to move and his speech had been greatly impaired. Brian Wilson after years of treatment and therapy started recording again and even teamed up with Van Dyke Parks to finish the "Smile" project, the results were less than spectacular.  Most of Brian's solo work is hard to listen to, his sad little ditties, while a triumph for someone who has had so much to overcome, also remind us just how far over the edge he fell. 

Go Cats Go!

I love the term Americana, it's a relatively new expression, that describes music of American origin or roots.  It's a handy tag that can be applied to Bluegrass, Country Rock, Country Swing, Cowboy songs, Country Gothic etc. Which is fine, those are American idioms, but It really doesn't get anymore American than Rockabilly the music that gave us Elvis or Surf music which gave us The Beach Boys (hold off on the groans). The years have not been kind to either one of those genres, both have their fans and detractors.  Rockabilly ushered in a new style of musical expression and excitement at a time when popular music had a bad case of the doldrums.  Surf Music along with the Motown Sound, gave American music fans a homegrown alternative during the initial onslaught of British Invasion bands.  I've always been partial to Rockabilly, sucked in long ago by the cult of Elvis (and a yellow vinyl copy of Presley's Sun Sessions recordings.)  However, while the King was one of the early originators of that genre, by 1958 his music was anything but Rockabilly. Presley was the template the majority of Rockabilly's early pioneers would follow. They would blast onto the scene, record and release some very raw and original music. Then sign with a major label and transform into nice, safe pop or country singers. Look at the men who first ushered in the music, Presley (RCA and Col. Tom had emasculated him), Holly (he had already left rockabilly behind by the time of his death) Jerry Lee Lewis (he would turn to country in order to salvage his career) Johnny Burnette (the man who gave us Honey Hush and Train Kept a Rollin' would go on to record You're Sixteen)  the list goes on; Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Knox, Jerry Reed, George Jones, Conway Twitty etc. 
It seems that once the Benzedrine bender that the musicians rode in on wore off, the music lost its edge. Rockabilly was fueled by speed; fast cars, fast women and pills by the handful. Amped up on pharmaceuticals, these hillbilly cats gave off a vibe that said, "Don't fuck with me, for I will fuck you up."  One famous example of this was when "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis was popped for having in his possession a large stash of pills. When questioned by police about the 600 bennies found in the car, one of his backup musicians explained it as "100 pills for the band and the remainder for Jerry Lee"  Yet, at the same time they crafted some pretty complex and advanced music (for its time). Rockabilly is thought to be, simple music played by simple men, but that was never the case. Rockabilly was full of innovators and originals, Paul Burlison loosened the tubes on his amp to invent the distorted guitar sound that gave the Rock & Roll Trio their unique sound. Scotty Moore and Bill Black crafted the rock guitar and bass style that is the heartbeat of rock and roll.  Buddy Holly's rumbling guitar and rolling drum sound still has not been equaled.
Rockabilly's southern origins meant that it was a boiling pot of mixed influences; Blues, R & B, Jump, Swing, Bop and Country.  It also meant that some of the early rockabilly records had lyrics that would make the p.c. police cringe.  A verse from Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp" is probably the most infamous "Well, I rocked through Africa and rolled off the ship and seen them niggers doin' an odd lookin' skip" Smith later dropped the n-word, as did others who covered the song including Jerry Lee Lewis, who had a minor hit with his version. The opening verse of Charlie Feather's "Jungle Fever" starts with "Darkies creeping through the green, Jungle fever got ahold on me." On "Honey Hush", Johnny Burnette tells his girl  to "Come on in this house, stop all that yakity yak" he then reminds her  "Don't make me nervous, cause I'm holding a baseball bat."  "I Had Enough", has Jerry Reed delivering threats of violence to any fellers that may court his gal while he's away, while he hints that she too may get some of it.
