The Texas Gal and I have a friend who’s been looking for a used printer, and I told that friend Sunday that I’d send her the phone number and email address of Dale the Computer Guy down on Wilson Avenue.
I sent the info yesterday in an apologetic email, and this morning, I got back a kind email saying my delay was not a problem. But it got me to wondering how many recordings among the 75,000 currently logged into the RealPlayer have the word “sorry” in their titles.
I was surprised. There are only thirty-eight such recordings (and one album: the Gin Blossoms’ 1996 effort Congratulations I’m Sorry). Those recordings span the years, however, starting with the 1935 single “Who’s Sorry Now” by Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies and ending with a 2013 version of the same song recorded by Karen Elson for the HBO show Boardwalk Empire.
Here’s the western swing version from Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies:
It’s worth noting that “Who’s Sorry Now” seems to be a pretty sturdy song. Written by Ted Snyder, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, it was first recorded in 1923 by a number of folks including Isham Jones (whom we met here last autumn when we were listening to versions of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”), and according to the information at SecondHand Songs, it’s been recorded several times in every decade since then except the 1930s (and I’ll bet there are recordings from that decade that have not yet been listed at the website). The most recent version noted there before Elson’s 1920s-styled take on the tune is one from Mary Byrne, a 2010 contestant in the United Kingdom’s version of the singing contest, The X Factor.
But what else did we find when searching for “sorry”? Well, the second-oldest recording stashed here in the EITW studios with “sorry” in its title is from 1951, when Johnny Bond saw his “Sick, Sober & Sorry” go to No. 7 on the Billboard country chart. And the second most-recent is from quirky singer-songwriter Feist, whose “I’m Sorry” was released on her 2007 album, The Reminder.
Looking chronologically, and picking one track from each decade from the 1950s on, we find some gems: “I’m Sorry” by the Platters went to No. 11 on the Billboard jukebox chart and to No. 15 on the R&B chart in 1957. (And yes, we doubled up on the 1950s, considering we’d hit the Johnny Bond record, but it’s worth it for the Platters.) From 1962, we find “Someday After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” by bluesman Freddy King (a departure from his normal “Freddie” spelling).
In the 1970s, we find the funky “Both Sorry Over Nothin’” from Tower of Power’s 1973 self-titled album. The pickings in the files from the 1980s are pretty slender, so we’ll skip over one track each by the Moody Blues and the Hothouse Flowers and head to the 1990s. And that’s where we find the atmospheric “Not Sorry” by the Cranberries from their 1993 album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
And we have one more stop with “sorry,” heading back to 1968 and the regrets expressed by the HAL 9000 computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Texas Gal is absent today, heading this morning to the little burg of Underwood, Minnesota, about 120 miles northwest of here, for a church-sponsored workshop on community building. She and a few others from St. Cloud will share the experiences of our Unitarian Universalist fellowship in building a community garden.
In her absence, I hope to finish some of the last bits of autumn work: The tomato cages need to be moved from the garage to the fruit cellar in the basement, as does my 1950s-vintage red wagon so that we have room in the garage to park both cars during the coming winter. There are probably a few other bits and pieces of things that need to be gathered up in the garage, and I’m hoping that those tasks won’t take more than a couple of hours.
But I want to get to them relatively early, then settle down with a cup of coffee, the morning newspaper and the prospect of watching some college football. So I took a look this morning at the digital shelves, checking for tunes recorded in November over the years.
There were familiar names – Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Bessie Smith, Guy Lombardo, Muddy Waters, Professor Long Hair, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and onwards. There were also some names that rang faint if any bells: Freddy Spruell from the 1920s, Tommy McClennan in the late 1930s, the Five Breezes and Floyd Jones in the 1940s, Houston Stokes and Billy Nelson & The Five Wings in the 1950s, among numerous others.
But I chanced on a familiar name accompanying a tune recorded on a November 9 long ago, and although his name is familiar, I know very little about the history of the man. One of the few things I know about Big Bill Broonzy is that he wrote the classic “Key To The Highway.” Another of the few facts I have at hand is that he performed in John Hammond’s benchmark From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and 1939. (Hammond recruited Broonzy for the 1938 concert after learning that Robert Johnson had passed on during the summer of 1938.)
