Much of my misspent youth was consumed with collecting old 78 and 45 rpm records. Why? In a pre-internet world, the dusty grooves of old wax and vinyl were the only clues to the roots of our American music. All those valuable sounds of history are now on YouTube...if you know where to look. Some were more influential than they were popular. But they all have a story to tell.

JIMMIE RODGERS ...... Blue Yodel #9 (Standin' On The Corner)

Surely one of the oddest sounds in 100 years of recorded music: Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music singin' and yodelin' with jazz accompaniment by Louis Armstrong's cornet and Lil Hardin's piano. Rodgers usually recorded with just voice and guitar, and in spite of his stature as a pioneer, he had a rather pedestrian guitar style, and an unsure sense of time. (His 4-bar lines often got chopped to three or three-and-a-half in his eagerness to get at that next line.) But with the guitar in the case, and Lil Hardin's piano dictating the rhythm, things should be under control. However, by the fourth line, America's Blue Yodeler began galloping ahead, dropping a bar here and there, leaving the jazzers no choice but to follow. But Jimmie Rodgers was never about perfection. There was an artless sincerity to his songs and performances that made him down-to-earth. By the time this recording was made (1930) Rodgers was a genuine superstar, immensly popular with country and city folk alike. His "T for Texas" was a million seller right in the heart of the depression. His recording career lasted only six years, his life cut short at 33 by Tuburculosis.


BILLIE HOLIDAY ...... Strange Fruit

This extrordinary song, admirable for the quality of its poetry as well as the brutal impact of it's anti-lynching message was written during the 30's as congress was refusing for the umpteenth time to pass anti-lynching legislation. Unsuspecting club goers at New York's Cafe Society were ambushed when the song was first performed in 1939 by Billie Holiday. Even Cafe Society's ultra-liberal crowd of artists, activists, students and assorted leftist types reacted with stunned silence. Gradually the applause started and the song became a regular feature. But the backlash was immediate. Holiday was often verbally and physically abused when she performed it, her record company (Columbia) refused to touch it, and when she finally got it recorded by Commodore, most radio stations refused to play it. Time Magazine called it "A prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP!" So, who wrote this little bomb? His name was Abel Meeropol who used the pseudonym of Lewis Allan. He was a Jewish New York City high school teacher (and member of the American Communist Party) who, like many 30's liberals, was lured by the Party's promise of social justice. As it turned out, his song - the first significant racial protest in words and music - did more for the cause than any political party.


SOGGY BOTTOM BOYS ...... In the Jailhouse Now

The Soggy Bottom Boys are the hilarious musical heroes of the Coen Brothers 2000 movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” This soundtrack recording is the newest version of an old, old song. Historians date it back to minstrel shows of the 1840’s. But when Jimmy Rodgers recorded it in 1928, he figured it was up for grabs, so he gave himself writer’s credit. But at least two recordings predate Rodgers’, and the most interesting is the one by blues guitar virtuoso Blind Blake. Blake’s version, from 1927, which contains a verse about ballot stuffing and other forms of election irregularities, seems perfectly up to date.


CLARENCE CARTER ...... Back Door Santa

Clarence Carter always seemed rootsier than the other 60s soul singers. In fact, during all those years when “soul” was the operative word, he maintained he was a blues singer. Fitting, then that Carter’s self-written “Back Door Santa” puts a fat, red suit on the old blues reference to the back-door man. Released in ’68, it made #8 on Billboard’s Christmas chart in ’69. Clarence was just one of many sixties soul singers who got good mileage out of holiday recordings. Both Stax in Memphis and Atlantic in New York were busy every fall cranking out new R&B holiday songs, and successfully re-releasing the old ones in order to deck the halls with greenbacks in the true American spirit of Christmas.


