Monday, September 1, 2014

Blonde vs. Brunette

On this for-all-intents-and-purposes last day of summer in the U.S., I wanted to write about something fun.  One of my most clicked-on blogposts (although I don’t know how many clickers actually stick around to read it) is my one kvetching about Rachel McAdams dying her naturally brown hair blonde.  (And I haven’t seen her wearing blonde hair recently, so — who knows? — my article may have had some effect!)  Since brown hair versus blonde seems to be a popular topic, I thought that I would write another post on that theme.  (Disclaimer: I don’t intend to imply that women are reducible to their appearance; this blogpost is not meant as a celebration of objectification.  I hope that covers my ass.)

Recently, I stumbled upon this two-year-old article that backs up my predilection for women with brunette hair over women with blonde hair, an article waggishly titled, “Science Don’t Lie: Dudes Dig Brunettes over Blondes.”  Its author (a fellow male) goes on to list some female celebrities that he reckons better as blondes or brunettes.  I’m happy to say that the writer, considering 17 female celebrities, finds their brunette manifestations preferable to their blonde ones a clear majority of the time.

Jennifer Lawrence
I agree with most of the author’s choices, but as I said in my McAdams post, I do have my exceptions.  I honestly think that Cameron Diaz and RenĂ©e Zellwegger look better as blondes.  I think that Jennifer Lawrence looks good either way.  And I wish that the article had included Jessica Alba, who clearly looks better as a natural brunette than as an ersatz blonde (Dark Angel beats Into the Blue every time!) and for many of the same reasons as Rachel McAdams.

Emma Stone: not a natural redhead,
but she ought to be
While the article includes Emma Stone, it only considers her as blonde contra brunette, and it finds her more becoming with brown hair.  I think that Ms. Stone looks infinitely better as a redhead.  In fact, that hue of hair suits her cuteness and coloring so well that I was a little crestfallen to learn that red isn’t her natural hair color.  According to the Huffington Post, she was born blonde and only started wearing her hair a more carmine color when producer Judd Apatow wanted her to alter her locks for her part in Superbad (2007).  Anyone who appreciates female beauty is left to wonder why Apatow made a better call for what color Emma Stone’s hair ought to be than Mother Nature did.

Oh, well, so ends my last post of summer 2014 on a note of frivolity.  I hope that everyone in the States (or in the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter) betakes themselves outside and enjoys the waning days of warm weather.  And have a good Labor Day!

A beautifully buff and brunette Brooke Burke
bids so long to summer!  (She’s not mentioned
in the blogpost.  This is just an excuse to post
a picture of her.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sloop John B. Goes Home

For decades, I only thought of “Sloop John B.” as a Beach Boys song.  The 1966 Beach Boys track was the earliest one that I knew about, and I also knew that the song was on their acclaimed album Pet Sounds.  So, I thought that “Sloop John B.” was written by Brian Wilson.  Only recently did I discover that the tune — which is known by a variety of titles — is a traditional song from the Bahamas and was first committed to record more than 30 years before the Pet Sounds track.  My new knowledge of the song’s older identity made me want to look into some its older versions, some of which have lyrics in the Bahamian patois. 

According to Wikipedia, the song — known alternately as “Sloop John B.,” “John B. Sails,” “The Wreck of the John B.,” or “I Want to Go Home” — was first published under the title “The John B. Sails” as a transcription by Richard Le Gallienne in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.  It was later included in Carl Sandburg’s folk-song collection The American Songbag (1927).  The tune was first recorded as “John B. Sail” by the American blues guitarist Arthur “Blind” Blake in 1930.  Here are a few other recordings:

In 1935, American field collector Alan Lomax recorded the Bahamas’ Cleveland Simmons Group singing the song under the title “Histe Up the John B.’s Sails”:

The version that first spread awareness of the song to American audiences was the Weavers’ “Wreck of the John B.” (1950):

Bahamian calypso artist Blake Alphonso Higgs sings “John B. Sails” (1952):

The tune’s most popular iteration up to that time was the Kingston Trio’s “Sloop John B.” (1958):

This was followed by Johnny Cash’s “I Want to Go Home” (1959):

