My dad is such an asshole.
I knew—I fucking knew—that as soon as he saw my Tom Petty review, he’d ask for another favor. And I knew exactly what the favor was going to be.
He pounced one day while taking a look at the hot water hookup to our bidet, something I’d asked him to do to so my partner and I could avoid the unpleasant sensation of icy water on our clits. I hung around while he worked, listening to him chatter away about French and American politics, his recent addiction to the television series The Americans and a trip back to Chile that he and maman are planning for winter. I knew he was just fucking with me, and as soon as he finished the job he put his cards on the table.
“Well! Now that you’ve done Tom Petty, how about the Wilburys?”
“No way, dad! Why on earth would I want to waste my time on a bunch of old farts way past their prime?”
“Because it was one of the most beloved albums of its time.”
“Beloved by other old farts way past their prime. Just like you, dad!”
“I’ll defer to your mother on the subject of my primeness. Now—about the Wilburys . . .”
“I already gave you a Dylan review! I was even complimentary in spots.”
“You trashed ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ one of the most beloved songs in history.”
“Shit, dad, his version went on forever. The Byrds wrapped it up in a couple of minutes. And anyway, The Wilburys came twenty years after his so-called prime. And what’s with you and ‘beloved?’ Have you been working on your eulogy?”
“As a a matter of fact, yes. I want something to offset your rendition of ‘Born to Lose.'”
“Which I will sing with everlasting affection.'”
“I’m touched. But back to the Wilburys . . .”
“Dad, I don’t have time. I’ve got to get this book off my plate!”
“You said the other day you were short on 80’s albums. With Full Moon Fever and The Wilburys you can close the gap.”
I was so locked into debate mode that I completely missed the point that he was now asking for two reviews. “Fuck, dad! Except for Tom Petty, they were all washed up. George went dry about the same time Dylan did and Jeff Lynne was never more than a Beatles wannabe.”
“You forgot Roy Orbison.”
Shit. I did forget Roy Orbison. That gave me pause, and dad seized the opportunity.
“Admit it. You love Roy Orbison. Doing the Wilburys would be a great way for you to pay your last respects. You know he died just a few weeks after the first Wilburys album came out.”
“If you tell me he was one of the most beloved singers in history, I’ll cut your nuts off.”
“But he was—and you know it. Give the man his due.”
“Hold it right there. I’m not Rolling Fucking Stone. I’m the altrockchick, with a devoted fan base in the dozens. Nobody gives a shit whether or not I give Roy Orbison a proper sendoff.” Then something clicked in my brain. “Hey, wait a minute! I did give him a proper sendoff! I covered his last single—‘Mystery Girl’—in the Playlist review. You lose, dad!”
“But . . . ”
“But nothing. No fucking Wilburys!”
He looked crushed, and I love it when men look crushed. Now I could get exactly what I wanted in the first place.
“There is something I want from you that would be a helluva lot more fun than the Wilburys.”
Head hung in utter defeat, he mumbled, “What’s that?”
I explained that there aren’t any great collections of 60’s singles, and many of those songs have had surprising staying power—they’re as familiar to Millennials as they are to Baby Boomers. 45’s dominated the music scene at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and only started to fade into the background when albums gained prominence and listeners started to abandon AM radio for the higher quality sound of FM in the late 60’s. I told him I wanted to go through his stack of 45’s, select the most interesting and create a virtual compilation album for review.
He lifted his head. “Hmm. That would be pretty interesting. You could cover a lot of ground that way.”
“It would fill in a lot of gaps, close some loose ends and I think we’d have a gas doing it.”
“Cool! When do we start?” He had now completely submitted to my will and was ecstatic about it. That’s dominance!
“After I get back from Milan—next weekend?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
As noted in his post dedicated to his gorgeous, sophisticated, compassionate and extremely modest daughter, my father bought his first 45 way back in 1961: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens on RCA Victor. A dedicated follower of the Top 30 charts, he collected hundreds of 45’s over the next seven years. He expanded his collection with music from his early childhood years when his older brother went to college and left him a few dozen 45’s from the 50’s and early 60’s. Beginning midway through 1967, when albums had established their dominance, the collection thins out dramatically. The few singles he bought after that consisted of Beatles releases and a few odds and ends. He purchased his last 45 in 1970: “Venus” by Shocking Blue.
Great fucking song, literally and emphatically.
At first I was daunted by the sheer volume of sides, but after sorting through the pile I discovered that I had already reviewed many of these songs in reviews of various compilation albums. There were also plenty of “Dad, what the fuck were you thinking?” turkeys that helped shrink the pile to almost manageable. Several that I flung into the reject pile fall into the category of “novelty songs,” a genre that was very popular in the 50’s and 60’s. Novelties in his collection include:
- “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvous
- “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley
- “Witch Doctor” by David Seville
- “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Over Night?” by Lonnie Donegan
- and too many others to mention
I chose one from the pile, as one was all I could take.
After looking through all the content in his collection, I would describe my father’s tastes as strongly oriented towards rock and soul with a typical teenage boy’s fascination with girl singers who made him want to whip his skippy. He was also fond of male falsetto, but denies any same-sex fantasies. My father’s undying loyalty to his hometown is apparent in the relative quantity of San Francisco and Bay Area releases. I would characterize his early garage rock collection as “excellent.” British readers will note the absence of Cliff Richard and The Shadows, but in my dad’s defense, Cliff Richard was virtual nonentity in the States during what was his peak period in the U. K.
