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by Shaun Mather
It was 1956 when the exiting rhythmic sounds known as rock'n' roll swept
across a shell shocked America, causing mayhem as teenagers finally had
something to claim as their own. This was nasty stuff, not the crooner
material enjoyed by mom and pop.
It may have caught most adults on the hop but this music had been bubbling
under the surface for a few years under the disguise of rhythm and blues,
doo-wop and hillbilly. As early as 1951 small independent record labels,
running on a shoe string budget had been recording ethnic music, selling
copies on a local basis and getting them played on late night radio
programs, usually hosted by eccentric DJ's. As the early fifties became the
mid fifties, more kids than ever were listening to these jungle rhythms
under the bed sheets (well, that's what they told their friends they were
By November'55 both the country/ hillbilly acts and the blues singers were
starting to play the bigger city venues and the music they were releasing
was more rocking than any they'd committed to wax previously.
The west coast was having a ball the first week of November with The Rock
'n' Roll Revue featuring R&B acts Big Jay McNeeley, Joe Houston and Dinah
Washington together with the vocal groups, the Platters, the Penguins and
the Colts appearing on the 2nd at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles.
That first week in LA also had Fats Domino playing the 5-4 Club for four
days with Johnny Otis and Marie Adams that weekend at the Savoy Ballroom
Elsewhere, travelling the nation was Buddy Johnson's Big Rock & Roll Show
featuring an impressive line-up of newcomers. Chuck Berry was headlining,
plugging his first single Maybelline, which was racing up the charts. The
rest of the bill featured the fresh doo-wop sounds of the Nutmegs, the
Spaniels and the Cardinals. Having commenced on September 9th the show was
drawing to a climax with a weeklong stay at the Howard Theatre in
Washington. In Detroit, the locals were sampling the delights of that
mighty, mighty man Big Joe Turner who was promoting his new Atlantic release
The Chicken And The Hawk b/w Morning, Noon And Night. Chicken And The Hawk
had been recorded on the 3rd in Coastal Recording Studio, New York together
with the storming Boogie Woogie Country Girl. Although he'd been
performing/recording for over twenty years, Big Joe seemed more natural a
rock'n' roller than many other bluesman. To this day, his Atlantic
material is still popular on the rock'n' roll circuit.
Just up the coast in New York the Lucky Eleven Blues Show was ending it's
weeklong engagement at the Apollo Theatre and was preparing to embark on a
three-month tour of the East Coast, through the south and back up to
Washington. As it's name would suggest, it was more blues orientated than
the other two packages, with Jack Dupree, Earl King, Little Willie John and
a young Otis Williams among the featured acts.
Down south things were also stirring with the early career of Elvis Presley
starting to accelerate at an alarming pace which wouldn't relent until Uncle
Sam's calling. With his fourth single on the Memphis based Sun label, Baby
Let's Play House, drifting out of the billboard Country and Western charts,
his fifth and final release for the label, I Forgot To Remember To Forget
was racing to the top spot spending 39 weeks in the top forty. One of the
authors of the song, Charlie Feathers, used the same Sun studio on the first
of the month to cut his Sun single Defrost Your Heart b/w Wedding Gown Of
White. The odd thing with this single was that for a man held in such high
esteem as a rockabilly artist, both sides were pure hillbilly and showed no
hint of the changing times.
To promote his new single, Elvis performed weekly at the Louisiana Hayride
in Shreveport and toured through southern Mississippi before heading to
Nashville to the Disc Jockeys convention on the 10th and 11th. Although he
didn't perform it was a good publicity move as he was being put in the shop
window, with most of the major labels vying for his signature. As a bonus,
he picked up the "Most Promising Male Vocalist" award. On the following day
he performed at a mill opening in Carthage, Texas in the afternoon before
appearing that night at the Hayride. If all this wasn't enough, the next
day was the start of the Western Swing Jamboree a six-day jaunt kicking off
on the familiar territory of the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, moving through
Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. With a dream line-up in which he shared top
billing with the great Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, the support
was provided by Carl Smith, Charlene Arthur and label-mate newcomer Carl
Perkins who was pushing his Sun release Gone, Gone, Gone/Let The Jukebox
Keep On Playing. Neither song made the charts but the seeds were being sown
and he was only two weeks away from recording his break-through song Blue
Another Sun artist starting to make headways was Johnny Cash who's Cry! Cry!
