Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-The “Last Waltz”- With The Five Satins In The Still Of The Night In Mind

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-The “Last Waltz”- With The Five Satins In The Still Of The Night In Mind 

By Allan Jackson

[In a recent introduction talking about old growing up poor in the 1960s and the institutions, customs and mores that drove a lot of what in the Acre section of North Adamsville, and not just there as I found out later through the magic of television that united “youth nation” many, many others well beyond any on the ground organizing scheme I mentioned the critical role of the drive-in restaurant with those winsome car hops in any romantic endeavors. But thinking about it later and re-reading this piece that scene really belongs after you have what we called “scored,” made contact with some young woman and went from there (that “went from there” a whole separate issue which deserves its own space but for now was filled with so much deception, bragging and pure baloney and lies that the purveyors of each and every one of those conditions may burn in the hell fires if such are available). Yes, well before any “nightcap” at the Adventure Car-Hop Drive-In there was the inevitable attempt to ‘score” which at school or church dances usually had something to do with the “last dance.”        

That last dance no mean thing because two things were necessary one of which was some serious eying of your target earlier in the evening and maybe a few dances and the other which was the ability to dance. Dance close without stepping on toes, having sweaty hands and the lot which put you in the losers’ circle which made hell fire seem tame by comparison. One of the great virtues of serious classical rock and roll music was that you and whoever was opposite you need not touch hands, or feet but you your own way. But come last dance time you either has it or not.  

All of this to confess some fifty years later that I couldn’t dance worth a damn. Horrible, two left feet (or two right but the idea is the same) which left many a young damsel somewhere short of the midnight emergency room. The only one worse than me was the late Peter Paul Markin who really was a tangle anytime he was required to dance close. But see Markin had an aura or something, maybe it was those two thousand facts he would run at any girl who would listen and they thought he was an intellectual, which he was, a street intellectual of the highest order. Get this girls, tangled up in blue or not, would come up to him and ask him for the last dance. I never got too steamed up at Scribe which is what we always called him when he would go on and on about stuff, defended him physically a couple of times when fellow corner boys were ready to wring his neck to get him to shut up so you can see what a conversationalist he was but I would ride him mercilessly on this subject. Until he started sending his “rejects” my way. Enough said. Allan Jackson]       

Sam Lowell had several years before, maybe in about the middle of 2010, done an extensive survey of a commercially-produced Oldies But Goodies series (this series had fifteen separate CDs, more about its mass in a minute), in twenty to thirty song compilations and had torn his ear off from the endless listening. He had begged for a little gangsta hip-hop to soothe his ravaged soul although he was strictly a white-bread blues guy around that kind of music, around black-burst out “roots is the toots” music) and he had selected one song in each CD to highlight the music. He sought to highlight in particular the music that he and his corner boys had grown up with, Frankie Riley the acknowledged leader, Pete Markin (also known as the “Scribe” for his endless “publicity” for the group, especially the fountain of wisdom put forth by one Frankie Riley, who later when the drug craze hit full blossom in the late 1960s went over the edge down in Mexico trying to rip off a couple of bricks of cocaine from the hard boys and Pete got two slugs and a face down in a dusty Sonora back alley for his efforts), Jimmy Jenkins, James “Rats” McGee, Johnny Callahan, and other guys like Luke the Juke, Stubby Kincaid, and Hawk Healey who walked in and out of the group at various high school points. Better, had come of age with the music in Adamsville, that is in Massachusetts. Sam had been born in Clintondale a few towns over before moving to Adamsville, a similar town, in junior high school and there had been taken under Frankie Riley’s corner boy wing but had decidedly not been a corner boy in that former town for the simple reason that there were, unlike in Adamsville at Doc’s Drugstore and later Benny’s bowling alleys, no stand-out corner to be a corner boy in, for good or evil.

Yeah, the music of the great jail-break rock and roll 1950s and early 1960s when Sam and the guys came of age had driven his memory bank at that time, some of that material had been placed in a blog, Rock and Roll Will Never Die, dedicated to classic rock and roll music (the classic period now being deemed to have been between about the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s although Sam flinched every time he heard some young guy, some guy who might be an aficionado but was nevertheless not splashed by that tide, called his time the “classic age,” yeah, that rubbed him raw).

Sam had received some comments on the blog at the time, mostly from his generational brethren inquiring about this or that song, asking about where they could get a copy of the song they were seeking and he would inform them of the monstrous beauties of YouTube, especially Elvis and Jerry Lee stuff, if you could stand the damn commercials that notoriously plague that site to get to your selection.  Asked about whether he knew where a 45 RPM vinyl copy could be had, had at any price, a tougher task and asked about the fate that had befallen various one hit johnnies and janies whose single song had been played unto death at the local hang-out jukebox or on the family record player thus driving some besotted mother to the edge. Many though, with almost the same “religious” intensity that Sam brought to his efforts, wanted to vividly describe how this or that song had impacted their lives. Sam had presumed then, presumed a passing fancy on their parts, but a few apparently had been in a time warp and should have sought some medical attention (although Sam was too much the gentleman to openly make that suggestion).