What follows is a series of five reviews of 45’s from five different time periods: 1955-1958, 1959-1963, 1964-1965, 1966 and 1967. The dates attached to each song generally reflect the month in which the song first appeared on the Billboard Top 100, according to the wonderfully well-organized and well-researched site Weekly Top 40. These dates may lead to some confusion among listeners who associate a record with a special moment in their lives—first fuck, first car, first cigarette, first blow job, getting dumped or busted at the prom—whatever. Singles were often released in different countries at different times, and sometimes a song would take a while to catch on after its release. I’ll explain those peculiarities when relevant to a song’s history.
Covered in Other Reviews: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Dion, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (début album), Eddie Cochran.
Americans dominated popular music from 1955 to 1963, a phenomenon driven primarily by the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the years 1955 to 1958. As is true with almost anything Americans dominate, they fucked it up, and almost killed rock ‘n’ roll in the process.
The primary drives of American culture during this period were the five C’s: conformity, consumerism, convenience, comfort and communism. The American economy exploded in the postwar era, and a generation sick of the sacrifices demanded by depression and war wanted more, more, more! More cars! More appliances! More push buttons! More babies! The United States dominated the world in nearly every tangible category you can name, from military might to technicolor movies, a condition that should have created a tremendous sense of security in the populace. This was not to be the case, as unscrupulous politicians from both major parties constantly fanned the flames of communist paranoia, so much so that when a puny satellite measuring less than two feet in diameter started orbiting the earth, the entire country was thrown into a tizzy. Behind the façade, American confidence was a very fragile thing.
The patriotism engendered by the war provided a fertile ground for the ethnocentric paranoia that manifested itself in the notion that there were two kinds of people: those who were “Real Americans” and those who were not, the latter group consisting of “Negroes,” “Indians,” and other undesirables. The definition of a “Real American” constantly morphed over time to include a hodgepodge of nostalgic impulses, pre-existing biases and behavioral expectations from the burgeoning consumer culture. Real Americans had eggs for breakfast and meat-and-potatoes for dinner. Real Americans kept their lawns up and painted their fences. In a Real American family, the man was the breadwinner, the woman the cook, cleaning lady and all-purpose nanny. Real American kids were expected to behave, and those who didn’t were termed “juvenile delinquents.”
And though Real Americans must have been fucking their brains out to produce all those whiny bundles of joy, Real Americans never spoke about sex in polite company. Lucy and Ricky slept separately in twin beds in the early 50’s, as did Rob and Laura in the early 60’s.
While most teens of the 50’s went along with the program and strived to become the good boys and girls their parents wanted them to be, others felt differently. The pressure from a conformist society in denial about sex weighed heavily on those horny adolescents. Born in the waning years of the Great Depression and entering childhood during a global conflict, they were as eager as their parents to experience the joys of plenty. Their basic needs for security and safety fully satisfied, they wanted something more, something different, something their hopelessly square parents couldn’t give them. Like the character of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, they had a hard time expressing exactly what they wanted, so they literally became rebels without a cause: I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want this!
This strange state of consciousness combined with the insatiable sex drive of the teenager made them the perfect audience for a new form of music—music that encouraged non-conformity, validated sexual urges and confusing emotions, and above all, allowed you to dance your blues away, preferably all night long.
This is what the period from 1955-1958 was all about: rebellion for the hell of it, rebellion because it felt good.
“Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley and the Comets, March 1955: The single that changed everything was originally a b-side released in 1954 that had a modest run on the charts. What rescued the song from obscurity was its appearance in the classic juvenile delinquent movie, Blackboard Jungle. The film version begins with an extended drum solo, a call to the ancient rhythmic impulses that merged into the famous stop-time intro that caused teenage blood to boil over and send thousands of adolescents into the aisles to shake their fannies and engage in general mayhem. Compared to the heat generated by some of Ruth Brown’s R&B hits, “Rock Around the Clock” feels rather tame, but to white teenagers of the 1950’s, who had probably never heard of Ruth Brown, the punctuated snare shots, the pizzicato guitar solo and the growling sax must have sent their libidos into overload. I think the basic message of the song is as important and as validating as the music: instead of “Johnny, it’s past your bedtime,” you get to “rock, rock, rock ’til the broad daylight!” Take your curfew and shove it up your ass, mom and dad! Haley’s vocal is rather dull and weak on the blue notes, but he does sound like he’s having a good time.
The alleged a-side, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)” is an Atomic Age classic: the singer dreams that the H-bomb has been dropped, leaving himself as the world’s sole penis possessor with thirteen women to take care of him. He doesn’t fuck a single broad before waking up, making him the biggest moron to ever survive the H-bomb.
“Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford, November 1955: The advent of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t change the status quo as much as historical hype might lead you to believe. Rock wasn’t much more than another category of music to add to the already diverse popular music offerings in the 1950’s. The charts brimmed with lush pop songs, Latin-influenced instrumentals, mood music, country-western ditties, novelty pieces and, eventually, rock ‘n’ roll. In the midst of all this diversity came Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons,” which is simply one of the greatest vocal performances on record in any genre.
The piece grabs you right from the start with its mournful clarinet melting into Ernie’s opening fermata (a note prolonged beyond its expected duration) on the word some. He then picks up the hidden beat with four finger snaps that form the lead-in for the stand-up bass and drums. When Ernie arrives at the chorus, a thin, wavering trumpet enters to add some texture, but all the touches are on the light side—the arrangement is carefully attenuated to focus the listener’s attention on Ernie’s vocal. And a magnificent vocal it is! His expressive variations—the shift to a threatening whisper on the phrase, “better step aside,” the cocky little laugh in the line, “Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line,” and the grand a cappella finale—are the work of a master. Merle Travis’ song is a gritty depiction of life as a coal miner, and Ernie makes us feel the silent desperation burning inside the man. The closing diminuendo of the clarinet is as perfect as perfect gets, a sad punctuation mark emphasizing the dreary truth that our coal miner is forever trapped in a pattern of inhuman absurdity. While most pop songs lapse into melodrama, “Sixteen Tons” honors us with a completely aesthetic experience, achieving what very few popular songs have ever achieved: tragedy with catharsis.
