Better late than never. Been saying that a lot lately. Still, I'm mighty glad that, 26 years after its initial publication, I've finally gotten around to reading Nick Tosches' god-like tome. It's worth all the hype and then some. Then again, a book like this isn't one which lends itself to hype. It might've made a bit of a splash in its day, but I see its influence as more of a creeping, slow-burn effect. If we're lucky, generations upon generations of youngsters will read this book and clutch it to their hearts like a sacred scroll, espousing the genius of Wynonie Harris and Stick McGhee to all those around them. That's not likely to happen, though if I was a music teacher, I'd make it a mandatory read for all students and I'd rate it up there w/ Joe Carducci's Rock & The Pop Narcotic as the best book there be on the subject of rock music.
However, there is a basic difference between the two: Tosches' book is not about "rock" music. "Rock Music" began sometime... when? When the Beatles sold a zillion records? When supergroup Cream started boring the piss out of us for eternity? Once Woodstock ruined music for an entire generation? "Rock Music" happened when it became a culture, a mighty big business, a corrupted shell of its once innocent self. All of the above, none of the above and more. But let's not discuss Rock Music; instead we'll discuss this thing called rock & roll and the way it's covered in Tosches' book.
Standard thinking has it that rock & roll hit somewhere 'round 1954-'55 when several forces combined to give the world Elvis' Sun recordings, the beginning of Little Richard's most inspired material, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. The music as such was caught at a nexus of amped-up white hillbilly music (you can even call it rockabilly, if you will) and black rhythm & blues. Apparently the two forms mutated and out came rock & roll. I have no real contention w/ that basic idea, and I don't think Tosches necessarily does either (in the sense of the music being given a name), as he remains a great fan of many of the artists who then made a name for themselves post '54, but I guess the point of this book is to show that rock & roll, as a music form before it was birthed as such by the mainstream media, had been kickin' & stickin' since roughly 1945, and Tosches' book is all about giving this crew of ne'er-do-wells (though a couple of them did do mighty well for themselves) of the 1945-'54 period their due as musical pioneers. It's not so much the history of pre-rock & roll: this stuff is, was and forever shall be rock & roll. A wild and untamed beast whose sole motivation was to rock a beat which would get one laid, drunk and rich. Many artists featured succeeded at the former two.
I must embarrassingly admit that this is the first Tosches book I've read. His name is uttered in the same hallowed tones as Bangs and Meltzer by all those in the know, and his name has popped up in my radar for two decades now, but it's 2010, I'm 38 and, until just recently, a Tosches virgin. I'll be back for more. He's funny as shit, foul-mouthed, humourous, disdainful of just about anything not seen as the real deal and can pen a sentence which is capable of blowing my piddley mind. Unsung Heroes... is made up of a collection of what were originally small articles he wrote for Creem magazine strung together as chapters detailing individual artists who fit the bill as unsung heroes. Some are slightly less unsung in the year 2010 than they were in 1984, but few are household names. The introduction spills the dirt on what he sees as the subsequent 30-year corruption of rock & roll into a dull parade of thoroughly unexciting pre-manufactured "bad boy" twaddle designed for the masses, and then it heads for the goods. Of course, being published in 1984, and then revised again in the '90s, the prefaces/introductions throw in a few thoroughly dated jabs at the likes of MTV, Billy Idol, Guns 'n' Roses and The Boss, but it's all about setting the scene and establishing what the book isn't about. The individual chapters are the meat you gotta chew on.
Some of these folks you likely know: Bill Haley (a guy whom, until a few years ago, I'd somewhat dismissed as a bandwagon-jumping hillbilly hack. That is, until I actually heard how good his late '40s/early '50s hillbilly music was), Big Joe Turner, Wanda Jackson (who got a rep in the '80s through the Cramps association and still tours down here to packed houses), Louis Prima, Nat King Cole (whose earlier material, before it was smoothed out for a mass white audience, apparently follows a more hopped-up R & B line of thinking), Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Jackie Brenston (and all due credit oughta go to Ike Turner for that), etc. There's some artists you oughta know about, coz their music moves heaven and earth: Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Stick McGhee, Wynonie Harris, Hank Ballard and The Treniers. And there's a bunch more I feel like I should've known about, such as Jesse Stone (who was instrumental in the beginnings of the Atlantic label), Ming & Ling (incredibly obscure Chinese hillbilly duo), Jimmy Logsdon, Skeets McDonald and more.
Tosches gives you just the facts, ma'am, and little else, and this economic style is what makes it work. Not a single entry gets too bogged down in unnecessary detail: he tells you where and when they were born, their musical evolution, the hits and misses, the label changes and tragedies (a whole lotta them) and where they wound up in life and that's it. A lot of 'em fucked up, drank too much, pissed their money away on gambling or simply couldn't recover from, ironically, the onslaught of rock & roll in the mid '50s; some, like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, were slightly insane in the first place; and even a few, such as Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown and Wanda Jackson, managed to sustain long and relatively successful careers in music.
The Unsung Heroes Of Rock & Roll is more than just a humourous history lesson of the unjustly forgotten, it's a paean to people who made incredibly life-affirming, groundbreaking music; a snapshot of a time, as with any music form before it gels into a "movement" capable of being mass-marketed, when disparate elements throughout America were making wild and unpredictable sounds and the big wigs from the industry, at least for a few years, hadn't really cottoned onto it. It's not a tale of innocence corrupted; according to Tosches, rock & roll was always just about the money, the booze and the broads, a self-destructive animal bound for combustion. It's just that some did it better than others. I shoulda read this book 20 years ago.
Below are a few recommendations of currently-in-print CDs covering some of the artists from the book. You need to investigate...
THE TRENIERS - In The '50s: This Is It! CD (Rev-Ola/UK)
30 tracks of high-energy hoppin' swing-infused rock & roll from this small-band '40s/'50s (and beyond) combo led by identical twins Cliff and Claude Trenier. One of the outfits who helped Bill Haley grow a pair of musical balls when he heard 'em. Their stage shows were allegedly like the Bad Brains of their time, backflips 'n' all, and that energy transfers itself nicely to these recordings.
IKE TURNER & HIS KINGS OF RHYTHM - Ike's Instrumentals CD (Ace/UK)
I wrote about this a little while ago. Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" isn't actually featured on this, but since Ike is absolutely instrumental to the formation of rock & roll as we know it, and since he's covered in the book in the Brenston chapter, I thought I'd throw it in. Unbelievably good twang 'n' treble whammy-bar action from one of the greats. Upon first listen, this CD just about blew my mind apart w/ its genius. It's a pity he's only remembered amongst the general populace as being somewhat of an asshole...
WANDA JACKSON - Queen Of Rockabilly: The Very Best of the Rock 'n' Roll Years CD (Ace/UK)
Pretty self-explanatory. Jackson later went off into a fairly sedate (but still highly listenable) country mode in the '60s as she settled down to raise a family, before giving up music entirely for a good decade or more. She still cuts it as a live act, I'm told, though anything and everything you really wanna hear - the wild-banshee rockabilly stuff - is included on this CD.
CLYDE MCPHATTER - Clyde/Rock & Roll CD (Hoodoo/Spain)
McPhatter had a voice which was as smooth as butter. His music doesn't kick your ass into next week the way Sonny Burgess' or Little Richard's does, but it's got a high-energy romp to it which makes it a crucial link in the early, formative chain of rock 'n roll. He fronted the Drifters for a few years before his domination (in terms of headlines and popularity) of the group overshadowed them to the extent that he quit to go it alone. A huge influence on a good two or three generations of soul singers, from Jackie Wilson to Curtis Mayfield and beyond, this CD combines his two best LPs from the period and a few rare bonus cuts.
LOUIS JORDAN - The Later Years 1953-1957 2CD (JSP/UK)
I guess the ironic aspect of this collection is that it puts together over 50 tracks from a point in Jordan's career when his popularity began to plummet. The guy was huge in the 1940s - dominated the charts, in fact - though by the early '50s he was considered slightly washed up. When rock & roll hit it big, he decided to make his sound a bit more contemporary, making his jump-blues rhythms heavier and more forceful and picking up the pace. In short, it sounds like rock & roll to me. Jordan's earlier material is well worth getting your hands on (there's a 5CD set on JSP documenting that era), though for my money nothing beats this 56-track collection. He's reworked some of his old songs here, but one stand-out has to be "Fire" on disc 2, with a jetting pace, screaming sax and Louis' roaring vocals over the top: it rivals Little Richard's output at the time for raging ferocity.
STICK MCGHEE - New York Blues and R & B 1947-1951 4CD (JSP/UK)
Granville "Stick" McGhee was given his nickname due to his habit of pushing his polio-ravaged older brother, the famed folk-blues guitarist/singer Brownie McGhee, around with a stick on a cart when he was young. He didn't follow his brother's path onto the big time possibly for one good reason: he died in 1961 from cancer. And unlike his brother, his music was a booze-soaked rendition of rhythm & blues given to odes to nasty women, gambling losses and sucking juice. He scored a hit w/ his own "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee" in 1951, a song which has since been covered by just about everyone (including useless dickhead, Kid Rock, of all people), and for a decade cut a whole series of sides whose musical style and subject matter didn't stray too far from a well-worn formula, but hey, what a formula it is! This 4CD collection has 40 cuts from Stick, some good rhythm & blues from Brownie (which is different in style to his more famous material) and even some Sonny Terry. A good family-tree-oriented comp, but you want it for Stick. You gotta love Stick.
AMOS MILBURN - Let's Have A Party CD (Rev-Ola/UK)
Speaking of formulas, Amos Milburn certainly had one: sing about booze over a rollicking brand of brassy jump-blues. Seriously, "Bad, Bad Whiskey" is exactly the same as "Vicious, Vicious Vodka", which is exactly the same as "Juice, Juice, Juice". And so on. Sorry, do I sound like I'm complaining? Not on your life! A formula this good and this well executed deserves a repeat performance. This one's got 29 sides - all of them at least good, many of them great - and features his most hard-arsed of numbers, the awesome "Chicken Shack Boogie". A young hillbilly by the name of Elvis Aaron Presley was quite the devoted fan.
WYNONIE HARRIS - Rock, Mr. Blues! CD (Rev-Ola/UK)
By halfway through this 30-song CD, I'm usually on the verge of cracking up. Wynonie does that to me. He was such a bad-ass, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing bear of a man, always getting into scrapes w/ jealous boyfriends and boozed-up punch-ons down at the local watering hole, that his constant bragaducio routine in his songs, accompanied w/ a real dick-swinging swagger and raging jump-blues backbeat, well, it just makes me laugh. He was one of the leanest, meanest, ludest and crudest of them all. His songs are filled w/ double entendres and a fisting-pumping rock & roll delivery, his voice booms over the music like a bellowing giant and there ain't a dud track here. You need it, you need Wynonie in your life.