These southern cats had taken the more subdued r & b  played by black musicians and amped it up beyond recognition. It was driven by a locomotive force, powered by drums and the slapping beat of the stand-up bass. The lead guitars were always upfront, precise picking interspersed with circular stuttering lead runs. Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison, Cliff Gallup, James Burton and of course Eddie Cochran set the standard for all rock guitarist in the future.  The vocals styles ranged from Elvis Presley's cool choir boy approach, the primal yelps and sexual urgency of Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly's hiccup and poppy twang, Orbison who's range went from crooner to menacing, sometimes in the same verse,  Charlie Feather's squeals, groans and hiccups, that were at times bizarre and always cutting edge. Others made up for their lack of vocals gymnastics with high energy and attitude (Jerry Lee Lewis,Carl Perkins) while Johnny Cash used a unique talking style that worked well for him. For a short time rockabilly was king, but by 1958 it had lost all its momentum.  The last true hope for rockabilly to remain a force on the American music scene was Eddie Cochran, who was unique because he was from Los Angeles, he wrote his own songs and  played a mean guitar.  Cochran took the tales of teenage angst first popularized by Chuck Berry and mixed them with the speed freak energy of the early rockabilly cats.  He was poised to carry the genre on into the 1960's when sadly he was killed in a car accident while touring in England.
Gene Vincent was traveling in the same vehicle and was seriously injured. Gene and his band (The Blue Caps) were based in Los Angeles, at  first the band also featured Galloping Cliff Gallup on guitar. (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page & Jeff Beck are just a few who have acknowledged his influence) although Gallup was just one of several guitarist who would work with Vincent. (including Johnny Meeks and Jerry Lee Merritt)  While serving in the US Navy, Vincent was involved in a motorcycle accident that almost cost him his leg, he was left with a permanent limp and constant pain. As a result, Vincent always seemed tortured, but when he sang, an eery almost angelic transformation took place. His strange stage presence, made him the anti-Elvis, he would sling his injured leg around for emphasis or he would bop in place during a guitar solo. Sweet Gene Vincent was a cool cat and a major star but the injuries from the Cochran accident added to his earlier injuries, and derailed his career
 Rockabilly begins and ends with Elvis Presley, he was rockabilly's alpha male, his recording of "That's Alright Mama" predates everyone and everything. The King rose from the public housing slums of Memphis  to become the most recognizable male vocalist of all time. However, it didn't happen by accident, Elvis had talent, the vocals recorded during his Sun Records period, seem to be from another planet.  He transcended sound, he electrified his audience, he re-invented entertainment. Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (drummer D.J. Fontana would join them later) broke new ground where ever they went. Their tour of West Texas in 1955 would influence two of rock and roll's biggest stars, Buddy Holly (who would open for Presley in Lubbock) and Roy Orbison (who caught the show in Odessa) Elvis had a nervous energy that his band mates would use to stoke up the crowd, but the hip thrusts and leg shaking were just part of it. He had the ability to convey his emotions to the audience, his appeal and charisma were both very natural and his fans (especially the gals) would just eat it up. The day Elvis signed with RCA records he started down the path to self destruction. The money, movies and fame would turn him into a bloated and self indulgent caricature of the rocker he once was. All that was promised and all that was delivered still pale in comparison to the brilliant flash of talent first witnessed in those early years.   

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Norman Petty Studios

The separation point between the two states tends to get blurry out on the eastern plains. With no visible points of demarcation other than license plates and road signs. The Spanish named this region "El Llano Estacado" (The Staked Plains) to the first European explorers the vastness was unsettling, As Spanish Conquistador Francisco Coronado described it; "With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by"  The area's Hispanic settlers call  it "El Llano", other New Mexicans contemptuously refer to the flat lands, east of the Pecos River as "Little Texas." New Mexico and Texas have long been uneasy neighbors, too often the arrival of Texans to the Land of Enchantment spelled trouble.  Starting in the mid-1950's that would change, as young Texas musicians made the journey to Clovis, New Mexico just west of the Texas border.  In many ways it was a modern day gold rush with Norm Petty's  non-descript  recording studio serving as the portal to riches.   The funny thing is, nobody got rich except for Petty, but more on that later.   Norman Petty was born in Clovis, a natural musician and entertainer, he was working as a disc jockey by the time he was fourteen years old.  In the early 1950's Norm and his new bride, Vi, started performing in Clovis and the surrounding area. This led to a job in Dallas with the Liberty Network, which led to the young couple playing at various venues throughout North Texas and Oklahoma.  The Norm Petty Trio was formed when Jack Vaughn joined them, this was followed by their first hit, a recording of the standard "Moon Indigo."  They then followed up with two hit songs composed by Petty, "Almost Paradise" (which was covered by Roger Williams) and "The First Kiss."