Pop singer Jimmie Rodgers made arguably the first rock & roll adaptation with “Wreck of the John B.” (1960):

Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck of the John B.)” (1961):

As Wikipedia says, Beach Boys member Al Jardine, a folk music fan, was impressed with the version sung by the Kingston Trio and persuaded Brian Wilson to adapt the song for the group.  After some chord modifying and lyric changes, the Beach Boys came up with the song’s best-known rendition, “Sloop John B.” (1966):

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sister, Sister

I’m perfecting my Rip Van Winkling.  So much happens in the world — interesting things that you think I’d keep my ear to the ground about — but I don’t find out about it till much later.  Why didn’t I know about some of these things?  How come I didn’t learn about them when they were new?  Where was my mind at the time?  I might as well have been sleeping for 20 years after drinking and playing nine-pins with Henry Hudson’s ghost.

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)
One thought that’s lightly crossed my mind a few times over the past few years is what a collaboration between Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones would sound like.  I’m guessing that anyone reading this blogpost already knows that both of them are daughters of the late Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, probably the world’s most famous avatar of his instrument.  Anoushka Shankar, a sitarist herself, is the daughter of the Indian woman that the sitar maestro eventually married, while Norah Jones is the progeny of his relationship with the American concert promoter Sue Jones.  

Growing up, the London-born Anoushka divided her time between the British capital and India but went to secondary school in California, studying the sitar with her father the whole time and eventually establishing a career as a sitarist.  Norah Jones was born in New York and raised in Texas, where she was immersed in jazz and the blues.  All of this (as you likely already know) lead in time to Jones’s multi-platinum pop-jazz album Come Away with Me (2002) and a huge career in the music industry.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones grew up knowing of Anouska, but Shankar fille was in her teens before learning the existence of her half-sister.   The two didn’t meet each other until 1997, when Anoushka was 16 and Norah was 18.  Given the seemingly complicated history between Ravi Shankar’s families, this set the stage for a lot of potential discord between them, potential discord that apparently never came to pass.  I’m relieved that Anoushka and Norah seem to get along so well.

Given the women’s common paternity but widely divergent lives and musical specialties, I sometimes wondered over the years what they would sound like if they ever worked together.  Well, I know now — a full year after the release of their first single from Anoushka Shankar’s album Traces of You, which features three collaborative songs.  I have embedded the video for the title track at the top of the post.  (Why I didn’t know about the album when it was released is a question that flummoxes me.)  Sadly, Ravi Shankar died while Anoushka was working on Traces of You.  One track from the album, “Unsaid,” is in their father’s memory.  “Unsaid” has lyrics by Anoushka Shankar and music by Norah Jones, their only co-authored song on the CD, a felicitous instance of a family’s grief healed by a family’s unity.  

So, after all these years of wondering what Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar would sound like together, their three songs in collaboration on Traces of You finally answer my question — but for some strange reason, I didn’t learn of the album’s existence until a year after it came out.  Now, with that query satisfied, I can go back to sleep for 20 years.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Last Folk Music Record

Photo by David Gahr

I should like to consider the folk song and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.  Tom Lehrer (1959)

Remember the great folk music scare of the ’60s?  That was close!  That garbage almost caught on.  —Martin Mull (1977)

Whatever happened to folk music?  You know, the individual singer or group of singers facing a microphone and playing one or more acoustic guitars, chanting songs with easily heard, meaningful lyrics and with simple, minimalist accompaniment.  When it broke onto the commercial scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the stripped-down musical presentation avoided the showiness and ostentation of heavily orchestrated mainstream pop, compelling the listener to focus on the lyrics.  To ardent fans, folk music was a music of honesty and, to some, a music of social commitment. 

So, what happened to folk music?  Okay, one answer to that question is that all music is folk music because music is always made by folks.  But leaving that idea aside, back in the 1970s, I used to believe that something called “folk music” survived as a commercially successful enterprise up to that time.  

