The pandemic is big. We are little. But we’re doing what we can. In Lakefield, our little Ontario village, most of us wear masks when shopping at our one grocery store; picking up mail at the post office; or lining up outside our one hardware store and in the often-outrageously long LCBO queues. We wave and weave widely around each other on daily walks. We’re hunkered down. But last Saturday, for just a bit, we broke free.
There’s not much I can do to help. I can’t make masks. Beyond staying home, I can’t help doctors and nurses. But I know how to sing and play the guitar a little. Plus, Terry lives across the street and he’s a drummer. Mike lives one street over and he plays bass. An idea was born.
Flyers were put in people’s front doors. They said that on Saturday at 4:15 there would be a William Street Concert and Sidewalk Dance. People were invited to bring lawn chairs (and stay six feet apart) or just open their windows. We had no idea if anyone would come or if the police would shut us down – there is one patrol car that commutes in from Peterborough.
It was terrific. Families gathered close and neighbours sprawled on lawns at respectful distances. Others were on front porches and between songs we heard others clapping and hooting from back decks. Mike, Terry, and I had never played together before so we did old, no fail, rock ‘n’ roll songs. A lot of folks sang along and danced in their places but for our last two songs (I Saw Standing There and Birthday) the street filled with socially-distanced dancers.
It was only an hour. But it was glorious. There was laughter and singing and dancing and wide smiles. We actually saw friends who for weeks were only thumbnails in Brady Bunch Zoom calls. When it ended, we all retreated to the safety of our houses and yards knowing how lucky we are to have houses and yards and to live in a little place like this even in the middle of something so big.
A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.
The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.
The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.
African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.
The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.
White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.
Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.
Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.
Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.
Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.
A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.
The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.
The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.
Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.
That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.
Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.
Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)
By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.
Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.
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The grocery store often surprises me. It’s not the prices or odd stuff masquerading as food but the checkout line’s celebrity gossip magazines. I’ve never understood why we should care about the personal lives of those good at hitting a ball or note or at pretending to be someone else. But I know I’ve passed a certain milestone when I don’t recognize the pretty faces or even many of the names of those blessed with good cheekbones, talent, or luck. But don’t get me wrong. There is value in some celebrity.
Let’s consider Johnny Cash. Really, stick with me. Johnny Cash is not just a celebrity but also an existential hero and as such he’s among the few celebrities who offer important lessons for us all. Think for a moment of what we can learn from his contradictions and lives, yes, plural, his lives.
Life One: Gospel. Johnny Cash walked into Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records and demanded to be heard. Owner and producer Sam Phillips was unimpressed by a half dozen gospel songs. “I’ve got a hundred people that sing gospel and most better than you.” he said, “What else ya’ got?” Cash glanced at his guitarist and stand-up bass player and whispered, “Follow me.” He launched into a tune he’d written in the army: Folsom Prison Blues. The gospel singer had written: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s nasty.
Life Two: Rockabilly. Cash was soon on the road with a package show that included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They all sang rockabilly – a Mississippi Delta marriage of blues, bluegrass, country, and pop. Cash enjoyed a string of regional and then a few national hits with his unique rockabilly style and booming baritone. It wouldn’t last.
Life Three: Country. The uppers they were all given to keep them on the road and stage tore him down. They ripped his records from the charts. They nearly killed him. The Grand Ole Opry fired him. Falling in love with June Carter saved his life and career. She wrote him Ring of Fire and he wrote a bunch more. Cash was was reborn as a country singer.
He gathered songs he had found or written for the hurt, forgotten, and unredeemed and performed them for inmates behind the slate gray walls of Folsom Prison. The concert recording crossed him to the mainstream and won him a weekly television show. Ever the rebel, he insisted on guests like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. By the 1980s, though, country had become slick and corporate and Cash had become old-fashioned. He was dropped from his record company.
Life Four: Folk.Cash returned to drugs. Once again he was saved by June and Jesus and this time by an eccentric producer who challenged him to dig deeper and do better. Rick Rubin stripped Nashville from Cash’s music and tore it down to the rudimentary strumming of his big Gibson guitar – three chords and the truth. They made a series of albums called the American Recordings. Each was better than the last.