“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Elvis Presley, May 1956: This is my favorite Elvis song of all-time and I was delighted to see it in dad’s collection! What’s more amazing than Elvis’ performance, though, is the engineering brilliance that created that performance. The story is a beaut: RCA, eager to record a follow-up hit to “Heartbreak Hotel,” flew Elvis to Nashville during a one-day break in his touring schedule. The plane developed engine trouble, powerlessly plummeting through the air several times before the pilot regained control. Needless to day, when Elvis and the boys arrived at the studio, they weren’t in the best of moods. Elvis had no idea what to record (!), so they turned to producer Steve Sholes for suggestions, and he came up with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” After seventeen less-than-satisfying takes, Sholes gave up and sent the band home.
Realizing he wouldn’t get Elvis in the studio for months left Sholes with very few options, so he took parts of two reasonably acceptable takes and spliced them together. Sholes must have been seriously on his game, because no one noticed. In a few months, Elvis had his second gold record.
Scotty Moore’s opening lick is truly attention-grabbing, but what I really love about the song is the complexity of the chord structure, sweetened by a brief key shift in the bridge. The melody also features significant movement, and, combined with the truncated lyrical lines, make for an extremely challenging vocal. You can hear Elvis taking breaths at shorter intervals, and sometimes he inhales with such speed that it sounds like he’s surprised he has to breathe so often. There are dozens of mini-phrases in “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” and Elvis nails every single one. The choppiness you may experience comes from the phrasing challenge, but think about it a minute—aren’t nearly all genuine expressions of passion for another a little choppy? We stutter, we can’t find the right words, our volume oscillates and our tongues get tied. The weird confluence of events preceding the recording session gave us a frazzled Elvis who managed to create an emotional honesty in his performance that is far more satisfying than the experience of listening to a technically brilliant but completely lifeless singer. When I listen to Elvis’ voice here, I hear sincerity, and when someone’s verbally making love to you, that’s really all you want to hear.
The b-side, Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” is a song Elvis could have sung in his sleep. He was a great translator of early R&B.
“Be-Bop-a-Lula,” Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, June 1956: Gene was Capitol’s answer to Elvis, and you can hear the vocal similarities especially when Gene drops down to the lower part of his range. However, Gene’s vocal style was far more “out there” than Elvis Presley’s, and drummer Dickie Harrel’s screams are something you would never hear from Scotty Moore or a Jordanaire. The movement from mellow to bash makes for an incredibly sexy build, and Cliff Gallup’s lead solos and “Jumpin'” Jack Neal’s bends on the string bass are to die for. Alas, this would be Gene’s last trip to the American Top 10. He would abandon his homeland for a reasonably successful career on the other side of the pond, survive the auto accident that killed Eddie Cochran, develop a serious drinking problem, attempt to kill Gary Glitter for messing with his babe and die at the ripe old age of 36.
“Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley, July 1956: I realize that “Don’t Be Cruel” was technically the A-side, but I’ll take “Hound Dog” over “Don’t Be Cruel” anytime. What began as a comic relief number became a signature song of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, phase one, especially after Elvis displayed his pelvic flexibility on The Milton Berle Show. On Berle’s show he moved like a guy in the dying stages of an orgasm trying to get that last bit of shot out of his system. When I fuck a guy, that’s exactly how I want him to look when I’m done with him—spent, deliriously happy and ready to rock again! Elvis belts this sucker out in his best drawling growl, encouraged by Scotty Bowman’s sharp fills and D. J. Fontana’s muscular drum rolls. What makes “Hound Dog” all the sweeter is that it sparked a nasty reaction from American Puritans, various members of Congress, and the now seriously-uncool Frank Sinatra. Good Boy Elvis dismissed the song as “silly,” but Bad Boy Elvis is the guy on the record, and that’s the guy we’ll remember.
By the way, Elvis’ version is nothing like the Big Mama Thornton original. Big Mama’s take is like Memphis Minnie Meets the Fifties, an ode to female sexual control. Elvis’ version is somewhat closer to the one by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, which is godfucking awful and moves like a stegosaur with hemorrhoids.
As for “Don’t Be Cruel,” it’s a good song and it’s got a nice beat you can dance to, Dick, but so very, very tame in comparison.
“I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash, September 1956: It’s a shame that nice deep voices are relatively rare in popular music, and when I worked my way through the flood of falsetto that greeted me when I started listening to singles from the 60’s, I found myself missing them terribly. Here Johnny not only changes keys in every verse but also drops octaves, most noticeably in the last verse, where his voice seems to fade into the nether reaches of the underworld. I hate to be a girl, but I think it’s so cute that he hums right before each verse to find the key! You combine that vulnerability with a deep voice expressing undying devotion and you’re going to get one horny altrockchick! Okay, let me admit it up front so I don’t have to deal with it later—I would have fucked Johnny Cash but I would have never fucked Lou Christie. There! I’ve said it! Fetish confessed!