The usual music histories say that American “folk music” — rural music performed for urban audiences — acquired its commercial impetus with the emergence of the Weavers’ big orchestrally polished hits for Decca Records, “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” in 1950, but a few years later, the group members’ (especially Pete Seeger’s) past as left-wing activists made them a casualty of the McCarthy-era Red Scare.  Folk music wouldn’t come back into commercial prominence until the Kingston Trio’s 1958 all-acoustic chart-topper “Tom Dooley.”  After that, apparently due to the simplicity of needing only a voice and something strummable in order to put an act together, the college coffeehouses and the musical marketplaces were inundated with groups or individuals singing vintage songs accompanied by acoustic guitars. 

The acts seemed to fall into two categories: the clean-cut bearers of sweet harmonies obviously striving for mainstream marketability (the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, etc.) and the rough-around-the-edges troubadours — in effect, the devotees of bohemian balladeer Woody Guthrie — who approached their music with a passion, conviction, and sometimes political perspective that seemed to place popular appeal on the back burner (such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and especially Bob Dylan), with Peter, Paul, and Mary occupying a sort of middle ground (both polished and politically conscious).  But, the history books say, folk music as a popular commercial enterprise began dying off after the Byrds introduced folk-rock with their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan himself went electric at the acoustic Newport Folk Festival, both occurring in 1965 and both occurring as a reaction to the very influential British rock & roll “invasion” of the year before.  

Also important was Dylan’s inverse influence on rock’s biggest act, the Beatles, prompting greater lyrical richness and more acoustic arrangements in the band’s songs (such as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” [1965]), further blurring any distinctions between rock and folk. (Of course, folk music and rock & roll, both in the United Sates and in the United Kingdom, were never very far apart to begin with: in the U.S., both musical genres were influenced by country blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and U.K. rock grew out of the folk-based skiffle movement.)  Afterwards, the well-known American performers who first gained fame as folk singers, the story goes, were gradually absorbed into rock & roll or country & western.

But growing up in the 1970s, I thought that folk music held on as a high-profile phenomenon for a little while longer.  A large part of that might have been because my older brother played the guitar and hung around other guitar players.  So, I was used to being around acoustic guitar players strumming a well-known folk song or an unplugged take on a familiar rock record. 

Also, the largest, most popular section of my local record store (back in the LP days) was labeled “Rock & Folk,” which instantly put folk music on the same level as the ultra-hip rock music that dominated the radio airwaves.  Included in this section of the store were not only established folk-music figures like Baez, Judy Collins, and Phil Ochs, but also more recently established artists like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Janis Ian: artists who sang their own compositions to acoustic-centered arrangements with unobtrusive electric and percussion accompaniment.  To me, this was also folk music.  Backing up my impression was the fact that perhaps the biggest act of the mid-’70s, John Denver, described the kind of music that he wrote and played as folk.  Even acoustically grounded “soft” rock bands like America struck me as playing more in a folk idiom than a rock idiom.  “Folk” became not only a traditional type of song, but a kind of acoustic-guitar-based performance style for recently written material as well. 

But by the end of the 1980s, performers who identified themselves as “folk musicians” tended to be lesser-known, non-mainstream artists who recorded for small labels and for a niche market: Stan Rogers, Kate Wolf, Eric Bogle, and so on.  The more famous acts, such as Taylor or Denver or Paul Simon were now filed together with the rock artists or the country artists — or even, in some cases, with “easy listening.”  Today, iTunes classifies the artists I mentioned above under “singer/songwriter,” a category that includes such obviously non-folk performers as Billy Joel and Van Morrison.  A category called “folk” seems to be assiduously avoided. 

From what I can tell, popular culture seems to think of folk music in its clean-cut, coffee-house manifestation, after the rise of the Kingston Trio and before the rise of the Beatles: as something square and irrelevant, something to be mocked — from the Martin Mull quote at the top of this blogpost to the risible acoustic guitarists portrayed in such movies as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and A Mighty Wind (2003).  The Coen Brothers’ sympathetic warts-and-all look at an early-’6os Greenwich Village troubadour in their film Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) is a refreshing change. 