Cry!/Hey Porter! had been released a few months earlier but was only now
starting to click, finally hitting the Country Charts on the 26th, giving
him his first taste of success. The trade papers gave both songs glowing
reviews with Billboard's 22 October edition citing improved sales in
Richmond, Dallas, New Orleans and Little Rock. Following promotional tours
around the south, he helped push the song to a peak position of 14. A
fellow product of the thriving Memphis scene but one destined to remain
firmly within those city limits was that of Eddie Bond who was busy in
November promoting his new Ekko release, the bouncy Double Duty Lovin'.
With rockabilly being a relatively short lived phenominum, it's
understandable how Bond failed to register a pop hit, despite some excellent
rockers, but it's harder to believe he never once cracked the country
charts. Always benefiting from great musicians and with a strong country
voice, there have been numerous songs that could have given his career that
extra boost, but it was never to be and he wasn't the first or the last to
suffer such an injustice.
Across the state in Nashville, country singer Marty Robbins entered the
renowned Bradley Studios on equally famous 16th Avenue South. Feeling the
pressure to record in a more up beat, teen oriented fashion; Marty had tried
his hand at That's All Right and Maybelline. On 3rd November aided by among
others, Lightnin' Chance and Hillous Buttram, four tracks were laid down in
a very productive day which was to provide him with two big hits, I Can't
Quit (I've Gone Too Far) and Singing The Blues, a pop song penned by polo
suffering, wheelchaired, Memphis youngster, Melvin Endsley. Originally cut
because it was bugging him and he couldn't get it out if his system, Singing
The Blues was kept in the can for eight months before being released and
giving him his first big pop hit.
Also in Nashville, a couple of young brothers secured a contract with
Columbia Records on the understanding that they would be a country act.
Despite their growing temptation to record in a rockin' style, Don and Phil
Everly entered the Old Tulane Hotel in Nashville on the 9th to record four
country items, all written by Don, The Sun Keeps Shining, Keep A Lovin' Me,
If Her Love Isn't True and That's The Life I Have To Live. The four songs
were laid down in an incredible twenty two minutes, the backing band being
Carl Smith's Tunesmiths who had arrived at the studio direct from a 2,000
mile car journey from California. It was an inconspicuous debut for the
youngsters but it was a useful experience for the boys, who at their next
session would produce Bye Bye Love.
An artist whose most popular work emanated from Nashville was Marvin
Rainwater. Up until his 1st November session in Chicago which produced
Albino (Pink Eyed) Stallion and Sticks And Stones (MGM 12071), all his
sessions had been in Washington DC a city with a rich country scene, but one
not destined to become a major musical location.
As the month progressed, the Top Ten Revue featuring the likes of Bo
Diddley, Etta James (who was pushing her latest Modern release W-O-M-A-N),
the Five Keys, Big Joe Turner, the Clovers and the Solitaires was winding
down at Washington's Howard Theatre. On the 10th the Clovers recorded the
classic Devil Or Angel for Atlantic together with Hey Doll Baby and Baby
Baby Oh My Darling. B.B. King was playing sell-out shows on weekends at
Los Angeles' 5-4 Club where he was promoting his latest release Talkin' The
Screamin' Jay Hawkins was spending much of the month in Philadelphia where
between engagements at Spider Kelly's he went into the studio to cut Take Me
Back b/w I Is for the Grand label. At this session he also made his first
stab at I Put A Spell On You. Although not released (a fate that also befell
$10,000 Lincoln Continental) it was re-recorded the following year in New
York for Okeh and gave him his biggest hit. He did leave the city for
weeklong tour with among others, Chuck Berry and the Solitaires in a package
known as Hal Jackson's Rhythm And Blues Revue.