“Little Darlin’,” The Diamonds, March 1957: The falsetto “ya-ya-ya-ya” is frequently borrowed for satires of 50’s music, making this an iconic song of sorts. It’s actually a Canadian white boy cover of a Maurice Williams song that he performed with The Gladiolas. Whitewashing remained a common practice throughout the 50’s, with Pat Boone leading the way with his bleached version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” While Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic thinks The Diamonds’ version is the bees knees, I find their performance deeply offensive. The Diamonds’ attempt to sound African-American is so over-the-top that it’s the aural equivalent of blackface. Yecch!
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee Lewis, June 1957: The only member of the Million Dollar Quartet I haven’t covered, Jerry Lee Lewis was the voice of the devil whispering in my ear during piano lessons, “Fuck that Schubert lieder. You know you want to boogie, baby!” I gave into Jerry Lee’s pleadings one day and scared the hell out of my piano teacher when I got stuck on a particularly difficult passage and vented my frustration by banging out the left-hand run from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” I even threw in a few slides with the right hand. Damn, that felt good!
Jerry Lee’s emphasis on the piano as a percussive instrument was critical to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, for he rescued the most versatile of all musical instruments from the squares and “longhairs,” making the piano a viable alternative to the guitar. I really dislike it when people use the term “thunderous” when talking about Jerry Lee’s style, because thunder is a random, arrhythmic occurrence, and Jerry Lee Lewis is rhythm personified. Let’s just call his style “fucking hot” and move on.
While his contributions on the piano alone would have earned him a place in any hall of fame you care to mention, it was his singing that blatantly confirmed the sexual messages in his music. His phrasing flies over the rhythm, almost like he’s providing a guided commentary on the erotic underpinnings of the sounds he’s creating on his piano. The back-and-forth shifts between melody and spoken word express extreme confidence in both his ability to maintain the rhythm without bass support and his own sexual prowess. When he talks to the imaginary babe during the down-low passages (“All you gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot/Wiggle around just a little bit, that’s when you got it, yeah!”), he is in full seduction mode, getting the likely virgin to loosen up and ride along with those funny sensations building up in her clitoris. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” validated the heavenly union between sex and rock ‘n’ roll, angering Puritans of all stripes.
Had I been alive back then, I would have told them to fuck off but Puritans don’t know how to do that.
My father’s collection also includes “Great Balls of Fire,” but I find Jerry’s vocal on that one a bit too obvious and over-the-top, even for me.
“Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley, October 1957: Sadly, “Jailhouse Rock” proved to be the last single featuring Elvis in full rock-out mode, growling his vocal with consistent intensity over five stop-time structured verses. By comparison, “Hard-Headed Woman” from King Creole is a pale imitation, a choppy song with an arrangement that drowns Elvis’ voice far too often. Here he’s still Bad Boy Elvis, in perfect sync with his character in the film, where he plays a guy sent to the joint for manslaughter. In a few short months he would forever become Good Boy Elvis by entering the U. S. Army. After his release, he would stick to pop songs and ballads and appear in a series of eminently wholesome and forgettable movies that made him rich enough to fly his friends in his private jet to Denver at the drop of a hat to dine at a restaurant that served his favorite peanut butter sandwiches.
“At the Hop,” Danny and The Juniors, December 1957: Danny and the Juniors began life as The Juvenairs, performing primarily as an intermission act at (where else?) sock hops. Members John Medora (sometimes Madara) and David White had written a tune called “Do the Bop,” but by the time they played the song for producer and vocal coach Artie Singer, the Bop fad had faded into history. Singer suggested (some argue it was Dick Clark who made the suggestion, but it hardly matters) they change the title to “At the Hop,” transforming what would have been another one-shot dance-fad number into a song about the teenage experience. Sock hops and mixers had become essential rituals in teenage culture in the 1950’s, events where adolescents could show off their moves and both cats and chicks could bridge the chasm between the sexes through the arts of dance and flirtation . . . under the watchful eyes of chaperones.
“At the Hop” not only celebrated this cultural development but helped shift adult perceptions of rock ‘n’ roll from something dangerously rebellious to a form of good, clean fun. The lyrics even argue that rather than serving as the harbinger of revolution, rock ‘n’ roll could serve a supporting role in the general cultural trend towards conformity. The line, “Do the dance sensation that is sweepin’ the nation at the hop” essentially urges teenagers to get with the program and do what all the other teenagers do. Don’t be a square, hit the dance floor! That line also embraces another important feature of American culture in the 1950’s: faddism. The Fifties were a fad factory, and one of the most effective ways to validate your credentials as a real American was to jump on the fad bandwagon. The Hula Hoop is the classic example (20 million were sold in the first two months after it hit the shelves), but the 50’s also brought us 3-D movie glasses, DA’s and sideburns, drive-in diners with carhops, Pez dispensers and coonskin caps. The era was also an assembly line of dance fads, a trend that continued well into the 60’s with The Twist, Watusi and Mashed Potatoes. Fads are extremely effective means of defining cultural norms, and a relatively pleasant way to enforce obedience.
Despite its obvious nod to conformity, I would also argue that “At the Hop” subtly encouraged revolution by expanding the definition of “normal” to encompass the pseudo-sexual expression manifested in dance. More than any other song in the decade, “At the Hop” made rock ‘n’ roll normal and safe for kids—and by redefining “normal” to include previously unacceptable behaviors, it reminded people that the boundaries of “normal” are fluid, not static—a notion that would be fully exploited in the second half of the 60’s.
Danny and the Juniors initiated these cultural changes by . . . being Danny and the Juniors. The one feature I love most in this song is Danny Rapp’s unadulterated Philly accent. You don’t hear any of the vocal gyrations and drama of Elvis, Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. You hear the guy you know from sixth period Algebra performing with his buddies at the high school talent show! You don’t have to be “kooky” to do rock ‘n’ roll! Anyone can do it—even you!