But the American folk music movement of the 1960s was more than merely a commercial flash in the pan, as represented by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Folk music offered a lyrical depth and relevance that was uncommon in both rock & roll and the adult-oriented Tin Pan Alley pop of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  It’s difficult to imagine issue-driven rock songs of the 1960s like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965) and the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (1967) without the infusion of folk’s lyric-centered spirit.  Before then, rock was a kind of music where the beat was often more important than what the singer said (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” anyone?).  While the lyrics were sometimes significant in early rock & roll songs, they became consistently so after Dylan went electric and recorded such songs as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), where the music and the beat clearly took a back seat to the song’s caustic poetry. 
So, I have to wonder: Would 1960s rock music have been such a fertile ground for lyric-driven discontent surrounding the Vietnam War if it hadn’t been for the prosodic edge that Dylan and other folk performers brought to it?  The answer, my friend, is… 

Oh, never mind.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record VIII: The White of the Ear

Okay, how does my choice of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Crazy Man, Crazy” (1953) as the first rock & roll record look to me after almost two months?

Well, to begin with, I don’t expect any of my blogposts to have settled the issue once and for all.  Music fans will continue to dispute at what point the popular music circa the 1950s morphed into what we now think of as rock & roll.  And said fans would probably consider the musings of a musical neophyte as last on the list of voices to be heeded.  So, I’m well aware that my contemplations on the subject of any possible “first” rock & roll record carry as much weight as a feather in zero gravity.

Still, I’m struck by how the issue of race informed my own estimations of what constitutes rock & roll.  And as I said before, race, for better or worse, plays a very important role in the formation of rock & roll because the music was the result of a racially segregated entertainment industry (an entertainment industry that some may still criticize as racially segregated in a less overt way).  Moreover, the rock & roll era is still widely seen as the moment when large numbers of white teenagers began listening to backbeat-heavy music by African American artists and by white artists playing music inspired or written by blacks.  So, this widespread historical perception — which I have adopted in part — has a built-in racial bias. 

In particular, my criterion of the “first” rock & roll record not being a rhythm & blues cover, to reflect the music’s adoption by white audiences, automatically disadvantages a number of would-be candidates by black artists, since R&B was regarded as upbeat music primarily played by and for blacks. 

Goree Carter
If I wanted to limit my criteria to an (1) upbeat, (2) backbeat-heavy (3) song for teens (or at least non-adult-oriented song) (4) where no single foundational style of music — rhythm & blues, country & western, swing, mainstream pop — stands out from any of the others and (5) played in what is now regarded as a rock arrangement (in other words, without a non-R&B cover being a factor), I could just as easily have chosen Texas singer-guitarist Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” from 1949, four years before “Crazy Man, Crazy.”  While “Rock Awhile’s” lyrics aren’t explicitly targeted at teenagers, the 18-year-old Carter singing (in a non-race-specific context) about his “baby” coming home captures a youthful, romantic exuberance that would become a rock & roll mainstay. 

More importantly, Carter’s style of electric guitar playing helps to set the stage for the instrument’s importance to rock.  As Wikipedia puts it: “Carter's electric guitar style was influenced by Aaron ‘T-Bone’ Walker, but was over-driven and had a rougher edge which presaged the sound of rock and roll a few years later. His single-string runs and two-string ‘blue note’ chords anticipated, and may have influenced, Chuck Berry.  In fact, according to writer Larry Birnbaum, Berry’s acknowledged influence on his own guitar playing is Carl Hogan’s opening riff on Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” (1946). 

All of this raises another issue: We can confidently say that Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” (1954), influenced by “Crazy Man, Crazy,” was, in turn, very influential on the development of rock & roll in general because of its enormous popularity.  However, while obviously prescient, “Rock Awhile” was not very successful commercially, nor was the song covered by a better-selling act.  So, we may presume that the record was not especially influential in its day.  In other words, “Rock Awhile” couldn’t have been the spark that lit the rock & roll fuse.  The song’s prophetic sound without any apparent progeny supports the idea that the combining of R&B, country, and postwar pop was coming from many different musical quarters — as Jim Dawson puts it in his numerous writings on rock & roll, “something was in the air” — making a “first” record of the genre all the more difficult to pinpoint.