Most of new releases were from the smaller independent labels with the
majors still a couple of months from jumping wholesale onto the bandwagon.
Wynonie Harris' Shotgun Wedding was just out on King who were also pushing
the new one from Little Willie John Need Your Love So Bad. With Bill Haley
flying high with Rock Around The Clock, three of his former band members
calling themselves the Jodimars were seeing a release on Capitol for the
superb, highly charged Let's All Rock Together. With a sound not
surprisingly based on the Comets big band style of rock'n' roll, they
achieved surprisingly little success at the time, but their stuff is now
rightly held in high esteem by collectors.
Commencing mid-month was a nineteen city tour featuring Count Basie, Joe
Williams, Ruth Brown, T-Bone Walker, the Orioles and the Jacks who were
pushing their third RPM single This Empty Heart/My Clumsy Heart. Following
dates in the south, the tour took in the bigger venues like Washington's
Howard, Baltimore's Regal and Harlem's Apollo Theatre. At the Apollo the
bill became phenomenal with the added attractions, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley,
Bill Doggett the Flamingos (who this month recorded I'll Be Home for
Checker), the Heartbeats, the Harptones, Etta James and the Willis Jackson
Having started recording in December 1949 for Lew Chudd's Imperial label,
Fats Domino was working hard in ‘55 to enhance a reputation which would gain
him prominence in both the pop as well as the R&B charts. With All By
Myself doing well in the R&B field and Poor Me being released the first
week of November, Fats ended the month recording in New Orleans. Two of the
songs Don't Blame It On Me and So Long would become his next Imperial
single. Also recorded this month in New Orleans with the same group was
Dave Bartholomew whose Shrimp And Gumbo was also released on Imperial.
Bartholomew was the key figure in the New Orleans sound and helped produce
many classics. Despite his good fortune with others, he saw no similar
results with any of his own releases and to this day, still plays a role in
the Fats Domino band. Probably the best song Bartholomew played on this
month was the brilliant One Night by Smiley Lewis. Again released on
Imperial, Lew Chudd must have had an excited knot in his gut, thinking he'd
got another Fats, but Smiley was too gritty. Although both used the likes
of Herb Hardesty and Earl Palmer, Fats was an acceptable bouncy big beat,
whereas Smiley's boogie was dirtier, his music belonged on Rampart Street,
not Main Street.
On the 20th the "new" music received massive exposure when The Ed Sullivan
Show featured a fifteen-minute segment that included LaVern Baker, Bo
Diddley and the Five Keys. For many teenagers this would have been the
first time they witnessed these types of acts as most of the big package
shows only really visited the larger cities.
Meanwhile, the following day RCA Victor secured their greatest ever
acquisition with the signing of Elvis Presley from Sun Records. The fee of
£35,000 together with £5,000 in back royalties was a big risk at the time
but within two months, all their fears were laid to rest. Elvis celebrated
the move clocking up more miles on the road. After such a monumental day in
rock history, he performed at the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Port
Arthur, Texas on the 25th to a ridiculously small crowd of 100. His last
appearance for the month was back in Shreveport for the Hayride - the
south's greatest kept secret was about to break loose.
November 23rd saw the first of five record-breaking days at the Paramount
Theatre in Brooklyn for Bill Haley and his Comets, Johnnie Ray and Lavern
Baker. Rock'n' roll was breaking racial barriers and shows like this were
becoming more common place. It was however, an all-black line-up that
shared the Regal theatre stage in Chicago for the last week of November and
the first week of December. The growing reputation of Chuck Berry landing
him top billing over the brilliant Nappy Brown, Big Maybelle, the Cardinals,
the Nutmegs and the Red Prysock Band.