BOB WILLS and his TEXAS PLAYBOYS ...... Steel Guitar Rag

Despite a bandstand full of cowboy hats, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were actually a swing band with a country accent. Boasting 18 pieces at its peak, the band flipped from country weepers and bluesy fiddle tunes to riffy jazz instrumentals and they pioneered the western swing sound which was immensely popular throughout the Southwest during the 40’s. They relied heavily on hot, improvised soloing, and when Bob hollered “Take it away, Leon,” the spotlight fell on steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, known far and wide for of his “Steel Guitar Rag” recorded in 1936 with the Wills Band. Only years later did music historians discover the same song was recorded twice during the 20’s by a black guitarist, Sylvester Weaver. With YouTube reissues available, you can form your own opinion...stolen, or just “adapted.”


LOUIS JORDAN ...... Saturday Night Fish Fry

Jordan’s rowdy tale of a wild, all-night party with all revelers ending up in the slammer was number one on the R&B charts for 12 weeks. More than anyone else, Louis Jordan created the classic early 40’s R&B sound by parlaying jivey humor, hot sax, and shufflin’ beats into an astonishing 57 chart hits during that one decade. While other black performers of that era, like Nat King Cole and the Mills Brothers were crooning smooth songs with race-neutral content, Jordan sang black, and his story lines were often very obviously about black life. It’s clear that “Ain’t Nobody Here but us Chickens” was not a Beverly Hills experience, and also that “Caldonia” was probably not a cousin of Pat Boone’s. Still, Louis Jordan sold well to white audiences as well as blacks. It’s also a fact that he had a direct influence on many rock and roll icons. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Ray Charles, just to name a few, have made that claim in so many words. And they have also said it in their music.


JACKIE BRENSTON and his DELTA CATS ...... Rocket 88

Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats! That’s what the label said. But that guy flogging the piano in the intro was Ike Turner, and it was Turner’s band, and Turner was not pleased with the label situation. “Ballistic” is one term that’s been used. Especially since the song shot right up the charts and gave a nice career surge to Brenston. But no one felt sorry for Ike. He switched to guitar, hitched his wagon to Tina Turner’s star, and got a bit of a career surge, himself. Whether “88” qualifies as the first rock and roll record or not, it WAS the first hit from Sam Phillips studios, the first number 1 R&B hit for Chess Records (to whom Phillips had leased it), and it convinced Sam to start his own label, Sun Records. Then all he had to do was wait for Elvis to walk in the door.


NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND with JIMMY MARTIN on vocal ...... Sunny Side of the Mountain

When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went to Nashville in 1971 for the supersession that produced “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the Nashville paper called them “long-haired rock musicians from Long Beach, California.” All right. But astute fans of the NGDB knew that their bluegrass/blues/honky-tonk/hillbilly roots put them closer to the heart and soul of real country music than the “modernized” cross-over product then coming out of Nashville. Their mission to record an acoustic session with country music pioneers Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Earl Scruggs was complicated by a wide generation gap and some serious redneck-hippie feuding. Acuff was known to be “scared of hair and skeered of beards” and went into the studio with great reluctance, only to discover “nice young boys who certainly knew what they were doing” under the mops and the chin fungus. The success of that million-selling, three-record album brought some giants of traditional country music to an audience that never would have heard them otherwise. It’s currently available as a double CD. On this song, the Nitty Gritty guys are joined by bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin to show us why bluegrass music is called country music in overdrive. So hit play and get out of the way!


LOUIS ARMSTRONG ...... Hotter Than That

This 1927 recording displays the early instrumental brilliance of the man who became the most influential musician of the 20th century. The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (33 sides over a two-year period) have long since passed into jazz immortality, but when they were released they went off like rockets, displaying Louis’ astonishing technical skill in his perfectly constructed improvised solos, and his innovative singing -- all of it delivered with a wealth of feeling. Already, in his early 20’s, he was setting new standards of jazz performance. He was also gradually abandoning collective improvisation in favor of solo virtuosity. Some of the purist of purists never forgave him for that.


MARIA MULDAUR ...... Any Old Time You Want To Come Back Home

Maria Muldaur's soulful rendition of Jimmie Rodgers' "Any Old Time You Want To Come Back Home" is from her 1974 Reprise album which sold a million copies and was on the charts for 24 weeks due to one song -- "Midnight at the Oasis." Not one copy was sold, you can bet, because of this great old Jimmie Rodgers song. But "Any Old Time" - a smooth, well-constructed blues-ballad with touches of Tin Pan Alley was quite unlike the usual Rodgers rough and raw blue yodel. (Think "T for Texas" or "Mule Skinner Blues.") It brings up the fact that Rodgers, the unschooled folk artist had friends in high places in Tin Pan Alley, and he had many collaborators - more than show up in the credits. But none of that matters as much as the way Maria glorifies the song with her gorgeous vocal.