But that’s only one way to reconsider my choice.  Another way would be to go in the opposite direction and designate the first rock & roll record as being made by a black artist after “Crazy Man, Crazy,” which is what Michael Campbell comes close to doing in his textbook Rock and Roll: An Introduction (written with James Brody).  Because he views rock & roll as an aggregate of several specific musical elements, Campbell doesn’t argue for a single “first” rock & roll record, but rather sees a gradual accumulation of these elements over time.  And the person most responsible for shaping rock & roll, Campbell argues, is Chuck Berry, particularly in the guitarist’s shaping of the two-beat rock beat to replace the four-beat shuffle rhythm. 

A guitarist with the eclectic St. Louis ensemble the Johnnie Johnson Trio (headed by its namesake, a boogie-woogie pianist), Berry made his way north to Chicago and a contract with Chess Records in 1955.  Music historians agree that Berry was an uncommon figure because he was an African American artist who showed a genuine affinity for Euro-American country music, and since he played in a band specializing in boogie-woogie, Berry combined the two styles of music in his own way.  In fact, his first record, “Maybellene” (1955), was a reworking of the country record “Ida Red” (1938) by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. 

In Rock and Roll: An Introduction, here is how Campbell describes the elements that form rock & roll in Berry’s “Maybellene”:

An Aggressive Guitar Sound [:] The song [“Maybellene”] begins with an unaccompanied guitar riff.  There are two features of the riff that stand out.  One is the edge to the sound — not as distorted as [Willie] Kizart’s guitar in “Rocket 88” [1951; see Part V] but far from mellow.  It is a much more aggressive sound than that heard in pop, country, or even most rhythm and blues.  The exception, of course, is electric blues; Berry’s sound is closer to the guitar style of electric blues guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters than any other guitar style of the era.  This is one important area of influence.

The other is a Berry trademark: the use of double notes.  When Berry plays two notes simultaneously, it makes the sound thicker, which in turn gives it more impact.  His way of blending the notes (heard here mainly in the guitar solo) is reminiscent of the slide (or bottleneck) guitar styles of blues guitarists.

A Full Rhythm Section [:] Almost immediately, the other instruments enter: piano, [upright] string bass, drums, maracas….  Maracas aside, this is, with Berry, the instrumentation of the fifties electric blues band: full rhythm section but with no saxophone.  And as in the electric blues band, the electric guitar is the most prominent instrument.  That the recording would feature blues-band instrumentation is not surprising: Berry brought pianist Johnny [sic] Johnson, his longtime associate, with him from St. Louis; bassist Willie Dixon, who wrote Waters’ “(I’m Your’) Hoochie Coochie Man,” and drummer Fred Bellow were Chess house musicians during the fifties.

A Souped-Up Honky-Tonk Beat [:] “Maybellene” features Berry’s two-beat rhythm used in honky tonk.  Except for the guitar solo, where the band shifts into a four-beat swing rhythm, the song features a two-beat rhythm.  The difference between Berry’s version of a two-beat rhythm and the one in general use is mainly in the backbeat, which is far stronger than in a pop or country two beat.  With both Berry and the drummer emphasizing it, it is more prominent than the beat.  It stands out more in the two-beat sections than it does in the swing beat sections because it is in opposition to the beat, rather than in addition to the beat.  The heavy backbeat would be one component of Berry’s revolutionary rock beat.

Verse/Chorus Blues Form [:] The title-phrase refrain frames several episodes in Berry’s humorous account of a car chase.  The refrain is a straightforward 12-bar blues.  The verses are also twelve bars in length, but the accompaniment stays on one chord throughout.  Almost all of Berry’s fifties hits use some kind of blues form.

Teen-Themed Lyrics [:] The refrain of “Maybellene” seems to set up a story about lost love.  However, the verses are strictly car talk.  We learn much more about the two cars — a Coupe de Ville Cadillac and a V8 Ford — than we do about their drivers, and we never do find out what happens when Berry finally catches Maybellene.  [pp. 110-11]

In Campbell’s view, Berry began shaping the rock beat with “Maybellene,” — often thereafter with his backing musicians still playing in a four-beat shuffle rhythm — but he continued to refine this new beat through such records as “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956) and “Rock & Roll Music” (1957) before finally perfecting it with “Johnny B. Goode” (1958).

