To this day, no one is sure what killed Johnny Ace. He was just 25 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, backstage at a concert in Houston. Ace was known to fool around with his gun and shoot road signs while driving. Was he playing Russian Roulette (the widely accepted story) or was it an accident, the result of being careless with his firearm? In his short career, Johnny Ace cut some fine rhythm and blues tunes.
Born: June 9, 1929 Memphis, Tennessee
Died: December 25, 1954
Notable recordings: How Can You be so Mean?
Pledging my Love http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT_eOiTwtoQ
ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP
In 1954, Elvis Presley was fooling around in the studio at Sun Records, after trying several songs that didn’t quite cut it. He started playing Crudup’s 1947 song, “That’s Allright” and producer Sam Phillips had his eureka moment. Presley later covered Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me” (as did CCR over a decade later) but Arthur had actually quit the music business in the early ’50s due to a battle over song royalties. Crudup spent the latter part of his life as a farm labourer and bootlegger.
My Baby Left Me http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9SxexpDVvQ
Harris was a ladies man with a capital L. He loved them all, big short and tall. In the late ’40s Harris wanted to pick a fight with a man who was hitting on his lady. The man was Ezzard Charles, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Harris recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947 and Elvis Presley remade it 7 years later. Presley also copied many of Harris’s stage moves.
Born: Sept. 24, 1915 Omaha, Nebraska
Died: June 14, 1969
Notable recordings: Shake that Thing
Good Rockin’ Tonight http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5G6p7WpLSk
SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS
As a horror movie fan I can’t help but love a singer who, during his peak, began his concerts by emerging from a coffin. Hawkins also gave us the original version of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay and his band got blind drunk on muscatel before they recorded that ground-breaking record (later cut by CCR). Days later, when Hawkins heard the tape, he was convinced the record company had dubbed in the wails and moans of another singer. Most radio stations wouldn’t play the single because it sounded like someone was being murdered. And it became an underground sensation.
Born: July 18, 1929 Cleveland, Ohio
Died: Feb. 12, 2000
Notable recordings: I Put a Spell on You http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orNpH6iyokI
By the late ’50s, rockabilly was fading in the U.S. but Hawkins left Arkansas and landed in Toronto, where Canadian audiences were far more receptive to his brand of rock and roll. Hawkins also had a great ear for talent. He assembled a group of hotshot young Canucks. The Hawks, featuring Robbie Robertson and Ronnie’s fellow Arkansas native Levon Helm, went on to back Bob Dylan and eventually become The Band.
Born: Jan. 10, 1935 Huntsville, Arkansas
Notable recordings: Mary Lou, 30 Days,
Who Do You Love? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYPVyJwzerM
Today’s rock and hip hop lyrics are loaded with profanity and crude sexual references. I’m no prude but I have to tip my fedora to the Moose who, in the early ’50s, came up with creative ways to describe his sexual yearnings and his manhood. For any young folks out there, vinyl records were ten inches in diameter back then. Big Ten Inch Record was also recorded by Aerosmith.
Born: April 22, 1919 Cleveland, Ohio
Died: July 31, 1989
Notable recordings: Nosey Joe, Sneaky Pete
Big Ten Inch Record, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rws_7mLTqj8
In the mid ’50s, female singers weren’t supposed to growl like Wanda, or be sexually suggestive. You had to be nice like Teresa Brewer or Patti Page. Jackson showed up at the Grand Ole Opry wearing an off-the-shoulder dress. She was told to cover up. In his book, Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll, Nick Tosches said Jackson was so hot in her heyday, “you could fry an egg on her G-spot.” ‘Nuff said.
Born: Oct. 20, 1937 Maud, Oklahoma
Notable recordings: Fujiyama Mama
Let’s Have a Party https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGuPqPte52s
We think of Chuck Berry as the originator of rock and roll guitar but he was influenced by Carl Hogan, who played with Jordan’s Tympani Five. Berry used Hogan’s riff in “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” on “Johnny B Goode.” Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is also considered to be one of the first rock and roll songs because its lyrics went, “It was rockin’, it was rockin’, you never seen so much scufflin’ and shufflin’ till the break of dawn.”
Born: July 8, 1908 Brinkley Arkansas
Died: Feb. 4, 1975
Notable recordings: Saturday Night Fish Fry, Ain’t that Just Like a Woman
Choo Choo ch’boogie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TftHrHOmSWc
In 1956, RCA Records promoted Martin as “The Female Elvis,” with Presley’s blessing. These days there’s hardly a scandal that can’t be overcome in the entertainment business but Martin committed two major sins while with RCA. At 15, Martin got married and soon became pregnant. RCA had promoted Martin as a young singer a teenage boy might want to date but marriage and getting preggers blew that all to hell. RCA soon dropped Janis Martin.
Born: March 27, 1940 Sutherlin, Virginia
Died: Sept. 3, 2007
Notable recordings: Drugstore rock and roll, Let’s Elope Baby
Barefoot Baby https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HILCidXDNGs
Back in the late ’70s, George Thorogood hit the airwaves with “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Little did I know the song dated back to the early ’50s and a boogie woogie piano player named Amos Milburn. Amos didn’t just write tunes about alcohol, he lived them. That “Vicious, Vicious Vodka” Milburn put to vinyl also resulted in strokes that took one of his legs. Earlier in this list I mentioned the fine music journalist Nick Tosches and he called Amos Milburn the first great rock and roll piano man.
Born: April 1, 1927 Houston, Texas
Died: Jan. 3, 1980
Notable recordings: One Scotch One Bourbon One Beer
One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5VIIdMQBjg
As a talent scout, Otis discovered Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. As a bandleader, he gave us “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Musician, writer, producer, radio DJ….Otis did it all. Johnny Otis has often been called “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” and how can you top that?
Born: Dec. 28, 1921 Vallejo, California
Died: Jan. 27, 2012
Willie and the Hank Jive https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOrQTh_Cq7U
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
Tharpe was a major gospel music star in the ’40s and ’50s. In addition to her powerful voice, Tharpe could play guitar better than most of her male contemporaries and often beat them in guitar duels (or head cutting competitions like the one featured in the Ralph Macchio film, “Crossroads”). A few of Sister Rosetta’s biggest fans were Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Not too shabby.
Born: March 20, 1915, Cotton Plant, Arkansas
Died: Oct. 9, 1973
Notable recordings: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Up Above My head https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeaBNAXfHfQ
PAUL “HUCKLEBUCK” WILLIAMS
Williams is regarded as one of the first sax players to employ the honking style that became a fixture in early rhythm and blues and rock and roll. He also played with a who’s who of rock and roll pioneers from Big Joe Turner to Amos Milburn. Williams later worked in the Atlantic Records house band, and was musical director for Lloyd Price and James Brown.
Born: July 13, 1915, Lewisburg, Tennessee
Died: Sept. 14, 2002
Notable recordings: The Hucklebuck
The Hucklebuck Boogie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X83zuhHtFtQ