While the Trio's success was moderate, Norm did make enough money to return to Clovis and open his own recording studio.  The original idea was to record The Norm Petty Trio, eliminating the expense of paying for studio time, a pennywise Petty described his feelings about commercial studios;  "You keep watching the clock and realize that every extra minute you take is costing you money."  The irony of Norm's statement would not be lost on the rock and roll musicians under his thumb in the near future. News about the studio in Clovis spread word of mouth, before long young musicians from the plains region would beat a path to Norm Petty's recording studio.  Amongst the first to find their way to Norm's doorstep were The Teen Kings, from Vernon, Tx., they were led by Roy Orbison, who would come to be regarded as one of the greatest vocalist in popular music. The band recorded "Ooby Dooby" and a cover of the Clover's  "Trying to Get to You."  A West Texas record dealer with contacts in Memphis, played"Ooby Dooby" over the telephone for Sam Phillips, who immediately signed Orbison to Sun Records.   Before leaving for Tennessee, Roy Orbison recommended Petty's studio to another group of young Texas rockers, The Rhythm Orchids. This was a talented bunch that featured both Buddy Knox of Happy, Tx. and Jimmy Bowen ( who was born in Santa Rita, N.M.)  The group recorded three songs at Petty's studio, including "Party Doll" by Knox and Bowen's "I'm Stickin' By You",  Petty released the tracks as a double-sided single. Roulette Records signed both artists, split the single, with both songs then selling over a million copies.  Norman Petty was now a force to be reckoned with in the music business. 
At the time that Norman Petty and Buddy Holly crossed paths, it can be said with certainty that Holly needed Petty more than vice versa.  Norm was riding high on his own musical success and that of the artists he had recorded and produced, Buddy was still a work in progress. Born in Lubbock, Buddy had started in music at an early age, by the time he entered high school he was part of a successful music duo with Bob Montgomery. Buddy and Bob played what they called "Western and Bop", with Montgomery handling the lead vocals. In 1955, Buddy teamed up with Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Don Guess, opening shows in Lubbock for Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.  Towards the end of 1955, he caught the attention of Nashville talent scouts and was offered a recording contract with Decca Records.  In January,1956, Holly arrived in Nashville to work with famed country producer Owen Bradley. Buddy recorded a number of tracks including an early version of "That'll be the Day" and "Cindy Lou" later renamed "Peggy Sue".  His first single "Blue Days, Black Nights" tanked and he rapidly lost his enthusiasm for the Music City.  The Nashville way of doing things had rubbed him the wrong way, for starters, Owen Bradley would not allow Buddy to play the guitar while singing and the session players did not click with Holly or his band. The sessions held at the famed Quonset Hut were chaotic with Webb Pierce popping in at one point to offer his opinion.  To add insult to injury, his last name "Holley" was misspelled on the record label as Holly, although Buddy would continue to use Holly for the rest of his career. 
So it was that Buddy found his way to Clovis to record for Norm Petty, at first they were a good match, as both loved to tinker with different sounds and effects.  Buddy and the band now made up of  Niki Sullivan (guitar), Joe B. Mauldin (bass), and Jerry Allison (drums)  recorded tracks at Petty's Studio including a new version of "That will Be the Day."  However, there was a slight legal problem, Buddy had signed an agreement with Decca not to record or release new versions of the songs he recorded in Nashville for a period of five years.  Norm Petty came up with a way to get around this, he credited the song to "The Crickets" (they chose this over The Beetles) He then offered the masters to Roulette Records, who passed, saying that the group sounded too much like Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen who were already on the label. Roulette did however offer to have Knox record "That'll be the Day." Holly quickly nixed any deal with Roulette, allowing Petty (now working as their manager and producer) to negotiate separate contracts for The Crickets with Brunswick Records and for Holly (as a solo artist) with Coral Records. Ironically both labels were subsidiaries of Decca, which had dumped Holly the year before and as mentioned, still held the rights to some of his songs.  (At this point, I'll remind the readers that a few years later, Decca would also pass on The Beatles)
 "That'll Be the Day" topped the charts in 1957 and made Buddy Holly an international music star.  Holly and The Crickets toured extensively including concerts in the U.K. and Australia. His influence on the next generation of British musicians would become apparent in the following decade.  Buddy then hit the charts with "Peggy Sue" followed by "Oh Boy" "Maybe Baby", "Rave On" and "Listen to Me."  While most of Buddy Holly's songs are now considered hits or classics, in his lifetime he made it to number one just once with "That'll Be the Day"  By early 1958, Buddy sensing that rockabilly was just a passing fad, was already moving towards a more mature style. The Crickets, who favored a more rocking sound were soon at odds with their lead singer.  Holly's relationship with Norm Petty, became strained as they butted heads over Petty's failure to account for a large portion of Holly's earnings.  Petty kept an apartment behind the studio that only the best selling acts could use, however there was a catch, in return they had to do chores for Norm and Vi. One day while Holly and The Crickets were between sessions at the studio, Norm Petty summoned them outside, there he handed Buddy a rake and told him to clean the yard,  Buddy angrily threw the rake back at Petty and told him "I've made you enough money, you son of a bitch, so hire someone else to do it." their relationship quickly soured after that.  The last straw would come when Norm insisted that Buddy include him as co-writer on songs Petty felt had been improved through his efforts