In the long nights at the Cosmopolitan Club [where the Johnnie Johnson Trio played], Berry must have heard hours and hours of Johnny [sic] Johnson’s boogie-woogie [piano].  What Berry did was transfer boogie-woogie left-hand patterns, similar to the ones heard in [Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson’s] “Roll ’Em, Pete” [1938], to the guitar.  The repetitive boogie-woogie patterns became, in Berry’s adaptation, the first authentic rock-based rhythm guitar style; even in medium-tempo songs, he typically divides the beat into two equal parts.  In “Roll Over, Beethoven,” this pattern is very much in the background.  In “Rock-and-Roll Music,” it is more prominent, but there is no lead guitar.

Finally, in “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry … puts the whole package together: great solo breaks, plus the boogie pattern prominent under both lead guitar and vocal lines.  This recording brings together some of the essential features of rock style: backbeat; the eight-beat rhythm, completely purged of any swing influence; strong rhythm guitar; and assertive lead guitar.  It was this sound, above all, that would inspire the next generation of rockers.  [p. 112]

So, would Campbell consider “Johnny B. Goode” to be the true first rock & roll record?  Again, Campbell doesn’t designate a first rock & roll record because he sees the music developing in several quarters.  Another contributor to the shaping of rock rhythm, in Campbell’s view, was pianist-screamer Little Richard.  After a series of unremarkable discs for other labels, Little Richard broke out in a big way with his first platter for Specialty Records, the wild, chaotic “Tutti Fruitti” (1955), a reworking of a bawdy nightclub foot-stomper, commanded by the singer’s raucous, falsetto-whooping voice.  Little Richard’s subsequent records, such as “Long Tall Sally” (1956) and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (1958), followed in the same anarchic roller-coaster ride.  As Campbell describes the style:

The [subtle] changes in Little Richard’s music [over the years] are due mainly to the musicians behind him.  Unlike Chuck Berry’s backup band, they quickly adapted to Little Richard’s new rhythm.  In his first hits, such as “Tutti Fruitti,” the band plays in a rhythm-and-blues style: walking bass, heavy backbeat on the drums, and so on.  However, in some later hits, such as “Lucille” (1957), the entire band is thinking and playing rock rhythm.  Bass, guitar, and sax play a repetitive riff in a low register, while Little Richard hammers away [on his piano], and the drummer taps out a rock beat and a strong backbeat.  The contrast with Berry’s songs from the same year is clear: Berry is single-handedly trying to establish a new beat; in songs like “Lucille,” the entire band is on the same page as Little Richard.  [p. 116]

The arguments against my choice of “Crazy Man, Crazy” by Bill Haley and the Comets as the first rock & roll record go on and on, like an all-night jam session.  So, when it comes to disputes regarding the identity of the “first” rock & roll record, the caterwauling among the music critics will continue.  I have no illusions about putting an end to the discussion.  And I have just undermined my own argument for “Crazy Man, Crazy” by presenting some other possibilities.  But my hunt for a deserving candidate has been a fun look back to an intriguing moment for American popular music that’s too often overlooked by our current listening culture’s preoccupation with post-Beatles “rock,” music which is often over-produced in the mixing booth. 

Looking back, I’m struck by how the emergence of rock & roll was marked by a burst of energy and desperation that was instantly seized by a young audience discontented, often in an inchoate way, with the adult society around them.  When it broke out, rock & roll’s most recognizable feature — the unignorable drum beat throughout the songs — acted as a kind of propulsive agitator against the everyday, a pulsating spur that goaded its young audience to seize the moment.  It’s no wonder that rock music fueled the counterculture of the 1960s that protested the Vietnam War. 

But now that prominent drumming (or other forms of beat-keeping) played throughout a song have become the norm in popular music, the beat has lost its desperate drive and urgency — save for the ephemeral punk/new-wave movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s.  That beast has been tamed.  But a peek back into rock & roll’s history is an intriguing reminder of the possibility that the feral creature might escape its cage once more. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record VII: My Interview with Charlie Gracie

As far as proto-rock & roll songs go, “Boogie Woogie Blues” by the 15-year-old electric-guitarist Charlie Gracie, recorded back in 1951, sounds especially prescient, both in the way he played his instrument and because of how young he was.  However, the histories of rock & roll that I’ve consulted don’t say very much about either the record or its writer-performer.  Because I wanted to learn more about both, I thought that my best option was to talk to the man himself.

