One of the most unlikely owners of an early Rock ‘n’ Roll record label was the star of film and radio, Gene Autry. The famous cowboy with the white hat that battled bad guys on the big screen for many years was also a singer himself. The music that he sang that earned him the title of the singing cowboy was a pop version of Country and Western music that was popular in the 30’s and 40’s.
The legendary good guy was also a very astute business man. When he saw the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll happening in the 50’s he decided to buy into it. Autry went into partnership with an associate named Joe Johnson who did promotion for Columbia Records. That was the label that he recorded for most of his career.
The first thing that Gene did was find someone who knew something about the music. The first artist that he signed to the new Challenge label came in the form of a good studio musician named Dave Burgess.
The announcement by The Rolling Stones that their first studio album in ten years was going to be a record of nothing but blues covers wasn’t a great surprise. The blues of course was the first building block in making the ground work for the music that would lead to them to being called the world’s greatest rock and roll band. One of the band’s biggest thrills was to visit the Chess Records Studio when they came to the US. They were even more excited to not only record in the same studio of the many blues greats that influenced them, but actually met some of them.
On hearing the news of this new cover album by The Stones, I thought that this would be the perfect time to write the already planned second (the first being Sam Phillips and Sun Records) in a series of those independent record company heads that launched Rock music. How and why did Chess Records become such an important launching pad for a whole new form of popular music?
The history of Rock ‘n’ Roll is filled with more myths, false legends and unbelievable true stories. I am doing a great deal of research right now to try and separate fact from fiction for my next book. There’s many volumes of books out there on the subject but many are turning out to be less than creditable. Here’s one true story that goes back to the very beginning of the Rock ‘n’ Roll and 45 RPM era.
One recent book that I have read is fascinating account of the man who discovered superstars like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. All these artists first recorded on a label that was started by Sam Phillips. The book is entitled “Sam Phillips: The Man who invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Peter Guralnick. The title itself is certainly over the top since no one person invented R & R. It does get the point across that this one man did so much to make rock music possible. He certainly took advantage of the opportunities the music offered for himself and others.
The years of 1966-67 were magical years in Rock history. There were so many new groups that sprang up from seemingly nowhere.
One of the most mysterious groups of the time period was Procol Harum. Most people who know this time period are familiar with group, but may not fully understand the major role Gary Brooker played in the band and how well respected his talents are among his peers.
The genesis of the group started in 1964. They were called the Paramounts. The band featured Gary Brooker, Robin Trower and B J Wilson who all became original members of Procol Harum. They even made a record that made it to number 35 on the UK charts.
Then in 1967 they teamed up with poet Keith Reid and started to get more serious about their music. Their single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was not only their biggest hit, but a perfect example of how they mixed rock, classical music with lyrics that left the listeners wondering what they were talking about.
While she was born in Chicago, Patti Smith was raised in the Philadelphia Area. As a child she always knew that she was different. She was brought up as a Jehovah Witness, but didn’t buy into it. Instead she went on her merry way as a tomboy who didn’t care much for school. It certainly didn’t look on the surface that she was destined to be the punk rock goddess that she eventually became.
After leaving Rowan (then Glassboro) she made her way to New York City. There she started to write poetry that seemed to belong to the Beatnik era. Her friends encouraged her to not only write these poems, but to read them in the coffee houses of the village. It all happened almost as if by magic or accident. A friend started to play guitar as a backup. He was soon joined by others and before Patti knew it she was the lead singer of a band. News spread around the city about this first female punk singer. It wasn’t long before Clive Davis was convinced that she was on to something and signed her to Arista Records. A punk goddess was born.
When Rock ‘N’ Roll was young it was often the DJs who created much of the excitement. Many of those radio pioneers became just as popular as the music itself. When I was very young I used to scan the AM radio dial looking for them at night.
AM was very different from FM. In the 50’s and early 60’s no one listened to FM. Despite often having to put up with static, AM radio was a great way to get an education. In my book, “Confessions of a Teenage Disc Jockey”, I go into great detail as to how this not only was a huge influence on me, but many rock musicians.
One such disc Jockey was Dick Biondi. He was one of the original fast talking screamers that seemingly never ran out of bad jokes. “The Wild eyed-tralian,” was just one of many names that he labeled himself with. As crazy and corny as he was there was something infectious about him. The music was wild and crazy and he did everything he could to keep the excitement level at an over the top pitch.
Recently I was looking for a number and I spied a name and number that I had almost forgotten about. Wow I thought to myself, I wonder if Stewkey’s number is still the same? I haven’t talked to him in years. I picked up my phone and called half expecting that the number would be out of service. But no, much to my surprise Stewkey answered the phone and we were able to catch up on the few years since we last spoke.