ROCKIN' SIDNEY ...... My Toot Toot

This goofy little song by the late Zydeco accordionist, Sidney Simien, attracted covers in every style imaginable…and still survived to win him a Grammy. Zydeco (yet another of South Louisiana’s cultural achievements) is still not a household word, but when you take Cajun music (pretty lively stuff to begin with) and propel it by a lot of R&B and enough electronic hardware to be heard above a rowdy crowd….you’ve got a winner. Picture an outdoors blues festival with all those hung-over, blanket-hugging music lovers kicking back through 4 or 5 blues bands, AND THEN...the Zydeco band hits the stage, and by the second bar, everyone’s up and dancing. Happens all the time. Still, don’t look for the T-shirt that says “Zydeco Rules” to be sold out any time soon.


The COASTERS ...... I’m a Hog For You

“One little piggy ate a pizza/One piggy ate potato chips/This little piggy’s comin’ over your house/Gonna nibble on your sweet lips/Cause I’m a hog for you, Babe…” Well, admittedly not every Leiber and Stoller song turned out to be “Hound Dog.” But even this underdog sports the offbeat lyrics that caught the attention of black performers back in the 50s. (Nine R&B stars had recorded L&S songs before these two white boys were out of their teens.) Their comedy classics for the Coasters (“Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy”) kept them constantly on the charts beginning in the mid-fifties. Elvis helped. He recorded more than twenty of their songs. When the dust had settled, Leiber and Stoller had been overwhelmingly influential in bringing R&B from the ghetto into the mainstream, whether with flippant jive pieces like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Potion #9” or smoother stuff like the Drifters “Save the Last Dance For Me.”


DALE and GRACE ...... I’m Leavin’ It Up to You

This pop jewel came from the swamps of South Louisiana to be the number one record in the land in 1963. (It was also a hit ten years later for Donnie and Marie Osmond.) Swamp pop, with its tear-drenched vocals, tripleting piano and crooning sax, had its golden age between ’59 and ‘63 when a handful of tiny Louisiana labels carried a few young local musicians onto regional and national charts for about 15 minutes of fame. Dale and Grace were among the last to get in on that, because in 1964 the Beatles and the British invasion came along and wiped out all rootsier music. Progress?


FRANKIE FORD with HUEY "PIANO" SMITH and the CLOWNS ...... Sea Cruise

In the 50s, Huey “Piano” Smith had a boisterous New Orleans band which might be described as the low-life equivalent of Fats Domino’s hit machine. Huey’s band featured careening shuffle rhythms, greasy saxophones in full honk, lots of nonsense lyrics sprinkled with drug talk in Creole. But when Huey Smith and the Clowns cut “Sea Cruise” for Ace Records in 1959, it was a near-perfect example of late 50s rock and roll, and destined for the charts from first listen. The problem: like many 50s recordings, it was a black record that sounded too black for the white market. (As Little Richard said, “Us greasy black mens was too dangerous for white girls fantasies.”) So very often a whiteboy cover version would hit the street the minute a black hit broke…and stomp the original back into obscurity. Ace Records was having none of that, so they scrapped Huey’s vocal track and recut it with white teenager Frankie Ford whose photo they prominently displayed on the sleeve. Result: Ace Records’ first top ten pop chart hit.


EDDIE BO ...... Check Mr. Popeye

“Check Mr. Popeye” by Eddie Bo was just one of many 60’s dance-craze singles which tried to sell us the notion that EVERYBODY’S doin’ it, and we dare not be left out. “The Twist,” maybe, but “The Fly”? Or “Pony Time”? Mostly hype. Eddie Bo’s entry in the dance-craze derby was not a big hit (except in New Orleans) but it was surely the most entertaining, since he spins out a comic soap opera involving Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl, with no boring dance instructions until side two. And if you think dance craze recordings started with rock and roll, you’d be about 70 years off. The Cakewalk was the first huge national dance craze and it sparked a gaggle of songs back in the 1890’s. Then in the 1920’s, the Shimmy, Charleston and Black Bottom followed suit. The Charleston was a coast-to-coast obsession, and dozens of songs were produced for that. The difference? Those old-time dance crazes were genuine and the songs were written after the fact.


