Posts Tagged ‘Neil Diamond’

My Verdict: ‘Rocket 88’ Was The First

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

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 [1951]
“Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” by Gerry & the Pacemakers, Laurie 3284 [1965]
“Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond, Uni 55175 [1969]
“Come And Get Your Love” by Redbone, Epic 11035 [1974]
“While You See A Chance” by Steve Winwood, Island 49656 [1981]
“A Long December” by Counting Crows from Recovering the Satellites [1996]

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 YouTube video.) 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.”

Diggin’ On Neil Diamond In The Basement

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Wherever I might have looked for a history lesson in 1970, Rick’s turntable was a pretty unlikely choice. But one day or evening during the summer of that year, he and I were hanging out in his room. He’d taken over half the basement and turned it into what was essentially a crash pad: a  mattress on the floor, a stereo, brick-and-board shelves filled with LPs, posters on the walls and a lava lamp. We spent a lot of time down there during the last years of the 1960s and the early years of the 1970s, listening to tunes and making our minds up about the things that really mattered in life; those topics ranged from the importance of the then-burgeoning environmental movement to the likely identity of the Toronto Maple Leafs goalie during the next NHL season.

But as diverse as our topics were, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I heard when Rick played Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript. The fourth track on Side One, “Done Too Soon,” grabbed me and – at the same time – provided a little bit of a history lesson:

Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice.
Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart and
Genghis Khan and
On to H. G. Wells.


Ho Chi Minh, Gunga Din,

Henry Luce and John Wilkes Booth
And Alexanders
King and Graham Bell.


Rama Krishna, Mama Whistler,

Patrice Lumumba and Russ Columbo.
Karl and Chico Marx,
Albert Camus.

E. A. Poe, Henri Rousseau,
Sholom Aleichem and Caryl Chessman.
Alan Freed and
Buster Keaton too.

And each one these
Has one thing to share:
They have sweated beneath the same sun,
Looked up in wonder at the same moon,
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon.
For bein’ done too soon.


For bein’ done.

I was fascinated, and we listened to it again until I was certain I had all the names right. I knew all but two of them. I was unfamiliar with the name of American actor and singer Russ Columbo and with that of Alexander King. (There are two men by that name whom I think Diamond could have been referring to, one a writer, the other a scientist. I still have no idea which one he meant to name-check.)

I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely clear at the time why some of those men whom Diamond mentioned were prominent: For example, I knew Patrice Lumumba was African, but I didn’t know that he’d been the prime minister of the Republic of the Congo for a brief time in 1960 before being overthrown in a coup.

There were a few others where my data banks were slender as well: death row inmate Caryl Chessman, author Albert Camus and deejay Alan Freed were persons whose names I recognized without knowing why they were famous. And, of course, being a good sixteen-year-old Midwest Lutheran, I had no idea that Rama Krishna was, as Wikipedia notes, a famous Indian mystic of the nineteenth century.

I won’t say I ran out and began to find out about those men during that summer of 1970. But as time moved and on one occasion or another I learned why those men were famous, I’d make the connection to Diamond’s song and nod with a bit of private satisfaction.

And from that first hearing in Rick’s crash pad, “Done Too Soon” has been one of my favorites. Rick and I were fortunate enough at the end of that summer to hear Diamond perform the song in concert at the Minnesota State Fair. In fact, we heard it twice. We were in the open-air grandstand for Diamond’s first show of the evening, and then went back to wandering around the fair until it was time to meet my folks near the grandstand. We could hear Diamond performing his second show as we waited, and just before my folks showed up, we heard “Done Too Soon” one more time.