Buddy left for New York City, where he got married and continued to work on developing a new sound. Evidence of which can be heard on the tracks he recorded during his final recording sessions  (with Dick Jacobs producing).  The songs included "Early in the Morning", "Moondreams" (first recorded by the Norm Petty Trio) Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and "True Love Ways" (on which Norm is credited as co-writer).  Shortly after that Buddy broke from Petty and the Crickets. (who wanted to stay in Lubbock)  Norman Petty never one to let a dollar slip out of his hand, soon hauled Buddy into court for breach of contract. It was this pending litigation that left Holly strapped for cash, forcing him to hit the road in the middle of a terrible winter.  Signing on as a headliner for the ill-fated Winter Dance Party, Buddy reached out to Lubbock for a back-up band, Tommy Allsup (guitar) Waylon Jennings (bass) and Carl Bunch (drums) met up with him for the start of the tour.  Touring the mid-west in the dead of winter in buses with little or no heat took a toll on the musicians. When they reached Clear Lake, Iowa  Holly chartered a Cessna to fly himself and the band to Fargo, N.D. after the concert.  Waylon Jennings graciously gave up his seat to J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson who was sick with the flu. Tommy Allsup was to be the third person on the tragic flight, but after being pestered all day by Ritchie Valens to give up his seat, he agreed to flip for it, with Valens winning the toss.  Allsup then informed Buddy that Ritchie was going in his place and handed Buddy his wallet, so he could pick up Tommy's mail at the Moorhead, Mn. post office. The plane went down in a cornfield shortly after take-off, pilot error and inexperience plus poor weather conditions were cited as the primary factors in the crash.
Carl Bunch was suffering from a case of frostbite that landed him in the hospital, so Valens sat in on drums for Holly after Buddy sat in on drums for Valens earlier that fateful evening at the Surf Ballroom. For years afterward Waylon Jennings blamed himself for Buddy's demise. After he gave up his seat on the plane, Holly remarked to Waylon "I hope your old bus freezes up" to which Waylon responded "Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes." Tommy's wallet was found in the wreckage, thus the initial reports of the accident listed him as a passenger. Buddy's handgun was also found, leading to wild speculation that a struggle had taken place on board, when in fact the pilot Roger Petersen, attempting to fly by instruments in the dark, simply flew the plane straight into the ground.
 With Buddy Holly the music truly had died, while The Big Bopper was just a gimmick act, Ritchie Valens, like Buddy was a musical visionary, who was just starting to get a sense of what he could accomplish.  Eddie Cochran who successfully mixed high energy rockabilly with tales of teenage angst, would also die within a year. (Gene Vincent was seriously injured in the same accident) Elvis had been drafted and was in Germany with the U.S. Army, the Beatles were still human jukeboxes in Hamburg while Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were already on the south side of success.  Payola had reared it's ugly head, taking down  Allen Freed, the disc jockey who was in part responsible for the rise of rock and roll. Meanwhile, across the country a backlash against rock and roll music was starting to pick up speed.  However,  it was business as usual for Norm Petty, only now he was faced with the task of finding another artist to work with.  One of the first to answer the call was a Mexican-American singer from Dallas, Trini Lopez.  Trini had met Buddy Holly the year before and had taken Holly's advice to "Go see my producer in Clovis"  Lopez and his band piled into a station wagon and motored west.  Once they arrived at Petty's Studio much to Trini's dismay, Petty told him "He wouldn't put out any records with a greaser singing vocals." Norm also refused to put Trini's name on the label, the group did record some instrumentals, which Petty released as "The Big Beats." Once back in Dallas and still seething from the slights he incurred, Lopez took his band mates to task for not supporting him, he then fired them and formed a new band.  Trini of course would go on to sell millions of records, including huge hits with "If I Had a Hammer", "Lemon Tree" and "Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife."  Norm's racist views cost him dearly in that case, but many people also feel that his racism drove a wedge between Buddy Holly and himself after Buddy married Maria Elena Santiago. Not that Petty was concerned with such trivial matters, he was looking for something new to push on the music buying public and he would soon find it.
