Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 5

"Camelot, located no where in particular, can be anywhere"
A nation "giddy with prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life” welcomed the age of Camelot with open arms. By the narrowest of margins, John F. Kennedy had turned back Sleazy Dick Nixon's attempt at commandeering the American dream. “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier” Although, not where radio program directors were concerned. Popular music had grown every bit as dull and drab as it had ever been before the rock & roll era. One need only glance at the U.S. popular music charts for the years 1960-61 to realize that rock & roll wasn't much of a factor on the American music scene.

The vapid period following “the day the music died” was truly rock & roll's dark age. A sad parade of prefabricated teen idols rang up sales while hammering out their sad little songs. Novelty tunes and one hit wonders dominated the airwaves. Instrumental groups were suddenly in vogue. It seemed that Americans had grown tired of trying to decipher the innuendo they imagined was implied in every single rock & roll song and simply given up on vocals altogether. America which had just elected into office the youngest and hippest president ever had suddenly elected to go lame as well.

The 1960s folk revival actually got its start in 1958 when the Kingston Trio stormed the charts with “Tom Dooley” a morbid murder ballad that sold over three million copies as a single. By the following year legions of folk singers were gravitating towards New York City. Folk singers displaced the beatniks as America's go to hep cats. Sing-alongs and hootenannies became a part of the American musical lexicon. The year after that Robert Zimmerman, who was done matriculating at Dinkytown, changed his name to Bob Dylan and made a pilgrimage to Greystone Park seeking consul with Woody Guthrie. 
Folk music which had run concurrently with rock & roll in the mid-50s before being forced underground during the McCarthy era, was coming back in a big way. It's clean cut, white washed appeal struck a nerve with Americans anxious over the cold war and a threat of nuclear annihilation. But it wasn't all toothy smiles and harmonies, folk was split into two competing camps, traditionalists who sought to present the music in its original context without added commentary and singer/songwriters who saw it as the perfect vehicle for enacting change and political protest. Once Bob Dylan hit his lyrical stride, it was no contest.

Hitsville U.S.A.
It's hard to imagine that less than a decade prior, Alan Freed had caught grief for playing “race music” on a white radio station. By 1960 one quarter of the spots on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles were filled by black artists. Various factors contributed to the rise, but it was Berry Gordy's Motown that rang the bell louder and more often than the rest. Motown's first hit was Barrett Stong's Money (That's What I Want) in 1959, while Shop Around by The Miracles (actually released on Tamla, the brand used outside the U.S.) became its first million selling record in 1960. Audaciously calling itself “The sound of young America” Motown would make history as well as hit records.

Between 1960 and 1969, Motown would place 79 records in the American top ten, while countless others finished in the Top 40. One byproduct of the payola scandal of 1960 was that radio stations were forced to tighten up their formats, forcing disc jockeys to work from a script while following a specific playlist. The contents of which were determined by the each station's program director. Top 40 radio which came to be known as contemporary hit radio became the money format for radio. Top 40 was the brainchild of broadcaster Todd Storz, further defined by Gordon McLendon (KLIF) and then refined to a science by Bill Drake and Gene Chenault in the mid-1960s (Boss Radio)

Presentation was everything and nothing was left to chance. Every minute was scripted, dead air was taboo, every lead-in carefully timed to segue directly into the music. The Storz system factored in record shop sales and jukebox plays to determine which songs were the most popular and thus most likely to receive radio play. It worked as a real time indicator of what the people wanted to hear. In the mid-1950s much to the chagrin of many, what the people wanted to hear was rock & roll. Just the same, by 1960 the listening and record buying public favored overwrought ballads, instrumentals and the slick soul of Motown. The music charts reflected those preferences. 

Everybody's doing it
  If not for a private audition requested by American Bandstand host Dick Clark. Ernest Evans, a nondescript former chicken plucker from South Philly would have missed his calling. That audition led to Evans recording “The Class” a novelty single on which he sings Mary Had a Little Lamb while imitating Fats Domino and Elvis before some cheesy chipmunk voices kick in. Pure corn pone, but it did lead to a recording contract with Cameo-Parkway records. At some point in between, Clark's wife asked Evans his name, to which he replied “My friends call me Chubby” and seeing how he had just finished singing a Fats Domino tune, Mrs. Clark inquired: “As in Checkers?”

Now christened Chubby Checkers, he recorded “The Twist” a Hank Ballard b-side and by the end of 1960 Chubs had a gold record and America had a new dance craze. “The Twist” went to number one, Checkers cashed in and that normally would have been the end of it. But, all through 1961 the song refused to go away. Once celebrities (Judy Garland, John Wayne, Jackie Kennedy Zsa Zsa Gabor etc.) started gyrating to it at The Peppermint Lounge in NYC, “The Twist” took off again, climbing back up to #1. in 1962. The second song on the U.S. Charts (Bing Crosby's White Christmas being the other) to hit number one during two separate runs.