(The video above is pretty well done, but it requires some comment. When pulling a visual from the 1939 film, Gunga Din, the creator showed a still of the English characters played by Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., instead of Sam Jaffee’s Gunga Din, the title character created by Rudyard Kipling in his 1892 poem. And the video also showed a portrait of Alexander the Great instead of either the scientist or the writer named Alexander King.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 7
“Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, Philles 116 [1963]
“Go Back” by Crabby Appleton, Elektra 45687 [1970]
“Done Too Soon” by Neil Diamond from Tap Root Manuscript [1970]
“She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates from Abandoned Luncheonette [1973]
“Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus, ABC 11427 [1974]
“Romeo’s Tune” by Steve Forbert from Jackrabbit Slim [1979]

As I’ve mentioned before, I try to separate Phil Spector’s brilliant work in the 1960s and 1970s from the events of recent years that culminated in murder. It’s difficult to do. But Spector’s Wall of Sound needed to be somewhere in this collection, so I went back to what I think what his most typical production, if not his greatest. The Crystals’ “Uptown” and “He’s A Rebel” might be better records by a little bit, but they don’t grab me at any moment like “Be My Baby” does with its introduction and then with Hal Blaine’s drum fills. So maybe this one – which went to No. 2 in the autumn of 1963 – makes the list more for Blaine’s work than for any other reason.

Continuing with uncertainty, I’m not sure I can relate what it is that qualifies Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back” for the Ultimate Jukebox. When it came blasting out of the radio speakers during the summer of 1970, it sounded about as tough as anything in the Top 40 at the time. (Glancing at the Billboard Top 40 for the last week of June 1970, I should acknowledge that Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” had some edge to it, as did CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.”) Add to that, I guess, that “Go Back” was a song I heard rarely on oldies radio over the years. That made it seem fresh when I came across Crabby Appleton’s first album during my early wanderings through music blogs. It wasn’t a huge hit: It went to No. 36. But it still sounds pretty good coming out of the speakers.

I still recall the first time I heard Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone.” It was spring break in 1975, and I was working with another student for St. Cloud State’s Learning Resources Services, wandering around campus and finding audiovisual equipment (as it was called in those days). We’d paint a black stripe over the large yellow letters that read “SCS LRS” and then, when the black paint dried, spray smaller white letters that read “SCS LRS.” My dad said the director of Learning Resources had never liked the yellow paint. Anyway, on one of those nine or so days, my co-painter and I grabbed some fast food and then went to his apartment for lunch. While we chowed, he dropped an LP on the stereo and cued up “She’s Gone.” I long ago forgot the guy’s name, which is too bad, because I still love the record and I’d like to say thanks. A single edit went to No. 60 in 1974 and then, on re-release, went to No. 7 in 1976. The only YouTube video I found of the album version when I originally created this post used the song behind, for some reason, visuals of Pam Grier in her roles as, evidently, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown and Sheba. But a newer, more rational video now allows me to present “She’s Gone” in a form I prefer.

The story is that Stevie Wonder stopped by for a visit one day when Rufus was in the studio. While more or less messing around, he wrote “Tell Me Something Good” on the spot and handed it over to the group, whose lead singer, Chaka Khan, did a hell of a job on the record. It’s a slinky, snaky, sexy record that provides a public service along the way: If you’re not twitching or at least moving a little bit as the record plays, get yourself to a doctor because you might be dead. The record, Rufus’ first hit, went to No. 3 during the summer of 1974.

I’ve said something like this before, but one of the worst things that can happen to any performer or act is to be tagged the next something. During the 1960s and 1970s, the bargain record bins were filled with LPs by folks who had been dubbed the new Beatles, the new Dylan, the new Baez, the new Cream and on and on. Very few performers or groups, it seems to me, can recover from that kind of promotional linkage. When Steve Forbert showed up in 1978 with his debut album, Alive on Arrival, some called him the new Dylan. He soldiered on, and although he never came close to living up to the weight of that tag – who could? – he’s put together a decent career that continues to this day. (He released his thirteenth studio album, The Place and the Time just about a year ago.)  He’s reached the Top 40 only once, in 1979, when the jaunty “Romeo’s Tune” went to No. 11. Why is it here? Partly because, as I’ve also said before, I’m a sucker for a descending bass line but also because – beyond that – I think it’s a great record.

(Edited slightly on January 24, 2014.)