In the Bell Sound Studios in downtown Manhattan, thirteen year old Frankie
Lymon with The Teenagers was cutting the classic Why Do Fools Fall In Love
for Gee. Released with Please Be Mine on the flip, it proved an immediate
success and launched Lymon on a troublesome career, which would end thirteen
A mind-blowing bill in Los Angeles at the 5-4 Club the last weekend of the
month saw Guitar Slim, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Young Jessie pleasing the
lucky customers. With three such visual artists they were surely pulling
out all their tricks to steal the show from the others.
It was also this weekend that Universal Films pulled out of a project that
involved a so-called day in the life of Cleveland and New York DJ Bill
Randle. With the working title "The Pied Piper of Cleveland", the
forty-eight minute film was to have been cut to a twenty minute "short" and
distributed nationally. However, due to the dispute between Universal,
Randle and CBS-TV, we have been denied live 1955 footage of Elvis
(performing the likes of That's All Right Mama, I Forgot To Remember), Bill
Haley, Pat Boone (perhaps it's a blessing in disguise), LaVern Baker, Roy
Hamilton, Johnnie Ray and others.
Another dispute taking place was the suing of Mercury Records by Federal
Records over the current biggie Only You by the Platters.
Releases were coming out faster than ever before as the month drew to a
close. Bo Diddley who had just recorded Dancing Girl, Diddey Wah Diddey and
I'm Looking For A Woman in the Chess studios in Chicago, had Pretty Thing
released on Checker who also put out Willie Dixon's Crazy For My Baby.
Checker's parent company Chess issued Bobby Charles's original version of
See You Later Alligator but Bill Haley snapped it up and took the song into
the charts world-wide.
Modern released Do You Wanna Rock by the Cadets and Marvin And Johnny's Will
You Love Me. Two vocal group efforts came out on Federal, Rock And Roll
Wedding by the Midnighters and Don't Make It So Good by the Lamplighters.
House Party by Amos Milburn and Gene and Eunice's I Gotta Go Home both
appeared on Aladdin. A couple of West Coast releases were Johnny "Guitar"
Watson with Oh Baby on RPM and Dear Darling by the Medallions on Dootone.
Columbia records invested in a three year deal with California youngsters
The Collins Kids who had secured a regular spot on the TV show Town Hall
Party. This month saw the release of their Beetle-Bug Bop, but as with all
their other releases it failed to ignite the charts despite being a great
live act and with the exposure they received via the TV show.
The biggest song to be released in the country field this month was
Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons on Capitol, which was to top Billboards
Best Seller, jukebox and Jockey charts. Earlier in the month Webb Pierce
with Love, Love, Love had achieved this same feat (not for the first time).
Webb's friend Faron Young also had a new one out in November, It's A Great
Life (If You Don't Weaken) which was to rise to five on Billboard. Although
Faron did dabble with up-tempo material this latest hit was no nonsense
country with a fiddle solo.
It's amazing that as well as introducing Johnny Cash to the Billboard charts
for the first time, November '55 also saw George Jones and the Louvin
Brothers first hits on the charts. George's Why Baby Why on the Texas based
Starday label peaked at 4, four places higher than the Louvin's When I Stop
Dreaming on Capitol. It was the rockin' scene which caused both acts some
anxiety, George Jones to this day hates his rock'n' roll efforts on
Starday, refusing to talk to interviewers about them. Ira Louvin, when told
by a young Elvis that he really enjoyed their music, proceeded to shout at
him, "then why the hell do you play that nigger shit". A crest fallen Elvis
never bought another one of their records again and more significantly, he
also never copied one either.
December followed the same pattern with shows becoming bigger, appearances
more high profile and the recording sessions all around America producing
more rock'n' roll styled material. All that was needed was one major push to
bring this baby home, it came at 8pm, Saturday 28th January 1956 on the CBS's
Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. Introduced by Bill Randle with the most
accurate televised prediction ever, "We think tonight that he's going to
make television history for you. We'd like you to meet him now - Elvis
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