Beyond that, I know little about Broonzy. I’ll have to remedy that, and that should not be difficult. In the meantime, here’s “Leavin’ Day,” a Mercury release that Broonzy recorded in Chicago on November 9, 1951. I found it in Chicago Is Just That Way, a four-CD box set of Chicago blues released in 2005 by London’s JSP Records, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
(Distance to Underwood corrected since original posting.)
It’s time to throw my nickel into one of rock music’s enduring debates this morning: What was the first rock ’n’ roll record?
To my mind – dim as it sometimes can be – there are two candidates: “The Fat Man,” a 1950 record by Fats Domino, and “Rocket 88,” a 1951 single from Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which was really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm with saxophonist Brenston taking the lead vocal).
I come down on the side of “Rocket 88.” There’s nothing wrong at all with the Domino track: It’s got a rollicking beat, courtesy of its hometown, New Orleans. “They call, they call me the fat man because I weight two hundred pounds,” the record starts, and – co-written and co-produced by Domino and his long-time partner Dave Bartholomew – the single gets its business done in a tidy two minutes and thirty-six seconds and includes a middle section that showcases Domino’s falsetto.
Wikipedia says: “‘The Fat Man’ features Domino’s piano with a distinct back beat that dominates both the lead and the rhythm section. Earl Palmer said it was the first time a drummer played nothing but back beat for recording, which he said he derived from a Dixieland “out chorus.” Domino also scats a pair of choruses in a distinctive wah-wah falsetto, creating a variation on the lead similar to a muted Dixieland trumpet.”
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with “The Fat Man.” It’s got a great vocalist, a great team of writers and producers. The band was made up of top session players, including the magnificent Earl Palmer on drums. And it came out of New Orleans, a city and source of music that – based on my reading, my pondering and my gut – was the second most important city in the development of rock ’n’ roll.
The advantages that “Rocket 88” has over all of that history come down to two: It was recorded in Memphis, the most important city in rock ’n’ roll history, and it was recorded/produced by Sam Phillips.
Like “The Fat Man,” “Rocket 88” has a groove, but while Domino’s record seems dance, Brenston’s record drives, pulling the band and the listeners down the highway.
Wikipedia says: “The song was based on the 1947 song ‘Cadillac Boogie’ by Jimmy Liggins. It was also preceded and influenced by Pete Johnson’s “Rocket 88 Boogie” Parts 1 and 2, an instrumental, originally recorded for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time Records label in 1949.”
Wikipedia continues: “Working from the raw material of jump blues and swing combo music, Turner made it even rawer, starting with a strongly stated back beat by drummer Willie Sims, and superimposing Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and tenor saxophone solos by 17 year old Raymond Hill . . . . The song also features one of the first examples of distortion, or fuzz guitar, ever recorded, played by the band’s guitarist Willie Kizart.”
(Basing new songs on versions of earlier songs – a practice that could draw charges of plagiarism today – was an accepted practice among musicians in the folk, blues and rhythm & blues communities and traditions. Domino’s song, Wikipedia notes, “is a variation on the traditional New Orleans tune, ‘Junker’s Blues’ number by Drive’em Down, which also provided the melody for Lloyd Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and Professor Longhair’s ‘Tiptina.’” Two years later, with a faster beat and a few minor lyric changes, Big Mama Thornton released essentially the same song as Domino’s from a Los Angeles date for Peacock, singing, “Well, they call me Big Mama ’cause I weigh three-hundred pounds.”)
So what makes “The Fat Man” a good R&B song and what makes “Rocket 88” rock ’n’ roll? Well, one hesitates to pull the watch apart too much for fear of being left with a pile of gears, springs and little screws, but the Wikipedia quote above does identify the key ingredients of “Rocket 88”: Sims’ back beat, Brenston’s vocal, the solos and the fuzz guitar.
And then there’s Memphis and Sam Phillips, the owner and operator of the Memphis Recording Service, where “Rocket 88” was cut. I think, and I’m certainly not alone in this, that Memphis is the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Chicago, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati (home of King Records) and, yes, New Orleans (and probably several other cities I have not mentioned) were instrumental in the development of the music, but – as Robert Gordon titled his fascinating book about the city’s musical traditions – it came from Memphis.
And it came from Sam Phillips’ studio. Jimmy Guterman, in Runaway American Dream, his 2005 assessment of Bruce Springsteen’s recording career, calls Phillips “the single most important non-performing figure in rock’n’roll,” noting that it was Phillips who, “along with folks like Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Charlie Rich, invented the past 50 years of popular music.”