The desirability of pursuing a career in rock ‘n’ roll is intensified by boogie-woogie piano and solid group collaboration throughout the song, from the opening four-part harmonic build to the increasingly complex call-and-response vocals. When Danny opens the vocal on the third instead of the root in the last verse to shake things up a little bit, it feels like the group is infused with a fresh burst of energy that they maintain right to the hard stop on the final “at the hop!” There are few songs in rock ‘n’ roll history as joyful at “At the Hop,” and if this song doesn’t make you smile, you may need several sessions with a shrink or a call girl to clean out your psychological intestines.
Even with the title change, the song spent several months hanging around the bottom of the charts until Dick booked them for a slot on American Bandstand. After the televised publicity, the song rocketed to the top and became one of the biggest hits of 1958. Dick also demanded half the royalties for the song, giving credence to the belief that the title change was his idea and reminding us that Dick Clark didn’t become the most influential person in the music business by being a nice guy.
“Get a Job,” The Silhouettes, January 1958: Written by the four Silhouettes, the arrangement for which Howard Biggs was given credit was actually the group’s creation as well. Biggs wanted to replace the “dip dip” opening with a musical introduction, a suggestion that has to rank as one of the dumbest ever made. The layering and variation of the doo-wop syllables that establish the foundation create a fascinating backdrop, but my favorite parts come at the ends of the bridges when the meager instrumentation fades and all we hear is a soaring solo voice over pounding drums and handclaps, soon to be joined right on cue by full harmonic power. Outfuckingstanding! And the sax solo between the two bridges ain’t chicken liver either.
“Do You Want to Dance?” Bobby Freeman, May 1958: Bongo drums were all the rage during the 50’s and early 60’s, popular with beatniks, college geeks and pop fans alike. Bobby Freeman’s song is as much an ode to bongos as a dance song, and if anyone could write a song about bongos, it would have to be a guy from San Francisco, the beat generation mecca where Latin-tinged jazz became all the rage during Orlando Cepeda’s rookie season with the Giants. On “Do You Want to Dance” we get bongos at the start, bongos throughout the verses, bongos re-starting the song after a brief pause, and bongos punctuating the finish. I find the slapping sound intensely irritating after about 45 seconds, and I’ve never cared for any of the many cover versions of this song (though I do like the genuine enthusiasm in Bobby’s vocal). Bobby would later perform at the Condor Club where another San Francisco legend and one of my personal heroines, Carol Doda, first shook her fully-exposed, fabulous set of tits for legions of adoring fans.
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, June 1958: Duane Eddy did as much as anyone to bring the guitar into prominence and inspire budding guitarists to attempt to duplicate the unusual sounds he wheedled out of his ax. Here the low-string riff is enhanced by an echo chamber, spiced with spots of vibrato from Duane’s whammy bar and supported by a strong, pounding beat. Duane plays the same pattern over and over again, masking the repetition by moving up a half step every twelve bars. Apparently the producers felt the song needed more variation and added a blow-with-all-your-might sax solo in the final mix. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that it’s a patch—the sax player never fully connects with the original groove and is so loud that the star of the show fades from earshot. I want a “naked” version of “Rebel Rouser!”
“Chantilly Lace,” Big Bopper, August 1958: J. P. Richardson was a popular local DJ when he capitalized on the latest dance fad (The Bop) and changed his over-the-air name to The Big Bopper. During 1958 and early 1959 he would also establish himself as a successful songwriter, penning a #1 country hit for George Jones and a #1 pop hit for Johnny Preston, “Running Bear,” one of the painfully long line of death songs popular for a few years in the early 60’s.
Thankfully, my father’s collection does not include “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
He also had a hand in the creation of his signature song, “Chantilly Lace.” The idea to create a song reflecting only one side of a phone conversation was an inspired choice that enabled the Bopper to slip a ton of innuendo past the delicate ears of the Puritans. The Bopper plays his role in the masquerade to perfection. His timing is exquisite, especially after he moans the line “But, baby, I ain’t got no money, honey.” He holds that silence long enough for the girl on the line to say something like, “The thing I want won’t cost you a dime” leading him to respond with his heartiest laugh and most emphatic “you KNOW what I LIKE!” I adore his voice on the chorus, sung with the gorgeous baritone confidence of a man who knows exactly what he wants.
Speaking of fabulous tits, Jayne Mansfield (another one of my heroines) released an answer song to Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” a kittenish, sexually submissive, and thoroughly risqué piece called “That Makes It.” The song makes a playful attempt to reproduce what Chantilly Lace is actually saying to the Bopper on the other end of the line. It’s worth the price of admission for one vocal passage that consists entirely of moans and squeals of delight that ends with “Ooh, that’s so kinky!” While I vehemently disagree with Jayne’s wish for “a man who’s cool, who really knows how to rule/the way he keeps ’em in line/makes ’em feel so fine,” this was a pre-liberation song and the thought of female domination probably never crossed her mind—despite millions of drooling admirers who would have sacrificed their dicks and first-borns for a shot at Jayne Mansfield.
“La Bamba/Donna” Ritchie Valens, November 1958: I first learned “La Bamba” in seventh grade Spanish class, and later I found out that my Aunt Pug learned it in her seventh grade Spanish class, too. I had no idea that Ritchie Valens would be part of the educational curriculum in California schools for almost three decades! “Donna,” a slow-dance number Ritchie had written about a lost love, turned out to be the bigger hit, but “La Bamba” is the one that achieved iconic status.