Hailing from Raton,N.M., The Fireballs were a precursor to the surf and hot rod instrumental groups that would soon dominate the American music scene. George Tomsco, the lead guitarist  and vocalist Chuck Tharp were the creative force behind the band. In the fall of 1958, The Fireballs drove to Clovis for an audition with Norm Petty.  He liked what he heard and penciled them in for a recording session that produced "Fireball" and "I Don't Know" (with vocals by Tharp).  Released on Kapp Records in January, 1959, the single fizzled out, but it did earn the band a return trip to Norm Petty's studio.   The following sessions would produce a string of hits for The Fireballs, all instrumentals. "Torquay", "Bulldog" and "Vaquero."  Next Petty negotiated a contract with Top Rank Records, a British based label looking to break into the U.S. market. Released in 1960, all three of their singles would chart, culminating with their first appearance on American Bandstand. Their next single "Quite a Party" released on Warwick Records in 1961,  would be the band's last chart hit for two years. The Fireballs continued to work with Petty, in fact they stayed with him longer than any other artist or band. In 1963 Norm Petty took a song written by Keith McCormack (of the String-A-Longs) and carefully crafted it for The Fireballs and their new vocalist Jimmy Gilmer. That song "Sugar Shack" released on Dot Records was a monster, it shot up the charts to number one, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks.  "Sugar Shack" would sell over 1.5 million copies (the best selling single of 1963). Most of the credit goes to Norm Petty, who took a band that was more or less a poor man's version of The Ventures and re-invented them as a sunshine pop group.  But Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs weren't done yet, after a long dry spell, Norm got them back on the charts with a raucous cover of Tom Paxton's "Bottle of Wine" which made the US Top 10 when it was released on ATCO Records in 1967. Thus capping a great run of success for a band that started out playing at a high school talent show.  
By 1960 instrumentals were all the rage, and The String-A-Longs an instrumental group from Plainview, Tx. was the perfect vehicle for Norm to cash in on this new fad.  He had them record "Wheels" (a song he had written) and the song took off, peaking at #3 on U.S. charts.  The song was also an international hit, selling over a million copies and was covered by numerous musicians, including Billy Vaughn (who also had a huge hit with it).  The group toured tirelessly but received no money from Petty to stay on the road.  Aubrey deCordova a member of the group explained their situation;  "We paid all our expenses on tours, yet he got 50% of record sales. He would not let us buy a new station wagon to tour in, but made us take my car on our first promotion tour" The band members waited for their big payday, but it never came, de Cordova would later lament: "We were under age, and he had our power of attorney, so I don't really know what all went on, but I know we had a record that was a hit all over the world, and we received very little money for it."  Keith McCormack (who had the unlikely job of lead vocalist for an instrumental band) talked about the lack of compensation; "He (Norm) bought jewelry stores, radio stations, and spent a ton on a new studio that was hardly recorded in while the artists went without."   The group would continue to labor for Petty, but never managed another hit on the scale of "Wheels." After their label Warwick Records, which still owed them thousands of dollars went bust, Norm landed them a contract with Dot Records, but for the String-A-Longs, the hits had dried up long before that.