There are other acceptable answers to the question “What was the first rock ‘n’ roll record?” All of those answers have reasons behind them: the recording date and location, the session personnel, the lead performer and ultimately, the way the record sounds and the way it makes the listener feel. My answer, as I indicated above, rests on its creation in Memphis and on Sam Phillips’ role in its creation. Oh, and one more thing: “Rocket 88” just flat out rocks.
(And no, I don’t know why Bettie Page shows up in the video.)
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 15
“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, Chess 1458 
“Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” by Gerry & the Pacemakers, Laurie 3284 
“Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond, Uni 55175 
“Come And Get Your Love” by Redbone, Epic 11035 
“While You See A Chance” by Steve Winwood, Island 49656 
“A Long December” by Counting Crows from Recovering the Satellites 
In the box in which I keep the best of the four hundred or so 45s that I own, there resides a copy of Gerry & the Pacemakers’ “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey.” It belongs, actually, to my sister, who brought it home sometime during the early months of 1965, when the record was on its way to No. 6. I don’t think it was the first record she bought; I recall her buying bargain bags – ten 45s for a dollar – sometime earlier, but the thought tickles at me that “Ferry” might have been the first single she actively sought out when it was on the charts. I do remember her playing it for the first time on our old portable player, and I liked it at the time far more than I expected. Obviously, I still like it. And no, she can’t have it back.
The spookiness of “Holly Holy” grabbed hold of me late one evening in the fall of 1969 when I heard the record on – I assume – WJON shortly after I’d turned out the light to go to sleep. I wrote once before about hearing the song at dusk on a sliding hill, and that happened, but my first hearing was in the dark of my room. I found the song a little unsettling, what with the choir chanting – or seeming to – behind Diamond’s vocal, the percussion (tympani?), the swelling climax and the frequent use of what I now recognize as minor thirds. Nevertheless, I found the record appealing as well. I’m not sure about the unsettling part, but plenty of other folks found the record appealing, too, as it went to No. 6
The Redbone single is one of those I caught up to sometime after the fact. I was in Denmark when “Come And Get Your Love” entered the Top 40 and climbed to No. 5. By the time I got home in the latter portion of May, the record was in the last couple weeks of its eighteen-week stay in the Top 40, and its airplay was diminishing. I likely heard it during the last couple of weeks of spring and during the summer of 1974, but never enough to dig any further into Redbone or its music. That digging came later, during the vinyl-crazed years of the 1990s, probably after I found a Redbone LP at Cheapo’s and vaguely recalled the hit. With the possible exception of “The Witch Queen of New Orleans,” – a record that went to No. 21 in 1972 – nothing else in Redbone’s catalog approaches “Come And Get Your Love,” and it’s fun to hear it pop up every now and then surrounded by the other tunes in the Ultimate Jukebox.
Over all the years since I first dug into rock and pop and their relatives in the autumn of 1969, very few contemporary records have ever moved me to run off to the store in search of them. The last two of these six did just that. I was living in Monticello when Steve Winwood’s “While You See A Chance” started to get airplay on its way to No. 7 in early 1981. (It was also on its way to being Winwood’s first Top 40 hit, a fact that’s a little surprising in light of his long and celebrated career to that point.) Loving the synth-based intro and solos and the groove of the body of the song, my wife of the time and I invested a portion of a weekend in a shopping trip to one of the Twin Cities’ major malls. We picked up some other, more useful items – clothes, kitchen stuff and so on – but the highlight of the day for me was Winwood’s album Arc of a Diver, where the album track of “While You See A Chance” resided. (I believe the single was an edit, and I think that’s the audio on the linked YouTubevideo.) And twenty-nine years later, I still find the sound a little thrilling.
Another record that got me out into the shops was Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” which I heard on a Twin Cities’ radio station late in 1996, soon after Recovering the Satellites was released. (The track was never released as a single, if I read the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits correctly, but went to No. 6 on a chart based on airplay.) Seeking a vinyl copy of the album, I spent a good chunk of a Saturday morning making the rounds of four or five music stores near my home. I was discouraged and wandering the aisles of the last of the stores when another music lover came through the door and sold his copy of Recovering the Satellites. After the seller left, the clerk looked at me, eyebrows raised, and named a price. I paid it and went happily on my way. I still love the track, even after repeated listenings over the last thirteen-plus years, and I still marvel at one particular line: “The feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls.”