Ritchie was reluctant to re-jigger a Huapango folk song to fit a syncopated 4/4 backbeat, but with a great band behind him (including the versatile Carol Kay and Little Richard’s drummer Earl Palmer), he delivered a multi-faceted once-in-a-lifetime performance. His lead guitar solo is one of the best in early rock and he nails his lead vocal, easily riding the strong dance beat and trilling his r’s like a native (he was one of many Mexican kids who grew up on an English-only diet).
On February 3, 1959, Ritchie, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly would all lose their lives in a plane crash, an event Don McLean would later christen “The Day the Music Died.” The tragedy was really another nail in the coffin for early rock, as by this time it was already suffering from degenerative disease. Jerry Lee Lewis had fallen out of favor after marrying his 13-year old cousin, Little Richard had shifted to preaching and gospel songs and Elvis was wearing khaki. Chuck Berry would be indicted for violating the Mann Act in December 1959, and the most promising rocker of them all, Eddie Cochran, would die in an automobile accident in 1960. Combined with the earlier loss of James Dean, that gorgeous symbol of alienation and rebellion, it’s no wonder that the populace bought into the notion that rock ‘n’ roll was a passing fad similar to the hula hoop and, to borrow a phrase from David Bowie, that teenagers would “grow up and out of it” In the end, the strong conformist leanings of American culture reasserted themselves, much to the delight of record company moguls who were never really comfortable with the rebellious trappings of rock ‘n ‘roll.
We now move on to the lean years of 1959-1963, our next stop on the journey through my dad’s 45’s.
There have been many rock heroes who have died young. I hate to be a cold bitch about it (not really), but only a very few of those deaths truly qualify as tragic from a musical perspective. It’s always sad when someone dies before they’ve had a chance to experience life in all its stages, but the truth is that many of the fallen heroes who have become the subject of veneration had pretty much exhausted their musical possibilities before they died.
As Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”
To understand why the loss of Buddy Holly truly qualifies as tragic, you have to consider his contributions in the larger historical context. At the most basic level, any rock song has three basic components: the melody, the groove and the lyrics. While there are some artists capable at all three, the more common tendency is for an artist to be really strong in one area and at least adequate in the other two. While harmony certainly matters (as The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys and The Beatles certainly proved), harmony is dependent on melody. Production and arrangement are also secondary considerations.
In that light, and considering for the moment only the American progenitors of rock, you could say that both Chuck Berry and Little Richard emphasized the groove. Although Chuck Berry wrote some pretty good lyrics, the words really wouldn’t matter until Bob Dylan came along.
The melodic emphasis in early American rock music manifested itself primarily in three artists: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson. Orbison was a problematic melodist because his three-plus-octave range combined with his uniquely intuitive songwriting style made it impossible for less gifted vocalists and songwriters to go where only Roy could go. Buddy Holly’s music was more accessible: a kid could listen to Buddy Holly and think, “Maybe I could do that.” The sheer joy Buddy brought to his music only added more encouragement. Brian Wilson certainly had an abundance of melodic talent, but it was The Beach Boys’ glorious displays of harmony that defined their sound and proved to be the primary source of their influence. Like Orbison, though, The Beach Boys are hard to emulate: you need a bunch of guys who can sing well together, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.
From my perspective, the reason why Buddy Holly’s death was so tragic was that American rock music lost a major champion of melody. After Roy Orbison’s peak in the early 60’s and Brian Wilson’s collapse, the melodic emphasis became the least important of the three core components in American rock music. Most of the great melodic rock artists since the 60’s have come from the Mother Country. American music emphasized groove and lyrics, and often featured singers with distinctly anti-melodic voices: Dylan, Tom Waits, Springsteen and a horde of others (eventually the lack of interest in melody would encourage the development of the noteless, tuneless genres of rap and hip-hop). The reason why you see more classic reviews of British artists than American artists on this site is not because I think my homeland is a gun-crazed, homophobic, racist and paranoid place full of greedy and selfish people. Of course I think that, but the real reason has to do with my love of melody and people who can sing melodically. I can certainly do groove-emphasis music, but I have a much harder time with lyrical emphasis when the singers can’t fucking sing. Buddy Holly was wonderful at melody, more than competent with groove, lyrically adequate . . . and boy, oh boy, could he sing!
The Buddy Holly Collection does a decent job of lining up the tracks in the general order of recording, not an easy feat due to the multiple and overlapping contracts Buddy (and The Crickets, separately) had with Decca, Coral and/or Brunswick . . . to say nothing of the fact that sometimes the record companies released multiple singles in the same month. Our journey opens with three relative rarities that were originally and posthumously released by Coral Records in the 1960’s: “Down the Line,” “Soft Place in My Heart” and “Holly Hop.” The tracks establish Buddy’s roots in country and rockabilly as well as his early affinity with harmony on “Soft Place In My Heart.” They’re a hoot to listen to, for though they are very primitive recordings, the sincerity and energy that defined his style are present for all to hear. Only when we get to his first single, “Blue Days, Black Nights”/”Love Me” do we hear his voice clearly and distinctly, and though it would get better over time and the “hiccup” in his style more prominent, that inimitable and engaging sweetness is there at the core. Let me make something clear before I go any further: there are no truly weak tracks on this 50-track album; even the songs he recorded while trying to find his voice and establish his credibility have an irresistible sincerity about them that overcome any structural or recording limitations.