(Photo:Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)
So what? Well, Johnny Cash’s lives were all about contradictions. He proves that there is enough bad in the best of us and enough good in the worst of us that it hardly suits any of us to speak ill of the rest of us.
But there is more. He didn’t mean to but he ended up proving that we are capable of re-inventing ourselves. We can be knocked down and disappointed. Unearned riches or stupid luck can embarrass us. We can suffer demoralizing failure or our lives can be radically altered by something we didn’t see coming and never deserved. But no matter what is tossed at us or whatever hurdles we create and throw before ourselves there is always a chance to invent anew.
That is existentialism. Put simply, we create our own meaning. We create ourselves. For whatever we’re not or without, we can’t blame our parents or God or the stars or anything or anyone else. The flip side, for those old enough to recall what a flip side used to be, is that we can take justifiable pride in anything at which we succeed. There is no arrogance in that. We know about accidents of birth and teamwork and flukes. Existentialism, though, says that we are the art and artist and should sign our work. Our best work is us.
So next week at the grocery store when I look at the made up, poofed up, botoxed faces about whom I am apparently supposed to care, I’ll recall Johnny Cash’s craggy mug. I’ll know that sometimes there are celebrities whose work and lives are valuable for the lessons they provide. And for that reason, sometimes, just sometimes, celebrities may matter a little after all.
(Watch this American Recording video and try not to be moved by a folk singer at work and with contradictions and reinventions on his mind.)
Rock is art. Rock songs toy with time. Decades after first hearing it, a song will find its way to your radio and instantly transport you to a place and people. They are three-minute symphonies. They are novels with plot, theme, and character. Because rock songs matter, the groups that create them matter and so let us ponder our most important groups.
Sex spawned Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even the name was an African-American slang for sex. The early songs were blatantly sexual. Consider Good Rockin’ Tonight, Great Balls of Fire, and anything by Little Richard including his transvestite tale in Long Tall Sally. The Crickets and then the Beatles turned rock from sex to fun. The Crickets sang Oh Boy at the thought of merely seeing a girl and the Beatles just wanted to hold her hand.
More important was that they killed the old music industry. For decades, songwriters punched the clock each morning in small offices on Nashville’s Music Row and New York’s Brill building. They wrote the songs that A & R men pitched. The Crickets and Beatles proclaimed that from that point on, groups would write their own material.
The Byrds and the Band
The Byrds married the rhythms and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical maturity of Bob Dylan. Many of their early songs were Dylan covers. Kids were surprised to learn that with Turn! Turn! Turn! they were dancing to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They certainly knew that Eight Miles High was about drugs.
Like the Byrds, the Band taught listeners that rock songs could move beyond girl-boy angst. They focussed on deeper matters. With The Weight, they wrote of the American Civil War’s pain and the century-long yearning for redemption. With Cripple Creek and many others, they sang of the joy in anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes and behaviours.
The Monkees and the Eagles
That’s right, the Monkees. Of course they were a made up band but they’re on this list because of Mike Nesmith. To quell his protests, he was allowed to produce two of his compositions for the first Monkees album. Papa Jean’s Blues and Sweet Young Thing were rock but also country. Unlike today’s country, which Tom Petty has said is bad pop with a fiddle, Nesmith’s songs were outlaw country before Waylon and Willie coined the phrase. Each Monkees album contained Nesmith country-rock songs and lots of kids were hearing the new genre because, in 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Before winning his casting call, Nesmith had been an MC at an L. A. club where he sang and introduced local talent. Among them was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Their first hit was a Nesmith country-rock song: Different Drum. After touring with Ronstadt, her band left and renamed itself the Eagles. They took country-rock to new levels. Marvel at their harmonies and stellar musicianship as you hear country and rock fusing seamlessly in Already Gone, Take It Easy, and Heartache Tonight. A string of hits and sold-out concerts taught folks that the line between rock and country is as illusory as that between the beer and wine of Saturday night and Sunday morning.
