In the beginning the music was formless and void,
and a great emptiness went forth across the airwaves.
All that could be heard therein was Patti Page,
Theresa Brewer and Frankie Laine.
Then God said, “Let there be rhythm, let there be blues!”;
and His spirit went forth across the airwaves
in the form of Chuck Willis, Ray Charles and LaVerne Baker.
And God saw that what he had made was good, very good;
and He began to replace the old with the new.
Thus God had provided man with soul,
and from that day forth, man and his descendants
would groove upon the earth. Then God rested,
for He had grown weary from all the dancing He had done.
It must be difficult for younger people who’ve lived their entire lives in the aftermath of that glorious earthquake, to have any sense at all of what it was like living in a world without Soul, an entire universe void of Rock and Roll. It must seem to them as though it had always existed, but it didn’t. There was a time…
… back in the late 40s and early fifties, when I was a young boy, not long before those sonic booms arrived, that there would be an occasional hint of the approaching storm* coming from radios and jukeboxes, but those intimations were mere anomalies; the first few pieces of a grand mosaic. Those were still innocent times; I was still an innocent child, singing along with Mitch Miller and the Gang, or barking in time with the song, How much is that doggie in the window? (arf! arf!) Really. I’m not kidding. We all did. Until we were saved by Rock and Roll.
Until that magic moment I simply didn’t know what I was missing; but looking back, I can see that it was nothing less than two worlds passing in the midnight hour. The earlier world had its charms, and precious little in the way of threats or dangers. The war had ended, we had won, our fathers had returned as heroes (those that were lucky enough to come home; my father was one of them), and we lived our sunny days in a nice, comfortable home in a quiet neighborhood. If we were the Cleavers, I was the Beaver. We were alive long before Beavis arrived, in a time when no one in the land was called Butthead. Like I said, it had its charms.
From the day I arrived on this earth, I had always found my greatest joy and comfort in music. Even as a little boy, I could be found singing and dancing around the house like a musical whirligig. Songs eminated endlessly from the big radio in the living room, when radios were still furniture; songs like Peg O’My Heart by the Harmonicats, or Ghost Riders In the Sky by Vaughn Monroe. Being Irish, of course, I had the added good fortune of spending much of my youth in bars, listening to all the latest pop tunes of the late 40s and early 50s, my face pressed against the glass chamber of the jukebox, as if longing to somehow get inside, to be closer to the source.
When Rock and Roll hit the planet, though, for me it was like an earthquake. As God and good fortune would have it, I was twice-blessed: for this new, pulsing and throbbing sound was let loose upon the land at the same moment that my hormones kicked in. I was 13 in the Year of Our Lord, 1955, when I first heard Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets blasting forth from the speakers outside a tavern on Nassau Lake where our family had rented a cabin for the summer. My brother and I were in the midst of one our endless, effusive displays of brotherly love, tenderly pitching rocks at each other in the dark, when our world suddenly shifted on its axis. Life would never be the same.
It was only later that I learned that Rock and Roll was created by simply putting a white face on a form of music that had been around for years, a genre once known as “race music,” later to be marketed as Rhythm and Blues, primarily to black audiences. Blissfully unaware of any of this, I was content with this exciting new sound, until I began to hear the real thing.
Little Richard burst upon the scene with Tutti Frutti, Fats Domino hit with Ain’t That A Shame, Chuck Berry sang Maybelline, and by that time I was clean outta sight, somewhere near seventh heaven. From that point on, there was a flood of Black Rock, later morphing into Soul, from Bo Diddly to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Johnny Otis, Jackie Wilson – it just kept comin’, like the rain that lifted Noah’s Ark. I was already in a state of ecstasy, gladly skipping over Elvis, Eddy Cochran and Gene Vincent in search of Huey “Piano” Smith singing Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu, or Speedo by the Cadillacs, spinnin’ that radio dial.
By the time we were old enough to drive, we started heading out to Thatcher Park at night to park at the overlook, and with a clear sky between us and Buffalo, NY, we could catch WKBW and listen to the finest of musical diamonds in their purest form: rough, raw, sexy and thumping with a groove like nothing else on earth. It was the beginning of soul music, brother, and we were pulling it right down outta heaven.
Ray Charles, James Brown, Johnny Ace, The Impressions, Barrett Strong, The Falcons, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Hank Ballard, Maurice Williams, Sam Cooke, Smoky and The Miracles – we would sit until late into the night with the top down, staring at the stars, radio blasting, talking only between songs.
Like many things in life, it is almost impossible to describe what those moments were like. Suffice it to say that it was like discovering a whole new world, a sparkling new universe. Perhaps Van Morrison said it best: it stoned me to my soul, stoned me just like jelly roll, stoned me just like goin’ home….
And, man, was it good to be back home.
*That inkling could be heard in songs like How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1953, Earth Angel by the Penguins, and Sh-Boom by the Crew-Cuts in the following year, 1954. The widely-acknowledged breakthrough song was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets the following year, in 1955.
•Photos, from the top: Patti Page at CBS Studio 50 in NY, Doris Day, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Chuck Willis, Laverne Baker, and, last but not least, Little Richard.