Some background: Born in the Italian-American section of Philadelphia in 1936, Charlie Gracie started learning to play the guitar at ten-years old.  By the time he was a teenager, he had been entering and winning local talent competitions.  While appearing on the local television and radio broadcast The Paul Whiteman Show in 1951, a 15-year-old Gracie was heard by Graham Prince, the owner of the nearby independent label Cadillac Records.  Prince signed Gracie to a recording contract, and it was for Cadillac that Gracie recorded his own composition, “Boogie Woogie Blues” in 1951.  Gracie followed that single in 1952 with another self-penned proto-rocker “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’.”

As he got older, Gracie moved from one independent label to another, landing at the Philadelphia-based Cameo Records.  While he was with Cameo, Gracie had his biggest hit, the chart-topping “Butterfly” in 1957.  He became especially popular in Britain and other parts of Europe.

The story goes that Gracie was tricked out of some of his earnings at Cameo, and when he initiated legal action to claim some of his lost money, Cameo, which was owned in part by Philadelphia’s musical king maker Dick Clark, blackballed him from the industry.  Consequently, Gracie never again rose to the heights of popularity that he achieved with “Butterfly.”  However, now approaching the age of 80, he still performs in both the United States and Europe to a devoted following.  Thanks to his son and manager, I was able to set up a telephone interview with Charlie Gracie about the days of “Boogie Woogie Blues.”

 Me: The reason I wanted to talk to you about “Boogie Woogie Blues” is because I’ve been writing a series of articles about the idea of the first rock & roll record.  I just heard about “Boogie Woogie Blues” last year, and it seems like it’s just one step away from being a prime candidate for the title.  I was very surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before.  Do you remember when you wrote the song “Boogie Woogie Blues”?

Charlie Gracie: Yes, I was just about to enter high school that year — this is, like, late 1951, and I think it was finally released early in 1952.  I was just about 15½, 16 years old.

What kind of song were you trying to write?  Who did you think the audience for song would be?

Appearing in the 1957 film ‘Jamboree!’
Well, at that particular point in my career — I started playing when I was ten-years old, so at this point, I was fairly accomplished as a musician — I wasn’t great, but I knew my instrument.  And I never was much of a songwriter, but at that point, you have a lot of dreams when you’re a kid.  I grew up during the big-band era, you know, the ’3os and ’40s, and my dad was into swing and be-bop, and my mom loved country music.  I listened to all of it.  I also used to put on what they used to call “race records” or [tune into] black [radio] stations or rhythm & blues stations, in those days, and listen to whatever I could to get a mixture of music. 

So, I sat down one day, and I put this tune together.  It was no masterpiece, but for a kid that age, I thought it was pretty good.  So, when I first got my recording contract from Cadillac Records, [label owner Graham Prince] said to me, “Have you written anything, Charlie?”  I said, “Well, I wrote this little song,” and I played it for him.  And he said, “Oh, that’s terrific; that’s good.  Let’s go with that.”  And the other side of the record was an old Fats Waller tune called “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”  That was my first record released on Cadillac Records.

So, you thought of “Boogie Woogie Blues” as a combination of swing, country, and rhythm & blues.

Yes.  You know, at that age, you’re very susceptible to what you’re surrounded by.  And, of course, there was no rock & roll at that time.  At least the phrase wasn’t coined, “rock & roll.”  But I used to listen to, I guess, house-rocking music.  That’s what they called it in those days.

Did you see rhythm & blues being a prime influence?

I would say yes.  I would say it was a prime influence along with the old big-band, swing arrangements in my head.  And when you put the two together, it came out like that.  For a kid at that particular point in my life, I think I did pretty good with it.  It was no masterpiece, but it gave me a start. 

“Boogie Woogie Blues’s” flip side, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” is done in a more identifiably swing style.  It’s something you can imagine Frank Sinatra singing to.  Did you feel obliged to put something more conventional on the other side to balance out how unconventional “Boogie Woogie Blues” sounded?