A lot of times though it came down purely to letting  Sam know what song did they first dance to, a surprising number listing Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock  and Danny and the Juniors At The Hop as the choice, surprising since that would have meant a very early introduction not only to rock and roll but to the social etiquettes of dancing with the opposite sex, to speak nothing of the sweaty palms, broken nerves and two left feet which blocked the way, a task which Sam had not done until he was a freshman in high school. Or some would describe what song in what situation had they gotten, or given, their first kiss and to whom, not surprisingly in the golden age of the automobile generation that frequently took place in the back seat of some borrowed car (a few over-the-edgers had gone into more graphic detail than necessary for adults to go into about what happened after that kiss in that backseat). Yeah, got in the back seat of some Chevy to go down to the local lovers’ lane (some very unusual places, the lovers’ lanes not the backseats which were one size fits all). Or what song had been their first fight and make-up to one, stuff like that.

As the shelf-life these days for all things Internet is short Sam thought no more about that series, the article or the comments until recently when a young guy (he had presumed a young guy since most devotees of old time classic rock fall into that demographic, although his moniker of Doo-Wop Dee could have signaled a young woman) who had Googled the words “rock and roll will never die” and had come upon the blog and the article. He sent an e-mail in which he challenged Sam to tell a candid world (Sam’s expression not Doo-Wop Dee’s who probably would not have known the genesis of that word) why the age of the Stones, Beatles, Animals, Yardbirds, etc., the 1960s age of the big bad guitars, heavy metal, and big backbeat did not do more for classic rock than Elvis (Presley), Chuck (Berry), Roy (Orbison), Bo (Diddley), Buddy (Holly), Jerry Lee (Lewis) and the like did all put together.

Well Sam is a mild-mannered guy usually, has mellowed out some since his rock and roll corner boy slam bang jail-break days, his later “on the road” searching for the great blue-pink great American West night hippie days and his even later fighting against his demon addictions days (drugs, con artist larceny, cigarettes, whiskey, hell, even sex, no forget that, drop that from the addiction list) and he had decided, not without an inner murmur, to let the comment pass, to move on to new things, to start work on an appreciation of electric blues, you know Chicago, Detroit, Memphis urban blues, in his young life. Then one night late one night he and his lady friend, Melinda (and the big reason to forget about that sex addiction stuff above), were watching an old re-run on AMC (the old-time movies channel, featuring mostly black and white films also a relic from his youth and his high school time at the retro-Strand Theater that existed solely to present two such beauties every Saturday afternoon, with or without popcorn) and saw as the film started one ghost from the past Jerry Lee Lewis sitting (hell maybe he had been standing, twirling whirling whatever other energy thing he could do back then to add to the fury of his act) on the back of a flat-bed truck, piano at the ready, doing the title song of the movie, High School Confidential, and then and there Sam had decided that he needed to put old Doo-Wop right. The rest of the movie, by the way, a classic 1950s cautionary tale about the pitfalls of dope, you know marijuana automatically leading to heroin, complete with some poor hooked girl strung out by her fiendish dealer/lover, and of leading an unchaste life, you know that sex addiction stuff that Sam had not been addicted to along his life’s way, as a result was actually eminently forgettable but thanks Jerry Lee for the two minute bailout blast. Here is what Sam had to say to his errant young friend and a candid world:       

“First off the term “last waltz” used in the headline is used here as a simple expression of the truth. But that expression will also give Doo Wop and anybody else who asks an idea of the huge amount of material from the classic rock period, like I said in my blog sketch from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, which was good enough, had rung our running home after school to check out the latest dance moves and the cute guys and girls American Bandstand hearts enough, to make the cut. (And that really was true, out of over four hundred songs at least one hundred, a very high percentage, could have had a shot at the one hundred best popular songs of all times lists). When I had started that Oldies But Goodies series a few years ago in a fit of nostalgia related to reconnecting with guys like Frankie Riley, Johnny Callahan and Frank Jackman from the old hometown I had assumed that I had completed the series at Volume Ten.  I then found out that this was a fifteen, fifteen count ‘em, volume series. I flipped out.

Thereafter I whipped off those last five CDs in one day, including individual reviews of each CD and a summing up for another blog, and was done with it. Working frantically all the while under this basic idea; how much can we rekindle, endlessly rekindle, memories from a relatively short, if important, part of our lives, even for those who lived and died by the songs (or some of the songs) in those compilations. How many times could one read about wallflowers, sighs, certain shes (or hes), the moonlight of high school dances (if there was any) and hanging around to the bitter end for that last dance of the night to prove... what. Bastante! Enough! Until Doo-Wop decided that my coming of age era paled, paled if you can believe this, in comparison to Johnny-come-lately rockers like Mick and Keith, John and Paul, Jerry, Neil, Roger and the like.