The Beatles and the Beach Boys
After enjoying a string of hits, Beach Boys muse Brian Wilson surrendered the road for the studio. Although deaf in one ear from a beating his father inflicted in childhood, he meticulously coached LA’s Wrecking Crew through layers of overdubs until the music on the tape matched the vision in his head. The quirky arrangements and odd instruments, such as the theremin, were like no one had ever imagined. The result was God Only Knows, Good Vibrations,Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the album Pet Sounds.
I know the Beatles are on this list twice. So what, they earned it. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds he drove to Lennon’s house and they accepted the challenge. The Beatles and their genius producer George Martin locked themselves in Abbey Road for months until their masterpiece was complete – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There wasn’t a single single. That was the point.
FM radio was invented to allow rock music to graduate from commercial AM formats where songs were almost incidental to ads and DJ patter, to a place where albums could be played in their entirety. The Beach Boys and Beatles and their two albums raised rock music from disposable to art.
Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin
Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in the delta blues of the American south and electric blues of Chicago. A teenaged Keith Richard was at a train station when he noticed a skinny kid with an armful of American blues records. Intrigued, he introduced himself to Mick Jagger. The group they created was named after a blues song and dedicated to bringing American blues to British and then back to American kids. When in America, they insisted on meeting not movie stars but Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and their blues idols. Listen to Honky Tonk Woman or any number of others and try not to hear the blues.
Led Zepplin was more outrageous in their clothes, behaviour, attitude, and concerts than any group before and their music more ragged, innovative, and loud. All of that distracted from the fact that they were playing little more than operatic variations of the blues. Listen to Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man then consider the direct line to Whole Lot of Love. As Elvis had, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin reminded listeners of rock’s black roots.
The Heartbreakers and the Clash
Rock survived the early ‘60s folk music scare but was nearly defeated by ‘70s disco. It was music untouched by human hands that appealed to neither head nor heart but rather the spinal chord. Some groups manned the cultural barricades and burned the white flag. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played music that reminded listeners of the best of the ‘60s but brought a power either not imagined or too long forgotten. Refugee, American Girl and many others pulsed with catchy hooks but just beneath the surface lurked desperate rage.
The Clash employed classic ‘60s models in musicians and song structures. Their songs bespoke the simple beauty wrought from three chords and the truth. They were based on the notion, as Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Their lyrics decried the phoniness of celebrity culture and the pain of Thatcherism. The Heartbreakers and the Clash saved rock music from disco’s circling of the cultural sink and reminded people of rock’s potency and potential.
Pearl Jam and Nirvana
Every decade asks rock music to save itself from the industry of which it’s a part. Grunge did the deed in the ‘90s. Pearl Jam’s music harkened back to classic rock writing structures but it was rougher and more adventurous. Their lyrics were decidedly dark in addressing suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. They sacrificed untold millions to fight Ticketmaster and its greedy, gouging fees. It played stadiums and forced advertising banners to be covered and even tape to be placed over the beer logos on concession workers’ shirts.
Due to the suicide of its leader and lead singer, Nirvana recorded only three albums but that was enough to contribute to the move toward songs that jumped from one rhythm to another, from quiet, gentle sections to screaming raves, and yet stuck to the verse-chorus-bridge structure. Their unplugged concert proved that while bad songs can make fun records, only quality songs stand with credibility when stripped to acoustic instrumentation. Talent always trumps show.
Picasso once took a child’s sparkler and dashed a swirl that instantly vanished. A photographer caught it. There, slashing the darkness, was art. Most rock music is equally fleeting. Some groups, though, are like Picasso. Their concerts are the artist’s sparklers creating moments immediately gone. Recordings, though, are canvasses. They speak to artistic intention, society’s gaps, and a listener’s yearnings. Songs by any of the groups on the list are exactly the same as the day they were recorded but our world has changed, we have changed, and so the songs have changed with our evolving perception of their meaning. That we can visit as old friends is the beauty of art, of all art, but perhaps especially music.
Please consider sharing this with others on Facebook or elsewhere and leaving a comment as to groups I missed and which should not have made this list. You might also be a brute for punishment and check my previous columns where, perhaps as foolishly as above, I tackled: