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Positive News    H4'ed 10/1/21

My Love Affair with Rhythm and Blues: From Solomon Burke to Sam and Dave to Laura Lee

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Bert Berns Consulting with Solomon Burke
Bert Berns Consulting with Solomon Burke
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Image of Bert Berns consulting with Solomon Burke

Author Bruce Lerro Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly

I started early. I was eight years old in 1956 and, yes, I remember Elvis on Ed Sullivan. But what really caught my eye was what I witnessed on American Bandstand two years later. I was channel-flipping and caught a glimpse of some blue-eyed devil pounding the piano as balls of fire appeared and disappeared in the backdrop. Jerry Lee Lewis tossed his hair as he played driving his curly blonde locks forward into his face, then back. In grammar school, this created a dilemma for the boys, for virtually all of us had greased pompadours which didn't move. If we wanted to act like Jerry Lee, we had to give up the grease. Some, like Christopher Giordano, who had beautiful, thick black hair, gave up the grease. The rest of us didn't. My older cousin, Jeff Palmisano, was really into Buddy Holly and whenever we would take the train to Yankee Stadium, Peggy Sue would always find its way onto his transitor radio dial after relentless dial-switching. Those bongos at the beginning were our national anthem.

Murray the K and the Brooklyn Fox

I really didn't know about rhythm and blues in the early sixties because I never strayed from the New York rock and roll radio dials like WABC, WMCA and WINS. However, one disc jockey on WINS was determined to introduce us white rock and rollers to some rhythm and blues, whether we liked it or not. On the radio, Murray the K always gave an extra nudge to Marvin Gaye's Hitch Hike or Pride and Joy. He would play The Marvelettes and especially King Solomon Burke, even when they were barely in the top 25. It was like Murray's "up yours" to the standardized play list.

What really took this to a higher level for me was that Murray also hosted shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. The acts he had included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, The Isley Brothers and Mary Wells, mixed with some white acts like Dion and the Belmonts, or Roy Orbison . Murray's shows really drew Blacks and whites into the shows. I didn't have anyone to go with because my friends were mostly Italian and Irish and still into the fading Doo-Wop stuff. So, I took the train from Jamaica, Queens to Brooklyn, bought a ticket and went in. It was hard to be there by myself, but that show made it well worth the anxiety. I kept going to the Brooklyn Fox alone but got support by just being with other people who dug the music. One time I happened to get good seats close to the stage when the Ronettes were performing. Looking up at them in their bee-hive hair dos, in their short-tight skirts, singing Be My Baby? Take a number.

Rhythm and Blues in the Big Apple: WWRL and WLIB

As I remember it, during the show Murray brought in a couple of Black disc jockeys to introduce the acts. The disc jockeys also named the radio stations they worked for. This was big news for me. I went home and fished around on my transistor radio dial until I found the stations: WWRL and WLIB. Once I found those stations, I rarely switched back. I still remember the WWRL line-up of disc jockeys - The Dixie Drifter, Hal Atkins, Bob T (white guy) Rocky G in the afternoon and Frankie (The Love-Man) Crocker in the evenings. Frankie would introduce himself, "Tall, tan, young and fly, push mama, sock it to me mama". Check out his two-minute introduction to his show: Click Here

Here comes the wall and the syrup: crisis of rock and rock in the early 1960s

When I entered high school in 1962, rock and roll was two years into a crisis. The Catholic high school I went to was composed of the preppies (middle-class) and the trades (working-class). My family was middle-class so the program I was in was "college prep". But the guys I played baseball with in my neighborhood were working-class and so I identified with them. My neighborhood friends were like those in the trades in high school, so I identified with the high schoolers in the trades, though I never took any trades courses. I hated the preppies and their music: the fuckin' Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, you know, surfer crap. But teenagers in the trades (also known as hoods) were lost musically. Except for Dion and the Belmonts and the Four Seasons, doo-wop was over.

Rock and Roll and popular music were changing for the worse. There were a lot more strings in the music, and even people like Ray Charles and Dinah Washington had violins in their songs. Even great female singers like Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and Timi Yuro, all of whom have very powerful voices, had to contend with full orchestras. The same thing happened to great male vocalists like Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney. Phil Spector's "wall of sound" completely over-powered his singers, even good singers like the Righteous Brothers or Ike and Tina Turner. All these singers could have done the same songs with a lead and base guitar, drums, piano, organs, horns and gospel singers. That was plenty. This was the era of the "Bobbys". Bobby Vee was very good at imitating Buddy Holly, without the drive. Bobby Rydell's Wild One was hardly wild compared to what I was used to. Then there was Bobby Vinton singing Roses are Red (My Love). Awful schlock.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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