No, a thousand times no, as right this minute I am watching a YouTube film clip of early Elvis performing Good Rockin’ Tonight at what looks like some state fairgrounds down south and the girls are going crazy tearing their hair out and crying like crazy because the new breeze they had been waiting for in the death-dry red scare Cold War 1950s night just came through and not soon enough. If Doo-Wop had paid attention to anything that someone like Mick Jagger said about all that work being an overwhelming influence, the foundation for their efforts it might have held his tongue, or been a bit more circumspect. Guys like Mick, and they were mainly guys just like their 1950s forebears, knew that much. Yeah, it was mainly guys since I admit the only serious female rocker that I recall was Wanda Jackson whereas Doo-Wop’s time frame had Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, just to name a few. If he had argued on the basis of female rockers I would have no argument that the 1960s was a golden age for female rockers but his specified only the generic term ‘rockers.’ “

Like I said part of what got me going on the re-tread trail had been that nostalgia thing with my old corner boys and all our nights dropping dimes and quarters in Doc’s or Benny’s jukeboxes, listening on our transistor radios until our ears turned to cauliflower, and swaying at too many last change dance to mention but I also had been doing a series of commentaries elsewhere at the time on another site on my coming of political age in the early 1960s. You know the age of our own Jack Kennedy, the age of the short-lived Camelot when our dreams seemingly were actually within our grasp, and of the time we began realizing the need for serious struggles against all kinds of wars, and all kinds of discriminations, including getting a fair shake for the working people, those who labor, the people who populated our old time neighborhoods, our parents for chrissakes, in this benighted world. But here when I am writing about musical influences I am just speaking of my coming of age, period, which was not necessarily the same thing as the former.

No question that those of us who came of age in the 1950s were truly children of rock and roll. We were there, whether we appreciated it or not at the time, when the first, sputtering, musical moves away from ballady Broadway show tunes from Oklahoma, South Pacific and the like and rhymey Tin Pan Alley pieces hit the transistor radio airwaves. (If you do not know what a transistor radio is then ask your parents or, ouch, grandparents, please. Or look it up on Wikipedia if you are too embarrassed to not know ancient history things. Join the bus.) And, most importantly, we were there when the music moved away from any and all staid arm in arm music that one’s parents might have approved of, or maybe, even liked, hopefully, at least left you alone to play in peace up in your room when rock and roll hit post- World War II America teenagers like, well, like an atomic bomb.

Not all of the material put forth was good, nor was all of it destined to be playable fifty or sixty years later on some “greatest hits” compilation but some of songs had enough chordal energy, lyrical sense, and sheer danceability to make any Jack or Jill jump then, or now. Think Elvis almost any place where there were more than five girls, hell more than one girl, or Jerry Lee and that silly film high school cautionary film that got this whole comment started where he stole the show at the beginning from that flatbed throne or Bill Haley just singing Rock Around The Clock in front of the film Blackboard Jungle. Here is the good part, especially for painfully shy guys like me, or those who, like me as well, had two left feet on the dance floor. You didn’t need to dance toe to toe, close to close, with that certain she (or he for shes). Just be alive…uh, hip to the music. Otherwise you might become the dreaded wallflower. But that wallflower fear, the fear of fears that haunted many a teenage dream then, that left many a sad sack teenage boy, girls can speak for themselves, waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweats worrying about sweaty hands, underarms, coarse breathe, stubble, those damn feet (and her dainty ones mauled), and bravery, bravery to ask that she (or he for shes) for a dance, especially the last dance that you waited all night to have that chance to ask her about, is a story for another day. Let’s just leave it at this for now. Ah, to be very, very young then was very heaven.

So what still sounded good to a current AARPer, and perhaps some of his fellows who comprise the demographic that such 1950s compilation “speak” to (and some early 60s songs as well). Carl Perkins original Blue Suede Shoes (covered by, made famous by, and made millions for, Elvis). Or the Hank William’s outlaw country classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Naturally, in a period of classic rock numbers, Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue (or, like Chuck Berry and Fat Domino from this period, virtually any other of about twenty of his songs).

But what about the now seeming mandatory to ask question the inevitable end of the night high school dance (or maybe even middle school) song that seemed to be included in each of those CD compilations? The song that you, maybe, waited around all night for just to prove that you were not a wallflower, and more importantly, had the moxie to, mumbly-voiced, parched-throated, sweaty-handed, ask a girl to dance (women can relate their own experiences, probably similar). Here Elvis’ One Night With You fills the bill. Hey, I did like this one, especially the soulful, snappy timing and voice intonation. And, yes, I know, this is one of the slow ones that you had to dance close on. And just hope, hope to high heaven, that you didn’t destroy your partner’s shoes and feet. Well, one learns a few social skills in this world if for no other reason than to “impress” that certain she (or he for shes, or nowadays, just mix and match your preferences) mentioned above. I did, didn’t you? Touche Doo-Wop!

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