“Midnight Shift” was part of That’ll Be the Day, a compilation of 1956 recordings released by Decca in 1958 after Buddy hit it big with Coral and Brunswick. There’s some nice guitar picking here and on “Baby Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” another posthumous release that Buddy helped compose. The next two tracks qualify as early Buddy Holly solo compositions: “Changing All Those Changes” and “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down.” The first is somewhat unusual because it opens with a couplet that contains the single-line chorus, but instead of going straight to the verse, there’s some guitar-picking that goes on a few bars longer than one would expect. “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down” is a classic blues progression with stop-time lines in the verse and instrumental passages; what makes this song interesting is you can clearly hear the hiccup style and the seeds of Peggy Sue-oo-ooh.
I’m listening to this album as I write and I just noticed I’m doing something I rarely do when concentrating on a review—I’m smiling! I don’t know what it is about Buddy Holly, but if he doesn’t make you feel good, please get the fuck off my social calendar because I don’t want to know you.
“Rock Around with Ollie Vee” features Buddy at his most Elvis-like, but with distinct Buddy Holly-isms on the high-note vowels. These are even more apparent on the ballad, “Girl on My Mind,” full of say-hey-hey-heys and luh-huh-uvs. Its future flip-side, “Ting-A-Ling,” is so Early Gene Vincent I half-expected Buddy to be-bop-a-lu-la at the end. “Modern Don Juan” features an unusual mix filled with saxophone slides and muffled piano. This was his second single release, and while it’s a pleasant little number, it wasn’t the breakthrough hit he needed. Neither was his version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” which would have to wait until 1963 to be released as a single.
The one that broke him out of the pack was “That’ll Be the Day,” and you definitely notice the difference. While the first fourteen tracks all make for a delightful listening experience, Buddy is in command on this song. The bubbly enthusiasm of his early tracks is tempered just enough to increase the impact of his vocals without squeezing the life out of them. And even though I’ve heard this song a billion times, his guitar picking frigging floors me, from the iconic opening to the beautifully underplayed solo where he lets the high notes sit for a few bars before bringing them back to seal the deal. The Crickets do a marvelous job echoing The Jordanaires, giving Buddy a solid foundation for him to do his thing.
The original flip side, “I’m Lookin’ for Someone to Love,” reflects the same level of discipline and commitment as the A-side. Baby, this is one hell of a single! This side also has a fabulous guitar solo reminiscent of Carl Perkins’ work. It’s followed by the endlessly charming “Words of Love,” which The Beatles would later cover with suitable veneration and more complex harmonies. This solo composition definitely reveals his growing talent for developing a beautifully flowing melodic line.
I said that Buddy was pretty good at the groove as well, and he proves that in his co-written composition, “Not Fade Away.” Man, that voice! He’s got the glissandi going, the hiccups, the dynamics, the range. I adore the simplicity of this arrangement: cardboard box percussion, bop-bops from The Crickets, occasional guitar riffs from Buddy. Good old stripped-to-the-bones rock ‘n’ roll.
If you needed any more proof that this was the period when Buddy found himself, you’ll find it in “Everyday,” another exquisitely beautiful melody with gorgeous movement. The decision to use the celeste on the arrangement was a stroke of genius, for it perfectly complements Buddy’s vocal approach. The sweet optimism in his tone and the mingling of both uncertain anticipation and cheery confidence in his voice is so vulnerable, so human, so touching . . .
Damn. Now I’m in tears. Why did this man have to die so young?
“Tell Me How” is a solid little mover with some very nice high-hat work from Jerry Allison in the solo section. Next up is “Ready Teddy,” a cover song competently performed but not up to the standard set by Little Richard. “Listen to Me” sounds too similar to “Words of Love,” and pales in comparison. I notice that Buddy isn’t on the writing credits for this one, and that may have accounted for the relative lack of oomph here.
On “Oh Boy!” Buddy is listed as the lead writer, and you can feel his energy soaring in contrast. Now we’re cookin’ with gas! There are relatively few singers in rock history who can go sweet in one track and then turn around and growl it out with the best pure rockers, and Buddy Holly is one of them. There are also very few songs that express the sheer joy of rock ‘n’ roll as well as “Oh Boy!” The Crickets nail it again with the background vocals and I get the chills when Buddy lets out that scream at the start of the solo segment. Viva la revolución!
While Buddy does a nice vocal job with another cover ballad, “It’s Too Late” is morosely sandwiched between two classics: “Oh Boy!” and “Peggy Sue.” The unusual drum part on “Peggy Sue” is a combination of brilliant engineering by Norman Petty and nifty paradiddle drumming by Jerry Allison. The arrangement is striking in its use of dampening effects on the instruments, allowing Buddy’s vocalizations to take center stage. I could listen to that vocal forever, with its subtle changes in tone, its wavering between cuddly and masculine voicing and the unique Buddy Hollyisms (unique until Tommy Roe came along with the duplicate “Sheila”). “Peggy Sue” brings us to the end of Disc One in grand fashion.
Disk 2 opens with a spirited cover, “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” with good strong harmonies at the core. By now Buddy has mastered his dynamics and phrasing to the point where he’s brimming with good feeling and great confidence. He can claim partial composing credit for “Look at Me,” a mid-tempo piano-driven number with a slight Latin feel and an unusually long instrumental break that shows he’s not afraid to enhance the formula. It’s followed by blues in Buddy style, co-written with (among others) Willie Dixon. As one of the first white artists to dare to reach out to the black audience with his performances at the Apollo and other black neighborhood theaters, the collaboration may not be surprising, but it shows what the guy was made of.