Chubby Checkers and Fabian Forte exemplified the state of pop music in 1960 (both were from South Philadelphia and had attended the same high school) Both were discovered by opportunistic music impresarios (Checkers by Dick Clark, Fabian by Bob Marcucci) both were successful beyond their wildest dreams though neither one possessed an abundance of musical talent. Forte in fact would testify during the payola hearings that the vocals on his recordings had been electronically enhanced. Forte openly admitted that he lip synced most of his live performances, adding “I felt controlled. I felt like a puppet” For spilling the beans, Forte was effectively retired from music by the time he turned 18. Before you spill a tear for dear old Fabian, keep in mind that by 1959 he had earned almost $300,000. 

Surfin' is the only life the only way for me

While rock & roll had slipped into a coma, it still had a pulse. The Fireballs from Raton, N.M. teamed up with Norm Petty in 1958 and scored three successive Top 40 hits with “Torquay” (1959) Bulldog (1960) and “Quite a Party” (1961) Early on The Fireballs built their sound around influential guitarist George Tomsco, then in 1963 Norm Petty matched them with singer Jimmy Gilmer and they recorded “Sugar Shack” the only #1 hit single ever by a New Mexico based band. The Fireballs w/Gilmer hit on the formula again in 1967 with “Bottle of Wine” a top ten hit and A.M. Radio staple. Tomsco and crew were the precursors to a new sound that was developing on the West Coast.

Instrumental groups played a big part as surf music began to evolve. The Fireballs, though not a surf band by any means, were nonetheless highly influential. So to were Duane Eddy, Al Casey, The Ventures and even The Righteous Bros. their song “Koko Joe” became a surfer favorite. Dick Dale & The Deltones, The Gamblers, The Belairs The Sentinals and The Centurions began to attract large crowds to dance concerts that came to be known as surfer stomps. While it's generally agreed that Dick Dale & Paul Johnson were at the forefront of this hybrid style, it was the surfers themselves and not the musicians that came up with the idea of calling it “surf music”

Guitarists Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand were the impetus behind The Belairs, a short lived yet pivotal band. Shortly after the release of their iconic single “Mr. Moto” in 1960, the band imploded with Bertrand going off to form Eddie & the Showmen, a highly influential, often overlooked surf band. The Belairs drummer, Dick Dodd followed Bertrand to the Showmen, before leaving to join The Standells (that's Dick singing lead on Dirty Water) Paul Johnson moved on, forming The Galaxies and then joining Davie Allan & The Arrows in the mid-1960s. Renowned jazz guitarist Larry Carlton was also once a member of Eddie & the Showmen.

All of which goes to point out the many influences that led to the formation of surf music: jazz, swing, R&B, Folk, Barber Shop Quartet, Doo Wop, Mexican and courtesy of Dick Dale, pulsating Middle Eastern musical techniques. In 1959, The Gamblers formed by guitarist-songwriter Derry Weaver, recorded “Moondawg” which is regarded as the first surf music hit. Produced by Nick Venet, the song also features surf music pioneer Bruce Johnston on keys. Dick Dale followed closely with “Let's Go Tripping” and The Belairs with “Mr. Moto” The gauntlet was drawn, the mood was set.... American music fans were about to fall in love with rock & roll all over again. 

That Makes it Tough- Buddy Holly
So Sad- The Everly Brothers
Lonely- Eddie Cochran
Nervous Breakdown- Eddie Cochran
Susie Q- Dale Hawkins w/James Burton
Money (That's What I Want)- Barrett Strong
Shout- The Isley Brothers
Let's Go Tripping- Dick Dale & The Deltones
Moondawg- The Gamblers
Mr. Moto- The Belairs
Louie Louie- Rocking Robin Roberts & The Fabulous Wailers
Surfin'- The Beach Boys
Let There Be Drums- Sandy Nelson w/ Richard Podolor
Comanche- The Revels
Jungle Fever- Dick Dale & The Deltones
Jungle Fever- Charlie Feathers
Route 66- Chuck Berry
Jack the Ripper- Link Wray
Susie Darling- Robin Luke
Give me Love- Bluford Wade & The Originals
Like Longhair- Paul Revere & The Raiders
Twist and Shout- The Top Notes
Boys- The Shirelles
Angel Baby- Rosie & The Originals
I Found a Love- The Falcons w/Wilson Pickett
Sheila- Tommy Roe
True Love Ways- Buddy Holly
Town Without Pity- Gene Pitney
When Will I Be Loved- The Everly Brothers
Shop Around- The Miracles
Twistin' the Night Away- Sam Cooke