Here’s an artist that deserved a better fate. For that matter, so did the band that he fronted called Nazz. The very same year that I started in Philly radio, 1967, was the year that Stewkey accidently became a Philadelphian.
Robert “Stewkey” Antoni was born in Connetcuit where he started playing music at a very early age and was in a band called The Mods by age 15. The Mods lasted 2 ½ years, but never recorded anything. Then in February of 1967 Robert decided to try and branch out. He was invited to join a band in Florida. Going to the beaches of Florida during the traditional spring break seemed to the perfect place for him to enhance his chances of a rock career.
At a party sometime around 1976 I had a conversation with Graham Nash. It really didn’t surprise me that he flat out stated that one of his biggest musical thrills had nothing to do with either The Hollies or CSNY. That thrill came when he was asked to perform on stage with his childhood idols, The Every Brothers.
Graham isn’t the only Englishman (or American for that matter) who was greatly influenced by the Everly Brothers. Almost anyone who sings harmonies in a group has been influenced by listening to the 50’s superstars recordings.
In 1980 two UK performers, who should have become bigger stars than they are, decided to pay tribute to their childhood idols. They released an EP called Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds Sing the Everly Brothers. The songs included were “Take a Message to Mary”, “Crying in the Rain”, “Poor Jenny” and ‘When Will I be Loved?”
The duo could have picked from any number of big hits. The brothers released 75 singles together. Eleven of those singles made it to number one! They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Throughout this website you will find stories about unsung heroes, 45’s, and my encounters with many rock stars over the years. The following is pretty much a combination of all of the above.
Ever since 1967 when I spent most of the summer living in London, I have been a big fan of the English group called The Move. While this band was extremely popular in the UK, they are virtually unknown in the US. They had several top ten hits in England, but only one song ever even reached the top 100 songs on this side of the ocean.
Roy Wood (then only 17) was the founding leader of The Move. He wrote “Flowers in the Rain”, “Fire Brigade”, “I can Hear the Grass Grow”, “Night of Fear” (all top 5) and “Blackberry Way” (went to number 1) that all became top ten singles in the UK before he was 20 years old. His music influenced many other English groups of the progressive rock era and he earned the nick name of the Wizard. It seemed that there wasn’t an instrument that Roy couldn’t play.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were tough times in New York City. The crime rate was soaring and the economy was tanking. Things were so bad that New York City attempted to declare bankruptcy. Despite what may seem to be dire times, the city’s music scene was starting to explode.
If you had to pick one club that contributed more to the growth of the music it was CBGBs. You may want to check out a recommended movie about the story of the club. That is where groups like The Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, and The talking Heads launched their careers. One of the groups that took a little longer to develop was Blondie. They opened for The Ramones at CBGB’s over thirty times before finally being “discovered” by a record company.
Recently a friend of mine said that he heard me play “For Your Love” by The Yardbirds and was surprised to find the song was not written by any of the members of the band, but by Graham Gouldman. He also wrote another Yardbird hit called “Heart full of Soul”. At the time Graham was totally unknown, but he went on to make a name for himself by writing big hits for The Hollies, Cher, and Jeff Beck.
Graham continued to write hit songs for other people until 1972 when he teamed up with Eric Stewart, Kevin Godly and Loi Crème to form a group called 10cc. Their music was as different as their name. The band seemed destined for greatness from the start. Graham and Eric Stewart were both very successful songwriters. All the members of the band could write, sing and play several different instruments.
In most recording studios there’s a large picture window that separates the recording artist from the person producing them. While they often don’t get the credit they deserve, producers often are the difference between success and failure.
Everyone knows the role that George Martin played in making The Beatles a huge success, but most producers just fall under the radar. If and when you read the small print on the record label of a record you will find that there have only been a handful of very well respected producers. They have done so many albums that you will start to notice how they are attached to some of the best music ever.
When Tom Wilson was studying Economics at Harvard I have no idea if his secret dream was to produce records. He certainly understood the importance of a budget and doing records within that framework. Once he graduated from Harvard he almost overnight became one of the go to guys for producing progressive Jazz albums. In the late 50’s and early 60’s he produced superstars in that genre like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Philadelphia’s own Sun Ra. He also wrote liner notes for many Jazz albums of the period.
In 1980 I was working for Arista Records under the legendary Clive Davis. At one of our many staff meetings there was a real feeling of excitement and anticipation about a new artist that we signed. There was so much buzz about this guy Willie Nile that Arista actually won a bidding war with other labels to get him to sign with us.
What was not to like. Willie Nile (real name Robert Anthony Noonan) was causing a sensation in the clubs of New York City. On stage he looked like Bob Dylan (and talked like him as well), but performed more like Bruce Springsteen. Clive, who had worked with Dylan and signed Bruce when he was the head of Columbia Records, was totally convinced we had a major star in the making.