By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 5, 2007
It all started while assembling banquet music for my recently completed 50th high school class reunion. As probably the only member of the class who has personally shaken the hand of Chuck Berry -- and a onetime disc jockey as well -- I felt a certain responsibility for this. I didn't realize how significant it was.
When my brother, nine years younger, saw a partial list of the downloaded songs, he said, "My God, this is the birth of rock-and-roll! You all were there at the beginning!"
Well, actually, I explained to him with a certain amount of throat-clearing, we were the beginning. Without the music we listened to between 1953 and 1957, the Rolling Stones, for example, could never have hit a guitar chord. But then the class of '57 was, of course, the greatest class ever -- with the greatest music ever.
Too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam, we chose to serve our country by upgrading its musical paradigm. The year before we entered high school a nationwide hit was Patti Page singing "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window." We left to the sounds of Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Joe Turner and Ray Charles, among many, many others now legend -- not to mention the peerless doo-wop groups such as the Platters, the Clovers and the Dominoes. Buddy Holly, Motown and the Beatles were waiting in the wings. The revolution was underway.
Our class's seismic contribution is not generally appreciated, largely because the baby boomers -- so many! so self-reverential! -- like to think nothing ever happened in popular culture until they started tie-dyeing T-shirts and rolling joints. The record, however, is clear, as were the records: We even sang lyrics you could hear and understand.
My school, Episcopal High in Alexandria, was a tiny and highly improbable microcosm of this musical revolution. A cheap, bare-bones and near military all-male boarding school in those days, it was both extremely white (the Supreme Court decision outlawing public school segregation was handed down our first year) and very Southern. It functioned as a cultural sounding board not because of its diversity (hey, we had one Catholic) but because its 250-member student body included boys from all across the country, each bringing to the musical mix a little of what was happening back home. And somehow, despite our WASPy little crew-cut heads, the vast majority of what we loved and listened to was black music, principally doo-wop and the blues.
This is not to say that we were wholly immune to mainstream musical figures like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or even, heaven help us, Pat Boone. But what really excited our adolescent souls were the records brought to school by the boys from the Carolinas (particularly those from Charleston) and broadcast by perhaps the richest source of African American musical culture then in the District: radio station WOOK. In between urging us to pick up the world's best music at Waxie Maxie's Quality Music Store, on Seventh Street NW, WOOK serenaded us with just this very music. And to a great extent, the music was rhythm and blues.
Though I was from New Orleans and was early into jazz, music was then in a bad way in my home town, and for some reason I'd had little exposure to R&B. I still remember the awe with which I heard my epiphany: Lloyd Price singing "Lawdy Miss Clawdy." It was a primal, soul-stirring revelation.
Attempting to recapture these tunes for our reunion banquet was both simpler and more difficult than I anticipated. Simpler because even the most obscure black singers and groups recorded on the smallest record labels in those days turned out to be readily downloadable from iTunes. More difficult, because while I could easily have filled the evening with well-remembered tunes by Elvis or the Platters, there were countless one-hit groups whose names I couldn't remember. Each classmate I consulted had a favorite song I had forgotten. Everybody remembered "Earth Angel," for example, but who remembered it was not by the Platters but by the Penguins? I thought "Hearts of Stone" was by the McGuire Sisters. It took weeks before I found it was by the Fontane Sisters. Who the hell were they?
There were other mysteries as well. Was "Speedo" ("They often call me Speedo / But my real name is Mr. Earl") some relation to the "Duke of Earl" of later fame (1962)? How had we missed the social messages in some of these songs? In "One Mint Julep," the Clovers sing, "I'm through with flirtin' and drinkin' whiskey / I got six extra children / From getting frisky." Isn't that a warning against alcohol abuse? And what about teen pregnancy? After "Work With Me Annie," Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded "Annie Had a Baby," declaring that now every time Annie starts working "she has to stop and walk the baby 'cross the floor . . . that's what happens when the gettin' gets good."
And what about "Silhouettes" by the Rays? The singer, playing peeping Tom on his girlfriend, discovers her silhouetted with another man in the window of her house. Brokenhearted, he pounds on the door to confront her perfidy, only to find he's on the wrong block. It's not even her house! Couldn't this be a protest against the banal anonymity of '50s housing patterns and architecture? Well, maybe not.
Some of our music has been reborn on movie soundtracks in more recent years: Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Sixty Minute Man" in "Bull Durham," "Love Is Strange" in "Dirty Dancing," "I Got a Woman" in "Ray," and so forth. Other songs, like those from Elvis, the Platters, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, have just never died. On the other hand, a song like "Sh-Boom" by the Crew Cuts is nothing more than a tiny frozen window into 1954, when it was recorded. It hasn't been reborn, isn't about to come back and would be a total shrug to anyone born later, though it was a huge hit at the time and is widely considered the first doo-wop song put on record.
By the time I finished downloading all the songs I or anybody in the class remembered as treasured favorites, I had 94 tracks, more than four hours' worth. Editorial space misers at The Post (born later, of course) forced me to pare the list to 50. This is not only cruel, it requires some explanation of the compilation rules.
First of all, I was assembling these songs as background music for a banquet, so some significant artists like Little Richard, bless his shrieking, queenly old heart, just didn't make the cut. On the other hand, some mainstream pop artists and songs (e.g., Pat Boone's "Love Letters in the Sand") had to be included because they were very much a part of the overall context from which rock-and-roll emerged, however divorced they may seem from the final result.
When it first emerged, rock-and-roll was about more than adolescent rebellion, pulsating danceable rhythms and discomfiting parents. It was also about romance, longing (requited and unrequited, emotional as well as sexual), the enigmas and injustices of fate and blue suede shoes. The saxophone, not the electric guitar, was the dominant instrument of rock-and-roll's evolution in the 1950s. Jazz was almost as influential as rhythm and blues in some cases, especially the harmonically sophisticated Four Freshmen, whom Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would later tag as a major influence. And, not insignificantly, women were celebrated, not just as sexual objects but as mysterious, desirable powers who were usually very much in charge of any relationship. (Victims need not apply, whatever feminist revisionists might argue later.)
My list is not rock, acid or otherwise. All of that would come later. This was ur-rock-and-roll.
Finally, one name you will not find on the list is Bill Haley. Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," one of the most inane and dismissible ditties ever recorded, is too frequently identified as a seminal anthem in the evolution of rock-and-roll. Culturally, it was nothing of the kind. Haley was a no-talent white musician with a no-talent white band, who exploited a phrase from an old blues song, sped up the tempo and turned it into a one-dimensional teen hit with artistry comparable to that displayed by Pat Boone when he covered Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." But the song made money and spawned too many plastic imitations.
Those of us in the class of 1957 remember -- and treasure -- the real thing. Especially 50 years later.