Well, yes, we needed another side.  When I was a kid, I won $100 worth of records on a television show called The Paul Whiteman Show, and in that batch of records were some Fats Waller tunes.  Fats Waller was a very famous singer-pianist of his time, and I believe that was one of his first hits in 1936, a song called “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”  So, I picked that, and we worked with those two sides.

I tried to adapt my own feel to [“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down”].  The fellow who recorded me at the time, his name was Graham Prince, who owned the company, who found me as a recording artist.  He said, “How would you like to do this, Charlie?” I said, “I’ll just do it on the guitar.”  [And I played it for him.]  He said, “That’s pretty good.  Let’s go with that type of arrangement.”  So, he put it all together, and when we finished with it, I thought it was — well, it was a great tune to begin with, so you couldn’t kill it.  And then, we had a nice version of it.  Don’t forget I’m only a kid at this point.  I was just about to enter high school, my three last years of schooling.

When you were learning to play the guitar, who were your role models?  Who were the people that inspired you?

Well, I’ll tell you, there weren’t too many guitar players around then that I knew of as a kid.  Of course, the guitar was not that popular in 1946, when I began playing, when I was ten-years old.  I used to hear guys like George Barnes and Barney Kessel, but they were more like jazz guitarists.  But there was one guy who played with the Bill Haley group; his name was Danny Cedrone, who played that very famous lick on “Rock Around the Clock.”  I used to try to listen to his guitar playing as much as possible.  I think he influenced me more than anybody else.

The recordings of Danny Cedrone that I’ve heard have been mostly to jazz arrangements, fairly conventional stuff.  Were you aware of him playing less conventional stuff?

Well, I thought his stuff was very unique.  Don’t forget, we’re on the verge of rock & roll at this point — when they called it “rock & roll” — so everybody’s playing a combination of musical styles.  I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan, Louis Prima; they were precursors to rock & roll; they were right there.  The tempo was there.  The lyrics had that southern New Orleans sound.  Louis Armstrong influenced me, too.

I just think that your guitar solo in “Boogie Woogie Blues” is unusual in that it has more of a strumming attack than a usual single-string guitar solo.

Well, if you listen closely, it was both.  I was playing the rhythm guitar — I played guitar on all my records, even up till today — and whenever they wanted to give me a solo, I would go into the single string and share it perhaps with Sax Thomas or the pianist.  And it was just a style that I developed by myself.

I notice that your follow-up to “Boogie Woogie Blues” was called “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’.”  That phrase at the time was usually used to describe a kind of dancing or religious rapture.  In your song, you simply mean it as “traveling.”  What inspired you to call the song “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” and to use that phrase?

Well, you gotta remember once again I’m just a teenager, and when I wrote this song — once again, it was no masterpiece, but the arrangement, it was put together by Mr. Prince — it was pretty good, you know?  And then, we weren’t far away from the phrase “rock & roll” at that point.  So, you never know what’s coming in this business [laughs]. 

I know that “Boogie Woogie Blues” and “Rockin’ an’ Rollin’” weren’t huge sellers, but after “Rock Around the Clock” and after rock & roll became a big phenomenon, did any rock stars say you influenced them back in the early ’50s?

Now that you mention it, over the years — of course, at that point, I didn’t really have many contacts with the outside world because I was just a kid — but as time went by and the years went by, I’ve had guys come up to me and say when they bought that record, it influenced them to play guitar and even copy my style of playing.  So, I was very astonished about that.  I didn’t think anybody thought that I was special in any particular way, but I think I did [influence people] to a point.  Not that everybody emulated me, but you gotta remember, at that particular point, we didn’t even have reverb units on the guitar; it was just a flat-sounding guitar. 

Well, it’s good to learn more about “Boogie Woogie Blues.”

Good.  Listen, you can always get more information on my website.  My son has a Facebook [page].  I don’t get involved in that because I’m a dinosaur [laughs].  When I was a kid, I didn’t even have a telephone in the house; I had to go to the drug store.  But [my son] has everything under control.  Anything you need like that, just contact him, and I’m sure he’ll be very happy to take care of you in any possible way he can.  

Charlie Gracie today