Norman Petty has his detractors and his defenders, his skills in the studio and his knack for finding talent cannot be denied.  Keith McCormack knew the man was gifted: "He was a musical genius and very creative, though stubborn. He could have had even more hits had he been willing to follow the trends a little closer; however, the hits he did have were giants."   Unfortunately, his tendency to mistreat musicians bordered on the pathological.  He routinely left them waiting outside in their cars for hours, he even had outhouses behind the studio for them to use. When asked by an interviewer  if Petty treated musicians fairly, Keith McCormack answered emphatically: "No! Norman was not fair to anyone"  McCormack who is very candid in his opinion of Petty added:  "Personally, I think he walked that thin line between a genius and an idiot. Some days he would be on one side of the line, the next day on the other."  Aubrey  deCordova of the String-A-Longs observed that  "In the beginning, he was very respected in the industry, but toward the end I'm told, he couldn't get an appointment with hardly anyone in the business."   Norm Petty always seemed to hold the artists he worked with in contempt, for the most part he didn't see them worthy of making large amounts of money.  Through the time tested method of including himself in the songwriting credits and other dubious business practices, he had padded his bank accounts at the expense of the musicians he was producing and recording.  Ultimately, history will be much kinder to Norman Petty than he was to the young men that helped make him rich and famous.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Sugar Shack

Bottle of Wine

Blast From The Past: The Fireballs

It's rare for a band from a small town to rise to national prominence, but The Fireballs from Raton, N.M. bucked those odds and reached a level of success, that no New Mexico musicians have yet been able to surpass. The original Fireballs consisted of: George Tomsco; lead guitar, Stan Lark; bass Eric Budd; drums, Chuck Tharp; lead vocal, Dan Trammell; rhythm guitar.  In 1958 the band made the journey to Clovis,N.M. to audition for Norman Petty at his renown studio.  Petty, always a tough nut to crack, asked if they had any original music they could play. George Tomsco recalled Norm's reaction after they played him two of their own songs:  "So, we played 'em for him and he liked those. He thought those were OK. He didn't rave about 'em, but, he said yeah, that's probably recordable material."  Once in the studio The Fireballs quickly fired off two songs "Fireball" (an instrumental) and "I Don't Know" (with vocals by Chuck Tharp) During that first recording session, the band had an encounter with Buddy Holly, George Tomsco described the scene: "Through the double pane glass window, I could see this guy playing my brand new guitar with his foot up on my brand new amplifier. I was a little bit ticked off about that, also he's playing it better than I could! (laughs) So, I stormed into the control room to Norman Petty and said 'Who's the guy playin' my guitar?' He kind of looked at me and said 'Oh, that's Buddy Holly.' I had an immediate attitude adjustment."  Released on Kapp Records the  single barely cracked the regional charts, but it did earn the band its first radio play and more importantly their first record sales and a return session at Petty's studio. 
 For The Fireballs and Norm Petty it was the start of a long relationship, one that would see them climb to the top of the pop charts.  The Fireballs stormed the charts with a trio of hit singles "Torquay" (which would become a surf band standard) "Bulldog" (their best known hit at the time) and "Vaquero." All were released on Top Rank Records, a British label trying to break into  the U.S. market.  In 1961 they had a hit with "Quite a Party" released on Warwick Records, but lacking a strong follow up single The Fireball express ran out of steam. However, the band would stay busy, by now they were Norm's "go to" studio band, working with a wide variety of artists. Norm Petty also used The Fireballs to overdub songs from the Buddy Holly "Apartment Tapes." These were home recordings that Holly taped at his New York City apartment just days before leaving for the fateful Winter Dance Party tour.  That same year (1962) Keith McCormack brought Norm a song he had composed, Petty immediately realized that the tune had Top Forty potential.
 He went into the studio with The Fireballs and a vocalist from Amarillo, Jimmy Gilmer. "Sugar Shack" didn't stand out from any of the others they recorded during that session, George Tomsco remarked: "We cut "Sugar Shack" with several other songs and had no idea that it was gonna turn out so strong, once we recorded it." Norm Petty fine tuned "Sugar Shack" and when released on Dot Records, it exploded onto the charts, "Sugar Shack"  would reach #1 (a first for a band from New Mexico)  it stayed in the top spot for five weeks, selling over 1.5 million copies. By the end of the year the song was honored as the best selling single of 1963. However, as big as "Sugar Shack" was, Petty and The Fireballs once again failed to follow with another hit.  The band then returned to its regular routine of touring and session work.  The Fireballs were in the midst of a four year dry spell, when suddenly out of nowhere they made it back to the charts. "Bottle of Wine" written by Tom Paxton, would peak at #10, while selling over a million copies. The Fireballs got top billing on this one,  so once more they were hot.  The band kept working and touring but  "Bottle of Wine" would be their last hit.  The band would eventually break away from Norm Petty, but a legal agreement kept them from calling themselves  The Fireballs for a period of five years.  During that period the band was called Colorado and included Tomsco, Stan Lark and Keith McCormack (lead vocalist for the String-A-Longs, and author of Sugar Shack) Over the years, George Tomsco has kept the band's legacy alive, while You Tube videos and online sales have introduced the band to a new generation of fans. The Fireballs are honored in their hometown of Raton, the same way that Buddy Holly is honored in Lubbock, deservedly so, for they did their hometown proud!