CHARLES BROWN ...... Please Come Home for Christmas

Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” is a sophisticated blues from 1960. However, Christmas as blues subject matter goes way back. Slaves in the American South were allowed only that one day off each year. So blues songs have often celebrated Christmas (Blind Lemon’s “Christmas Eve Blues” in 1927), or mourned it (Leroy Carr’s “Christmas In Jail – Ain’t That A Pain” in 1929), or funked it (James Brown’s “Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag”). Charles Brown died in 1999 at age 77, having had a profound influence on West Coast blues, and leaving us some fine recordings, notably “Driftin’ Blues,” “Black Night” and “Trouble Blues.”


ROD STEWART ...... Wild Side of Life

This recording brings up the subject of recycling old folk songs for fun and profit. Our commercial culture likes everything brand new, but sometimes a fossil breaks through. And although “Wild Side of Life” was only about 30 years old when Rod Stewart recorded it in 1976, consider the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”, which had its roots in 16th century England (but spread its branches into 20th century America’s pop charts to hit number one for two whole weeks in 1964!). Other number ones were “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers, “Goodnight Irene” by the Weavers and “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price. Then there was the hundred-year-old fiddle tune called “Eighth of January” which became a #1 hit for Johnny Horton in 1959 when “The Battle of New Orleans” lyrics were written to it. That probably doesn’t count.


FLAMIN' GROOVIES ...... City Lights

“CITY LIGHTS” by the FLAMIN’ GROOVIES never lit up any charts, but this far-ranging garage band always had as much musical fun with the roots as possible. For those who don’t remember, before music succumbed to the blood-sport of marketing, there was a lot of that fun going on. In the 60s and 70s, every rock radio station was an all-inclusive party…everything from reggae to bluegrass, gospel to folk, Stevie Wonder to Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin to Peter, Paul and Mary. Life in the past lane.


IRMA THOMAS ...... Time Is on My Side

“Time Is on My Side” by Irma Thomas (the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”) was released on Imperial in 1964 and the Rolling Stones pounced on it immediately. Their cover version became an international hit – their first top ten. It also marked the beginning of the end of a ten-year spree of New Orleans-produced hits, as the Beatles and British invasion music took over the airwaves. (By 1965 Texan Doug Sahm was calling his band the Sir Douglas Quintet just to get air play. And it worked! The Sir Douglas Quintet’s "She's About a Mover” was his first charted single.) And what happened to Irma Thomas’ original version of “Time Is on My Side”? It didn’t even make the national charts. However, the original Irma Thomas still records and is one of New Orleans’ leading live attractions.


CARL PERKINS ...... Blue Suede Shoes

In early ’55, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” zoomed to the top of all three Billboard charts – Country, Pop, and R&B, and remained a hot triple seller for months. An unprecedented event. Perkins’ sassy shoe fetish served notice (more so than anything Elvis had ever done) that the south had sprung a leak, and pure honky tonk hillbilly music was leeching into urban America’s radio supply. By 1957, when the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” topped the charts, city-bred baby boomers didn’t know or care that, stylistically, it was pure Appalachian mountain music. It was just part of the free-wheeling variety of early rock radio.


CANNON’S JUG STOMPERS ...... Walk Right In

This jug band from Memphis recorded “Walk Right In” in 1928 - 35 years before it topped the charts for the Rooftop Singers. This folky little ditty spent two solid weeks at number one on the pop charts and was also hot on the Easy Listening, R&B and country music charts. In this case, the original artists, Gus Cannon and Hosea Woods got credit. Unfortunately, many times when early folk material was used, the user got credit, and the originators got folked.


© 2018 Ellen Griffith - RECALL MUSIC