“You’ve Got Love,” which appeared on The “Chirping” Crickets album, is unsurprisingly written by a team that included the young Roy Orbison, another Texas kid trying to break into the music business. It has an almost hug-and-snuggle feel to it, and the vocals are first-rate. It’s followed by the Holly-Petty collaboration “Maybe Baby,” one of the strongest Crickets numbers, where the band members take over the solo section with some snappy ra-ta-ta vocals. “Rock Me Baby” is a cover with an unusually strong bottom for the time, and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Dont’ Care” is a Leiber-Stoller composition that was probably designed for Elvis. I’m getting the feeling by now that while Buddy Holly does a more-than-professional job with other people’s songs, he really takes it to another level entirely with his own compositions.
That feeling lasts about three seconds, because he fucking nails “Rave On,” and is not listed as one of the songwriters. Still, Norman Petty, Bill Tilghman and Sonny West knew Buddy’s work as well as anyone, and they couldn’t have designed a more perfect song for him. Buddy takes this sucker by the throat with the weh-heh-uh-hella-hella opening and never lets go. A perfect combination of melody and groove enhanced by low-register harmonies and punctuated beats, “Rave On” is as good as it gets.
“Fool’s Paradise” is a curious little cover that sounds like it wants to create the genre of calypso rock but doesn’t quite get there. Continuing to vary the sound, “Take Your Time” opens with organ that could have made this song more of a Freddy Cannon number had it been more robust. I love the instrumental variation in this part of the collection, and it continues with “Well . . All Right,” dominated by acoustic strum. Right here are three tracks that indicate that Buddy Holly was not going to be satisfied by always doing the same songs in the same way, no matter how successful that formula had proven to be.
“Think It Over” is another collaboration with Jerry Allison and Norman Petty, and Buddy delivers a vocal bubbling with a breezy confidence in his ability to make a woman happy, even if she can’t quite seem to get there herself. Bobby Darin co-wrote “Early in the Morning,” which has too much of a spiritual feel in the mix to capitalize on Buddy’s native talents, but is saved by a seriously hot sax solo in the middle eight. Fortunately, “Heartbeat” comes next, a Petty-Montgomery tune that Buddy cradles in his arms with sincere affection . . . and they finally got the Latin groove down on this one.
While Linda Ronstadt certainly delivered a spirited cover of “It’s So Easy,” there’s nothing like Buddy Holly singing one of his own numbers (co-written with Norman Petty). His playful growl and tonal variation combined with his snappy picking make his version so much more authentic than Linda’s, and you can’t beat the background vocals on the Holly original. In a moment of serendipitous song placement, the lovely harmonies of “Wishing” come next, strengthened by a booming acoustic guitar strum and a fascinating lead guitar counterpoint in the bridges. I’m starting to tear up again, folks . . . the simple beauty of this number is quite moving.
“Love’s Made a Fool of You” starts as a variation of “Not Fade Away,” but the chord movement takes an unexpected direction from the A-D-A-E to a D to Bm and, even more surprisingly, to an A to F#m. I know those are relatively simple chords within acceptable limits, but they sound positively dissonant for the time. “Reminiscing” is a King Curtis/Sonny Curtis composition where the saxophone could have toned it down a bit on the verses to give Buddy some space . . . Miles Davis Rule #1—never step on the singer!
“True Love Ways” has tremendous sentimental value because Buddy (with help from Norman Petty) wrote it for his bride Elena and recorded it in her presence. His voice is soft and tender, and there’s no doubt these feelings came from the bottom of his heart. I would love to hear a version without the orchestra, however, as the lush Mantovani-like strings of the era (that same sound that struck terror into the heart of a young Paul McCartney when George Martin suggested strings for “Yesterday”) are a tad too sappy for me (and those harp diminuendi—ugh!). The regrettable strings continue in pizzicato with the Paul Anka number “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” and again with “Raining in My Heart,” both of which make me long for Mr. Martin’s magic touch. It’s a tribute to Buddy’s voice that it still comes through with all its charm despite the orchestral wash.
The last four songs in the collection are the most important because they are all Buddy Holly solo compositions, giving us a hint of where he might have taken his music had he not climbed aboard that plane. I’ll say up front that I emphatically prefer the simpler acoustic versions from “The Apartment Tapes” to the too busy overdubbed renditions in this collection. “Peggy Sue Got Married” is still an exceptionally strong song in any form that once again demonstrates his rare grasp of melodic flow. The subdued film version is also a better arrangement than the one that appears here, but the purity of the “Apartment Tapes” version is heavenly. By the way, most of the chord tabs on the Internet completely miss the change to F that opens the bridge, a subtle but important change that gives the song added richness.
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” does not offer much in the way of structural or melodic diversity, but Buddy varies the predictable pattern of the lines with long pauses between “crying” and “waiting,” again indicating an urge to shake things up. “Learning the Game” stretches the boundaries even further with an unusual stutter-stop rhythm, and while the verses of “What to Do” (the collection’s final track) echo “Words of Love,” the bridge has a very unusual chord structure, with the first line beginning with a C# chord and the second an F# chord before the music resolves back to A. My conclusion is that Buddy was starting to get restless with the limitations of the three-chord song and was beginning to look for new structures to increase melodic possibilities.
This hypothesis would seem to fit with other choices he made during the last year of his life. He’d moved from Lubbock to Greenwich Village with his new bride. He frequented the more diverse music hot spots in New York, visited his aunt’s home often to play her piano, expressed a desire to learn flamenco guitar and registered for acting classes at Lee Strasburg’s Acting Studio. Unfortunately, his old friend and songwriting partner Norman Petty was doing some funny stuff with Buddy’s royalties, so he had to go on tour to earn some cash.
And suddenly all those plans and possibilities died on a bitterly cold night in early 1959. Even though I was born over twenty-two years after that awful event, I consider the loss of Buddy Holly as one of incalculable magnitude . . . and one that truly breaks my heart.